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Sunday, January 9, 2011

A Journey of 1,000 Miles Begins with a Single Stumble

I’m a 54 year old classical guitar teacher. I’ve long been fascinated by guitarists who have what I’ve never had: great right hand technique. Adequate, I’ve had, but never great. Mind you, this is no fault of anyone but me. I’ve had excellent teachers, and have had many chances to hear, meet, and talk to great players. Some of my own students, former and current, have a right hand technique far better than mine. (Dammit.) Good examples are all around me, and the information on how to get good technique is, so to speak, right at hand.

Not getting any younger, I’ve decided that now is the time go for it. So here’s my plan. Every weekday morning I’ll spend one hour on my right hand technique. At the end of each week, I’ll write a report on what I’m doing and how I’m progressing. Then I’ll post this report Monday morning. At the end of each month, I’ll record a sound sample of what I’m working on and post it the first Monday after the month ended. At the end of one year, we’ll see where I stand.

Why do this publicly? Two reasons:

1) There may be others who find this project interesting. I hope in time that those who have good suggestions will chime in. I realize this is also an invitation for every nut who can type with two fingers to bloviate endlessly. As a veteran of many internet tiffs, I’m willing to ignore the nuts and attend to the more thoughtful and informed responses.

2) I’m lazy. Setting out on a project with no fanfare makes it easy to quit. But if I stand on a soapbox and announce that I’m going to do something, it’ll look silly if I come back several weeks later and say “never mind.” I like being lazy, but I don’t like advertising it. So doing this with an audience, however small, will keep my nose to the grindstone.

To begin my right hand renovation, I’ve chosen to start with rest-stroke alternation of my index and middle fingers. For classical guitarists, this is a basic technique for fast scales. Here’s a video sample by guitarist Grisha Goryachev: click here. Never have I been able to do what Goryachev does. The closest I’ve ever gotten is this: click here. The difference between Goryachev’s playing and my own speaks for itself.

Bear in mind that Goryachev’s sample is a bright, percussive flamenco sound—not exactly what I’m going for. But Goryachev is a good example of the fluency I want. If I can achieve his fluency, I can tweak the sound to suit my taste. (As I’m sure Goryachev himself can do.)

One final and ominous note. I’ve tried this experiment twice before in the last ten years. Both times I had to stop because of pain in my right shoulder. So as I embark on this project, my right shoulder is the sword of Damocles hanging overhead, waiting to skewer my latest foray. But for the moment I’m undaunted. With a bit of caution, I hope to keep at bay my middle-aged aches and pains long enough to reach my goal.

——[My next post will be on January 17, 2011.]——


Thomas said...

This is an interesting experiment. You have officially opened up a potential can of worms. That said, the worst that can happen is ending up David in a fight with Goliath that ends with a more realistic outcome. After reading your blog and considering "m" and "a" working as one "rockette" unit, I decided to do some i-ma alternation myself. I experimented with my normal i-m alternation (while watching the "a" finger.) Then I taped my "a" and "m" fingers together(with about a one inch thick strand of masking tape)to see if it would work as a "training wheel" type of effect. My results were interesting. It seems that when they are taped together that the "m" and "a" nail and flesh seem to attack the string simultaneously. Like doing a rest stroke with 2 fingers at the same time whereas when I do the same scale with the "a" finger not-taped to "m" it seems like my "a" finger compensates so as not to hit the string along with the "m" finger. This is just an initial observation and everybody's fingers have varying relative length but there may be added stress to "a" as it attempts to stay out of contact with the same string that "m" is striking.

miguel bengoa said...

Hi Tom,
I stumbled upon your site quite by accident and I am compelled by your comments. So much so that I am going to print off every post and read the hard copy, making notes as I go.

Compelled because I have been going through the exact same experience as you. I spent years trying to fix my right hand only to find that it was getting not better but worse and worse until I could not play even the most basic of pieces. Things got so bad that I witnessed the "m" finger of my right hand curling in even as I picked up my guitar. I could barely play a single note.

Eventually I was diagnosed with task specific focal dystonia (TSFD) and I thought that the world had ended. I went for seminars in Seville, Spain and since then I have been working to retrain my hand, posture and approach to playing. I can now play to a metronome! That is a huge victory.

I still have a very long way to go, but I would be very happy to share experiences with you - either privately by email or in public. You can see what I have written on the subject here: If you select the category TSFD, you can read about y experiences. Please mail me or post a comment if you are interested in some form of mutual collaboration on this topic. I would be honored.