Chopin Nocturne Op 48 No.1

October 12th, 2020

A few weeks after I played a recital in Laredo in 2005, a DVD arrived in the mail. To my surprise, they had recorded the concert without asking me. Looking back, I’m glad they did it.

Here’s one of the pieces on my program—Chopin Nocturne Op. 48, No 1. I think I’ve only played the piece twice in public; this was the second and last time.

Economy 7

September 16th, 2020

I have posted the link to this video before but it’s instructive to watch it again.

Specifically, at 2.55 in the video.

In my earlier post, I mentioned the upward trajectory of the ‘a’ finger at this point, mainly to refute the ‘knuckle’ school of guitar playing, or the ‘follow-through into the palm’ pedagogical trend.

But there’s one aspect that I did not mention and that is what’s driving the ‘upward’ movement in the ‘a’ finger.

One of the most efficient ways to perform a task is to base it off a counter force.

The principle of the lever works along these lines.

When you use a lever to life an object, you’re using the lever to push into the ground thereby producing an opposing force to produce the upward lift.

This is the principle behind the upward trajectory of the ‘a’ finger.

The opposing force in this case is the thumb.

We’ve heard of the opposing thumb principle but this is a bit more subtle.

The thumb not only opposes the fingers but creates the force necessary to drive them.

To do this in the most efficient way, you have to move the fingers upward, not in a hooking motion but in a natural ‘fist-closing’ movement.

Another way to describe the sensation is a kind of ‘squeezing’ action between the thumb and the fingers, or a cork-screw motion.

To bring back my point in the previous post about nothing working in isolation.

Yes, when we see JW’s ‘a’ finger moving upward, it’s tempting to think that this is all there is to it, that all you need to do to reproduce his technique is to move the fingers upward.

But the upward movement is a result of internal opposing forces in his hand.

If you do not replicate the opposing forces, the movement in itself would lack the effortless drive to produce the stream of energy you see in the video.

Economy 6

August 13th, 2020

One thing about guitar playing (and most things in general) is that nothing operates in isolation.

Everything operates as part of a whole, everything we do impacts something else.

For example, how we hold the hand impacts the trajectories of our fingers.

How we hold the wrist impacts the way our thumb and fingers work.

Over the years, I have played in almost every conceivable way possible, sometimes in experimentation, sometimes to try out other ideas, and sometimes unwittingly.

And I’ve found that to create the engine at the fingertips, you’ll have to focus on playing at the fingertips.

First, because the other alternatives of playing from the knuckles or middle joints do not give you the fine control you need at the fingertips.

And second, because generating the engine requires that you play off the fingers against one another and this occurs at the fingertips.

As you bring one finger down to pluck, you’re using that movement to produce a counter action in the next finger.

In the case of two finger “i m” picado, as you bring down the ‘i’ finger, that movement is producing a counter action in the ‘m’ finger to reposition it.

The two actions are working in tandem, like in a dance, all occurring at the fingertips.

That’s why the focus of your actions must be on the fingertips.

It is important to note that the action occurring at the fingertips is only part of the picture. As I mentioned in my earlier articles, the hand is also very much involved in the total playing action.

So yes, it can get overwhelmingly complex if you were to try to analyze what’s going on in the hand and try to micromanage every part of the movement.

To avoid getting bogged down with details (and the centipedal quandary), I would break it down to two things.

First, focus on playing at the fingertips.

Then consolidate your movements by basing your movements off of your hand.

Finally, a little Zen story I read.

There was a young novice in a monastery who was seeking enlightenment.

Everyday, he would ask the Zen master how he could gain enlightenment.

The Zen master soon got tired of his constant questioning and one day, without warning gave the young novice a whack on the head with a stick.

With that whack, the young novice gained instant enlightenment.

Economy 5

August 8th, 2020

Consolidating your fingers in free-strokes is easy compared to doing it in rest-strokes.

Playing a free-stroke arpeggio usually involves three fingers and thumb and it’s easy to work them together as a group.

With rest-strokes and I’m talking abut conventional two-finger rest-strokes, the problem is that you’re only working with two elements—the two fingers.

How do you consolidate with two fingers?

This was the problem I set out to solve when I decided to try to understand Paco de Lucia’s picado technique.

The key lies in “pushing” into the strings with the hand and letting the action release the fingers.

In free-stroke arpeggio playing, the way to employ the hand in the plucking is to pull it back slightly.

In picado playing, it is to push into the strings.

This is the source of a common misunderstanding—that you have to play rest-strokes from the knuckles.

When you push the hand and fingers in, all the joints are naturally locked against one another to form a small arch from the hand to the fingertips.

When you press in, to the observer, the movement in the knuckles would make it appear as if the you are playing from the knuckles.

In actuality, the action is originating from the entire hand, not just the knuckle joints.

You can try it by playing rest-strokes with your ‘i’ and ‘m’ fingers from the knuckles as fast as possible.

Not only will you tire yourself out quickly, you will probably not get much speed.

To find out how this works on the guitar, here’s a simple exercise.

Place the ‘m,’ and ‘i’ fingers on the second string. (I find the second string easier to practice on than the first string.)

Now, gently push the fingers through the strings. Let the pushing action come from the whole hand. This would include the fingers.

Do this several times.

The important thing to note is that you’re pushing the two fingers through together in one action, as if the two fingers are one.

Next, do this exercise again but this time, release the ‘m’ and ‘i’ fingers separately, while still pushing them into the string in one action.

As you do this, the two fingers should produce a kind of “blam, blam” effect. This is because you’re playing them one after another in quick succession.

It sounds simple but this is really the secret to fast rest-strokes.

You do not try to play the notes individually; instead you play them in groups of twos.

Again, in real life application, there’re other factors that come into play. For example, to connect the two-note groups and make them occur seamless, you would have to apply another principle which involves creating the ‘engine’ at the fingertips.

This principle is a little complicated so I will leave that for another article.

But the fundamental principle of pushing in the hand and allowing the two fingers to work as one remains the same.

Economy 4

August 7th, 2020

Do this little exercise.

Place your three right-hand fingers against the side of a desk or any flat surface (or vice versa if you’re left handed.)

Now, push the hand through.

Your fingers will naturally follow, clear the desk and fall to the underside of the desk.

Now, do it again, this time letting the fingers clear the desk one by one in sequence. So as you push your hand through, let the ‘a’ finger first clear the desk, then the ‘m;, and then the ‘i.’

It is important that you do not apply any force in the fingers as you do this.

In other words, the movements in the fingers are totally passive.

Now,we’ll apply the principle to the guitar.

Place the three fingers on the first string. Pull the hand back (back as in toward your elbow) slightly, feel the tension in the strings as you do this.

Again, don’t exert any force in the fingers. Let them respond to the tension produced by the hand pulling at the strings.

Next, pull the hand back more and as you do so, let this action cause the three fingers to clear the string together. This is analogous to pushing your hand past the desk.

Do this again, this time instead of letting the fingers move together, allow them to release the string one by one.

Do this a few times to understand the sensation,

You’re not actively plucking the string. It’s the pulling action in the hand that’s causing the plucking to take place.

When you pull the hand back, this action is causing your fingers to release the string.

This principle is one of the secrets to speed on the guitar.

You’re actively playing with your hand and the fingers become secondary participants in the actions.

All they do is release the actions.

In actual application, it’s a bit more complex, because there’re other elements at play but the basic principle is the same.

So when trying to get speed on the guitar, think beyond finger speed, think of how you can utilize the energy in the hand to help you move your fingers.

Next, how to apply the principle in rest-strokes.

Economy 3

August 7th, 2020

As I mentioned in the AOV, economy is a fundamental aspect of virtuosity.

It’s a simple concept and few will question it. The problem is in implementation.

As in many things in life, there’re two basic ways to accomplishing it, 1. You can try to enforce it or 2. You can create the conditions for it to occur naturally.

Enforcing requires work; you’ll have to constantly monitor what you’re doing. And most of the time, it doesn’t work, because the underlying conditions may be against it.

Creating conditions is a much better option—conditions for it to occur naturally.

To do this, you integrate the principle into your body mechanics.

In the case of the right hand, you’ll have to move in such a way that your movements naturally produce economy.

As I’ve written before, this means focusing your movements at the fingertips.

Focusing your movements at the fingertips means that you initiate the strokes with your fingertips.

You’re not concerned about which joint is moving, you’re focused only on moving your fingertips.

The best way to understand this is to think of the action of scratching.

When you scratch yourself, you’re not thinking about which joint is moving, or in what order or whether you have any follow-through in your fingers.

You just scratch, and you let your innate finger intelligence do its work naturally, the way nature intended, in the background.

But there’s another angle to playing at the fingertips which has not been dealt with much before.

And this is what happens in the fingers, beneath the surface.

When you watch good players play, do they look like they’re working hard at being fast; do they look like they’re trying to get their fingers to move fast?

No, they make it look easy and effortless.

And to them it is easy and effortless, because they’ve learned to tap into the energy that resides at our fingertips.

They’re able to make them work together in what might be best described as an ‘engine’ within the fingers,

To illustrate this ‘engine,’ think of the three fingers and thumb as one unit.

When you pluck a series of notes, you move them as one integrated unit, they do not operate alone.

Let’s take an example of playing a “p a m i.”

When you pluck the “p” the movement creates momentum which produces a strong forward push to the “a” finger, which in turn produces a strong forward drive to the “m,” which in turn produces the same drive to the “i” and then back to the “p.”

This forward motion is built into the strokes.

And it is the secret to the effortless technique of good players.

One way to try to experience this technique is to think of a corkscrew motion in the fingers.

If you were to do a corkscrew movement with your thumb and fingers, you will see that as one finger moves in, the next one is immediately following, and the next, and the next in a chain of interlocking actions.

As you move your thumb forward, the ‘a,’ ‘m,’ and ‘i’ fingers are already moving in sequence, one following the other.

It is this chain of movements that produce the sensation of each finger setting off the next.

To be able to apply the technique, it is crucial you position the fingers in an optimal position, all with similar curvatures, hovering right above the strings.

And it’s absolutely critical that you focus all your movements at the fingertips.

In the next two articles, I’ll delve into how the principle works in free stroke arpeggios and in rest-strokes scales.

Using the release to generate speed

March 11th, 2020

One of the basic ways to produce effortless power as described in the AOV is by releasing energy rather than by exerting more force.

You store power and then you release it in one spontaneous action.

The important thing to note is that the release is a complete letting go. It’s like an exhalation, completely effortless.

An analogy I like to use is that of letting go a bowstring. This analogy is especially apt on the guitar because you can think of the guitar strings as bowstrings.

When you pluck, you’re letting go each string like a bowstring.

The release I’ve been writing about occurs at the moment of plucking—the action of plucking is the moment of release—the two are one and the same.

However, the principle of release occurs at another level—during the initiation of a stroke or series of strokes.

Let’s see this in the context of the tremolo.

A tremolo is a smooth sequence of notes with a repeating pattern of ‘p a m i’. These four-note consolidated patterns are performed in one action as opposed to four separate motions.

Now you can initiate the strokes by simply doing them as a group.

But a more efficient way to perform them and to generate speed is by thinking of each note in the group as a ‘trigger’ to the next.

As soon as you pluck one note, let the release of that stroke propel you to the next note.

Here’s a description of the sequence of actions.

  1. Pluck the bass note with the thumb; use the energy released in the release of the thumb stroke to bring your ‘a’ finger to the string.
  2. Pluck the ‘a’ finger; use the energy in the release of the ‘a’ finger to bring the ‘m’ finger to the string.
  3. Pluck the ‘m finger; use the energy released to bring the ‘i’ finger to the string.
  4. Pluck the ‘i’ finger; use the energy released to propel your thumb to the string.

In actual performance, these actions will occur in a split second.

The critical factor in all these actions is the release.

Each stroke is a release of energy and this release becomes the ‘trigger’ which drives the next note.

The difference between the ‘trigger’ concept and that of simply playing the notes as a consolidated group is that there is tremendous forward motion in the ‘trigger.’

The ‘trigger’ produces incredible energy which drives your actions forward.

And because it occurs at the individual note level, you have good control over each note even at high speeds.

The speed produced this way is absolutely effortless because it’s based on the release of energy and because it’s so effortless, you can achieve much greater speed than you can otherwise achieve by simply trying to get your fingers to go fast.

The concept is easy to understand but implementation is much more difficult.

This is because to execute these actions effectively, the hand has to be positioned just right—all the fingers lined up above the strings, each one having equal access to the strings.

The energy in the fingers has to flow completely unimpeded by tension or artificiality and following the most natural paths in the fingers.

Information vs. Knowledge /2

January 22nd, 2020

One of the hardest things to do in teaching is trying to convey an experiential thing to someone who’s never experienced it.

Most of the time, the solution is to resort to analogies.

For example, if I want to describe what it feels like to be in Houston to someone who’s never been to the city, I’d try to draw on the person’s other experiences.

So if the person has never been to Houston but has been to San Antonio, I would say Houston’s like San Antonio except it’s perhaps twenty times bigger and the traffic is a lot crazier. (This is just an example, and not to be taken literally.)

Analogies help but there’re still some things that are almost impossible to describe in words.

One of them is the sensation at the fingertips when you play.

In describing the sensation of release at the fingertips, over the years, I’ve used the analogy of letting go an arrow. I’ve also called it a snapping action but that too seems inadequate.

In actual teaching situations, I’ve found it helpful to perform the plucking action on the student’s hand. This way, they could physically feel the relaxation and the release at my fingertips.

There’s one thing however that eludes me and I’m sill trying to find the best analogy.

This is the ‘engine’ at the fingertips when you play.

This is the sensation of all the fingers working together at the fingertips, each one setting the next one off.

The engine is the unseen element in the super economical efficient right hand stroke I’ve described before.

In an earlier post, I’ve even tried to illustrate the efficient stroke with videos, but the videos do not show one thing and that’s what’s going on within the fingers.

So I’ll try to describe the sensation again.

The sensation is of the fingers working together as one unit, like an engine.

In a simple arpeggio, one finger will activate the string in a quick letting go of the string, like that of letting go an arrow. (When you let go an arrow, there’s a complete release of tension in the letting go. That’s the sensation at the fingertips, a complete letting go of all tension.)

The activation is not simply the finger pushing through the string.

The tension and resistance of the string is very much involved.

The finger comes into contact with the string, feels the resistance, there’s a sensation of slight give at the fingertip and then the finger snaps through the resistance.

The action of release is almost like falling out of balance.

This sense of ‘falling’ is immediately counteracted by the next finger in an action that is directly set off by the motion in the first finger.

The second action is a direct consequence of the first; it’s triggered by the letting go of the first action, the ‘falling.’ So it’s not an independent action occurring in isolation. It’s directly tied to the first action.

In past writings, I’ve used the word ‘propelled’ to describe the sensation of one action setting off another.

To continue the arpeggio, the second action immediately sets off the third finger in the same way and in this way, energy is seamlessly transferred from one stroke to the next to the next.

Think of the series of actions as all interlinked together in one automatic chain reaction of actions.

One action sets off another and another and the actions are all occurring at the fingertips which means there’s very little motion.

At one level, you can describe the sensation as consolidation because you’re playing a series of notes in one quick action, but consolidation in itself does not fully explain the forward propelling motion at the fingertips.

Some will say it’s planting and preparation. But the word ‘planting’ has a static quality whereas the sensation in this forward moving mechanism is dynamic.

It’s very alive, you feel as if the fingertips are charged with a special kind of energy that’s constantly powering you forward.

With this engine powering you forward, notes ripple effortlessly and because it’s all based on release, you can sustain it over long periods without any loss of stamina.

So will the above description help in conveying the experiential sensation?

At this level of description, it’s just information of course.

But information can be useful if it gives you some pointers on what to expect, what to look out for.

And this is the only reason for trying to convey it.

The key in practicing is that when you experience a breakthrough, when you suddenly understand a technique at the experiential level, try to remember the sensation in your fingers, especially at the fingertips.

You’ll find that there’s a special sensation when you’re able to perform the technique.

Because the thing with breakthroughs is that, you may have a breakthrough one day and then lose it the next.

By trying to remember the sensation, you’ll be able to recapture that sensation and replicate that breakthrough again.