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Day 118 : Little Earthquakes

The unexpected exploration of dynamics in this week’s practice sessions has helped me etch a few more spidery cracks into the great barrier surrounding technical transparency.

At first I tried to change up the dynamics with nice hair-pin style interpolation. Even in the most basic tremolo picking exercises, this proved to be at least one step too far for me. The crescendo worked more or less, though I could feel that it was rocky and uneven. The decrescendo was pretty much non-existent. My attacks just went from hard to almost silent. To put it another way, I noticed that I was not able to go from f to mf. I believe the difficulty was that the way I was going about producing a f picking attack was by pulling up tension in my right hand/wrist muscles. I suspected that this method of tension-based f attack might be altogether wrong. While it is relatively easy to modulate the increase of tension in tremolo, it seemed hard (perhaps not practical) to train the right hand to gradually release tension.

It also occurred to me that, regardless of why I couldn’t produce smooth dynamic ramps in my tremolo, I should step back and try something one-step simpler. Instead of trying to ramp from pp to ff, I just tried to ramp back and forth between pp and p, holding the fairly energetic tempo of the tremolo constant.

-BREAKTHROUGH-

One indelible hallmark of novice players is how their expression suffers from a link between speed and volume. It makes sense that this would happen when I’m trying to play faster than I truly can. Dynamic control is the canary that dies in the coal mine long before rhythmic accuracy begins to break down.

When I look closely at the physical relationship between speed and dynamics on the guitar its obvious that as we speed up, the pick approaches the string with greater momentum then when we are playing slowly. To play softer dynamic levels necessarily requires that this momentum dissipate before the pick (or finger) actually strikes the string. Otherwise all the momentum needed to pick fast will be transferred to the string and the sound will be a louder dynamic. Specifically what is required to play fast yet soft is 1.) an implicit understanding of how to dissipate this momentum, AND (at least initially) 2.) a little more time to anticipate this dynamic control. In other words, you have to arrive at the string just a tiny fraction of a second sooner in order to play fast and soft.

Once again the solution is to slow down the practice tempo. Using rhythmic accuracy as the parameter of how fast you can pick is misleading and can foster a technique that is tense and dynamically flat. The breakdown of full dynamic control is the true measure of how fast a player can pick. In order to improve comfort, expression, accuracy, and maybe even top speed, I need to find the lower bpm level at which the dynamic control starts to break down and work there.

To say this very simply, I am trying to execute all technical exercises with picking/strumming/rasguados/etc that are fast but keep the dynamic level pp. It seems that it is fairly easy to raise the dynamic level for any tempo for which I can comfortable play pp.

So that is what I am going to keep in mind as this 4th month of 2016 draws to a close and I revise my practice routine for May. It is one thing to intellectualize what practicing one way or another might do. But the proof as to whether you’re on the right track is in that feeling you get when you breakthrough some physical barrier and convert all this intellectual BS into a primal gesture. These exhilaratingly visceral moments hint that the barrier of technical development is really weak and can be shattered leaving a clear channel to whatever is on the other side.