Here’s a short video on focusing your playing at the fingertips.
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.
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 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.
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?
I teach a class on guitar pedagogy at the university.
In the class, at the beginning of the semester, before anything else, we discuss philosophy—the basic question of why we want to teach.
Awareness of philosophy is important because it determines our teaching approach and methodology.
Over the years, I’ve noted different philosophies to teaching.
And it’s interesting how they say more about the teacher than the methodology itself.
For example, some teachers like to focus on small details, on minutiae.
They try to micromanage every aspect of the student’s playing, down to which joint to move and in what order.
Others focus on the big picture, on getting the students to start playing without too much emphasis on technicalities.
Some like to start the student with chords because they think reading music is too difficult for beginners.
Then again, some prefer to start with classical repertoire straight away.
There’s of course no one way to teach.
All these methodologies are valid as long as they get the students to learn.
In fact, I believe a good diversity of approaches is good.
Because every student is unique. You can’t force a one-size-fits-all method onto every student.
There’re some students who work best under strict guidance and those who work best when they’re left to their own devices. (The latter would be me.)
Not to mention the differences in physiology between students.
The only criterion in accessing the effectiveness of a method is whether students are learning.
If a student does not learn, if the method drives the student away, then we have failed as teachers.
In all the years I have taught the class, I have never tried to force any one philosophy onto my students.
I believe it’s best for them to come up with their own approaches and philosophy.
In our discussions, we would explore different philosophies and examine the strategies in different method books.
And at the end of the semester, my only requirement is that the final assignment is well thought out and systematic.
The actual details do not matter. In fact, I’ve found that most of the assignments I get back reflect a completely different viewpoint and approach from mine.
And that is good. It shows I’ve done my job.
The worst thing a teacher can do is try to make the student into a clone of him/her.
That’s not education, that’s brainwashing.
So what is my philosophy towards teaching?
To me, it’s in one simple goal.
And that is to elevate the student, uplift their life with music and enable them to find self expression through the guitar.
That to me is the only goal.
It’s not my job to try to turn every student into a great player. That would be imposing my agenda onto the student, more of an ego trip than teaching.
Of course, when a student shows promise and start to advance rapidly, I get excited and would do all I can to help the student advance even more.
There’s nothing more rewarding than to see someone who didn’t play a note before they came to you and seeing them achieve greatness in their playing.
But most of the time, I stay out of the way.
I see the role of a teacher as more of a guide.
It’s like the student is on a journey to scale a mountain and I’m there to show them the way but I can’t climb the mountain for them.
The teacher is there not to enforce some personal agenda, not to use the students to try out ideas or to experiment upon.
The worst case of self interest I’ve seen is when a teacher only gives students his own compositions to play, whether it’s in simple exercises or in repertoire.
What can the student do except to learn those pieces? They can’t say no.
To me, it’s using the student for one’s own purpose and forcing yourself onto the student.
There’s a quote I like to share with my students.
It’s from the great Japanese educator Tsunesaburo Makiguchi (paraphrased by Robyn Griggs Lawrence).
“The essence of education is not to transfer knowledge; it is to guide the learning process, to put responsibility for study into the students’ own hands.”
One of the great advantages of living in the 21st century is YouTube. (I think I’ve mentioned that before.)
Now, you can watch your favorite player any time of the day.
You can slow his playing down, figure out fingerings, analyze the trajectories of his strokes, etc.
This is a great advantage and one which I wish I had back in those LP and cassette days, but like everything else, there’s a downside to it.
When you get so involved with the visuals, it’s easy to miss other less observable aspects.
I’m referring specifically to the unseen elements of playing, to what’s going on within the player’s body, what the player is feeling and experiencing.
For example, one of the secrets of technique is the ability to generate speed and movement, to produce energy effortlessly.
This is something you can’t see in videos.
Yet it is central to technique.
For example, you can’t produce speed by simply trying to make your fingers move faster. That’ll only create tension.
To get speed, you’ll have to tap into the flows of energy within your body and learn how to capture it and use it to propel your fingers forward.
When you’re able to access this energy, you’ll literally feel as if your fingers are on fire and playing themselves.
One of the upsides to YouTube happens to be the many video lessons available.
There’s one in particular that caught my eye the other day.
It’s Maestro Romero explaining the apoyando and how he uses his arm.
If you were to watch this video, you might miss that part altogether, it’s over so fast but it’s really a key to his playing (at least, to me anyway.)
Here’s the Maestro trying to explain it.
About 48 seconds into the video, you’ll hear him saying, “I think not only fingers but I engage a little bit… the arm.”
Now why the arm?
I believe it has to do with creating that energy in the body.
Watch how he pulls (or pushes) at the strings slightly before letting go of them in the plucking. This pull (or push) is apparent in the slight give in his fingertips before he plucks.
That give is the result of the finger encountering the resistance in the string.
When you allow the fingertip to give, that give is creating potential energy which you release in the plucking action.
You then harness this energy and use it to propel you to the next note, creating a chain reaction of actions which are self driven.
The effect is as if you have an automated engine in the fingers producing speed and power effortlessly.
Back to the point about videos.
When I was learning the guitar, we had no such visual aids.
Fortunately, even in a place as remote as Borneo, I was able to get the occasional LP and cassette of Segovia and John Williams.
And I remember spending hours listening to JW and trying to sound like him.
There’s one advantage to not having visuals because then you’re able to focus 100% of your attention on the sound.
And what I heard in his sound was energy, especially in pieces like Asturias.
I heard other things of course—his incredible consistency of sound, his fluidity, the beautiful phrasing—but above all else, what I heard was the power and energy in his playing.
And in my practice, that was what I tried to capture, the energy and fluidity.
I’ve heard it said that there’s a curse in every blessing and a blessing in every curse.
But I believe that if we’re aware of the curse in the blessing, we can make a blessing a double blessing.
In other words, don’t get too obsessed by visuals, close your eyes sometimes and listen to the sound.
But don’t get seduced by pretty sounds only. Go beyond the superficial aspects of sound to its heart which is the energy.
This is really the key to the player’s playing.
If you want to play like him, learn to capture his energy.
And in the process too, you might find that your visuals will start to match his. You might end up playing like him too.
That’s of course not important. It’s how you sound, not how you look that matters.
Two videos I recorded recently.
La Valse d’Amelie from the movie “Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulain.”
Prelude No 1 from a collection of “Useful Preludes” in a Tarrega method book.