Developing Tone

For my very first video lesson, I thought I would talk about developing tone. I work on tone at the beginning of my first practice session of the day. This aspect of practicing is more of a meditation and serves as a way to psychologically or spiritually enter the practice zone, settle the brain, fine tune the ear, and develop your touch. Hope you all find it helpful.

Neural Coupling

I was recently re-reading a great book about fitness and came across an interesting study that was quoted about neural coupling. The basic idea is that we have neural connections between our upper limbs and lower limbs that coordinate muscle activation patterns during activities like running and walking. For running, this translates to possibly using a strong arm swing to help fatigued leg muscles get through a rough patch or while running up hills. Or, for those with spinal cord injuries, the act of using upper limb movement to aid in recruiting lower limb muscles during rehabilitation could help speed up recovery. Sports science is fascinating. So why am I writing about this here? Well, I was out on a long run this morning, pumping my arms while running up a hill, and playing through music in my head when I thought, “Perhaps what helps runners might not help guitarists!”

One common mistake that I am always working on with students, even advanced ones, is the avoidance of accents after a dramatic shift (unless the music asks for it). A dramatic shift usually is unnecessary but requires a lot of energy to stop the shift which leads to a strong grip in the left hand and inevitably the right hand slams the note with vigor (and unfortunate musical consequences). A variation on this theme is when a guitarist will “grab” a chord instead of placing each finger down sequentially during an arpeggiated chord and will then inevitably accent the first note of the arpeggio. Or, for any of you working with children or young students, ever notice that when asked to play softly, the left hand loses clarity and tempo dips? Maybe, or maybe not, this is due to neural coupling. One hand squeezes strongly and the other follow suit.

Why is this a bad thing for a guitarist, or pianist, or an ambidextrous instrumentalist? Because it simply throws our physical relationship to the instrument out of balance. Most great players cultivate a deep sense of relaxation in both hands that is independent of what the other hand is doing. In the pianist, the left hand may be playing accompaniment softly while the right hand is playing a melodic line that must stand out. In a guitarist, the right hand may have to accent or play certain notes louder to bring out a melody or a subject in a fugue while the left hand needs to remain soft as other fingers squiggle around to play counterpoint.

How can we work on this? Work to develop a better sense of independence in both hands?

Here are a few places to start:

  1. Try to play through a piece or a scale very softly with no fluctuation in volume while focusing on the energy required by the left hand to not buzz and remain clear.
  2. Or the flip side of this, play with a more vigorous touch in the right hand while putting the minimum amount of pressure in the left, erring on slightly buzzy to discover how much pressure is required. Any more than necessary reduces our ability to play for long amounts of time by tiring out the left hand.
  3. Practice shifts while keeping the right hand from accenting notes after the shift. Or, simply try to develop better shifting technique that is based on guide fingers instead of jumping.

Hope that helps!


Artist Spotlight – Mabel Millán

I recently stumbled upon this great artist’s videos on youtube while looking for a worthwhile performance of Joaquín Rodrigo’s Fandango from his Tres piezas españolas. With over 30 awards and 19 (!) 1st prizes from both solo competitions and chamber music competitions, Spanish guitarist Mabel Millán is often in the spotlight as one of the emerging young concert guitarists of her generation. What is so impressive is that she is in her early twenties and is also getting a law degree while she pursues an active concert career. Her playing is so fluid and lyrical that it is easy to overlook the fact that she is playing some of the most demanding guitar repertoire effortlessly. Here she is performing Joaquín Rodrigo’s Fandango and Zapateado, Johann Sebastian Bach’s Chaconne, and William Walton’s 3rd Bagatelle. It’s hard to imagine it could be performed better.

Mabel’s latest news is that she will be performing Manuel Ponce’s Concierto del Sur in Madrid’s Teatro Monumental and will be the first woman to record the concerto. Also, her first CD will be released on the Mexican label AdlibMusic MX with a rendition of Leo Brouwer’s Sonata of the Black Decameron. Below is a take of her recording Antonio Ruiz-Pipó’s Canción y Danza Nº1.

Hope that inspires everyone!

Post #50 – Learning Resources


Santa Ana, Táchira

One afternoon after a long day of masterclasses in the little Andean town of Santa Ana in the state of Táchira, Venezuela, Maestro Alirio Díaz emphatically shared a list of what he considered essential reading for all of us young, bright, and bushy-tailed guitarists. I thought it was an odd list because the first book, Psycho-Cybernetics,  was written by plastic surgeon, Maxwell Maltz (1889-1975). In it, he discusses creating and developing an ideal self-image and he recommends many visualization ideas to achieve this. Alirio mentioned how he used it to visualize himself in front of audiences before performances.

Another book from his list, Piano Technique, was written by Karl Leimer (1920-1974), a concert pianist and pedagogue much admired by Richard Strauss. Leimer was drafted into Germany’s Wehrmacht during the end of World War II and subsequently imprisoned in Italy. He composed a Piano Concerto for Left Hand after he learned of a college friend who had lost his right arm to an explosion during the war. This book talks mostly to pianists and is written in a charming old school voice but it has very compelling chapters on slow practice and visualizing.

This next book was not recommended by Alirio. It is a personal favorite and since I’m recommending recommended books on learning, I will recommend it to top off the list. This one was introduced to me by “the Superman of Silicon Valley” Tim Ferriss whose books and podcasts are outstanding for dissecting high level performers across every discipline. This book in particular, The Art of Learning, is written by the great American chess player and martial arts master, Josh Waitzkin. There is so much great information in this book that we can apply to our pursuit of musical excellence, from beginners mind to visualizing to inner peace.

I’ll be back with more soon…



No Numbers Challenge

The other day, I took off my heart rate monitor after my run, uploaded the data from my Garmin, and reviewed the data on graphs and charts. The graph showed progress in how my speed/mile was increasing while my heart rate was decreasing. I then would measure out my post-run smoothie ingredients (a 3 to 1 carbohydrate to protein ratio along with enough dark leafy greens to make my young boys lavish me with looks of revulsion) to make sure my recovery was on track.

Later that day, I started my practice routine as usual with a very slow, controlled warm-up of some slurs with the metronome set to 52, going from single finger pairs and doubling, tripling, and eventually quadrupling the tempo. Then onto alternation exercises, all tied to divisions and subdivisions with a metronome clicking away. Then a few harder passages played carefully, all tied to the metronome in some form, and then a few very slow run-throughs of perpetual motion movements from larger works for endurance (preludes, etudes, etc…). After all of this, I usually have a bit of time to play through a few pieces, work on trouble spots, and test where they are before I pull myself together for teaching.

Between the persistent desire to become a better guitarist (and healthy endurance runner), my day and activities seem to be dominated by times, beats, numbers, portions, patterns, paces, pulse, measures, measurements. Data.

I’ve often reflected on this and know that when we quantify, we measure, and with the data can take action and make goals. But I also know that a piece of music needs to breathe, to wax and wane. Metronomes and heart rate monitors and scales (for weight) and scales (for music) are useful tools but creating music or running on trails should also feel organic, more intuitive, more human.

So, I’m challenging myself this week to lose the numbers, lose the measurements, and rely more intuitively on my heart and my senses than let the science lab I’ve constructed around my activities provide the usual feedback.

Roland Dyens (1955-2016)

When I heard of this great artist’s passing, I, like the rest of the guitar world felt a deep sense of loss. Though I only had met him once and knew him more through his scores and concerts, it was clear that he was well-loved for his spirited personality, his abundant creativity, and for sharing his artistry so generously on stage. From his meticulous arrangements of french songs, jazz standards, and brazilian pieces, to his own compositions, Roland Dyens has left a treasure trove of music and arrangements written for guitar with a depth of knowledge that can only result from a lifetime of guitar playing.

One of the most beautiful moments in my life had Roland Dyens’ music as a soundtrack. His arrangement of Edith Piaf’s L’Hymne a L’Amour was played during my wedding by my dear friend Marc Teicholz years ago. A day memorable for many reasons but elevated, like the world around him, by his music.