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Saturday, May 14, 2011

Lifting the Cow

There’s an adage: if you lift a baby cow every day as it grows, you’ll eventually be able to lift it when it’s an adult. The idea is that from one day to the next, the cow doesn’t gain much weight. So if you can lift it one day, then you should be able to lift it the next day. And the next, and the next, until it’s full grown. This idea harks back to Milo of Croton, an ancient Greek wrestler who supposedly did this with an ox. He’s also said to have tried to tear apart a tree with his bare hands, got his hand stuck, and was devoured by wolves. A painter happened by—at first he wanted to help, but his artistic sense got the better of him and he instead documented the scene:
...which leaves us with two lessons: 1) If you’re being killed in a visually spectacular way, don’t expect a painter to help you. 2) Wrestlers are questionable role models.

Nonetheless, I’m taking a tip from Milo. This last week I began my right hand alternation sessions with two minutes of finger push-ups. Then, with the metronome at 40, I played the first variation of Guardame, two eighth notes per click. At this tempo, my hand feels wonderful, for the obvious reason that it’s too damn slow for anything bad to happen. Then I moved the metronome speed up one notch and played again. Within the thirty minute alternation part of my right hand session, I usually ended at a metronome setting of 100, two notes per click. This works out to a right hand alternation speed of four notes per click at 50—remember, my goal is 184. So clearly I’ve got a bit of explaining to do.

First, remember that my shoulder began kicking up earlier this month. I’m trying to edge away from practice that could put me out of commission. Second, however, is something I’ve noticed when practicing arpeggios. When I begin arpeggios slowly, my hand feels fine. Even as I inch up the tempo, my hand continues to feel okay. But as the tempo increases some more, the good feeling evaporates, replaced with a tightness that grows as the tempo rises. Finally, at a kind of tipping point, my fingers abruptly switch to an easy sympathetic movement, the same feel you get when quickly rolling a chord with successive fingers.

What intrigues me is the awkward transition between the slow and the fast movements. Can I gradually dissipate this tense transition, so that at every point of a gradual accelerando, my hand moves easily? It seems a worthwhile idea, and since my balky shoulder is forcing me to try something different, I’ll give it a go.

I’m aware there’s a school of thought that says if you want to learn to play fast, then you must practice fast. I tend to agree. Fast playing isn’t simply slow playing done faster. There’s a feel to speed that can’t be duplicated in slow practice. But here I’m doing something very deliberate and specific. I’m beginning with the easy feel of slow playing, and trying to move that easy feel up the hill so I can maintain it at a gradually faster tempo. I believe a good right hand feels easy across the entire tempo spectrum. I’m also taking to heart what Colin Davin told me: he never worked on speed—rather, he worked on good technique, and speed was the by-product. (I’ve seen this kind of advice in other areas of musicianship. For example, concert artist Jason Vieaux says that if you learn a piece correctly, you get the memorization for free.) Guitar playing isn’t a hodgepodge of disconnected skills. Ultimately, everything affects everything else. So while there’s a place for practicing fast to get fast, there’s also a place for practicing slow to lay the foundation for fast.

On the bright side, my shoulder feels no worse now then it did last week. Further, my arpeggios, though they come and go, seem better than when I began this project. I’m still shooting for a video performance of the Carulli Fandango at the end of May.

——[My next post will be on May 23, 2011.]——

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