Sunday, January 9, 2011
Establishing the Possible
Friday evening while practicing, I began reviewing Aftermath, a tremolo piece I wrote many years ago when I first began playing solo. At the time I was still primarily using a plectrum, but I was beginning a return to explore fingerstyle guitar. Not that I necessarily planned to be a soloist, circumstances at the time had just evolved to this point. FingerPaint had dissolved, I had done some work with a sax player and also played with electronic music on my own. But I really felt the need to play live material again, to let go of the signal processing, synth programing, computer editing and just play.
A technical problem with Aftermath is that for the entirety of the piece my second & fourth fingers of my left hand are "anchored" to the fretboard, while my first and third fingers dance about the bass notes. This anchored interval of a fourth induces and stress and strain into my left hand. Since this piece is already complete I have an option on how I learn this as a fingerstyle piece. My immediate concern is how to allow the left hand to be relaxed, flexible, and maintain the quality of the notes.
One of my favorite Guitar Craft aphorisms came to mind - Establish the possible, and move gradually towards the impossible. How can I apply this to this piece of music, any piece of music? I began by simply reviewing the chord shapes to clarify that I still knew the piece. I was pleasantly surprised to see that with out much trouble score that I had still knew the piece. There are two places that are very difficult to play, especially as they come at the end of the piece. I avoided these and played with the tremolo a bit. Three more reviews of the chord sequence and then let go piece for that night.
Yesterday I again began working with Aftermath briefly. At this point I decided to incorporate the Alexander Technique as much as possible whenever I work on this piece. A gentle review of the structure of the music while paying attention to releasing my neck and allowing my shoulders to be wide. Connecting my hips and my head and my feet, inviting in length, before I bring my hands to the guitar.
Today I began by coming into a relationship with my body before I picked up my guitar. Then I looked at the structure of Aftermath in brief bits, releasing my hands from the guitar and allowing them to swing about gently, to and fro, before moving to the next section. I focused on beginning to play only during my out breath. Such a simple idea, that I forget about regularly. But when I do this my body does not "prepare" for the notes with tension and holding of my breath, as much as allows the notes to sound. When I was certain I had the structure clear, I began playing only the bass notes. In this way I was establishing the possibility of fluid transitions while playing. I continued in this way for 20 minutes and then did an AT lie down.
During the lie down I had a sense of the depth and length of how my neck muscles continue into the chest area. I first had this sense using a visualization by an AT teacher whose name now escapes me. Slowly the area of my back that I always notice aching when I begin a lie down released and my shoulders let go into the earth. The notion of Stephen Covey's "begin with the end in mind," came to me and I recalled a recent blog post I read concerning learning a piece of music by working backwards. Check out this informative post by Erica Sipes titled Look Before You Play. She learns her piano pieces from beginning with the last bars of music.
Working backwards is the way for me to approach this piece. Besides the issue of hand fatigue the two trickiest part of this piece await me at the end. I began with the seven bars leading up to the end, where I must release my second finger, which has been anchored for 3 minutes, and smoothly replace it with my first finger. Then the second finger can play the fourth of five bass notes in a chromatic run. Slowly I just played the bass notes, with an aim of allowing my neck, shoulders, and arms to be free. Playing the notes, releasing my hands from the guitar, and then mindfully returning them to play the seven bars again. Eventually adding in the second bass note that is a D# played alternately from the lower bass note in the chromatic run. Pausing again and again, to reestablish my connection with my body and occasionally practicing inhibition of what I intended to play. This mindful approach to learning this part, allowed me to remain calm and alert to my body. Occasionally I noticed when my right wrist would begin to arch or my right shoulder would pull in. Applying the AT principles over and over like this will influence not just this section, or piece of music, but all of my actions.
I eventually added the bass notes from the final eight bars to what I was practicing. I restrained myself from adding in the high notes. My left hand remained relaxed and the confidence of my fingerings increased. And so it goes.