Dissection of an Ass Kicking
Updated: Oct 14
"Every morning in Africa, a gazelle wakes up. It knows it must run faster than the fastest lion or it will be killed"
Dan Montano, masquerading as an African proverb.
Feb 04, 2022 - When I'm thinking about recording a piece, the first thing I have to do is find all the trouble spots. The recording will only be as good as the hardest spot in the piece and can't even begin until that part is conquered. I have to look through the music for all the instruments and figure out what I might train wreck. Then I have to make sure I'll be able to play it at tempo before I even lay down the first track. If I don't do this, I risk getting stuck with a piece where I, say, spent time and money recording the easier viola part at a speed that I can't play the harder violin part at.
Taking a look at the Kreutzer quartet, I could see right away that there were two spots in going to be a challenge; in a quick movement a long passage of sixteenth notes with lots of string crossings is trouble. And the whole tempo of the piece will be gated by how quickly and well I can play these two spots.
First is to figure out how to play it, very slowly, working out what finger to use where and what position to play it in.
("Position" refers to the placement of the left hand on the neck. First position is the most basic position, with the index finger on the 2nd fret with the rest of the fingers covering to the 7th fret. Third position is with the index is on the 5th fret, (where the third finger would be in first position). etc etc.)
When I'm just getting started on a hard passage I play with no metronome to figure out the best way to do it. The "best way" is the one with the most efficient economy of motion, rather than the easiest. It's really easy to learn a passage in a way that's easy at slow tempos, but strangles you at speed. String crossings and position shifts are killer at high speeds.
Taking a closer look at that first passage, after a little bit of work I decided I was going to play it mostly in first position, with a jump up to third position in the middle of phrase three, and then a slide back into a sort of 2nd and a half position for the very end. These are the fingerings I settled on. Note: these pictures are just to illustrate the points. I don't actually sit down and chart all this stuff out. I work it out through playing it. Slowly.
The position/fingering work of the left hand is only half the story though. What actually messes me up on fast passages is the picking hand, not the fretting hand. Whereas as in the music above the fingerings are pretty straightforward, the picking is a bit more complicated.
Here are the strings I'm playing. Wherever there's a color transition, that's a string crossing. A mandolin's string courses are pretty close together so developing tight control of a pick weaving in and out of the strings takes some time.
If you guessed these parts are the ones that were going to cause me the most trouble, you'd have guessed correctly. Most of my practice time is focused on them.
One of the challenges is the variable picking speed required. To pick notes on the same string the pick has to travel a certain distance; to pick notes that cross strings the pick has to travel farther than the single string distance. Mix single string and crossing string picking in a single passage and you have to adjust your pick speed on the fly just to maintain the same tempo. It's really easy to drag on the string crossings and rush the single string parts.
Once I have the parts down well enough to sort of play I turn to the metronome for the real work of loading them into my muscle memory and getting them up to speed.
I can't stress enough how much I have to get these parts into muscle memory and have them become automatic. I can't be thinking my way through a fast part when I'm recording or performing for real. Pick angle, pick speed, fretting hand finger positioning, synchronization. There's too much to consciously keep track of.
I have to start slow, for the metronome is merciless, uncaring, and stops for no one. I use what my piano teacher called the ladder technique, where you set the metronome to a tempo where I can play the part absolutely perfectly. Any mistakes and it means I'm going too fast. If I can get through four passes with no mistakes, I up the Beats Per Minute (BPM) by 5 and try again. Once I start to break down, I decrease the tempo and try again.
On the passage above I first started at 50 BPM which is about half the final speed I need to hit. Now a few weeks in I start the ladder at 90 or 95 and go up to the final speed I've chosen, which is 103. The ladder is slow and it's easy to get impatient, but it works for me.
More than just the fingers and hands, I'm also training the rest of my body. I've had parts I learned while staring at my fretting hand, and then I couldn't play the part if I was looking anywhere else. So when I'm practicing I try to be aware of how I'm sitting and where I'm looking, and I don't practice in a way that I can't duplicate in the studio. I practice sitting down, with my feet flat on the ground, and the music on a stand in front of me. I'm training my eyes to know where the best place to look is, and when I have to shift my gaze from the page to my hands be able to shift back to the right spot on the page instinctively because with the metronome banging away, I don't have the time to search.
All the pieces I've done for LMP have had parts that I couldn't play when I started them; I'm running very close to my skill ceiling basically at all times so I don't have much margin for error. It's a good feeling, though, when you hit a BPM on the ladder that was completely unplayable a week earlier.
Once I've proven to myself that I can record all the trouble spots, for all the instruments, then I can commit to a recording session. And I can then go about learning the rest of the piece and, hopefully, I won't discover some other brutal part that trips me up.
If you've ever wonder why it takes me so long to get a piece ready for LMP, now you know.