It’s not just guitarists

It's not just guitarists.

Summer holidays are wonderful times when one can get away and take a fresh look at life.

Some of you may know that Selina and I have a sail boat and are learning to sail.

Sailing Boat

Sailing, like learning to play the guitar, is a life-long exercise which one never totally masters. Selina and I are very much at the beginner’s level i.e. lots of enthusiasm, limited skill.

It was after returning home from holiday that I realised how similar guitar and sailing can be and how understanding one may help the other.

Throughout the year at Staffordguitar we are visited by people wishing to buy a new guitar and the one thing that stands out, and this is true for me as well, is the difficulty people have playing in front of strangers or in some cases playing in front of anybody.

Last weekend a young lady called wishing to buy a new guitar which she wanted to use with the professional trio she was a member of.

Playing live she was always within a group and so felt confident however here in our studio she was playing solo with the result that nerves kicked in causing difficulty in remembering pieces and physically playing the guitar.

Now why should this be?

Many people play with ease at home yet suffer terribly in public, I know I do.

In severe cases one can freeze and not be able to play a note and in other cases the lovely exciting piece performed at home becomes a succession of dry sounding notes lacking in any emotional character.

So there I was, it was the weekend, warm, sunny and I was relaxing and my mind started to mull over what I had just witnessed.

As I relaxed my mind drifted back to our recent holiday exploits and I started to make comparisons.

With the guitar I find there are a lot of THINGS (for want of a better word) I need to learn and these Things tend to be Intellectual, Physical and Emotional things.

What I have realised is that these things are all little for example-

The right hand finger movement I use to create a lovely warm sound is a very small movement in comparison with say volleying a tennis ball across the net.


The emotional feeling when playing a piece of music for the first time is hardly felt in comparison to the embarrassment felt when attempting to mount the pavement whilst cycling and falling off ones bicycle in front of a huge traffic queue - yes I have been that person.

Cyclist Having An Accident

In comparison, the sailing things we need to learn are very big and very visible.

So there was me thinking guitar, boat, boat, guitar and the thing that sprang to mind was a very basic manoeuvre which consists of, moving my boat from its berth to go sailing.

Stay with me and I will attempt to explain.

If today was Friday and tomorrow was Saturday and I intended to take my boat sailing on Saturday then today, Friday, I would be relaxed and happy fully confident in my abilities.

However when Saturday arrives breakfast tastes bland even to the extent of not having any, missing out this important meal of the day; I would find that I tended to want to go to the toilet more often than usual, I would become a little short tempered and in the worst case I have been known to use any excuse not to go sailing just to get these feelings to go away, yet, once I am sailing the horrible uncomfortable feelings dissapear and I'm happy and content.

Why is this?

Let's us look at the process involved in leaving my berth (parking space for a boat).

Boat Harbour

Berthed in a marina a boat is tied up on one side (right hand or starboard side for my boat) to a long wooden walkway and on the other side of the boat about 2 feet away is your neighbours boat tied to a walkway of his Left or port side.

To drive out of your berth you have to turn the engine on, go into reverse and steer in the direction you wish to go just like you do in your car.

However, and this is where the nerves start to creep in, there is very little similarity between driving you car and driving a boat.

Imagine this-

You have parked your car in the local car park and on returning you find someone with a brand new and very expensive car has parked next to you.

You have no desire to damage your car or the one parked next to you so you engage reverse and gently move your car back out of the parking space at which point you suddenly find-

You cannot steer the car; no matter what you do with the steering wheel you have no control.

Your brakes do not work.

Worst of all it feels as if the tarmac you are driving on is an ice-rink and that gust of wind you never noticed before is pushing you in a direction you did not intend going.

As you look in your rear view mirror the cars parked all around are coming closer at a worrying speed.

Suddenly every vehicle around you is an accident waiting to happen and your car will not stop moving!

Welcome to boating!

So as a student sailor what do you have to do?

Well you have to learn that your boat engine will start you moving in one direction, the wind will push you in a different direction and the tide, OH did I forget to mention the tide? Yes the tide will push you in a direction all of its own.

So what is available to help?

Well in my car I have brakes -hurrah!

Boat Fenders

On my boat we have little plastic air filled tubes called fenders which are placed around the boat just in case I do hit something (should really read "when I hit something") and I have lots of lines (ropes) which are tied to various parts of the boat and then to the land or some other stationary object so that I can use the theory of opposing forces to help me control my boat.

Sounds all very complicated I know.

During initial training one learns what to do with these helpful tools; where to tie the fenders, where to tie the lines, when to let go of the lines and in the classroom it all looks quite simple.

Come the day they let you out on a real boat, you have heard of the term Brain Freeze, yep, all the things you have been instructed on are rushing around inside your brain yet nothing comes out in the right order and oh my god the neighbours big expensive boat, and I mean expensive, is getting closer and damn I didn't mean to go in that direction and we are no longer safely tied to something hard and stationary like the land.

STOP!!!!!!! Let’s start again.

OH No I forgot I can't stop, there are no brakes!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

The above happened to a sailor in Jersey (Channel Islands) this summer.

We were parked in our berth in Saint Helier when we heard the neighbour shout au revoir at which time, he let go all of his ropes; the wind being the sneaky little devil it is decided to blow sending the French mans boat in a direction he did not wish to go.

So there he was 8 ton of boat with a 25kg solid metal anchor sticking out at the front being blown in a circle by the wind before violently crashing into the neighbouring boat then being blown down the length of said neighbouring boat resulting in thousands of pounds worth of damage.

Now can you see why I am nervous when sailing.

So what can be done? How do I become less nervous or do I spend the rest of my sailing career tied to the dock.

The simple answer is practice.

Of course it is, why I didn’t think of that, silly me.

Sorry it's not that simple; well actually it is though more importantly the key is "what I practice".

Remember when I said that learning for sailing is easier than learning for the guitar? The reason is that the things I need to learn for sailing are BIG and VISIBLE?

This is great because it means I can more easily understand cause and effect in other words if I pull this rope what does the boat do? Doesn’t make the nerves any less however it does make learning the principles much clearer and as I become more confident in what will happen when I do X then I am more relaxed about the whole thing.

Learning the guitar is difficult because the things we learn are small and delicate and therefore hard to see. The physical movements we make are small and it is not easy to see if we are doing them correctly. I only have one pair of eyes yet I have to look at the music, my right hand, left hand, the fretboard, strings etc and I cannot see all of these at the same time.

So what is it about sailing that has helped me with my guitar?

Well it is this-

In everything we try to achieve there is detail - the clearer you can see the detail the better your understanding; the smaller the detail the greater the attention required and the less attention to detail the greater the risk.