Board hubris

Robert Browning places the phrase that “a man’s reach should exceed his grasp” into the mouth of the Italian Renaissance Painter Andrea del Sarto.  Today, I have twice attempted to follow this indirect imperative from Victorian poetry: my primary go-to (or go-sub) resource for advice!

I have for some time possessed a copy of Hanan’s The Virtuoso Pianist in 60 Exercises, a book I clearly acquired under false pretenses as I have never exceeded a rather poor Grade 4 standard at the piano.  As part of an attempt to reduce procrastination in at least a few areas of my life, I have decided I had better start making some progress or my death may pre-date my becoming a virtuouso pianist.


Soon(ish) this will rightfully be mine!

Prior to today, I had never moved beyond exercise 2.  However, over the weekend I had played exercises 1 and 2 twice, back-to-back on both days.  I won’t say that my performance was entirely error-free, nor that the playing proceeded in line with any constant metronome mark (well, not unless some gravitational waves of unprecedented magnitude passed through my flat) .  It certainly wasn’t achieved without a fair degree of pain from my hands and forearms – but it was achieved!  So, bolstered with this modest degree of “success”, this morning I turned the page to exercise 3.  This starts by telling me that I should be aiming to play exercises 3 to 5 without a break – and not just once, but three or four times.  Each of the exercises contains basically the same number of notes, so this is three-fold increase in the physical endeavour required: I fear there is a whole world of pain to come!

Still, I am determined (at the moment) and a one-off attempt at exercise 3 wasn’t too tricky: so there is hope.  Virtuosity may be within my grasp before whatever replaces the telegram arrives from who (or what) ever replaces the Queen.

In a further attempt to move my piano playing up a level (or, at a minimum, reduce its rate of descent) I am also trying to spend less time watching my fingers and more time looking at the music.  This has the advantage that when something goes wrong I know where I am, the downside is that my fingers don’t always go where I intend.  However, on balance it has worked much better than expected: my fingers generally seem to know more about playing the piano than any higher level executive function available in my brain.

Buoyed by the vaguely success-related feelings arising from moving on with Hanon, I decided to tackle some new exercises on my guitar.  Workouts 1 to 4 were going alright, so I tried workout 5.  This went very well, and hubris may have got the better of me.  In my o’erweening arrogance, I turned to workout 6.  This requires each of my first three fingers (index, middle and ring) to reside on adjacent frets.  My little finger starts on the fret next to its ring brother, but is then expected to move another fret closer to the body of the guitar whilst all its friends remain where they were.  This is clearly physically impossible for any, except (perhaps) a few freaks of nature!  Or I would think that if I hadn’t seen a large number of apparently normal people doing it.  Given these sightings were at gigs, my sample may have been somewhat self-selecting but I think I am forced to conclude that this sort of stretch is possible for a baseline human: just not (current) me.   Somehow, I have to discover the secret to cutting the apron-strings that tie my little finger to my ring finger – Hanon is helping them act independently, but a different sort of independence seems to be needed for the fretboard of my guitar.

Should I be seeking some sort of finger yoga or Pilates for my left hand?  For not only do I have to move my little finger into position once, but I then have to allow my other fingers to join it and then cruelly leave it divorced from its fellows once more – and then repeat this process multiple times.  Once again, I see pain on the horizon – and before then a lot of experimentation with my phalanges to try and achieve the position even once and with the other hand (and possible some gaffer tape) helping!  Still I like to think that what I lack in other personality traits, I make up for in bloody-mindedness so I shall keep going.  How could I not?  Hanging out with young musicians I know just how profitable a career in music can be!

Disobedient digits

I have heard, or perhaps read, that if you cannot see your feet and a third party touches one of your toes, you will struggle to correctly identify the toe being poked.  I think most people are fine with the big toe, but thereafter are only accurate to ±1 toe.

I can believe this of toes, they are a long way from the seat of power (especially for we taller folk) and are mostly imprisoned against their will in shoes or sneakers.  Rarely are they allowed to operate independently of their fellows.  Such small acts of rebellion against central authority are only to be expected.

Fingers, on the other hand (and indeed the first hand) are molly-coddled their whole lives.  Only being gaoled in gloves or mittens to protect them from being nipped at by Jack Frost.  They have been given individual names and roles and are often invited to star in their own right.  As an occasional, if very bad, pianist my fingers have been given a lot of responsibility.  Indeed, often when seated at the old joanna, they seem to know where to go even when management hasn’t got the foggiest idea and is in a state of panic while the notes seem to dance across the staves.  I’ll admit that the ring finger can be a little shy, and doesn’t like to go anywhere without at least one of its two companions for company but, in general, I thought I could trust my fingers to follow basic instructions.

However, my attempts to master the guitar have made all to clear the limitations on my control of my own hands, especially the left one.  Even when I am staring right at them, the fingers of left hand still fail to follow even basic instructions.  When moving from G to D, I want to pivot on my ring finger: it, alone among its colleagues must not move and yet more than half the time it wanders off across the neck on some unknown mission of its own.  When playing scales (oh yes, I am teacher’s pet), I want all my fingers to stay close to the strings and yet they wander off like children on a school trip: worse actually, as they do so even when directly supervised.

I am far from convinced that I possess free will, but am increasingly sure that my fingers do.

Still, despite this mutiny by my own phalanges, I am making slow progress with the guitar.  At a gig last Sunday, while watching Jonny Phillips play I could recognise several chords and even more standard chord shapes.  Some of these, given a decent run-up, I can actually play: though there can be quite a long wait between chords (and a fair few extraneous sounds produced): it would be as well to bring a book to any gig at which I’m performing.  I can even speak somewhat knowledgeably about inversions and root notes, having been shamed into re-reading The AB Guide to Music Theory Part I following my stumbling attempts to identify broken chords at a lesson.  I think my guitar teacher now finds my attempts to create new chords from first principles (one note and string at a time, while visualising a piano) somewhat amusing and I strongly suspect I am his only student obsessive enough to try this.

Later at the same gig, there came a distant ray of hope.  The frankly amazing Marty O’Reilly made reference to ten years of his youth (mis-)spent in a shed with his guitar, smoking pot (him, not the guitar) as the source of his condign mastery of the instrument.  I don’t have a shed and am not entirely sure psychoactive substances will be a help – let’s face it, I already fear that my fingers are out to get me – but I’m only two months in to the process, so there remains the very real possibility for improvement by some point in my sixties.  In the meantime I thoroughly recommend going to see Jonny and Marty – the latter came perilously close to bringing a tear to my eye (something which music almost never does) – and imagine that one day (probably roughly cotemporaneous with the heat death of the universe) I might sound like that!

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!

Never judge a guitarist by his fingers

On Wednesday evening, I once again found myself at the Art House Cafe listening to some (relatively) local musicians of improbably high quality.  As the title hints, some of this music involved guitars – of the acoustic variety.

Once upon a time, I could (sort of) play the guitar – taught by my then English teacher Mr Owen (before he fled to Gravesend).  Even at my peak, I was only strumming basic chords in the most plain vanilla manner possible – though I could use a transposition clock!  I actually own an acoustic guitar and fully intend to re-learn how to play it (however, this intent has been “active” for more than two decades now – so readers would be advised not to hold their breath).  As a result, I have a very modest understanding of what a guitar can do and how tricky it can be to play.

The gig involved a support act (guitarist 1) and the headline act (guitarist 2 + drummer).  Support was provided by Alex Bowron who had very unpromising fingers (in my, clearly erroneous view) – rather short and chunky and almost entirely lacking in nails (i.e. much shorter even than mine).  Despite this apparent handicap, he could do things with his guitar that I have never knowingly heard before – and which despite being able to see both his hands very clearly, I have no idea how he achieved.  He also made use of two capos (capi?) – which seem to have come a long way since my time with Mr Owen – to produce some glorious music.

The headliners were Will McNicol and Luke Selby.  Will had fingers which seemed much more compatible with playing the guitar – longish, slender digits with enormous, plectrum shaped nails on his plucking/strumming hand.  These nails clearly required a fairly serious maintenance regime – I assume he has to wear a single glove much of the time to protect them (or he may just be less of a klutz than I am).  He was (if possible) an even more incredible guitar player than Alex and also produced sonic effects I have never heard before (including an unexpected use of a business card and singing into his guitar – where the trick is not to inhale).  Luke was a drummer – and seemed very good at it, but given my previously mentioned lack of rhythm I may be overly easily impressed by drummers.  His drum kit included a foot cabasa – an instrument new to me.  Web investigation suggests that whilst it won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, it does offer “a unique new voice for the feet” – which I can think we can all agree is something the world has been crying out for these many years!

They played a very wide range of music, covering inspiration from at least four continents – and for most of the gig wore only one shoe between them (I will leave an air of mystery around which of the four feet  – 1.22m – remained shod).  My musical education as a child was, in many ways, rather deficient – largely due to my lack of interest the subject (though I was very good at music-stand repair).  As a consequence, a surprisingly large amount of my music awareness came from Radio 4 comedy shows of the 1970s.  So, I do have an odd love of both the blues and madrigals as a result of some of the Willy Rushton era rounds of ISIHAC.  Much as I love and admire Colin Cell, hearing the boys playing Mississippi Blues including proper blues “licks” was a wonderful thing and almost brought a tear to my eye (despite a complete lack of vocals: not even a single “I woke up this morning”).

So, once again my musical horizons have been expanded for less than a tenner – and another album has been added to my collection (Hitchhiker by Will and Luke).  Living in Southampton really does have some excellent compensations.

Stalking a pianist

For the avoidance of doubt, I would like to make clear that I am not (currently) stalking a pianist.  It is merely a literary device to try and attract readers to this post, perhaps permitting me to disappoint a whole new audience.

Despite my earlier denial, I do have a real interest in pianists, largely as I wish to become one.  Sadly, the idea that 10,000 hours of practice will deliver condign mastery of any skill is somewhat overstated – involving as it does extrapolation from a rather small and unrepresentative sample.  Even were it true, at my current rate of practice, 10,000 hours would require me to significantly exceed any human lifespan outside of those recorded in the Old Testament (which may not be a wholly reliable source).  I always intend to practise more, but somehow I never seem to have the time – or if I do have the time, lack the mental horsepower (watts?) to achieve very much.  I have reached the stage where not only do I have to use all ten fingers, but that regularly more than two need to be actively engaged at once.  This is very taxing on the middle-aged brain – I am never entirely sure whether my endeavours are helping to keep senility at bay, or are merely illustrating just how far it has already advanced.

Anyway, I recently found myself seeing the same pianist in two somewhat distant UK cities in a two week period.  Luckily, I think I was somewhat camouflaged by the crowd of other keen piano-fans filling the concert-halls of West Road and Turner Simms – so I don’t think she will have noticed.  As a result, I remain at liberty to pursue my 88-string fetish.

The pianist in question was the excellent Imogen Cooper and, given my butterfly mind, I did find myself wondering whether there is another pianist – just called Imogen or Imogen One – who is wheeled out for less sporty repertoire than Schumann and Schubert?  Cheaper to buy and insure, but poorer acceleration through an arpeggio and would top-out at allegretto.

Yes, sorry, this whole post was to introduce a weak joke about the work of John Cooper, augmenter of small cars that really barrel along (there, a bonus pun for you!).


I have made no secret of my preference for using my velocipede for journeys where at all possible and, where the distance is too great, to let the train take the strain.  I can and do drive, but I’d really rather not: I view it as pain rather than pleasure.  I fear my car leads a life of disappointment – or it would if it were both capable of feeling and disliked a life of enforced idleness.

I cycle through most weather conditions, but there are three exceptions where a desire for self preservation drives me to give my car a treat (and I don’t mean a finger of fudge):

  • I won’t cycle in lightning as the relatively thin rubber of my tyres would offer little disincentive for any bolt of lightning desirous of treating the Fish/bicycle combo as a short cut to earth.  (I also worry that I may have offended Almighty Zeus, and I don’t want to present too tempting a target).
  • Wind gusting much above 40mph is no friend to the cyclist.  Heading into such wind is hard work (but I do not fear hard work, I merely choose to avoid it), but the main threat is the crosswind when any errant gust can significantly shift one’s course in a perilous manner.
  • The last of the unholy trinity is sheet ice, where two narrow wheels do not suffice to keep one upright.   Snow, on the other hand, is more friendly and offers decent traction.

When the mercury falls below 0ºC, even without ice, there is a major problem for the cyclist (or at least for this cyclist).  I find it relatively easy to keep the main part of my body warm: like an egg farm, multiple layers is the best solution.  A similar approach can keep the feet free from frostbite – a couple of layers of thick socks coupled with shoes and overshoes is sufficient for almost any conditions likely to be found in South Cambs.  However, I find that it’s my hands – and especially my fingers – that are the problem.  I have tried gloves alleged to protect me at very low temperatures, I have even tried these gloves worn inside another pair of very thick gloves (purchased for a trip to Iceland – and we’re not talking the frozen food store here) – but still my fingers freeze.  This is not much fun, but the real pain really comes when they warm up again later.

The fingers suffer as they are exposed not only to the ambient temperature but also to 15-30mph of wind chill: the combined effect of any actual wind and my own forward velocity.  In gloves, each finger is separated from its fellows, so they don’t even have the option of huddling together for warmth – and I don’t think mittens would provide sufficient control of my steed to be a viable option (nor would they be consistent with my trendy image).  However, I feel there must be a solution out there somewhere – or am I doomed forever to echo the words of the diminutive heroine of La Bohème on frosty rides?  (You may dispute that my hands are tiny, but they are certainly frozen.)

The folk of Scandinavia have always struck me as rugged, outdoorsy types (oh yes, I’m not afraid of broad generalisations based on nationality) and they have much lower winter temperatures than do we molly-coddled denizens of southern England – who, let’s face it, collapse in a blue funk at the first hint of a snowflake.  Surely, they must have found an answer to sub-zero cycling without frozen fingers?  Or is their solution just to drive or ski?  Perhaps the problem is with me rather than the gloves?  Do I just have poor circulation (a condition I share with so many newspapers), with my blood strangely reluctant to enter my fingers?

So many questions… presumably to be followed by Many Answers presented (no doubt) by a Dimbleby.