Tension And The Soda Can Or Practicing Part III

Practicing Part III

In order to practice properly, attention needs to be paid to a number of different areas.  Today’s post addresses some issues regarding fretting hand tension as a precursor to proper form in practicing.

Fretting Hand Positioning and Tension

Many guitarists begin playing guitar without being aware of how much tension they are exerting on their fretting hand.  While the title refers to fretting hand fingers, hand tension is actually a complex coordination of muscles working in the hand and forearm.  The concept here is to talk about hand tension as it relates to your ability to move your fingers freely.

Here is an example that may help explain how much of a performance issue this can be.

For the purposes of this example, let’s imagine that you have taken a break from the rigors of guitar practice and have gone to spend the day at muscle beach with your friend Charles Atlas.  After arriving there and seeing miles and miles of Herculean figures – you have decided to show off to your friends and crush the can of soda you have been drinking.

Okay – hold your fretting hand out in front of you – like you were holding a soda can you were drinking from.

Really visualize the can.  Try to feel the ice cold metal against the palm of your hand.

Okay, now try to crush it.  But imagine that the can has been replaced with some infinitely strong material that can’t be crushed.  You don’t want to crush the imaginary can – but truly struggle against it.  If you’re doing the exercise properly, your arm is probably shaking from the exertion.

Okay – now try to move your fingers while you crush the can.  You may be able to move them a little but it’s going to be very difficult.  You should feel (or even see) a lot of tension in your forearm.

Now stop trying to crush the can.  Wiggle your fingers.  This should be much easier.

If you grip the guitar neck with too much tension, it’s the same as trying to crush the soda can.  If you are carrying tension it will be very difficult to move your fingers freely.

What follows is an exercise that can help with proper hand tension.

Proper Fretting Hand Tension Exercise

Sit in a comfortable chair (preferably without armrests) with your guitar around your neck as if you were going to play (you are wearing a strap aren’t you? If not you may want to read the last post.)

Relax your fretting hand by letting your arm hang fully extended by your side.  Wiggle your fingers a bit and try to relax as much as possible.

Take a deep breath.  While inhaling on that breath, make a fist.  As you exhale –  fully release the fist.  Just let your hand naturally relax into a position.  Look down at your hand.

Note – this is your hand in a relaxed position.

Now, keeping your hand in position, bend your elbow and bring your hand up to the neck of the guitar as if you were going to play.  Your fingers should be bent slightly at each knuckle (i.e. the fingers should be curved similar to the relaxed position).

Proper Fretting Hand Thumb Tension

Reverting back to the soda can example, it’s important that the thumb remain in the back of the neck as relaxed as possible as to not tense the rest of the hand.   This is something that I never thought about until I had studied with Jack Sanders.  So I need to thank him for bringing this to my attention in my own playing.

It’s also important to note that your hand position will change if you are doing a lot of string bending.  While it is possible to bend strings with your fretting hand thumb in the middle of the neck,  most people will be used to moving the thumb so that it is more on the bass string side of the fretboard to facilitate bending.   Since this isn’t the majority of what most people play on guitar – I view bending hand position as the exception rather than the rule.

The thumb acts as a balance to pressure from the fingers;  so the location of the thumb is very important.  Ideally the thumb should be in the middle of the guitar neck and typically in line with the middle finger or between the middle and ring finger.  What you are trying to do is put the thumb in an area of minimal tension.

Proper Fretting Hand Tension Exercise

Try playing a scale on the guitar.  If you think that your thumb is squeezing the back of the neck hard, try removing the thumb from the back of the fingerboard while you are playing.  Now gently and gradually, move the thumb back to the neck so that it is very lightly touching it.  Repeat as necessary.

Obviously a huge component in hand tension is how the fingers are actually connecting with the strings and that will be the subject of the next post on practicing.

I hope this helps!

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Proper Posture Is Required For Proper Performance – Practicing Part II

In the last post, I talked about some of the pre-requisites for setting up to practice.  While I want to discuss specific issues with  proper picking and fretting hand techniques, it’s important to address how the actual guitar is positioned when playing.

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When practicing, it is imperative to practice the same way consistently so that performance is consistent.

A key component of this is posture.

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First, a brief anecdote.  When I started playing guitar, I didn’t pay a lot of attention to how I was practicing or how I was holding the guitar.  I just paid attention to whether or not I was getting the notes out (more on what’s wrong with this in future posts).  I started noticing my live playing was really inconsistent.  Sometimes the solos I practiced came out fine and sometimes they were really sloppy.  I initially attributed it to nerves or adrenaline, but after reading a number of books on performance I was introduced to the concept of “muscle memory”, and realized the root of my problem.

For those of you who have never heard of this term, when performing repetitive tasks synapses actually rewire themselves in your brain to short cut the mental processing behind the activity.  This is known as “muscle memory”.  Muscle memory is different from your dad’s memory of where he might have set his car keys down, and more like words carved in stone.  On the plus side – if you’re doing things correctly – you don’t have to worry about it – but on the minus side if you have to fix something that’s ingrained in muscle memory  – it takes a lot of effort to erase them.

Here’s an example that illustrates this idea.  

If I am walking and need to tie my shoe lace –  “tie my shoe” is a short cut for the following steps (or some variation):

  1. Notice my shoe is untied
  2. Stop walking
  3. Bend down
  4. Grab one lace per hand
  5. Cross laces to opposite sides of shoe in an x shape
  6. Tuck one lace under another
  7. Pull laces taught
  8. Move laces in opposite direction
  9. Make a loop with the first lace (i.e. “bunny ears.”)
  10. Cross one “ear” over the other, in the opposite order of your overhand knot.
  11. Bend one loop over the other
  12. Pass the tip of the bent ear through the hole
  13. Pull the loops tight
  14. Double knot if need be

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Once you’ve mastered this skill,  you probably don’t have to put any thought into it at all.  You could easily have a conversation and do it at the same time.  A complex list of processes have been broken down into a single mental shortcut in this case called “tie my shoe”.

In music, muscle memory works the same way.  If you play a lick over and over again the same way your brain actually rewires itself so that the numerous physical events that go into playing “lick #7” in your brain just becomes a mental shortcut “lick #7”.

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In my first person anecdote above, because my playing position varied between sitting, standing, squatting and lying down – I wasn’t developing proper muscle memory.  Instead of learning one lick – my brain was trying to learn how to play that idea in a variety of contexts.  This sounds small – but if you’ve ever been in a situation where you weren’t able to nail a part you normally can – you know what I’m referring to here.

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The Solution?

My solution came in the form of a guitar strap.

Some people do not use guitar straps.  In playing steel string guitar, I believe that a guitar strap is every bit as important as a guitar string.  Again, if your hands are not in the same position when you practice as when you perform you will not have proper muscle memory and the chances of flubbing notes goes up dramatically.

The key to using a guitar strap is to make sure that the guitar sits on your frame the same way when you stand as when you sit.

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Note:

You may be asking.  Well – what about nylon string guitars?  While it’s pretty rare to see nylon string guitarists use a strap, if you see a number of players you’ll notice that the majority of the good ones have very consistent posture.  Posture is a big part of the classical pedagogical tradition and while flamenco guitar posture may be unorthodox with regards to the classical tradition, it is most definitely a consistent posture.

This is not to say that muscle memory isn’t flexible.  You don’t have to have your hands in exactly the same position or expect total failure.  If you’re playing live and you move around – your body will typically adapt to what’s going on and accommodate you.  If you like to practice sitting(and many people do unless they’re practicing with a band) having a consistent instrument position will help you perform more consistently when you stand – which is likely how you are going to perform unless you’re used to performing when sitting down.

Give it a try.  When practicing try adjusting your strap differently when you sit or when you stand and see if makes a difference over a couple of weeks.  You might be surprised.

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In the next post I’ll start the long process of addressing left and right hand placement, tension and the thumb (i.e. some common sense “secrets” that evade a lot of teachers and students).

Thanks for reading.

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Practice Makes Better aka Practicing Part I

Probably the most commonly asked question of guitar teachers is some variant of, “How do I get better at (insert topic here)?” – which invariably leads to an answer of “practice”. 

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If you’re a rock guitarist like me, you probably won’t get much (if any) further clarification on this point as many instructors I’ve come in contact with don’t have an understanding of practicing other than repetition.  Since practicing is such an absolutely vital step in gaining instrumental proficiency, it seems odd that proper practicing methods for guitar are misunderstood by so many.

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There are a number of reasons for this.  Speaking from personal experience, I do not come from a classical background.  This is important to note because when you play an unamplified instrument in a concert hall (like a classical guitar) you need to make sure that you know how to project the sound, and that requires a specific focus on areas like proper technique, tone production and repertoire.  So typically from the get-go there’s a concise emphasis on technique and repertoire and typically some level of addressing what and how to practice.

As someone who learned a lot by trial and error – with the emphasis on error –  it’s really only within the last four years of teaching that made me go deep into practicing methodology.  What follows is a series of observations on optimising the practice experience.

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There are really two broad issues here – how and what to practice.  So the first series of postings will deal with the “how” of practicing – optimal performance issues and methodologies and then delve into the “what” to practice.

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**Note: 

some of this may seem excessively rudimentary, but greatness is in the details.  And if you’re striving for greatness  it’s best to address some details early.

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The First Prerequisite: The Guitar

Before examining any of the methodology of the text it is important to note all of the material presented here is dependent on a useable instrument in optimal playing condition.

If you’ve never had your guitar set up, or if you are not familiar with how to set up a guitar, I recommend taking your guitar to a qualified guitar repair person and having the instrument professionally adjusted.

For people who play primarily 6-string electric guitar, I recommend playing everything you practice on an acoustic as well.

There are several reasons for this:

1.  In playing acoustic, there are no effects to mask performance flaws.  If your playing is sloppy, it is something that you will become immediately aware of, particularly if you are recording. Listening to a recording of an acoustic will reveal every unintentional open string, choked note, finger squeak and any other unintentional noise.

2. Acoustic strings are typically heavier than electric strings.  Playing acoustic guitar with proper technique will build strength and endurance that makes playing electric guitar much easier.

3.  For the most part, any technique that you develop for electric guitar should be something that can be performed on acoustic guitar.  It can be a humbling experience at best (and an ego shattering one at worst) to shed a hot lick on electric, think you have it down and then crash and burn when you try to play it on acoustic.  I’ve seen this happen numerous times on unplugged shows and it’s always grim.

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The Second Prerequisite: Practice Materials

There are several things I recommend to have with you when  practicing.

1.  A metronome or time keeping device.  It’s VERY important to practice with a time keeping device.  If a metronome doesn’t work for you, use a drum loop or have someone record percussion for you.  If you practice out of time, you will play out of time.

2.  A tuner.  Ultimately it’s a good goal to be able to fine tune accurately by ear or by pitch, but since this skill can take a while to acquire, it’s a good idea to start with a tuner.

3.  A note-book, notepad or (if using a computer) word processing application.  This will be covered more in-depth later, but it’s important to be able to write everything down.

4.  A recorder.  Try to get in the habit of recording parts of your practice session.  It doesn’t need to be a brilliant hi fidelity recording.  You could use your cell phone as a recording device and probably record some video as well. The recording quality just needs to be something audible that you can review.  In addition to being able to hear your performance.  It can help you get used to the sound of your playing.  If you get more into recording later, it will be less stressful, as you will have already had a lot of experience.

5. A guitar strap.  Properly adjusted.  (This step assumes you are playing a steel string guitar – nylon string classical guitar style has its own set of rules for proper guitar body placement when playing and performing.  The point of this step is to have the guitar sit consistently on your body when practicing and performing. More on this later).

6.  A comfortable chair (if you’re sitting).

7. A timer.  Like an egg timer or a kitchen timer.

8. Goals.  More on this later as well, but it’s important to have a very clear goal of what you’re trying to achieve.  There are some goal oriented links and observations here.

Most of this can fit in a guitar case and set up in about a minute.  The key is to not make any part of this an ordeal.  If something is difficult, you’re probably much less likely to do it.

The next practice post will address posture, muscle memory and some other interesting ideas.

In the meantime, if you haven’t been doing so already make sure to warm your hands up with light stretching before strenuous play.  There’s some basic overview information here, but it’s also worthwhile to mention that not everything on the internet is accurate or useful.  So if you research something online and try to apply it and it hurts – STOP IMMEDIATELY.

This will be a good reminder for me to go over warm up routines in a future post.

I hope this helps!

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A brief thought about music theory

One of the reoccurring  areas of concern that comes up in lessons is the issue of music theory.   This is both in terms of people who don’t want to be taught any kind of  theory, (as in, “No – don’t show me that!  It’ll mess up my playing!”) to people who have been exposed to terms that they have questions about. Usually both scenarios involve a lot of trepidation and discomfort (much of which is needlessly inflicted).

I would guess that the only people who have ever leapt for joy at the sight of a musical note on paper without hearing it are composers.  For most people, music is an expression solely existing in an aural form (i.e. it’s something we hear).

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Theory is secondary to sound.

The history of music originates in organized sound.  Theory and jargon were developed over time as a way to replicate those organized sounds.  A term like “C major” is just musical jargon.  When “C Major” is said, it tells the informed person what kind of sound is going to be produced. This jargon then, is nothing more than a way for musicians to express ideas to each other without written music in a more efficient manner.

It’s much less important to be able to look at something and say, “that’s an altered dominant chord” than it is to hear an altered dominant chord in your head and be able to realize it on the guitar ( or to hear someone else playing it and know what to play against it).

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In other words, theory and/or analysis should always be in the service of sound.

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I think theory should have two functions – first to help us realize sounds that we want to reproduce and (to me the much more exciting option) to expose us to sounds we didn’t know were there.

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The entire concept of GuitArchitecture (presenting applied theory as a set of approaches that can be used to help access both known and unknown sounds) is why a lot of the book material is less about licks and more about approaches.  

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From a teaching perspective, it probably doesn’t matter if you can sound like me (unless that’s what you’re striving for), the important thing is developing your individual voice and being able to replicate sounds either intuitively and/or with theory is a major component of any player’s individual sound.

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Theory, then,  is just a tool.  It really isn’t anything to get tripped up on.

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