specialisation vs exploration

During the recent return to guitar practice, in the form of examining how I go about producing sounds on the guitar (in a conventional manner), I found myself thinking/wishing I had begun or focussed on certain things much earlier on in my guitar playing life. Of course there are so many non-sensical aspects in wishing you had your time over again. The mind I have now is not the one I had then. The musical ambition and desires I had then are not what I have now. I think I was in much more of a hurry then, wanting to play particular kinds of music and needing the skills to accomplish that.

Starting out I got reasonably efficient in some limited aspects of playing which gave me a sense of achievement and identity. This encouraged me to keep developing these aspects to continue the sense of achievement. However, music is a ‘broad church’ with many different aspects and I soon realised that my narrow focus meant other aspects went undeveloped. The types of music being made (largely my preference) required certain skill sets, whilst I realised that there were gaping holes in my knowledge, I was driven by artistic needs not by craft. Simultaneously, however, I kept exploring the guitar in a haphazard way, which was an important balance to the conventional studies, and possibly more crucial to the development of any individuality I might have found.

There have been times over the decades when an exploratory approach has been the dominant mode of functioning with my guitar and other times where a particularity of working with a narrow focus has been predominant. This may seem like an issue of semantics, but it seems to me that both specialisation and exploration can be contained within each other, that it is simply a matter of perspective as to how you would like to see this potential dichotomy. There have been times, when through my open-ended meanderings on the instrument, I have discovered an intervalic sequence, chord voicing, unusual fingering, etc. that has stimulated a particular area of research that has developed my technique in a very specific way. The specialised emerging from the exploratory.

Then there is the importance of playing without repetition, or without constant articulation of well known material. Here is a testing, exploratory approach but with a focus on doing it in a highly particular manner, one might call it ‘specialised’.

Specialisation and exploration don’t need to be thought of as polar opposites.

It is true, that we have only a certain amount of time to produce creative work and practice in amongst whatever else is required to live a life. If your livelihood, or main musical activity revolves around the requirements of a particular genre of music, for example, it is likely you will be spending most of your time practicing, refining and extending the related skill sets leaving little time for open-ended exploration.

I am in the position where I do not need to rehearse or practice anything specific in my sessions alone with the instrument. Just recently I discovered some gaping holes in my facility with some basic arpeggios through exploring a complicated intervallic sequence. This led me to review what arpeggios I did have facility with and how I structured their application, etc. I found some old guitar grids (6 strings and 12 frets of the guitar fretboard) I had drawn out marked with notes of seventh chords and some altered chords. I suddenly understood these diagrams as I would scales. This is a common practice as a visual aid for marking out different scales/modes on the fretboard, but seeing the patterns of the chord tones marked on the grid helped me to think about approaching chord tones as I might a scale. The difference in thinking was subtle but strong enough to stimulate a new creative relationship with this familiar material and to reconfigure fingerings, visualisation and usage.

This little insight led to the thought of how compartmentalised is my knowledge of material for the guitar and how I had practiced much of this stuff discretely, with particular articulations, within certain contexts and thinking, but how vital it is to be integrative with any isolated material. Practicing moving into and out of the focus material in a flow of play, not entering and exiting via the exact same pathways.


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