A good sense of touch is an imperative to many things. I think that one of the hardest things to develop in any endeavor is a sense of touch. Parallel to this is a sense of feel. And because I don’t believe you can have a good sense of touch without a good sense of feel, I’m going to treat them as the same thing for this post because I think they are the same thing. You might disagree (and if I try really hard, I might care about that).
In golf, if someone makes a great chip shot into the hole or very softly around the hole, or a really long putt up to the hole, a playing partner might say, “Nice touch!” In this example, the touch referred to is the combination of speed, acceleration, and line resulting in a very soft finish. There really is no touch or feel involved in the physical sense. Such shots are results of practice, technique, and experience. However, if we accept that that touch and feel are the same thing, but slightly different aspects of the thing, then it makes sense. It is being able feel the slope and its changes across the green through your feet, feeling also the softness of the green, and the thickness of the rough around the green. It’s also knowing the difference in response of a very dry green versus a very wet green, and the range of possibilities between.
If we take the same thought to a guitar or banjo (let’s use the banjo as guitars have an unholy number of strings) and start with the concept of technique we find that a banjo is a hell of a rhythm instrument. (Yeah, yeah, rhythm is important to all stringed instruments, and all music.) The various techniques of three-finger picking, clawhammer, the Seeger-style strum, and all other other techniques and variations rely on rhythm and technique. Being that banjos are very loud instruments by default, it takes changes in touch to play softer while maintaining rhythm. So it is a sense of controlled touch that makes a difference here.
But playing banjo is not just about picking and strumming. It is also about the chording, the pull-offs, the hammer-ons, the slides. These are the nuances that make the music rich and deep. These things require a sense of feel and touch like few other things. One’s fingertips develop calluses that dull some of the feeling of the strings and frets, but that feel is still necessary to know where you are, to touch the strings just right, to know that you are in the third fret and able to pull off the string in way to make it resonate before hammering down on another.
A third example is pottery. When throwing a pot on a wheel, one works the clay and shapes the pot using pressure inside and outside the formed pot to create its shape. You simply don’t just push your finger against the clay. You have to feel the clay respond and respond accordingly. A machine can be created to move a tool against a spinning object. It can respond to a predetermined pattern and reproduce that countless times, but it is not art. It is not art because the machine cannot feel, it cannot touch, it cannot do these in response to each other…without becoming a much more complex machine.
Having a sense of touch is not just about softness. It is about touch in response to feel, feel in response to touch. It is the continual adjustment of physical factors in response to feedback. A sense of touch is about awareness and response. It is about being there.