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Saturday, March 3, 2012

Everything Matters

This was an intense week of practice. I’m doing fewer repetitions during each practice session, but I’m far more explicit in what I think about with each repetition. My reasoning is thus: there’s little point in running repetitions if I’m not precise about my goals. Remember, I’m trying to do something I’ve never done before. So if I run on auto-pilot during repetitions, I’m merely doing what I already can’t do. That’s counterproductive. Instead, I want to reinforce things that will bring me closer to my goal.

The more I do this, the more I realize that every little thing matters. Nothing, and I mean nothing, can be left unexamined. I must cast a suspicious eye on everything I do as a player.

Consider the compressed Galliard I’ve been working with:

Here’s what I think about on each repetition. On this part:

...I strive to be exquisitely precise as I cross from one string to the next. As I finish the last note on one string, my finger must line up perfectly for the first note of the next string. It can’t be halfway between one string and the next. Rather, it should be perfectly set for the new string. There’s a feel to this that’s hard to describe—I think of it as being “into the string” on each note. I know that’s a vague description for someone trying to understand what I mean, but it means something specific to me. I strive for that feeling on every repetition. On the quarter note at the end of the measure I consciously relax my hand.

On this part:

...immediately after playing the bass note, my thumb sits down between the fifth and sixth strings. I do this for two reasons: it damps the fifth string (and any sympathetic vibration of the sixth string), and it steadies my hand for the following sixteenth notes. On the dotted eighth I consciously relax my hand. For the sixteenth notes I dig in a bit for both musical and technical reasons. I want this scale to sound aggressive, and again I want to get that “into the string” feel. As in the previous measure, I consciously relax my hand on the quarter note at the end of the measure.

On this part:

...I consciously relax my hand at each eighth note. I also consciously relax during the upward shift, being careful to not allow any residual nervousness about a long shift to make me tense. (I’ve found that even a simple long shift can dredge up an unconscious, almost atavistic tension.) Throughout this entire part, my right hand thumb is carefully choreographed:
• Immediately after playing the half note D, my thumb prepares on the fifth string.
• Immediately after playing the tied quarter notes A, my thumb prepares on the sixth string.
• Immediately after playing the G, my thumb prepares on the fifth string.
• Immediately after playing the last quarter note A, my thumb prepares on the fourth string.
• After playing the tied dotted half D, my thumb sits between the fifth and sixth string. As before, this damps both strings and steadies my hand.
• As my fingers approach the third string note, my thumb comes off the strings and stays off for the remainder of this passage. This allows my hand an unimpeded crossing on the lower strings.

Throughout this long passage, I’m alert to whatever tension creeps in as I play. Do my shoulders tense? Do I clench my jaw? Does my a finger become rigid? Does my breathing become irregular? If any of these things creep in, I try to dissipate them as I play.

•                              •                              •

Let me be clear about what I’m trying to accomplish through this nit-picking. By no means do I want to think like this for the rest of my life every time I play a fast scale. Rather, my goal is think this way on every repetition until this level of detail becomes a reflex. At some point, all this will become automatic. But for it to become automatic, I must for now concentrate on thinking about these things on every repetition. Merely repeating a scale passage absent-mindedly does no good. Doing that, I’ll merely reinforce what’s never worked for me. To ingrain a better way of playing, I must hold a specific ideal in mind until it becomes my normal playing.

I’m sometimes told that I think too much—just let go and play. I don’t buy it. If I can’t play the way I want to play, then I can’t wait for the Good Technique Fairy to sprinkle magic dust on my head. I have to painstakingly rebuild my technique bit by bit.

This reminds me of an old philosophical paradox:
“What if nothing matters? Or worse, what if everything matters?”
To a nihilist, perhaps, nothing matters. But to a good musician, everything matters. It’s not easy, which may explain why, in a world full of guitarists, relatively few of us are virtuosos.

——[My next update will be March 11, 2012]——

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