Monday, June 29, 2020

Musical Respite, a response to Claudia Hammond’s book.

I was asked to contribute to a “Continuous Professional Development” session for college staff based on and inspired by the book “The Art of Rest; How to Find Respite in the Modern Age” by Claudia Hammond. This included being asked to respond to her chapter on listening to music for rest (I can’t provide the chapter here for copyright reasons so feel free to buy it or borrow it from your library if you’re keen) and also providing a video. See below for both.

I decided to do a video on how hugely beneficial I believe learning to play an instrument is (any instrument, it could be your voice for instance) and some tips on how staff could use the summer holidays to get started on learning for fun using free online tutorials. Of course, they could hire a tutor or join a course if they got “serious” about it! 

I don’t actually really find music “restful” as such (see my bit about being an “active listener”) and find playing guitar for instance very tiring due to the state of relaxed-focus you need to maintain, and can even be very exhausting in the case of a gig/performance for instance, but it is the ultimate in cathartic, expression-making, get-it-out-of-your-system, emotion-busting of experiences and I recommend it!
Anyway, watch/read on if any of this interests you and if you’ve read the book, let me know where you agree or otherwise with me and the author.

My response to the chapter on Listening to Music in “The Art of Rest” by Claudia Hammond.

In general, the author may be right in thinking that it may often be preferable on many occasions to listen to less complex, slower music when you're "in a bad mood' and you want to reduce the level of arousal. However, I think that sometimes in for instance times of extreme stress, worry or even anger, it can be very useful and very cathartic to listen to loud, fast, complex music to help deal with those stresses and exorcise them, to "get them out of your system" as it were. To listen to more "soothing music" at such times might be the musical equivalent of "ignoring your problems" rather than working through them. 

I agree that people should choose their own music rather than listen to a particular genre (e.g. classical) as I think people know what their own 'go to' tunes or genres are that may help them with relaxation or dealing with different emotions. Some people will really dislike certain genres for a whole number of experiential, cultural or associative reasons,  be they Jazz, Metal, Hip Hop, or classical and I'm reminded for example that Frank Skinner one said that "all classical music makes me think of death"!

I personally would not choose to fall asleep to music, as I regard myself as an 'active listener' in that I want to hear every nuance of each instrument and the way that every rhythm and texture interplay, though I may listen to or play music before sleep. When I listen to music I am looking for a totally immersive experience in which I want to be completely overwhelmed by it. In this way, listening to music is "relaxing" in the same way that being lost in a really great book can be, the process can even be quite tiring due to the active nature of it, consoling, empathetic and therefore a cathartic experience which can help soothe your worries or stresses of the day, but you are still fully engaged with it rather than letting it "flow over you" in a more passive way. However I appreciate some people might prefer the more passive approach.

In terms of the need for silence in a noisy world, anyone who practices mindfulness probably realises that silence is not really something that can be achieved for most of us, but we can enjoy and take in the quieter sounds of say, a ticking clock (which I can't stand but I know some find comforting) or for instance the gurgling or clicking of heating systems. I am lucky enough to be surrounded at night by the sounds of owls, of fish and other animals moving the canal water, the sounds of wind be it a breeze or strong gusts, and sometimes rain gently tapping or even hammering on the roof. These are sounds I'm delighted to enjoy as I fall asleep, imaging the "other worlds" of nocturnal life going on out there, sounds that conjure with the imagination and perhaps lead you peacefully into a dream world.

Friday, May 08, 2020

Journeys - by Manu Arteaga - Out Now!

I’m proud to have some involvement in this wonderful EP having recently co-written and recorded the opening track  and having quickly co-written and done a recording with José on the 2nd, wonderful track ‘Travelling Light’ back in 2017, recorded live with José on ‘percussion’ drumming on the back of his guitar. Manchester musician Tim Lyons of The Sandells and The Harveys features on track 3.
Here’s the bandcamp version, but it also available on all your favourite streaming and download platforms (or will be very soon).

Friday, April 24, 2020

Lockdown Showdown

Thanks Angela Murton for this photo 
*Updated 26/04/2020 to include video.

 It seemed like a good time to do a lockdown livestream tonight, unfortunately there were some issues with my weak on-board internet so I re-recorded the set!

Thanks to Kirsty Rollings for this! 

Monday, April 06, 2020

What can musicians do in lockdown?

As Covid-19 bites into much of the world’s people and economies, the music industry as many others is being ravaged; venues shut, bands not allowed to meet to rehearse or record and unable to perform in public. It’s clearly a difficult time with many musicians losing most or all of their income.

I’m lucky enough to live on my narrowboat with open countryside in front of me as soon as I open the front doors, with skylarks, owls, lapwings  and woodpeckers all the more  audible with far fewer planes about, from my home and mamma duck back with her nest (made from my pot plants and her own downy feathers) incubating the next generation.

Personally, I’m also finding not having to organise gigs, people and so many hours of travel bundling heavy guitars and equipment onto trains and busses to reduce my carbon footprint, has resulted in a massive reduction in stress, so there are upsides. On the other hand, at the moment I’m looking at a considerable decrease in my (already meagre) earnings.

Some of my music students are continuing with online learning, though it’s not for everyone. Gig-wise neither my own band nor the cover band I play in are able to even meet, let alone rehearse. The Blue Yellows have had to cease recording our EP, just as it was progressing so well, as have the studio-duo I’m a part of. Many musicians have dipped into online gigging and live-streams. (I’ve recently contributed to this article on the subject). I’ve  started to do a little of this, strangely in a way, for me, beginning with some cover versions, just as I feel that people might want to enjoy some safe familiarity at this time of uncertainty and fear, but don’t worry the original songs are coming.

The EP I’ve been doing some work on for José now requires a video, as I understand he has completed the work, musically, on the EP. But rather than stop, José asked me to send some home, phone-recorded video-snippets of myself (see stills in this post) for use on one of the songs we co-wrote and both perform on.

I’ve also been thinking of making a series of music-related podcasts, more on that, perhaps, soon.

Stay safe X

Sunday, March 15, 2020

Back on José’s EP.

A return to José’s studio, this time for more work on his own EP for which I co-wrote the lyrics on this track, having co-written a song we recorded a couple of years ago.

Thanks, José for a couple of your instagram shots, used below.

Friday, March 06, 2020

Dr Stage Saved the Day... and months...

You may feel a little prick

Don’t be like Jonnie.

Eagle-eyed readers of this blog might have noticed a subtle recurring theme beneath the surface gig-talk etc; that I had gone to yet another gig feeling bad, ‘under the weather’ or feeling really quite wrecked. 

In fact I was properly ill for more than 8 months. My symptoms ranged from feeling a general sense of weakness and feeling ‘really not right’ albeit in an unspecific way, to pains, weakness and stiffness in my legs and arms to the extent that at times I could hardly use one arm or the other, or needed crutches to walk. I also had my eyes swell up at times, and my knuckles swelling up painfully, really affecting one gig in particular which was agony every time I came off stage, the excitement of the gig itself keeping the pain away while I was actually playing (hence the idea of ‘Dr Stage’).

It all started following a rehearsal with The Blue Yellows . I got off the train to head home realising I had just a bit of a sore throat, nothing much at all but a worry nonetheless as we had a gig at The Lymelight Festival the following day.
The next day my singing voice was good enough and the sore throat no worse, but I had that feverish, shredded nerves, sensitive, painful-skin feeling that you get when you have the flu or some other nasty fever.

That was in the 1st few days of May 2019, and I wasn’t to feel better than this again until well into January 2020, and often much, much worse.

Some days later I developed a full-on fever/virus type of thing and could barely leave my bed for a few days. I recovered from this part of the road but the underlying feeling of soreness, illness and fever remained as strong as ever.

Weird Symptoms

I would start to get weirder and weirder symptoms; on one day an arm would be so weak I could barely even lift a light rucksack with it, the next day it would be the other arm, then one leg, then the other  (but mostly both). I walk a heck of a lot and thought that my shuffling along in tiny, painful footsteps might’ve been to do with overdoing it, but it’s nothing I wasn’t used to. I noticed all down one side of my body a had a rash of huge welts. These were painless, not itchy, not red or sore or anything, but a worry nevertheless given everything else going on. This slowly faded but to some horror, returned again a few weeks later. Perhaps the strangest symptoms of all was when one of my eyes swelled up (I looked as if I’d been punched in the eye and all the flesh around it had swollen up), the next day my nose swelled up (it’s big enough anyway, thanks) and then... you guessed it, the other eye! Actually the swollen-nose part of this was really painful, it felt as if all the cartilage in there was about to explode under the pressure. In addition my hunger levels changed, I normally eat massive meals, especially in the evenings. I lost much of my appetite and even lost interest for a while in toast and marmite (which I’m addicted to).

The wrecked, painful legs were the most obvious recurring issue but far, far worse than that was that feverish, nerve-shred feeling underlying it all. On top of all this I felt constantly and utterly exhausted. 

Through July and August I was lucky enough to have few commitments until the evenings on many days, and it would often take all my physical energy and mental willpower just to get up to fulfill said commitments, there was no choice, I just couldn’t afford not to.

There were some people I ended up needing to tell, by way of explanation at least. I borrowed some crutches from some lovely friends. I had been due to do lots of help for a music festival but was completely unable to muster enough energy to do this; people kept saying the same thing: “Go to the Doctors!”

"I don't have a Doctor"

Perhaps I’m a stereotypical man in ‘never going to the doctors’? The last time I had gone was in 2012 because I had genuine reason to suspect I might have a serious problem, requiring a hospital scan, the time before that was in 2003 when I broke my pelvis in 2 places in a cycling crash, the time before that was after an eardrum had painfully burst after a few days of infection (I couldn’t sleep for 3 days and nights the pain was so bad), the time before that I must have been a child (when I was taken regularly!). I didn’t bother going when I cracked 2 ribs in another bike crash, or when I broke my toe (I know they don’t really do anything for either of these things other than generally ‘strap things up’, and not for anything else either (if you’re well enough to go to the doctors, you’re well enough to work, surely?).

By August,  the “GO TO THE DOCTORS” concerned voices grew louder, as did those in my head thinking that being ill for months on end can’t be a good sign.. 

Now I really, really hate using the phone (apart from to go on the internet, obvs!) and after many unsuccessful (and very sporadic) attempts to call my old Drs surgery (I’d only been once), It eventually turned out that this place no longer existed! I had needed to call them to get my NHS number, without which I couldn’t register with a surgery where I live now. My new prospective surgery informed me that this, and other info about me, will have gone to a related place in Scholar Green and on ringing them up, they simply read out my NHS number out over the phone - hallelujah!

You are what you eat.

I had started to have several theories about what might be up with me; fibromyalgia was something I kept looking up as it seemed to have lots of symptoms I could cross reference, some were much scarier even than that.. I had also seen a post by a fellow songsmith about feeling really sore-limbed all over and exhausted and that he needed medical help to increase his iron intake, this made a lot of sense as the issue, one I’d been thinking about more and more.

I’ve not eaten meat for much of my adult life, and having felt “fit as a fiddle” and at least as healthy and strong as I was at 18 or 19 (probably a lot fitter in fact) and without ever taking a single supplement, I know from experience there is nothing essentially ‘bad for you’ about this, quite the opposite in fact. However in recent years I had become incredibly complacent. I am a fussy and habitual eater and I, for perhaps up to a year or more, had pretty much eaten no vegetables at all (and to think, people think that’s ALL we eat)! I do find greens a bit of a chore (you’re probably thinking the same thing if you’ve managed to read this far!) and had gradually just rid myself of them. Stupid really, but having done this for so long while still feeling as fit as a flea, why change?.. again, stupid.

My initial meeting at my new surgery was with a nurse who reported that all my vital signs were good. I explained my situation/symptoms very briefly to the nurse who said I might want to request a blood test.
When the test results came back my nice new Dr phoned me with the slightly perturbing question of ‘are you bleeding profusely from anywhere?’ followed by an ‘are you vegetarian or vegan’ and an ‘ah’ on my response. She told me that I was extremely low in both iron, extremely anemic and also very low indeed in iodine (both contained in green vegetables). I told her that I had already wondered about this and had begun to take iron tablets from a local heath store as well as eat more veg (ie some). After what she had said, and doing some research on the NHS website about iodine deficiency (especially the fact that many of us throughout Europe don’t get enough iodine as there’s simply not enough of it in the soil to get into our veg), I started taking seaweed tablets too, which seemed easier to hand and cheaper than either iodinized salt or actual seaweed.

Pro Cyclists of the 1990s

I currently have more needle holes in my left arm than the average pro cyclist of the late 90s. My next test was set for 2 months later as, the Doc said with my levels so low it would take a long time for me to correct them. I was really worried at and around the time of this follow up test because I didn’t feel fundamentally any better at all. Nevertheless I was told it’s all going in the right direction. I did wonder if something had been missed though.

On Christmas Day and the following few days I became really ill with some horrible virus. I couldn’t stop coughing for 3 days and couldn’t sleep through coughing. I basically stayed in bed, coughing constantly with no desire whatever to eat the huge amount of chocolate I had been given (I’m a chocoholic). In all I was Ill with this for the best part of 2 weeks but I was starting to feel a lot better by January the 1st when I went outside on a lovely, clear new day. My legs felt really sore, I could hardly walk, felt that nervy, shivery Ill thing that I’d felt since early May, I was pleased to be recovering from this virus, but much more worried that I still had ‘IT’...

By the 2nd week in January though all symptoms were subsiding though, including those I’d had for more than 8 months by this stage. 

I’m so happy to feel fit as a fiddle again, this time I’m going to keep ‘eating my greens’, without any need for any animal cruelty. 

Whatever you do, don’t be a dork and do what I did, be well, eat well!

Some tentative, painful steps.

Thursday, February 13, 2020

For the love of Bass

Working out some bass lines for these
songs back in Summer (see insta post below)
At the time of writing, two songs on which I play bass, yes bass! ..are due out tomorrow, or if you are reading this on or after Valentine's Day 2020, you can enjoy them right now (see videos below!).

Tim Lee is a wonderfully talented songwriter of moving, heartfelt music who I've had the pleasure of sharing stages and recording studios with many times. He knew that I was really getting into bass playing and was kind enough to offer me the chance to perform bass guitar on his to-be-released album 'Tulpa'. 

Back in mid-summer; myself, fellow bassist (and another close collaborator) Rob who is also playing on the album (and, I understand,  made the video for 'Love is Easy', below) joined Tim and producer Glyn from Collossus Productions who are releasing the whole thing, for a recording session which I blogged about here.

In a sense, these songs represent my bass debut, so it's an exciting moment for me, though in reality , I have also recorded a solo album of songs in which bass features very heavily some two summers ago (though this is now on the release back burner for a number of reasons, not least because of the new recording project with The Blue Yellows which is now underway). In fact, so excited have I been about my new favourite toy, the bass guitar, that many of the songs which will be on my next solo album have been written on bass, and are very bass-orientated in terms of groove and rhythm. On the experimental ‘Raflessia Dreams’ I ‘played bass’ on the lower strings of a standard guitar, or did a vocal bass thing, and then EQed it. It seems almost impossible to pick the bass up without coming up without coming up with new grooves. Maybe I'll even get to play bass live some day, who knows?

Anyway, enjoy these two great tracks!

Sunday, February 09, 2020

EP Day 3: Keys to a great sound.

Third time in the studio and time for the band’s “secret weapon” according to a recent review, Em.

Both keyboards and accordion were deployed with keyboard sounds ranging from Grand Piano to a Fender Rhodes sound for use with one song, the plan being to record both the ‘natural’ sound of the keyboard through amp and through the infinitely flexible midi, in the end using ‘just’ the midi was fine,  plus the more breathy tones of the accordion caught with 2 mics (or was it 3 with an additional room mic?) through the air.

Emma made fast work of whipping through the tracks, mostly in one take (some tracks being doubled -up in any case). You couldn’t really meet a calmer, more professionally focused pair of musos than Em or José.

Top work!

Sunday, February 02, 2020

EP Day 2: Rock Out with your Sock Out.

Updated 05/02/2020

Although recording full drums would be the ideal way to start tracking-proper, time restraints and a keenness from all concerned meant we wanted to get on with it and record what we can in the hours available.
Drummer Dave, myself and producer José gathered at a José’s brand new home studio to record percussion and acoustic guitar tracks.
Recording sessions always seem to throw up some quirky moments... Dave found that zip-tying a pair of José’s socks to his mallets perfected the tone on the wash effect he was aiming for on the ride cymbal.
José and Dave discuss the approach.

Add caption

Monday, January 27, 2020

EP Day 1: Pre-production & guide-tracking.

*Post updated on 30/01/2020

Our good friend and talented producer José Arteaga offered to record us an EP. José, who started out as an indie-rock guitarist has spent years composing and producing music for Spanish theatre and film, including award-winning productions.
Last Friday was spent making rough phone-recordings of songs we might want to include. We sent these to José after the session and he had a say in which ones we should go ahead with.

Then, last night José worked through finding just the right tempo for each track, by both using some rehearsal recordings as a guide and working with me on whether playing the tracks like this felt like as if they were 'pushing' or 'dragging'.
So, EP guide-tracks done. Next, time, the whole band may be in.
It all starts here!

Post from producer José.

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Top Ten Tips to Conquer Stage Fright for Musicians.

***Updated 30th May 2020 to include Ricky Wilson (Kaiser Chiefs) discussing his stage fright***

One of the music students I’m helping out is anxious about performing in public, so this has inspired me to come up with some tips that work for me in helping conquer stage fright/performance anxiety:

1. Be prepared in plenty of time before the performance (sound-checked, instrument tuned, amp/lead etc in place. Write a set-list out if one hasn’t been done for you, get familiar with your part of the stage) and allow enough time to relax after all this/before the show. At least half an hour. These preparations/rituals themselves will also help get rid of some of the anxiety.

2. Before the show spend some time breathing in and out slowly and deeply.

3. Look around the audience, make eye contact with them if you can, and think ‘what’s the worst that can happen ‘?! 

4. Tell yourself that the butterflies in your stomach isn’t nerves, it’s excitement! The mind is an amazing thing and you can talk yourself into this and then realise it’s true!

5. For me (and many others) I like to do a mixture of relaxing and using up physical energy to get rid of nerves. So as well as the deep, slow, breathing you might want to run manically, super-fast for a minute on the spot, or jump up and down. I will often go for a walk outside of a venue for a few mins too for a change of atmosphere. Stretching exercises are also excellent for both relaxation and preparing yourself for the physical rigours of a gig.
It is normal to feel very tired or even exhausted before a gig, it’s your bodies way of preparing you for the adrenaline rush to come.

6. One of the best things is to have a good laugh before you go on stage, brilliant for getting rid of nerves! You could even contrive a completely ridiculous thing you do with your band-mates before you go on (maybe you’re own band-version of the Haka, but a ridiculous version that will make you fall about laughing)!

7. For some people it helps to mingle with the crowd beforehand  so you realise they are nice, and not the crazed axe murderers who will hate your music that you thought they were.

8. Remember, the audience are on your side. They can’t do what you do and they’re looking forward for the gig to start.

9. Don’t worry about mistakes you will make, all the greatest musicians make mistakes. What to you will be a huge mistake, won’t even be noticed by most people. You won’t draw attention to it, just keep playing, smile to your band-mates as they probably will notice because you’ve rehearsed.. if you’ve got lost in the music you will just join back in when you know where you are. 
Anyhow, if you do make a really big mistake, big mistakes are the bits the audience love best! They find it endearing!

10. The butterflies get easier to manage with the more gigs you do but remind yourself that all the best live musicians get nervous (or excited!) before a gig. Eric Clapton used to play with his back to the audience a lot in his early days because he was so afraid of everyone looking at him. There’s a top opera singer (can’t remember her name, sorry) who actually throws up before every single show, so hopefully you’ll do better than that. Most great musicians are agreed that if you’re not nervous/excited before a show, it’s time to retire! If you don’t feel those butterflies, it means you don’t care enough!

I hope some of those are of help!
J 😊

If this article interests you, you might also like my post on my battle more generally with social anxiety, here:

***A further update; Ricky Wilson talks with guests about his coping with extreme performance anxiety/stage fright***