Did you know that your visual style may play a big role in your musical achievement? Most of us assume that musical accomplishments come from gathering pertinent information and logging in sufficient practice time. Of course, both of those things are crucial, but when I began teaching guitar, I quickly discovered that the biggest obstacle for my students was not a lack of information, but rather an effective way of accessing or processing that information. Armed with this insight, I began searching for ways to help guitar players learn to shift their perceptions and responses in order to choose the most beneficial style of thinking, hearing and body use in any learning or performance situation. I quickly discovered that by analyzing my own approach to learning and playing, I could create ways to transfer the information or habits that provided me with the most satisfying results.
In observing hundreds of students over a number of years, I have repeatedly found ineffective or inappropriate use of the eyes to be a cause of limitation in both learning and performing guitar. Fortunately, it is a cause that is easy to remedy! Long aware of the role that visual styles play in my ability to successfully shift between learning, creating, problem solving or recalling information, I began coaching students to shift similarly as they play. Every time a student follows my guidance, I witness immediate improvement in the depth and accuracy of musical expression, as well as a considerable sense of relief!
If you ever feel frustrated during practice or grapple with recall or stress during performance, you may find it helpful to consider the visual categories that I have determined as appropriate for the various tasks that guitar players encounter.
The Four Types of Vision and When to Use Them
There are four distinct visual styles to use in learning, creating and performing music. As you read through the descriptions and applications, you will probably realize that they are all ways that you naturally use your vision in your daily life and music making. Bringing awareness to them and using them to relax, overcome resistance or expand your ability to multi-task will be the key to improving your playing.
Focused Vision is the first and most common way you use your eyes. This is the kind of vision you use when you read, drive, look at a screen or perform the majority of your daily tasks. You focus your eyes when you are assessing a situation, searching out details or making decisions based on logic.
The most common misuse of the eyes is a simple one: narrow focus. Although a hard, narrow focus may seem useful at times, most of music playing calls for a broad, expanded mode of being and seeing. A hard, narrow focus that is used during situations that call for something softer is often, like tense muscles or shallow breathing, a physical symptom of trying too hard. There are various ways around this problem, but it may be as easy as noticing the tension, softening your muscles (including your eyes!) and slowing your breath!
You will often use focused vision when you are reading music or when you look at your hands while playing. Many students strongly resist looking at their hands and many teachers discourage it as well, but I feel that it is important to teach your fingers the correct position, after which you will need to look less often. There is a reason for the dots on your guitar – it’s easy to get lost on that long fretboard!
Good times to look at your left hand include learning new chords, aiming for frets, achieving proper finger placement on the fret or negotiating intricate fingerings. Once your fingers have learned the skills, you will be able to look away and only check back briefly when making position changes.
I strongly discourage looking at the right hand other than a brief glance when it is absolutely necessary for finding hand or pick placement. Staring at the right hand will throw most players’ brains into a very compartmentalized and non-musical place!
Soft Eyes or an Unfocused Gaze is the way you naturally use your eyes when you daydream or problem-solve. An unfocused gaze allows greater peripheral vision and the ability to process and recall.
When accessing your memory bank, as when remembering chord changes or lyrics, you may notice that you are employing a soft gaze while looking up and to the left. You will use this same type of vision when imagining or creating. When you learn to consciously connect to that place, use it in situations such as playing by ear or choosing the correct strings in right hand fingerstyle playing.
Closed Eyes will allow you to shut out distractions and switch off the visual style that keeps your mental functions compartmentalized. By closing your eyes you may find it easier to access your right brain.
When you are experiencing problems with rhythm, closing your eyes can often provide an immediate solution. Next time you find yourself struggling with singing along with your guitar, close your eyes! You may also find that when playing complex fingerpicking patterns or combining chords, melody and bass lines, closing your eyes will allow your right-hand fingers to almost magically locate the correct strings. Like soft eyes, you may use closed eyes to simultaneously connect to the complete spectrum of your music, including tone, pitch, rhythm, expression and the placement of both hands.
Visualization is an important skill for musicians, and it’s one that you already possess! Although you are not using your physical eyes when you visualize, it is nonetheless a type of vision that serves you as a guitarist. If you feel that it is difficult or impossible for you to visualize, it is probably because you are trying too hard to bring up a specific kind of picture. Instead of trying to visualize, try just remembering. The more you practice remembering what something looks like or where it is placed (where did you last see your keys?), the more confident you will become in your ability to visualize.
I rely on visualization for all aspects of playing, from the initial learning of a piece to memorizing it or improvising. Practice seeing your left hand, right hand and the written music in your mind’s eye. Like any skill, the more you practice, the more proficient you become. Playing in your head is the most efficient and effective way you can learn and retain your music and it allows you to practice your guitar anywhere!
Mix Them Up!
In order to gain the maximum benefits from the types of vision you employ, you will need to learn how to call upon each – either consciously or unconsciously – as needed. When you are reading music, for instance, you will use a predominantly focused style of vision, but in order to retain a sense of expression and musicality, you will need to vary the degree of focus. A little preparation will help you do so. Before beginning to play the piece, look over the score and get a feeling not only for the technical aspects but also for the sound. When you can play it in your head, you are ready to play it on your instrument. It is not necessary to have a precise and fully finished performance in your mind, but it is important to get an idea of how the piece sounds. At that point you are ready to consciously relax, expand your awareness and begin playing!
It is also helpful to practice moving from one visual style to another when you are away from your guitar. In order to practice shifting from focused to unfocused vision, pick an object and focus your eyes on it, paying attention to each detail. Then, as you take a slow, deep breath, soften and expand your vision to achieve an unfocused gaze. Notice that your muscles relax, your peripheral vision increases and you are able to “go inside” as you enjoy a larger picture. When you have achieved a relaxed and expanded state, gently return to a harder focus and again pick out specific details of the object of your focus. Take your time with the exercise and enjoy the subtleties.
You may find it surprisingly easy to practice the visual styles and apply them to the situation that they most benefit. If, however, you don’t find success working on your own, it will probably be because of deep habits, lack of experience with a particular visual style or beliefs about what is “right” (such as you should never look at your hands, always look at your hands, always make eye contact with the audience, etc.). If that is the case, feel free to contact me for a session by webcam or in person. I can coach you in time (as you play), and help you to resolve your specific issues – often in a single session!
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