Thursday, February 26, 2009

Music Teacher's Notebook #3

I’m putting on my music teacher’s hat again today (is that the GCEA baseball cap or the Pendleton?) , & I’ll take my music teacherly thoughts in a bit of a different direction this go around, & focus on the physicality of playing a musical instrument.

If “I played it much better at home” is the most common phrase music teachers hear from their students, then perhaps the second most common has to do with any number of physical reasons why someone can’t play an instrument. Their fingers are too short or too long or their fingers don’t stretch far enough or their pinky is too weak &/or un-coordinated. A related observation from students is they don’t “have” the elusive thing we might call an “ear for music.” Oftentimes this has become ingrained from childhood music experiences, either from early attempts to learn an instrument or from childhood singing (which people often don’t realize is also “playing an instrument,” & as such also requires work).

I’m here to tell you that none of these reasons are valid in about 99.999% of all cases. Of course, if a person has certain actual disabilities from accidents, birth or disease (such as arthritis), these may present significant roadblocks—tho I recall a very inspiring post at Pat Costello’s Tangier Sound blog where he demonstrated how even a person with a prosthesis could play a banjo using a slide; the same would be true for a guitar in an open tuning. A dear friend of ours who played guitar from her teens well into her 70s can’t form guitar chords effectively any more due to arthritis—but rather than giving up on music, she’s taken up the baritone ukulele, which is less demanding in terms of hand strength & mobility. She plays well, & continues to enjoy music.

So even in extreme cases, “where there’s a will there’s a way.” But again, these sorts of considerations don’t apply to the great majority of folks who want to learn an instrument. Just speaking for the instruments I know best—fretted stringed devices—considerations such as hand/finger size are factors to be worked with, not factors that exclude the possibility of playing & playing well. As an example: my students see me fret certain chords & wonder how my little finger “stretches like that” (more on that in a moment). But on the other hand, my fingers are about as undouble-jointed as fingers can be. Certain guitar chord shapes can be facilitated by having double-jointed fingers—does that mean I can’t play the guitar? No, it means I work with my physical capabilites.

It’s also important to realize that physical capabilities aren’t fixed in stone. The first time a person tries to hit a baseball or knit a scarf or ride a horse or bicycle, there are new physical skills to be learned, because our bodies don’t employ these skills (at least in a coordinated way) in everyday life outside of specific activities. There’s no difference with playing a guitar, etc. Guitar chord shapes & scale shapes involve moving your fingers in ways that people don’t use for other activities. The way to make your fingers & hands comfortable with these positions & motions is thru studied repetition—(i.e., “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?”). The reason my left pinky stretches more easily than a novice guitar student is that I’ve “built up” to that. As a teacher, I actually discourage students from trying to stretch too far until their hands can do this without anything but the mildest amount of discomfort. My wife Eberle who, as regular readers here know, teaches piano, always remarks on how uncomfortable a number of guitar chord shapes look. This is true for the novice player, but doesn’t continue to be true because of two very important physical considerations.

These considerations are comfort & relaxation, & they’re born both from practice & from general good physical routines—because postures & other techniques that allow for comfort & relaxation are far more important than the size or agility of fingers, or even the development of a musical ear when a person is in the initial stages of playing an instrument. Both Eberle & I believe relaxation is absolutely crucial to effective musicianship. Of course it isn’t always straightforward how to impart relaxation from teacher to student.

As a bottom line, we certainly want to get as far as possible from the days of music teachers slamming books around, as Scott Houston described in his Musical Questions spot, so a friendly, relaxed & interested attitude is important. Some sort of warm-up before playing helps—I have to admit I’m not as good about this I could be. I do try to keep a pretty informal atmosphere (the majority of my students are adults), & I do like to catch up with students in conversation when they arrive & give them some time to settle in. These are things that create a relaxed atmosphere. But there are also things to watch for & to help students with in terms of posture & body motion.

Where does tension accumulate in the body? In the shoulders, in the back, & in the joints. Although we may see the occasional rock “guitar hero” playing in a video with his shoulders raised in a tensed position, this is simply not a good practice. Relaxed shoulders are crucial to a relaxed physical performance of most any sort. The same goes for the back. Sometimes students tend to lean forward when playing the guitar, but this sort of “intense” position doesn’t typically translate to “instense” playing—just “tense” playing.

The important thing, whether one is playing sitting down or standing, is to feel “grounded.” Both Eberle & I like doing some basic Tai Chi, & one of the big principles in this exercise is establishing “root,” or a connection with the earth. While I certainly don’t believe Tai Chi is necessary for guitar playing, it does make you aware of bodily tensions. These tensions do disrupt our groundedness & they do affect our playing & overall musicianship. Of course, this is also the truth behind “I played it better at home”; at home, you’re typically more grounded than when visiting someone’s house. It’s also the truth behind the fact that most musicians (except for those at the highest levels) are well-advised to scale back a notch from what they might try while woodshedding when they’re playing a gig.

Another Tai Chi principle that applies to guitar & similar instruments (& probably other instruments as well) is what’s called “beautiful lady’s wrists.” In Tai Chi, movement thru the wrist should always be relaxed & supple & graceful. Ditto for the guitar. If you watch a real master guitarist (Doc Watson comes to mind) you see the grace of his wrist motion—& also the economy of his motion. The larger the physical motion, the more margin for error. In baseball, one of the most common causes of ineffective hitting is too much motion while swinging the bat—in particular this can cause the head to move, & it also can transfer one’s fulcrum point away from the hips. In guitar, driving a strumming or picking motion from the elbow rather than the wrist has a similar effect—for all the theatricality of Pete Townsend’s windmill strum, it’s simply not an efficient model for guitar playing! Instead, the right hand (assuming a right-handed player) should be relaxed (not clenched), & the motion should be almost one of gravity letting the wrist fall & then allowing the hand to rise naturally & loosely from that fall.

These are simply some considerations for either a teacher or student; but it’s important for us teachers to be aware of a student’s motions & postures, & for all of us as players to be aware of our own. Of course, even those non-musician types can get some good benefits from this sort of body awareness—& a 20-minute Tai Chi exercise can do wonders for your sense of well-being.

By the by: those interested in thoughtful discussions about teaching music really should visit Chris Wolf's excellent blog, Piano Posts. I invariably learn some good things when I visit.


  1. Having sung forever, I can attest to the fact that singing is indeed 'playing an instrument', one that requires constant practice (Use it or lose it) and that tends to go out of tune at the slightest hint of a cold. Very annoying.

  2. So right, Sandra. It's really sad how many people talk themselves into the idea that they "can't sing" because they think it's either something you can or can't do. Obviously, not everyone can be a great singer, but most folks can learn to sing perfectly well if they're willing to work on it. Is everyone cut out to be a fantastic chef? No-- but practically anyone can make a delicious meal.

  3. your post reminds me too of christy brown a much accomplished poet and painter who was not stymied by his physical challenges....though challenged he was!!

  4. I really hope my daughter will learn to play the guitar someday. I bought her a small one a few years ago, but the lesssons kind of went nowhere. She's wanting to start up again - so maybe this time it's a go!

  5. But my piano pieces really DID sound much better at home!

  6. Kimy: You're right-- it's truly humbling what some people will overcome to make their art.

    Jen: I hope your daughter does come to enjoy the guitar, too. It's probably a good idea to find a teacher who's good at working with kids. Kids don't take as easily to the guitar as some other instruments-- e.g., the piano. You can do stuff on the piano that makes you feel like you're playing "real music" more quickly than on the guitar. Also, there's some amount of soreness from fretting the strings, & kids can get turned off by that-- but a good teacher should be able to help her thru all that.

    Willow: Too funny. It's true, it's true!

  7. I am not a guitarist, but here is so much to be learned and enjoyed from any accomplishment when it is sensitively explained. Thanks for that.

  8. Thanks Dave-- I'm really glad that the non-musicians out there can get something out of these too.

  9. Very interesting. You're inspiring me to go upstairs and get my husband's rarely touched mandolin and see what I can make of it.


  10. Kat:

    Mandolins are fun-- go for it!


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