Tag Archives: musical practice

Three things we can learn from George Martin

Sir George Martin, most famous for acting as the producer of all but one of The Beatles’ albums, passed away yesterday, aged 90.

Beatles_and_George_Martin_in_studio_1966

Already, reports and obituaries have been published, quoting Martin and highlighting his amazing achievements with and without The Beatles. Though Martin was a producer for over a decade before meeting them, it is undoubtedly his work with this music-changing band, the very Zeitgeist  of musical development in the nineteen-sixties and beyond, for which he will be best remembered and discussed for years to come.

There’s been plenty of debate on whether or not The Beatles succeeded artistically because of suggestions made by Martin, or if he was simply very effective in channelling their natural talent. In reality, it was probably a mix of the two. That in itself is not a bad legacy to leave behind.

Though Martin now sadly has passed away, we can still learn something valuable from the work he left behind. Here are my three things which we can learn from the life and career of George Martin:

Have an open mind

I’ve mentioned this in several previous posts, but an open mind and a willing pair of ears is without a shadow of a doubt the most important tool for any artist. This is especially true for musicians and producers, and a sentiment to which Martin himself prescribed more than once, including in his own books.

It is well established in rock history canon that The Beatles were been turned down by several record companies prior to being signed by Martin to EMI. Think about this for a moment: every almost ‘industry expert’ had refused to take on another guitar band, believing them to be going out of fashion. Fair enough, it is called the music business for a reason. Money has to be made and trends will always be followed. This is as true today as it was in the nineteen fifties and sixties. However, ‘following the money’ is a great way to be a follower, but you are default already a follower from the start, and not a leader.

The best leaders, artists, teachers, and indeed the best in any profession listen first. In seeing the potential that The Beatles had, Martin was able to continue listening to them throughout their eight years working together making hit after hit, and classic album after classic album. This is especially noticeable when at the point mid-sixties where the band stopped performing live altogether, becoming a studio band only. The resulting works, Revolver, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band, The Beatles and Abbey Road, are unique in sounding very much of their time, but still fresh and exciting in 2016.

And it wasn’t just Martin doing all of the listening. The Beatles themselves were avid consumers of art and music. In being open to anything interesting, they brought elements of avant-garde, atonalism, looping, sampling and a whole world of musical styles to their music. By opening your ears, and combining the sounds you love, it is entirely possible to produce a new work, which speaks to the future while recognising that which has gone before.

Know your limits, and push them

Looping, you say? Sampling? In the nineteen-sixties?! It is worth noting that the vast majority of The Beatles’ recorded output was recorded on a four-track (or, at very best towards the seventies, eight-track) tape machine. This was state of the art back then, but lacking in the limitless options of the digital recording software in use everywhere. Leaving aside all the other technological innovations and improvisations Martin would conjure up to accommodate the visions of The Beatles in their songwriting, there is the question of the sheer number of instruments and sounds on some songs. The solution to squeezing so many different elements onto a four-track recorder? Multi-tracking.

Multi-tracking was first developed by guitarist Les Paul some decades before Martin made such effective use of the technique. Put simply, the process involves recording onto three of the available tracks, then ‘bouncing’ that mix onto the fourth track. The process can be repeated using tracks one and two, then bouncing to the third. Then it can (if needed) be taken even further by mixing tracks three & four onto one of the other tracks, meaning there are now three left to add on more parts (and here is where I start to go cross-eyed myself!).

The biggest issue with this method of recording is the physical degradation of the tape onto which the sound was being copied. By layering track upon track, the overall mix becomes more dense, and done incorrectly, can leave with a muddy sounding, uninspiring record. George Martin, however, seems to have been perfectly capable of getting clean, crisp recordings of individual mixes, which hold their brightness as they get ‘bounced’ and mixed into a deeper and more complicated arrangement. Even with Martin’s confident ‘know how’, there was still a limit to how many additions could me made. In these days of endless tracks and almost any possible sound available to laptops worldwide, I personally don’t see the same level of mechanical creativity. Sometimes working with what you have, pushing the limits, is better than having no limits at all…

Have a sense of humour

There’s a famous anecdote – which Martin was often fond of telling – detailing the first time The Beatles first met their producer (retold once more in the Washington Post’s obituary of George Martin today). After Martin had spoke at length about the recording process, he asked the Fab Four is there was anything they didn’t like. The response, from George Harrison, was “Well, I don’t like your tie for a start…”. From there, Martin knew that they would get along famously.

A sense of humour can not only ease any tensions rising in the studio, which can be high-pressure for some acts expected to produce hit after hit. It can also serve to bridge the gap between generations. In that respect, Martin must have impressed the Beatles from the start, having quite an extensive background in comedy and novelty recordings – some of which became unexpected hits – including John Lennon’s comedy heroes, The Goons. In quite a lot of interview footage from the early sixties, The Beatles were set apart from their questioners, an exclusive club with a shared sense of humour and in-jokes which created a barrier to those outside of the group. Martin, I believe, was very much inside their ‘circle of trust’, otherwise they would not have allowed him such authority in the studio. A shared sense of humour must have been a major in-road to gaining the trust of these young Liverpudlians.

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Final Thoughts

As a musician, producer and in some ways, mentor, Martin helped the Fab Four to realise the sounds they heard in their heads. His creative, yet critical thinking fuelled The Beatles’ insatiable appetite for art, and helped their music transcend to heights which otherwise may have remained untouched. Though I have spoken mostly about Martin’s work with the Fab Four, we should be no means overlook all of the other artists he worked with & film scores he wrote/arranged. Without Martin, popular music, and therefore the world we live in today, would be very different indeed…

R.I.P. Sir George Henry Martin (1926-2016).

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 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 specifically for any particular goal, just to PLAY for the love of playing.

In doing this, it has occurred 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 repertoire, I found it almost scary how much my discipline 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 guitar (with classical pieces 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.

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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 pieces 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 never 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 pieces are widely known (in fact the staple of most player’s repertoire), 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 pieces), they present a more musically varying set and some new colour into your practice routine.

My standard practice 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 pieces 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 piece can be returned to on the next day)
  • A better known piece which also requires mastering. Ideally play-through should be reached far more quickly
  • Another piece (already known) to ‘refresh’ the fingers (ideally this will also be an upcoming concert piece)
  • ‘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 pieces you are over familiar with.

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

Good luck and happy practicing!