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:



Listening to music to shape your learning

292/366 Music
(Photo credit: Mark Seton)

This may sound like a bit of a silly title for a bunch of musicians. From the general population we classical guitarists, as musicians, are probably more than likely than most to listen to music on a regular basis right?

Well, what I mean to convey is the active listening to music and using it as a tool for your learning of a particular piece. With the proliferation of online services and apps such as Spotify and YouTube, pretty much the whole widey world of music is at your fingertips, night and day, at the click of a button. Whatever it is you want to listen to is right there for you. These fantastic tools can now really assist us, in a cost minimal and effort minimal way to bring new approaches and shine new lights on our repertoire.

Spotify is a particular favourite of mine. When learning a new piece, once I’ve got my fingers and head around the basic skeleton of a piece, I’ll then hop onto Spotify to check out the myriad of versions that have been recorded. I tend to do this once I’ve started to get an idea in my own mind as to how I hear the music, rather than be directly influenced by another’s interpretation straight off the bat where I can (with some of the more popular repertoire I appreciate that this may not always be possible).

Once I’ve started to get a piece underway I do find it particularly useful to check out various other interpretations, listening in particular to:

  • Tempi – these can always be wide ranging, but does it sound better slightly faster or slightly slower? Am I wide of the mark in my general approach to target tempo I had in mind?
  • Voicings – do they draw out the same voices that I’d heard? Are there voices that I’d missed?
  • Phrasing, dynamics and tone colours – how do they shape the music? What is its direction? Are there are any interesting or unusual ways of shaping or adding colour that I like and I could employ?
  • Anything else that I may have missed or that interests me in an interpretation that I’d not heard of or thought about before.

When I’m going through this exercise, it’s not just guitar music that I listen to either. This is especially the case if the piece in question was not originally written for guitar. It really help you understand a piece to listen to it in its original intended instrumentation – transcriptions from the original violin, ‘cello and piano versions are typical with guitar repertoire. Whatever the original instrumentation is it can really help to shed light on what the composer may have been intending, how you can treat your tone colours and overall sound, where the main voices and phrasings lie perhaps.

I also like to see if I can find other arrangements for a piece too, transcribed for other instruments – i.e. not the original instrument and not guitar – and listen to how they shape, phrase, colour and play the music. I always find it fascinating to listen to how other musicians on other instruments aside from the guitar do this.

Solo pieces that are given group arrangement treatments – duos, trios or other ensemble arrangements – can also present an interesting perspective on a piece too, particularly with regard to voicings and how those are shared amongst an ensemble and how they are treated.

So, next time you’re learning a new piece or even now with one of your existing pieces that perhaps you want to take to the next level or freshen up a little, I highly recommend you to hop onto YouTube, Spotify or similar and put a bit of a listening list together. There are a wealth of resources available out there at your disposal and you’d be mad not to use them!