Putting up a video brought forth some blistering critiques of my playing position. Reading them, one might think I was plucking the strings with my elbow. Such criticism, I think, misses the mark. Too often any playing deficiency is reflexively blamed on deficiencies in position, even when the position in question is only a minor departure from a perfect archetype. (The archetype varies depending on who’s defining it, but let’s not go there.) To explain what I mean, consider the following. I just watched a player who holds the guitar head too low, making it hard to reach upper left hand positions easily. His right hand wrist isn’t properly aligned. Further, every time he plays rest stroke alternation, his right hand little finger extends, suggesting unnecessary tension. Clearly this guitarist’s basic technique is a disaster, and it’s unlikely he’ll ever play well. To see a video of this unfortunate guitarist, click here.
Okay, bad example. Yet everything I said about his technique is true—if one views technique as a credo of absolutes from which one ought not deviate. But in the rough and tumble world of real guitar playing, technique doesn’t fall apart when it’s off by a jot or tittle. So while the player in this video doesn’t have perfect technique, it’s close enough. He could, I suppose, take time to iron out his deficiencies. But absent musical deficiencies, why bother?
“But Tom,” someone replies, “you have musical deficiencies, so you need to adjust your position.” I agree with the musical deficiencies. Where I disagree is that the cause of my musical deficiencies lies in my playing position. I could tinker endlessly with it, yet never resolve my problem. The problem isn’t the outward appearance of my technique. Rather, it’s the inward effort.
To better understand, try this. Begin drumming your right hand fingers on a desktop, lightly and easily. Piece of cake, right? Now stop. Without altering in any way the outward appearance of your hand, tense your hand and arm muscles until they feel uncomfortably, almost painfully rigid. In this rigid state, try to drum your fingers on the desktop. Much harder, right? Now ask yourself, would changing the outward appearance of your hand make this difficulty go away? Of course not. The problem is the internal muscular tension. If you don’t relax the internal tension, then tinkering with your hand position is a waste of time—it misses the real cause of your difficulty.
It would be nice if the problem with my playing were as obvious as the above experiment. But it’s far more subtle, else I’d have resolved it long ago. Further, because it’s so subtle, it defies detection by even the best of teachers. Faced with musical deficiencies in a student, teachers tend to fixate on what they can see. And as the above video shows, minor but visible deficiencies can be found in even the best players. So why seek invisible problems when a visible problem is easy to find—and blame?
For those following my project, I ask you to take seriously my assessment of what’s causing my problem. Fixating on what you see will distract you from what I feel when I try any kind of right hand speed. This is something you must take on trust, since you can’t feel it for yourself. Students aren’t always right in their assessment of a problem. But they’re not always wrong either. Too often, I believe, students have much to tell us about why they’re having trouble, but are ignored. They’re students—what do they know? Sadly, they might know more than their teachers are able to grasp.
I do suspect, however, there are those who know exactly what I’m talking about. I’m not unique, so it’s likely my problem isn’t unique. In finding a solution, I hope to solve a problem not uniquely mine, but one that others have and overlook. To paraphrase Ralph Waldo Emerson, in every solution we recognize our own rejected problems—they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty.
——[My next post will be on April 17, 2011.]——