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Sunday, September 9, 2012

The Brass Tacks of Technique

Before I describe how I’m now practicing, we need to begin with a basic matter. Good technique, in essence, is getting the best result with the least effort. For right hand speed, this becomes of paramount importance. The more tension in your playing, the more it ultimately limits your speed. So you need to minimize it as much as possible. And to minimize it, you must first recognize it. Thus, here are four useful indicators of tension to familiarize yourself with.

Step 1: While standing, allow your arms to hang loosely. This a a relaxed feeling, good for guitar playing. Now shrug your shoulders as tightly as you can. This is a very tense feeling, bad for guitar playing. Unshrug your shoulders and again allow your arms to hang loosely, back to the relaxed feeling. Now shrug your shoulders slightly less than before—although they’re not as tense as before, this is still a tense feeling, one to be avoided in guitar playing. Then relax again. Now alternately shrug and relax your shoulders, each time shrugging with a little less force, until your last shoulder shrug is barely perceptible. Your goal is to gradually develop your perception of even the barest hint of tension.

Step 2: Still standing, allow your arms to hang loosely. Now, without shrugging your shoulders, clench your fists and tense your arms as tightly as you can. This is a very tense feeling, bad for guitar playing. Then unclench your fists and again allow your arms to hang loosely, back to the relaxed feeling. As in the previous step, clench your fists and tighten your arms a bit less than before. This is still a tense feeling—one to be avoided in guitar playing. And as in the previous step, alternately clench and unclench, each time clenching with a little less force, until your last clench is barely perceptible. Again, your goal is to gradually develop your perception of even the barest hint of tension.

Note: These first two indicators can be minimized in good playing, but they can’t be entirely eliminated. Some of this kind of tension is inevitable in guitar playing. Nonetheless, it can be minimized if you learn to recognize and control it. The purpose of the first two steps is to refine your perception of these indicators.

Step 3: Clench your teeth as tightly as you can. (Be careful not to break a tooth.) This is a very tense feeling, bad for guitar playing. Now unclench your teeth, back to a relaxed feeling. As in the previous steps, clench your teeth a bit less than before. This is still a tense feeling—one to be avoided in guitar playing. And as in the previous steps, alternately clench and unclench, each time clenching with a little less force, until your last clench is barely perceptible. Again, your goal is to gradually hone your perception of even the barest hint of tension.

Step 4: Breathe normally, in a relaxed manner. This a a relaxed feeling, good for guitar playing. Now breathe irregularly, as though you’re very nervous or scared. This is a tense feeling, bad for guitar playing. Then breathe normally, back to the relaxed feeling. Now breathe irregularly slightly less than before—although you’re not as tense as before, this is still a tense feeling, one to be avoided in guitar playing. Then back to normal breathing. As in the previous steps, alternately breathe irregularly and normally, dialing down the irregular breathing until it’s barely perceptible. Again, your goal is to gradually develop your perception of even the barest hint of irregular breathing.

Note: The tension you feel in steps 3 and 4 is absolutely unnecessary in guitar playing. Teeth clenching and irregular breathing serve no useful purpose in playing. They should be minimized as much as possible—ideally, they should be eliminated.

Everything that I’ll write in the next few weeks begins with this basic exercise. Without a refined perception of tension, you’ll be unable to refine the efficiency of your technique. Indeed, all technical practice will be worthless, as you’ll have no idea what feeling you’re aiming to acquire. Instead, you’ll merely reinforce tension through repetition without a clear aim.

Occasionally I’m told that I obsess too much over irrelevant details. For example, I’ve been taken to task for my contention that irregular breathing is something to avoid—there are excellent musicians who breathe heavily as they play. So what’s the problem?

I don’t agree with this argument. One should be careful about drawing conclusions from musicians who apparently violate good technique and yet still play wonderfully. First, they might be able to get away with substandard technique when they’re young, but it may catch up with them later. Second, they may have to work harder than they would if they had better technique. The reality is that musicians are often judged by an inadequate sample of their work. We hear them on stage in their prime, or in heavily edited recordings. We seldom see the true amount of work they put into reaching their high standards. And it might take decades to see the true effect of substandard technique.

We also tend to see virtuosos as pristine archetypes. To paraphrase F. Scott Fitzgerald, virtuosos are very different from you and me. They seem fully formed, stepping from a clamshell like Botticelli’s Venus, perfect in every way from the beginning. Their minds are in the clouds, focused on high art. Surely they don’t obsess over prosaic minutiae like irregular breathing.

Actually, they do, at least the good ones do. About ten years ago I was practicing a difficult left hand shift. Gradually I noticed that every time I did this shift, I took a quick breath. It wasn’t terribly overt—just a tiny breath right at the moment of the shift. But nonetheless, there it was, every time. It seemed unlikely that, with normal breathing, I would just happen to be breathing in whenever I did this shift. So obviously this little breath was a sign of nervous tension. With that in mind, I practiced breathing normally during this shift, until I could do the shift with no alteration of my normal breathing. And I mentally patted myself on the back for this bit of insight.

A short while later, I happened to be talking on the phone to Jason Vieaux. Remembering this little insight, I began to describe to him my taking a nervous breath while practicing a left  hand shift. Before I got very far, he broke in with “did you work on breathing normally while practicing the shift?” Turns out he knew exactly what I was talking about, and had worked on it himself when he was in his early teens. As I hung up after our conversation, I reflected that this was one of many reasons why Vieaux is a virtuoso and I’m not: what I belatedly discovered in my 40s he already knew and resolved in his teens.

As it turns out, minutiae are the bread and butter of a virtuoso’s practice time. That’s good enough for me.


——[My next update will be September 17, 2012]——

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