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Sunday, August 28, 2011

Shades of Gray

As I delve deeper into rest stroke, I find some of the arguments surrounding it less and less illuminating. Simplistic statements are made about issues that, on closer examination, are too complex to be resolved simplistically. Perhaps some of the teacup tempests we see in the classical guitar world might cool into more reasoned debate if the issues were more carefully defined.

For example, one argument I often see is that we should cultivate a hand position that allows us to freely mix rest and free stroke, with no change of hand position. Most of the time I see this idea argued as though it’s an obvious good, and thus only a damned fool would think otherwise. Implicit in the argument is the idea that having to change hand position is awkward and expressively limiting. Further implicit is that there’s no disadvantage in playing free and rest stroke from the same hand position, so why not do it? If these two implications are accepted without question, then indeed the argument seems irrefutable. But look closer, and the argument becomes more nuanced.

To begin, is there really no disadvantage to playing free and rest stroke from the same hand position? Before leaping to a conclusion, one must be precise in what one is talking about, as different cases give different answers. Consider, for example, playing free stroke and rest stroke on the same string, with the same finger, from the same hand position. There are three ways to do this:

1) Do both strokes from a free stroke hand position. But doing rest stroke from a free stroke hand position means you must flex the base joint while extending the middle joint. This is an awkward movement.

2) Do both strokes from a rest stroke hand position. But doing free stroke from a rest stroke hand position means you must extend the base joint while flexing the middle joint. This is also an awkward movement.

3) Find a middle ground between free stroke and rest stroke hand positions. But this means adopting a hand position that’s ideal for neither stroke.

By the way, I hasten to add that I’m not saying one should never do any of these three possibilities. Rather, I’m saying there are negative consequences to doing so, and one should know them.

Yet there are other cases in which there’s no downside to playing free and rest stroke from the same hand position. Consider the following:
Using the indicated fingering, it’s easy to play the G, B, and E eighth notes with free stroke, followed by a rest stroke on the half note G. No change in hand position is needed. I often do this, as can any competent player.

So here are two cases in which one can do free and rest stroke from the same hand position, and yet the consequences are entirely different—in the first case there are negative consequences that should be considered, in the second case there are no negative consequences at all. Clearly, a simplistic answer that glosses over real world differences won’t do.

Indeed, I’m finding the line between free and rest stroke is more ambiguous than I thought before beginning this project. A year ago, I could say with confidence that, in any given musical passage, I knew exactly where I was using free or rest stroke. Today, however, I’m not so sure. For example, there’s a scale passage in Guardame las vacas in which I start with rest stroke but end with free stroke. Yet as I recorded this passage for my July 30th video, I honestly couldn’t say exactly where I changed from free to rest stroke. In fact, sometimes there were notes in which I couldn’t say whether I was doing rest or free stroke—it felt like neither and both.

There’s nothing wrong with this ambiguity. Artistry isn’t always an “either/or” proposition. In the end, excellence is its own justification. Sometimes one can carefully listen to opposing sides of a debate, and when the two camps demand to know which side one supports, the only sensible answer is thus: “It depends.”

——[My next update will be September 4, 2011]——

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