The LMusA Diploma Journey – Update #1

I decided at the start of this month to begin a brand new journey on the guitar – one that isn’t necessarily going to be easy or short, but one that I will learn a lot from (and have an awesome bunch of repertoire to brandish), and that’s the journey towards taking my LMusA diploma.

If you missed it, or want to recap, here’s my first post about the start of the journey: The Start of A New Journey – The LMusA Diploma.

So, in the spirit of sharing (as I’m all about on this blog), I’d give you folks an update every couple of weeks as to how I’m progressing. And so here is the first official update for you!cropped-2010_09_25_guitars_003-scaled1000.jpg

What have I been up to this past fortnight?

Well, this past fortnight has really been about getting to grips with the first couple of pages (or the first major section really) of Granados’ La Maja de Goya. As I’ve said before this is an all-time favourite piece of mine so it has been quite exciting (in a total guitar geek kind of way) to be playing this piece – kind of like meeting your guitar hero, but in a non-tangible (and non-human, obviously), musical form.

I’m currently learning from and studying the Llobet transcription (the music was originally written as a song for piano and voice) which has some interesting editorial markings. At the end of this last couple of weeks I’m finding the first two pages (which I’ve been focussing on thus far) is covered in pencil marks! Whilst an editor or transcriber may be very skilled, talented and so on, I’m of the belief that there’s absolutely nothing wrong with me adding my own thoughts, fingerings and approaches into the mix – and I’m going to town so far on this one! I’m going all out with scratching out Pizz. markings, putting things up the octave, all with a desired musical outcome in mind. The desired outcome may change, and so may my pencil stratchings, as I really get to grips with the music, but for now I’m very happy to experiment and trust my own judgment.

Well, that and that of Julian Bream’s too. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t strongly influenced by the English maestro in (a) playing the piece in the first place, and (b) his gorgeous approach to playing it. That said, there is one small elements that I’ve chosen to alter from Bream’s rendition, which is more in line with the line with the print score. This is an element that I felt on closer inspection and listening would allow greater clarity in the musical line and consistency with previous material. I’m sure there will be many more elements like this as I study the music more closely, listen to and develop my own thoughts on approach.

I’ve also started to think about what else from the syllabus repertoire list I’d like to play. A big, fat, multi-movement work is definitely on the cards and would really be expected (if it’s not already a specified requirement in the syllabus – I should check that just out of interest….). At the moment, I’m weighing up the prospect of Leo Brouwer’s El Decameron Negro (a three movement suite of around 15-17 minute I think) and Federico Mompou’s luscious Suite Compostelana (a six movement suite, written for Segovia in 1962, clocking in at around the 20 – 22 minute mark). I’m leaning towards the Mompou at the moment as it’s really quite beautiful. Very melodic, with an impressionistic kind of quality to it.

What’s on for the next fortnight?

Well, we’ve got the Easter public holidays coming up and ANZAC Day public holiday on 24th April, so lots of available practice time! Yay! If I can, I like to try and fit in a couple of focused one hour sessions on these days. And when I say focused I mean focused. Going into the practice session knowing exactly what it is I want to work on and doing just that. No phone. No computer. A “Do not disturb” sign hung on the door (not really, but people know that I’ve gone into my music room to work). No other distractions.

In my practice I’ll be consolidating my work on the opening section of La Maja de Goya and venturing further into the piece, gettings notes under the fingers, making any fundamental editorial changes and exploring fingerings.

I’ll also be checking out further some of the other listed repertoire pieces, listening to various recordings of pieces, whittling down my favourites and pieces that will make a good combination in the recital and checking out some more scores.

Performing In Front of Others & Overcoming Stage Fright – Part Two

The promise of performing in front of others is a promise of experiencing that butterflies in the tummy feeling. That nervous tension, a nervous energy, a teetering on the edge, sometimes almost regardless of the size of audience, the nature of the audience, the size of the space.
And I think this is a good thing. It demonstrates that you care about what you’re about to do and share with others. You care enough that you want to show yourself in the best light, you care enough that you want to do justice to the wonderful music you’re playing, you care enough thaGo With The Flowt you want your audience to enjoy themselves.
There is a fine line though to this degree of caring. Yes, a dedication to our craft is good, but not to the point where our “fight or flight” response completely takes over, demonising our mind and body and incapacitating us!
As I highlighted earlier in the week, a few of us from the CGSV Guitar Orchestra were sharing our thoughts about this subject following a successful performance. We were all of a similar mind in approach and in our experiences in dealing with stage fright, or performance anxiety or whatever you choose to call it. So I thought I’d summarise and share.
From my own point of view, leading up into the concert I was in no way concerned, or nervous. Really thoroughly prepared, could probably play a lot of the music without thinking about it. Until I got to about an hour or so from the performance and I noticed the heart rate picking up a little, a little light perspiration on the nose (yeah, I get that on the nose and not on the brow like most people!), that slight wobbly tummy feeling. Others in the group were also feeling this too.
Which is silly when thinking about it logically – what’s the worst that could happen to us in a church in Toorak playing Bach and Telemann for an audience of about 50 Bach-loving people with an average age of about 60? Let’s say our lives were really not in any imminent danger.
So in dealing with my own nerves, I gently reminded myself of this fact. I also reminded myself that I had done HEAPS of preparation and I could play the music quite beautifully in fact and to just trust myself, let go, play and enjoy the moment. I also told myself to just focus on playing with a beautiful tone and making beautiful shapes with the music.
And that calmed things down for me A LOT. The nervous energy was still there a little to a small degree, but I like a little bit of that – it heightens the senses, helps me get lost in the moment and focus on making a beautiful sound.
Trusting myself, letting go and enjoying the moment – this is the important bit in addressing stage fright for me. And my Guitar Orchestra colleagues were also expressing that they believe in the importance of letting go (even if it feels like going out on a ledge a little!), and have found themselves in other situations where they let the well-trained, almost subconscious process take over and quiet down the analytic part of the mind (which in these situations can just interfere with its incessant questions and doubts and get in the way!).
Trusting yourself and letting go can also be the bit most difficult to quantify and explain how to do also! I think it’s one of those things, however, that you just need to have a go at.
Commit to giving it a go in your next performance, accepting that it may not feel too different from normal (or previous situation normal), but is the first step, a leap of faith if you will, in a journey towards addressing your stage fright and performing at your best. And with most things the more you do it, the easier and the more embedded those neural pathways become.
Try these things for your next performance:
(i) Remind yourself of your environment and the situation- you’re playing music not completing life-altering brain surgery, you’re playing music for an audience of music lovers (most probably), you’re playing music for an audience of music lovers who are “on your side”. What’s the worst thing that could happen? Are you in danger? (If the answer to that is yes, you may want to look at the types of places you’re playing!)
(ii) Keep your breathing deep. When we get a little stressed our breathing becomes shallow which limits the oxygen flowing around the body and can cause undue tension in the neck and shoulder.  Breathe deeply and slowly. This keeps the oxygen flowing round your body and brain and helps to relax you.
(iii) Eat something small an hour so prior to the performance for energy – a light fuel stop will help keep your energy levels up.
(iv) Focus on your tone, phrasing and shaping perhaps (or some other larger focal point) rather than individual notes. This will start the process of helping you to trust that you really do know what you’re doing.
(v) Anticipate that you’re going to enjoy your performance! If you’re not sure, a bit of “fake it till you make it” can actually work and – hey presto! – you may just find that you are actually enjoying yourself!

Performing In Front of Others & Overcoming Stage Fright – Part One

I was having a chat yesterday afternoon, following a very successful performance at the joint Classical Guitar Society of Victoria (CGSV) and Austalian Bach Society Bach Guitar Festival, with some colleagues from the Classical Guitar Society of Victoria Guitar Orchestra about performance and stage fright.

More on that conversation and some of our collective thoughts and experiences on performing in front others later in the week. Today, and to ease you gently into the week, I thought I’d share with you an informative and rather funny wee video I found on TED (a non-profit organisation devoted to sharing knowledge, thoughts, experiences and ideas in technology, entertainment and design) this week.

This particular clip is from November 2013 and features a chap who took up writing and singing folk tunes and soon discovered he was petrified of performing for others. He had a rather interesting way of overcoming his stage fright, which, in a direct sense, may not so readily translate to the classical guitar, but as an idea may help. Have a listen to what he has to say though as the concept and the approach is something I think many of us can learn from, myself included.


The Start of a New Journey – The LMusA Diploma

So, I decided very recently to start preparations to take the AMEB LMusA (licentiate diploma) exam* –,_Australia . And when I say start preparations I mean pouring over the syllabus and checking out which pieces I’d like to start getting under the fingers, working on and working up. This is literally the start of a new journey and a new journey I’d like to share with you, dear reader.

Why the LMusA Diploma Exam? What’s my motivation?

We all have different motivations for wanting to take exams/ qualifications (or otherwise!). For me personally the motivation is twofold. Firstly I really enjoy the journey in preparing for something like this (a big event, a big concert, an exam). Secondly I do enjoy setting myself goals and timeframes – structure, if you will – in sharpening the mind and helping to push me onwards. And OK, I’ll admit there is a third motivation here – it is quite cool (I think) to get another qualification under my belt and another set of letters after my name.

It is mostly about the journey though, and how I learn and develop along the way – as a guitarist, musician and human being (I don’t mean to sound all “far out”, but you really do learn a lot about yourself on this kind of journey). And I think whenever you take an exam, or commit to something of a similar nature, the journey has to feature largely in your motivation or at least be significant for you in some way – think about how long an exam may be (anywhere between 20 minutes and an hour tops) and how long you’re preparing for it. You’ve got to make the most of that journey!

So, I’m in no hurry to take the examination (plus I’ve got to sit the theory component of it too before the practical, recital type exam). Realistically I’ll probably not look to take the exam earlier than the next 18-24 months. That sounds like a long time to some I’d probably guess, but I’m more than happy to allow myself the time to really get to know the pieces, technically and musically. To let the pieces take on a life of their own.

I’m more than happy to give myself time, once I’ve got to know a few pieces reasonably well, to pick out which are my favourite or have the greatest connection with, winnow out those which I’m less connected with. Then allow that final selection of pieces to seep into my very being so they’re indelibly etched into my musical memory, my aural memory, my visual memory, my kinesthetic memory, my finger and hand muscle memory. I’ll play them to various people, various audiences at various stages of development, so playing them for living, breathing, warm to the touch audiences is a standard occurrence.

The first piece I’ve selected to work on (and I officially started working on it on Sunday) is La Maja de Goya by Enrique Granados. An absolute favourite of mine and a classic piece in the classical guitar repertoire. If you’re not familiar with it head over to YouTube and check out Julian Bream playing it – it’s just beautiful!

Over the next few weeks and months, I’d love to share this journey with you – my ups, my downs, my thoughts, quandaries, decisions, concerts, approaches to learning, practice, how pieces are developing and so on. I may even share with you snippets (or more) of pieces as they develop. And hopefully it helps some of you, dear readers, which is always my key aim.


* Which reminds me, it’s high time I complete the series of posts I started late last year on preparing for an exam. Watch this space!

Expanding Your Guitarist Horizons – Marcin Dylla

It’s been a little while since I’ve posted up an “Expanding Your Guitarist Horizons” post, so I thought it was high time for such a post, particularly given that I’ve had one guitarist on pretty high rotation in recent weeks – a Polish guitarist by the name of Marcin Dylla.

To say that Dylla has a technical command of the instrument with an exquisite musical sense, is a bit like saying Bream was kind of alright at a bit of expression here and there. Dylla is, for sure, one of the finest classical guitarists gracing stage and studio today.

To prove that I’m not talking rubbish, here’s one of my favourite clips of the moment – Dylla playing the technical tour de force that  is Giuliani’s Rossiniana No. 1:


Marcin Dylla was born in Chorzow in 1976. He received his first guitar lessons at the Ruda Slaska Music Conservatory in his native Poland. From 1995 to 2000 he studied at the Music Academy of Katowice with Adi Wanda Palacz. He then completed his studies with Oscar Ghiglia, Sonja Prunnbauer and Carlo Marchione at the Music Academies of Basel, Freiburg and Maastricht, respectively. He is currently a Professor at the Music Academy in Kraków and Katowice.

Dylla won 1st prize in the 2007 Guitar Foundation of America International Competition, arguably the world’s most prestigious guitar competition. Which, of course, was followed by his recording on the Naxos label as part of it’s GFA winners series. This recording (which is a favourite of mine) featured Joaquin Rodrigo’s Junto al Generalife,  Alexandre Tansman’s Variations on a Theme of Scriabin, Nicholas Maw’s Music of Memory (which is frankly nuts as a piece!), and Manuel Ponce’s Sonata Romantica.

Here’s Dylla playing an absolutely beautiful rendition of Rodrigo’s Junto al Generalife:

And here’s the first movement from the Ponce’s Sonata Romantica at the 2012 Classical Guitar Retreat in Scotland:

I’ve also managed to find a pretty cool interview with Dylla from 2013 too – some great insights into the concert performer’s world, Dylla’s background, his thoughts on performance and approach to the guitar and thinking for yourself. He’s a pretty smart guy and well worth a watch:

Work-life-Guitar Balance

We’ve all heard of work-life balance – finding that (perhaps mythical?!) equilibrium between making ones living and enjoying life (although that definition presupposes that we may not enjoy our work…), spending quality time with family and friends and so on.

Well, for those of us that are guitar nuts then we have to find not only balance between work and life, but also find time for good quality guitar practice and playing. Yes, this I call work-life-guitar balance!guitar_photo2.jpg
And believe you me I know all about this! For those of you less familiar with me and/or this blog it may come as a surprise that I have a day job outside of the wonders of the guitar world (strictly speaking you could say I have to find work-life-guitar-blog balance!). Yes as well as guitar-related activities, I have been studying, running my own business and most recently joining a large organisation.
I’ve been a busy bee as they say! So when I talk about this work-life-guitar balance and share with you my thoughts and advice on getting the most out of your practice it very much comes from first hand experience and having been there myself! I know EXACTLY what it feels like folks!! I’m right there with you!
My top five tips for work-life-guitar balance
So here are my top five tips for maintaining that work-life-guitar balance whilst really making progress and pushing forward with your development on the guitar.
1. Build the practice habit with a little bit and often – consistent, regular practice is key to making progress. Even if it’s 10 minutes every day or sat half an hour most days of the week. I can pretty much guarantee you’ll progress much faster that way than finding a two hour slot on a Sunday afternoon and practicing just one or maybe twice a week. You’ll be surprised where you can find 10 – 30 minutes each day in your schedule if you really want to.
2. Work out a schedule of practice – sometimes it can feel a bit overwhelming to know you should be practicing scales, technical exercises, studies and two, three or more pieces (especially if you’re gearing up for a grade exam). I recommend breaking things down over the week – understand what you need to spend time on the most but also schedule in some other time in the week for other things.  You’ll be surprised at what you can fit in across 5 or 6 days.
3. Practice critically but not judgmentally – to really make the most of your practice time with the guitar you really need to switch the brain cells to full work mode. Really think about what it is you’re doing, why, how, the sound you’re making, what might need tweaking and how you might go about that and so on and so forth. Ask yourself questions like “is this how I want this section or phrase to sound?” or “What do I need to do with my left or right hand here to make this transition smoother?” Ask yourself questions like this in a non-judgmental way though – don’t beat up on yourself for not being able to quite pull off that slur yet! That’s really not going to help!
4. Accept that life happens - sometimes you might have to work late, or the kids/ dog/ partner/ your folks are sick, or you might have to go away for work. Worry not! Relax and roll with it. The guitar will still be there when life gets back on a more even keel again and the rest from it may even have done you some good.
5. Enjoy it – we play this instrument because we love it so. Yes, there will be times when we might get frustrated with our practice or things are not happening as fast as we like, but overall we should be enjoying ourselves practicing and playing guitar. And don’t let it become a chore or a grind or something that’s getting in the way of life. Technical exercise after technical exercise makes Jack a dull guitarist – cut loose every now and then enjoy it!!

Melbourne Guitar Quartet – in colour

On 13th March, I along with about 100 other privileged Melburnians at the Melbourne Recital Centre, witnessed the awe-inspiring launch performance of Melbourne Guitar Quartet’s third studio recording “in colour”. 

The name of the album couldn’t really be more apt as Ben, Jeremy, Pete and Tonié are really maestri of tonal control (this is some of the best quality tone you’ll hear on a guitar!) and musical colour. Which, is pretty flipping important in particular, I believe, when playing music by “impressionistic” French composers such as Debussy. Not only this, the Quartet’s sense of colour and expression, brought to the fore by the use of guitar family (soprano, standard, baritone and bass classical guitars), really do bring a new dimension to well-known and loved pieces from the Spanish (formerly piano) repertoire.

The recital opened with Claude Debussy’s beautiful Suite Bergamasque (as does the recording). If you’re not familiar, Suite Bergamasque is a suite of four pieces written originally for the piano around the turn of the 20th century and includes the very well-known Claire de Lune. And MGQ have done themselves proud with this transcription, really capturing that impressionistic nature of Debussy’s work. It’s difficult not to go past the Claire de Lune  too – such as well known piece, but masterfully transcribed here and played with such supreme delicacy, with a subtlety that invites that audience in and asks them very gently to listen to this beautiful melody, the sumptuous harmonies. It made the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end….

The Suite Bergamasque is followed by the lively Arabesca from Enrique Granados’ 12 Danzas Espanolas. This, along with the Villanesca and the Zarabanda which closes out the recording (both from the 12 Danzas Espanolas), really benefits from the use of the guitar family instruments, enabling Granados’ original piano imagining to come to life in terms of the bass to treble range. Something that, obviously, a standard guitar or group of standard guitars can’t convey as well.

One of my particular favourites from both the launch performance and the recording is Cordoba from Isaac Albeniz’s Chants d’Espagne. This also really benefits from the use of the guitar family, a with those big fat juicy bass notes and scintillating soprano notes. This track is an absolutely fantastic transcription and is on high rotation for me at the moment! In terms of the performance of this piece, it really showed-off their tightness as a group. I know only too well from playing in the Victorian Guitar Orchestra that slower moving pieces can often be the more challenging to coordinate between musicians, but the Quartet were right on the nail here (and throughout).

The album also features the Assez vif movements from both Ravel and Debussy’s respective string quartets (Ravel’s in F major and Debussy’s in G Minor) and the wonderful Pavane pour une infant defunte by Ravel. Again, these are well known pieces of the greater classical music repertoire and potentially a daunting task to transcribe such music for the guitar family. Well, they didn’t disappoint! The Ravel Assez vif is just genius, with the most fantastic colouration and texture, really capturing the essence of the string quartet, but without it feeling like a pastiche of a bowed string piece. And of course, the playing is just incredible (I’m running out of superlatives here!) with that rich tone and sensitive, musical playing.

Throughout the whole in colour performance it was so inspiring to feel and see the interaction between the players – a subtle eyebrow movement, nods of the head, a lean of the body. Each one knowing what the other is doing, their sound a gorgeous, colourful blend of guitar awesomeness.

If you’re interested in beautiful French and Spanish music, re-imagined for the guitar family and brought to life by four musicians at the top of their game, this album is a must. Do yourself a favour and head over to their website now to order yourself a copy of in colour.

Note: Please let it be known that I am somewhat biased in writing this as Ben Dix has been my own teacher and mentor (and a fantastic one at that) for the last few years, Tonié has always been happy to share sage words of wisdom with me, and Jeremy and Pete are both lovely chaps too. I can confirm they didn’t know this was getting posted up thought and I only ever tend to really write up positive reviews here, so you can rest assured that, although somewhat biased, this is a bloody fantastic recording!