Liz’s Teaching Philosophy

Mind:

I aim to cultivate a relaxed sense of self and a physical and emotional attachment to the instrument, where the goal is to defeat any distance separating the player from the instrument. This closeness can be achieved at any technical level of playing, and is required to express oneself.

Music should feel effortless and the player should always be relaxed.

In fact, one should stop playing if one finds oneself making an effort; stop, breathe, relax and only play at a speed that feels effortless. If something is learned to the point of “completion” full of tension and effort, it will never sound how you want it to. The process does not suddenly become effortless after months of strenuous tension-inducing, fear-based practice. It comes from slowly building upon layers of effortless practice.

In this way, practicing can always be a joy because you refuse to let it become anything other. Tension and anxiety while playing are distracting and self-defeating.

A musician’s attitude toward themselves and music far more affect their playing than any physical and technical capabilities. It can be surprising how much beating oneself up and paying a lot of attention to technical hang-ups as a way to improve, as if fighting yourself, can actually only worsen your technique.

This is because self-love, acceptance and confidence are what is needed first from the student; without it, no matter how much practice, love in the music will never come through. This can be instilled through accepting the music that naturally comes out before worrying about other things.

Technique:

These are methods I’ve found to be of extreme importance in my own development and students I’ve taught. Again, these methods receive their full benefit when practiced from a relaxed, accepting, patient, effortless, slow, peaceful, and open place.

  • Singing music

To understand the inherent musicality and arc of a phrase, sing it out loud first. Then sing it while playing, making sure your hands match your natural vocal inflections as best as you can. Singing will also point out misunderstandings of the music; if you can’t sing it with correct pitch and rhythm or a clear artistic intent; suffice it to say you can’t play it. Sometimes we get so wrapped up in playing for playing’s sake, that we may miss these inconsistencies without singing them alone. One should also sing and play bass lines by themselves to process the underlying harmony more clearly.

  • Leschintzy technique

Practice reading the score and visualizing how you play each note on the guitar. Add solfege to the notes. Make sure there are no blank spots in connecting the written pitch with where you play it on guitar (including right hand fingering) and how you phrase it (of course, phrasing needn’t be written in stone). Practice visualizing the score and how it’s played on the guitar while taking a walk. For a piece of music to truly be learned, one should have the whole score memorized, without need of the guitar. Each move of the hand and every fingering should also be memorized. This is a life-long process and, yes, it can take years to learn one piece this way, but this solves all memory issues and it is required to be truly confident and articulate in performance. Let the magnitude of the task be inspiring rather than daunting. What do you have to lose? Never fear the amount of work needed to be done; your abilities far surpass what you can consciously conceive.

  • Memory

For memory, besides the Leschintzy technique, it is important to spend time practicing so slowly that each note has to be a conscious move, and muscle memory will not function. You are increasing the gaps between notes so much as to make your fingers forget where to go and thus test your mental knowledge of the piece. Finger memory may serve well practicing in the comfort of your room, but in performance muscle memory is infamous for weakening or disappearing entirely. Slow practice imprints mental memory of the piece, and allows you to find benchmarks in the music to arrive at in the case of any memory slips.

You can also label harmonies in the traditional Roman numeral fashion, even for voice-leading and counterpoint (contrapuntally) based music such as J.S. Bach. Blocks of harmonies can be found at arrival points in almost all music, and help your understanding of the piece, even if said harmonic progressions were not at the compositional kernel of the piece. Further, a knowledge of the harmonic progression of the piece increases the understanding of how a piece should flow, where its climax is, etc., observations that may be harder to glean by only studying it note by note or contrapuntally.

  • No fear

You’d be amazed at what your fingers can accomplish if you just stay out of the way. Many a time when I first started learning, I thought “Ridiculous!” to something being asked in a score. Only to shrug my shoulders, try it anyway with any convoluted fingering I could muster to be faithful to the score. Feeling silly for a week or more with this seemingly impossible fingering, I would be amazed to find it slowly settling in to the piece and joining the notes around it smoothly, until that fingering became as ea sy as anything. The lesson I’ve learned is to trust yourself and always accept challenges. What is there to lose? Only fear-based practicing. It’s amazing what fingers can accomplish with patient repetition. Even if something took your whole life, what’s in a life if you can’t do one thing well?

General Notes:

Even at the beginning stages of learning a piece, when everything may seem hard and sound awkward, be sure to enjoy what you’re doing. Enjoy the tone and resonance of that one note or chord you can play really well, and look for spots in everything t hat you really like. This goes hand in hand with having artistic intent from the get-go. Sometimes, with large pieces (or any size piece), it’s very hard to decide what you want to say when you still can’t even play all the notes. However, learning the piece will come much faster if you make artistic decisions from the beginning. Thus, you begin serving an artistic goal, and accomplishing technique to reach it, rather than the other, more tedious and unbeneficial way around. Always learn a piece with completely correct rhythm from the very beginning; don’t try to correct it later. Rhythm gets ingrained in your body and mind more than pitches do and it is much harder to correct a wrong rhythm after it’s been plowed into your hands than any other element of the music.

At the early stages of learning a piece, make sure to make one phrase as close to perfect as you can and always endow that one phrase with all the care and form you can muster. You will become addicted to the rounded, complete quality of that one phrase and become more demanding for the rest of the piece to reach that caliber. This increases the overall quality of your playing instead of settling for a plateau of executing the notes properly. The standard becomes raised for the whole by perfecting only a phrase or two first.

Make a choice to be happy with yourself and your playing at whatever level you are. You, in all your confidence and greatness as a person bring greatness to the music. Your ability to play does not reflect on your character; the relationship is inverse. Music should be an extension and reflection of yourself as a person, not your technical ability as a measuring stick of your value as a pe rson. Too many musicians mistake self-flagellation for humility, when peace and love for yourself (and inherently others) must exist for any technique to show.

In performance, don’t ever try to do something technically more difficult than what you do at home. In fact, your playing will sound much more virtuosic if you play around in the box of your known abilities. Virtuosity and mastery are heard by the comfort and ease of a person’s playing, not by their technical acrobatics. Understanding the difference between pushing boundaries creatively vs. technically in performance will come with time and practice. Thinking of music as easy and a natural human thing to do helps.

A lot of emphasis here is placed on methods away from the guitar; picking up the guitar is at the end of many ongoing mental processes that must be working for the payoff to appear once actually touching the instrument. This should come as a relief; in everyday life, just in your mode of thinking and being you can improve your musicianship and bring your peace of mind to the instrumen t. When struggles exist in outside life, think of practice time as a sanctuary and meditation, as a gift to get away from all that.