Mirror Neurons

-Monkey see, Monkey do-

by Nina Fourie-Gouws

Like many, my first encounter with guitar was not through classical music but rather ‘strum-and-hum’ group classes in primary school. The first time I saw someone playing classical guitar I was about 10 years old. I was totally transfixed! I begged-and-begged the poor guy to teach me how to play “thát song” until he finally gave in. By looking at what he was playing I learnt both sections of Spanish Romance in less than 30 minutes and so my life long love affair with classical guitar started.

There are obviously negatives as well as positives to learning to play by mimicking others, but I have often wondered why I responded so well to that method.

Maurizio Villa

I had the privilege of attending a workshop in 2014 in Italy with Maurizio Villa, guitar professor at the Conservatory of San Pietro a Majella in Naples. Maurizio made use of High Definition video equipment to examine and rectify mistakes in participants’ playing and technique through slow-motion viewing.

We had individual sessions where Maurizio and his assistant, Alessandro Germanò, recorded our playing from different angles simultaneously (front, side and top). After they had captured and analysed the data, we had follow up sessions where we then viewed the problems Maurizio highlighted in super slow motion, using software to insure that the intonation stayed the same no matter what speed the footage was played at. Oh the joy of seeing all your twitches and mistakes in super slow mo, over-and-over!

According to Maurizio, one could more easily rectify and understand technical inaccuracies in significantly less time than the traditional ‘comment-and-repetition’ form of teaching if you saw it with your own eyes. Pure genius!

I must admit that it took 2 interpreters and lots of hand gestures for me to understand Maurizio since my Italian is at about the same level as his English. In the end his hand gestures did the trick.

What I learnt

The muscles and tendons that flex your fingers and help you make a fist are called flexors. Extensors are the muscles and tendons that help you open that fist.

I have always believed that you can only play as fast as your extensor muscles take your finger back to its starting block, ready to repeat the process for the following note and the main reason why flamenco players have the ability play so fast is because they exercise these extensor muscles extensively through rasgueado (a flamenco strumming technique). It took Maurizio about 5 minutes to blow that theory out of the water.

While you do need your flexor muscles and tendons to play a note, there is no need to use the extensor muscles; If you release the flexor muscle tension the extensor tendon pulls the finger back to the starting block automatically. Not only does this happen without having to use any muscles, but the extensor tendon also pulls back the finger much faster and with a lot less energy than by using the extensor muscle.

All these years I’ve been paying for a return ticket when a one-way would’ve made do!

Maurizio picked up on this when he zoomed in on my right hand in slow motion. You could see that when I was playing something fast I overextended my extensor motion ever so slightly past the finger’s normal ‘starting block’.


Mauricio’s concept of learning through viewing is based on research by Giacomo Rizzolatti and Laila Craighero regarding The Mirror-Neuron System.

These neurophysiologists first conducted research in this field in the ‘80’s and ‘90’s by placing electrodes on the frontal lobe (the part of the brain involving planning, control, and execution of voluntary movements) of Macaque monkeys. During experiments they recorded the response of single neurons to certain movements. They came to the conclusion that some neurons responded in the same manner when the primate picked up a piece of fruit than when it observed a person picking up the fruit.

In other words, a mirror neuron is a nerve cell that fires when animals act or observe the same actions in others. The neuron thus mirrors the behaviour as if it was not only an observer, but an active participant.

Unfortunately it’s not yet possible to study single neurons in the human brain but motor resonance experiments that use fMRI scans to measure brain activity through detecting changes in blood flow, have shown that parts of the frontal lobe are active when a person performs an action, as well as when they see another individual performing an action.

Coincidentally, a series of recent studies by Yawei Cheng has concluded that female exhibit stronger motor resonance than males, but we’ll keep gender war out of this article.

Making science work for you

In short, because the same neurons fire while playing as well as when viewing it is possible to learn from viewing our own, as well as someone else’s, mistakes without playing a single note.

Even without using expensive camera equipment and software you can still record your playing from different angles and fine comb through the footage frame-by-frame to see where you went wrong and to fix the problem.

I’ve found that this also works wonders in the classroom; I zoom in on a student’s over-active left hand thumb or any other technical issue with my trusty little, outdated iPhone and we view the footage together. Hours of guitar nerd fun where you get to play the detective, scientist and musician in the same slow motion film.

Becoming your own teacher

Part one

by Nina Fourie-Gouws

I’m currently living in a city that is truly breathtakingly beautiful but also the most Southern tip of Africa. You can’t really be further away from master classes, competitions or formal guitar events.

Irrespective of location or access to resources I think most guitarist come to a point after their studies and ask “what now?’. You are suddenly at the helm of your own ship. You then have to change roles. You can longer be just the student; you will need to become your own teacher (and inevitably agent and roadie).

Good teachers teach you how to play guitar at a high level. Great teachers teach you how to think for yourself. Exceptional teachers push you to find your own feet, show you how to walk the performance tightrope and then kick you out of the nest while gently shouting criticism about programme selection, phrasing and business ethics as you plummet to certain death.

Here are a few tips that have helped me in becoming my own ‘exceptional’ teacher.

Critical listening skills

Listen to a lot of music. What do/don’t you like about the recording? Listen to other instruments. Guitarists tend to think in really short lines. Listen to violinists and pianists and try to recreate their long lines.

You’ll often hear musicians that claim that one shouldn’t listen to others playing the same repertoire for fear of not being original. Like David Russell says, imitate others. How will you ever be able to duplicate what you hear in your own head if you can’t imitate others?

We really should be able to impersonate other players. Try playing the same Bach piece like Yo-yo Ma, John Williams then Segovia. Try copying other player’s sound. You’ll have hours of guitar nerd fun and you’ll learn a lot about yourself! The bigger the library of sounds and versions you can recreate the more you’ll be able to enrich your unique version. We shouldn’t get stuck in playing something just one way. If we are completely honest with ourselves it’s often because of technical issues that we’re suck with just one version or solution.

Playing without mistakes while being expressive is not something that magically happens if you play a piece over-and-over. If there’s a niggly bit in the piece: stop – listen – problem solve – fix it! Don’t think you’ll have time to do it tomorrow, rather do it now.

Record yourself. Sharon Isbin, Martha Masters and many other guitarists suggest that you record yourself during practice sessions. Even though most guitarists have the ability to be highly critical when listening to recordings or other guitarists in concert, critical listening skills are often lacking in our own playing.

Be honest about what you hear but be scientific in your response. Constantly be in a problem solving state of mind. Be emotional in your playing, not emotional about your playing. Let go of the ego and you’ll be surprised in how fulfilling practice sessions can be.

Natural is best

I like to think of myself as the naturalist guitarist. I try to keep things involving posture and technique as simple and natural as possible.

That’s why I really appreciate Gaëlle Solal’s tips about shaping nails. Easily re-creatable is always best. If you have to use a protractor to recreate your perfect shape it’s possibly not the best shape to start with. Here’s her straight forward solution: If you don’t have problem nails stick to short natural nails and that follow the shape of your fingertips. You need to be able to do your nails in minutes, from shaping to finishing off with micro mesh before your first cup of coffee.

It’s very important to be knowledgeable about the different guitar schools and techniques, for example Able Carlevaro’s, but in my humble opinion one of the best investments you can ever make as a guitarist is a full length mirror.

Look at yourself while playing. Do you look comfortable? We tend to get so involved in what’s happening in the music that we forget about how we feel. That’s why I ask if you look comfortable because you probably wont be able to objectively say if you feel uncomfortable.

Think that you have a stable sitting position? Try sitting on an oversized (85cm) Pilates ball. Feeling comfortable? Now try practising on one!

Are you using your wrists in their natural range, in other words if you had to punch someone using the same wrist shape as you do while playing would you break your wrist?

Look at your right hand while playing. If your hand is bouncing up and down like an excited cocker spaniel, fix it! Minimalist movements use less energy, are more accurate and save your hands in the long run. Make sure your finger movements originate from your knuckles.

Holidays aren’t just holidays any more

I find myself planning vacations and trips abroad around festivals, concerts and master classes that I want to attend as well as personal idols that agree to see me for a few one-to-one lessons.

Guitar retreats, or as I call them boot camps, are great options. The Volterra Guitar Project has been one of my favourite experiences to date.

Two tips:

  • When travelling to festivals pack really lightly because one thing I’ve learned is that the sheet music you bought at 50% off can easily push you over the baggage weight limit (As if travelling with a guitar is not difficult enough).
  • Try to organize a concert for yourself while you are travelling. A lot of the concert series are happy to host international players but do not have the funds to pay for travel.

Master classes and dealing with critique

If they don’t know you personally don’t take it personally – (author unknown).

Remember that words like “terrible, bad” especially combined with “technique, sound” are not reflections on you as a person but are meant to help you.

Even if you don’t agree with everything you’re told in a master class you should always try to implement the advice before you dismiss it. You should pride yourself in being able to adapt your phrasing, tone, fingering and sound at a moments notice.

A lot of guitarists tend to ignore criticism at master classes and only strive to impress. “How did you find the master class?” after the entire class was spent helping the fellow participant with right hand technique issues. “What a total waste of time! I didn’t get to play through the piece and obviously I don’t agree with his approach to music.” This coming from someone whom is on a first name basis with the local physiotherapist and knows how doctors administer cortisone to wrists. On the other hand these players usually blossom when they only get positive affirmations.

Usually criticism offends you most if you have feared the same to be true. In an article written by Martha Beck about dealing with insults she quotes a popular Chinese insult: You are a turtle’s egg.

Somehow this insult seems wasted on Western ears because we obviously know that we are not turtle eggs. So if you have done your homework regarding perhaps ornamentation, stylistic approaches and phrasing and you are unfairly critiqued on those aspects then you can graciously listen and brush off afterwards what you don’t need and embrace the feedback that is needed.