Multitasking, Mompou and the Means-Whereby: A note on coordinating the hands

Called a ""genius" by Classical Guitar, Jonathan Leathwood was born in England and now lives in Colorado, where he teaches at the University of Denver. He performs on both six- and ten-string guitars. He is currently working with Julian Bream on commissioning new repertoire from leading composers. Discography includes Watermusic: Chamber Music of Stephen Dodgson, Cadenza (CACD0603) and Mountains Toward the Sea, with flutist William Bennett, Beep (BP34). (Learn more).

One of the challenges - and fascina­tions - of playing the guitar is the very different set of skills demanded of our two hands. Certainly, there is ample literature to help us address a difficulty with any one of these skills. There is also a steadily growing discussion of the more intangible aspects of learning: psychological preparation, visual­ization, study habits, and so on. Yet I have often been struck by how little we discuss one of the most fundamental difficulties of all: making the two hands work at the same time. We are all multitaskers.

Let's look at a typical multitasking chal­lenge: performing a passage in a chorale texture, such as the Coral from Mompous Suite Compostelana (1962). This is not an easy movement to play well, and at first sight, it's the left hand that presents all the difficulties. Simply negotiating the shifts is not easy; and if we are to evoke the sound of a choir, as the title suggests, we must create at least the illusion of a continuous legato between the chords. On closer exam­ination, though, the right hand turns out to face significant challenges of its own, and these affect the left hand's ability to do its job. For one thing, there will be no legato unless the right-hand fingers find and pluck the strings in exact synchronicity with the left. For another, the right hand has to voice the chords if the parts are to sing independently and the chordal dissonances are to speak. Less obviously, but just as crucially, the right hand has to switch between dif­ferent configurations of strings, some quite straightforward, others less so. Compare for example the first chord in measure 1 with the two chords in measure 2:

The opening chord places the right-hand fingers on adjacent strings - the most familiar configuration. But the chords in measure 2 place gaps between the right-hand fingers while thumb and index pluck adjacent strings - less familiar and more awkward.

In fact, it is my experience that if either hand faces difficulties in a passage, then no matter how simple the task of the other hand, it uses up precious resources, subtly diluting the attention we need. One might compare it to one computer program slowing down another. In our Mompou example, then, even if the right hand did not face the difficulties I have described it would still present an obstacle. The hands tend to interfere with one another.

Pianists face similar issues, which is why for them, practicing with the hands separately is a fundamental study technique. Should we do the same? Of course, many guitar­ists do; but practicing with one hand alone proves less natural on the guitar than on the piano, because the majority of the pitches we have to produce require both hands. On its own the left hand produces little or no sound, so when practicing without the right hand one has to work to keep a sense of gesture and expression. As for the right hand, many students find that at first, they cannot separate it from the left hand at all. That is because the right hand tends to work in the dark: many guitar­ists are unaware of right-hand fingering in detail. Even when one has learned to play with the right hand alone, the result is an endless fanfare of open strings - I have even heard Eliot Fisk suggest that reducing a piece of music to the open strings is an ear-deadening activity! Still, many teachers and students find value in this kind of work and I think it is worth working with the hands separately to ensure that one is aware in detail of what each one has to do.

That said, let's return to the Mompou Coral and try something else: a kind of practice that I encountered in a guitar magazine as a young beginner (unfortunately I can't remember where, but I am very grateful to whoever wrote the article). The essence of this technique is to practice the two hands' movements in alternation. It is a form of slow practice in which the movements are done precisely and reflectively without, for now, worrying about the musics rhythm and tempo. It goes like this:

  1. Place the right-hand fingers on the strings, ready to play the first chord.
  2. Finger the chord with the left hand.
  3. Play the chord.
  4. Repeat for the next chord.
Simple as it is, this procedure can teach one a lot about how the hands work together. First of all, students often have difficulty ­separating out the individual steps. Let's try step 1: if on placing the right-hand fingers on the strings your left hand instantly and instinctively moved to finger the chord, then you may find interest in learning to send a clear message from your brain just to your right hand, with no interference from the left. What about step 2? It is a rare student who, on fingering the chord with the left hand, can resist sounding it with the right hand more or less simultaneously. When this happens, you are not yet taking care of just one movement at a time.

Clearly, if steps 1 and 2 have gone right, then nothing can go wrong in step 3. All the more reason, then, to forget about this last step and to focus instead on refining the first two. At step 1, I ask myself which part of the finger touches the string, precisely? Is it the same every time? I aim to make contact in the groove between fingertip and nail, as this point is very sensitive. If I can be consistent with that contact in practice, I will notice the benefit in performance, when nerves become a factor. The same considerations apply to step 2, fingering the chord: not only must I get each finger as close to the fret as practicable, I have to find the minimum pressure required.

What if I have difficulty playing a particular chord cleanly? The problem must be in either step 1 or step 2 - the moment of finding the strings with each hand. In Mompou's Coral, let's suppose that my right hand has some difficulty with the first chord in measure 2. Why not play the first measure (in time or according to the procedure described), then place the right hand ready on the strings for the downbeat of measure 2, and thenstop? This way, I don't even reach the stage of fingering the chord with the left hand, because I want to take in just how it feels to find this chord with the right hand. At this point I'd rather not go any further in case it complicates what I'm trying to master. Instead, I'll go through this same procedure a few more times. When I'm ready, I'll continue with fingering the left hand and sounding the chord. In due course, I'll play the passage. But I don't have to play it now.

Equally, if the problem with measure 2's downbeat was the left hand rather than the right, then I might go as far as stage 2, and then stop. Whatever the problem, when working on this procedure with students I'm interested to see if they are capable of properly stopping and waiting between each stage. If they are not, then it shows that they are not yet conceiving of each movement as something separate that can be refined and mastered on its own. Multi­tasking starts with a single task.

Students of the Alexander Technique may find some resonance in this notion of stopping and waiting. Certainly, in the expressive act of performance, the musical gestures must flow unimpeded; but between hesitating and rushing there is a whole world to explore. In The Use of the Self (1932) and other writings, F.M. Alexander made a distinction between the end (in this case, sounding the chord) and what he called the means-whereby. His contention was that as long as one is striving after the end, one is always to some extent ruled by habit. By giving ones attention simply andfully to each step as it comes, the end comes anyway, but informed by the quality of its component steps. And the only way to find out if one is truly with each step is to see if one can stop at any point - not just slow down, or pause, but really stop (Alexander called this inhibition). Then, Alexander observed, one might after all go on to the end of the procedure (here, playing the chord), or one might do something else en­tirely (sing the notes? go and make tea?), or one might do nothing at all. In fact, there can be something rather satisfying about breaking off ones work on the difficulty in question, choosing not to play the passage through for now, with the thought that one can come back tomorrow and work on it some more. I have time.

So what about the order of the steps de­scribed - right hand, left hand, play? Could it as well be left hand, right hand, play? Perhaps; but when it comes to making the journey back from practice to performance I have found a lot of value in the order given. Once I have mastered stopping and waiting between each step, I start to put steps 2 and 3 as close together as possible: as soon as the left hand feels ready on the strings, with just the right placement and pressure, the right hand (already prepared in step 1) responds by plucking the strings to sound the chord.

And here an essential point emerges. There can come a stage when the response between left hand and right is immediate: in effect, they play at the same time. But for the performer, there is still a fundamental order to the movements. The sensation is that of a chain, the left hand prompting the right, giving it permission to pluck the strings. (Note that the right hand can pre­pare well in advance of the sound or more or less as it plays, depending on articulation and other factors.) In her books on violin playing, Kató Havas makes a similar point when she says that the left hand leads the right - and this in spite of the fact that on the violin, as on the guitar, it is not the left hand that produces the sound. To be sure, by linking these three steps, we have recon­structed exactly the kind of chain reaction that initially I warned against. But this is a different chain to the one we started with. It is now informed by Alexander's means-whereby.

Many aspects of music-making depend on building some kind of chain. For example, memorization, when it happens uncon­sciously, is little more than each event reminding us of the next. But this form of memorization - learning by rote - is highly unreliable. If one thing is forgotten, so is everything that follows. To guard against this, we must do all we can to break the chain: starting at different points in the piece, breaking the music down into its components, and so on. Ultimately, thechain grows back afresh, but now eachlink relates to the whole, not just the link immediately before or after.

Coordinating one's hands, then, is not a matter of trying to do two movements simultaneously, but rather of putting the movements into the right relationship, allowing one to follow from the other with­out hesitation. To the audience it may seem as though movements of great precision are happening with pinpoint simultaneity; but if in the learning process one has built a chain, then no matter how close together two movements are, there is always space between them. We have all the time we need. (Learn more about the author)

Copyright © 2010 by Jonathan Leathwood