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Sunday, June 12, 2011

Summer of the Right Hand

For years I hated summer. Perhaps it’s because of where I’ve lived. Five years in Florida (where it’s hot and buggy), five years in Texas (where it’s hot and dry), and eight years in North Carolina (where it’s hot and muggy). I’m one of the few people in northeast Ohio who actually likes the weather here. But even after I got here, I spent many years living in top floor apartments, where heat rises and settles in for the summer. So I’d crank up the air-conditioner and envy the TV dinner sitting in my freezer.

Lately, however, I’ve lived in a house with a finished basement. For most of the year I use my upstairs bedroom. But from June through August I move to the basement to escape the heat. (Another reason I moved is that there’s a bird’s nest in my bedroom air conditioner, and I don’t want to disturb the baby birds chirping away there.) In my basement is a bed, a ratty old couch, an end table, and a lamp. The television sits idle upstairs. Instead, I raid my local library for books that catch my eye. Then, at night, I recline with a book and luxuriate in the cool basement air. So summer has become a more pleasant, relaxed, and contemplative time for me.

Which sets me to regarding my project in a better, more optimistic light. At almost the halfway point of my one year experiment, I now see that I expected too much too soon. Instead, sneaking up on speed with gradually increasing tempos seems the way to go. And the progress is there, albeit slow. Remember my May 1 video, where I ponderously played the first variation of Guardame? It’s getting better. I’m now hoping to post a video of the complete Guardame at a good performance tempo—probably not at the end of June, but certainly at the end of July. When I can do that well, it’ll be time to turn to another scale excerpt to practice, one that needs a faster tempo than Guardame. I’m now turning an envious eye to Joaquín Turina’s Fandanguillo. I’ve always liked that piece, but never had the chops to play the fast scale at the climax:

Maybe it’s edging into the realm of possibility for me. That would be so cool.

Now to discuss a question I received regarding how I teach. At one point during a discussion I wrote:
There’s ideal, then there’s “I’ll take what I can get.” With students, particularly young ones, I teach the ideal.
Which brought the following reply:
But that was my point Tom—what is the “ideal”? In your own writing I believe you said you’re not sure whether, for example, your a finger should move with the m finger in i/m alternation. I’m quite sure that mine shouldn’t and can both demonstrate and explain my reasoning and the logic behind it, as I see it. Other teachers believe and explain the opposite. How do you approach it with your students?—Paul Croft, England
A fair question. As it happens, I have a young student who’s just beginning to get her right hand into shape. She has time to practice this summer, so I’ve told her this is going to be her summer of the right hand. Among other things, she’s working with Guardame, as am I. But what a difference! Unlike mine, her right hand is wonderful to behold. In alternation, her fingers move easily and directly, with no extraneous motion. Her inactive fingers move with m, exactly as they should. Her tone is smooth and warm—it’s easy to forget she’s playing a $150 Yamaha. She has only to increase her speed and volume, and that, I suspect, will happen soon enough.

To answer Mr. Croft’s question, the ideal is something I seldom need to natter on about with my more ambitious young students. For whatever reason, they seem to achieve the ideal without much trouble. By the time they’re ready to buckle down with rest stroke alternation, the basic movement is already there. Typically, they can almost immediately outrun me in rest stroke scales, or if they can’t, it isn’t long before they can. So with my more accomplished students, the question of whether they should continue chipping away at technical flaws seldom arises. For them, unlike me, the ideal happens so naturally that they don’t have to agonize over whether to settle for less.

Damn them.

Which raises an aside. Among guitar teachers there’s some difference of opinion on whether beginning students should concentrate more on rest stroke or free stroke. For me, there’s no question. Start with rest stroke as early as possible. Young students who’ve mastered rest stroke early usually have no trouble with it later. And they’ll get a good free stroke soon enough. I’ve seen this so often that there’s no doubt in my mind.

By the way, when my student starts playing well enough, I’ll see if she’s willing to post a video. After all, why should I be the only on the hot seat?

——[My next update will be June 20, 2011]——

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