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Saturday, January 29, 2011

End of January Progress Report

Three weeks of work are now in the can. As time goes on, I’m trying to define things that could be important to my progress. One thing I’m focusing on is to allow the tip joint of m to give a little as it plucks the string. This is advice I’ve encountered a number of times from players who have good right hand speed—most notably Pepe Romero. The point of a flexible tip, I believe, is to cultivate a feel for minimal tension as the finger plucks a string.

(By the way, I’ll be delighted to hear from anyone who’s had direct contact with the Romero school of playing and teaching.)

I’m also focusing on the placement of each fingertip as it contacts the string. There’s a sweet spot where the string contacts flesh and nail almost simultaneously, and that’s the spot I want to hit precisely and consistently. If I contact the string with the flesh only, then too much of the fingertip has to force itself through the string to complete the stroke. Conversely, If I contact the string with nail only, then there’s too much clattering as the nail contacts the string.

There’s sometimes a misunderstanding about the best contact point as the fingertip touches the string. At the last instant of a normal stroke, the nail is the last bit of the fingertip to be in contact with the string. Most guitarists know this. Some, however, conclude from this that contacting a string with both flesh and nail is unnecessary, and we should contact the string with nail only. This is a bad idea. If only the nail contacts a vibrating string, it gives a slight buzz. No matter how quickly or carefully you do it, nail-only contact always has this buzz. So flesh and nail contact is better. The initial contact of a vibrating string with flesh makes the buzz much less noticeable.

A couple of things intrigue me. One is that my index finger, when it comes to rest on the adjacent string, displaces the string a bit less than does my middle finger. (Remember, all my right hand alternation practice is with rest stroke.) Is my middle finger, I wonder, using too much effort compared to my index finger? For the moment I’m assuming it does, and I’m trying to dial back my middle finger as it drives through the string. I want it to displace the adjacent string no farther than does my index finger. Maybe it’s not really crucial. But since I don’t have good right hand speed, I’m assuming I don’t yet know which fine points are or aren’t crucial. So it’s prudent to err on the side of caution.

The other intriguing thing is how different it feels to do i and m alternation on the sixth string compared to the other strings. When I get to the sixth string, suddenly everything is grand. My ring and little fingers move along with m, as they’re supposed to. My hand feels free and easy. Mind you, it’s still not fast. But it looks and feels better than when I’m playing the other strings. Why exactly this should be is a mystery. I suspect my fingers release tension better when they don’t come into contact with an adjacent string. I’ll have to ponder this further.

Speaking of the sixth string, here’s a tip I gleaned from a William Kanengiser video. Playing i and m alternation on the sixth string, one might assume we can’t do rest stroke because there’s no adjacent string to come to rest against. Kanengiser showed a neat trick: rest your thumb just below where your fingers are playing, and the fingers can come to rest against it. Voilà, you’re now doing rest stroke on the sixth string. Pretty spiffy. But trying it myself, I found I could soon dispense with the thumb, yet keep almost the same rest stroke movement of the fingers. I just had to be careful not to let my fingers thwack into the soundboard. With a little practice, this was fairly easy to do. So it’s possible to get very close to a rest stroke with the fingers on the sixth string.

My right shoulder is hanging in there. The minor soreness is no worse than last week.

Although it’s not yet the end of the month, it’s close enough. So here’s my first audio progress report. In it, I briefly describe what I’ve been doing. Then I do a few speed bursts, to show where I am.

—click here for end of January audio report—

The fruit of my labor thus far is a tad underwhelming.

My reaction to this depends on which Tom you ask. There’s Professional Teacher Tom. He’s serene and stoic. He purrs in soothing tones: “We’re laying the foundation for progress. Be patient and trust the process.” This Tom will say we shouldn’t be surprised that there’s no apparent progress yet. After all, we’re rebuilding from scratch. There are decades of bad reflexes ingrained into that hand. We can’t replace these reflexes in three weeks. And he’s right. Professional Teacher Tom is experienced and wise.

Then there’s the real Tom. He’s sitting in a high chair, banging his little fists on the tray, and screaming: “Argh! I’ve been working for three weeks and this is all I get? I want progress and I want it now!”

For the next month, I’ll defer to Professional Teacher Tom. But the real Tom makes a lot of noise when I lock him in the basement. I’m not sure how much longer I can keep him down there before the neighbors notice the screaming.

——[My next post will be on February 7, 2011.]——

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