More thoughts on the engine

April 7th, 2018

Lately, I’ve been trying to write the new AOV chapter on energy and it seems the more I look into it, the more complex it looks.

I know there’s something going on at the fingertips but what exactly it is is hard to pin down.

I’ve called it an engine, I’ve referred to momentum, I’ve talked about economy, and written about focusing your movements right at the fingertips.

All these are important factors in speed, but there seems to be one component that’s still missing.

And that is what’s actually going on in the fingers and between the fingers.

As I play, I can definitely feel an interaction between the fingers to produce the effortless driving energy at the fingertips.

The best way to describe this sensation, this interaction is the ‘engine.’

As I examine it, it’s clear that there’re two basic components to this engine.

The first is circular motion.

Part of the problem with speed is sustaining it.

Yes, you can practice ballistic movements and maybe you can pluck that one note really fast but to continue to play a whole series of notes fast is something else.

This is because to sustain speed in a series of notes, you need to maintain the energy level throughout those notes.

The key is circular motion.

A circle has no beginning and no end. Once you get into a loop, you’ll be able to continue it indefinitely. This is why it’s so effective in maintaining speed and energy.

But how do you accomplish this circular motion?

You can try to do it through conscious effort, by consciously forcing the fingers to follow a circular trajectory.

But that’s ineffective because you can’t micro manage your fingers at high speeds.

The better way is to develop a finger movement that will produce the circular motion automatically and naturally.

What I’ve developed over the years is a plucking action that feels more like pulling, and in a direction that is upward rather than inwards.

(In rest-strokes, it would be more across the strings than upward.)

To perform the stroke, draw your fingers upward, almost like a stroking action.

(I’ll do a video to illustrate this soon, but for now, I’ll try to explain it as best as I could.)

When you pluck the finger upward, it will automatically produce the first half of the circle. The other half is when you bring the finger down to play the next note.

The pulling upward action is not obvious visually. It is felt only by the player. To someone watching, it would appear as if you’re plucking the string normally.

But that’s only in one finger.

What happens if you have to play multiple fingers in a quick sequence of notes?

This is where it gets interesting.

The circular trajectory occurs not only in the individual fingers, but in the entire finger cycle and pattern.

I’ll explain this with the tremolo.

The standard tremolo involves a pattern of thumb and three fingers, ‘a’, ‘m’ and ‘i’. We’ll forget the thumb for now.

When you play with the pulling action, each finger would be moving in a circular trajectory.

As soon as the finger plucks, the circular trajectory in that finger would seem to stop, and it would hover suspended in the air while the plucking/pulling pattern shifts to the next finger.

But the circular motion never actually stops; it simply gets transferred to the next finger.

When the ‘a’ finger has finished plucking, the circular trajectory is continued in the ‘m’ finger, and then the ‘i’ finger after that.

So if you look at the totality of the ‘a m i’ pattern, the circular trajectory actually continues through the fingers.

The second component is the sensation of the energy within the fingers.

This energy is dynamic. It’s very driven.

The energy is first created with the first stroke. That first stroke should produce a burst of energy. You can feel this energy being transferred to each succeeding finger, almost like a relay.

It feels like you’re playing one finger off another. There’s a strong sense of interaction between the fingers and it’s all occurring at the fingertips and tip joints.

Imagine the fingers like interlocking parts of an engine, like the pistons in an engine, going up and down, each one setting the next off. As soon as one moves, the next one is already kicking into gear, and then the next, and the next.

This is the reason why playing at the fingertips is so crucial to speed.

Yes, it produces automatic economy, but more than that, it engages the fingers as a unit and enables them to work off each other.

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