Good things, I fear, won’t happen quickly. After the initial encouragement of a successful burst, I’m now in the doldrums, where noticeable gains are hard to come by. My first conundrum is my ring finger. It hasn’t yet gotten the memo that it’s supposed to move with m. So I began to wonder if I should stop trying to train it and just let it do its own thing. Unfortunately, what it really wants to do during i and m alternation is curl in and bump into a string. So I wondered if I should tilt my hand more toward the thumb—this lifts my ring finger far enough from the strings that it no longer blunders into them. But I really hate the feel, and I dislike having to significantly change my hand position for rest stroke alternation. Which brought me, rondo-like, back to training a to move with m, and overcoming its tendency to bump into strings. So round and round I went.
As has been suggested by some who are following my project, I wanted to extend the length of my speed bursts. With that in mind, I tried the following exercise at a metronome setting of 80:
Click here to find my monthly audio progress report. It’s a short one, for reasons that’ll become more clear as you read the rest of this post.
This weekend I had the pleasure of meeting with a former student of mine, Colin Davin. Unlike me, he has an excellent right hand. (His left hand is also pretty good—to hear a sample of his playing, click here.) More to the point of my project, he did his bachelor’s degree at the University of Southern California, studying with William Kanengiser. The USC guitar program is heavily influenced by Pepe Romero, who has one of the best right hands in the business. So I asked Colin if he’d be willing to look at what I’m doing and offer suggestions based on what he learned in the Romero school of playing. He agreed, and we met on Saturday evening.
At first Colin felt a bit strange teaching his old teacher—at one point, after making a technical suggestion, he quipped: “Said the non-pedagogue to the pedagogue.” To which I corrected: “Said the one who can to the one who can’t.” But we soon settled into a comfortable give and take. After all, when I’m sitting across from one who can play circles around me, it’s time to ditch the ego and learn.
Oddly, this was my first opportunity in years to observe at close range Colin’s right hand. His rest stroke alternation is a joy to behold. The movement is precise and fluid. What particularly interested me was that his a finger easily moved along with m, exactly as I’m trying to train mine to do. This heartened me. Maybe my own hand isn’t a lost cause.
I asked him to suggest some Romero-inspired things I might work on. First, Colin demonstrated what he called a “finger push-up” exercise. It goes thus. Prepare any finger on a string, as though I’m about to play a free stroke. Then gently press into the string, as though starting the stroke, but don’t allow the string to leave my finger. Then gently let the string tension push my finger back to its starting position. When I press the string, I should use only enough pressure to displace the string a short distance. I’m not trying to manhandle the string—rather, it should be a light and easy pressure. As I understand Colin’s explanation, the goal here is to cultivate a refined awareness of the finger exertion I use to begin a stroke.
Next, Colin suggested that I should do rest stroke with each finger. As my finger plays a string and comes to rest on the next string, I should allow the tension of the next string to bounce my finger back to its starting position. Think of it almost as though my finger is hopping on a trampoline. This exercise, by the way, is more familiar to me. I’ve seen it described before as a “play and release” exercise. Hearing it from a player who recently went through the Romero school of technique convinces me that I should be more aware of it in my own right hand work.
Colin and I also discussed some questions I had. I asked him if he thought speed bursts were useful. He said he didn’t see anything wrong with them. Sensing a lukewarm response, I asked him if he’d ever done speed bursts. “No,” he replied. That somewhat let the air out of my balloon. Discussing this further, Colin didn’t reject them. It just wasn’t something he’d done, so he had no particular opinion pro or con.
He did, however, suggest I should focus more on an easy and fluid movement, and that I should set aside for now any attempts at speed. (Interestingly, some who are following my project have offered the same suggestion.) He went on to say that he’d never really worked on speed itself. Rather, he’d worked on good technique, and speed was almost a byproduct of good technique. Makes sense to me. So beginning Monday, I’ll rework my routine to incorporate Colin’s suggestions.
Some good news. I now believe the shoulder pain I mentioned in last week’s post was a false alarm. Rather than a guitar-related injury, it’s probably just a pulled muscle I sustained while chipping ice off my front door steps. So I’m still good to go with my right hand project. In fact, I want to reassure everyone who expressed concern that I might sustain a guitar-related injury. The way this winter is going, I’m far more likely to suffer a heart attack while shoveling snow.
——[My next post will be on March 7, 2011.]——