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.

Information vs. knowledge

January 6th, 2020

As a teacher and player, I have always understood the difference between information and knowledge.

To put it in another way, information is the proverbial finger, knowledge is the moon.

Good information will help point you to the moon but it is in itself, not the moon.

This is important to know in any search for mastery and wisdom.

Because sometimes, in our search for mastery, we could get carried away by an obsession with information to the detriment of knowledge.

The key difference between information and knowledge is that knowledge is experiential.

For instance, you may want to find out how a certain player achieves a certain technique.

So you analyze his movements, you derive certain principles about how he does what he does.

All this is information. You’re gleaning information from his playing. But that information in itself is useless because you’re physically still not able to do what he does.

All that information hasn’t translated into real technique at your fingertips.

But suppose you’re fired up with what you discovered, and you practice hard on those principles. You try to emulate what you’ve learned.

And if what you’ve gleaned is correct, one day, you’ll begin to start experiencing a change in your playing. There’s a new sense of confidence. Speed is rippling effortlessly from your fingertips.

That information has translated into knowledge.

You “know” how that information actually works at an experiential level.

To give another example, over the past summer, I decided to rent a car and drive around Germany.

To prepare for the trip, I gathered information on traffic rules in Germany; I went to many online forums and read up on driving on the autobahn.

So I had a lot of information when I arrived, but the minute I drove out from the airport in Frankfurt, it was a complete shock. Nothing had prepared me for the actual experience of actually being on a German road.

It was as if all the information that I had acquired were useless and they were.

But after a few days of actual driving, I began to understand how to navigate my way through the bewildering signs and lanes.

The only way I acquired this knowledge was through doing, through experiencing.

Information is important. I’ve spent a good deal of time trying to acquire them from different sources.

I’ve studied the great players, I’ve read many books, I’ve listened to many good players and learned from them, but at the end of the day, all that information is useless if I didn’t apply them.

So it’s important to move from information to knowledge, and the only way to do that is through experiencing, through practice.

The problem with information is that sometimes, people mistake them for knowledge.

And this often leads to territoriality. Because all they have is information, and they lack experiential knowledge, they tend to guard their particular information jealously and will defend it to the death (figuratively).

This is another difference between information and knowledge.

People with knowledge tend to be less defensive. They understand that at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter what the information is.

Because information is just the means to the knowledge, the finger pointing at the moon.

If you already have the moon, why worry about the finger at all?

The classic position

June 28th, 2019

Over the years, I’ve experimented with different right hand positions but in the end, I always come back to the ‘classic position.’

What’s the classic position?

You can call it the John Williams or the Segovia position.

The classic position is one that’s optimized for the hand.

Its main feature is the slight leaning to the left with the thumb and index finger forming the famous ‘Segovia triangle’ with the string.

The famous ‘Segovia triangle’ from V Bobri’s book

There’s one main reason why this hand position is so efficient.

If you were to hold your right fist in a loose fist and bring it to your eyes, you’ll see that all the fingers are gently sloping to the left.

This has one crucial ramification.

It means that the most efficient and natural way to play is with the fingers positioned at an angle to the strings, which means that the fingers will be plucking with the left side of the fingernails.

And this is an essential part of the classic position.

You hold your hand so that the fingers are at an angle (from your vantage view) and the index finger and thumb forming a little triangle with the string.

There’s another reason why this is so efficient.

When you pluck the strings with the fingers at an angle, with the left side of the nail, you’re not attacking the string face on. (‘Attack’ here simply means pluck.)

Instead you’re delivering a glancing blow to the string. This minimizes resistance in the string and it’s amazing how effortless the stroke becomes when you don’t pluck the string face on.

But there’s an even greater benefit to the classic position.

When you lean the hand to the left, you’re creating space for the thumb to move naturally.

The thumb is always a problem especially if you were to hold the fingers vertically (to the strings). The classic position solves that problem. With the fingers leaning (or sloping) away, the thumb has room to move.

Interestingly enough, if you were to watch harpists, you will find that they also pluck with the corner of their fingertips.

if you’re having problems with speed, accuracy and security, you might want to re evaluate your right hand position.

As mentioned earlier, I’ve tried different positions and although I could play in all of them, I find the classic position is the best for speed and accuracy mainly because it’s based on our natural hand physiology.

The best way to understand the classic position is to watch the great John Williams.

Watch the extreme economy in his strokes, the relaxation in his hands, and the ease with which he plays.

No, you don’t want to force your hand to look like his, but it’s definitely useful to try to understand the basic principles underlying that incredible technique.

1st Del Mar Summer Guitar Camp

May 27th, 2019

This year is a first. We will be hosting the 1st Del Mar Summer Guitar Camp. This is something I have wanted to do for a long time but other commitments had prevented me from doing it before.

The camp is more appropriately described as a boot camp with the emphasis on developing technique and sight reading.

There’re three areas of technique that we will be focusing on.

The first area is developing free-stroke technique. The basic strategy is to help students find the most natural right hand position (or left hand position if the student is left handed) for themselves and develop an efficient free-stroke technique through a regimen of exercises.

The second area is developing tremolo technique. The tremolo is an important technique to help players learn how to produce an even consistent sound. Students will practice a series of exercises to develop the muscle memory required to achieve a consistent tone.

The third area is developing rest-stroke scale technique. An efficient rest-stroke technique is based on a good free-stroke technique. The student will be taught how to transition from the free-stroke to the rest-stroke.

Since the camp is over the course of three days, each morning is devoted to a specific area.

In the afternoon, students will be divided into small ensembles where the emphasis is on sight-reading. Sight-reading is a skill and students will learn the strategies and techniques needed in sight reading.

During the camp, I will be sharing a special cheat-sheet of guitar tricks and techniques.

For me, playing the guitar well has always meant two things.

First, a persistent results-driven never-give-up approach, based on practice—hours of practice. There is no substitute for doing it over and over to master something.

Second, knowledge of specific skills to achieve specific techniques.

This is where the cheat sheet comes in. How do you develop speed effortlessly? How do you develop power and dynamic range without having to force the fingers? How do you get an even tremolo by positioning your fingers so all the fingers have equal access to the strings? All these are in the cheat sheet.

The camp will take place from June 18-20, 2019 and is designed specially for students from the Corpus Christi Independent School District. We have an incredible guitar scene in the city and the camp will make it even more special.

Del Mar/CCISD Guitar Orchestra

Del Mar/CCISD Guitar Orchestra with guest conductor Mr. Paul Fuentes

Ongoing project 2

March 15th, 2019

You might have guessed that I’ve been busy working on my ongoing project.

Here is a little scale study I learned from a Paco de Lucia interview. While the interview was going on, he was twiddling his fingers with this scale and saying something to this effect, that he had to practice because he was “not very fast.” That last part has to be the understatement of the year.

No, haven’t gotten to his speed yet but the basic fundamentals are there.


Etude No 2 (excerpt) by Juan Serrano

March 14th, 2019

Practice video of a short excerpt from Etude No 2 by Juan Serrano. I’ve been practicing this study mainly for the scale at the end.

Rest-stroke scale study

March 13th, 2019

A practice video of a scale study I learned from flamenco guitarist Vahagni in one of his videos. Not sure who wrote it but I assume it is Vahagni. I decided to take out the line played by the thumb at the end to make it strictly a two-finger scale exercise.