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Sunday, May 22, 2011

The Long Slow Trek to Speed

One might assume from some of my posts that I’m ready to pull the plug on my project and stick my head in a microwave. Certainly rest stroke alternation continues its maddening elusiveness. But a new optimism, albeit tempered, is creeping to the fore, and it’s coming from the part of my project that I’ve tended to downplay. With all my attention to alternation, it’s easy to forget that I’m also working on right hand arpeggios. And when it comes to noticeable progress, arpeggios are now where the action is.

To be sure, the progress is more a matter of feel rather than measurable results. But ever so gradually my hand is beginning to feel stronger and more controlled. I’m now convinced that at least part of my quest for speed is a quest for more finger strength. This wasn’t what I thought when I began. Indeed, if you’ve followed my project from the beginning, you’ll recall me vilifying the brute force approach to technique. But my work to this point has slowly brought into focus a barrier that won’t yield solely to finesse. And the deeper I go into this project, the more inclined I am to explore ideas that initially repelled me.

I don’t want to imply that I now believe brute force is the answer. Finesse still has pride of place in right hand technique, if for no other reason than it’s music that I’m trying to make. Nonetheless, there’s an athletic aspect to making music, and there’s no point in pretending my right hand can meet my goals without building more coordinated strength.

For the last week, I’ve begun each session with a few minutes of finger push-ups. I then begin at a slow metronome setting—for the last few days, 80—and play forte the first variation of Guardame, two eighth notes per click. If I hit every note cleanly, I then up the tempo one click. On Friday, I worked from 80 to 138 in my thirty minute alternation session. That upper metronome mark is pretty much my limit right now. (Translating this to four notes per click, my current rest stroke alternation speed is roughly 60—remember, my goal is 184.) In deference to my right shoulder, after every repetition I relax my right arm for about five or ten seconds. So far my shoulder hasn’t felt any worse. I find this encouraging.

Why the slow practice? I’m taking to heart something that concert guitarist Jason Vieaux does when learning a difficult passage. At some point, he’ll do what he calls “running the tempos.” He’ll begin the passage at a tempo where he can easily hit every note accurately and confidently. Then, one click at a time, he’ll increase the tempo one click at a time. He’ll resist the temptation to jump over a handful of clicks to get to his target tempo. His reasoning is thus: at some point along the way, he may encounter a problem that didn’t appear at a slower tempo. By upping the tempo gradually, he can meet this problem at a speed where he can readily identify it, work out a solution, and apply it. If, however, he skipped over tempos in a rush to get the passage up to speed, he’d skip past the point where he might have more easily found the problem and solved it.

To be clear, I’ve never heard Vieaux recommend this as a way to develop right hand speed. That’s my spin on his approach. But just yesterday I met with a former student who’s now studying at the Peabody Institute in Baltimore. We’d just heard a concert by the Beijing Guitar Duo. Both Meng Su and Yameng Wang are very formidable players, and both are also studying at Peabody. My student mentioned that Meng Su, who can easily rip through fast scales, spends a lot of practice time playing at the very slowest metronome setting. For me, the evidence is growing that, if I want to increase my right hand speed, it’s best to sneak up on it from below.

By the way, it hasn’t gone unnoticed that this is very much what the anonymous commentator recommended on my February 12 post. I’m now inclined to think that, whoever he or she is, this commentator speaks wisely.

My arpeggio practice goes very much in the same way, where I begin at a slow tempo and work up notch by notch. All my arpeggio practice is with prepared stroke (or planting). Not everyone agrees with prepared stroke. One criticism is that players who learn arpeggios through prepared stroke often develop erratic rhythm. Guitarists usually describe this as a “galloping” rhythm. Here’s a visual illustration:
In the second example, notice how the second and third notes are bunched together. Interestingly, it’s usually the more independent i and m fingers that produce the gallop.

The critics of prepared stroke have a point. I often hear this galloping rhythm among guitarists—indeed, it plagues my own playing. But I have a ready reply to this criticism. (You might want to write this down.) Don’t gallop. That’s it. Sounds easy, but in practice one must be vigilant. As I practice this arpeggio, I listen carefully for any rhythmic flaws. If I can do the above example with a consistently even rhythm, then I’m ready to bump up the tempo. If I can’t, then I stay with it until the gallop is gone.

For my end of May video report, I’m still planning to include a performance of the Carulli Fandango. Currently, it comes and goes. I hope I’ll be able to post a worthy performance.

I’d like to close with a response to the following comment:
“We come to the guitar to play music, not just to play the guitar.” What you are doing now has nothing to do with music.—KM, Alabama, USA
Last night I attended a recital by Zoran Dukic. This was my first time hearing him live, and I was thoroughly taken with his playing. Even tuning up, he sounded musical. By no means would I peg him as the finest technician I’ve ever heard. He’s no slouch, but I’ve heard better finger wigglers. But his performance reminded me of why I play the guitar. In the right hands, the guitar has a poetic voice no other instrument can match.

Through all the minutiae of finger mechanics, I’m mindful of the higher goal. Dukic and a few others I admire are there. Much as I’d like to be there with them, I’ve more earthbound problems to solve before I can set foot in their realm.

——[My next post will be on May 30, 2011.]——

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"I’m mindful of the higher goal. Dukic and a few others I admire are there. Much as I’d like to be there with them, I’ve more earthbound problems to solve before I can set foot in their realm."

What a gift from the gods to have something to aspire to into middle age and beyond. This is something very few people have.