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.

Pepe Romero’s tremolo masterclass

August 2nd, 2014

My good friend, Bob Wooldridge, just sent me this video link of Pepe Romero teaching a tremolo masterclass.

In Bob’s words:

“About three minutes in he describes making circles with his A finger. It’s crystal clear and a confirmation of the technique you have been discussing for a while.”

Here’s the video:

Nothing like having a great maestro like Pepe to show us how it’s done.

Many thanks, Bob, for the link.

Late Night Guitar

July 3rd, 2014

One of my favorite albums is Early Klugh’s “Late Night Guitar.”

I first heard the CD in a departmental store and immediately went to find out who the artist was. It took me a few years before I could find the cassette, and a few more years before the CD came out.

These days, of course, you don’t have to go to all that trouble.

Here’s part of the album, uploaded to youtube.

The first track is my favorite, “Smoke Gets in My Eyes.”

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The best way to listen to this recording is to cast aside all biases and focus on Mr. Klugh’s phrasing and expression which is impeccable. He sings on the guitar like a great jazz singer.

Listen to his dynamics and how fluid they are. Listen to the highs and lows, especially to the high point at 1:19. It literally is a cry from the heart.

That’s one thing about popular players, they have to go straight for the heart, the soul. They can’t take cover under some fuzzy academic considerations to justify why they play the way they do (in that stiff pedantic way).

Bottom line for popular artists is, if they can’t touch your heart, they’re not going to sell any CDs.

And that should be our bottom line too.

Because if we’re not touching people’s hearts, it’s all an exercise in futility.

Making your playing come alive

June 30th, 2014

Continuing on my previous post…

First, what is this quality of aliveness?

Think of anything that’s alive.

It breathes, it moves, it’s filled with energy, there’s a sense of constant growth and change.

And this is what you have to do in your phrasing to make it come alive.

The first quality to infuse into your singing is that of change.

Your phrases should never stay the same, they should be constantly evolving and changing (unless the effect you want is that of an unvarying mechanical feel).

Listen to El Cigala again.

Notice how he starts each phrase with a burst of energy, he builds it up to a climax and then he lets it die naturally.

And if you listen closely, you’ll see that the shape of his phrasing closely resembles a breath.

And this is key.

To make your phrases come alive, shape them like a breath.

Think of the initial burst of energy as the drawing in of your breath — there’s effort involved in that drawing in — and then think of the resolution of the phrase as a release of that breath, an exhalation.

The ending, the release is especially important.

Listen to how El Cigala ends the phrase, how he just lets the phrase drop into nothingness, almost into a whisper sometimes.

Imagine letting something fall, of its own accord, no effort involved. That’s how the ending of phrases should sound like, a complete letting go, no effort involved.

Next, notice how extreme the dynamics are. The peaks are much louder than you might expect and the valleys much softer.

This is another important point; to make a phrase come alive, you must throw the contrasts into sharper relief, and accentuate the differences of dynamics to the point where it may sound like you’re exaggerating them.

(These dynamics are micro dynamics, inner dynamics in a phrase, not to be confused with the dynamics of the piece. )

But it’s not exaggeration, it only feels that way because you’re not used to giving them those extremes in dynamics.

Creating greater dynamic contrasts within the phrase will give them a 3-dimensional effect.

3-D phrases have depth. You feel as if they’re coming at you sometimes, and away from you at other times. This 3-D effect is what gives phrases the quality of aliveness, of movement.

Strong contrasts are what separate the great from the not so great.

The greats are not afraid to state their contrasts, they lay them out strongly. Whereas less experienced players are timid, they’re afraid to state those contrasts, so everything they do are just varying shades of one dynamic level.

You can see the same kind of timidity in painting.

Less experienced painters tend to paint everything in varying shades of one tonal value, and the result is a flat 2-dimensional painting, whereas if you were to look at the paintings of great painters, you can see an incredible range of tonal values.

And it’s these strong tonal values that make a painting pop out at you and make it come alive.

Finally, avoid sameness; especially avoid trying to make all the notes sound the same.

There’s nothing more boring than a phrase that is perfectly played, with perfectly shaped tones, and in perfect evenness.

Real life is vibrant, it’s constantly evolving, and growing, and dying. It never stays the same. And that’s what you have to try to do in your phrasing to make it come alive.

If you’re still not convinced, try this for an exercise.

Listen to a conversation, any conversation in any language will do.

Listen to the highs and lows of the voices, the sharp peaks and the valleys. Listen to how loud the loud words are and how soft the soft words are. Listen to how some words are so soft to the point where they’re almost inaudible.

Listen to how the speakers shape each sentence and how each sentence is in turn shaped by their breaths.

Listen to the constant interplay of dynamics, of loud and soft, of heavy and light.

And then listen to a machine voice, perhaps one of those prerecorded robotic computerized voices and you’ll begin to appreciate what’s dead and what’s alive, what’s interesting and what’s boring.

Singing and phrasing

June 27th, 2014

Watch any masterclass and you will inevitably hear the usual admonishments to ‘sing’ your lines. (This would invariably be followed by the ‘master teacher’ demonstrating this point as he ‘sings’ and plays the phrases.)

This is all well and good, because the goal of all good phrasing is to make your phrases ‘sing.’

Singing helps us externalize our natural phrasing, which makes it easier to transfer that phrasing to our fingers.

But there’s something that’s often not mentioned.

And that is – to make your playing ‘sing,’ you not only have to sing as you play, but you must sing like a great singer.

We’re talking of singing like Pavarotti or Barbra Streisand (because if you were to sing like Will Hung, it wouldn’t help you very much).

So the first step to great phrasing is to learn to sing like the greats, to learn how they phrase, to capture the subtle nuances and expression in their voices, in other words, to become a ‘great’ singer yourself. (We’re of course talking only of expression. Few of us can really aspire to singing like Pavarotti.)

And in this, the best way is through imitation, by singing along with good singers.

I would pick a singer you admire.

My personal preference is for singers outside of the classical music world, someone like El Cigala, or Frank Sinatra, or even Bruce Springsteen. (Classical singers are, in my opinion, too stilted and stylized — perhaps overly constrained by their traditions — to make good singing models, Pavarotti notwithstanding.)

If you listen to a singer like El Cigala, you will find that natural phrasing is full of dynamic inflections, it’s never square, it pulsates with energy and life.

   


 

So perhaps you’re saying you’re playing classical music and not flamenco or jazz. Well, listen to this:

   

 

And see if you can hear the same dynamic inflections and nuances. And if you can’t hear them, keep on listening. It takes time to appreciate the extremes in dynamics and inflections of natural phrasing.

I remember practicing my Bach pieces with Alfred Brendel and I was amazed at how many liberties he took with his dynamics and rhythms and how extreme they sounded – to my untrained and unsophisticated ears anyway.

Perhaps the most important quality of natural phrasing is the quality of aliveness in your notes. They’re no longer the dead and inanimate dots on a page, they’re filled with energy and life.

And this is really the key to good phrasing.

How do you make your phrasing (and thereby your playing) come alive?

That’s the subject for my next post.

 

Positioning

June 4th, 2014

When I first started writing the AOV, I had a list of 11 basic principles of virtuosity. Over time, this list eventually shrunk to six.

Why?

Because I began to see that some of these principles are actually subsets of the others.

One of the 11 that was purged is positioning.

Positioning has always been a big factor with me.

Because how you position yourself will determine how efficient you are.

Take a simple example of working in a workspace.

When you work in a workspace, one of the most important things is to keep everything within easy reach. You don’t want to have to run back and forth just to get a chisel or hammer – you’ll be wasting too much time.

You want a chisel? Just reach out and it’s right there.

You want a hammer? Same thing.

But eventually, I realized that positioning is really part of the bigger picture of economy.

For example, when you hold your hand, you want to hold it in such a way that all the fingers are lined up directly above the strings, as close to the strings as possible.

So that when you play, you don’t have to reach out much, you just reach out and the strings are right there under your fingers.

Economy is of course, one of the basic principles of virtuosity and few people will question its importance.

And yet, I’ve often seen players sacrificing economy simple to fulfill some other secondary consideration.

One such is that of how a hand “looks” rather than how it operates.

It’s common to see players trying to hold their hands so that it fits some “textbook model” of right hand positioning, completely disregarding the bigger implications of how that hand position will affect the economy in their plucking.

To make matters worse, when they pluck, they will try to fulfill some imaginary rule of follow-through and push the finger into the palm of the hand as much as possible, again completely ignoring the principle of economy.

It is a kind of insanity which is totally inexplicable to me, because all the evidence points to the contrary. (A similar kind of insanity seems to pervade many religious cults too, where some of the ideas propounded can only be described as general wackiness, and yet there are people who actually believe in them.)

Everything we do is subject to the basic laws of nature.

Whether we choose to follow or ignore these laws, we do so at our own peril.