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Saturday, February 19, 2011

Make a New Plan, Stan

A flicker of success is nice, but it won’t boil the broth. I’m looking for something more sustained and durable. So this week I stepped back to reevaluate how I’m working toward my goal. First, the jury is still out on my Rockette exercise. I can’t decide whether it’s building a useful reflex or just frittering away valuable time. Thinking about it, I sense it should work. But maybe this is something that looks better on paper than it works in reality. For the moment, I’ll hang on to it, though I’d like to see some results.

One thing has become clear. My ring finger is perhaps the biggest impediment to my i and m alternation speed. It still tends to curl in, and often bumps into a bass string as i and m play. I’ve decided to be far more vigilant in keeping it moving with m. Admittedly, I get mixed signals when I do this—my speed doesn’t improve when my ring and middle fingers move together, yet the movement does feel easier. I’m also aware that many excellent guitarists let their ring finger curl in as they do i and m alternation. For now, however, I’m betting this won’t work for me. Maybe I’m pig-headed, but all my experience tells me that, for my hand, moving m and a together will ultimately pay off. Possibly I’m wasting time pursuing a pristine archetype when something a tad more squalid would do. So call me pig-headed. Besides, the older I get, the less I’m enamored of shortcuts.

I’ve made a few changes in my 30 minute routine. Instead of beginning on trebles and working toward the bass strings, I’m now doing the opposite. My thinking here is that since I play better on the basses, I want my warmup time to be on the basses rather than the trebles. I also want to firmly ingrain the feel of good alternation before moving to the trebles. By the way, it’s still a mystery to me why alternation should be easier on the basses than on the trebles. I don’t think it’s because of the relative tension of the strings. In fact, when I press my finger against a string, I don’t feel all that much difference between basses and trebles—there may be a difference, but it doesn’t feel like much to me. Further, there doesn’t seem any real difference in the position of my hand and arm. Certainly going from the fourth to the third string doesn’t cause any big change. So it’s an enigma wrapped in a riddle and shrouded in mystery. (Gosh, I’m deep.)

Another change is that I’m trying to extend the length of my speed bursts. To that end, I’ve started working with the following:

Doing this means I can no longer hit the burst at 184. So for now, I’m doing this exercise at a metronome setting of 80. I’m keeping the middle and ring finger Rockette kick in the staccato first measure, and allowing my hand to relax during the fermata.

Speaking of relaxation, I’m sorry to say that my right shoulder is beginning to kick up a fuss. Sorry, but not surprised. February is when I began doing speed bursts during my one hour right hand sessions. And speed work is what put me out of action when I tried to improve my right hand twice before in the last ten years. So I saw this coming. This time around, I’m taking many more relaxation breaks as I work. Further, the last time I tried this two years ago, I foolishly did a lot of continuous right hand alternation, sometimes 10 or 15 minutes without stopping. My thought then was that I could learn to relax my arm on the fly, without stopping to rest. Okay, bad idea, at least for me. It’s not a mistake I want to repeat. If my shoulder gets worse, I’ll begin alternating days of speed bursts with days of less rigorous exercises.

And while we’re on the subject of relaxation, it’s amazing what a tightrope walk good right hand alternation really is. We’re often told it should feel relaxed and easy, and that’s good advice. But carry this advice too far, and trouble ensues. The finger must exert sufficient force as it drives through the string. If not, then the string’s tension gums up the smooth and precise finger movement needed for good alternation. And exactly what should that amount of force be? Well, I guess that’s what practice is supposed to teach me.

All in all, it astonishes me that anyone masters a musical instrument.

I’d like to end this post with a comment I received on my February 12 post. I found the comment interesting. Since the writer chose to remain anonymous, I don’t know who he or she is. But my sense is that he or she is an experienced teacher or player. Or it might be a middle-aged speed metal guitarist typing in his basement while his mother yells at him to take out the garbage. But on the assumption it’s the former, I’ll quote the comment point by point and respond to each.
“If you are doing this as a long-term one-year project, I think trying for 184 is premature. In fact, I would say it’s counter-productive. By your own admission, you say you are actually not able to do it on certain strings and/or start with certain fingers. Therefore, your technique is not really improving. You are just playing faster.”
Well, playing faster is what I’m after. Since I’ve never before hit a burst at 184, I’m encouraged. But of course I want it to be reliable and controlled speed. There’s obviously much more work to be done.
“The clarity of your playing at this speed is not very good.”
I suppose it depends on who’s doing the listening. To my ears, the bursts I recorded for my February 12 post sound pretty good. I’ll admit that the second burst started a little ahead of the beat. And the eighth note staccato lead-ins to the bursts are uneven. But I’m happy with the bursts themselves. The notes are clean and I like the tone. I’ll take it.
“I admire your dedication but don’t lose sight of your goal—If you want to improve your technique, you have to do it in smaller increments in order for your brain to start receiving signals and start learning the new processes.”
The problem, of course, is defining how small those increments should be. I’m pretty much ignoring string crossing. I’m starting speed bursts only with i, not m. I’m generally not adding left hand notes into my bursts. I’m almost always practicing bursts with slower lead-in notes—almost never from a standing start. One might argue that if my increments get any smaller, I won’t be working on anything at all. Nonetheless, your point is well taken. One baby step at a time.
“If you don’t, you may be very well be on your way to a detrimental hand-injury.”
Honestly, hand injury is the least of my worries. What does worry me is my right shoulder, which has been a problem in the past. The closer I get to practicing at high speeds, the more likely I am to have problems with my shoulder. Believe me, I’m watching this very carefully.
“My advice, finally: I think the speed bursts are good. But, it may be better for you to look for sustained periods of speed instead. Again, we are trying to improve our technique and not how many notes we can cram in one beat, right? So, now that you’ve done one month of preliminary assessment of your technique and know that there is an evenness issue with your strokes, let us now then start by playing eighth-notes at 80 (slower if you need to) evenly for 5-10 minutes at a time. Do that for a week, then move up slowly to 85, 90, 95, 100’ll find different results with this, imho. Maybe then you can start with 16th notes at 40 and follow the same process.”
As mentioned earlier in this post, this is pretty much what I’m now doing. So we’re of like minds on this point.
“Never play faster than you can think.—Manuel Barrueco.”
Geez, if I followed that advice, I’d have to use a calendar rather than a metronome.
“No, I’m not Barrueco. :)”
Perhaps not, but I’ve already decided you’re the one I’ll blame if I follow your advice and it doesn’t pan out. For that, and also for your thoughtful comments, I thank you.

And now to answer one other comment:
“Perhaps you’re not familiar with English weather Tom?”—Paul Croft, England
Well, I’ve never been there, so I guess I’m not familiar with English weather. Is it anything like this?

——[My next post will be on February 28, 2011.]——


Paul said...

If you ever do have cause to run naked in celebration, as you suggested, it's the English drizzle that would put you off, not the snow.

Re. your right hand, I've never understood the guitarists' rationale with sympathetic movement, m/a fingers moving together and so on. If other instrumentalists can develop finger independence why not us?

Personally I've tried to develop speed by using ami combinations: again, if we do that naturally for arpeggios then why not for scales? However, I've also found that developing speed in that way has helped greatly with i/m alternation as well.

I do think there is room for a far more analytical approach to these issues though. In the guitar world it seems that almost every player works out their own, highly individual approach, to a quite surprising degree.

Best regards.

Anonymous said...

Just wondering...

if you're planning on repeating the same movement over and over again (i-m alternation), perhaps it's better to analyze a single movement first. Meaning: Tell us how you would teach a student how a rest or free stroke is executed. Step by step, and what the student should be looking / hearing (shape of finger/nails, shape of hand/fingers/wrist/arm, thumb position, sound volume/quality/articulation, differences on trebles/basses,... ) for while doing so. I'm guessing, if something is wrong with that, no matter how long you going to practice that alternation, it will not work.