A pain in the hand…

…is worth two in the bush.  Or so the old saw (almost) goes, however, I should point out that I am not medically (or arboreally) qualified and if you have even a single pain in your bush you may wish to seek a medical (or horticultural) opinion.

My lifestyle does place quite a lot of pressure on my hands, involving as it does hanging from rings and bars in various improbable configurations, and learning to play both the piano and guitar (not all at the same time, yet…).  So, I initially assumed that it was something I had done when I noticed an odd subcutaneous lump in the palm of my right hand a couple of weeks ago.  Well, either that or I’d been abducted by aliens (or the CIA) and they had implanted some sort of ‘device’: it was only a matter of time before this blog came to the notice of an alien (and/or foreign) intelligence.

Icing the lump had little effect, other than making my hand very cold, suggesting it may not have been soft-tissue damage caused by my unorthodox response to the mid-life crisis.  Given an impending blood donation, I decided to see my doctor to discover if it would have an adverse effect on the quality of my blood: I have my reputation for a quality product to protect!  The diagnosis was pretty swift and, as it turns out, it was not my fault: assuming we excuse me of blame for being a man in his fifties (I blame biology, my parents and time – plus my failure to die).  It would seem that I have Dupuytren’s Contracture which sounds like a Robert Ludlum novel, but is actually some sort of thickening of a tendon in my hand.  This may grow worse – in which case there are some options involving radiation, needles or knives – or stay the same or go away (but seems unlikely to hatch and lay waste humanity).  However, for now I should continue to act as normal – including hanging upside-down as much as I want – though I can massage it, if that would give me pleasure (though there was no suggestion that this would do any good).

The contracture is named after a Napoleonic surgeon – Guillaume Dupuytren– famed for two things, in addition to diagnosing an ancestor of my lumpy palm.  He treated Napoleon for his piles and published the Treatise on Artificial Anus.  What a man to be associated with!  For the avoidance of doubt, I would like to stress that the southern exit of my alimentary canal is still the factory issue.

For now the lump is only very rarely a problem, though it is mildly annoying both when mixing with a wooden spoon and vacuuming: I think I just need to make a minor adjustment to how I hold the relevant equipment.  However, earlier his week my hands – especially the right one – were complaining to their line management through the medium of pain (it is probably time I provided them with a suggestions box).  As my skill with the piano grows, I can practice for longer and am playing more complex repertoire.  Some combination of Bach’s Invention in A Minor and Scarlatti’s Keyboard Sonata Kk.1 has been making my right hand actually do some real work for the first time in years (perhaps ever).  Some of this increased workload occurs while the fingers are somewhat stretched – especially given my dreadful (or heroic, even maverick, as I like to think of it) fingering.  There is a lot of stretch available twixt thumb and index finger, but the other fingers do like to hang out as a tight-knit little gang.  I think that over time they will learn to cope better with these brief periods of separation but for now their anxiety is expressed through aching.

Exploring a little deeper into today’s theme, as part of an attempt to shake-up my regular meal options earlier this week I decided to replace the traditional fruit sponge with a fruit crumble (baby steps!).  For fruit I went with some gooseberries, harvested fresh from my parents’ garden in 2015 before being plunged into a series cryogenic chambers (OK, my parents’ freezer and then mine).  Once defrosted these formed rather a liquid substrate on which to float the usual mixture (which, via the miracle of heat and chemistry, would become sponge) and it struck me that the smaller particle size of a crumble would be easier to apply and less likely to sink.  As I am generally a manual cook, I rubbed the cold butter into the flour and sugar mix using my hands (rather than using some sort of electric mixing device or domestic servant – not even an electric domestic servant).  This is not a long process but apparently uses the musculature of my hands in a novel manner, leading to a flood of pain-based complaints to the neural equivalent of HR (the thalamus?).  I am hoping that if the crumble becomes a more common feature of my home dining – which it might given the scrumptious success of this attempt – that the rubbing-in will strengthen my hands for even the most challenging piano piece!

In the final piece of hand-related news, my left hand is finally starting to find chord shapes somewhat successfully on the neck of the guitar.  It is also able to produce a range of barre chords without requiring enormous – neck-snapping – force to be applied to the unfortunate instrument.  There is, for now, still quite a substantial delay in moving from an open chord to a barre chord, so I will still need some sort of diversion to distract the audience at these times: perhaps this is where my comedy stylings or poetry could be brought into play?  Still, I am confident that practice will deliver mastery as it has for the skills recently acquired.  For a long time nothing seemed to happen or improve and then, suddenly, I discovered that I could “just do it” as if by magic (but in fact by moderately diligent application: sometimes you can just wear the universe down!).

Based on yesterday’s guitar lesson my new skills have opened up huge new vistas for my guitar playing: frankly, almost too many.  I had to take hurried notes when I arrived back home in an attempt to remember all the possibilities.  This is the second music lesson in the past week where I have felt like Hannibal Smith, in that I have been loving it when a plan comes together.  I am also unkeen on flying and as mad as a box of frogs, so I can – in a single person – cover 75% of the A-Team.  As a consultant, I do – from a certain point of view – survive as a soldier of fortune: battling in my case against a range of Microsoft products and my own stupidity.  So, if you have a problem, if no-one else can help, and if you can find me (not too hard, just start going to gigs in the Southampton area) maybe you can hire the F/2-Team!  (GofaDM welcomes careful readers to the exciting world of hexadecimal fractions.)

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A new light

As the last post revealed, Southampton has recently been covered by a blanket of snow.  The combination of rising temperatures and (a bumper crop of) falling rain have cleared it from even the best protected of natural pockets (though, for all I know, some may have been preserved in the freezers of the city’s more eccentric residents).  While it lasts, and before it is transformed to filthy black slush by the action of salt and tyres, it rather transforms the landscape. Many of the city’s imperfections and the litter and detritus of daily life are hidden from view. Larger objects, and especially buildings, that remain unburied are garnished with snow: highlighting features that the eye might fail to notice under more normal conditions.

A good layer of snow changes the soundscape of the city too.  Traffic was much lighter than usual, leading me to wonder if there was a snow-related boost in local air quality: though, oddly, it made my sneeze more than normal (my natural cussedness revealing itself once again!).  The traffic which remains leaves a very different sonic trace as do pedestrians with their footsteps crunching through the crystalline white.  Snow acts as the city’s soft furnishings, smoothing the harsh edges off sounds.  I feel someone should have developed a filter or effect to apply to electronically reproduced sound, so that music (or anything else) gives the acoustic impression of being listened to while surrounded by snow.  A project for any sound engineers with time on their hands…

A covering of snow also presents everything in a more literal new light, with objects lit from both above and below.  I suspect this is a great time for those with a double chin to capture an al fresco selfie: though as a man with barely one chin, I have been unable to test this theory myself.  Also, I’m not sure any lighting (other than total darkness) would overcome the terribly awkward appearance that overtakes my face whenever I attempt to capture a selfie.

Having now justified the title in a literal (as opposite to literate or literary) sense, I can now neatly segue into the land of metaphor (or, if you prefer, wander off topic).  The past few days have caused me to see a few other things in a new light.  Even as I sit here, I can see that my music stand is branded “Tiger”: nothing unusual there (if any animal springs to mind when seeing a music stand, it is clearly the tiger) except that I have owned this music stand for many years but only noticed its link to Frosties  about 48 hours ago.  I would make a terrible eye witness!

There was something of a dearth of gigs while the snow lay deep and thick and even (well, lay at least) at the end of last week.  This was bad news for me, I had to fall back on Netflix and staying in, but also for a lot of musicians and music venues (and I suspect other small businesses) that lost out on expected revenue and, which given the generally parlous financial state of such bodies, could be catastrophic.

As well as offering my couch some unplanned quality time with my buttocks, I used some of the time released for an especially long piano lesson.  In general, the hour-long length of my lessons is more of a notional concept than a reality but even by our standards this was a marathon session.  I’ll admit that I did arrive a few minutes late as I was distracted by a pair of long-tailed tits playing in a tree on the way over (I think the long-tailed tit is the most charming of all the local wildlife and it is always comedically pleasing seeing a brace of them).  There is something of the mountain climb (or more hike – I’m not using ropes and pitons) about learning the piano.  At each stage when I feel I am approaching mastery of a set of skills, I discover that what I have been seen laboriously ascending is not the main peak but a very minor foothill and a whole vista of far higher peaks is suddenly revealed.  This happened again on Friday and I am now trying to play a series of chords in a more legato fashion, involving exceeding cunning application of different amounts of pressure and speed of movement from adjacent fingers on the same hand.  I may also wish to start ‘feathering’ the pedal.  The acquisition of these skills is complicated by the relative poor haptic simulacrum of a grand piano which I use for practice while at home.  I am contemplating applying my gymnastic skills to the career of a cat burglar: however, rather than stealing jewels I will use my ability to slip into buildings containing a grand piano for a little practice.  Juxtaposing my hobbies, if you will.

Saturday afternoon, witnessing three virtuoso guitarists in action at the Art House, also suggested that my hard fought ability to mostly play the chord sequence G C Am G D G broadly correctly (if not necessarily quickly) has left me mere millimetres above the valley floor.  Will McNicol, Steve Picken and Clive Carroll were doing things with their fingers that I’m not convinced mine will ever be able to replicate.  Nevertheless, and in common with improving on the piano, it is going to be a lot of fun trying and if recent years have taught my anything it is that an old dog can (eventually) learn new tricks.

The final use of the shoehorn to fit an ugly sister’s foot of an idea into the glass slipper of the title will turn to my blood.  Just before the snow descended, I cycled the steep hill to the General Hospital to give of my corpuscles (and associated fluids) for the greater good (and a mint Club).  In the last year or so, NHS Blood and Transport have begun to text me a few days after each donation to say where my blood had been used.  It is always interesting to imagine a little bit of me living a new life in another town or city, but the text over the weekend was particularly exciting.  My armful has been issued to Birmingham Women’s Hospital and so a small part of me is now living as a woman!  This may have happened before, but this is the first time I can be certain that some of my cells are properly in touch with their feminine side.  In our unequal society, their earning potential and life opportunities have probably taken a bit of a hit, but they will probably feel this to be a small price to pay for escaping my company.  Some of me is experiencing the world in a new light (at least for a few weeks until it is replaced by the new host’s own cells) which is lovely reminder of how much we have in common.  It is oddly miraculous that we can share such an essential (personal, even) part of ourselves to help another – and be rewarded with biscuits from my childhood for the privilege.  It’s nice to know I have some vague utility in this world, even if it is provided by the entirely autonomous operation of my body.

A quick pre-lunch pint and its reward!

123

Sorry spreadsheet fans, but this will not be about Lotus 123 – a tool which played such a major role in my early working life.  I still remember those heady days of the mid 80s with an original (monochrome) IBM PC: loading MS-DOS from 5.25″ floppies before I could load 123 from another floppy disk and then finally start work.  There was more time for contemplation of the human condition in those days, while you waited for stuff to happen…

No, this post will be about my latest, waltz-based obsession (a mere couple of centuries after a similar craze swept through Europe) – so should should have been reading the title with the stress on the 1 (an effect I was unable to accomplish with WordPress).

Until recently, I don’t think I have ever believed I am possessed of any particular musical ability.  I have recognised that I can, through diligent application, achieve a basic level of competence and occasional even move beyond ‘banging the f**king notes’ to achieving something almost musical.  These rare moments of ‘flow’ – in the words of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (a name which, for some reason, I struggle to remember) – have been particularly precious as a result.  This is broadly the same view I have on my skill with other languages: I don’t have any particular gift in this area, but am willing to put in some effort to try to slightly subvert the all-too-accurate stereotype of the Anglophone abroad.

However, recently I have began to accept that I may have some musical ability.  I think this blog has already laid the groundwork for the fact that I am not tone deaf and that, despite my protestations, I do have some rudimentary sense of rhythm (though a forthcoming post on dance will place an upper bound on that particular skill!).  This week has been more of shock to my long-established self-image.

As previously noted, I had piano lessons for a period in the mid 90s and I have the belief that at my peak I was a weak Grade 4 practical pianist with little or no theory.  Given my rather desultory approach to practice in the couple of decades which have allegedly passed since the mid 90s (for my money, the jury is firmly out on that much time have elapsed) I assumed my ability would have deteriorated.  It was a bit of a surprise when my new piano teacher suggested that in his opinion I was playing somewhere around the Grade 6 level: even more of a surprise given that, while my playing in front of an audience has definitely improved, he has not seen anything like the best of my abilities in action.  He seemed insistent and so acquired, on my behalf, the ABRSM Grade 6 Piano Exam Pieces book for 2017 and 2018.  I believe, on one metric, this is the most expensive book I own at just over 80p per page – however, it is worth every penny!

ABRSM6

I could almost be looking in a mirror!

My current obsession is piece B:2 the Valse Lente by Oskar Merikanto: a Finn I had never heard of until Wednesday.  It is such a divine piece of music, that while we are only on day 3 of my time with it and it is Grade 6, my playing of it brings tears of joy to my eyes (which frankly disrupts my ability to sight-read).  My right foot even seems to (somehow) naturally make use of the pedal: without the usual panic and mental collapse that adding the use of my foot (to the two hands already committed to the musical project) traditionally engenders. Some of the chords are so heart-achingly beautiful and the way the music moves so glorious that I am constantly amazed that I am allowed to play it.  Sometimes life delivers experiences literally beyond one’s wildest dreams: though this may be more of an indictment on the quality of my dreams (or ability to later recall them) than anything to do with the quality of my performance.

Also in the same book, with which I have had a brief dalliance, when I could tear myself away from the Valse Lente, is Cruella De Vil (from the Disney version of 101 Dalmations) which has the wonderful instruction that it should be played “with swagger”.  Swagger is a little way off, but I’m convinced it lies within my grasp!

There also continues to be progress with the guitar.  I have had to acquire a new tutor, as my old teacher has fled to the Midlands to pursue his musical dreams – which are more extensive than just being spared my ham-fisted attempts on the guitar (or so I like to imagine!).  Whilst attempting a little finger-picking pattern yesterday, we discovered that I could actually inject a little swing into my performance!  (I think we should subtitle this post ‘swagger and swing’).  I even showed a little promise on the subject of knowing when to change chord when accompanying a melody.

I have found myself wondering about this mid-life musical flowering and what might be its cause.  Malcolm Gladwell had made a reasonable living from the idea that 10,000 hours of practice at a skill will deliver mastery: though I vaguely recall this derives from an original study of rather a modest number of Japanese viola players and so may not generalise quite as far as its penetration of the popular zeitgeist would suggest.  I am thinking of writing my own book about the importance of letting any skill lie fallow for a good couple of decades as the key to mastery.  The importance of benign neglect and procrastination I think is under-recognised in today’s always-on, instant-gratification society!

Being more serious, I think having two instruments on the go (three if we count the recorder) may help as insights gained on one feed into the other.  Acquiring a little musical theory has also been helpful as it has provided a framework into which new knowledge can fit.  But, I suspect the sheer amount of time I have spent at gigs across a huge range of genres watching, listening to and even talking with musicians may have provided the largest fillip to my musical abilities.

The way things are going, there is a growing risk that 2017 may see me compelled to play an instrument in public in front of an audience that are not actively engaged in teaching me at the time!  I think a paying audience remains a long way off, so I shan’t be giving up the day job just yet…

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.

Hanon

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!

Without me

This post will enter dangerous new territory to consider a world without the author.  The whole ethos of this blog is structured around the centrality of the author to his own little world and the implicit assumption that this view is shared by a wider demographic.  The unexpected number (i.e. the fact it exceeds zero) of visitors to my digital domain has only worked to reinforce my opinion that my life, ramblings and bad jokes are far more important than could be justified by a more reasonable, objective measure.  The last post (not the Bb bugle call, but the post whose production directly preceded this one when viewed from the light-cone of the author) has proved alarmingly popular: though I would explain this by reference to its sharing be a young(er) person, rather than by ascribing any particular merit to it.

I cannot be alone, among those who have accepted that they are not (and would not wish to be) immortal, in wondering how the world (and indeed, the wider multi-verse) will muddle along without my presence.  I strongly suspect it will be fine (or at least largely unaffected for good or ill – fine might be overstating matters given recent current affairs) when the long awaited decree absolute in the divorce between me and my mortal coil is finally granted.  I have worked hard to ensure (OK, have wandered through life in such a way) that any ripples that I make in the pond of existence have minimal amplitude and soon dissipate.  The odd pub, cake shop and cultural venue may notice a brief dip in income but I like to imagine that they will survive my demise.  Though, frankly, once I’ve paid by obols to Charon and taken my terminal boat trip, you’re on your own folks!  My responsibilities (and insomnia) will be at an end!

Obviously, as part of my departure I shall be establishing a series of amusing (hopefully, flaming) hoops for those who wish to inherit my billions (currency to be confirmed) to jump through.  I fully intend for my will and funeral to be as far from plain vanilla as I can legally accomplish: is a tontine still possible?  I want them to be discussed for years to come as simultaneously a high and low watermark in the art of dying.  I want Hollywood to be fighting over the 18 certificate movie rights!  I want outrage in the Daily Mail and the Socialist Worker!  Actually, I’m making this sound rather good: I may have to fake my own death just to enjoy my funeral and the reading of my will.  I knew there was a good reason for moving closer to the sea!

You may wonder why GofdDM has suddenly taken a turn to the macabre or morbid. Others may, long ago, have decided that beneath the shallow veneer of self-obsessed whimsy it is darkness all the way down.  I couldn’t possibly comment on this theory, but am quite pleased that you might imagine that anything at all lies below intellectual shallows displayed in this forum.  However, there have been a couple of recent events which have made me realise that elements of my life continue without me.  Also, the previous post considered my position if a huge proportion of humanity were to be wiped out, so it only seemed fair to consider the position of the rest of humanity if it should (contrary to all natural justice) be that me that bites the bullet!

earth without me

The earth without me – spot the difference!

A much earlier post established that one of my nicknames appeared to by living an existence independent of me – and I like to imagine that this has continued.  However, this was merely a world 2 object (to mis-use the work of Karl Popper) and recent events relate to world 1 objects.

Of late, the National Blood Service has started to send me texts identifying where my blood goes after it has been donated.  To be honest, I’d prefer a postcard – but I will admit that their budget is probably better spend on their core business of blood collection and distribution.  When I say where it goes, they don’t send me the name, address and vital statistics of the recipient, merely the hospital where it was returned to a human host (or, depending on your point of view, first introduced to a human host).  Donation 92 went to Frimley Park – I place the rest of me has never visited – and donation 93 to Stafford (which I have visited but once).  It has been good to see that once it has left its fleshy prison (something which it seems increasingly keen to do given the rapidity with which my lie-down is overtaken by lemon squash and biscuits), my blood is getting out and about and exploring the country.  If only it retained some psychic link to its original home, I could deal with the challenge of too many gigs to attend and only one body to do the attending.  Equally, were it to be given to an EU national (something I would encourage, it would be nice to think a small part of me is living in Paris or Barcelona), could I reverse-inherit an EU passport?  Would any of the new host’s skills somehow rub off on me?  I fear I may have jumped the Lamarkian shark here and will stop before my scientific credentials are completed destroyed.

I am (tomorrow) going off to the Cambridge Folk Festival.  This will be my first, real multi-day festival which is likely to involve a field and mud: though I do feel a muddy field makes a more appropriate substrate for folk music than it does for grime or emo (to name but two).  Wish me luck, I may need it!  I am not camping, but staying in the relative luxury of student halls – and if it all gets too much for me, I can easily retreat into the city and its own cultural delights.  So, I like to think this is very much a halfway house to full festival-going and an approach commensurate with the dignity of a man of my advanced years (though clearly not to me, I have largely outlived both my dignity and my shame by this point.  They have very much played the same sacrificial role in my life that a painting did in that of Dorian Gray).

While I am away, my guitar will be gigging without me.  Interestingly, it has never gigged with me – though today I did use a capo for the first time (and my capo is very fine, a real capo di tutti capi) and learned to bend.  Nevertheless, I am far from ready to take to the stage – unless you wish to clear a venue – so I am leaving it the hands of a far more capable performer.  I feel that it is good for my instrument to get some proper gig experience in -well before its owner.  It’s probably best if we don’t both have first gig nerves at the same time – and I’m pretty sure I can internalise enough stress for the both of us.

So, even while I’m very much alive (or am I?) my possessions and even my very substance are already learning to live without me.  I suspect there is an important lesson here about our own unimportance – even in our own home and as its sole resident.  But I shall leave that for my readers to draw, I’m having fun here in the shallows!

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!