Ravi Mohan's Blog

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Back to Step One

I have played (ok, fiddled with) a steel string guitar for several years now. While I have a classical (nylon string) guitar and have worked through a good part of book 1 and book 2 of Federick Noad's classical guitar series, I never became very good at it. While I could play some pleasant sounding tunes, no matter how hard I tried, I could never sound like Julian Bream or Segovia. Their playing had a richness and lushness which I could never match.

So I put away the nylon string guitar and never used it much. I thought I was doing something wrong and even went to a teacher, but that didn't help very much, because while he gave me some good advice, I still didn't get the guitar to sound like I wanted it to. Gradually, the pressures (and the monotony) of a fulltime job meant that I ended up not playing very much at all.

Recently a friend sent me a copy of the Pumping Nylon DVD. I also happened to read George Leonard's fantastic book, Mastery. Combining Scott's guitar advice with the "Mastery" notion of maintaining total awareness and relaxation transforms the simplest steps into a discipline of fantastic depth.

Consider the simplest possible action on the guitar, that of plucking a string with a finger nail. Before, I would just pluck it and the note would sound. Scott suggests a four part motion - place the finger on the string, apply pressure, pluck, and "empty out" or consciously relax the plucking finger, each to be practised to perfection before combining them. Performing this as four distinct steps with the "mindfulness" advocated in Mastery is a very challenging exerscise.

Relearning the guitar is simultaneously easier and harder than learning for the first time. On the one hand, you know quite a bit already - how to move from one chord shape to another, how to play staccato or legato and so on - but on the other, everything you know is ever so slightly "off" or just plain wrong and thus demands a totality of focus to train your reflexes in the new grooves.

So there I am, plucking the same note over and over again, marvelling at how small changes in the angle of attack or pressure yield infinite variations on a single note. After a few dozen (hundred?) repetitions, there comes a moment when everything "clicks" and my finger flows on and off the string and a perfect, golden note shimmers in the stillness.

And for just that one moment, I do sound like Julian Bream.

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