Ghost Story

The swell had gradually built in strength for five days. This was unusual for surf generated by Southern Hemisphere storms, which typically peak after two or three days. Before the advent of Internet wave tracking, Southern California surfers were dependant on the sparse information in the Los Angeles Times weather report in order to predict the size or direction of surf. Monday and Tuesday had been picture-perfect at the Wedge, a renowned body-surfing break in Newport Beach, famous for large, bone-crunching, and often unruly waves. On both days, numerous still and surf-movie photographers lined the sand, capturing the heroics and spectacular wipeouts of the daring wave riders. 

“Casper,” arrived early Wednesday morning, having surfed the Wedge the previous five days. On Tuesday, Casper, sometimes called “Mayonnaise man,” - monikers given to him by Kevin “Mel” Thoman for his aversion to tanning, had caught the largest wave he had until then ridden. The crystal-clear skies of the prior days were replaced by wet, pea-soup fog. The foghorn at the end to the long jetty at the Wedge blared regularly, creating a haunting aura. Upon setting his kneeboard, wetsuit, fins and towel on the sand, Casper peered out at the surf, barely able to detect white water, the result of the crashing waves. Some surfers were huddled up, sleeping, while others, including Wedge legend Ron “Romo” Romanosky, were flipping a Frisbee, waiting for the fog to clear.  The poor visibility would keep the crowds and media away on this day. 

After awhile, Casper and Dan, an affable Native American bodysurfer, decided that from what little they could see, the waves appeared to have good shape, and the thought of having the Wedge all to themselves was too tempting to pass up. Joining them was a second bodysurfer-friend of Dan’s who Casper did not know. They waited for a lull in the waves and made it out to the lineup. It was spooky being the only three surfers in the water; in between honks from the foghorn, it was eerily quiet, and they still didn’t have any idea of the magnitude of the swell. Adding to their uneasiness, the people on the beach were not visible.  After about 5 minutes, they detected a set of waves approaching. Typically, waves arrive in groups, called sets, of three to sometimes as many as a dozen waves. 

The three surfers immediately knew that they needed to swim out further as the approaching waves were exceedingly large. After paddling over the first two waves, Casper was momentarily stunned as the third wave was so large that it literally blocked out the horizon. This ominous black wall of water looked like the side of a three-story building. But the wave was perfect, as Casper could see to his right the gradual tapering edge of the wave that Wedge surfers looked for. 

Apprehensive as he was about riding a wave this large, Casper knew that he had to take the challenge. He was in the perfect take-off spot, and the thick fog had made the surface of the wave as smooth as plate glass. Turning around, Casper paddled towards shore in order to gain momentum. As the wave reached him, he was lifted higher and higher.   He stroked deeply into the water to push his five-foot kneeboard as fast as he could. Finally, at the peak of the wave, he felt his board begin to race downwards and he jumped to his knees. The wave was completely vertical now, the kneeboard’s left edge and single fin in the back were all that kept him from skittering out of control and being swallowed up by a wave that could easily kill him. 

Racing down the wave face, Casper’s board sliced through the water with the zipping sound of a razor cutting paper. The “drop,” which is the initial descent on a wave, is the most critical part of the ride. The Wedge was created in 1939 when the Army Corps of Engineers built a 300 yard rock jetty at the mouth of Newport Harbor in order to protect boats from the summertime southern swells. The incoming swells bounce off the jetty at the opposite angle, joining up with the next wave.  This essentially doubles the height and thickness, with each wave packing twice the power of most other surf spots in Southern California. Not getting enough speed meant that the wave would begin curling into a giant cylinder before the wave rider was able to get to the lower part of the wave, resulting in the surfer being sucked upwards and unceremoniously thrown forward as the wave crashes down - an especially nasty wipeout.   

As he reached the bottom of the enormous wave, Casper pulled a hard left turn, changing directions from downwards to lateral in order to stay ahead of the curl as the wave peeled from the center outwards. The speed that Casper had developed during the huge drop prevented him from any fancy turns.  This was surfing in the purest sense - feeling the power, drawing a line, and racing the wave until the end. The wave was so large that Casper rode it well past the adjacent surf spot, a gnarly wave commonly called “Cylinders.”

Upon kicking out of the wave, Casper began the long paddle back out to where the two bodysurfers were, avoiding the last few waves in the set. When he reached Dan and the other fellow, they were visibly shaken, and could barely talk. Immediately after the wave that Casper rode, two giant manta rays, about 300 pounds each, came up out of the water. Spooked by the thunderous shock of the giant wave, they rose up from the depths and flew over the water, side by side, flapping their wings, slapping the water with each stroke. Normally bottom dwellers, the panicked manta rays flew directly towards Dan and his friend, with one of the rays’ wings hitting Dan’s friend on the shoulder. Sadly, the disoriented rays washed up on the beach later that day, pummeled to death by the mammoth swells. 

The wave that Casper rode greatly eclipsed the one he had ridden the previous day. For the rest of the morning, he and his friends had one memorable ride after another. Casper’s last wave was also huge. A friend, ex-accordion player Bill Sinner, attempted to catch the wave as well, riding a fiberglass belly board (precursor to the ubiquitous Boogie board) often called a “paipo” board.  Bill was in front of Casper, and upon seeing that Casper had already gotten into the wave, he tried to pull out. This led to Bill getting thrown from the top of the wave, completely freefalling more than twenty feet, landing squarely on top of Casper. That neither surfer was seriously hurt was miraculous, as Bill was pushing upwards of 270 pounds.

Surfing waves of this size creates a special rush for a surfer. The intensity of the moment eclipses all thoughts beyond the present. Some surfers, like Gerry Lopez in the 1970’s and Phil Edwards in the ‘60‘s, epitomized the “pure surfing" style.  Neither of these famous athletes was known for slashing maneuvers.  Instead, they were admired for their ability to find the perfect energy track for each wave. Elegant, simple, and with dancer-like grace, they were considered the surfer’s surfer for their respective eras, complete opposites of most competition surfers who strive to maximize the number of maneuvers possible on any given wave. The mind set of “destroying” a wave by having five off-the-lip turns, a cutback, aerials and numerous other slashing turns on a 3-second wave was antithetical to both Lopez and Edwards.  

In almost any endeavor, there are a variety of approaches that are appropriate to a given situation.  Performing music in front of an audience has unique difficulties.  On the one hand, we typically have time to prepare our presentation and the experience to help us know what to expect.  Then, like the great golfer who gets the “yips” on the putting green, we can easily self-destruct in any number of ways.  Even if we don't have a meltdown in our performance, we can do things that work against what we have prepared. 

Recently I was in the audience at an international guitar competition.  There were many high-caliber performers, with several standouts.  One young woman in particular, demonstrated superior skills and preparation.  Her technique and tone were flawless, and, interpretively, her performances had tasteful phrasing, flair, and a sense of proportion from large to small.  In all, I thought that this young performer was clearly a notch above her competition.  She did not win, and I whole-heartedly agreed with the judges.   

Her downfall, in my mind, and I suspect the judges felt this way as well, was her self-consciousness.  Not only was every note played with a practiced perfection, virtually every facial movement was choreographed – each turn of her head, smile, and blink of her eyes seemed to be planned.  Granted, musicians are stage performers, and I would be the first to admit that the visual effect of a musician can be a powerful addition to the sounds we create, but there must be a balance.   

One of the last lessons that my first classical teacher, Peter Snyder, taught me was that the scale of the music-making should match the significance of the event.  If you are performing solo guitar before an audience of 40 people and are sitting only a few feet from the first row, you might consider that the audience is going to notice every little nuance in your playing, and every minute physical gesture.  On the other hand, performing a concerto with an orchestra before a large audience, not only do your musical efforts need to be exaggerated, but you can afford to ham it up a bit more. 

If you need convincing of this idea, watch a theatrical troupe staging a performance that is televised.  The cameras will often show close-up shots of the actors and actresses that will make their gestures seem silly, but the effect on the theater audience would be very natural.  An actor’s expressions are as important as any aspect of their art. Musicians need to be cognizant of the impact that their physical gestures impart on their performance.   

I recently had a lesson with a fine young guitarist who is extremely musical.  The piece that he played for me was quite polished and emotive, but was lacking a certain zest.  My first comments were complimentary, but then I asked him to come up with several adjectives to describe the spirit of the various thematic ideas in the movement that he had just played.  Upon re-performance, the sparkle that I was hoping for emerged, not only in how he played the music, but in his eyes and entire body – with genuine honesty. 

Be pure in your heart.

I Am The Greatest

“Great,” is hardly an underused word.  That was a great meal!  This is a great guitar! Wasn’t that a great movie!  Less often do we claim that something, or someone, is the greatest. “I am the Greatest!”  These famous words were spoken by Cassius Clay, now Muhammad Ali, after his heavyweight boxing victory over Sonny Liston in 1964.  Notice that Ali did not say, “I am great!”  Claiming that he was the greatest meant that he did not feel the need to share his kingdom with any mere mortals in the history of his sport, or those lesser boxers who were simply “great.”  Consider that in 1964, boxing was still in its heyday, and could boast a history that included the likes of Joe Louis, Gene Tunney, Jack Dempsey, Rocky Marciano and Sugar Ray Robinson.  As far as I know, neither Jascha Heifetz, Vladimir Horowitz, or even Andres Segovia ever made public comments that they were the greatest, however much they may have thought they were.   

“The Greatest” is an accolade that history rarely bestows on a person or object.  It is one thing to claim to be the best of one’s generation in a particular field, another to be the greatest of all generations.  For whatever reason, people like to bestow the honor of being “great” on anything from ice cream to autos, from the arts to presidents, but rarely do we bestow the honor of  the “greatest.”  After all, Alexander was merely “the great”, not “the greatest.” 

In the world of instrument building, only Antonio Stradivari (1644-1737) is universally crowned the greatest.   Of particular interest in the last 50 years or so, is the notion that there was a secret to his instruments.  Whether it is the “secret” varnish that various people claimed to have replicated, the minerals in the wood that were absorbed when the logs were floated downstream, or that Stradivari employed alchemy in his building process, we seem to think that there was a trick involved.  If we could figure out the trick, then wham-o, any builder could make great violins!  Of special interest to me is the fact that although two of his sons were dedicated helpers in the Stradivari workshop for decades, neither seemed to have maintained the legacy of building great violins after their father passed away.  How could that be?  Was Stradivari Senior so secretive that even his two sons, everyday workers in the shop, didn’t know the special ingredient? 

When queried about the key components of what makes certain instruments special, luthiers are typically vague as to the reasons.  Why is a particular instrument better or worse that the one before or after?  What makes their instruments better than the competition?  Most luthiers are constantly tinkering with just about every component in their instruments, whether it be the braces, the bridge, different woods, or what-have-you.   

A substantial part of what makes instruments sound unique are the hands that make them.  This is the factor that luthiers usually cannot control inasmuch as they are not aware of how their touch or approach might be different than anyone else.  Consider that if 5 master chefs made a particular dish using the same recipe and ingredients, most likely, each chef’s rendition would have subtle differences from the others.  Every step of the cooking process is influenced by the chef’s technique - the manner in which the ingredients are stirred, the desired temperature of the eggs, the order in which certain ingredients are combined, the design of the utensils, and so on.   

My guess is that Stradivari did not know all of the reasons why his instruments were better than most; the personality of the man drove him to build in his own particular way.  Every person has a creative “thumbprint” that makes their work unique, and instrument builders are no different.  I am certain that if you had five world-class guitar builders attempt to make an instrument exactly the same as the others, using identical plans and woods, striving for the exact dimensions and so on, each of the instruments would still bear the mark of their individual personalities. 

Two American luthiers have had dramatic influences on the guitars that many of us play today.  Thomas Humphrey, who, sadly, passed away this past April at the age of 59, left an indelible mark on the history of the classical guitar.  If imitation is the ultimate compliment, Mr. Humphrey’s legacy is assured, as hosts of guitar builders from around the world employ variations on his Millennium design, and a large number of excellent guitarists play his instruments. 

Another important figure in the world of guitar building is John Gilbert.  Fortunately, at 85 years young, John is still in his shop most days, though he has retired as an active builder, having turned over his building career to his son, William, in the mid 1990’s.  John’s instruments, with the distinctive “pin” style bridge, unique rosette, and powerful tone, have been a favorite of many of the world’s top guitarists, but it is in another way that John’s legacy will be forever felt.   

John’s converted-garage shop has been a pilgrimage destination for umpteen budding luthiers in the last 35 years.  Not only is his shop a favorite stopping point for many luthiers who happen to be in the San Francisco Bay area, but John has been a favorite lecturer for workshops at a number of GFA and other festivals over the years.  John’s approach is not to have others copy his building techniques or design; instead, he invariably challenges luthiers to be more in control of their art, whether recording the weight of bridges, devising stress tests for soundboards and braces, or simply urging them to improve their craftsmanship, tool and jig-making skills.  Reading various articles in the Guild of American Luthiers quarterly journal, there is hardly an issue that I’ve seen that doesn’t have references to building approaches that John instigated. 

Simon Marty, the terrific luthier (and avid surfer) from Down under, and I were having lunch in Sydney, Australia in August 1999 when he mentioned that he had visited John in the late 1970’s.  I would not be able to pinpoint any aspect of Simon’s guitars that specifically show John’s influence, but, nonetheless, Simon refers to his visit with John as being very significant.  In my own luthier career, which began in 1995, John has encouraged me with phone calls to see how I’m doing, and he has insisted that I feel free to call him whenever I have a question.  Most often, when I have posed a problem to him, the answer is “Jack!  What in the world would make you ever consider doing THAT?!”  Or, “Jack, THINK about it!”  Then, by leading me through the subject in a “Plato-esque” fashion, with questions, not answers, John helped me come to an understanding. 

The last couple of times that I have visited John’s workshop to show him instruments, I have prodded him to reveal his “secret.”  Wryly, John laughs and evades my queries…   

At least that is my story to you…

Memoirs of a Newsboy

Growing up in the Orange County area of Southern California, I began working in the newspaper business when I was 10 years old.  My next older brother, Paul, had found a job selling the Sunday edition of the Los Angeles Times in front of the local Thrifty Mart, a precursor to today’s supermarkets, and he asked me if I would work Saturdays while he worked Sundays.  So, for the next year, I spent Saturdays sitting in front of the market on a huge stack of newspapers that I was to sell for 25 cents, of which I could keep half.  Being young and unaware of the fact that my older, wiser brother knew that most people would want to buy a Sunday newspaper on SUNDAY, I persevered, asking everyone who walked into the store “wanna buy a newspaper?” 

Typically, after a full day of hawking newsprint, the first stop was the local vinyl disc store to peruse the bins of new releases.  At this point, my brother and I were totally immersed in the surf-music craze of the early sixties; our favorites groups were the Chantays, ChallengersSurfaris, and of course, the Ventures.   If the day’s receipts were enough to buy a record, that, and perhaps a donut, is where we spent our money.  My brother and I had begun taking guitar lessons at this point, and this was the music that our teacher would help us learn. 

My first guitar, a nylon-string classical, was purchased for $17.22 at Zody’s, a now-defunct discount department store along the lines of Target.  As you would imagine, this was not a fine instrument, but it was playable.  I thought that it was a better instrument than the guitar that was owned by our friend and neighbor, Jim, which was “purchased” using several books of were called “Blue Chip” trading stamps.   

At the age of 12, I moved up to a paper route, again splitting the job with Paul.  We alternated delivery days, distributing around 80 newspapers to homes in the neighborhood, and then split the route on Sundays.  The job had its pitfalls - carrying 80 daily or 40 Sunday papers in large bags that were tied to the handlebars of our bikes was not easy, especially when one of the dogs on the route happened to be loose and would give chase, nipping at my heels for a block or two as my skinny legs pumped the pedals furiously.  I haven’t been too fond of dogs since - I never got chased by a cat. 

Being chased by a dog was especially feared on Sundays, as we were supposed to deliver the papers before dawn, which meant rising at 3:30 or 4:00 am.  Certain areas of the neighborhoods were without streetlights, which made those streets ever more treacherous.  In a good month, we netted about $35 dollars each.  Unfortunately, getting stiffed by customers hurt our incomes considerably, so we sometimes ending up with $20 or less.  At this point, we were saving our modest incomes in order to upgrade our music equipment.  Paul and I shared the use of an electric guitar, a Stratocaster knock-off made by a company named Magnatone, which our parents bought for us when I was eleven.  The first substantial purchase was a new amplifier - the big decision was whether we should buy a Vox, which English groups such as the Beatles championed, or the locally built Fender.  For reasons that I don’t remember, we chose the Fender Deluxe-Reverb

For my 13th birthday, my parents bought me a better classical guitar, made by a company called Orlando, which I remember cost them about $80.  This guitar, with Indian rosewood laminate back and sides, and a laminated spruce soundboard, was actually a pretty decent instrument.  My teacher, Robert Lake, began to help me with classical technique, which at that point meant simple arpeggio exercises and finger picking arrangements of popular songs.   

Without a doubt, my brother and I enjoyed the full support of our parents.  With weekly lessons, encouragement, and help buying certain instruments, we never felt like we had to do without.  In a family with seven children, siblings learn to appreciate what they are given with few complaints, hand-me-down or otherwise.  One important development in my career occurred was when I was 18.  My mother, who was recently divorced from my father, took out a loan to buy my first hand-made classical guitar.  On this instrument, I was able to give my debut recital.  In order to make that purchase and help support 4 boys still living at home, she valiantly worked the graveyard shift at her job for several years. 

Soon after that recital, Peter Snyder, my first serious classical teacher, called me to his home for a talk.  A cellist with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and an amateur guitarist, Peter wanted me to go to a conservatory, with the hope of becoming a professional musician.  His argument was that a career in music was much like trying to become a professional athlete – now was the time.  Peter reasoned that if at the age of 28 I decided that I didn’t have what it took to make it in music, it was not too late to get a degree in business and still have a career.  However, if I went to business school, and then at the age of 28 decided to go into music, it would most likely be too late. 

How my guitar playing developed was far different than it is for many kids today.  I have known children with instruments valued at $3,000.00 - $4,000.00 who were not terribly dedicated to playing music.  How much of my drive to play was fueled by the satisfaction of having a say in the purchasing of instruments, I cannot say.  A former student, who worked with me for a dozen years starting when he was 5 years old, was an enormous talent.  I compared him to the great violin prodigy, Midori.  He and Midori shared phenomenal techniques at an early age, as well as poise, and natural musicality. When my student was 9 years old, there were times when we played through pieces together and I couldn’t keep up with him. His parents and I agreed that he had the potential for a major career and we hoped that by entering an excellent college program he would be challenged by the other fine young musicians at the school and take the initiative towards being a fully realized musician.  This young fellow was, unlike me (with apologies to my brother Paul), born into a musical family; several members play various instruments very well.   While my student did not have to work part-time jobs in order to pay for instruments and the like, he was also not overindulged, nor was he pushed into playing.  I’ve known musicians who were “locked” in rooms by their parents for several hours each day while they practiced.  This was certainly not the case in this family, who encouraged their children’s’ musical development without being overbearing. 

Unfortunately for the music world, after his senior recital, which included a tour-de-force performance of the Aranjuez Concerto with an orchestra, he effectively put his guitar in its case for good, and now is an executive with a large corporation.  Would he have been more fulfilled as a musician?  It may be presumptuous to think so.   

How does a teacher or parent encourage a budding talent in a healthy way?  The issue of whether teachers should encourage promising students to try to make their careers in music, or discourage students who they believe do not have the talent or skills necessary, remains a question every teacher needs to address.  Another of my former students, who at the time seemed like a good but not exceptional guitarist, is now a respected touring artist with over a dozen CD releases.  I also know of many musicians who achieved careers as performers but made other livelihood choices, both in and outside the art world.  Who knows where a person will end up, what path will eventually be traveled? 

After our family moved to Los Angeles in 1969, the next job my brother and I shared was, you guessed it, a Los Angeles Times delivery route.  Again, we traded off nights, but shared the Sunday paper delivery.  Our route was in West Hollywood, which at times can be pretty interesting between 2 and 6 am, to say the least.  This job lasted much of my 3 years in high school.  The advantage of this work was that after school each day I could practice uninterrupted for 3 hours until dinner time.   

The real purpose of this job was to finance cars for both Paul and me.  Fortunately, dogs were no longer a threat; however, there were other memorable moments.  One incident occurred at about 2:30 a.m. on Santa Monica Blvd., where the Times dealership was located.  I had rolled a large workbench to the sidewalk near where my car was parked, when a beautiful blond woman stopped her vehicle next to mine.  She got out, stood silently, and watched me work for several minutes as I tied the papers with the aid of an unusual machine that looked like a Rube Goldberg contraption.  Finally, I got the nerve to ask, “wanna buy a newspaper?”  She smiled, said “sure” and walked back to her car where she rummaged inside for a few minutes. While I was arranging newspapers in my car, she returned and laid several items on the bench, took a newspaper, and drove off.  The items that she left included a quarter (the newspapers were 10 cents at that time), a large Nestle Crunch bar, and a brand new 100 watt light bulb, still in its packaging.  Although puzzling at the time, this was quite clearly a defining moment that helped finance, nourish, and illuminate my music career. 

Segoviamania

In the world of art, rarely has one person been able to leave as large a legacy as Andres Segovia.  As any guitarist knows, countless compositions, arrangements, recordings, students, and enthralled audiences are testament to this giant’s lifetime of work.  Few would disagree that one of the most far-reaching results of his influence has been the establishment of guitar programs in hundreds of colleges throughout the world.  Major conservatories, liberal arts colleges, community colleges, and even high and middle schools, now offer excellent instruction in one of the Western world’s oldest instruments – our guitar.  The schools have done a wonderful job of training musicians with fine techniques and excellent musicianship skills.  These guitarists generally have chamber music experience, and are comfortable with music from almost any period. 

Classical versus popular music differs on one major issue.  Performing popular music certainly requires skill and talent, but covets personality more than technique; in classical music it is the opposite.  How long do you need to hear Mick Jagger’s craggy singing before you know who it is?  I doubt that anyone would argue that Mr. Jagger’s singing technique compares to a classically trained voice.  Segovia was one of the rare classical performers who successfully combined both personality and technique at the highest level.  Keep in mind that during much of Segovia’s career, the general attitude was that the composer’s work was to serve performer’s expression as opposed to now, where the composer’s wishes are considered almost sacrosanct.  Segovia felt that he had the final say in how a piece should sound, and that it was his right to publish works written for him with changes that he made, albeit usually with the composer’s permission. 

Like many guitarists of my generation, as a youth I was inspired by the recordings of Andres Segovia.  My first Long Playing disc of his was “Maestro,” and I was mesmerized by his performance of Milan’s Pavan, the Andante Largo by Sor, and the Zambra Granadina by Albeniz.  But, it was a few years before I began to fully understand the mania surrounding the legend.   

The Arturo Valdez Guitar Shoppe in Hollywood was the first place where I met other classical guitar aficionados. When in high school, I went there to buy some strings and met an elderly gentleman who was friends with the proprietor.  This fellow had a cardboard box filled with music that he was selling as, due to age, he no longer played guitar.  At that time, my familiarity with the classical guitar repertoire was restricted to the likes of Bach, Sor, Villa-Lobos, and Albeniz.  I selected a number of works that I paid 25 cents apiece for.  In talking to this fellow, Segovia’s name came up.  His final comment stunned me with the virulent delivery, “Only a second-rate musician would ever change a Segovia fingering!”   The words “second-rate” were said with emphasis that I felt was a personal challenge.  I left without comment.   

In college at Cal Arts I was exposed to another sentiment regarding Segovia.  The general consensus was that Segovia’s playing was mannered, with exaggerated rhythms and musical gestures.  Still a remarkable performer in his eighties at that time, his early recordings were not generally known or available as reissues.  To build self-reliance, we were encouraged to “white out” Segovia’s or any other editor’s fingerings so that we might do our own, and it was generally suggested that we listen to performers of instruments other than guitar to help our sense of musicianship and interpretation.  I performed Bach’s Chaccone without even once looking at Segovia’s edition or listening to his groundbreaking recording, instead, drawing inspiration from recordings by violinists Henryk Szerying and Nathan Milstein. 

A few years later, one of my Pomona College students played in a summer master class for a prominent Segovia disciple.  During a lesson, the student made the tactical error of asking whether the dynamics in the Segovia edition of the Ponce Preludes were by the composer or Segovia (the Tecla edition had not been published yet).  This innocent and reasonable question was met with a barrage of angry comments including “who are you to question anything in this edition?!”   

A number of years ago, I made the foolish mistake of mentioning to a friend that I thought that I could identify performers of guitar recordings by their tone and style of playing.  The next time we got together, he played a half dozen solo guitar records on his stereo and asked me to tell him who was playing.  Needless to say, I didn’t much care for the taste of that humble pie.  When I initially made the comment, I was thinking of Bream, Williams, and of course, Segovia.  Who amongst us couldn’t immediately discern Bream’s brilliant tone and excessive room ambience, Williams’ power and control, and Segovia’s characteristically colorful playing? 

I must admit to making an about face regarding Segovia’s fingerings and recordings.  Of late, when one of my students considers learning a work that is available either with Segovia’s or other editor’s fingerings, I have leaned towards the great Spaniard with the suggestion that the student appreciate the manner in which Segovia exploited the sonorities of the guitar, as well as his general creative approach.  Much like the Busoni/Bach Chaccone, Segovia’s editions can be considered insightful to the romantic style of the late 19th and early twentieth century. 

Nowadays, fine performers tend to make great effort to understand and honor the composer and the stylistic concerns of the period.  Some, like Pavel Steidl and David Starobin, perform on modern and historical instruments.  When I hear the new generations of guitarists, I feel that we have done well to bridge the gap between the levels of playing of other instrumentalists compared to guitarists.  Nowadays, in order to develop a career, guitarists need to be well-rounded musicians, with supple techniques, good musicianship, and yes, personality in their performances.  The days of marveling over the guitarist who plays difficult music and hits all the notes, but without much else, is long gone.

Heebie-Jeebies

The tour was going well. My friends, oboist Allan Vogel and Janice Tipton, flute, were fun to travel with, and along with my wife Carol, we found time to enjoy ourselves. However, Allan and Carol needed to leave Costa Rica a few days early, so Janice and I were going to perform the last concert as a duo. The performance was to be at a hotel in Monteverde, a mountain rainforest preserve that required a bumpy three-hour van ride. 

Upon arriving at the hotel around 9:30 in the evening, Janice offered to make the arrangements with the hotel desk as I waited in the van with our luggage and instruments. A half hour later, she returned to say that there was a mix-up, the hotel was full and there was only one room reserved for us, which meant, of course, that I was out of luck.  Janice said that a porter would take me to another “lodge” where I would have a room. I said fine, gave Janice her luggage, and we made arrangements to rehearse the next day. 

Moments later, a uniformed porter met me carrying a pen-flashlight, and asked me to follow him. Our pathway, which could not be mistaken for a trail, took us straight into the rainforest jungle. It was nightfall by now, so we trudged along, brushing aside vines (making sure they were vines, not snakes) and large jungle foliage, accompanied by the sounds of exotic nocturnal animals beginning their day.  I half expected Tarzan to swing by.  We walked for a good 15 minutes, and with my confidence about the situation sagging with each step, I wondered what sort of lodge could be out here.   Finally, we came to a clearing where a simple, white-washed, rectangular building with 3 doors stood. The porter used a key to open the first door and explained that this was where rainforest researchers often stayed. I thanked him, and he left without a tip. After all, he never offered to carry my luggage or guitar, probably figuring they would slow me down if we were jumped by a jaguar. 

Inside, the small room had a bed, table, lamp, and small bathroom. The cubicle smelled of powerful disinfectant, so at least it was clean. Evidently, I was the only guest that evening. I decided to read for awhile, and then get some sleep. After about an hour, I noticed something crawling under the door. It was a brilliant red and black furry caterpillar, about 5 inches long, with a triangular shaped body. On the one hand, I had never seen an insect as beautiful and unique as this creature crawling towards me. On the other hand, I was horrified to see that the gap under my door was about 2 inches high, allowing who-knows-what access to my room! 

I let the caterpillar crawl onto a piece of paper and then carefully shuttled it outside and continued to read for another hour. At this point, it was well past midnight and I was getting pretty bleary-eyed. The moment I set my book down, a medium-sized tarantula scampered out from underneath the bed.   Frozen, I sat paralyzed, as the 3 inch hairy arachnid turned and eyed me. It didn’t like the looks of me either, and immediately disappeared back beneath the bed frame. “What do I do now?” I pondered. Thorougly fatigued, I decided simply to go to bed and try to put it out of my mind. There were no blankets on the bed, just two bleached-white sheets and a couple of pillows, which I inspected to be sure my 8-legged guest didn’t have friends already bedded down. 

Sleep came surprising easy, until it began raining inside the room. The humidity was such that moisture was collecting on the ceiling and when heavy enough, raindrops would fall. I contorted my resting position so that the drops missed me – no easy task.

My mother used to tell a story of how when I was about 3 years old, she found me with a stick playing with a black widow spider. So I was not always arachnophobic. That development came Christmas day when I was 6 years old. My brother Paul had been given a microscope, so I went out and found a simple garden spider in order to get a closer look. The image of the insect’s hairy legs, multiple eyes, and blood-sucking fangs was immediately and permanently etched into my memory - the nightmares began soon thereafter. Perhaps this was a kid’s karma at work. 

I still get the creeps with certain spiders - mainly the large, menacing kind. Seeing tarantulas crawl over television personalities is always cause for a serious case of the heebie-jeebies. While living in the dorms at Cal Arts, I was returning to my room late one evening and needed to pass through a group of 6 people standing a few feet before my door. Carrying my guitar and a bag of music, I walked to within inches of a girl standing with her hand held out.  Stationary in her palm was an enormous orange and black tarantula, as large as her hand. I let out a choked little yelp - “ah!” and spun around, breaking into cold sweats as I walked back down the hall and down a flight of stairs to the floor below. This enabled me to get to my room from the opposite direction.  Mind you, I had been only 5 steps from my door before my panicked retreat.  

It turned out that the two guys in the room next to mine had an unusual pet.  That explained the odd chirping sounds coming out of their room at night, not quite like any cricket that I had ever heard.  

Whether I would I have had a phobia if I had not peered at the dead spider through my brother’s microscope, I cannot say. Certainly many people develop fears of snakes, heights, cats and so on without having had traumatic childhood experiences.  
 
With upwards of a thousand students in my teaching career, one common trait with virtually all of my students is that having been accepted to the Claremont Colleges, they are exeptionally bright and disciplined people.  A few students who start lessons as absolute beginners never, ever, make mistakes when they play their pieces for me.  Others, no matter how I council them on practice habits, make mistakes by the bucketload, while most students are in between the two extremes.  Certainly, one can debate issues of how our brains are “wired,” or other neurological matters, but I have no business discussing those points.  I suspect, however, another cause may be the critical factor. 

Our effort to play music speaks volumes about ourselves.  Quite simply, our success or failure to perform a piece well is likely determined the first day that we began practicing that piece.  I am certain that the best musicians make a habit of playing their pieces virtually perfectly from day one, and that when they do make an error, they analyze the problem and make sure it doesn’t get repeated.  They will figure out whether it is a fingering issue, a technical problem, or perhaps the passage requires a re-write.  The rest of us flub a spot in a piece, try it again, maybe getting lucky on the third or fourth try, and move on, doing nothing to guarantee success. 

A number of years ago I read an interview with a world-renowned musician who stated that he thought that most people practiced too much. His feeling was that musicians should play through the section or piece, once, perfectly, and be done with it. Repeat this the next day, and so on. At that time, I thought this was a holier-than-thou attitude and dismissed it. Of late, through my teaching and own practicing, I am certain that whenever we practice we are creating a behavior pattern:  either we traumatize the music with our mistakes, or we develop solid, confident, habits. The better musicians establish habits of positive reinforcement, while the rest develop varying degrees of destructive habits.  For the most part, we create a negative history with each piece where we are satisfied to make “X” amount of mistakes the first time we practice a piece, with the hope of making “X-minus 1” then “X-minus 2” errors in the ensuing repetitions.   

In order to improve as musicians, we need to constantly evaluate our efforts. Therfore, it is important to make a concerted effort to have realistic goals at each moment, with focused, clear concentration and disciplined habits.  There are many fine articles dealing with the specifics of how to practice, most recently Francis Perry (Vol. 35, No.2); Jason Vieaux (Vol. 35, No. 1 & 2); and Scott Tennant’s (Vol. 34 No. 3) articles in Soundboard.  Also, spend some time with Aaron Shearer’s method published by Mel Bay, Learning the Classic Guitar, Vol. 1; it has wise words for players of any level. 

And no, I didn’t look under the bed to see how many buddies my friend had, I didn’t need to compound my arachni-nightmares. Sweet dreams.

A Balancing Act

When I was 18 my teacher, Peter Snyder, asked me to take over his Los Angeles Parks and Recreation guitar class for kids aged 8-14. It was my first teaching experience, and I was excited. Peter had suggested that I use the Carcassi method book to teach the 20 kids, none of whom had any guitar experience. Before the daunting task of digging into the Carcassi, I showed the class proper hand positions and how to sit.  

After my 10 minute explanation on these finer points of classical guitar technique, it was time to make individual corrections. I was trying my best to be upbeat with the kids, making little jokes here and there. I approached a little blond-haired girl who was sitting well, but her left hand position was in need of some adjustments. “Let’s get your thumb in the right position” I said. Looking behind the neck of her guitar, I added, “Okay, where is your thumb?” The little girl looked up at me with sad eyes and said, “I don’t have any thumbs.”  

After the boulder settled in my stomach, I suggested that she put her palm behind the neck as a way of gaining leverage. After the class, I spoke with her mother and suggested that it would be extremely difficult for her daughter to play guitar without a thumb on either hand. The thumbs are indispensable, right?  

The left thumb is perhaps the most overused digit on our left hand. I cringe when I see guitarists push on their thumb with all their might. When they detect a buzz they try to eliminate the annoyance by pushing into the back of the neck - harder, harder, and then still harder! Sometimes, a guitarist will have made such a habit of this that their thumb muscle has developed into what looks like a bull frog throat bulging out. I’ve also seen guitars with dents all over the back of the neck from a thumbnail digging into the wood.  

Not that I’m one to talk. I vividly remember my college days when I would maintain a left hand death grip while practicing the Villa-Lobos Etude No. 1. No matter how hard I worked, I would get buzzes during the passage where the chords descend by half steps from the 10th position down to the first position. The epiphany came when I realized that all the extra pressure that I was applying did not make it to my 3rd finger - the guilty party of those awful buzzes. Realizing that this was not good, I dropped the etude knowing that I should start out on a new track. The adage “work smarter, not harder” was beginning to take shape.  

So, let’s get on with the discussion. First of all, rethink the role of the thumb. Consider that the left-hand thumb’s primary task is to balance the fingers, more specifically, the 2nd and 3rd fingers. The thumb and these two fingers are the core, so to speak, of the left hand. One problem for many guitarists is that they orient their thumb too much behind the index finger which makes the other 3 fingers have to reach, with the 4th finger often barely able to get to its fret. Most guitarists have better finger extension with their index finger than any other. So, if the thumb is put behind the index finger, it is balancing the finger that needs the least help. A simple method to get a feel for the thumb’s proper location is to hold a pencil with the left fingers and thumb as if all four fingers are on a string. Observe where the thumb seems to have the best leverage. Usually, this is behind the 2nd finger, or in between the first and second fingers.  

To figure the balancing point of the thumb in the context of a piece, simply place your fingers to the strings on a chord or passage with no pressure on the strings and with the thumb away from the back of the neck. Then, lightly touch the thumb to the back of the neck and you will naturally find the best position. Frequently, the thumb finds itself in the wrong spot due to excessive pressure, and as a result, little adjustments tend not to be made. Ideally, the left thumb should be moving constantly, always re-balancing the fingers.  

One of the best etudes for working on left thumb technique is the Carcassi Etude No. 2, op. 60. My usual approach is to have students simultaneously pluck the four-notes of each chord without playing the arpeggios – what I call “block chords.” I’ll have them play through the etude with no left hand pressure, just a feather light touch on the strings and with the thumb barely touching the back of the neck. If the student has relaxed shoulders, arms and hands, the movement from chord to chord will begin to smooth out, and their thumb will naturally find good balancing points along the neck. With chords that utilize an open hand position (where the fingers are aligned one per fret), such as a common first-position C major chord, the thumb should typically be in a position that averages the stretches between the fingers.  

Another of my favorite exercises is first position scales. With each open string I’ll have my student pause for a moment, both to relax their left hand and to reposition their left thumb. As the days go by, this re-balancing becomes automatic to the point that no extra time needs to be taken. I advocate maintaining the same curvature for the left hand fingers for every string while playing scale-like passagework. What this means is that the left thumb should adjust its vertical position with practically every string change.  

A simple test to determine whether your left hand curvature is correct is to lightly touch all four fingers to the 6th string at the third position. Then, move all of your fingers to the first string while maintaining the same finger curvature. In order to have the same finger curvature, you will have to move your thumb roughly behind the first string as well. Essentially, for linear passagework like scales, the thumb should be on the same vertical alignment as the fingers. This is opposed to leaving the thumb in the middle of the neck, thereby revolving around the thumb as a pivot point. This approach entails having a different finger curvature for each string due to six different hand positions.  

Were I now in a situation where a student who didn’t have thumbs wanted to learn how to play the guitar, I would explore a variety of approaches. With a guitar neck of appropriate thickness and width, I think it would be possible for someone to learn how to play popular or folk-style guitar to a reasonable degree.  

The class went fine, by the way, as soon as I ditched the Carcassi. 

For Art's Sake

When I was a student at Cal Arts in the late 1970s, the Music School had a thriving composition department.  With Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Mel Powel on the faculty along with Morton Subotnik and Stephen “Lucky” Mosko, avant-garde music was on the menu every day.    I’ve never had an interest in composing music; however, I enrolled in every composition seminar that I could as a performance-major student.  Typically, I would be the only non-composer in these classes.  These courses gave me an opportunity to attend guest lectures by some of the important composers of the 20th Century:  John Cage, Elliot Carter, Morton Feldman, Earle Brown, and Aaron Copeland, to name a few.

I have always found the inner workings of a piece of music, you might say the “language of composition,” to be fascinating.  In 1978 I spent an entire semester analyzing Plus/Minus by Karlheinz Stockhausen under the tutelage of Lucky Mosko.  Anyone who knows of this monument of Western compositional thought understands where I am coming from.  Unfortunately, the drawback to this is that I tend to learn new pieces slowly, typically spending too much time exploring the possibilities of each motive, phrase, or section.   I used to be ridiculously picky with regard to fingering, attempting to be “true” to the music to a fault. 

It was at Cal Arts that I came to know Richard Artschwager.   Mr. Artschwager is not a composer, but a visual artist, and he was a visiting Art School faculty member at Cal Arts either in 1979 or 1980.  For a Work/Study job, I used to work in the “Super Shop” at Cal Arts where I would build furniture.  The Super Shop is a large metal and wood fabrication workshop intended primarily for art students to build sculptures and other types of artwork.  For a number of weeks in that late spring, I would occasionally see Richard in the Super Shop constructing a cabinet out of white oak.  I had heard that he had been a professional cabinetmaker before turning to the making of art, and it showed.  His choice of wood, crisp joinery and design, all spoke of a superior woodworker, a far cry above the furniture that I had been building. 

Also of interest was Richard’s appearance at the time.  He was a rather tall man, with a face, hair and beard reminiscent of Abraham Lincoln.  When I say that I came to know Richard, I am exaggerating.  I don’t recall ever speaking to him in the Super Shop.  All I ever knew of him was gleamed from watching his project develop over the weeks.  Whenever he left his cabinet in the shop, I would study it, noting every detail of the exquisite craftsmanship.  However, before the cabinet was completed, it disappeared.  This was close to the end of the semester in May of that particular year, and I was disappointed to not see the final piece. 

Shortly thereafter, at the end of that school year, there was a faculty art show in the main gallery at Cal Arts.  One evening, I was leisurely enjoying the show when I came across the cabinet that Mr. Artschwager had been building.  As I would have expected, the final result was stunning.  Every aspect of the cabinet, from design to final execution, was exceptional.  With reverence, I studied the cabinet for a good ten minutes or so.  Out of nowhere, Richard appeared.  I remember complimenting him on his work, and then asking whether the cabinet was intended to store prints or other artwork in the five or six thin, wide drawers.  

Taken aback, Richard gave me a rather serious “Abe Lincoln” scowl, and said “No, this is my life!”  Upon saying this, he deliberately pulled each drawer out to expose the empty contents and a different bottom for each drawer.  One was clear, another was a mirror, a third was black, and the other two or three were different colored glass.  I was speechless as Richard walked away.   

For years, I pondered the significance, if any, of this chance encounter. .  Initially, I wondered what each of the drawer bottoms represented.  The black glass possibly signified a tragic event and the mirrored drawer was symbolic of reflection.  Modern art can be deliberately confrontational to the audience or so complex that without a two-hour lecture by the artist, there is be little hope of understanding or appreciating the work.  In this case, I was caught off-guard, challenged by the artist, and left dumbfounded 

Ultimately, I came to believe that although it certainly would be interesting to know which of Richard Artschwager’s experiences were represented by the cabinet artwork, it is a mistake to focus solely on the artist and the relationship to their art.  The creation of art is one of the most indefinable of human acts.  What takes place in the mind of the creator, under what circumstances, and during what epoch cannot be recaptured, and, even if it could, I don’t know how relevant the information would be. Evidently, some of Mozart’s most spirited, exquisitely joyful music was composed during the darkest days of his life.  Does that knowledge really help an interpreter?  This is not to say that stylistic approaches to baroque, renaissance, classical or romantic are a waste of time, quite the contrary.   

My opportunities as a student to listen to lectures given by composers of significance gave me no edge with regard to interpretive matters with their music.  Similarly, when I have had the opportunity to perform for composers, typically, they have been unable to offer insight that enlightened me about their pieces.  Other performers who I have queried seem to have had similar experiences when working with composers.  The value in working with composers has usually been with regard to tempi, dynamic issues, problems with unplayable passages and so forth.  Indeed, playing for composers has been very worthwhile to me, but what does not usually get communicated is what inspired them to write the piece, or similar artistic issues.   

So, where does this leave us?  Fine art is created by exceptionally creative people whose intellect and life experiences are intertwined in their work.  Should you listen or play a particular piece, view a sculpture or dance presentation and think to yourself, “I don’t get it,” relax with the idea that if it is good art, you probably shouldn’t appreciate all that the work has to offer with one experience.  Whether you are in a performance situation, or an audience member, your relationship with art should be first-and-foremost, a personal one.  Each of us has had a unique life, one where experiences have left an indelible mark on our personality and perspective.  What does the black glass represent to you, the clear glass, and the mirrored one?  With time, you will come up with answers to these questions – your own understanding of art.

It's an Epidemic! Are You Next?

When pianists Gary Graffman and Leon Fleisher cancelled concerts in the 1960’s and ‘70’s due to problems with their right hands, it came as a surprise to many in the classical music industry.  Both musicians were at the peak of their careers performing in major concert halls around the world and concerto appearances with top orchestras.  Then, closer to home, guitarist and composer, David Leisner, stricken with right-hand problems, began canceling his busy concert schedule in the 1980’s.  All three musicians exhausted every possible option towards receiving a diagnosis of their hand problems with the hope of discovering a treatment or cure. They sought out physicians, physical therapists, psychiatrists, massage therapists, acupuncturists, and many others.  From professional musicians to talented amateurs, hand problems seem to be occurring in increasing numbers.  Is this era particularly problematic with regards to musicians with hand problems?  Or, is the information age just making us more aware of the problem? 

I’ve not come across a study that chronicled the percentages of contemporary musicians with hand problems compared with previous generations – did earlier musicians just walk away from their instruments if they incurred a hand problem?  As it turns out, Graffman, Fleisher and Leisner had developed focal dystonia.  With the advent of the internet, you can make contact with focal dystonia (FD) sufferers from around the world in dedicated chat rooms for musicians with FD as well as see video of them on Youtube.  Are we more susceptible than musicians before us?  If we examine possible causes of hand problems, including focal dystonia, we might someday find some answers.  First of all, a guitarist who practices Tarrega’s Lagrima and Adelita for a half-hour per day is an unlikely candidate for FD.  Musicians who get FD are typically practicing difficult concert repertoire for hours per day.  Graffman and Fleisher have stated that they were trying to be the fastest, loudest pianists of the land when they developed their hand problems.  David Leisner was working on the 12 Etudes by Villa-Lobos. 

What is focal dystonia?  A simple explanation is that it is where a person has involuntary or spastic, and usually painless, movement or contraction with their fingers.  For guitarists who have the problem manifest in their right hand, typically either their index finger sticks outward and they cannot move it, certainly not in a way that allows them to pluck a string under control; or, the middle, ring, pinky, or all three curl into the palm and they cannot return the fingers to the strings.  Another, probably earlier stage of the problem, is where the player has uncontrolled trembling and twitching with their fingers and they have extreme difficulty in locating the correct string to play.   If the musician has FD with their left hand, it seems that their fingers won’t obey mental directions and either point outwards, won’t lift off the string, or curl into the palm.   

Our bodies typically link muscles together in order to accomplish daily activities.  For example, if you are holding a pencil, it takes very little muscle action to maintain your grip.  However, it you are sitting in a chair, and a pencil lies 4 feet away, when you lean over to grab it, you will activate almost every muscle in your body, from muscles in your toes, legs, abdomen and back all the way up to your neck.  Our bodies link the muscles together in order to maintain balance, or to gain strength by combining muscle groups to share the work load.  The problem with musicians is that for fine motor movements, we often use too many muscles, and most of these extra muscles are opposing necessary muscles. 

One intriguing issue that FD brings up with regards to guitarists is that we tend to develop debilitating hand problems with the right hand more so than the left.  Consider that the left hand needs to move with extremely contrasting motions, along with sustained pressure, while the effort needed to simply pluck a string with the right hand is relatively minimal.  So, on a basic level, it seems that it should be the left hand that would be ripe for developing problems, not the right.  But the issue of speed is more of a factor with the right hand than the left.  Attempting to play quickly with the right hand under tension is likely a major factor.  I think this helps explain what may be the most likely cause of FD:  where musicians tense up opposing muscle groups in the arms – tensioning both the flexors and extensors simultaneously.  After perhaps years of doing this, the impulses from the brain begin to be scrambled and dystonia may occur.   

First and foremost, all the FD musicians that I’ve worked with or seen play have had problems with excess muscle tension.  There are three muscle areas that have been problematic:  the upper trapezius (between the shoulder and the neck); the deltoid (shoulder muscle that lifts the arm); and perhaps most important, the forearm extensor muscles.  It is interesting to note that most movements in playing an instrument, in fact just about anything we do with our hands, focuses on pulling our fingers inward towards our palms. This motion is brought about by contracting our flexor muscles, which are on the bottom of our forearms.  (Take a look at one of your forearms and notice that the flexor muscles are much larger than the extensor muscles.)  If our right index finger, for example, needs to move inward to our palm in order to pluck a string, the flexor muscle for that finger should contract, and the corresponding extensor muscle should release.  If this happens correctly, the index finger will move easily.  However, if the musician inadvertently contracts the extensor and flexor muscles simultaneously, then the flexor has to work more vigorously to overcome the added resistance that the extensor is creating, and strain develops. 

Two interesting approaches that the medical community favors in treating FD is the use of Botox to temporarily paralyze the arm, and arm/hand isolation – where the FD arm and hand are bound in a cast to keep the musician from moving the afflicted area for a time period of about a month.  Both of these techniques are supposed to help the brain forget the old way of playing so that the musician can, hopefully, relearn how to play without the FD symptoms.  I think there is validity to both of these techniques; however, if the player doesn’t radically change their approach to playing, the old problems will resurface.  Another problem with the use of Botox is that the effect wears off after awhile, and it takes ever increasing amounts of a very expensive drug to get the same result (and women in Beverly Hills need all the Botox that they can get!).  

For musicians who have developed FD, three issues need to be examined.  First, they must learn how to relax non-essential muscles and get complimentary muscle groups, like the flexors and extensors to coordinate properly.  Posture is a huge factor here, as proper posture allows the player to utilize the structure of their body to support itself, which allows many back, abdomen, and shoulder muscles to relax.  Frequently, I’ll point out how the player is even tensing their legs and feet unnecessarily.   Lately, I’ve been using a small bio-feedback monitor (Myotrac EMG Biofeedback Systems) to help all of my students learn how to control certain muscles. 

Secondly, develop new ways to play.  This is extremely critical in that the player has created an association between playing their instrument and dystonic movements.  In this regard, it is important to focus on improving hand positions and finger movement by mimicking playing with super-light touching.  One example is to sit with the guitar resting well away from the body – close to the left knee, standing up while playing, or even lying on a bed or floor, and then tapping a string with the fingers affected by FD, without any attempt to play notes.  This is to help the player develop different memories on how to move so that they can create new mental pathways to their fingers.  Another common problem with FD guitarists, at least the ones I’ve seen who have it in their right hand, is that they have too little movement in their large knuckle joints and tend to move almost exclusively with the middle joints of their fingers.  This is easy to fix with the super-light string touching exercise. 

Along the line of developing a new way to play, David Leisner has accomplished this by how he uses back muscles in a way that he never did before.  His use of the back muscles is similar to a technique that ballet dancers are taught in order to hold their arms in proper position for long periods without strain.  David is a rarity, having successfully overcome FD on his own.

Finally, practice habits need to be changed.  Micro-relaxation moments need to be programmed into pieces, and ease of movement needs to be associated with each piece.  Commonly, FD musicians tend to push their fingers incessantly without regard to how it feels to play. 

If the reader should suspect that he or she is potentially developing FD, perhaps first and foremost, you need to see someone, a physician or specialist, who has experience with musicians who have contracted FD.  Continuing to play in the manner that has caused FD will only make things worse.  Fortunately, focal dystonia has received substantial interest in the medical and research communities and there is help available. 

Ultimately, one of the most debilitating issues that a musician faces when they find that they have developed FD is psychological.  Where a player might have basked in the glory of successful performances and widespread recognition, or just the pleasure of bringing a virtuoso piece up to tempo, they now face a frustrating, demoralizing period where everything that they have known in their musical life is now in question.  

The scope of this essay is not to comprehensively examine focal dystonia or offer a cure, but to introduce the problem to unsuspecting readers.  I believe more musicians than perhaps ever have developed this problem due to our society’s emphasis on virtuosity.  I doubt that Claudio Arrau would have ever developed this problem...

Mixing Concrete

You need to relax” is a comment that virtually every musician has been told, or heard spoken to someone.  We often think that we know how to relax, or better yet, believe we are a relaxed player.  But the reality is that very few musicians can claim to be truly relaxed, and more importantly:  in control.  How many musicians feel that they can perform as well in front of an audience as they can in the practice room?  Not many from what I’ve seen.  The usual culprit is overt tension.   

One of the insidious problems with tension is the fact that typically, the more tension a player is saddled with, the more they are unaware of it.  I’ll never forget a moment when I was in college, my girlfriend, who is a fine violist, was showing me how to hold the viola and the bow.  She told me that I needed to relax my right shoulder and I replied that I was relaxed.  She said that I was not, and we dropped the issue.  Later on, the proverbial light bulb went off in my head.  For her to make those comments, and for me to respond in the manner that I did, made me realize that I had no concept of what being relaxed meant. 

Let’s examine some of the issues surrounding being a relaxed player – of any instrument. It is beyond the scope of this article to systematically cover each and every aspect of playing the guitar, so I’ll try to offer some general concepts that, hopefully, will allow guitarists to examine their playing and gain awareness of the problems.  First of all, we need a definition.  Mine is this:  Relaxed playing is the ability to activate the muscles needed, without the interference of other, non-necessary muscles.  There are two facets to this statement that are of critical importance to every musician.  First, we need to learn how to isolate the muscle groups that are needed for each aspect of our playing – and secondly, we need to understand the “tug-of-war” syndrome that so often plagues us.  This tug-of-war problem is largely the cause of tendonitis in our arms when we are activating the extensor and flexor muscles (forearm muscles that control the fingers) simultaneously.   

The first order of business is to examine our sitting posture.  Most important is to have the structure of our body, our skeletal system, support as much of our weight as possible. So, sit with a straight back, with your vertebrae aligned on top of each other.  When we sit with poor posture, we unnecessarily activate many lower and upper back, shoulder, and abdomen muscles.  I have my students sit up straight and relax as many torso muscles as they can, then I’ll ask them to slouch and sit straight again several times so that they become sensitive to the difference.   

Another important issue relating to sitting posture is the height that we hold the guitar.  Frequently, a reason many guitarists have shoulder and neck stiffness is due to holding the guitar too high.  When you are playing in first position, your left hand should not be above the height of your mouth.  If it is, then you are overusing your left deltoid (shoulder) muscle.  The weight of the right arm should be on the guitar, and if you hold down a chord with your left hand, the weight of both arms, plus the weight of the guitar, should be felt on your left leg.   

The stiffness in our hands is usually when we contract both flexor and extensor muscles simultaneously.  When we learn to play an instrument, we struggle to direct our fingers, and typically, we do so by locking up our arms and hands.  Thus, the tug-of-war begins, and we force our fingers to behave - what I refer to as imposing “Martial Law” on our fingers.  How do we rectify the problem?  First, we need to relax our torso muscles as much as possible as I mentioned earlier, and second, we need to learn how to get our finger muscles to coordinate their efforts without strain.   

For the right hand, I often ask my students to squeeze their fist for a few seconds, and then to release their hand.  While their hand is loose, I ask them to wiggle their fingers.  I tell them that this is how their right hand should feel when they play.  Then I ask them to maintain that feeling as they randomly play open strings.  The weight of their right arm should be resting on the guitar, and it should feel extremely loose and comfortable.  Ideally, this feeling should never be lost.  I then have the student play a simple p-i-m-a arpeggio, very lightly, making sure that they don’t tense up the forearm, and then they can try to make a subtle crescendo and decrescendo, all while staying loose. 

The left hand is a bit more complicated.  There are two states that the left hand maintains:  clamping and moving; and routinely, both are required at the same time.  Guitarists need to recognize when they are doing which, and more importantly, when to recuperate.  With every piece, guitarists need to practice releasing their left hand tension at critical junctures, such as open strings, shifts, and major chord changes where there are no pivot or guide fingers.  The idea is to take as much time as you need to relax and rejuvenate your left hand when you are learning a piece, and then, as the days go by, you’ll need less and less time to relax until the point arrives that you can do so in tempo.  Ultimately, the habit of practicing relaxation points, to the degree that they become automatic, is the most important aspect of becoming a “relaxed” guitarist. 

In addition to finding relaxation points, guitarists must learn how to effectively use the weight of their left arm to aid in pressing the left hand fingers.  Essentially, while clamping notes with the left hand, pressure should be coming from three sources:  the weight of the left arm “hangs” on the fingers to help apply pressure; the left bicep should pull ever so gently to relieve undue pressure on the left thumb; and finally, we do need to squeeze with our fingers and thumb.  An excellent exercise is to play through a simple scale without touching the left thumb to the back of the neck.  By using the weight of the left arm and subtle bicep pressure the player should be able to obtain clear notes.  Then, add the left thumb lightly, more for balance than for squeezing pressure. 

What does guitar playing have to do with concrete?  Mixing 94 lb. bags of concrete in a wheelbarrow is a physically demanding job, one that in working on various home projects over the years I’ve done all too often.  I must admit that when I used to practice or perform on the guitar, there was a similar feeling of struggle in both tasks, but not any more.   

My wife mixes the cement.