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?




Out and About in Cutting Edge Sheffield

It seems there’s always lots going on in Sheffield.  It’s not surprising given it’s long history of hard work, industriousness and graft.  I’ve lost count of the amount of times I’ve seen events listed on the brilliant ‘Timewalk Project’ Google Calendar and thought “I’ll get to the next one”.

Finally, I have an evening off, and there’s a cracking event for me to dash to in the Punto.  “A brief history of Sheffield’s involvement with the Cutlery trade” a presentation and fundraiser at the Portland Works just off Bramhall lane.

About halfway between the city centre and my house, Portland Works is a place brimming with history brought alive by a dedicated group of volunteers.  Without the hard work and passion of these people, one of the last remaining cutlery works in Sheffield was threatened with development into yet more identikit ‘luxury’ flats.

Instead, it’s now home to a bustling mix of creative and manufacturing industries.  From hand-made custom knife maker Stuart Mitchell, to fine artist Mary Sewell,  vintage vehicle restorer Jimmy Holmes to experimental electroacoustic record label Singing Knives Records, it’s all going on at the Works, where traditional industrial manufacturers work side-by-side with Sheffield creatives.

Many of the tenants were there last night for a special presentation by ‘naturalised Yorkshireman’ and owner of the Famous Sheffield Shop, Paul Iseard.  He told the story of his lifelong love affair with knifes and cutlery, how Sheffield became one of the centres for metal and cutlery manufacturing, and how changes in social dining paved the way for cutlery design innovation and development.  He also shared with us some of his prized collection, a stunning treasure trove of beautifully designed and made pieces.  I’ll be saving up to make a trip down ‘Eccy Road’ soon (I think ‘Pocket Knifes’ is my thing)

After the talk I got to meet some of the team behind the Works, and a few of the businesses based there.  I even got a ‘backstage’ tour from Carl Witham, (who is a local photographer and runs thePortland Works Studio) seeing the cramped ‘village within a village’ layout of the factory from one of the workshop roofs.    It’s easy to imagine the place one hundred years ago when Harry Brearly and Earnest Stuart were making their groundbreaking discovery of stainless steel.  Hundreds of workers, men, women and children, busily going about their back-breaking work, completing the full chain of production from metal working, to grinding, to buffing, packing and selling.

Truly a hive of industry then, just as it is now.  Long may it remain so.

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 Exam Experience

I had to share a link to this excellent article on ‘The Exam Experience’ by Claire Jackson, editor of International Piano magazine and former editor of Muso (the cool classical music zine, which I’ve been sadly unaware until now!?).

It’s full of very practical and helpful tips and ideas on how to make the (often terrifying) grade exam process a much smoother more pleasurable experience.  It covers the often neglected details and practicalities such as the order of play, what to wear, time keeping, and how to conduct yourself during the exam.  The emphasis is on treating it as a great opportunity to play for someone new, rather than a traumatic fifteen minutes you just want to be over.

I found it in May’s edition of Libretto, the ABRSM‘s excellent regular newsletter.

Debut solo album is out now on new Liverpool label ‘Take Care’

Rusts Debut Album
Ltd edition CD
and download
The Sun Electric Band EP
The Sun Electric Band
Want to Feel Like
Ltd Edition CD and download
Matt Reekie Debut EP
Matt Reekie
Down the corridors (EP)
Ltd Edition CD and download

Well, my first ever solo album (Blencathra, top left) was released with a whimper in April, and is available to download and on limited edition CD from Bandcamp, as well as at Rough Trade Shops (London), Piccadilly Records (Manchester) and Norman Records (Leeds)

It was released simultaneously with two other records by friends and collective/label mates The Sun Electric Band and Matthew Reekie.

As much as possible the collective have tried to source and produce the physical packages ourselves out of rare, unusual and ecologically sound materials, making them truly DIY, and special little things.

We like to get hands on with these things and find it makes the whole process much better.  The Rusts albums, for example, have been lovingly hand cut, scored, stamped, folded and glued byme, and feature a drawing by Matt Reekie on the front cover (he didn’t individually draw all of them, mind)

Check out the website for the Take Care Collective here – things are a little quiet back there as we’re all back in the studio working on follow ups.

New Album Out Soon

I’ve finished my debut solo album (better late than never!) which will be released in the next few months.  I thought I’d post a preview up here to give you a flavour of what it’s like.

It features guest appearances from Helen Maher on accordion, Jimi Fallows on Banjo and Paul Mill on bass…with some songs co-written with my friend and collaborator, Mike Warnes.  The brilliant pencil illustration on the cover is by the very talented Matt Reekie, who’s also Liverpool based singer-songwriter (who’s recording his EP in my studio at the moment)

The full album is actually available to stream and download in advance of the physical release (which will come in the form of 500 ltd edition hand-assembled CDs) on my Bandcamp page.

[bandcamp album=656088385  bgcol=FFFFFF linkcol=4285BB size=grande2]

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.



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.

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My belated and self indulgent Top 10 Albums of the Decade

This is the first list thing I’ve done, and will probably be my last.  I was inspired to have a go at compiling a list of my favourite albums of the last ten years after reading a very good top ten on Peter Guy’s  ‘Get into this’ blog on the Liverpool Echo site.  Problem was, the list grew from ten, to fifteen, to twenty.  Then I got a bit overwhelmed at the task of writing a bit about each.  So I gave up.  Then I decided I’d have another go, but cut it right down again, which was a slow and painful process (like reading this little preamble).

So, here it is. My totally self indulgent top ten albums of the naughties, in chronological order, replete with music journo-style spiels on each record (why do I always lapse into this language when writing about music?)

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Music for the Mind and Soul, food for thought

Check out Milapfest

Not being a born and bred scouser, I’ve always had an interest in understanding what makes Liverpool tick, and in particular how that compares with the still widely held preconceptions other ‘outsiders’ have about the city.  Take the cultural stereotypes that still prevail among those who haven’t spent time in the ‘peoples republic of merseyside‘ – the tracksuits, the football, the car theft.  Now, I’m not denying the exsistence of such things in Liverpool.  Tracksuits are still a staple wardrobe choice for many young Liverpool lads (or lids, depending on your accent, or La’s, if you’re trying a bit hard), football is still arguably the biggest cultural force in Merseyside, and cars do get nicked here.  But all of these stereotypes can be applied to any city or large town in the UK.

There is so much more to Liverpool.  There is a busy and thriving arts scene here, I think,driven by the  natural scouse spirit, guts, creativity and wit.  Now, I’m talking purely anecdotally now, so don’t expect statistics or references to back up my claims, but there is always something interesting going on in this city.  Every weekend seems packed with events, many of them free, to entertain and educate the lucky people of Liverpool.

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