There are some aspects and levels of the teaching process for guitar that are very subtle, very hard to convey in words. I think I would go so far as to say they are impossible to convey in words. These understandings can only be conveyed by direct experience. In like fashion, there are things I must do with various students I work with, in order to get them past their particular and present obstacles, that would be impossible to do without face to face teaching. Sometimes it is a matter of needing to touch someone's arm or hand in order to bring their attention to some subtle sensation they are unable to recognize. Sometimes, it is a matter of making certain judgments about what is going on; judgments that can only be made over a period of time spent observing and analyzing (this is why I often cannot answer with certainty when people write about playing problems).
One of these situations came up recently with my student Jim who comes in from Chicago. It was a situation I have dealt with many times, and is not uncommon. It is a situation of confusion many students get into, and, I have to confess, part of the reason they get into it is my teachings! I am always emphasizing a careful working up of speed, and backing off from discomfort, and yet there are critical points of development where we must push ourselves into our discomfort!
Because I am always emphasizing "relaxation," and the need for the most careful approach to working up speed, learning new techniques, and practice in general, students will sometimes get really paranoid about practicing, after learning from me that they are suffering from chronic body tension due to years of rushed and tense movements! They get the idea that I am telling them that any body sensation is bad, as though they are looking for some state of complete numbness, thinking that is what I am recommending. I am not. I am talking about achieving, in any playing situation, a state of minimal effort through awareness and control. On the way to achieving this state in playing, we sometimes must deal with quite a bit of effort and discomfort in practice. The secret is in knowing how to respond to the feelings of effort and discomfort, in knowing how to "relax into the effort".
In the year Jim has been coming to see me, we have been undoing the damage of his previous two years of lessons. Jim's left hand was very undeveloped, no stretch and no strength. In addition, he is very prone to bodily tension (jaw, face, as well as the usual, shoulders, arms, etc.), and was not using Rotating Attention fully enough during practice. A lot of that tension has been locked in, and although Jim has become aware of a good bit of it, we had hit a level of tension that was going to require quite a bit of penetrating self observation to uncover. In other words, this level of tension was really being labeled "normal and inevitable" by Jim's brain. My job was to show him it might be "normal" for him right now, but is not necessary, and is extremely debilitating.
In fact, it is just like wearing a strait jacket. The upper torso gets completely involved in a constricting tightening of all muscles (usually accompanied by constriction of the breath). Attention is withdrawn from the body and this uncomfortable sensation, and the player manfully forces his way ahead. Although Jim started making significant progress since starting lessons about a year ago, Jim had plateaued for awhile, and when working the left hand foundation exercises down the neck, he had such a buildup of tension after about the 5th fret, that he was staying away from the lower frets. He figured he would go to the lower frets after he was completely comfortable with the higher frets.
Yes, that sounds logical, and is in complete accord with the general thrust of my teaching, but the fact is, it was not the course to follow here. We must bring in a new understanding and operate from its more obscure logic. It is the concept of Double Trouble.
There are times when the best way to solve a difficult problem on the guitar is to begin to work on a problem that is twice as difficult. I first realized this when I was in my early playing years, but dealing with some very difficult classical repertoire. The difficulty was holding bars for long periods of time, while the fingers were required to do long stretches and/or quick movements. I was having quite a difficult time being able to do this. The bar was held at the 5th fret, and I began practicing it down the neck, all the way to the 1st fret (where it was almost impossible to do it). After a good deal of this practice, I found that it was quite easy now to do it at the 5th fret.
The process went something like this: when I first tried that passage at the 5th fret, I thought "man, this is hard". When I tried it at the 1st fret I thought "my God, this is impossible". Then, when I went back to the 5th fret, I thought "hmmm, this ain't so bad!"
By making the difficulty even more difficult, by "doubling the trouble" I found the original difficulty much easier! Now, it is important to understand that this applies mostly to difficulties rooted in the requirement for strength and stretch. It is much less applicable to matters of speed. And most importantly, the tendency to withdraw attention from the body and constrict the breath must be overcome by Intention and Attention during this type of practice. If this is not done, this type of practice will either yield little or no result, or actually be harmful. We must do our utmost, at the point of highest stress, to "relax into the effort", using rotating attention, posing, attention to breath, and all the other tools taught in The Principles.
So, when you have a strength or stretch issue, you should devise an intelligent routine that gives the hand/arm and body in general the experience of a progressively increasing demand. The body must physically experience this in order to adapt to the challenge. The big however is this: you must be paying attention to the whole body and your breathing through the entire process. You cannot allow the "strait jacket" to begin to tighten.
I kept telling Jim that he needed to practice the walking exercises down at the lower frets, that his hands needed the experience of that effort and challenge in order to process and adapt to it. His left hand ligaments are greatly in need of "stretching", and the only way to get "stretched" is to "stretch"! I guess Jim didn't really believe me, because he wasn't doing it (I call this situation "who's the teacher here, anyway!"). Actually, the reason Jim wasn't doing what I wanted, wasn't forcing himself into the more difficult positions on the neck, was because he was not relaxing into the effort. He was tightening the strait jacket as the demand increased.
Finally, at our last lesson, I forced him to do what I wanted, and severely focused on the level of tension Jim was allowing to be present. Most importantly, I pointed out to him that he was starting to get tense just thinking of playing the note. He was tensing before he started to play the note! I could see it as I watched him.
I told him, and I am telling everybody, you must relax in your approach to the note. Do not tense in your approach to the note. Many of you do, and you are not aware of it. It is a sure sign of the strait jacket you wear when you play.
If you can overcome this, then, you can profitably employ the technique of "Double Trouble" outlined above. Jim began to do this, as he worked the left hand exercises down the neck. I was very happy to get this e-mail from him recently:
Unbelievable! This is about all I can say about our last lesson. I walked away a bit depressed that I had missed "the relaxing thing" so much over the past year. I knew that I was playing with lots of tension, but I kept telling myself that it would go away once my fingers had more strength and flexibility. Well, now that I've been working on relaxing over the last few weeks, I've realized that it's almost the exact opposite in that my fingers can't gain the strength and flexibility that I want until I learn to relax. It even took me until this morning to realize why you always tell me that I have to release the tension after each note or it will build up slowly but surely. I can't believe how hard it is to play a major scale in first position and stay relaxed all the way until the last note -- it takes real concentration and practice to be able to do it no matter how slowly I go. So, I just want to say thank you again for helping me break through yet another plateau in my quest to be a musician. Playing without tension is like playing an entirely new instrument -- it feels that different to me.
Also, I have to say that I left my last lesson thinking that I was not going to follow your advice about working on the major scale pattern in first position because I thought that I was not ready. I had decided that I would try it on the 9th, 5th, and 1st frets on alternate days. However, after working on it in the first position, I realized that you were absolutely right in that I was ready to push my hand to develop properly at this fret, and I did not need to work on the 9th and 5th frets for now.
So, thanks! for the gentle (!) push. You know that I tend to get conservative in my approach to guitar -- so conservative that I sometimes think (in my critical mind) that you'll get tired of teaching me because I'm learning and progressing so slow. And, as you said in one of your essays, I have to get rid of my critical mind sometimes in order to really play. I think about this often as I practice and train to be a great musician.
Yes, once the self imposed strait jacket comes off, playing feels entirely different. I believe I said that in The Principles!
Strength and stretch develop gradually for players. And the fact is that many things feel easier as the years go by not because we have gotten any stronger or flexible, but simply because the overall level of body tension has decreased while playing, and we have learned to maximize passive resources in playing with greater skill (the use of the heavy arm, for instance, maximizing the passive resource of weight, rather than using the active resource of muscular effort).
The reason "double trouble" does not work for matters of speed (you don't improve that scale played at 100 bpm by practicing it at 200 bpm!) is because "speed" is dependent upon entirely different processes and conditions than strength and stretch . Speed is the result of, the byproduct of, precisely timed movements of the two sides of the body. This co-ordination is built in exactly the opposite manner from "double trouble". We must do super slow practice, then carefully work up our movements (the Basic Practice Approach in The Principles) in order to develop speed. In other words, the way to strengthen and improve 16th's at 100 is to strengthen and improve your 16th's at 80.
Even so, there is a place for some slight degree of pushing ourselves even in matters of speed, but not to as high a degree as we do for matters of strength and stretch. It can be useful to have our muscles experience the increased demand and subsequent tension of a higher speed, if, while doing so, we can maintain that degree of awareness that allows us to "relax into", at least to some extent, this increased demand, and the feeling of tension it generates. But we don't want to spend a lot of time doing this. It is more a test than a way to achieve a new ability for speed. I will sometimes increase the speed, just to see where the flaws are, make them show themselves in stark relief, then go back down to slow speeds or no tempo to work on the imprecise movements. The careful approach to and slightly beyond what I have called "the working speed", with intense observation of the mechanics of what you are doing, gives you valuable information that you then take down to the lower levels of your practice, working with the seeds of what you saw manifested at your playing limit.
I usually give this analogy to students who are afraid to push themselves: you are building a car. You take it on the road to see how fast it can go. It starts shaking at 30 mph. You stick your head out the window to see what is going on. You see a rear tire about to fall off. Good, now you know you have to tighten up that tire if you want to go over 30. So, you go back to the shop, put the car up on the lift, and tighten the tire. Now, you take it back on the road, and it goes 45 mph before it starts to shake, and now its the front tire. I think you get the point. If you only stay down at 10 mph (even though we know that the integrity of the cars functioning must be there at 10 mph as well), you will simply never go faster that that.
So, I just hope that the next time Jim comes for a lesson, he doesn't get a speeding ticket on the way here!