On my music stand: August 2011

On my music stand in August 2011. From the left:

  • Rodrigo's "Fantasia para un Gentilhombre",
  • notes to myself
  • "Guitar Playing and how it works"
  • Alan Fraser's "Honing the Pianistic Self Image".

On my practice stand - Rodrigo, Fraser and Inglis

Alan Fraser's book arrived in the mail today. It contains the most lucid and engaging descriptions I have yet read of what it feels like to have good, musical technique and how to achieve it.

Sing while you play!

Flautist Robert Dick kicks off his instructional video series with a lesson on Throat Tuning. He shows how to use the voice to ensure that "bad days" are banished!

Guitarists will benefit in several ways from practicing like this.

  • Singing encourages better pitch perception
  • Better tone production. Most beginners get a much more musical tone from their voice than their instrument
  • It engages the musical imagination, especially in his 4th step - playing while imagining you are singing.

First steps in learning a piece

Most western music tells a story with melody and creates mood with rhythm and harmony.

  • What is the rhythm of the piece?
  • Walk
  • Run
  • Skip
  • Sway?
  • ... or something else?

What is the key?

Listen to the melody and mark the phrases with curved lines. The phrases will usually end with a cadence. Cadences are musical punctuations - pauses, anticipations and endings.

By marking the score this way you are making clear the plan of the piece - the underlying architecture.

  • Where are the main arguments?
  • What are the main characters?
  • Is there a dialogue going on?

Fingerings should really be the very last thing you look at.

Learn the story first. Get the broad sweep then fill in the details.

Why learn fingerings last?

Here is one example:

Let's say the melody in a particular section is broad and impassioned, simulating the pain of lost love. That sort of emotion is going to be conveyed much better by playing up and down the length of the string rather than staying in one position and crossing strings.

Now in practice, especially with the demands of solo guitar music, you may not be able to play the melody on one string and keep the accompaniment going. But at least you have identified the character of the melody - and even played it on one string for a while, as expressively as possible. That will show in your interpretation.

Now if you had just looked for a convenient fingering without reference to the character of the melody - your fingering would dictate and limit your expression.

Stretching exercises, Carl Flesch's opinion

Carl Flesch was a famous violin player and teacher who wrote "The Art of Violin Playing", three books which set out components of violin technique, provides a time - efficient sequence of music for mastering the major and minor scale material, and then in book 3 uses examples from the classical repertoire to show fingering and bowing in practice. Flesch was less interested in producing prodigies, than in enabling average talents to reach their fullest potential.

Carl Flesch 'The Art of Violin Playing' Book One

Carl Flesch had firm ideas about the value, or otherwise, of "stretching exercises":

Read more: Stretching exercises, Carl Flesch's opinion

What is it like to change your technique?

A performing musician's insights into the mental work involved in changing technique.

A frozen moment in tremelo technique
A frozen moment in tremelo technique.

This is an excellent description of the subtlety of the work that has to take place when using the sorts of concepts described in my tuition books.

This message was originally posted at online by by professional guitarist Miguel de Maria www.migueldemaria.com). It is reproduced here with permission of the author.

On the gig

"Last night, at a gig, I unleashed Recuerdos (Recuerdos de la Alhambra) , with the mingled anticipation and dread this piece always brings out in me. I love the piece, really, corny as that may be; and so do my clientele. Playing that piece transforms you from "the guy who plays classical guitar in the corner" to "that virtuoso guitar player we had who plays almost as good as Esteban." (the second one is better !).

So I started playing it, and I found my hand getting tight. It was a little cold outside, which didn't help, but I knew that by playing with a tight hand, I would end up with a sore wrist and a very unpleasant, marathon-like experience.

I started to think about Chang, and what Peter Inglis calls "four strokes, one impulse". ( 'One impulse equals Four Notes' ) The idea (as I interpret it) is that something like the tremolo is not really 4 movements, but one, graduated movement. It is more like grabbing a cup than playing four sequential fingers.

The mental shift involved is great, but extremely powerful. The easiest trigger is to give it a little "bounce" - Chang advocates this, as does Fernandez in his great book. Immediately, the tension disappeared, replaced by a smooth and easy tremolo that took about as much effort as grabbing a cup. Effort disappeared, ease and fluency was all that was left. A couple of times the tension reappeared when I lost the focus, but by bouncing it, I was able to shift back to the right way. At first the bounce looked funny, but eventually it was not even discernable with the eye.

A frozen moment in tremelo technique

I had always thought that the tremolo players who bounced their hands were kind of like Neanderthals of some sort, but I now see that their way is actually correct. Of course, you probably don't need to visibly bounce the hand, it is more internal, I think.

A lot of people probably do the bounce, or use that SENSATION, without even knowing it at all. But what is the visible difference between bouncing Miguel and non-bouncing Miguel? Nothing, if the bounce is tiny.

How can the bouncing Miguel, he of the fluent and easy tremolo, explain how to play tremolo to the non-bouncing Miguel? Only by sensation, and maybe by metaphor, if he is poetically inclined. It is not about anatomy or diagrams but internal sensation and which "motor program" you are using. The hardest part of all may be that the Miguel who gets it doesn't even know the other Miguel doesn't get it, or what they are doing differently.

A frozen moment in tremelo technique

I suspect most of the differences between great players and common mortals lie in tiny things like this, so essential and important but incredibly hard to sense, let alone communicate."

My comments.

The first thing I notice about this message is that the author's experimentation took place in a performing environment, will all it's attendant mental distractions and the physical difficulties such as cold weather.

The only technical approaches to an instrument worth learning are those that have been rigorously "field tested". Performance environments are different to studio settings to a degree that cannot not be appreciated by those who don't do it regularly. Similarly, occassional performing is a different task than what faces a professional musician, who has to be able to deliver the goods any time, day or night, in any conditions.

A frozen moment in tremelo technique

Changes in a person's use are difficult to communicate, largely because you are dealing with a person's self - their body-mind matrix, and most people get quite defensive when you suggest a change might be good.

Their ego, or self image is often tied to their "use" of their body. Emotional states and "tones" are also strongly anchored to habitual use patterns in the body, and changes to the physical use can produce disorienting sensations which most people tend to avoid.

Also, different people process information in quite different ways, and that's why I cast as wide a net as I can think of - using everything from dancing, to martial arts, or a more cerebral approach.

In person, one to one, it is still hard to help people with these changes, you are in the position of a kind of analyst! You have to figure out how the person works first, and then suggest improvement strategies they can grasp.

In books and on the web... it's almost a totally futile effort, but the occasional story like this one gives me encouragement to keep on trying. You just never know who's listening!