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Sunday, October 30, 2011

Training the Musical Pooch

Throughout this project, I’ve operated on the assumption that if something isn’t producing results within two or three months, then I’m doing something wrong. I don’t expect to get from here to there in one grand leap. But I do expect progress, however slight it may be. Thus far progress has been wanting.

Over the last few weeks, a somewhat different approach has been brewing in my brain. It’s a bit hard to explain. Nonetheless, I’ll try.

Consider training a dog. Let’s say you want to train a dog to do the following in this order: sit, bark, roll over, sit, beg. That’s a long sequence, one the dog isn’t likely to do correctly on his own. You could try training the dog through negative reinforcement, punishing it every time it doesn’t do what you want. But the dog doesn’t understand what you’re trying to get him to do, nor does he know why you’re punishing him. You may eventually train the dog to do the sequence correctly, but at a high price. The dog will be confused and fearful, and will always perform the sequence for no other reason than to avoid punishment. In essence, the dog’s natural behavior has been forcibly twisted into something he doesn’t like doing. No permanent behavior change is accomplished. Take away the punishment, and the dog will drop the new behavior you’ve painfully forced him to learn. Not only that, but you’ll likely have created a dog who’s confused and fearful around you and perhaps every other human he encounters.

As professional animal trainers know, there’s a better way to train the dog, and it goes something like this. Put the dog and yourself in an enclosed space—one that’s large enough that the dog doesn’t feel confined, but small enough to keep you and the dog in close proximity. Have a generous supply of dog treats with you. Watch the dog carefully. If he runs about in all directions, say and do nothing. But if he trots up to you, praise him and give him a treat. Soon the dog associates going to you with getting a treat. When he does this consistently, now reward him only if he comes to you and sits. If he does anything else, do nothing, but the instant he sits, praise him and give him a treat. Soon the dog learns that sitting is rewarded and starts doing it consistently. Then you add another behavior. And another, and another, until the dog has learned the entire sequence.

Notice that you’re never forcing the dog to do anything. The dog is doing all the things a dog naturally does—most of them aren’t what you want him to do. You’re merely selecting and rewarding specific behaviors. Everyone is happy: the dog is getting praise and treats, and you’re teaching the dog the sequence of behaviors you want him to perform.

This analogy only goes so far in a guitarist’s right hand training. Obviously my right hand isn’t wagging a tail and excitedly trying to figure out what I want it to do. But there’s an illuminating parallel here. When training my right hand, I first need to be very specific about what I want it to learn. Once I define precisely what I’m trying to accomplish, I then begin at whatever point my hand easily and automatically does what I’m trying to accomplish. I don’t force it to do anything. Rather, I try to find a situation in which my hand naturally does the specific thing I’m trying to ingrain. That situation might be far from real guitar playing, but that’s not important. What’s important is that I find a place where my right hand already does the right thing. That’s my starting point, and I can go forward from there.

For my hand, the goal is specific. The a finger should move easily with m whenever doing i and m alternation. Further, the feel should be free and easy. In fact, a moving with m is a byproduct of this all-important feel. In previous posts I’ve questioned whether this was necessary. No longer. I’m convinced that a (and to a lesser extent, the little finger) must move with m during alternation. I don’t care that some guitarists—very good ones, in fact—do otherwise. John Williams, for example, often extends his little finger when doing i and m alternation. But his hand isn’t my hand. I’ve worked at this long enough to know there’s no way around it.

So here are the basic steps I’m following.

Step 1: I begin with what my hand can do. For me, that’s extremely basic. Away from the guitar, holding my hand in front of me, I can easily move m-a-c together. The movement is simple and natural. I don’t have to force a and c to move with m. They simply do it. In fact, it’s harder to not do it then to do it. So that’s where I start, and I move in tiny steps from there.

Step 2: I drum my fingers on the guitar soundboard. This isn’t as easy as merely waving my fingers in the air. But it’s sufficiently close to Step 1 that the difficulty isn’t excessive. It doesn’t take much effort to maintain the easy movement I’m aiming for.

Step 3: Play very lightly on a string. This is a crucial leap, and it’s very hard to maintain the same feel and movement I had in Step 2. I choose the easiest string—for me, it’s the sixth string—and I do it very lightly and not very fast. I start at four notes per click at 72, and try to maintain as closely as possible the feel and movement I had in the first two steps.

Crucial to this approach is that each step should be only incrementally more difficult than the last. Once I’ve established the movement and feel in Step 1, at no subsequent step should I lose them. Quantum leaps are strictly avoided.

I’m now convinced that much of the work I’ve done so far has been wasted. Instead of cultivating what my hand can already do, I’ve instead tried to force it to do what it’s not yet ready to do. As an extreme example, you might recall I mentioned that several years ago I tried taping my m and a fingers together, to see if this would train them to move together in alternation. It didn’t work, and now I know why. Like the dog who’s punished into doing something he doesn’t understand or want to do, I wasn’t really training my hand to do anything useful. Rather, I was training my fingers to move together only when forcibly restrained. Absent the restraint, my fingers would simply revert to their old subpar movement and feel.

Even the less drastic things I’ve tried—remember the Rockettes exercise?—were still missing the point. The key, I now believe, isn’t to force my fingers to do the right thing. The key is to begin with the right thing and then very gradually increase the difficulty under which the right thing is done. So I start with finger-flapping in thin air. Then on to drumming on the soundboard. Then so on. On through single string alternation. On through gradually more extended alternation. On through string crossing. On through gradually increasing volume. On through varying tone color. And on until it’s a reliable musical technique.

At every step, my success depends on how well I evaluate where I am, and how creatively I design and practice each incremental step. If I don’t accurately recognize each new level of difficulty as it crops up, then I’ll overreach and ultimately fail. But the advantage to this approach lies in its immediacy. Remember, each next step should be only a bit harder than the last. If I try a next step and the correct movement and feel fall apart, then I’m overreaching. So in a practical way, this approach is self-correcting: if at any point I loose the correct movement and feel, then I’m doing it wrong. Step back, rethink, and try again. This strikes me as as much better than simply pounding away and hoping for the best.

This is a rough sketch of what I’m now doing. But Saturday morning I got an intriguing glimpse of its potential. I have a young student who has an ongoing problem with her little finger extending whenever she does an arpeggio with the other fingers. So during our last lesson, I briefly described the approach. I then had her begin with Step 1, as described above. She did this easily. Then she tried Step 2, which again she managed quickly and easily. Then she moved to Step 3, doing i and m alternation on a single string. She told me that for her the first string was easier, so I agreed that this was the string she should begin with. In a matter of seconds, her i and m alternation was perfect, with a and c faithfully moving with m. It was beautiful to watch. In one brief session, her hand looked like that of an excellent concert artist. Obviously she has much work ahead to consolidate this into a reliable technique. But she has the movement and, far more importantly, she has the feel.

I’m as cautiously excited about this as I’ve ever been throughout this project. I really believe I’m on to something good. Time, as always, will tell.

•                              •                              •

Below is my end of the month video update. Watching it, I notice that when drumming my fingers on the soundboard, my little finger locked up. I also notice that this problem disappeared when I went on to single string alternation. Obviously I’m more concerned with what happens during actual playing. Be that as it may, I’ll work on improving what happens during the drumming.

——[My next update will be November 7, 2011]——

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