Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Speed Limits, or: Why You Should Care About Technique

Go to a martial arts or a self defense class during a discussion of grappling.  I can almost guarantee you that the idea of weak points in a grip will come up.  When escaping someone's grasp or grapple, you don't need to overpower them but simply apply pressure to the weakest point.  If you can break that, all the strength in the world cannot hold you.

I refer to the weak points in a musician's technique as "Speed Limits."  It is these deficiencies that keep us from playing faster.  Playing a passage clean requires all aspects of your technique to work together - which ever one is the weakest will define how fast you can play.

And let's be honest, who doesn't want to play fast, right?

We touched briefly on the idea last week, and this week I'm going to begin a series designed to focus on individual speed limits and improve them.

First up is right hand speed.

A quick side note: I'm going to be using symbols borrowed from orchestra music that have become common in guitar music to denote down picks and up picks.
Down Pick
Down Pick
Seriously?  This is not XKCD.  Not everything has alt text.
Up Pick

If you are unfamiliar with alternate picking, then that's a huge speed limit that you need to get rid of.  Think about it.  You have to move the pick down to play, and then up again to prepare it to pick down. Why wouldn't you pick a note while you're on the way back up?  It's an obvious way to double your picking speed.

Start by simply focusing on the mechanical idea of alternate picking.  Take a random note - let's say the A on the 5th fret of the low E string - down pick it, and then up pick it.  Simple, right?

Now do it in rhythm.  Slowly.  Remember the lesson from last week - always start as slow as necessary to play it perfectly.  Try playing along with this to get you started.

Once you have that down, then break out your metronome and apply the lesson from last week - when you can play it perfectly, bump the metronome up one click.  Lather, rinse, repeat.  Come back when you can play 8th notes at 120 BPM.  Take your time, if this takes several hours or even several days that's perfectly fine.  Just make sure you are getting clean, well articulated notes played in rhythm.

For those of you that are already familiar with alternate picking (or if you just completed the assignment above), how do you go about increasing your speed with your right hand?  Good question.  Glad you asked.

It's going to come down to two things: the metronome idea we've been using, and a secret weapon I call "bursting."  It works like this:

Let's pick up where our new alternate-picking readers left off - the note A on the low E string, 5th fret, played in 8th notes at 120 BPM.  First, let's crank up the metronome a little more.  Take that exercise, and go through our now-familiar metronome routine until you can play it with 8th notes at 200 BPM.  Should still be pretty easy.

Now for the secret weapon.  With that tempo in your head, turn off the metronome.  Yes, you read that right - I actually said turn it off.  Start playing the exercise again - 8th notes at 200 - and after playing it for a few measures, briefly pick as fast as you can.  Remember to stay precise and clean - back off if you are getting sloppy.  After a short "burst," return to 200 BPM (or as close as you can) and continue to pick there for a while.

Alternate between these two - without stopping - for as long as you can.  I like to set up a stopwatch and go for 5 minutes at a time.  You may have to work up to that, but the goal is to tire your arm out without causing pain.  If you feel something in your arm similar to a "stitch in your side" when running, keep going - if you feel any other kind of pain, stop immediately.

Only do this exercise for a few minutes at each practice session - then go on to practicing other things (like a song you've been working on, or a less strenuous etude or exercise).  When you come back to it the next practice session, always start with the metronome and push the base speed up a few clicks.  Here's a video of me running through this exercise.

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