Category Archives: teaching

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

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Gear Talk (2)

It’s been almost two years since the last post running through all of my gear (which you can read here), and a lot has changed since then! Time for an update…

What’s the same?

First off, my blue/purple Strat is still my main weapon of choice (pictured, below).

My main Strat, with modded pickups. Seen here with my fave stomp boxes.

Known as the Standard Stratocaster HSS, this Mexican made beauty has been with me for sixteen years now. A few years ago, I upgraded the pickups to:

  • Fender Vintage Noiseless (neck)
  • Seymour Duncan Cool Rails (middle)
  • Seymour Duncan ’59 humbucker (bridge)

I love the combination of these pickups, not to mention their individual tones. I’m buying a new ‘fat Strat’ soon (expect a review to follow) and should I find the standard pickups somewhat lacking in quality, I’ll be replacing them with the same choices mentioned above.

What else has remained the same?

My acoustics – the Taylor 314ce, Admira classical and Tanglewood electro acoustic – are the same as before. My ukulele is a standard concert model by Kauai.

Most of my pedals have remained the same but here’s a quick rundown of my main stompboxes:

  • Joyo Vintage Overdrive (highly recommended!)
  • HotOne Boost
  • Boss OD3 (overdrive) & DS1 (distortion)
  • Marshall Bluesbreaker overdrive
  • Snarling Dogs Wah
  • Joyo Digital Delay

I have a pedal board to house all of these. However, I often simply take two or three pedals out to a gig without the board. This changes from gig to gig, but looking back through the pics on my Twitter account, I find the Joyo Vintage OD (a top quality tubescreamer clone for a fraction of the price) usually makes an appearance.

So what’s new?

ELECTRICS

My current second Strat is a Chinese made Modern Player Stratocaster. Interestingly, it is short scale (24 inches instead of the usual 25.5). Apart from being a feet shorter on the neck (only twenty) you barely notice when playing, though the body is a little smaller. In terms of sound, the pickups on this are classic Strat and I love the Guild humbucker in the bridge – the chrome looks really cool against the scratch plate (see pic below, sun best guitar on the left)!

Modern Player short scale Strat, sunburst (left); Mexican HSS Strat, midnight blue (right); Fender Stage 100 solid state amp (rear).

Finally, I also own an Epiphone Les Paul plus top PRO. The main difference between this and the standard Epi LP is that both the top quality pickups are coil-tapped. They’re also uncovered, which looks very funky against the gold finish (see pic, below).

Epiphone Les Paul plus top PRO, gold with those beautiful uncovered ‘zebra’ humbuckers.

When I bought this guitar, I thought I’d be using it with bands in the heavier end of the rock spectrum. However, I’ve found myself using it more & more for blues & jazz gigs. It was my main guitar for my blues workshops at the Sage Gateshead this summer, and provided those early blues times perfectly.

AMPS

I’ve finally bowed to the inevitable and invested in a digital amp. I’m glad I waited, because evidently Fender did too. The first wave of modelling amps were full of lags & bugs. By waiting, Fender’s first foray into the genre ensured they got it right first time. Even then, they were minor bugs, quickly improved in the line of amps released when I started looking – and now I’m a very happy owner of a Mustang III version 2 (pictured below).

Fender Mustang III v.2 digital amp, pictured here with my gold Epi LP.

This has every amp option you can think of, as well as every effect you’ll ever need. I prefer to keep my overdrive stompboxes, which frees up the amp to add modulation effects (such as phaser or their wonderful chorus choices). There’s room for a hundred saved channels, which is more than I need but useful to have. Also, their pitch-shift effect allows me to down tune the entire guitar without the need to, well, actually down tune the guitar! Very cool!

What else?

Well… I’ve just today ordered a Fender HSH Strat, so expect a review when that arrives. I’m also quite keen to look at a few more pedals from Joyo. Watch this space.

Until next time… 

Where have I been?

As the late, great David Bowie sang, ch-ch-ch-ch-changes…

Hi all, been a while! So where have I been?

In one respect, nowhere new. I have however been rather busy as wedding season came around & I took on a lot of additional limited-run teaching work about the same time. I’ve also been keeping busy preparing for the first big change to my work/life balance…

I have been successful in securing a place to study for a MSc in Music Therapy in Edinburgh. This means for the next two years I will be in Scotland for two days (one night) per week. Regular readers will not be surprised to learn that qualifying as a music therapist has  been one of my long-term goals for a while now. I expect it to be a pretty intense period of study, but I will aim to keep this blog updated of my progress. I’ll also continue to post any interesting insights into MT that I discover on the way.

Using ‘bedsit research’ as an excuse to travel up to Edinburgh this week, my partner & I spent a few days enjoying the Festival Fringe. You can expect blogs reviewing the shows we saw showing up here very soon…

Any other ch-ch-changes?

Well yes, actually. Remember that new music project I’ve mentioned starting (or attempting to start) intermittently over the last year? Expect a new update very soon – new (heavier) sounds are on the way!

Tim x

Ukulele Problems: Tuning

Ukulele beach(pic courtesy of ukulelemusichawaii.com)

So you’ve bought your first ukulele & learned a few chords. But now you’ve noticed that it’s gone out of tune. No matter, you have a tuner, you tune up. Done. But after a pretty short time, it’s out of tune again. Why?

I get this query a lot from my new ukulele students. Just as they are getting started with their first steps into music-making on this instrument, they become frustrated with it’s apparent lack of tuning stability.

New ukuleles come with new strings, which haven’t been ‘played in’. Just like a new set of strings of a guitar, they need to be ‘stretched’. As ukulele strings are made from nylon, which is a very flexible material, this is even more apparent.

The quickest way to to this is following these basic steps:

  1. Tune your ukulele
  2. Take a hold of the strings & gently pull them up, away from the fingerboard, repeating across a few different parts of the string (see an example video here)
  3. Re-tune the ukulele
  4. Repeat steps 2 & 3 until re-tuning is no longer required

Hey presto! problem solved! Your ukulele should now not only remain stable after playing, but also hold it’d tuning better when travelling (though extreme changes in temperature will still cause the strings to expand and contract).

The video included via hyper link in point 2, above (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=px0ds0T3ric) is one of many available online to help you better visualise what I mean by stretching the strings. It’s not as difficult as you might think!

Other things to remain mindful of:

While stretching the strings is by far the most common solution to fixing a consistently out of tune uke, you may still notice occasional tuning issues. Perhaps simple, mostly open chords sound correct, but those with three or four fretted notes, or barre chords, have one or two out of tune strings when played. More perplexing, this can happen when the open strings are still correctly tuned up.

The problem? In this case, it’s intonation.

Provided you have a decent instrument, where the frets are set up and spaced correctly (watch out for the false economy of the bottom range ‘budget models’), then this can easily be fixed by paying close attention to how you fret the notes. You may find, on new or more interestingly shaped chords, that you are pressing down too hard on certain strings, pushing that note slightly out of tune with the rest of the chord. Some positions might require you to stretch or bend a finger in a way which means it is not sitting behind the fret as per the standard method. This too, can be fixed with a little bit of practise, and a small amount of mindfulness. Happy Uke-ing!

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 6): Music Therapy & Educational Wellbeing

Music and educational wellbeing

So far, we have investigated the value of music in physical and mental wellbeing. As previously discussed, a better education leads to greater feelings of wellbeing, particularly in later stages of life (Merriam & Kee, 2014). With that in mind, if we are to consider the value of music on our physical and mental wellbeing, we must also discern its role in our education.

There have been recent arguments for the evaluation of wellbeing in the school system, examining what good practice is already in place, and also discussing ways to implement further measures (Aggleton, Dennison & Warwick, 2010). A recent study by McFerran & Rickson (2014) also highlighted the positive effect of music and music therapy in educational wellbeing. Both of the above studies allude to the wider benefits in the community and later on in the child’s life, once they reach adulthood. In this chapter, I aim to examine current thinking on the effects of music on improvements in children’s learning.

The act of participating in musical activities, or playing musical instrument, is seen by many to be of great importance to children’s development (Scripp, Ulibarri, & Flax, 2013; Swanwick, 1988, 1994;). As well as teaching self-discipline and providing feelings of achievement, it acts as ‘a powerful therapy for all sorts of childhood conditions. It develops body, brain and soul in balance’ (Ben-Tovim, 1979, pp. 15-16). Music has been considered to share many similarities with language throughout our history (Thaut, 2005, p. 171). It has long been used as a method of communicating new ideas and concepts to children in a classroom environment (Welch, 2005, p. 254; Barrett, 2005). The use of music in teaching pre-school children acts as both an ‘aid in language development while promoting musical development at the same time’ (Wiggins, 2007, p. 55). Recent studies, such as those carried out by Rickard et al (2010) noticed significant improvements in the verbal memory of primary school children who had spent time studying and playing music.

Such improvements, however, stop a little short of the now famous ‘Mozart effect’. This term is derived from an experiment in which students who listened to at least ten minutes of Mozart’s music performed better in special awareness tests (Rauscher, Shaw & Ky, 1993, quoted in North & Hargreaves, 2008, p. 346). The popularity of these studies allowing the idea that certain genres of music can increase intelligence has since filtered into popular assumption. However, the theory that listening to music increases intelligence quotient (IQ), excluding any other factors or stimuli, is in itself a ‘massive oversimplification and overgeneralisation of the original scientific findings’ (North & Hargreaves, 2008, p. 346). I agree that there are too many additional factors to be considered when taking into account music as stimulation for learning. I find it unreasonable to rely on an almost magical ‘Mozart Effect’ for better results in a classroom environment. I believe music needs to be employed intelligently as a communicative and participative tool in teaching practice. Student engagement will be increased through activities they regard as ‘fun’ and consequently topics can be digested more effectively. In my opinion, the musical method should stimulate creativity in the children, and better equip them for future learning in other subjects (Scripp, Ulibarri, & Flax, 2013).

While Wiggins (2007) conducted her research in the United States of America, there is an emerging global consensus to collaborate her view surrounding music as an effective tool in teaching. A similar study undertaken in Australia investigated the effects of shared music activities in pre-school children at ages 2-3 years old. The researchers then successfully linked these to a positive range of skills by the time the subjects reached ages 4-5 years old. The children demonstrated higher abilities in ‘vocabulary, numeracy, attentional and emotional regulation, and prosocial skills’. (Williams et al, 2015). The children in these tests proved to be more developed in terms of numeracy, literacy and prosocial skills, than children who had not partaken in shared music activities at a young age; more, even, than children who had participated in shared reading activities at the same age as part of the same research (Williams et al, 2015). This builds upon previous research in Germany, which suggests the level of skills such as numeracy in children may be largely down to the home environment of the child, not to mention other factors such as the educational level of the mother (Anders et al, 2012). Williams et al (2015) use the studies of Anders et al (2012) as one of the bases for their own research. While the German studies are not music-specific, they do not preclude the theories on which the Australian study was conducted. Similar investigations on older children by Hille & Schupp (2015) demonstrated not only an improvement in school performance, but greater conscientiousness and improved social awareness.

So what about children with special educational needs? ‘Special educational needs’ (SEN) is a term which encompasses a wide variety of physical and mental circumstances which might impede learning, experienced both within and outside of the educational system. In the classroom environment, examples of SEN include children with speech, sight or hearing impairments, dyslexia, dyspraxia, delayed cognition, Down’s syndrome and those on the Autistic spectrum (ASD). Studies carried out by Dieringer & Porretta (2013) have shown that the use of music during lessons improves concentration in children on the autistic spectrum. The data returned by their research showed significantly less propensity on the child’s part to diverge into off-task behaviours. They showed higher levels of concentration when music was used as part of the learning process. They reasoned that ‘music can act as an extra auditory stimulus providing additional environmental structure, thus prompting children with ASD to stay on task.’ (Dieringer & Porretta, 2013, p. 8). Dieringer & Porretta (2013) also conclude that looking into this area of study further could lead to improvements in other aspects of life for children with ASD, not least enhanced inclusiveness with other children.

While Dieringer and Porretta (2013) demonstrate in their study that off-task behaviours are reduced when music is used, they argue that further research needs to be conducted into whether or not ‘improved performance or learning actually took place’ (2013, p. 9). However, similar research by Gerrity (2013) focused specifically on improved learning in children with autism during music lessons. The findings of this research conclude that improvements in musical ability and understanding did in fact occur.

What is interesting about the studies carried out by Gerrity (2013), and those undertaken by Dieringer & Porretta (2013) is that they both focus on children with varying levels of autism inside the regular public school system. However, research by (Sandiford, Mainess, & Daher, 2013) has shown how music is of enormous help to teachers in specialist schools for children with profound and multiple learning difficulties (PMLD), including the most severe cases of autism. My caveat to this would be that such improvements depend on a number of interlinking circumstances. This is similar to the findings of Anders et al (2012). These include, amongst other factors; teaching style; available resources (learning support and funding, for example); environment (at home and school); and parental support.

REFERENCES

Anders, Y., Rossbach, H., Weinert, S., Ebert, S., Kuger, S., Lehrl, S., Von Maurice, J. (2012) ‘Home and preschool learning environments and their relations to the development of early numeracy skills’, Early Childhood Research Quarterly, Vol. 27, pp. 231–244. Available From http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.ecresq.2011.08.003.

Barrett, M. (2005) ‘Musical communication and children’s communities of musical practice’, in Miell, D., MacDonald, R. & Hargreaves, D. (eds.) Musical communication. United States: Oxford University Press, pp. 261-280.

Ben-Tovim, A. (1979) Children and music. Great Britain: A. & C. Black Ltd.

Dieringer, S. & Porretta, D. (2013) ‘Using music to decrease off-task behaviours in young children with autism spectrum disorders’, Palaestra, Vol. 27, No. 1, pp. 7-9.

Dennison, C., Warwick, I. & Aggleton, P. (2010) ‘Evaluating health and well-being in schools’, in Aggleton, P., Dennison, C. & Warwick, I. (eds.) Promoting health and well-being through schools. United States & Canada: Routledge.

Gerrity, K. (2013) ‘Conditions that facilitate music learning among students with special needs: a mixed-methods inquiry’, Journal of research in music education, Vol. 61, No. 2, pp. 144-159. Available from: 10.1177/0022429413485428.

Hille, A., & Schupp, J. (2015) ‘How learning a musical instrument affects the development of skills’, Economics of Education Review, Vol. 44, pp. 56-82. Available from: 10.1016/j.econedurev.2014.10.007.

McFerran, K. & Rickson, D. (2014) ‘Community music therapy in schools: Realigning with the needs of contemporary students, staff and systems.’ International Journal of Community Music, Vol. 7, No. 1, p. 75. Available from: 10.1386/ijcm.7.1.75_1.

Merriam, S., & Kee, Y. (2014) ‘Promoting Community Wellbeing: The Case for Lifelong Learning for Older Adults’, Adult Education Quarterly, Vol. 64, No. 2, pp. 128-144. Available from: 10.1177/0741713613513633.

Rickard, N., Vasquez, J., Murphy, F., Gill, A., & Toukhsati, S. (2010) ‘Benefits of a Classroom Based Instrumental Music Program on Verbal Memory of Primary School Children: A Longitudinal Study’, Australian Journal of Music Education, No. 1, pp. 36-47.

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

Sandiford, G., Mainess, K., & Daher, N. (2013) ‘A Pilot Study on the Efficacy of Melodic Based Communication Therapy for Eliciting Speech in Nonverbal Children with Autism’, Journal of Autism & Developmental Disorders, Vol. 43, No. 6, pp. 1298-1307. Available from: 10.1007/s10803-012-1672-z.

Scripp, L., Ulibarri, D., & Flax, R. (2013) ‘Thinking Beyond the Myths and Misconceptions of Talent: Creating Music Education Policy that Advances Music’s Essential Contribution to Twenty-First-Century Teaching and Learning’, Arts Education Policy Review, Vol. 114, No. 2, pp. 54-102. Available from: 10.1080/10632913.2013.769825.

Swanwick, K. (1988). Music, mind, and education. USA & Canada: 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.

Welch, G. (2005) ‘Singing as communication’, in Miell, D., MacDonald, R. & Hargreaves, D.J. (eds.) Musical communication. United States: Oxford University Press, pp. 239-259.

Wiggins, D. (2007) ‘Pre-K Music and the Emergent Reader: Promoting Literacy in a Music-Enhanced Environment’, Early Childhood Education Journal, vol. 35, no. 1, pp. 55-64. Available from: 10.1007/s10643-007-0167-6.

Williams, K., Barrett, M., Welch, G., Abad, V., & Broughton, M. (2015) ‘Associations between early shared music activities in the home and later child outcomes: Findings from the Longitudinal Study of Australian Children’, Early Childhood Research Quarterly, Vol. 31, pp. 113-124. Available from: 10.1016/j.ecresq.2015.01.004.

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!