Headaches, Neck Tension and Guitar Playing

I’ve gone through a significant journey personally over the last two or three years in really examining why I was getting headaches, neck, shoulder and back pains – and boy, did I suffer with these things! I was doing a fateful combination of sitting and typing at a computer several hours a day, riding a bicycle, driving a car and of course practicing and playing my guitar for long periods and pretty intensely. All of that kind-of-hunched over, “forward” activity, along with what I would discover to be learned muscular habits, were all contributing to some extreme levels of tension in my back, shoulders, neck and head.

So began my journey of discovering what was going on with my body during playing (which then I could translate into other activities), getting a better understanding of my muscular habits, noticing them sooner and learning to let go of them (without judging them as “bad” or otherwise). Taking a series of Alexander Technique lessons really helped with that. ** As a consequence I’ve found that my approach to playing is a lot more relaxed generally, my sound has improved and the aches and pains have subsided.

What a pain in the neck

What a pain in the neck

That was until I was struck by a massive headache earlier this week! It totally knocked me out. And this was in spite of having had a 60 minute Thai massage the previous weekend. This is something that I like to get from time to time, around every 6 weeks or so, to help me keep ache-free, stretched and “un-knotty” (I highly recommend it for guitarists – someone not only to crack your back, but also to massage your upper and lower arms, hands and fingers. It’s delicious!)

Well, it had probably been about twice my usual length of time between massages. More importantly though I think I’d forgotten, or at least lost touch with to a degree, what is going on with my muscular habits during practice and then letting my semi-supine practice slip over the last few months (see one of my previous posts on Alexander Technique below for more info on semi-supine position). That and allowing myself to get too tired – sleep is a wonderful thing for productive practice and a healthy approach to guitar playing.

Possibly not the sole factor (there rarely is just one straw that breaks the proverbial camel’s back), but certainly a key contributing factor when looking closely at what I’ve been up to is my tackling of a new piece (Granados’ La Maja de Goya) -which is not an easy piece by any stretch of the imagination – and undoubtedly putting expectations on myself for it to sound in such-and-such a way already (after only a couple of weeks of looking at the piece). Looking back there has certainly been tension in my upper body in making my initial forays into the piece (and probably holding myself back slightly because of it, I’ll admit!). I have to take my own advice in that these things take time and patience to learn!!

Anyway, after the blinding headache I knew I had to get back into my Alexander Technique (AT) semi-supine position. And lie down on the floor I did for a good 15-20 minutes, observing where I was  “holding on”, and all the twitches, flutters and quivers as I allowed my body to give up holding on to those things again. Pure bliss!

So, the past few days during my practice I have been acutely aware of how I’m sitting with the guitar, not sitting for too long and intensely concentrating on the brand new work in one position and reminding myself to let go. I’ve also been getting back into my favourite stretches (I told you I pay the price if I don’t do them) and of course, my semi-supine to practice “letting go” and enjoying the relaxing sensation.

Motto of the story to you, dear reader, is do you really know what your body is up to when you’re playing? As well, as listening to your sound try listening in to your body and the feedback it’s giving you whilst practicing and playing. Observe and really tune in (pardon the pun) to save yourself from a world of pain!


**If you’re new to the blog, or want to recap, check out some of these past posts:

Top Three Stretches for Guitarists

Stretches for Guitarists

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Guitarist

Giving Pain In The Neck The Cold Shoulder – Guitarist’s Shoulder

Alexander Technique – My First Lesson

Alexander Technique – My Progress So Far

Alexander The Great: My Continuing Journey with Alexander Technique

Alexander Technique and Guitar: Taking It To The Next Level

The Math Behind The Beats

A fun little post for you today, folks, on rhythm :) As regular readers of the blog will know, I bang on from time to time about the importance of counting and subdividing your beats. Check these posts out for a recap:

Here’s something you can count on


Pulse – the heartbeat of music

Understanding the rhythm or rhythms of the piece of music is so important. The rhythm and even more fundamentally the basic beat or pulse of the piece of music you’re playing is the lifeblood of the music. Without the rhythm you’re essentially playing a random collection of notes!

So, yes, learning how to subdivide those main beats is really important. Why? At it’s most basic level you could say that it’s because most music is not all crotchets/ quarter notes! And not all crotchets/ quarter notes that are played on the beat or main pulses. It’s in the subdivisions that things get interesting. Learning how to decipher, count and eventually feel these subdivisions is a skill that you can, with a little direction and practice, pick up.

How to do this can sometimes be a little tricky, but I found this fun little 5 minute video on TED this week from drummer Clayton Cameron that explains it in fun and simple terms. I thought it may help some so take a look and check it out:


Happy Easter!


The LMusA Diploma Journey – Update #1

I decided at the start of this month to begin a brand new journey on the guitar – one that isn’t necessarily going to be easy or short, but one that I will learn a lot from (and have an awesome bunch of repertoire to brandish), and that’s the journey towards taking my LMusA diploma.

If you missed it, or want to recap, here’s my first post about the start of the journey: The Start of A New Journey – The LMusA Diploma.

So, in the spirit of sharing (as I’m all about on this blog), I’d give you folks an update every couple of weeks as to how I’m progressing. And so here is the first official update for you!cropped-2010_09_25_guitars_003-scaled1000.jpg

What have I been up to this past fortnight?

Well, this past fortnight has really been about getting to grips with the first couple of pages (or the first major section really) of Granados’ La Maja de Goya. As I’ve said before this is an all-time favourite piece of mine so it has been quite exciting (in a total guitar geek kind of way) to be playing this piece – kind of like meeting your guitar hero, but in a non-tangible (and non-human, obviously), musical form.

I’m currently learning from and studying the Llobet transcription (the music was originally written as a song for piano and voice) which has some interesting editorial markings. At the end of this last couple of weeks I’m finding the first two pages (which I’ve been focussing on thus far) is covered in pencil marks! Whilst an editor or transcriber may be very skilled, talented and so on, I’m of the belief that there’s absolutely nothing wrong with me adding my own thoughts, fingerings and approaches into the mix – and I’m going to town so far on this one! I’m going all out with scratching out Pizz. markings, putting things up the octave, all with a desired musical outcome in mind. The desired outcome may change, and so may my pencil stratchings, as I really get to grips with the music, but for now I’m very happy to experiment and trust my own judgment.

Well, that and that of Julian Bream’s too. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t strongly influenced by the English maestro in (a) playing the piece in the first place, and (b) his gorgeous approach to playing it. That said, there is one small elements that I’ve chosen to alter from Bream’s rendition, which is more in line with the line with the print score. This is an element that I felt on closer inspection and listening would allow greater clarity in the musical line and consistency with previous material. I’m sure there will be many more elements like this as I study the music more closely, listen to and develop my own thoughts on approach.

I’ve also started to think about what else from the syllabus repertoire list I’d like to play. A big, fat, multi-movement work is definitely on the cards and would really be expected (if it’s not already a specified requirement in the syllabus – I should check that just out of interest….). At the moment, I’m weighing up the prospect of Leo Brouwer’s El Decameron Negro (a three movement suite of around 15-17 minute I think) and Federico Mompou’s luscious Suite Compostelana (a six movement suite, written for Segovia in 1962, clocking in at around the 20 – 22 minute mark). I’m leaning towards the Mompou at the moment as it’s really quite beautiful. Very melodic, with an impressionistic kind of quality to it.

What’s on for the next fortnight?

Well, we’ve got the Easter public holidays coming up and ANZAC Day public holiday on 24th April, so lots of available practice time! Yay! If I can, I like to try and fit in a couple of focused one hour sessions on these days. And when I say focused I mean focused. Going into the practice session knowing exactly what it is I want to work on and doing just that. No phone. No computer. A “Do not disturb” sign hung on the door (not really, but people know that I’ve gone into my music room to work). No other distractions.

In my practice I’ll be consolidating my work on the opening section of La Maja de Goya and venturing further into the piece, gettings notes under the fingers, making any fundamental editorial changes and exploring fingerings.

I’ll also be checking out further some of the other listed repertoire pieces, listening to various recordings of pieces, whittling down my favourites and pieces that will make a good combination in the recital and checking out some more scores.

Performing In Front of Others & Overcoming Stage Fright – Part Two

The promise of performing in front of others is a promise of experiencing that butterflies in the tummy feeling. That nervous tension, a nervous energy, a teetering on the edge, sometimes almost regardless of the size of audience, the nature of the audience, the size of the space.
And I think this is a good thing. It demonstrates that you care about what you’re about to do and share with others. You care enough that you want to show yourself in the best light, you care enough that you want to do justice to the wonderful music you’re playing, you care enough thaGo With The Flowt you want your audience to enjoy themselves.
There is a fine line though to this degree of caring. Yes, a dedication to our craft is good, but not to the point where our “fight or flight” response completely takes over, demonising our mind and body and incapacitating us!
As I highlighted earlier in the week, a few of us from the CGSV Guitar Orchestra were sharing our thoughts about this subject following a successful performance. We were all of a similar mind in approach and in our experiences in dealing with stage fright, or performance anxiety or whatever you choose to call it. So I thought I’d summarise and share.
From my own point of view, leading up into the concert I was in no way concerned, or nervous. Really thoroughly prepared, could probably play a lot of the music without thinking about it. Until I got to about an hour or so from the performance and I noticed the heart rate picking up a little, a little light perspiration on the nose (yeah, I get that on the nose and not on the brow like most people!), that slight wobbly tummy feeling. Others in the group were also feeling this too.
Which is silly when thinking about it logically – what’s the worst that could happen to us in a church in Toorak playing Bach and Telemann for an audience of about 50 Bach-loving people with an average age of about 60? Let’s say our lives were really not in any imminent danger.
So in dealing with my own nerves, I gently reminded myself of this fact. I also reminded myself that I had done HEAPS of preparation and I could play the music quite beautifully in fact and to just trust myself, let go, play and enjoy the moment. I also told myself to just focus on playing with a beautiful tone and making beautiful shapes with the music.
And that calmed things down for me A LOT. The nervous energy was still there a little to a small degree, but I like a little bit of that – it heightens the senses, helps me get lost in the moment and focus on making a beautiful sound.
Trusting myself, letting go and enjoying the moment – this is the important bit in addressing stage fright for me. And my Guitar Orchestra colleagues were also expressing that they believe in the importance of letting go (even if it feels like going out on a ledge a little!), and have found themselves in other situations where they let the well-trained, almost subconscious process take over and quiet down the analytic part of the mind (which in these situations can just interfere with its incessant questions and doubts and get in the way!).
Trusting yourself and letting go can also be the bit most difficult to quantify and explain how to do also! I think it’s one of those things, however, that you just need to have a go at.
Commit to giving it a go in your next performance, accepting that it may not feel too different from normal (or previous situation normal), but is the first step, a leap of faith if you will, in a journey towards addressing your stage fright and performing at your best. And with most things the more you do it, the easier and the more embedded those neural pathways become.
Try these things for your next performance:
(i) Remind yourself of your environment and the situation- you’re playing music not completing life-altering brain surgery, you’re playing music for an audience of music lovers (most probably), you’re playing music for an audience of music lovers who are “on your side”. What’s the worst thing that could happen? Are you in danger? (If the answer to that is yes, you may want to look at the types of places you’re playing!)
(ii) Keep your breathing deep. When we get a little stressed our breathing becomes shallow which limits the oxygen flowing around the body and can cause undue tension in the neck and shoulder.  Breathe deeply and slowly. This keeps the oxygen flowing round your body and brain and helps to relax you.
(iii) Eat something small an hour so prior to the performance for energy – a light fuel stop will help keep your energy levels up.
(iv) Focus on your tone, phrasing and shaping perhaps (or some other larger focal point) rather than individual notes. This will start the process of helping you to trust that you really do know what you’re doing.
(v) Anticipate that you’re going to enjoy your performance! If you’re not sure, a bit of “fake it till you make it” can actually work and – hey presto! – you may just find that you are actually enjoying yourself!

Performing In Front of Others & Overcoming Stage Fright – Part One

I was having a chat yesterday afternoon, following a very successful performance at the joint Classical Guitar Society of Victoria (CGSV) and Austalian Bach Society Bach Guitar Festival, with some colleagues from the Classical Guitar Society of Victoria Guitar Orchestra about performance and stage fright.

More on that conversation and some of our collective thoughts and experiences on performing in front others later in the week. Today, and to ease you gently into the week, I thought I’d share with you an informative and rather funny wee video I found on TED (a non-profit organisation devoted to sharing knowledge, thoughts, experiences and ideas in technology, entertainment and design) this week.

This particular clip is from November 2013 and features a chap who took up writing and singing folk tunes and soon discovered he was petrified of performing for others. He had a rather interesting way of overcoming his stage fright, which, in a direct sense, may not so readily translate to the classical guitar, but as an idea may help. Have a listen to what he has to say though as the concept and the approach is something I think many of us can learn from, myself included.


The Start of a New Journey – The LMusA Diploma

So, I decided very recently to start preparations to take the AMEB LMusA (licentiate diploma) exam* – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Licentiate_in_Music,_Australia . And when I say start preparations I mean pouring over the syllabus and checking out which pieces I’d like to start getting under the fingers, working on and working up. This is literally the start of a new journey and a new journey I’d like to share with you, dear reader.

Why the LMusA Diploma Exam? What’s my motivation?

We all have different motivations for wanting to take exams/ qualifications (or otherwise!). For me personally the motivation is twofold. Firstly I really enjoy the journey in preparing for something like this (a big event, a big concert, an exam). Secondly I do enjoy setting myself goals and timeframes – structure, if you will – in sharpening the mind and helping to push me onwards. And OK, I’ll admit there is a third motivation here – it is quite cool (I think) to get another qualification under my belt and another set of letters after my name.

It is mostly about the journey though, and how I learn and develop along the way – as a guitarist, musician and human being (I don’t mean to sound all “far out”, but you really do learn a lot about yourself on this kind of journey). And I think whenever you take an exam, or commit to something of a similar nature, the journey has to feature largely in your motivation or at least be significant for you in some way – think about how long an exam may be (anywhere between 20 minutes and an hour tops) and how long you’re preparing for it. You’ve got to make the most of that journey!

So, I’m in no hurry to take the examination (plus I’ve got to sit the theory component of it too before the practical, recital type exam). Realistically I’ll probably not look to take the exam earlier than the next 18-24 months. That sounds like a long time to some I’d probably guess, but I’m more than happy to allow myself the time to really get to know the pieces, technically and musically. To let the pieces take on a life of their own.

I’m more than happy to give myself time, once I’ve got to know a few pieces reasonably well, to pick out which are my favourite or have the greatest connection with, winnow out those which I’m less connected with. Then allow that final selection of pieces to seep into my very being so they’re indelibly etched into my musical memory, my aural memory, my visual memory, my kinesthetic memory, my finger and hand muscle memory. I’ll play them to various people, various audiences at various stages of development, so playing them for living, breathing, warm to the touch audiences is a standard occurrence.

The first piece I’ve selected to work on (and I officially started working on it on Sunday) is La Maja de Goya by Enrique Granados. An absolute favourite of mine and a classic piece in the classical guitar repertoire. If you’re not familiar with it head over to YouTube and check out Julian Bream playing it – it’s just beautiful!

Over the next few weeks and months, I’d love to share this journey with you – my ups, my downs, my thoughts, quandaries, decisions, concerts, approaches to learning, practice, how pieces are developing and so on. I may even share with you snippets (or more) of pieces as they develop. And hopefully it helps some of you, dear readers, which is always my key aim.


* Which reminds me, it’s high time I complete the series of posts I started late last year on preparing for an exam. Watch this space!

Expanding Your Guitarist Horizons – Marcin Dylla

It’s been a little while since I’ve posted up an “Expanding Your Guitarist Horizons” post, so I thought it was high time for such a post, particularly given that I’ve had one guitarist on pretty high rotation in recent weeks – a Polish guitarist by the name of Marcin Dylla.

To say that Dylla has a technical command of the instrument with an exquisite musical sense, is a bit like saying Bream was kind of alright at a bit of expression here and there. Dylla is, for sure, one of the finest classical guitarists gracing stage and studio today.

To prove that I’m not talking rubbish, here’s one of my favourite clips of the moment – Dylla playing the technical tour de force that  is Giuliani’s Rossiniana No. 1:


Marcin Dylla was born in Chorzow in 1976. He received his first guitar lessons at the Ruda Slaska Music Conservatory in his native Poland. From 1995 to 2000 he studied at the Music Academy of Katowice with Adi Wanda Palacz. He then completed his studies with Oscar Ghiglia, Sonja Prunnbauer and Carlo Marchione at the Music Academies of Basel, Freiburg and Maastricht, respectively. He is currently a Professor at the Music Academy in Kraków and Katowice.

Dylla won 1st prize in the 2007 Guitar Foundation of America International Competition, arguably the world’s most prestigious guitar competition. Which, of course, was followed by his recording on the Naxos label as part of it’s GFA winners series. This recording (which is a favourite of mine) featured Joaquin Rodrigo’s Junto al Generalife,  Alexandre Tansman’s Variations on a Theme of Scriabin, Nicholas Maw’s Music of Memory (which is frankly nuts as a piece!), and Manuel Ponce’s Sonata Romantica.

Here’s Dylla playing an absolutely beautiful rendition of Rodrigo’s Junto al Generalife:

And here’s the first movement from the Ponce’s Sonata Romantica at the 2012 Classical Guitar Retreat in Scotland:

I’ve also managed to find a pretty cool interview with Dylla from 2013 too – some great insights into the concert performer’s world, Dylla’s background, his thoughts on performance and approach to the guitar and thinking for yourself. He’s a pretty smart guy and well worth a watch: