Archive for the ‘Beginners’ Category

Practicing Without Your Guitar – Part I: Why?

A week and a half ago, I led a workshop on “Practicing Without Your Guitar” at the York Region Fingerstyle Guitar Association’s monthly Open Mic. Over the next couple of weeks, I will be posting some of the techniques that were discussed for practicing without having an instrument in hand.

First, however, I thought it might be helpful to discuss why one might want to practice without a guitar.

For me, the most obvious situation where one might want to practice without a guitar is when there isn’t a guitar available. When you’re on the bus, or at your kids’ soccer practice, or waiting at the doctor’s office, you may want to wile away the time by practicing without your guitar.

You may also want to practice without your guitar to build non-guitar-specific skills. You can work on rhythm or ear training very easily without having your instrument in hand.

Another reason you may want to practice without your guitar is to avoid (or recover from) injury. Repetitive stress injuries are common with the guitar and we can reduce our playing hours by finding ways to practice without actually playing.

So now that you know why you might want to practice without your guitar, stay tuned to learn how to practice without your guitar…

May 29, 2012:  Part II: Visualizing

June 28, 2012: Part III: Rhythm and Tempo

Adjudication

Posted by Brian on 13th February 2012 in Beginners, Musicianship, Performing

A regular theme of mine since starting this blog has been the importance of getting out and performing for people. Around the time I started this blog I committed to practicing what I preach and I’ve been a regular attendee at one local open mic and have put in a couple of appearances at a couple of others. Long time readers will know that I also entered the Sunderland Music Festival a year ago:

“The Sunderland Lions Music Festival is intended to promote higher standards of musical awareness and achievement in our community by providing young musicians with opportunities for public performance and professional assessment.” — Mission Statement

While “young musician” doesn’t quite describe me in terms of chronological age, it does describe me in terms of the potential for growth in my musicianship. And the experience of entering the festival last year was a great one. The festival is “adjudicated“. This means that a professional musician actively listens to your playing and critiques it. This is a very different experience from participating in an open mic, or singing around the campfire, or pretty much any other performance experience available to amateur performers. Most people after hearing you play will describe it in terms that are some variation on “good” or “bad”. An adjudicator will comment on your tempo, phrasing, dynamics, and other aspects of your playing. These are the things that make your playing “good” or “bad”, but most people are not musically literate enough (or energetic enough) to break down the elements of your playing and categorize the things that you do well – or not-so-well.

Last year the adjudicator praised my phrasing, but pointed out a lack of dynamics in my playing. So now, I pay more attention to my dynamics. I’ve discovered, both by playing and listening, that dynamics can really grab the attention of your audience and can really help to convey the emotion of a tune. I also found it very interesting listening to the critiques of other musicians, particularly those who played other instruments.

This year, I’ve signed up again and I’ve persuaded a number of my students to sign up as well. I’m really looking forward to hearing what the adjudicator will say about my playing this year. I’m also curious as to what he will say about my students’ playing. As a teacher I imagine that the experience of having someone analyzing my students’ playing will be very educational as well.

If you are interested in checking out an adjudicated performance, the Open Guitar Class of the Sunderland Music Festival will take place at 7 pm on Tuesday, February 21, 2012 at the Sunderland United Church, 10 Church St., Sunderland.

 

Tune Up!

Posted by Brian on 16th January 2012 in Beginners, Ear Training, Musicianship, Performing, Playing well with others, Rant

“I thought that the professional touch that made your set was the fact that your guitar was in a proper state of tune.”

I recently played a short set at a local open mic, where a musician friend was in attendance and I received the preceding note the following day. I sometimes forget how sensitive some people are to tuning – my ear seems to be less discriminating than most. I can hear when something is out of tune, but it doesn’t grate on me the way that it does some people. Having said that, I do recognize the importance of tuning.

It actually took me years to figure out tuning. Then one day, the clouds parted and I saw the light. Not sure what the trigger was, but suddenly I “got it”. For others, tuning is as natural as breathing. But the important thing is that you must always strive to play in tune, especially when playing for (or with) others.

Every time you pick up your instrument, you should check the tuning. These days, it is much easier than when I was a budding young rockstar. You can now buy electronic tuners for as little as $15 (though I would recommend spending a little more). And while I think that you should always try to tune by ear first, you can easily check your work with the tuner.

If you get used to playing in tune all of the time, it becomes way easier to tell if you are out of tune, and you may even get to the point where you will be able to critique other performers’ tuning… Best of all, you are way less likely to annoy your audience, even if it is just your cat.

What NOT to give for Christmas…

Posted by Brian on 6th December 2011 in Beginners, Guitar, Rant

Please, please, PLEASE, if you don’t know what to get your child for Christmas, do NOT get them a guitar.

Does it seem strange that a guitar teacher would try to dissuade you from giving a guitar for Christmas?

Here’s why:

While there are three exceptions, 95 percent of the time, giving a guitar at Christmas is a bad idea.

Unless you want an unplayed guitar sitting in your closet for the next couple of decades.

Many times when a parent gives a guitar for Christmas, its because the child already has an X-box, an iPod, an iPad, a DS, a TV, a computer, and maybe even a bicycle… so they see a guitar on the shelf at the local Stuff-Mart and think’ “Oh! Junior doesn’t have one of those! I bet (s)he would like one.”

And, yes, on Christmas morning, Junior might very well be ecstatic – with visions of musical stardom dancing in his or her head.

However…

The thing that Junior does not yet realize is that guitar is hard. Really hard. It takes a lot of work. And if learning guitar isn’t something that he or she is passionate about, it’s probably not going to happen on its own.

Here are the three exceptions:

One: Junior has been pestering for a guitar for months. Playing air guitar for hours on end and stringing rubber bands over empty tissue boxes to work on his or her chops. In this case, promise me that you will not buy the guitar from a big box store and that you will not spend less than $200 and go ahead.

Two: You have already bought Junior a guitar from a big box store and by some miracle, it is still getting played. In this case, it is probably time for an upgrade and, if you promise me that you will not buy another guitar from a big box store and that you will not spend less than $200, you have my blessing.

Three: You are prepared to take on the grueling task of being the taskmaster and forcing daily practice until sufficient skill is developed that Junior actually learns and appreciates the rewards of playing music and discovers a desire to learn independently. (This is not a bad thing, but most modern parents don’t have the time or energy for this.) Just promise me that you will not buy the guitar from a big box store and that you will not spend less than $200.

(If you have, decided that, yes, a guitar would, in fact, make a great gift, then you should probably include a tuner, a music stand, and a metronome as stocking stuffers.)

So when you see that guitar sitting on the shelf at the Stuff-Mart, just think, “Thanks, Brian,” and walk on by.

 

At What Age Can a Child Start to Play Guitar?

Posted by Brian on 19th October 2011 in Beginners, Guitar, Relatives of the Guitar, The Instrument

It is a question that I get a lot and, as with most things, the short answer is, “The younger, the better.” Having said that, there are challenges for the young beginner. The biggest one being finding a good quality instrument that fits.

Unlike the violin, it is hard to find a decent quality guitar in any size smaller than what is known as a “parlour-sized” guitar – about three quarters of the size of a typical guitar – usually suitable for a child who is eight to ten years old, depending on their height. Most guitars smaller than this are nothing more than toys, not really useful for learning anything meaningful. But there are exceptions.

How can you tell the difference between a toy and a proper instrument?

The first clue is where you are shopping. If you’re not in a store that sells musical instruments, and only musical instruments, then you are probably buying a toy. The second clue is price. There are bona fide music stores that sell toy instruments simply because there is a market for them, but if you ask, they will probably recommend something of better quality. Generally, for a new instrument, you need to be spending at least $200 to get something of decent quality.

An excellent option for the very young (or very small) beginner is a baritone ukelele. A baritone ukelele is slightly larger than a regular ukelele and it’s four strings are tuned to the same pitches as the four highest strings on a guitar. (For those who don’t know, the “highest” strings are the ones closest to the floor – the thinnest ones.) You can usually get a decent baritone ukelele starting at about $150. To truly mimic a guitar’s tuning, you would need to replace the “fourth” string – the one furthest from the floor –  with a thicker string that can be tuned an octave below the standard tuning of the baritone uke. (The distinctive tone of ukeleles comes from the fact that the fourth string is tuned to a pitch between that of the first two strings – an octave above what you might otherwise expect.) Replacing the fourth string can easily be done by the salesperson in the store.

Also, a regular ukelele would make a great starter instrument. The tuning is different, but the “intervals” between string pitches are consistent with the guitar and the skill of playing is fully transferable. Good quality ukeleles usually start at about $100 – though some ukelele courses are able to provide decent instruments for $60-75 as part of the course, because they buy in bulk and don’t necessarily have the overhead costs.

I have also seen instruments known as guitar-leles – basically a six-stringed ukelele. However, I have never laid hands on one that I would buy. Any that I have picked up have been terribly intonated (meaning that the notes don’t sound correctly as you move up the neck), despite having reputable brand names and being sold in reputable stores. I would avoid these instruments, unless you are knowledgeable enough to make a good judgement or someone you know can go with you to check the instrument first.

In fact, having a knowledgeable friend accompany you is always a good idea. Don’t be afraid to ask, because most musicians are quite happy to have an excuse to take a trip to the local music shop. And shopping with someone else’s money is always a treat.