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Thursday, March 22, 2018

Keeping a journal for....useful hints and tips

I read a lot about people keeping logs/excel spreadsheets/ goals lists (in fact I think I had one of those at one time) but it seems to have gone by the wayside in recent months.   I do keep an online progress journal on another site, but even that has developed into an informal soundcloud documentation of where I am with various pieces.  So that's not really a 'system' either.  What I have been doing of late is writing down (in a little book, longhand, with an actual writing implement) things I discover during my practice sessions. Useful, because my short term memory doesn't seem to translate into long term memory at all well, and scanning it before I start reminds me what specifically I need to be working on as opposed to just practicing a particular piece or exercise...

What do I write?  Often there are themes.  Currently the theme is relaxation.   Everything from building in "relaxation reminders" when playing a piece (to avoid getting more and more tense),  to  practicing slurs and remembering to relax the 'other' finger.   There's a whole chapter on this in  the natural classical guitar  by Lee Ryan including some interesting exercises to learn to 'actively' relax.  Which reminds me: I need to write one or 2 down to remind me to practice them.

Another thing I'm finding useful is to play pieces or parts of pieces with the iphone recording - and then writing down areas to work on after listening -  it helps to focus if I write it down.   I just started practicing the De Visee Prelude again and this was what I heard on the first run through...
- need to relax on initial phrase - otherwise it's hard to move
- fingers on same fret need to be closer to avoid buzz
- Following section is too loud too soon...
- Check score -  G is an 8th and can be released, which will help avoid the stretch
- Shift to G chord more consistent if hand is parallel
- Try ponticello instead of loud to contrast voices
 -Chord sequence is too abrupt - give it more space and legato
- Start decrescendo later (on A)
- First trill should be quieter
- Slur section needs to be quieter and even tempo
- Last note is too loud and need to hear the top note...

Another use for the book - I'm woefully inconsistent in practicing technical exercises, so I'm using them to warm up with.  Today I wrote
- Boardwalk - practice placement of 4 which is always too flat.
- Use the Brouwer piece to warm up.
- Learn required artificial harmonic tunes

It might be time to get a bullet tracker (see pic)....

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Self defeating practice. Yikes!

I was hoping I could post an improved soundclip this week but it is not to be.  I’ve had worse weeks, guitar wise. Just can’t remember when. Not helped by having not one but two messed up nails...So I’m going to remind myself of all the things I do on a regular basis that thwart progress๐Ÿค”

- Working on something else instead of  things I want to improve. 
- Trying to fix a phrase instead of a measure, or a measure instead of a single shift
- Trying to fix a problem without identifying exactly what the problem is
- Trying to fix a problem without figuring out a workable solution...
- Trying to fix a problem with a method thats not working, instead of looking for alternatives 
- And the perennial ...
          Ignoring the music
-        Confusing working on a piece with running it
- And of course ignoring my guitar teacher’s advice!  

Aaaaagh! Patience! So what if I spent an entire week working on damping and made it sound worse? At least now I know the extremes: everything ringing over vs. overly aggressive damping. And if the work on phrasing didn’t quite work? At least I am more aware of what I’m aiming for. So although it’s disappointing to start over, I could compare it to being back at the start of a journey, but now I have a more detailed map to guide the second attempt....

Monday, February 19, 2018

Is there such a thing as "active" relaxation?...

Playing lightly is perhaps a necessity for playing "well" - and I've tried various techniques to ease up on the pressure with limited degrees of success.  Playing buzz scales beforehand, or playing through pieces so lightly that they buzz is one method, but that has limited applicability when you have to apply a certain amount of pressure or your fingers sli___ide back together.  What needs to happen is for the pressure to release as soon as it isn't needed.  But if you're me, once you apply the pressure, it tends to stay on. This leads to a merciless build up of tension on progressing through a piece until moving at all is a major challenge. And then there's the additional problem of tensing up just because there is something challenging ahead - a fast shift, or a challenging stretch for instance - totally a recipe for not making it!
Why am I thinking about this now?  This semester I have a part in the orchestra that is a simple one line melody.  No problem, right?  Wrong!  It's very slow and very exposed, IOW a messed up note will be all too noticeable.  Compounded by a major shift 2 notes in.   Guess who tenses up and finds a straightforward shift difficult??
So I figured there is a need to be able to relax on demand. Easier said than done, of course and not something that seems to be taught as a separate skill. Once relaxed, the shift is easy, moving is easy, in fact the whole process of playing is much easier, so why can't I do it?  Probably because I don't actually know how to 'turn on' relaxation.  I've tried thinking about it beforehand but somehow it always gets lost in the playing of the music, thinking ahead etc, so I obviously need to slow it down. Not the whole thing, but precisely where I need to be thinking about relaxing.  So tonight I'm going to experiment with taking that piece and adding a beat before every shift with the goal of using that time to make my hand relax.   Maybe once I get that, I will be able to progress to relaxing without having 'thinking time'.  We shall see!

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Back to an acoustic guitar technique..one minute chord switch.

from guitaralliance.com
I spent a few months mucking around on a steel string guitar before going over to the dark side (classical) a few years ago, and when learning to switch between chords I found that the technique taught at JustinGuitar called "one minute chord switch" was surprisingly successful.  It involves switching back and forth between 2 chords for (guess what?) one minute. Somewhere around the 40 second mark the fingers seem to get in the groove and the switch becomes much easier (and faster).  I hadn't had reason to think about this for quite a while - however in our latest orchestra part I've been struggling to switch between a chord on 4th, followed immediately by an awkward chord at 1st and then a barre chord on the 10th fret with only an eighth note in between,  Either one chord or the other was muffled or I just didn't get there in time.  Then I remembered the one minute technique, and after only a couple of "minutes" of practice I'm much sooo... much closer.  Can't say I'm quite there yet, but it doesn't seem so impossible as it did a week ago. Try it and see if it works for you!

Thursday, February 1, 2018

(More) thoughts on visualization and memorization

The only time I have ever visualized the fretboard is when trying to fall asleep - doing 6-string scales in your head is much better than counting sheep! Even though it's my understanding that visualization is an important part of memorization for guitarists (and other musicians), it's not something that I've ever thought I could do.  Sometimes I can't even remember how to start a piece until I pick up the guitar, and then my fingers do that muscle memory thing (AKA context-dependent memory).

However, I recently started to work on a piece for orchestra (see below) - all single line melody but in just about every position on the fretboard between 2nd and 14th, the way our conductor has it arranged.  I concluded I would actually have to learn the piece (as opposed reading along after familiarizing myself with it beforehand) because of all the shifts (for more info on shifting, check out Zane's excellent lesson here!).

So after I replaced the strings on my guitar  - again - (what is it with those handmade strings still not staying in tune 10 days later??), instead of torturing myself with the out-of-tune guitar I was idly perusing the sheet music for the orchestra piece.   And I found myself visualizing where it would be played on the fretboard.   I don't know if it it's because it's a single, uncomplicated melody line, or because I've spent a lot of time trying to fall asleep with scales recently (!) but it didn't seem nearly as impossible as it has the few other times I've tried, and failed, to do this. Of course I was just doing what I do with the scales, figuring out the positions of the notes, ignoring the right hand and left hand fingering.  But If I have those it wouldn't be a large step to repeating the process without looking at the music. 

And maybe that's the key - make it super-simple to start with then add what you need later -  maybe the reason I've not been able to do it is because I've been trying to do too much at one time - pieces that are too hard, memorizing everything at once.  Instead maybe it needs to be digested in small chunks.  It could in fact be a stepwise process - I might need a lot of steps, but not so many compared with a hundred partially correct repetitions perhaps!

So this is my draft plan for the orchestra piece this week (maybe in sections, not the whole thing at once).

1. With Guitar... ( I did this already, so will be starting on #2)
- Work out where to play it on the guitar with the score and mark in positions and fingerings
- Read it through with the guitar until it's "familiar"

2. Without Guitar...
- Read score trying to remember positions on fretboard.
- Remove score and visualize notes and positions.

3. With Guitar
- Read score playing silently with LH trying to remember, i.e. adding kinesthetic memory to the visual memory in 1.
- Remove guitar and visualize playing the piece with the left hand, remove score and repeat.

4. With Guitar
- Try playing piece from memory.  Work our RH fingering/issues.  Mark them on the score.
- Remove guitar and visualize playing piece both hands using score.

5. Visualize piece - no guitar, no score.

I'm a little hazy on the steps that might be needed, but have a suspicion I might need all of these and then some ;) I'll update when I've had some practice at it, and believe me, I will be practicing because we have to rehearse it next week!

 Stay tuned (groan)!

Monday, January 22, 2018

Sight reading resources that should work

So as anyone who has glanced at this blog is aware, I suck at sight reading.  I didn't start learning to read while playing as most beginning classical guitarists do, instead I was much more comfortable memorizing and playing from memory.  Fine, this has worked out OK in the most part, except for just a few drawbacks, including (but not limited to)

- not knowing where I am if my GT points at the music,
- getting notes wrong and not realizing it,
- ignoring dynamics and tempo markings,
- having way too much work to do in orchestra ( admittedly I actually do read the music as I'm playing in orchestra providing I've figured out where to play it in advance and committed that to memory).

So I've been on a mission to improve.  All the advice says to do a little bit each day.  Fine.  I bought some excellent books designed to practice reading and worked through them.  However being old and slow, I found that I wasn't improving noticeably, and further the books got too hard, too fast for me.  I needed something where I could progress at my own pace with lots of repetition.

We are undoubtedly blessed with a wealth of free and paid resources on the web, however which ones are worth pursuing?  The first really useful resource (mostly because I can set it at a level that is just a bit more than comfortable and repeat endless examples) is sightreadingfactory.com.  It's reasonably priced and has a huge variety of options for customization, including # of measures, position, notes, key sig, accidentals, leaps, rhythm difficulty, syncopation, disappearing measures, etc.   The big thing (apart from the endless examples) that makes this worth the subscription money is that it plays the examples along with you so you have real time feedback on how close you are to what's actually written.  So I'm still doing C major in 1st 5th and 7th... but planning on adding G soon ๐Ÿ˜‰  Another site that I haven't tried (because it is MUCH more expensive) is sightreadingmastery.com  Keep me posted if you try it and find it is super-helpful!

One limitation of the 'factory' is that it is all single line music.  This is all very well, but in my experience guitar music has enough intervals, chords, and partial chords to completely throw me off even when I'm happily managing to read the single notes.   So while searching for a site that would help with learning to translate groups of dots on the page to shapes on the fretboard without having to laboriously figure out each note, I came across  fundamental-changes site:  written by Rob Thorpe.  It's actually the 5th in a series to learn sight reading from scratch with lots of examples - in fact I probably need to go back to the prior pages before getting into full chords.  It also has a lot of recommended books that support and expand upon the examples on the site.

Want some real music to practice on?  There's an almost limitless supply on Delcamp of course, however they're indexed by composer and not graded, so you may have to hunt around for pieces that are the appropriate level.  However if you sign up on Delcamp.net  and post a couple of times, you get access to lots of graded pieces to practice on (right at the bottom of the rather confusing table of menus),  so you can pick the difficulty that works for you.

Now all I have to do is follow through on my own best intentions and keep at it!

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

When is it time to...?

There are certain things we know we are supposed to do in the never-ending quest to play more elegantly but we don't.  Why not?  Maybe we just don't feel it makes a difference, or it's takes too much work to change, or there are just too many other things to concentrate on...  you know the things I'm talking about --  Pressing as lightly as possible on the fingerboard, making sure your left hand is parallel to the fretboard,  keeping your left hand in close to the guitar neck so you don't bend your wrist inviting an injury,  playing right on your fingertips, playing close to the frets, keeping your fingers ready to play and close close close to that fingerboard at all times - etc.  and that's just the left hand!   I'm sure there are some of you out there that are thinking that this doesn't apply to you - (you perfect students - you already did all those things the first time you were told) - but woe is me, I didn't.

I agree that there is always something that rises to the top of the priority list for "fixing" and it rarely seems to incorporate the more subtle differences.  I see YT videos of quite accomplished players with their wrists way out and bent at wince-worthy angles yet playing beautifully, so there are some things that maybe never rise to the top of the list out of necessity - or maybe they know something I don't - it has happened ๐Ÿ˜‚.

So when is it time to buckle down and do something about those technique things we've been ignoring?  For me,  it's usually not until something forces me to change my technique - IOW it just won't work without (though being called out in public works too - don't ask).  As an example, I was finding that during the first - fifth shift on the first string in Maria Luisa I was dropping off the side of the fingerboard about 1 in 8 attempts. This wouldn't have mattered so much if I didn't have to do that shift 8 times!  One of my friends helpfully slowed down the video frame by frame of me attempting the shift - was my hand parallel (no), were my fingers prepared to land? (no) were they on their tips (no) and was my hand next to the fingerboard with fingers curled? (you can guess the answer).   I had to fix all those things before I could reliably stay on track during the shift up the fingerboard, but until that point it hadn't really bothered me that I wasn't quite doing it right.  Having learned what it feels like to do it that way, interestingly some of it is carrying over into the rest of my playing (at least I think it is).  And some of it appears to be synergistic - for instance, you can't really keep your hand in closer to the neck without curling your fingers more on the top strings, which makes you play more on your fingertips, which encourages playing more lightly... (Check out Jason Vieaux videos for curly fingers...)

Wouldn't it be nice if someone knowledgeable were to identify pieces or exercises that would identify and then practice some of these more nebulous technique issues.     Like the sticky fingers exercise to stop your fingers from rebounding off the fretboard, or buzz scales to learn to press less hard.  I'm voting for Maria Luisa shifts ๐Ÿ˜‰ to start with...