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Sunday, November 18, 2012


I’m stuck short of 100. And the problem, I’m convinced, is m. That’s no surprise. Way back when I began this project, I complained about m in only the third post of this blog. But now, a year and ten months later, it’s time to attack the problem more directly.

The problem, as I see it, is that m automatically tenses whenever it has to move fast. I notice this particularly at the tip joint, which flexes in a bit when I play fast. It likely also tenses at slower speeds, though it’s harder to notice. To counter this, I’m starting with a lot of slow rest strokes with m, consciously allowing the tip to give as it plays through the string.

By the way, there’s apparently some controversy over whether the tip joint should give as it sounds a string. (One of my former teachers was castigated in some quarters for suggesting this in one of his early guitar methods.) But it’s no longer controversial to me. I now believe a flexible tip joint is one key to avoiding excess tension in the right hand. This is a reversal from what I believed a little over a decade ago. So be it.

One exercise I’m trying is the following:

While m only is playing the first string, i is planted on the second string. As I play the first measure, I consciously allow the tip of m to give—it should feel as though m is gliding over the string. I want no sense that m is gripping the string as it plays. I then try to maintain this feel in the second measure.

I’m also giving myself as much work as I can manage with m only. Even when teaching, if I’m playing something with a student, I’ll play m only whenever possible. I’m taking the attitude of young aspiring basketball players who are trying to improve their ball handling skills: if they have a weaker hand in dribbling, then they’ll dribble endlessly with it until it improves to the same level as their stronger hand.

I’m also taking another look at the Alexander Technique. The reason for this happened during a lesson last week. A beginning student had arrived a bit late for a lesson. I was in a hurry to get his guitar tuned so we could get on with the lesson. As I tuned a string, I accidentally overshot the correct pitch. Immediately I felt a slight jolt of tension in my body. It was infinitesimally small—two years ago I’d probably never notice it. But I’m far more sensitive to tension now than I was before I began this project. And there it was. Thinking about it afterward, it amazed me at how little it took to make me tense. (I was tuning up, for crying out loud.) Yet there it was. And this got me to thinking about the Alexander Technique idea of inhibition.

Mind you, I’m skeptical of the Alexander Technique. Much of my skepticism has to do with its practitioners. Here’s an example. Some years ago when I was a student at the North Carolina School of the Arts, an Alexander Technique teacher gave a presentation to the students. Much of it seemed mumbo-jumbo to me, but I was determined to listen with an open mind. At one point, a student who was clearly skeptical asked a pointed but sensible question. Smoothly, the Alexander Technique teacher picked up a model of a human skull and tossed it to the questioner—as he did so, he said “you can answer your question by looking at this.” Surprised, the student who asked the question caught the model skull. The teacher then ignored him and went on with his presentation as though nothing had happened. I watched the student who’d asked the question. He stood holding the model skull with a “what the Hell?” look on his face.

It was at that moment that I lost interest in the rest of the presentation. Clearly this teacher was more skilled at deflecting questions than answering them. I was particularly turned off by his passive-aggressive response to a critical question. He literally threw something at the questioner. Of course, he made the throw in a polite and safe underhanded toss. But the underlying message was clear: don’t mess with me.

Further, in reading about the Alexander Technique, I’ve often gotten the same feeling of smoke and mirrors opacity I encounter with pseudo-sciences like acupuncture and chiropractic. But perhaps the Alexander Technique itself is a useful thing that’s being twisted by the follies of some followers. Whenever something works, it runs the danger of being franchised by mediocrities who flock to it as a lucrative business. The good it offered gets buried under a slagheap of miraculous claims, far from what it was in the hands of its originator.

So I’ll look into it again.

——[My next post will be on November 26, 2012.]——

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