Helpfiles: Finger tips

The notes on this page come mostly from email discussions about technique and wider musical questions.

1. Teacher or self taught?
2. Nail preparation
3. Practice time, practice strategies
4. Transcribing piano music
5. Stage Fright
6. Visualisation

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On having a teacher or being self taught

Firstly, we are all self-taught. It is not the individual outside of us (if we
have a teacher) who makes our fingers do certain things in certain ways, or
makes the connection between an artistic ideal and a present result; all they
are doing is putting up a signpost, and numerous reminder signposts on the way.
There has to be a part of the student that 'takes charge' and makes the thing or
connection "happen". To that extent it does not matter if the taking charge
element is within or without; however it is much more practical if it has
outside help, to observe what is going on and make comments and suggestions that
the internal element does not have the time to make while playing is going on.
This is why it is so useful to see oneself play on video, and several teachers I
know make excellent use of this as an extension of their own suggestion-making.
Often it is not necessary to say anything after showing the student the video,
they see and can internalise what to do. However it shows that it is only when
something is taken on board and made to happen by the learner, that learning
of any significance takes place. The big question then is what is the most
effective way to make that possible.

Secondly, nobody is self-taught. May I explain. The part of you (if you are
into the Inner Game it's Self 2) who actually does the playing is not the part
(Self 1) who does the directing and instructing in the previous paragraph. So
whether you are performing for the china dogs or an audience of thousands, the
effect of what learning you have done, is felt only by the receptive performer
part of you. So for all intents and purposes, you as performer have not taught
yourself; you are responding to the impulses supplied by elements who are not
involved with the performance, your teacher (who may be trembling in the third
row), or your internal teacher (who may be trembling closer by!) A large
measure of the success of the performance, whatever it is, is determined by your
success in forgetting your teachers while acting according to what they have
. The rest lies in the fitness to you of what your teacher(s) have said.

So the paradox can be resolved if we accept that as learners we are performers we have teachers, whether within or without.

So given that much of the effect and value of teaching lies in being able to
cross this divide from learner to performer (even if it's only to the china
doggies), a good proportion of what makes a good teacher has to be to do with
enabling that transition. A good deal of what has been volunteered as qualities
of a good teacher is common sense, so I won't reiterate. But I would suggest
that certain a priori qualities need addressing, long before consideration of
playing/sightreading/technical knowledge matters.

Basically, the teacher has to create an environment in which the student can
progress sustainably. Unfortunately every individual has a different make up,
and needs a different balance of stimulation-motivation-expectation. For many
teachers, it is their practice to play safe and not push any of these very hard
at all. The result too often is that expectations are not high, so there is no
disappointment when they are not realised, but the lack of stimulation
(primarily of the imagination) leads to a gradual loss of interest. But, well
the student kept coming for a few months/years. The opposite danger is that of
charging the student with loads of high energy input, so they get very excited
and live on a high level of motivation; this is dangerous because it brings
powerful personality forces into play, which may make the person very good at
the instrument, but may just as likely cause a catastrophic collapse (-"I can't
cope with these expectations/surely I don't deserve to be that good/I can't keep
this much practising up so I'll have to stop altogether,....") The truly good
teacher knows how to strike a happy medium, to push hard enough but not too
hard. This is not something that can be taught and it certainly is not taught
in conservatoires!

But if there were no other use for a teacher, it would be this; to supply a
point of perspective for the learner, i) in terms of motivation and ii)
technical observation. It's asking a lot of one individual to do all the
practising and get that motivation balance right as well, and to watch their
fingers as though they were outside of themselves. This is why for most people
a teacher is a Good Thing, assuming they have the necessary skills. Which you
have to assume because unless you can observe the teacher' failings the chances
are they are well ahead of you.

Finally, it is often discussed whether teachers find self taught players exhibit more technical (and musical) faults than taught players. In general the answer is undoubtedly Yes, but I would go further and say that all the taught players I have received also exhibited faults, but in general the self-taught players had bigger ones! Oh, and yes, I have technical faults and so does everybody, even the most apparently perfect players (JW, DR, MB...). They just have very very very small ones.

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Nail Preparation - some guidance

First off I shape the nails i) either by folding a piece of 600 grade wet and dry sandpaper around each treble string and playing normal strokes over it, thus shaping the nail in accordance with the movement of the string underneath or ii) by using a fancy German device that does a similar thing but using 6 round files.
If you are using the sandpaper method, I suggest the following details;

i. cut the sheet into four pieces (easier to handle)
ii. fold it gently, so that the string will tuck into the fold nicely; do not press the fold hard as that will tend to crack the abrasive surface of the sandpaper .
iii. tuck the string into the folded corner of the sandpaper so that the rest of the sandpaper lies away from the direction your finger will be moving in
iv. it is that gently folded surface that does a lot of the work on the nail, so...
v. ...make a new fold for every time you shape your nails this way, thus keeping the "cutting edge" fresh
vi. do the 'a' finger on the first string, 'm' finger on the second string and 'i' finger on the third
vii. do the thumb this way as well, though you will need to arrange the general profile with a file because this method does not actually shape the thumb nail, it merely provides a better "fine detail" approach. To do the thumb you will put the sandpaper on the bass strings in the direction of the thumb's normal strokes, ie the opposite way to the finger strokes!!

Yet more details on the methodology:

1. the motion is your NORMAL plucking movement, just as though you were playing (as close as possible!)
2. use repeated freestroke
3. everybody's nails respond differently so you need to experiment and see how much impact the process has on your particular nails. I go for 10 or so strokes and then try it on the bare string, and continue if necessary. Basically it is a matter of how much nail the sandpaper is taking away at each stroke.
4. fold the paper, gently so that the abrasive surface is not broken. Tuck the string into the fold, with the rest of the paper on either side of the string;

where the O is the strings, the ( is the folded surface and the _________ is the remainder of the sandpaper.

This keeps the paper in place well enough because you have the paper 'anchored' by being either side of the 6 strings. You can also hold it still with your other hand by squeezing the strings through the sandpaper.


Then I shape off the leading and trailing edges which this method of shaping do not address - especially the trailing edge.

Then take off the burr underneath, - all with 600 grade by the way so far.

Then I take some 1200 grade that has been rubbed against another piece of 600 - this is very smooth! -

First I rub over the edges with some of the coarser parts of the paper, and then with the finer parts (ie where it has been worn smooth already).

Then its a piece of old leather.

Then a piece of wood I found washed up on the beach at Biarritz (SW France) after my first concert there. This really is very smooth indeed.

And if I want to get carried away there are various sea-smoothed pebbles around the house which get 'nailed' every so often.

Of all these steps, the first is the most important, followed by the rest in descending order.

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Getting the most out of practice time

Your practice time is always limited - no matter how much you have, the way you use it will greatly affect the progress you make. For the sake of an example let's take one hour as a typical practice session.

In general terms out of an hour I would devote 15 mins to technical study - cycling through scales, arpeggios, slurs, as you will find laid out in the Iznaola Kitharalogus manual with practise routines already made up.

For repertoire it depends so much on where you are at and what technical matters you have to improve. Above all don't try to lift your technique with repertoire - leave that to the first 15 minutes. I would generally suggest a mixture of 19th and 20th century studies to begin with, mixing in some freer types of music in time. If you are going to practice reliably 6 days a week, for one hour, I would assign a minimum of 15 minutes to each piece, giving you 3 a day, and leave out one each day to rest it - that gives you 4 pieces to work on at any one time. Learn it slowly and thoroughly, deciding on the best fingering and sticking to it - writing it in if necessary. Practise small chunks at a time, a chunk being defined as the biggest bit you can play perfectly first time. If that is one note, so be it! Reduce tempo until you can play the chunk, and use a metronome to keep your rhythmic realisation accurate - you will have plenty of time to get expressive later. When practising like this, maintain a cool and unemotional attitude - emotional involvement in the learning stage is a very bad idea. Monitor muscles at all times for tension and constantly seek ways to reduce the muscular effort being used.

As you progress you will find you can learn faster, but you will also find the pieces get longer. You may therefore find you have to reduce the number worked on at any one time, or - practise for longer! Remember also the benefit of laying items aside after a while, and coming back to them (this frees up some time too). Expand your repertoire interest back into the baroque and renaissance (using F sharp tuning for the latter) and forward into more adventurous contemporary items, only when you have an efficient technique. So more advanced repertoire generally follows success with technical work; try though to keep some easier items going, so that you can maintain a deeply interpretive attitude to them - its very hard thinking about interpretational matters when your technique is being stretched to the limits. If possible, resist the temptation to work on repertoire items at the outer limits of your technical preparation; you may conceivably be able to play them, but often at the cost of musically meaningless performance. We should be musicians, not machines.

Play chamber music - whether guitar duos, trios....etc or with other instruments, perhaps on a weekly basis. You learn a huge amount that is very very hard to learn on your own. The principle is that a solo guitarist is in fact like an ensemble all on one instrument; playing in a real ensemble gives you insights you can transfer to your solo playing.

What works in practising strategies?
I would suggest it is dangerous to generalise dogmatically. People can only speak for themselves and what they have seen work with their pupils and friends.

But in general I would suggest a practice programme based on need; thus -
i. if you have identified a particular technical feature you need to develop (slurs, left hand position, arpeggios...) then you might usefully spending a lot of time devoted to that.
ii. if you have to learn a piece quickly to take part for instance in an ensemble concert, then by all means concentrate on that!
iii. if you have longer term goals then you need to work sustainably - which means sustaining interest while developing and improving useful skills, and using your learning machinery in an effective way. This means;
a) regular slow practice of new material
b) regular breaks of one session from all material, ie say one day out four or seven you don't play it - even if you are working 'hard' on it. This period of rest gives your nervous system time to 'think' about the piece, and when you return to it you will find some things sort themselves out
c) occasional longer breaks ie 2-3 weeks for the same reason as above
d) do some technique work every day, if only as a warm up exercise. However, if you are likely to find yourself in performance situation where it is not possible to warm up first, also practice 'performing' from cold at home. However proper practice should only be done when the hands are stretched and in a good state, otherwise you will be programming into the pieces associations of strain and less-than-ideal hand preparation that are undesirable. So always warm up.
e) make a careful distinction between 'practice' and 'practising performing'. The former is an analytical process where you rehearse finger movements, decide on interpretive matters and assess your progress logically. The latter is when you visualise yourself in front of an audience and play 'as though' an audience were present - in other words you don't stop and go over something just because it didn't go quite right - you play in fact a peformance in all details bar the audience. Most people do far too much of the latter at home, and much to little of the former. It feels good to 'perform', it engages the emotions and feeds the agreeble sensations of fulfilling whatever dreams we have; but it is bad practising. I would advise a ratio of a least 10:1 - in otherwords, 10 play throughs, slow and methodical checking before hand what is going to happen, ie really practising, for every 1 'go for it'
f) make a written practice chart, and fill it in at least one week in advance. This makes it remarkably easy to resist the temptations to just have a quick sight-read through one thing, or to spend too long with another thing. It gives you the prespective to keep working at longer term goals, whether technical or repertoire, and helps therefore with longer term goal realisation
g) write down your goals! Whatever they are, your goals will seem much more real and tangible if you write them down, and read them every day ie before practising. Three rules for goals; they must be Present tense, Positive and Personal (often known as the three P's).

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Making transcriptions of piano music - how do you do it?

The answer is - it all depends;
i. on the nature of the original - key, texture, style etc
ii. on the technical constraints of the intended player/s

The best option if you have it is to copy the music into a notation programme,
which will enable you quickly and easily to transpose it into the three or four
likely possible keys. You can also easily try out various simplification
procedures to see if they work and retain enough of the music's essence.

Another option is just to keep looking at music until you find something which
seems will work without any transposition or general fiddling around. However
this is very rarely found.

Individual cases often dictate the approach however. For instance, the presence
of an important repeated pedal note may dictate the use of an open string, or
the creation of an unusual tuning, which in turn will dictate key.
Simplification procedures meanwhile revolve around the necessity of leaving out
notes which are 'padding' and to the sound of the piano may be necessary, but
which for the guitar are both unnecessary and technically inaccessible. So for
example when you are faced with a big thick chord, all the notes of which you
cannot possibly play, you identify which are the important notes, the ones
conveying necessary harmonic or melodic information, and which (if any!) are
merely padding, ie doublings of the octave and fifth etc. Thus, if you have a
chord with numerous padding notes and the lowest note is the 7th of the chord,
you may be able to leave out most of the padding but make sure you keep the 7th
as it contains a lot of essential information. Now, the game comes when you are
at the borderline between being able to include all the necessary,
information-rich notes, and the inclusion of them being too much for a six
string box like ours. Then it is usually time to conclude that i. the piece
needs more than one guitar ii. maybe it just won't work at all.

The previous comments about simplification pre-suppose that there is a texture
thick enough to include padding. Things get really tough when everything is
important. This may either be in cases of real counterpoint (such as Bach
inventions), or in cases of a more classical texture ie tune accompanied by
Alberti-type bass. The latter is not really counterpoint, but you can't in all
honesty simplify an Alberti bass (I suspect you would find a lot of this if you
tried your hand at Clementi) and so for this reason the apparently simple music of
Mozart etc is often impossible or at least unreasonably hard to transcribe,
whereas the music technically harder (for the pianist) of Albeniz etc is in fact

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On Stage Fright

There are some things easily enough said about performance anxiety, but they are things almost entirely from personal experience, informed as that is by observation of students and colleagues, and a fair bit of reading. Firstly, stage fright is I believe a compound of many anxieties and fears that manifest as one amorphous sensation. This compound is made up of very long term things, such as childhood experiences (ie approval/disapproval by significant others), self esteem, self belief, the roles one is used to occupying: and more short term things - have I practised enough? etc.

Underlying all that is a basic animal fear of being looked at by lots of others. Some of these things take serious therapeutic work, depending on the individual. Some things work more easily for pretty well everybody. Firstly, it gets easier with practice. Play regularly in public in "safe" situations where it doesn't matter if things go wrong. This acts as an innoculation against nerves. Recognise that most people experience a drop in their ability in front of people, so choose to play things that are well within your technical capacity, rather than the difficult things at the limts of your technique. This helps build positive experiences of playing, reinforcing self belief (ie "So I can do it!")

But the most powerful thing is something I have not seen discussed in this particular area, only in other places. "Context dependency" is the fancy title of a phenomenon in which one is only or best able to perform in the surroundings and environment in which one learnt the 'steps' one is now trying to reproduce. This translates as follows: if you practise always in the same room, facing the same way, at the same time of day, wearing the same things, following the same practice procedure, these associations get engraved into the notes you have learnt.

If you then go to a different place, time of day, etc, your nervous system is saying to you "hey, you are going to want me to fetch these movements out of memory, but I don't know where they've gone!" because memory is a thing of associations, and memories are laid down and retrieved by associating one thing with another. Remedy: change your practice place, time and routine, (to diffuse the dependency on one particular context) and as much as possible replicate that of your intended performance situation, including dress and time, and visualise the event in as much detail as possible, as many times as you can before the day, including pictures of the audience reacting with great applause at the end of your performance. It works.

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Visualisation is the internal pre-imagining of an action, playing the action on the screen of your mind as it were. So why do it? Well, very many artists use visualisation as a tool in their preparation of technical aspects of their work, and as a preparation for performance.

The benefits of visualisation to the technical dimension are principally as follows. If you are able to learn, for instance, a sequence of notes with enough conscious clarity that you can play those notes, make those movements, in your imagination with absolute precision and in great detail, then you can be really sure you have programmed those movements into your system very thoroughly; more than that, there is clear evidence that when you mentally rehearse those movements you are actually stimulating the nerves in your muscles that are actually used in the execution of the movements on your instrument.

The difference between mental rehearsal and physical execution is primarily that in the mental realm the only mistakes you make are due entirely to mental inattention, (not physical error) and so from an early stage in your preparation of a work it is possible to mentally rehearse (and so programme those nerves!) absolutely perfectly. This also - and equally importantly - means that you can programme that system of yours while the muscles that will carry out the work itself are in a state of absolute relaxation (and the more relaxed your are the better you visualise - akin to meditation). So that the muscles learn to associate those notes with a state of relaxation - by far the best way to go about learning any piece of music is to do it with as little physical tension as possible.

The second element is that of performance preparation. Put simply, stage fright is a reaction to an unfamiliar situation, and many people find it diminishes as they get used to being on a stage in front of lots of strangers. Just as vividly imagining playing a sequence of notes causes the nerves of your hands to go through the motions of actually doing it, vividly imagining being in front of a large audience can bring on exactly the same symptoms as physically being there. The advantage is that you are able to visit this experience as often as you like, until the stress symptoms reduce. You can also visualise yourself experiencing whatever outcome you want from actual performance, and thus subtly teach your nervous system to expect that reaction, and thus cause it to behave, in ways we cannot consciously fathom, so as to bring that desired result - favourable of course!

So once you get any stage fright put away in your box of experiences you can move on to visualising and programming in the sort of really positive outcomes you want.

Be very clear that what you visualise is what you are programming in, thus it MUST be positive! Visualise even as a 'joke' any kind of musically or experientially non-desirable outcome is asking for big trouble. A common metaphor is the garden one - you don't need to plant, water and fertilise weeds, they flourish without any assistance! But clearing out the weeds and cultivating really desirable plants takes a lot of work and consious effort.

Most human endeavours are like that, and too many people live a life of weeds because the weeds shoot up without effort. People are not used to the idea that if they consciously change the pictures on their inner screen, and the stories in their inner script, they can radically change their effectiveness and their outcomes.

The most powerful tool in this is visualisation.

There are lots of books either about this subject or incorporating it into their scheme of work, which you will find in larger book shops under the personal development type sections. Personal recommendations; "The Inner Game of Music" by Barry Green & Timothy Galway, and "Mindstore" by Jack Black.

Now read this.

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