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Saturday, March 26, 2011

I Have Met the Enemy, and He Is Me

It’s all boiled down to this:
...which is pretty basic stuff. But i and m alternation is pretty basic stuff, so it’s not surprising that I’m now down to brass tacks. Why the repeated m strokes? Two reasons: they ensure that a is comfortably moving with m, and they help my hand relax between the bits of i and m alternation. The tempo indicated isn’t where I started this week. I began at 50, still not alternation, but more a series of separate strokes. From there I slowly worked my way up the metronome. By Thursday my hand was relaxed enough that it still felt comfortable at 80. This tempo is also where, for me, it starts to feel like alternation rather than separate strokes. So for now, this will be the tempo from which I tip-toe into higher speeds. No problems with my right shoulder to report.

A benefit of this project is that I’m becoming far more aware of why my right hand has so much trouble with alternation. For example, I now know beyond any doubt that my hand has all the raw speed it needs to do alternation well at a high speed. Here’s what I mean. My middle finger can easily do two notes per click at 180, and so can my index finger. Further, when m by itself does two notes per click at 180, a easily moves with it. No effort required, it just does it. But if I try to do alternation at even half that speed, suddenly my hand tightens up. Part of the reason, I believe, is that a responds to the opposite movement of i. I’ve noticed that as m extends away from the string, it’s little affected by i moving in the opposite direction. But a, in mid-flight and following m, slightly pulls up short as i pushes into the string. What’s curious to me is that, apparently, a is more influenced by i than is m. Seems odd, since m is right next to i, I’d assume it’s more influenced by i. But for me at least, m seems happy to ignore the opposite direction of i during alternation, whereas a doesn’t.

Also, the tension of a guitar string plays a crucial role. I’ve no problem drumming my fingers on a desk top at 180, and a easily moves with m as I do it. But try the same movement on any guitar string, where the tension pushes against the fingers, then that ease vanishes.

The problem isn’t raw speed—rather, it’s coordination.

I sense experienced guitarists around the world slapping their foreheads and crying: “Sheesh, you’re just figuring this out after almost three months of work?” Bear with me a moment as I explain further. It’s one thing to say that any deficiency of technique is in essence a coordination problem. That’s hardly a revelation. But it’s quite another thing to pin down exactly what that means. And I believe this is a far more elusive thing than most players and teachers know.

Consider the following scenario. Imagine someone who aspires to be a world class sprinter. He’s lean and athletic, by all appearances likely to excel with proper training. So he’s taken on by a knowledgeable coach. Now imagine this aspiring sprinter has invisible weights strapped to his feet. These weights have been there all his life. He’s unaware of them, and since they’re invisible, no one else can see them. Throughout his training, he never can match the performance of other sprinters who aren’t hampered with these weights. His coach tries every type of exercise he knows, but our aspiring sprinter never improves enough to become a world class athlete. Eventually both the coach and the aspiring sprinter give up. Neither ever knows the true cause of the failure. The coach never knows because he can’t see the weights, nor can he feel what the aspiring sprinter feels. The aspiring sprinter never knows because this excess weight is all he’s ever known, and thus feels perfectly normal to him. He’s unaware that other sprinters aren’t similarly encumbered.

Bear in mind that, in this scenario, the basic solution is simple: remove the invisible weights. But how would anyone hit on this solution? The coach can’t help the athlete because he can’t see the weights, nor can he feel what the athlete is feeling. The athlete can’t help the coach because he’s unaware that he’s fighting a handicap that others don’t have. It would take a leap of imagination for anyone to understand the true cause of the failure. Sadly, it’s unlikely that either the coach or the athlete could make this leap.

Most of us are imprisoned by our own experience. Whenever we encounter something novel, our instinct is to relate it to what we already know. If the novelty is far outside our experience, we’re unlikely to see it for what it is. Rather, we relate it to whatever previous experience seems to fit, however inapt it might be. Indeed, much of human progress is a slow and fitful crawl, where long held misunderstandings are chipped away by an accretion of tiny insights, painstakingly assembled into a new and better understanding. Quantum leaps are rare.

When it comes to progress, we are each our own worst enemy.

——[My next post will be on April 4, 2011.]——

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