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Sunday, April 24, 2011

Here Be Dragons

Though I’ve splashed about in the kiddie pool, I fear the real work lurks in the deeper water. To date, I’ve avoided pushing my right hand too hard. I don’t want a repeat of the soreness that ended my two previous tries at improving my right hand. The result thus far isn’t encouraging. My right hand alternation is no better today than it was at the beginning of January. I’ve learned some things along the way. But learning, however laudable, isn’t my main goal. My real goal is to do something I haven’t been able to do. Short of that is failure.

In one area I’m optimistic. My right hand arpeggios feel better than when I began this project. Whether that translates into a reliable and clean arpeggio technique remains to be seen. As I said in my last report, I hope to have something worth posting at the end of May. At that time, I’d like to offer a video of the Carulli Fandango, performed at a reasonable tempo. So I think I’m on the right track for my right hand arpeggios.

Rest stroke alternation, however, remains elusive. I’m now convinced that I need to work at sustained speed rather than bursts. In fact, I’m becoming a skeptic on the value of speed bursts. Certainly they’re useful to get an idea of what fast alternation feels like. And they certainly encourage me that my fingers really can play at a high speed. But the deeper I get into this project, the more I suspect that speed bursts are a dead end. They tend to ingrain a tense movement that can’t be sustained in an extended scale. Sustained speed requires a movement and feel that I can maintain for more than a fraction of a second.

With this in mind, I’m now working along the lines of this:
The repeated m strokes are play and release, then I try to maintain that feel during the sixteenth note alternation. I begin at a slow tempo, no faster than a quarter note at 80. As soon as my hand feels good, I increase the tempo. Currently, I go no faster than 100—above this, things fall apart during the alternation. I take frequent breaks. Sometimes during a break I’ll do this same rhythm tapping my fingers on the bridge. As I mentioned in last week’s post, when tapping my hand moves perfectly. So it seems sensible to revisit this feel during a break. I then try to maintain this feel when I go back to playing on a string.

This work has raised two questions that I haven’t yet answered:

1) Does play and release really work? I feel a release when moving slowly. But above a certain alternation speed, I feel no release at all. Should I? My suspicion is that no one will feel a release above a certain speed, because there’s just not time for it. Rather, play and release can only set the table for alternation speed. Actually doing high speed alternation requires something more than play and release alone can provide. Of course, since I don’t have speed, I can only guess at whether this is so.

2) Should I practice loud or soft? Soft playing offers an easy feel, but also yields rhythmic tentativeness. Loud playing sharpens up the rhythm, but also raises the tension. My guess is that speed is a delicate balance between tension and ease. I also guess—there’s that word again—that fast rest stroke alternation requires a particular conditioning of the fingers that I haven’t yet got. So I’ve a lot of work ahead of me.

Almost four months into this project, it now occurs to me that I might fail. Oddly, I never really believed this until now. While I certainly thought this would be a difficult project, I never harbored any serious doubt that I’d eventually succeed. But almost a third of the way into my yearlong project, it’s discouraging to have so little progress, at least for rest stroke alternation. I can see why some guitarists abandon rest stroke almost entirely. For now, I can only rely on something I sometimes say to students: “If playing the guitar was easy, then everyone would be a virtuoso.” There’s a reason “virtuoso” is derived from “virtue”—the virtue of being a virtuoso is that one has learned to do what not everyone can do.

Now, however, I’m venturing into the kind of practice that in the past has caused me right shoulder pain. So far, my shoulder feels fine. But ominously, I received the following comment:
I stumbled upon your site quite by accident and I am compelled by your comments. So much so that I am going to print off every post and read the hard copy, making notes as I go.

Compelled because I have been going through the exact same experience as you. I spent years trying to fix my right hand only to find that it was getting not better but worse and worse until I could not play even the most basic of pieces. Things got so bad that I witnessed the “m” finger of my right hand curling in even as I picked up my guitar. I could barely play a single note.

Eventually I was diagnosed with task specific focal dystonia (TSFD) and I thought that the world had ended. I went for seminars in Seville, Spain and since then I have been working to retrain my hand, posture and approach to playing.—Miguel Bengoa
Receiving this comment just as I’m beginning more sustained practice of rest stroke alternation is spooky. It’s a stark reminder that this isn’t something to take lightly. As ancient mariners headed into the unknown, they imagined dragons awaited them. As I head into deeper water, I have the advantage of living in more a more rational age. But I’m disquieted in the knowledge that guitar playing, like a dragon, has scales.

——[My next post, with video update, will be on May 1, 2011.]——

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