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?