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Chapter 4: Developing Basic Ability


The Survival Stage

The first stage of any technique is, to put it bluntly, about survival. That’s why I often call this the survival stage: Whatever you are trying to do—can you actually do it? Or not quite? The analogy, if you’re  a baby learning to walk: Can you stand up and move forward without falling down half the time?

 Technique at this level SUPPORTS all other more refined and advanced techniques. Any time you work here you are developing and refining and strengthening the base of the ladder, the fulcrum of the lever, the center of the circle, the very life source of your music making.  

Basic ability issues are at the heart of most technical hurdles: any time there’s some hurdle that trips you up over and over, one that you just can’t leap over easily, it is either an overall Survival Level issue, or a specific technique that’s stuck at survival level in some way.  That’s why most of what I cover in the Conquering Technical Hurdles Course–four modules out of five— is about getting really, really clear about your Basic Ability skills and dealing with any issues that you have here.

This is also why beginning classical guitar can be so frustrating, especially if you have a strongly developed idea of how you want to sound.

When you start out, either as a beginning player or as a beginner at a particular technique, your main goal is to be able to do it at all. Sink or swim. Either the technique survives or it doesn’t until you get back up and try it again.

Of course, the only way you fail here is by giving up.

The idea of just giving up can be tempting, though. You often have very little idea what you’re doing, other than a vague notion that you need to breathe some life into a sketchy set of skills before they have any chance of breathing life into the music.

At this stage, you will have some impulses towards refining these skills, towards making them expressive, which is great—no harm in trying— but before you can actually make headway refining things, you need to get control of each basic skill first. You need to break down what you are doing into small bits, get conscious of each bit,  work on them individually. This is the only way you will be able to get the form, the movement, and develop the strength, and the right balance of tension and relaxation.

Identifying Where You’re At and What You Need to Do

If you are clear that any technical hurdle is coming from inadequate basic ability, then you can start really applying the right kinds of practice to remedy the situation. But how do you know this? Here are some questions you should ask yourself:

Technique and Basic Ability

1. How to identify Basic Ability stage in a specific technique:

  • Can you actually do the technique?  If not, it is a Basic Ability that needs to be developed.
  • Can you rely on your ability to do this technique? Without stumbling a lot, losing your poise, hand position, proper movement? If so, you need to improve it on a Basic Ability level.
  • Does the technique fall apart when you’re doing something more advanced? Then you need to refine your Basic Ability even further to meet the increased challenges. Even virtuoso players need to do this kind of work.

2. Types of Basic Ability Technique: 

Holding the Guitar Basic Ability

  • Holding the guitar comfortably and stably
  • Positioning and using both hands optimally

Right Hand Basic Ability

  • Basic Right Hand Poise (Form)
  • Basic Right Hand Movement
  • Basic Free Stroke
  • Basic Rest Stroke

Left Hand Basic Ability

  • Basic Left Hand Poise (Form)
  • Basic Left Hand Movement
  • Developing basic left hand strength and leverage
  • Holding and moving between several notes and between several chords
  • Basic slurs and hammer-ons
  • Basic shifts.

Hand Coordination Basic Ability

  • Simple melodies
  • Simple scales
  • Simple chord shifts


Repertoire and Basic Ability

1. How to identify Basic Ability stage in a piece (or section of a piece):

  • Can you play Three Blind Mice, or Flight of the Bumblebee if you’re advanced, or do you have to stop all the time?
  • If it keeps falling apart or you have trouble just getting through it or any section of it, that’s a sign of some Basic Ability work that needs doing.

2. Types of Basic Ability Repertoire

If you can play Three Blind Mice really well, Flight of the Bumblebee will eventually be that much more possible to conquer as well. But if you can’t make it through Three Blind Mice, there’s not a chance that you’ll get through Flight of the Bumblebee.

Here’s a list of the kind of repertoire that tends to get introduced (and is still challenging) at this level of learning

  • Single line melodies
  • First position pieces (or single string works that move into higher positions)
  • Easy chords
  • Simple arpeggio pieces
  • Basic Note values: Quarter Notes, Whole Notes, and Half Notes, Eighth Notes—no syncopation
  • Basic Time Signatures and counting: 4/4 and 2/4  3/4
  • Major and Minor Keys with few sharps or flats: C and A minor, G Major and E minor.
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