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!

 

Leo Brouwer’s Axioms

Years ago, I came across an article on a Spanish site guitarra.artepulsado.com posted by Oscar López who had taken notes during a summer course with the great Cuban composer and guitarist, Leo Brouwer. The title of the post was Axiomas básicos de Leo Brouwer. I found the word file and thought I’d translate it for all non-Spanish speakers. It provides a wealth of advice. I’ve added a few commentaries below to expand the ideas a bit. Hope they are helpful.

Warm Up

Use chromatic octaves for the left hand and arpeggios and rasgueados for the right hand. Play close to the body in higher resonant positions upon starting your practice.

*I think this may mean to start your practice without having the left hand in an extended position. Starting in higher positions is less stressful for the left hand.

Speed and Scales

Use fixed, non-shifting positions in the left hand that are close to the body (i.e. higher positions) to play short bursts of notes. Play bursts in short crescendos (soft to loud or light to intense). Start on one string, then expand to two strings. Add one note at a time and pause between each mini-scale.

Add color and articulations to scales.

Left Hand Shifting

Left-hand notes should be played staccato (*perhaps he means before a shift). Focus on the arrival (not the departure) as you shift from 1st to 2nd, 1st to 3rd, 1st to 4th, etc., position.

Left Hand Independence

With a fixed first finger bar, play slurs and scales across all the strings with the rest of the fingers. Try all combinations possible.

Memory

To avoid embedding errors, do not start memorizing at the very beginning of learning a piece.

Fingerings

There are never definitive fingerings.

*What Brouwer most likely means to covey here is that fingerings evolve throughout the lifetime of learning a piece. Inevitably, we discover better, more efficient, more musical, more interesting ways to play passages and discard or change older fingerings as our familiarity with the piece increases.

Color

Exploit the three primary sonorous zones of the guitar: over the sound hole (resonant zone), over right part of the rosette (resonant and clarity zone), and near the bridge (clarity zone).

Harmonics

Do not pluck harmonics diagonally.

More Advice

  • The position of the guitar to your body should remain consistent.
  • Remember that the 2nd and 3rd strings tend to be the weakest so we must compensate when necessary.
  • Pluck consonant chords with no arpeggiation. Pluck rare (dissonant) chords with arpeggiation for clarity.
  • Velocity contains impulse and direction.
  • Cadential ornaments should be in time.
  • Resonance is at the heart of the guitar.
  • Vibrato is used for intensity not rest.
  • The thumb (left-hand) acts as a pivot during slurs.
  • Forte is found at the limit of a beautiful sound.
  • Breathe between phrases and project energy towards the end.
  • During rasgueados the energy is channeled towards the 1st string.
  • Anything that is repeated should be varied. Change either the color or the volume or the timbre.