with Lorelle and Brent VanFossen

Lesson 3 – Less Tension and More Memorization

My lesson began this week when I told Owen that I had spent the week playing *slowly*. And he said, “Whenever you’re making mistakes, you can count on one thing: You’re going too fast. That’s the reason. And it’s a bad idea to practice mistakes, because that’s what comes out when you perform. It’s not known a priori that by playing slowly, you get to play faster. It’s not obvious.”

He opened my book and asked me to play one of the pieces from this week’s assignment. I remember my right thumb having much trouble finding its way to the right strings. On listening back to the recording, I don’t hear as many mistakes as I remember, but it wasn’t my best performance, and while he said nothing about that, I need to drill the right thumb moving to particular strings. I believe I can extract the bass line from my assigned work and make a good exercise for that.

Hand Positions

Owen asked me to make a fist with my right hand, and then release all the tension. He asked me, “You see where your hand went to? That’s probably a little better place to start. You can move your arm up a little bit, too. We have to be able to play with our hands in all different shapes to get different sound qualities, to be inventive, and to be interesting in our inflection. Like when an actor is giving his lines on stage, he has lots of inflections in his voice. He can direct your attention to this or that, and it helps you to have a complete understanding of what he’s saying. In guitar, we use the right hand to do that, to make inflections and to make interesting phrasing. But that hand position you’ve got right there (the Segovia hand) is probably closer to how you want to play. You can play the other way too (what he calls the California hand, with a straighter wrist) but what I’m trying to do is to get you to the point where you play with no tensions at all. To play with the straighter wrist requires a little tension to hold the hand up.”

He told me that my hand looked much better this week than it had before, and that was good, as I’d put in about a dozen hours of concentrated focus with a mirror to make sure there were no right hand tensions. He did say that I wasn’t completely there yet, which was no surprise. He asked me to play the same piece again with the new hand position, and he seemed pleased with what I did.

I played two more pieces for him, and had the same troubles with the right thumb. He came around behind me and corrected my left hand position too, to make sure there was more space between the palm and the neck, to force the fingers up “onto their toes. It’s like dancing.” My thumb was too high, and we laughed that I hadn’t been watching the left hand this week. As I play, he often sings the dominant part (This may be in my future too. Great.)

We talked about phrasing of the Moorish Dance from p 42 of Shearer 1. The question is the bass melody, followed by the harmony making up the answer. Each phrase is two measures long. After the first four phrases, it starts over and the next four phrases are just repeats of the first four. Then, the next phrase has a new question part, but the answer is from the 2nd phrase. Then we play the fourth phrase, except the ending goes up, whereas the first time it went down. Then, that phrase repeats, and the ending is just a repeat of the answer of the last phrase. Altogether, there are only five phrases, or ten measures, out of a 24-bar piece.

Make Memorization Part of Daily Practice

He assigned me to make memorization a part of every day’s practice routine. He said soon, you’ll be able to take in large quantities of music in a sitting. You can get much quicker to playing, because you understand it intellectually. He asked me to take one of these pieces I had been playing and memorize it. He suggested the Prelude No. 7 on p 29. It’s in ABA form, or “simple song” form. Much like most music from the radio, with verse, bridge, and verse. This piece is a miniature, as the A part is only two phrases long. Only three phrases to be able to play all the way through. You just have to learn to put it all together. Five measures to learn instead of 12. Here, the first, third, and 11th measures are the same. The fifth measure is the beginning of the third phrase. And so on.

We need to be able to play something like that, and to be able to start anywhere. Not instantaneously, but if you can think it up to any point, that would mean that you know the notes. The other kind of memory is called reflex memory, or finger memory, and you get it for free just from playing the piece over and over again. But it’s not reliable at all, and you don’t learn music that way. It’s a nervous process, and anything that interferes in the slightest way with that nervous process, like getting nervous, and all the muscle memory can go right out the window. You could be sitting on the stage saying “What am I doing here? I don’t remember anything.” because you can’t get started with your chain of reflexes.

It’s not important to be able to start with *any note* or even *any measure*. You need to be able to start with any phrase, since music is constructed from phrases. He compared music to a conversation. You could start a sentence in the middle, but what good is that? If you get stuck performing a piece, you would just move forward to the beginning of the next phrase. This happens to everyone. As long as you don’t make a face, most people will not notice the difference.

You can learn a piece this way by beginning with the last phrase, and playing to the end. Then the next to last phrase, and playing to the end. Eventually you would learn to start with any phrase as necessary. This learning by phrases is different from the mindless approach I’ve heard before of simply beginning at the last measure and moving toward the first of the piece. I think this is more powerful and useful.

If you know the piece by phrases, you also know the notes. If you know your pieces this way, you could sit down and write them out. He told me of a piano teacher friend of his who would ask his students to memorize their pieces, and then to play the keys with a pencil. That takes *all* the muscle memory out of the equation. That would be very hard, and I don’t know quite how to translate that to guitar. Even the air guitar technique activates the muscle memory to some extent. This skill, once practiced, makes learning pieces very easy.

We talked about Prelude No. 10 on page 41 that is played in 6ths. The first note is played, followed by a pair of notes up a 6th. This continues through the piece until later, the first note descends while the upper second and third notes hang on the previous tone until the repeat of the first note, and then they drop into the 6th. This is a “suspension figure”. The one note is suspended until it resolves on the following beat. You have to think about this in a different way.

We’re learning the nomenclature of what to call things. If you can verbalize something, you can think about it. You can describe it to yourself and think about it when you’re away from your guitar.

He assigned some new work. Prelude No. 12 on p 47 is an exercise in learning which right hand fingers to use to play the piece. The general rule is if two notes are played on adjacent strings, they should be played with i and m. If they are separated by a string, play them with i and a.

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