Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Gaining more precision

For the longest time the Bach piece I've been working on has caused a touch of nervous anxiety.  Just the thought of picking up the guitar and starting to work on it would get me feeling a bit jittery.  It's such an undertaking.  And of course I really want to play it well.  No actually, that's not true.  I want to play it beautifully.

You see this is all very simple really.  My ego wants what my intuition instinctively knows to be truly false.  In other words: I'm not ready, I know it, but I wish I was, but I don't know if I'll ever get there.  So, I worry.  It's so hard to not make mistakes with this piece.  There's so many dang notes.  There's so many difficult moves to make.

In my desire to regain some sense of control over this entropy I decided to take several steps backward and my results have been encouraging.  I came across this video of Glenn Gould.  In the video an old childhood friend and fellow pianist talks of a unique technique they both learned from the same teacher.  With this technique the piano student taps the fingers of a relaxed hand to help train it to play. Using the opposite hand the student would literally tap the fingers of the other hand.  This to me seems like an excellent way to develop precise moves for piano playing.  You're not even moving the muscles of the hand actively, you're moving them from the "outside".  The reason to do this , to me anyway, seems that you're training the movements with absolutely no tension.  As soon as you start "trying" to play you're tensing your muscles potentially slowing them down and making mistakes.

In a way you're telling the hand what moves to make without the hand actually "thinking" about it.   There are several articles that go into more detail about why this technique works.  To me it seems obvious.   No tension is allowed into the hands while they play.

This reminded me of a technique I've used quite a bit of but have neglected lately.  The "touch" technique.  It's simple.  With your right hand you touch the string very lightly before you play a note.  The benefits of this technique I find to be invaluable.

Think of it.  You never play a wrong note with this technique.  You have to go slow enough that you touch the string first.  This trains precision, accuracy, and you have to absolutely know you're playing the right note before you play it.  Over time you've trained the movements much more accurately and with a minimum of muscle tension.

Try this:

  • No matter what style/instrument you play practice by simply touching your finger/pick (right hand for guitars, banjo's, mandolin's, etc.)  to the string BEFORE you sound a note. 
  • At first this technique forces you to go slow (a good thing) and allows you more time to get everything in place before you sound a note.
  • Over time increase your speed and you'll find that your picking accuracy will be much better.

Good luck

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Playing through the subconscious

I've been playing the Bach piece more and more in front of people.  I'm pretty much forcing myself to perform it in front of people.  I figure if I perform it enough in low pressure situations I'll have less nervous energy when I perform it in front of a larger audience.  I even performed it out at an actual gig about a month ago.   My nerves were pretty wound up and I hit a few duds and got a bit lost for a second but overall I was happy with the performance.  A classical guitarist told me that it would be 2 years before I would be ready to take this out of the oven.  I'm not quite to the 2 year mark so that performance was a bit ahead of schedule.  I'm figuring that by next spring it should be on lockdown and I'll have full confidence to perform it.   It's pretty close to that now.  But how do I break through to next level?  How do I get this thing where I hardly make a mistake or make none at all?  Most importantly though, how do I make this piece the most musical?

I've been noticing that when I'm playing the piece my mind will wander in and out of consciousness.  At some moments I'm having an inner dialogue that is not really helpful.  In fact it is distracting.  Maybe I'm thinking about my hands or feeling nervous.  Then a moment later I'm focusing only on the sound I'm hearing come from the guitar and suddenly I'm not really there at all.  There is only the sound and the music.  I'm controlling it but not actively.  It's just happening all on its own.  This is an amazing place to be.  This is where music happens.

 I've read about this musical state in a couple of books on the subject.  One notable book is "The Inner Game of Music" by Barry Green.  This book is an excellent introduction to playing through the subconscious.  It highlights lots of exercises designed with the goal of getting to that place I mentioned earlier.

I've also read some quotes from John Hartford where he mentions that he really tried to play through the subconscious.  He didn't want to be thinking much about the music at all.  In one quote he said that when he's playing his best he's just a set of eyes floating above his hands, detached.  He's no longer thinking.  Charlie Parker also said something to this effect.  He practiced until he could just forget everything.  Here's a quote I found.  I've seen it a few places.

"You've got to learn your instrument. Then, you practice, practice, practice. And then, when you finally get up there on the bandstand, forget all that and just wail."

Clearly something is going on here we can learn to use in our music making but how do you get there?  Here are a few suggestions to help you play through the subconscious.

  • You've got to know your fingerings.  If you hope to play subconsciously you can't be thinking about what finger goes where.  Know that stuff cold.  Learn it then forget it so to speak.  Or at least learn it, then stop thinking about it.
  • When practicing focus only on the sound of your instrument.  Don't think about anything else.  You'll find that sound is telling you all you need to know
  • Hopefully music lifts us out of everyday existence.  It's transportive.   Liberating.  Strive for that feeling of detaching from day to day complacency.  Try to go somewhere else with your music making.  
  • If you hit technical problems go back and work on those problems when you find them.  Maybe you need to revisit some fingerings or improve your muscle memory over certain passages.  Playing through the subconscious means that mistakes should be few and far between.  They should be so small that they won't upset the music.  Everyone makes mistakes but not everyone makes music.  
  • Don't worry about making mistakes when playing through the subconscious.  Worry about making music.

I hope that helps.