A Tip for the Anxious Musician: Relax

Easier said than done. This tip is for any musician, and it will affect how you play. It makes sense that if athletes warm up before they exercise to loosen their muscles, musicians should too. After all, both require the player to control their muscles well in order to play well.

It is important that musicians learn which areas of their bodies tend to tense up more than others. For me, it’s my shoulders. When I get stressed out and anxious, my shoulders raise. Recognize that it is a skill to even sense this. Many often do not notice the change.

If you can learn to notice when your muscles tense up, you can learn to relax them. Here are some common areas that tense up:

  • shoulders and neck
  • hands
  • forehead
  • lower back

One way to relax is to focus your attention on the spot that is tense and intentionally relax it. Because it’s like flexing on purpose, one way to relax it is to first make it as tight as possible, and then letting it loosen up as much as possible, relaxing the area as much as possible.

There are many ways people work on relaxing, and beyond the mental and spiritual elements, I’ve seen this method of physically relaxing to be effective.

So if you play piano, for instance, and your hands are tense, a young player might tend to stick their fingers in the air. There are many possible reasons for this, but this exercise of tightening and then loosening is a start.

If you are a musician, what helps you relax?

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Ten Ways to Seize All the Attention When Leading Worship

Ten Ways to Seize All the Attention When Leading Worship

As the tone of the title might suggest, getting attention is not always a good thing. As a musician, there are ways you do NOT want to get others’ attention.

As one who plays with a band or team, especially in leadership contexts, this is even more important. A worship leader should not attract too much attention since his whole purpose is to help people focus on the Lord.

The title is “Ten Ways to Seize All the Attention When Leading Worship,” but I could have titled it “How to be a Distraction.” Of course everything below is entirely sarcastic (and slightly irreverent). The purpose is to implicitly show the disastrous ramifications of a worship leader seizing all the attention.

The list includes some of the primary distractions I have seen as a worship leader. They can be made by anyone on the stage, not just the worship leader.

Without further ado, if you are dying to know how to grab your instrument, get in front of people and seize all the attention (because, if we’re being honest, people deserve to be blessed by you), then here are ten ways you can do it.

1. Play A LOT of runs and licks

For most instruments, you can pick some very strategic places to play your best fills and runs. These fit best every time the singers are not singing, though sometimes you can help them out with cool alternative melodies. If it’s an easy song with easy chords, feel free to fill in all that nasty “dead” space with some creative leads. If you want to really get those heads turning your way, use a combination of an alternate melody and some sick syncopation.

If you are a drummer, people like to hear cool fills, so play them- everywhere. As a vocalist, runs and licks are becoming more commonplace, and expected. If this is you, be sure to keep your microphone up at your mouth in case you need to improv at a quiet spot, or between verses.

The point is, the more set apart you are, the better.

2. Use A LOT of interesting body language

Some really famous guys are really famous because of their ability to move their bodies with the music. This works really well with a great lick – bend your back as you bend your string for one of those really high notes. Or, if you are a bass player, know that attitude is everything. Wear shades if you have to. Be as cool looking as you can possibly be. Drummers should definitely swing their head and even stand up at times right before a big “crash” on the cymbal.  Everyone should try to jump at least once during the performance. Or, consider moments where you can dance excessively.

Some of the most interesting body language, however, is worn on the face. To get the most attention, you should exaggerate just slightly, as actors do on a live stage. If you are really enjoying the song, smile REALLY BIG. You can also seize their attention as you work out a really complicated fill. Be sure to stick your tongue out a little to show them how hard it is. Grimacing works exceptionally well for this, too.

Above all, be real. If you happen to see someone in the audience you really don’t like, show it. If you are not in it at all and are feeling bored, drooped shoulders go well with a small scowl or blank stare.

3. Don’t Practice

If you are into the music, the main thing is to be passionate. People will notice passion. If you miss a few notes here and there, or even if you miss most of them, your passion will cause people to be amazed. Just play from your heart. Everyone knows practicing too much nurtures a grudge against music anyway. It’s a drag. Besides, after a church service, you can give all the credit to God! You will be a blessing. If you utilize the first two, and play a lot of runs with some good body movements, you can just “feel” the music. You might feel your way to a wrong note or two, but remember, passion is what counts. Seize all the attention by seizing their hearts with your passion.

As a sidenote, if you are a vocalist and feel the audience should be blessed by your passion, but aren’t the lead vocalist, there’s a quick solution. Simply make a side deal with the sound engineer, mentioning the need for passion in the congregation, and tell him to turn you up just a bit. The leader won’t mind.

4. Yell

This goes nicely with the two previous tips. If you are feeling passionate, a nice, loud, yell works really well. Close your eyes and laugh briefly right after you yell. Just let it out. Don’t be afraid of what others think. These are utilized primarily during the upbeat songs, but can be mastered at key quiet moments as well. Whether you are yelling words or not, a yell will be very effective in seizing attention. Try to vary the kind of yell you use. People will stop looking if they hear the same thing too many times.

If you are not the “yelling” type, another option is to sing/yell. This is half yell, half note. You may have noticed this is a very popular style these days and you should try to be as “relevant” as you can. If they are comfortable with you, they will love to watch you.

5. Mess with your gear a lot

As a musician, you will often have a lot of buttons and or gadgets to play with during a performance. You should use this one with caution. If the purpose is to draw attention to yourself, you want to make sure to look like you know what you are doing, especially if you are playing by yourself. You need to look both smart and talented.

The best time to mess with your gear is when others in the band have started the song first, and you’re just waiting for your turn to shine. You can seize attention even when you are not playing if you do this right. Be strategic. Lean or reach over to adjust your gear the instant before the song is started. With this first motion, you will silently command attention, and people will wait on the edge of their seat for your turn. Use your body language skills and then start playing a little earlier than agreed upon. If you are to come in after the first verse, keep adjusting your volume or push your pedals, then play some light runs in the middle of the verse before you really come in.

You get the picture.

6. Stare at people and wink

With this advanced move, you can draw the eyes of many by looking at one person. One of the best ways to get people to quit thinking about words they may be singing is to wink at inappropriate times. These must all be done during a song, and the timing is critical. The wink must happen at the most random time possible, where no connection to the meaning of the song can be construed. Otherwise, they will not be blessed by you, but by the meaning of the song. If you wink at inopportune times, where meaning might be extrapolated by the viewer, you have not seized all the attention, but have given some away to the song itself.

7. Spend very little time, if any, tuning your instrument

Hey, if the rest of the band failed to tune to your instrument, that’s not your fault. In general, don’t spend too much valued time tuning. There are more important things to deal with. Believe in yourself, and trust that your ear and your skill will easily accommodate for a mistuned string here and there. Besides, if you show off your lead guitar skills, you will be primarily playing one note or two at a time, and it will be hardly noticeable. And speaking of, you are your worst critic anyway. If people are being blessed by you, they won’t even notice little details like if your instrument is in tune or not.

8. Use bad grammar and speling

If you want people to sing with you, but someone has told you to put words up on a screen, be sure to use bad grammar and spelling. The reason for this is obvious. If you intend to seize all the attention, you can not afford people’s eyes to be off of you for very long. Using bad grammar and spelling has a two-fold effect. It not only causes people to shift their eyes back to you (due primarily to being annoyed by what they see on the screen), it will also cause them to listen only to your music instead of considering the meaning of the words.

This two-fold effect gives this tip much power and should be used as much as possible. People deserve to be blessed by you, after all. For some reason, they don’t realize that the screen is not a person, so you need to help redirect their eyes to your person.

9. Play in a different key

This is really only effective if you are the primary leader. If the rest of the band is following you, one trick to seize 100% of the attention is to suddenly play in a different key. This is particularly easy for guitar players. You can thank the makers of the Capo for that. One ½ step shift is all it takes. If you are playing piano, simply pick the next key that is easiest to play. If you are in a key with a lot of flats, like the key of B, simply transpose the song one half step up to C. Do this on a song with few chords to make sure you don’t make a fool of yourself. That would defeat the purpose.

10. Stop a song in the middle

Like the previous, this one is only effective if you are the primary leader. Of all the previous items, this one is the most effective towards your goal of seizing all the attention when leading worship.

Picture with me: you begin the song with passion and entreat the congregation to sing with you, but you notice serious faces, bowing of heads, and a general somber appearance. A twinge of anger comes over you as you remember all those conversations with leaders about a “dead” congregation. Why can’t they just sing?

Remember at this point that your goal is to seize all the attention. Their lack of singing is only a surface issue. Use it as an opportunity. Take a moment to stop the song and speak to them. Broaden your smile and lightly scold them for their silence. Chastise them for the serious “praying” faces and encourage them to rejoice in the Lord!

(Of course, you and I both know that if they aren’t doing what you’ve asked them to, you might be losing control. This is bad. As a leader, control is what you do. You need to subtly remind them to love and respect you and your music.)

Now, if it’s a newer song, you might even be able to, very slowly, play sections of the song at a time, and have them sing after you. They might think you are teaching them the song, but in these things you have successfully seized all the attention while leading worship.

Way to go!

Seize Attention

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Piano Fingers Tip #3

Piano Fingers Tip #3

Finger PostureI’ve written about what affects finger position for piano, as well as the tendency to let your fingers fly away as a beginner. This is a third tip about finger posture.

What is good posture? Typically one thinks about sitting up straight, and it’s a little like that with your fingers as well.

Beginner players, especially if they are short, can develop the habit of “sweeping” their fingers across the keys. Their arms are too low to allow the tips of their fingers alone to touch the keys. What happens is that the hand lays down because the elbow pulls it down. The fingers are then resting flat on the piano key instead of the tip.

The trouble with this is that it reduces efficiency. When the “sweeping” begins to happen, the fingers are doing a lot more work than they need to. The extra motion causes fatigue even faster and prevents the necessary fluidity needed for more advanced songs. Scales are difficult, finger positioning becomes difficult, chording, arpeggios and accidentals can become a challenge as well. These kinds of things are all dependent on strong, correctly postured fingers.

So, to state it directly, here’s the tip: Keep your fingers curved, and fingertips on the keys.

As I type, I realize that the posture should look like good computer posture. You don’t type with your fingers straight down, nor do you type with them flat (where your knuckles are almost touching the keys). No, your arms are fairly parallel with the ground and your fingers have a slight bend. Your fingertips are the only things hitting the letters. That’s the point.

 

 

Of the benefits, another music teacher and performer named T.H. Gillespie who has seen this problem often agrees:

Curved fingers not only facilitate rapid action for fast passages, but ensure greater touch control.

As much as possible, your fingertips should be the only thing that hit the piano keys.

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Less is More

Less is More

This principle is very important in music. Truth be told, this is a principle important in life, since it is easy to over-work, over-plan, over-stress, and over-think.

Have you ever wondered why the lives of many elderly get simpler, and less cluttered? Could it be that it has less to do with their out-of-touch-ness and more to do with wisdom?

I believe that many, in their years, have learned this principle in their life.

The principle “less is more” reveals how important it is to do a few things well. It means living among other human beings without hogging all the attention. It means listening well to others and contributing to society in a significant way rather than just a noisy, clanging kind of way (I think 1 Corinthians 13:1 might have something to say about that). It means being patient to add your two cents at the right time. After all, if you live by this principle, you are humble enough to recognize that you only have two cents.

In music, it’s the same.

(This, incidentally, is one reason I love teaching music. There are inherent life-lessons involved.)

So what does this “less is more” principle look like in music? Well, I’ll break down the above paragraph:

  1. Do a few things well
  2. Live as others are more important than you (don’t hog all the attention)
  3. Listen well
  4. Contribute in a significant way (don’t just be noisy)
  5. Remember you are only one part of a whole

While you can apply these things to life, I’ll note how I believe they apply to music specifically.

1. Do a few things well

As a student, it is so easy to move on before it is time. It is better to learn a few things well than learn a whole bunch of things without getting any of them down. The reason is because it’s hard to remember that it takes many more repetitions of a skill than you think. Students feel that after they’ve done the skill correctly once or twice, they have mastered it. To put it another way, they believe it is “easy” before it is truly done with ease.

Practice a few things. It will lead to even greater artistry in the future. Less now will mean more later.

2. Live as if others are more important than you (don’t hog all the attention)

This one is especially huge for those playing with others. I believe the goal in learning music is for the benefit of others, so even if you are a soloist, it should not be about you. People watch you and can read pretty quickly if you couldn’t care less if they were there, or if the only reason you want them there is to applaud how awesome you are.

As a band, considering others as more important than yourself is an important concept. Think of it – what would it sound like if everyone played a solo at the same time?

Answer: mass chaos.

Likewise, what would happen if a car had two steering wheels?

Answer: mass chaos (and death).

What happens when there are too many “cooks in the kitchen?”

Answer: mass chaos.

If you are playing with others, it is crucial that you don’t try to hog all the attention. Playing more and louder will only lead to mass chaos. Instead, how can you support those around you in what you play? What is your role? The more players, the less you should be compelled to play. I often think of a classic band like the Eagles with this. They were extremely good at this principle, and their music reflected it.

3. Listen well

Don’t try to be heard. Try and listen. This one is related to the above. If you are considering the other players as more important than yourself, you will be listening to what they are doing. Besides what they are playing, you will notice how they are playing, and will be able to adjust if they change. The beauty is that communication begins only when all are listening well to one another, and the team can then adjust simultaneously. Some bands are so good at this that very little body language or facial expression is needed to communicate effectively.

Play less for the sake of better communication, and a better sound as a band.

4. Contribute in a significant way (don’t just be noisy)

No one wants to listen to flat-out noise, and every band should remember that they are on a continuum between chaotic, cacophonous noise and beautiful ordered music.

One potential problem with #3 above is that a tentative, nervous player will play so little that he barely contributes at all. Now, this might not be all bad, for obvious reasons, but he should push himself to contribute meaningfully even if he is not a great player.

On other hand, some players don’t realize they need a lot of work on their technical skills and will play loud and proud without consideration of the whole sound (he’s already blown the first three above).

This item is included so that neither claiming “minimalist” as a musical philosophy nor claiming irresistible “Animal” tendencies are an option. If the goal is to contribute in a significant way, you will find balance in between. This item is also placed where it is because doing this well is somewhat dependent on the first three.

Less means more significant, not necessarily fewer notes.

5. Remember you are only one part of a whole

I hope this one is fairly self-explanatory. As a musician, you cannot and will not make the same kind of sound by yourself as with a group.

I think of the kind of sound all the saints will make in heaven as they worship the Savior (an enormous thought).

As you play with others, remember that part of the reason you play “less” is because you are not the whole.

You are not a band any more than a soldier is an army.

Summary

The “less is more” principle means practicing and mastering a few things at a time, listening well and considering others as more important than you, and then contributing meaningfully to the overall sound as you play with the team.

How have you seen this principle in action?

 

lessismore

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Guitar Tip: Painting the Strum (Part 4)

Guitar Tip: Painting the Strum (Part 4)

The parts of a strum can be seen separately, but it is always better to think of it as a whole. Your arm and body position, and how you move your arm were the first two parts I have briefly mentioned.

When it comes to “Painting the Strum,” holding your pick is one of the most important parts, which is what this tip is about – holding the pick.

TortexRedFor the guitar artist, we call his brush a “pick.”

So where does this term come from? We should define our terms, right?

We use the word “pick,” but this is (somehow) short for “plectrum.” It comes from a Greek verb that means “to strike.” The verb has a related noun that means “something with which to strike.” The noun is transliterated “plektron” (or, because I’m a Greek nerd, πλεκτρον).

Naturally, therefore, a pick is something with which to strike the strings of the guitar. But this kind of strike is a very controlled strike, like the kind Michelangelo might have used for his stone sculptures. His “plektron” would have been a chisel.

Though they are definitely not my favorite, even modern artists like Andy Warhol or Jackson Pollock hold their instruments in particular ways to create their kind of work.

Pretty cool, right? Guitar is no different.

Okay, so there are several ways to hold the pick, but I’ll tell you what matters most right off the bat.

What matters most is how tightly you hold your pick.

Here’s the tip: Hold your pick about as tightly as you might hold your fork.

That’s about as close of an analogy as I can come up with now. I did not mention a pencil or a pen as an example because I’ve seen many people hold a pen really tightly…white knuckle tight. I’ve also seen people hold pens very loosely, to the point where you can barely see what they’re writing.

With this in mind, here are a few ways that even famous guitarists have held their picks.

1. Index tip & thumb only

pick3The first way is probably the most common way to hold the pick, though I don’t hold it this way. The first (index) finger and thumb hold the pick near the tip of the index finger.

Because this is the most common way, most would say this is the “right” way, but I challenge them to explain why.

2. Index side & thumb only

pick1This is another very common way to hold a pick. I happen to hate this way, truth be told, but others would say the same about my way. 🙂

Like number 1, the reason I do not prefer this is because I have not learned to hold the pick this way. That’s the honest truth.

Though this method might keep one from losing the pick during the strum very well, my hand feels big. In other words, with this method, I feel my hand is very much in the way of painting the strum well.

3. Index, middle & thumb

pick3

This is the way I hold my pick. It is the way I instruct my students.

Because the most important thing is how tightly you hold the pick, here are the reasons I like this way.

First, I can control it. I like the pressure it puts on both fingers (index & middle).

Second, I feel my fingers are out of the way. Maybe its because my hands are already a little bigger, but when my middle is in use, it’s out of the way.

Third, I can add stronger texture to the strings if I hold my pick this way. I can actually squeeze it tighter with three fingers (more on this in a minute), which essentially causes the pick to strike harder, making a louder sound.

So there are thee ways to hold a pick. Keep in mind that the tip is not about one of these three ways. I encourage the last one, but the most important thing is about how tight you hold it.

Why the tip is important

Okay, so maybe you weren’t expecting the tip to be about how tightly you hold the pick. So why am I telling you that this is the most important thing?

Well, lets use the painting analogy again. Some brushes have very fine bristles. Some have very thick ones, which are naturally stiffer than the fine bristles. Picks are like that. Some are thinner, and bend more easily; some are thicker and really don’t bend at all. In fact, these are like the brushes you leave out after painting. Depending on the type of paint, that thing will become an un-cleanable stone, and you have to throw it away because it will not bend at all.

Yes, there is actually a purpose to picks that do not bend at all, but acoustic guitar players have little use for them.

Picks are sized by the millimeter (mm), and range from about .38mm to about 1.2mm. I use a .5mm Tortex pick like the one shown at the beginning of the post. They are made with different materials, ranging from nylon to metal. The Tortex pick is a synthetic material that simulates a natural tortoise shell.

Crazy, huh?

So the tip is important because there are at least three things going on with your pick:

  1. What finger position you use to hold the pick (options above)
  2. How stiff your pick is (gauge, material, etc.)
  3. How tightly you hold the pick

All of these work together, believe it or not, and it depends on what kind of artwork you want to make.

Yes! Like a tiny brush with very fine bristles, the very thin pick is not going to make a very dark or heavy stroke no matter what finger position you choose.

Likewise, like a paint hardened brush, the very thick pick has no “give” and will tend to sound harsh and uncontrolled when used for strumming.

I have chosen a gauge that falls in the middle, and have chosen to use two fingers in the back as I hold it.

Busted – I haven’t answered your question yet. Why is the tip important?

Here’s what I would say with all this in mind (who knew this much was involved in holding a pick?): How tight you hold the pick tends to be inversely proportional to the thickness of the pick.

What?

In other words, if you want to strum with a light gauge pick and actually get some volume out of it, you will need to hold it tighter. If you want to strum with a heavier gauge pick and keep it from being too harsh or louder than desired, you must hold it a little looser (without dropping it).

I have decided that with a middle-of-the-road gauge, there is a good balance in how tightly I must hold it, versus how tightly I want to hold it.

I can hold the pick a little looser and get a softer sound, or hold it a little tighter and get a louder sound. I am more free to be the artist I want to be with my acoustic guitar.

In fact, since all strumming is merely brushing the strings up and down without stopping, I can change to any number of strumming patterns by tightening or loosening my pick at different times during the swings.

Accents in strumming are simply created by squeezing the pick as you swing.

In addition, changing the angle of the pick as I swing has a variety of effects.

The finger position, the angle, the pick type and gauge, and the grip are all important, but the most important thing is the grip – how tightly you hold the pick.

That’s why the tip is important.

I hope that helps. I welcome your thoughts!

painting-the-strum-4

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Guitar Tip: Painting the Strum (Part 3)

Guitar Tip: Painting the Strum (Part 3)

The previous post was about the first part of a good strum, keeping your right elbow in the right spot.

Remember that in all these tips – the anatomy of a good strum – the whole is what is most important. As I said, my intention is not to make this more complicated than it should be. I just want to break it down a bit to help you observe well.

To use the painting analogy, you should watch yourself paint. There are a few questions in the first post that might help with this.

Here’s the next part of a clean and efficient strum: A smooth swing.

To reiterate, all these “pieces” work together. So, a good arm swing is contingent on good elbow position.

The Tip

For this tip, the focus is on swinging: Have both a down stroke and an upstroke.

That might seem a little funny, but a lot of beginner strummers use all down strokes, or choppy moves, with a few upstrokes. Let your arm pivot on your elbow and swing up and down. It should not be very “jerky.”

The key is that ALL strumming is like this: down, up, down, up, down, up, down, up… etc.

Notice there are as many “ups” as there are “downs.”

There are other things to notice as you watch yourself “paint the strum.” The goal is to have smooth strokes.

In addition, you should have a good balance between arm and wrist motion. You should NOT strum by twisting your wrist and not moving your arm. Likewise, you should NOT strum by locking your wrist and moving only your arm.

An efficient strum will move from the elbow and include a small twist as the arm moves.

The twist will only be slight.

As for the arm swing, it should cover all the strings – paint the whole canvas – but not be so big that you could virtually paint 5 canvases. Make the swing efficient by swinging only as much as you need to.

Note that this doesn’t mean you strike all the strings. I’m only talking about the swing of the arm.

I’ll say more about that later, but I’m simply referring to the fact that different chords call for different notes to be played. In other words, when trying to paint yellow (let’s say), it’s easy to accidentally mix in another color with your brush.

For now, the main thing to know is that ALL strumming is both up and down. When you paint the strum, you need both a down stroke and an up stroke.

Let me try to show you briefly:

 

painting-the-strum-3

The next tip will be about how to hold the paint brush…I mean pick.

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Guitar Tip: Painting the Strum (Part 2)

Guitar Tip: Painting the Strum (Part 2)

I hope the previous post was helpful to begin describing what it means to paint the strum. The purpose of this series is to dissect the strum and describe for you what I would say are the parts of a good strum.

I suppose the word “good” is a bit relative, but I trust you know the difference. To be clear, I’m not talking about “professional” or “expert” strumming here. It is more like “clean and efficient.” That’s what I hope this series will help explain: The anatomy of a clean and efficient strum.

In this post, I will be covering the first part: Right Elbow Position.

Posture is naturally part of this, so I will include my thoughts about good posture and some tips to avoid bad posture.

The Tip

First, related to the series, here’s today’s tip: Keep your right elbow up on the guitar.

In other words, don’t let it come off really far forward where it’s more like your bicep resting on the top edge. Also, don’t let it go so far back that you can’t even swing your arm.

If your guitar is a little too small, your arm will naturally fall too far forward. If your guitar is a little too big, your arm will naturally, well…not reach.

As you can tell, there are a couple of things to be watching for already. My tip assumes that your guitar is about the right size for you. (Most people will be playing on a full-sized acoustic guitar by the time they are 12 or so.)

Different brands make different sizes as well, so if you’re in the market for one, pay attention to how well it fits the body that will be playing it.

As you are playing your guitar, just make sure that you are strumming with your right elbow up on the top front edge of the body of the guitar.

Posture

All this is related to how you are sitting (or standing). If you are sitting down and playing the guitar, there are some things to mention here.

  1. Sit up straight:
    • Don’t lean forward really far to try to see your left hand (it can push your right elbow forward and off the guitar)
    • Don’t slouch or lean back (it pulls your elbow too far back)
    • (Please) don’t put your left elbow on your leg or anywhere else. This curves and twists your spine. Bad.
  2. Keep your feet down:
    • This is just like it sounds. Keep your feet on the ground.
  3. Try and raise your right leg a bit
    • Okay, this one is a little tougher, but I’ll tell you why it’s important. It raises the guitar up closer to your head. It actually makes you a more efficient player because your right arm moves less and your left hand doesn’t strain and reach near as much. You can either get a small step to put your foot on, or get a book, a box, or a little sister under your foot to lift it up a bit. 🙂

Your right elbow is like a pivot point. If it is in the correct position, you can relax your body (because relaxing is extremely important) and let it swing.

This is the first part of a clean and efficient strum.

The next will have to do with how you swing your arm.

painting-the-strum-2

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Guitar Tip: Painting the Strum (Part 1)

Guitar Tip: Painting the Strum (Part 1)

Strumming. It sounds easy. But is it?

Well, actually, yes!

…and no.

There are several factors that can lead to good strumming, so this series will be all about the anatomy of a good strum.

That said, I should point out that my intention is not to make this more complicated than it should be. I just want to break it down a bit to help you observe well. All the pieces in this series should work together fluidly, but if, when you play, you notice your strum just doesn’t sound quite right, my hope is that you might observe that you could work on one or more of these parts for the benefit of the whole strum (since the whole is greater than the sum of it’s parts, after all).

In addition, as I consider this subject, I realize chances are good you do not think of strumming first when you think of guitar playing. With electric guitars dominating the musical landscape, most people think of the left hand – the one that seems to play all those amazing leads by itself. It seems to move the most after all, and t.v. cameras tend to focus attention on how it travels the neck, slides, bends, hammers, and wavers around like a well-controlled dancer.

What this means is that you may not see its importance immediately. Though it might be pretty obvious to say that both hands must work together for guitar playing, how should your right hand function for the benefit of the whole?

That’s what I hope to address in these posts. It will not be exhaustive – only the “first things.” That’s what I tell my kids – “First things first.” This is the prolegomena of strumming.

Here’s a summary of the parts – the “anatomy,” as I see it:

  1. Right Elbow Position (and related: Posture)
  2. Smooth Arm Swinging
  3. Pick holding
  4. Technique: ways to paint

The last two will really bring out what I mean by “Painting the Strum.” I tell my students all the time to “paint the strings,” because this has been a helpful analogy for the motions involved.

As a acoustical guitarist, you are like an artist with a paint brush in hand. With the color of the left hand work, the artist paints on the canvas of the strings. While the left hand chooses the color, the right hand adds depth of field, soft or rough edges, and “thickness,” so to speak. It creates motion and range, adding tone and volume to the overall picture.

Yes, its crucial a painter should know how to choose his or her color well. However, many don’t realize until they have the paint on their brush that it matters how you apply it as well.

That’s what this series will be about. It’s about the factors that lead to applying your color well.

Beyond introducing the series, this post is to say: pay attention to what your right hand is doing.

Here are seven questions to help you observe:

  1. Do you tend to be stiff, or relaxed?
  2. Do you tend to paint the whole canvas, or just part (i.e. do you strum all the strings?)
  3. Do you tend to twist your wrist or swing your arm?
  4. Does your volume tend to be loud or soft?
  5. Where, in relation to the sound hole, do you tend to paint?
  6. Do you tend to have a “jerky” swing, smooth, or a little of both?
  7. How are you holding your pick?

In all of these, I am not setting up a test. I’m just saying, “Pay attention to what your right hand is doing.”

I’ll summarize with the following tip: Watch yourself paint.

Next time, I’ll cover the first part: Right Elbow Position.

  

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Life Songs: The Old and the New

Life Songs: The Old and the New

There are many kinds of songs and genres, and it hit me that the kinds of songs we learn can mimic the kind of life we live. Not always, of course, but consider these kinds of songs from the Bible (not exhaustive):

The Good Kind
  1. Songs of excitement and joy (Gen 31:27, 1 Chr 13:8, Ps 47:1, Ps 68:4, Ps 107:22)
  2. Songs of triumph/victory (Ex 15:1-2, Judges 5:12, 1 Sam 18:6, 2 Sam 6:5)
  3. Songs to teach/remember (Deut 31, Eph 5:19)
  4. Songs to express deliverance (2 Sam 22:1, Ps 118:14-15, Is 26:1)
  5. Songs to express thanks (Neh 12:46, Ps 28:7, Jer 30:19, Eph 5:19, Col 3:16)
  6. Songs as a prayer (Ps 42:8)
  7. Marriage Songs (Ps 78:63)
  8. Love songs (Is 5:1, Song of Solomon)
The Not-So-Good Kind
  1. Songs to ridicule (Job 30:9, Ps 137:3)
  2. “Oh, Bless your heart, honey, don’t Worry!” songs (Prov 25:20)
  3. Song of fools (Eccl 7:5)
  4. Fearful songs (Eccl 12:4-5)
  5. The silent song: a “used-to-be-a-song” void (Is 16:10, Ezek 26:13)
  6. Song of the prostitute (Is 23:15)
  7. Song of the ruthless (Is 25:5)
  8. Lustful songs (Ezek 33:32)
  9. That’s “noise,” not “song” (Amos 5:23)
  10. Idle songs (Amos 6:5)
  11. Taunt songs (Micah 2:4)
  12. Drunken songs (Ps 69:12)

[Yikes. Didn’t know all those were there, too]

The “New Song”

There is another category in Scripture – the “new song.” I’ve often wondered what this is, but when you consider the not-so-good kind of songs above, it begins to make a little more sense.

Here are a several represented in Scripture:

They all speak of singing a “new song” to the Lord. Psalm 144 is one of David’s songs. This one is popular because he asks a great question:

“What is man that you regard him, or the son of man that you think of him?”

That is a great question. He knows his true condition: “like a breath” (v. 4), and calls on God to come in all His glory (vv. 5-6) that he might be rescued from many waters, and from foreigners (v. 7). He doesn’t describe “many waters,” but he does define foreigners in verse 8:

“…whose mouths speak lies and whose right hand is a right hand of falsehood.”

These people sung the not-so-good kind of songs.

To contrast, David immediately adds, [on the other hand] will sing a new song to you, O God.

That is, I will not sing those not-so-good kind of songs like the foreigners do. They are foreign to Your goodness. They are foreign to Your love. They are foreign to Your people.

They live the kind of song they sing.

The Old and the New

To sing a new song is to live a different life. To sing a new song is to have a new hope. To sing a new song is to offer words of wisdom and grace.

A new song “befits the upright” (Ps 33:1), “for the word of the Lord is upright” (Ps 33:4).

In other words, it implies a new authority.

Romans 6, Ephesians 4, and Colossians 3 all talk about the “Old Self” versus the “New Self.” We have been given one in place of the other.

Old song out.

New song in…so live according to the new song.

Paul could have said “new song” in Romans 6:23 – “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

You will die for singing the old song, but in Christ Jesus, we have been given a new, eternal, song.

It is this kind of song we now sing: eternal life.

Right. The good kind.

What does this have to do with real music, and lessons and stuff?

I’m glad you asked. If you have been given a new song, remember that it takes time to really learn to sing it loud and proud. It takes time to play it well, right?

I mean, name one skill in your life that you mastered immediately. If your new life is like a new song to sing or play, we should be okay with taking time to master it as well, right?

The song is in our heart, yes, but God is still working out what He has put in (Phil 1:12-13). Speaking of Philippians 1, read the context (vv. 12-18). The point is that, like Psalm 33, we shine as we hold fast to the Word. We have to be reminded to not sing the old song: “Do all things without grumbling or disputing,” he says (v. 14).

So playing a real, audible song on an instrument takes time. One cannot master it immediately. Students have to be reminded of what the song doesn’t sound like.

Over time, I want to offer this kind of lesson to my students.

Casting Crowns has a song called “Lifesong” that I really like. I think they’re saying the same thing. Here’s a little part of it:

So may the words I say
And the things I do
Make my lifesong sing
Bring a smile to you

Music lessons are not just another subject to cover in school, or a good thing to do because someone said you should. They are life lessons. They help answer the question, “How should I live my life?”

A Christian music teacher has the amazing opportunity to listen well and say, “Let me help you love the Great Musician and play His song well. Let’s take your instrument now and learn to adorn the air with the life of a beautifully played song – one that conforms to the beautiful boundaries set by our wonderful Creator.”

Cacophony existed before the world was formed. Unity and harmony after.

Let’s learn to play music that conforms to the latter – music that blesses.

Sin has caused cacophonous chaos. God has granted glorious grace to continue to move from the old to the new.

Let’s play with style and grace, and not settle with chaos.

  

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Piano: Dealing with Information Overload

Piano: Dealing with Information Overload

Ever feel like your head might explode with an information overload? This is how someone (particularly a child just starting out) feels when they sit down to play a piece they haven’t learned.

There’s just a lot to look at.

So much to see. So much to do.

So much to translate.

Seriously. There’s so many symbols on the page that even a simple song can make your eyes cross.

Information overload. How do you deal with it? Glancing up at the page, the student struggles to know what to look at. Are they supposed to look at everything at the same time? How do they translate all these symbols into something that sounds beautiful?

It’s kind of overwhelming, and many have been known to shed a few tears over it.

(This may be why there has been so much psychological research done on it. Many have noticed this general issue. Did you know there is an Information Overload Research Group? Crazy.)

Anyway, not only does the music page look like Greek, but their hands aren’t cooperating and just won’t play it right.

This combination = “I stink at piano.”

Sidebar – Know Yourself

If you’ve felt this pressure before, you know what I’m talking about. It can make you want to quit.

Incidentally, this is where some wonderful character training can come into play. If you are a parent, how do you handle this? If you are the parent trying to learn in front of your kids, how do you handle it? God is interested in every nook and cranny of your heart.

It is very important to know yourself. In this case, know how you tend to respond to pressure, anxiety, frustration, and the like when you practice your musical instrument.

If you can take a breath and slow yourself down, you have won most of the battle.

It’s like looking at a map

My wife thinks quite a lot about education and homeschooling. She was working with a child yesterday who was supposed to trace a map of the world, but didn’t know what he was even supposed to trace.

There was so much there! He didn’t know what to look at. He didn’t know what the important lines were.

She led his eyes to the primary outline of the continents and had him trace those. She told me later that it would have been better to have a world map with only the outlines of the continents. That way there would be no question what to trace.

With piano music, it’s hard to simplify. You can’t just erase everything but the outline, so to speak.

That’s why looking at sheet music can be like looking at a map with lots of detail. Where do you start?

Dealing with Information Overload

Because of this issue, there’s a couple things I’d like to say.

First, remember that the more you look at something, the more familiar it gets. Be patient. Give it time.

Second, it is possible to help focus the eyes on some primary elements without feeling completely overwhelmed.

Here are a few ideas:

  1. There are typically numbers used in the Suzuki method. These numbers are a guide to help remind you of which fingers you should play. Try highlighting the numbers.
  2. The songs in the book usually have musical phrases written in (the arches above the staff lines). Try seeing the phrase arches like hats over different heads, or covers over different boxes. Play one box at a time.
  3. Shorten the song even more by playing one or two measures at a time. Only work on a small number of measures at a time, and master it before trying to do the whole thing.
  4. Take sticky notes and actually cover everything else on the page you don’t want to work on, to give your eyes a focused section to look at. Keep moving and removing the sticky notes until the whole song is played with ease. (Credit to my wife for this one!)

Keep listening to the songs on the CD! Your ear will do a lot of correction for you, and can help translate what your eyes see. Think of the difference between learning to play a song you’ve already heard, versus a song that you’ve never heard.

Information overload is a real thing. In our day of immediacy, sitting still while working hard is a lesson that is getting harder and harder to learn. It is much easier to give up and try something else.

Well, this is not a restaurant you can abandon if your food is taking too long, or a channel you can change if you don’t like what you see.

It is worthwhile to keep working at something you don’t get at first. Everyone can relate to this. We just happen to be talking about practicing piano presently.

It’s like life – you listen to someone else play their song, and then you play it as much like they do as possible. Only then can you begin to make it your own and create new melodies.

Observation of what’s important is key. But it can take time to train your eyes to see it.

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