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Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Nitty-Gritty

During my student years at the Cleveland Institute of Music, I recall a class in which a student had just played. In this performance, there was a passage that recurred several times. Each time the player flubbed it. The teacher then asked the player about that passage. “Yeah, I have trouble with that part,” said the student. The teacher asked him what was the problem. “I just keep missing it,” replied the student. The teacher asked him again what was the problem. “I don’t know, it’s just always been a problem,” replied the student. This went on for a few more rounds, the teacher asking what the problem was, and the student giving vague replies.

Finally the teacher explained that the student needed to be far more specific. It wasn’t enough to merely acknowledge a problem. To solve it, the student first needed clearly define it. Was it a right hand fingering problem? Was it a left hand fingering problem? Was it a memorization problem? Until he did this, he was likely to keep repeating the problem. Short of clearly defining the problem, it wasn’t going to solve itself.

So this last week, where I tried to tweak the Mudarra Galliard up to 80, I also tried to drill deeper into the mystery of why anything at 80 or above wasn’t working. What I found was that I had to pay attention to more nit-picky things.

The Galliard has four separate passages with sixteenth notes. Each is different from the others. The first passage is thus:
For me, the main problem is a smooth and easy cross from the second string to the fourth string. Pivoting from the elbow alone doesn’t work for me. I find I must float my right forearm so that it barely touches the guitar, moving from both the elbow and shoulder. I also must coordinate the crossings so that my right hand fingers are precisely set for each string. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve swung and missed a note on the fourth string.

The second sixteenth note passage is thus:
This is the only passage on which I don’t use rest stroke. While the right hand fingering is a tad tricky, it usually causes me no problems. That’s not surprising, as I’m more comfortable with free stroke, and there are no big string crossing issues.

The third sixteenth note passage is thus:
Here all the notes of the scale passage are on the first two strings. I can post my right hand thumb on the fifth string, and everything goes fine. This is the passage I can hit must consistently.

Here’s the last sixteenth note passage:
This, of course, is the longest scale passage. And it’s the one that, more than the previous three, keeps me from comfortably playing the Galliard at anything above 80. As I wrote in my December 4 post, I need to be precise about where I place my right hand thumb during this passage. But drilling deeper, I found more. In a fast passage of some length, I must constantly be aware of a build-up of tension in my hand. Practicing this passage slower, I decided to take advantage of the natural breaks. At each eighth note, I relaxed my right hand before going on to the sixteenth notes, consciously letting my hand “go dead” in the instant before playing the following sixteenths.

This is an application of something I’ve learned to preach to my students over the years. I call this idea “micro breaks.” In it, the guitarist constantly tries to find moments within a difficult piece in which he or she can relax either hand. Rather than unthinkingly allowing tension to grow during a long performance, the player instead pins down every little place where either hand can release tension, however fleeting that instant of relaxation might be.

This is hardly a secret among good players. Some years ago I attended a recital by RaphaĆ«lla Smits. During a particularly difficult piece, she came to a passage where she briefly played an E minor arpeggio on open strings. During this moment, she let her left hand fall away from the fingerboard and briefly stretched her fingers, as though relaxing her hand. The gesture was short and unobtrusive, so as not to distract the audience from the music. But to a player, the purpose of this movement was obvious: it allowed Smits an instantaneous break to relax her left hand. I’m willing to bet this was something she’d consciously practiced when learning the piece. I’d also bet that this was merely the most obvious example of something she does many times within a long and difficult piece.

During this project, I’ve occasionally been told that I think too much. “Let go,” I’m told, and just let let my natural instincts take over. But for one involved in remaking oneself, this is bad advice. When it comes to my playing as it is, my instincts are wrong. My instincts must be torn down and rebuilt.

Renovation is harder and more time-consuming than building from scratch. Boy, can I tell you a thing or two about that.

——[My next update will be December 19, 2011]——

1 comment:

Carey said...

Do you ever practise in front of a mirror?
I find it to be helpful for the LH and posture.