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Saturday, January 22, 2011

I See It Feelingly

My second week settled into a routine. For the first 30 minutes of each one hour session, I did this...
...starting at a tempo of about quarter note=80. I did 5 minutes on each string. If my hand felt good and loose, I increased the tempo a bit, but never enough for my hand to tense up. On each i stroke, m-a kicked far past the string and then immediately returned for the m stroke—m prepared on the string precisely at the dotted eighth rest. I did this kick and return as lightly as possible, to have m alight on the string rather than grab it. My thought here is that my right hand tends to use far more effort than it needs when alternating i and m. Speed requires a light touch, and a light touch is something I don’t have enough of.

A few years ago, I had a minor epiphany about this. Almost every workday, I eat lunch at Subway. (If you look at my photo, a significant part of what you see was once a chicken teriyaki sandwich.) One day, while drawing my coke at the soda machine, I noticed I was pushing the button harder than seemed necessary. Curious, I gradually let up the pressure until the soda stopped flowing. Doing this confirmed that I was indeed pushing the dispenser button much harder than necessary. It occurred to me that I’d probably done this all my life in a myriad of ways. And that doubtless affects how I play the guitar—unfortunately, not for the better.

I believe some people are wired to be physically tense, and others are wired to be more physically relaxed. Of course, this varies from person to person. No individual is all one thing or all another. But on the whole, some people seem better wired to do physical activities in an optimal way. They have an advantage in sports, dance, and playing a musical instrument. This, by the way, was the core insight of F. M. Alexander, at least before the Alexander Technique sank beneath a slagheap of pseudoscientific mysticism. (In a better world, innovators would be protected from their followers.)

I’m one, sadly, who’s wired to do things the hard way. Faced with a physical activity requiring finesse, I instead attack with brute force. I don’t do this intentionally or consciously. It’s just the way I’m wired.

And that’s what I’m trying to change. My 30 minute routine of m-a kick/return will, I hope, gradually ingrain a more relaxed feel in my right hand. So I’m willing to stick with it for the rest of this month. At the end of January, I’ll evaluate where I am, and whether this Rockette exercise is getting me any closer to my goal.

Experienced guitarists will notice that my Rockette exercise is close to something often recommended to players who want to increase their i and m alternation speed: play i and m alternation with a sharp staccato:
The exercise I’m doing, however, keeps the staccato after i and omits it after m. Why? The answer is that I’m very concerned about the quick return of m, and less so about i. Quite simply, my index finger moves far better than my middle finger. My index finger is the good soldier who, when I say “charge,” salutes smartly and rushes up the hill. Conversely, my middle finger lies on the couch with a beer in one hand and a bag of chips in the other. When I say “charge,” my middle finger gives me itself as a salute and belches. So I’ve tailored my exercise to whip m into fighting trim.

By the way, during the 15 minutes of music with right hand arpeggios, my hand didn’t feel any more chipper than when I began this project. In fact, on Tuesday it felt downright geriatric. I’m writing this off as a price one pays for progress. One step forward, two steps back, et cetera. But I’ll continue to monitor this with trepidation. On the bright side, my right shoulder isn’t hurting any more than it did last week.

Now to address some of you who’ve begun to follow my project. Questions and comments have come up, and I’ll try to respond to them:

“As a matter of interest, what do you define as ‘fast’ for i and m scale passages?”—Barnard Castle, United Kingdom

I’m shooting for at least four notes per click at a metronome setting of 160. I’ll be thrilled if I can hit something faster, but 160 will satisfy me. In fact, I’ve got my eye on Etude 7 of Villa-Lobos—always wanted to get that up to an impressive tempo.

“On the 30 minutes of i m, is that all rest stroke, free stroke, or mixed?”—Georgia, USA

Rest stroke only. Being self-taught early on, I came late to rest stroke scales, and so they’ve always been a bit dicey for me. But I love the sound, and I’m determined to get it. (Explanation for non-guitarists: To see a video that demonstrates rest stroke and free stroke, click here. And no, the guitarist in the video isn’t me.)

“Just in case you might not be familiar with it, Leo Brouwer/Paolo Paolini’s ‘Scales for Guitar’ (Ricordi) contains many interesting observations on RH technique.”—Adelaide, Australia

I’ve seen this book. (Those interested can find it here.) It isn’t quite the thing for the stage I’m at. I’m trying to increase the raw speed of my i and m alternation. “Scales for Guitar” doesn’t really address this in any detail. It has one intriguing thing I haven’t seen elsewhere: it seems to say that one should try switching between free stroke and rest stroke, apparently on successive strokes. (I say “seems to” because the English translation isn’t clear.) This strikes me as odd. If anyone can explain it in more detail, I’m curious to hear about it.

“Little suggestion on the right hand. When most guitarists practice their speed, they tense up before they play the burst. Example, mm at 140 play this:
What I’ve noticed is that most guitarists tense up and play the first sixteenth note slightly off beat. My suggestion is to play the first note of the sixteenth notes (on time), then think about the burst.”—Maryland, USA
What you’re suggesting might come in handy for me at a later stage. But I’m not there yet.

My sincere thanks to those who are following this little adventure. It helps to know that others find it of interest. But dauntingly, it adds a bit of pressure. When a year of work is done, I’d like something more than piddling results to show for it. So I’ll soldier on and hope I don’t disappoint.

——[My next post will be on January 31, 2011.]——


William Bajzek said...

Hi Tom,
How fast and loosely can you do that finger alternation without the guitar?

Kevin Gallagher had me try that in a lesson and I was amazed by how fast I could do it and how easy it felt. Since then, I've been able to increase my speed and reduce my tension a lot by getting familiar with that feeling.

Anonymous said...

Would you consider a brief sound clip demonstrating each exercise? Not to put you on the spot or anything, but but just so the examples would be more expressive for those of us who are bad sight readers. :)