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