Why is playing above the 12th fret so difficult and painful?

When I was a young boy, watching top of the pops, I wondered why it was so difficult and painful to play around and above the 12th fret of an electric guitar as I always saw such intense expressions on people’s faces when they would take a solo. Joe Walsh from The Guitar BUZZ Discussion Board Whatever the reason, all I knew was that I WANTED TO PLAY GUITAR LIKE THAT. I could handle the pain of playing high notes. Kirk Hammett from Metallica is perhaps a case in point, a rather entertaining one at that! Is this purely crowd pleasing and merely seeking entertainment? In my opinion it is a necessary part of performance as movement is key to a connection with music. In some African languages and cultures, there is no distinct difference between the words Music and Dance because the two are so intrinsically linked. When you make music, you have fun and when you have fun it makes you move. Having studied mainly as a classical musician and predominantly on Piano, I was told from an early age that moving around while you are playing and instrument results in poor technique, lack of focus, a waste of energy, back problems and a total distraction from the music for you and the audience. Damn. I was destined for a long career of playing to nobody. If moving kills our enjoyment of music then somebody please tell these people in the next video that their lives and culture are wrong.

To me, it is like saying that a toddler only learns and enjoys him or herself when they are sitting calmly and listening. Clearly, music and movement go hand in hand and even the best selling classical artists in the world such as Glen Gould, famous for his rendition of the Bach, Goldberg Variations in 1955, becoming Columbia’s best selling classical record, has idiosyncratic performances which involve him sitting on his own low, creaky chair, swaying, conducting himself, humming and even singing musical parts which were not written by JS Bach. Was this what Bach intended? 

Being a practical sort of guy, I would like to think that Bach would be proud of this performance as it it full of spirit and sensitivity to the music and brings it back to life. unfortunately, many Bach specialists sideline him as ‘Peripheral’. Interestingly this is the piece Hannibal Lecter  plays in his cell in the film, ‘Silence of the Lambs.’ while he kills the two security officers. I digress!

So, what can playing up for your audience do for you? Well, the part of the brain that processes visual aspects of what we experience, accounts for about 99% of our brain’s processing whereas, the part that processes sound accounts for about 1%. You have everything to gain if you think about your visual aspects when you are on stage. It made me think about how much a sound system costs and how cheap lights are… It is also good to remember that we learn well when we have physical aspects to music. The other day, I was teaching a group of 5 year olds a couple of Christmas songs and the best way to get them engaged was to get them doing movements. In fact, they were suggesting their own movements for the song and within 10 minutes, they had learned 3 verses of lyrics with movements. We forget this was we get older that learning is about engaging all our senses and to do this, we have to park our inhibitions.

Movements and expressive poses and faces, can also be the way to keep focused. The other interesting thing if that you make a mistake, 9 times out of 10, your audience will not interpret that you have made a mistake unless you give it away facially. I was talking with a student the other day who has a tendency to pull faces only when he makes a mistake. He is a great musician and the audience only really know he has made a mistake because he lets on with his frowning and head shaking. When we perform, it is a good idea to allow oneself to make movements and crowd pleasing activities on stage because we then become immersed in the music and the performance. Mistakes are actually less likely. When I am immersed in music, why do I make less mistakes? Our subconscious is living in the inspiration and it feeds us this inspiration while we play. Our bodies also feeds back to the mind that it is fully engaged and performing which is more likely to give us more of the same. All too often if our bodies are not moving, we are not acting out the guitar solo or we are not physically involved in the music, then the feedback to our minds reinforces the fact that we are not physically or emotionally connected to the music either. Many musical aspects are associated with movement. Phrasing, dynamics and rhythm all have connection with music so a few facial expressions and windmills on the guitar transform our understanding, transform the relationship and interest which the audience has and causes us to make less mistakes. Is it difficult to play above the 12th fret? Not really – my idea is to make it look difficult to involve your own mind and your audience. Isn’t it time you started moving and pulling faces on the high notes?

About clivemusic

I have taught music, enabling musicians to be confident about performing for over 20 years. I also train teachers and trainers to be confident in the classroom. Keyboard, piano and composing, arranging and singing are my musical loves. I love performing and play Jazz with a Quartet and also sing and direct my own Barbershop Quartet called The Sherlock Combs. I used to be an incredibly nervous performer, suffering from stage fright and through teaching music and learning many mind training techniques, come with me on a journey to confident performing.
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