Modal Mastery: Progress Report I
MODAL MASTERY I:
Back in my rock and roll days I went through a phase during which I spent several hours per day playing scales. In fact, I spent so much time on mindless scale exercises that it became a hindrance to other aspects of my musical development. This poisoned my outlook so much that when I switched to traditional guitar, I vowed never to waste so much time on scales again. Well, never say never: I've recently been running into some technical limitations with respect to single line playing, and there is no way around the problem other than to put in a lot of time playing scales with a metronome. It's not so much velocity I'm after (I have a ridiculously slow natural maximum, so that would be fruitless anyway), but strength and solidity. Scales can give you that like nothing else.
One of the nice things about being a mature musician is that you know how to practice smart, versus just practicing hard: Having been through the scale work before with plectrum technique, I know exactly what I need to do with alternating finger technique to get the desired results in the least amount of time. What you have to do is break the elements down and go through the permutations in the most efficient manner possible.
For the modes, there are the seven basic two-octave forms - those things are constant between plectrum and finger-style techniques. The right hand is exactly twice as complicated with finger-style technique though: Instead of having just upstroke and downstroke beginnings to deal with, there is rest stroke, free stroke, starting with i, and starting with m. With twenty-eight basic variants to deal with, you can easily see that getting bogged down is a real danger.
In order to avoid getting hopelessly mired in endless variations, it is necessary to combine the permutations into a single routine. The first step - the preliminary phase - is to make sure you have the seven two-octave in-position mode forms securely under your fingers.
These are the forms I'll be using. You should get to the point where you can comfortably and effortlessly play through these seven mode forms at 120 BPM (As though this page was a piece of music) before proceeding.
Once you have the forms under your fingers, then it is seven short 90 minute sessions to basic competence. Doing one of the forms per day ought to be no problem for even time-starved players. Here is the schedule:
Form I: Ionian
01) Play from position IX to position I and back using rest stroke starting with i at 120 BPM.
02) Play from position IX to position I and back using rest stroke starting with m at 110 BPM.
03) Play from position IX to position I and back using free stroke starting with i at 100 BPM.
04) Play from position IX to position I and back using free stroke starting with m at 90 BPM.
Here, you can see that I have combined metronome work on a single mode form with all four right hand permutations. This is the basic pattern, which we will now repeat.
05) Play 01 at 80 BPM.
06) Play 02 at 70 BPM.
07) Play 03 at 60 BPM.
08) Play 04 at 50 BPM
Now, we will start to accelerate back to 120 BPM and beyond. Remember to allow only one finger on the fretboard at a time. The reason for this will becaome apparent when we start playing patterns in step two.
09) Play 01 at 40 BPM
10) Play 02 at 50 BPM.
11) Play 03 at 60 BPM.
12) Play 04 at 70 BPM.
13) Play 01 at 80 BPM.
14) Play 02 at 90 BPM.
15) Play 03 at 100 BPM.
16) Play 04 at 110 BPM.
Now we are right back exactly where we started from.
17) Play 01 at 120 BPM.
18) Play 02 at 130 BPM.
19) Play 03 at 140 BPM.
20) Play 04 at 150 BPM.
I knew going in that my maximum comfortable velocity was circa 180 BPM, so at this point I start proceeding by increments of 5 BPM.
21) Play 01 at 160 BPM.
22) Play 02 at 165 BPM.
23) Play 03 at 170 BPM.
24) Play 04 at 175 BPM.
And at this point I start increments of 2 BPM.
25) Play 01 at 180 BPM.
26) Play 02 at 182 BPM.
27) Play 03 at 184 BPM.
28) Play 04 at 186 BPM.
My goal for this series was to be able to comfortably play eighth notes at 190 BPM (By day seven), so from here I proceed in increments of a single BPM. Depending on your natural maximum velocity - I have the slowest maximum of any guitarist I've ever heard of - you'll start slowing at whatever is 30 BPM below your natural max.
29) Play 01 at 187 BPM.
30) Play 02 at 188 BPM
31) Play 03 at 189 BPM.
32) Play 04 at 190 BPM.
I started this project about ten days ago, so I'm well into the second phase now. During this first phase I kept a diary, and my failure point when I started was 184-186 BPM. By the time I finished I had increased that to 192-194 BPM, which is positively screaming for me.
One thing to keep in mind is that natural maximum velocities are genetic: If you are slow, there really isn't much you can do about it. These maximums vary not only by individual, but - as a percentage - by race as well. I'm a Caucasian of northern and western European ancestry, and we - as a group - tend to possess the lowest natural maximum velocities. Southern and eastern Europeans are by and large faster, and the negroid races posess the quickest velocities of all. There are always exceptions of course, but Paganini and Liszt were both southern/eastern Europeans, and I can think of no transcendental virtuosos who were northern/western Europeans. Al Dimeola, Paco DeLucia et al would tend to confirm this, but Ingwie Malmsteen seems to be an exception. Then there are people like Andre Watts and Stanley Clarke, who effortlessly reel off impossibly fast and smooth linear passages that also require incredible strength. It isn't fair, I tell you, but it is reality.
I learned about this years ago when I was a runner, by the way: There are two general types of muscle fibre - fast twitch and slow twitch - and they can function in two possible ways - aerobically or anerobically. Fast twitch anarobic guys become world class sprinters, while slow twitch aerobic guys become marathon runners. The perfectly balanced kick ass at about 10K.
I have all slow twitch aerobic muscle fibre, so I can run forever, but at a snail's pace. That translates perfectly to the guitar for me: I can jam for ten hours, but I can play no fast licks. I was much faster with a plectrum, but the slowness of my baseline - and everybody's baseline "speed limit" -is manifested in rapid alternating movements like fingers, arms, and legs going back and forth.
The idea here is simply to minimize my weakness in the area of single line playing as much as I can, not to join Paco DeLucia, Al DiMeola and John McLaughlin (Another exception) to form a quartet of Guitar Monsters.
BTW: If you have a lower natural max than I do, I'd really like you to contact me. I'm convinced that I'm the slowest guitarist in history. There ought to be an award for that!
A reward like that would do nicely.
MODAL MASTERY II:
This regimen is divided up into six week chunks (Though, I hardly ever manage to do a form every day), so the basic competence stage is really just the first seven days of this six week series addressing second and third intervallic patterns through the mode forms. It just so happens that playing the mode forms linearly is the first "pattern."
I really have no idea what classical guitar teachers do with scales in terms of pedagogy - I had a classical guitar teacher give me the position-shifting "Segovia Scales" once and I realized they were illogical, so I blew them off - but what I developed through this method was the ability to improvise modally like Al Di Meola and Paco DeLucia do: That is the goal here. In other words, the idea isn't to have as a goal only the technical ability to play linear passages in composed pieces solidly, but to master the mode forms by applying patterns to them so that one can improvide lines in any modal form. A higher musical goal, IMO.
Also, if you go through this series you will have developed an integral view of the entire fretboard in your head, which as a composer of music for the guitar, I find to be indespensible. Those goofy Segovia Scales won't do that for you.
Here are the first two weeks' patterns:
And the next three weeks worth:
As you can see, there is a logical and systematic pattern developing here. I actually copped these patterns from real Al Di Meola licks and just organized them into a systematic modal exercise series, so these patterns are really the basic building blocks of that kind of an improvisational style (I'm sure Al - I call him "Al" because I've met him before - practiced patterns just like this). Remember, I came up with this when I was a twenty year old student at Berklee playing with plectrum technique. I got plenty fast doing this too.
Now, these patterns are a lot longer than just playing straight through the mode forms, so the system will have to be foreshortened to keep to the ninety minute per day goal. This is quite easy to do. To cut the system in half, all you have to do is play up the pattern in one position, and down the pattern in the next higher or lower position (Depending on whether you are working up or down the neck). To cut it in half yet again (Which will end up being just 25% of the original system) we will be playing down the fingerboard at one metronome setting/using one right hand fingering variation and then up using the next lower or higher metronome setting and the next right hand fingering permutation. So, in actual point of fact, these patterns will take less time to play through (I did two mode forms of pattern one today).
At some point here you will reach critical mass, and you will break through and get close to your natural trained maximum velocity - when I did this with plectrum technique I reached that point going through pattern two here - and that is a great feeling. Already during this project I've gotten from 184 BPM to 196 BPM, so it's coming, but I'm not there... not quite yet.
In honor of St. Patrick's day I give you the most gorgeous example of Irish colleen in recorded history:
The Quiet Man is, like, my favorite John Wayne movie of all... for some reason.
PROGRESS REPORT I:
Though it took more than six weeks - life has a tendency to intrude on every plan of man - I have now finished up the second and third patterns starting with the lineal scalar pattern and ending with the modal thirteenth arpeggios. Though the effects of this practice routine are cumulative, the results are not linear. In addition, some of these patterns I have more experience with than others since I developed this system over the course of some years.
WEEK 1: Pattern= Seconds 1 (Linear)
Day 1: Ionian Mode Form/Failure @ 190 BPM
Day 2: Dorian Mode Form/Failure @ 184 BPM
Day 3: Phrygian Mode Form/Failure @ 190 BPM
Day 4: Lydian Mode Form/Failure @ 194 BPM
Day 5: Mixolydian Mode Form/Failure @ 192 BPM
Day 6: Aeolean Mode Form/Failure @ 196 BPM
Day 7: Locrian Mode Form/Failure @ 194 BPM
WEEK 2: Pattern= Seconds 2
Day 1: Ionian Mode Form/Failure @ 184 BPM
Day 2: Dorian Mode Form/Failure @ 191 BPM
Day 3: Phrygian Mode Form/Failure @ 196 BPM
Day 4: Lydian Mode Form/Failure @ 191 BPM
Day 5: Mixolydian Mode Form/Failure @ 195 BPM
Day 6: Aeolean Mode Form/Failure @ 198 BPM
Day 7: Locrian Mode Form/Failure @ 187 BPM
WEEK 3: Pattern= Thirds 1
Day 1: Ionian Mode Form/Failure @ 198 BPM
Day 2: Dorian Mode Form/Failure @ 202 BPM
Day 3: Phrygian Mode Form/Failure @ 206 BPM
Day 4: Lydian Mode Form/Failure @ 210 BPM
Day 5: Mixolydian Mode Form/Failure @ 210 BPM
Day 6: Aeolean Mode Form/Failure @ 204 BPM
Day 7: Locrian Mode Form/Failure @ 206 BPM
WEEK 4: Pattern= Thirds 2
Day 1: Ionian Mode Form/Failure @ 186 BPM
Day 2: Dorian Mode Form/Failure @ 191 BPM
Day 3: Phrygian Mode Form/Failure @ 195 BPM
Day 4: Lydian Mode Form/Failure @ 201 BPM
Day 5: Mixolydian Mode Form/Failure @ 207 BPM
Day 6: Aeolean Mode Form/Failure @ 206 BPM
Day 7: Locrian Mode Form/Failure @ 199 BPM
This next pattern is one that I have not really done before, so I had to start from scratch with it. These are the kinds of numbers you can expect if you are doing these for the first time. Note that once I had internalized the pattern's paradigm, I was back in my natural maximum velocity range within the week.
WEEK 5: Pattern= Thirds 3
Day 1: Ionian Mode Form/Failure @ 130 BPM
Day 2: Dorian Mode Form/Failure @ 155 BPM
Day 3: Phrygian Mode Form/Failure @ 170 BPM
Day 4: Lydian Mode Form/Failure @ 180 BPM
Day 5: Mixolydian Mode Form/Failure @ 190 BPM
Day 6: Aeolean Mode Form/Failure @ 185 BPM
Day 7: Locrian Mode Form/Failure @ 190 BPM
Though marginally more difficult than the initial lineal scalar pattern, these modal thirteenth arpeggios give some indication of where I have progressed to: I can now play the modes as scales at circa 220 BPM, which is a nice tick up from the original 196 BPM wall I was running up against. What these numbers don't show is the increased solidity of my playing and the added confidence I have now during performances. This has been a very worthwhile project.
WEEK 6: Pattern= Thirds 4 (Thirteenth Arpeggios)
Day 1: Ionian Mode Form/Failure @ 180 BPM
Day 2: Dorian Mode Form/Failure @ 200 BPM
Day 3: Phrygian Mode Form/Failure @ 200 BPM
Day 4: Lydian Mode Form/Failure @ 180 BPM
Day 5: Mixolydian Mode Form/Failure @ 210 BPM
Day 6: Aeolean Mode Form/Failure @ 220 BPM
Day 7: Locrian Mode Form/Failure @ 220 BPM
I'm going to take a few weeks off from this to learn some new compositions I've written, and then I'll tackle the fourth and fifth patterns. Those are quite difficult.
This is something you only have to go through once if you do it right, and then there are maintenance patterns which are much more integral. I'll present those after I've done sixths and sevenths, which is as far as I plan to go with this.
Spring cleaning time at The Monastery of Huckleberry The Bald.