Somewhere here in the world of CTC I saw a comment from Troy, similar to what I’ve heard many other accomplished guitarists say. I have to admit, it drives me nuts every time I hear it:
“If you want to know whether it’s necessary to do highly repetitive exercise-type practice… I can tell you for sure the answer is no. I never did that, and I can do many… techniques at, let’s call it, a ‘professional’ level of competence.”
Like a lot of kids attending a U.S. public school during the ‘70s and ‘80s, I got my first exposure to formal music study through the school orchestra (upright bass) and band (sax). Method books and metronomes were the order of the day. In other subjects like math or science, I was a good soldier; did what I was told, brought home the good grades. So it never occurred to me that music should be approached any differently.
Do these exercises, work up your speed. I did as I was told… except with hardly any progress to show for it.
For a long while I assumed it was just a talent thing. I must not be cut out to be really good at this. That was okay; it was still fun to be in marching band at half-time shows! But sooner or later I would again be challenged by a comment like the one above, with someone claiming to have skipped all that ‘formal’ training, and to have found a different, straighter, surer path to successful playing.
Quite intriguing… but also baffling. The claim made no sense to me, because I couldn’t begin to explain it.
That is, perhaps, until now… What follows is a working theory of how these guys actually did achieve proficiency – and without any help from Mel Bay. I hope some of you will help me refine this theory with your responses.
An image that recurs often in player interviews I’ve read is of the guy in his bedroom, copping licks from a recording. What’s happening there? Sounds like a facet of the ‘chunking’ idea that Troy explores in some of his interviews. ‘Getting notes under your fingers’ is one way to put it. What almost none of these guys talks about is drills – not in that early, formative stage for sure – and I don’t recall once seeing the word “metronome” come up in any of these guitarographical accounts.
These guys seem to know intuitively that acquisition of physical skill begins not on the staff but in the hands. When notes and the techniques we use to produce them start to feel right, that’s the point at which we can begin to think about speeding them up. Then, and not before.
So the thesis, in succinct form, is this: fluency/speed will not produce coordination, but coordination will ultimately make fluency/speed possible.
For whatever the reason, drilling (an exercise) and using the metronome (to track progress) go together like peanut butter and jelly. The tendency this creates, however, is for you to be working at the edge of your ability while that ability is still raw. Yes, it’s true that ‘working at the edge’ is in fact vital for pushing the boundaries of ability, But I think that’s only true once that ability has stabilized if not fully matured. And that’s why I think that exercises were actually short-circuiting my progress rather than promoting it.
The key, I think, is this: all those many exercises I performed failed to produce anywhere near the coordination that I hoped they would. Every exercise you’ve ever seen is, in a certain sense, the same – notes on a staff accompanied by little or no instruction. All the real work of creating those notes, at the muscular and neurological level, is left up to you to figure out on your own. (Ideally, a competent teacher would fill in those blanks. But I never experienced that.)
The fallacy inherent in exercise-based practice is thinking that by playing the notes, all the kinesthetic knowledge that the accomplished player has acquired in his hands will also become your own. But it doesn’t work like that. Music exercises are instead something like a barometer – they indicate that you’re able to do something, but on their own, they don’t train that ability.
I think I’ve had an experience of this in my fingerstyle play. It’s really slow going for me learning a new fingerstyle piece. There’s absolutely no question of me rushing the tempo, since it feels like I’m learning the notes the way a baby learns to talk – one sound at a time. But then, when I’ve finally got them down, the piece will gain tempo fairly rapidly. Something I’m learning at the rate of like a measure-per-day is, after a week or so of having all the notes down, nearing or even exceeding the written tempo.
I think the reason for this is that I’m working on a group of activities that can be almost exclusively bundled under the heading of “coordination,” and not letting any thoughts of tempo get in the way too early.
Of course, I invite everyone to respond, but I’d be particularly interested in feedback from those of you who consider yourselves to be proficient players and who, like Troy, never had patience for the whole method-book-and-metronome thing. Thanks for reading😊