My “Real Life” Benefits of Playing Classical Guitar

For those of you who read the blog regularly and follow me on Facebook will know that in the last year or so I’ve been travelling a heck of a lot with my work. That has its ups and downs, but mostly ups because it’s pretty cool work (environmental management and development of sustainable infrastructure in a nutshell), I get to work with some great people and see some nice parts of the world (including 4 Australian states and both islands of New Zealand in the last month alone!). **

On my recent travels over to New Zealand to deliver some training on sustainability I had time to mull over the fact that my experiences in learning classical guitar, playing classical guitar and teaching it really do cross over into other areas of my life, particularly my work life.

Now, don’t get me wrong, the intrinsic value in learning and playing the classical guitar (or any other instrument for that matter) is highly valuable in and of itself. And the title of this blog post is a little bit misleading – music making is definitely a part of “real life”. There’s no denying that from me for sure! But it’s great that there are also added benefits, if you like, that the process of music making can teach or show you and can really help you in perhaps your working life.

During my mulling (which is helped by some quiet down time on various aircraft!), I came to realise that there are some key aspects of the musical journey that have crossed over and definitely shaped (and continue to shape) the way I work. I thought it was an interesting reflection so thought I’d share with you today.

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Here are my top 5 observations of cross over benefits in my journey:

1.There is no substitute for consistent, persistent hard work, or rather smart work – the application of ones energy in the right direction at the right things. Along with the appreciation that new skills take time to master, but can be mastered with the right mindset.

2. Presentation and stage presence – deliver what ever it might be that you’re playing or presenting from the heart, knowing that you’ve put solid work into (you definitely have to number 1 above). Then hold yourself with poise and confidence in its delivery and your audience will be listening.

3. When working with others on new approaches or concepts, show them the ropes but let them hit upon realisations for themselves and find out the best way to do something for themselves (but provide positive guidance along the way).

4. Working with others produces results that just wouldn’t happen playing solo.

5. When working/ playing with others go in with ideas on the outcomes you want, but also be prepared to listen to differing thoughts. The outcomes, musical, work or otherwise, may produce interesting results.

I might come up with some more of these, folks, as I muse on it a little further!

** As a little side note, as a result of my hectic schedule you may notice that I’m not posting with as great a frequency as in the past. Rest assured that I am continuing on with the blog, but for the sake of my sanity and writing posts that are actually useful for you, dear readers, the less regularity thing will continue to be the case for the time being. I’m sure you understand :)

Johannes Möller Back in Melbourne This Week!

Hi folks, just a short yet very sweet post for you today – Johannes Möller is back in concert in Melbourne, courtesy of the Melbourne Guitar Foundation, this coming Thursday. Be sure to catch him, as I promise that you’ll be in for a guitaristic treat of the highest order.

Head along to the Melbourne Guitar Foundation website to nab your tickets: http://www.melbourneguitarfoundation.com/events

And if you needed convincing here’s a clip of Johannes playing one of his spell-binding compositions A Star in the Sky, A Universe Within… at his Melbourne Guitar Foundation concert last year. There are a number of other great clips on the Melbourne Guitar Foundation YouTube page thatI highly recommend you check out.

Technique Tips For Avoiding Injury Whilst Playing Classical Guitar

Following on from my recent top tips for avoiding injury as a classical guitarist, which were based around things to do before and after practicing, I thought I’d some more technique-based tips into the mix.

Now, those who’ve been reading the blog for a while will know that a number of years ago I was struggling with a injury myself – pins and needle sensations in the left wrist and lower hand, tight and sore thumb muscle, sore, tense and quite painful neck and shoulder muscles, sore upper back and tension headaches. Not something I want to repeat!

And there was a decent amount of work in remediating my technique, my posture and so on to alleviate the causes of the issues. But alleviate the issues I did, as well as remediating my technique and going great guns for the last 5 or so years without so much as a twinge.

Having gone through what I did, it’s something that I think about a lot in my approach to practice and what I’m doing pretty much every single time I’m with the guitar. And I also reflect on what I’m doing and what I continue to learn about my body whilst playing.

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So here are my top technique tips, in no particular order, for avoiding injury whilst playing classical guitar!

1. Take your time

This one has many, many benefits – as well as allowing you to get to know and understand the music, ensuring that you’re learning the music and right and left hand finger placements correctly, slow and deliberate practice (especially in the early days of learning a new piece) will really help to avoid build up of tension in both left and right hands and minimise risk of strain and overuse injury.

So slow and steady does it for sustainable playing!

2. Don’t try to do everything at once

Case in point are seemingly tough, four, five, or six notes chords, with your fingers spread all over the finger board. And then leaping to another similar one with fingers in different places. Firstly, take your hand off the fingerboard! Stop – resist the urge to strain too hard and get it, like, right now. Look at how you can break it down. Look at which fingers go where and when they can be moved. And build it up over successive practice sessions. It’s not a race. Take the time to learn it slowly. It’ll “stick” better too, and without undue tension and strain and pain. Oh, and this goes well with the previous one ;)

3. Ensure that your left hand* and arm are in a nice straight line

You need to make sure that 99% of the time whilst playing your left hand and forearm are more or less in a straight line. This needs to be the case regardless of which fret position you’re playing in. To keep everything nice and straight, with that wrist and all the bones, cartilage, nerves, blood vessels, muscles and goodness know what else runs through that little space, you will need to move your arm from the shoulder. Imagine you’re a one-winged chicken, flapping your left wing – go on stick your left hand in your arm pit (arm and hand in a straight line thought) and pretend like you’re a chicken now. Now flap! OK, that’s enough of that…. Hah hah! Ok, so just move your hand out of your armpit and pretend you’re moving your hand up and down the neck of the guitar in that chicken flapping kind of manner. Your lower arm and hand should be in a nice straight line, not doing anything really, and all the movement coming from the shoulder

4. The one killer tip….

With all the above tips in mind, there is one thing that you can do to really improve your chances of either recovering and re-establishing your technique or minimising your chances of developing an over use injury. What is that? That is seek the advice of a good teacher.

Seriously, having a set of eyes (or even more than one set of eyes) that are not your own, that quite possibly even been there before to some extent, that know what to look for and how to correct or change your positioning and technique and work with you over time is the best thing you could do for your physical health as far as playing guitar goes. I know I bang on about this on the blog a bit (for those of you who are long time readers!), but its really important! It really worked for me and I dread to think where I would be had I need sought out some good, solid advice. The worst case scenario is that I wouldn’t be playing today, or would have succumbed to the idea of needing surgery. I shiver at the thought of both!!

So please folks, if you’re not currently with a teacher and are experiencing consistent, persistent pains associated with playing, firstly stop right there! And then seek out a good teacher in your area. Or if you’re already with a teacher then seek some advice from another experienced teacher, one that you can find who is clued up in particular about injury and/ or technique remediation. It’ll be the best thing you ever did I promise you.

* By left hand I mean your fretting hand. For left-handed guitarists, this will be your right hand.

Album Review: Homenaje by R.C. Kohl

It’s been a few months since my last review of a recording and I have a cracking little one you today, folks – a disc called Homenaje by guitarist-composer R.C. Kohl.

This latest recording from R.C. Kohl is a collection of 20 compositions and arrangements by the relatively little-known Mexican guitarist Octaviano Yañez (1865 – 1927?), who hailed from the city of Orizaba in the State of Veracruz, Mexico. According to the liner notes Yañez was one of the very first ever guitarists to be recorded, apparently having done so for Edison and Victor recording companies during the turn of the 20th century.

And it certainly sounds as if he could write a half-decent tune, and some possibly with potential didactic intentions. The disc kicks off with a really nice couple of study-like preludes (Preludio en mi menor and Preludio en la menor). They’re lovely short little pieces that whet your appetite for Yañez’s musical style, I was quite disappointed that the first prelude was so short in fact (clocking in at only 45 seconds!).  Things develop out from there on with some equally lovely, quite delicate and really charming pieces. Último Amor was a particular favourite of mine, with a feel slightly reminiscent of Tarrega, perhaps Sor.

I found the second half of the disc most interesting, with the penultimate track El Encanto de un Vals, a Yañez arrangement of a piece by Viennese composer Oscar Strauss (born just five years later than Yañez). Again a really lovely little piece that, like most of this recording, certainly would not be out of place at a house or salon concert. And in terms of R.C. Kohl’s playing this piece is my favourite – a gorgeous rounded tone, with some nice coloured touches, and a delicately sensitive rubato.

Simply a lovely guitar recording, played with an understated musicality, fine tonal quality and a real appreciation of the composer and his style. Definitely recommended.

For those of you who may not be aware of R.C. Kohl, he is a classical guitarist and composer and is a professor on the Music Faculty of the the Universidad Veracruzana in Mexico. Kohl studied initially at the University of California at Santa Cruz, followed then by the University of Hawaii at Manoa, before moving to the Universidad Veracruzana, in Xalapa, Veracruz, Mexico. He has been awarded scholarships and grants in music performance and research from Mexico’s Secretaría de Educación Pública, the East-West Center of Honolulu (EWC) and the Instituto Veracruzano de Cultura (IVEC) (a grant from which enabled this latest recording). He’s also been a member of many prestigious research institutes and universities. Not too shabby!

You can download your own copy of Homenaje (and R.C. Kohl’s other works) over at CD Baby and iTunes.

Click on the hyperlink text to take you right through or copy and paste the following URLs into your browser:

http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/rckohl6

https://itunes.apple.com/us/album/homenaje/id984141625

Ooh and yes, before I forget, you can check out my 2012 review of some earlier R.C. Kohl recordings HERE.

My Top Tips For Avoiding Injury As A Guitarist

It’s always important to make sure that as guitarists we’re looking after our bodies in the right way whatever age we may be. Why? Well, thats kind of a no-brainer – to make sure we’re not storing up problems for ourselves, to nip any issues in the bud as they arise (or prevent them entirely) and to ensure that we have plenty of happy, healthy and pain-free years of playing ahead of us.

So here are some of my top tips (directly from my own experience) in no particular order for ensuring I stay injury-free and can really physically enjoy my playing. Head back this way next week for another set of tips on this subject.

1. Look after yourself

It may sound a little indulgent (or I used to think it did until I realised its importance), but getting a regular massage is a particular tool in my injury prevention armoury that I don’t think I could do without. It releases tight, tense muscles and is extremely relaxing the right hands (not all massages or persons delivering them are made equal!).

I just came back from a massage this afternoon, focussing on head, neck, shoulders, arms and hands. I feel all relaxed and loosened and ready to crack into a decent practice session. And I can tell you a massage on hands that have been working hard on the classical guitar is so deliciously divine!

2. Invest in a foam roller

After most of my practice sessions, I’ll whip out my foam roller, pop it on the floor, lie on it and roll my upper back up and down a few times, nice and slowly. I do this until I have most of the good “cracks” out. This just loosens up any tight spots that may have crept in during practice.

3. Stretch

I don’t stretch prior to practicing (but I do ease into it – no Chaconne straight off the bat!), but I do tend to have a little stretch afterwards. Given that I’ve just been sitting with my arms and chest moving in a forward direction I like to clasp my hands together behind my back to open up the front of my shoulders and chest. I also like to stretch out my sternocleidomatstoid muscle (the big muscle band that runs from the base of your skull behind your ear to your collarbone. To do this I rotate my head to one side and then tip it forward slightly as if were going to sniff my armpit. I hold this for around 10 seconds and then make the stretch a little more by just putting my hand on the crown of my head and applying a little pressure. I then repeat on the other side.

Neck Stretch

4. Keep reasonably fit

I’m not talking about marathon fit or anything silly like that! I am talking about taking some form of exercise and moving yourself around most days a week. Using the muscles and keeping them fit, strong and ready for action is one of the best ways (in my opinion) to keep injury-free. I take the dog walking most days, and two or three days a week I’ll do a class like boxing or dancing or something similarly fun, or head into the gym.

5. Notice when something doesn’t feel right and stop

It’s been a very long time I’ve had anything niggling or painful come at me whilst playing, but I can tell you hands down the best way to prevent that initial twinge from developing into something more serious (and taking sometime to sort out) is to stop what you’re doing that’s causing the pain. Annoying yes, that you have to stop but your body will thank you for it in the long run. Then go and seek the advice of a good teacher about your technique. And I also highly recommend to anyone that will listen the benefits of Alexander Technique – it really did save me!

Johannes Möller is Coming Back Down Under Next Month!

Fresh off the back off an extremely successful concert by the wonderful Canberran guitarist Minh Le Hoang (which I unfortunately wasn’t able to attend in the end, due to an unfortunate set of circumstances), the Melbourne Guitar Foundation have another fantastic concert lined up for Melburnian guitar aficionados.

If you’re looking for something to do in the evening of June 11th I highly recommend you head along to St Mary’s Church, 430 Queensbury Street, North Melbourne to check out none other than Johannes Möller.

Johannes, winner of the 2010 GFA guitar competition, is returning Down Under to play a full recital with a short support act featuring two of Melbourne Conservatorium of Music’s tertiary guitar students, Julia Bakowski and Yunjia Liu.

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Head over the MGF website for more details and to get your guitar calloused mitts on your tickets:

Tickets will move fast, so you’d better do likewise if you want to check it out. I sincerely hope he plays some of his mind-blowing original works. Just stunning. Here he his playing the exquisite Song For The Mother

And head HERE to read my interview with him.

8 Things Top Practicers Do Differently

I read a great article recently that really supports some of my own thinking and experience in practice and playing and what really gets you bang for your practice buck. Or in other words what actually works and what doesn’t. The article references a study undertaken a few years ago at the University of Texas at Austin looking at pianists. Different instrument admittedly, but the same principles most definitely apply.

One of the most important of these 8 things that apparently top practicers do differently that I find works extremely well for m (and used to recommend highly to my students), is not practicing in mistakes. Play something through very slowly, be confident of where you’re placing your left hand and right hand fingers before playing. Even if it means you’re playing reeeeaaaaaaaaallllly sllllllooooooooooooooowwwwwly. Much better this way, that encourages the correct learning of a phrase or piece, with the correct physiology, building the correct habit, than literally practicing in a incorrect movement and then doing the work all over again to unpick it and learn it correctly.

Yes, it may not sound so fluid initially, but stopping and just taking the time to make sense of what you’re doing and how you’re doing it will pay musical dividends in the long run. I promise you.

It also has a couple of interesting concepts that I had been thinking about too recently, including does aiming to play with ‘feeling’ right away assist in the learning? My instinct in has been yes for some time, and there seems to be something to it according to this study referenced by the article. My figuring is that you’re not only using your practice to build in a physiological habit, but also a musical one, and getting to know the music itself not just the fingering. That can only strengthen ones learning of a piece in my opinion.

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So here are the 8 things that top practicers do differently:

1. Playing was hands-together early in practice (OK this is quite a piano-based one, but in applying this to the guitar think knowing what fingering you’re using for both left and right hands, not just your fingerboard hand)

2. Practice was with inflection early on; the initial conceptualization of the music was with inflection. (See!!)

3. Practice was thoughtful, as evidenced by silent pauses while looking at the music, singing/humming, making notes on the page, or expressing verbal “ah-ha”s. (i.e. don’t just go through the motions – 10 minutes of thoughtful, focussed practice is worth way more than 30 minutes of just going through motions)

4. Errors were preempted by stopping in anticipation of mistakes. (Stop playing those mistakes in every time!)

5. Errors were addressed immediately when they appeared. (And again stop playing those mistakes in every time!)

6. The precise location and source of each error was identified accurately, rehearsed, and corrected. (Shall I say it one more time?!)

7. Tempo of individual performance trials was varied systematically; logically understandable changes in tempo occurred between trials (e.g. slowed things down to get tricky sections correct).

8. Target passages were repeated until the error was corrected and the passage was stabilized, as evidenced by the error’s absence in subsequent trials.

To read the whole article, and I strongly encourage you to do so particularly for the top three practice strategies and one strategy to rule them all, head along to:  http://www.creativitypost.com/psychology/8_things_top_practicers_do_differently