Album Review: Homenaje by R.C. Kohl

It’s been a few months since my last review of a recording and I have a cracking little one you today, folks – a disc called Homenaje by guitarist-composer R.C. Kohl.

This latest recording from R.C. Kohl is a collection of 20 compositions and arrangements by the relatively little-known Mexican guitarist Octaviano Yañez (1865 – 1927?), who hailed from the city of Orizaba in the State of Veracruz, Mexico. According to the liner notes Yañez was one of the very first ever guitarists to be recorded, apparently having done so for Edison and Victor recording companies during the turn of the 20th century.

And it certainly sounds as if he could write a half-decent tune, and some possibly with potential didactic intentions. The disc kicks off with a really nice couple of study-like preludes (Preludio en mi menor and Preludio en la menor). They’re lovely short little pieces that whet your appetite for Yañez’s musical style, I was quite disappointed that the first prelude was so short in fact (clocking in at only 45 seconds!).  Things develop out from there on with some equally lovely, quite delicate and really charming pieces. Último Amor was a particular favourite of mine, with a feel slightly reminiscent of Tarrega, perhaps Sor.

I found the second half of the disc most interesting, with the penultimate track El Encanto de un Vals, a Yañez arrangement of a piece by Viennese composer Oscar Strauss (born just five years later than Yañez). Again a really lovely little piece that, like most of this recording, certainly would not be out of place at a house or salon concert. And in terms of R.C. Kohl’s playing this piece is my favourite – a gorgeous rounded tone, with some nice coloured touches, and a delicately sensitive rubato.

Simply a lovely guitar recording, played with an understated musicality, fine tonal quality and a real appreciation of the composer and his style. Definitely recommended.

For those of you who may not be aware of R.C. Kohl, he is a classical guitarist and composer and is a professor on the Music Faculty of the the Universidad Veracruzana in Mexico. Kohl studied initially at the University of California at Santa Cruz, followed then by the University of Hawaii at Manoa, before moving to the Universidad Veracruzana, in Xalapa, Veracruz, Mexico. He has been awarded scholarships and grants in music performance and research from Mexico’s Secretaría de Educación Pública, the East-West Center of Honolulu (EWC) and the Instituto Veracruzano de Cultura (IVEC) (a grant from which enabled this latest recording). He’s also been a member of many prestigious research institutes and universities. Not too shabby!

You can download your own copy of Homenaje (and R.C. Kohl’s other works) over at CD Baby and iTunes.

Click on the hyperlink text to take you right through or copy and paste the following URLs into your browser:

http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/rckohl6

https://itunes.apple.com/us/album/homenaje/id984141625

Ooh and yes, before I forget, you can check out my 2012 review of some earlier R.C. Kohl recordings HERE.

My Top Tips For Avoiding Injury As A Guitarist

It’s always important to make sure that as guitarists we’re looking after our bodies in the right way whatever age we may be. Why? Well, thats kind of a no-brainer – to make sure we’re not storing up problems for ourselves, to nip any issues in the bud as they arise (or prevent them entirely) and to ensure that we have plenty of happy, healthy and pain-free years of playing ahead of us.

So here are some of my top tips (directly from my own experience) in no particular order for ensuring I stay injury-free and can really physically enjoy my playing. Head back this way next week for another set of tips on this subject.

1. Look after yourself

It may sound a little indulgent (or I used to think it did until I realised its importance), but getting a regular massage is a particular tool in my injury prevention armoury that I don’t think I could do without. It releases tight, tense muscles and is extremely relaxing the right hands (not all massages or persons delivering them are made equal!).

I just came back from a massage this afternoon, focussing on head, neck, shoulders, arms and hands. I feel all relaxed and loosened and ready to crack into a decent practice session. And I can tell you a massage on hands that have been working hard on the classical guitar is so deliciously divine!

2. Invest in a foam roller

After most of my practice sessions, I’ll whip out my foam roller, pop it on the floor, lie on it and roll my upper back up and down a few times, nice and slowly. I do this until I have most of the good “cracks” out. This just loosens up any tight spots that may have crept in during practice.

3. Stretch

I don’t stretch prior to practicing (but I do ease into it – no Chaconne straight off the bat!), but I do tend to have a little stretch afterwards. Given that I’ve just been sitting with my arms and chest moving in a forward direction I like to clasp my hands together behind my back to open up the front of my shoulders and chest. I also like to stretch out my sternocleidomatstoid muscle (the big muscle band that runs from the base of your skull behind your ear to your collarbone. To do this I rotate my head to one side and then tip it forward slightly as if were going to sniff my armpit. I hold this for around 10 seconds and then make the stretch a little more by just putting my hand on the crown of my head and applying a little pressure. I then repeat on the other side.

Neck Stretch

4. Keep reasonably fit

I’m not talking about marathon fit or anything silly like that! I am talking about taking some form of exercise and moving yourself around most days a week. Using the muscles and keeping them fit, strong and ready for action is one of the best ways (in my opinion) to keep injury-free. I take the dog walking most days, and two or three days a week I’ll do a class like boxing or dancing or something similarly fun, or head into the gym.

5. Notice when something doesn’t feel right and stop

It’s been a very long time I’ve had anything niggling or painful come at me whilst playing, but I can tell you hands down the best way to prevent that initial twinge from developing into something more serious (and taking sometime to sort out) is to stop what you’re doing that’s causing the pain. Annoying yes, that you have to stop but your body will thank you for it in the long run. Then go and seek the advice of a good teacher about your technique. And I also highly recommend to anyone that will listen the benefits of Alexander Technique – it really did save me!

Johannes Möller is Coming Back Down Under Next Month!

Fresh off the back off an extremely successful concert by the wonderful Canberran guitarist Minh Le Hoang (which I unfortunately wasn’t able to attend in the end, due to an unfortunate set of circumstances), the Melbourne Guitar Foundation have another fantastic concert lined up for Melburnian guitar aficionados.

If you’re looking for something to do in the evening of June 11th I highly recommend you head along to St Mary’s Church, 430 Queensbury Street, North Melbourne to check out none other than Johannes Möller.

Johannes, winner of the 2010 GFA guitar competition, is returning Down Under to play a full recital with a short support act featuring two of Melbourne Conservatorium of Music’s tertiary guitar students, Julia Bakowski and Yunjia Liu.

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Head over the MGF website for more details and to get your guitar calloused mitts on your tickets:

Tickets will move fast, so you’d better do likewise if you want to check it out. I sincerely hope he plays some of his mind-blowing original works. Just stunning. Here he his playing the exquisite Song For The Mother

And head HERE to read my interview with him.

8 Things Top Practicers Do Differently

I read a great article recently that really supports some of my own thinking and experience in practice and playing and what really gets you bang for your practice buck. Or in other words what actually works and what doesn’t. The article references a study undertaken a few years ago at the University of Texas at Austin looking at pianists. Different instrument admittedly, but the same principles most definitely apply.

One of the most important of these 8 things that apparently top practicers do differently that I find works extremely well for m (and used to recommend highly to my students), is not practicing in mistakes. Play something through very slowly, be confident of where you’re placing your left hand and right hand fingers before playing. Even if it means you’re playing reeeeaaaaaaaaallllly sllllllooooooooooooooowwwwwly. Much better this way, that encourages the correct learning of a phrase or piece, with the correct physiology, building the correct habit, than literally practicing in a incorrect movement and then doing the work all over again to unpick it and learn it correctly.

Yes, it may not sound so fluid initially, but stopping and just taking the time to make sense of what you’re doing and how you’re doing it will pay musical dividends in the long run. I promise you.

It also has a couple of interesting concepts that I had been thinking about too recently, including does aiming to play with ‘feeling’ right away assist in the learning? My instinct in has been yes for some time, and there seems to be something to it according to this study referenced by the article. My figuring is that you’re not only using your practice to build in a physiological habit, but also a musical one, and getting to know the music itself not just the fingering. That can only strengthen ones learning of a piece in my opinion.

Classical Guitar

So here are the 8 things that top practicers do differently:

1. Playing was hands-together early in practice (OK this is quite a piano-based one, but in applying this to the guitar think knowing what fingering you’re using for both left and right hands, not just your fingerboard hand)

2. Practice was with inflection early on; the initial conceptualization of the music was with inflection. (See!!)

3. Practice was thoughtful, as evidenced by silent pauses while looking at the music, singing/humming, making notes on the page, or expressing verbal “ah-ha”s. (i.e. don’t just go through the motions – 10 minutes of thoughtful, focussed practice is worth way more than 30 minutes of just going through motions)

4. Errors were preempted by stopping in anticipation of mistakes. (Stop playing those mistakes in every time!)

5. Errors were addressed immediately when they appeared. (And again stop playing those mistakes in every time!)

6. The precise location and source of each error was identified accurately, rehearsed, and corrected. (Shall I say it one more time?!)

7. Tempo of individual performance trials was varied systematically; logically understandable changes in tempo occurred between trials (e.g. slowed things down to get tricky sections correct).

8. Target passages were repeated until the error was corrected and the passage was stabilized, as evidenced by the error’s absence in subsequent trials.

To read the whole article, and I strongly encourage you to do so particularly for the top three practice strategies and one strategy to rule them all, head along to:  http://www.creativitypost.com/psychology/8_things_top_practicers_do_differently

Interview with Canberran Classical Guitarist Extraordinaire Minh Le Hoang – Part 3

Well hello folks! Today I have for you the third and final part of my interview with Canberra Classical Guitarist extraordinaire, the wonderful Minh Le Hoang.

Minh Le Hoang

If you happen to be in or around Melbourne this weekend, be sure to head along to St Mary’s Church, 430 Queensbury Street, Melbourne to check Minh out live in concert on Saturday 9th May at 7pm. Grab your tickets now online and save yourself $5 on the door price!

On with the final part of the interview…..

What’s your favourite repertoire to play?

I like a bit of everything, so I’m not specializing at all – more baroque, or more classical. I do a bit of everything!

When I record a solo record you can see it’s a mixed bag of everything I like – it’s Latin, it’s Spanish. I do like Bach. I like my classical repertoire as well, like Giuliani, Sor, Aguado and so on.

The last couple of years my interest has been with some of the classical repertoire. There are a lot more unknown works, like Russian seven string guitar. It’s kind of new to a lot of people, but the music is very well written and it’s very nice. That’s my next project – I’m going to pull out my 19th century guitar and learn a few more of those.

What music do you enjoy listening to?

A listen to a mix, like jazz, pop – good pop. I used to like a bit of the old Police. I still like a bit of that sort of thing. I like the Gypsy Kings, a little bit of rhumba. A bit of Cuban stuff, some tango. Vietnamese music even. The traditional music is quite interesting.

You don’t listen to Schoenberg you know?! Every now and then maybe….

I try and not listen to guitar music so much though. I don’t know why. When you’re a student you’re like “check out this recording” or “check out this player”. A lot of the recordings are so boring though! I’d rather listen to a decent piano recording, or a well-known player playing some cello suites you know?

I think actually learning pop guitar gave me a sort of advantage, going around the finger, getting around the fingerboard better. Some classical players they start in a particular style and that’s all they do. They’re not so fluent. The pop background is very good for a young player. From my experience the ones with the most efficient technique, from an early age, are those doing pop first. Interesting.

Were there any guitarists growing up that you looked to as a source of inspiration?

When we came here I taught myself for a couple of years, I didn’t have any connection with the school of music or anyone. So one of my main inspirations was just listening to John Williams on a cassette. And I still do every now and then for a source of inspiration.

Of course when I got to the school of music I met some of the older guys in the degree, my peers. Antony Field was around at the time, and we were like “hey Antony show us how to do this!” He’s a fantastic player. He’s one of the guys we used to look up to. And of course we had great teachers in Canberra too with Tim (Kain) and Carolyn (Kidd) who I first learnt with.

Are there any guitarists who inspire you in particular at the moment?

Oooh, there are a couple of really good players, I like they’re playing a lot. In the newer generation there’s Ricardo Gallén, something he does is pretty amazing. Adriano del Sal, a beautiful player.

In the older generation there’s Roberto Aussel, he’s one of the most colourful players you can think of. Really beautiful. Everything is so musical, you don’t think of his technique.

There are more players that I like of course.

And when you’re not playing or practicing what do you like to do in your down time?

In the last couple of years I spend more time down at the lake than in the practice room! I like to go fishing a lot!

I really enjoy fishing, and I do it whenever I can. I head down with my rod maybe three or four times a week. There’s something about the bells, and the way the rod bends. It excites me a lot!

It’s good to get away from work, a bit of stress relief!

What’s coming up for you in the next 12 months?

After this solo gig in Melbourne, I’ll be recording with Guitar Trek in July which we have been rehearsing for every weekend for the last month or so with Matt, Bradley and Tim. So that’s in July, and we’ll try and get it out as soon as possible. We’ll get it produced and we’re thinking around the label we want to get on. We should be signing.

Then we’re going to launch the CD in October. There’s going to be two concerts in October with the quartet, and I might be planning to do a few more solo gigs and get some more repertoire learnt. And a lot of teaching.

And of course I might go to Vietnam again at the end of the year, with a couple of solo gigs lined up. So that’s all for now! Keeping me very busy!

Recording Classical Guitar: Part 3 – Audio Interfaces and Audio Software

Today’s post wraps up the three part series that the marvellous Rick Alexander has kindly written – thanks Rick.

The first post was on getting your set-up right for recording.

And the second was on microphone positioning.

In this final post of this series Rick talks about USB audio interfaces and audio software.

USB Audio Interfaces

You need an audio interface to convert the analog signal from the mic to digital. Sometimes this conversion job will be done in the mic itself (as in USB mics which have a USB output). But the most common solution is to use an audio interface box which has microphone inputs and a USB connection to a computer or tablet. For playback, audio interfaces also have audio outputs for connecting to an amplifier and speakers, plus a headphone output.

You can get audio interfaces with varying numbers of microphone inputs from one upwards. Two mic inputs are common and I’d recommend this combination so you can do stereo recording.

Also, make sure that the audio interface provides “phantom power” for powering condenser microphones. Almost all audio interfaces will have this. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phantom_power

Many companies make two input digital audio interfaces including PreSonus. E.g. the AudioBox USB http://www.sweetwater.com/store/detail/AudioBoxUSB US$99

M-Audio: E.g. the M-Track Plus http://www.sweetwater.com/store/detail/MTrackPlus US$79

Avid: E.g. the Fast Track Duo http://www.sweetwater.com/store/detail/FTDuo US$199

Recording to a tablet using a digital audio interface

Recently audio interfaces which work with a tablet have come out. Recording to a tablet rather than computer has the advantage that the tablet won’t generate fan or hard disk noise.

E.g. the PreSonus Audio Box i2 records to iPad as does the Avid Fast Track Duo listed above. http://www.sweetwater.com/store/detail/AudioBoxiTwo

Bit depth and sampling rate

Most audio interfaces will record a variety of bit depths and sampling rates. For the audio examples in this series I recorded with 24 bits per sample, 44100 samples per second.

Level adjustment

It’s worth adjusting the input level control of the audio interface so that your recorded signal is close to full scale. I.e. you don’t want to be scaling up the signal too much after it’s been recorded.

Stand-alone digital recorders

An alternative to using an audio interface and computer is to use a stand-alone digital recorder to record (Figure 1) with the option of connecting external microphones for better sound quality (Figure 2). Also the computer can be turned off while recording so, as with recording to a tablet, you don’t need to worry about recording fan or hard disk noise.

guitar 6Figure 1 – Set up for recording with a digital recorder


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Figure 2 – Using external condenser mics with a digital recorder (advantage: good sound – low noise)

An example of a digital recorder is a Zoom H5: http://www.sweetwater.com/store/detail/H5 US$270

For my home recording I mostly use a computer based setup but I also used a Zoom H4 recorder with external KM184 microphones for two tracks on my latest CD.

A digital recorder is a useful part of your recording setup. For example, to test microphones you could take a digital recorder along to the store. I’ve taken my Zoom H4 along when testing guitars so I could compare the sound of various guitars later. Also, the Zoom H5 recorder can also be used directly as a USB audio interface. I.e. you can record via USB straight to a computer rather than the memory card in the recorder.

Audio Software

You’ll need audio software running on your computer or tablet. Audio interfaces often come with bundled software or alternatively you can get separate software which will work with any interface. A free example for stereo or multi-track recording is Audacity http://audacity.sourceforge.net/ . A cheap but fully featured multi-track recording program is Reaper: http://www.reaper.fm/ ($US 60 for non-commercial use.) I use Sony Sound Forge for solo recording and Reaper for recording overdubbed duets.

Effects

Up to this point we have a raw recording. The next steps in producing a finished track are to do some editing, possibly perform equalisation (EQ) to alter the frequency content, maybe apply dynamic range compression and add reverb.

I think that for a classical guitar recording performing the least EQ and compression is generally best. This is because ideally we want the guitar to sound 100% natural. But, unless you live in a concert hall, you’ll want to add reverb to a home recording. This can be done using audio software such as Audacity, Reaper or Sound Forge.

My final example audio is the stereo example with angled mics from part 2 of this series with a little reverb added using Sony Sound Forge’s “Acoustic Mirror” reverb. The Acoustic Mirror reverb in Sound Forge adds the reverb recorded from a real acoustic space to your recording. They provide a number of acoustic spaces with the program and here I’ve used a Masonic Centre at Madison, Wisconsin, USA.

Here’s the raw track again.

And here’s the same track with reverb added.

Conclusion

You can gain a lot of enjoyment from home recording. It adds another dimension to your playing and is simply a lot of fun. And these days it doesn’t have to be too expensive.

I hope this series helps you, and if you have any questions feel free to post a comment.

Thank you for the opportunity to write this series Nicole!

Interview with Canberran Classical Guitarist Extraordinaire Minh Le Hoang – Part 2

Today I have for you Part 2 of my interview with the wonderful Minh Le Hoang (and here’s a link to Part 1 in case you missed it). Here we chat about Guitar Trek’s upcoming recording, his thoughts on the recording process and some top tips for students of the guitar.

If you’re in Melbourne don’t forget to catch Minh live in action on 9th May. Details and tickets here on the Melbourne Guitar Foundation website.

And don’t forget to head back this time next week for the third and final instalment of the interview!

Enjoy!

Minh Le Hoang

You say you’re going to record a new CD?

Yes, with Guitar Trek. It’s going to be our sixth one. This one is recorded with a new line up, or newish. It’s the last three or four years the latest guy has been with us. We want to record the CD so that we have this line up on a disc.

Since 1987 there have been a lot of changes in the members.

So yes, recording the new disc in late June or early July. In Studio 301 in Sydney and it’s a mixed programme of mostly transcriptions. It’s got some Brahms, Tchaikovsky, some ragtime, and lots of little pieces, attractive pieces.

Do you enjoy the recording process?

It can be good when all the takes turn out how we want it. It’s pretty difficult in the recording trying to get things right – you stop, you listen back, you thought you had it, but you never did!

So often you have to rehearse in the studio and of course you’re playing for yourself, there’s no audience, you cannot generate that performing vibe. It’s harder.

But it’s good. I’ve done quite a few now, so I have some rough idea of how to prepare for it. Basically come into the studio prepared!

Does it feel different doing a solo recording versus a group recording?

I guess so, yes. With your solo you know how you want it to sound and you can fix it as many times as you want.

With a group of course you prepare the work, you know what you want from it, but let’s say there’s four people and there’s only one take – your part may be a bit messy here and there, but the whole take is good, the flow of the music. You have to judge “ah I don’t sound so good there, but the others do”! So you have to decide.

So there’s more room for error with four players for sure. In the studio you may have a perfect take, and then one of the players just drops out, and then that’s it!

But there’s also fantastic energy, and more fun than solo!

As a teacher what would be your advice for someone looking to pick up the guitar for the first time, or again after not having played for a while?

With someone looking to pick up the guitar again I would say find the repertoire that stimulates you the most or whatever gets you to the guitar. I find at times I fall back to the very early Barrios pieces or there’s little Tarrega pieces, some of those Preludes, some Villa-Lobos or something.

Just play those pieces that got you into the guitar. Or listen to some of the old Segovia recordings. I think some of it is fantastic. The players nowadays they just play everything like machines. No colour, not much imagination, just dots. That’s what I hear. Competition players these days don’t do anything for me. You can’t respond to it. What’s missing? The music, you know. They don’t give you the world of sound like Julian Bream or Segovia or an old school South American player. They’re so good.

So just pick up you guitar and play your favourite tunes and work from there. Of course doing it on your own is very difficult. You need to find a good teacher, or one that’s at least inspiring. You can’t really do it on your own, it’s much harder. There’s the feedback. And of course with a teacher you have that weekly arrangement, you must prepare something, you can’t just slack off!

What advice would you give to more advanced students of the guitar that perhaps want to follow a career with the classical guitar?

With advance students, the degree students I’m working with at the moment, we still do our usual lessons but we do talk about other things beside guitar, like where you want to take it, rather than just straight soft/loud, or whatever. You talk about the future, about what they’re hoping to do.

More technically advanced students you start to guide them. They finish here, you may want to pick up something else with another teacher overseas. The last couple of years we’ve been sending them overseas. Germany, Italy, wherever they’re comfortable really. Experiencing the world more. We tend to give them the bigger picture, we don’t just keep them in town that limits their chances.

And of course input from other teachers is very important too. You not just doing the same things.

Of course there are some players that are not going to be at that performance level, or players that will have solo careers only. There are plenty of other things they can do. They can do chamber music, they can teach, they can give their contribution to the community by teaching, by organizing festivals or whatever activities that involve music. It doesn’t have to be full on “here’s my show!” It doesn’t work like that.

 

Is there a point in time you can recall where you thought “yes, I want to do this” in terms of performing and teaching classical guitar?

The teaching is not something I’ve thought about much in the past, but recently it’s part of what I do, a main source of income of course. The last four or five years I’ve been working with higher level students, so I think it helps me develop as a musician. You learn from the students, some of these advanced players.

Back in high school, when I picked up the guitar, I fell in love with it. So pretty much through high school I thought “This is it. This is what I want to do. I want to be a guitar player.” Back then you never really know if you’re going to be performing or anything, but it’s something I’ve always wanted to do and so pursued it.