Identifying the basic elements of virtuosity

June 1st, 2011

I’ve been writing about the basic elements in virtuosity.

To me that’s the way to go – identify these basic elements, work on them, absorb them into every part of your playing and let virtuosity occur naturally to you.

The AOV is basically my list of those essential elements, and came from my own personal experiences – years of playing and teaching.

But you don’t have to go with what I wrote. You can draw up your own list of essential elements.

There’re two ways to do this.

You can do it by analyzing your own playing.

Every time you feel you’re playing well, take note of what’s happening in your playing, the sensations at your fingertips. Try to identify what these sensations are and memorize them. Use physical terms to describe those sensations, terms such as light, heavy, soft, hard, flexible, etc.

Do the same after your performances too. If it was a good performance, ask yourself why it was good, or if it wasn’t so good, ask yourself why it wasn’t so good.

In other words, do a post-performance analysis.

Focus again on physical sensations, what you’re feeling in your hands and fingers, on your rhythmic control, and on anything else that you think made a difference.

Start to catalog these sensations. If you keep on doing it, you’ll begin to notice the same sensations recurring every time you played well, and when you didn’t play well, you’ll notice those sensations were missing.

Especially when you experience a breakthrough, try to remember what it feels like at your fingertips and replicate that feeling and you’ll be able to reproduce the breakthrough every time you play.

The second way is to watch good players play.

Watch their comfort level, their rhythmic control, the economy in their fingers, but especially watch their physical demeanor.

Make a list of all the things that impress you about their playing.

Perhaps it’s their speed, or perhaps their power, or their clarity or control.

List all these qualities down and ask yourself how they achieve these qualities.

For instance speed — how do they get so fast? Look at their movements, try to find clues that will help point you to how they achieve their speed.

Or power, try to discern what it is in their playing that enables them to play with such force and clarity, even at great speeds.

It’s important to note that you must do all this without any preconceptions.

Don’t superimpose your own bias into their playing. For example, don’t try to explain your own particular approach through their playing.

Be completely impartial, open yourself up to new ideas, even to those that may contradict your favorite points of view.

Watching others play is one of the best ways to learn.

But it has its limitations too.

You wouldn’t be able to know what they’re feeling at their fingertips. All you can do is interpret what you see.

That’s the problem with teachers who don’t play. They watch others do it and they try to draw their own conclusions based on what they see. Sometimes they get it right, but more often than not, they get it wrong.

For instance, watch this video of John Williams playing tremolo. (Go to 1:51 in the video.)

When you see this great virtuoso play, it’s quite clear that he’s bringing his fingers upward as he plays and there’s minimal follow-through in his fingers. This totally flies in the face of those who will argue that you have to push in your fingers toward the palm as you pluck and exaggerate the follow-through.

Theory and practice often diverge and none more so than this theory of the follow-through.

It brings me back to the first way, through practicing.

That’s the best way to find out whether something’s just theory or whether it actually works in practice.

Practicing to me is self-exploration. You’re trying out different options, you’re searching for the best way to do something and you’re embedding specific moves into your muscle memory. And you’re experiencing all this at a physical level.

If you do it long enough, sooner or later, your body will know exactly how best to perform what it is you’re practicing and in the simplest and most efficient ways possible. (I should add that to derive maximum benefit from it, you should bring to your practice the same lack of bias as you bring to your observations of other players. Don’t try to impose any preconceived ideas of what is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ to your playing.)

No amount of thinking, theorizing, or arguing your point of view will give you this kind of deep personal knowledge.

When you achieve this level of mastery, this is the time that you should try to identify these basic ingredients that I’ve talked about, the basic elements of virtuosity.

And I’m positive you’ll arrive at the same conclusions as I did years ago, and come up with the same set of basic elements that I wrote about in the AOV.

2 Responses to “Identifying the basic elements of virtuosity”

  1. Douglas Seth Says:

    Very insightful. We learn by doing. So many students are weighed down by dogma of a certain teacher or school of playing. Technique is very personal and it’s important to find “what works for you” especially at the advanced level. Take what is useful and disregard the rest. Great blog, I enjoy reading it! Thanks for sharing so much valuable information.

  2. Philip Hii Says:

    Thanks for the comment. Yes, dogma is never a good thing whether it has to do with one’s religious beliefs or with playing the guitar. And you’re absolutely right about technique being personal. To me, it’s like buying shoes, if you buy one that fits, you still have to wear it in until it fits just right. And yet there’re guitar teachers out there who will demand we all play the same way. It’s like saying, let’s all wear the same size shoes and if they don’t fit, we’ll force them to fit.

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