Lessons and info for the nylon string guitarist

Finger robotics part 2

Finger robotics part 2

It’s all about discipline and training
The subconscious is like a robot and can be trained to do automatic actions. It is really nothing more than a brainless automaton and just does what it’s told. Always. No exceptions. It doesn’t think at all. The trick is to repeat the instruction or physical action enough times for it to become a habit. How many times? This would vary between people. Try tying your shoelaces a different way for 14 days and then go back to your usual way.

It doesn’t really take much to change an old habit. But the training has to be consistent and identical each time. The old computer saying applies well to the subconscious and also to guitar playing. “garbage in – garbage out”. It’s the easiest thing in the world to program the mind with bad habits and defective thinking (garbage). I confess I am guilty of sloppy thinking and lazy habits 90% of the time.

I dare say we all are at times. So we can not reasonably expect the fat controller inside the subconscious to bless us with good results. But if we take the time to program it well with good habits for specific tasks, it will wil not fail you whe you perform that task. The subconscious has the ability to process this information below the conscious threshold at lightning speeds at a second’s notice.

The parts of the body that took part in this specific training, in this case the fingers, will naturally respond and “go through the drill”. I also take a lesson watching martial artists train. Stop-start. Do this-do that. Over and over. The result is that if these people find themselves in a situation where they need to defend themselves, the attacker is on the ground in the blink of an eye and even the martial artist can’t tell you exactly what he
did.

There is no quick way to master the guitar
Martial artists and sports people in general know that to achieve the level of competency they desire they have to be disciplined and work hard at it. So what is it with guitarists. Why do we expect miracles with little or no training. Why do they keep getting sucked into buying the “Play guitar like a expert in 10 easy lessons” type courses. To be sure, there are some good courses out there that will really teach you how to play. However, these are much more comprehensive than practicing a few power chords over the weekend.

They also require you to put some hard work in over a reasonable time period. Otherwise nothing happens. Sure, you might pick up a few good memory tricks in 10 easy lessons. You might even learn a few neat ways to visualize scales. That’s great if you do, but learning to play the guitar is about actually playing the guitar, not just reading about it during the commercial breaks on TV.

Repetition – The art of playing effortlessly
When you learn a new piece you don’t just play it through once to get it right. You play it over and over and over until you remember it and it begins to feel natural and effortless. I knew a classical player once who would ask to borrow a book containing 20 or 30 complex pieces for the weekend. That’s fine. He would come back to me in a couple of days and say. “I played all these pieces. Have you got any more?” He made it sound like he could play each piece like the virtuoso that he wasn’t and was now bored with them.

What a clever dick. Pigs can fly easier than he could play these pieces after he returned the book. It’s amazing how easily the power of self delusion can cloud the truth if you have an ego as big as Texas. Memorizing and mastering music comes from repetition. Even if he did memorize all those pieces on the weekend, memorizing the music is a minor part of playing convincing music. Mastering the music can only come through discovering subtle ways of better expressing the music with each repetition.

What is muscle memory?
People who say they are not very good at memorizing a piece of music just don’t play it enough. The simple truth is that you no longer need to remember a piece after you have played it through a couple hundred times. Memory recall would have been automatically delegated to the muscles in the fingers long before your hundredth repetition. But the term “muscle memory” is a convenient misnomer for what really goes on behind the scenes. The so-called muscle memory is actually an automatically triggered response to the reinforced memories you have stored away in the subconscious.

The more times you play something, the more you reinforce the memory of the finger actions and the more automatic (and accurate) your muscle memory will be. It’s that simple. Once you establish this “memory” through repetition, the subconscious will send the same sequence of instructions to the finger muscles and the fingers will play the music back to you the same way every time like like some sort of subliminal juke box. All you have to do is decide to play a piece and pick up the guitar. That triggers the muscle sequence you want and is like putting a coin in a jukebox. Then the tape starts rolling and playback begins.

Remembering forgotten pieces
For the record, I am basically a lazy person. When I get busy working a full time job I have very little energy or motivation at the end of day to play guitar. I would sometimes not play anything for weeks. When I do pick up the guitar after an extended period of playing nothing I make many mistakes. This can be be expected but the techniques required to play my mistake filled pieces, while not 100%, are still solid and reliable. Practicing basic movements and going through a series of exercises and fret board drills helps enormously, naturally enough. But I have learned through experience that there is another, equally important benefit to practicing basic skills. I found that the more flexible and warmed up the fingers get because of the exercises and drills, the better I remembered the pieces.

But it wasn’t me remembering the notes or where to put the fingers, it was the muscle memory in the fingers that kicked in because they were simply covering familiar territory as they progressed through he pieces. So I learned to let the fingers remember and did not consciously think about the sequence of notes. The second I applied conscious thought by trying to remember what came next with my brain, my fingers got confused and stumbled to find the right notes. It was almost as if my brain was attempting to give the fingers instructions contrary to what they had previously been trained to do through past repetition.

When I was backpacking in India in 1975, I did not have a lot a sheet music with me but I had previously learned a lot of classical music. When I tried to play some of the stuff I rarely played, I fumbled and struggled with my conscious memory. The more I tried to remember something consciously, the more elusive the memory of the forgotten music seemed to be. I almost became convinced that without the sheet music in front of me I would not be able to play some of this music. But I’m a pedantic little bugger so I just kept trying to remember bits every day.

To my surprise I was able to remember new snippets each day. That’s when I realized that it wasn’t my brain remembering but my fingers. These newly remembered passages came when I stopped TRYING to remember and just let my instinct do the remembering. In other words, I handed over control of the piece to my fingers and stopped tying to tell them what to remember. This process of remembering pieces instinctively worked best when I warmed up the fingers first with scales and other fret board exercises.

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Finger robotics Part 3

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