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What’s going on, America?

Demonstrators march in New York, Saturday, Dec. 13, 2014, during the Justice for All rally and march. In the past three weeks, grand juries have decided not to indict officers in the chokehold death of Eric Garner in New York and the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. The decisions have unleashed demonstrations and questions about police conduct and whether local prosecutors are the best choice for investigating police. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

Demonstrators march in New York, Saturday, Dec. 13, 2014, during the Justice for All rally and march. In the past three weeks, grand juries have decided not to indict officers in the chokehold death of Eric Garner in New York and the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. The decisions have unleashed demonstrations and questions about police conduct and whether local prosecutors are the best choice for investigating police. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

What’s going on?

”Ain’t no new thing” … Gil Scott Heron might reply…

I’ve been awake at night quite a bit thinking about this. I watched the clip of Sandra Blands arrest and then of her mother speaking. Then I wanted to say something on social media, then realised it would take up too much space for a brief Facebook post. The ‘United States’. Undoubtedly and always a global hotspot of karmic chickens coming home to roost – but since August of last year, we are now witnessing an epidemic of racist police brutality that defies belief. I would go as far as to say that it’s a global tragedy. A planetary emergency. I would also propose that there’s something about it that borders on demonic. I have no wish to list or re-post any of the dozens of extremely disturbing candid clips, usually taken on civilian iPhones, of US police brutalising black citizens, including children. Every day there’s a new clip, a new report, a new cluster of ‘accidental’ deaths in custody, a new variation on the choke hold, the taser, the broken ribs/suffocation, the shoot-to-kill. I have watched a lot and am shocked and jittery every time and don’t want to ever stop being shocked and jittery, sad and worried and nauseated and distracted because I believe that’s the reasonable human response. The combination of 24 hours social media and on the spot amateur footage means we know more and faster – so is it worse than ever, or just looks that way?

There are calls for justice within America that are heroic, often poetic and artistic, dare I say it, shamanic in scope and courage. Brave and visionary, especially as just like in the ’60s, it’s becoming risky to be identified as an activist and I think this is why Sandra Bland was targeted for supposed ‘traffic infringements’. Since the shooting of Michael Brown, I’ve seen some incredible footage of flashmob style street opera,  peaceful spoken word protest outside police stations and an amateur video (which I will never forget) of a man praying/singing out loud, calling for help from the spirits and ancestors, even as the police electrocute him with a taser having wrongly apprehended and harrassed him, clearly out of their depth and presumably having run out of ideas. The citizen patiently and firmly reminds the police. ‘You don’t own me.’ The gap in intelligence between persecutor and captive is astounding. Ironically, the force of the taser knocks him out of the police grasp and he runs away. Also, there are also numerous black entertainers and celebrities, who are bringing their influence to bear by funding and supporting protest and by pressuring Barack Obama to step up. (If ever there was a time, now would be it…)

If America was a dysfunctional family member, (which arguably it is, special relationship and all…) common sense would surely now call for some sort of compassionate but very firm INTERVENTION. The UK has a unique responsibility in this matter. Therefore, where is the mainstream movement in this country? If you’re reading this and have any information I would seriously like to know if I have missed something. I realise there are petitions going around, grassroots activities, the Ferguson solidarity tour which came to Tottenham and Brixton last year, and many artists and jazz musicians, commentators and activists some of whom I know – who are doing good work – drawing attention to this and saying that it’s UNACCEPTABLE.  I’m not talking about any of that though. The bohemian, artistic community has limited power, time, energy and social leverage – struggling as many of us are to make any kind of living. What I mean is this – I want to see some comment and response from the mainstream UK establishment figures that actually have real power and influence. Again please tell me if I missed something…

Seriously… did I miss the plethora of UK pop entertainers at Glastonbury who used the power of the mic and mass media coverage to read out names of those murdered by the police? Or to call for some seriously sober 1 minute silences? Was it unreasonable to expect this at Wimbledon perhaps? Have I yet to be enlightened by mainstream UK actors or film/TV/music/sports celebrities – who are now boycotting the USA, refusing to tour or work there for example, until they sort the racism out? Where are the voices from white people in this country who need to be saying something? Again, people of at least some power and influence. White people need to be speaking to white people both here and in the US to extend firm alternative re-education and information to those who think they might want to join the law enforcement in order to express their racist brutality tendencies. (This needs to happen in the UK too, as we have our own horrible history of institutional racism – just fewer guns.) Some of these white cops responsible for racist violence, I consider to be mentally, spiritually and ideologically diseased. Individual expressions of a system based on arrogance and ignorance. Racism is a kind of mental illness/disconnection. It needs to be isolated and healed. And it’s not a ‘black’ issue – it’s clearly a white one.

America. Amerikkka. Land of the free. God bless America. Goddess help America. Turtle Island. A huge, beautiful and magical natural resource. Stolen, occupied land based on the deception and slaughter of its original people. Wealth and power built on the  kidnap, torture, rape, enslavement, brainwashing of African fellow humans. I have a book, ‘Iroquois Supernatural’ – about the diverse confederation of the Iroquois nations – whose territories, and later burial grounds constitute vast areas of upstate New York. And that’s just a fragment of the devastation. Anyone who has read ‘Roots’ or ‘Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee’ knows that the First Nations genocide and the slave trade ran side for side for generations. The legacy, literally the blood, still flows through the land with oppression continuing in modern form to this day.  From this history of abuse, what should we expect by now but a(nother) crisis point? How can we extend healing and cleansing?

I started this blog originally to highlight the work of the council of 13 indigenous Grandmothers. They have a prophecy which says that the global domination that is America, will be solved by America, from the enlightened, progressive agencies within, who can press for change. They also speak of the ‘eagle’ of the North, healing/harmonising/combining with the ‘condor’ of the South. This might mean a resurgence of traditional shamanic wisdom and a fearless move from powerful Americans of all races with a social conscience, to heal and transform the system. I hope so.

Thank you for reading.


Resources:

”A Taste of Power – A Black Womans Story” by Elaine Brown  The fascinating story of activist, musician and Black Panther – Elaine Brown.

Council of 13 Indigenous Grandmothers – 13  wise elders and custodians of indigenous knowledge.

Dream ways of the Iroquois” by Robert Moss.

Sergio Magana – Mexican lucid dream teacher. Healing dreamwork modalities from the ancient Toltec traditions.

Iroquois Supernatural: Talking Animals and Medicine People” by Michael Bastine and Mason Winfield.

The 5th Sacred Thing” by Starhawk – classic 1993 novel –  a blueprint for revolution.

South Dakota Exposed. – The Lakota Peoples Law Project reveals state operated psychiatric profiling and removal of Lakota children from homes and families into foster care.


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The Delicate Problem of Unsolicited Advice

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If you’re an artist, you may be familiar with this scenario. Sometimes friends, family members, partners or close associates offer us their well-intentioned tips and observations. They may be involved in the music business, but not at the vulnerable, volatile and often lonely coal face of songwriting and performance. It can be very uncomfortable when those who don’t walk in our shoes seem to think they know exactly what our next move should be, and what it is we are doing right and wrong. How do we let them know, with good grace and without causing offence – when we would like them to stop?

None of us wants to chew the heads off well-meaning, enthusiastic (and brave!) relatives or colleagues. They are doing us a favour by letting us know that our lives are of interest to them. They care enough to have an opinion and be passionate about it. They may view us as so formidable that it’s fun to push us a little, make us bristle. So what’s the problem? The trouble is with feedback and constructive criticism is that it takes a lot of energy to process – energy that’s already being deployed at full throttle. Trying to forge an artistic career is a start/stop, head-banging-against-brick-wall, relentless and already somewhat masochistic journey – even when things are going well…

Humour and levity are important. If we have gifts we should be humble and graceful about it, because… let’s face, it no-one likes a diva! Music is for sharing, healing and inspiring others, a service, a vocation, for sure. But I would guess that most artists are not, at their core, people pleasers. I’m certainly not! Principally, I create music for my own mental health – in order to give myself relief, healing and comfort – from the world and from myself. The knock-on benefits are wonderful, but they come second.

Here’s some tips for those moments when you are about to receive some advice that you did not ask for: 

•  Keep really still and notice where you feel the advice in your body. Does it activate panic and ego response? Does it throw you back into a family situation where you felt defensive and threatened? Can you challenge yourself to hear and accept the positive feedback? Saying a simple ‘thank you’ for a compliment is a vital social skill, as is letting negativity flow past you. Not complimentary? ‘thanks for your opinion’ is still a good phrase to practise.
•  Many people give advice that’s about them. I’ve done this myself, dispensing the supposed pearls of wisdom I wish I’d had. It can really get int the way of a person working out their own process in their own time and sometimes it’s best to shut up. Notice when you are doing this or when others are in this role with you. Let everyone own their own stuff. Try to speak to others in the way that you yourself would like to be spoken to. Think before you speak.
•  Experience has taught me the following. Professionally speaking, if you have already done, or are doing, (or have trained others how to do!) the advice you are being given – it’s a good idea to say so, pleasantly, but immediately. It saves everyone energy. But it also covers your back. You designed your journey – you don’t want others to take credit for teaching you what you already knew. Don’t stay silent if someone is trying to ‘take you under their wing’ in an inappropriate way.  Many people are into life coaching right now, so this especially relevant if someone is about to try to sell you advice that you don’t need and don’t want to buy.
• Is the advice giver a fledgling journalist, teacher or social commentator? If so, be kind. At this stage their ego is more fragile than yours. They may find it very exposing to express themselves and may need your support later. You are strong – can you afford to be big-hearted about it?
• Keep it clean. Keep it gracious. Be loving and accept love. It all come from and returns to love. Laugh at your own neurosis. Have the courage to expand and grow. Be grateful and mindful, bigger and stronger. But look ’em dead in the eye and don’t be afraid to let them feel the boundaries that are necessary for you to function as a creator.

 

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Female Martial Arts Heroes 10 # Hsu Feng

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Director King Hu’s 170min long epic, ‘A Touch of Zen’, (1971) contains the requisite historical martial arts costume drama elements. Early examples of wire stunt work, fights in bamboo treetops, sweeping landscapes of water, desert and  forests, heroic outlaws on the run from the law, and… a touch of zen…in the form of a coterie of saffron robed monks who step in to assist the plot. They demonstrate without weapons, but almost supernatural fighting prowess and calm, that non-violence is preferable to killing. It’s easy to see the influence on modern-day movies such as ‘Crouching Tiger’, ‘Hero’, and ‘House of Flying Daggers’, also the work of Quentin Tarantino. With lots of good fights and show-downs, well executed cameo parts, stylish pacing and editing and a stunning lead swords-woman, there’s lots to enjoy. The slow, quiet pacing is worth it for the set pieces. Like a river, it meanders for a while, then a new character or phase enters, rewarding the patient viewer. The music is good too. Well worth sourcing the entire film in a local library or on the internet.

Most pleasing in all this is the sheer charisma and screen presence of the female lead, played by Hsu Feng (whom George Lucas and Akira Kurosawa would have loved for her Princess Leia qualities). With smouldering determination, she fights hard, hacking, slashing and winning, using close range short sword and slightly Wing Chun style combat. Chasing opponents down if necessary and still standing by the end. This clip here is not the best showcase of her specific skills, her best one-to-one fights being in the first half of the film.

Hsu Feng starred in over 33 films and also produced  7 films, including the remarkably beautiful ‘Farewell To My Concubine’ in 1993.

King Hu made his last film in 1992 and died in 1997. Enjoy this clip…

Historic London Jazz Venues – The Pheasantry

The Pheasantry inside

The Pheasantry is a special venue and I’m looking forward to playing there on 23rd Oct, with my band. This place is a historical Georgian dwelling, the former home of Russian Princess Seraphine Astafieva, Margot Fonteyn’s ballet teacher.  She opened it in 1916 as the Russian Dancing Academy. It has been literally ever since, a prime avant-garde hangout. UK bands like Queen, Hawkwind and Lou Reed made early appearances here and Eric Clapton lived for some time on the top floor. The club still has a reputation for hosting music that really straddles genres and boundaries, including rock, jazz, cabaret and musical theatre. Recent acts have been Clarke Peters, Never the Bride, Fascinating Aida and Anoushka Lucas and many, many others. Did you know that If you book now, you can spend your New Year’s Eve watching the full line-up of Shakatak? The history right from the word go, is intriguing and highly unusual. When Pizza on the Park, in Marble Arch, closed its doors, manager Ross Dines ingeniously transplanted the piano, staff and equipment to  King’s Rd. Ever since, The Pheasantry has gone from strength to strength to become the hive of great music that it is now and with a reputation that keeps on growing.

It’s a beautiful building from an aesthetic point of view, with deco stylings both inside and out. In 2012 The Pheasantry won 2nd place in the London Lifestyle Awards Best Live Music Venue – beaten (but only just) by the royal Albert Hall. Apparently Madame Astafieva’s mirrors and practice barre remain as a feature on the first floor…somewhere? I found that out from online library archives – and can’t wait to verify that for myself, if I get a chance.

The Pheasantry

From left to right, Serafine Astafieva and early promotional poster.

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Dave Walker local librarian and author of ‘The Library Time Machine’, a fascinating blog about the London Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, writes:

”The Pheasantry is so-called because a farmer named Evans formerly sold live pheasants from the site. But the building served all kinds of purposes in its day. The cabinet makers and interior design company of Felix Joubert and his family worked from  there for many years. From 1932 until the mid 1960s it was a nightclub. You can make out the words Pheasantry Club above the door.

The club closed in 1966 when the then owner Mario Cazzini died. It was in 1969 when Bevis Hillier wrote: “what a profoundly insipid name for this perverted palace, which might be a chapel of Beelzebub, Aleister Crowley’s pied a terre, A crèche for Rosemary’s baby or a finishing school for vampires…”

I love the sense of decadence and atmosphere that quote inspires….

(Earlier this summer I had the pleasure of watching singer-songwriter Anoushka Lucas play here, pretty much fresh from her success at the ‘Love Supreme’ Jazz Festival. She’s one to watch, so check out her tunes and online news. A unique blend of styles and even languages. One thing she does, is a great chanson type vibe…evocative gypsy sounding guitar finger picking and self-penned, perfectly executed French lyrics.  Effortless, soaring voice and blues piano. She also has an inventive band – a simultaneous drummer/extra guitarist (a guitdrummist?) and acoustic bass which packs a gentle, but effective punch.)

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Well anyway…come to historic home of music and dance, The Pheasantry and see my show on Wed 23rd Oct.  It’s a gig but it’s also my birthday – and a huge celebration, so come and share it.

CLICK HERE  for online booking.

Wed 23rd Oct  – Doors open 7pm. Show at 8.30pm. Entry £15.

The Pheasantry, 152-154 Kings Rd, London, SW3 4UT.

Bookings: 08456 027 017  /  0207 439 4962

Online booking now available and recommended.

CLICK HERE TO BOOK NOW.

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Silence

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”Only in silence the word, only in dark the light, only in dying life : bright the hawk’s flight on the empty sky” – The Creation of Ea

(From Ursula Le Guin’s ‘Earthsea’ trilogy.)

This is by far the most personal blog entry I have ever created.  I hope no-one is offended and trust that other people with unusual cognition patterns might actually find it helpful.

Sometimes I just can’t talk. I don’t have thoughts to share.  Don’t ask me what’s on my mind, or if I’m alright. It’s all pretty blank. I’m not hiding, blocking or defending. There’s literally nothing of interest going on in the walls of my head – or heart. It’s pretty numb. The day is done. It’s over.  Ask me to explain what I mean by that? No, I can’t. There’s nothing left.  I have a sort of  –  emptiness.  If it’s not necessary I won’t be doing or saying it. When I have something to say, I will. I have silence inside me. When I look at something I don’t have a dialogue to share about it. If I look at ‘sky’ or ‘tree’, I am at that moment, also ‘sky’ and ‘tree.’ I’m seeing the same as you. So don’t ask me what I’m thinking. I have a certain amount of communication dysphoria (is that a term?) around listening and talking and issues of relating.  To the extent that I have wondered if I am mentally ill. Some of it is problematic because there are gender expectations. There is a cliché that women are excellent communicators, talkers and empaths. I don’t think this is ‘natural’.  I think it’s learnt. But I still struggle to learn it. Being hyper-relational is not my natural way. (This is why I like my guitars. They don’t talk.) Silence. I crave it like a taboo indulgence. It’s intoxicating to me. There is already plenty of data in silence. There are streams of  information and coherent shapes. But when people talk, it just looks like big visual loops of confusion. People say random, tangential things that are just unrelated blocks of noise to me. Is it a question? If not, how can I help you? And why are waiting for a response? Is it a statement? The best I can do is an affirmative grunt on auto-pilot, but the real me has gone inside and is busy elsewhere in my head. Or I am watching the slow, delicate progress of an ant across the table. Do you wish to act on my solution? Or just talk some more? Why do you want me to share my problems too – when you have just filled up the room with your own? My need is not to ‘relate with you’. Instead, let’s do a concrete task together. Reach a solution or conclusion. I need roughly speaking, at least 3 parts silence to 1 part sound. My needs are simple. Silence. Adequate water/food and sleep. Don’t ask me what I’m thinking. I don’t know. Don’t ask me what I’m feeling. I don’t have access to that information until I go away and strain and stress until I find it. Then I will just feel mainly pissed off . Don’t ask me to share my process. If I do, there will be no product. Don’t take issue with my face because I’m looking at you intensely or somewhat coldly. I’m trying to work out what  on earth you are saying! I have to listen and look very hard because the emotional cues and textures and subtleties  are flying over my head – they literally don’t register as you might expect. I can only rely on the verbal information and if it’s too nuanced it won’t reach me. I’m intuitive, but on the physical/mental frequencies, not the feeling ones. If you are sad I won’t be ‘feeling your pain’ with you. Why would you want me to and what earthly good would I be to you if I was? Spare a thought for those of us who are auteurs, who are self-contained, over-sensitive to too much information at once, who find multi-tasking very bewildering and upsetting. We feel, but we feel in a ‘differently abled’ way. I have difficulty talking and walking at the same time. You want me to do a task? I cannot do it if you are talking to/at me or if I am to talk to you simultaneously. Spare a thought for those of us who feel nauseous at certain colours or shapes.  Who struggle with the contradictions of extrovert profession but introvert personality. We do a job that requires intense, daily relationship not just with sound and rhythm, but with audiences and the public. But we hunger for huge, expansive silences and periods of dormancy. And we feel all of these things…but almost never talk about it. We just take it to the silence.

 

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Hand Health for Guitarists – Top Ten Tips

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Thank heavens for the UK heat wave of July 2013 – it doesn’t half help with being flexible and limbered-up for physical disciplines, including sport and instrumental practice. Even so, I’ve been feeling familiar aches and strains, due to intensive wood-shedding for forthcoming gigs, recordings and festivals. As instrumentalists, (all of this is applicable to piano too) how do we achieve a balance between being constantly ‘match fit’ …  and over-stretched both physically, and also psychologically? You can be sure that one follows the other. I once fractured my right hand thumb whilst chopping someone’s head in Aikido practice. (Note to martial arts enthusiasts – bone on bone is never a good idea.) At A &E , they considered me mad for pursuing contact sports along with a professional music career. But those of us who are passionate about these things know that they do often go together  – and the contradiction just has to be managed. At the BAPAM clinic, I read in their literature, that musicians are really athletes in constant peak performance mode and should be treated that way. So, we should all put some thought into self-care. It will enhance and lengthen our playing careers.Many guitarists will recognise the following issues: temporary nerve damage in fingertips, left  hand callouses peeling off leaving vulnerable skin, broken nails (arggh!), tendonitis in both plucking and fretting hands, shoulder tension, headaches, bad posture, fatigue from carrying heavy gear and the odd guitar string rebounding into the face or eye.

Not to mention electric shocks, impalement on whammy bar, guitar strings caught in teeth, overly tight trouser trouble or any number of Hendrix-type mayhem encountered by the more theatrical guitar folk amongst us. Most injuries are mundane. How many of you know that according to Total Guitar issue Feb 2006, Dave Mustaine, lead guitarist of Megadeth, gave himself serious nerve damage by…er…sleeping on his arm. Rock n Roll! Well, this is a serious article so…here’s my top ten tips of things to remember and do. These practices have beneficial meditational aspects as well as pure physical maintenance.

(The following list assumes a right handed persuasion:)

1. Classical guitarists, remember that it pays to keep those right hand plucking nails filed down just a fraction shorter than you would like. Keep filing and they will grow long and strong. Get complacent (‘oohh they’re extra long right now, great…’) and that’s when they tend to snap off.

2. Nail health – moisturise, trim, file and buff regularly. By all means do boxing and martial arts, or whatever. Using micropore to wrap nails will prevent damage to self and others. (Note to self – Micropore sponsorship deal?)

3. If you do martial arts or boxing, bathe hands (and whole body, ideally) in hot water after every practice.

4. When sawing wood, opening cans or showing off with that brand new swiss army knife, (‘hey, watch me peel this apple super fast’) just think. It’s your livelihood at stake.

5. I swear by my John Williams style right hand tirando exercises. I make my students do them and I do them every day, fast and slow. Right hand is P, I M A, yes? Do the following, loop and repeat until you are in a trance…your tendons will love you for it. Do them a lot. On your guitar, also at bus stops, on table tops, railings and on air guitar. Here we go:

 

P I M I A I M I     (X4)     P A I A M A I A     (X4)     P M I M A M I M     (X4)     P M A M I M A M     (X4)

 (In each case P striking 4 times traversing bass E, A and D and back to A string.)

 

6. My teacher, a student himself of both Julian Bream and John Williams, always used to say: If the pain/strain is sudden – stop. If the pain/strain is gradual – practice through it.

7. Breathe deeply and athletically, as a habit, as a matter of course. (Maybe easier to remember for  instrumentalists who are also singers, dancers or martial artists.) Any stress, stain or extraneous mental chatter, let flow out on the exhalation. Make sure the room you practice in is warm enough. Get the temperature right, also your posture and location and general vibe as comfortable as possible. Get up and walk around regularly.

8. Scales. Do them. Just play scales and arpeggios for as long as you can bear it. Practise and experiment with every different fingering or picking combination until you run out. That way, nothing will take you by surprise you and make you tense up.

9. Bar chords. Don’t get stressed. In jazz, you will hardly need them. Ok, with classical stuff you will need them. And rock. Also you will need to hold the bar, whilst widdling around melodically with the remaining fingers. This can strain the tendons in the wrist and make your hand ache. The good news is that it gets easier over time, as your hand span adjusts and develops. Determined visualisation can help. Imagine your fretboard is like one of those ironing boards that has a vacuum surface. Try to flatten your bar shape against the fretboard and think straight down through your elbow, into the floor. Resist temptation to use other fingers to hold the chord down. Let the imaginary suction do it.

10. I always tell my students that the LH and RH are like different brains, with different roles. They work in tandem with each other, but don’t confuse the roles. For general study and practice, the left hand is there to create solid shapes, pitches and tones – cleanly and efficiently. Unless you are doing some special claw-hammer/pull off technique, it should not be trying to express strength or force. Be as relaxed as possible. It’s the right hand that is there to express and project the volume and energy. I think of the LH as Yang and the RH as Yin. Eventually, even this doesn’t quite capture it – but it’s a useful image that can help prevent undue strain and tension. I had a vocal teacher, who described injury as something that results from: inappropriate strength in a place of release and inappropriate release in a place of strength. I found that to be a useful idea and hope that you enjoy playing with it…

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Resources:

Musicians Benevolent Fund

Musician’s Clinic

British Association for Performing Arts Medicine

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Adventures in Guitar Playing

There’s just something about guitars. I mean, people are great, don’t get me wrong. But they are not guitars.

Guitars…touch them and they respond. Give and they give back. It’s a mutual relationship of trust, loyalty and devotion, of wood  gut, sweat and steel. A coherent, reciprocal dance of notes, shapes, tones, scales and phrases. After a mammoth session in the guitar woodshed, and in the silence that follows, I know exactly what to do next time. The instrument itself, has shown me. Vibration, resonance, response. It’s marriage and there’s no getting away from it. And then there is a whole world of related ‘tek’ interest…pedals, effects units, amps, strings, assorted plectra of diverse shape and thickness. A pleasurably geeky range of method, kit and vocabulary. In the world  of classical playing, nail care alone is a science.

From left to right, my Sanchez ‘Senorita’ – especially designed for the smaller-handed human, of which I am one. It’s tone is sweet, rather than heavy. Centre – my hand-made Heartwood semi-acoustic. Amped and with battery, it takes on a whole bluesy/folksy energy, warm and fluid. Right below, is my Ibanez twin humbucker pride and joy. I recorded much of my ‘Dangerous Loving’ album on it. I have a secret love of metal/progressive rock and had been coveting the  Ibanez Steve Vai signature series, with cut away hand hold, for some time. After experimentation and an open mind, I was able to pick up something just as good for a 3rd of the price at ‘Rockers’ in Denmark St. I hadn’t planned to compose so much for the guitar. It became a necessity when I lost access to my usual studio and piano. I never envisaged that I’d use it in the same way as I do the keys, as I think of the guitar as a voice in itself, its own melody and accompaniment.

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I was hearing the classical guitar in the womb. It must have always been there, as my father was studying with the Cardiff Guitar Society and practising at home, most nights. I started learning from him when I was about 14. We tried ‘Hey Joe’ by Jimi Hendrix and a good Bob Dylan blues sequence, then later ‘Angi’, (made famous by Davey Graham, Simon and Garfunkel and others), great default party pieces…but it was the Brazilian Villa Lobos preludes that really stuck. By age 18, I was experimenting on my first electric guitar bought for £180 with my paltry student grant (yes, a grant in those days). It meant I was poor for the term, but really, who needs food when you have your first stratocaster? Sending off demos to record labels amounted to not much. Somehow the lyrical flow and cinematic scope of the classical repertoire was still calling me – the samba like polyrhythms and  jazzy complexity of Venezuelan Antonio Lauro, or the rippling film score like progressions and arpeggios of Paraguayan Agustin Barrios. interestingly, I never felt the same about classical piano music, though I studied it up to grade 5.

The guitar, unlike the piano, was originally a folk instrument, inexpensive, portable. The guitar is older, more akin to the drum and voice. The best music written for it is folkloric in flavour. Tango, blues and flamenco all invite song and dance. The contemporary guitar we know today was preceded by lute like instruments – the harp, lyre, oud, tanbur, kora and shamisen. Cultures all around the world, from Africa to ancient Greece, all had their own version of stringing gut between point A and B and twanging it. Then making it tense in various places, thus creating pitch. Early guitars (and picks) have been found in Egypt, dating from 3500 BC.

I consider the best repertoire to be 20th century. That’s when much of the music written for lute – was being adapted to a modern era and instrument, by the likes of Julian Bream. And classical works for piano written by Albeniz and Granados were being adapted for guitar by Andres Segovia. The hypnotic Spanish dances written by these composers certainly make more sense to me away from the recital hall environment. They are best done in the street, an open air jazz cafe or around a campfire.

I’d reached a stumbling point with the electric guitar, by my early 20’s. My hands hurt (especially the right) and I didn’t know how to move my fingers faster or make my hands larger.  I knew I had to relay the classical foundations, whatever it took, or I would never ever forgive myself. Once in london, I found a teacher and  embarked on the whole journey from scratch. It took  many years and a fairly stormy teacher/student relationship, but I did it…all the way up to ABRSM Grade 8. My teacher was taught by both John Williams and Julian Bream, and they  in turn, by Segovia, so I can confidently tell my students that my method and lineage are solid. Sometimes I choose not to teach how I was taught. The ‘school of hard knocks’ is not my way – I enjoy making things accessible and fun. Pleasingly, I can find many parallels with my martial arts practice and guitar playing, particularly the dialogue between left and right brain, yet independence of each.

Proper classical technique is worth it. Economical, graceful, organic, it will keep you safe from injury, but allow you to play fast. I have now managed to build up a set of the Latin/Spanish composers that I love (Tarrega, Lauro, Villa Lobos) and have been playing at Brazilian cafe, Neal’s Yard Salad Bar, also as an accompanist on a ‘Songs from the Spanish Revolution’ album. My latest project is now as a session guitar player for UK chill out phenomenon Lazy Hammock. Watch out for our date this summer at L fest on 21st July. And I continue to compose and write songs on the guitar just for the fun of it, even though the piano is easier and the instrument with which I am mostly associated. Check out my multi-genre all female blog series of guitar heroes.

I now know that speed isn’t everything and that tone, is often everything. I learnt that the guitar sings backs to you, and that the loneliness many people associate with the endless hours of practice needed to play this instrument, is a myth. If in doubt, go back to the source. The ‘wooden box’ as my teacher used to call it. It has never let me down.

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