I was reading an interview of Joan Vilà, a famed soccer educator from Spain, one who had a hand in training many players at FC Barcelona, one of the best club teams in the world. He had observed some Japanese youth players and said that while they were technically very advanced, they were lacking in the mental aspect of the game. As I read his insights, I realized that this very much applies to a guitarist’s develoment.
He mentioned that there were three critical skills for a footballer:
Now, everybody practices the #3. Hard. Some kids learn to do some amazing things with the ball. Acquiring of technique is easy to understand and practice.
But the other two are equally important. With perception, one has to understand the situation s/he is in, accurately. Which is followed by picking out the best play in that circumstance, one most appropriate or impactful. Of course, nothing good happens if one doesn’t possess the technique to execute the great move s/he just picked out. But no great technique will serve a player or a team if not used in the right context. Mr. Vilà’s point was that the mental aspects were equally important and they can be, and need to be, taught from young age.
So, how does this apply to a guitar player?
- Perception: understanding the situation/context. From the obvious like the genre — are you playing jazz, country or metal — to the chord progression, applicable notes, what’s going on with other instruments, etc.
- Decision: figuring out what to play. What’s the music missing? What is the music trying to say? Which notes, and how they are played, are appropriate and/or impactful?
So, a player not only must possess the technique to execute — but s/he must be able to figure out what to play in that context. And while this may seem more obviously applicable to genres that involve improvisation — it applies to any and all styles of music. Even in classical, where all notes are often dictated for you, you still have to consider the #1 and #2 to make the most out of music. Just playing the notes on the music is the beginning — you have to understand the context and decide what’s the best way to play those notes.
In my practicing, I myself spend most, if not all, of my time practicing technique. But I am aware that in the context of performance, I must also improve my Perception and Decision, as I often don’t know what to play. For example, I often play notes that don’t fit very well with the chords in the music. I play them not because I understand what’s going on but just because that phrase has become a habit for my fingers, and/or for my brain.
So, how do you learn understanding the context and figuring out what to play?
If this was soccer, I’d start with a simple situation, something easy to understand, and then role play through them slowly. A ball comes rolling down close to your own goal, and the opponent players are dashing in. What do you do? You kick the ball away from the goal. The farther the better.
With rock guitar, slow 12-bar blues is perhaps the greatest starting point. Here are the chords — the pattern’s rigid, you know what’s going on and what’s coming up next. And the scale, too, is simple (at least you can start out with basic pentatonic). Play it slowly and see if you can make a phrase that fits the music out of the notes available to you.
Make a recording, listen back and see where you fall short in terms of the three areas:
- Are you understanding the context correctly?
- Are you picking an appropriate phrase to play?
- Are you able to actually play what you chose to?
I can tell you that I fall short on all three. 😉 But acquiring more technique will not solve this problem — I have to practice playing in context.
Of the three areas, which one is most underdeveloped in your playing? Analyzing that may lead to new ways to practice, and to improve your guitar playing.