December 31, 2010

Getting comfortable with recording

It's often said that you get used to recording by recording more. While that's kind of true, it's not very helpful to look at it that way. If you feel miserable every time you record, recording 100 times isn't likely to make you happy.

It can be helpful is to frequently use recording as a tool. Don't worry about takes being "keepers" because none of them have to be. Try recording just a phrase at a time, listen back and work on the details.  

You'll eventually start to get used to it and be able to perform better when that red light is on. As you get comfortable working this way, try longer sections of pieces. Gradually work your way up to recording whole pieces.

Mistakes: Chicken or egg?

Fear of mistakes is usually what stresses people out about recording, and ends up being the cause of those mistakes. Strengthening your memory and practice techniques will help you cope with this, but you need to work on your attitude about the process, too.

Give yourself permission to make mistakes and remind yourself of why you play in the first place. Hopefully you're doing it because it's fun and you love it. It's great to feel proud of your accomplishment, but if you play because you have something to prove, you're setting yourself up for a world of struggle. 
You need to break the vicious cycle of "I'm worried I'll make a mistake. Oops, I made a mistake. Now I'm even more worried about it..." Mistakes will help you learn.

Make a distinction between transient errors like missed notes and errors of judgment like unclear phrasing and missing dynamics. Technical goofs happen and can be prevented, but often times they happen because of vague musical idea. You should definitely learn to clean up your technique bue also be really clear about what you want to do and present in your playing.

Of course, it sometimes just comes down to plain old insufficient preparation. Well, at least you've learned what you need to work on in order to be able to record it well. Instead of getting stressed about it, make note of what you need to work on, take a break, and then dive back into practicing.

Other approaches

Sometimes the recording process itself can be a big source of distraction. Some suggestions for dealing with that:

  • Devote some time to working out your recording setup without trying to get a good performance. Once you find a sound you like, just leave your equipment set up, or figure out how to set it up easily. I worked out my "best quality" setup so I can be ready to record in about 5 minutes. For my day to day recording, I just set my edirol on the table in front of the guitar and forget about getting ideal placement.
  • Don't bother stopping and starting your recorder in between takes, especially if it's digital. You can trim out the stuff you don't want later. Just get it going and start playing. If you want to do another take, just allow yourself some time to relax and start another. I find that stopping and starting the recorder in between takes turns into an opportunity to act out frustration and it can quickly become a downward spiral. Just let it roll. 
  • Don't try to do a ton of takes of one piece in a row. If it's not happening after a few takes, take a break or record something else for a while. You can always come back to the first.

PS: Speaking of recording, I've been looking forward to Marc Teicholz's "Valseanna" since GSI first announced it. I'd held off on buying it because I hoped that they might make it available for download, and lo and behold, it's now available on iTunes! This is a really sweet album, 18 waltzes played on 18 vintage guitars, although I'm not quite sure how Pepe Romero, Jr's 2004 guitar counts as vintage. I heard Teicholz play a few times when I lived in the SF Bay Area and really enjoyed it every time. He's such an unpretentiously expressive player. Check it out!

December 24, 2010

Pepe Romero & Joaquin Rodrigo

Here are some videos which are somewhat buried on Youtube, that I find inspiring and insightful. Both feature Pepe Romero and Joaquin Rodrigo, a look into their working relationship, and a bit of the creative process behind these works.

The first offers some background about the famous Concierto de Aranjuez.

This one is in Spanish. My spanish is weak but I was able to follow most of it well enough (at least until they get to the part about astronauts). It's about Concierto Para Una Fiesta, which is one of my favorite guitar concertos. It's not nearly as well known as the Aranjuez but to my taste, it's even better.

December 17, 2010

Book Review: Effortless Mastery

"The effort it takes for you to perform music equals the distance between you and mastery"
- Kenny Werner, Effortless Mastery.

In Effortless Mastery, Kenny Werner tells the story of his falling in love with music, being overwhelmed and hitting to rock bottom in music school, and how he picked up the pieces and put them together to become the master musician he is today.

He also gives you a clear, but thoroughly humbling, path to developing your own mastery of music.

It also comes with a CD with the author guiding you through four meditations with a veil of reverb and over a backdrop of tinkling piano. This can be really off-putting for some people (certainly for me, at first) but it's an essential part of his method and a very effective one at that.

Think of it as an attitude adjustment which most of us genuinely need. For me, it really helped break the cycle of frustration, to relax and enjoy the process.

Don't base your self-esteem of your music

It's really easy for a lot of us to get frustrated with ourselves when we fail. A lot of us try to play music that's too hard for us, or we want to play faster before our muscles develop the necessary coordination. Sometimes we prepare difficult music inadequately for performances and when the performance don't live up to our expectations, the aftermath can feel really awful.

Werner wants us to free ourselves from our judgment (there's a time and place for judgment, and it's not in the middle of a performance!), expectations, and desires  - especially desire to be great, to improve, to not suck for just a few minutes... and open our ears and accept the sounds we are actually making. From this mental space of humility, honesty, and acceptance (yes, even of mistakes), we can begin to make progress.

Steps to Mastery

He presents a method for focused practicing that I won't describe, because you should really read the book and hear about it first hand. It is a humbling process, but from it, real progress can be made... and it can be applied to anything you work on.

You may be surprised at how fast or slow this progress comes, but you can be sure that it is genuine, and that's the best part. In time, you will be able to rely on yourself to perform your music perfectly, effortlessly, and without thought.

It works

This seems like quite an idealistic path but it is actually pretty realistic. We really can't force yourself to improve any faster than we're ready to, but there are a million obstacles we can set up for ourselves that will slow it down. Effortless Mastery is a simple plan for freeing ourselves of those obstacles.

The ideas in this book are not totally new or unique, but I like the way they are distilled to a simple and clear path. I think that most books in this genre say essentially the same things, but they say them in different ways, and some may resonate better with some readers than others. I will review others that I have read when I get a chance.

December 10, 2010

Measuring progress

Tracking progress is a popular topic on guitar blogs I read. With all the day-to-day ups and downs, the best advice is to measure progress over the long term. Set some goals and work on them.

Keep revisiting something easy

Something you can do that is really fun and rewarding is to revisit your easiest repertoire. It's tempting, and OK, to leave the stuff behind as you progress. It'd be great to fully master every little bit of music before you move on, but there are so many facets of even the simplest music that you'd probably get overloaded or bored if you tried to do it all at once.

But hold on to that music. Pick something easy (preferably something you learned early on) pull out the music and play it a few times every 6 months or so. Even better, record it every six months and listen to your earlier recordings after you record it again. Compare them, see what has improved and what hasn't.

Notice how your phrasing has changed, notice how you start to make choices about things that you never even noticed before.  If you recorded it, notice how your tone and timing improve.

Use it as a pick-me-up

Sometimes when I'm having rough day, I like to pull out something really familiar, like some simple Sor studies, and play them for a while. It helps me let go of my frustration and remind me of how good I'm able to sound. Then when I go back to my current music, I feel refreshed. It's a way of recalibrating.

That reminds me of something jazz bassist Sean Malone once said to me (or maybe I read it in an interview? I forget) to always start off practicing with something really easy that you can nail every time. It will set the tone for the rest of your practice.


PS: I've rereleased another old recording of mine, November. It's an ambient electric guitar looping album I recorded about 10 years ago. If any of those words sound interesting to you, give it a listen :)

December 3, 2010

How to practice things that need a lot of repetition

Some things you practice may require a lot of repetition to train your muscle memory. It's tempting to just keep repeating an exercise thinking you're going to build up strength, but little errors will compound and turn your playing to mush.

Here's an effective way to get things done:
  1. Get a clear idea of what you're trying to do before you start. If you don't know what it should sound like, ask your teacher to demonstrate or find a recording of a piece which uses that technique.
  2. Set your metronome to a speed where you can do the exercise as closely to that ideal as possible. When in doubt, err on the slow side. 
  3. Play the exercise a few times. Do it for maybe 10-15 seconds and stop. It's important, at this point, not to worry about how it sounds.
  4. Take a break for a 10-15 seconds and relax. Recall that clear idea of what the exercise your playing should sound like. 
  5. Repeat steps 3 and 4 a few times, for about five or ten minutes.
  6. Take a longer break. 2-3 minutes. Put the guitar down, stand up, think about something else for a bit. 
  7. Recall that ideal again. Repeat steps 3-6 until you run out of time or are ready to move on.
In your next practice session, begin again at step one. The trick is to do it as much as possible in the time you have, but take little breaks so you stay focused and don't get tired. The breaks also give things a chance to sink in.


PS: I was recently contacted by Jason Wehr, another guitarist in town who saw my craigslist ad and liked my recordings. He sent me a link to his youtube channel and I liked his playing, so now we are working on duets together. Our first gig is December 8th at the Anacortes Museum, wish us luck!