Guitar Recitals at Sheffield Cathedral

Sheffield, not exactly a hot bed of classical guitar happenings, will be treated to not one but two guitar recitals in March, when Nick Fletcher and Eddie Foster perform at the Sheffield Cathedral.

The free lunchtime recitals (donations towards the Cathedral welcome) take place most Fridays at 1.15pm in the main part of the cathedral, where the vast acoustics make for a very mellow and magical sound.  Perfectly timed to fit into a lunch hour, the recitals are a great way to take some time out, relax, reflect, and enjoy some wonderful music.

I enjoyed Jill Crossland’s piano recital back in January, where I enjoyed her vibrant and impassioned playing of some of my baroque faves – Scarlatti and Bach among them.

I sat rather gingerly a bit far back, which meant some of the faster playing was a little blurred in the large, reverberating acoustics.  My tip – don’t be afraid to get up close and personal if you want to hear the music at it’s best!

 

Nick Fletcher, Guitar

On Friday 24th, local Classical Guitarist Nick Fletcher will be playing a mixed programme of classical guitar repertoire including his own compositions.  Here’s a video of Nick playing the classic Carcassi A major study and a link to his Facebook page:

https://www.facebook.com/nickfletcherguitar/

 

Eddie Foster, Guitar

The following Friday 31st (when I’ll be on a train to London for my Stag Do !!), fellow hirsute strummer (and artist) Edward Foster will also perform his own compositions – from his recently released album.  His lush tone and romantic stye should really sing in the cathedral!

https://www.facebook.com/edwardfostermusic/

 

Some Must-Have Guitar Gear

2015-01-23 10.49.50

With each new beginner guitar pupil I meet, I find myself recommended certain must-have bits of gear – things I think make a guitarist’s life that little bit easier.  Over the years I’ve found myself trying all sorts of different gadgets and gizmos, designed to improve our playing and make gigs run like clockwork.

Here are my top 4 recommendations for the guitarists toolbag – tech and gear I wouldn’t do without.  It’s useful not only for guitarists, but for friends and family of guitarists who might be looking for great gift ideas for their budding Hendrix!

So, up first, Tuners:

1. Clip-on Tuners

tuner
Photo courtesy of photobucket.com/albums/bb103/resonatorrat

Clip-on tuners are a great invention.  Small enough to fit in your gig bag, and powerful enough to quickly pick up chromatic tunings through the vibrations of your guitar. There’s now a dizzying array of these on offer – just look at the range available from Rich Tone Music here…

http://www.richtonemusic.co.uk/guitar_accessories/tuners/

I’ve found Snark clip-ons work for me – they have a bright, clear display, decent battery life, and seem really sensitive.  Now costing only around £10-£12 they’re really good value.

They’re available in most local music shops and through online music shops (not Amazon though, eh)

https://www.gak.co.uk/en/snark-qtsn5-clip-on-tuner/53856?gclid=Cj0KEQiAl4TGBRDhgvmikdHPsdABEiQAtBcc8HEiebpg0Eiz7cqq5f8Ydj71vlkUuiIKBAOiKw-FEnMaApvJ8P8HAQ

2. Tuning Apps

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Photo Courtesy of joyofandroid.com

If, like me, you often can’t remember why you just walked up the stairs, or where the cup of tea you just made disappeared to, you might also, like me, struggle to remember where your recently purchased clip-on tuner ended up clipped-on.

But, you always have your smart phone on you, right?

So, it’s lucky then that plucky I.T. entrepreneurs have flooded the Android and IOS App market with tons of free tuning apps.  I like the recently pimped up TUNA tuning app.

There’s a more in-depth review of it here, but it’s a really easy-to-use app which can auto detect the note you’re playing (through your phone/tablet microphone so not ideal in noisy gig environments – hence the clip-on tuner’s use)  It has an interesting and intuitive seismograph-esque display to help you tune up or down, and it gives you a little congratulatory beep when you get the note in tune.  It’s got something of the computer game about it.

Thanks to the graphic display of the headstock and large note names, it’s great for beginners just getting to grips with learning the open strings, which tuning peg are which, and which way to turn it and the ‘AARGH I’M GOING TO PULL MY HAIR OUT’ sort of feeling when tuning. With this app you’ll be breezing through your tuning in no time.

(As an aside, it’s worth mentioning that I always encourage guitarists to tune their guitar EVERY TIME they pick it up, even if they think it’s in tune, or it was only tuned ten minutes ago.  I am convinced there are impish little creatures who sneak around when our backs are turned to fiddle with tuning pegs – sometimes even when we’re playing.)

The app also has some fun learning games, and a very good Metronome. If you’re still not convinced, see this Youtube review here…

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m50mdPmdznE&w=560&h=315]

More advanced players might find it a little toy-like, and opt for more streamlined apps such as Cleartune, or the retro vintage valve vibes of Chromatic Guitar Tuner.  There’s loads to choose from.  Like I said, developers developed the heck out of tuning apps!

Here’s a good article listing some of the top Android apps out there to help you decide:

http://www.androidauthority.com/best-guitar-tuner-apps-for-android-615004/

3. String Winder

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Essential to avoid getting R.S.I’s, and not to mention extreme boredom, when changing your strings. Because you’re a good pupil, and practicing an awful lot every day, you’ll no doubt need to change your strings at least once a month, right?  So, save yourself hours over the course of a year (I’ve done the maths, this is a fact) by using one of these nifty gadgets to quickly un and re-wind your string tension.

You can pick these up for one or two pounds in your local music shop, or if you’re feeling flush, get one of these winders with in-built wire cutter, for removing excess string

preview1

http://www.gear4music.com/Guitar-and-Bass/Planet-Waves-Guitar-Pro-Winder-String-Winder-Cutter/DPW

(see my previous article on string changes for more on the dangers of string-finger-skewerings!)

https://littlesheffieldguitar.com/2015/01/23/strung-out-the-strain-of-steel-string-changes/

 

 

4. Guitar Leg Rest

prod18_gitano

For Classical Guitarists, the issue of ‘to footstool or not to footstool‘ is a very personal one. I’ve seen bar room brawls break out, fingernails flying, rasguedo backhanders and G String garrotings all over the suggestion that guitar rests are for cheats.

I sit on the fence nowadays.  Sometimes, I love the connection I feel with the guitar and the ground when I’m slightly hunched over it, left foot planted on a footstool.  When I bought my first Gitano guitar rest about five years ago though, I loved it.  When I play corporate gigs, plucking away for one or two hours at a time, it really helps avoid leg and back strain.  Now I’m in my *cough* late thirties, after over twenty five years of guitar practice, I’m afraid sciatica has come a-knocking.  This means I need to take regular breaks from practice to roll around on the floor red-faced, stretching and contorting myself to find relief.  I’ve also started doing yoga, but then I do live in Meersbrook, so that’s standard behaviour.

A guitar leg rest helps you achieve a more balanced posture when playing, with both legs planted symmetrically on the ground and your back more or less straight.  After reading up on the Alexander technique and Madeline Bruser’s tome ‘The Art of Practicing: A Guide to Makig Music from the Heart’ (recommended), I’m sure this relaxed and balanced posture makes for better playing.

The Gitano rest is simple, unobtrusive, comfortable, and folds away so you can keep it on your guitar even when in the case.  Available from the wonderful Spanish Guitar Centre in Nottingham.

http://www.spanishguitar.com/Product/14/107/Gitano-Guitar-Support_GITANO/

 

That’s it for now – when I think of some more, I’ll follow this up with another article. Thanks for reading, and happy playing.

January Sale

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We’re nice people here in Sheffield.  That’s why throughout January I’m offering 10% off guitar lessons here at Little Sheffield Guitar Studio.  For an hour’s lesson, you’ll pay just £18, for a 45 minute lesson, £15, and a 30 minute lesson will cost just £13.50.

“Pft”, you scoff, “10% of twenty quid is only £2 – what can I do with that?”

Well, I’ll tell you: you can get a lovely coffee downstairs at The Harland Cafe.  Or, if you’re in need of a bit of a culinary cuddle, the salted caramel chocolate brownie (yes, thats right – Salted Caramel + Chocolate, in a brownie) is one of the most ridiculously tasty things I’ve eaten.

You can probably get some sort of fun but bewildering camping gadget next door at Go Outdoors (just make sure you’ve got their ‘discount card’ first) or some rare and exotic groceries at the brilliant Ozmen Supermarket on London Road.

It’ll also get you a bus ticket, with change, or if you’re lucky enough to be a student, or young person, your bus both ways.  If, like me, you’ve got a habit of losing your plectrums almost instantly, you could get four or five replacements (my favourites are Jim Dunlop Tortex) from local music shops Wavelength Music, Richtone or Wizard Guitars.

Anyway, you see what I mean.  So, if you’re coming for lessons during January on either a pay-as-you-go basis, or with a block booking, you’ll be getting a little something back each time you come.  See you soon!

Accelerated Learning

As well as making music, I’m one of those odd types who loves running around on muddy hills. I’m an aspiring Fellrunner. There, I said it.  Since moving to Sheffield, I can be found several times a week, getting hopelessly lost, out of breath, and up to my ankles in bog, somewhere, in a field, In Derbyshire (to paraphrase Pulp). When I spotted a workshop advertised on twitter called ‘Hills Made Easy’, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to hang out with other similar intrepid runners.

The group workshop was led by the ‘Two Stu’s’ – Stuart Hale and Stuart Bond from the Accelerate Performance Centre.  ‘Stu number one’ is a respected and hugely experienced sports and nutrition coach, with years of training elite and ultra athletes under his lycra-clad belt,  ‘Stu number two’ who assisted on the workshop, is an incredibly talented and dedicated athlete competing at the top of his game, and was a great inspiration and model for us attendees to follow.

What I found most interesting about the two sessions was the ethos of rigour and precision which underpinned their approach. We were encouraged to work towards achieving a more efficient, strong and effective hill running technique, before even thinking about fitness or speed. The mantra I picked up which was instilled throughout was – Technique and Strength. With these two in hand (or, leg) the rest would become, as the workshop name suggests, easy.

The parallels with musical progression are clear and very relevant. Good technique on the guitar is so important. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for embracing and celebrating individuality, but if you have an idiosyncratic playing style, like running up a steep hill, you’ll find playing much harder!

One of the rare moments we were encouraged to 'peg it', running alongside Trevor, and excellent runner - witness the huge grin on his face to see how much fun it was.
One of the rare moments we were encouraged to ‘peg it’, running alongside Trevor, and excellent runner – witness the huge grin on his face to see how much fun it was. (Picture courtesy of APC)

Strength as well, is appropriate – the right kind of strength. You won’t see many muscle-bound hill-runners out there on the fells. They’d soon grow tired (or frustrated) of lugging all that muscle mass and weight around with them. But good runners ARE strong. The strength is there, where it counts – in the core muscles of your midriff, keeping your body stable and in control and allowing you to keep good form. It’s in the legs and bum, transferring controlled and purposeful power through your feet into the ground. Similarly, good guitarists will have built up a secret strength in the many and complex muscles and tendons of the fingers, hands and wrists. It’s not a strength achieved from gripping exercise balls or pushing weights, it’s a slowly and hard-won power built through slow and steady work on technique.

‘slow and steady wins the race’.

I often encourage my guitar pupils to SLOW DOWN, and to BREAK THINGS DOWN. The worst way to practice a piece of music is to attempt to blast through it from start to finish at full speed. One day soon, maybe. But most of us need to put in lots of careful work to get to that stage.  To use another expression, ‘walk before you run’.

Rather than just running around Rivelin for an hour, hitting every hill up or down, we were taken to specific points, and asked to do short, measured repetitions. Repetition. The old chestnut. The ‘nitty gritty’ of the workshop involved focused repetitions running up and down very short but very tricky hills. Only about 20 seconds of running each time, with plenty of recovery time between goes. This allowed us to keep our energy up, to maintain focus, and to practice our form and technique. The odd times where I tried to ‘push it’ or got tired, I could feel the technique, and everything else, slipping, along with my feet.

The group looks on as one of us braves the downhill in style (Picture courtesy of APC)
The group looks on as one of us braves the downhill in style. (Picture courtesy of APC)

This real-life and very physical illustration of the importance of technique brought home to me the importance of structured and methodical practice. It’s great fun tearing through my current ‘project’ a Bach Fugue (the focus of a great Julian Bream masterclass here), from start to finish. If you’re prepared to tolerate the several shonky notes and missed chords along the way, you can enjoy the complete musicality of the piece.

But, I know from experience that the ONLY way to master the piece, to really ‘get’ the trickier passages, is to break it down and practice it slowly. It can be boring, it can seem backwards, over simplified, but it works. Four bars max, often just two, or one bar. Play at half speed, and repeat. And repeat, with plenty of breaks in between to allow your fingers and brain to recharge. And don’t be in a hurry to speed it up. You will learn what you need to learn just as well at this painstaking speed.

John Williams, one of the greatest if not the greatest Classical Guitarists, spent much of his early practice time being supervised by his dad. That’s a bit much isn’t it? A bit weird? I have a mental image of his old fella sitting there, staring at his fingers, grimacing. But the reason he did it? To make sure young John wasn’t sat their for hours on end practicing mistakes. Practising slowly, and with care and attention, helps us avoid practising ourselves into bad habits. When you feel things becoming easy, like you’re floating through your exercise in an out-of-body state, then are you ready to take it forward.

What I found after both of the sessions was that strange new parts of my legs had started aching. But I was glad, because it demonstrates that I’d been put through it’s paces in a new and challenging ways. Progress had been made.

Now every time I stumble on to the hills, I do so with a new sense of purpose, with the mantra of our APC coaches fresh in my mind. I know that if I keep striving for good form, and take my time to build the strength I need, some time in the future, I’ll enjoy running in a way I couldn’t have imagined a few years ago.


 

For more information about the Accelerate Performance Centre, and their excellent Sheffield shop, Accelerate Store, visit:

http://www.accelerateuk.com/
https://www.facebook.com/accelerateuk
http://twitter.com/AccelPerform

Learning the Guitar, like riding a bike?

You can’t move online for ‘top tens’, or ‘best ever’ lists.  Those, or ‘Top rules to be the bestest baddass’ guides to instant success.

I’m very much ‘down with this sort of thing’, particularly when it comes to learning the guitar.  It’s not easy, there’s no ‘quick fix’.  Learning any musical instrument, I think, takes good old-fashioned hard work, commitment, care and sensitivity.

I found it quite refreshing to read this article, by Mark Sisson, online fitness and healthy-living guru, which gives a balanced view of approaches to exercise and sport…

The Ten Rules of Successful Exercise

I often find there are a lot of similarities between sporting and musical progression, and we musicians can learn a lot from sport science. The way we improve and develop in musical terms take a great deal of the same skills and attitudes as in sport. Both require physical training of some form, both require dedication and practise, and both are as much about taking a thoughtful approach to progression.

In his latest top ten Sisson sets out some very reasonable and achievable approaches which I think can be applied in a musical setting. I’ll set out his list here, and attempt to explain how I think it may work in a musical context:

 

  1. Do the thing you love

Rather than take the attitude that ‘if it’s not hurting, you’re not doing it hard enough’ Sisson takes the position that for your practice to be sustainable, you must enjoy it. Relentlessly practicing scales undoubtedly make great technical improvements, but how many of us, in our busy modern lives, can dedicate the time required. The alternative for so many is to give up, because they can’t face the work. Rather than kill yourself, how about approaching (to use a sporting term) the ‘long game’. Isn’t it better to play something you love playing?

 

  1. Get a workout buddie

Apparently, studies show that working with other people increases the benefits of your activity, makes it feel easier, and is motivating. Taking opportunities to make music, or just have a bit of a strum, with others, will have many benefits.

 

  1. Work out Outside

Ok, so I’m not claiming you need to go al-fresco with your guitar, especially this time of year, but the sentiment is still of interest. Rather than confining ourselves to dour and clinical places of work, make sure you’re enjoying the environment you’re working in. It goes back to point one – the more we enjoy our study, the more we’re likely to do it.

 

  1. Incorporate play

Mess around, mix things up. Rather than just playing set technical studies, pieces and scales, be creative. I like to use improvisation and chance in lesson activities, to explore the possibilities of the unscripted. As soon as you know a few chords and techniques on the guitar, you’re ready to play, and to write. By incorporating variety into your learning of a skill, you’re always awake to new experiences and possibilities.

 

  1. Make your workouts meaningful and purpose-driven

This is one of the points which are more difficult to make tangible in this context. I would argue though, that simply enjoying the act of playing an instrument, and of making music, is meaningful and purposeful enough.

 

  1. Find Flow

This is an area which interests me, despite it’s potentially happy-clappy pseudo-spiritual connotations. How do we make our practise effortless, almost Zen. Do we need to? I know from experience and study, that we’re at our best functioning state when we’re in a relaxed, contented, even place. Get in that ‘zone’ people go on about, but in a different way. Remove distractions, and aim for an almost meditative state when playing. This may feel a bit ‘serious’ at first, but everyone, from beginning strummers to concert twiddlers, should consider their practise important enough that you treat it with care.

 

  1. Savour how it makes you feel

If you’ve found your ‘flow’, drink it up. Enjoy the unique buzz you get when you’re creating your very own sounds and timbres. Another modern phrase, being ‘in the moment’ is relevant here. This is the instant feedback you deserve for dedicating your time and care to making progress.  Enjoy it as much as you can!

 

  1. Release your attachment to the outcome

This I think this is really refreshing, and so good to hear from an athlete and sportsman. It really is the taking part that counts, not the winning. By allowing yourself to just be playing for the sake of it, you’re allowing yourself space and time to enjoy it for what it is. This can create a positive loop too, which allows you to get more ‘flow’ (because you’re not riddled with anxiety about achieving a goal) and allows you to ‘savour’ your playing more. So what if I can’t play Asturias perfectly, I probably never will, but I’ll enjoy playing what I can, and the more I enjoy playing, the more I’ll play it, and the more perfect it will get!

 

  1. Decide if you’re training or exercising

It seems strange to have to define what you’re doing, but these two words imply quite different things about your motivation and reason for coming to your instrument. I have friends who only ever go for a run when they have a big organised race to work towards, and they call it ‘training’. It sounds serious and important. I run all the time, I love exercising, but I’ve not done a fun run or organised race since I was in school. If I train, I’m training for the sake of just getting a bit better.  So, are you practicing, or playing?

 

  1. Try something new

Similar to point four, this suggests mixing your activities up to keep things interesting, and making your development more ‘all round’. As a guitar teacher, I’m very much interested in making learning and progression holistic. Classical guitarists, as well as being able to sight-read, should be able to learn by ear. I think as well as being able to read a chord from standard notation, being able to name chords and shapes in the way a modern guitarist can, is important. All the things I’ve mentioned above – creativity, composition, improvisation, all lend us a new take on our instrument. The easiest way for a musician to try something new of course, is to have a go at other styles and genres. A blues piece on Classical guitar, a fingerpicking piece for an electric guitarist, each divergence will give the fingers and brain something new to incorporate, and have a huge benefit to all-round ability and motivation.

What do you think?  Are there things that we musicians can learn from ‘exercise thinkers’ like our Mark?

 

 

 

Reading: Segovia, an autobiography of the years 1893-1920

“To play guitar

You need no science,

only a strong arm

and perseverance”

 

Is it possible to be a concert virtuoso and still a nice, balanced, personality?  Can you reach the level of sublime perfection and total artistic commitment required if you’re just ‘quite a nice person’ or, a ‘pleasant enough type’.

2014-05-08 10.57.46Reading Segovia’s autobiography for the second time a decade on, I find myself thinking that, at least in his case, all the traits which would make him ‘a nice chap to go the pub with’ are replaced with those that made him a quietly trailblazing force in early 20th Century music.

It’s an interesting read for classical guitarists, students of the guitar, and music fans  – if only because it sheds a light on a singular and determined personality who helped make the classical guitar the serious concert instrument it is today.  Segovia presents himself as a bit of a romantic hero – a brave and gallant artist, fighting the good fight to elevate the guitar from it’s humble standing in the world as a folk and parlour instrument.

However, considering his obvious love, passion and aptitude for the guitar, he goes into scant detail on the art and craft of music and guitar, opting to tell more of his personal and social story as he struggles to gain traction in an unwelcoming classical guitar world.

I suppose it’s understandable that a man who came up against so much opposition in his early career should bear a bit of a grudge.  However, several times while reading the book, I found myself disliking Segovia, finding him often to be opinionated, self-aggrandising, snobbish, arrogant and superficial. He spends almost as much time berating the appearance of various characters who displease him, as he does describing his early journey with the guitar.  He also finds it difficult to praise other guitarists, some his friends.  Here’s a quote from the book in which he gives his verdict on Miguel Llobet – a pupil of the great Fransisco Tarrega:

Segovia damning Llobet with faint praise!
Segovia damning Llobet with faint praise!

 

With friends like Segovia…who needs enemies!

Here is the thing, I suppose:  great artists refuse to compromise, regardless of the consequences.  Segovia would argue, I’m sure, that to make allowances for imperfection would be a disservice to the development of the guitar.  What would those violinists and pianists think if that were considered the best of the guitar?

This is a stigma which, in my opinion, has stayed with the guitar world to this day.  We over-compensate, out of insecurity perhaps, by being excessively perfectionist and self-critical.  Guitarists hate playing to other guitarists, because we know that we have learnt that perfection is the only goal.  Every slip of the finger, every missed note and every over-ringing bass note will be picked up on.  This, I think, is more damaging than it is helpful.

The book has left me wanted more – it leaves Segovia as he sails for Argentina on his first tour overseas – as I’m sure there would be so much to learn from his subsequent career.  We miss out on his work with contemporary composers to create a modern guitar repertoire, and I would have loved to hear what he made of his various pupils (among them John Williams, who has given his thoughts on Segovia in his recent memoirs).

Listening to his recordings via Spotify as I type, I can hear his fiery Andalusian spirit season every note with a passion and intensity.  It’s as if he’s fighting the establishment with every powerful stroke of those chunky fingers!

[spotify id=”spotify:album:5MgZtPaQLAFglAiEnHOiOd” width=”300″ height=”380″ /]

Perhaps I’ll read the book in another decade, and see what my forty-something self thinks of it then.  In the meantime, I’m off to play!

 

 

The Liverpool Guitar Society at Liverpool Light Night

Here are some photos of the Liverpool Guitar Society appearing at two public performances as part of the Liverpool Light Night, on 14th May 2010.

The Liverpool Guitar Society
Members of the Liverpool Guitar Ensemble at Liverpool Hope University

I’m the one wearing innapropriate tweed and, while carrying a few extra pounds around the waist, my Torres-sized classical guitar looks more like a Ukelele!

To the right are Richard Harding and Rich Anderson.

Thanks to Mark McNulty and Mike Warnes (two great Liverpool-based photographers) for taking the pictures, which bring back great memories of an exciting, vibrant evening of art and music.

http://www.culture.org.uk

http://www.mcnulty.co.uk/

Mike Warnes Photography

Scott, The Liverpool Guitar Society, The Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool
Scott Russell, Liverpool Guitar Society, The Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool Light Night

Mike is one of my pupils, and friend, which is perhaps why he very kindly went with the flattering black and white option for this portrait taken at the Walker Art Gallery.

I’m not quite sure what my 4th finger is doing here, or where it thinks it’s going.  After seeing this photo, I got my copy of Pumping Nylon out and forced my fingers into a more correct position.  So, to all my pupils, let that be a lesson to you!

We hope to be playing the Long Night of the Liverpool  Biennial on the 18th November – so watch this space or the Liverpool Guitar Society Weblog for more news on that.

Great Guitars at the Royal Northern College of Music

RNCMBefore I start, let me make one thing clear: I love Liverpool, right? I’m as loyal and as committed as any migrant who has settled in the City and grown to love it deeply.

So it’s with some reluctance that I write this post about a place in Manchester: Liverpool’s long standing urban nemesis.

There’s no denying it, though – Manchester is a great city with lots to offer.  Not least it’s brilliant centre for musical excellence, the Royal Northern College of Music.  I was lucky enough to be invited to a performance of the Classical Guitarists studying at the College, and was blown away by the whole experience.

Continue reading “Great Guitars at the Royal Northern College of Music”