My Solo Program for Summer 2014

This summer I have to carry around three instruments because my solo program includes music for theorbo, classical and flamenco guitar. The first concert was on 27th of May at the tower of Tartu Jaani (St. John) church The first floor of tower accommodates 50 listeners and has a mystical atmosphere. And the floor is uneven, making me seasick 🙂 The banner:

tornimuusika plakat 2014
Today (Friday 13th) I continue my tour around the mystical venues and perform at the Kassari Chapel. It is located on the Kassari island. It took me 6 hours to get here from Tartu. Now I am here at the hotel room, practicing for the evening. My program is clued to the back of my guitars as always:


Oh yes, I forgot to say that in Jaani church I had the soprano Pirjo Püvi from the National Opera performing with me. We did Barbara Strozzi’s “L’Amante segreto”. Today I will play alone and instead of Strozzi I will play B. Castaldi’s La Follia. Here’s how I did it yesterday at my kitchen table (playing in a stone chapel on a rainy and cold day will probably be a bit different):

The tangos and farruca are composed by me for the dancer Maria Rääk. I play them a bit differently since I don’t have a dancer today. Lauri Jõeleht’s “Häll” (“The Cradle”) is a piece that he wrote for me 6-7 years ago but I never had a chance to master it. Now I have learnt the piece and hope to record soon. It is based on an Estonian folk song.

The banner of today’s concert (It’s a small guitar festival):

kassari kitarrid 2014


Tablature Versus Standard Notation Among Hobby Guitarists

Some time ago I put a poll to a popular online guitar school’s website and asked visitors how do they learn their new pieces and this is what I got: imageSeems that I have an intelligent audience because the majority can read music 🙂 OK, these are mostly grown up people (mean age 27 years, 66% male) and this is they way it should be. To verify my results and to see if anything has changed, I repeated the poll a year later and got very similar results: image (1)Here I have put the both polls together and it seems pretty safe to assume that these are the proportions that I could use when planning my business: image (2) Then I thought: ‘Wait a minute, I asked how they learn mostly, but it can be that some people read both tab and standard notation.’ Again, I just asked them. This is what I got: image (3) Seems like I was right – of course there are people who read both notations. And it looks like most of the people are happy with what they have as only about 15% say they don’t read music but would like to.

What Hurts the Guitarist?

Intro and background

Besides general health problems, many musicians also suffer from specific, playing-related musculosceletal disorders (PRMD). These are most often connected to the muscles of the back, neck, limbs and face, and have been documented since the end of the 19th century. The highest risk group of PRMD are the female musicians and string players (Zaza, Farewell, 1997; Kenny, Ackermann, 2013).

Playing a musical instrument means a lot of repeating movements and often the player has to stretch her hands and fingers to extreme positions, which can cause one form of the PRMD – overuse syndrome. A Spanish study has found that 75% of the guitarists from their sample were suffering from the overuse syndrome, thereof 62.5% of the classical guitarist and 87.5% of the flamenco guitarists, who also were reported to practice more (Marques et al., 2003)

David Johnson (2009) analyzed 13 articles on guitarists’ PRMD and found that using a foot stool instead of a guitar support raises the risk. He also brings out the the medicine related to the performing arts is comparatively young and basically starts with the birth of the magazine Medical Problems of Performing Artists loomisega in 1986.

In addition to PRMD and the overuse syndrome, the health problems of musicians are also caused by extreme doses of loud sounds (McBride et al., 1992) and working stress (Parasuraman, Purohit, 2000). These problems are more common amongs the professional musicians while current study focuses on the problems that also hobbyist have – feeling pain while playing. I have investigated the relations between the pain and practicing habits.



Translation: Pillitüübid=types of guitar, akustiline kitarr = acoustic guitar, klassikaline kitarr=classical guitar, elektrikitarr=electric guitar, basskitarr=bass guitar, keskmine=average, mehed=male, naised=female

Participants. 387 hobby-guitarists with mean age of 30.82 years and 5.98 years of playing history submitted the questionnaire. 66% were male, 34% female.


Translation: Mänguasend=playing position, istudes abivahendita=sitting without any additional devices, istudes rihmaga=sitting with the strap, püsti rihmaga=standing with the stratp, istudes jalatoega=sitting with a foot stool, istudes pillitoega=sitting with a guitar support.

Measuring. The participants estimated on a 5-point Likert scale how often they have experienced pain in back, shoulders, wrists, fingers, and feet while playing. They also had a chance for free comments. The Spearman correlation was used to detect the relations between variables and t-test to compare the means.


What hurts?

Most often the pain was experienced in fingers (85% juhtudest), followed by wrists (58,4%), shoulders (38,2%), back (35,8%) and feet (14,2%). The rank was the same regardless to the playing experience, playing position, and type of guitar with one exception: for those who use a guitar support instead of a footstool (n=16) pain in the back was the most frequent. Some mentioned pain in neck (2%), head, bottom, elbow. 4% said they never feel pain while playing (3% females, 4.7% males).

Translation: Kui paljudel..= How many people said that their … hurts while playing, sõrmed=fingers, randmed=wrists, õlad=shoulders, selg=back, jalad=feet

Male vs Female

Statistically significant differences between male and female participants were the playing experience (4.37 average years for females, 6.82 for males), feeling the pain in fingers (female 88.7%, male 83.1%), and wrists (female 62.9%, male 55.9%)


The longer the playing history the more pain in back (rho= –.173**), feet (rho= –142**) and shoulders (rho= –.186**). And less pain in fingers (rho=.261**). If the back hurts, then often do the feet (rho= .235**) or shoulders (rho= .356**).

Relations between age and the frequency of feeling pain while playing the guitar were insignificant. The more breaks between practice sessions the less pain in the back (rho= –.178**) and shoulders (rho= –.189**). The longer the practice sessions, the more pain in the back  (rho=–.256**) and shoulders (rho=–.247**). The longer the practice session the less breaks (obvious!) (rho= .289**).

What do people do with the pain?

On average, the participants practise 51 min per day and have breaks after every 49 minutes. By far the most frequent answer to the question “What have you done with your pains?” is “Nothing”. Others named playing less and some people have visited a doctor. A few participants said they have changed their repertoire, playing position or playing techniques, also adjusting the guitar (height and tension of strings, length of strap), exercising, longer playing breaks.


Only 4% said they never experienced pain during playing the guitar. Nevertheless most of the participants plan to do nothing to solve the problem. The ratio of playing sessions and the frequency of taking breaks indicates that most of the players never have breaks. More than the frequency of breaks, having pains was predicted by the overall length of the time dedicated to practicing. It is in line with previous research on overuse syndrome. Reducing the overall practicing time is possible via using more effective practice methods.

It is remarkable that having pains is related with playing experience but not with the age of the player. Moreover, physically more active people do not have less pains which is in line with Kenny and Ackermann (2013): people practicing yoga, jogging, swimming, exercising, going to gym etc do not have less PRMD.

midateedTranslation: Kas oled oma valudega midagi…=Have you done anything with your pains?;
Ei, tuleb kannatada=no, gotta suffer 🙂
Jah, olen vähem..=yes, I play less
Ei, aga on..=no, but I will, jah, olen pöördunud..=yes, I have visited doctor or other specialist, Muud…=other

Players with guitar support (instead of foot stool) experienced more pain in back than others. Probably we should not conclude that their pains are caused by the guitar support. Rather it is likely that they have started to use guitar supports because they wanted to reduce the pain they already had. This is also what one participant said.

Although there are interesting relations between different guitar types and practicing habits, it was out of the scope of current study. The most important result is that the participants of this study felt pain in exactly in same body areas regardless to their instrument type or playing position. A case study would be appropriate to move on with investigating the possible solutions.


Johanson, D. 2009. Classical guitar and playing-related musculoskeletal problems. A systematic review. University of Lund.

Kenny, D., Ackermann, B. 2013. Performance-related musculoskeletal pain, depression and music performance anxiety in professional orchestral musicians: A population study. Psychology of Music, avaldatud elektrooniliselt 2. sept. 2013. DOI: 10.1177/0305735613493953.

Marques, D.N., Rosset–Llobet, J., Fonseca Marques, M.F., Gurgel, I.G.D., Augusto, L.G.S. 2003. Flamenco guitar as a risk factor for overuse syndrome. Medical Problems of Performing Arts 18, 11–14.

McBride, D., Gill, F., Proops, D., Harrington, M., Gardiner, K., Attwell, C. 1992. Noise and the classical musician. British Medical Journal 305, 1561–1563.

Parasuraman, S., Purohit, Y.S.. 2000. Distress and boredom among orchestra musicians: the two faces of stress. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology 5, 1, 74–83.

Zaza, C., Farewell, V.T. 1997. Musicians’ playing-related musculoskeletal disorders: an examination of risk factors. American Journal of Industrial Medicine 32, 292–300.

Zaza, C. 1998. Playing-related musculoskeletal disorders in musicians: a systematic review of incidence and prevalence. Canadian Medical Association Journal 158, 1019–25.


** p<.01, * p<.05


Author: Kristo Käo, MA, guitar pedagogy lecturer at the Estonian Academy of Music and Theatre, PhD student of educational technology at the University of Tartu, partner of
Originally published in Estonian, Sept. 2013 (guitar magazine KITARR). Rough and shortened translation.

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MatchMySound: A Feedback Hub For Music Teachers

Learners Need Feedback

Anyone who learns a musical instrument wants to know how is he/she doing. In other words, learners need feedback. Sadly, two of the most popular learning models today – online learning and learning by textbooks – tend to omit it almost completely. But what about the traditional and luxurious one-by-one teaching? While I must admit that this model is all about feedback, it is actually suffering from the same problem. For example, consider the 10 000 hour rule: if a student would practice only in the class and the lessons are twice a week, it would take 96 years to acquire the expert skills. So, obviously, most of the practicing is still done alone and without professional feedback. One may then reply ‘So what, it’s been like that for a thousand years!’, but the enormous and unprecedented competition that we have today puts musicians under considerably more pressure than ever before. People have less time and, at the same time, thanks to mass media are also too well aware of exactly how good the top players in their game are. That is the driving force behind finding more effective solutions for music education at all levels.

A screencast by the authors Kristo Käo and Margus Niitsoo

Human And Automated Feedback

Alright then, more and better feedback might help. But where to find such a super patient (while also good yet affordable) music teacher that stands by while a student is practicing and ensures that everything is done correctly? Would anyone want to practice under constant surveillance at all? Experimenting with automated feedback in music education already has some years of history and research suggests that the best results are obtained if human and automatic feedback are combined. There are certain things that humans do better than the algorithms and vice versa. For example, our MatchMySound can be very picky when it comes to technical details: correctness of intonations, length of notes (rhythms, articulations), accuracy and changes of speed.  Even after 15 years of teaching and 2000+ students, I’m nowhere close to the level of feedback the algorithm gives. Not in precision or speed, and definitely not in cost.

Sound Recognition Vs Comparing To Etalons

We are not the only ones aiming to fix the broken feedback link in music education. Existing solutions using sound recognition tend to compare user input to some form of notation: MIDI, standard sheet music or tablature. We believe that we have improved the situation a great deal as we are comparing the students’ audio input to what their teachers have recorded. On one hand it means that students do not have to watch the screen while playing. The computer is just an assistant: sitting quietly and listening. But most importantly – comparing the audio files of the teacher and student makes it possible to spot possible differences in great detail. Plus, the motivating effect of a teacher as a role model should not be underestimated. Exactly how often did your teacher play your homework fluently in front of you while you were studying?

Teachers need feedback, too!

Last but not least, while recording the audio etalons to their students, the teachers also get feedback on their own playing. Maybe even more importantly, the teachers also get feedback about the quality of their exercises. For example, some of their exercises may be completed too easily while the others take too much time to be mastered fluently. For many teachers, it is hard to admit that the exercise they have assigned is too hard for the student, so we just advise practicing more instead of adapting the exercise plan. That’s what I hated most about my own studies. Although I believe that there is always a lot to learn, leaving the classroom and knowing that I still cannot play the instrument although I had practiced 2 years, 6 years, ultimately 20 years, really killed the motivation. That is also where we can see that giving objectively measurable homework can help to motivate music students. Yes, these are just intonations, articulations, rhythms and tempos that we can measure today (with great accuracy, though!) but there will be no art until you have learned your scales and studies!

If you are a musical instrument teacher and want to start using the MatchMySound Beta (free of charge until the official release), please write to We have a limited number of Beta users that we can accept.

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Did you take your medicine today?

In medicine there is a term ‘prescription compliance’. I think in music education it is pretty much the same – we as teachers give the students great exercises but these won’t work unless they actually master those before moving on.

That is why we keep writing new method books but what we should really do is to make sure that the students take their ‘prescription’ seriously.


A fun fact: ‘pill’ in Estonian (that’s what we speak here) means ‘musical instrument’ 🙂

A Free Online Course For Learning To Play Simple Melodies On The Guitar

A guitar is an instrument that enables you to play either melodies, chords, or rhythm, and everything at once. The simplest way to start, though, is by playing melodies.

During this mini-course you will acquire the main skills and knowledge you need to play melodies on a guitar both by ear as well as from sheet music and tablature.

The only provision is that you have a guitar to use and a bit of time to practice. Just follow the instructions and try to be as accurate as possible from the very beginning, this way you will definitely reach your goal.

Proceed to the free melody course for beginners >>

The melody course has our brand new MatchMySound feedback plugins installed so you will know if you’ll make mistakes.



Our Team Got Some Funding For The MatchMySound Project

vega_finalAfter finishing the guitar chord game we have been working on a bigger project called MatchMySound. It is a web app for music teachers that allows them to give their students  measurable homework. Basically an automated music teacher that has a very good ear for students’ mistakes. It distinguishes between the timing and sound mistakes and timing has also three aspects: rhythm, tempo stability and speed.

This Monday we competed with 11 other teams at the University of Tartu’s Vega Foundation’s final round. We had a 3 minute pitch and 10 min Q&A. Here is an excerpt from the university’s press release:

The aim of the project is to develop a tool of mathematic algorithm-based automatic control for music teachers. “Until now, teachers have not been able to give homework that could be genuinely measured. This software solution will analyse the teacher’s performance and will compare it to the performance of the student, so that the students will know if they are already as good as their teacher,” Käo explains the working principle of MatchMySound.

Full photo gallery from here. We will launch the MatchMySound Beta next week!

Rhythm, Meter, Tempo – What Are They?

One important part of a melody is the pitch but besides that we must deal with another highly important characteristic of notes – duration or length. You might have heard terms rhythm, meter, tempo. What are they?

  1. To produce rhythm, we need at least two notes, and they should not be played very far from each other in time. If I play one note today and the next one tomorrow, it won’t be perceived as rhythm. Rhythm is what characterizes the relations between lengths and pitches of notes.
  2. Meter is produced by regular recurrence of stressed and unstressed beats. The rule of thumb says that that the first beat of a bar is always stressed. However, there are several types of dances where the stress is elsewhere.
  3. Tempo is used to characterize how quickly it all is happening – the greater the tempo, the shorter each note will get, and vice versa.

If there is a dot next to the note, it will add 50% to its duration. For instance, a dotted quarter note would be the length of a quarter plus an eighth.

In time signature, the more important number is the upper one – it shows how many beats there are in a bar. Time signature C means 4/4. This is an ancient time signature, abbreviation from common time, and it is indeed the most common time signature.

Chord Of The Week: D7

D7 is often the first seventh chord that one learns when starting to play guitar chords. In my children’s guitar method book I introduce the D7 even earlier than D major triad. I do it because very often the D7 is preceded by C major and then it is possible to leave the first finger on 2nd string and make the chord shifting easier.


Make sure you do not strum more than four strings! If you play the fifth string then the result is D7/A (second inversion of the chord). If you strike all six strings then we can sure name it but it will not make any sense 🙂

Most often the G major follows and then you can slide your third finger from 2nd to 3rd fret and you’re done.



Now go and practice this chord with automated feedback at to make sure it sounds right. If you cannot wait until the C7 comes, you can build a custom level where you put exactly the chords that you want to practice.

Play Your Chords So That The Picture And Sound Match

I have just finished a long guitar course for middle school music teachers. We started in Aug 2013 and had 32 x 45 min group lessons during the year. The main goal was to teach them to teach chords. Btw, Estonia is probably the only country in the world where guitar is now in the middle school curriculum. After some years every single Estonian has at least touched the guitar. Anyways, the teachers did well and most of them really can form and play common chords. I tested it with our strumProfessor guitar game where their goal was to complete at least level 11. Most of the teachers liked the possibility to practice quietly at home without any additional stress. Although, some said the those falling chords make them a bit nervous 🙂


But about 10 teachers said that for technical reasons they could not complete the test on their computer. For them I had another test: they came in front of the class and played as many chords in one minute as they could remember. Different chords, of course. And they had to pronounce the chord names, too. The average was about 15 chords which is good enough for pretty much everything. But… No comes the point: in most cases the chords they took looked right and the shifts were quick, but the sound was fuzzy and buzzy and sometimes only one or two strings were ringing. That is probably why they couldn’t complete the automatic test: computer is stupid enough to expect the chords sound as we have told it they should. As a human being (although a musician) I apparently got fooled by the looks more easily 🙂 There are some interesting research papers on that topic, which I can introduce some time later.

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