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Queen Guitar Rhapsodies

Overwhelmed by the Demands Of Modern Living, There Is Little Time Left Over For Guitar Playing

This is all wrong, according to author Brigid Schulte, who says we should just concentrate on what we really want to do – music

Overwhelmed, the best-selling book, is about the time pressures of modern life and facing reality. You can’t do everything you would like to do, plus all the things you think you should do, plus keep up with friends and family, plus go to work, plus keep a spotless home. Therefore, you have to put some things aside or send some people politely on their way. Then calmly go back to what you really want. Naturally that means for some, more guitar playing.

This approach goes rather against the increasing trend over the past 20 years where, by clever time-management, we believed we could do absolutely everything and still be fresh as a daisy by the end of it. But what has become evident is that stress and anxiety levels come with the package of cramming everything in; it means military-style time keeping and planning a social diary months ahead. Personally there are few things I find more irritating than agreeing to a dinner date two months ahead or booking concert tickets three months ahead, or even arranging a holiday six months ahead. I love that delicious sense of liberation which comes from not knowing what you are going to be doing, and by that I mean in sixty minutes’ time! My idea of being really relaxed is a completely unplanned and totally spontaneous day.

I think I may have slightly strayed off the point (or maybe not). The point is, according to author Brigid Schulte, that it is now time to take your life back and concentrate on what you really want to do first and foremost, and everything else should take second place. The realization, for her, is inescapable: you can’t do everything. Jolly right too.

I have an idea about how that could affect guitar playing. I am the first one to bang on about becoming a Virtuous Guitarist which means having a go at many aspects of music and guitar playing. Now I am not about to contradict anything I have written, but, you could turn round and say to me “actually, I don’t have time to do all you suggest however interesting it may be. I am only going to do what I really want to do as a guitar player.” This may be a way forward too, which brings me back to my idea of completely off the cuff decisions. Just jump, like a musical grass-hopper, from one idea to the next. Plan nothing, Follow your instinct. Enjoy every moment doing what you want rather than what you think should be doing. You know, it might just work. And since you have dropped a few time-consuming activities rather than be overwhelmed, you will have acres of time too to do some “proper” practice, whatever that is. Or maybe you won’t need to. Liberated from the strictures of time management your new relaxed self just will go with the flow. Joyful playing, unplanned and spontaneous, might lead to more improvement than the most careful five year plan.

This has been my rough guide to being less overwhelmed and more spontaneous.

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Four Basic Rules of Right Hand Technique Which We Can All Agree (Maybe)

Since the beginning of time (guitar players’ time, that is!) right hand technique has changed, developed and evolved, sometimes with very different versions active simultaneously in the same period. And so is the case today: to apoyando or not to apoyando, to raise the wrist or lower the wrist? You get the picture. Clearly there are things which cross over from one version to another. More than that, there are more characteristics in common than not. So here is a summary to be getting on with which may help put things in perspective, especially if you are undecided.

Well, is it? Tension is not good, and can lead to very serious trouble. Here is a rough rule of thumb (pardon the pun). The position should feel natural, and be in accordance with relaxed principles of movement. If you have any doubt as to what these are, find out.

….OK, so now you are relaxed.

Good tone
Are you making a good sound? Do those whose judgment you trust also think you are making a good sound? As you play you are sitting behind the guitar, not a good vantage point for hearing yourself. Furthermore, you are constantly juggling with all the other elements of playing: tone is just one and may be overlooked. Importantly, can you make a good tone even when you play loudly? When I say good tone, I mean as good a tone as you dream of, nothing less.

….OK, you are now happy with your tone and you are relaxed.

Speed is the measure of accuracy and of your chosen technique. It really is the final frontier! Very slight modifications to your chosen technique will produce significant improvements to your accuracy at speed. Both single note passages (scales) and arpeggios should be measured for speed and accuracy.

Just one more thing…

Your chosen technique should be put through its paces in chords. How easily and how well can you voice the chord? In other words, can you bring out the top, the middle and the bass as you wish? A word of caution - it may be nothing to do with your chosen technique, but more to do with the way you use it. In my experience as a teacher it is often the weak link in even really good players.

Technique is an ever-evolving element of your development as a player. It is not cast in stone. As your playing matures, as your musical judgments become more refined, then so too does your technique change and adapt to new requirements.

This has been my rough guide to the basic rules of right hand technique.

24th April 2014, Mexico
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Ten Simple Rules for Memorizing Without Losing a Beat

1 Repeat passages slowly, until memorized, or nearly memorized.

2 Repeat the next day and the day after, and so on, without missing a day.

3 Associate the fingering patterns with the melody and harmony, not just with frets and strings.

4 Understand the shape, construction and harmonic sequences within your ability and knowledge.

5 Look at the music without playing, put it down, and play it back in your mind imagining the fingering patterns.

6 Look at the music without playing, put it down, and play it back in your mind imagining the musical notation.

7 Play from memory and if hesitant continue to play by ear rather than check the music.

8 Play from memory very slowly visualizing the next fingering pattern before reaching it.

9 Play from memory and visualize the written musical notation as you play the notes.

10 Play from memory and visualize the fingering pattern and written musical notation simultaneously as you play the notes.

This has been my rough guide to ten simple rules for memorizing without losing a beat.

3rd May, 2014, London

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The Virtuous Guitarist Beckons Just Round The Corner

But the hermit player is shy and nervous of making a move

Let us suppose for a moment that we lived in a world where guitarists could not turn their hands to a range of musical achievements. Some spring to mind straight away. I am going to rattle through them, describe them briefly, and see what they add up to. I think that by the end we will roll out the carpet and welcome back the Virtuous Guitarist – yes, he who has it all. For those unfamiliar with this recurring figure, hold on to your hats and enjoy the ride. Through the coming rough and tumble remember my only desire is to encourage and foment creativity, but if I have to mock, poke fun, and cajole, I will.

Let’s get started and dispense firstly with a quality that most will reluctantly agree is generally unattainable: virtuosity. Paganini was one such who by virtue of it was believed to be in league with the devil. People would follow him in the street and touch him to make sure he was made of flesh and blood. Clearly here is one attribute which is beyond the reach of all but that tiny minority in contact with a demon, benign or otherwise. Virtuosity of that dimension is one we can cross off the list as one that most players cannot turn their hands to.

Let me come down a peg or two. If virtuosity is beyond most guitar players maybe there is one quality which requires little or no virtuosity: improvisation. Here we touch the very depths of our inner creativity. A flight of fancy delivered off the cuff with aplomb is as wonderful for the players as the listener. Even an idle doodle can become quite absorbing and creative. No? I see you nod slowly. Alas, you say, improvisation is an activity many guitarists, especially classical guitarists, cannot turn their hands too.

A player with average technique can be a great sight-reader, simply because so much of that skill is based on faking it
Let’s leave aside virtuosity and improvisation, and turn 180 degrees. Sight-reading makes no special demand of virtuosity, and certainly calls not on improvising. Good sight-readers leave out notes buried menacingly in the labyrinth of a five string chord, fending them off as they rush ever closer, and do so without skipping a beat. Good sight-readers can view a page covered in a mass of dots as dense as the black footsteps of an ant colony going about its business, and having deciphered a harmonic pattern at sight immediately translate it into an impressive cascade of arpeggios. No? I see you nod slowly. Alas, you say, sight-reading is an activity many guitarists, especially classical guitarists, cannot turn their hands too.

Let us take stock: neither improvisation nor virtuosity nor sight-reading is within many guitar players’ grasp. How about composing then? Now I am being unfair. Surely I cannot expect guitar players to be composers too? Well not necessarily good composers, but hack composers maybe: to write pastiche, even parody, is entertaining, instructive and well-rewarded in the music market place. Why, if every composer had to be a true original, we would have to write off 90% of them. No? I see you nod slowly. Alas, you say, composing of any kind is an activity many guitarists, especially classical guitarists, cannot turn their hands too.

OK, in that case how about playing pieces musically? That is more like it, at last a reasonable demand from high and mighty yours truly. Just a reminder of what musically means: with expression appropriate to the style and period, played rhythmically and fluently, with lashings of personality. A player comfortably at ease with these qualities transmits and communicates something to a captive audience. Even a simple unassuming piece can be transformed into a work of wonder in this way. No? I see you nod slowly. Alas, you say, playing of this order is an activity many guitarists, especially classical guitarists, cannot turn their hands too.

Let us draw up our list at the sad end of this exposition of the non-attributes of our classical guitarist friend: neither virtuosity nor sight-reading nor composing nor musical playing nor communicability is within his remit. So what is? A fumbling, hesitant, shy, I-get-so-nervous-playing-to-other-people player trying to embrace a big musical world barely of his comprehension hiding in his practice room dreaming of a more confident and accomplished future – this may strike a chord or two (pardon the pun) with someone you know. Playing the guitars brings out the hermit in him, for it is his refuge, his solitary refuge for him/her with the guitar. Mind you I do not criticize having a refuge. A refuge brings great peace to all of us. But this musical refuge does not have to be so….small, unassuming, dare I say it, dull.

Take courage, it need not be like this! There is another way. The path of the virtuous guitarist is paved with flowers and glitters with the rewards of all that at present is beyond reach. The virtuous guitarist builds his abilities like a spider spins his web, round and round, until his musical skills are trapped in the “dark tarantula of the sound hole” (Federico Garcia Lorca’s phrase, not mine!). All one needs do, is make a start.

18th April, 2014, Mexico

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Eight Key Points To Remember When Choosing A New Guitar Wisely

Pass a guitar around a room of players and ask them to describe it. The chances are that you will receive descriptions including:
“Bright sound….mellow tone….high action….lovely basses….even sound….easy to play”
“Not loud enough….basses too loud….not even….thin tone on the top….action too low: will improve with a higher action….hard to play”

You get the picture.

One person’s “bright” sound is another one’s “mellow”. One person’s “lovely basses” becomes another one’s “too strong”. Some of these differences of opinion can be explained by players having a different touch, especially attitudes to “high” or “low” action. It also explains why some may describe the same guitar as “easy” or “hard” to play. Both of these features are both immediately compared by the player to his or her own instrument and judgment is pronounced forthwith. Fair enough, you might say. But is it? The guitar is certainly different, and for this reason may require some more dispassionate examination which can lead to other surprising conclusions.

Just as serious is this: how can it be that a roomful of experienced players cannot even agree how to describe the sound it makes? This, taken in conjunction with the other aspects of evaluation, leads to an inescapable conclusion. We take it all too personally and bring no objective measure to the proceedings. The guitar is rather like a familiar beloved object: your girl-friend, your boy-friend, your car….your mum! The more familiar you become the less you are able to step back and describe it, or her, or him.

So next time you try out a guitar, and more significantly, think of purchasing one, bear in mind some objective facts. Try some of these out for size (some of them quite literally). Below each I have written a common perception (or misconception).

1 Scale length
Is it the standard 65cm from nut to saddle, or the enhanced 66cm?

Common perception: 65cm is the ideal length, 66cm is huge and a big stretch.
Actually the difference is tiny. Proof of this is that the great majority of players in experiments I myself have conducted do not note the difference until I point it out. Besides many players are now significantly taller and bigger than their counterparts 75 years ago!

2 Action
Measure the action at the 12th fret. In other words take a metal ruler to it, and see how high the string sits above the fret. For an experienced player, anything less than 3.5mm is low, and anything above 4.2mm is high. For beginners, 3.5mm is high enough. Similarly, have a good look at the nut and see how high the strings sit above the fretboard at the first fret. You can “feel” whether it is tough by holding down a barrée there. You can also see it at a glance.

Common perception: High action avoids buzzes and creates a big sound.
Actually buzzes may be caused by a variety of causes other than low action. Raising the action may cause unnecessary difficulty in playing. Also, there may be confusion in the player’s mind between the tightness of the string response on playing it and the action. It may create a bigger sound, but at the expense of sustain and beauty of tone.

3 Balance
Check this out by playing chord sequences all over the guitar. Do it slowly and listen carefully. Find out how easy it is to “voice” the chord. In other words, can you hear all the notes in the chord? Can you bring out one note more than another with relative ease?

Common perception: Balance is about the relative strengths of bass and treble.
Actually this is part of the story since the treble strings alone should be tested for balance as I have described above.

4 Volume
This is the Achilles’ heel of all guitars. There is no such thing as a genuinely “loud” guitar, only a less quiet one. You only have to play with (or against) a string quartet and a “loud” guitar is completely swamped if the quartet pushes the pedal down and plays at its loudest. The difference between a so-called “loud” guitar and a quiet one is minimal as far as decibels are concerned. Now we’ve got that out of the way, let us see what we can really expect! Let me describe what you could be looking for in the search for a louder - OK let’s call it loud – guitar:
i/A loud guitar can produce a big impact at the instant you play the note.
ii/A loud guitar can put all the sympathetic harmonics to vibrate.

As far as the first is concerned, the decay of the note is rapid i.e. less sustain. As far as the second, there is less immediate impact but more sustain. The quandary faced by all guitar makers is how to reconcile both in one and the same instrument.

Common perception: A loud guitar is the answer to all problems regarding projection of sound.
Actually, this doesn’t take into account the different types of loudness I have described and their effect on projection, and of course, it makes little difference when pitted against those big bullies – other instruments (except the flute, lute, ocarina and clavichord, plus a few other remote brethren).

5 Sustain
If you insist, this can be measured with a stop-watch, not that I have ever done so. Spruce top guitars often have more sustain, but take some years to develop. Cedar top guitars are more explosive, but can also have excellent sustain. They sound pretty good straight away from new, and thus are more instantly attractive to the buyer.

Common perception: Sustain is really important.
Actually, I agree. However, less sustain can be compensated for by more volume, and vice versa, as I described in the paragraph above about volume.

6 Tone
Ah yes, tone. How to describe it? Well, let’s start by listening carefully to one note at a time and hearing the combination of harmonics each produce. Find the magic spot within the soundhole area where all guitars vibrate at their maximum. If you have never done this before, you are in for a treat. It really is a magic spot. On bass notes you can hear the overtones more easily, and the relative strength of their mix (low overtones, high overtones). The tone is largely determined by the mix of overtones, and how they are projected by the timbers used. On the treble a lack of overtones makes for a dull lifeless sound.

Common perception: It is very hard to describe tone. Either you like it or you don’t.
Actually, this is quite true as far as it goes, but invites more intelligent enquiry to take it a stage further.

7 Colour
Test this by playing over the sound hole, next to it, and by the bridge. See whether the response matches your expectations of the variety of colour you are looking for. Try it with single treble notes. Try it with open strings which are naked, since they have to sound good without being all dressed up by left hand vibrato.

Common perception: Tone and colour go hand in hand.
Actually, this is not so. A guitar can have a beautiful tone but little variety of colour, like a beautiful face with no expression. The opposite is true too, lots of colour but poor tone: this is unusual but does happen, especially when there is a wild maker in town.

8 Overall feel
This is important and relies on your first initial reaction, followed by a more sustained exploration. If your first reaction is that you totally hate it, then you are unlikely to grow to love it. But if your first reaction is that you quite like it, then a sustained exploration will determine why, how much, and whether you could live with it.

Common perception: You can often tell straight away. It’s like love at first sight.
Actually, we all know what can happen to love at first sight. It’s either true or a complete disaster. I hope this rough guide to choosing a guitar helps, and at the very least avoids a complete disaster!

11th April, 2014, Mexico

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Once You've Got It, Let It Flow

Photo courtesy of "The Spirit of '43 - Donald Duck"

Photo courtesy of "The Spirit of '43 - Donald Duck"

According to The Inner Game, the path to great playing is all about letting it happen by itself without trying so hard

One of the most frequent and amusing images from Walt Disney cartoons is the one where Mickey Mouse or Donald Duck or whoever flies through the air. That by itself is not funny. But what is funny is that they don't know they are flying, they think they are are running. Only when they look down and see they are a mile above the ground do they shriek with horror and fall to earth in a heap. Naturally, they arise from their fall unharmed. But then, that's the make believe world of film and fantasy. What about the real world of playing the guitar? What happens when you suddenly realise you are flying rather than running?

What does Donald Duck's crash have to do with playing a musical instrument? This is how Tim Gallwey describes it in his land-mark book The Inner Game of Tennis:
“There is always an inner game being played in your mind no matter what outer game you are playing. How you play this game usually makes the difference between success and failure.”

The inner game should be all to do with supervision, serenity and expression. The outer game is all too often about trying too hard to achieve it. This is best expressed by Tim Gallwey as:
"I found there was a lot going on in the mind of my tennis students that was preventing true focus of attention...many of my instructions were being incorporated in the student’s mind as a kind of 'command and control' self-dialogue that was significantly interfering with both learning and performance".

While Donald Duck was unawares that he was flying, all was good. It was better than good, it was great! But it all ended when he looked down and realised that he wasn't flying. Here is the crux: while he tried not, he could fly. And when he did try, he could not!

The same applies to playing an instrument. Once a technique or style or piece has been tackled with some success, that is when the danger can begin, not before. It is then that the player becomes too self-aware, and tenses up in the process. It is as if, having touched Mount Olympus, he or she were afraid of never reaching it again. Hence, the inner tension that ensues from trying too hard to find it.

The lesson from this extraordinary insight by Tim Gallwey is to let it flow unhindered by too much conscious thought. If this is a novel concept I advise you to read the book. If it is not but haven't read it yet, do so anyway.
It really is a mind-changer.

5th April, 2014, Mexico

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What Starts As A Technical Challenge Ends As A Musical Accomplishment - And Vice Versa!

Technical problems require technical solutions. True. Technical solutions are what you need to improve your playing. Partly true. With all your technical problems solved you will be a great player. Not necessarily true!

There are technical issues which have to be addressed specifically until sorted e.g. fast scales. You are entitled to be delighted if you can manage playing demi-semi-quavers (32nds) at crotchet=80. Once you have cracked that issue, then starts the real fun by trying to incorporate:

Good tone
+ other considerations relevant to the piece in question

Think of a scale passage in any piece. Is it possible to hear it sound without reference to the considerations above?

Take another technical consideration: making the right hand ring finger sound as strongly and as well as the other fingers. Once you have achieved it you can use it to highlight the tune within an arpeggio passage or in a chordal sequence. Again it matters hugely how you use it in a musical context. This could include:

Good tone
+ other considerations relevant to the piece in question

And so the list goes on. It serves to demonstrate that what starts as a technical challenge can end as a musical accomplishment.

Conversely what starts as a musical challenge can end as a technical accomplishment. For example, any of the fugues by Bach and their contrapuntal character. How to bring out clearly those interweaving lines? The answer lies in developing a technique up to that particular challenge.

You can approach study and practice from both ends: developing technique as an investment for future employment (pardon this rather commercial language!) and on the other hand, achieving a musical quality by developing an appropriate technique.

A frequent alternation between the two is guaranteed to keep you absorbed. It will engage your creative mind, your fingers, and your artistic sensibilities in continuous development.

This has been my rough guide to technique and musicality as both challenge and accomplishment.

Valencia, Spain, 29th March, 2014

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Your Chance to Create a Plucker’s Paradise – on Mars

Twin Peaks, each about 30 -35 metres high.  NASA's Mars Pathfinder exploration, 1997. Photo courtesy of NASA,JPL

Twin Peaks, each about 30 -35 metres high. NASA's Mars Pathfinder exploration, 1997. Photo courtesy of NASA,JPL

A Human Colony on the Red Planet Will Be a Reality Sooner Than You Think

"And now, in a live broadcast from Colonia Humana, the first ever guitar recital from the Mars International Concert Hall, given by Carlos Bonell." Yes, I have long cherished a secret ambition to be the first guitar player on that planet. Dismiss not my reverie as the impossible dream of a hopelessly unrealistic plucker: for I do realise now reluctantly that it will not be me, but someone else. That person, to be born soon, will be the one to make guitar history. Just imagine the sounds of Barrios' Sueño en la Floresta beamed live from Mars. There is more: some of you reading this will meet younger earthlings ready to migrate to Mars. On UK TV’s Channel 4 Live From Space programme last week Stephen Hawking predicted we will have human settlements there by the end of the century. To make it happen, President Obama has set 2040 or so as the target for a human landing on Mars.

I asked the noted astronomer and prolific writer on matters extra-terrestrial Ian Ridpath whether one day we could live there and he replied:
"At this moment scientists are already working on creating there an ambience conducive to happy human habitation. They call it terraforming". Think of the attractions of this: a perfect micro-climate in and outdoors (within the Colonia confines of course) all year round. Beyond the Colonia, the planet has spectacular tourist attractions in its mountains, valleys and volcanoes. There are various other positive features of living on Mars which I will come to, but this may be the moment to take a step back and consider the contrary arguments, just to be fair, you understand, and balanced in my appraisal.

Here are a few drawbacks to living and plucking on Mars:

- It takes at present 6 - 9 months to fly there, quite enough time to drive you round the bend.
- When you get there you have to land safely. This tricky and scary aspect has not yet been perfected.
- Oxygen content at ground level Mars is less than 1%. Carbon Dioxide accounts for most of the atmosphere. One small tear in your face mask and you kill yourself with your next breath.
- Even if that doesn't finish you off, the temperature will. At 60 - 100 degrees below zero centigrade you will be frozen into an ice man mid sentence.
- Assuming you land in one piece, and that your face mask doesn't tear, and that you don't become an instant statue, Mars is one weird place for musos. Lacking an atmosphere as we know it, there is no sound. Shout at the top of your voice and nothing can be heard even by someone standing right next to you. Play that guitar, man, and it's all in your mind and nowhere else.

I grant you these are drawbacks, but let me return to the good things about living on planet Mars. Some of the negative aspects will disappear with the creation of the first Martian metropolis. It will be a jolly agreeable place. Temperature controlled to perfection you will go around in a T-shirt throughout the year. You will feel at home because the day and night cycle is almost the same as in our world. Summers are twice as long, and so are winters, but who cares, you don't have to step outside. You can walk or jump more than twice the distance because gravity is less than half of what we are used to back home. Guitar playing will be even more fun. Chris Hadfield, Space Station Commander, who is a keen guitar player describes on Youtube how he had to rethink playing when weightless and upside down (while strumming) on his space station!

Martian sunset, Spirit at Gusev crater. Photo by NASA's Mars Exploration Rover, 2005, courtesy of NASA

Martian sunset, Spirit at Gusev crater. Photo by NASA's Mars Exploration Rover, 2005, courtesy of NASA

Living on Mars will be a big chance for humans. Let me be serious for an instant. It will be an opportunity to start over and create a world as we would like based on our collective wisdom. And that includes a plucker's paradise. All we need do is agree just what that is. Is that a lot to ask? OK, don't answer that.

Within 50 years of that first live guitar broadcast, as surely as day follows night on Mars, a Martian style of guitar playing will develop, as will a Martian sound, and a Martian technique. Martian guitar players will become the butt of jokes back on planet Earth; as will every other aspect of Martian humans from their freshly minted Martian accent to their strange Martian ambiance, a curious mix of an artificially induced Californian climate inside while staring out at a frigid glacial landscape through the window.

And still I say to you, don't miss out. Mars beckons, and a chance to become there the first player or first teacher, and to make of that fresh start what you will. No time to lose, my starry(!)-eyed young friends, start planning now and save for your passage. They are already taking bookings and the seats are selling fast.

21st March 2014, London

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Three Basic Rules of Left Hand Technique And How To Stay Clear of Pain

My left hand: photo by Roy Stedall-Humphryes, Spain, 2004

My left hand: photo by Roy Stedall-Humphryes, Spain, 2004

Left hands are like right hands, they come in all shapes and sizes...
...some small, some large. And this goes for fingers too: long, short, slender, fat, straight and curved. Even the relative lengths can vary a lot. Take half a dozen fellow guitar players or friends and see the differences:

- Is the ring finger shorter or longer than the index finger?
- How much longer (if at all) is the middle finger than the other fingers?
- How long or short is the thumb compared to the other fingers?

You will be surprised by the results. No two hands are the same. These differences have to be taken into account when devising and developing a technique for they can have far-reaching consequences.

Take the position of the left-hand thumb on the back of the neck. A long thumb can be more flexible and supportive than a short thumb. The same goes for the right hand thumb: it greatly affects the overall position and inclination of the hand.

...And yet they have a lot in common
Now let me focus on the similarities. Huge or tiny, left-hand fingers have something vitally important in common. Close your hand into a fist. Keeping the fingers together half open the hand. Now slowly separate the fingers a few millimetres. The middle and ring fingers are more or less parallel, while the index and little fingers point inwards at an angle. If your hand is shaped liked this, then you have something in common with 99% of fellow pluckers, regardless of differences.

Three basic rules of left hand technique
Let me focus on the requirements of left-hand movement, bearing in mind too the differences between our hands. These three basic rules will go a long way to avoiding stress, tension, pain, and even tendonitis, and other problems associated with playing:

When moving across the strings in the same position the fingers should keep the same shape relative to the fretboard, whether they be on the 6th string or the 1st string. This means a supportive movement by the thumb, and a subtle movement from the wrist and arm. Tell-tale signs of not following this simple rule are indicated when the hand loses its rounded shape on the first string, and the tension that occurs as a consequence. A fixed thumb on the neck is another indicator of trouble ahead for it will frequently lead to losing the relaxed rounded shape of the hand.
How do the differences between our hands affect this?
Short thumbs can move across towards the first string less than long thumbs.

The index finger can often throw a spanner into the works. Why? Because it wants to be the same as the middle and ring fingers: nice and straight. But this is not possible, because as we have already established, it is made differently. The best it can hope for is to lie on the side of the tip, which really is good enough. When it tries to be as parallel to the frets as the other two, it throws the whole hand position into disarray.
How do the differences between our hands affect this?
Double-jointed players have more flexibility as to how the fingers align themselves on the fretboard, and can sometimes present them almost parallel to each other without a problem.

The left hand fingers can pivot on their point like dancers, and that is a good thing. Better still, they can do so with the sympathetic movement of the wrist and arm. In this way not only do they share the work-load but also avoid tension.
How do the differences between our hands affect this?
Hardly at all. The relative lengths of the fingers make little difference.

This has been my rough guide to left hand technique. I hope it serves as an introduction to its complexities. Better still, I hope it helps avoid discomfort and pain, and that it leads to dazzling technical prowess!

16th March 2014, London

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Play with The Guitar Like A Squeaky Toy

An experiment with 4 year olds shows surprising results

Take two groups of 4 year olds. Sure, they will drive you bonkers, but you can always give them back after this fascinating experiment. To the first group the teacher says:
"I have just found this toy! Looks like fun. [She squeezes one of the four tubes]. Ooops, it makes a squeaky noise. Ha, ha, ha! Let me do that again. Great! Do you want to play with it?" Then she gives out a toy to each.

To the second group the teacher say:
"Gather round children. Here is a toy I have been given. As you see it has four tubes. When I press this tube it makes a squeaky noise like this. [She squeezes tube]. Let me do that again. Do you see how I am holding it? I am going to give you one each so you can have a go." Now she gives a toy to each in this group.

Which of the two groups do you think would enjoy playing longer with the toy? And which group would be more likely to experiment with the other tubes?

To spare you the trouble of gathering two groups of 4 year olds, let me tell you that this experiment has already been conducted and written up by the MIT psychologist Laura Schulz.

Before telling you the results imagine young guitar players, anything from the age of, say, 4 to 70 years of age, each let loose on a guitar and set the task of discovering all the different sounds the instrument can make, and from there to create a piece of their own. How would you go about it as the teacher in charge? Would you do as with the first group of 4 year olds and their four-tube-toy, or as with the second group? Which group would be more creative?

The result of the toy experiment is that the first group played longer with the toy and experimented with the three other tubes. The second group lost interest much more quickly. The conclusion is inescapable: more can be less, for more information meant less curiosity. The first group was more creative - it explored and investigated and enjoyed without firm guidance. The second group was less curious and gave up quicker - after firm guidance.

I think it might be the same with music instruction and guitar playing. If the name of the game is creativity, enjoyment, and developing individuality then let the student do a lot more exploring. Maybe it is best to avoid lots of guidance before-hand. That means reducing advance information about correct technique, holding the guitar properly, using a foot-stool, growing the nails, reading from music, etc etc. The student may feel more free and unencumbered without so many received notions.

Now, when the student has had a real go, he or she will approach the teacher for advice and ask a whole series of intelligent and probing questions. Before the student asks those questions, one hour, one day or six months might elapse. However long it takes, when the student is ready, that will be the time to receive teacher's best advice.

There is a lot of evidence that this approach is not only good for the young child, but that it has produced some of the finest professional musicians around.

Some still prefer, indeed thrive, when given clear guidelines in advance - which of course is the traditional approach. But many, maybe a majority, are much more creative and become better musicians using the alternative approach.

The trouble with the "free" approach is that it is more individual and demanding, and requires greater responsiveness and imagination from the teacher too. But if these are the disadvantages then it is worth the effort to overcome them.

Why am I so sure? Because, I know, I have tried this approach myself and I know it works with many students.

8th March 2014, Tromso, Norway

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