limitation/ habit/ point of resistance

Within the flow of playing the instrument there comes a point where the desire to take the sound flow somewhere is obstructed by a technical/physical/or mental(?) inability to enact.

So, I play one note on each adjacent string (6,5,4) ascending in pitch (using all down strokes with pick). At the end of this sequence I wish to play two extra notes on the string I land on now breaking the ‘one note per string’ (1nps) sequence and beginning a 3nps sequence over the remaining strings (4,3,2,1). I wish to use alternate picking for this new 3nps sequence (particularly whilst crossing strings). I have experienced an awkwardness at the point of changeover from downstroke picking only (on 1nps sequence) to alternate picking (on 3nps) at fast tempo.

There is an issue because I have been accustomed to utilising 1nps ideas as separate from a musical flow wherein there is no predominant “technique”, patterning, sequencing being employed. The mental and physical habit, whilst formed through repetitively attempting a foreign movement towards familiarity, impedes an improvisational flow because of its isolation, its specificity at its beginning and end points, in the sequence’s relation to what comes before and after in a continuum of improvisational music making.

This point of resistance is overcome by focussing on the ‘musicality’ of the solution that enables continuousness. This again seems to require isolating the point of resistance and attempting solutions until the mental/physical ‘technique’ is discovered and fluidity attained. The ‘isolation’ of this point of resistance might be better taken up within a musical flow, i.e have this point of resistance as a challenge regularly attempted within improvising. This is a conscious introduction of the “sticking point” so you come at and leave this situation differently within an improvisational flow.

Ultimately though, a range of different material should be attempted to connect with. As in the example above, the 1nps sequence connecting to an alternate picking 3nps sequence might instead connect to a 3 note chord, to a 2nps sequence, to a 4nps/ 3nps sequence where only the first note of each string is picked and the rest are legato. The combinations are of course infinite. At this stage one’s practice can be just that; within improvisational flow, either seeking out points of technical/mental resistance, or constantly seeking untried combinations or connections between hitherto discrete material.

I have used an example where transitioning of right hand articulation is examined for sticking points, points of resistance against the application of a mental/physical continuum. There are of course numerous facets of performance that can be scrutinised in the same way. But more broadly, this is an analysis of one’s ability to engage in improvisational, musical flow, whereby a desired sound/mode of attack/effect/etc. is achievable from any location within a continuum. What is discovered in this analysis process can then become source material for focussed practice, remembering that repetition of only one form of connection will again create another point of resistance/habit although more developed than before. Employing flexibility and variation may appear to take longer to see results but will be most effective in terms of gaining the freedom of choice.

 

 

if I had my time again . . .

I have often thought, at various times over the years whilst practicing guitar, what I would/should have examined, studied more closely, if I had my time again. I am probably motivated to think about my choices in retrospect because of teaching. What is/should be important to the young guitarist? What was important to me?

Of course it all depends on what the person is aiming to do with their music practice.

Changing and modifying technique goes on for me. Of course I don’t get to have my time establishing my fundamental guitar techniques again but I can make continual adjustments and prioritise spending time working on certain aspects over others.

If I was a “professional” working guitarist reliant upon consistency it would be really difficult to find the space and time to radically change my fundamental technique – say from plectrum guitarist to finger style – and remain at the same level of proficiency. But I am not in that category and so have the space to test or challenge my ways of playing for creative purposes.

I have been doing this for some years now and find this attitude stimulating in terms of technical study. As noted elsewhere on this site, the notion of practice for me stretches from an isolated study of how something is performed on the instrument to the understanding that practice is the thing I do, it is making music. To practice music-making.  Thoughts arise about how, why, when and where I play the things I play during both these approaches to the business of guitar playing.

Octave transposition (using the octave as a pivot for melodic/harmonic material) seems such a useful, simple concept. Being able to imitate a melody, arpeggio, a chord in a higher or lower octave at will immediately expands possibilities (with variation upon the original), opens up the fretboard and provides a strong frame, for highly specific harmonic situations or its opposite.

I understand and can ‘see’ the value of and how to apply this concept now, in a way I didn’t imagine 30 years ago. I did not prioritise its value nor its application at the time. But 30 years ago I did not have all the experience and practice that I have had since. Importantly, I see that this concept of octave transposition does not exist in isolation. For example, I had been working on different arpeggio fingerings as discrete entities (as we do when we isolate material for study) busy with simply trying to remember and apply. At the same time practicing many other aspects, playing tunes, gigging, etc. etc. Even though I was aware of octave transposition I did not see it as that important or useful to my needs at the time. In relation to what my musical activities, knowledge and priorities were at that time, the concept did not seem so useful.

I can say now, “oh I wish I had really gone deeper into octave transposition because it would have helped me systematise, learn, apply and integrate material much faster and more efficiently”, but this is me now, telling my former self what to value. Chances are my former self would have replied ‘yeah sure, but I’m into this other stuff at the moment’, looked at it a little, thought it was cool, learnt a little and put it aside for another time.

Would I be a different musician now if I had more deeply penetrated and applied the concept and uses of octave transposition? I may have saved myself some time in the long run, made things a little easier, been a better organised guitarist.

Yes,  I think I could be different in the way that I play the guitar. Every choice I make about what to spend time and energy on in guitar practice will impact my present and future development technically. My relation with my context, environment, others, and my self, was and is impacting, influencing, affecting my understanding of what is important at any given moment. The relations I had 30 years ago created the conditions within which I made decisions (even if not consciously) to prioritise certain aspects of my guitar practice. This ‘relativity’ is not isolated in time, it belongs to a continuum. There is an ongoing weave through time, of connections, where this has influenced that.

The truth is I am able to see and apply the usefulness of octave transposition for me now. Perhaps what I worked on 30 years ago has enabled this to be so. This of course applies to many other concepts and organisational methods used in my guitar playing, not just octave transposition. That I decided to begin “practicing” guitar again has also enabled me to see the usefulness of this concept. If I had ceased guitar practice altogether that concept would likely be irrelevant!

In trying to imagine if a different choice in how I conceived of and applied particular information to the guitar would have changed my guitar playing now, I have answered yes.  But to what degree and in what ways? I think the most obvious areas would be the physical and mental, but less likely is the area of expressiveness, the kind of feeling I am able to articulate through music. However, the relationally of all things should never be underestimated. Change one thing, make a different choice, no matter how insignificant, the movement, the unfolding of a life has been altered. Whether this alteration might change anything in my life I will never know. Of course this can only be speculated and imagined because we cannot re-live a chunk of our life and then compare the two versions!

Perhaps in writing this I have come to understand that whatever choices I’ve made in the past have allowed me to understand and perceive things in the way I do now. So the question becomes am I happy with where my guitar playing is at now? I will answer, yes. Naturally there are always things to explore, develop and improve, but I understand this as part of the motivation for practicing and playing the instrument anyway.

Whatever technique and conceptualisation I currently have access to is good enough for me to use in creating art with guitar, with sound, and this is my ultimate focus.

One note, one sound employed in a particular way at a particular time in a particular context, can be mighty powerful.

a de-centred practice

I recently attended a concert by a renowned guitarist in jazz, John Scofield, something I had not done for years. As a guitarist who has studied the form it was always going to be an interesting experience. Would I be able just to listen, would my past engagement with such music and this particular musician mean a nostalgia trip, was I free enough from the past not to compare my own work to his, would a rigid format cause me to want to be elsewhere, etc.? Perhaps, I thought, because of all these questions and even more, with the hope of having a rich musical experience, it would be worth attending.

Mostly I was able to enjoy, a nowadays, unusual experience. It was indeed a chance to reflect on my own past and current relationship with this American music tradition. The music was of course skilfully performed and John’s ‘conversation’ with his own stylisations and affectations caused me to laugh and shout out on occasion. I realised how deeply rooted he is in his practice and how thoroughly American that is. This contributed to me being able to see/hear the music from a distance – as if I had nothing to do with it, but knew enough to appreciate it’s subtleties, syntax, and formulations – and so to an extent be free from comparative thoughts. But as I had been so engaged with this music’s history and this guitarist my past, at times, made itself clear. Certain ‘turns of phrase’, technical habits that largely contribute to a musicians style, jumped out at me bringing me out of the listening flow, reminding me of all the times I had heard these mannerisms before and often with the inevitability of what would come next. This is my problem, knowing his playing so well. He needs those things to help him maintain his flow and indeed the genre and his style are made up of these signals.

It is this very thoroughness of engagement with and unflagging commitment to the form, actually requiring little effort because it is so ingrained, loved and accepted by these practitioners, that provided me with a clear insight into my own artistic practice.

In my twenties the guitar was the central instrument of my creative practice and it effectively has remained so until the last few years. The genre of jazz, particularly at its margins, was a space within which I understood much of my musical activity, whilst still struggling to fully accept or know what that was for me, it was not the only context in which I understood my music practice. Where exactly was my musical practice situated, was an ongoing area of concern for me, and it was’t until I encountered mentor David Tolley that I began to conceive of the possibility of understanding the music in which I participated as existing outside of a genre, or a foreign culture.

Concurrently, there was always a parallel practice within visual arts and occasional involvements with various (often hybrid) artistic forms. These things often emerged through personal relationships or incidental opportunities, but I was receptive to creative challenges and using my facilities in different ways. Much of this multifaceted arts interest/practice is attributed to my tertiary education at progressive art schools where there was no requirement to specialise nor focus on one practice.

Faced with the thoroughness of the performance before me, its tradition being made present in the most emphatic way, even though so familiar to me, I had an experience of foreignness that helped me interpret my own practice now. Partly, I felt like a sceptic trying to deny his own skepticism.

I am not able to ‘believe’ that completely for that long, there are always questions arising within a performance that undermine my adherence to the parameters of an evolving, yet consistent and identifiable genre of performance. This is actually ‘natural’ for me, it seems that by and large, I need to construct the parameters of what it is I maybe doing, as I am doing it.

Later that night, I began to clearly see the decentralised nature of my performance practice, as it is now. It is a practice where even the use of guitar is no longer a given, and if it is employed its use will be conditional and contextual, not historically inevitable. Upon reflection from the early days until now, I see the decentralised nature of my arts practice as a whole even though there has simultaneously been committed specialisation. This created conflict between the aspiring musician wanting to live a life in music, to ‘get ahead’, be successful, to be a great player, etc. and the natural explorer following his instinct.

Fortunately for me, Tolley assured me that all my interests could be accommodated, that it was ok to be who I was, that being myself was a great thing. An idea of many centres, each one its own centre when its time was to be had, suited me.

 

specialisation vs exploration

During the recent return to guitar practice, in the form of examining how I go about producing sounds on the guitar (in a conventional manner), I found myself thinking/wishing I had begun or focussed on certain things much earlier on in my guitar playing life. Of course there are so many non-sensical aspects in wishing you had your time over again. The mind I have now is not the one I had then. The musical ambition and desires I had then are not what I have now. I think I was in much more of a hurry then, wanting to play particular kinds of music and needing the skills to accomplish that.

Starting out I got reasonably efficient in some limited aspects of playing which gave me a sense of achievement and identity. This encouraged me to keep developing these aspects to continue the sense of achievement. However, music is a ‘broad church’ with many different aspects and I soon realised that my narrow focus meant other aspects went undeveloped. The types of music being made (largely my preference) required certain skill sets, whilst I realised that there were gaping holes in my knowledge, I was driven by artistic needs not by craft. Simultaneously, however, I kept exploring the guitar in a haphazard way, which was an important balance to the conventional studies, and possibly more crucial to the development of any individuality I might have found.

There have been times over the decades when an exploratory approach has been the dominant mode of functioning with my guitar and other times where a particularity of working with a narrow focus has been predominant. This may seem like an issue of semantics, but it seems to me that both specialisation and exploration can be contained within each other, that it is simply a matter of perspective as to how you would like to see this potential dichotomy. There have been times, when through my open-ended meanderings on the instrument, I have discovered an intervalic sequence, chord voicing, unusual fingering, etc. that has stimulated a particular area of research that has developed my technique in a very specific way. The specialised emerging from the exploratory.

Then there is the importance of playing without repetition, or without constant articulation of well known material. Here is a testing, exploratory approach but with a focus on doing it in a highly particular manner, one might call it ‘specialised’.

Specialisation and exploration don’t need to be thought of as polar opposites.

It is true, that we have only a certain amount of time to produce creative work and practice in amongst whatever else is required to live a life. If your livelihood, or main musical activity revolves around the requirements of a particular genre of music, for example, it is likely you will be spending most of your time practicing, refining and extending the related skill sets leaving little time for open-ended exploration.

I am in the position where I do not need to rehearse or practice anything specific in my sessions alone with the instrument. Just recently I discovered some gaping holes in my facility with some basic arpeggios through exploring a complicated intervallic sequence. This led me to review what arpeggios I did have facility with and how I structured their application, etc. I found some old guitar grids (6 strings and 12 frets of the guitar fretboard) I had drawn out marked with notes of seventh chords and some altered chords. I suddenly understood these diagrams as I would scales. This is a common practice as a visual aid for marking out different scales/modes on the fretboard, but seeing the patterns of the chord tones marked on the grid helped me to think about approaching chord tones as I might a scale. The difference in thinking was subtle but strong enough to stimulate a new creative relationship with this familiar material and to reconfigure fingerings, visualisation and usage.

This little insight led to the thought of how compartmentalised is my knowledge of material for the guitar and how I had practiced much of this stuff discretely, with particular articulations, within certain contexts and thinking, but how vital it is to be integrative with any isolated material. Practicing moving into and out of the focus material in a flow of play, not entering and exiting via the exact same pathways.

 

present to practice

I resumed concerted guitar practice recently, after I had been considering the phenomena of presence and absence. I began thinking how my guitar playing related to this. As a performer I have examined the different qualities of presence and absence when participating in a solo or group performance, realising these compliments or opposites arise as modes of relation to the prevailing inner/outer performative conditions.

For example (at a music gig), whilst I am attentive to my own condition of fragility, present to a performative influence, prior to a performance, I am also aware of the club owner’s and co-performers anxieties or functional problems. Functionally, it is in my interest here to minimise my empathetic tendency, to be absent to these presented anxieties, in order to serve my purpose as an effective performing artist.

Another example; I am so presently aware of all the constituent details pertaining to the performance event that I find myself stilted, an Information overload has engendered a preoccupation or self-consciousness and inhibiting performative flow. It would seem I am now absent to my co-performers and audience.

Yet another; I turn up to a performance event debilitated from the activities of a difficult day. As the performance begins I discover I am absent to the conditions of this moment, unable to find a connection point I am further distracted by my glaring performative inadequacies. Having apparently ‘nothing to offer’ myself, in listening to my co-performers I am brought into the present.

There is another component of presence/absence in respect to the performer ‘losing themselves’ in order to access some ‘transcendent’ energy, space or indeed ‘entity’.

My concern here though is with the practical, technical focus on the mechanics of instrumental performance. I wanted to review all the basic assumptions of, in particular, playing electric guitar. My question is where is my mind, where is my attention as I play? I resurrected a capriccio by Paganini I used to work on. The goal was to use it as an exercise in presence.

Before continuing however I should describe the events leading up to this. Some time ago, triggered by a enquiring student, I realised I had lost the immediate ability to play everything in strict alternate picking. I was well-drilled in this technique early on, but as my interests expanded apparently I developed a hybrid approach (in all sorts of ways) and lost that particular attribute. Upon returning to technical practice I was curious to revisit this technique taking some perverse delight in the experience of feeling where my habits wanted to take my hand movements as opposed to where my mind was directing them! I used a moto perpetuo from ‘Fracture’ (Robert Fripp), I was never able to play this at its tempo marking but found it a good ‘exercise’. I played it at a very slow tempo to examine the consistency of my alternate picking. It has taken me some time but I am now (April, 2015) getting more consistent with it although there are lapses when I find myself on an upstroke when it should have been a downstroke. Sometimes I will not stop to correct this, but continue on as it is just as beneficial beginning a sequence on an upstroke instead of the intended downstroke.

Through this process I was also paying attention to note durations, searching for consistency, and as well, control of ‘tone’. The left hand sometimes did not fret accurately creating a muted or buzzing sound and the right hand mis-picked. I was subjecting both hands to scrutiny, not to berate myself because of my inconsistencies (as I used to do) but just to exercise awareness, make the slight adjustment and carry on. I was looking for a consistency of sound and technique. By slowing everything right down all unintended sounds and movements were revealed.

The key though, was – the mind. What was also laid bare was how my mind was either skipping ahead to what was coming next (which is how we are taught in sight-reading and charts etc.), or drifting away from the task at hand. As simple as this sounds, it has been a valuable experience for me. The reason I chose a piece I knew well was so I did not need to think to hard about what was coming next, I could allow myself to be attentive to the detail of listening and making THIS sound in THIS moment. In attending to each moment I found that the following music, in turn, would be attended to accordingly and the piece would be played. I have begun to realise that the quality of my experience during (in this case) my technical practice, is commensurate with the fullness of ‘presence’/ attentiveness I am able bring to the moment of making the sound. So my current practice is about exercising presence to the actuality of playing the guitar. This is the reason for employing the Paganini piece as well.

What began as a focus on picking then became a practice of attentiveness to the actions of my hands, then to the workings of my mind. Of course the body as a whole, the posture naturally comes into focus.

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www.gaipsite.com is a site that archives and promotes creative activities under the auspices of The General Assembly of Interested Parties.

http://currentmusic-event.com is a site for ‘Current’ a bi-annual, day-long performance event. Beginning as a two day improvisational music event, it has more recently diversified its palette into a broader performance event, to include movement, visual art or other social activities.