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.