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Sunday, September 25, 2011

If the Crux Is True, All Else Will Follow

If you’ve been following this blog since the beginning, you might recall my Rockette exercise. You also might have noticed its current and conspicuous absence. This exercise has fallen from my favor, and it’s taken time to puzzle out why I found it so unproductive. Slowly I’ve come to believe that it missed the point of what I’m trying to accomplish. The reason is subtle and requires explanation.

I now believe that good i and m alternation is a movement my hand can already do. To see what I mean, hold your hand in front of you, wrist aligned and fingers loosely curled. Now begin alternating i with m-a-c. I can do this easily, with all the speed I would need for a fast scale up to 160. My fingers move effortlessly and correctly, a-c easily moving with m. Further, I believe almost anyone with a normal right hand can learn to do this basic movement.

But woe unto me and anyone like me when this simple movement is done on a guitar string. For most of us, the string resistance gums up the movement horribly. This is where so many guitarists like me go off the tracks. We work on right hand alternation and arpeggios long before a good movement and feel are securely ingrained. The string resistance deflects our right hand into excessively tense movements. Unfortunately, we little note this at first. We’re not yet trying fast scales or arpeggios, so the excess tension isn’t obvious, particularly to inexperienced players. So we’re blissfully unaware that we’re setting the stage for future disaster. Unaware of what’s happening, we ingrain these excessively tense movements. This becomes our normal feel, long before we move on to more challenging things. What makes this especially pernicious is that we don’t encounter the full effect of the problem until we’re well past the time during which we ingrained the excessively tense movement. The bug in the system lies dormant for so long that when it finally becomes apparent, we’re at a loss to understand what it is and why it’s there.

Sadly, the blame often falls elsewhere. Usually, it’s written off as a matter of talent. Some people have it, some don’t. If you have it, hooray for you, and book Carnegie Hall. If you don’t have it, oh well, at least you can buy a ticket to Carnegie Hall.

Getting back to my Rockette exercise, I now think it slightly but crucially misses the mark. It forces the fingers into an unnatural movement that doesn’t closely mimic the all important feel of good alternation. It favors an intellectual abstraction—more movement ingrains relaxation—over the feel of relaxation itself. Mind you, this abstraction isn’t wrong. Greater movement does tend to avoid the bugaboo of excessively restricting movement. (Advocates of “economy of movement” sometimes misinterpret it to mean that smaller movements are always better than large movements. This is simply wrong, as anyone who’s seen a good golf swing can attest.) But remember the easy feel of doing right hand alternation in thin air, away from the resistance of a guitar string? That’s the thing itself, the hint to how good right hand technique really feels. The Rockette exercise distracts from the crucial thing itself. If we’re deflected from the crux, we might never get where we’re trying to go.

The Rockette exercise is gone. In its place is extended lite, gradually sped up as a good feel takes hold. Let’s see how the new kid does.

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

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