with Lorelle and Brent VanFossen

Lesson 2 – Slow Practice and Memorization

I drove to my lesson last night by a different route, and saved more than 20 minutes getting there, so I had a good bit of time to get tuned up and warmed up before my lesson began. Before I knew it, though, Owen had come out, and as I began to put the guitar back in its case, he said, “I’ll carry the guitar, and you can get the case.” And he played a few beautiful chords and gave me the same look John Doan had given me, and I swear, he said the same words John had said: “Every note is so balanced, every note just sings.” And the look on his face was just a simple amazement at the beauty of that instrument.

Once in his studio, he played a bit more, just a few minutes, and then told me that he didn’t want to give it back to me, and that perhaps it would be best for me if he took it home for a month or two to evaluate its qualities. Shortly, though, I had her back in my arms and so the lesson began.

Playing Free Strokes with the Thumb

He looked through my book and saw and commented on all the marks I had made there (per his instructions). He then asked me to play the first prelude, and as I began, I only got about three notes before he told me to slow it down. I played slower, and when I was done, he asked me if I always played rest strokes with my thumb. To be honest, I’d never thought about it, but I told him that I usually don’t play rest strokes, but that the music was so slow and leisurely, that my thumb just did that naturally. He asked me to play using free strokes. He told me that most of his students who learned to play with a pick played thumb rest strokes, and that habit is one that needs to be broken.

He demonstrated playing the piece with a much softer attack of the right thumb. The thumb is stronger than the other fingers, and if we don’t pay attention, it will play too loudly. I’m to lower the force and volume of my bass parts by controlling how hard I strike the strings with the thumb, and to make sure I play free stroke.

The free stroke and the rest stroke have different sounds, for different effects, and should be used as appropriate. The main stroke should always be the free stroke, and the rest stroke added to emphasize a note or line, or to play more staccato.

My nails are a bit too long, and while he didn’t tell me to trim them, he showed me how the nail is striking the string after the flesh does, instead of together, and that gives the notes a harsh sound. I had filed them shorter just yesterday, but I need to make them shorter still.

Relax the Hand after Every Note

As I began the next piece, he played the second part of the duet, and it sounded quite nice, but he busted me again, and emphasized that I needed to slow things down even more, to release the right hand tension after every note, and to exaggerate the releasing of that tension by relaxing the entire right hand between notes so that I could see the relaxation. And he demonstrated the speed he wanted me to play. This wasn’t “no tempo” speed, and he played very much in tempo, but it was probably 30 to 40 beats per minute. He told me that it was boring to play that slowly, but that there was no substitute for it, and reminded me that we are training reflexes so that the relaxation we’re working so hard to develop now will become automatic with time.

I’m to go back and play all of the pieces from this last week at slower speeds, with exaggerated relaxed right hand, and then he asked me to drop some of the reading exercises I had been doing, and added some new arpeggiated pieces from the next few pages of the book. I don’t feel like he’s pushing me through the book, but rather that he’s giving me enough variety that I don’t feel bored with the material, and yet the material is easy enough that I can concentrate on the right hand.

To my credit, he didn’t criticize my left hand as he had last week, and the best part of my no tension practice had been focusing on the left hand. Maybe that’s because I did that right, or maybe because the bigger problem was the right hand last night and there just wasn’t time.

Question and Answer

We then took a look at one of the duets I had studied, and he showed me how the first two bars formed the “question”, while the next two bars formed the “answer”, and together, they make a “phrase”. The answer is a “sequence” of the question, a series of notes with the same shape as the question, but shifted up or down a note or two. So the question is a six-note pattern beginning on the E of the open first string. The answer is the same pattern beginning on the C of the second string. The second phrase begins with a question identical to the first question, and the second answer is almost the same as the first answer, but with a slight variation. A third similar phrase follows. Then, the fourth phrase begins with a question that is the same rhythm as the first three questions, but inverted, and this is called an inversion. The answer to that is a sequence of the question (or an inversion of the first answer). Each phrase in this piece comprises a question and an answer, and the answer is a sequence of the question, except for the ending of the piece. And so the pattern continued. This, he pointed out, makes memorizing the piece much simpler, because this entire 24-bar piece only has six bars of unique music: a two-bar question, a two-bar inversion, and a two bar unique ending. Everything else is just a sequence of one kind or another of the already learned parts. All you have to do to learn the piece is to learn the unique parts, and then learn the overall structure of the song. To prove his point, he closed the book and called out the first note of each succeeding sequence, and I played the piece. This is a dramatic simplification, and obviously will not work so completely on every piece, but as we’re learning a new piece of music, we should think about it intelligently and use our mind to help us make more efficient progress. [Shearer Volume 1: Classic Guitar Technique, p24, “Prelude No. 4”]

In the same way, if we’re having technical difficulties with a piece of music, we should grab the pencil and put a big circle around the phrase that is giving us trouble, and practice just that. Rarely do we need to practice an entire piece. He compared this with learning a speech; if there is one word that we can’t pronounce, or one phrase that hangs up our tongue, we would fix the problem by going right to the problem word or phrase and fixing that, not by reciting from the beginning of the speech. Then, with that fixed, we would go back and give the whole speech perfectly. Otherwise we’ll drive our family and friends crazy with the repetition.

He also gave me a copy of an article he had written that was published in the October issue of Classical Guitar magazine. It’s called “A Few Good Bricks”, and while I haven’t read it yet, one of the ideas is that if you have a pile of bricks in front of the house, there’s no reason to body-build until you can lift 1000 lbs to move the entire pile at once. Instead, you can start now carrying a few bricks at a time, until the whole pile is moved. This makes complete sense, yet as guitarists, we try to rush and learn the whole instrument at once and jump into repertoire that we’re not ready for, and more often than not, people give up in frustration because they don’t make the progress they think they should. And it’s the job of the teacher to help that student know how much he can carry at a time, and when is right to move on.

Learning Music

When we want to learn a complex piece of music, we should take small pieces of it and play them slowly for ten or twenty minutes a day, with intense focus, and eventually we will be playing the parts. He gave the example of one of his students who wanted to learn a fast piece by a well-known rock star. When he arrived at his lesson, he reported that he had practiced it for five hours the day before, but he still couldn’t play the part. Owen told the student that he was sure he had enjoyed his time, but that he had wasted about 4 hours and 50 minutes, and had actually made the job of learning to play it right even harder with each successive day of trying to force the song. If instead, he had spent ten to twenty minutes a day until he had accumulated the five hours in slow, focused practice, he would have been playing that part fluently, and had a lot more time along the way to do or learn something else as well.

The Smartest Finger

We are a three-toed animal, he said holding out his hand, and he showed me that the thumb and index finger were independent, but the other three fingers share tendons and move together. The index finger is the smartest finger, and while we devote a lot of time to making the other fingers independent, they will never be as smart as the index finger (on either hand). If there’s a note we have to hit, we should play it with the index finger, as it’s the smartest. Years ago, there were some pianists who tried to build strength in their fingers by tying strings to them and moving their fingers to lift some weights. And instead of building strength, they stretched their tendons and were unable to play piano successfully for the rest of their lives. Tragic. They completely missed the mark, as they didn’t need more strength but more control. If strength were all we needed, the strongest person would be the best player. While the muscles contribute to that control, it’s the brain that’s really in charge. Our studies should be concentrated on paying attention to what we do, and on making sure we do what we’re trying to do.

What is Classical Music?

From my lesson, we went to the airport to pick up my mother-in-law, who is here to visit for a week. As I sat beside the truck playing Adelita, one of the security guards came up and asked me about the guitar and music. He asked me if I knew any classical music, “like Neil Diamond”. And Lorelle just broke out laughing and went inside to meet Ramona. So I played something else, and when I was done, he told me that his sister had a restaurant, and that if I ever wanted to play I would be welcome, and that they couldn’t pay much, but to tell them that Terrence sent me. So I know that while the area was noisy and he couldn’t hear me very well, and he certainly didn’t know much about music, I made him happy for ten minutes or so, and that was worthwhile. I asked if “Nancy’s” was a place where lots of musicians gathered, and he said, “No, just you.” Oh, well.

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