Applying aspects of sports science to music performance has probably been the single most fruitful change I’ve made in recent times in my approach to playing guitar (and other instruments).
I had seen its results before in flamenco players but didn’t understand the how and why of their speed. What finally helped me make the connection was coming across Stepan Rak – virtuosic Czech classical guitarist with incredible finger independence in both hands and blisteringly fast plucking speed – and his focus on training countermovement in the fingers.
Combining his approach with what I had recently learned about how to design exercises to gain different types of strength (pure strength, power, endurance, or flexibility), I saw the fastest improvement in endurance and strength in my plucking fingers that I had ever seen.
Understanding the Need for countermovement training
Our fingers are joints like the elbow – a simple hinge. In the elbow it’s obvious what muscles do what – the biceps pulls the elbow closed, the triceps pull it open again – both are needed for the elbow to function properly.
In the finger, the muscles are generally in the forearm, and attach to the fingers via tendons that run up through the wrist and along the length of the fingers. And like the elbow, there are two opposing sets of muscles to pull the fingers closed and open again.
Let’s come up with an analogy to better visualise it:
This door is attached to two ropes being pulled by two different people. Both of them are necessary to get the door to swing in both directions.
And going back to the previous post about having unnecessary tension in fingers, if both of them were to try and pull at the same time we get a tug of war – the door would either not move, or move very slowly in the direction of the stronger person pulling. This is why a big part of speed is actually about relaxing – muscles must relax immediately after their job is done in order for the opposing muscle to pull the joint back open as fast as possible.
Now lets image that the doorframe is the point at which the finger plucks the string, and we want to play very fast. If one of these rope pullers is very weak, they won’t be able to pull the door back past the frame before the other person tries to pull it back again.
Building that Strength
I had come across people recommending practising flamenco rasgueados to strengthen the fingers-opening muscles of the forearm, but I wanted something much more to the point – training those muscles in a way that didn’t require as much precision: less technique, more exercise.
So I started drilling one hand claps and snaps (as I call them):
Do both hands while you’re at it – might as well be even: Clap, or snap open, each hand as fast as you can until your forearms (likely on the topside) start to burn and fatigue. Push through it if you can – go as long as you possibly can, really wear them out!
Once you can’t go any longer rest your hands for at least 2 full minutes – allow time for the lactic acid to be brought away from your muscles.
Repeat this between 3 and 6 times and after a week the results should start showing – you’ve communicated to your muscles that they need more endurance, so they’ve grown and adapted to allow you to do what you need to do.
So give it a try, I found it especially helpful for extending tremolo play-time.
I sometimes mix into practise time: if my finger start to fatigue while playing a piece I stop playing, immediately clap my hands to the point of complete failure and then rest – tell my muscles they need to go for longer by pushing at the limits of what they can currently do.