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!
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.
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: