Monday, September 27, 2010

Going with the flow

Technique as defined by Merriam-Webster:

: the manner in which technical details are treated (as by a writer) or basic physical movements are used (as by a dancer)

Therefore musical technique could be simply defined as: the basic physical movements used to play an instrument. As you may have quickly figured out, there is nothing basic about playing a musical instrument. Not well anyway. How do people make it look so easy? People like this:

That's Celso Machado. He is a musical genius. No doubt. Much to be learned from this one. Notice how relaxed he is with the instrument. His movements flow and there's no wasted movement.

We can safely say that Celso Machado is a master of guitar technique. Again nothing basic here. Or is there?

Consider, technique is the basic physical movements to play an instrument and guitar master Celso Machado's technique is to play with flowing moves and minimum waste. So should you.

If you are serious enough about your playing to ever consider your technique and how you might improve explore these tips.

  • Listen to your body
Eventually you are going to need to pay closer attention to your body. It will tell you what you need to do. For years I played with my pinky and ring finger touching the top of the guitar while I was flatpicking. As I tried to build speed (and failed to build speed) I realized that I needed to lift my "anchor" fingers. It felt more natural. This was a bit upsetting. For years I had worked on my technique with the fingers "anchored." Lifting them up felt like it would be faster but I didn't feel as accurate. After trying both methods I decided to leave behind the old technique and adopt the new. At first I took a few steps back but eventually I broke through to new levels of playing and I continue to improve. All because I listened to the signals my body sent me.

Go with what feels natural and flows the best. Experiment and don't be afraid to change things up if it feels right.

  • Practice with grace/ play with grace
If you hope to play with a fluid technique you need to strive to play that way every time you pick up the instrument. Go slow (very important!) and work through moves with your best efforts at making things feel as easy as they can. Any time I start to fuss and fight with a passage I take that as a signal to slow down and try to find a way to make it feel easy. You can't overcome these problems with muscle.

  • Don't worry about speed
Always strive to sound as good as you can. Don't strive to play as fast as you can. Speed gets old anyway. Besides, playing slow can be just as difficult as playing fast. Even more so sometimes. When you hit a dud it really sticks out...

Hope it helps

Sunday, September 19, 2010

The missing piece

I've been working on playing longer and more difficult pieces of music in last year or so. As my technique has improved so has my desire to play songs that always seemed out of my reach. Also, It seems much of what I write is often harder than what I can play. Maybe that's a good thing. In practice, I've bumped into many walls that seemed like I may never get over. I've got over some of those humps but it has sure taken a while to get there. Looking back I realize I made quite a few mistakes along the way and could have got better sooner with different approach. Oh well. That's what this blog is for, to help you learn from my mistakes. So dig this.

Any given piece of music is going to have parts that are harder than others. Maybe you're having trouble with just a couple of short parts that you can't seem to get right. To play those parts you will have to improve. Can you? Or do you just keep running up against the wall. Sometimes the solution involves finding a missing piece. A new way of looking at playing the song. If you're stumbling over one or two parts (the hardest parts maybe) of a song run through this checklist.

  • Are your fingerings the best they could be?
Go back over your fingerings. Are they the most efficient? Do you have them memorized? These points are crucial. Before you hope to play anything you've got to get your fingerings down.

  • Have looked at the problem in a new way?
If your fingerings are okay you should look for new solutions. Perhaps you're carrying tension in that part of the song and you need to slow it down a bit. Sometimes the solution could be a slight change in the position of your hand or arm. Maybe you need to place a little more emphasis on a particular move to get it right. Look closer at the details of what you are doing and you'll see possibilities you didn't know were there.

  • Everybody makes mistakes
I've seen some incredible musicians make mistakes. All of them. The harder a piece is to play the greater the likelihood of a mistake. How bad do you need to play it perfectly? If the answer is real bad, then you need to solve the missing piece. This is the final link in the chain. Without it the music could stumble. But then, everybody makes mistakes.

Finding the missing piece is often a matter of persistence. You look at something for long enough and you'll start to see things you missed before. As the Jazz/Bluegrass banjo player Pat Cloud once told me at a workshop, "Practice trumps all."
Hope it helps.

Monday, September 13, 2010

The benefits of playing slow

I have been rock climbing an awful lot this summer. Not as much as I'd like to but maybe a little more than usual. Did a great climb in Leavenworth this past weekend and my hands are a bit punished. Here's a photo I borrowed of the wall. It's the gray rock in the center of the photo. It's about 600-800ft tall depending on who you ask.

I tried practicing the day after but my fingers hardly worked at all. After another day of rest I was able to get back to picking again. My latest is goal is a bit of an ambitious undertaking. I've been working on Bach's Partita #3 for Solo Violin. Classical guitarists have been playing it a while and a few of the big dog bluegrass folks like Chris Thile, Bela Fleck, and Mike Marshall have performed it. It is an incredible piece of music. Of course it's hundreds of notes but Bach doesn't waste any on this one. Here's a video of John Williams slaying it.

Aside from my slow sight reading skills which create a challenge all it's own, I'm realizing that pulling this thing together is going to require advancing my ability to practice. So here are a few things I've noticed.

  • Slow is fast
There are so many new movements that have to be mastered, (Just like any beginner would encounter) the best way to get them memorized is to play through things slowly. Real slow. Often times I'll just work on a couple of especially difficult moves. It's amazing how much faster the muscle memory starts to set in if I take extra time to really know where my fingers are supposed to go. Once I've thought it through, then I can start the process of repetition playing and the fingers will start to go where they need to on their own. I find that taking extra time is important. As soon as I'm speeding things up, I'm messing up.

  • The metronome is your best friend
You may think that you're playing slow enough but I bet you're not. Try this for slow.

  1. Set the metronome on 60bpm. Work on a short passage. 2-3 measures or so.
  2. Play one note on the click.
  3. Let three clicks go by before you play another note. (This allows you to relax, make sure you're not tensing up, and gives you time to think about your next note.)
  4. Play the next note on the click. Continue through with your chosen passage with three rest notes. How many mistakes did you make? If you're making mistakes now, you will later. Better to fix these problems before you speed up.
  5. Did you play it with little or no mistakes? Speed it up. Now to 100bpm, but continue with the three rest notes.
  6. Keep working up through the tempos until you are playing your passage at 60 bpm with one note per click. At this point I bet your fingers know where to go. Now you're ready to really build muscle memory with repetition practice. Slowly still.
  7. I promise you'll be amazed at how much more solid your fingers remember where to go, slow is fast.
  • Speed is last thing you should worry about.
Easy to say, hard to let the ego get out of the way. More to the point though, if you start speeding things up before you're ready, you have no hope of playing the music clean. There's just no way. Speed should be brought up slowly.

If you're playing a piece slowly and want to start getting faster ask yourself a couple of questions.

  1. How many mistakes am I making at a slow speed?
  2. How easy does it feel?
I'll let you answer these questions. If you feel good about the answers then you're ready to put some speed on it.

Perhaps you're getting the point. Try playing slow. You'll be surprised how much better you'll play.
Hope it helps.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

New Classes at Dusty Strings starting next week

Starting next Thursday September 9th I'm teaching two new classes. These classes meet every Thursday for 4 weeks. The banjo class starts at 6:30pm and the guitar class starts at 7:45pm.

Beginning Bluegrass Banjo:

This class will get anyone started with the fundamentals of bluegrass banjo playing. Start by learning the basic rolls that give bluegrass its signature sound, and use those rolls in two classic banjo tunes. The class will also address issues such as holding the banjo, muscle tension, and hand position.

Beginning Bluegrass Rhythm Guitar:

Examine the basics of bluegrass guitar back-up, starting with the “boom-chuck” strum technique. Then, add a few bass runs to the mix, including the enduring “G run” that helps give bluegrass its signature sound. How do you use a capo? We’ll cover that too. Along the way we’ll improve your timing by learning to use our friend the metronome. Geared
towards guitarists with some experience who are comfortable with basic chord changes.

Maybe I'll see you there.