If there’s one thing I’ve learnt over the years, it’s that there are wonderful people in every far corner of our world. It appears to me that an individual’s race, nationality and culture are irrelevant to understanding personal qualities. Consequently, I find myself disinterested in celebrations linked to flag waving, but I am a Welshman and, as it’s St David’s Day, I’d like to share this performance with everyone, regardless of your place of origin. Let’s find joy and laughter in our differences!
I have just finished another arrangement for beginners’ guitar ensemble. Once again, it strikes me how critical it is to install good habits into inexperienced fingers, while making the music comfortable and motivating to play. This arrangement provides teachers and learners with the following benefits:
(1) The key and positions chosen allow for finger-friendly pentatonic shapes
(2) Players can anchor the thumb on string 4 while playing the melody and anchor the fingers when switching to the thumb. This sets up the idea of sequential planting and stability at a later stage.
(3) Parts are provided in notes and TAB on different sheets. I’m very aware that there are varying opinions regarding the use of TAB. This arrangement allows teachers and players to decide.
(4) Every part has melodic interest. The arrangement avoids parts where some players have uninspiring long notes for extended periods.
(5) Pupils can, of course, refer to the YouTube video whenever they wish.
(6) The technical comfort of the arrangement lets players consider questions of musicality, phrasing and rhythmic accuracy.
(7) The theme is well-known amongst audiences making it an ideal concert work.
We must give a lot of thought to our choice of music for learners if we are to inspire them to continue and preserve our wonderful instrument.
The score and parts for this arrangement is available for immediate download here.
I’m absolutely thrilled that so many thousands of people are smiling at our rewrite of The Bare Necessities during these challenging times.
I’ve created a lyric and chord sheet which you can download here. It could be great fun to teach online or sing with your family. If we can all keep calm and have generous hearts, we’ll come out of this stronger and with a renewed sense of gratitude for all the good things we have. Keep safe friends.
For seven years, I lived and worked as a musician in South West France until an opportunity for my daughter brought us to Scotland where we now live and work. I had built a pool of pupils in France and was also planning to lead an A-Level student through her final year at an international school. It was important to me to maintain a link with these loyal and much-valued pupils. Since then I have given academic and instrumental lessons via Skype at least twice per week from our flat in Perthshire. The present COVID-19 crisis has presented me with an opportunity to share whatever expertise I may have with colleagues and friends and I am delighted to do so.
Latency is the short time delay between one party making a sound and that being heard by the other party. This means that it is near-impossible for musicians to play a piece together. When I am teaching face-to-face, I often play along with my pupil but, when I analyse this with honesty, I really wonder whether this is genuinely helpful to my pupil or just self-indulgence on my part. Removing this from my teaching style has had no noticeable impact on the quality of the lesson given. Also, if a teacher tries to play along with a student, the likelihood is that he/she will hear their own instrument for more strongly than that of their pupil, particularly if the pupil’s sound is coming from a phone or a PC speaker.
I have noticed that when my pupil speaks or plays, and I try to speak at the same time, the sound coming from my speaker tends to cut out, meaning that I am unable to hear the pupil. I’m unsure if this is in-built in the software or whether the technology is struggling to process two actions at the same time. At the end of the day, surely it is courteous to allow another person to speak or play before butting in.
This is the phenomenon of a device hearing itself through its own microphone and setting up a loop of sound resulting in an unpleasant, high-pitched squeak. This is not to be confused with early-years violin students. The wearing of headphones eradicates this difficulty.
For me, this was a question of trial-and-error. Our Wi-Fi box is in our living room. If my family are at home, I will teach in the kitchen and the quality of the connection drops notably. In my case, the issue is the stud wall between me and the box. The physical distance of separation is still only about five metres. I understand that physical barrier is not always the issue according to the frequency of the Wi-Fi signal. I did purchase and Ethernet cable to try to improve the connection but the difference was negligible.
A challenge is that a teacher is unable to physically point to a place in a score. For this reason, I always make sure that pupils send a pdf or photo of their music well in advance. I can’t over-estimate how important it is to have clear and accurate bar numbers. Nothing is more painful than spending 10 minutes trying to indicate exactly which C# you mean within a score. I tend to use a print copy of the music and communicate with my phone. The other option is to have a second device upon which one can see the score.
If teaching online, a pupil needs to tune their own instrument. My pupils all use free apps to do this (Guitar Tuna, Soundcorset…) I disagree with those who say that tuning apps prevent pupils from using their ears. I think that playing a consistently well-tuned instrument develops the ear and familiarises students with the sound being sought. Surely it makes sense for a pupil to learn how to tune their own instrument rather than a teacher doing so for them.
Placing the camera
I have a stand which I got with a CD player. I tend to use this to hold my phone. We must remember that if we use a phone, we can pick it up and go close-up on hands and fingers to show detail. There’s no need for the camera to be permanently fixed in one place. Be creative and flexible.
I have noticed that there is a certain intensity of focus when working in this way. I think we get particularly drawn in to screen interaction and zone-out the world around us. It seems less appropriate somehow to accept interruptions as you know you’ll leave your pupil staring at your living room wall when you disappear.
I am yet to try real-time group teaching online but I am certain that this will be imminent in the current climate. I have run trial sessions with the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland (where I teach) and I feel confident this could work, as long as everyone is prepared and engaged. This might though be more difficult with younger pupils. I am a guitar teacher at a small school in Scotland and I have used a technique which I feel has been successful. I make dozens of arrangements for my guitar ensemble and I tailor these for the mixed range of abilities I have in my groups. I then record them, film them and put the result on YouTube. I make sure the parents know about these films and use them as a learning aid for the pupils. I love the fact that a pupil can both see and hear their part in context at any time. I think the parents like to be on board with what’s happening too. Kids enjoy playing along with the video and I have actually made videos with my own pupils participating at the end of certain performance projects. Many people assume I am a technological whizz as I am able to create these split screen movies but the process is very simple and my kit is extremely basic. Exactly how this is done is a discussion for another day. Incidentally, teachers can sell their arrangements of copy-written material on Sheet Music Plus and some earn income!
Interaction over Information
Feedback I have seen from RCS students is that they want interaction rather than information. I have noticed that class notes I upload to an online platform for our students’ benefit are, somewhat depressingly, rarely downloaded. When the interaction is two-way though, it is a different story. Even if real-time interaction is impossible, having a video of me speaking a few words and giving a deadline appears to create far more engagement. It gives the documents a sense of purpose and even consequence. We must remember that young people (I am talking undergrad students here rather than schoolchildren) have grown up with technological tools as their primary point of contact for information and advice. One-way sharing of information is fine but it is no substitute for expert interaction.
There are a whole range of little-explored safeguarding questions which this style of teaching will bring into question. Firstly, it makes sense to use a platform hosted by the institution or an email account within this. By coincidence, the COVID-19 outbreak coincided with some face-to-face grading assessments which I was due to give to around 20 students this week. Many of these are international students and they headed for home while they were still able to do so. Consequently, I carried out many of these discussions via my own personal social media platforms which was rather uncomfortable, but we were caught out by the speed of events. Music-teaching colleagues will recognise the experiences of all-too-painful staff meetings where we argue until we’re blue in the face whether it is appropriate to touch a pupil’s hand or not in order to make a correction. That’s one issue solved at least! One could argue that the physical separation between pupil and teacher offers greater protection. Other suggestions include the automatic recording of sessions (to protect both pupils and teachers) and/or offering parents the possibility to monitor events. Big Brother perhaps…? It’s all in discussion.
At home or in the office?
It seems obvious but if you’re meeting a student online, it is appropriate to dress as you would if you were meeting them face-to-face. It would be horribly unprofessional to be wearing pyjamas with bed-hair and a bowl of Weetabix at one’s right hand. Brass teachers – you’ve been warned! (A joke…) Also, think of what is also in the shot. Pictures of family, posters of rock bands whose material some may find offensive (that;s you AC/DC fans) a pile of washing up… just use some good sense. Remember, the hang-up button is not always effective. Please, avoid doing something socially inappropriate the second you press that red phone icon. Belches, sighs, breaking wind or even worse, clapping one’s head in ones hands and uttering ‘Oh my days, save me dear Lord’ could be inadvertently shared by your pupil and their mum…
When I was a teenager, I remember the Musicians’ Union had a campaign called Keep Music Live. This was due to the MIDI revolution. Many believed that MIDI would put working musicians permanently out of work which was proved not to be the case. I think technology can be our friend. It is cultural ignorance and a lack of value placed on the arts which puts musicians out of work rather than technological advances.
Wouldn’t it be incredible if, after this crisis has passed, we had learned that we could halve the traffic on our roads and increase the time we have with our families at home doing the things we love through the intelligent application of technology? Who would refuse that opportunity?
Dan Jones March 21st 2020
Wham! The ZX Spectrum, The Miners’ Strike, Atari, Neil Kinnock stumbling on a beach… Who remembers the 1980’s? It was a peculiar decade – one of transition driven by Thatcher’s profit- and efficiency-driven government, often at the expense of culture, tradition and community. I also remember the ascent into the public consciousness of the marathon. Twenty six miles (and a touch more, as if that weren’t enough) was a distance which held mythical status. It was a domain ruled by the elite, or the insane, depending on how you looked at it, yet this was all to change. More-or-less overnight, the marathon challenge was thrown open to the masses. Television viewers – particularly a young budding guitarist in South Wales – became transfixed by the sight of thousands upon thousands of ordinary people pounding the streets of London in a bid to earn the ultimate badge of athletic honour. For many, the only run they had undertaken in the previous 10 years had been a 100-yard sprint to the chippy to purchase the last battered sausage of the evening. Suddenly, every man and his dog identified himself as a sporting giant, participating in endurance runs across the UK. As our country’s leaders had yet to recognise the money-making potential of what we now call ‘Health and Safety’, people were allowed to act with impetuous freedom, and to accept the consequences. Participants indulged in ever-more bizarre stunts: running in fancy dress, running backwards, three-legged marathon running, often with little or no training. Cardiff, the home of the aforementioned young budding guitarist, also got in on the act. Within a few weeks I had made a decision: I was going to run a marathon. I was fourteen years old.
I have always had an obsessive personality. Perhaps my temperament is particularly suited to the necessary repetition required to become genuinely technically proficient at the guitar. I’m a sucker for a hero. When at music college, I’d enjoy the daily ritual of arriving early in the cell-like practice rooms in order to perform a 45-minute cycle of scales in all keys, using every possible right-hand combination, all to the steady beep of a metronome which would be increased in speed by one beat per minute each week. As well as developing my finger dexterity, I felt heroic. I suspect there was an endorphin release going on somewhere and I soon became a guitar-nerd of epic proportions. So, the fourteen-year old guitar player started running. I was rubbish at sport in school. We played rugby of course, and my only redeeming quality was an unquestioning willingness to leap onto a pile of writhing teenagers in pursuit of a ball – even if said ball had departed the mass of limbs some time earlier. Personal injury was a likely outcome; in fact, to be unsullied and uninjured was a disappointment. We wanted to be heroes. The quantity of mud, and hopefully blood, sported by our clothing at the end of a match was a measure of contribution to the collective effort. I recall rolling in a filthy puddle in the dying moments of a match, some fifty yards from the action, on at least three occasions in order to be recognised as a warrior. I had no idea of the score; the aim was hero-points.
As the months went by, I ran and ran, usually every other day. I did this alone and without really discussing it with anyone. The first inkling of a sense of payback came during the school’s cross-country competition. In previous years, my friends and I had retired to a pal’s house conveniently placed a moment’s stroll from the school gate during timed, competitive runs. There, we spent an agreeable afternoon playing cards and drinking Panda Pops fizzy drinks before joining the returning party in an unsuspiciously mundane mid-pack position so as not to draw attention to ourselves. I believe we poured water over our heads and sprinted the home straight to imitate a degree of physical exertion. In early 1984 though, I was up for it. I recall the look on the PE teacher’s face when I ran around the corner in 5th place – out of a field of about 90. He was nearly as shocked as I was. I then made the somewhat rash decision to enter the Western Mail Marathon, held on September 9th 1984. In those days, one popped a cheque or postal order in the post and a few days later, a shiny number came back, complete with safety pins. I still have mine in our attic in France. I was fifteen years old when I set off from Cardiff City Centre. Incidentally, the same PE teacher was also an entrant. I didn’t bump into him. I can remember surprisingly little about the race. With no little discomfort, I recall running alongside Jimmy Saville for a couple of miles. He seemed like such a great guy and judging by the cheers and whoops of the watching crowd, most of the world agreed with me. How powerful is hindsight… I recall feeling utterly dreadful at about 22 miles but I kept running – never once resorting to walking – and finished the course in a respectable 4 hours and 8 minutes. I still have my medal in a case which was imprinted with the date, my name and the time.
As the years passed, I continued running half marathons, 10km races and others. My late father dutifully and uncomplaining me drove me around the country leaving me to pound the roads as he somehow occupied himself for a few hours before returning his panting, stiff and sweaty offspring to the bath back in Cardiff. It was in 1992 that I entered music college. I had worked for five years and experienced family life. My son Matt was born but my relationship with his mum ended. My success in gaining a conservatoire place was vitally important for my self-esteem, as well as my future career. I ended up spending 18 years there; firstly as an undergraduate, then as a postgraduate before gaining employment in the Junior, Academic and Guitar Departments. My running days had more or less disappeared but the discipline instilled in those youthful road-pounding days remained. So how can endurance sport help the classical guitarist? Firstly, there is the physiological aspect. Guitarists spend hours upon hours in classical position. This involves placing the body in a low, seated position with the left leg raised about seven or eight inches to lift the instrument. The position places considerable strain on the lower back and injuries were, and remain, commonplace. Self-medicating, beer, painkillers and soft drugs are ‘solutions’ I’ve witnessed being employed by players wishing to overcome their difficulties. More thoughtful techniques employed include stretching and The Alexander Technique. I’ve come to the conclusion though that most guitarists are simply unfit. Running keeps the body strong, supple and active. It is a powerful antidote to the fixed, seated posture in which we spend countless hours.
Equally interesting though are the mental benefits guitarists can gain from the discipline of endurance running. A practice session can be a hard slog. Non-guitarists imagine ‘practice’ being the act of ambling to a field full of summer flowers, complete with obliging cooing partner, and strumming a few tunes in a breeze, assured of certain adulation from the masses. In reality, one is often in a small room slogging through repetition exercises which sound like a cow being tormented. Such acts are necessary if one is to truly do justice to great repertoire, such as that by J S Bach and his contemporaries. A condition from which I suffered extensively as a guitarist was what I named ‘Last Lap Syndrome’ (©Dan Jones 2019). In this, I would be performing a challenging work, such as Britten’s Nocturnal, The Aranjuez Concerto or a Bach fugue and, after perhaps half an hour of intense concentration, the final page of black dots would arrive. Right in cue, a voice would enter m head saying such things as ‘Nearly there!’ or ‘OK, here comes that tricky coda’, or even ‘Man, I am looking forward to that post-gig beer BIGTIME’. Of course, the consequence would be musical disintegration as the mind wondered. The focus on the immediate note being played was lost and the magic could be extinguished like a burning match popped into a pint.
How on earth does this relate to endurance running? Well, despite being a reasonably mature and rational adult, I made the somewhat questionable decision to run another marathon this year. I have just reached a significant birthday (half-century, not out) and being unable to afford neither a sports car, nor a powerful motorbike, I rashly entered The Dublin Marathon in response to the callings of my mid-life crisis. My son, Matthew, also a keen runner, entered as well. We made a pact to stick together in the likely event of me slowing down in the later stages. I decided to publically announce an ambition to beat the time I set in my youthful years. Oh dear. My training regime was strict and disciplined. I had no problem with that. As the months passed, I decided to attempt my first major run – a distance of about 18 miles. All was going swimmingly until mile 17. I suddenly felt like death. In fact, if death really feels like that, I want to live forever. I staggered home and was unable to mount the ladder-like staircase at the entrance to our flat. My concerned family watched on as I used my arms to drag myself up to the landing, like a Gore-Tex clad Day-Glo slug, before lying inert on the bathroom floor for some hours.
Predictably, I was worried. After some reflection on the incident, I decided to fight fire with fire (and energy gels) and set off on another big run – this time 19 miles. On this occasion, the agony kicked in at 18 miles. I kept on upping the distance and, time and time again, I would experience near-collapse on the last lap. I began to wonder. Was I experiencing a kind of physical breakdown, not only because I was physically spent (which I truly was) but because I was mentally giving permission to my body to cease functioning a little too early? I scoured podcasts on the topic and to my amazement, discovered that this is a known phenomenon. In endurance races, athletes commonly collapse yards from the line. It is believed that had the line not been present, they’d have been able to keep going. So, one Saturday night, I set out on my final big pre-marathon run – 21 miles – armed with more energy gels than a Kipling trifle factory. As I ran along the A912, approaching my village, I felt a familiar sense of near-panic. ‘Almost there… come on… you’ve got this…’ and noticed that I was actually trying to speed up to get this darn thing over and done with. I focused hard on my individual steps and realised that I didn’t feel so bad (relatively speaking). I found myself singing ‘Ten Green Bottles’ starting with a bottle count akin to that undertaken by a stock controller at a Heineken factory. The body has a strange ability to anticipate the resolution of a much-needed task before the ideal moment. If you are of a sensitive disposition, you may do well to turn away now as going to the toilet is another excellent example. Who has endured the experience of mildly needing a wee (or indeed, a Number 2) while walking home – not so much as to be desperate but to certainly feel discomfort – only to turn the key in the front door and the body to shout out ‘Yippee! We’re home! Let it go baby!’? One is obliged to indulge in an odd sprint-waddle to the bathroom, all the while praying one’s teenage daughter has completed her morning routine, and hurl oneself onto the lav, trousers having been discarded on the landing and ‘making it’ with micro-seconds to spare. Such events are clearly in the consciousness of the Dublin marathon-watching public as I saw at least ten supporters holding warning placards reading ‘Never trust a fart after twenty miles’. Humour or wisdom?
I had put such things down to middle-age, but it seems that the brain is releasing too early, just as the marathon runner collapses on the little mat with that big yellow clock ticking above them, only to be hoisted to his/her feet by well-meaning co-runners, and just as the guitarist completing the Gigue of a Bach suite mysteriously fluffs a few notes in the final cadenza of an otherwise flawless performance. So on October 27th 2019, Matt and I completed the Dublin Marathon. How things have changed. We still had numbers attached with safety pins, but now a micro-chip was taped to the back so that my family back in Scotland could track me by GPS. My estimated finish time was fed to them (notably elongating as the race progressed) so that they could watch my moment of glory as we plunged over the finish line via a live YouTube feed. Bizarrely, as we were crossing, the producer decided to interview a spectator, there to support her husband who was running the race to honour their yet-to-be-born baby (she was pregnant). Despite such setbacks to my dangerously-swollen ego, I broke my youthful PB by 15 minutes completing the race in a respectable 3 hours and 53 minutes. Matt and I crossed the line together in a moment of true glory, arms aloft although he would clearly have broken 3 hours 30 had he gone full pelt. The moment was captured by a photographer and was emailed to me courtesy of facial recognition technology. I looked like a man who’d been trampled by a herd of Highland bulls but it was SO worth it. In the later stages, I felt truly dreadful, but my experience as a guitarist made me concentrate on the rhythm of my feet and the moment in hand. The incredible Dublin public were just wonderful – genuinely inspiring and encouraging. What an extraordinary city. It was magic. I was raising funds for Number 3 One Stop Shop in Perth and was supported by Perth Strathearn 200 Round Table who are giving an extraordinary gift to augment my total. Our Co-op in Bridge of Earn also hosted a collection pot into which the lovely community of our village chipped in most generously. Watch this space for a total…
I’ll be playing a number of concerts in Scotland in 2020. I’d love to see you there! Also, if you live in the Perth area, or in the Dordogne where I pass much of my time, drop me a message if you fancy going out for a run.
Dan is the author of Extracting Goats from Jean-Claude’s Kitchen, available here from Amazon.