A Solution to the Posture Problem: the Camp Time Roll-A-Chair

Guitarists who like to play sitting down often see their performance suffer due to bad posture. One important component of that is the chair you choose to sit on.

I may go into this in more detail later, but I have found a solution that, to the best of my knowledge, nobody else has written about.

Camp Time Roll-A-Chair
Camp Time Roll-A-Chair

It’s the Camp Time Roll-A-Chair, and it’s designed as a portable chair for camping or hiking (the “roll” refers to the fact that you can roll it up into a small, lightweight bundle for carrying–it doesn’t have casters or wheels). And it’s only US $40 from the manufacturer.

It’s light and highly portable, yet really sturdy, with four legs. It puts your legs where you need them, doesn’t impede blood circulation, and as a bonus, it provides great lower back support, which most chairs don’t.

It makes you sit upright, not slouching down like the folding chairs you get for sitting around and drinking beer while watching a sporting event.

And the great thing is that the chair has just been made available in three different heights (and multiple colors), so you can get the one that fits your physiology. I use the standard model with a 19-inch seat height. The new models are here.

You may be able to find the Camp Time Roll-A-Chair at sporting goods and camping stores; REI carries it. But it’s cheapest if you order it straight from the distributor.

Give it a try. Hours of good posture and relief of tension means hours of unstressful guitar playing and performance.

Postscript: I bought my Roll-A-Chair four or five years ago to sit on at summer camp for a week–not for playing guitar. I needed something to promote good posture in general because of a nagging injury and bulging disk in my neck that caused pinched nerves. I only rediscovered the Roll-A-Chair this year when I started thinking about the importance of posture to the traditional seated position for playing classical guitar. I found the Roll-A-Chair on a shelf in my garage, gave it a try, and realized that it has an entirely new use for me.

A Framework for Understanding Classical Music

What is music?

Music is sounds organized in a framework of time. But that’s a topic for another day.

What is “classical” music?

A gross misnomer, that’s what. In the US, when we say “classical music” we speak about it as if it were a genre, such as rock and roll, R&B or country music. But think about it. Classical music encompasses almost all of Western music from about 1500 through today–more than 500 years, representing all styles of music from every country in Europe, including Russia, and North and South America as well. It encompasses songs written in dozens of different languages. It even incorporates music by Asian and African composers who have been influenced by the Western style.

So you think of your radio stations in your home town as “the classical station”, “the rock station” or “the country station”. Well, the rock station only plays music from England and the United States, sung in the English language, from about 1964 to the present, for instance. 45 years of one narrow genre of music. The country station plays practically nothing but music written and recorded in one city, Nashville, Tennessee, with much greater cultural restrictions even than rock, spanning a similar time period. But your “classical” station plays 500 years of music from the whole of Western culture, from all nations and all languages. All the other stations on your radio dial, put together, only play a tiny fraction of the songs and musical styles played on your one lone “classical” station.

Now, the most effective method of categorizing music comes from economic principles. The world over, there are three kinds of music:

1) Traditional music
2) Folk music
3) Commercial music

Of course these types of music cross-polinate and influence each other.

The first category has been with us since the dawn of civilization. The second category has been with us even longer than that. But the third category, as we shall see, is a recent innovation.

Traditional music is expensive to write and perform, and is paid for by patronage. Composers and musicians can earn a living performing this music, but the music itself (concerts or recordings) does not break even or generate a profit. This has been the dominant form throughout the world for centuries. Composers, performers and orchestras depend upon the largesse of kings, nobility, governments, and church organizations to fund the making of the music.

Western traditional musical forms include, but are not limited to: chamber music, choral music, art songs, opera, music for ballet or the theater, symphonies and other orchestral music. And those are all topics for other days.

Nowadays traditional music is funded by donations from large profitable corporations, in addition to governments and churches. We are not only talking about what you might consider classical music. This also covers Broadway musicals, for instance. Yes, traditional music is music which never even comes close to covering the cost of making the music based on ticket sales, album sales or the like. It requires heavy infusions of cash from wealthy sources that don’t expect any return on the investment other than having more music to enjoy, or perhaps the prestige of having been benevolent in funding the arts.

Folk music, which is inexpensive to write and perform, is made by people with little or no expectation of earning any money from it. It is created solely for reasons of esthetic and cultural satisfaction of the composers, performers and listeners. Of course there always has been and always will be folk music, in every culture around the world.

Commercial music is the newest category. It can be thought of as a specialized form of folk music. Commercial music only came into being with the advent of radio, mass-produced phonograph records, motion pictures and then television, and the increased ability to levy and collect royalty payments. It really only came into flower in the early  1920s, so it’s scarcely 90 years old. Commercial music is music that finances itself, is marketed, and earns a profit from listeners. The profits go to the musicians, sometimes, but mostly to the financiers. The 20th century economy and technology created ways for musicians and their financiers to earn a great deal of money by developing and marketing new forms of folk music. For the first time, music became an industry and an engine of economic development and wealth. Commercial music as we knew it in the golden age of the 20th century may be moribund in the current digital age; that remains to be seen. But if commercial music fails, those styles of music created during this brief, explosive period will revert to being folk music again.

Jazz, interestingly enough, seems already to have gone the other way; it started out as commercial music but is now traditional music, in that it no longer makes money–it usually loses money–and is often funded by non-profit organizations and cultural ministries within governments.

Western Music History

For proper nomenclature, we are talking in this essay about Western traditional music, what is commonly called “classical” music.

Western music is that which evolved from sources in Europe, and which invented and developed the concepts of harmony and chord progressions. I want you to think about that for a minute.

Indigenous African music is based on very sophisticated rhythm and some melody. It has no harmony or chords whatsoever. East Indian music is based on extremely sophisticated melody, with a good dose of rhythmic sophistication thrown in, but again, it has no harmony and no chords. Western music, on the other hand, has tremendously, stupefyingly simplistic rhythm compared to many other musics in the world, and its melodies are generally much shorter and less elaborate as well.

No, what we call “tonal harmony” or “functional harmony” is an invention of Western civilization that began in the 1400s and has developed steadily since that time. It is an intellectual achievement of the collective conscious of a culture over six hundred years. Before that time there were no harmonies or chords in the world–there were only melodies and some rhythm. Harmony and a system for using it had to be invented, although this invention was a naturally evolving process involving millions of musicians, dozens of cultures, and centuries of time.

Nowadays, of course, musicians outside the West, in other parts of the world, have been influenced to some degree or another by Western folk, traditional and commercial music, and therefore there are musicians in Africa and India, for instance, who are composing Western-style songs and compositions that use harmony and chords. But if you look at the roots of it all, Western music, with its harmony and chord progressions, is essentially a recent technological innovation.

Traditional African and East Indian music, for instance, are far older and have evolved less. The Indian ragas that are played today, which have always been court and church music paid for by patronage, are thought to be many centuries older than the oldest melodies extant in Western music.

So what is “classical” music, and why is “classical” a gross misnomer?

Western traditional music, as I have pointed out above, is a vast subject. “Classical” is a catch-all term that, when you look at it, really doesn’t tell you much. To help with this, we divide Western traditional music up into “style periods”. These eras are generally in keeping with terms we use to describe not only the music, but also the architecture, literature, visual arts, in fact all of culture in that time period.

We usually refer to:

Ancient and Medieval (before about 1400)
Renaissance (about 1400 to 1600)
Baroque (about 1600 to 1750)
Classical (about 1730 to 1815)
Romantic (about 1815 to 1910)
20th-Century, Modern, or Post-modern, take your pick, anything after about 1910.

These time periods, by the way, are named and delineated by historians well after the era has come and gone.

The dates are of course not set in stone, and they don’t always describe the music of a particular composer, location, or tradition. They are generalizations. Haydn’s lifespan and working career as a musician spanned the Baroque and Classical periods and touched on the Romantic, but Haydn didn’t wake up on January 1, 1751 and say, “Aha, the Baroque period has ended. I must no longer write in that style. I must write in the new Classical style, whatever that may turn out to be.” Beethoven certainly gave no thought as to whether he was a Classical composer or a Romantic composer, and historians feel that he was both.

You will note that the “Classical” era is the shortest of them all. In fact some historians restrict it even further, saying that the “Classical” period began and ended with Mozart, who was born in 1756 and died in 1791 at the age of 36. So if it’s the shortest period, why do we lump all these centuries of music together and call it “classical”? Beats me. Seriously. I have no idea.

Within each era, or “style period” as it is usually called, the next way we divvy things up is usually by country or language. Thus we talk about “British Renaissance” (though we make a distinction between “Edwardian” and “Elizabethan”) or “German Baroque” or “French Romantic” styles. Then we may look at types of musical composition, such as “Italian Classical opera” or “German Baroque chamber music” for instance.

Remember that all labels, genres and style periods are artificial constructions made by historians simply for the purpose of dividing and conquering the knowledge that is to be studied, and the music that is to be listened to. And now you understand the framework under which we use the term “classical music”.

RTFM

“Read the Fabulous Manual”.

I’m dealing with a lot of cantankerous music software, so I though this would be sufficiently on-topic.

How do you learn to use a new computer program?

Most people just launch the program and start flailing away inside, clicking on things and seeing what happens. And most people are blissfully unaware of the 95% of the program’s capabilities that they never knew about. All because they didn’t crack the manual.

Now, I’ve done computer training and tech support, and I’ve written computer documentation. So I appreciate manuals (and the people who write them).

Here’s what I do when I get a new computer program:

1) Read the manual while I try everything in the manual out on the actual program

2) Do some thinking about how the manual could be improved and how certain things could have been explained much better.

3) On rare occasion, write some better stuff myself, contact the people who sell the program, and suggest that they make revisions.

4) Eternally resent people who don’t read manuals.

Roadmap, sort of. An ambitious outlay of plans.

Being new to this blogging thing, it occurs to me that I’ve got a book brewing here. The subtitle might be “An Outsider’s Guide to All Things Guitar.”

All I can do is post stuff as I think of it and as time permits. What will probably happen is a bunch of installments presented out of order, and later on I’ll have to re-organize it into chapters and sections.

I already have tons of written material that I created in the form of emails to friends, and one or two long essays that I wrote just for myself. Then there are sections that I have been mulling over for months but not committed to the word processor or paper. I’m not going to publish this all at once, because I want you, the reader, to keep coming back for more.

[A whole ‘nother thing that I can write about is my method for playing jazz guitar with the instrument tuned in all fourths, low-to-high Eb-Ab-Db-Gb-B-E.

I don’t use this method for classical guitar; I play classical in standard tuning, at least for now.

I did not invent the 4ths-tuning method, but I came up with all of my principles myself; I “re-invented the wheel” to suit my own needs. I call this “Stanley” tuning, after Stanley Jordan, but I’m talking about using it for traditional right and left hand technique, not tapping a la Jordan or playing a Chapman Stick. I have been receiving some consulting on this from guitar educator and guitar designer and manufacturer Matt Raines, who has made it his specialty to play seven-string guitar in 4ths with the traditional technique. He doesn’t endorse my work, yet, but I think I’m on to something.]

Anyway, Becoming a Guitarist will include, but will not be limited to, the following (in no particular order). I will present my insights and opinions on:

1. How classical guitar notation is too hard to read; here’s how to change it for the better. Lots of music notation examples. This is not about “tab” or tablature. It’s about traditional music notation.

2. Using computer tools for notation and arranging for guitar, and for studying scores. Do it yourself.

3. How to use extended-range bass guitar in the classical ensemble context; available instruments and strategies. 7-string, 8-string, 10 and 11-string classical guitars, regular scale, long scale, “fanned fret”, and a section on using the five-string acoustic bass guitar in the ensemble. There are several renowned ensembles using one or more of these instruments today.

4. How to cross-over from electric and acoustic guitar to classical guitar; specific modifications to the classical guitar design that are commercially available, and how to obtain them. I did a lot of research before I bought my unusual yet quite affordable Alhambra “crossover” guitar. This will contain an extensive section on fingerboard and nut width, radiused versus flat fingerboards, fret dressing, string spacing at the nut and bridge, action, intonation, and cutaway design. Then, once you have decided to play classical, can you continue to play your old electric and steel-string acoustic guitars? Should you?

5. How to make your classical guitar sing. Most classical repertoire consists of music that was written for other instruments and ensembles, “transcribed” to fit onto a guitar or ensemble of guitars. In many cases we are talking about vocal music with lyrics (think madrigals, Bach chorales, and Schubert lieder). Now, I’m a singer and chorister who has worked with all kinds of vocal music. So I think I’m entitled to give the guitarist (any kind of guitarist) some tips on how to make your guitar playing sound more like singing. I personally interviewed Paul O’Dette, the world’s greatest lute player, and got some insights on this subject. I also draw on a published interview with Sharon Isbin that I need to dig up and quote.

6. Related to (5), how to really learn and understand the music you are going to play, before you pick up the guitar. It has to do with taking the trouble to find the sheet music and a good recording of the original arrangement as the composer intended, even if it’s a symphony with a full orchestra, before you plunge into the guitar transcription or arrangement with which you’ve been provided. This goes doubly for lyrics. You shouldn’t play an instrumental arrangement of a song unless you know the lyrics and what they mean in English (if that is your language). This goes doubly for jazz guitarists playing out of the fake book. More advice from Paul O’Dette.

7. Posture, relieving stress in your body in practicing and performing. Footstools are archaic and obsolete, and in my case, needlessly stressful and painful. Putting both feet flat on the ground and propping up your guitar into the proper playing position using a special cushion or a support bracket that attaches to the guitar are better ways to play.

8. Keys, how to approach selecting a key, and the important but usually overlooked issue of guitarists being needlessly inflexible about keys. Important side-note on how guitars and writing songs based on playing licks built around open strings in rock and pop music have ruined life for singers everywhere, and how this could be corrected. The bottom line is that if you are working with a singer, you and your ensemble should let the singer select the key of each piece he or she is singing. The singer should select the key that works best for his or her particular voice according to the melody of the piece being considered. Everybody in the band should be prepared to play the song in any key requested at any time. This is the way it has always been done in classical music, folk music, and especially jazz. Many hit rock songs make this task impossible, due to the way in which they were written, which I will explain.

I’ll think of other stuff. Well, I’ve got my work cut out for me.

If you have some comments on these points, and I hope you do, you might want to wait until I publish the section in question and explain myself fully, rather than comment on my little outline above. On the other hand, if you have specific ideas on other topics about classical guitar and musicianship that you think I ought to address, please post comments here. I’m looking mostly for conventional, traditional things that everybody does that you think should be done differently.

Introductions

Hello and welcome.

You can click on “About Wheat Williams” above and learn some more about me.

If you are learning guitar, I hope you’ll find lots of material here in the coming months that will be helpful. If you are an established classical guitarist (a member of  a clique of generally stuffy academic elitists who really know how to play music) I hope to make you think about and reconsider things that you take for granted. I have an iconoclastic bent, and lots of ideas about how things could be done better.

Basically, I’m an experienced, classically-trained singer who has never been good enough at an instrument to call himself an instrumentalist. I have determined to become a classical guitarist, late in life. I’m going to approach the whole subject of learning and playing classical guitar from a total “outsider” perspective. I hope to provide some unusual insights and try to change some attitudes and perceptions.

Although I have a Bachelor of Music degree, I have never made much income from being a musician. And I’m a singer, not an instrumentalist. I have an extensive background in traditional church choral music. I also know an awful lot about rock and jazz, having been a professional freelance music journalist for publications such as Guitar Player Magazine and Keyboard. Oh, yeah, I did freelance publicity for Sony Music Nashville in the early 90s, writing marketing materials, press releases, and industry tip sheets, artists’ press kit bios, and the like.

I haven’t made much music in the last ten years, but as part of a total life makeover I’m going through (call it the positive outcome of a serious mid-life crisis) I made a commitment to join a very good amateur traditional church choir in a small Presbyterian church in the North Druid Hill community of Atlanta, Georgia. As I’ve been called up for solos, I have taken up with a voice coach, which will be the first time I’ve seriously studied singing since about 1996, thirteen years ago.

Recently an acquaintance who is a professional guitarist called me up and asked me if I could join his new classical guitar trio. He intends this to be a gigging, money-making side project, playing weddings and casuals.

Now, let me tell you, I am an experienced singer with an extensive background in classical music, but I have never called myself an instrumentalist. I have always been a guitar fancier, and usually had several cheap guitars lying around that were frequently rotated around by selling them on eBay and getting new ones every few years.

I need more musical outlets, very much, so I decided this was it. I have to stop calling myself a singer who plays a bit of guitar, and I have to Become A Guitarist. I’ve done a great deal of research and rumination about this–and I’ve spent more time on those pursuits than I have actually practicing the guitar. I have taken copious notes, and shared a great deal of what I’ve learned with the two other members of this nascent ensemble through email. So I thought I would take this information and post it here on this new blog, kind of a “run it up the flagpole and see who salutes” maneuver.

And so the journey begins.