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.