Playing Classical Guitar with Joint Pain

I’ve been emailed a couple of times recently by readers (thanks for that – keep them coming!) asking about playing with joint pain related to arthritis or similar. I’ve also taught, in the recent past, a couple of students with arthritis pain in their hands. So I thought some of my thoughts and advice would be a good share for all.

Now I’m not a doctor or any other kind of medical professional, so my first piece of advice is if you’re experiencing any kind of consistent or chronic pain in your hands go and seek the advice of a doctor.  And if you don’t like what they’re saying seek a second opinion!

Whilst not having experienced directly (touch wood) the frustration and sometime debilitation that can be caused by finger, thumb and wrist pain, I do have an appreciation and understanding of it through my mother having this quite severely. So I can empathise with you, dear readers, that are similarly afflicted!

Anyhoo, here are my thoughts and tips on playing with chronic pain in the joints of the thumbs, fingers, and wrist.

  • Seek the advice of a good teacher (at the least a handful of lessons or so, if not regularly) who can watch how you play, understand and assess your physical movements and provide some specific direction for you. It may be that your current technique adds undue pressure in certain areas (such as the left hand thumb, for example, behind the neck) or that your technique can be adapted to meet changing physical requirements.

 

  • If that’s not possible, then the next best thing is to examine your own technique (you might like to give this a try anyway). Be aware of where you’re applying pressure. With good technique you should be able to playbarré cords,for example, with zero pressure from your thumb. Are you squeezing the life out of the neck with your left hand? Are you attempting to play arpeggios, scale runs or other passages a little too fast for your right hand? Build things up slowly and minimise pressure and tension through the right hand.

 

  • Keep things moving with practicing a little and often. If you’re having a relatively good day where pain is minimal or even non-existent don’t fall into the trap of overdoing it or trying to “make up for lost time”. That will only come back to bite you! Keep practice as consistent as possible and do try to do just a little.

 

  • Warm your hands up well prior to practicing, perhaps with the aid of some pocket warmers or bowl of warm water. Keep an ice pack handy for soothing and reducing inflammation in joints post practice.

 

  • Ideally you don’t want to practice with any pain at all, but this is not always going to be the case with arthritis in the fingers and hands, so be aware of you body, what causes flare ups and always stop if pain worsens.

 

 

 

How To Practice When You Don’t Feel Like Practicing

Yes, it does happen from time to time, that you just don’t feel like doing your guitar practice today. It happens to those most dedicated to their learning. It happens to the amateur. It happens to the pro. And I can tell you it certainly happens to me too! We’re all human, not mindless, lifeless robots, so it’s completely understandable.

When you find yourself in this situation of not feeling like practicing it’s important to examine why it is that you don’t want to practice, or have minimal appetite for it, and act on that. I had a bit of that feeling this weekend, for example, and taking a look at why I didn’t feel like practicing may be relatively easy to understand – 6 aeroplane flights in the preceeding 5 days, working away from home in various locations all week, cramming Christmas parties in, shopping and family stuff all into a 48 hour period.   I could possibly be forgiven for wanting to flop on the couch and watch just one more episode of Game Of Thrones! But crack on with practice I did!

We can’t help situation and circumstance – Yes, I am busy. Yes, I am tired. And I completely understand where those of you are coming from who also have busy lives in terms of practice. But this is not excuse enough. Well, not for me anyway.

I’m saying this in a “let’s be hard on myself, go, go, go, more, more, more” kind of way. Nope. I’m saying this in a “consistency is key” kind of way. Even picking up the guitar for 10 or 15 minutes and working on just one small thing, I know from experience, has absolutely undeniable benefits.

It comes down to choice. You can choose to do something else other than practice (and sometimes if you’re really super tired that’s probably the right choice!). You can also  choose to pick up the guitar for even just a few minutes, reconnect and play at least something. And more often than not I make the choice to practice, if if I do feel like flopping on the sofa!

How do I do that? Well, here are some of my top tips for practicing when I don’t feel like practicing:

(1) I firstly examine whether I’m just being lazy or am genuinely tired. I also look at my schedule coming up and when I’ll next be able to practice if I don’t get a session in now or today. If I’m away for a few days and the next practice session is looking like it will be 3 or 4 days away then it’s a bit of a no-brainer – pick up the guitar and get on with it!

(2) But if I am genuinely over-tired (to be honest it doesn’t happen that often that I’m just being lazy!), then it’s simple. I may tinker for a little on the guitar, play a few favourite tunes to keep the fingers moving, but I won’t do what I call proper practice. You need a more-or-less switched on brain for that!

(3) I remind myself that I don’t have to sit there for the next 90 minutes! I tell myself to give it just 10 or 15 minutes. More often than not I end up then getting into the swing of it and practicing for 30, 40 minutes or more. Getting started can sometimes be the most difficult bit! Once you get going though you’re often off and on your way.

(4) I remind myself that picking up the guitar for just those 10 or 15 minutes I’ll be one step closer to getting that piece under the fingers and understanding the music than the same time yesterday, rather than two steps back (potentially) if I’d not practiced. Every little bit really does count when it comes to practice.

(5) I’ll often seek some external inspiration by listening to a favourite recording or a recording of a piece I’m learning. I’ll listen in to the sounds and shapes of the music, and think about how I’d create that myself on the guitar. This invariably starts the fingers itching for some play and practice.

(6) Set a schedule – practice is an art in itself, it’s true. You can also say it’s about habit. Set yourself a regular time slot, if possible, six days out of seven and stick to it. You may have to encourage yourself to practice in this manner for a while, but like practice the habit soon begins to stick with you.

Happy praciting!

 

Album Review: The View by David Buckingham

Last album review of the year folks! And it’s a goodie – the debut album from British guitarist David Buckingham The View.

Whilst you may not have heard of David previously, I can promise you that he is no slouch. After studying in Seville, Spain with some of the finest exponents of flamenco guitar in the world, David returned to the UK to release The View. He was also selected by The Gipsy Kings to be the Guitarist in their show Zorro The Musical, touring the UK with the show before the West End opening at The Garrick Theatre performing 8 shows a week for 9 months! Epic! David then toured Europe with the show and recorded the U.K. Soundtrack in London and the U.S. soundtrack in Salt Lake City.

Following Zorro, David spent time as an in demand “sideman” for such artists as Leslie Garrett and Russell Watson in the UK and Juanito Makandé and Rafael Amargo in Spain before returning to Seville.

So it’s fair to say he knows his way around the guitar, and knows how to work hard!

And this is very much reflected in The View. The album is fantastic mix of jazz-inflected flamenco, jazzy pop, poppy jazz, and contemporary jazz and flamenco-influenced classical styles. There are both original compositions on there and great arrangements of some well-known pop tunes such as Wonderful Tonight and Streetlife (I love the smooth jazz into to this track and flamenco flavour added in). My favourite of the pop arrangements is You Are The Sunshine of My Life. The arrangement sits so well on the instrument, has a wonderful laid back, summer afternoon, jazzy feel to it, played with a lovely warm tone and supported by some light percussive sounds indicating David’s flamenco background.

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I also really the second track on the album, Brisa Flamenca. David is clearly at home with this jazz-influenced tune, featuring some exciting flamenco rasgueado and rhythmic flamenco percussion in the middle and towards the end. A great piece expertly executed.

My favourite track on the album is undoubtedly the eponymous track, The View. This jazz-influenced flamenco piece (or flamenco-influenced jazz piece?!) really rocks along in a laid back manner if that doesn’t sound like an oxymoron. It has a fantastic Iberian pulse and drive, with some lovely chord progressions emphasised by subtle flamenco-inspired percussion and flamenco vocalisations.

I’d love to hear some more of David’s traditional flamenco stuff. From the taster experienced on this album I reckon it’d knock my socks off. I reckon it’d knock your socks off too.

If there is one criticism I have of the recording, and it’s really very minor in face of the wonderful arrangements and virtuosic flamenco-jazz-classical playing presented here, it’s that I’d like to hear some greater variation in tonal colour in David’s playing. That’s very much my own personal preference however and I’d encourage you to make your own mind up.

Have a sneak-peek listen here: http://www.worldguitarist.com/audio.php

And be sure to head over here: http://www.worldguitarist.com/cd.php  to grab your own copy of The View in CD or mp3 download.

Developing Left Hand Technique – Left Hand Slurs

Most of us find certain technical aspects of playing come easier than other technical aspects. Some technical aspects come pretty naturally and we have to expend little energy in developing them. And some technical aspects we find we have to keep plugging away with – we progress for sure, but a greater deal of effort may need to put in to bring a particular element up to the same level as the rest of or the majority of our technique.

I’d say that is pretty normal (whatever that may be!). After all we’re all constucted differently with different hands, fingers, arms, joints, skeletons and muscles. It figures that we all move slightly differently and so develop our techniques in slightly different ways or at different rates.

One of these particular technical elements for myself, I don’t mind sharing with you, is left hand slurs. And slurs involving the third and fourth fingers in particular. Without concerted work on these and keeping om top of thr technique they sound weak, feeble and pretty terrible to be honest! Hah hah!

That’s not to say I don’t know what I’m doing with this technical element or what I’m looking for. After twenty-odd years of playing and several of those teaching others on the contrary. I’m only too well aware that I need to work consistently, or at the very least do some focussed work on them when working on a piece that requires their use.

As you may know,  dear reader,  I’ve been rather busy traveling here, there and everywhere of late.  As such when I get back home and sit down to practice with my guitar I like to do a few technical exercises to get the hands and fingers moving in the right way before asking more of them in practicing a place. I also like to do this in order to “check in” with particular aspects of my technique,  i.e. those elements that can be a little more troublesome for me without keeping on top of.

As such, this week,  I’ve been working on my left hand slurs. So I thought I’d share with you today some of thoughts, ideas,  observations, top tips and general musings in working on and developing this aspect of the classical guitar technique.

* Get nice and warmed up, or at least moving reasonably well, with an easier aspect of the technique.  For example,  I’ll kick things off with slur exercises between first and second fingers.  This gets this moving and also relays a message to the brain that “right,  ok, we’re working on this kind of movement”.

* Observe what’s happening in terms of vertical and horizontal movements and the resultant sounds made when exercising this easier element of the technique.  Use this observation then to think about and apply to what you’re doing in a trickier element,  i.e. for me slurs involving the third and fourth fingers.

* Don’t spend heaps of time,  however,  on the easy stuff!  That’s not practice ;)

* Think about (and do!) move your left hand slurring finger as pulling across the string,  rather than pulling off or up.

* Create a counter tension or pressure on the string by adding a tiny little bit extra tension in the non-slurring finger holding down the string (i.e. directing a little towards yourself).

* Keep relaxed! Smooth,  fluid slurs happen best when you’re feeling smooth and fluid across fingers, hand, arm, neck, head, while body.

* Spend only short amounts of time doing these kinds of specific exercises. This minimizes the chance of over use injury,  stops you from driving yourself crazy and prevents repetition zombification setting in (practicing stuff mindlessly).

Want To Increase Your Brain Power? Play Classical Guitar!

Well, you can learn, practice, play any instrument really, not just guitar, to boost your brain power. I am slightly biased towards classical guitar though ;)

There’s now scientific evidence to back up what we musicians, amateur and professional alike, knew all along – playing a musical instrument really does make you a smarter cookie!

I found this cool little TED clip this week that explains a bit about how playing a musical instrument benefits your brain. Check it out….

Album (& Book!) Review: Danzas Puertorriqueñas – Juan F. Acosta by Hermelindo Ruiz Mestre & Friends

If you swung by the blog last week you’ll know that I posted up a Q&A with Puerto Rican guitarist Hermelindo Ruiz Mestre.

If you missed it, click here and check it out.

Well, today I have for you a review of Hermelindo’s project, comprising a CD and accompanying sheet music book, of the music of little-known Puerto Rican composer Juan F. Acosta (1890 – 1968) – Danzas Puertorriqueñas.

As the name suggests this project presents a series of Acosta’s Puerto Rican dances, ten in all, each with a slightly different flavour. The decision to choose which of the dances to present in this project must have been a tricky one as Acosta apparently wrote 752 of them!  Without knowing any of the other pieces, mostly written as study type pieces for piano in their original form, I’d say that Hermelindo has selected well.

Each of the dances, as I said, has it’s own flavour and feel. They’re all fantastic little pieces around 3 to 4 minutes in length – a great length of piece to probably actually dance to funnily enough! And just enough to snare your interest, have you tapping your toe along, before rounding off and heading into the next tune. Seriously good Latin American melodies and dance rhythms. The sort of stuff I really love.

One of favourites on the album include album opener Ojos de ensueño. A lovely tune that leads you in oh so gently, before leading us into a wonderful dance that I defy anyone not to sway their body to (or least tap their toe!). Another top choice for me from the album is Rosarito y Luis, a lovely piece with just the slightest bittersweet melancholy flavour to it, lulling us along before launching headlong into a lively pulsating dance. And you can listen for yourself here:

My favourite track (after much deliberating and serious amount of listening!) is Bajo la sombra de un pino. It’s a little bit sultry, swaying and and dare I say, just a little bit sexy (ooh la la!). I can imagine myself in the Caribbean just sitting back listening to it!

In selecting the pieces to present on the album and the book Hermelindo says that “I noticed that the writing for this instrument is fairly simple and limited of pianistic effects. What I deducted from this was that the composer, as a teacher and conductor, always thought of these works as small studies that he could later orchestrate for other musical ensembles.

And this is precisely what Hermelindo has done with this project, transcribing each of the ten dances as a duet for two guitars. Wonderful! I shall certainly be taking a look at a few of these (especially the Bajo la sombra de un pino) with my duet partner!

In all of this I’ve neglected to speak of Hermelindo’s playing. Well, I can confirm it’s absolutely top of the class. Hermelindo works a beautiful, full and rich tone from his 2011 Garrett Lee guitar.

An absolutely wonderful offering from a very fine player, presenting the world music that would otherwise remain buried. Bravo Hermelindo!

And don’t forget to head over Hermelindo’s website to pick up your own copy of this fantastic album and duo transcriptions: http://www.hermelindoruiz.com/2/Acosta2

Introducing Caribbean Classical Guitarist Hermelindo Ruiz Mestre

I’ve had the pleasure over the past few months to get to know, via the modern wonder of email and Facebook Messenger, a wonderful young Puerto Rican classical guitarist and composer by the name of Hermelindo Ruiz Mestre.

Hermelindo is a very unassuming and humble character, which belies his fantastic talent. He has awards aplenty including the Andrés Segovia- Ruiz Morales Prize (Spain 2011) and performed in prestigious concert halls such as Carnegie Hall in New York.

His talent also extends beyond playing the guitar. His prodigious talent in compositions led him to publish his first book, Con los dedos entre hilos, at age 21, which ncluded eight of his first compositions.

He holds degrees from the prestigious Yale University, where he was invited to pursuit a Master degree and an Artist Diploma on a Full-Scholarship. And he’s counted Luis E. Juliá, Dr. José A. López, and Benjamin Verdery amongst his guitar teachers.

I’ve also gotten to know Hermelindo’s fantastic playing and his work in exploring and bringing to a wider audience the music of Puerto Rico through his latest project. This marvellous project is an album and book of pieces (arranged by Hermelindo) by Puerto Rican composer Juan F Acosta, called Danzas Puertorriquenas.

If you enjoy Latin American-style music or you just enjoy exploring our musical world head back this way next week to check out my review of the album.

Hermelindo with Sergio Assad

But before you do that Hermelindo was kind enough to take some time out of his busy schedule to answer a few questions. Read on!

Your album of pieces by Puerto Rican composer Juan F Acosta: Danzas Puertorriquenas is absolutely wonderful – well done! Fantastic arrangements and beautiful playing.  What inspired you to undertake this project?
It was a set of coincidences. I was asked to do an arrangement of “Bajo la sombra de un pino” – one of Puerto Rico’s s most famous dances. Most people don’t even know the composer of this piece and some people were speculating about his vast catalogue of pieces. Over time, I got in contact with the family of the composer and was one of very first musicians to have access to the 1,256 music scores that were hidden for decades after his death. This is actually a very ambitious project and many things inspired me through the process. But the main one is to let people know about this musical treasure.

What is or are your favorite piece or pieces on the recording?

My favorites are “Rosarito y Luis” and “Migda Enid”, they are both a lot of fun to play and I find them very interesting, especially because of their counterpoint. “Ojos de ensueño is another of my favorite ones.

Through from discovering the pieces through to releasing the recording, what was your favorite element of the project?

To work with incredible guitarist Steffen Besser (from Germany), Samuel Diz (from Spain), and Marco Sartor (from Uruguay). They are all superb musicians and each one taught me, in their way, an incredible amount of things. I loved every rehearsal, studio sections, and the memories I have from it. The other element was the excitement of getting into a music of which I could expect nothing, that sensation of discovering something new.

Is there anything you would do differently in approaching a new project?

I would say to plan less and let things move by themselves.

For the readers that may not be aware of you tell us a bit about Hermelindo Ruiz.
Hermelindo is a young dreamer from the Caribbean who believes in creativity and the force of art in humanity. I have been very lucky to have numerous musicians playing my own compositions all over around the globe. Outside of that, I live from playing my guitar in concerts. It is my goal to try to provoke something new in every person I have the privilege to know or to play for.

How did you get started on the guitar?
I got hypnotized watching a guitar player on the TV. My father noticed and made an offer: if I could manage to save half the money for a guitar, by working on the farm growing coffee, he will pay the other half and buy the instrument. I was about 8 years old at the time and agreed. From there, I started to take lessons on how to play the popular guitar. That is how all started.

What are your top tips for someone currently learning or thinking of learning the guitar?
Pay close attention to your fundamentals and feel proud of being undertaking one of the most excited trips of your life!!!

What music (both to play and to listen to) excites you the most and why?
My favorites composers up to today are: Wagner, Beethoven and Bartok. But it is actually difficult for me to answer. I’m still spending a lot of time learning the main repertoire for Classical Music, and I’m also very interested in the music of Latin America (which is really a huge amount of music), the Caribbean, and Central and North Americas. Ask me in 10 years and I will probably have a different answer.

When you’re not practicing and playing, what do you get up to?

Outside of the guitar, I do spend a lot of time composing, arranging and organizing everything related to my career. But, most of my free time is dedicated to meet and have fun with friends. I come from a very special place on the planet: in the Caribbean you better take time to meet with friends and enjoy mother nature; either in the river, in the beach, or in your house. The weather and the lifestyle is the perfect excuse to make a ‘get together’ at anytime of the day.

What can we expect from Hermelindo Ruiz in the near future?
Many things to come. I will keep traveling and playing concerts. I have had a decent online presence since the publication of my first book in 2008. But I have been very slow in sharing videos. I will be adding recordings of new and different repertoire, especially from Puerto Rico and my own compositions. Because it is a very personal repertoire, I was saving it just for my concerts. But I have play it a lot lived recently and I think it is time to open it for everybody.

I’m having some of the most exciting times of my life and I’m sure that will keep bringing ideas for the many things to come. Million thanks, Nicole!!!

So, there we go! What an inspirational character! As, I said above make sure you head back this way early next week to check out my review of Danzas Puertorriquenas.