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Saturday, March 17, 2012

Pianissimo Man

Things seemed to be creeping ahead for a while. Last week, working with the Mudarra Galliard scales, I was able to inch up the tempo day by day. One day a successful hit at 102, the next day a hit at 104, the next day a hit 105.

Then I hit a wall.

Two things in particular convinced me that I needed to try something different. The first was on March 7, when I had a good session going. I’d worked my way to 105 and had some good hits at that tempo. Then I got up to transfer a load of laundry from the washer to the dryer. This took no more than two minutes, but when I returned to the guitar my right hand speed was gone. What the hell? So I dropped all the way back to 80 and slowly worked my way back up. It took a good ten minutes to get back over 100.

I wasn’t pleased.

The second sobering episode happened the following Monday, March 12. It was just a bad day. I could get nowhere near 100, and spent the entire session trying to recapture what I’d done the previous week.

One of my criteria for good right hand speed is that it must be consistent. I don’t want a right hand that comes and goes. The two episodes described above just won’t do. If my right hand speed is unreliable, then I need to try something else.

I’ve decided to try something I’ve described before, but never really stuck with. For the rest of this month, maybe longer, I’m going to do my right hand alternation sessions at a very low volume level. The idea is this: when alternating in thin air, or merely tapping on a table top, my hand feels very light and relaxed, and I can easily hit a very fast tempo. On a guitar string, of course, this ease vanishes. But I need to gradually work the ease I feel away from the guitar into playing on a string.

This isn’t a new idea. I’ve brought it up before, and I’ve seen it recommended by other guitarists. But I’ve shied away from it for several reasons. The most obvious is that I don’t like the wimpy sound of playing lightly. But there’s another more important reason. I’ve found that playing lightly badly influences the control I have over my accuracy and tone.

Force and speed don’t get on well together. Each has its advantages. A more forceful stroke makes control easier. With enough force, the finger better controls the string rather than letting the string tension deflect the finger. On the other hand, a lighter stroke more easily produces speed. But the problem is that the advantage of each hinders the advantage of the other. Increase the force and you increase control, but at the cost of ease and speed—increase the ease and you increase speed, but at the cost of control.

Until now, I’ve leaned toward force. Not excessively so, mind you, but enough to control my accuracy and tone. That’s not surprising. After all, any classical guitarist worth his or her salt is always striving to control sound. Few of us are satisfied with speed without good sound.

(Some are, but let’s not go there.)

Now, however, I’m willing to go further toward a light touch, even if it means temporarily sacrificing accuracy and tone. I believe progress lies along a road that will feel wrong, at least for a while. It seems obvious that trying only what feels comfortable and correct won’t get me where I want to go, else I’d have gotten there already. Further, while I don’t want a wimpy sound, I do want to control speed at any volume, including pianissimo. By the way, I’ve noticed that many guitarists who can play fast scales can’t really vary the sound of their fast scales. Rarely do I hear a fast picado scale played pianissimo. Pianists, however, routinely play fast scales at every shade of volume. Perhaps this is a real world manifestation of the difficulty in controlling a light touch on the guitar.

So it’s piano, piano, and more piano for me. At least I won’t be disturbing the neighbors any time soon.

——[My next update will be March 25, 2012]——

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