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As delicate an instrument as the pedal harp seems to be, most people don’t realize that a harpist needs to have very tough fingertips to play one for any length of time. I’ve been working quite diligently on tone and technique lately, and the increase in practice time was giving me blisters on my fingertips, particularly on my left hand from plucking the heavy wire bass strings. In an attempt to get more practice in sooner, I’ve tried out some ideas that other players might find useful.

Taking a cue from the days when I needed to toughen up my feet for wildland fire season, I tried my old remedy of swabbing alcohol on areas that endure friction. The alcohol dehydrates and thickens the skin. It did help some, but not enough. It only extended my daily playing time between 10 and 20 percent. Another method of skin toughening suggested by a hiker friend, but which I did not try on my fingers, was to soak the blister-prone area in Epsom salts. I’d be curious to know if any harpists have tried this and what their results were.

Another technique I tried was to use a “liquid bandage” preparation on my fingertips. This allowed me to practice for between a quarter to a third longer before I got “hot spots” or blisters. The bandage layer does tend to wear out and peel off. This method could work well if someone had a moderate amount of time to build up to multiple hours playing per day, but I wanted faster results.

So, I VERY CAREFULLY smeared a thin layer of super glue on my fingertips where the skin contacts the strings. That worked extremely well and allowed me to play for several hours straight with no blistering at all. It more than tripled the amount of time that I could play at a sitting. I was amazed. I wore out before my fingertips did.

WARNING: Here’s the down side – pay close attention – this will only work if you are patient in preparing your fingers and let the glue dry thoroughly before touching your strings or anything else! Get impatient and you will have a mess, and could end up with your fingertips stuck together or any number of other problems. Consider yourself warned. Also, this is definitely not a use that the manufacturer would approve of…so do the above at your own risk.

I would use this method again if I needed to play for a long gig and my fingertip calluses were not properly conditioned, but I found that the glue does tend to crack and collect grime. Not particularly appealing, as the dried glue layer takes a number of days to wear off. In my opinion, your best bet is the traditional method of building up your calluses gradually and then maintaining them, but if you’re in a time squeeze the glue method does do wonders. Just be careful!

At this point, my harp calluses are built up to an acceptable level for most anything I want to do. The trick now will be maintaining them when I have to be away from the harp for an an extended period of time, as I am this week. I’m packing up my place in the Arizona high country in preparation for putting it up for sale. Next time I sit down to practice, I’ll see how my calluses held up to the time away.

My Half-Novel

The critiques of “Return of the Shadow Lion” that I have received so far are fairly consistent and there is a relatively simple solution to 90 percent of the difficulties my dedicated readers had with the story. All I have to do is stick Books Three and Four in the series together, and “Presto!” the problem is solved. I should be happy, right?

I am, actually. It’s just that I am feeling a bit daunted at the thought of what I have to do to implement this wonderful solution. Book Four is written; Book Three is not. That means that I really only have half a novel written (where I thought I was just looking at a rewrite) and there will have to be some changes (relatively minor) in the points of view in Book Four to make it fit together with Book Three.

In my efforts to follow conventional wisdom about writing (and selling) stories in the fantasy genre, I planned to divide my epic into a series of fairly standard lengths. I broke the story line at what seemed like logical points. Now, Book Four has proven to be too dependent on story material that is contained in Book Three. Oops.

It seems my decision to start “en media res” was ill-advised, or at least miscalculated. I started Book Four in the middle of a lifetime, forgetting that the whole series spans three lifetimes of the main character… Reincarnation really complicates things.

Of course, by starting the novel at the beginning of [one of] the protagonist’s life/lives, the reader gets to learn about things as our hero grows up and discovers them. All of the details of the society – it’s religion, culture, mores, and history – can be divulged in a much more leisurely way. Believability problems with both story line and character development, particularly with my villains, disappear when I can take more time to reveal incidents and indulge in more descriptive detail.

The more gradual approach takes a lot of the complexity out of understanding an alien world. It also flies in the face of some of the early advice I got about writing to sell: Do not write about a protagonist’s childhood, do not start at the beginning, do not, do not, do not…

Scroom. I have thrown all that nonsense out. Now, my constant question to myself is, “Does this serve the story?” Let the story dictate how it will be told. I’ve spent too much time and effort trying to make the story fit into some supposed profile of saleability and the story has suffered because of that. Odds are, it will never sell anyway. If I’m going to spend the time on it, it jolly well better be for the art and the heart of it!

Star Light, Star Bright

One thing I miss about the Arizona high country is the dark night skies.  I’ve been back up in Parks for two days to do some more work on the place and I went out tonight to look at the sky.  The stars were breathtakingly bright in the cold, clear air at 7,000 feet. While gazing up at the Milky Way, I became acutely aware of the tension that I live with on a daily basis right now.  I have been so busy running to try and get everything done that I hadn’t taken the time to just look, much less to feel.

Pursuing a new life in the Phoenix area and trying to maintain my place in northern Arizona is an uneasy balancing act. Uncertainties abound and I never know from one day to the next what new surprise will come up next.  It is exciting, that’s for sure.  I feel as if I am riding a unicycle on a high wire while juggling.  Blindfolded.  I seem to recall saying something about not having enough excitement in my life, oh a couple of months or so ago…. Nowadays, I have about all the excitement I can handle.

Actually, things are going pretty well.  My student roster is growing and so is my repertoire. I’m almost done with a client’s website in Drupal. I’ve got a possible interview for a long-term temp assignment as a web developer later this week. If that all goes as I hope, I’ll be on that full-time as of next Monday, which should fill in the gaps while my teaching schedule expands. It’ll be hectic for awhile, but doable.  At least I will have a settled, predictable routine for two months!  I’m almost done with all the various projects on the “cabin.” It’s been difficult making all the trips back and forth, but it has let me see my folks more often than I would have otherwise.

It was wonderful to be able to be outside today in near 60 degree temps, scraping paint and caulking.  I could feel the warm sun on my shoulders and smell the dusty tang of the dried grasses in the yard.  I had to laugh as I took the extension ladder down off its hooks; I could hear Cap’t. G’s voice in my ear telling me in no uncertain terms how to lift, carry and place it. Angle, brace, test, climb, anchor your leg to leave your hands free- it was fire academy all over again.  I was grinning as I went up and down the ladder at each window and door.

If nothing else sticks with me from the old firefighter days, I did gain the confidence to tackle just about anything around my place. It all seems pretty elementary after learning how to run pumps, extrication equipment, chain saws, and to repair SCBAs!  (As you might have guessed, I never was much of a Barbie doll, though I have been rather mindful of my nails lately.  I don’t want to ruin my guitar tremelo!)

Some things are falling through the cracks at the moment, however, like blogging, Flamencophile.com, and accompanying flamenco dance classes. I have to remind myself every so often that it will all still be there when everything calms down. (Famous last words.) For now, the fact that I’m keeping up with practicing and my exercise program in the midst of everything else is quite an accomplishment. And, I did take a few minutes to gaze up at the night sky tonight and just appreciate the clarity and the beauty of the stars.

Guitar Nails, Revisited

All of the hours that I’ve spent practicing recently are starting to pay off. I can hear a real difference in the strength and clarity of my playing over just a month or so ago. My tremelo, in particular, has gotten stronger and cleaner. Some of that is due to changes I’ve made in my right hand nails.

I’m still fiddling with my nails to find just the right compromises in length and shape to support both classical guitar tone production and make flamenco rasgueos punchy. It’s a bit tricky, but I’m almost to a solution that minimizes string click in very precise nail/flesh techniques like tremelo (in which I need to have my nails fairly short and place my fingertip with a combination of flesh and nail on the string) and still leaves enough nail length for decent rasgueos. I have not been able to find a way to use longer nails for tremelo – as in a nail only technique – and still maintain the tone quality I want.

One major improvement is that I’ve gotten better at getting the acrylic nails to stay on and minimize the separation between the natural nail and the acrylic overlay. What seems to work best for me is to do the fills on a weekly basis. Over the course of a week, no matter how carefully I prepare my nails, I get some separation between the nail and the acrylic. I now suspect this has more to do with skin oils, showers, and doing dishes, than my previous theories of poorly prepared pytergium and Dremel overuse.

The nail doesn’t grow out all that much in a week, but by carefully grinding back a small amount of acrylic near the base of my nails, I can get beyond the area that has separated. Then, I fill just as I would normally. If I go longer than a week, the separated area gets to be too large and I risk having the nail tear or the acrylic part pop off from additional water getting into the gap.

I did not have good luck with trying to lift the edge of the nail and glue it back down with epoxy. It’s hard to make enough of a gap to get the glue in without further damaging the underlying natural nail, and I’m concerned that it might lead to potential hygiene problems as well. I could never be sure if the gap was adequately dried and disinfected before gluing, and felt it might lead to nail fungus problems.

On the down side of my recent modifications, it is tricky to grind that small of an area back without occasionally nicking your cuticle or nail bed with the Dremel. You need to very careful and really take your time to take it down gradually. Good lighting is a must, and for all of us geezer guitarists, magnifying lenses are quite handy.

One other refinement to my nail routine is that I have changed which grinding bit I use on my nails. I started out using a small, fine-grain tapered bit, but with experience and confidence have gone to a larger, coarser, cylindrical bit. The larger bit lets me take down the acrylic layer faster and cover a larger area when doing the final shaping which leads to a smoother finish over the surface of the nail. When I started out, it would have been too hard for me to control the larger bit, but now it minimizes the time spent and the heat buildup on both the nail (another potential source of separation) and the tool.

After several months of tinkering with my nail routine, I finally have an SOP (standard operating procedure)! Hopefully, this will provide some ideas for those of you who have commented on your own nail trials and tribulations on previous “Guitar Nails” posts.

Critiques, Confusion, Consternation

I’m so confused…

Having dedicated readers from an online writer’s group critique one’s novel is a whole new experience for me. I’m not sure what to do with all of the ideas, suggestions, corrections, and criticisms. Each person has had something valuable to add; each person has also at some point missed something that I thought was startlingly obvious. My knee-jerk reaction is to rework everything to try and make it clear to everyone, but after much thought, it has become plain that that simply is not possible.

The assessments are in some cases diametrically opposed to one another. I made some changes based on one early reader’s comments – cutting out some episodes with minor characters to simplify a overly complex story line – only to have a current DR wonder where a certain group of characters were…why weren’t they represented? They were, until I cut them out to make more room for the main story line.

In another instance, a DR chided me for the quick emotional turnaround of the main character, thinking that it was an unbelievable episode because it happened in a matter of minutes.  It would have been quite unbelievable if it happened in such a short time.  I thought it was clear that the story had progressed from the middle of the night to morning. Several transitional sentences used a change in action and a visual description of the sunrise to cue the reader.  Or, so I thought.

Such misunderstandings leave me to wonder if my writing is that unclear, or if readers are skimming or simply not picking up on the clues. I sincerely want to write well and plainly.  I want to get the story across in an interesting way that does not underestimate my readers’ intelligence or offend their sensibilities overmuch. At the moment, I’m stumped as to what to do to accomplish that.

Overall, the increase in detail on this last rewrite has gone over well.  Except for the sex. One reader said, “Too much.”  Another said, “Too little.”  Another one said, “Wrong kind.” I throw up my hands and say, “I have no idea how to write sex scenes.  If they weren’t integral to the story, I’d cut them all out!”  Kind of hard to do when the story revolves around the trials and tribulations of a couple of soul-mates, so I’d better learn.  Sigh.  Let’s not even talk about how I need to do a better job of making the physical details of an alien race’s sexual mechanics understandable…much less the differences in mores and cultural expectations.

It’s a good thing I’ve got 157,000 words down in a fairly readable form. I’ve gone too far to turn back now!  And, really, much of the critting of the manuscript is spot on and useful.  Several of the DRs put in considerable time and effort.  Wrestling with their critiques will make me a better writer and will improve the story.  It will also harden my writerly hide and force me to make some tough decisions about how to best tell the story.

For now, I’m considering all the different viewpoints and letting it cook while I wait for the last few crits to come in.

Busy, Busy

In the last 24 hours, I’ve signed up my first student at Gilbert music, delivered promo flyers door to door in one neighborhood, handed out business cards everywhere I’ve gone, and labeled a batch of 55 CDs that I sold with all of the new contact information. I also made the drive back up to the high country and have been prepping “the cabin” for the winter this afternoon. I even got an hour in writing the Prologue on the next novel. If it doesn’t rain tomorrow, I’ll mow and finish up a good share of what’s left to do before shutting the place down for the season.

Calling the place in Parks “the cabin” signals the big shift that’s happened in my thinking in the last two weeks. This isn’t “home” any more. It’s the retreat, the getaway. It’s the place that still requires quite a bit of work to have ready for winter. It’s also an asset–the leverage I have into a new life. If I can keep this bit of the past without it being a drain and transform it as I move ahead into the future, fine. If I decide to sell it, it’s not the end of the world. I’ve even had moments of thinking I would feel a lot freer for that. There are good memories here, but there are many not-so-good memories, too.

One more trip back up for a long weekend over Thanksgiving should do the trick. I’ll be able to drain the water system and shut ‘er down. Then, the only things that will get me out of the Valley and “up the hill” over the winter will be a run to get the last load of stuff when I move into my new place and family visits. (And the chance to get in some snow-shoeing and skiing…THINK SNOW!)

I’m actually enjoying the Valley, much to my surprise. Yes, it’s congested, smoggy, and there’s a lot of traffic, but there’s also a lot going on in the arts, much more opportunity and stimulation, and I’m meeting lots of great people. It’s showing me just how isolated I was before I went south. The job hunt is always a grind, but there have been many positive developments this week and I’m finding time to have a little fun, too.

Now, I just need to get back on track with my flamenco guitar practice (again) and my baile. In all the hustle and bustle, those get set aside more often than I would like. But, things are settling down somewhat and I can see that within a few weeks, I should be well into my new life.

Synchronicity Strikes Again

I get this funny feeling that I’m supposed to be teaching guitar in the East Valley…

Today, I went back to pick up my business cards and part of the text had been clipped off, making a reprint necessary. Okay. It meant an extra trip and I had several other stops planned for after that to deliver said new business cards, but I adjusted my plans accordingly. I was told that the reprint would be done this afternoon and to call to see if it was done.

I did. The copy center staff was busy, but another salesclerk checked and said that the cards were ready. I ignored the little voice in the back of my head that said, “You know, she might have seen the other box – the bad box – and assumed that the order was done.” I made another trip across Gilbert…

My intuition was right. The cards weren’t actually done; she had seen the misprinted box. I was polite and went out to my car to steam. I was mad at myself for not listening to my intuition and I wasn’t all that happy about the store’s lack of attention to detail, either. Alright. I decided to adjust my attitude and said to the Universe, “I’m listening. Is there something else I’m supposed to learn or do or see here?”

I looked across the parking lot and saw a sign that, given where I had parked on previous trips, I had not seen before. “MUSIC & ARTS.” Hmmm. Sounds like something worth investigating further.

What do you know? A music store – a nice, big, new one with quite a few teaching studios, too. When I walked through the door the salesperson asked what had brought me in.

“I was over at the office supply store and saw your sign. I’m a guitarist and I thought I’d take a look around,” I replied. (I like to scout things out first…)

“You don’t happen to teach do you?” she asked. No, I’m not kidding. “We really need a guitar teacher…” Those were the very words right out of her mouth not one minute after I walked in the store.

“As a matter of fact, I do.”

I got the tour, the details, and I’m going back to deliver a resume in a little bit. Then, it’s wait to have an interview with the manager. Keep good thoughts. I should know fairly soon, and right in time for the peak lesson signup season of December – January. (All those new Christmas guitars.)

The whole string of events that led to becoming a teacher at Gilbert Music revolved around my carrying my guitar into a coffee shop to keep it from getting too hot in the car. Conversation with one of the counter guys, a drummer, led me to Gilbert Music. That and several other strange little “coincidences” have fueled a running joke with F1 and F2 about how all I needed to do was just carry my guitar around with me everywhere and doors would open. Now, with Music & Arts, it seems that I don’t even need to carry the guitar around…