Awareness, habit and just playing guitar (and a bit of Mr Bream)

It can be so very easy when learning a piece of music for the first time to play it how we’ve heard on our favourite recordings (if indeed it is a recorded piece or a piece we know well),  how someone plays it on YouTube, or how we think or “feel” it should be played. Oftentimes we can do this without realising it, just throwing ourselves in and playing.

This approach – and don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan of just playing and having fun – can have its limitations. It’s like walking through the world with blinkers on, only seeing what is immediately in front of you without ever looking or knowing what is to the left or the right. It is always may aim in m playing (and a sense I hope to pass onto my students too) that we must always learn and play with awareness. That is to say with real understanding of what it is we’re playing, how we’re playing it and why we’re playing it in a certain way.

Playing from a sense of “habit” (I’m not sure that’s the right word here, but we’ll go with it because I can’t think of anything better to describe it) from the outset without saying to yourself “hang on a minute, what’s going on here? What does the written music really say? Why do other folks, players on recordings play it in this way or that? What did the composer want? And importantly, what is it that I want? How do I want to play the music? What are the possibilities?

Undertaking a bit of exploration for the various possibilities around tempo, sense of pulse, rhythmic flexibility, tone colours, direction and so forth can really help to develop your musicality. It can really help to develop your sound, how you play, helping to develop you as a guitarist and musician, rather than an imitation of a 1970s Julian Bream* recording however fantastic it is (or whatever it is you’ve been listening to).

When I’ve done this exploration (or the majority of it because it never really stops just like that) then I tend to start to build in the habit. This is when I can commit to a particular direction, or sound or “feel”. This is when I build in the muscle memory, the musical memory, and really get stuck in.

And then, once I’ve done all of that I can forget about it! Just cut loose and really play it!

* Speaking of Mr Bream (surely, he should be knighted already – far lesser people have! C’mon!), if you’ve not seen it yet, check out this interview with him in the UK’s The Guardian newspaper last week:

And a video interview with the man himself at the Gramophone Classical Music Awards this week:


Happy 80th Birthday Julian Bream!

Cover of "Nocturnal After John Dowland: O...
Cover of Nocturnal After John Dowland: Op. 70

Monday this week saw the 80th birthday of my own personal guitar hero – the inimitable classical guitarist and lutenist Julian Bream. Happy birthday sir!

There are many things I admire about this most fantastic guitarist and musician –

  • He has the most delicious tone with a fantastic variation in tonal colour, expression and physicality in his playing which is a great inspiration in my own playing
  • He was more-or-less self-taught on the guitar having studied piano at the Royal College of Music so less constrained perhaps by the “right” way to do things made it up for himself and obviously had great success in this
  • And, importantly for me, he holds the belief that as guitarists, as musicians, as people we should refrain from taking ourselves too seriously!

What a fantastic career he shaped for himself and what a fantastic legacy he has created for the classical guitar too. There have been around 25 pieces that were written specifically for Bream, these include (thanks to Wikipedia for the list):

In celebration of Bream’s 80th BBC Radio 3 put together a fantastic radio documentary on Bream’s career, and particuarly the story behind Britten’s Nocturnal – one of the most fantastic pieces in the modern classical guitar repertoire that we owe an enormous debt of gratitude to Bream for. Check it out here:

And of course, this post couldn’t proceed without a bit of music from the great man himself.  Here’s the Passacaglia from Britten’s Nocturnal for you.

Happy Birthday Julian!