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Saturday, March 5, 2011

Zen and the Art of Guitar Playing

There are times in my life when I spend day after day pounding against a locked door. Then one day, taking a break to rest my aching fists before another round of fruitless pounding, I look to the left or right. And there, just a few paces away, is another door. I walk over and try it. The door is unlocked. Sheepishly, I go through and continue on my way, hoping no one noticed my days of pounding on the locked door.

After my meeting with Colin Davin last Saturday, I revamped my 30 minute session of i and m alternation. Gone is the Rockette exercise, and gone are the speed bursts. Instead, I begin with five minutes of the finger pushups described in my last post. Then I continue with 25 minutes of the play and release exercise. Right away I found something tantalizing. When my middle finger plays and then quickly and lightly releases back to its ready position, my ring finger goes right with it. More compelling, I don’t have to make my ring finger move with m. It just does it, naturally and effortlessly.

Okay, let’s get this straight. I spent years trying to get my a finger to move with m during alternation, to no avail. I even tried taping them together. (Tried that for about a week two years ago. Didn’t work.) Since the beginning of January I’ve redoubled my efforts. I’ve compelled, coaxed, cajoled, wheedled, begged, and pleaded with a to move with m. In darker moments, I’ve threatened it with a steak knife. Nothing worked.

And now the old play and release exercise—something I’ve done many times before with no good results—suddenly works with almost no effort. I succeed by barely trying. So rather than forcing my ring finger to do what I want, I beguile it to do what I want through its own free will. How very Zen. What’s also very Zen is that it’s taken so long to arrive at this revelation, which tempts me to indulge in some very un-Zen swearing.

So for now I’m not trying for speed in any way. In fact, I’m not even trying alternation. Instead, I’m doing little more than this:
As each finger plays, it immediately releases back to its ready position. I do this no faster than a metronome setting of 80. Since each finger plays separately, this isn’t alternation. I do this on all six strings. But other than that, it’s just 25 minutes of very light play and release. When I do it right, this exercise entirely bypasses the effort of making my a finger move with m. Instead, my a finger just does it, following m like a faithful little dog. It looks exactly like Colin’s right hand when he does alternation. Unlike Colin, I can’t yet do this during alternation. I suspect I’ve at least a solid month of play and release practice before I can even think of trying alternation again—much less speed bursts. So be it.

By the way, I want to retract something I wrote in my February 27th post. I described the play and release exercise as though my finger was “hopping on a trampoline.” I now believe that, done well, play and release is nothing like a trampoline effect. In fact, when my finger contacts the adjacent string, it barely drives into the string at all. The release begins so quickly that I feel no pressure from the adjacent string. My finger isn’t pushed away by the tension of the adjacent string—rather, it hops off the string after barely touching it.

This week was a reminder of something essential. In playing a musical instrument, how it feels is more important than how it looks. To be sure, visual cues are important. We need them when groping toward a fluency we don’t yet have. But visual cues can only hint at a direction. The ultimate goal of technical practice is the feel of an easy and fluid movement. Indeed, technique reflects the sound it produces: ugly technique produces ugly sound—beautiful technique produces beautiful sound.

Beauty is a noble goal, worthy of my time and effort.

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

1 comment:

Adam said...

Tom, ever think of putting a video of your efforts online so we can better understand your routine?

Good luck and thanks for posting,
Ann Arbor, MI