November 4, 2011

Los Romeros workshop (part 2): Etudes and repertoire

I'm not going to be able to offer a whole lot of detail directly from a workshop I took no notes on, but I will offer a few highlights that I can recall and my own thoughts on those topics.

One idea that has stuck with me from the Los Romeros workshop I attended years ago, was Pepe's statement that students develop their technique using studies (specifically mentioning Carcassi, Sor, and Brouwer) and then reward their achievement with appropriate repertoire. This approach depends on having a patient student and some good guidance, but that's nothing unusual, is it?

I think he has a fair point. Etudes may not be "appropriate for the concert stage," but maybe it's better to work through the effort, frustration, and doubt of the learning process while learning these studies rather than  the music you intend to perform. Then, maybe you can go on stage with a whole program of music without baggage of effort, frustration, and doubt. That sounds like a much better situation to me.

A well-composed study like Carcassi's can offer a systematic technical workout in a bite-sized (or perhaps mouthful) chunk. The flip side of that, which I don't think Pepe mentioned, is that a good musical understanding is what transforms a "boring study" into a satisfying piece of music is the performer's grasp of the music itself. Perhaps even more so than the technique.

For example, playing a slur study well is more than merely executing the slurs. The dynamics and tone colors have to flow with the line, and pull-offs to open strings can't sound plunky. So the technique of a descending slur isn't just "pluck the string with the left hand." The speed and direction of the motion, surface area of the finger used, and amount of pulling the string sideways versus sliding across it are all factors that contribute to the sound of the slur.

If you try to control all of this at the muscular level, you'll just get bogged down in the details and never move on. It's much easier if you let your ears control your technique rather than your fingers.

November 1, 2011

Pittsburgh Classical Guitar Society, and a Los Romeros workshop (part 1)

I'm planning to visit my family in Pittsburgh, PA over Thanksgiving this year. I was wondering if there might be any classical guitar concerts to attend while I'm there, and while searching for that, I discovered that Pittsburgh now has a classical guitar society. I'm surprised it didn't already have one, but I'm pleased to see that it does now.

Several years ago, when I was living in California, I flew to Pittsburgh to attend a Los Romeros concert with my dad (who has been a fan of them for as long as I can remember) and to go to a workshop that they were giving the next day. I thought it was to be a masterclass, but it was really more of a lecture/demonstration. I was surprised by how many guitarists attended, but when Pepe asked if anyone would like to play something, nobody volunteered at first. So, nervous novice that I was, I volunteered and played the first movement of La Catedral. I'd planned to play the whole thing, figuring that nobody else wanted to play, but near the end of the prelude, Pepe's cell phone rang. He was embarrassed that it happened, and I wasn't really upset, but my playing kind of fell apart and I ended with the prelude.

I'm glad I played, though, because one by one after that, others decided to play something, until nearly everyone in the room had played. I distinctly remember a 10 or 11 year old boy playing Brouwer's etude #1 with great gusto. It hadn't occurred to him that he should be nervous like the rest of us, I suppose.

I had forgotten about this workshop until recently. I didn't take notes, unfortunately, but I think I remember some of the highlights. I'll write up what I can remember for my next blog post.

I want to thank my readers that have stuck with me even though I haven't been posting as often recently. I appreciate it.

October 1, 2011

Playing on the beat

I've been working recently on learning to play 'drums' on a midi keyboard, for a recording project. I haven't seriously played a keyboard instrument since I was 8, so I have no real keyboard technique, and seeing my notes appear on screen piano-roll-style made it obvious that I was playing ahead of the beat all the time. This could easily be fixed after the fact, but I knew I'd be happier if I could get it right from the beginning.

As a quick aside, getting it right doesn't mean every note has to be squarely on the beat. That goes for classical guitar too, as my teacher frequently reminds me.

I spent a bunch of time trying to play on the beat, and was still always ahead of it, being both incompetent and anxious that I was going to get it wrong yet again. So then I started trying to deliberately play after the metronome click, hoping that my tendency to anticipate the beat would even things out. At first, it made me feel way more anxious (I'm going to be late!) but the recording and 'piano roll' don't lie; almost right away, I was right on.

Now, I'm not going to say the problem is 100% solved, but after spending more time with it, the anxiety started going away with the comfort of knowing that I was actually playing in time. The tempo felt slower, and I felt less like I needed to hurry to get the next note. Instead of feeling like I'm playing late, it's starting to feel like I was just playing.

This would be a good way for anyone to work on a tendency to play off the beat. Record yourself playing with a metronome and listen carefully to the result. If you find that you're playing early, try waiting for the click before playing next time. If you play late, try anticipating the click.

If you're right on all the time, try playing ahead of or behind the beat intentionally for effect. This kind of control of the rhythm is the next step.

September 9, 2011

Making art vs. making pretty pictures

Just a brief post this week. I've been reading "The Rest Is Noise" by Alex Ross for the past few days and would strongly recommend it to any classical guitarist even though there's not much, if any, info related to the guitar in it.

If you're not a fan of 20th century/modern/contemporary/new music, this book is especially for you. For one thing, the author's thoughtful descriptions of many of the key pieces can help unlock this dense music for a listener who doesn't have the ear for it.

More importantly, The Rest Is Noise traces the development of many of the composers, movements, and ideas behind modern music through their historical context. Understanding how and why this music came about can help us learn to recognize the art in what may actually seem like a bunch of noise at times.

My art teacher in high school, Mr. deGroot, used to say that the point of art is not to make "pretty pictures." Setting aside the fact that a lot of 20th century art is unapologetically the opposite of "pretty pictures," let's consider that the guitar repertoire in fact contains a lot of music for which the composer was essentially paid by the page for their work in order to satisfy demand. A lot of that music is more like "pretty picture" music than art music.

That's not to say that its unworthy of being played, but it is up to us as performers to find the art in the music that we play. And sometimes it is worthwhile for us to take on music which we may find difficult to appreciate; to explore it and come to terms with it. The better we understand what makes something a work of art, the better prepared we will be to create art of our own, with whatever raw materials we have available.

September 2, 2011

My new old routine

Since I moved to Tulsa, I'd been busy with job hunting and then job doing, and I haven't had much inspiration for blogging. For a while, I felt like I was losing a lot of ground with the guitar itself, so I went back to my old routine of getting up early to practice before work. It worked for me pretty well, the last time I work working a full-time job.

Long story short, my playing sprang back up to normal and I'm making progress again. My 9-month long memorization block went away and I'm learning new repertoire quickly again.

Being sleepy from waking up early is a very different thing than being exhausted from using my brain all day. I think that it's much to be open to learning in this state, even if I feel a bit cranky. Patience and diligence are more readily available. A nice cup of coffee as a reward afterward helps. I hate waking up to an alarm, but it is really nice knowing that I've made music a priority again.

PS: I'm gradually moving my blog over to my website. For a while I will be posting to both, but I won't switch over completely until I've fixed up the postings that I've transferred over. Some of the videos and things don't survive the import process and I haven't had time to fix them.

August 5, 2011

More thoughts on Effortless Mastery

Life has been busy recently, unfortunately full of real-world work, and not a whole lot of time for music. As I often do in these times, I'm still practicing guitar regularly but focusing on one just thing. This time, it is effortlessness.

It took me a really long time to figure out that the way to play effortlessly is not to struggle with material until it becomes easy and effortless. To date, that method has never worked for me.

The message of Kenny Werner's excellent "Effortless Mastery" book basically boils down to this:

  • To play effortlessly, you have to play effortlessly now.
  • You play effortlessly now by playing only what you can play effortlessly now.
  • To play new things effortlessly, you have to work on them as slowly and/or gradually as necessary to keep the effortless feeling. Develop the comfort zone gradually. 
  • Play the material fast sometimes, too, but keep the effortless feeling and completely ignore mistakes. You can work them out in the slow practice; the fast practice is to get used to the feeling of playing fast. 
So what is effortlessness? 

I used to think it was a physical feeling, but that's just part of it. Keeping a quiet mind is just as important. With the mind quiet and even detached from the physical side of playing, it becomes much easier to listen to what you're doing and develop a listening-based method of playing rather than a physical activity-based method of playing.

It's important to learn the feeling of effortlessness as early on as you can, whether you're working on difficult music, scales, basic finger mechanics, or even just sitting silently with the guitar.

July 22, 2011

A film about Leo Brouwer

Youtube user elduendecillo07 uploaded this fascinating documentary on Leo Brouwer. I've created a playlist that should play them all in order. There's a lot discussion of style and ideas, plus many clips of him playing his own music and others'. 

Not everyone loves Brouwer's music, but to me he is one of the greatest composers of our era for any instrument. I got hooked on classical guitar when I first heard a classmate play Brouwer's Etude #1. I come back to his Estudios Sencillos once or twice a year, always trying to play them better and discover more in them. 

July 15, 2011

William Kanengiser masterclass notes, part 4

The final performer at the William Kanengiser masterclass I've been writing about played the fourth movement of Castelnuovo-Tedesco's Homage to Boccherini. Kanengiser offered some thoughts particular to Tedesco's writing. It's often said that the guitar should be treated like a miniature orchestra, because of the wealth of tone colors it offers us, and that idea is especially applicable to a composer like Tedesco who was very much an orchestral composer. He was also very particular about how he used dynamics and articulations.

The rest of the feedback given to this performer was of a technical nature, so I'm going to conclude this series of posts by gathering together all the technical and miscellaneous suggestions that were offered during the masterclass.

  • Kanengiser reiterated throughout the class the importance of pulling the notes out of the guitar, moving the strings rather than hitting them. This is really the key to getting a good, consistent tone and needs to be at the core of our technique so that even in the fastest playing where you can't be thinking about control, you can rely on your fingers to activate the strings effectively. Move the strings in towards you before releasing them.
  • The open high E string needs to always be played warmly and fully, to keep the tone balanced with the other strings. Do whatever you can to avoid harshness/excessive brightness.
  • When performing vibrato, move from the shoulder and use the forearm as a pivot point. Don't just wiggle or shake the hand, but get the larger muscles involved.
  • Practice maintaining the clarity and continuity of a single voice when changing strings. This is difficult on guitar, but really important to musical playing. 
  • You can be flexible with the right and left hand positions in order to solve technical problems. The two examples I recall Kanengiser giving were related to damping. We often hear that the last phalanx of the left hand fingers should be positioned perpendicular to the plane of the fingerboard so as to only touch one string at a time, but when playing a descending scale in open position, dropping the hand a bit so the pads of the fingertips touch the adjacent string allows us to easily damp the open strings we've played so they don't keep ringing inappropriately. Likewise, we can roll the right hand thumb one way or another to damp a bass string while it is resting on an adjacent one in preparation.
  • Sometimes it's necessary to simplify the music in order to discover its true shape. For example, when the melody is part of a series of arpeggios, leave out the arpeggios for a while and work on the melody on its own.
  • When considering the shape of a line, figure out which notes are "juicy" and which are transitions. It's important for us to understand where the notes fit in the harmony and relation to the beat. Guitarists are infamous for arbitrary and inappropriate accents. 
This concludes my series of posts from that masterclass. Thanks for reading! If you've found this information to be helpful or you've otherwise enjoyed reading it, be sure to check out William Kanengiser's CDs, DVDs, and performances. 

July 8, 2011

William Kanengiser masterclass notes, part 3

Continuing on from my notes from a masterclass given by William Kanengiser in San Jose, back in 2007 or 2008.

The next student played the Prelude from Bach's Prelude, Fugue, and Allegro BWV 998. Some of Kanengiser's comments reiterate ones I have already mentioned, but I will include them again.

  • Dynamics are important, but be careful how you use them. Think like a storyteller. When you want to change dynamics, you can't lose the thread of the story. 
  • Bach's music is often ambiguous about whether it's one voice or multiple voices. The 998 prelude is a good example, as are the cello suites (as written for cello). You should get familiar with the implied lines as well as the literal ones, for cues to the overall shape of the piece.
  • Take cues for dynamics from the harmony.
  • The bass accents should follow the pulse of the rhythm. It's important to convey the rhythm in the bass as well as the upper voices. Don't be lazy about any voice. 
  • The phrasing of pieces is influenced by harmonic modulations. This is especially true in Bach, as it modulates so much. Get to know the harmony!
The penultimate performer also played Bach, the Gavottes from Cello suite no. 5. Feedback focused on structure and phrasing:
  • Ritards in music are like punctuation in writing. Phrases are like sentences. Pieces in a suite are like chapters in a book. Make it all fit together. 
  • Breath - in suites, you need just the right amount of time to convey the separation but also the relations. The tempi need to feel related. 
  • You need to feel sense of cut-time in gavottes.
My notes for the final performer are a little more lengthy so they will wait for now.

July 1, 2011

William Kanengiser masterclass notes, part 2

Continuing on from last week's post... Looking at the notes again, I was impressed by how much time William Kanengiser devoted to musical issues versus purely technical ones. I've decided to write this up in multiple parts, which will cover all the musical issues first and the final will cover technical and other miscellaneous ones.

The second performer played Guardame Las Vacas. Kanengiser mentioned that it was one of, if not the earliest written example of theme & variations. It's based on a popular theme of the time and I seem to remember him singing a bit of it, although that may be a confabulation on my part. You can hear a version by Alonso Mudarra for voice and (I think) baroque guitar played by Catherine King and Jacob Heringman here. It differs quite a bit from the familiar version by Narvaez, but I wanted to put in a plug for one of my favorite albums.

I have only two musical-issue related notes from this piece:

  • The notes on top are supported by the rhythm underneath. Kanengiser has the student play it as alternating bars of 3+3 and 2+2+2 accents, found so frequently in spanish music. It helped the student give the piece a stronger sense of rhythmic structure and direction.
  • Rhythmic energy is not necessarily the same thing as dynamic strength. I haven't recorded the context of this not but I assume the student at first put his previous suggestion into practice accenting the beats too forcefully but it is a great general observation. Often times a lighter beat can be more effective and appropriate as long as the beat is conveyed clearly.
The third student played Gavota-Choro by Heitor Villa-Lobos. IIRC, this student was a youngster, perhaps ten or eleven years old, who had broken his arm fairly recently and had just had the cast removed the day before. In spite of this, he only missed one day of practice. He was also playing a 3/4 size guitar and, frankly, had tone that most guitar students would be envious of. Needless to say, he was quite impressive, not to mention fearless. Of course, there was good feedback for him as well.
  • Tone - volume is sometimes less important than richness. A full tone produced by playing somewhat over the soundhole and giving due attention to the quality of each of the voices in the music and the evenness/continuity of their dynamics will give a better overall impression of loudness and projection than attempting to play loudly but without the sense of evenness.
  • Rallentando - Imagine the rhythm of the notes like a baseball card the spokes of a bicycle wheel as the wheel is slowing down gradually. 

June 24, 2011

William Kanengiser masterclass notes, part 1

I was looking through an old notebook this morning and found notes I took at a masterclass William Kanengiser gave in San Jose, CA two or three years ago as part of the Suzuki convention. My notes were hastily written and not terribly detailed, but I'll use them to jog my memory and fill in what I can regarding topics that are generally applicable. Apologies if I've misinterpreted my memory from that far back, but I'll do the best I can. :)

The first student played Sor's Rondeau, opus 48 number 6, and in response Kanengiser made several suggestions about phrasing:

  • The shape of phrases follow the strength of the harmony. Harmonies are used for specific reasons, and especially so in classical period music like Sor's. There are some general rules, like when you have a dissonance resolving into a consonance, the (tense) dissonance should be louder than the consonance (release), but the deeper your understand of how this works, the easier it will be for you to give a mature interpretation of phrasing. This is all covered in depth on Chris Davis's website. 
  • Tension, release, surprise - This is related to the above. Consonance moving to dissonance and back create tension and release it, but be on the look out for sudden and significant changes of harmony. Many pieces change keys to break up the tonality, and we might want to change our tone color or dynamics somewhat to reflect the change. Sometimes we are given an unexpected chord quite suddenly - this is meant to give a sense of surprise and we should play that up. 
  • Crescendo - start soft enough to really get louder, to exaggerate the effect. Kanengiser suggested not just playing the section before the crescendo quieter, but dropping the volume at the beginning of a crescendo in order to give enough dynamic range to convey the effect and emphasize the new dynamic.
  • When playing bass notes, think like a bass player. It's often said that we should work on the lines in the music we play individually to shape them the way we want. I think Kanengiser wants us to go a step farther. How would a bassist articulate the bassline? For that matter, if you consider the "guitar as miniature orchestra" idea and you have section of music that suggests a brass section, how would the brass section in an orchestra articulate that?
  • After using rubato/decelerando, we need a strong sense of rhythm to pull us back into the pulse. 
  • When making big leaps, think like a singer - it should have a sense of arrival, not a frantic grab for what we hope might be the right note. 
This is getting longer than I expected, so I will continue with it next week. 

Big thanks to the Longay school for sponsoring the masterclass, the participants, and of course Kanengiser himself, who is a thoroughly gracious and inspiring teacher. I had the opportunity to play in a masterclass for him a few years prior, but unfortunately for me I was very sick at the time and not able to focus very well nor remember much of the experience. 

June 17, 2011


After doing some maintenance on my guitar this week, I put on a new set of strings, of a type I hadn't used before. I'm not going to tell you what they are, but they are much lower tension than I normally use on my guitar.

I strung it up, tuned to pitch, and played a few notes and was really blown away by how beautiful they sounded. All the warmth, fullness, and volume I've ever wanted in a string, yet so easy to play. 

Today has been kind of a crazy day for me, though, and after playing for a while I was really unhappy with my sound. At first I wanted to just swap them for something familiar, but I thought maybe I'd damaged my nails, so I redid them. As I tested them out, I could get that great tone again, but it went away when I started playing normally. Frustrating.

These strings are just totally unforgiving, and with any carelessness on my part the tone is unusably lousy. But with nails well-cared-for, solid contact with the string, and well-directed plucking motion, they reward me beautifully. That's how I want to sound all the time, and that's how I want to play all the time, regardless of the strings. 

I think it'll be worthwhile to leave them on for a while and focus on whatever I need to do to get that classic tone.

June 10, 2011

Martha Masters: Reaching the Next Level

Before beginning my video project in April, I went to Rosewood Guitar in Seattle and told their employee Robert that I was looking for some music I could easily work up and record in a day. It had to be fairly straightforward and, almost more importantly, it needed to not require page turns.

Robert recommended Martha Masters' book "Reaching the Next Level," because it contained many pieces that met that criteria and also offered thoughtful suggestions before each piece.

I bought the book, but I didn't end up using it for my recordings, although I was reminded of the Reginald Smith Brindle pieces by it, for which I already had the sheet music. The music is well-selected, mostly offering pieces which are not likely to be found in other similar books.

Masters offers anecdotes throughout the various topics which I found to be refreshingly candid and honest. They help reinforce the idea that as we study and perform music, we should consider all the available input into consideration and make our decisions thoughtfully.

I found her recommendations for each piece, as well as her suggestions in general to be great advice. Overall, there is more focus on musical issues than technical, although both are covered. I really respect the author's efforts here as often times these things are not covered, or are if they are covered than the surface is barely scratched.

The book is geared towards intermediate players looking to, well, reach the next level although its principals are pretty solid and valuable for players at any level. Realistically, much of it would probably go over the heads of readers who don't have a certain amount of experience under their belts. I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it, though, because anyone who's open to learning could very well find something useful in it. What it comes down to is that this book fills in some of the gaps left by most other instructional materials available.

PS: I'm more or less settled in in Tulsa now. I've rebuilt my website and created a new one called Classical Guitar Tulsa which is primarily to advertise my lessons, but I am considering adding a blog to it where I can post info about local classical guitar related events. It's just not yet clear to me how often there are any local classical guitar related events to post about...

June 3, 2011

The Norton Manual of Music Notation

The ability to read and sight-read music effectively depends on a lot of factors. The symbols on the page are extremely important, of course, but there are a lot of subtle elements that can help clue us in on what's going on when we don't have time to process each symbol individually. Spacing is a big one. A lot of computer-generated scores that I've seen online have poor spacing and it makes them more difficult to read than they should be.

The Norton Manual of Music Notation is a great book on how to write music properly and quickly.  Although its focus is on hand-written music, its principals apply to any western music notation. I recommend all musicians learn to recognize and apply these ideas, through this book or other similar ones, in order to make sure we have quality written input for our music making.

May 27, 2011

Quick tip

Sorry for missing a few weeks of blogging. With a funeral to attend, a 5-day drive from my old home of Mount Vernon, WA to my new home in Tulsa, OK, then unpacking and getting my bearings, I haven't had much time to think about blogging. I promise to get back to it ASAP.

Here's a quick tip. An hour before my guitar duo's last gig, I had a mishap with my nail file and basically stabbed myself in the quick, under my left pinky nail. It was painful and bloody.

I took my duo partner's advice and put vitamin E oil on it, including under the nail as best as I could. It helped the wound heal within the next day, but it also dulled the pain considerably. I was able to play the gig without any trouble.

May 6, 2011

See you next week

I'm traveling on family business right now and am not prepared to write a post... So here's one of my favorite videos on Youtube, of Rolf Lislevand playing a Chaconne by de Visee on Theorbo.

April 29, 2011

Sustained notes within a line

This has come up a few times for me recently, and while it's not an original idea, I thought I'd share it for those who don't know about it.

Classical guitar is a rather percussive instrument with quick decay, and often times the music we play has notes written within a line which are far longer than the instrument will actually sustain. Yet, when you hear this music played by a great guitarist (whose expensive guitar may or may not offer an extra millisecond of sustain), the line sounds unbroken.

There are tricks for increasing sustain, vibrato can help, but this is what really makes it work. You need to match the next note to the memory of the attack and tone of the sustained note. Otherwise, if you accent it too much or too little, you may give the impression that you're starting a new phrase.

Also, sometimes (especially in baroque or renaissance music), a voice can disappear for several measures before returning. To my ears, it's particularly effective when, for example, a piece with three voices sounds like they're the same three voices throughout. This doesn't mean there can't be dynamics or variation in the tone color, it's a matter of intention and attention to detail. I noticed this effect a lot with Paul Galbraith's Bach recordings.

What it all boils down to is that you should make a goal of matching the sound your create with the instrument with the intention you've got in your head. Then you just need to listen a lot to great music and educate your imagination.


PS: I've concluded my video project, as I have to finish moving out of my house and am just too busy for the next few days. I will keep posting music I work on periodically, so please subscribe to my Youtube channel.

Here's a link to the playlist with all 13 videos I made this month.

April 22, 2011

Get off to a good start

I've discovered through my video project that I've been able to play (and record) pieces that I've worked on for only a day as well or better than ones I've worked on for months or years. It's not comfortable to admit that, but now that I know this, I can make progress and hopefully help others who are in the same boat.

You see, usually I would sight read through various pieces I liked from time to time, to gauge my readiness for a given piece. If I could play all of it, I would decide it was OK to start learning it. 

The problem was, I had unwittingly already started learning it in a lazy and unfocused manner and I'd probably ignored the fingerings, missed some dynamic markings, etc, figuring it was OK because I would address them when I started learning the piece for real. But I'd built in some habits already, and then readying a piece for performance was a process of unlearning the errors and shaping the piece the way I wanted it. 

Well, I've had no time for that, so I had to just decide on an overall interpretation for the piece, break it down into manageable chunks and then commit to getting them to sound how I wanted ASAP. Then I could put the whole thing together and refine things from a more solid state of preparation.

The lesson is this: The more attention paid and intention invested in the details at the beginning of the process, the quicker, better, and more consistent the results. 

April 15, 2011

Video project

As I've mentioned before, I am working on a project to make a video every day (when possible) for the rest of April 2011. I'm having a great time with it, and heartily encourage others to give it a try. Here's a link to my Youtube playlist for this project. I invite you to subscribe to my channel!

Here is my process:
  1. Choose a piece (or related pieces), preferably something relatively simple and unfamiliar to me. They will very in difficulty but will need to be short enough to not require page turning, and should not have more than a few technical difficulties. 
  2. Record myself sightreading it.
  3. Analyze the result; make note of any difficulties, determine interpretation.
  4. Isolate technical issues and practice
  5. Refine interpretation
  6. Record again and post!
The audio will be somewhat close-mic'd (2-3 feet away) and will remain unprocessed.

The end result probably won't be perfect, but one thing I have learned from performing is that at some point you just have to let the music out into the world. The sooner and more often, the better.

I've just started, but here are some random things I have learned or been reminded of so far:
  • Recording yourself is good, especially with video, but doing it frequently is even better. The feedback you get is incredibly helpful.
  • Give yourself a deadline every now and then to help you focus. A recital, open mic, video recording, etc. 
  • I need to pay more attention to my right hand fingerings. I'm surprised by how much I repeat fingers, although left to its own devices, my hand will start alternating once it becomes necessary to achieve the necessary speed.   
  • Left-hand positioning is really important. I don't think there's one universally "perfect" position, but if you're making a shift (for example) make sure you land in a position that's advantageous for what you're about to play. 
  • You can learn a lot about your playing by watching your face while you play.

April 7, 2011

Whose art is it anyway?

Take a piece like Villa Lobos's Prelude #3, and compare several recordings of it to the score if you have it. There is a sort of "traditional" interpretation of this piece, in which performances tend to follow a similar (to each other) contour of dynamics and rubato, to the point where the rhythms you will hear no longer really resemble what the composer notated.

There's a similar sort of tradition with Sor's famous B minor study, Opus 35 #22. My copy of "Complete Sor Studies" has the tempo marked Allegretto. Every 19th century copy I've seen of the piece says Allegretto... Yet there seems to be a contest amongst performers to be give the slowest performance of it.

That study clearly works well when played slowly. Sor could have written "Andante" and no one would have thought differently of it. But he didn't. So does everyone who plays it slowly do it because they spent time with the piece and decided slow was best? Or was it because that's what they were used to? Maybe Segovia's edition has a slower tempo marking.

Prelude #3 works just fine when played with that particular pattern of rubato. But I was actually surprised when I read through it the first time, that some of the written rhythms were so different from what I was used to hearing and I can't help but think that if HVL would have written them differently if that was what he really wanted. We should at least consider that. Somehow I doubt that everyone that plays it that way studied the score, and chose to play it exactly that way because of the contents of the score.

We can get so accustomed to hearing a certain type of interpretation of a piece that when played strictly as written it sounds amazingly wrong. Don't be afraid to play something differently from how it's written, if that's what moves you, but consider whether you're making your own artistic choices or letting someone else do it for you.

April 1, 2011

Between the notes

We need to develop technique so we can communicate with our listeners. We often get caught up in what is cool, or difficult, or whatever, but that's not really worth much if it doesn't help us communicate.

We can work endlessly on scales, arpeggios, slurs, tremolo, etc, but that's just where technique starts. Real technique is attention to the details that make the music come alive. Virtuosity is mastery of the details of those details.

Listen to some great flamenco guitarists, and notice when they buzz notes. It's not random and it's not merely because of the setup of their guitars. It's integral to the feel of the music. You learn that by listening.

Listen to when a singer or flute player breathes, and the sound of the breath. That's part of the music.

As a fan and player of irish music, I can't tell you how obvious it is when I hear someone who thinks that all there is to the music is playing the notes. I could learn flamenco falsetas from a book but to a real flamenco afficionado it's just going to sound like a classical guitarist reading the notes. It has to have the right feel, and you learn that by listening.

When people say "music is in the space between the notes," they don't just mean the rests. They mean that the notes are one of many aspects of music, and they all require our attention.

March 25, 2011

Why you should perform

But actually, doing what other people expect you to is what’s overrated. The external rewards for pursuing a dream may or may not arrive, but regardless, you should feel proud of doing so. The first steps are more important than the later ones, because they’ll provide inspiration and security for everything that comes later. Just keep walking!

Never despise small beginnings, and don’t belittle your own accomplishments. Remember them and use them as inspiration as you go on to the next thing. When you venture outside your comfort zone, wherever the starting point may be, it’s kind of a big deal.
- Chris Guillebeau, in "Kind of a big deal"
I recently commented on Chris Davis's post "The missing ingredient no one likes to talk about" that of all the musicians I've known, we classical guitarists seem like the least likely to get out and perform. We also complain about lack of public interest, diminishing ticket sales, etc. I bet these things are related.

If you love classical guitar and you play classical guitar, you should get out there and perform.

Don't feel like it's not worth it if you can't sell out an auditorium. Don't feel like nobody will want to see you if you don't have a degree or haven't won a competition. Don't worry about trying to impress people.

Just have fun and do your best. You don't have to blow everyone's mind, just make someone smile.

March 18, 2011

Making changes

After giving a house concert in Seattle a few weeks ago (big thanks to Rich for hosting!), once of the audience members said to me, "that Bach suite must have taken forever to learn."

I've written about my experience learning this suite (BWV 1009) in the past and I'd sum it up by saying that I've tried every memory and visualization trick in the book on it and I've never had so much trouble with memorization with a piece. It didn't go badly in performance, but I needed the music in front of me to feel confident that I could stay on track.

So I responded, "I feel like I'll still be learning it when I'm an old man. If I could start over again with it and do one thing differently, I would study it a lot more before trying to play it."

Sometimes it's tempting to get into practice mode before music is properly studied and learned. In this case, the piece superficially appears 'easy'; it's mostly one note at a time, fairly easy to read, somewhat (deceptively) formulaic, and because of my listening history, it's very familiar.

But I was tricked by that sense of familiarity into believing I had studied it enough. I clearly skipped head, because as time went on, I kept finding areas where I wanted to change my fingerings to get things across better.

That's sort of where the problems started showing up. Better fingerings are, well, better, but what happens when you change fingerings? If you've been practicing the old way for a while, you've now practiced two ways of doing it. How do you make sure you're going to do it the right way when it comes time to perform?

Thorough study at the beginning of the learning process, finding the best solutions and committing to them early on, seems like the best way to head this problem off at the pass.

There will be cases where you need to change a fingering, but you need an effective brainwashing strategy (please share!) or it may be better to make note of your new way but then leave it alone until you've had a chance to put the piece down for a while and look at afresh.

PS: Speaking of making changes, my wife Angeline and I are moving to Tulsa over the next month or so. She leaves in mid-April, after which my life will get quite boring. So I'm planning to make a series of videos between then and the end of April or so, in which I work on a short piece for a day and then film&post it. My main focus will be on musicality, but I have a few other goals:

1) Learn to pull together pieces and interpretations more quickly
2) Produce a demo CD to send to senior centers and other gig venues
3) Watch my movements, facial expressions, etc, and learn what I can from them
4) Get more comfortable with recording.

I've posted the first video already, mainly as a technology test. I hope to achieve better quality video in the future, but that may not happen until I can afford a real video camera. I'm pleased with the quality of the audio, though. The description on the youtube page describes my setup.

My hope is that I'll enjoy this project, learn a lot from it, and want to keep it up in the long run.

March 11, 2011

See you next week

I've been sick with flu and now bronchitis for more than a week now, and although I started writing my post for this week, I don't have the energy to give it all the thought it deserves. So here are some photos my wife Angeline took at our recent recital in Bellingham.

See you next week.

March 4, 2011

Casals and the Art of Interpretation

I read "Casals and the Art of Interpretation by David Blum around the time I started this blog and have been meaning to write about it ever since. It's a treasure-trove of wisdom about music, and also paints a lively picture of Pablo Casals, sprinkled with quotes and anecdotes that bring to life the character from which the wisdom springs. 

Although a lot of musicianship can be broken down into guidelines to follow, it's the individual that makes them into music.

It's worth noting that Casals' views represent a particular school of thought that I think is not considered universal today. A lot of his recommendations go against what's said Anthony Glise's "Classical Guitar Pedagogy" book, to give an example of a book guitarists will run into which deals with interpretation. I'm not saying either is "the right way" of doing things.


One thing that is highlighted in the book is the importance of the phrasing of musical lines. This comes more naturally to singers and people who play monophonic instruments, but most guitar music involves multiple simultaneous lines and we need to shape those independently.

The typical (and rightly so) advice is to consider these lines individually and sing them out loud. Casals suggests that within each line, the sound should get louder as the notes ascend, and quieter as they descend. This probably doesn't mean that phrases should usually have a wide range of dynamics, but that they sing out in a natural way. 

The downside with guitar music as it is printed is that more often than not, we are not given phrasing slurs and in the clutter of fitting multiple voices on one staff, the phrasing can often appear ambiguous. I used to naively assume that they would follow the bar lines and consequently ended up with music that sounded very flat and dull. Then I learned that phrases often begin before the bar line, and are often longer than a bar.

The best ways to deal with this is to work on your music with an experienced teacher and to listen to a variety of high-level performers playing music and follow along in the score. It doesn't have to be (and shouldn't always be) guitar music. If you're interested in Casals, for example, you could listen to him on and you can probably find the scores on

February 25, 2011

Easy and simple aren't the same thing

This past weekend I went to the Sean Nós Northwest festival at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, WA, and played an awful lot of irish flute. This festival is a great celebration of Irish language, song, and dance, and so there were few instrumentalists there but we were treated with especially great respect and gratitude by the dancers.

It was especially fascinating to me to watch how a room full of 20-30 dancers could lock into rhythm with each other and with the music. I got the feeling that one could learn this kind of dance more easily by listening than by watching or thinking.

At the festival, we also watched a film called "Come West Along the Road," which consists of archival footage of musicians, singers, dancers, etc. I was really struck by a segment which, conveniently, is also on YouTube:

I was kind of amused at first by his one-finger-per-hand style of guitar playing. How much easier and more straightforward could it get?

But then I realized that I have no idea how much work this guy put into the guitar part, because he seems so unconcerned with it that you can't even call it an afterthought. But it's just there for him, perfectly steady, as natural as walking.

What he's playing is really simple, but I really admire the conviction with which he plays it and the complete effortlessness of it. There's really nowhere to hide in something like that.

One more thing; not to turn this into a giant group hug but there's more than meets the eye in any performance and even a failed one is probably the result of an honest effort. Let's be sure to give credit where credit is due.

February 18, 2011

Trust yourself

Peter Mitchell commented on my "You have to really listen" post:

I think this is related to the discussion around "multitasking". I think the idea that you can passively listen, which implies focusing on other things, and still fully experience the music is definitely not the case. Multitasking is somewhat of a myth when you look at how our brains actually function. Something always has to take priority when it comes to assigning attention. So in this case, it needs to be the music. Otherwise, I think you are missing out on a lot that you don't even realize. 

I agree, and I think that what I encountered in my previous post was that sometimes putting a lot of effort into 'focusing' can be a distraction from what you're actually doing.

You have to listen to what you're playing, and you have to know how to actually play it, but my experience has been that conscious control, especially in performance, can lead to the opposite effect.

In other words, I play my best when I can just let go and trust myself. It's not always an easy thing to do; at least not yet.

How do you learn to trust yourself?

Prepare thoroughly

Learn the music correctly from the beginning. Understand it before you play it. Practice it regularly and efficiently. Don't practice mistakes; focus on solutions before repetitions.

Don't get too far ahead of yourself

Plan to perform mostly music that is within your reach. It's good to push yourself a bit so you can grow, but if your whole program consists of music you can only occasionally perform well, you're setting yourself up for disappointment.

Play with your eyes closed

Playing with your eyes closed will tell you how well you really know a piece, but if you've been playing for a while and you haven't tried it before, you might find that you can do it better than you expected. I think it helps cultivate a better physical understanding of the instrument as well as an aural experience of the music.

Take a leap of faith

Sometimes, in spite of your best efforts, you may end up in a situation where performance day is nearly upon you and things haven't all come together the way you wanted. At that point, the best thing you can do for yourself is decide to just have fun and do your best.

That's harder than it sounds, but it is absolutely possible. You have to make the choice and commit to it. You have to make that same choice at some point even when you're well-prepared, because performing in front of people is a different skill than preparing in private, and it's a different skill than practicing performing or performing for a recording.


PS: My recent bunch of gigs were really fun! I had a duo gig with Jason on Thursday, solo recital Saturday afternoon, fundraiser solo/duo recital with my wife Angeline Saturday evening, and then a house concert in Seattle on Tuesday night. At the last one, I got to play in front of a roomful of guitarists, which is usually the hardest thing but it felt great.

It's a real privilege to play for an audience that understands the music and the effort that went into preparing it!

February 11, 2011

What do you focus on?

I managed to smash my left middle finger in the bathroom door on Monday night. I'm not sure how it happened, but I came out of it with a small cut and a numb fingertip. Yuck!

So I decided to take it easy on practicing the next day and just play through my Bach Cello suite for fun. I sat down to play and got into my "I'm concentrating!" mode, and soon enough things were going ... well, not great.

Frustrated, I decided to put the guitar away and do something else for a while. But I got bored and came back to the guitar to work on one of the movements that didn't go right. I started by playing through it again, and a funny thing happened.

I got distracted somehow and found myself thinking I should start working on my taxes. Suddenly, I noticed that I was playing great. Huh? I played a few whole of the suite as well as I'd like to play them in concert.

Thinking about my taxes is probably not the magic recipe for success, but I'm pretty sure that lightening up and letting go is part of it.

What do you focus on when you perform? Listening to the sound? Visualizing what's ahead?

February 4, 2011

Wooten's metronome games

Philip Hii's been writing about rhythm a lot on his blog lately, and so I feel like it's a good time to work on my rhythm (it's always a good time to work on rhythm). I think I have pretty good rhythm, but I would rather leave no room for doubt about it.

I recently read Victor Wooten's excellent book "The Music Lesson" (thanks to Doug Young for the recommendation!) in which he discusses 10 fundamental aspects of musicianship in ways that I think are not often dealt with. He's a jazz bassist, of course, and the book is written somewhat from that perspective, but pretty much all of it applies in one way or another to any other kind of music and instrument. I'll write up a review of it at some point, but for now...

Victor Wooten offers some interesting exercises for working on rhythm in "The Music Lesson," and there's a nice video on Youtube where he demonstrates some of them.

Watch this:

Applying this to classical guitar

I've taken La Catedral: Allegro Solemne and prepared the following example. The accent marks show where the metronome should click in relation to the music. The first example is how I typically feel the piece; the next two are a bit harder and then the rest are even harder.

For each one, start by counting out loud so the click lines up with the right beat. Victor demonstrates in the video. For a lot of us that will be a great exercise in and of itself.

Once you get that going, start playing the example on the "one" and work on it until you are comfortable with the beat placement. Then, if you know the rest of the piece, continue on and see how far you can keep time with the metronome on that beat. Or, apply it to a piece that you do know.

If you can make it through the whole thing without losing the beat, I salute you!

The rest of us should persist with it until we can.

I can't yet get all the way through the piece this way, but after an hour of working this way, I found that I was playing with a rhythmic clarity that I hadn't realized I was lacking before. But I also found that I could play way faster than usual without any tension, and barely made any mistakes. In fact, I felt like the music was playing itself!

Why? As Victor says, when you work on this exercise, you're no long just playing along with the metronome. The rhythm has to come from within you. It's one thing to feel like you're playing in time, and another to know with absolute confidence that you are. The metronome will tell you.

I would be surprised if anyone who tries and sticks with these exercises doesn't have a similar result. It just makes sense to me... It IS a mentally taxing exercise, but it's aimed directly at improving the most fundamental of musical skills.

You might not like hearing this, but the more difficult and frustrating these exercises are for you, the more likely it is you really need them. The upside is, you will be really glad you did!

Also, feel free to start with simpler music, I just chose what I happened to be working on this morning.

Good luck!

January 28, 2011

Always have a positive musical intent

Philip Hii has been putting up a series of posts about speed and fluidity on his "Art of Virtuosity" blog recently. They're all great, so go check them out (when you're done reading this post!).

There's a section in his "Rebound" post that I wanted to look at:
If you find that you’re not rebounding quickly or that you’re hampered by a lack of speed in your plucking, you might want to check if lack of fluidity could be the culprit.
Make sure that as you play, you do not stop the finger at any point, especially when you have to rebound ie. change direction to bring it back to playing position again.
If you are, try moving the fingers upward after you pluck and rebound in a circular trajectory as described above. You might be surprised by the results.
Fluidity is at the heart of all efficient movement and is absolutely crucial for speed and power.
 -Philip Hii
I think that a lot of times teachers try to convey to students that they shouldn't pluck the strings upwards away from the top of the guitar, which is something that a lot of people instinctively do for fear or getting "stuck" on the next string. "Don't pluck upwards" can eventually get thought of as "there shouldn't be any upward motion."

But somehow you have to clear the string on the way back to playing position, and I think that no matter how you conceptualize it, there will need to be some upward motion. Following Philip's advice will help you understand the whole motion you're working on rather than leaving some of it to chance.

Bicycling exercise

What Philip talks about reminds me of something I read in Pepe Romero's "Guitar Style and Technique" book. Sadly, it is long out of print and I have only been able to borrow it, so I will just paraphrase; Pepe recommends, as an exercise, moving your right hand fingers in circles as through you're pedaling a tiny bicycle.

I have seen it said that this motion should be "avoided at all costs," presumably because if you pluck the string upward, you will get a thin and weak tone... but if you already know how to make a good sounding stroke, it shouldn't be a problem to coordinate the motion so that the upwards portion doesn't begin too soon.

Which brings me too...

Always have a positive musical intent

It's important to work on technique by itself but it always helps to have a musical intent when you do it. I have noticed at times that I can play, for example, scale passages faster in a piece than I could when practicing scales on their own. The perception of difficulty often makes things harder than they really are because when we focus on what we don't want to happen. If you focus instead on what you do want, you'll probably get it quicker.


PS: I have several upcoming gigs in the Seattle area, although the only gig that's really "public" is at the Burlington, WA public library from 2-3pm. But for those of you attending the recital-type performances, here's what I'm playing:
  • Rodrigo: En Los Trigales
  • Turina: Fandanguillo
  • Villa-Lobos: Prelude 3
  • Barrios: Julia Florida, La Catedral
  • Bach: Cello Suite BWV 1009
  • Llobet: Plany
At at least two of these performances, there will be a piano present, so with my wife Angeline I'll also be playing: 
  • Vivaldi: Trio Sonata rv82
  • Rodrigo: Españoleta (from Fantasia Para Una Gentilhombre)

January 21, 2011

You have to REALLY listen

"Concerts undoubtedly have great value in developing the student technically and mentally; but too often they have a directly contrary effect. I think there is a very doubtful benefit to be derived from the present habit, as illustrated in New York, London, or other centers, of the student attending concerts, sometimes as many as two or three a day. This habit dwarfs the development of real appreciation, as the student, under these conditions, can little appreciate true works of art when he has crammed his head so full of truck, and worn out his faculties of concentration until listening to music becomes a mechanical mental process. The _indiscriminate_ attending of concerts, to my mind, has an absolutely pernicious effect on the student."
-Albert Spalding, from "Violin Mastery" by Frederick Martens, 1919

It's difficult for me to imagine a world where one could attend two to three concerts a day, but now we could just substitute "listen to your iPod."

Immersion is important

I feel a bit conflicted writing this, because I used to listen to irish traditional music almost all day long at work, and I think it was a big help for me to build up my repertoire of tunes. There are many hundreds of tunes I can play pretty well on the flute that I put no conscious effort into learning. 

I'm convinced that immersing myself in the music of that tradition was crucial to learning it, as it would be with any form of music. After all, listening to music is fundamental for a musician, in order to develop a sense of style and continuity. 

Saturation is the problem

However, it's really easy now to listen to music all day long, and to get into the habit of listening passively. You may be fooling yourself into thinking you're picking up on the details when you're not. It's not a big step to go from "listening passively" to "barely listening at all."

Listening to yourself while you practice and perform is crucial to success. When you're accustomed to "barely listening at all" to music, you may find it hard to listen to yourself while you play, especially if you are already struggling with confidence issues.

You have to REALLY listen!

I discovered about year ago that I was sort of bracing my ears as I played, hiding from the sounds I was making. I found that when I wanted to play something loudly, I ended up not really hearing it at all. It was a total shock to realize this, but it explained a lot about how different my music actually sounded from what I wanted to it to sound like. 

I decided to take drastic (and almost painful) action. For several months, I stopped listening to music almost altogether. The only exception was when I could give all my attention to the music. I would sit on the floor in front of the stereo and listen to one piece at a time, following along in the score whenever possible. ( and the Boije Collection are a great resources for this.)

I wasn't prepared for how quiet and weird my world became, compared to what I was used to. Almost immediately, though, I became aware of all manners of subtleties in the music that I listened to that I had never heard before. I began to hear what makes an interpretation work or not. I began to open up my ears to my own music again, and appreciate how much I really wasn't hearing.

That doesn't sound like me!

I've heard so many people say (and I've said it myself) that they're surprised by what they really sound like, when they listen back to a recording they've made of themselves. If you don't hear what it really sounds like while you're playing, you need to work on your listening skills.

Recording yourself is a helpful and important tool (and I encourage it), but it's not a substitute for being present in the moment while you're playing.

January 14, 2011

Louis Drouët: On the Method of Finishing a Piece

Some food for thought today culled from Louis Drouët's 1830 method for playing the flute. I left the pre-Victorian ESL wording alone, because I find it amusing, but the advice is good:

 On the Method of Finishing a Piece
"The word finish, as employed here, means to bring to perfection. Thus to finish a piece is to labour at it, until it is executed with much purity in the style, as well as neatness in the execution.
"To finish a piece, the question is not to play it to the end, to begin it again afresh and then tune and to continue thus for several days in succession, hoping to bring it to perfection by an execution of this kind. By such a mode of proceeding men become blinded to the piece which they study; they conclude by playing with coldness, and by executing the passages with rapidity, but without neatness; they become habitual to the defects of execution, which occur in the difficult passages, so much so, that they are unfelt by the performer though they strike the ears of his audience in the most glaring manner.
"The following is the shortest method to learn well and speedily, a piece of music that is to be performed in public.  
"It is necessary in the first place to play it once or twice successively, to have a true conception of its general effects. Of the degree of movement which is best adapted to aid it, and in a word that which tends most to identify it with the composer. After this first operation, should be recommenced slowly, a pause should be made at every period, every phrase, and even at every bar; all the details should be laboured with the greatest ease till the performer has acquired the tact of giving the composition every degree of elegance, grace, and dignity; and to display the brilliant passages with the most striking neatness, energy, and splendour. Afterwards from time to time the piece should be performed as if it were executed before the public."
- Louis Drouët, London 1830

January 7, 2011

What is expression?

Breaking rules for the sake of breaking rules isn’t usually art; it’s just anarchy. And following rules for the sake of following rules is just mindless conformity.
- David duChemin, "Don't Break the Rules" 
For a while now, I've been following photographer David duChemin's blog. This recent post from him really hit the nail on the head. I think the kind of expression a lot of guitarists have come to equate with "soul" is what duChemin aptly calls "anarchy."

Communicating with the audience

An expressive performance creates, for the listener, the feeling that the composer and/or performer wants them to experience.

It doesn't mean holding a chord a bit longer, hitting some note louder, speeding up, or slowing just because you're trying to "express yourself" and that's how you feel it. That might fool a superficial listener, but it's not going to hold up in the long run.

There are certain conventions that have evolved over the course of music history in order to accomplish this goal of creating an effect for the listener. This is where ritardandi, rallentandi, accelerandi, accent, dynamics, etc come in to play. This is phrasing.

If you don't understand these things and aren't using these things appropriately, there's a very good chance you're not really communicating with your audience effectively.

Learn the "why"

If these things are applied too clinically or carefully, they may still fail to communicate fully, but they will probably still produce a more convincing performance for the audience than when they are used "intuitively" but inappropriately. 

duChemin offers some great advice, too, for the artist or musician who wants to develop a genuine sense of expression. Think "musical expression" when he says "photographic expression":
Art created in adherence to rules is art about rules, not about passion or beauty or any other thing about which humans have made honest art over the centuries. 
That’s not to say there aren’t helpful principles, but they are only that. They’re guides to help us make our decisions, but divorced from the Why, separated from the reason they became rules in the first place, they’re more a shackle than a permission to experiment and express. I know the usual response to this discussion is that you have to know the rules first, then you can break them; I think that’s baloney too. Just knowing the rules is useless. We need to understand the principles of photographic expression, the reasons these rules came into play to begin with in the first place, then use or ignore them in the service of our vision as we need.
 - David duChemin

A mercifully brief rant

I started thinking about writing this post when I watched William Kanengiser play Sor's B minor etude and read the comments:
  • It is dry to say the least.He plays Sor with an
    Art Deco approach....beautiful tones and longlines.
    Lacking all the Accelerandi,Rallentando,and
    varying beat placement,dynamic contrast,and as
    you say ...color is totally
  • like a midi
Now, anyone capable of listening to this recording objectively will hear plenty of accelerandi,  rallentandi, and everything else smithsherman claims are not there. These things are not even subtle, and sometimes they're pretty dramatic. 

So why are they undetectable to loadermen, smithsherman, and the 56 thumb-uppers? It's no wonder classical guitarists in general still have a poor reputation compared to other musicians.