Feeling the strings

I’ve been practicing some chords, using what one of my method books calls a “Klopf-Übung” (the book is in German). This is where you hold all the notes of a chord and then lift up one finger and hammer it back down, a few times for each finger. I suspect this is a very basic exercise on the fretted string instruments, but I don’t know what it’s called. (“Hammer exercise”, maybe?)

Anyway, I’ve noticed something interesting, especially with the more complicated chords, like this B-flat chord at the nut:

2014-01-15 B-flat major chord


At first I just banged my fingers down on the fingerboard and was happy if I happened to make a chord that didn’t buzz when I strummed it. Then I realized that I was aiming at places on the fingerboard when maybe I should be aiming at places on the strings. That was an improvement.

And now, over the past couple of days, I have started to FEEL each individual string as I press it down. I don’t mean I just feel the string; I feel the whole “journey” it makes to the fingerboard and the springiness it retains even when held down firmly. Suddenly what was formerly an on-or-off thing — string pressed down or not — has become an experience, a process. I can feel the string resist my finger and then give way reluctantly, as if I were pressing my finger into a dense sponge. It is a totally different feeling from just banging my fingers into a hardwood board that happens to have a string in the way.

I am now realizing that squeezing a string onto a fingerboard is a very sensual thing. It is the sort of feeling I knew well on the trumpet. On that instrument, if you don’t HEAR and FEEL the note you are about to play, it will likely be out of tune or even a wrong harmonic — say, a high B-flat instead of a high C. But when that “pre-feeling” is right, you feel like a god! You KNOW the note is going to come out exactly as you want it. (It’s a little bit like when you shoot a basketball, and the instant BEFORE you release the ball you already know whether it is going in the hoop or not.)

P.S. Watching top-notch banjo and guitar players, I have noticed that their left hands rarely seem to be in a hurry, even when the music is moving very fast.

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