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Into The Quietude

November 5, 2012

It’s important to play quietly because we use less physical energy. Most of us spend most of the time using way more force than required to play our pieces. Skill development is all about finding only the muscles that we need to perform a task, and using them. Using excess force inhibits us from finding those small muscle groups, and therefore prevents us from improving our skills. I have found it to be very helpful to invoke a stage of learning that uses quiet playing to carefully ascertain what force is needed and what force is wasted. When playing very, very quietly we don’t force our hands, but rather LET them do their job. Our left shoulder and arm move freely in support of the hand – we get out of our own way!

A typical example where stiffening is often a problem is in passages where we play faster and get higher. [The ending of the Allegro Solemne from La Catedrale for example.] Musically, there is an increase in energy, but often this produces a physical corollary: tightening of the shoulders and increased finger pressure. This increase in physical tension makes the music more difficult and gets in the way of our skill development. It can be helpful to do exactly the opposite – to play quieter as one gets faster and higher. This approach reprograms the body and mind, teaching the hands to execute with no excess effort, to get to the high point with a loose shoulder, and confidence.

A friend of mine once booked Canada’s leading jazz guitarist – Ed Bickert – to play in a small middle-eastern restaurant. Bickert wanted to know if he could play as quietly as he wanted. He had spent his career playing alongside saxophone and drums working the louder parts of his playing. This restaurant became his favourite spot to play – because he could finally play as quietly as he wanted. I believe there are different ideas that arise from a quiet place than a loud one, and this is what Bickert wanted to explore. There is a different music dreamed when you aren’t struggling to be heard. As we decrease the physical effort in our playing we can increase the creative effort, we can tune in to that place where the mind and body are in balance. We find that the dreamed sound is made manifest, and that we are doing our best without trying.

I remember periods when I was at school with too many things to do. So many thoughts in my head as I took my guitar out of the case in a practice studio, so many looming deadlines. Worried, I played through the piece I was working on once and then again quieter. Still concerned about all the things that needed doing, I played through it a third and fourth time still quieter. Still worried. After the fifth time, which was barely audible, I began to feel refreshed and I stared to improve, to lose myself in the work. Emerging from the practice room twenty minutes later I felt ready to face all the things that needed my attention. I would think about them one at a time, from the place where the mind was focused. The day improved from that point on.

One day Nasrudin collected sticks and twigs in the woods and tied them into a bundle. He planned to use them as fire wood in his home, but after he finished loading his donkey, he started to doubt if the branches would burn well. Thinking to save a useless trip he decided to light a tiny corner of the bundle on the donkey’s back. As soon as he lit the match, the twigs caught fire and a sudden gust of wind helped set entire batch alight. The donkey, stunned at this sight and feeling his back getting singed, started to run. Nasrudin, feeling guilty, thought he should offer the creature some advice,`Might be best,’ he yelled, `If you run towards the lake.’

From → 10 Rules

  1. Did I already post this? I thought it was kind of funny AND a little weird that a few days ago I found a directive from Christopher Parkening, in his method book, that the student should always play loudly when practicing, to develop volume. The opposite of what our host says here. Guess it depends on who you are and what you need to develop physical freedom and relaxation along with your technique.

    • ahhhh chad – if there was only one way to develop one’s skills it would be soooo much easier. we all need to have the necessary strength AND the necessary control. robert fripp [league of crafty guitarists] spoke about this same issue with people squeezing too hard on electric guitar. you need to be able to play louder and faster than necessary – but soft playing develops different things.

  2. I’m extremely inspijred along with your writin talnts and also with the layout in your blog.

    Is thhat this a paid subject or didd you modify it yourself?
    Anyway keep up thhe excellent igh quality writing,
    it is rare to peer a nicee blog like this one nowadays..

    • Not a paid subject at all – although teaching guitar is my profession – glad you find it useful!

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