Am I Playing Loud Enough?

Well, I have another post for you today off of the back of a couple of folks emailing me with similar questions, so I thought I’d share the responses. Thank you for your questions and emails, by the way – keep them coming!

So, a couple of folks have emailed me recently* concerned that their playing volume is not sufficient enough.

I can understand that this may be a concern if you’re playing just for yourself a lot, and with little feedback perhaps from a teacher or an audience of some description.

We all know that compared with some of our electrified siblings or bowed string cousins we’re a lot quieter, with notes generally decaying a lot quicker. If playing in ensemble with other instruments, then yes, we want to make sure we’re playing out and in balance with other, potentially “louder” instruments.

Other than that, I’d say don’t concern yourself overly with volume in an of itself. Volume, or dynamics, when playing guitar (or any other instrument for that matter) is all relative really. Its a case of making sure your fortes and fortissimos are somewhat louder than your pianos and pianissimos. Those will vary from piece to piece, with differing styles, genres and eras of music and even within a piece too.

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Dynamics, and the volumes at which you’re playing, are much more relative rather than absolute. So concern yourself with the variation in your dynamic range rather than loudness per se. We should always aim to play at a suitable dynamic, with dynamic range, sympathetic to the music we’re playing at the time.
Concern yourself with your level of projection and communication. One can play the softest of pianissimos and still project that sound to your audience and be heard crystal clear. And there are always adjustments in projection and general dynamic level to be made depending on the room or environment in which you’re playing.

If you’re not working with a teacher (or even if you are), I suggest playing for others and experimenting, asking them how you sound, how the dynamics come across.

Think about what you’re producing, how you want the music to “speak” to your audience, and – of course – the quality of the sound you’re making.

Keep tuned in to what you’re playing and the rest will fall into place.

* Thank you – you know who you are!

The Benefits of Playing In Ensemble for Classical Guitarists

The classical guitar tends to be rather a solo instrument with seemingly fewer opportunities for group playing than our orchestral or band-focussed buddies.  Well, perhaps, but only to a degree I think (depending on where you live I suppose). Where there are two or more guitarists, or yourself and another musician there lies an opportunity to play together, learn from and experience a new form of playing and of course have fun.

I was reminded this weekend by the first rehearsal of the season for the CGSV Classical Guitar Orchestra that by playing music with others is a wonderful experience. And playing with other musicians, be they at a similar level or a peg or two above or below you in their technical development can really present some excellent developmental opportunities.

CGSV GO

Playing with others, be it in a duo, trio, ensemble or orchestra, can deliver a umber of benefits to a guitarist. These include:

  • Encouraging you to listen to how others play and exposing you to different sounds and approaches.
  • Encouraging you to listen harder to your own sound.
  • And in combination of the first two dot points, encouraging you to listen to how your sound blends with others in terms of quality, tone colour, volume and dynamics
  • Encouraging you to listen and “feel” the music in synchronisation with others. That pause, that placement, the movement of a line. Of course the conductor helps in this regard, but there are somethings which are definitely “felt” and playing with others helps exercise this.
  • Getting you to look up from your score and watch someone else for cues, timing and pulse.
  • Picking up a pulse and taking it on (whilst watching the conductor of course) and exercising keeping a steady and even pulse, resisting the urge to push on or pull things back.
  • Pushing you a little beyond your comfort zone in playing stuff you wouldn’t otherwise play on your own
  • Improving your sight-reading and fretboard geography
  • Increasing your musical understanding and appreciation of working with others to achieve a musical outcome.
  • And, one of the most important of all, having a lot of fun!!

So, its well worth seeing if there’s an ensemble in your area (just classical guitar or mixed) or playing some duets or trios with another classical guitar (or other instrumentalist) friend. Playing classical guitar is good fun, but it’s even better when shared with others, in my opinion.

Want To Hear Amazing Original Musical Talent? Check This Out….

I saw a great video and read an equally great article this week that I thought I’d share with you, dear readers. I thought I’d share with you in the name of sharing fantastic new music by a fantastic artist playing an instrument no doubt related to our beloved classical guitar.

The instrument is the oud, which is kind of like a Middle Eastern lute, and the musician is the superbly eclectic Joseph Tawadros. The Australian (Egyptian born) oud player is really about mixing it up. He takes traditional Middle Eastern music, western classical music and jazz, blends it all together to create a wonderful musical experience.

Check out this promo video for his upcoming new album, featuring giants of the jazz world Christian McBride (bass), Mike Stern (electric guitar) and Matt McMahon (piano). It also features his brother, James, with some amazing percussion playing (playing the req and bendir). Inspirational stuff that demonstrates very clearly that great music and great musicians know no boundaries! Anyway, the video will speak for itself without me rattling on any further! Enjoy!

And here’s the article:

http://www.theguardian.com/music/2015/feb/09/joseph-tawadros-on-why-the-oud-is-not-an-ethnic-instrument

Getting To Grips With Memorising Music

As wrote about a couple of posts ago, I’ve picked up a piece again recently that I had been “resting” (like resting a lovely piece of roast beef and letting the juices letting the juices flow prior to eating!).

In picking up this particular piece again I’ve decided to commit it to memory, and I’ve decided to really actively do this in a very methodical manner. And I’m doing so in a manner that’s somewhat of a tester of a slightly different technique for me. Sure I’ve gone about memorising things before, but in a way that’s left a few holes and potential for the stitching to come apart in live performance situations (which I’ve mostly managed to stitch together on the spot with material not necessarily belonging to that particular part of the music! Hah hah!).

This time, and after having read Daniel Goleman’s book Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence (which I posted about last time) I decided to really get to grips with really embedding this wonderful music into my brain and muscles.

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I’ve put my money where my mouth is and am literally breaking the music down into approximately 4 bar sections, or similar sized phrases if that makes sense musically to that particular section. In breaking things down in this way, I’m now re-examining what is going on across a number of elements and asking myself a number of questions.

I’m re-examining what is going on:

(a) Musically – do I know where the melody is? Where it has come from? Where it is going? Which voice is most important? What are the leading and landing notes in this particular phrase or section? Do I know what’s happening with the harmony? What are the chords?

(b) “Geographically” – do I know where my left hand is? Do I know where it has come from and where it’s going to? Do I know how it’s moving? Do I know what the fingering is? Do I know the fretboard locations I’m playing in? Are there alternatives that could work musically and technically/ In going through this exercise I’m also breaking down some of the bad habits that had started to form and becoming automatic, examining and questioning what I’m doing. By listening to what I’m playing I’m making transitions smoother in the process and tightening up things like trills. I’m essentially relearning small sections and “reprogramming” the automatic playing in a more informed manner.

(c) With my right hand – this is the hand that produces the sound (obviously!) and so I’m asking myself questions like which fingers am I playing melody lines with? Am I being efficient with my right hand fingering? Which fingers am I playing chords with and could I finger them differently? Do I definitely know which strings I’m playing with various chords? I’m also asking questions like do I like the sound quality produced? How does it sound? Is it consistent? What is the timbre I’m producing? What do I want to produce – a tasto, a ponticello, a good robust standard sound?

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So in asking these various questions of myself whilst going through this process of memorisation you can perhaps understand why I feel it’s important to break it down into very small portions! Once gone through this range of questions for a particular 4 bar, or similar, section I will repeat a number of times to begin embedding it. I will then stitch it into preceeding material that I’ve worked on in previous sessions.

Now, I’m not saying here you have to memorise. I’ve played both with and without music for a number of years. I do find though that you can really get to the heart of the music and almost free yourself to really get into the music having gone through the process of memorisation.

I’ll let you know how my little experiment goes!

One Of The Most Important Skills In Developing Your Classical Guitar Playing

There is one skill in learning classical guitar and any other instrument for that matter which, if you don’t cultivate it, will seriously stymie your development.

What is that one skill?

Focus.

I’ve spoken about focus and its power and importance to learning and playing the guitar previously on the blog. I strongly believe (and have evidence from my own development) that short, focussed, regular and consistent practice sessions are waaaaaaay more beneficial for your learning and progress than longer, meandering sessions. For what reasons hopefully this will become apparent.

I’ve just finished reading a book this week called Focus The Hidden Driver of Excellence by psychologist and journalist Daniel Goleman. Not a bad book, goes off on a few interesting tangents and drifts away a little at the end (not focussed?!), but has some pretty cool and potentially useful insights as well as some good reminders about focus and its importance. I highly recommend you check it out.

One of the topics discussed by Goleman is that of the “top down”, thinking brain system and the “bottom up”, automatic brain system. The former requires a lot of energy, your brain draws down quite a considerable amount of power when asked to perform “top down”, puzzling it out tasks, or address something new and novel. The latter, the automatic brain system, requires much much less energy; it’s the brain on auto-pilot doing something its done thousands of times before, pre-programmed movements.

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This is why when learning a new piece, or puzzling out which fingers go where, is seemingly so tricky. You’re asking your brain to do something new, and that something new requires a lot of energy. It’s a natural human thing to want to conserve energy, and flip back into the automatic “bottom up” system, so this is probably why it seems so tempting, just so darn easy to just slip back into playing what you already know.

But it’s really worth persevering with the new, mentally hard stuff, I promise you. Slipping back into playing what you already know is not really helping you learn and develop (that is unless you’re drilling something you’ve already nutted out, is more or less sorted already and are committing it to memory). Aiming to do some stuff in each practice session that stretches you mentally is how you make progress.

Think about it – when you’re first starting out learning to play you have no choice but to go through that brain-melting “top down focussed state. Then you start to get to grips with things a little more, a little more, and you can play some tunes. And then comes a choice – (a) carry on down the path of always relatively easy, non-challenging, but not really developing as well as you might or (b) stretch yourself again and again, treating a part of each practice session and each lesson as if it were the very first, and watching and hearing yourself really develop.

Classical Guitar

My top tips for attaining focus and tuning into your “top down”, learning state:

Well, some days you’re going to be more in a focussed kind of headspace than other days, but there are a number of things that can help you get into the zone and ready for some good quality, focussed practice:

  • Think about what it is you really want to get out of your practice session before you start it and think about the things you might need to do to achieve that. Don’t just go into it mindlessly.
  • Chunk down your work on a piece or a technical exercise into small bite-size chunks. Focus on one thing at a time. Focus on getting that one thing right. Focus on what you’re doing, how you’re doing it and the sound you’re making. Focus on consistency in your playing and approach to whatever it is you’re working on. This is when you can start sending things down into the “bottom up” automatic system in the manner that you can build upon without tripping yourself up each time you come to play it.
  • Always aim for quality in a practice session over quantity. Don’t worry about time, other than breaking things down into small chunks. Work in whatever time periods feel right for you. If you’re not used to quality, mental concentration then the first periods of time will be quite small. That’s OK.
  • Avoid the temptation to check any incoming messages or calls on your phone, tablet or computer, emails or calls. Set you phone to silent, flight mode, turn it off or leave it outside the practice room.
  • Focus on the task at hand. Don’t concern yourself with what’s coming up in the rest of your day. Lay aside for a time any concerns, worries, day-to-day kind of stuff and just be present, right in the moment for your practice. Give it all of your attention and energy for that period you’ve set aside. And enjoy it!
  • And don’t chastise yourself, or force yourself if it’s not happening for you. Don’t struggle on with it – put your guitar away for a while, do something else and come back to it later. It takes practice to get focussed too – rather like the classical guitar the more you try it, the easier and more automatic it becomes ;)

Want To Play Spanish Classical Guitar? Listen To This….

In my practice recently I’ve picked up La Maja de Goya again recently, to start burnishing it up, committing it to a secure, multi-dimensional memory (i.e. left and right hand kinesthetic, theoretical, etc) and really understanding, listening to and feeling how I want to play this fantastic piece.

And part of this process now involves listening to not necessarily the piece as played by others, but other similar pieces. Similar works played in their original formats. With a lot of what we call standard guitar repertoire these days, from Spanish composers such as the likes of Albeniz, Granados, de Falla, was originally written for the piano rather than the guitar.

I find this activity gives some great musical insight and inspiration. Rather than just being limited by the guitar and its sounds, it brings a different, more purely musical perspective – how is the pianist, the musician, playing this line, this phrase? How are they treating these chords? You notice things when listening to other musicians, non-guitarists, playing things that perhaps you hadn’t noticed before.

Perhaps somethings have been missed or mistranslated even with transcriptions from piano to guitar that you like in the original and want to reinstate in your interpretation. Perhaps there are different techniques not outlined in the transcription you’re using that you wish to apply in creating a sound, or idea of a sound, that has been revealed to you in listening to the piano original. Perhaps you then create a mix of transcribed piece in front of you and elements you want to include or alter from that transcription.

Those of you who read the blog regularly will know that I travel around a fair bit. All this time sitting in airport lounges, aeroplanes and hotel rooms gives me plenty of time to listen to lots, and lots, and lots of music. Which is great from the point of view of exploring sources of inspiration. So today I thought I’d share with you some of the listening I’ve been doing recently in relation to developing my interpretation of La Maja (and, believe it or not, this doesn’t involve Julian Bream!).

I’d heard from many quarters (including a number of the folks I’ve interviewed on this blog) that the playing of Spanish pianist, Alicia Delarrocha (1923 – 2009), was most definitely worth checking out. On listening it’s easy to understand why – Delarrocha was clearly a musician of incredible ability and plays the music of Albeniz, Granados and the like to stunning effect.

As I said above, listening to some of this playing, for me, really brings a different dimension to the pieces I’ve listened to countless times played by many wonderful guitarists. There’s a real clarity to the lines, the feel, the textures and so on. Lots of food for musical thought with this wonderful woman.

But don’t just take my word for it…..

Here’s a clip of Ms Delarrocha playing Albeniz’s Granada from Suite Espagnola. The clip has a follow-along copy of the score too, which is interesting to see and hear left hand/ right hand treatments in the piano:

And Asturias (Leyenda) also, of course from Albeniz’s Suite Espagnola. It’s so interesting to hear these so very guitaristic pieces in their original setting:

I have absolutely fallen in love with her rendition of Granados’ Danzas Espangolas – I just love the Minueto and Oriental in particular. Here’s a clip of the full 12 from her 1954 Decca recording:

And to round this off here’s Granados’ La Maja de Goya for you:

More Barré Top Tips

Howdy folks. I thought that for today’s post I’d follow on my recent post on playing barrés (or barré chords) with another on some additional tips for getting your fingers around this technique.

Just to recap, I suggested that you need to think about using the bigger muscles of your arm, its weight and gravity to create the pressure required to sound the notes.

And instead of pressing hard between finger and thumb, actually remove your thumb from the guitar neck and think about moving your hand in toward the neck of the guitar. Yes, don’t be clamping that thumb down like you’re pressing a thumb tack into the wood!

Lightly with the thumb

You don’t have to keep the thumb away from the guitar neck completely and all the time. In fact that may add undue tension itself if you do that to actively. Think about just relaxing the thumb, and just resting it, just placing it on the back of the guitar neck to provide balance and an easy, relaxed touch point (whilst putting into practice previous advice around using the weight of the arm and larger muscles groups).

The thumb is still not actively involved, per se, in producing the barré, but provides a resting point for your thumb. Thinking about the thumb in this relaxed manner can also help with thinking about the rest of the hand and fingers in a relaxed manner too.

Don’t attack it straight on

This one kind of depends a little on the make up of your fingers, but most folks have a harder, bonier outer edge to their first left hand finger and a plumper, fleshier underside. Rotate your first finger slightly towards the outside of the fingers, on the harder, bonier part of the finger – this should make the barré a little easier to produce because (a) it’s a nice, relatively hard surface and (b) you’re not contending with (or contending less with) the grooves of the inside of your knuckles. That is to say, the strings will have less of a tendency to slip into those grooves and produce that oh-so-annoying thunking or buzzing of a string not quite down fully.

Be selective with the application of pressure

Ask yourself the questions – do I need to keep this whole barré down all the time? Do I just need a half or partial barré? Can I change from full to partial or vice versa? Where are the pauses or more relaxed points in the music where you could relax the barré temporarily before reapplying?

Another important question to consider is do I need to apply equal pressure across the whole six strings? Have a look at which strings you’re playing and when. See if you can, in fact, selectively apply pressure to those strings in the barré only as you need them and relaxing the finger or fingers elsewhere.

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Head here if you want to read that previous post again by the way: http://classicalguitarnstuff.com/2015/01/12/how-to-play-barres-without-the-pain/