I’ve been playing guitar since Cub Scouts, which was a long time ago, and you would think by now I’d know how to tune the instrument, how to hold it so that it doesn’t hurt to play, how to fret the strings and how to pluck them. And yet, I am constantly surprised by what happens to my practicing when I focus on this stuff.
Most days, tuning is still hard to get right. Either my ears have gotten better, and I’m not satisfied unless it’s perfect, or my ears have gotten worse and I can’t hear well enough to tell the difference between real close and dead on. But when I finally do get it right, the difference is dramatic – “Why did I ever buy this $*%#@! guitar?” becomes “This is the best-sounding guitar I’ve ever heard.” Being in tune makes more of a difference than putting on new strings, but you’ve got to be a hardass about it, and do it every time you play.
Over the years I’ve settled on holding the guitar in the classical position, with my left leg on a foot stool. That decision cured years of right shoulder pain. But I can’t sit that way for more than half an hour, so I’m still fiddling. I really need a height-adjustable chair. Or one of those gizmos like Neck-Up, Dynarette, Ergoplay, etc., that hold the guitar in the correct position while allowing you to keep your feet on the floor.
And actually generating a sound with fingers and strings – it’s not even remotely automatic or unconscious. I try to pay attention to my fingertips when I play. Or listen, not to the song I'm playing, but to the individual notes. Or feel my fingers touching the strings. Or notice whether my wrists are relaxed. It takes a different kind of concentration, but it pays off.
I find it humbling to focus on these incredibly basic, Cub-Scout-level things, at first. But after a while, things change. I start either playing better or hearing better - could be either one – but something is better.