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Sunday, August 21, 2011

The Featherbed of Routine

Since I haven’t precisely described my one hour right hand sessions in a while, here’s a breakdown of what I’m currently doing.

• 5 minutes: String push-ups. Finger strength, I suspect, is one component of speed. I do finger push-ups thus:
Rather than playing the notes, I push each string as though doing a rest stroke, and then release the pressure without releasing the string. This uses the resistance of the string to help build finger strength. It’s also a quiet way to begin my session.

• 25 minutes: Condensed Mudarra (see August 13 post). I begin at a tempo of 60, four notes per click. When that goes well, I gradually increase the tempo until my hand begins to tense up—nowadays, that’s at a tempo somewhere in the 70’s. Occasionally I get to 80. All of this is done quietly. As noted in my August 13 post, louder playing increases my hand tension. So for now I’m sticking with my plan to ingrain a less tense movement, hoping that as it takes hold I’ll be able to play increasingly louder.

• 10 minutes: Speed bursts. Though I’m still suspicious of their ultimate value, I’ve decided I need more familiarity with the sensations of speed. Now, however, I’m examining these sensations with a more critical eye. For example, I’ve noticed that during high speed bursts, I very lightly clench my jaw. I’m working to stop doing that.

• 5 minutes: Right hand arpeggios. I’m particularly interested in improving the independence between m and a. Depending on my mood and how things are going, I might run through the Carulli Fandango.

• 5 minutes: Right hand sweeps and rasgueado.

• 10 minutes: Finger stretches.

I’m aware that the condensed Mudarra and speed bursts are opposite solutions to the same problem. But I rather like the idea of tossing two solutions into the ring and letting them fight it out. (Do I contradict myself? Very well, then, I contradict myself.) Of course, this runs the risk of a bad solution working against a good solution. All I can say is that I’m aware of the danger, and choose to try it anyway. I’m becoming more confident in my ability to evaluate what I’m doing. If I’m doing something unproductive, I’ll find out soon enough.

It recently occurred to me that my situation is similar to that of a stroke victim who’s lost the ability to walk and through therapy is trying to regain it. There’s some difference: the stroke victim has completely lost the ability and must teach another part of the brain to relearn it—I have the ability, but not on a high level, and thus must retrain myself to improve it. For both of us, however, success or failure hinges on neuroplasticity.

For a musician, neuroplasticity should be a given. After all, musicians are tireless tinkerers with neural wiring—we can’t learn anything new without it. But we’re also human, and it’s human nature to fall into a comfortable routine, especially if it’s gotten us to a reasonable level of accomplishment. It’s the rare individual who can set aside a comfortable routine in search of something better. I encounter this self-defeating inertia often as a teacher. It’s more disconcerting to find it lurking within myself. But having roused myself from this inertia, I find it changes me in subtle ways.

Some of these changes are disquieting. We tend to see ourselves as conscious entities, freely choosing our actions and beliefs. But is this is really so? Most of what we do is unconscious reflex. Indeed, it takes little effort to see ourselves as mindless automatons, going through the motions of thought without the substance. Much of what passes for consciousness is perhaps illusory. It may be that most of the time we’re no more conscious than the simulated citizens in a computer game of SimCity.

If nothing else, my right hand project has the virtue of waking me from the slumber of routine. That’s something. Perhaps it’s more valuable than any technical goal I’m trying to attain.

——[My next update will be August 29, 2011]——

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