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Roberto Capocchi, guitarist: Blog

Seven Habits of Excellence

Posted on July 6, 2010 with 12 comments

Try keeping these seven qualities in mind as you practice.  I borrowed these from Gerald Klickstein's 'Musician's Way"

He has a short article about them at:

1) Ease

2) Expressiveness

3) Accuracy

4) Rhythmic vitality

5) Beautiful tone

6) Focused attention

7) Positive attitude

I like thinking of these as "improvable" rather than having a pass/fail attitude.  This means a practice session can be fulfilling and successful if you end up playing more accurately than before - even if it's not perfect.  You can make your tone more beautiful than before, even if it's not yet the best tone you'll ever have, etc.  Excellence, in this sense, is to continually, and happily, improve from where we are.  This does not mean settling for a lesser result, but rather keeping in mind that your practice is an ongoing, lifelong process.

How do we invite each one of these qualities into each practice session?


October 27, 2010

I feel like over the course of the past two months that my playing has become easier. I feel like the exercises we do really help bring up the ease. I'm feeling more relaxed the more i do the ladders and the exercises for the right hand as well. I feel that the best way to apply these seven habits is to actually give a rip about what your playing. If you can play a piece perfect, but you don't like it, then why would you even play it. If you don't like it then your not going to be very expressive in your playing. One thing that i'm not quite understanding is the Rhythmic vitality step. What exactly does he mean by that?

It seems to me that most of these habits have to do with being expressive in your playing while also paying attention to what your playing. I would tend to think that these habits are something that you work on with each individual piece to make it as personal and perfect as you can.

Austin Alexander

October 25, 2010

I find that it's not really until after I learn a piece that I can actually fully incorporate these elements into the music. I do my best at learning a piece with ease, accuracy, and so on, but it's difficult for me to really nail them until I can play through the piece without thinking about the music. I think these 7 habits of excellence have to do more with the technical side of music, so I believe it's best to run through the 5 step memorization process first. But again, it’s harder to go back and fix mistakes as opposed to just learning it right the first time, so it’s probably a good Idea to touch on each of these elements while learning the piece.

Austin Alexander

October 12, 2010

It seems that once one develops that ease of playing then the other elements fall into place.

Diego C.

September 22, 2010

I've found that practicing by the clock can be very distracting. (1) You're thinking that you only have a certain time to run through the stuff that you're working on;therefore, your muscles are in a sense tensing up and anxiety takes over.(2) If for example, you've been playing a couple of wrong notes and you have a week to correct them before your recital, then that's when setting a time limit is helpful. However, I believe that organization is an important factor in cultivating and keeping your practice time. Keeping a practice log sheet can be very helpful since you're writing down the hours that you're suppose to go in.

Robby Fox

September 21, 2010

Beautiful tone seems to be one of the areas with the most options and therefore freedom. I've found along with expressiveness, beautiful tone is one of the places you can separate yourself from other musicians and create your own unique sound.


September 20, 2010

The step I'm most intrigued by is "ease" I find that my anxiety about a "hard" passage often causes tension that slows down the learning process and essentially keeps me from "getting it down." I've also noticed that taking your "expressive tools" and practicing them individually on your scales allows you to concentrate on the "tool", and not what your playing, yet has an amazingly profound inpact on the way you play your pieces. Breaking everything down into single ideas, techniques or pieces provides a chance to see everything more clearly and understanding will lead to better playing!

Roberto Capocchi

August 30, 2010

Focused attention is acquired gradually. Most of us have a shorter attention span than we think, and the best way to develop it is to start small and increase gradually, rather than pretend our attention span is longer than it really is. Attention span and attention depth are task-specific: that's how some musicians how are able to focus deeply on their music all day long can be such space-cases... You might be able to focus well on other activities, but don't assume that transfers automatically to your guitar practice. Take breaks – if you have a ten-minute attention span, you can re-set it with a two minute break and work for half an hour, with a couple of little breaks, getting a lot done. If you plow through, the first ten minutes are productive and the rest is hit-and-miss. Just make sure a two-minute stretch doesn't turn into an afternoon in front of the TV! Avoid mindless practice by limiting the number of repetitions you allow yourself. If after three or four attempts something doesn't work, try a smaller bit, slow down, check the score, or take a break. Personally, I focus better when I have a time limit: if I send my brain the message “we're going to repeat this all day until we have it,” it's response is “wake me up when I'm done.” On the other hand, if the message is “brain, we have three runs to get this down,” or “we have twenty minutes to learn this page” it often works! Often I see students learn half a piece of music during a lesson, and then struggle to learn the other half during the whole week. If that ever happens to you, try giving yourself a limit the day after the lesson and see how further you get. Focused attention can be triggered by habit, so in order to develop it, only pick up your guitar when you mean business: no noodling around. Put it down when you need a break. That will create a habitual response, and predispose you to be focused when you practice and when you play – and will avoid overuse issues with your hands. When you play for other people, you might find you have a higher degree of focus and concentration. Learn to mimic that in your practice – you will progress faster, and performing will feel more familiar, easing your nerves. In simple terms: in your lessons, you will learn what to pay attention to, and your job is to pay more and better attention to those things. The best musicians are the ones that put those two things together. Become one of them.

Roberto Capocchi

August 30, 2010

Beautiful tone is subjective, but you want to start with a sound that is full, rich, clear, and loud. Any exercises that you've done focusing on tne production should be the refference for this step. Be mindfull of your nail placement, and of the displacement of the string just before the note sounds. Feel the string before you sound each note, but don't grab it. Try using as much rest stroke as possible, and mimic that sound with the free strokes. Once this is established, develop beatuatiful TONES: don't shy away from sul tasto and ponticello effects. Listen to the natural tendencies of your particular guitar: does it get sweeter as you move up the fretboard? Does it get brighter when you change positions? Once you've tuned into those tendencies, experiment with two approaches: first try to compensate for those changes, and maintain a consistent sound – this is a great step to learn to control your instrument, or to get used to a different guitar. Second – much more fun! - work with those tendencies: if a string change sounds sweeter, move the right hand closer to the fretboard and add vibrato; if a positio change sounds brighter, play ponticello, and even try staccatto. You'll find that exploring various sounds from your guitar might blur the line between working on tone and expression, but remember that when you're focusing on tone, there's little need to judge wether it's appropriate to use that sound – just make sure it's a good sound. It is important to develop a good basic tone and a few other voices. Often we shy away from a brighter sound because it sounds “naily” and we avoid a darker sound because it's muddy. I think if you stick with it, you'll learn to produce a variety of tones you are happy with. Also, playing with different attacks and on different points of the strings will alter the balance of chords and layers. Again, you can try to compensate for that – working hard to sound the same – or you can go with it and create interesting and subtle variety.

Roberto Capocchi

August 26, 2010

Rhythmic vitality starts with rhythmic correctness. You can't develop a driving rhythm if it's just wrong, so count it out carefully.

Work on the rhythm of a new piece first, until it's very clear. We learn rhythm by ear, so understand with your mind, count it out, but then perform it out loud so you can hear it.

Decide on rhythmic groupings and chose articulation details. No score notates rhythm perfectly.

Make sure rests are observed, or if they are written for ease of reading, make that choice carefully.

Practice with a metronome, using very small subdivisions, then marking the basic beats, then marking only the measures. Each one of these gives you a different result.

A great exercise is to play a solo piece as a duet, making sure EVERY attack sounds as one. If you and the other guitarist can't agree on what's right, study the passage, and make a decision.

Never play what "feels right" rhythmically if you know it's just wrong. Practice the correct rhythm until it feels right, instead.

Rhythm dissolves at slow speeds - we can still count it out, but it has less of a sensual quality. So when practicing slowly, don't expect to feel the rhythm - you might have to count it out again.

There are often various good choices of what "groove" to seek for a piece. You don't have to claim your choice is the only one, or even the best of many. Just chose a groove you can play clearly and maintain easily. Often we're tempted to show that we understand there are options and try to use them all. It's OK to like one option, and use another that you can accomplish better.

Roberto Capocchi

August 12, 2010

Most of us think of accuracy as getting the right notes at the right time. However,from the point of view of good practice, that is the result of accuracy. Every note, every run, every shift, every passage, has a series of actions that lead to a successful performance. Practice those steps accurately, and in the appropriate order. Proactively place your hands in the correct position before you start a difficult passage. Pause and lighten your grip before shifts. In other words, don't let the mistake be the reminder of the solution you had discovered when you were studying ways to make the piece or exercise easy. Good practice means rehearsing the steps that will lead to accurate playing. With enough attentive repetition, either those steps will become second nature, or they will become easier to remember. Either way, your accuracy will improve.

Roberto Capocchi

July 8, 2010


First, let's separate for a while "expressiveness" and "feeling." You learn to feel music by listening deeply and observing how great performers execute a piece. In order to convey that feeling, and your intelligent musical understanding, you will need expressive tools.

Without those tools your ideas and feelings will stay in your mind and heart, but not come through clearly to the listener. Even worse, the impetus to express yourself musically might get stuck in your shoulders, neck, back, or any other place where you might be prone to keep tension.

There are some expressive tools you should develop, such as clear dynamic levels, color changes, various articulations, different kinds of vibrato, swells and diminuendos, and well-proportioned rallentandos . Do simple exercises and scale fragments with each one, then try playing a simple piece limiting yourself to one expressive tool. For example, play with a constant beat and no dynamics, but change color every phrase to show your musical understanding. Or play very phrase with a crescendo from beginning to end. By using one expressive device exclusively, you will probably not come up with an interpretation you like, but you will refine your use of that tool, and you just might come across one or two ideas that work.

We all tend to drift toward our comfort zone, and often that means all our expression ends up being conveyed as rubatto. By focusing on other expressive means you will find ways to convey your musical ideas and feelings while keeping a steady beat if you want to.

Incorporate these expressive tools into your drills - both technical exercises and repetitions of sections of music.

I'll expand on this in an upcoming article "Expressive Tools for Guitarists," based on my workshop by the same name.

Roberto Capocchi

July 7, 2010


Playing with ease is fundamental. Once a piece is easy, it will automatically become more expressive and accurate, and the rhythm will be clear and unencumbered by technical issues.

Here are four steps I use to invite ease into my practice:

First: play easy things. Often, out of habit or drive, we play constantly harder and harder music. This keeps us from experiencing learning a piece “from above” - having all the musical and technical understandings necessary to play it well. Take the time to learn a beautiful piece that is not challenging, and enjoy it.

Second: when learning a passage, always ask the question: “why is this easy?” Never drill a difficult passage. You may conquer it, but it will always be high-maintenance. If the only way you can play a piece well is if you practice it for hours, how are you ever going to prepare a repertoire? Of course you can, and should, spend plenty of time preparing a piece. I'm talking about avoiding drilling a passage over and over as a main way of conquering and maintaining it. Once you can answer the question “why is this easy?” drill the passage as an excuse to drill that facilitating idea. It can be a body awareness issue (relax the right shoulder and breathe, then play the scale,) a technical solution (use the open string to shift, leave a finger down, lift a finger a bit earlier,) or a helpful mental image.

Third: facilitate non-problem passages. Re-read the second step. Most people interpret it as “when learning a DIFFICULT passage, always ask the question...” Nope. Always do it. Every phase. Make it a habit. Truly difficult passages will work better if they are surrounded by easier material. It keeps you relaxed. And some of the solutions for the truly difficult parts can be used to make an easy part a breeze. If you always seek and use those solutions, they may become second nature, and difficult passages you learn a year from now will feel easy to begin with! Even if you never incorporate those solutions so completely you don't have think about them, you will become a lot better at finding applications for each technical trick. So let's call people who intuitively find all these solutions, and for whom every piece is easy “geniuses.” They are rare, but they are out there, and they sound good. We can sound just as good, if we strive for easy consciously. You'll be surprised how many of your favorite players achieved the ease you enjoy listening to by working like this rather than being gifted.

Forth: make an “ease-map” of the piece. Once you're done learning a piece, map out all the easy-making tricks, and run the piece stringing those solutions together. If you find a section with no “easy-makers” find some – even if the part gives you no trouble – hat might mean just finding why the part gives you no trouble. Try it – it makes you smile every time you perform.