Your Growth As A Guitarist: Vertical Or Horizontal?

As the years go by in the life of a player, there are two kinds of growth we can experience. Both are necessary for our development as musicians and guitarists. I call them Vertical Growth, and Horizontal Growth.

Here is a common scenario. A person comes in for lessons after already playing for awhile. Maybe they have played for a year, maybe a few years, maybe many years. I say, "Play something for me, something you are comfortable with". Now a few different things may happen. They may play nicely, strumming and singing, maybe even throw in a few runs. So I see that for the level they are at, they play well. I then try to find out what they are here for. "What do you want to do, that you find you can't do?"

They may say "Well, I play lots of things, but I play them all the same way. I want to learn how to do chord melody solos, more interesting chords and strums, and also improve my fingerpicking so I can try some classical." In other words, they want to move to a higher level as a player. They want to make Vertical Growth.

They don't want to continue to learn new songs and play them the same way. That would be Horizontal Growth. Everyone can always make Horizontal Growth, even on their own. You just learn more material, but you don't actually play any differently, musically or technically.

Vertical progress as a player is the tough one. It requires what is usually considered "work", although I have always found it enjoyable, albeit challenging.

Here is another even more common scenario. Someone comes in for lessons after playing for awhile, and when I ask them to play, they make a couple of excuses, and then they play really badly! Then I ask them to play something else, and they play that really badly! This is the person unable to create Vertical Growth. The reason they cannot raise their level as a player, is because they don't know how to practice to solve problems and achieve results! Also, because of this, there is no solid foundation of technique for Vertical Growth to be built upon. So there is only Horizontal Growth, more things played the same way, in this case, badly.

Do you know how many young players I've seen who play only the beginning of a hundred songs, and play them badly? Lots.

Or how many people playing classical who go from piece to piece, struggling with and mutilating pieces as they go? Lots. It is sad, and unnecessary.

If you love the guitar, and are dedicated to your own development as a player, if you are dying to play the way the guitarists you admire play, you must know how to create Vertical Growth. This is done through an understanding of how to practice. I am of course talking about real practice, not repetitive "run throughs" that only re-enforce the muscle tensions causing the problems you already have.

From my experience as a player and as a teacher, it is extremely difficult to create Vertical Growth, once bad, or insufficient practice has locked in tension and bad habits. The good news is, it is not impossible. In fact, the word difficult is not the best word. I use it only because we have such a tendency to under-estimate the intensity of concentration it takes to undo past damage. A better word is challenging. And if you want to keep getting better and better as a guitarist, you'd better learn to love challenges! As Mark Twain said "Life is one damn thing after another", and that is what playing and practicing are. One damn problem to deal with after another. But as we learn to actually deal with and solve those problems, what a sweet reward we earn.

In fact, it is not the problems we face in our playing that are really the obstacle to our growth. It is the growing feeling of frustration and helplessness we experience as time continues to go by, and we see no fundamental improvement. We start to feel helpless. We may not admit this feeling to ourselves, we only notice that, for some reason, we are beginning to lose our motivation to practice.

When we learn how to really practice, we start to feel powerful. Problems and challenges don't frighten us, they excite us. Because we know that we can look forward to those problems getting smaller and smaller, weaker and weaker, as we continue to apply the Principles of Correct Practice.

It is important to realize that the quality of our Vertical Growth determines the quality of our Horizontal Growth. Any ability we have gained as players has been our Vertical Growth. If our Vertical Growth has been shaky, with weaknesses built in, (which was true of myself, and I think, most players), that shakiness will be in everything we play, so our Horizontal Growth doesn't do us much good, it just keeps us busy, feeling like we are making progress because we are learning a new song or piece. This is why so many teachers turn the page and assign new material to a student, even though the student can't play the material from this week. The teacher doesn't really know how to create Vertical Growth, and so is trying to keep a feeling
of movement going. Most students, if they are paying attention, will catch on to this.

If Vertical Growth is strong, than all new material learned will be strong, and will help you grow as a musician, as you absorb new music, and are able to play it well. This is the kind of Horizontal Growth we want.

If you want to learn how to have this Vertical Growth as a regular experience for you, I invite you to visit, and learn more about "The Principles of Correct Practice for Guitar". It is the approach I have found to work for myself, for my students, and anyone else who actually understands it, and uses it.

Jamie Andreas is a virtuoso classical guitarist from New York.

She started playing guitar at age 14, by 17 she was giving concerts and teaching guitar.

Jamie Andreas