Album Review: Fine Light by Rick Alexander

For those of you who are regular readers you would have seen the name of Melbourne guitarist-composer Rick Alexander a few times on the blog in the last year or so, including a guest post written by the man himself*.

Well, in September 2013 (yes, I know I’m late in reviewing this – naughty me!), Rick released his latest (and might I add greatest) collection of pieces for solo nylon string guitar. Actually, to call the tracks on the album “pieces” doesn’t seem to fit quite right,  I like to think of them as rather songs without words, such is their beautifully melodic quality.

Fine Light is a wonderful collection of imaginative, lyrical and reflective songs, some of which Rick began writing in the early 2000s and completed in 2013. For me this album is a perfect accompaniment to a lazy Sunday morning, or a quiet reflective evening in – there’s certainly more than enough melodic and harmonic interest there to keep you humming along (and even making an earworm or two), but without overly taxing the noggin. If you like simply beautiful instrumental music, delivered in a cool, clear crisp and emotive manner by the composer themself then this is a recording to add to the collection.

Rick

Of the 16 tracks on the album here are some of the highlights for me:

Missing You – Rick wrote this one for his wife after she’d just left for a long trip overseas, a tune with a sweet, longing disposition but without being overly melancholy. Rick makes great use of some alternative tuning on this track, tuning the A string down to G, which lends a fantastic depth and resonance to the tune.

Intersection - overdubbed duet of interweaving lines, originally intended and recorded purely as a solo piece, but Rick then decided to overdub an improvised second part over the top to great effect

Gliding - a song with wistful, slightly melancholy feel. Rick brings in a key change midway through that offers a glimmer of positive hope, with shimmering chords and a delightfully positive ending.

Frozen Space – another with a slightly wistful feel to it, but with some lovely guitaristic effects including perfectly timed use of harmonics. Simply beautiful.

PJ – not a song about his pyjamas! This is a tune Rick wrote in 2012 whilst in Petaling Jaya (PJ), Malaysia and features a wonderfully laid-back, upbeat melody, featuring a really lovely ending with a nice little jazzy chord for good measure. Up there in the running for my favourite track of all.

Fine Light – an intriguing opening with plenty of breathing space, making you wonder where it’s headed…..Before Rick then launches into this great toe-tapper of a tune. In fact I dare you to listen to this one and not tap along! I’d go so far as to say that this is my favourite track of them all – most definitely. It’s just an all-round great tune, a great up-beat feel, some really nice harmonies with a little bit of spice, contemporary cross-flavour nylon string guitar writing at its best.

If you head on over to Rick’s website he’s got Missing You and Fine Light  up there as free tracks to listen to. He’s also been kind enough to transcribe them and post up the sheet music for you too, so you can play along!

I definitely recommend you head over and check it out:  http://www.rickalexanderguitar.com/finelight.html

And if you wanted your own copy of this gorgeous recording, the same link features the various ways you can get hold of a copy for yourself – CD or a download through iTunes or Amazon. The CD is also available through Amazon, CD Baby and CD Universe. Alternatively if you’re in Melbourne you can buy the CD from Hans Music Spot, Croydon or from Audiophile Reference Recordings at 2 Florence Street, Burwood.

 

* Just in case you missed out here are those previous posts featuring Rick:

http://classicalguitarnstuff.com/2013/09/23/introducing-rick-alexander/

http://classicalguitarnstuff.com/2014/03/17/qa-with-rick-alexander/

http://classicalguitarnstuff.com/2014/02/03/from-nylon-to-steel-and-back/

I Broke A Fingernail! How To Cope With A Broken Fingernail

A few weeks ago I put up a post about playing guitar with nails versus flesh – http://classicalguitarnstuff.com/2014/06/23/classical-guitar-playing-nails-or-flesh/

Well, this past week I’ve had an enforced experimentation with just flesh playing (well, on one finger anyway!), as I went and snapped my “a” fingernail! Eek! For someone who plays with nails 99.999% of the time this has been a bizarre sensation and a good reminder that nails are indeed my preference for playing! Why? For all those reasons I’ve previously outlined, but mainly greater projection and greater tonal control.

It is inevitable, however, that at some point we are all going to break, snap, chip or somehow otherwise negatively impact our playing nails.

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So what can be done when they get broken?

(1) Accept that it is broken!  Yes, it has happened. Yes, it is unfortunate. Yes, you will live. Yes, it will grow back.

(2) Minimise potential for any further damage to the nail. Depending on the nature of the chip, nick or snap this may involve trimming the nail further back beyond the damaged area and growing again from purely healthy, undamaged nail. It may take slightly longer for the nail to grow back to full playing length doing this, but you’ll be pretty much guaranteed not to have knock-on effects from the original nail damage or recurring chips or snaps.

(3) Depending on the side of the nail you damage (if it’s not a full nail snap off), you may be able to rescue the playing side whilst trimming back and smoothing off (you don’t want to snag it as this will make things even worse) the non-playing side. It will likely have an impact on your tone production and I’d lay off going too heavy with a nail in this condition, but will allow you to continue playing with the nail.

(4) If you’re in desperate need particularly if you’ve damaged the playing side and you need the nail (i.e. you’ve got a concert or exam coming up fairly soon), there is an option to retain that damaged nail, as per (3), and doing an interim repair job with layers of tissue paper and glue. Layer on the paper and glue, papier mache style, let it dry and then shape. Alternatively, you could test out a stick-on nail such as the Rico Nail.

(5) Be aware of your nails’ idiosyncrasies and manage accordingly. This includes recognising tendancies such as splitting a certain point and/or length or curling at a certain length.

(6) If you’ve damaged then nail down in the living area and you have a fault growing through the nail (which I have had on my “m” finger for around the last 10 months), see item (1) and just remember it’s there and manage it suitably to create your playing surface.

(7) Keep on top of maintaining your nails on a regular basis. Get into the habit of just giving them a maintenance file and buff before playing. I tend to mine before sitting down to practice, but once a week I’ll sit down for 20-30 minutes and carry out some more serious length control (I’m blessed with them growing quickly) and shaping.

(8) And of course, take care not to damage them in the first place! Check out a post from last year on taking care of your nails: http://classicalguitarnstuff.com/2013/09/26/nails-mind-the-nails-looking-after-your-guitarists-fingernails/

Xuefei Yang in Geelong in October!

Time to get excited Australian guitarists! Chinese guitarist extraordinaire Xuefei Yang is headed to our southern shores in late September and early October for her Australian debut tour. Very exciting!

She’ll be kicking things off on 28th September at the Sydney Opera House with a solo recital before headed down to Melbourne for a star turn with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra on 2nd and 3rd October at the revamped Hamer Hall. Xuefei and the MSO will also be heading to the West Gippsland Arts Centre, Warragul (4th October) and Frankston Arts Centre (6th October).

Xuefei will be making her Australian debut playing what is probably everyone’s favourite classical guitar concerto (it’s certainly a favourite of mine) – Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez. She, along with the MSO, will also be playing the Australian premiere of the new classical guitar concerto by Chinese composer Tan Dun, composer of the music to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

Xuefei Yang (Credit: Neil Muir)

And for those of us in Victoria we’re going to be in for an extra special treat. Following her appearances at the Sydney Opera House and with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra at the Hamer Hall, Xuefei will be headed to Geelong to present a solo concert of works by Albeniz, Bach, Williams, de Falla, Rodrigo and Brouwer as well as traditional Chinese music.

The concert will be held on Tuesday 7th October at 8pm in Sacred Heart College’s exquisite chapel. A great reason to take the trip down to Geelong if ever there was!!

Tickets are now on sale from the college’s online shop. http://www.shcgeelong.catholic.edu.au/

For tickets to Xuefei’s concerts with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra head to:  http://www.artscentremelbourne.com.au/whats-on/classical-music/concerto-de-aranjuez

For a bit of a taste of what will be in store, here’s Xuefei playing the Adagio of Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez with the Barcelona Symphony. Enjoy!

The Importance of Performance Practice

Practice, practice, practice – that’s something I whittle on about a fair bit on this blog. It is very important if you want to progress on the classical guitar, or any other instrument, or any other skill really. Consistent, regular, targeted practice. Can’t beat it!

There is one more thing that you also need to be doing, particularly if you’re looking to take an exam, or perform for others in some capacity.

What is it? Performance practice.

Practicing the act of performing is so important and I was reminded of this by a friend of mine this week who has just attained his Diploma in Piano Performance. He commented that practicing performance, practicing in front of friends, strangers and basically anyone that would listen made a huge difference for him when it came to taking the exam. From my own point of view, I couldn’t agree more and have experienced the same for myself.

It’s a bit like a professional athlete – training and working out in the gym day in and day out or rehearsing set pieces or moves is undoubtedly going to make you (a) very fit and (b) well across how, when and where you need to move. This fitness is not “match fitness” however. There’s something about getting into the fray that does make all the difference – it’s the getting out there and committing, learning from the experience and developing from it. This makes you a true athlete.

In the same way, as a guitarist putting yourself into “match” situations is really going to sharpen up your playing game!

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Why is it important?

You will undoubtedly experience some physical and mental feelings and sensations that you wouldn’t necessarily experience in the practice room when it’s just you, the guitar and the dog. By practicing your performance skills you expose yourself to, learn to go with and even use to your advantage the differing feelings and sensations of live performance. There’s no substitute for doing this really.

You can also practice other elements of your performance – practicing how you will walk to your chair, how you will set yourself up, how you will tune, and importantly how you will accept your rapturous applause in what is quite possibly a new or different environment to that you used to in your daily practice.

How?

See if you’re able, particularly in the lead up to your next exam or recital, to work some performance practice sessions in. Play for your family one Sunday afternoon, play for your friends one evening, join a local musical group or guitar society and find out when their social gatherings are, busk, play for hospital patients. There are opportunities everywhere. It doesn’t really matter where, or for how long (or even playing what in the early days whilst you’re getting used to it), the important thing is just to give it a crack.

Nervous?

There’s only really one real sure fire way of blowing your nerves out of the water, and that’s to get lots of performance in! Do it over and over and over again. Accept and allow yourself to feel nervous. It’s OK.

By getting up there and doing it, allowing yourself to feel the sometimes oddly different experience of playing for others will help dissipate your feeling of nerves over time. Getting your performance practice in now will allow you to experience and manage these experiences, feelings and so on in relatively “safe” environments.

And just like your day to day practice, the more you do of something (generally) the easier it becomes and the more natural it becomes too.

 

New Release of Andrew Violette’s Hour Long Sonata for Guitar Featuring Daniel Lippel

I once again find myself in the super-privileged position to be able to be invited to listen to, review and share with you some wonderful music written for our wonderful instrument.

This week I’ve been listening to the very first recording of a work by an American contemporary composer I’ll admit to being completely unfamiliar with, Andrew Violette. This work is his Sonata for Guitar written in 1997 and what an epic it is! The fact that has remained, until now, unrecorded is no slight on the music – it’s a very interesting, well thought out, exploration of harmony and melody. I would imagine it is because it clocks in at just a couple of minutes over the 1 hour mark – that’s a heck of an undertaking for a solo guitarist when we normally see 20 to 25 minutes as a lengthy piece of work!

The guitarist that committed to taking on and recording this mammoth work (and I am so glad that he did) is US guitarist Daniel Lippel.  Lippel recorded and released the Sonata through his own label New Focus Recordings (co-founded with compose Peter Gilbert in 2004 to release recordings with maximum creative control). To date Lippel’s recordings have garnered him critical acclaim from Gramophone, American Record Guide, Classical Review of North America, American Record Guide, Guitar Review, Music Web International, Sequenza21, and several other publications.

The Sonata, inspired by the hazy memories of being enthralled by Benjamin Britten’s Nocturnal and making thematic references to that piece, is divided into six movements:

(1) Moderato – setting the melodic and harmonic outlines for the piece. There are some beautiful melodic lines in this movement, some beautiful musical shapes, that I could imagine singing. Rhythmically, like the rest of movements in the piece, this is very straightforward with the interest very much coming from the melodic shapes and treatment of the harmonies – a harmonic rhythm if you will – and interweaving of lines.

(2) Colorfield – my joint favourite of the movements, which surprised me when I read that it was all based on the one harmony. 25 minutes of the one harmony. “Hmmm interesting” I thought and interesting listening it certainly is. This is all about meditating on one musical colour, really understanding and getting to grips with what can be achieved with just one part of the palette, a true musical exploration. In Violette’s words it makes use of “subtly shifting accents and syntax to produce similar lines with different semantic and metric meaning“. Spellbinding.

(3) Intermezzo – This lush and beguiling little Intermezzo opens the second half of the sonata and re-introduces harmonic movement, which is gently refreshing on the ear following the hypnotic harmony of the Colourfield, before moving on quickly into the Fuga.

(4) Fuga a 3 voci: Homage to Joaquin Rodrigo – my other joint favourite movement. We still hear the same harmonic and melodic themes here, but the Spanish elements reminiscent of Rodrigo add a spicy flavour and new aural twist to material we’ve experienced to date. A really nice nod to the type of material that sits so well on the instrument too. Possibly the most guitaristic of the movements.

(5) Chaconne after Britten (Andante) – The penultimate movement references the Passcaglia from Britten’s Nocturnal, and makes use of some very beautiful melodic lines that sing so well on the guitar. Actually I retract my statement above about the Fuga being the most guitaristic of the movements – this is highly guitaristic music and would have to be next in line in order of preference of the movements. Wonderful stuff.

(6) Lullaby –  I love the hypnotic feel of the descending thematic material with supporting background arpeggios, and final ascending and descnding harmonics lulling you into a dream world, in a spellbinding fashion reminiscent of the Colourfield. A wonderful way to end the piece.

Just one tiny thing mars the recording a little for me – I think perhaps also having each movement of the Sonata as a separate track , for me personally, would allow a great accessibility to the piece and explore each movement in isolation. Just a suggestion however, but perhaps not what Lippel nor Violette intended for the listener. In that case, perhaps time indications of where each movement begins?

Anyway, this is all just very minor stuff and these things aside this is a simply marvellous demonstration of some masterful playing, sensitive to the subtle nuances of the music wending and winding its way, developing over time through the various movements. It is also a marvellous recorded debut of what is a fantastic (and epic!) piece of the modern repertoire that undoubtedly deserves to be heard far and wide. Hats off to both Lippel and Violette!

Be sure to check it out for yourself. Head on over to the New Focus Recordings website where you can download the album for the very low price of just USD$8.99 – a bargain!

http://www.newfocusrecordings.com/catalogue/andrew-violette-sonata-for-guitar

 

Alternatively, you can also download through iTunes: https://itunes.apple.com/sg/album/andrew-violette-sonata-for/id890025619

Or Amazon:  http://www.amazon.com/Andrew-Violette-Sonata-Daniel-Lippel/dp/B00L1XZY0G

Five Things To Do Before You Sit Down To Practice

I’m always rattling on about good quality practice being one of the keys to progress on the classical guitar and I’ve written previously on what makes for good quality practice. There are also a number of things you can do prior to your session to ensure you’re ready and set-up for making the most of your practice time.

So here, folks, are five things that I find help really set me up for a good practice session:

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(1) Prep your nails

Make sure your right hand fingernails are shaped, nick free and playing surfaces are glossed to a high shine. Then they’re ready to make the most beautiful tones for you! Also make sure your left hand (or fretting hand) nails are nice and trimmed down so they don’t catch or dig into the fretboard. It’s kind of annoying and a little disruptive to realise that you need to trim them halfway through an exercise or a piece and then go searching for your nail scissors. Get into the habit of making sure your nails are prepped and ready before your practice session and then you won’t have to think about it during your session.

(2) Know what you want to achieve in this session

This is a big one (and I’ve dedicated a blog post to this subject recently in its own right – Pre-Practice Preparation) – knowing what you want to get out of a session, what you want to overcome, figure out, nut out, play differently, read through etc. is key to maximising your time. Decide what it is you want to do, commit to doing that and you’re halfway there.

(3) Get your music, exercises, sight-reading, metronome, pencil, eraser and whatever other materials you’ll need for your practice right there on the stand or within arm’s reach.

Fluffing around, getting up and down, digging around on a bookshelf or in a bag for music or other bits and bobs can create a distraction and disrupt the creative juices. Because you’ll have thought about what it is you want to do in your practice session as per (2) above, that will help you think about what it is you’ll need to have around you for your practice. Grab a little side table, or another chair, and pop your various bits and bobs there ready for you to access easily.

(4) Grab a glass of water (or a cup of tea if it’s chilly which is what I’m doing in the Melbourne winter at the moment!)

A glass of water is, plain and simply, good for the obvious reasons of staying hydrated and helping maintain your focus.

(5) Tune up!

This is an absolute must. Do not launch into playing without first checking you’re in tune. Whether you do this by ear, digital tuner, via an app on your phone, piano, tuning fork or whatever, make sure you’re in tune. It may not be so obvious to the beginner, but the guitar does out of tune incrediby quickly and so tuning each time you come to play is very important. The more you play and develop, the more sensitive your ear will become to the tuning and will it become second nature. If you don’t do this already, this a very good habit to start to get into.

 

Happy practicing!

Developing Your Technique – Left Hand

Hello dear readers!

I thought over the next few weeks I’d take a look at some aspects of classical guitar technique development and today we start with a look at the left hand. I’ll caveat this post, as I generally do with all my others, in that this is a refelection of my own thoughts and experiences, what I have to say is not the be all and end all and may not work for everyone. I think  it’s also important, at this stage, to recognise that technical development can be quite a personal thing – we’re all made slightly differently and we all have our own particular inherent strengths and weaknesses.

It’s also important to realise that  technical development is a continually evolving thing – one is and should always striving to develop and improve technique. It’s just that as we progress the increments of change get smaller and smaller! Rest assured that I’m still very much exploring and developing my own technique folks!

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Looking at the two hands separately

Whilst it’s correct to say that the right and left hand working effectively together is where classical guitar technique comes into its own with regard to production of sound in a musical fashion, it oftentimes helps to isolate or look at more closely, the technique of one hand over the other. Doing this allows us to hone in on a particular aspect of the technique with limited distraction from elsewhere. That’s not to say we don’t play with the right hand whilst looking at left hand perhaps, it just that our focus is shifted.

Doing this can also allow us to identify the source of a technical hurdle – sometimes what you thought was a right hand* issue can in fact be a left hand issue, and what you thought was a left hand issue could in fact be something to do with your right hand technique.

Left hand technical elements

There are a number of elements involved in left hand technique on the classical guitar:

  • chords and chord changes
  • barres and applying appropriate left hand pressure
  • rapid left hand movement and changes
  • legato playing
  • staccato
  • fretboard geography
  • slurs
  • development of the typically weaker fingers (i.e. 3rd and 4th fingers)
  • finger strength and flexibility
  • finger independence

This is not an exhaustive list and I’m sure there are probably others that you will come across, but these are some of the key ones.

There are a number of “watch its” that go along with each of these individual techniques, not to mention that it would make it an enormously loooong post to go through each and everyone of them for the various techniques (perhaps they are subjects for individual topics in themselves – watch this space…..)!

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To get you started though in developing your left hand technique here are some pointers:

(1) Yes you do need to look at left hand technique. You can travel ahead and get on kind of reasonably well without delving into examining and improving your left hand technique, but if you’re wanting to progress beyond thwacking out a so-so rendition of your favourite tune the sooner you start looking at your left hand and the part it plays in how you’re playing and the music you’re making, the sooner your development will begin to skyrocket.

(2) All the above-mentioned techniques are important in a guitarist’s arsenal, but there are some which support the others. Technical development is something that should be built over time, and certain aspects you should consider as your foundation upon which to build everything else. In my opinion it’s key to work on finger independence, your finger strength and flexibility and particularly the development of the weaker fingers (3rd and 4th fingers). If you’re playing on a daily basis this will begin to inherently occur over time until over time you can do all sorts of weird and wonderful things with your left hand fingers without batting an eyelid.

Great exercises for this include:

  • the humble, yet wonderful, diatonic and chromatic scales. Practice these daily and your fingers will grow in strength, and seemingly take on a memory of their own too
  • scales in thirds, sixths and octaves
  • opposing motion and finger independence exercises – there are some great ones (along with other left hand exercises) in Scott Tennant’s Pumping Nylon book.

Working on developing these, particularly in the early and intermediate stages of your development (heck, even at an advanced stage as I still touch on finger independence exercises from time to time) will help you develop other techniques, such as slurs (hammer ons or pull offs) in a much more efficient and effective way. Make sure you’re building (and continuing to check in and maintain) your strong foundations.

(3) Pick your known weaknesses and work on those. If you’re a gun at pull off slurs there’s not too much point in practicing them extensively. Yes, touch base with them form time to time, but you’ll develop ina quicker and much more rounded fashion if you look at working on those elements that actually do need work. Or if there’s something in a piece you’re working on and it’s a little shaky isolate that and work on it away from the piece.

(4) Don’t over do it! Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither was a fantastic barre technique. Work on things in small bite-size chunks. 10 – 15 minutes per session is all I recommend working on something for, particularly initially. Make sure those are a focused 10-15 minutes and keep relaxed. Don’t stress if it doesn’t happen as quickly as you like. Keep chipping away, focusing on what you’re doing and analysing what needs to be done differently (if anything) and you’ll get there eventually. And ease into it in your practice session – don’t smash your hand at full speed straight off the bat. Allow your hands and fingers time to warm up into it.

 

 

* When I say right hand here I mean the plucking hand, and when I say left hand I mean the fretting hand. Swap around if you’re left handed.