Building technical control

One of the best books I ever used to learn to develop and expand my guitar technique was Troy Stetina’s ‘Speed Mechanics for Guitar’.

He’s a monster guitar player but explained perfectly in the paragraphs amongst the exercises as to why we were doing the exercises and what benefit they had.

An entire section of the book was dedicated to the left hand whilst the other focused on the right. Amongst them were details on finger movement efficiency, dexterity and independence as well as a wide range of different movements that are idiomatic for the electric guitar.

The main idea that was re-enforced throughout the book was that speed is a pointless goal unless you aim for accuracy as well.

As I worked through the book along my metronome as a teenager, there were things gradually improving throughout the entire manner to which I played. I felt more in control, used the required amount of energy but nothing excessive and could play passages I thought were well beyond my ability.

These technical exercises played and still play a vital role in my journey for control on my instrument. Looking at the little details and the small steps you can take to level up is always something worth dedicating the time towards.

The Ravel Affair

I am currently attempting to write my first string quartet. It is a significantly new creative path for me and very challenging but nevertheless rewarding.

Upon my research of different quartets, Ravel’s String Quartet in F Major is one of my favourites. I consider it to be a beautiful piece with extraordinary passages and details typical of Ravel’s musical personality that would continue to evolve later on in his career.

What I find remarkable about the story of this piece is that it was his final submission to the conservatoire de Paris and Prix de Rome competitions to which both rejected the piece. Aside from having mixed reviews from the Parisian press, his teacher, Gabriel Faure, to whom the piece is dedicated to, dismissed the last movement as ‘stunted and in fact a failure’. Ravel himself believed that the quartet was an inadequate realisation.

Thankfully Debussy, whose own string quartet piece, which was written ten years previously and most likely had some influence on Ravel, wrote to him a letter with some words of encouragement and insisted he did not touch a single note of the piece he had written.

From what I’ve read, the truth appears that Ravel was an unconventional character with unconventional approaches to musical composition that was difficult for the conservatoire’s ultra conservative director to accept. He had enough resilience, or indifference to any other criticism than his own to keep going on his own path and it just so happens that the frustrations and failure he dealt with led him to propelling forward in his career and eventually being revered as one of the greatest French composers of all time.

Sometimes, art and the work created just so happens to be received in a time where the culture is not ready to accept its value. Some works find that appreciation is manifested at a later date, in some cases even beyond the life of the artist. Ravel’s String Quartet is now one of the most played chamber pieces.

The reason I like stories like this is that it reaffirms that steering your own creative path and focusing on what it is you want to achieve is better than changing what you do and who you are merely to fit in.

More often than not, innovation comes from the outside.

Thrashing through bad ideas

One of the interesting things about teaching composition is that it requires students to get used to exploring sounds, options and ultimately dealing with the fact that initially a lot of what they try isn’t going to work straight away.

There is a criteria you can set, you can work within parameters and music theory and other knowledge can certainly help in making choices that are suitable, but with that knowledge is also the willingness to take the rulebook and throw it away as that leads to innovation and originality.

Some students are so fearful of this, that it requires a Herculean effort to put anything down. To create, we need to get used to putting down bad ideas and then thrashing through them.

Almost always, there is potential to find something worthwhile amidst the ideas that are laid down, that is where thrashing can happen. What is worth keeping? What can we develop here? Will this work better if we get rid of this part or save it for later? What if we try this or that approach? How can we make this better? A myriad of questions to ask and plenty of creative possibilities.

Being open to the creative possibility is key and it comes when we give ourselves an environment where we can thrash through what we have without any judgement from the outside world. Just you and the work, and maybe some trusted people to advise you along the way.

‘Perfect’ Recordings

I listen to a wide range of recorded music. In fact, I would go so far to say that I have listened to music that spans the history of recorded music. From Vinyl to Cassettes to CDs and now streaming.

What is interesting about recorded music is just how fast the technology has advanced. You can hear real stark differences in the recording quality of music so much that you can hear incremental advances through each decade. One of the most particularly fascinating period was during the 60s to 70s where artists such as The Beatles and Jimi Hendrix were making records alongside the evolution of mixing desks having more inputs, as well as the development of electronic equipment.

The turn of the century did see a turning point with the development of computers and software. Namely through mixing in the box, via software and then the egalitarian way in which everyone could essentially record music on their laptops via DAW and plugins. It is really great that everyone has access to this technology now and create for themselves.

The knock on effect has been fascinating, and one in which recording quality and aesthetic has been a very interesting and highly debated topic. There are plenty of arguments for the fact that recording in earlier decades was better because generally more expensive hardware and microphones were being used in purpose built studios. There is the digital vs. analog argument and the listening of music has also been a fascinating topic. It is more likely that your average listener hears music in a car stereo or on ear buds than they do a decent stereo system. I remember becoming conscious of this when Steven Wilson started smashing Ipods in numerous ways and decrying the quality of Mp3s. He was right, Mp3s are awful but streaming in some ways has solved this due to the fact that most streaming services play songs at 320kbps.

When I teach, it is funny to see how aware the kids are of autotune and how blatantly it is used in tracks and generally, they do speak of it rather unfavourably. The choice to use it appears to be a timbral or aesthetic choice as opposed to one that merely corrects the singing pitch. The prevalence of it in genres such as Trap are significant.

If you listen to pop music today, the production of some tracks has been done with mathematical pinpoint accuracy to which everything could be deemed ‘perfect’. Quantising, pitch correction, rhythmic hooks – but the defects still occur, some of which could be considered significant. Over-compression being a big one or the lack of human authenticity in the performance. It is unlikely that you will hear a pop song today with anywhere near the same warmth and charm as a Frank Sinatra record.

During my ACM days, one of my lecturers got us to listen out for discrepancies in Michael Jackson’s ‘Billie Jean’. The vocalists heard about 12 in the first 90 seconds. That doesn’t make the song any less good, in some ways, it can be argued that they are enhancements. The same case could be made with some of Lindsey Buckingham’s vocal screeches in ‘Go your own way’ and the heightened emotion that comes as a result of them.

They fundamental thing that makes this such a fascinating area of discussion for me and one I love working within, is the subjectivity. There is no such thing as a ‘perfect’ record.

Ultimately, it comes down the intention of what we create, how we achieve that intention and doing our level best to get as close to that as we can.

The metronome

If you are a student of music and your teacher tells you to use a metronome, it is for a number of very good reasons.

When I introduce the metronome to younger students, I tell them that it is a frenemy. It is an enemy in the sense that the constant clicks will drive you insane: but it is significantly more of a friend and here is why:

First and foremost, it improves your sense of timing. It will help you know what notes you are supposed to play and when. It helps you know the real difference in duration of notes. It helps you know where the first beat of each bar is.

The second reason is that it helps you develop accuracy. This benefit is very much linked to the first. You can perform shorter rhythms more accurately and you can know the difference between an on beat and an off beat.

The third reason is stability. It is very common for young students to speed up the tempo of a piece they are performing. A metronome encourages you to perform with a stable tempo when it is needed.

Reason number 4: it helps you develop your speed. This is a byproduct of accuracy but anytime you see a passage that is dauntingly fast at first glance, the key to unlocking the ability to play these parts is indeed, working with a metronome. A metronome allows you to build your muscle memory very effectively. (Hint – start very slow – say 50bpm and work your up incrementally by 2bpm)

The fifth reason is that it will help you play with other musicians as well as record your own music. The latter scenario will see you recording with a click track more often than not.

To be a masterful musician, we needs to be in control of the elements that make music.

The metronome is an invaluable tool in this journey to mastery and allows us unlock the potential of our musical performance.

* If you are new to using a metronome, give yourself a challenge for the next week – practice an exercise or difficult passage of music that you are currently working on, with the metronome for ten minutes a day and see if results improve.

* Metronomes have never been more accessible. You can access them on your computer or download a free app. I use Tempo by a company called Frozen Ape.

Neil Peart

A year ago to the day, Neil Peart left us.

Neil Peart was an artist in every true sense of the word, and the impact and influence he has had on me as not only as a musician, but as a person is profound.

He was regarded by many as the best drummer in the world, and for good reasons. He could hit the hell out of the drums, his technique was astonishing and his musicality was adventurous and audacious. Furthermore, he never stopped refusing to learn. At the height of his career, he teamed up with Freddie Gruber to enhance his drumming skills further. Over the 4 decades he played with Rush, he was always evolving.

He was also the lyricist for the band and has penned some of my favourite songs of all time. There is of course the highly conceptual and fantastical lyrics of the albums they did in the 70s but their transformation into the 80s led to truthful observations with pinpoint accuracy. In ‘Limelight’ he explores the notion of fame and his difficulty coming to the terms with it. He never wanted to be famous, he just wanted to be good. In ‘Subdivisions’ he tackled the idea of being an outcast within school and society, an anthem for every Rush fan who has felt that sense of alienation. I could go on for hours about this. Within Peart’s lyrics were a curiosity for the way the world and humans work. You will only find a minimal amount of love songs amongst the 167 songs that they wrote.

Neil Peart was also an avid reader and a motorcyclist. He is not your typical image of the rock and roll star. He would motorcycle between gigs, spend his downtime reading and turned up to each show with an untempered sense of professionalism and discipline.

Neil Peart was also an author. He wrote travel books about the time he spent on his motorbike and it was actually travel that offered him catharsis and healing when tragedy struck. In the late 90s he lost his daughter to a car crash and his wife to cancer ten months later. In response, he retreated into a solitary journey that took him across Canada and all the way down the west coast of America. The book that documents this (‘Ghost Rider’) digs deep into the world of what commenced afterwards and how he found the will to carry on and start a new family.

Undeniably, the most tragic part of his untimely passing of 67 years old is that he had not had more time with his family and his young daughter. He had done everything and more for Rush and their loyal fanbase.

As I continue my career as a musician, I often think about the values that Neil Peart held and how he presented himself to the world. Although he is gone, his legacy remains with the many musicians and people he has inspired.

Paying attention vs. Getting attention

It’s a really good idea to clearly distinguish the two. Paying attention is certainly more rewarding and fulfilling than getting attention.

By paying attention, I mean focusing on your creative goals, getting into the zone where time becomes elastic. This has happened to me when I have been working on a track and all of a sudden it is 4am in the morning or when I have been in the studio space and managed to cram 14 hours of guitar tracking into a single day.

Getting attention is an inevitable desire. We have made something and we want to share it with the world. It is of course necessary to have a strategy in place to ship and distribute our work, but for the sake of our mental health, we need to avoid the pitfalls that the combination of social media and the human condition have set up.

Whether I have had something viewed ten or ten thousand times, for the part of the brain that these numbers feed, it will never be enough. The stats are informative but they can also be a race to the bottom. Are we hustlers or are we creators? We must not let the numbers define the value of the creative work we do, especially when the journey is so rewarding for us.

Parameters

When I think about what my favourite films are of the last twenty years, a lot of them are not in my first language. Parasite (Korean), Pan’s Labyrinth (Spanish), Amelie (French), Shadow (Chinese), The Lives of Others (German) and Let the Right One in (Swedish) are a few examples.

When I recommend these films to people, a common question is ‘are there subtitles’ and it is also equally common to see these films written off because they have to deal with subtitles.

To me, that would be a shame because within the world of cinema is a plethora of amazing films with much to offer.

Similarly, there are music listeners out there who will only listen to the same music records and will not embrace anything new.

If that is what makes you happy then that is fine but it is worth being aware of the parameters you set for yourself.

Especially in an on demand culture where everything is at our fingertips. It might be worth jumping outside of our comfort zone and giving something different a chance.

The evolution of ideas

When I think retrospectively about the music I have made, I feel that each individual track has it’s own particular story.

‘High Rise’ from the new Kinky Wizzards album originated from a riff I wrote when I was 14. It took over a decade for me to apply it to a finished composition. On the other hand, the occasional idea can be materialised and finalised in a single day. Some tracks to which I composed just music all of a sudden work with pre-existing lyrics that fit together like a jigsaw puzzle.

There is a wonderful fluidity about creativity. More often than not though, I am dancing with gut instinct, educated guesses and trial and error (with a lot of errors) before I can with true conviction, tell myself that I am getting somewhere.

Without acceptance of the fact that we will make mistakes and things may or may not work, we would not be anywhere near as creative.

Primary school children are the best at doing this. As the late Sir Ken Robinson said, they are willing to give things a shot without ego getting in the way. As we get older, we are conditioned into avoiding mistakes and ultimately, I think that this is the biggest mistake we can make.

Exiles – Drum Recording Behind the scenes

Here is a video of Aled performing drums for the final take for ‘Exiles’. The last song from my debut album ‘Between a Disillusion and Resolution’.

I can ask a lot of a drummer from a technical point of view and whilst Aled nails that aspect for me, his full sense of musicality is on full display with this particular track.

You can hear the rest of the album on Spotify, Apple and other streaming services.