Pat O’Brien Instruction

If you have found this material helpful, please consider making a donation to the Lute Society of America in memory of either Patrick O’Brien, whose teaching lives on in these documents, or Douglas Alton Smith, through whose efforts this material has been gathered. Your donations will be used to support scholarships to LuteFest, our biennial week of music making, lectures and instruction, in their names. 

The Lute Society of America is offering open accessibility to articles from the LSA Quarterly (in addition to those from the Open Access Journal of the Lute Society of America) featuring the pedagogy of Patrick O’Brien, due to their great value to players and teachers, and especially those musicians afflicted by musicians’ injuries.

Journal Articles about Pat O’Brien

Journal 2016 & 2017, multiple articles
Journal 2015, multiple articles
Journal 2014, lesson transcription

Quarterly Articles by or about Pat O’Brien

LSA Quarterly 2014 No. 4
LSA Quarterly 2007 No. 1

Patrick O’Brien and Douglas Alton Smith: Breaking New Ground

An Introduction to JLSA Volumes 47–50

by Katharyn R. Benessa

Volumes 47, 48, 49, and 50 of the Journal of the Lute Society of America are the product of two extraordinary people: Patrick O’Brien, a brilliant pedagogue, and Douglas Alton Smith, distinguished researcher, writer, and editor.

In the summer of 2016, Doug posted a notice with the Guitar Foundation of America calling for contributions from people who studied with Patrick O’Brien. He specifically sought those who went to Pat to restore playing abilities damaged by any form of repetitive stress disorder. I was the first to respond. As other former students came on board, drolly dubbed by Doug as “ex-Patricks,” we all quickly realized that no one’s enthusiasm surpassed Doug’s. He tracked down players and coaxed articles out of non-writers. His dedication and sheer tenacity in following every thread was inspiring.

Over the subsequent two years I responded to almost 400 emails from Doug. Multiply that correspondence by the twelve other contributors to these volumes and one can only feel awe and gratitude for his commitment. What started as two possible volumes, soon became four (over 300 pages), and the product of someone who spent 50 years dedicated to researching, writing, and editing. Through this project Doug created a legacy only exceeded by his monograph, A History of the Lute from Antiquity to the Renaissance.

And in turn, Doug’s work ensures the legacy of Patrick O’Brien. 

Doug, who incidentally had no playing injuries, considered Pat’s anatomy-based approach “a new paradigm in plucked-string instruction” (email, Aug 4, 2016), and confirmed his commitment to publishing these teachings:  

“I came long ago to the conclusion that Pat had to be taken very seriously because he was basing his teaching on fundamental principles of how our anatomy works, and nobody understood the issues as well as he did. And that’s why his exercises are likely to work.”

(email, July 31, 2016)

Doug’s commitment is best illustrated by the primary article of this series (Volume 47, “Lessons with Patrick O’Brien”), which stems from a two-day excursion to New York City for the express purpose of recording the details of Pat’s method. Although Doug admitted that receiving Pat’s instruction in person was the best method, he acknowledged that:

The problem with confining one’s instruction to single students at a time is of course that the message does not get disseminated at all and nobody benefits beyond the fortunate few who can take personal lessons. Millions never get the message, they remain in the dark. I believe it’s better to publish Pat’s method as he told it to me, and the stories of how he treated several patient-students, in the anticipation that sensible and competent readers will adopt the principles and practice the exercises as intended.

(email, Sept 28, 2016)

Doug was gratified to see Volume 47 come to print and distributed, the fruition of two years’ work. Sadly, he passed away before the remaining volumes went to print. Those of us involved in this project are all grateful to have known these two extraordinary groundbreakers, Patrick O’Brien and Douglas Alton Smith. 

A Brief Summary of Each Volume

Volume 47

Volume 47 contains transcriptions of Doug’s lessons with Pat. These lessons are the heart of the project. They include instruction and exercises for both the left hand and right hand, in addition to the optimum way to hold and use flat picks and fingerpicks. The lessons are detailed and use scientific terminology.

The discussion of joints and muscles on pages 7–16 is paramount for every teacher and player. Pat felt that all players should learn this basic anatomy in order to understand how our hands, arms, and bodies function when playing an instrument. Instruction on the left hand is covered from pages 17–36, and right hand information on pages 37–40. Advice on how to best use picks is covered on pages 57–71.

Through almost forty years of development and evolution, Pat built an approach to right and left hand playing technique based on the correct use of anatomy. Because of that, his exercises can be used by all plucked-string players, no matter the instrument or genre. In fact, Doug was more of a dobro player at the time of his lessons. The reader will discover that Pat often embellished his instruction by incorporating stories of artists from other genres, especially those in blues and bluegrass. Among the four volumes you will find references to Eric Clapton, Bill Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs, Django Reinhardt, Count Basie, and Doc Watson, not to mention lute players such as Robert Strizich, Cathy Liddell, and Paul O’Dette, among many others.

Note on Musician’s injuries: If you have come to these volumes looking for help with a musician’s injury, you may want to begin with the double issue (volumes 49–50), which includes accounts from people who consulted Pat regarding their musicians’ injuries. Following that, it is recommended you return to Volume 47 for more detailed instruction and exercises.

Note on exercises in tablature: The exercises included in the following volumes are intended for use by all plucked-string players of all genres, however many are published in French lute tablature and so I included brief explanation here. Reading this tablature may initially feel unfamiliar, but it is not unlike guitar tablature. There are 6 lines, each representing one string, with the highest-pitched string represented by the top line, and the lowest-pitched string represented by the lowest line. The letters indicate frets: “a” is the open string, “b” is first fret, “c” is second fret, etc. There is no “j.”

 a  b  c  d  e  f  g  h  i   k   l   m   n 
 Fret  0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8  9 10 11 12
Table 1: Letters representing frets in French lute tablature

Volume 48

Volume 48 includes transcriptions of video recordings and articles ranging from 1979 to 2009. The left hand studies of Volume 47 are reinforced. A lecture called “How to Practice” beginning on page 23 is highly relevant to amateurs, beginners, and people without instructors. Volume 48 also includes the only material geared specifically for lute players and includes instruction on how to learn first pieces (with a composition included), and a methodical approach to improvising on the lute. Other reference to early music playing occurs in Volume 47 in the article referring to Pat’s part in forming the Continuo Collective of NYC.


Volumes 49–50

Volumes 49–50 is a double issue that includes accounts from nine players suffering from a variety of musicians’ injuries who sought out Pat for his assistance. Four of these accounts regard issues of carpel tunnel syndrome and tendinitis of the left hand. These articles often repeat exercises shared in Volume 47. For articles about focal dystonia, five musicians share their stories about working with Pat, beginning on page 67.

Additional articles in Volumes 49–50 include a few lovely words from Pat’s daughter Elanor, Patrick’s discussion of his own injury, an excerpt from book The Hand, and remarks from Pat’s teacher and friend, Alice Artzt. 

Note to other musicians who studied with Patrick O’Brien: If you were one of the people Pat assisted in recovering from a musician’s injury, we would like to hear from you. Please contact Katharyn Benessa at bouhou@frii.com, or another of our featured authors, Brian Hays at haysenator@gmail.com.