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.   DONATE NOW


The Lute Society of America is offering open accessibility to Volumes 47–50 of the 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.

—The Board of the Lute Society of America

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.”




























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 Pats daughter Elanor, Patricks 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 



The following Table of Contents has been modified from the original printed version to provide more detail enabling the reader quicker access to pertinent articles. In addition to headings, now subheadings and exercises are added, with accompanying page numbers, and cross referencing between articles is included when deemed useful. Sections regarding right and left hand instruction, and articles specifically related to tendinitis, carpel tunnel syndrome, and focal dystonia are clarified when not easily understood by the title.


On the Genesis of this Memorial Issue for Patrick O’Brien, by Douglas Alton Smith, 1

Lessons with Patrick O’Brien, by Patrick O’Brien, transcribed and edited by Douglas Alton Smith. (From lessons in May, 2012. Smith played a steel-string guitar for his lesson. O’Brien said the same lessons could be applied to any plucked-string instrument), 4

Editor's Introduction, 4

Day One, First Session, 7

(This material is reinforced in Volume 48, pages 1–22)

Primary discussion of joints and muscles, 7–17

The Three Causes of Hand Injury, 7

Distal Flexion: Bending the Tip Joint, 7

Bending from the MCP and PIP Joints, 9

The Critical Cocontraction Problem, 13

Abduction, 14

Overuse of Opposers, 15

Holding the Instrument, 16

The Pencil Trick, 17

The Left Hand, 19–35

Practicing Adduction, 18

Training the Fourth Finger, 19

Adduction Exercises: Keeping Fingers Perpendicular to the Fingerboard, 20

Exercise 1: Static adduction, 21

Wrist Position, 22

O’Brien’s Library and the Continuo Collective, 24

Adduction Continued, 26

Exercise 2: Dynamic adduction in half tones, 27

Smoothing the Back of the Neck, 28

Adduction Further Down the Neck, 29

Post Adduction Exercises, 31

Exercise 3: Adduction scales with four fingers, 31

Exercise 4: Adduction arpeggios, 32

Flexion and Release, 33

Robert Barto at the 1984 Toronto Guitar Festival, 36

Day One, Session Two, 37 

The Right Hand, 37–40

Right Hand: Relaxing the Fingertip Segments, 37

Playing from the Large Joints, 38

Left Hand: Quick Release for Speed and Practicing with a Metronome, 40

Day Two, 44

Proximal Muscle Groups, 44

Kinesthetic Memory, 45

Stage Fright, 46

Practicing, 47

Exercise 5: Warmup and orientation on low frets, 48

Exercise 6: Warmup and low-fret orientation with fingers 1 and 4, 51

Slur Exercises, 52

Exercise 7: Slurs on open strings, Step 1, 53

Exercise 8: Slurs on open strings, Step 2, 54

Exercise 9: Slurs on open strings, Step 3, 54

Exercise 10: Slurs between fingers, 55

Finger Relaxation, 55

Adduction and Slurs, 56

Exercise 11: Adducting fingers 2 and 4, 56

Example of Bjorn Borg, 57

Fingerpicks and Flat Picks, 57

Flatpicking, 58

Fingerpicks, 62

Fingerpicks: Conclusion, 65

Conclusion, 71
Glossary of Terms and Concepts in these Lessons, 72


Monologue on the Left Hand, by Patrick O’Brien, taped in 1991, transcribed and edited from a digitized videotape by Douglas Alton Smith. (This recording was intended by Pat to advise guitarists with technical difficulties or injuries. The monologue reinforces the material covered in Volume 47, pages 19–35), 1

Editor’s Introduction, 1

On the Left Hand, 1

Abduction, 3

Adduction, 5

Arm Position, 8 

(See Exercise 1: Static adduction, Vol 47, page 21. Exercise 1–11 can be incorporated through the rest of this monologue)

Static Adduction Exercise: The Squeeze, 9

Adduction Exercise Playing Tones, 11

The Vibrato, 11

Slurs, 12

Practicing Wider Intervals, 12

(see Exercise 11: Adducting fingers 2 and 4 on slurs, Vol 47, 56)

Summary, 14

The Left Arm, by Patrick O’Brien, taped in 1991, transcribed and edited from a digitized videotape by Douglas Alton Smith,16

Editor’s Introduction, 16

The Left Arm, 16

How to Practice: A Lecture, by Patrick O’Brien, taped in 1982, transcribed and edited by Douglas Alton Smith, 23

Editor’s Introduction, 23

The Purpose of Practicing, 23

How to Master Fast Runs, 24

Practice a Piece Correctly Every Time, 25

When and How to Practice, 27

Ergonomic Requirements for Practicing, 28

Physical Considerations, 29

Beginning to Practice: the Right Hand, 30

Feeling How it Feels to Play, 30

Using Each Finger Independently, 31

Practicing Slowly for Speed, 32

Staccato Practicing — the Quick Release, 33

Paul O’Dette Practicing, 34

Focusing on Details, 34

Playing Opposition (Simultaneous Notes with Thumb and a Finger), 35

Left-Hand Basics, 36

Finger Placement, 37

Instrument Selection, 38

Starting from the Center of Oneself, 39

Sight Reading, 40

Defining Practice Goals, 41

Improvisation, 42

Patrick O’Brien Coaches a Student on Practicing, by Patrick OBrien, 2009, email exchange with luthier Travis Carey, 44

Editor’s Introduction, 44

Staccato Practicing, by Patrick OBrien, from 1979 LSA article, 49

How to Learn Your First Pieces, by Patrick OBrien, 51

Includes Buffons from William Ballet Lute Book in three versions: single line melody alone, melody with bass, and the complete 3-part piece.

Improvisation: Practical Beginnings, from 1980 LSA article, 56

Part I (the 2-part realization of exercise #2 is on page 68, #30), 56

Part II, 69

Pat O’Brien and the New York York Continuo Collective, by Tony Elitcher and Grant Herreid,  74



About our Contributors, v

In Memoriam: Douglas Alton Smith, 1944–2018, vii

Biographical Introduction, by Elanor OBrien, 1

Patrick O’Brien and His Own Former Disability, by Patrick O’Brien, transcribed and edited by Douglas Alton Smith, 5

Editor’s Introduction, 5

Daniel Rindler — transcribed from a recorded interview with the JLSA, 6

Steve Forsley — transcribed from a recorded interview with Pat O’Brien, 7

Patrick O’Brien’s response to a question from an unidentified student, 7

Excerpt from The Hand (Frank R. Wilson), by Patrick O’Brien, 10

What Factors Determine Success or Failure in Treating Musician Hand Injury, by Katharyn R. Benessa, 13

On Pain as Feedback, 13

Theory versus Practice, 14

The Feeling Component: Developing Sensitivity, 15

To Change as a Person, 16

Helping Musicians: Sharing Pat’s Work/The O’Brien Method, 19

Do You Need a Physical Therapist?, by Alice Artzt (a version of this article appeared in a Guitar Review 1984), 21

Describes symptoms of players developing focal dystonia before the name of the affliction was well-known.

Therapy for Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, by Jason Priset, 27 

—left hand, classical guitar, lessons starting in 2006—

Includes left hand adduction exercise like those seen in volume 47

Injury, 27

Pat O’Brien, 27

Pat’s Therapy Program: Finger Placement and Adduction, 28

Dynamic Adduction Exercises, 30

Basso Continuo and the Continuo Collective, 32

Carpal Tunnel Syndrome Retraining with Patrick O’Brien, by Greg Chako, 39 

—left hand, jazz and classical guitar—

Advent of Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, 39

Working with Patrick O’Brien, 39

Exercise Aids, 40

Long-term Recovery Results, 41

Tape Transcription, Chako Section (c.1991), 42

Editor’s Note, 42

Transcription, 42

Teaching the Student, Not the Diagnosis: Principles of Pat O’Brien’s Technique and Pedagogy, by Daniel Rindler, 49 

—classical guitar, right and left hand issues, 1993—

Onset of Disability, 49

Retraining with Patrick, 50

More Principle’s of Patrick’s, 56

Recovering from a Performance-Related Left-Hand Injury, by Douglas James, 59 

—classical guitar, left hand—

My Early Career, 59

Study with O’Brien, 60

The Injury, 60

The Exercises, 62

Single String Pulls, 63

Adductor Isometrics, 64

Four-string Arpeggios, 64

Therapy for a Flamenco Guitarist, by Antonio Madigan, 67 

—flamenco guitar, right hand, focal dystonia, 1986—

Conversation between Patrick O’Brien and Antonio Madigan, c. 1991, transcribed by Douglas Alton Smith and Michael Miranda, videorecorded by Tom Singman, 71

—classical guitar, vihuela, tabla, baroque guitar, steel-string guitar, bluegrass—

“Painless” Hand Problems of String-Pluckers, by Brian Hays (from 1987 article in Medical Problems of Performing Artists), 81 

—classical guitar, right hand focal dystonia—

The Evolution of the Problem, 81

Specific Dysfunctions, 82

The Search for a Solution, 82

Corrective Measures, 83

A Call for Answers, 84

A Candle in the Dark, by Brian Hays, 85 

—classical guitar, 1983—

Initial Symptoms, 85

The Dark Ages, 86

The First Lessons with Patrick, 87

Three Common Problems, 88

  1. Hooking the Tip Joints, 88
  2. Tension in the Palm of the Hand, 89
  3. Spreading the Fingers, 89

My Condition Went Beyond the Most Common Three Issues, 91

Guidelines for Recovery, 91

After New York, 92

After the Article, 93

Finally, A Name, 93

A Portrait of Patrick, 93

Improvement Milestone: The Early 2000s, 95

Final Meeting with Patrick, 97

Lessons with David Leisner, 97

Last Contact, 97

Specific Exercises, 99

Brushing, 98

Addressing the Three Common Problems, 99

Tip Joints, 99

Dragging Relaxed Tips, 100

Tension in the Palm of the Hand, 102

Supporting Adduction and Reducing Abduction, 102

Epilogue: Happy Endings vs. the State of Focal Dystonia in Today’s World, 104

Musings on the Onset and Treatment of Dystonia, 105

Recovery from Focal Dystonia, by Katharyn R. Benessa, 107 

—classical guitar, right hand focal dystonia, 2013–2014—

Development of Focal Dystonia, 107

Attempts at Recovery, 108

Research and Further Experimentation, 109

New Ideas and Therapies, 111

Differing Methods, 113

Realization, 113

Patrick O’Brien, 114

Patrick O’Brien’s Disarticulation Therapy, 115

Preliminary Exercise: Moving from the MCP Joint, 115

First Exercise on the Instrument (Handouts 1 and 2), 116

Exercises Coordinating for Fingers and Thumb, 121

Timeline, 124

Using a Thimble, 127

End Results, 128

Why it Works: Back to O’Brien’s “Disarticulation,” 131

From Articulation to Disarticulation, 133

Conclusion, 135

Addendum A, 136

The Throes of Guitardom, 136

Addendum B, 138

Basic Lute Technique, 138

Acknowledgements, 140

Focal Dystonia Therapy with Patrick O’Brien, by Jack Silver,141 

—right hand focal dystonia, 1989—

Overview and Lesson I, 141

My Particular Focal Dystonia, 141

Causes, 141

Pat’s Analysis of My Problem, 143

Contributing Factors to this Problem, 145

Preliminary Advice, 145

Alternation and the So-called Exchange, 146

Strong and Weak Accents, 146

String Vibration, 147

Four Crucially Important Exercises, 147

A Digression on Nail Shaping, 149

Working with the a Finger, 149 

Working with the m Finger, 150

Three More Exercises, 151

Playing a pimi Arpeggio, 151

Use of m and a in Classical and Baroque, 153

Impact on Guitar Building, 153

Pat’s Summing up of My First Lesson, 153

Lesson 2, 154

Pat’s General Observations of My Playing, 155

Zooming in on My Index Finger Free-stroke Release, 155

My Nervous Quick Free Stroke, 156

Role of Top Knuckle and Middle Knuckle in Stroking, 157

Preparation of the Free Stroke, 157

Analyzing the Whole Free-stroke Cycle, 158

An Experiment in Tip Relaxation, 158

Preparation Aiming with the Middle Joint, 160

A Digression on Playing with Great Tension, 160

Relaxed Release and Preparation, 162

The White and Pink Test, 162

A Digression on Grabbing Things in Life, 162

A Pause, Where I Summarize Pat’s Advice, 163

The Importance of a Big Sound, 163

Positioning All the Fingers, 164

Importance of Rest Strokes for Developing Free Strokes, 165

Reflections on His Work with Guitarists, 166

On Firmness in the Tip Joints, 167

On the Relative Value of Speed, 168

Afterward, 169

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.   DONATE NOW

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