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Sunday, March 11, 2012

Fighting the Hydra?

Last week’s post brought the following reply from a guitarist in Dallas:
There is nothing wrong with thinking about each of these things at some point, but to try to think of them all in one sitting doesn’t seem to work. The way the human brain interacts with the muscles should require little conscious thought. It’s like watching a poor free throw shooter vs. a good one, one looks awkward and forced while the other looks natural and relaxed.

Have you read Lee F. Ryan’s “The Natural Classical Guitar”? It is a great book on how to tackle the problems posed in learning to play. He stresses that it is easier to focus on a particular aspect at a given time. Often just the idea of being aware of the problem allows the mind and muscles to solve it on their own. Focus on one thing at a time for a few minutes. Say, play a short piece and focus on breathing, just being aware when you breath becomes labored or not rhythmic. Just thinking about it will allow you to adjust normally. Another time just think about feeling tension to find points on your body that are tense, if you find a tense spot you may have to make adjustments and think of a solution, but the key is to solve these problems one at a time.

Your conscious brain cannot think about all these things to direct your muscles in these tiny precise movements that happen in fractions of a second. You subconscious mind is remarkable at directing these movements. Don’t let your ego take control and say that your conscious brain can rule more of what you do. Since the whole idea for you is to play faster, this all becomes even more important. The over thinking is not the path to a better right hand. In fact is more likely to have the opposite effect, that’s why you have days when in your experiments that you seem to have these big setbacks, playing slower than the week before. I am not trying to belittle or discredit you Tom, but it seems you are trying to force your brain and body to do things that aren’t the natural way humans learn physical movement.
To answer this, I need to veer onto a side road for a moment.

A major problem with my blog is that it doesn’t begin to convey the full extent of what I’m doing. I spend one, maybe two hours writing each entry. I’m a slow writer, and some things I’d like to say elude my ability to describe them. So almost every time I write an entry, the next day I’m aware of what I left out or didn’t describe in enough detail. During my right hand project, I’m dealing with things that are hard to pin down in language, written or oral. Certainly I don’t see anyone doing much better in describing them. In fact, I seldom see any teacher or player even try to describe what I believe is central to making progress, at least for me.

I wish it were possible to clearly describe what I feel when I try to do fast rest stroke alternation. But thus far, I’m only able to describe symptoms rather than the thing itself. Breathing, for example, helps alert me to the thing itself, but it’s not the thing itself. And so it goes with the other symptoms I monitor as I practice. I’ve done this now long enough that the thing itself is very clear to me. But can I really describe the thing itself to another person? Apparently, so far I’m failing miserably.

I believe the right hand is harder to discuss than the left. Here’s an example. To alert a player to excess tension in the left hand, here’s a nifty little experiment. Fret a note with your left hand finger—any finger, fret, and string will do—and begin repeatedly sounding the note with your right hand. As you continue playing the note, gradually let up on your left hand finger until the note begins to buzz. Stop letting up on your left hand, but continue playing the note, with the buzzing. Now, as you continue to play the note, very slowly increase your left hand pressure until the buzzing stops and you get a clean note. Exactly at this point, stop increasing the pressure. You’ve just found exactly how much left hand pressure you need to get a clean note. Any extra pressure past the point where the buzzing stopped is excess pressure.

Notice how elegantly simple and effective this experiment is. Notice also how it’s perfectly tailored to whoever is doing it, regardless of physical differences between players. This exercise even tailors itself to different guitars or strings. Any person playing any guitar on any kind of strings will automatically get a perfectly accurate feel for how much pressure he or she must use when stopping a note with the left hand.

What I particularly love about this experiment is that, for it to work, one doesn’t have to be sensitive to excess tension. And that’s the crux of the matter. To be useful, an experiment like this must alert a player to excess tension even if he or she is oblivious to it. In the experiment I’ve just described, the buzzing—something so obvious that anyone can notice it—alerts the player to the insufficient pressure. And at the instant the buzzing ceases as the player gradually increases pressure, no additional pressure is needed. The player who’s oblivious to excess tension can now begin to see the folly of pressing harder after the buzzing stopped. What begins as sensitivity to buzzing now has a chance of evolving into a deeper sensitivity to the thing itself: excess tension.

I love this little experiment. Try as I might, I can’t think of anything that works as well for the right hand. If anyone can suggest something, I’d like to hear it.

Now to more directly answer the quote with which I began this post. It may appear that I’m trying to juggle too many things at once when I’m running repetitions. But I don’t see it that way. All the things I monitor as I play—breathing, jaw clenching, right hand thumb placement, a finger rigidity, et cetera—are manifestations of one thing: excess tension. I’m now so familiar with this that I see it as a single thing, even though it might throw off a constellation of symptoms. At bottom, all those symptoms point to one thing and one thing only.

So I’m not fighting the Hydra. Or if I am, I won’t be distracted by the wrong targets. My opponent has many heads, but one heart. As long as I aim for the heart, I’m on the right track.

By the way, I own and have read the Ryan book. I like it.

——[My next update will be March 18, 2012]——

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