Finding the Incredible Lightness
In my essay “Discover Your Discomfort“, I urged you to become aware of the sensations of discomfort you experience while practicing and playing. The reason is very simple. Until you do, you will not be able to be aware of the sensations (that is, your mental awareness of the physical feelings in your body) a good player has, the sensations that you must have to play well. I call this sensation, or feeling in the body, “The Incredible Lightness”. I call it this, because once you experience it, and allow it to grow by Correct Practicing, well, it’s Incredible. This feeling of lightness is what makes fast, accurate playing possible. Unfortunately, because of ignorance of how to practice correctly, far too many players create for themselves “The Incredible Tightness”.
I will quote myself to bring this point home:
“The relative state of tension or relaxation in the muscles is one of the hardest things to be aware of. I once saw a person play with so much tension in her right shoulder that it was up to her earlobe! Always trying to be helpful, I pointed this out to her when she finished. As she let her shoulder down a few inches to it’s normal position, she told me I was wrong, she wasn’t tense, but very relaxed!
The reason she felt this way is because we very quickly become used to whatever we experience, and consider it normal. We never question whatever tensions we experience in learning new skills on the guitar, and in fact consider it part of the doing of it. And it often is, but it doesn’t have to continue to be that strenuous. We can learn to do the movements with less effort.
However, when we first try something, it is often not possible to do it without a lot of excess tension. The mistake is, we assume that the tension is inevitable, and never realize we can get to a point where we can get the result we want without all the huffing, puffing and straining. Often, more stretch or muscle development is required, which will come with a correct approach.
Of course, as we continue to try the new skill, and assume the effort we feel must be that way, it becomes ingrained into our approach, and gets worse. So we have a vicious circle, that leads to frustration and bad playing.
So extra tension in the muscles, which every advanced player knows is the number one cause of playing difficulty, becomes a blind spot for us. Usually we are only aware of the result of the tension, which is that mistake we just made. Often it happens we are not even aware of that, because we start to filter out those unpleasant reminders of our troubles. As you will see shortly, the correct approach to dealing with “mistakes” caused by tension, is to repeat the movement extremely slowly, with a great focus on keeping all muscles relaxed. With each repetition, the muscles learn the relaxed way of moving to produce the result you want.
“So you see, it is lack of understanding of how the body/mind functions, and lack of honest attention while practicing, that gets us in to trouble.
You must start to observe your own “Tightness”, and replace it with “Lightness”, then you will see your level as a player change upward, what I call Vertical Growth. Since many players have no idea what this lightness feels like, here is a very simple way to connect with it. You must then begin to cultivate this feeling in actual playing. Believe me, it feels good! In fact, when you see a good player “making it look easy”, it’s because it is easy, when you have the “Incredible Lightness”.
Let’s discover “The Light Finger”
The first step in finding “The Incredible Lightness” is to discover The Light Finger. The Light Finger is the completely relaxed finger, brought to the string, and touching the string, with only the weight of the finger. It does not press the string down until told to do so. To discover the sensation of the Light Finger, do this:
Raise your arms in front of you, without the guitar, and take hold of the index finger of your left hand with the thumb and index finger of your right hand. Completely relax the left index, and wiggle it around with your right hand. This is the Light Finger.
Touch the palm of your right hand with your left index. Raise the left index two inches from the palm. Now let it drop by it’s own weight back to your palm, touching it very lightly, with no pressure. This is how the finger feels when it first touches the string.
Now hold the guitar, paying attention to the being comfortable and relaxed throughout the body, and slowly raise your relaxed left arm up to the neck, bringing the hand up so that the index finger is lined up with the ninth fret. Have your fingers in a relaxed curl over the 6th string. Allow your Light, relaxed middle finger to fall to the 6th string, behind the 10th fret, so that it touches the string, but applies no pressure. Look at the string under your finger, and see the distance between the string and the fingerboard. Make sure the string does not get move at all down toward the fret.
Raise your finger an inch, and then bring it back to touch the string again in the same way. Do this over and over, touching the string with the Light Finger, bringing it away, and touching it again. This is called Finger Flapping. Do this a few times with each finger every day. Make sure you keep the inactive fingers as relaxed as possible while touching the string with the active finger. This will get you used to the feeling, and over time, very sensitive to the feeling of complete relaxation.
This light feeling is how your fingers will be when they first touch the string to play a note, and it is the feeling they will return to when they release from a note. It enables them to be prepared for their next job. Many people never have this light feeling, and play with tense fingers all the time, and their playing suffers greatly because of it. This exercise is what I call a Foundation Exercise, one that should be done regularly, no matter how long you have been playing. It will continually act to increase your awareness of the correct and necessary sensations you must have in order to play well. Learning how to bring this feeling in to all playing situations is often a tricky matter, and there is much else to know, but we have to start somewhere!
Here is why. Speed, or the ability to execute movements rapidly and accurately, is simply the result of continuous correct practice that promotes “The Incredible Lightness”. If you are creating “The Incredible Tightness” when you practice, you will suffer because of it. Think of walking and running. Does a little kid have to practice running? No, it just happens after balance is mastered, and the ability to place one foot in front of the other, and have all the body parts work together to keep the movement going. After the two year old gets that down, don’t worry, he’ll be running!
In closing, let me say that all the preceding is founded upon the first two Principles of Correct Practice. I will state them pretty formally, and they apply to all instruments.
Principle of Correct Practice #1: Your aware, thinking mind is your primary practice tool.
Principle of Correct Practice #2: Control of the fingers is developed by infusing conscious awareness into the muscles through the mechanism of attention while practicing.
Remember, as in all things in life, you get out of it what you put in to it (and believe me, it makes me feel pretty old to hear myself saying that, but it’s the truth.) So read this over and over, and do the exercise, and apply these understandings to your practice. Good Luck!
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