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Sunday, October 9, 2011

120 or Bust

First things first. I soon realized I was playing part of the Mozart excerpt wrong and corrected it. After relearning it, I finally checked the score. My revised version is correct—hey, I even got the key right. Though to be honest, if asked to write it out, I’d have written in common time, so I’d have gotten the time signature wrong. Anyway, here’s the corrected excerpt:
My apologies to Mozart and his fans (of whom I’m one) for playing it wrong on my October 2 video.

This last week I stayed with the two exercises shown on the video. In the scale with the three string burst, I occasionally managed a tempo of 120. Anything above 120 invariably fell apart. The Mozart excerpt crept up to 84.

It occurred to me that, temporarily, I should lower my sights a bit and try a more attainable goal. I’ve decided to shoot for 120—first with a three string burst, then longer until I can do a continuous six string scale cleanly and reliably. So my specific goal is this at 120:
The repeat is an important part of my goal. I want to be able to do an extended scale at 120, not just a burst. If I can, then it’ll mean I’m well on my way to reducing my right hand tension during speed. I’ve also found over the years that descending scales feel easier to me than ascending scales. So my target scale must include extended ascending passages.

Why lower my goal to 120? I’m taking to heart something I’ve heard concert artist Jason Vieaux tell his students. He strongly advocates when learning a difficult passage that one should start slow and gradually work up the tempo one metronome notch at a time. One shouldn’t leapfrog over intermediate tempos. His reasoning is thus: At slower tempos, a particular problem might not be apparent. If you increase tempo gradually, you’ll eventually hit a tempo at which the problem just begins to be apparent. Here you can define the problem and work out a solution, all at a tempo in which you’re not going like a bat out of hell. So you carefully solve the problem and then continue your deliberate climb up the tempos. If, however, you jump over intermediate tempos, you may jump far past the tempo where the problem was easier to notice, isolate, and understand. So now you’re puzzling over something that’s gumming up the passage while playing lickety-split, something you would understand better had you first encountered it at a slower speed.

Makes sense to me. In fact, I suspect I haven’t yet attacked my right hand project with sufficient care. (Nine months of piddling progress has a way of making one rethink.) Rather than lobbing artillery shells over the horizon and hoping to hit something I can’t see, maybe I should try pistol shots at a closer target that I can see. I can hit 120 now, but I need to make it more reliable and easy. If I can do this, then perhaps I can more successfully tackle higher goals.

•                              •                              •

From time to time my project spurs discussion on various classical guitar internet forums. While I sometimes participate in these discussions, time constraints often dictate that I merely observe. Indeed, some of these discussions seem to happily thrive in my absence. A particular point, however, has come up more than once. So I’ll address it here.

On October 2, someone made this post. I replied thus. My reply brought forth the following:
Philip Hii understands something important about teaching—you cannot move your student’s hands for them. You must use whatever means you can to try to transmit your experience to them, to teach the unteachable. The feel is more important than anatomy and leverage and muscle type. We cannot control our bodies by verbal/analytical micro-instruction; we must use feel, which is kinaesthetic sense that we all have, but often suppress.

The proper approach for one who does not know, such as yourself, to learn from someone who does know—from them—is not to criticize or question them but to try to break your mind open and try again to understand.  It is the parable of the full tea cup. They are trying to help you. So don't resist. Try again... This is how you can achieve your goals. Add it to your admirable work ethic and you will succeed.

This strikes me as a thoughtful argument, and it merits a response in some detail.

I don’t have an infinite amount of time to practice. I can’t try everything, so I have to decide what to try and what to ignore. By the way, this isn’t unique to me. No player has the time to try everything. All of us discriminate between what we take to heart and what we ignore. The question, then, is how one decides.

One criterion I use is that I try to see how careful someone is in giving advice. If a person offers advice that seems well considered, then I take this person seriously. But if the advice is peppered with things that are obscure, contradictory, or just wrong, then I approach this person’s advice with some suspicion.

For my taste, Philip Hii’s “Art of Virtuosity for Guitar” falls in the latter category. I’ll offer three excerpts from the book—each in turn illustrates something I find obscure, contradictory, or wrong. Here’s the first example (if the examples below are unreadable, click on them for a larger display):

This is Hii’s first description of this stroke. Yet it’s hard to understand what he’s saying. “You play from the hand” is an unfortunate phrase—it implies that the player should pluck a string by moving the entire hand. Is this really what Hii means to say? “Pull it slightly toward you” is also vague—does Hii mean toward one’s head, toward one’s waist, or toward one’s feet?

Example 2:

Yet further in the book, Hii says this:

So here are two contradictory statements. It may be that Hii intended his earlier recommendation only for a specific exercise, and not as a general right hand technique. But he doesn’t make this clear. Thus, we’re left with two conflicting statements, both of them apparently about general right hand technique.

Example 3:

I’ve no idea why Hii recommends that the base of one’s index finger should touch the neck, nor does he offer a convincing explanation. In fact, this is something I tell students to avoid. The reasons are obvious: it cramps the fingers, and runs the risk of inadvertently muting the first string. It’s just bad advice.

I could offer other examples, but three should suffice to explain my wariness regarding Hii’s advice. That’s not to say that I dismiss everything in “Art of Virtuosity for Guitar.” But there are enough things that bother me, so I’ll look elsewhere for advice.

Doubtless some will dismiss my critique as mean-spirited nit-picking. I don’t see it that way. For me, a guitar method stands or falls on the quality of its information. Everyone decides for themselves how to evaluate this quality, and everyone has their own standards for doing so. Yours may be different from mine. So be it.

Further, whatever its merits, Hii’s book doesn’t address in detail the problems I’m encountering. I hasten to add that there’s no reason to single out Hii’s book in this regard—no guitar method I’ve seen addresses my circumstance in sufficient detail. (And that includes a method I had a hand in writing.) So for the moment, I’m pretty much on my own.

Of course, if anyone can suggest a method I’ve not yet seen, I’ll be happy to look into it.

——[My next update will be October 17, 2011]——

1 comment:

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