This week I exchanged e-mails with a very fine guitarist who’s been following my project. While very encouraging overall, he did respectfully disagree with me on a particular point. I’d written the following:
“In my experience, much of the advice about attaining speed is too vague. Some players will get it, but most don't. I suspect that many of the players who do get it have the physical knack, or they have the mental knack for figuring things out for themselves and the discipline to apply what they've figured out. In short, I believe many who get it do so through their own effort, and not necessarily because of specific and effective advice.”The guitarist I corresponded with disagreed, replying that all the high level players he’s talked to are consistent in what they say: one must begin with patient and slow practice. During this slow and deliberate practice, one must emphasize relaxation, combined with lots of successful repetitions.
All true. And some players who are told little more than this will do very well. But I still think that, for most players, this isn’t enough. We need something more. It’s not enough to be told to practice slow. It’s not enough to be told to emphasize relaxation. The vast majority of serious guitar students do precisely that and get nowhere in regard to right hand speed. Why? Because, I believe, they aren’t told specifically enough what it is they’re supposed to be working toward.
Let’s take slow practice as an example. As any experienced teacher knows, “slow down” is probably the single most frequent advice we give to students. (I’ve joked to my students that I could save myself a lot of breath if I just had “slow down” tattooed on my forehead.) But what do we really mean by this? How slow is slow? How long should one practice slow? How gradually should one increase the practice tempo?
Instead of telling a student to practice slowly, we should instead focus on something more tangible. Consider, for example, saying this to a student: “Can you play this passage without labored breathing?” If your breathing is labored, then you’re more tense than you should be. So slow down. How slow? Until your breathing is no longer labored.
There’s a subtle but important difference between this and merely telling a student to practice a passage slowly until he masters it. If I tell a student to practice slowly, then slow practice becomes an end in itself. The student simply does it until he improves by sheer chance, or fools himself into thinking he’s improved, or gives up in frustration. But if I tell the student to focus on his labored breathing, he becomes more aware of a tell-tale symptom of excess tension. He slows down until the labored breathing ceases, which neatly answers the question of how slow he must go. How long should he practice slowly? Until he can accurately and consistently play the passage while breathing normally. How gradually should he increase the tempo? Exactly as fast as he can increase the tempo without a return of the labored breathing.
Here are some specific things we should be telling students repeatedly:
- Good technique should be easy. If you can’t do a particular technique easily, accurately, and consistently, then you don’t have good technique. Assuming you’re practicing consistently and intelligently, technical excellence should be something that’s always there, not something that comes and goes.
- Labored breathing is a sign of excess tension. It’s not a sign of interpretive excellence, nor is it a sign that you’re more musically committed than other musicians. It only means you’re working harder than you should to put across your musical ideas.
- In all aspects of playing, be alert to those little shots of nervousness—they feel like tiny jolts of electricity. If you consistently feel this in a particular passage or technique, then you’re too tense.
- If you’re trying to change deeply ingrained bad technique, there are no quantum leaps. You must proceed in tiny steps. If you try to overreach, you’ll slide right back into the deficient playing you’re trying to overcome.
Some might object that I’m saying nothing new here. Perhaps. But look around. Is the kind of specificity I’m advocating really the norm? Are teachers really insisting on these things, so that excess tension is something every well-trained and ambitious student understands in all its ramifications? Consider the following video:
Skip ahead to the 4:50 mark, where these two players trade fast scales during a cadenza. If you listen closely, you’ll hear which player has the easier technique—it’s obvious. It’s also obvious that the player who’s working harder has never understood that excess tension is something to take seriously.
If you think I’m picking on someone whose playing I don’t care for, then consider Julian Bream. I regard Bream as the greatest guitarist of the 20th century. I yield to no one in my admiration for him when he was at his best. Indeed, whenever I have a young player who begins to show potential, I always make sure he or she hears recordings of Bream in his prime. To my mind, one can’t fully know what the guitar can do without hearing Bream.
That being said, I’d never use Bream as a model for good technique. Bream, I think, is an example of how artistic genius can overcome flawed technique—for a while. He’s also an example of how even the greatest artist inevitably can be felled by flawed technique.
• • •
What is a teacher if not a catcher in the rye? One might find solace in an “I’m okay, you’re okay” attitude, thus sparing one from the danger of weighing one’s own ideas and finding them wanting. But if we’re to be something more, then we must know the value of what we teach. And we must insist on it in the face of ignorance or apathy. If we know with sufficient clarity what should be emphasized, and we pass it on with conviction and imagination, then we might spare others the sad fate of diminished potential.
Who knows, Holden Caulfield might’ve made a good guitar teacher.
——[My next update will be November 14, 2011]——