Sweep Picking Week 1 Update

For the last week I’ve been working on my sweep picking mission. Already I’m finding the technique to be fascinating and have made some useful discoveries about my own style of learning.

Three string sweeps

I decided to start with three string shapes on the top three strings. These are important because they provide a variety of different patterns while not being over complex. The also include the top part of the arpeggio, where you have to turn around and descend back through the notes which you’ve ascended through.

My main focus has been on a classic diminished 7th shape:

3StringDim7

This shape is one of the simplest because it uses different fingers from string to string (so you don’t have to roll your fingers). It also has the hammer on/pull off on the top string within easy reach.

As my main testing ground, I wanted to see what I could already do with this shape. Ascending was fairly fluid, but descending it was uneven and quite slow. I knew I was doing something to make it difficult for myself, but it took me a while to realise the obvious. I had a ‘duh!’ moment when I realised that I was pulling off the top note quite violently – my finger was pulling back very far and there was no way it could get down to the bottom note in time. The movement was also throwing the rest of my had out of balance to the fretboard.

I wanted to achieve one thing, but the way I moved my finger was entirely counter-productive to that goal. This is called cross motivation and I’ll be writing a post about it soon. I had to maintain a great deal of awareness to break the habit, but once I got the pull off going gently, it was fairly easy to gain the same fluency descending the arpeggio as ascending. At the moment, I have to practise a few times with this awareness before I can launch into it at any speed, but I expect this necessary practice will reduce to zero very soon.

Next up were three minor triad shapes (all three inversions):

3StringMinor

I found the middle shape the easiest, but much like the diminished, it’s slower on the way down. Nothing I don’t know how to improve, though.

The first shape is the hardest of the three, for me. Rolling the first finger cleanly to make sure that each note sounds clearly without any bleeding over to the next is quite a skill.

The only thing that trouble me with the third shape is being precise enough with the hammer on. The 17th fret is quite a small target. Working on this will allow me to play much more accurately at the top end of the neck, though, so it’s an important skill.

Finally, I worked on the major triad shapes:

3StringMajor

The first shape didn’t present many problems. Rolling a finger across two strings is much easier than three.

The second shape was another that I found more difficult. It’s unique so far, in that the first finger is responsible for the main note on two strings. I find the open G string ringing through when I move my finger to fret the first string. This will require some effective muting, but it seems a good sweep movement will take care of that automatically.

The third shape is the last tricky one (and will get more so with a four string version), so it’s important that I deal with it now. I find rolling the second or third finger much more difficult than the first, but this is probably just due to the lack of use.

Week 2 Goals

Although I haven’t quite reached fluency in all of the three string shapes, I’ll continue moving forwards in my mission:

  • Finish working on the three string shapes that are not fluent and bring all shapes up to a consistent tempo. This shouldn’t take long now that I’ve identified the difficulties. I’m aiming for sextuplets at 100bpm.
  • Extend the arpeggios to four strings.
  • Practise the bottom parts of five and six string arpeggios. At the moment, I won’t connect them to the top parts, but I want to have a head start on larger arpeggios when I start them in the third week.
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Mission 1: Fluent sweep picking in 3 weeks!

Here’s the first of the missions I promised in my previous post!

As a guitarist (or anything else, for that matter), I’m no virtuoso. There are parts of my playing that I’m fairly happy with and parts I’ve ignored for a long time.

Sweep picking is something I’ve only ever dabbled in. When I first learnt about it, I thought it was cool in very short bursts but generally not that useful to me. As such, I currently use it only to provide an accent to certain notes in solos (i.e. grace note arpeggios).

I don’t want to limit my way of playing any longer – after all, using a technique should be a choice based on musical intention, not incompetence. Hence this mission.

In the post title, I’ve used the word fluent to describe my goal, but this requires a little definition. Recently I’ve been studying German and find that drawing parallels between language learning and music can be useful. When I say fluent, I don’t intend to sweep pick like a native (that’s an interesting thought!), but reach a conversational level.

Specifically this is my goal:

Be able to play easily any major or minor arpeggio shape from the ‘CAGED’ system; be able to join together inversions where appropriate; and be able to integrate these into my solos. I’ll also be learning some common diminished shapes too.

I’ll start by working on 3 string shapes and progress on to 4, 5, and 6 strings once I’m comfortable. I’ll be looking at what patterns of movement I currently have are limiting my ability to succeed and will document my progress and share any learning techniques that I come across as I go on.

One last thing – why the three week time limit? I’d originally intended to do this in two weeks, but I have a couple of major projects on at the moment alongside running my business. I will commit time to this every day, but not as much as I would if I didn’t have those other projects.

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Upcoming posts: Missions!

I always intend to post more on this blog. I have so many ideas for learning, but I tend to tinker with one thing and then move on to the next without having fully explored the previous.

So, I decided to try a different format of posting (which I’ve seen other bloggers use) – something that will force me to be much more active in posting and might prove more interesting than my previous posts. The new format involves…

Missions!

Let’s face it – the idea of being on a mission is cool. It summons images spies sneaking around, charming beautiful women, blowing up buildings and having epic gun fights in abandoned warehouses! Not that any of those will be my goals (although, perhaps I could build a guitar gun that fires only when when an E7#5b9 chord is played with the neck pickup selected and the volume control set to 11? Hmmmm….).

More seriously, a mission requires clever organisation, but not so much that adapting to new situations is made difficult. The ability to adapt to new ways of learning is what allows us to overcome plateaus in our development, while the organisation and structure provides us with a framework which we can modify when necessary.

Over the next week I’ll announce a couple of small missions to get me started and find a way to tie them in with methods of learning that I think will help me (and hopefully others) succeed. Watch this space!

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(Sight) reading from different perspectives

I recently came home from the latest segment of my Feldenkrais Practitioner training. Over the three weeks we did many ATMs (Awareness Through Movement lessons) and lots of exploratory work to prepare for FIs (Functional Integration).

Interspersed amongst the learning are many stories told by our trainer, Jerry Karzen, many of which are about Moshe Feldenkrais’ life. Here’s one we were told this segment which I related to a lot, which also gave me ideas about improving my sight reading (the story is not verbatim, so forgive any minor errors with details – I’m writing from memory):

Edit: I’ve been provided a link to a written version of this story, which also talks more about reading from different angles. You can find here.

Feldenkrais is sitting on a train (I think from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv). Sat opposite him is a man who is reading a book. Feldenkrais is somewhat enamoured with this man because he looks like he “knows what he is doing” (one of Feldenkrais’ favourite sayings was, “If you know what you’re doing, you can do what you want”.)

The only puzzling thing is that the man has his book upside down, but he does appear to be reading it – he’s periodically turning the pages. Eventually Feldenkrais asks, “Are you really reading that book?”.

The man answers, “Of course.”, and begins to read aloud part of the book. He then turns it on one side and reads like that, then the other side and reads more, and finally turns it the “usual” way and reads like that. He reveals that his school only owned one book, so when gathered round a table, every pupil would be reading from a different angle (he was from Yemen). To him it made no difference which way the book was oriented. 

I related to this story because I’m able to do the same thing – it doesn’t matter what angle the book is to me. Ironically, it’s for similar reasons – of course, my school had more than one book, but whenever we had to read in groups, there never seemed to be enough copies for everyone. So some of the time, I read the book from the top or sides.

“What does this have to do with sight reading”, I hear you ask. Maybe everything, or maybe nothing.

Sight reading relies on being able to process the information on the page as quickly and accurately as possible. Imagine, if you can process that information upside down and from either side (which of course means that you’ll read the music up and down the page, rather than side to side), how much more complete your ability to read music would be.

A tactic often used by people to secure difficult passages is to make them more difficult once they get the hang of them. That’s exactly what I’m suggesting here – get your brain used to interpreting information is strange and unusual ways, then when you return to the usual it will be easier.

One last (and only slightly related) thought. If you can read a book in all of these different ways, then perhaps that would help prepare you for reading languages that are read right to left, or top to bottom?

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Why teaching someone else is so useful for our own learning

First, a little background.

When I started teaching over five years a go, my focus was on developing the skills required to effectively communicate what can be a complex subject, in the simplest form possible. At the time, I thought about how doing so would help my pupils progress effectively and most of the time I would refine my ideas outside of lessons and put them to the test whilst teaching, then I would refine them based on how much they were understood by the pupil.

As I’ve gained more experience, my approach has switched to be more improvisational – I’ll explain a musical concept, practice method or technical approach and adjust it on the fly, even mid explanation if a pupil does not immediately understand. After all, every pupil is individual and deserves their own teaching, unique to them. I’ve found this approach much more effective for my pupils.

Now to the point of my post – I find my own understanding is enhanced when teaching this way. We tend to learn best when presented with alternatives; alternatives are exactly what I’m providing my pupils with. Here are a couple of examples to illustrate:

  1. A pupil of mine was learning Für Elise and wanted to know why the left hand notes are sometimes all distributed within an octave and sometimes spread further apart. It’s something I’d considered before, but being asked about it made me think about it differently. For the first time I realised it was actually just the alto, tenor and bass voices of standard four part harmony. I’d probably never have noticed if I hadn’t taught it.
  2. Earlier this week I was demonstrating to a pupil how to perform a tremolando chord that she was struggling with. Though in theory it should be a very simple technique to perform, the reality require some very precise movements. As I was showing my pupil the movements, my own technique improved greatly because I could not afford to show her anything less than excellent.

These are not the only times that this has happened and I’m sure that most teachers can recall times when this has happened. I find this effect fascinating – that such responsibility towards our pupils can provide an instantaneous improvement in ourselves. Can we do this when when practising by ourselves?

Here’s a test I’m going to be carrying out in my own practise and I’d like to know if it works for anyone else. The idea is simple – next time I practise, I’m going to split myself into teacher and pupil and delegate the responsibility of the learning to that part of me which is teaching. This will allow the part of me which is the pupil the room to experiment and make errors rather than immediately trying to attain perfection and getting stuck in a rut because of that.

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Variations in practice

and why they’re important!

A couple of posts a go, I wrote about hammer ons and pulls offs for guitar. This post is a follow up to that based on what I’ve learned from my practice since. I’m sure everyone that plays an instrument is familiar with this experience: you nail the technique for a certain aspect of playing and it improves not just gradually but rapidly over the course of a few days or a week. Then suddenly, you find your practice starts to get worse and worse. Your playing becomes quite hit and miss and old reliable technique doesn’t seem so trustworthy. Even recreating the process by which you got to that improved playing doesn’t seem to work. What do you do?

This where variations in your practice are really useful. By changing an element of what you’re practising, your brain gets the opportunity to interpret what you’re doing in a new way. Since the brain is designed to integrate differences, the more variations you give it, the better it will be able to synthesise them into a more complete and fluent technique that can adapt to a much wider range of situations.

What do I mean by variations? You could change your position in relationship to the instrument. For example, I suffered the above situation with the hammer ons and pull offs described in the previously mentioned post. At the time I as sitting down to play my guitar, with my right leg crossed over my left. So I started to mix that up – I sat without legs crossed – the guitar is in a different place – the whole situation of playing is different. Then I practised standing up with the guitar on a strap, then lying down on my back. Each of these provided a different learning experience for me and once I’d run through them all I returned to the initial way of playing and found that it had improved.

You can try similar variations for piano – try kneeling on the floor or standing up instead of sitting at your usual height.

It’s also worthwhile varying musical elements. Change the rhythm of what your playing by accenting different notes; or play groups of 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, or 7 instead of the original grouping of the piece (see below for an example). Or perhaps change the melody – trill a semitone instead of a whole tone; transpose to a different key; play the melody in double notes or octaves. Or substitute bends for hammer ons or slides. You could even try swapping hands – have the left hand do what the right hand would do and vice versa (granted, this is awkward for a guitarist since flipping the guitar upside down and playing with the hands in opposite roles is like learning to play from scratch).

Rhythmic variations for hammer on and pull off practice

Rhythmic variations for hammer on and pull off practice, click for a larger image

Most of the suggestions above make the problem more difficult as a way of providing variations. You can always simplify, too – try playing only pulse notes so that you have a clearly defined rhythmic skeleton; or pick a starting note and destination note, play only those, then fill in the notes in between one by one.

Whether you make things easier or more difficult, make sure it’s interesting! That interest will allow you to solve the problem.

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Resolutions: a few more thoughts

So, a week after the start of the New Year, have I perfectly kept to the resolutions that I set out? In a word, no. Is this necessarily a bad thing? I got thinking about this as I noticed that I wasn’t doing all of them everyday (I’ve managed at least half of them every day).

Change is a process and rarely instantaneous (occasionally change occurs immediately, but most of the time it doesn’t). Is it a significant failure that I haven’t kept all of my resolutions every day? Not really – I’m doing more of each of those things, so it’s actually a big step in the right direction and I’m confident that as I become more familiar with doing them I’ll be able to integrate them all more fluently into my life. And that’s the point, is it not?

For anyone that’s stumbled at the first hurdle, broken their resolutions early on in the year; don’t see it as a failure and don’t stop because of that. You’ve probably done more of what you intended – whether exercise; learning a language; practising an instrument or learning a new skill – than you had previously, and that’s an achievement within itself. Just pick yourself back up and carry on, it’ll get easier, because that is the nature of change.

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Hammer Ons/Pull Offs

So this is going to be a quick post about a fairly important guitar technique based on recent experiences of mine.

I wrote a guitar solo for a song recently, but it was a very hit and miss affair when it came to playing it. Being the smart guy I am, I’d exploited one of my weaknesses (at that time). That’s what happens when you write music away from the instrument, eh?

Anyway, the problem bar looks something like this:

Hammer On/Pull Off Example

Try as I might, with my old technique there was no way the semi-quavers (or sixteenth notes, if you prefer) were going to be even. I reach a plateau at around 144bpm, so I started to breakdown my technique to see what I was doing wrong. In the end I made use of an idea that pianist Alan Fraser introduced me to – that if the thumb and index fingers work really well together, the rest of the fingers will be freed to function properly. I just applied it to the guitar.

Put simply the idea is this; make more effort with the index finger and thumb so that the other fingers don’t have to work so hard. But where does that extra effort come from?

Focused in the wrong place that effort could make the hand bind up or even damage it. If the extra effort is causing the fingers to curl more (i.e. at the proximal interphalangeal joint (second from the tip of the finger)) then that means the tendons in the arm are being called into play more and increases the possibility of damage.

The best place for that effort to come from is the first dorsal interosseus (see the heavily shaded are above where the thumb joins the hand in my sketch below; click for the full size image). This amazing group of muscles is responsible for moving the index finger as a single unit from the knuckle (metacarpo-phalangeal joint) and is also responsible for many movements of the thumb. If you focus the effort here when holding down the lower note of a hammer on or pull off, the finger that does the hammer or pull will be much freer to do its job.

First Dorsal Interosseus

Using the musical example at the beginning of the post try holding the tenth fret with your index finger and putting in that extra effort with the first dorsal interosseus. See how your ring finger works for the pull offs. Is it easier or more difficult? How easy do you find focusing the effort so much in one place while keeping the other as free as possible?

Of course, technique is a very personal thing, so perhaps this won’t work for everyone. However, over the course of a week I got the example above from a sloppy 144bpm up to a clean 200bpm (and currently, a slightly less clean 216bpm). I also found the jump for the index finger between the last two notes became much more fluent because everything else was working better.

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It’s a new day, a new dawn, a new year…

So, with the New Year upon us (an event worthy of butchering the lyrics of Anthony Newly and Leslie Bricusse), I thought I’d take a look at New Year’s Resolutions (hmm, grammatical dilemma here – to apostrophe or not to apostrophe – do the resolutions belong to the New Year?).

In the Christmas episode of 8 Out of 10 Cats, Roisin Conaty said that most resolutions are to do the exact opposite of what you’ve done the previous couple of weeks during Christmas. So most people eat loads during the holidays, then resolve to eat less and lose weight in the New Year. To me, that seems like they’re setting themselves a rather large obstacle to overcome. Sure, some people respond well to such challenges, but perhaps this initial difficulty is why so many people give up on their resolutions?

Looking at things from a Feldenkrais point of view, wouldn’t it make sense to start with something we can already do and improve that? We start with something easy and achievable and progress from there. Success feeds success, and things done well often tend to improve seemingly without effort. Once this starts happening we can become more ambitious and build up the challenge step by step. And before we know it, we’ll have arrived at New Year 2015 and the subject of our resolutions will be so improved as to be unrecognisable.

So, with that in mind, here are my resolutions:

  1. Do an Awareness Through Movement lesson every day. Doesn’t necessarily need to be a full length lesson – it can be just as useful to do a five minute lesson from Scott Clark’s Sitting Series, for example.
  2. Practise my instruments every day. By this, I mean real practice – not just sitting down and playing but actually carefully working on something in such a way it can improve.
  3. Draw something every day. Though I’m primarily a musician, originally I’d intended to be an artist. Obviously that didn’t happen, but I find my musical creativity is enhanced by doing visual art.
  4. Learn some German every day. I’ve been working on learning the German language for about a year and a half now, but it a very unstructured and lazy way. Recently I found a tutor and intend now to improve my learning.

I did consider putting “Write some new music/lyrics every day” on the list, but I find that if I do the other things well that tends to happen as a result. I’m also intending to post here more often – not every day, but much more frequently than I have done recently.

Happy new Year,

Nick

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How easy is easy?

At first glance the title of this post is rather strange, isn’t it? Easy is easy, right? But even if something is easy, who’s to say it couldn’t be made easier still? Moshe Feldenkrais had a beautiful saying,

“I want to make the impossible, possible; the possible, easy; and the easy, elegant.”

This was one of the things I really started to understand while I was away at Chiemsee. When I returned home I started to look at my methods of learning piano and guitar to see if I was really making things easy. I imagine every reading can guess the answer! If we’re really honest with ourselves we’ll all find something we can do more efficiently, a way of working that is always constructive to our learning. How about a short example to clarify my point a little:

Let’s say we’re working to improve our arpeggios on the piano (specifically, over two or more octaves). For most people, the focus will be on the position shifts from one octave to the next. I’m sure we’ve all been frustrated by them at one point or another. Let’s face it, playing the notes within a single octave is simple, right?

But is this simple task done as easily as possible, done in such a way that it empowers our hands? Or are we paying little attention to it, playing those notes in our habitual manner because of the perceived simplicity? If the former, great! If the latter, we have work to do before the position shifts come into play because we’re already setting ourselves an obstacle to overcome.

By working one the simplest parts of the arpeggio, aiming for simplicity, efficient movement from one note to the next and rhythmic integrity, we’ll make the position shifts later on much easier – we won’t be stacking one difficulty on top of another.

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