The hot and cold approach to practicing

December 7th, 2014

My practicing has always been driven by what I call a hot and cold approach as opposed to the slow and steady approach.

The hot and cold approach is based on applying periodic bursts of energy and effort followed by periods of rests.

In other words, maximum effort for a period of time, then relaxing, then maximum effort again, and then relaxing again. And you repeat in cycles.

You might call it the hare approach.

You’ve probably heard the story about the hare and tortoise and how the hare loses the race, and the tortoise wins it.

Well, that’s just propaganda spread by the proponents of the slow and steady approach.

In real life, I find the opposite ending is often true, the tortoise is left in the dust and the hare wins the race.

There’re two reasons why the hot and cold approach works.

First, it’s only by exerting a huge amount of effort that you can achieve breakthroughs in technique.

When you practice, the first few hours is just warming up. It’s only after the fifth or sixth hour that your fingers really begin to loosen up. And after the seventh or eight hour, they begin to be charged with a special kind of energy, as if they’re on fire.

It’s at this time that breakthroughs in technique happen.

Now imagine if you practice and you stop after the third or fourth hour.

Imagine all the breakthroughs that were waiting to happen but didn’t happen because you stopped too early. I’ve made this point before but it’s a crucial part of the virtuoso mindset.

The second reason is that even during the cold period, when you’re not consciously working, your body is still working in the background, unconsciously.

You may not be playing the guitar but your fingers are still working on whatever problem you’re working on, without you being aware of it.

It gives rise to a strange phenomenon where after a period of intense practicing, and a rest period of maybe up to two months, and then you get back to your practice and you find that whatever technical problem you were working on is now suddenly resolved.

Before your hiatus, you couldn’t do it. And now after not practicing for one month, you find yourself suddenly able to do it.

How is this possible?

Our body sometimes works in ways that defy logic. I can’t explain how it works but I know it does. It’s happened to me more than once.

Of course you still have to get your fingers back into shape, but once you get them back, you’ll find that that they’ve actually moved beyond your former technique.

Slow and steady has never appealed to me at another level.

What a boring existence.

If I have had to live life that way, I’d go insane in a minute.

Life is not meant to be lived in that slow, plodding, methodical, half-hearted way.

No, life is to be lived at red-hot fever pitch. And when you need a break, you take it so you can recharge and be ready for the next hot phase

(The break is an essential part of the equation. Nobody can work at fever pitch all the time, you need the rest period or you’ll burn yourself out quickly.)

And the best part is, whatever you do has the hallmark of something that has gone through fire, something that is borne out of red-hot passion rather than cool and calculated determination.

An innovative new approach to evaluations in education

December 4th, 2014

In education industry circles, the current buzz is all about evaluations, mostly evaluating teachers. (Yes, they’ve got to prove that they’re earning their paychecks, these slackers.)

I propose a new innovative approach to evaluation—why not evaluate students as well?

Here’s my matrix for evaluating students.

Imagine two extremes of students, one of maximum receptivity to learning and the other of maximum resistance to learning.

A student of maximum receptivity is like a sponge.

He/she’s completely open to new ideas and to teaching. They’re like the proverbial empty cup.

I’ve had a few of these students. With these students, one hour is usually not enough and the whole hour is given to lively debates and questions and answers.

And whatever you teach them, the next week, it’s all done and it’s moving on to the next piece and the next subject.

Now a student of maximum resistance is a whole different matter.

They’re a little harder to reach.

They’re the proverbial full cup. Whatever you try to pour into them just spills out onto the floor.

You’ll spend a whole hour explaining a concept and the next week, it’s almost as if you’d never said a word about it.

You’ll spend a whole hour helping them through a piece of music and the next week, you’ll have to do the whole thing over again.

The rest of the students fall in between these extremes.

In the words of bureaucrats, evaluating students provides us with measurable and quantifiable data to evaluate their relative receptivity to learning.

Those who are in the category of maximum resistance to learning will be advised of their non-performance and given the appropriate administrative reprimand—either move to the category of maximum receptivity or you’ll be terminated.

Hopefully, this will provide them with the necessary incentives to get their act together.

Evaluating students of course, does not give us teachers an excuse for poor performance on our part (yes, there are slackers in every industry).

But at least, it does not put the entire burden of education on our shoulders.

In other words, it does not turn us into natural punching bags for politicians and administrative bureaucrats looking for a few scapegoats to blame for society’s failings.

Locking your notes onto the groove

November 28th, 2014

As a teacher, one of my concerns over the years has been rhythm.

I don’t mean keeping time—that’s the easy part.

My concern has been, how do you teach students how to lock in their playing to the groove so that it’s perfectly in time?

The other day, I had a sudden epiphany.

The answer is to let rhythm do your playing for you.

Don’t try to force your playing, don’t be too aggressive. Let go and let rhythm do the playing for you.

On the surface, this may sound like a simple concept but it’s not so easy to implement.

To be able to do this, you’ll first have to develop an impeccable sense of time, then you’ll have to develop good finger control, and when you’ve achieved mastery over these two areas, you’ll have to have the confidence to let go and let rhythm and your fingers do your playing for you.

You’re probably aware of the quick-finger syndrome of inexperienced players when they first attempt to do pull-offs.

In their anxiety to perform the technique, and perhaps through lack of finger control, they usually pull off too quickly, resulting in rushed slurred notes.

That’s an extreme example of what can happen when we become too aggressive in our playing.

But the problem is not confined to beginner players.

I’ve found that a similar problem exists even in advanced players, although to a lesser degree.

Instead of rushing through slurs, many players have small rhythmic inaccuracies in their playing either because they’re too anxious to perform the notes or because they lack rhythmic precision, or simply because they don’t know how to lock their notes onto the groove.

These inaccuracies are so subtle that sometimes not even the players are aware of it themselves.

So how do you lock your notes into the groove?

First, become deeply aware of rhythm, feel it in every part of your being. It has to become second nature, you don’t even have to think about it and yet it’s there, burned into your sub-consciousness.

Then, relinquish control and let rhythm take over.

Practice this first with slurs—hammer-ons and pull-offs. Villa Lobos’ Etude #3 is a good piece to practice this on.

As you play the slurs, imagine that your fingers are totally under the control of your rhythm. They’re no longer independent entities with a will of their own. Feel the eighth note subdivisions and let them play the slurs for you.

When you master rhythmic playing with slurs, do it with regular notes. Make sure you lock in your notes onto the groove so that the notes are perfectly aligned with the beat.

As an aside, this is not to suggest that you playing should be rhythmically strict and stiff. Your groove can be free and flexible. The important thing is that no matter how free your groove is, your notes are always locked onto it.

When you do this, it will seem as if your fingers are driven by some unseen energy, as if they’re self driven. And the amazing thing is they will be totally in time, locked onto the groove.