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Sunday, February 6, 2011

Confidence Is the Horse That Pulls the Cart

Progress works in mysterious ways. January seemed no more than a lot of finger-wiggling signifying nothing. Indeed, I was on the verge of scrapping my Rockette exercise, as it didn’t seem to be going anywhere. Then the first practice day of February offered a sliver of hope. About fifteen minutes into my Rockette exercise, my hand felt good. Curious, I tried a few speed bursts. To my surprise, the good feeling persisted. My hand didn’t lock up during the bursts. In fact—and this astonished me—my rest stroke alternation felt as good as if I were doing free stroke.

A bit of back story. When I first began playing guitar, I was self-taught. (You know the old saying that someone who represents himself in a court case has a fool for a client? There should be a similar saying for self-taught musicians.) I first drifted through folk guitar, learning stalwarts like Sligo River Blues, My Creole Belle, and Freight Train. I also wrote songs that, today, I couldn’t be flogged into performing. Count it as one of life’s small mercies that you’ll never have to endure them. Somewhere along the line, however, I chanced upon a library LP of classical guitar playing. It was 400 Years of the Classical Guitar, performed by Alirio Diaz. To a fledgling who regarded Travis picking as the non plus ultra of guitar playing, this was a revelation. I was hooked.

Of course, one can love sincerely but not well. In my early struggles with the basics of classical guitar technique, rest stroke just never caught my attention. I was aware of it, in the way a cat might be dimly aware of quantum mechanics. But for whatever reason, in the long list of things I needed to master, rest stroke never moved to the front of the line. It wasn’t until I was in my thirties that I took rest stroke seriously. And like people who learn a new language late in life, it’s never come easy for me.

Now maybe you can understand that when rest stroke alternation begins to feel no worse to me than free stroke, my attention perks up. Something’s afoot. I don’t yet know what it is, and I’m not dancing in the streets over it. (If I did that this week, I’d have been hit by a snow plow.) Nonetheless, I’m encouraged.

So my Rockette exercise has earned a reprieve. I’ve morphed it into the following:

As you can see, speed bursts are inching their way into my practice sessions. Everything else—30 minutes of alternation, 15 of glacially slow arpeggios, 5 of sweeps and rasgueado, and 10 of stretches—is pretty much the same. No problems with shoulder pain to report.

It’s now time to answer a question that no one has asked: how do I know I can reach the speed I’m aiming for? First, I’d like to thank everyone for not asking that question. It implies a faith in my prospects that so far has little evidence to back it. Or maybe it implies massive indifference. But I’m a glass-half-full guy, so I’m going with the former.

To answer my own question, I reply that I really don’t know. And yet I’ve confidence that I can reach my goal. The reason, to my delight, popped up in one of the comments to my January 16th post:
“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.”——William Bajzek (Washington, USA)
I smiled when I read this comment, so aptly did it describe the reason for my confidence. If I can alternate i and m at 160 away from the guitar, then why shouldn’t I be able to do it on a guitar string? Yes, I know it’s not that simple. There’s a big difference between tapping your fingers on a table top and alternating i and m on a guitar string. In fact, the vast majority of classical guitarists can’t do it exceptionally well. But do we really know why? Most of us try once or twice and fail, never to try again. But how many of us try again and again? And how many of us rethink after each failure, to come at the problem from another angle?

Which leads to another comment that made me smile:
“It has often been bandied about that the good rest-stroke players are evident from the very start. That’s an aggressively depressing thought to any non-good rest-stroke player. But it might also indicate that it is an element in the fundamental approach, rather than raw volume of work, that is the difference.”——Miguel de Maria, Arizona, USA
Indeed. So why not sally forth with confidence that I can figure it out as I go? In time I may learn that my confidence was misplaced. But there are worse things than misplaced confidence. Unquestioned defeatism is one. Given the choice, I opt for the former.

——[My next post will be on February 14, 2011.]——


Anonymous said...

Tom, Thank you for sharing your right hand blog with us via the Acoustic Guitar Classical Corner discussion forum.

rickbellet said...

Tom - I don't know your entire history so maybe this questions has already been answered: since the a finger follows naturally with, what did you do in the past to get away from that? and why work so hard to have a once again follow you feel like thered is tension when the 2 do not work together? Thanks for all this - keep up with the good work!