Category Archives: books

How to practice effectively [video]

This is a short video from TED Talk on how to practice more effectively. It includes some useful tips & really interesting information based on what we know about the brain & how we learn tasks.

This ties-in with my previous blogs on rehearsal & my own (admittedly rather limited) research on music and the human brain [see previous posts]. Let me know what you think!

If the above video doesn’t work, here’s a link so you can access the short TED Talk video on YouTube.

Enjoy! xx

Advertisements

What’s your biggest guitar issue?

ATTENTION GUITAR FRIENDS!

This is a call for submissions!

One aim of my blog is to offer guitar & music-related advice and for the next few posts, I’d like to pass the power in dictating the topic of discussion to YOU. So tell me: what is the is the biggest issue you face in learning the guitar?

I’m happy to examine any relevant queries which have been bugging you. They could be technical (finger tapping, getting the right tone out of an amp), or more vague (who do you feel the best guitarists to listen to when learning Afro-Cuban jazz, etc). You might want to ask about bass guitar, ukulele or band performance/management in general. Feel free!

You can message me here, leave a comment in this post, or drop me a DM/tweet via my Twitter account: @tim_guitarist.

I look forward to hearing from you & talking your queries over the next few weeks!

Tim x

Mundane Science Fiction – taking fantasy out of the future

moon

Picture courtesy of Quora.com

Ok, so I’m a music writer first and foremost. The vast majority of my posts deal with (in no particular order):

  • The positive effects of music on overall wellbeing
  • Music therapy & community music articles of interest
  • Updates on my writing & recording work, focusing on new projects
  • Thoughts & discussions on the wider world of music, in all its beautiful and varied forms

However…

I do, on occasion, venture away from music and enter the wider world, focusing on my other favourite subjects: history, politics, travel and of course, books.

Like most people who write, I’ve tried my hand at fiction. I’ve started around five or six ideas for stories, only three of which were long enough to become novels. Two of these were science fiction. My love of sci-fi comes from a childhood spent reading the greats such as Asimov, Dick, Clarke, Banks and many, many more. Anyone who states that the genre isn’t proper literature has most likely not read the right books. The imagination required to conjure up these worlds and peoples goes fast beyond the standard writing advice of ‘writing what you know’.

Critics of sci-fi do have one valid gripe: in all of the grandiose settings and fantastical elements of the genre, characterisation can sometimes suffer. It is certainly true that only the very best sci-fi combines the huge space-opera backdrop with the human elements of character-driven plot lines. In that regard, can too much imagination be a bad thing?

Enter the relatively new sub-genre of mundane science fiction, a term first coined by Geoff Ryman and others in 2004. Those of you who follow my music blogs will no doubt be aware I have a dislike of genres and labelling. Good music is good music – shouldn’t the same be true for fiction? Well, perhaps with a focus on characters and more believable conflicts, it can.

The best way to achieve this? Remove the supernova-sized set pieces; the spaceships travelling at light speed; aliens from other worlds; time travel; in fact, anything considered to be outside of our current understanding of physics and the universe as we perceive it.

The Guardian newspaper wrote an excellent piece in 2008 introducing readers to the genre, which I happened upon recently which you can read here. This article and the original blog by SFGenics explain mundane sci-fi so much better than I can, but the basics involve a lack of the ‘fantastical’ elements mentioned previously, focusing instead on human stories and character-driven plot/conflict.

Interestingly, I have noticed that most of the books considered part of this movement (if you want to call it that) are set in the present day, near or approaching future. There is almost no likelihood of seeing a mundane sci-fi novel taking place in the year 30,212 A.D. because who knows what the world will look like then, and how could such ignorance be presented as mundane?

Another noteworthy feature is a focus the dwindling resources of this planet. In forcing themselves to look inwards, rather than to the stars, many mundane sci-fi writers imagine a future where food is scare, or climate change has irreparably damaged our ecosystem. Their stories focus on how these environmental perils being either fought against, or survived through by the protagonists.

In the full ‘mundane manifesto’ blog, which you can read here, a few classic works are included, including ‘Do Androids dream Of Electric Sheep?’ by Philip K. Dick, which became the classic movie Blade Runner, and ‘1984’ by George Orwell. These two contrasting examples of a near dystopian future should tell you that even without the wider galaxy to play with, there is plenty of interesting topics to be mined here on Earth.

To finish off, I’ll return to music an anecdote from Peter Gabriel. When working on one of his classic albums, he instructed the drummer not to play cymbals for the entire recording sessions. Effectively, he forbade cymbals from the entire album. While some might balk at such a draconian measure and say it’s a fast way to ruin his music, the end results were quite surprising. Forced out of his usual default playing patterns and styles, the drummer at these recording sessions had to entirely rethink his drum kit. Approaching it in this fresh manner brought out rhythms he would have never dreamt up otherwise.

As well as this, I have previously written on the amazing results pulled off by the late record producer George Martin in a previous blog post. Martin had severe limitations on the equipment he was using, but with The betakes, created the most technically astonishing music, certainly for their time. Some might use that example of ‘rooming the safety net’, but to me, it stands as proof that sometimes creativity works better within limitations. As I said earlier, what applies to music can also apply to fiction. Sometimes to ‘think outside of the box’, one has to be in a box to start with!

So what do you think? Get in touch and let me know!

Music & Wellbeing (Part 7): Final thoughts & additional reading

I hope you have enjoyed reading these extracts from my dissertation on the value of music on our overall wellbeing. I wanted to finish off this mini-series with a few final thoughts.

First of all, it goes without saying that a lot more research needs to be conducted in all of the areas I have covered. From music’s impact on the brain to it’s beneficial applications within the education system, we have only begun to scratch the surface of what could be possible. Music’s transformative power needs much more investigation and research than, unfortunately, we seem able to support financially in the country at the present. Having said that, there are a few great organisations out there, most of them charities, which are performing Stirling work even in these most difficult of economic times.

Nordoff-Robbins are the UK’s largest and oldest Music Therapy charity. Most of the MT courses on offer at UK universities are provided in conjunction with them, usually following their methods of practice. Another fantastic charity is Sunbeams. Working in the North-West area (Lake District, Cumbria) with a range of people, including children and adults with severe or multiple physical and mental difficulties, Annie Mawson’s organisation has won great praise and acclaim for it’s community music practice. I wholeheartedly suggest you check these guys out and donate if you can.

All the papers, texts and books I referenced in my mini-series were worth a greater look and I would encourage you to look through my references list at the end of each article, and read as many of the titles as possible. However, of all of these, may I humbly suggest Daniel Levitin’s astounding book on music and neuroscience ‘This Is Your Brain On Music’ and Oliver Sack’s ground-breaking tome ‘Musicophilia’.

As for the practise itself, get out there! Get volunteering! Use your hard-learned musical skills in the community to enrich the lives of those around you, especially those less fortunate, children, the elderly, disabled, ill and the isolated. Music is very much the world’s universal language – let’s use it to the best possible effect.

Music & Wellbeing (Part 3): Music Therapy

Music Therapy

As a practice, music therapy sits somewhere between art, therapy, healthcare, and psychoanalysis; it ‘invites the art, science and craft of music and healing’ (Pavlicevic, 1999, p. 141). Its practice has been proven as having a ‘huge impact on confidence, and therefore improved wellbeing’ (Therapy Today, 2011, p. 5). Besides more common associations with mental health and children with special needs (SEN), music therapy has also proved to be of benefit on a much wider scale, including, amongst other areas, ‘physical impairments, people with hearing and visual problems, the institutionalised elderly, and people in the criminal justice system’ (North & Hargreaves, 2008, p. 298-299).

Within the field of music therapy, there is a history of deploying music to ‘alleviate chronic psychological disorders and problems associated with long-term physical impairment’ (North & Hargreaves, 2008, p. 298). There is evidence of music-based practices dating back prior to the beginning of recorded history. Being centred on music makes it one of the most accessible forms of treatment in terms of engagement:

Everyone has the ability to respond to music, and music therapy uses this connection to facilitate positive changes in emotional wellbeing and communication through the engagement in live musical interaction between client and therapist (British Association for Music Therapy)

The idea of creating music ‘out of thin air’ might seem like an alien concept to some. However, the process of music therapy sessions is to create something out of the patient’s feelings, situation and environment, with the assistance of the therapist (Williams, 2014). In the context of a music therapy session, there are ‘no ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ notes: all are part of possibility.’ (Pavlicevic, 1999, p. 143) Improvisation between therapist and client is key to allowing the client to experience music as a positive means of therapy:

Music therapy allows people to discover for themselves what is going on underneath, as well as allowing them to express repressed emotions or memories. If verbal communication has shut down, as with autism or stroke, it has a huge impact on a person’s confidence, which in turn affects every aspect of their life (Angela Harrison, quoted in Therapy Today, 2011, p. 5)

Just as the act of talking, or indeed writing, about one’s personal experiences can be seen as therapeutic and empowering (Newham, 1999, p. 32), so too can singing about it (Stige et al, 2010; Harrison, 2006). Due to the connections music makes with the brain and emotions, singing as a means of therapy can be seen to be even more cathartic:

To fill our memories with emotion requires us to use the full range of our voice to express the full range of feelings. And nowhere do we witness such a use of the voice more intensely than in the art of singing (Newham, 1999, p. 59)

Community Music Therapy

Such feelings of catharsis and empowerment which music therapy can provide are also useful in the context of a community. One’s place in their community has an effect on their overall wellbeing (Venkatapuram, 2013). According to Feld (1994, p. 77), ‘music has a fundamentally social life. It is made to be engaged – practically and intellectually and communally’. I agree that the main purpose of music is as a shared form of communication, much as it has been considered a language throughout history (Thaut, 2005, p. 171). This language reaches us at a level of understanding deeper than verbal communication (Harrison, 2006).

According to the National Health Service (2006) there are five evidence-based steps we can take to improve mental wellbeing:

  • Get active
  • Connect with others
  • Keep learning
  • Be aware of yourself and the world
  • Give to others

(National Health Service, 2006)

I believe that the practice of community music therapy covers all five of these points, through a variety of styles. Modes of practice, including music workshops, which act to ‘foster active and collaborative music making’ are therefore an excellent way of fostering better community wellbeing (Higgins, 2012, p. 144). Harrison (2006) believed the power of singing lay in its power to move other human beings; its ‘transformative qualities’; the way it can allow others unable to sing to feel cathartic benefits through empathic listening (2006, p. 24). I am inclined to agree with this view. I believe this element of music therapy has in fact the most potential to affect overall wellbeing, through its inherently inclusive and group-based nature. Participants, in making music with others, can experience ‘one of life’s greatest pleasures’ (Green, 1986, p. 69).

Further examples highlight to me that community music therapy might be better thought of in more broad terms, such as ‘care’ and ‘service’ (Stige & Aarø, 2012, p. 14) Like Stige & Aarø (2012), I believe it represents a group musical ‘service’ which takes place outside of the private, confidential, one-on-one setting of the traditional music therapy session. It is a means of bringing the community, and neighbouring communities, together through local music-based activities, the kind of which I have witnessed throughout my life in one form or another, without ever having identified them as ‘therapy’. These activities can take place in ‘arts centers [sic], schools, prisons, health settings, places of worship, festivals, on the streets, and in a wide range of community contexts’ (Higgins, 2012, p. 174). They can be said to be having a beneficial effect on the wellbeing of the community, and therefore the individuals within those community groups (Choi, Lee & Lim, 2008).

Music Therapy & Dementia

The term dementia, generally associated with old age or degenerative neurological diseases, is displayed as memory loss and difficulties with thinking, problem-solving or language, the most common form of which is Alzheimer’s Disease (Alzheimer’s Society). Alzheimer’s is characterised by changes in nerve cells and neurotransmitter levels, as well as destruction of synapses (Levitin, 2006, p. 231). In many cases, short term memory is largely absent, creating frustration among patients (Pavlicevic, 1999, p. 130). However, music therapy has proven to be of enormous positive effect in improving the wellbeing of Alzheimer’s patients (Lee & Thyer, 2013; Stige et al, 2010). Levitin goes on to report an interesting observation in the musical memory of Alzheimer’s patients:

As the disease progresses, memory loss becomes more profound. Yet many of these old-timers can still remember how to sing the songs they heard when they were fourteen. Why fourteen? Part of the reason we remember songs from our teenage years is because those years were times of self-discovery, and as a consequence, they were emotionally charged; in general, we tend to remember things that have an emotional component because our amygdala and neurotransmitters act in concert to ‘tag’ the memories as something important (Levitin, D. 2006, pp. 231-232)

Music’s innate ability to hone in on these ‘tags’ seems to almost reverse the symptoms of dementia for a brief time; play or sing a song from their past and they are once again ‘present’ (Sacks, 2008, p. 377). The practise of community music therapy has also been seen to have a positive effect in regards to Alzheimer’s patients, due to the added social factor involved (Stige et al, 2010, p. 266).

Music as alleviation to anxiety and depression

The frustration experienced by many people with dementia can often lead to frustration and agitation (Clare, 2004). While research on the subject is limited, music therapy has been proven as a noticeably effective, low-cost, non-pharmacological intervention (Blackburn & Bradshaw, 2014). Music-based interventions have yielded positive results in easing depression among adults without dementia (Chan et al, 2012). Occasionally studies note reduced anxiety as a by-product of alleviating another condition (Hargreaves & North, 2008).

There has been found to allow improvements to self-esteem and reduced depression in children and adolescents with behavioural and emotional problems, which were sustained over a prolonged period (Therapy Today, 2014, p. 6). One particular advantage of music therapy over talking therapies is that younger people seem more open to participation:

The most popular activity was song-writing or writing their own lyrics to music, which seemed to benefit their ability to communicate their feelings more generally, she said. Nearly all — 97 per cent — chose to write autobiographically about how they were feeling, where they were at. This age group tend to find talking therapies slightly more challenging but our psychology colleagues tell us that, as a result of the music therapy, these children are more open to engaging with them in their sessions and more able to express how they were feeling. (Therapy Today, 2014, p. 6)

The level of effectiveness music has in relieving stress varies ‘according to age, the type of stress in question, the means by which the music was used, the listener’s musical preference, and their prior level of music experience’ (Hargreaves & North, 2008, p. 307). This brief overview highlights to me that music therapy is of intrinsic value to our wellbeing. As well as the areas mentioned above, music therapy has seen measurable success relieving anxiety in a variety of settings (Hargreaves & North, 2008). It is also useful in treatment as therapy for drug and solvent abuse (Oklan & Henderson, 2014; Silverman, 2009).

REFERENCES

Alzheimer’s Society (2015) What is Alzheimer’s disease? Available at: http://www.alzheimers.org.uk/site/scripts/documents_info.php?categoryID=200171&documentID=100&gclid=CI_j59OHv8UCFYgIwwodCqUAPA (Last accessed: 06/05/2015).

Blackburn, R., & Bradshaw, T. (2014) ‘Music therapy for service users with dementia: a critical review of the literature’, Journal of Psychiatric & Mental Health Nursing, Vol. 21, No. 10, pp. 879-888. Available from: 10.1111/jpm.12165.

British Association for Music Therapy (2012) What is music therapy? Available at: http://www.bamt.org/music-therapy/what-is-music-therapy.html (Last accessed: 12/05/2012).

Chan, M., Wong, Z., Onishi, H., & Thayala, N. (2012) ‘Effects of music on depression in older people: a randomised controlled trial’, Journal of Clinical Nursing, Vol. 21, No. 5/6, pp. 776-783. Available from: 10.1111/j.1365-2702.2011.03954.x.

Choi, A., Lee, M., & Lim, H. (2008) ‘Effects of group music intervention on depression, anxiety, and relationships in psychiatric patients: a pilot study’, Journal of Alternative & Complementary Medicine, Vol. 14, No. 5, pp. 567-570. Available from: 10.1089/acm.2008.0006.

Clare, M. (2014) ‘Soothing sounds: reducing agitation with music therapy’, Nursing & Residential Care, Vol. 16, No. 4, pp. 217-221.

Feld, S. (1994) ‘Communication, music, and speech about music’, in Keil, C. & Feld, S. (eds.) Music grooves: essays and dialogues. United States of America: The University of Chicago Press, pp. 77-95.

Green, B. (1986) The inner game of music. United States: Pan Books.

Harrison, P. (2006) The human nature of the singing voice: exploring a h basis for sound teaching and learning. Great Britain: Dunedin Academic Press.

Higgins, L. (2012) Community music: in theory and in practice. United States: Oxford University Press.

Lee, J., & Thyer, B. (2013) ‘Does Music Therapy Improve Mental Health in Adults? A Review’, Journal of Human Behavior in the Social Environment, Vol. 23, No. 5, pp. 591-603. Available from: 10.1080/10911359.2013.766147.

Levitin, D. (2006). This is your brain on music: understanding a human obsession. Great Britain: Atlantic Books.

National Health Service (2006) Wellbeing self-assessment. Available at: http://www.nhs.uk/Tools/Pages/Wellbeing-self-assessment.aspx (Last accessed: 11/05/2015).

Newham, P. (1999) Using voice and song in therapy: the practical application of voice movement therapy. United Kingdom: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

North, A. & Hargreaves, D. (2008) The social and applied psychology of music. United States: Oxford University Press.

Oklan, A., & Henderson, S. (2014) ‘Treating inhalant abuse in adolescence: A recorded music expressive arts intervention’, Psychomusicology: Music, Mind, and Brain, Vol. 24, No. 3, pp. 231-237. Available from: 10.1037/pmu0000058.

Pavlicevic, M. (1999) Music therapy: intimate notes. United Kingdom: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Sacks, O. (2008). Musicophilia: tales of music and the brain. 2nd Edition. United Kingdom: Vintage Books.

Silverman, M. (2009) ‘A descriptive analysis of music therapists working with consumers in substance abuse rehabilitation: Current clinical practice to guide future research’, The Arts in Psychotherapy, Vol. 36, pp. 123-130. Available from: 10.1016/j.aip.2008.10.005.

Stige, B., Ansdell, G., Elefant, C. & Pavlicevic, M. (2010) Where music helps: community music therapy in action and reflection. Great Britain: Ashgate.

Stige, B. & Aarø, L. (2012) Invitation to community music therapy. United Kingdom: Routledge.

Thaut, M. (2005) ‘Rhythm, human temporality, and brain function’, in Miell, D., MacDonald, R. & Hargreaves, D. (Eds.) Musical communication. United States: Oxford University Press, pp. 171-191.

Therapy Today (2011) ‘NHS urged to pay for music therapy to cure depression’, 2011, Therapy Today, Vol. 22 (No. 7), p.5.

Therapy Today (2014) ‘Music therapy helps beat depression’, (2014) Therapy Today, Vol. 25, No. 9, p. 6.

Venkatapuram, S. (2013) ‘Subjective wellbeing: a primer for poverty analysts’, Journal of Poverty & Social Justice, Vol. 21, No. 1, pp. 5-17. Available from: 10.1332/175982713X664029.

Williams, T. (2014) ‘A journey to music therapy’, Exceptional Parent, Vol. 44, No. 4, pp. 30-32.

Warm up & practice recommendations

This week, I’ve had the rare luxury of free time. Free time to pick up my guitar whenever I like and play. Not specifially for any particular goal, just to PLAY for the love of playing.

In doing this, it has occured to me just how little I get to do this. Usually I pick the axe up to practice or prepare for an upcoming show or to learn new material. The rest of the time I’m actually at a gig playing.

Using it as a great opportunity to go over my classical repertiore, I found it almost scary how much my disclipline had slipped. Don’t get me wrong, I still play well and in a musically pleasing manner (in my opinion, anyway!) but there are ways of performing on gutar (with classical peices in particular) which enhances the music and makes playing easier (not to mention lessening any strain and preventing injuries long term).

So this week, I have been delving into my old practice and warm up notes and dug out my old favourite, Pumping Nylon by Scott Tennant. For the classical guitarists out there who do not have this book, I strongly recommend you purchase it as soon as possible.

Image

This book focuses solely on technique improvement for both hands (including thumb for the right hand). After the initial basics and starters, it progresses into joint techniques (working exercises for both hands together) and demonstrates a closer look into flamenco techniques. These not only go to strengthen your right hand, but to widen your overall playing ability. It also includes specially written study peices to incorporate all the techniques it has taught.
About eight years ago, I suffered a broken ring finger on my right hand. This has never fully regained it’s original strength (and as a result my regular concert days are mostly behind me). The exercises in this book went a long way in helping my rebuild the muscle and bring my ability back, something I feared would necver happen. Because of this, the right hand techniques and exercises int his book are of particular importance to me.

That’s the basic warm ups covered, but what about actually rehearsal starters? For me, as with many classical guitar players, the studies (or ‘Etudes’) of Francisco Tarrega and Fernando Sor provide plenty of examples for rehearsal focus, especially with right hand technique. It’s absolutely amazing the depth of ground these two player/teacher/composers covered in advancing the technical study of the guitar and I cannot recommend them highly enough.

Alongside these, there are also the studies of Mauro Giuliani. Although his concert and recital peices are widely known (in fact the staple of most player’s repertiore), his studies are often neglected. However, I would definitely suggest investing in a transcription of his complete studies. While not as technique-practice heavy as Sor (who, in contrast, is remembered historically more for his studies than his concert peices), they present a more musically varying set and some new colour into your practice routine.

My standard practise routine (looking at my old notes from my true classical playing days) went roughly as follows:

5-10 mins warm ups (both hands, featuring exercises from Pumping Nylon and scale practice)
Selected studies from Sor, Tarrega and Giuliani (2 or 3 from each, focusing on specific improvement areas)
Looking at any new peices to learn; slow play-through; focus on tricky areas; attempt to play through without stopping (I would try not to spend more than 20-25 minutes on this to prevent fatigue or frustration – the peice can be returned to on the next day)
A better known peice which also requires mastering. Ideally play-through should be reached far more quickly
Another peice (already known) to ‘refresh’ the fingers (ideally this will also be an upcoming concert peice)
‘Free playing’ – At this point, I could have been rehearsing for up to an hour and a half, so this should be an old favourite or two which you know well, to act as a ‘cool down’. Be careful, though, to remain watchful on technique and accuracy, as this is more likely to slip on peices you are over familiar with.

These, of course, are my tips only. I would however be deleighted to hear from other guitarists and their tips/routines for warm-ups and rehearsals. You can contact me via this blog or via my Twiiter handle: @tim_guitarist

Good luck and happy practising!

Book Review: Higgledy Piggledy Jazz for Classical Guitar Ensemble

Higgledy Piggledy Jazz is the brainchild of teacher and composer Elena Cobb (http://www.elenacobb.com/index.html), who is on a dual mission to introduce more Jazz into children’s learning, and make it fun at the same time. As well as her books for Piano, Elena also has versions for guitar and alto sax students, and it’s the Classical Guitar Ensemble book I am reviewing today.

Ten of Elena’s Piano peices have been arranged for a combination of duo, trio and quartets and set in order of technical complexity. The scores are clear and easy to read, with each part clearly marked*. The first few peices in the book are variation on Blues in C and very simplistic. The main melody is one Jazz lick repeated and varied for the chord underneath. The accompanying parts are equaly repetative, and any player beyind the initial stages will quickly bore of it. My suggestion to teachers would be to rotate the lead between players, provided all of them were at the same technical level.

On the plus side, as the book progresses there are some interesting musical ideas, and the three guitar players Elena has called in to arrange these peices have done a good job here. I really feel the intermeadiate peices work better. My personal favourite is ‘Polka Butterfly’, a charismatic duo which would stretches students into a new style. As mentioned before the page layout is clean and easy to read, and I love Elena’s mission to introduce classical players to the swing rythym, something not widely present in the classical guitar repertiore.

My one suggestion would be to include a page at the front to explain notation and guitar-specific symbology (such as the fingering labels and guides for which string to play certian notes on). I appreciate that this book is primarily for teachers, who would provide the guidance on these things to young students, but it would serve as a useful look-up reference page when practising at home.

All in all, this is a useful book for teachers who are looking to encourage their emerging classical guitar students into exploring new styles and mpore contemporary ways of playing. It is also a valuble tool for young ensembles. One of classical guitar’s downfalls is that so often it is a solo venture; it’s uplifting to know tha Elena is working to ensure young students of the guitar do not feel that isolation, and her book will go a long way towards that end. Highly recommended for any classical crossover teachers of children.

[*N.B. – There is also a Tabluture version of this book, for children who are still coming to grips with reading music]