Monday, 9 December 2013

What Makes A Christmas Song?

Yes, it's been a while since the last post.. blame that peculiar entity, the real world. But we're back now, and as mentioned in the last post, the last couple of months have been all about writing songs for the festive season.

So, what makes a Christmas song work? What makes it Christmassy, and makes the listener get that lovely warm fuzzy feeling, the aural equivalent of a woolly jumper with a big reindeer embroidered on it... Well, over the last few weeks, I think I've gained a little insight into that question, and I'd like to share it.

First off, subject matter. Snow, Santa, reindeers, presents - all the usual. It's always a safe bet. That said, the greatest Christmas song of them all, "Fairytale Of New York" contains none of these lyrical themes whatsoever, so in this business it's never totally cut and dried...

Okay, so onto the musical elements. First off, rhythm. There are no real surprises here, basically 4/4 and to a lesser extent 3/4 rule the roost - only to be expected when these are songs meant for communal (read - drunken) singing and festivities. Look for a healthy smattering of swung rhythms (Slade's Merry Xmas Everybody) and compound time signatures - 6/8, 12/8 and occasionally 9/8 make appearances. There seems to be something about the swaying, cascading feel of triplets that brings out the Christmas in all of us.

Next up, harmony - as you would expect, mostly diatonic, and tending to be based around the I, IV, V and vi chords. Wham's Last Christmas revolves around a I-vi-ii-V chord sequence (the ii of the key being the relative monor of the IV), Fairytale of New York - key of D, revolves around D, A, Bm and G, The Darkness' Don't Let The Bells End largely A, E, F#m and D. One notable exception is Slade's "Merry Xmas Everybody" which manages to shoehorn a decidedly non-diatonic Bb into the end of the chorus... however, we can make sense of that by looking at the Bb chord tones: Bb (root, D (third) and F. The D provides a useful link, as it is the fifth of the home key of the song (G).

Key changes are also a popular feature for that subtle (or not-so-subtle) lift for a chorus. Again, The Darkness make use of this device as do Wizzard in their classic "I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day" to lift the chorus. An interesting example of a "phony" key change comes in "Do They KNow It's Christmas

Finally, melody. Thirds are a big component of any vocal melody, and leaps of thirds are especially common in choruses, once again for a lift and something inherently "singable". A classic move is centering on the third for a verse while moving to the fifth for the chorus and resolving to the root for a perfect cadence.

For all the cheesiness commonly associated with Christmas songs, many do bear study as the intent to create something inherently catchy, simple and singable is a quality that we can all try and apply to benefit our songwriting. So dust off "The Best Xmas Album IN The World.. Ever!" and get to work :-)

Saturday, 28 September 2013

The Big Xmas Idea 2013 - Song(s) For Syria

Okay folks, listen up - we have a mission to perform.

So, the idea I had (helpfully, back in December 2012, waaaaaay too late to really do anything about it...) was to have all my students collaborate on writing a Christmas song, which we would then release over iTunes, knock Simon Cowell's puppets off the top spot in the charts and raise a ton of money for a worthy cause - in this case, Syrian refugees caught in the horrific civil war that's been raging there since 2011.

This (like alot of my bright ideas...) has now mushroomed into looking like a full album's worth of music as my students are taking to this with great enthusiasm, and courtesy of BBC Radio Leicester's Tony Wadswoth, I've had a chance to plug it on the air too, so here's a breakdown of exactly what's going on for those interested:

Everyone who wants to get involved has the option of a) composing an entire song themselves (less daunting than you might think), b) collaborating with another student to write a song together, or c) contributing a guitar, bass or keyboard part to someone else's track, almost like a session player.

All these songs will be arranged here and recorded to a click track, before being whizzed over to my good friend Steve Ward's drum teaching studio in Loughborough ( to have him and his students record drum parts.

Vocals can be handled by the students themselves, or for those who prefer not to sing, Matt from the quasi-legendary Dave The Rock Band ( has ensnared the services of VocalTech in Leicester, including the provision of a choir.

All songs will then be mixed down and mastered before being uploaded to iTunes and distributed digitally.

This is going to be a steep learning curve for all concerned, so there's every chance that things won't go exactly to plan, but as musicians we'll just do what we do best and IMPROVISE!

Already we've got a couple of compositions coming along nicely, so if you'd like to get involved in this, join us on, - so far it's been a ton of fun and just maybe we can do a little bit of good in the world this year.

All we need now is a name.....

Thursday, 12 September 2013

Dealing With Nerves Pt. 3 - Cognitive Dissonance

The longer I've taught, the more fascinated I've become by the psychological aspects of learning – how we absorb information, how we remember it, how we group, process and understand that information – and how best to apply those psychological principles to the guitar, bass or keyboard.

The theory of cognitive dissonance is one such principle. In its (heavily) simplified form, it states that people strive for consonance, or harmony, between their expectations of the world around them and its reality. Essentially, that we strive to adjust or justify our beliefs whatever the evidence, using whatever means necessary to rationalise our behaviour or opinions even in the face of massive quantities of contrary information. Think about that the next time you watch a politician being interviewed or have a row with your girlfriend.

An oft-quoted example appears in American social psychologist Leon Festinger's 1956 book When Prophecy Fails, which details the behaviour of a UFO cult called the Seekers who believed that an alien spacecraft landing was imminent, and that such a landing would result in the Earth's destruction. The cult members all met at a pre-arranged place and time, believing that in this way they alone would survive the coming apocalypse.

Needless to say, no such apocalypse was forthcoming, and yet the reaction of the cult members in the face of the absolute discrediting of their faith's most essential tenet was astonishing – far from becoming disillusioned with their cult and its leader, their faith actually deepened. The cult members decided that in fact, what must have happened was that their actions in preparing for the apocalypse had convinced the aliens to give the entire world another chance.

Somehow, the Seekers had collectively rationalised the absolute blunt disproval of everything their belief stood for as a reinforcement of those same beliefs, and because the apocalypse hadn't happened, they must therefore go forth and preach their word around the world! At a very primal level, the Seeker members had to reconcile two totally contradictory belief systems and had perfomed logocal somersaults in order to perform this feat, rather than abandon their beliefs in the face of the evidence presented.

This behaviour may well seem unhinged – and observed dispassionately, it is. And yet we all do it, every day, whether we're willing to admit it or not. For example, studies have shown that gamblers are more confident moments after they've placed their bet on a horse – because it's too late to change the decision. Students have been shown to judge cheating in an exam less harshly after being induced to cheat themselves.

It's not all negative though. The “Ben Franklin Effect”, for example, cites the legendary statesman's observation that performing a favour for a rival can actually increase one's feelings of affection or friendship towards that person.

A 2007 study involving preschool children and Capuchin monkeys- which frankly sounds like the recipe for more poop-flinging than the average brain can conceive of- showed that both groups reacted similarly when presented with choices between items and proffered the idea that in fact cognitive dissonance is an evolutionary trait, something hardwired into our brains as a safety valve. A 2010 study involving fMRI scans of brain activity seemed to confirm this, showing that rationalisation behaviour takes place within seconds- far too quickly for conscious contemplation.

So what does all this have to do with nerves and guitar playing? Well, one of the consequences of this principle is that we tend to try and resolve any dissonance between our expectations and reality as simply and as quickly as possible. Project confidence and you will feel more confident – and therefore less nervous. That confidence will show itself in your playing – having the confidence to finish an idea your way, to hold a note because you want to hold it, not fill a space with a dozen badly played ones because you're trying to play catch-up to what you think somebody else would play.

Posture can play a big part in this – the classic “alpha male” stance has the back straight, the shoulders back, chest out and the chin slightly upturned, showing the confidence to display the vulnerable throat to a potential adversary. Try to assume this posture doing day-to-day activities and you'll find it has a remarkable affect – essentially, by assuming the outward trappings of poise and self-confidence, you'll begin to develop the inner ones.

Obviously, confidence alone won't get you through a performance if you don't actually know the stuff – so do NOT regard this as an alternative to practice! -, but projecting an air of confidence can even fool and audience into thinking that even any mistakes are under control, and can help you ensure that any such errors don't interrupt the rhythmic flow of a performance.

Like so many things, this whole idea can be broken down into a simple common sense approach – if you approach a task, whatever the field, with trepidation and fear, worried solely about what might go wrong, you're a lot less likely to accomplish it than someone who goes in with a positive, “can-do” attitude. So head up, chest out, shoulders back – go show that audience how it should be done!

Sunday, 1 September 2013

Dealing With Nerves Pt. 2 - Mental Rehearsal

Our biggest fear is, and always has been, the unknown. So what's the best way to combat this? Make the unknowns known.

Obviously, traditional practice and preparation play a massive part in ensuring a strong, confident delivery whatever the performance situation. But we can definitely do more to support this aspect, especially in today's busy society when practice time is always limited.

The technique that we're going to look at today is mental rehearsal. At its heart, this idea is very simple – imagining, visualising in as vivid detail as possible exactly how you're going to perform the piece, scale, or exercise. It may sound ridiculous, but this is a well-used technique among many athletes and professional speakers. It focuses on taking advantage of the brains' limitations in discerning real from simulated experiences – for example, have you ever had a particularly vivid dream in which you've argued with someone you know? It can be hard to shake the residual feeling of hostility when you see them again in real life.

Let's try this in action. Firstly, take the song you're working on. If you have the transcription, set it in front of you. Listen through the piece, tracing it through on the transcription if you have it, or just listening and remembering the notes if you've learned it by ear. Now, do this exercise again literally playing air guitar to it, visualising the notes, the movements and the character of the articulations (bends, slides, staccato/ legato attack). This helps cement the association between the movements, transcription and critically, sound.

Now, when playing the piece with instrument in hand, try to feel where you feel most comfortable with it, most “in the groove” where you really feel that you're channeling the flow of the music. Try and remember exactly how that feels – be it a colour, shape, flavour or texture. What you're doing here is setting what's known as a “peak performance signal”, to give yourself something solid to aim for when practicing.

It's also worth mentally rehearsing from both your own and your listeners point of view – if you were hearing the piece, how would you like certain passages to be expressed, dynamically? And switching perspectives, how would you articulate that passage to achieve that goal?

Essentially, for all the neuro-linguistic jargon associated with this technique, all it really boils down to is thinking, very hard, about what you're doing. And that's very rarely a bad idea.

I'd also advise researching the exam venue – Google Earth and Streetview are excellent for this- particularly for those of you who are drivers and need to assess parking- and see if you can talk to anyone who's sat an exam there. The clearer the picture you can form for yourself of what to expect, the fewer unknowns you'll be facing and the more confident you'll feel that nothing is going to throw you off your performance.

Saturday, 17 August 2013

Dealing With Nerves Pt 1 - Breathing

Alright, I'm aware that most of you reading this have mastered the basic essentials of breathing, and those of you who haven't.. well, you probably have more pressing concerns right now. But stay with me, I'm going somewhere with this.

Nerves are often a huge problem for a musician. The best cure for them? In my opinion – experience. But that's a catch-22 situation – curing the problem of nerves by doing the thing that causes your nervousness in the first place, and that can be highly stressful for many musicians, especially those just beginning their performance careers.

I strongly believe that the combination of nerves and adrenaline, the emotional highs and lows that come with a good gig or a bad one, are what lead many musicians down the road of drug and alcohol use. This can be in the form of “a couple of pints to take the edge off”, or beta-blockers to inhibit stress, all the way through to the cocaine-and-whiskey combination which Stevie Ray Vaughan legendarily used as a morning “pick me up”. The result, all too often, is an untimely death and a waste of talent – Hendrix, Robert Johnson, Janis Joplin, Kurt Cobain, Amy Winehouse... the list goes on.

So how to deal with nerves without the chemicals? Well, first off, nerves tend to accelerate the heart rate, so we'll start with a simple breathing exercise to slow it back down again. Close your eyes and breathe in through your nose, counting to four as you do so. Now hold that breath for another four beats before exhaling smoothly and evenly, counting another bar of four beats as you do. Now gradually extend to groups of five, six, seven and eight beats. This forces your heart rate to slow down and helps moderate the tempo of your thoughts.

Nerves affect concentration by crowding out coherent thoughts with mental “white noise”, so next let's try a simple meditation exercise. Set a timer on your watch or phone for two minutes. Now sit up straight, palms flat on your thighs and keep your mouth closed, breathing through your nose. Clear your mind and focus on the sensation of your breath going through your nostrils. Your goal here is to stay completely stationary and silent, thinking of nothing but registering the sensation of breathing.

If you find that you can't manage two minutes, start with one minute, or even thirty seconds, and gradually build up. What you are doing is effectively training your mind to resist distraction and focus all concentration on the task at hand, precisely what nerves stop you from doing.

These exercises help – just as surely as a good technical warm up routine ensures the fingers are in good shape to do whatever is asked of them, a mental warm up like I've outlined here serves to ensure concentration, focus and clarity of thought are maintained throughout the performance.

The more successful performances you get under your belt, the more assured and comfortable you will feel in a performance situation, whether it's gig, recital or examination, and the better you'll be able to handle nervousness without having to resort to alcohol or drugs.

Just think of all the money you'll save.

Next time – mental rehearsal, and how to think yourself to guitar playing brilliance...

Tuesday, 6 August 2013

Exams & Nerves

It's Rockschool exam period again, and as I help my students prepare themselves for the trauma of throwing themselves on the mercy of cold-eyed, merciless, hard bitten cynics such as, well.... me- I think it can be useful to take a few moments to get some perspective.

Having been one myself, and having lived amongst their kind, learnt their ways and so forth, I can say that examiners are by and large lovely chaps who have all been on the other side of the desk, sweating with nerves while struggling to remember their scales, and it's important to remember that. These people are not ogres, they are not all powerful arbiters of your musical future, and crucially, they really do not want to fail you. Speaking for myself, I failed a few students and I absolutely hated having to do it, but frankly they had no business being entered for the exam in the first place, as they clearly didn't know what they were trying to play. In one instance, one candidate effectively failed himself by refusing flat out to even attempt the technical exercise portion of the exam. These instances aside – and of the hundreds of students I examined, there were no more than a half dozen- everyone who puts the work in and plays to a decent standard passes.

But what constitutes a “decent standard”? Well, admittedly it is a subjective term, and everyone's definition is slightly different. But use your common sense- record yourself playing the pieces, and listen back, compare what you did to what's on the original recording and be honest with yourself about the bad and the good points. With many of my students, more often than not we find that the ideas are there and sound, but a lack of confidence prevents them from really projecting the notes or completing a musical idea. It's almost as if they're thinking “This is my idea- therefore it must be worthless” and wind up sabotaging a perfectly good musical idea by cramming in a lick they've learned elsewhere which plainly doesn't fit. Patience. Listen. Have the confidence to follow your idea through to its conclusion.

Of course, this is easy to say in the comfort of one's own studio, but out in the exam room all too often nerves can get on top of a student, and nervousness can be a vicious cycle – as you start to become nervous about being nervous, perspective goes and all of a sudden the exam seems almost like a black hole looming ahead.

It's nothing of the sort. In the case of a Rockschool grade, you're playing three songs that you'll know like the back of your hand, a few scales, picking out some chords and a bit of a tune and answering a few straightforward questions about what you've played. 20-30 minutes and you're out of there, done.

For this reason, I think it's also important for all teachers to work at improving themselves and undertaking exams once in a while- my last was the Registry Of Guitar Tutors Associate level diploma, and this summer I will be taking the Licentiate degree level exam. The butterflies are already fluttering, so to all (and myself), let me offer the famous (and often misquoted) words of President Franklin D. Roosevelt -

“Nothing is to be feared but fear itself”

In Praise of iRig

So, as some of you know, in the last few months I reluctantly overcame my suspicion of iThings and Apple in general and acquired an iPhone. Whilst “time travel”, “death ray” and “teleport” apps seem to be sadly lacking, I did come across a superbly useful gadget that any electric guitar player needs to have.

Amplitube is a free piece of software that essentially converts your phone into a guitar amp with a variety of virtual stompboxes- the free version comes with a Marshall-a-like with a distortion, delay and noise filter, although there are plenty of upgrades that you can buy and a separate free Amplitube Fender download which gives a virtual Fender Deluxe Reverb.

It also features a drum machine, recorder (upgradable to multitrack), tuner, metronome and a fantastically useful Song Trainer function which allows the user to import songs and slow them down. Essentially your phone becomes a fully mobile practice station allowing you to practice through headphones anywhere and anytime.. all you need is the iRig, essentially a micro-preamp with 1/4” jack socket for guitar and 3.5mm socket for headphones or stereo output into a mixing desk. These are about thirty quid, but a quick search on eBay got me a refurbished one for half that.

I wouldn't normally go on about a product (without being paid), but this thing is so absurdly useful and cheap no iPhone-packing guitar player should be without it. Certainly, it would have been an absolute godsend during my cruise ship days. Not only that, but the other night I had to run straight from a late lesson to rehearsal (with the mighty Dave The Rock Band), couldn't face an extra twenty minute delay gathering equipment and squeezing it all into the car so just gambled on taking the phone and guitar...

I won't pretend that this thing equalled the sound of a cranked valve amp, but damn was it better than I expected... anyone familiar with the original Line 6 POD will find similar sounds here. Certainly, the convenience factor was absolutely off the scale.

Ooh, and I've just been on their website ( Bluetooth pedalboard. This is going to get out of hand very soon....

Wednesday, 31 July 2013

The Importance Of Focus

Welcome to my first ever blog post! Over my years teaching and performing, I've learned a great deal about guitar players and musicians in general, and about the different challenges students face when learning. So having finally made the decision to step out of the 1980's and embrace t'interweb, here goes with an article hopefully every reader can take something from:

As students of the guitar- or indeed any musical instrument - we are often told that “practice makes perfect”. But this is really only half the story. A truer statement would be that you will only get out of a practice session what you put into it. Two minutes spent intensely practicing a technical weak spot or a persistent problem area within a song is immensely more valuable than an hour spent vaguely strumming with one eye on the TV and an ear not concentrating on the sound produced.

Consider two beginner students, both given the same task- in their respective lessons, they have both learned the chord shapes G, D and C. Their homework, over the week, is to familiarise themselves with these shapes to the point where they can play them perfectly and consistently so that in the next lesson we can use these shapes to start playing some basic songs (Knocking On Heaven's Door, Sweet Home Alabama, Sweet Child O'Mine- all use these simple chord shapes).

The first student follows the practice routine diligently- he starts with the chromatic “spider” warm up exercise, playing slowly and carefully, taking care to line up each note perfectly before playing it. He then goes through each of the chord shapes one by one, arpeggiating each one and taking care to adjust his thumb to find the “sweet spot” where the notes ring out. There are muted notes and clicks, but he perseveres- no one else is going to get it right for him, are they? By this point he's been practicing for about 10 minutes, so spends a couple of minutes practicing basic strumming patterns (whole notes/semibreves, half notes/minims, quarter notes/crotchets) and then winds down with that old staple, “Smoke On The Water”- he knows it well, knows he can play it and have it sound recognisable, so he finishes the 15 minute practice session with a positive feeling, looking forward to playing again tomorrow.

By the third or fourth day the spider exercise is getting quicker and more accurate, and the chord shapes are becoming more consistent as the student can recognise patterns and shapes amongst the chord shapes- the C resembling a curve with an “open window” on the G string, the D resembling a pyramid or triangle pointing up the fretboard toward the body of the guitar- so the student starts to string them together, slowly at first, and notices how some changes remind him of songs he knows well.

By the time the next lesson has come round, the student's “Spider” warm up exercise is more controlled and accurate (although still slow, which is fine- speed is NOT the goal here) and the three chords are clear and secure, as are the three basic rhythms. As a result, we can start to combine them in different ways to start playing some actual songs, albeit in slightly simplified fashion. Over the next week, the student starts to add these songs to his repertoire, and also feels confident enough to start experimenting with alterations to the chords and combining them in different ways to some up with his own ideas.

The second student skips out the “Spider” warm up as he finds it boring and decides to go straight to the chords. He lines up the chord shapes and strums them listlessly while browsing the Net or watching TV, not really listening to or engaging with the results. His fingers don't learn to grasp the sweet spots on the fretboard to have the notes ring out cleanly and his chords are muffled and muted. However, he figures he's putting his fingers in roughly the right places and he can call the time he's spent “practice” so he thinks he's done his homework.

Come his next lesson, his “Spider” warm up is sloppy and messy, muted notes and incorrect strings ringing out everywhere, his chords are full of basic errors, sounding muffled and muted and hideously unmusical and the entire lesson has to be devoted to redoing the same topics as theprevious week. Result- zero progress for the student. “But I practiced for almost an hour every night” the student protests....

The moral of this story is pretty clear – practice WILL bring results. But it will ONLY bring them if you are fully engaged with what you're doing, eyes, ears, fingers and brain all working together to shape the sound and create something musical. Patience and concentration is an absolute must, as it is when you are learning any sort of craft or skill, and it is astonishing how many students fail to recognise this, condemning themselves (and their poor teacher!) to frustration. Think about learning to drive – what would happen if you failed to pay attention to the road? Think about someone learning to paint without bothering to look at what they're painting, or someone trying to master a martial art without concentrating on balance, movement etc.

You will only get from practice what you put into it in the first place in terms of focus, concentration and awareness. Fifteen minutes of practice, fully engaged with every aspect of what you're doing, beats out two hours of mindless strumming any day of the week. It's not about marking time, it's about results.

The medicine works. But it will only work if you take it.