Saturday, May 08, 2010

Guitar Competitions 2: Should Non-Competitors Practice Like Competitors?

I said in the previous post on this subject that the short answer is, "no." Well, there is slightly more to it than that, which I'll get to in a bit.


I've been interested in classical guitar since shortly after I began playing seriously as a teen - my discovery of the classic Christopher Parkening recordings was responsible for this - so in addition to the jazz and rock teachers I had, I also spent some time with local classical teachers. The problem was, what the classical guys told me to do made me hate the guitar, and worse yet, hate myself. In contrast to that, studying with the jazz and rock dudes was a blast. So, not surprisingly, I ended up going the steel string jazz and rock route, and I just amused myself with classical guitar on the side. While I'm grateful now that it worked out that way - no way I'd be the musician I am today, much less any kind of a composer, if I hadn't gone to Berklee - I finally realized that I'm just a solo classical kind of guy.

The tipping point came when I moved from rock and jazz writing to traditional composition. Once I started writing for solo classical guitar, my band days were soon behind me. Again though, during my master's and doctoral studies, what the traditional guitar teachers told me to do... well, it all pissed me off: Scales with i/m alternation, Giuliani studies, Sor studies, and Carcassi studies; I hate that garbage. All of it.

Coming up with better studies than those guys did - well, studies that were actual music and fun to play, versus the mind-numbing and spirit-crushing exercises they wrote - was easy for me, so I blew all that noise off in a heartbeat: If I won't perform it, I don't practice it. The sticking point was the scales with i/m alternation; supposedly the "foundation" of all good classical guitar technique. For me - and later I would discover those like me - practicing scales with i/m alternation was the foundation of nothing except for inspiration-erasing frustration.

Why? Because I could never make any progress by practicing them. I have no problem doing technical work on the guitar, so long as I can see results: Results are inspiring. I got no results whatsoever by practicing scales using i/m alternation. This was... disconcerting, to say the least.

Back at Berklee, I used to play scales with alternating plectrum technique for hours every day, and I got really fast. Not quite Al DiMeola fast - which was my goal - but way faster than I was ever able to achieve with i/m alternation, and fast enough to wipe out most other guys.

Why couldn't I do the same thing with i/m alternation? Genetics: I do not have the right kind of neuromuscular system to do i/m alternation quickly - which requires a high ratio of fast twitch to slow twitch muscle fiber - while getting the wrist involved with a plectrum evens things out considerably (But not completely, as an Al Dimeola versus John McLaughlin comparison reveals). Once I discovered this during one of my epic internet research excursions, it was if a huge burden had been lifted from me: It is no moral failure if you lack the physical potential to do i/m alternation quickly, it is simply the result of your lack of luck in the genetic draw. If you happen to have ancestry from the British Isles, there is a virtual zero percent chance that you have the proper genetics to do i/m like Pepe Romero or Paco DeLucia. If you are Italian, Spanish, or from the Balkans, there is no guarantee, but at least you have a chance. I explained briefly why this is in the previous post: The environmental pressures associated with very harsh climate upheavals in the northern latitudes removed the high basal metabolism/high fast twitch ratio/greater upper body strength genes from the pool. My ancestors who survived were clever in a resourceful kind of way, and could make do with far fewer calories. I only eat once or twice a day, for example, and I'm not exactly skinny.


So, if you discover that you are in the same genetic boat that I am and competing at the highest levels is not really possible, what do you do? Adapt or die. Most quit because of discouragement, which is a shame, because they might have had other musical talents. As for me, I can not not create music. Believe me, I've tried: It doesn't work. I dream of compositions. There is music playing in my head 24/7/365 and 366 in leap years. So, I concentrate on that: Accentuate your positives and reduce your negatives as much as possible. That really is the most you can ask of yourself.

Now, some people with a certain kind of temperament find the zen or tao of practicing scales with i/m alternation rewarding, even if they lack the genetics to do it efficiently, which is why I say you can't categorically say, "no" to the post title question. If you are not in that tiny minority, however, practicing scales with i/m alternation is a complete waste of time that amounts to nothing more than self-flagellation.

Here's a capture of the first part of my practice routine:

Each suite is 120 minutes of practice time, with the extra tap tech practice and isolated licks comprising a final thirty minutes. What's missing? No wretched blasted scales! I tell you in all truth, working out on my Bowflex does more for my playing than practicing scales does, so I don't waste my time on them.

A couple of times a year I'll break out the scales, but only for a few weeks, and then I use... p/i alternation. I can play almost as fast as I can with a plectrum using p/i - which is like plectrum tech but without the pick - so that's what I do. Yes, yes, a rest stroke with i/m sounds nice while p/i is relatively raspy, but seriously, WTF? Who the hell cares? If p/i is what you have to do to achieve any decent velocity, well then, do what you have to do.

The only other technical practice I do is slow play with a metronome, which is, like, a quintillion times better for your technique than playing scales.

There is no more over-rated practice suggestion among the competition-based teaching community than scales. For many of us, they are as close to a complete and utter waste of time as any time spent with a guitar can be.


Blogger A Wolf said...

Nice post!

David Russell suggests instead to practice 3-, 4-, and 5-note bits of scales while improvising different rhythms and patterns. His point was that being comfortable with scale patterns is good, but short bits are more like what will be found in actual music than going through full scales.

Incidentally, do you ever do other alternation patterns, like 3-finger patterns (pmi, or ami, etc)? What about African style all-i alternating both up and down? Or flamenco-style all p, both up and down?

3:59 PM  
Blogger Hucbald said...

I've tried all-i and all-p, but I spent many years with a pick in my right hand, so p/i took almost no adaptations at all; it is completely natural for me. All-i and all-p felt like I was trying to reinvent the wheel. All-i still doesn't get the stronger wrist muscles involved, and the difference in shape between the face and the back of the thumbnail made all-p very... bizarre sounding.

Another nice thing about p/i is that you can seperate them very far, which makes extreme leaps a piece of cake!

I play two single line pieces in my set - a Bourree from a Bach cello suite, and a Kreutzer study. I play them both p/i and tastelessly fast just to make the point. lol.

OTOH, when I use legato technique - hammering on or pulling off sub-groups of three or sliding up or down to make fours - I use i/m rest strokes. That gives me a better sound for the Allan Holdsworth kind of stuff I love to do.



12:44 AM  
Blogger A Wolf said...

Thanks for sharing your perspective! I actually started as only doing i-m and classical technique, and when I decided to try to learn pick-style music, I played p-i for a long while before I ever become comfortable with a pick. I definitely agree that p-i is most pick-like for fingers. All-p and all-i are their own unique sounds...

10:21 AM  
Blogger Minicapt said...

But for a snake, scales are very important.


5:04 AM  

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