Finger robotics part 1
What you will learn in this lesson:
How to train your fingers to relax
How to practice without wasting energy
Why repetition is important
How muscle memory works
How to remember forgotten music passages
What improvising is all about
The relationship between the finger muscles and the subconscious mind.
Stage fright and getting through on autopilot
The finger muscles develop a memory with repeated actions. They seem to know exactly where to go when you play a set piece, but only after you have played it a hundred times. If you have to perform something on stage you had better make damn sure you have practiced it enough times so that the piece has been embedded in the muscles as an indelible memory. Having a good, reliable technique is important but as soon as you get on stage, 90% of your technique goes out the window and you are left to rely on pure adrenaline and muscle memory. That’s been my experience anyway.
If your technique is good enough and you have previously played the piece enough times, you will get through the experience on autopilot without too much conscious thinking to muck it up. If your practice sessions are full of bum notes and mistakes, it’s not a bad idea to slow down until you get it right. The fingers have a habit of remembering these same, repeated mistakes and perform them with great enthusiasm when you get on stage, even if you know they are coming and try to correct them on the run.
What happens is the fingers sense that you are suddenly trying to send them an instruction contrary to what they were trained to do so well (make mistakes). The result is that the fingers go into panic mode and freeze up in the precise place you desperately want to them to get their act together. But don’t blame the poor little finger robots. You programmed them. What they are basically telling you is, “you made the bed, now you’re going to lie in it”. The moral of the story is “you can’t outfox the fox”.
If this sounds a little too esoteric, don’t freak out. The methods of building a good, working relationship with the fingers are easy to understand and simple to apply. But to add some suspense to this scenario, I want to first cover the different ways that some players use their hands to create unwanted tension. Eliminating tension is the first thing you need to do if want your fingers to cooperate.
Everybody is different
In my quest to improve my technique I have read lots of books and tried out lots of methods. I have also watched many players close up to see if I can steal a few secrets. I use to believe in the “one cap fits all” myth but I now know that no two hands on the planet that are exactly the same. Everybody who plays a guitar will end up with a unique way of moving the fingers to get the sounds they want. You can start by practicing “standard” techniques from guitar books and different teachers, but your fingers will soon be telling you what is best for you.
There is no point in continuing with a technique that causes pain or discomfort just because it seems to perfectly suit someone else. A good teacher should be able to detect when tension occurs and make the necessary adjustments to your technique. The single, most important key to effortless playing is keeping the fingers relaxed when they are not actually plucking or striking the strings. Muscle tension is a guitar player’s worst enemy.
3 things to not do
Don’t rest fingers on the sound board when you play. I’ve seen people who seem to have their pinky or “a” finger (or both) stuck to the body of the guitar with super glue when they play arpeggios or play picado or strum with the index finger. Lift the fingers OFF the guitar. Chances are you are pushing with some pressure onto the wood to get stability and creating unnatural tension in the fingers.
Don’t rest the thumb on the guitar body above the E bass string. Rest it ON the E
string when you’re not playing with it.
Don’t play notes by swinging at them from a great height above the strings. Taking a run up to play a note is a waste of energy and a hit and miss affair. Keep the fingertips as close to the strings as possible at all times.
Take a lesson from the bottling robots
When I first heard Vicente Amigo’s rasgueados, I was amazed at the clarity. The finger strokes sounded like machine gun fire. I said, “I wanna play like that”, damn it. There was something in his sound that spoke to me of discipline. Using this analogy, I reasoned that even though a machine gun shoots out bullets pretty fast, each bullet undergoes several mechanical stop-start processes before it actually leaves the chamber. This is where the “relax after each stroke” made some sense and became important to me. Disciplined practice sucks alright but playing bad guitar sucks even more.
So I started treating my fingers as if they were programmed industrial robots. I took a lesson from the swing arm robots in the drink bottle factory where I worked at one time. The bottles would come down the line and stop occasionally for various things to happen.
These robot arms would swing over to the bottles and:
STOP – then swing down to the top of the bottle and:
STOP – then close the grips on the bottle lip and:
STOP – then lift the bottle straight up and:
STOP – then swing across to a packing crate and:
STOP – then swing down into the crate and:
STOP – then release the grips and:
STOP – then lift back up again and:
STOP – and then the cycle would start all over again.
God bless em.