Sunday, April 12, 2009

Beginner Lesson: Rest Strokes
One of the keys to activities athletic, whether it be swinging a golf club or shredding the jazz changes, seems to be relaxation. Any professional will tell you this. You want it to look easy? It has to BE easy.

However the paradox between relaxing and doing something is easily apparent. When I relax, if I am thinking of muscles, I let go. This is the very opposite of doing something. It's nothing.

How am I supposed to play guitar AND do nothing at the same time? How do I do something while doing nothing? The answer is this: do as little as you can. Only what is necessary. And the rest of the time, do nothing. Or as little as possible.

Often times in the practice of guitar, I find that the barrier between playing fast and playing REALLY fast is not that I am unable to play fast enough, but that I'm busy doing things when I should be doing nothing. Muscle tension, that nosy neigbor, has creeped in and is inhibiting my freedom of movement. What should feel easy feels like a struggle. For example, if I'm paying attention when I'm playing a new musical passage or technique, and slowly increase the tempo, I will find a tempo at which I start to feel tense. However, if I can stay with the music and relax, the music suddenly continues at the same fast pace, but feels slower. Easier somehow. And the nosy neighbor is nowhere to be found.

In practice, if that fails, I slow the metronome just below that place of tension. Where is it? And then, instead of trying to push through the entrance, I relax there, and wait for the open door. It's a process of letting go and getting to know the music. I play it slowly, and it comes. And then, speed is not the issue. I can speak freely and as rapidly as I please.

The easiest way to begin the practicing of relaxation is with your right hand. Practice rest strokes with your thumb or pick. The very name suggest relaxation. Rest strokes. In Spanish it's called apoyando.

Use gravity to sound the string.

Play a note on the biggest string. This will be a down strum, so imagine your thumb or pick on top of the biggest string. Then drop it to the next string. Do not push it. Drop it. Let the weight of your arm drag your pick, thumb or thumbnail across (or is it through?) the string.

Feel the weight of your arm as it sits on the string. You are doing something. You are holding, somehow, your pick, thumb and arm on the string. Holding on. Doing something.

Now let go and let gravity take your hand. Drop your hand. The string sounds. Boing. You did nothing. And something happened. Then, when the pick or thumb or thumbnail falls and comes to rest on the next string, your hand then begins to do something. When it comes to rest there, ironically, the pick hand/arm tenses. It doesn't rest. Ever so slightly it holds on to the next string and stops the drop.

When you sound the note, you are doing nothing.
The rest of the time the right hand is hanging on in some way.
Waiting to do nothing again.

A rest stroke.

The Downward Thumb Rest Stroke:
Do Nothin' While Hittin' the Note!

Do it again.

Then do nothing.

Do nothing, and yet something is happening here. You are learning. How to do something while doing nothing. And how to get a nice relaxed springy rest stroke. You are learning to make it easy. And your tone, the very quality of sound you produce, is probably vastly improved.

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