Right Thoughts, Right Words, …

Fans of Franz Ferdinand, the populat beat combo rather than the assassinated Austrian Archduke, will know the ellipsis covers Right Action – the relevance of which may become somewhat less occluded as the text of this post unfurls.

I am now almost two months into my career as a guitarist.  OK, career may be over-playing my hand (and current level of mastery) so let’s just say “since I started learning to play” instead.  It is proving enormous fun and the fingers on my left hand are callousing up nicely and I seem to be growing use to the loss of feeling (or at least I seem to be dropping stuff less often).  Occasionally, brief snatches of something which might almost pass for music are emerging from my guitar: though these are soon smothered beneath a cacophany of notes (or approximations thereto) that even the most extreme proponents of atonal music would have rejected at an early stage of composition.  Maybe it is time to start the Third Vienna School – and, to the surprise of many, do it in Southampton.

As I slowly come to grips with my latest self-improvement project (it remains unclear who or what I may be improving myself for), I am discovering the very wide range of jargon that surrounds the guitar: jargon which seems to have been plundered, indiscriminately from many walks of life without any thought to an over-arching theme.

We might start with the size of the instrument.  Some guitars are dreadnoughts, but there is no battleship, cruiser or minesweeper.  No, as guitars grow smaller they are named after model railway gauges and so an OO and O make an appearance (though on the wron gorder, size-wise).  There is no N-gauge, but smaller guitars are named for the parlour in a nod to historic reception rooms.  Somewhere in this strange pantheon there also lies the jumbo and the OM (though how the stalwarts of La Ligue came to be associated with the instrument is anyone’s guess).

The fingers of the left hand are numbered, though for the guitarist the thumb doesn’t count, so the numbers are one smaller than for the pianist.  The finger of the right hand (where the thumb does count, but the little finger is discarded) are labelled using the first letter of the Spanish name for the digit in question.  And why not?

The parts of the instrument are also named in an eccentric manner, ripe for double-entendres (even without venturing into the sound hole).  The neck and body seem sensible enough, but the bridge holds the saddle and between the neck and head lies the nut.  For the avoidance of doubt, neither saddle nor nut look anything like any of the real world objects for which they might be named. The top string is, in normal (gravitional potential enery based) parlance at the bottom and vice versa: though this does make sense if one considers the pitch rather than position (or stands on one’s head).  The clearance of the strings over the fingerboard (which lies atop the neck) and frets is called “the action”.  My ancient instrument has a very high action.  This means that when attempting to hold the strings down near the nut (required for all my current playing), a prodigious amount of force is necessary: the whites of my knuckles have rarely been on such public display!  This has been wearing out my hand and shredding my finger tips: it has also rendered barre chords (where the index finger holds all the strings down at the same time) a distant dream.

To attempt to resolve this issue, and lower its action, I have undertaken surgery on my guitar – and in particular on its nut.  This was necessary as my guitar lacks an adjustable truss rod – the metal spine (or cervical portion thereof) that runs through the neck.  There were a number of possibilities for modifying the nut, but lacking a specialist set of nut files (yes these really do exist, and they are not cheap) I removed the nut all together and sanded a few millimetres of its substance from its bottom.  I can tell you that the unit is question was surprisingly soft and this took but a moment.  As you might imagine, given the ever-present nature of my inner child, I found this all terribly amusing.  The nut has now been reinstalled and the guitar is almost ready to go.  The only complication arising from the surgery was that the top string snapped at the bridge end (not, for the avoidance of doubt, in South Wales).  So, I now need to extend the surgery to cover re-stringing.  In theory this should be straightforward: I have mastered removal of the bridge pin but have not yet plucked (pun fully intended) up the courage to attempt the re-stringing as the instructions seem surprisingly complicated.  Maybe later today I shall screw my courage to the sticking place and see how it goes.

Having obtained the right action for my guitar, all I now need to deal with is the unexpected degree of previously unused flexibility required by my left hand and the fact that when playing my eyes need to simultaneously monitor the actions of my left and right hands and read the music.  Having only two eyes, that tend to track together, this is proving a challenge which is so far being resolved by memorising the music and moving my head from side-to-side as though watching a very small tennis match.  I’m hoping that better proprioception will come in time, as watching better guitarists they seem capable of playing while their hands go entirely unobserved.  Mine cannot, at this early stage, by trusted unsupervised: frankly, they seem to need to be micro-managed.  To be honest, I think something went very wrong at the recruitment stage – heads will roll in HR!

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Irresolute

Isn’t the title a glorious word?  It really ought to get out more!  Let’s face it, the world could use more irresolution as it seems to contain far too much unjustified certainty to be healthy.

However, I should probably resist the urge to turn GofaDM into a “Word of the Day” style production, so I better shoe-horn some more personal content into the word “Irresolute”.

I seem to remember that last year I exclusively revealed to GofaDM readers what I do to mark Christmas and the return to these shores of Winter Val (which I presume is another, more gender-inclusive, pseudonym for Santa, aka St Nick aka Father Christmas).  So, it seemed, if not appropriate then at least vaguely explicable, to use 2017 to cover my traditional activities as the New Year looms.

One thing I don’t do is make any Resolutions (title justified √).  This is part of a broader resistance to doing things when I’m supposed to and at the same time as everyone else.  This helps to foster my delusion that I am an exciting maverick and not just another faceless drone.  It helps explain my tendency to age-inappropriate dress and activities which could be blamed on my working through the mid-life crisis (but avoiding loose cars and fast women) were it not for the fact that I’ve failed to be age-appropriate since I was a child (or maybe I was just a very early developer or trying to avoid the rush?).

For many years, I largely ignored the year incrementing by one – except the feeling I should watch Big Ben bonging away (which lost some of its appeal when I was allowed to stay up until midnight whenever I wanted – which is much less often than a younger me would have expected).  I did once (many years ago) sample the delights of Trafalgar Square on New Year’s Eve which are almost entirely non-existent – you can’t even hear Big Ben despite its proximity – and so I never made that mistake again.

For the last several years (probably more than I would like to believe), I have spent New Year’s Eve (or NYE as it seems to be known, but which makes me think it has something to do with New York) with friends.  Either I go to their place for multiple courses of food and wine over the evening, or they join me in my tiny garret.  This year it was my turn to host and prepare a range of courses to see off 2016 in tasty style.

I don’t like to blow my own trumpet, frankly I lack the necessary flexibility, but I think it was best attempt at such end of year entertaining yet.  For the first time, I managed to limit my tendency to massively over-cater for the audience (three people) which led to both a more comfortable night’s sleep and far fewer left-overs for me to eat up over the opening days of 2017.  Take that my Hatton genes!

I also decided that my dinner party staples were becoming too safe and predictable (for me if no-one else) so I brought some new signings to the table.  These went rather well, but the star was definitely a sea bass recipe borrowed from Gary Rhodes which took a mere 3 minutes to cook – and not much more to prepare (the greatest effort involved segmenting two oranges, a task I foisted on one of my guests).  It was a reminder that one can eat well in a hurry, without having to rely on pricking a lid and recourse to millimetre-wave electromagnetic radiation.  Mr Rhodes also provided inspiration for a different (and labour-saving) New Year breakfast.  I would recommend his grilled ginger cake with mashed banana and natural yoghurt and not just for breakfast, it would go down very nicely for a late supper!

Background music was largely supplied by the marvel of Spotify and ranged widely: from Poulenc’s Gloria, via Sheila Steafel’s Twiddly Bits and Rowan Atkinson taking the register to Louis James Alfred Lefébure-Wély.  What a name!  And what a time in which we live, when so much of the world’s music (and fun) is available at the touch of a button!

The final triumph was accidently being ready for midnight at the same time that “the man” from Greenwich suggested midnight actually arrived.  I fear I shall never be able to match this performance again and may have to start a new tradition…

Failure creates so much less pressure than even modest success, I feel it is under-rated in the modern world (despite sterling work by Stephen Pile).  Still, perhaps with our government embracing failure so whole-heartedly and in some many spheres, my own modest lacks of success will be eclipsed.  I shall perhaps work to treat Kipling’s two imposters just the same over the year ahead (perilously close to a resolution).

Determination

This blog may have given the impression that I am some vague sort of cove who just drifts through life like snow in a stiff breeze.  Yes, my attempts to empty a small storage unit may be close to reaching 3.5 years (though some progress has recently been made).  OK, I may have taken 6 months to fix my bookshelves to the wall to enable them to carry the books from the aforementioned storage unit without the risk of their owner being crushed beneath his library (though, what a way to go!).  I’ll admit it took more than 21 years to organise a guitar lesson.  However, occasionally my cup of motiviation is filled to overflowing with dedication and purpose.

This last week has seen two examples of my commitment to a project going well beyond the point of sanity or common sense.

The first relates to my guitar.  In an attempt to make up for the rather dilatory start to my life as a guitarist, I have been practising regularly.  If I’m at home, I normally manage to put in a few minutes of practise every day.  Only a very few minutes each time  (around five) as the fingertips on my left hand can only take so much punishment.  In an attempt to toughen them up, after Christmas I moved to practising twice a day: morning and afternoon.  This is having the desired effect and my fingertips are hardening and the dead skin is starting to peel as the necessary callouses form.

The upshot of this process was that at my guitar lesson last week, I was able to spend a much larger portion of the hour actually playing the instrument and much less time talking about it.  This was wonderful and there were very brief sonic glimpses of something Spanish or Latin American emerging from the instrument (though they are still swamped by the dross).  I even managed to produce an F successfully for the first time!  This may not sound like much, but my index finger has to hold down two strings (on the first fret) at the same time.  Previously the squidginess of my finger had rendered this impossible.  It’s always nice to make a break through while your teacher is watching. In fact, guitar-playing is becoming much less of a white-knuckle experience all round and I no longer give the impression that I am trying to throttle the life out of my guitar.

This may have led me to get a little carried away, so by the end of the lesson the tops of fingers 1, 2 and 3 were completely shredded.  My attempt to practise the following day had to be aborted very quickly and I needed another two days of rest (while I was over the Irish Sea) before I next braved the guitar: even typing on a laptop keyboard was somewhat of a challenge.  Still, today my fingers were up to a full session on the strings and producing an F is almost second nature.

My other main physical project is on the bar: an attempt to master the muscle-up.  Yesterday, I was attempting the tricky transition from being under the bar to being over it and pushing myself up.  This is starting to go really quite well and I can gain a lot more height over the bar with relative ease (still aided by a thickish rubber band), though synchronising the switch of hand position and the movement from pulling to pushing up is more tricky: but I did manage it a few times.  Again, my determination rather overwhelmed any sense and after twenty minutes or so attempting the maneouvre I noticed my right hand seemed a little damp.  On closer examination I discovered it was bleeding (from an unknown source) and it had a sizeable blood blister where my little finger joins onto the hand.  My left hand had another two blood blisters: also where the fingers join onto the palm.  The left hand blisters are already mostly healed, but the right hand one is still pretty impressive looking and rather painful.  It would seem my life of desk-jockey, clean-fingernailed ease has not prepared my hands for this sort of high-pressured, frictional punishment.  Still, no can doubt that I am committed to this project.

I think the problem in both cases is that (a) I don’t like to be defeated (or so it would seem) and (b) it feels so good when the thing actually works.  I also suspect my brain is quite good at ignoring pain signals from the rest of my body when I’m concentrating and it’s only when I stop (or am forced to) that it deigns to notice the damage inflicted.

Actually, this isn’t the first time I’ve found myself to be bleeding recently.  Not even the second – which was a couple of weeks back when I mounted the bike rather ineptly and scraped my leg on the rear mud-guard.  I thought nothing of it at the time and cycled off to my appointment.  On arrival, I was asked if I knew my leg was covered in blood: to which my answer was, “No”.  A few weeks earlier, I had just given blood (deliberately) and was tucking into my celebratory lemon squash and chocoloate biscuit (or several) when I noticed my arm was wet.  My first thought was that there must be a drip from the ceiling, but after a while I moved my attention away from my book and macaroon and noticed that I was coagulating rather slower than normal and that my arm and (white) top were covered in blood (mine).  This was quickly rectified by the NBT staff, to be honest I think the flow has staunched itself, but it did make me wonder if, were I suitably distracted, I could bleed-out without noticing.  After three such incidents now, I am beginning to suspect that the answer is “Yes”.

So, if you spot the author out-and-about and notice he is bleeding, please let him know as he probably won’t have noticed.