Tuesday, 11 August 2015

What I Learned From Learning Flight Of The Bumblebee

When Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov wrote his virtuosic, dizzying chromatic violin piece as an interlude to close the third act of his opera The Tale Of The Tsar Saltan in 1900, it's unlikely he anticpated the shred guitar movement or how iconic his piece would become as a benchmark of guitar technique.

The piece itself is a frenzied, frantic non-stop cascade of sixteenth notes (semiquavers), mostly only a semitone apart, and on the guitar at least the actual fingerings are not too tricky – the challenge lies in the stamina, the reflexes and the relentless, dizzying speed. Now, I've never considered myself to be a particularly fast guitarist, so working through this piece was a chance to try and polish a weaker side of my playing and it taught me a great deal about how we actually learn.

There's a long-held myth that humans only use 10% of the brain power, and that were we to be able to access the other 90% we'd develop psychic powers, telekinesis blah blah blah. Rubbish. We may only use 10% consciously – the “front line services”, if you want to use current buzzwords – but that “unused” 90%? That's taking care of all the incredible variety of processes that we simply take for granted. Imagine all the things that have to happen for you to blink:

Take the decision to blink

Consciously move your eyelids together by the correct amount to close them – not too little, not too much.

Take the decision to re-open your eyes.

Deliberately move your eyelids upwards, gauging how far to move them.

Now think about how many times a minute you blink. If you had to think, consciously, about each time you had to perform a simple “maintenance function” like a blink, you would simply have no capacity for coherent, rational thought. The fact that your body takes care of blinking, breathing, balancing (an act which uses 300 muscles alone) etc without you consciously being aware of any of it – that's the 90% at work.

Psychologists and neurologists divide our behaviours into two modes – the rational mode (that's our 10%) which weighs the various factors that might affect the outcome of a particular decision. This is the part you use when buying a car or (hopefully) voting. It's much more thorough, analytical approach – probably one we evolved in prehistoric times out on the savannah, trying to work out which way the antelope might run or whether that particular rock might have a sabre-tooth tiger behind it- but it takes a great deal longer. When you're learning to drive, this is the “thinking time” your instructor tells you about.

The second mode is the “intuitive” or instinctive mode – this is where all the learnt processes get stored, all the things that you “just do”. This is the snap decision – fight-or-flight, instant decision making when there simply isn't time to absorb all the facts and reflect on them. When the sabre-tooth tiger lunges, you “just run” or you just stab it with your spear, you don't debate.

So, what does all this evolutionary psychology have to do with guitar playing? Well, as I mentioned before, “Flight Of The Bumblebee” is all about speed. Sheer, relentless, blistering speed. So what we have to do is harness the intuitive aspect of the brain, because with this piece if you're thinking about what you're playing, you're not playing fast enough.

So – how to approach learning a dense, complex piece like this. Playing it top to tail whilst glued to the tablature is NOT going to work – that's involving the rational bit of the mind way too much. The best way I've found is to break it down into small chunks, roughly 4-8 bars long depending on the complexity of the pattern, and literally play this into your fingers until it's memorised. You need to be VERY careful here not to train mistakes into your fingers, as once the chunk is grouped, decoded and stored in the intuitive portion of your mind you're going to have a hell of a job digging it out and correcting it.

Once you've got your first chunk down and can play it successfully from memory (not necessarily fast – that will come), then try the next. Then add the two together, reinforcing what you've already know as you go. As the mental agility improves through not having to consciously think through what you're playing, the physical dexterity will follow, especially with metronome use to gradually speed your playing up (see my post Feel The Burn – A Need For Speed for more on this).

I first played this up to speed about a week ago, and it was an almost alarming experience in a way, because as I got to the end of it I suddenly realised I had absolutely no recollection of playing most of it. I'd been acting purely on instinct and intuition, performing the musical (and far less dangerous) equivalent of running full tilt along a tightrope. It's almost a form of hypnosis, putting you completely in the intuitive zone.

Learning this piece then, not only improved my speed and accuracy (and gave me a pretty cool party piece) – but it also taught me a great deal about how we learn and how we think, and how a musician can train him or herself to use the different “settings” of the brain to overcome seemingly insurmountable barriers. If you're struggling with a piece of music that seems utterly impossible, then try this approach. Remember, if it has been played, YOU can play it too – just given time and preparation.

Oh, and just so you know I'm not bluffing - check out the accompanying video: