Lessons and info for the nylon string guitarist

Finger robotics part 4

Finger robotics part 4

When I saw my first flamenco stage performance, I was amazed by the guitarist. It was some visiting dance group from Spain. I don’t remember who they were. That’s not important. What impressed me the most is that this guitarist looked really bored as he played his incredible music. He was just casually looking around at everything except his guitar and occasionally he would turn to chat with the guy doing palmas beside him.

That’s when I realized that the principal of repetition did not just apply to clinically remembering a composed piece, but it also applied to improvised music.

I’m sure there were lots of well rehearsed music sequences throughout this performance, but the majority of what he played appeared to me to be improvised rhythm and spontaneous falsetas. I learned from later experience on stage and by jamming with professional guitarists that this observation was indeed the truth. Learning and repeating note or note passages is NOT what flamenco is about. There is much room for improvisation within the dance structure and compás of any given dance form.

The repetition in this case is not so much about about repeating notes or falseta passages in a certain sequence, but carefully repeating and fine tuning aspects of technique such as arpeggios, tremolo or picado. I reasoned that if the technique was as good as it could be, then you could get to a stage where technique was automatic. “Get it out of the way” I said to myself, so you don’t have to struggle with it for years to come. So I took the time to break down each technique into a number of stop-start elements. These elements were repeated slowly until they became second nature to me.

Being creative with scales
I’m still not the best player in the Universe, but my playing has improved 2000 percent as a result of breaking technical challenges down into bite size chunks. My skills of improvisation have also improved by playing scales in all sorts of different ways. I play a straight scale in 3s, 4s and 6s and use different finger combinations. Instead of always using “im” I also use”mi”. What’s the difference? Plenty. It feels different. I also play using “am” and “ma”. This alone seems to improve the “mi” playing. Then I play scales using all 3 fingers “ami”. Then I spend some time playing in a particular key and make up short passages and riffs with the notes of a scale. I’m not a jazz master yet, but I realize that mastering scales is ALL about repetition. There is no escaping that.

Flamenco fiddly bits
There is also no escaping the truth about playing improvised rhythm and falsetas in flamenco music. New falsetas come from already memorized pieces of old falsetas. A flamenco guitarist’s creative toolbox includes hundreds of falsetas that were individually worked on at some stage and perfected through repetition. In the middle of one falseta you can add a piece of another falseta, and before that bit is finished you could decide to add a fragment of yet another falseta. The result is a complete falseta that nobody has ever played before.

But it didn’t come out of thin air. The bits were at some time repeated many times and well rehearsed. For an experienced flamenco guitarist, all these memory fragments are swimming around in the subconscious like hundreds of pieces from a gigantic musical jigsaw puzzle. As with the limited number of letters in an alphabet, they are capable of being creatively reassembled into literally thousands of new and unique variations (new musical words).

Practice slow
The clumsy, conscious part of the mind we use during the day is good at giving the faster, but brainless subconscious supercomputer instructions and the obliging genie says, “your wish is my command”. The subconscious doesn’t have the ability to disobey direct orders from the conscious mind. But it has to be shown what to do first in little baby steps. A quick read of a book won’t do it. I cringe when I hear people say, “I can’t do this” or “I find this difficult”. They don’t realize their silent servant is listening to every word and will do all in it’s power (according to the master’s express wishes) to prevent that person from ever doing the thing they really want to do, but keep telling themselves that they can’t. So there is a lot to be said for this mental programming of the muscles.

That’s what I mean by slow when I talk about this on the picado page. If you get this initial finger programming right and spend a few minutes on it every day, it gets transferred to your playing when you play at faster speeds. The servant will just repeat a previously learned action, the same way every time, exactly the way the master trained it. If the master took time to train this little robot well and spent time on the details during the training phase, the servant has no choice but to comply, regardless of physical speed.

“Practicing ONE piece of music CORRECTLY, improves EVERYTHING you play!”
… Jamie Andreas

Train the fingers to relax like good little
So the SLOW that I’m talking about is not a continuous, fluid motion like a slow motion scene from a movie, but more of a robotic stop-start motion. With rasgueados, play one finger, stop and relax, play the next finger, stop and relax etc. You don’t have to spend all your practice time doing this, just a few minutes a day. The rest of the practice time can be at a comfortable speed, but not a speed where you lose control of the stop-start sensation in the fingers.

A similar thing applies to training for tremolo and picado. Get one finger on the string. Stop and feel it gripping the string ready to play, then play and stop again. As soon as you play a note, get the next finger positioned on the string and stop and relax. If it was the “a” finger you just played, the tip of the “a” finger should be hovering over the D or A string somewhere as the “m” finger takes it’s turn to quickly make contact with the playing string and stops. In this example, the playing string is the E treble string.

It’s easy to fall into the common thinking trap, “If I play what I want to learn at top speed, my fingers will get used to it and correct any mistakes as they go along.” Good luck because this thinking is badly flawed. There are enough guitar cowboys and “crazy fingers” out there.

Consider NOT becoming yet another victim of sloppy thinking.
Get it right from the start.
You’ll be so glad you did.

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