[TaR's suggestions] The Natural Classical Guitar reviewed by (by Dr Kostas Vitkos)

The Natural Classical Guitar
The Principles of Effortless Playing

Lee F. Ryan, the author of the book with the above title, has been playing the classical guitar since the tender age of seven.  He studied in master classes with Andres Segovia, Michael Lorimer, and others.  He received his M.A. in Music from San Diego State University, where he taught for seven years.  His experiences with Transcendental Meditation gave him the inspiration for the natural approach to the guitar described in this book.

What follows is a thumb-nail sketch of Lee Ryan’s ideas and suggestions, with no intention of presenting a critical book review.  The undersigned happens to be a lover of the classical guitar, not a professional guitarist.  His academic interest lies in the field of Philosophy and Classical Studies.

The Book

The Natural Classical Guitar aims at presenting an overall approach to the art of playing the classical guitar with minimum effort (if not effortless, as the author optimistically suggests).  The book contains ten chapters (the author calls them ‘principles’), which appear in the following order:

Let Nature Support Your Playing
Increase Mind/Body Awareness
Develop Natural Concentration
Cultivate Dynamic Relaxation
Apply the Play-Relax Technique
Refine Your Guitar Skills
Learn from the Masters
Use the Mind Over Fingers Approach
Share Your Enjoyment of Music
Evolve from the Guitar to the Self

An Overview

Lee Ryan begins his book by saying: “The best guitarists make playing look easy.  In fact, it is easy for them”.  But how could it be possible for the average guitar player to reach that distant goal of effortless playing?  Simply, by allowing nature play her part.  The cooperation between nature and guitarist can yield excellent results.  Delving into each of the above ten principles, we observe the following:

1.   Let Nature Support Your Playing
The imperative ‘do less, accomplish more’ is the main theme of the first chapter of this book.  The author holds the view that the ‘principle of minimum effort’ is the root idea of successful guitar playing; and in order to reinforce this view, he marshals some philosophical ideas from the East, such as Yoga, Taoism, and Zen Buddhism.  We learn that nature loves economy and minimus effort.  Therefore, we should let nature to do her work every time we take the guitar and start playing a piece of music.  Example: An intelligent woodsman splits a log easier by allowing the natural force of gravity to help him bring down the axe.  Similarly, the intelligent guitarist finds it easier to press down the strings with his/her left-hand if he/she allows the natural weight of his/her arm to provide much of the pressure.

2.   Increase Mind/Body Awareness
In this chapter we find ourselves in deeper water.  We may have a very good guitar teacher, excellent instruction books, and a large collection of fine recorded guitar pieces.  But the value of all these things is limited if we are not aware of what takes place in our mind, our body, and in the music we are playing.  Here the author, in order to make his point clear, he parallels the eating of an apple with the playing of the guitar:  “To get the full value from eating an apple, your full attention needs to be on the apple; to get the most enjoyment from playing the guitar, your full attention needs to be on the guitar”.  This can only be done if we settle our mind and relax our body.  ‘Settling the mind’ means ‘emptying it’.  A completely ‘empty’ mind with no disturbing thoughts is like a tranquil lake with no ripples on its surface.  Conclusion: Having a settled mind and a relaxed body enables us to play the guitar with minimum effort and to become aware of the subtleties of the music we are playing (tone production, colour, dynamics, articulation, etc.).

3.   Develop Natural Concentration
This chapter stresses the importance of natural concentration, which enables us to focus our attention on one aspect of guitar playing at a given moment (a melodic line, a rest stroke, a shift of the left-hand, etc.).  Good concentration translates into good playing. The technique of natural concentration can be derived from the practical teachings of Yoga.

4.   Cultivate Dynamic Relaxation
Here the discussion is on the question of balance.  The author makes the point that, when we play the guitar in complete accord with the principle of minimum effort, we find ourselves in a balanced state of mind and body.  Aldous Huxley has called this balanced state ‘dynamic relaxation’.  Its main characteristic is the balance of opposite tendencies (activity and rest, tension and relaxation) in both mind and body.  The author recognises the prima facie paradox of this state, but at the same time he believes that it is possible for activity to be combined with relaxation.  In this state of dynamic relaxation (balancing the opposites) we feel completely relaxed, even when playing demanding pieces of music.  Again, the author touches upon the philosophies of the East, which he analyses with some examples.

5.  Apply the Play-Relax Technique     

The ‘play-relax’ technique is based on an ancient idea that, if we want to achieve a specific result, we must master its opposite.  The followers of Taoism say “empty and be full.”  Leo Brouwer, the contemporary Cuban guitarist-composer, recommends the same approach to his students. There is no doubt that the proper guitar playing demands proper relaxation.  But what is ‘proper relaxation?’  The author says it is “the balanced alternation between playing and not playing.”  A good guitarist knows how to take full advantage of the opportunity to relax his/her hands and fingers “between the notes and the playing movements.”  When a balanced alternation between playing and not playing is reached, guitar playing becomes almost effortless.

6.  Refine Your Guitar Skills
In this chapter the author speaks of the importance of perfecting our guitar playing technique.  In his view, we cannot enjoy the benefits of dynamic relaxation if we pay no attention to details, both musical and technical.  Lack of emphasis on details, such as good tone, effortless flow of fingers, damping of unwanted notes, shaping melodic lines, etc., makes guitar playing less satisfactory and less enjoyable.  The beauty resides in the details (see the colourful structure of a butterfly wing, the fine veins of an oak leaf, etc.).  And while the author takes the trouble to enter into the subject of details, he also deals with the care of nails, tone colour, articulation, natural fingering, making left-hand connections, etc.

7.  Learn from the Masters

Undoubtedly, imitating good players is one of the most natural ways of learning to play the guitar.  The child learns the mother tongue by imitating the mother.  Similarly, the guitar student learns directly from the teacher by imitating him/her.  Having a fine teacher and using him/her as a model, the student avoids the common mistakes that most self-taught students make.  A good teacher is able to make maximum use of the student’s artistic potential.  Examining the imitative learning process, the author does not neglect to mention how Maestro Andres Segovia taught his master class students.  Also in this chapter there is discussion on other natural ways of learning, such as regular, goal-directed practice, breaking down technical problems, intelligent repetition, memorisation techniques, slow practice, the use of metronome, and other techniques from which we get the most benefit in an enjoyable way.

8   Use the Mind Over Fingers Approach
Here we find the communis opinion (it was also expresses by F. Sor) that good and effortless guitar playing requires skill, not sheer strength.  Many guitarists believe that by making their fingers strong through endless repetition of exercises and musical pieces, they will eventually play the guitar well.  But, according to the author, this is not necessarily so.  [Note: Yet Morales states that Barrios, in order to master a new piece of music, he played it consecutively 100 times without error!]  The author suggests that the best approach to ‘sharpen’ more effectively our guitar playing technique is through ‘mental picturing’ and ‘mental hearing’.  The key is: ‘visualize and let it happen’.  This interesting approach is analysed in some detail in this chapter.

9.  Share Your Enjoyment of Music

The author begins this chapter by saying “It is natural to share your enjoyment of the guitar with others.  It is unnatural to be afraid and keep your talent to yourself.”  This, certainly, makes good sense.  However, common sense also tells us that the guitarist should not play for others if he/she is not thoroughly prepared.  The salient point the author makes is this: When we are playing for others, the extra enjoyment we (and the others) draw comes from “a special kind of energy exchange” between the player and the audience; and when that occurs, the guitarist and the audience “become perfectly synchronised with the rhythm and feeling of the music.”  The author suggests various steps we can take in order to overcome the fear of playing for others.

10.  Evolve from the Guitar to the Self
Finally, we learn that the guitar is something more than just a musical instrument; it is an excellent means of self-development.  When we study it intelligently, it can help us learn to concentrate better, to memorise more easily, to improve mind-body coordination, to perform well while remaining relaxed, to get along well with others, and to harmonise ourselves with our environment.  The author believes that, in the final analysis, guitar playing is a subtle discipline that helps us to reach not only our full mental, physical, and spiritual potential, but also to become happier human beings.

Dr Kostas Vitkos

Melbourne (July 2007) 

your source for guitar excellence
On Practice: Book Recommendation:
The Natural Classical Guitar
The Principles of Effortless Playing
By Lee F. Ryan