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Sunday, January 16, 2011

Off We Go! Why Is My Hat Floating?

To set the scene, here’s how my first week went. At 8:00 am each weekday morning, after my morning walk and exercise, I settle into my right hand renovation project. I have a mirror propped in front of my chair, to give a good view of my hand as I work. My hour is arranged thus:

• 30 minutes of i and m alternation. (Explanation to non-guitarists. Classical guitarists identify the fingers of the right hand by the first letter of their Spanish names—starting with the thumb: pulgar, índice, medio, anular, chico. Further, although there are other ways to play scales, i and m alternation is commonly used.)

• 15 minutes of music with right hand arpeggios, done slowly and precisely. I’m not concerned with speed or volume at this point. I’m more concerned with absolute accuracy with minimal effort.

• 5 minutes of right hand sweeps and rasgueado. (Explanation to non-guitarists. Right hand sweeps are a conditioning and coordination exercise. In various combinations, you sweep your right hand fingers against the strings while muting the strings with your left hand. The result is an unmusical “scritch, scritch, scritch” that’s annoying to anyone unfortunate enough to be within earshot. Rasgueados are a type of finger strumming associated with flamenco guitar. As an exercise, they’re popular with classical guitarists who want right hand finger independence, even if they never play a note of flamenco.)

• 10 minutes of finger stretches. Why stretch at the end of a session rather than the beginning? Some years ago, I read an article in the journal Medical Problems of Performing Artists—it warned that one should never stretch until well warmed up. It went on to explain that stretching cold muscles can create micro-tears in the muscle tissue. These tears then heal as scar tissue, which is less flexible than normal tissue. So stretching cold muscles can be counterproductive.

The 30 minutes of i and m alternation are the laboratory in which I experiment with what I should be doing. I want to ingrain a movement of i and m that’s as effortless as possible. I’ve often noticed a fundamental flaw in my right hand: whenever I try to play fast, my hand tenses up. Tension kills speed and accuracy. While there are many things that can cause this tension, I’ve isolated the flaw that seems most likely in my hand. When I try to do fast alternation of i and m, my other fingers (a and c) tend to lock up. Thus, i and m are fighting against the tightness in my other fingers—they’re like a man trying to sprint with a sack of concrete tied to each ankle.

Over the years, I’ve talked to guitarists who have good right hand speed. Many of them agree that if you want good i and m alternation, pay attention to what the other fingers are doing. At first glance, this seems to make no sense. After all, a and c aren’t even playing during i and m alternation. But a simple experiment can clarify things. Hold up your right hand and begin waving your fingers, flexing and extending them together from the largest knuckle. Easy, right? Now try flexing and extending your index and middle fingers together, while holding your ring and little fingers motionless. Much harder, right? There’s a lot of interconnection between the fingers, and what one does tends to affect the others.

So my main activity for this week was alternating i and m, while suspiciously watching my ring finger, making sure it always moved along with m. In fact, at this early stage, I exaggerated the movement. Before each return of m to the string, I kicked out m and a far past the string, like a tiny Radio City Rockette dancer. This overdone movement helps me feel that m and a are moving together in all kinds of weather. Obviously this exaggeration won’t be in the finished product. But for now, it’ll help me ingrain the correct movement that I want.

Or so I’m guessing.

In fact, I’ve no idea if this is the right thing to do. But it’s something I’ve not tried before. My mantra this time around is to think things through anew. As I wrote in my January 9 post, I’ve tried improving my right hand twice before. Both tries fell short. So rather than bang my head against the same old wall, I’m looking for new walls to bang against. What’s the sense of redoing things that didn’t work before?

Here’s another bit of info. At the end of one week, an old nemesis is back. My right shoulder is a bit sore. While this worries me, I’ve decided to turn it to my advantage. In the past when I tried to improve my right hand, I suspect I relied too much on brute force and not enough on finesse. So now, rather than seeing shoulder pain as a warning to stop, I’ll instead use it as a barometer to suggest whether or not I’m heading in the right direction. More pain means wrong direction, less pain means right direction.

Or so I hope.

Really, everything at this stage is provisional. I may be like a man who sets out to walk from New York to Chicago by heading east. He might have interesting things to report—for example, there’s a lot more swimming than he expected. But his reports are tainted by the fact that, after all, he’s just a damn fool going in the wrong direction.

——[My next post will be on January 24, 2011.]——

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

This is great! I've recently started trying to do something very similar. I'm fairly novice at the classical guitar and have only been playing for about 2 years. I never really had a teacher and thus developed a pretty horrible right hand technique that eventually became the main obstacle (in my mind) to my improvement. Like you, I'm trying to go back to basics and focus on getting a right hand technique that is both accurate and effortless. I'm excited to hear about your progress and what works for you. (and more selfishly, how I can apply your process to mine :)

billder99 said...

Hi Tom,
I am also 53 years old, I started playing Jan 1 2010, one year ago. It is challenging, but I am really enjoying the continuous growth. Amazing how far I have come in one year. FYI, the exercises in Spanish on this website, both chromatic and diatonic, have really helped dial in my left and right hands. Good luck on your progress, I will be watching your blog.

saibharath said...

Hi tom,
this is very interesting blog,i would like to see you are new post.

Alex said...

Hi Tom,
I hope you're travelling well with your practice.
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. . . I believe it is easily available in the US.
Warm good wishes,
Alex

PH said...

Er, good input: "...reports are tainted by the fact that, after all, he’s just a damn fool going in the wrong direction." Speaking as a returnee to music with blogging ambitions, I'm very glad indeed that I read that. Good luck! :o)

Anonymous said...

if you have pain in your shoulder, there is probably tension that has been building up for years. Do shoulder stretches!!! A good one I use is to take a medium sized towel and place it around my shoulder and then pull downwards and move my neck in the opposite direction. It has helped to relieve tension. Also you should press the areas that are painful, they may be 'trigger points' which you can massage away and you will have less pain.