I Think Therefore I Play

Yes, I know.  This is the second blog in four days to paraphrase Des Cartes.  Sorry, I couldn’t resist.  Yesterday I blogged about practicing slowly in order to clean up some technical problems that I had encountered while working on Fantasia, by Troy Gifford.  The second problem that I had encountered had to do with memorization.  A few related techniques can be very powerful when trying to solve memorization difficulties, and they all have the benefit of improving the technical aspect of a piece as well.  They all involve practicing without the guitar in your hands.

The first method is the time honored practice of singing the piece.  Pick specific melodic lines and sing them using solfege.  There are some that would argue that the solfege isn’t really necessary, and that any singing will help you to internalize the music.  But I would argue that using solfege helps to reinforce the notes themselves and their positions within the key, which strengthens your understanding and therefore memory of how the notes interrelate.  So while simply humming or singing on a neutral syllable will help tremendously, the solfege takes you to the next level.

The second method that I would suggest is visualization.  With the music in front of you, read through it imagining your hands playing the notes.  In your mind’s eye you should see your left hand moving to the correct frets and strings with the fingering that you use, and your right plucking the correct strings with the correct fingers.  By itself, this can be an incredibly useful method for practicing, one that will not only help you to train your hands to move correctly making it an important aid in memorization, but will also clean up any technical issues you may have.  This combination, while no substitute for picking up the guitar and playing it, may well be of equal importance in learning a piece of music.

The third and final method that I’d like to discuss is “Aim Directed Movement”.  This technique, developed by the great guitar pedagogue Aaron Shearer, is closely related to visualization, but it also involves a physical aspect.  With ADM you practice one hand at a time, working on the left hand movements while using your right arm as a stand-in for the neck of the guitar, and the right hand using the back of your left as a stand-in for the strings that you are plucking.  This has a value that goes beyond that of picking up the instrument and playing and beyond simple visualization because it forces you to combine your mental imagery with physical movements.

Yesterday I spent a little over an hour practicing in just this fashion, using all three techniques, freely moving from one to another, often combining the visualization or the ADM with singing.  Now, I’m going to make a shocking confession here.  I do not enjoy this mode of practice nearly as much as I do practicing on the guitar.  Mental practice is hard work, and involves some cerebral heavy lifting.  And if I am anywhere near a guitar it is nearly impossible for me to resist the temptation to pick it up and try out what I’ve just visualized.  Once I pick up the guitar there is no putting it down.  So I make a point of using these techniques in places where I do not have immediate access to my guitar.  And since I find the process so challenging, I also make a point of treating myself well while I’m doing it.

I live in Central Florida and the weather yesterday was magnificent, as it usually is.  I also have a fairly large piece of property and a lovely patio.  So I made myself a pot of espresso in my trusty Bialetti and sat on my patio sipping my favorite beverage (espresso is the nectar of the gods: it gives them the energy to do godlike things) and spent a pleasant hour and fifteen minutes visualizing, ADMing, and singing.  Then, after a short break, I went back to my guitar and everything simply fell into place effortlessly.

The key for me is always to make it a pleasant experience.  I have sat on my patio practicing in this manner with a cigar, a cognac, a piece of cake, or anything that one might enjoy consuming or doing on a patio.  I’ve practiced at the beach, and on long flights.  The reason I say long flights is that this type of practicing on a plane often gets interrupted by nice conversations, so you need a long flight in order to get enough work done after exchanging pleasantries and explaining what you are doing.  In my single days this could also involve some flirting if the right person was seated next to me.

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