Melbourne Symphony Orchestra 2015 Season Launch!

This is one of those times where I call upon the “n Stuff” element of the blog’s title! Hah hah!

As you know (if you’ve been following the blog) I’m keen on promoting and bringing to a wider audience the various facets of our instrument, the classical guitar – classical guitarists well known and rising, classical guitar music also both well known and less so, the “hardware” associated with the art form, approaches to learning it, developing technique and so on.

I’m also extremely keen on helping breakdown the notion that classical music is some rarified and “special thing”. As I’ve said on the “About Me” page for a long time – Yes, it is special in that all music is special, but not special in that it should be accessed by only a privileged few. Classical music is for all. I’m keen as mustard, one might say, to encourage people to experience the wonders of Western classical music.

One of my favourite things to do is to experience a symphonic orchestra in full-flight. Witnessing 80 highly-skilled musicians, professionals at the top of their game, working to produce such beautiful (mostly!) music together is astounding. I fully encourage others to share that experience too, particularly guitarists who are often singular creatures by nature and who don’t often experience that wonderful experience of playing with a vast collection of other musicians. I find sitting back and letting those other musicians do all the hard work whilst enjoying the fruits of their labours is really quite inspiring thing for myself as a guitarist!

I was privileged this week to be invited to the launch of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s 2015 season launch. I was rather excited! And I was rather excited to see some fantastic works coming up  – some more Tan Dun works (including one featuring the composer himself as conductor), film scores played live with screenings of their respective movies including Star Trek and Babe, Berlioz’s The Damnation of Faust featuring Welsh superstar bass-baritone Bryn Terfel, a full revisit of Beethoven’s famous 5 hour epic 1808 Vienna concert, a festival of all new music including the Jonny Greenwood’s (of Radiohead fame) orchestral suite There Will Be Blood and Britten’s War Requiem played as the MSO’s tribute to the 100th anniversary of the ANZAC landings at Gallipoli in World War One.

I am also rather excited to say that I will be extremely privileged over the coming months to feature previews and reviews, for you dear readers, of the marvelous Melbourne Symphony Orchestra (whoop!).

Head along to the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra website to check out the 2015 performance schedule –

And of course I can’t leave you without some music, so here’s a taste of the orchestra with a YouTube playlist. Enjoy!

The LMusA Diploma Journey – Update #7 – Taking The Pressure Off

Morning (or evening depending on where you are) folks!

Well, I’ve come to the realisation that this journey of progressing towards the LMusA is going to take a little longer than I’d anticipated at the start of this year. And that’s fine. I’m not under any time constraints with this – there’s no “must do” here, there’s no tangible, external reason for undertaking this. No outside force saying “you must do this, before you can do this” or anything like that. It’s purely an internal reason. That’s to say this is really largely about the journey for me and seeing how far I can take my playing. And that internal reasoning, in the past, has caused more pressure than an external driver! I can be a real pain in the backside to my own self sometimes! Or used to, I should say.

I have absolutely no doubt that I can achieve the LMusA. I say that without an ounce of arrogance and quite seriously. It’s just a matter of time. Well, that’s not quite correct. It’s a matter of putting in the right amount of quality practice with my chosen repertoire pieces to really get to know them, understand them, feel them, subsume them into my psyche. This does, of course, have a time element associated with it.

Like most of you (probably, I’m making assumptions here of course), dear reader, I too have a “normal” life, a non-guitar life. At the start of this year I actually ceased teaching and freelancing to focus on an exciting employment opportunity. So as well as working towards my own guitar goals and playing development, I’m also working a 40 hours (minimum) managerial level job that takes me around the country, with all the exciting and sometimes stressful challenges that go along with that. Plus, you know, family life, keeping fit and healthy, having time out for myself, looking after the dog, painting my apartment, looking for a new house to move to for a bit of a tree-change and all of that!

So as important and a significant part of my life as playing classical guitar is, I’ve realised, however, one has to be flexible with these things. If you want to set a strict timeline for yourself and you find that a really good driver for yourself personally, go for it and all power to you! For myself though, over the last few years I’ve realised I thrive and develop and actually play at my best when I take some of the pressure off of myself. In this instance this is a time pressure. I’ve released the pressure valve by saying ” you know Nicole, you know when you’ll be ready. Keep working whenever you can, in that focussed manner and we’ll get there. No rush. No due date”.

I’ve found that when I get the time to practice, which I still aim to do most days of the week in some form or other, I’m super focussed on what I’m doing. I’ve also found my output (for want of a better term) is almost fast-tracked relative to the time I put in – I’m focusing on quality practice, sorting out niggles. I’m focussing on beautiful sound, and a clarity in my sound. I’m focussing on clarity of direction.  As a result of releasing the pressure from myself, I’m having a lot of fun with it, it’s adding a new dimension to my playing, and my playing is better than ever!

Dear readers –  What are your drivers? Do you need to release any pressure or tension – actual, perceived, physical, mental? And if so, where?  Some food for thought……


Andrey Lebedev Presented By The Julian Bream Trust With 2 World Premiere Performances

Well, its fair to say that we Australians (and Victorians in particular) have had a good share of the envy-inducing classical guitar gigs of late. Now it’s the turn of the UK (again) to make us Antipodeans green around the gills, via an upcoming Australian talent no less!

The legendary Julian Bream and his Trust, together with the young Australian Andrey Lebedev, have come together to extend recently written repertoire for the instrument.

Amongst other things, the Julian Bream Trust was formed to present substantial and often ignored music written for the guitar, with a particular focus on new literature. Andrey Lebedev’s concert has the unusual inclusion of two world premieres of works by Sir Harrison Birtwistle and Leo Brouwer, both commissioned by the Trust.

Andrey, who was personally chosen by Julian Bream for this particular concert (nice!!), has been visiting Bream from time to time at his home in Wiltshire (I’m not envious at all Andrey…..). They have collaborated closely, working through the new music as well as the more conventional works in the programme.

Birtwistle’s piece is inspired by Picasso’s Construction with Guitar Player. It’s an immense and very dense work,” says Lebedev, “built around a short piece he wrote for his wife’s funeral and played by their son Silas. It’s a great honour for me to be giving the first public performance of a work written by one of the foremost composers of our time.

Leo Brouwer’s Sonata No.5 Ars Combinatoria, is the second sonata he has written for Julian Bream. “It sparkles with Brouwer’s personal and richly resonant guitar writing, developed in his youth as a gifted concert guitarist and refined over decades of brilliant writing for the instrument” says Bream.

Andrey Lebedev  Photo: Shannon Morris

Andrey Lebedev
Photo: Shannon Morris

Andrey Lebedev is at present a post-graduate student at the Royal Academy of Music, partially assisted by The Julian Bream Trust and the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music (ABRSM).


7.30pm, Thursday, 4 December, 2014
St John’s Smith Square, London, SW1P 3HA
Andrey Lebedev guitar, presented by The Julian Bream Trust

Andrey will be playing:
JS Bach Partita in D minor BWV 1004
Harrison Birtwistle Beyond the White Hand – Construction with Guitar Player World Premiere
Leo Brouwer Sonata No. 5 “Ars Combinatoria” World Premiere
Takemitsu In the Woods – Three pieces for guitar
Ginastera Sonata for Guitar, Op. 47
Tickets: £20 / £15 / £10
Box Office: +(0)20 7222 1061 /

Check out more about the event here:

And check out more about Andrey at his website:

The 12 Stages of Practicing

Hi Folks!  A short and sweet one from me today.

As you know (well, those of you who hang around here regularly) I talk a fair bit about practice and how you may get best bang for your practice buck, maximising your time available, seeking quality practice, the power of focus and all that. Well, I found a rather humerous little article this week, courtesy of UK classical music radio station, Classic FM, entitled The 12 Stages of Practicing A Musical Instrument. I’m pretty sure I’ve done or felt all the 12 steps at one time or another!

Check it out (with one word of warning – please don’t do number 9!):


I also discovered this equally amusing little piece on the worst things about being a guitarist. Some of them are definitely true in the early stages (burning pain in the fingertips whilst your callouses are forming for example!). I disagree with number 10 though – anyone who plays classical guitar is beautiful!!



Whilst I’m sharing a lighter post with you guys today I’d like to emphasise that I write this blog to share thoughts, ideas, experiences and helpful (and humorous, like today) information with the wider music and guitar-loving world. From time to time I also have guests feature their own posts on the blog – just a reminder that I’m always happy to receive your own thoughts, ideas, experiences and information on classical guitar and associated subjects. If there’s anything you’d like to share with the wider world please drop me a line at classicalguitarnstuff @ (no advertising or business promotion kind of stuff though please, you know the dealio).

I’ve got some pretty cool stuff coming up on Classical Guitar n Stuff in the next few weeks – album reviews, gear reviews, more artist interview and Q&As, practice and development pieces.

If there are any particular subjects you’d like me to cover, anything you have questions on, stuff you’d like to know more about, please let me know :)

Concert Review: Xuefei Yang Solo Recital, Geelong, 7th October 2014

Hi Folks!  Well, if you read my last blog post you’ll know that I was eagerly anticipating the Geelong solo concert of Chinese guitariste extraordinaire, Xuefei Yang, this week.

Oh boy what a treat it was.  Myself and a lucky group of around 80 or so music and guitar fans cosied into the sumptuous surrounds of Sacred Heart College’s Chapel to witness Xuefei just completely own one of the most seriously impressive, big, fat, chunky solo programmes I’ve had the pleasure to see or hear. She clearly demonstrated that she’s equally at home on the smaller, more informal salon-type stage as she is on the large concert hall stage.

Fei kicked off the proceedings with her own arrangements of five of the six movements from Isaac Albeniz’s Espana: Seis Hojas de Album suite (the PreludeTangoMalaguenaCapricho Catalan and Zortico). This selection, featured on her Rodrigo albumwas a simply delightful start to the evening. Fei played the pieces with the requisite Spanish-inflected sentiment, yet balanced that with a delightfully delicate touch and elegant poise reminiscent of a classical ballet dancer. I particularly enjoyed the subtle Tango and the Zortico. Beautiful.

The Albeniz was followed by three Schubert songs (arranged by Merz) – Lob der Thranen, Aufenhalt and Standchen. As Fei announced, she’s a big Schubert fan and this was apparent from her playing. The lyrical, sentimentality of these songs was treated in the most graceful and delicate manner by Fei – elegant, simple, sensitive. And quite possibly some of the most pianissimo pianissimos I’ve ever witnessed! A super light, relaxed and delicate right hand.  I want a pianissimo touch like that!

The first half of the evening was rounded out by a phenomenal (I’m going to run out of superlatives here!) interpretation of J.S. Bach’s Chaconne. The arrangement, again, was Fei’s own – a masterwork of masterworks, played by a master of the instrument. This Chaconne was simply fantastic (there was even a moment where I thought a rather excitable audience member was going to start applauding about a quarter of a way into the epic piece!) – a demonstration of dexterity, left hand shenanigans and right hand wizardry. Oh yes, and let’s not forget a beautiful sound too.

The second half of the programme featured a Chinese piece arranged by Fei, transcribed from the pipa or Chinese lute. This was followed by Song from a Bird by John Williams from his album of the same name. A fitting place to play such a piece, as he was inspired by the song of an Australian bird in writing this piece.

The next three pieces I’m not quite sure what to say about them to be honest. Words don’t really do them justice….. We were treated to Rodrigo’s Invocacion y danza. Wow. Wow. Wow.  This was off the chain (to coin an Australian phrase). A pure demonstration of virtuosity in guitar playing and musicality. Head over to YouTube for a taste of what I mean.


Xuefei waiting backstage, just a few moments before the start of the recital in Geelong. Photo: Neil Muir (borrowed from Xuefei’s Facebook page)



Fei then presented us with her arrangement of Manuel de Falla’s Spanish Dance No. 1. This was of particular interest given that it’s normally played by two instruments, guitar and something else (another guitar or piano). Fei decided apparently that she wanted to be able to play this tune without a duet partner, so took it upon herself to arrange it for solo guitar. What?! A glutton for punshiment surely in undertaking such an exercise (she admitted it was a pretty hard thing to do), but was well worth the effort. A fantastic arrangement, delivered as if it was intended to sit at home on the one instrument. It takes a fair bit of talent to be able to do that!

The end of the main programme featured Leo Brouwer’s Sonata para Guitarre Sola. Definitely not saving the easiest pieces till last! Brilliant. A spell-binding performance again delivered with Fei’s trademark poise and grace.  To round out the evening Fei left us with a cheeky little transcription of Plum Blossoms In The Snow (arranged by Gerald Garcia) from her latest recording, Sojourn. A delicious little “dessert” to finish the evening.

An absolutely wonderful evening of classical guitar performance. And all played from memory, to boot! Just phenomenal. As I said to the audience on the night (I was honoured with presenting Xuefei a gift from the Classical Guitar Society of Victoria), you would seriously be hard pressed to find a greater guitar talent in the world right now.  We all hope she comes back to Australia and Melbourne again very soon.


Concert Review: Xuefei Yang and the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, 2nd October 2014

We Melbournians were treated to two performances by the wonderfully talented Xuefei Yang, along with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, last week. I headed along to the first of the two concerts on the 2nd October, very excited to hear and see not only Yang’s live interpretation of Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez as part of her Australian debut, but also the Australian premier of Tan Dan’s Concerto for Guitar and Orchestra (Y 2). I was not disappointed.

The near sell-out audience was treated initially to the MSO playing Debussy’s Prelude a l‘Apres-Midi d’un Faune, a gorgeous piece, sumptuously played by the orchestra. All shimmering strings and harp, rich warm brass and iridescent flute in its Impressionism, sliding us into the evening.

After that delicious introduction we were in for something a little different to follow – and here I really take my hat off both to the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and Xuefei Yang. It’s very easy, I think, to keep pumping out the Aranjuez (as beautiful and as marvellous a piece of music as it). It takes the courage of one’s convictions, however, to also introduce to what is probably a relatively conservative audience (the general populace who want to hear the gorgeous Debussy tunes that top and tailed this concert and of course the Aranjuez) to a brand new work. And what a work! Bravo – good choice MSO and Xuefei!

Photo: Neil Muir

Photo: Neil Muir

Yes, Tan Dun’s Concerto for Guitar and Orchestra (Yi 2) is not a piece for the faint-hearted – audience, orchestra or guitar soloist! The orchestra are asked to vocalise in one section, the woodwinds take out their reeds and blow through them, the brass blow air through their instruments, glass bottles at used to play the strings inside the piano (to great effect underscoring some deep punching double bass playing), percussionists dip gongs into water to change their pitch. Put into words like that it sounds like rather a mish-mash of ideas and concepts, and perhaps to the untrained ear it may sound like that (my other half wasn’t really that fussed with it). However, if you’re prepared to do a little work as the listener to this kind of contemporary music you may find it challenging in a positive manner, very exciting and highly rewarding (well, I certainly did). Yi2 is definitely one of those pieces a bit like Vegemite (or Marmite) – you either love it, or you hate it. There’s no in between!

Yi2 is also a highly inventive, and technical tour de force for the guitarist. Xuefei performed the solo part with consummate ease, utilising various techniques including rhythmic percussive techniques (aided by the conductor) and crossed strings (to represent the sound of the Chinese pipa). Xuefei demonstrated real mastery in the delivery of this performance (and remaining cool, calm and collected in the face of out of tune G and B strings, re tuning at opportune moments). I found she really brought out the two key influences on this piece – traditional Chinese and traditional Spanish musics.

Then following the intermission we moved onto the Aranjuez. What can I say?!

This is a piece that Xuefei clearly knows extremely well, delivering such sensitively timed rubarto and supreme sense of musicality with a panache that can only come with such in depth knowledge of a piece. Have no doubt about it, this was large concert hall classical guitar playing of the highest order. Commanding, confident and masterful, yet utterly expressive and emotive playing that makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up. Witnessing this performance of the Aranjuez it was easy to understand why Xuefei Yang has earned the reputation as one of the top classical guitarists actively performing today. Bravissima!

Watch this space for a review of Xuefei’s solo recital in Geelong next week.


A 30 Minute Guitar Practice Schedule

Following on from this Monday’s post on getting back into practice after a wee break, I thought I’d share an outline of a 30 minute practice session that I might typically run through when coming back after a break. I don’t normally really watch the clock whilst practicing, but I’ve provided a bit of a time break down as a guide for that 30 minute session – potentially helpful for those of you who are somewhat time restricted. Also, I’m not saying this is the way to go about your practice, and I’d certainly vary this depending on what I was working on or working towards. Nonetheless I thought it may be useful to share as a point of reference.

Before you get stuck into your practice there are a couple of things you need to do:

* Get your nails filed, buffed and ready to make a beautiful tone. If you’ve not played in a few days this is something you definitely need to do.

* Get your “stuff” sorted out and ready – sheet music sorted out, guitar rest or foot stool in position,guitar tuned up.

Soundhole B&W

And now you’re ready for practice time. Here goes!

* Gentle warm-up with open string reflex return exercises, focussing on your sound and the movement required to make that sound – 2 minutes

* Then get things moving a little more with some scales and arpeggios, various right hand fingerings – 3 minutes

* Technical exercises – I’ll often pick some relatively gentle technical exercises if I’ve not played for a few days. I might typically pick the range of exercises for Grade 4, 5 or 6, for example, in the AMEB Technical Workbook – 5 minutes

* Take the latest piece you’ve been working from and give it a gentle, 2/3 speed play through from the top. Note where the stumbling blocks or trickier elements are as you play through – 5 to 10 minutes

* Pick one of those stumbling blocks and really think about and examine what it is that’s causing the stumbling block or trickiness. It may not necessarily always be all that obvious. Is it a left hand movement issue? Is the right hand fingering secure? Is it a lack of clarity in the melodic line? Is it a lack of understanding and clarity in the harmony? Really stick with this one issue and see if you can (a) puzzle out what’s going on (you may need some guidance from your teacher) and (b) stick with it until you can get things working at say half speed – 10 – 15 minutes  If you get this one stumbling block sorted within a couple of minutes or so you can always then move onto the next one!

You can then think of your next practice session as being a continuation of this process, not a fresh start as it were. Test out where those stumbling blocks (or hopefully ex stumbling blocks) are at a slower tempo than your desired, work on them again if necessary. Then pick out the next one to work on and so on and so forth each practice session.

You’ll find that the 30 minutes goes by pretty quickly, but undertaking your practice in this way or in a similar fashion – focusing on your sound, and focusing on the things that you really need to practice, rather than just running through pieces, will really pay dividends in your playing.