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!