Old article

October 12th, 2017

In 1980, I spent six months in London. During that time, I met George Clinton, the editor of Guitar magazine and after some of our discussions, he suggested I write an article about scale playing, which I did. Here is the article in full.

To read the pages, click on the images.




A weird phenomenon

October 5th, 2017

It was in 1986, when I was a teaching fellow at a rather big name school, that I first became aware of a weird phenomenon—players who play only from the knuckles and with their middle joints locked.

Now, I had studied and watched players from New Zealand to England to Germany but I had never seen this kind of playing before.

At first, I thought it was a recent innovation and I wanted to believe in it.

But the more I saw the results of this kind of playing, the more I was convinced that it was completely unnatural and went against our body’s very instincts.

And the results bore me out.

Players who played this way almost always lacked fluidity and naturalness in their finger movements. Their finger movements were stilted and almost zombie like.

And the sad part was, these students were extremely serious players.

With the amount of time they were practicing, they should’ve been super virtuosos but instead their playing lacked both speed and accuracy.

As a teaching fellow, I had a few students who played this way.

At first, I thought it was a relatively simple thing to get them to start moving their middle joints again, but I did not know how hard it would be to retrain fingers to move differently.

If someone has been taught to play only from the knuckle while keeping the middle joints locked, it literally required a super human effort for them to get the middle joints moving again.

I managed to devise a simple way to get them to wake up the middle joints and get them moving again.

The strategy was to go the opposite direction, to lock the knuckle joints and to pluck only from the middle joints.

This required a rather drastic measure; I had them tape their fingers between the middle joints and knuckle joints (I believe there’s a name for this part of the anatomy) to keep the knuckle joints from moving.

By taping the fingers this way, the students were forced to pluck only from the middle joints. After a few weeks of playing this way, the tape would be removed.

The results were amazing.

The students found that they were able to engage the whole finger again in plucking the strings. All three joints were moving again as a unit, each joint supporting one another. This led to immediate greater facility and speed.

One student in particular went from having not much speed and accuracy to playing extremely well, with great speed and accuracy.

I remember his senior recital where his fluid and clean arpeggios in Asturias and Giuliani’s La Sentinelle were especially impressive and received many compliments.

Fast forward 31 years—little did I dream at the time that I would still be talking about the middle joint in 2017.

But there’s a positive development.

Recently, I became aware of a thread on a forum where a brave soul by the name of guit-box has been posting slow motion videos of professionals playing.

And in every one of these videos, the evidence is all too clear to see.

Real players play mostly from the middle joints.

Yes, there’re still some unanswered questions.

For instance, how much should the middle joint move in relation to the tip-joint? And is the rebound movement a natural reflex action or is there conscious effort involved?

But these are small details which can be worked out. (Although I think even that is quite unnecessary as these are natural impulses which are best left to our body intelligence to work out.)

The big picture is that there’s a growing realization that our finger movements are incredibly complex and to try to lay down strict rules on which joint to move and which joints to lock while playing is perhaps over micromanaging the body.

Even as I write this, I’m aware that there’s still a large group of teachers who still subscribe to the knuckle playing theory.

As someone said in the thread, there’s always going to be some hostility when you get to the truth from people who are insecure with other ideas.

To which I say, yes, I do know something about hostility. I’ve been dealing with it for over thirty years.

I believe someone once also said, the truth shall prevail (and sanity too, I might add).

Controlling the tip joint

September 18th, 2017

A short video on controlling the amount of give at the fingertips.

Focusing on the fingertips

September 18th, 2017

Here’s a short video on focusing your playing at the fingertips.

An efficient free-stroke/2

September 9th, 2017

They say a picture paints a thousand words. If that’s the case, a video should paint 10,000 words.

I shot a simple video with my phone showing the three different ways of plucking—from the knuckle joint, from the middle joint, and with the fingertip.

You can see that in all three plucking methods, all three joints are moving. Our fingers work as a unit, and when we say we are moving from one joint, it doesn’t suggest the other joints are completely stationary.

However, there is a distinct difference in sensation between plucking from the knuckle joint as opposed to plucking from the middle joint as opposed to plucking with the fingertips.

These differences are not psychological, they’re very real. You physically feel one specific part of the finger or joint activating the stroke and the other joints moving in support.

(In the video, I mentioned plucking from the tip joint. That’s not wholly accurate. When it comes to the tip joint, it’s really more accurate to say that I’m plucking with my fingertip rather than the tip joint.)

I use all three strokes but my primary and default stroke is the third one, playing with the fingertip, because it is so economical and efficient.

Teaching guitar: Two types of knowledge

September 6th, 2017

People, especially politicians and bureaucrats (but also some educators and academics) tend to simplify the learning process.

For example, they lump everything together and do not differentiate between the learning of knowledge and the learning of skills.

What is the difference between these two?

To use current techie terms, the first is data-type knowledge and the second apps-like knowledge.

Data-type knowledge is just that—data, information.

Apps-like knowledge are specific skills, such as the ability to perform certain actions or routines.

The learning and teaching of data-type knowledge is easy.

All you need is a receptive student and you transfer the knowledge to him. It’s like copying data from one drive to another.

In humans, the teacher imparts this knowledge and the student memorizes and absorbs it.

But not so easy is the transfer of apps (called skills) from now on.

Humans are not like machines where, if you copy an app to a device, it will start running immediately.

Skills in humans have to be built up, developed, and assimilated into the body before it can perform them on autopilot.

And this is a key difference between data-type knowledge and apps-like knowledge.

Apps-like knowledge has be completely absorbed into the body so that they can occur on automatic reflexes. Because most of the time, you wouldn’t have time to think when you’re performing the actions.

Think of driving a car or playing the guitar.

When you drive, your actions have to occur on autopilot, you wouldn’t have time to figure out all the complex moves involved in driving.

Guitar playing is even more complex, because it involves not only technical skills (apps) but also complex pieces of music which may include many pages of notes (data).

When I teach guitar, I’m acutely aware of these two different types of learning process.

And over the years I have developed a simple four stage plan to getting students from pure beginner to virtuoso player in the space of only four years (which is all I have in the college undergraduate system).

Next, the four stage system.

An efficient free-stroke

September 5th, 2017

An efficient free-stroke must incorporate several essential properties.

First, it must have a built-in rebound mechanism. Meaning that the stroke must not only pluck the string efficiently, but also has a mechanism to return it to plucking position again.

Second, it must occur in a continuous flow of action—the movement of the finger to the string, the plucking action and the rebound should all occur in one motion.

And if you have a series of notes (plucking actions) there should be no stops and starts between the actions. The series of notes should occur in one continuous motion.

Third, it must have a built-in tension-release mechanism.

All actions produce tension. This tension must be released dynamically as you perform the actions (otherwise it will accumulate and you will choke with all that tension).

Fourth, it must not impact the other fingers. In other words, minimal sympathetic motion between fingers.

Fifth, it must move with extreme economy. There must be no wasted motion. The purpose of the stroke is to pluck the string, nothing more. There must be minimal follow-through of the finger after plucking.

So how do you produce a stroke that incorporates these properties?

I’ve found that the key is the vertical stroke.

(Relatively speaking of course—vertical to the soundboard and relatively vertical compared to more traditional plucking methods.)

Most people think of the plucking motion as a horizontal stroke. The finger pushes through the string in a motion that is horizontal to the soundboard.

With the vertical stroke, the finger actually pushes into the string slightly before plucking it.

To achieve this, you’ll have to focus your plucking at your fingertips.

By plucking with your fingertips, you’ll have automatic economy in your movements. The movements will be so small, you’ll feel as if you’re not even moving at all.

The actual sensation of plucking is that of brushing upward across the string as opposed to plucking it directly.

Playing with the fingertips takes care of the fifth property, that of economy.

Next, the actual plucking motion must be the moment of release.

This is important. Think of letting loose an arrow from a bow. That’s the kind of release, a complete letting go of the tension at the fingertip.

This takes care of the third property, the dynamic release of tension.

With this stroke, the instant you pluck is also the beginning of the action to reposition your finger.

Think of the plucking action as a movement to reposition the finger. As soon as you pluck, your finger is already traveling back to playing position.

This takes care of the first property—the built-in rebound mechanism.

When we pluck, we’re essentially moving the fingertip from one point (the beginning point) to another point (the ending point).

How do you move back and forth between two points without stopping and starting every time we change direction?

By moving in circular or oval shaped trajectories.

Circular motion produces the continuous looping actions required in the second property.

When you push into the string, the release is upward rather than inward (into the palm).

This automatically produces the oval trajectory that you see in many good players. With this stroke, you don’t have to worry about trying to produce the oval trajectory. It’s built into the stroke.

Finally, the vertical stroke reduces sympathetic motion in the other fingers.

You can try it. Move one finger inward as if you’re closing a fist. You’ll find that the other fingers will want to move inward too. This is sympathetic motion.

But if you move your finger downward and upward (relatively speaking), you’ll find the sympathetic motion is minimal.

An additional note about these descriptions.

Firstly, the upward motion is not to be confused with the hooking up motion that some beginning players do. Your plucking motion should still be pushing through the string to pluck it, but as soon as the string is plucked, the fingertip relaxes and moves upwards.

Secondly, (and I’m aware I’m repeating myself here) the words vertical and horizontal are meant to be taken relatively. They refer to the plane of the soundboard and are not meant literally.

Vertical is not meant to be straight up and down.

It’s only the feeling of moving the fingers vertically. In actuality, the finger is still moving across the string to pluck it, but the sensation is that of pushing into the string vertically and releasing vertically.

Teaching the guitar: Beginning considerations

September 1st, 2017

Everyone has their own way of solving a problem.

I like to solve problems backwards, meaning I start at the end and then figure out a way to get there.

For example, I like to hear a sound in my head and then I figure out a way to get that sound.

Or a technique, and then I figure out a way to get that technique.

It’s the same with teaching.

I like to know what I’m looking for and then I figure out a way to get it.

So what exactly am I looking for when I teach someone to play guitar?

I look for an easy natural technique, where the student is able to play comfortably and be able to play most things (if not anything) in the repertoire.

That means first and foremost a good free-stroke technique.

Free-strokes comprise almost 95% of what we do on the guitar and it stands to reason that if you master them, you’ll be able to play most things in the repertoire.

Working backwards, to be able to play good free-strokes, an optimum right hand position is absolutely essential.

If your hand is positioned right–meaning following the natural lines of energy in your body and giving equal access to all the playing fingers–your free-strokes will literally play themselves.

So how do you find this optimum position?

By listening to your body. Your body sensations will tell you when you’ve found it.

(It’s like trying to find that ideal sleeping position. No one can tell you what it is. You keep on trying different positions until you find the one that is most comfortable and when you find it, you’ll know it right away.)

But we, as teachers, can help them in the process.

Since we use three fingers and thumb to play, the optimum hand position must be optimized for all three fingers i, m, and a, and thumb.

To do this, I start students off playing with all three fingers and thumb (with maybe a slight delay in the thumb).

I find that if you start students off with playing with just i and m, that students naturally develop a position optimized for i and m and the a finger is left out of the loop.

And if the a finger is not in the loop, it will have difficulty playing. (Most problems with a weak a finger, I’ve found, is due to less than optimal positioning.)

The focus is on ease and comfort, nothing else.

Ease and comfort will lead to a natural technique for the student.

Now, this approach is based on the understanding that every student is different.

Everyone has a unique physiology, and it is up to the students to find his/her optimum position.

The teacher can’t do it for them.

Why? Because we’re not in their skin. We don’t know what they’re feeling.

In order for them to find their optimum position (the ‘sweet spot’), they must be given complete freedom to explore and not be hindered in any way by too many rules.

(At the beginning stages, the only rule I give is that the thumb must not go behind [or under] the fingers when they play.)

At this point, it is absolutely crucial that we as teachers stay out of the way.

Once you start insisting that they do a stroke this way or that way, or they have to hold their hand this way or that way, you’ve effectively preempted any chance of them finding their sweet spot.

Because they’ll be too busy trying to follow your instructions and won’t be able to listen to their body.

The basic philosophy behind this approach is that there is a natural progression to learning and you must allow this progression to take place without inhibiting it in any way. Otherwise you’ll stunt their growth as a player.

Every process of learning usually starts with a rough draft. (Kind of like writing an essay, you start with a rough draft.)

At the beginning, everything feels unfamiliar. The student is just finding his/her way. (This is the rookie stage.)

With time, familiarity sets in; the student feels more comfortable and gains confidence. With confidence, the student learns to relax.

As more time goes by, the student begins to gain greater control, he/she begins to refine his/her actions, finding easier and more economical ways to do what he/she’s doing.

Finally, the student achieves complete mastery.

At this stage, the student can do anything he/she wants and achieve any effect they desire. (This is the meaning of mastery–the capability to do anything you want.)

Now let’s say you’re a master and you have attained the ultra refinement that all masters have attained.

Would you insist that the rookie apply all these refinements even before he/she has even learned the basics?

To use an analogy.

Let’s say that your concept of the ideal walking gait is that of a supermodel (this is just an example).

And you have a baby who’s trying to learn to walk.

Now, as the baby is trying to get up and walk, do you insist that she walk just like a supermodel from day one? (Because you’re afraid if she doesn’t do it, she’ll develop some ‘bad’ habits of walking?)

Do you come up with precise rules on how to achieve that supermodel gait and you insist that the baby follow these rules exactly, like how to hold the head back and at what angle etc?

Or do you simply allow the baby to learn how to walk?