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....