with Lorelle and Brent VanFossen

Lesson 1 – Making Quite a Buzz

Read along as I sit in my first guitar lesson in twenty years…

Introductions and Goals

As expected, it was rather hard to work all day with the guitar case there under the desk. I succeeded, though, and got a few things done. Then, it was 5pm and I was off to meet my new teacher, Owen Middleton.

He came out at 6 o’clock to find me waiting. He’s rather punctual, and after a brief introduction, he commented on the guitar case. He teaches in the studios of one of the local music stores. In the studio, I opened the case and he immediately said that I had a beautiful guitar and asked me what kind of instrument it was. I just handed it to him. He told me it had a lovely tone, nice action, and he didn’t really seem to want to give it back to me.

He began by asking me to play him something, and I played “The Water Is Wide”. It’s a beautiful piece with a wonderful arrangement, and I played okay, missing the more difficult parts due to a bit of stage fright (when will that ever go away?). He told me that I played very expressively, and then we talked about my sight reading and what I hoped to get from the lessons. I told him that I had learned to sight read from the Mel Bay books when I was a kid, but that I hadn’t really used that skill in years. I told him I was very proficient with TAB, but wanted to learn to read the standard notation. I also told him that while I played the steel string, I was new to classical and wanted to work the classical repertoire and develop the proper form, because I had noticed I played with tension and realized that it was slowing me down, if not hurting me outright.

The Non-Pinch

He had me play some strings, no music yet. Fourth and third strings with thumb and first finger. Not a pinch, per se, but with a wide spread to exaggerate the “V”. He told me that this was one of the keys to playing with volume, that the pinch was weak, but this position was more forceful, with less effort. Then, I did the same thing with fourth and second strings with thumb and middle finger. Then thumb and ring. After each pair of notes, he required me to completely relax the right hand. We’re training the hand, he told me, to always return to a relaxed state after playing, so that eventually that will become the automatic response. These pairs of notes should be practiced for 5 minutes at the beginning of each practice session to develop relaxation after each note.

Transferring the Pressure from Finger to Finger

He had me play with the right hand thumb only while I played a four note chromatic run on a single string. Play with the first finger at the 5th fret. Then, add the second finger at the 6th fret, while at the same time reducing the pressure of the first finger so that it sat on the string, but was completely relaxed. The pressure transfers from finger to finger as the notes ascend. Play the 7th fret with the third finger, and the first and second fingers should be touching the strings, but with no pressure at all. He wiggled my fingers to check me and to show me that they were loose. Then, the pinky on the 8th fret and loosen the other three. Move to second string, and do the same sequence, all the way down to the 6th string. Fingers should play directly behind the frets to get the best sound with the least effort. I can see already this is going to be our theme for a while. I am to play chromatic note series and make sure the pressure transfers from finger to finger, leaving the other fingers relaxed. This is to be another 5 minutes at the beginning of each practice session.

Buzzing the Strings

He had me play the 5th fret first string again, then reduce the pressure until the string buzzed. That is the threshold, and we should only play just a breath beyond the minimum pressure required to sound the note. Any more is wasted effort and will slow us down.

He asked me to practice this week playing a chromatic scale and make sure every note buzzes. I said I thought that would be hard. He said yes, but that way I will learn exactly how much pressure it takes to play the notes. Wow. I’m supposed to make ugly sounds this week.

Back in Kindergarten

Then, I found that I’m back in kindergarten again (Sound familiar, anyone?). Aaron Shearer, “Classic Guitar Technique”, Volume 1. I’m to play all the exercises on the first few strings (learning to read the notes), but to concentrate on relaxing completely after each note, and to play with absolute minimum pressure. He commented that I already knew the reading part, which would allow me to concentrate on the more important relaxation.

He asked me that whenever I play my repertoire pieces, to concentrate on playing as softly as possible, because when the right had plays softly, the left hand will relax and play softly too. My theme of the week is minimal effort out of each hand.

He told me that it is not how much we practice, but rather how focused we are while we practice, and that 5 minutes of concentrated work is more effective that an hour or more of distracted playing. He compared this to burning paper with a magnifying glass in the summer sun. If the lens isn’t focused, it’s just light, but by focusing the light, we can burn the paper in moments.

He told me that I was to focus on the exercises for now, and let him worry about what pieces I would be playing.

I asked and he told me about some of the local coffee shops where some of his students gathered to talk and play guitar, but he didn’t know when. He told me to call Bret Heim (another local professor and recording artist). And he promised to let me know of upcoming recitals or performances.

That was the lesson. He’s very friendly and easy-going. Has a pleasant face and smiles a lot. I’m paid up for weekly lessons for the month of May (set me back a whole $72). I told him that when he thought I was ready, I’d be happier to move from 30 to 60 minutes each. He said perhaps June, but that this was good for now. As it was, I was his last lesson, and he gave me almost an hour anyway.

I have a lot to learn, and he has a lot of things he can teach me. I haven’t heard him play yet, but at the moment that doesn’t matter. For now, I have to go make the strings buzz.

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