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Sunday, September 16, 2012

Rethinking Speed Bursts

For those of us who’ve never had right hand speed and are trying to get it, speed bursts can be seductive. Back in February of 2011 I was excited when I hit a burst at 184. Only a month into my right hand project, I seemed on my way to soon reaching my goal of sustained i and m alternation at 160. But the apparent quick success offered by speed bursts was a dead end. I gradually found that I can’t do extended fast alternation by merely stringing together a continuos series of speed bursts. Over time, the reason became clear. Far too often, bursts rely on tension for speed. For a short burst, this isn’t a problem—the burst is finished before the tension grinds me to a halt. But for longer stretches of fast alternation, this tension has more time to gum up the machine.

Looking back, I find it telling that Colin Davin, a virtuoso guitarist to whom I talked during my brief infatuation with speed bursts, had little to say about bursts, other than that he’d never done them as a way of increasing his right hand speed. Perhaps he intuitively knew what I was about to learn the hard way.

So I soon soured on speed bursts. I now regard them as a potentially huge waste of time. Certainly they can be a false path for those who are trying to develop fast alternation for extended passages. But let’s not toss the baby with the bath water. Speed bursts are a useful weapon in the guitarist’s arsenal, provided we’ve a more nuanced understanding of their pros and cons.

For one thing, speed bursts can go a long way to convincing one that speed is possible. That’s no small thing. If my fingers have never hit alternation at 184, then I’m unlikely to really believe I can do it. A quick success with speed bursts can buck up one’s confidence. Having hit 184 in a short burst, one begins to believe, and believing is essential to doing. After all, if I don’t believe I can do something, then I’m already halfway to not doing it. For this alone, speed bursts can be an essential step in the right direction. But one must clearly understand the limits of bursts. They’re not a silver bullet. If I falsely believe that extended right hand speed is merely a slight rejiggering of speed bursts, then I’m doomed to a future of hit or miss right hand alternation.

While bursts are limited in what they can do toward building right hand speed, they have good musical uses. I’ve noticed this as I’ve worked with the following passage:
When trying this passage above 120, I sometimes fall behind at the beginning of the second measure. Almost always, however, I catch up by the end of the measure and land squarely on the beat with the final A. I realized that when I fall behind, I unconsciously kick in with a burst that brings me back to the beat. Obviously, falling behind is a flaw I’m working to correct. But in a real world situation, being able to slide in and out of a burst during an extended scale can be a useful corrective skill. And it’s not just useful for correcting a lapse. Aligned with a subtle ear, sliding in and out of a burst can be a powerful technique for altering tempo and rhythm in a musical way. An obvious application is to snap off the end of a fast scale with a quick burst on the final few notes. An imaginative player can certainly find other applications.

By the way, you may notice that in the previous paragraph I airily mentioned practicing the scale at 120. Your skepticism is understandable and duly noted. I’m also aware that I’ve not yet described how I’m currently practicing. That will come in due time. Suffice it to say that, for now, I want to see how this pans out before I’m willing to believe I’m on to something.

A year and nine months of dead ends will do that to you. But at the moment I’m having fun. By the end of the month, I hope to have tangible evidence of progress.

——[My next update will be September 24, 2012]——


Anonymous said...

The suspense is killing me. Out with it already!
BTW, I've followed everyone of your blogs.

-Larry McDonald

thomascamarda said...

And I hope everyone else follows EVERY ONE of your blog posts too! tomc