Leading With the Heel

(I actually started writing this post ages and ages ago, shortly after I went to the Ukulele Festival, but it’s been a long road actually getting around to posting it. Why? I don’t know. Because I can post or play but rarely have time for both? There is no good excuse, really.)

Since my uke fest workshops, I’ve been focusing a bit on what I’m going to call ‘conscious practice’. There are times when I feel mindless practice is useful; there is something to be said for training muscle memory, but at other times it’s far more important to practice mindfully and correct any bad habits that have cropped up before they become too ingrained to easily overcome.

I’ve been taking some of the smaller details to heart, and after the Craig Chee’s mini-lesson at the beginning of theory class on how to hold your uke, I’ve spent a good amount of time sitting and practicing chords while really paying close attention to everything that’s going on between my fingertips and elbow. What am I doing with my wrist? What muscles are being engaged as I move from point A to point B? This actually relates to all three instruments, of course, though it’s the ukulele that led me to this understanding, so I’m talking about it from that perspective. You can easily replace the word ‘ukulele’ with ‘guitar’ or ‘bass’, though.

Paying conscious attention to technique has taught me that I have a distinct habit of leading into chord changes with the heel of my hand. What does that mean, exactly? It means that in going from say, the G chord to the C chord (whatever. Pick two chords that make you happy), I am moving the heel of my hand, and by extension bending my wrist, before I lift my fingers from the first chord. Essentially, my heel is leading my fingers, not unlike one might lead a dog on a leash that doesn’t really feel like going for a walk. The result is that I may start with a straight wrist, and I might even end with a relatively straight wrist most of the time, but the path from point A to point B is a winding road.

This is actually a really easy trap to fall into. Since a beginner doesn’t have the finger flexibility, leading with the heel of the hand, or even over-bending the wrist, are little things we do to compensate. They add length to the fingers, and when our fingers are longer (artificially or otherwise), they don’t have to be as flexible or as strong.

It’s a trap, though. It seems innocent enough, if the transitions are quick and smooth, but I can see a few problems that take this innocent rookie mistake and can really turn it into a problem.

First, let’s look at what that ‘lengthened’ finger position does to the finger positioning: It flattens the fingers. It causes you to fret slightly more on the pads than the fingertips. If you’re carrying that habit over to bass, that actually doesn’t work out too badly for you. A flatter finger positioning helps with string muting. But, carry that over to guitar and you’ve got a veritable cornucopia of strings that don’t sound, of fingers that are bumping other strings, of chords that sound muddy. Even on the uke, if you straighten everything out and move carefully, the tone of the chord becomes noticeably clearer. It doesn’t sound like there’s anything wrong with one way…until you try the other. Once you do get properly up on the tips though, the difference is pretty apparent.

Now, let’s look at it from a training perspective: if we’re cheating by using our hand to lengthen our fingers, or by slipping the neck into the nook of our thumb, we are not training any of the muscles in our fingers or forearm – virtually at all. We are not going to become more flexible, stronger, or faster, because we just aren’t working those muscles, even if we think we must be. After all, we’re fretting chords! But, if we’re not fretting them the right way, we’re not activating the muscle groupings we need to advance.

So, you can see that not paying attention to the finer details of technique early on can really slow progress in the long run. It’s easy to assume if we’re fretting chords and all of the notes are sounding, we must be doing it properly, but a slight shift shows where there are still flexibility issues, activates an entirely different grouping of muscles, and even increases tonal clarity. So, it’s really important to engage in conscious practice periodically to really investigate just what your hand and arm are doing, and whether or not that’s what they ought to be doing.

Sometimes, I’ll practice in front of a mirror to really get a good look at things. I’m actually considering using the makeshift smartphone camera stand I’ve been using to record poetry to record some practice sessions and be able to playback a few practice sessions and really look at what my hands are up to after my brain turns off and I fall into auto-play mode, though I haven’t actually don this yet.

Until Next Time, alternating between noodling around and really inspecting my technique.

3 thoughts on “Leading With the Heel

  1. It is just fantastic that you are so mindful of your body as you play guitar–and so early in your development as a musician, too. Probably because it can be carried around, played pretty quietly, and played for long periods of time, guitar seems to encourage development of muscle memory in favor of considered musicianship, which is a real roadblock when trying to write a song or improvise a melody. Plus, guitarists are notorious for doing things like trying to play without a proper warm up, playing with too much tension in the picking hand, and always playing fast, fast, fast–all of which can lead to tendonitis and related muscle problems. I think many injuries could be avoided if guitarists spent more time learning to pay careful attention to their bodies and what it is trying to tell them. It is a good thing that you are on that path already.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Sure, I think there’s an appeal to just jump right in and learn songs. Part of me feels very behind, because I only know bits and pieces, and can’t play nearly as many songs all the way through as most people after this much time. But, I also want to play them well, and to do that you really have to be attentive. I happen to have a mechanically oriented mind. I can really focus on the ‘how’ of things, which is both a blessing and a curse. But, I guess in the end, I would rather learn correctly and slowly than jump in with both feet and find myself needing to then work backward to break bad habits.


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