January 28, 2011

Always have a positive musical intent

Philip Hii has been putting up a series of posts about speed and fluidity on his "Art of Virtuosity" blog recently. They're all great, so go check them out (when you're done reading this post!).

There's a section in his "Rebound" post that I wanted to look at:
If you find that you’re not rebounding quickly or that you’re hampered by a lack of speed in your plucking, you might want to check if lack of fluidity could be the culprit.
Make sure that as you play, you do not stop the finger at any point, especially when you have to rebound ie. change direction to bring it back to playing position again.
If you are, try moving the fingers upward after you pluck and rebound in a circular trajectory as described above. You might be surprised by the results.
Fluidity is at the heart of all efficient movement and is absolutely crucial for speed and power.
 -Philip Hii
I think that a lot of times teachers try to convey to students that they shouldn't pluck the strings upwards away from the top of the guitar, which is something that a lot of people instinctively do for fear or getting "stuck" on the next string. "Don't pluck upwards" can eventually get thought of as "there shouldn't be any upward motion."

But somehow you have to clear the string on the way back to playing position, and I think that no matter how you conceptualize it, there will need to be some upward motion. Following Philip's advice will help you understand the whole motion you're working on rather than leaving some of it to chance.

Bicycling exercise

What Philip talks about reminds me of something I read in Pepe Romero's "Guitar Style and Technique" book. Sadly, it is long out of print and I have only been able to borrow it, so I will just paraphrase; Pepe recommends, as an exercise, moving your right hand fingers in circles as through you're pedaling a tiny bicycle.

I have seen it said that this motion should be "avoided at all costs," presumably because if you pluck the string upward, you will get a thin and weak tone... but if you already know how to make a good sounding stroke, it shouldn't be a problem to coordinate the motion so that the upwards portion doesn't begin too soon.

Which brings me too...

Always have a positive musical intent

It's important to work on technique by itself but it always helps to have a musical intent when you do it. I have noticed at times that I can play, for example, scale passages faster in a piece than I could when practicing scales on their own. The perception of difficulty often makes things harder than they really are because when we focus on what we don't want to happen. If you focus instead on what you do want, you'll probably get it quicker.


PS: I have several upcoming gigs in the Seattle area, although the only gig that's really "public" is at the Burlington, WA public library from 2-3pm. But for those of you attending the recital-type performances, here's what I'm playing:
  • Rodrigo: En Los Trigales
  • Turina: Fandanguillo
  • Villa-Lobos: Prelude 3
  • Barrios: Julia Florida, La Catedral
  • Bach: Cello Suite BWV 1009
  • Llobet: Plany
At at least two of these performances, there will be a piano present, so with my wife Angeline I'll also be playing: 
  • Vivaldi: Trio Sonata rv82
  • Rodrigo: Españoleta (from Fantasia Para Una Gentilhombre)


  1. Interesting, I will have to experiment with this technique. A few of my beginning fingerpicking students tend to do this, and I always steer them away from it.

  2. I wholeheartedly concur with the positive intent philosophy. Positive energy is what gets things done.

    That bike pedaling analogy of Pepe Romero is a great analogy and describes the action perfectly. Elsewhere in my blog, I've also posted links to youtube videos of Sharon Isbin, Douglas Neidt, George Sakellariou, playing with that upward movement. And my good friend Miguel de Maria just pointed me to a Kevin Gallagher youtube video video where he does the same thing too -- a lot of upward movement in his hand and fingers. So it's really quite universal.

  3. Good luck on the gigs! Great program!

  4. Anton, it is a change of thinking for me. I'd always gone for the "pendulum" motion, but I think the point was to avoid plucking upwards. Once you've plucked, somehow you have to get back to position without hitting the string.

    The bicycle exercise is a way of coordinating that so that everything can happen simultaneously. If you're going for speed, beyond a certain point you can't wait for one finger's motion to end before the next one starts.

    If you don't have a problem with this, then there's no need to overthink it. I know I would occasionally hit the string on the way back, so I am correcting this as Philip suggests.

  5. Like a bicycle? Need to think and try it.

    REgards, Bill