What are motor habits and why are they so important for the study of music on the guitar?

When we look at great guitarists playing difficult music, it normally looks so easy for them to do. I used to wonder, and I’m sure many of you still wonder, “how do these players make it seem so effortless, when I know it is so difficult to do?”  The answer is that for them it is effortless.  These players have learned a set of motor habits which carry them through their performances so that they don’t really have to think about their hands and can instead think about playing the music expressively and with artistry. In this way, performing difficult music is easy for them. It can be for you, too.

A motor habit is a movement that you make with your body without having to think consciously about it. Essentially, you have done something consciously so many times that your subconscious mind remembers how do it without any conscious thought.  Walking is a good example of this. Do you walk down the street and think to yourself “okay, pick up the left leg, now put it down; pick up the right, move it forward, okay, set it down…”?  Of course not, you, just like everyone else you know can walk down the street, chew gum, talk on a cell phone, and step over the puddle on the street without ever once thinking about how to walk.  You walk without any conscious thought because walking is a motor habit. These motor habits occur in a subconscious part of your brain, the cerebellum, and allow you to think about other things like the conversation you are having on your cell phone.

You can also make your guitar playing into a motor habit just like walking, and it can feel just as easy as walking!  Before you could walk, when you were a young child, you probably crawled around on the floor, looked up and saw your parents walking around on two legs and thought to yourself “hey, that seems pretty cool, I want to do that, too!”  So you tried, but you just couldn’t walk. You got up, you fell down, you made it a step, and you thought very hard about making each step and making each movement with your legs. You thought hard about keeping your balance the entire way.  Once you understood how to move your legs and hold your body, you began to walk more often, moving your body the same way each time. Eventually, your subconscious brain remembered how to walk without you needing to think about it anymore.

If you can  learn to do a movement, or a series of movements on the guitar, and make them into a secure habit,  your performing and playing will become very easy – as easy as walking. This is why we practice scales and arpeggios, other techniques and pieces of music. When we turn them into motor habits, we don’t have to think about them when we play them. For example, I can play music or scales that I have turned into habits without thinking about them at all.  I can then have a deep conversation with someone, or do arithmetic or any other conscious thought in my mind without having to worry about the music, since the motor habits are driving the scales or music.

But how do you turn your guitar playing into a habit like walking, or like the scales that I just played for you?

Its really simple, actually. Habits are formed by making repetitive, accurate and conscious movements. This means that you:

1. Study the music so that you fully understand what you are going to do.

2. Make every movement consciously, without letting your fingers move without a clear direction.

3. Practice the music accurately, without error.

4. Practice often, at least six days a week. Better, try two shorter practice sessions every day.

If you can follow this advice, and I am sure you can, you are well on your way to performing music accurately, with confidence, and with ease.  The habits that you form, will carry your performances and your playing.  You will sound great, and it will be easy to perform, although it will take a bit of real effort to get there. So, waste no time, get to practice the right way!

In the next post, I’ll discuss how habits are formed in a more scientific way.

Jason