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Queen Guitar Rhapsodies

Guitar Playing Is A Cycle In The Shape Of An S

What the Sigmoid Curve Can Teach the Humble Plucker and how a mathematical formula can be used as a model for success

Let's say you spend a year or eighteen months practising /with great dedication but by the end don't have much to show for it. Now let us assume that in the following year the improvements really begin to happen in such a way that makes you think that all the work you put into your playing was really worthwhile. This would probably encourage you to follow the same path in your third or fourth year, and to keep to your proven procedure for self-improvement. It would make sense, right?

Wrong! That is, according to the Sigmoid Curve which is based on a mathematical formula that has been applied to many areas, notably as a "very good model for understanding business cycles."

This is how the Sigmoid Curve is described:

"Change is Inevitable...…in life and in business. Sustainable momentum in both comes from knowing when to make the jump to the next curve before the one you're on begins to plateau. As frightening as it sounds, you need to give up a good thing while it's still working in order to position yourself for future success."

Graph of the Sigmoid Curve

Can this be applied to guitar playing?

Imagine the Curve as an S leaning forward to the right. The Learning Phase is the first side of the S pointing downwards - all hard work and not a lot to show for it (just like the first eighteen months of practice). The Growth Phase is the second curve of the S when it climbs upwards. This is when you begin to see results (just like guitar playing after eighteen months).

So far, so good, but what about the third curve of the S? Here it falls away steeply and gets difficult. It represents the decline that tends to set in, according to the Sigmoid Curve. The consequence is that the business "will slowly die." Yes, but that may be relevant to business but surely learning a musical instrument or any other creative skill is exactly what sets it apart from boring business? Decline doesn't happen in music after three or four years. On the contrary you get better and better. Maybe, maybe not.

Here comes the really important part of the Sigmoid Curve:

Decline can be avoided if business reinvents itself

If we take note of this as musicians we might find it beneficial. Reinventing ourselves is a creative process which can include re-examining our technique and musical goals, rather than repeating tried and tested formulae.

At this stage let us examine and question everything we do. Turn concepts on their heads and ask ourselves "what if....?" and "why not...?" See where it leads us.

What we can learn from this is clear: after three or four years it may be time to move on, to develop and change. So far you may have worked hard at becoming a guitarist, but now is the time to make the jump to the next curve and evolve into becoming a musician. That, as the Sigmoid Curve shows, will be the exciting beginning of a new era in order to position yourself for future success.

.And when that cycle has run its course you will be ready to move onwards and upwards – where else, but to becoming an artist.

29th September, London

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20 Guitar Pieces You Must Hear Before You Die

I invite you to help me choose them

Yes indeed, I can see you smiling as you read the title, after all how could you possibly hear them after you die? Probably not, but there may be special provision in heaven. If we can listen to music there, that would indeed be yet another attractive inducement for us to behave well on earth.

And who knows, maybe we will be greeted at the Pearly Gates by St Peter to the accompaniment of live guitar music rendered softly from a corner of the celestial entrance hall by the angel Tarrega or Sor or any other of our dearly departed heroes.

Best not to wait for that divine moment just in case, horror of horrors, we are dispatched down below to be greeted by - what? - a cacophony of discordant bugles, or an ear-splitting chorus of bare-chested, wild-haired electric guitarists tearing high notes from their instruments for ever in hell's dungeon.

No, it is clear to me we have to choose the 20 greatest now and not afterwards, and talk of the Devil, it is commonly known he has all the best tunes. It is so much easier to click my fingers and immediately know which are the guitar pieces I never want to hear again. Unfortunately, and you may be surprised to know, I include vast acres, no much more than that, mile upon mile of guitar music which may have given pleasure to their creators but none at all to me.

But our job is to keep focussed on choosing the best, not the worst. It will be entertaining and instructive to apply our collective minds to which 20 are totally indispensable as essential listening, containing music you can suggest with passion to the uninitiated, the sort of music that moves you every time, that chews at the pit of your stomach, that brings tears to your eyes, that makes your hair stand on end. I think you know what I am getting at.

So let us compile with enthusiasm a list dedicated to the 20 guitar pieces you must hear before you die. We will restrict ourselves to music composed for the guitar, be it the early 4-string version, or the Baroque 5-string one, or the cute little 19th century single-strung 6-string version, or the modern variety.

Out of the window unfortunately go all transcriptions from the lute and keyboard. Good-bye J.S. Bach, Scarlatti, Albeniz, Granados and most of Falla. They belong to a special category which we could call "Good-On-But-Not-Actually-Composed (for-the-guitar)" which we could abbreviate to GOBNAC or even "Well-Arranged-Guitar-music" which we could abbreviate to WAG. More of this category another time.

So, folks, just 20 pieces of authentic solid-gold music conceived for our beloved "magic box" - a phrase coined by Barrios. Now there is a clue as to one of my choices: yes, but which of his pieces?

I await your suggestions here below or on Facebook or Twitter.

21st September 2013, Cadiz, Spain

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Questions, Questions, Questions!

The Hidden Clues to Better Guitar Playing Are All Here

I have arrived back in London on Friday, since which time it has scarcely stopped raining. The temperature has dropped by about ten degrees since I was last here. Worst of all, the days are getting shorter, and a dismal greyness hangs over the city as prelude to the long interminable autumn and winter ahead. Yes, it is enough to make me want to leave again but for one thing - and that is to get on with some “proper” playing, regardless of the elements.

When I say proper playing I mean an all-in, not-overlooking-any-detail, let’s-nail-this-once-and-for-all-type approach. Received wisdom, much of it (not all) founded on sound principles is full of reference to scales, arpeggios, studies, slow practice, don’t move on till you get that bit right bla bla bla….and that is all very well and good as far as it goes. But there are a whole series of things and aspects of playing which are too easily overlooked but which are greatly entertaining and beneficial if you apply yourself to them.

Here is a list of some which will greatly improve your playing if only you can apply yourself to them. Speaking for myself, they provide a constant reference, not that I am always as diligent as I should be in following what I preach:

Tone and sound quality
Question: do you really work at this? Do you listen enough? Do you experiment with changes of angle to improve this aspect?

To get rid, or not, of those bass squeaks!
Question: do you think they are avoidable? Do you think they add to the charm of the classical guitar?

Structure and harmony
Question: when are you going to be able to name all the chords and understand the structure and harmonic shape of the piece? Do you need to do a special course on this or could you make a start right now?

Change fingerings to improve phrasing and ease of playing
Question: are there passages which you have been meaning to change but never get round to doing so? Do you think it is more a matter of improving your technique rather than a change of fingering?

Background knowledge including musical, social and historical
Question: can finding these things out make a difference to your playing? Is your time better spent practicing rather than reading books and articles?

Reliable memorisation
Question: how reliable is your memory? Is a good memory something you are born with or something you can refine? How well do you know your pieces? Can you recall the musical score, the fingering patterns, the harmonic sequences and other matters which help shore up your memory’s building blocks?

You may have noticed that many of my questions are loaded. Some of them are trick questions. In some of them I play devil’s advocate. One final question about my questions: are you sure can you tell the difference!?

Here are some qualities you could apply to your playing with enthusiasm (I hope) and in a spirit of enquiry. The answers are neither easy nor obvious, but by simply considering the questions you will be starting an interesting journey of discovery, and what’s more self-discovery too.

14th September 2013, London

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My day in Casablanca

Street scene in Casablanca on 6th September 2013

- Hey, Noah, over here! -

Being at a loose end on Friday I decided to go for a stroll in Casablanca. Yes I know, it does sound exotic, a stroll is a stroll, but in Casablanca? That's something special. And so it was.

The briefest glance down main streets, side streets and alleyways reveals a great mix of humanity. In mere moments I saw women in burkhas or head scarves, and yet others in low cut Western dresses with no head gear at all. I saw men in jeans and others in long white islamic kaftan garments. I saw Arabs, Europeans, black Africans, Asian Africans, and more.

If the Great Flood were to return I would advise Noah to come to Casablanca. Here you are, Noah, I would say, look no further for your selection. Unknown to them, Noah would single out a few for his giant Arc as diverse representatives of the human species, even as they, unawares of the honour go about their daily business within the narrow confines of this metropolis.

All so different from each other, and so similar. While driving into town I catch sight of a small Arabic child no more than three years old dressed in his immaculate white kaftan, his arms outstretched in greeting. A man (father, uncle, family friend?) sweeps him up in his arms, goes off briefly to greet another adult, and returns and crouches down to speak to him. I see all this but hear no sound through the closed window, as the taxi speeds by.

A while later I am walking briskly through down town Casablanca further and further away from the tourist landmarks. I turn a corner and nearly collide with a little boy, he too dressed in a kaftan. His father, holding the hand of his tiny toddling daughter, beams and smiles at me with pride. I smile back at his handsome Indian features. He is dressed in jeans.

All so different and so similar - children adored and treasured by their parents no matter their race, colour or religion. The human reps of each type on Noah's Arc would be united by many aspirations: earning a crust to survive and maybe prosper, creating a happy family, caring for their children.

These ordinary, even mundane thoughts filled my mind on my walk as the temperature steadily rose through midday. I passed A Night in Casablanca film-type coffee houses, newspaper kiosks, street vendors shouting their wares in rock-hard voices sculptured by years of outdoor activity, serious business men in Western suits, retired men in their muslim hats sitting at pavement tables watching me watching them, young girls in jeans, and families out shopping.

I hope Noah places a huge glass bowl over the scene I have just described and traps us in it (yes, that's me included) on his Arc while sailing full speed ahead to a destination of his own choosing, leaving out all violent and destructive humans. Wouldn't it be good if the common swell of humanity were safely contained this way while a furious few beat uselessly on the outer glass frame? We inside would laugh pointing at their noiseless contorted faces, and looking away hold up our children to behold in wonder the better world towards which we would sail.

6th September 2013, Casablanca

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Guitar playing from September - let's get serious


There will always be tension between getting real and your wish list and that is a good thing

I don't know about you, but my new year starts in September, while my New Year starts in January. I hope you are as ready and resolute about your "lower-case" new year as I am, for me this is the time to renew my practice and set my targets for the 12 months ahead.

If you are studying alone, and are not under the supervision of a teacher you are indeed, in the words of Andrés Segovia, your own master and pupil. If you are studying with a teacher then you can decide all this together. If you are following a set syllabus or grade requirements then some of the targets have already been set for you. Whatever your situation, set yourself realistic goals under these headings:

Technical development
Pieces to learn
Other skills to develop e.g. sight-reading, learning more about chords etc.

Now make two columns: one called "getting real" and the other "wish list". In the first try to be as realistic as possible as to what is achievable given the time you have and your present abilities. In the second write what you secretly would like to achieve. There will always be a tension between the two as your secret ambition pushes at the boundary between them, and that is a good thing.

In the long cold nights of winter ahead of us a plan of studies will warm you and give you an aim to complete by this time next year. By then you will have enjoyed another spring and another summer, and your playing will have seasoned too...at least, that's the plan.

An ambition, a plan, endeavour and enthusiasm, more you cannot ask of yourself. Good luck!

1st September 2013, Norwich, England

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My Summer in Pictures

27th July: Meeting composer Michael Nyman in Mexico City to play him my guitar arrangements from his music for the film “The Piano” -

5th August: With cows in Switzerland who took not the blindest bit of notice of this photo opportunity -

10th August: Overlooking Lake Geneva, Switzerland, with the Mont Blanc in the background -

15th August: In Juan Menduiňa’s guitar construction workshop near Madrid -

20th August: View from a train window on my journey from Madrid approaching Valencia where I like to spend free time. Note the elegant shrubbery devoid of rain particles -

24th August: a wet wedding for my nephew back in London – where else! Here we are boarding a privately hired old-fashioned double-decker red bus to take us after the ceremony to a pub for a nosh up. How English can you get? -

25th August 2013, London, UK

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Sleepless in Madrid on a Summer High

A visit to Juan Menduiña's guitar workshop inspires a fanciful chain of events

I write this week from Madrid where I have come to work again with Juan Menduiña on developing the ultimate guitar sound. Quite a claim I know, but why settle for less if you can feel its realisation almost within reach? I arrived here from London on Thursday, where I have spent a few days, my ears still ringing with the soothing choir of Swiss cow bells and my lungs still expanding and contracting with the clean thin air gained one thousand two hundred metres above Lake Geneva.

I have come many times to Madrid to meet with Juan Menduiña. His studio has an intoxicating aroma of new guitars, French polish, and sawdust. The instruments are all prototypes and experimental models with bracing designs based on the pure harmonic proportions and nodal points of standard modern pitch, A=440. The scale length, the saddle, the width and depth of the body, and the bracing have all been adjusted to these measurements. The result is a patented design and a distinctive sound. Most exciting of all to me is that the sound is excellent even using cheaper woods as in more economic models.

In the early mornings since my arrival I wander around this outer reach of Madrid. That is quite an achievement on my part since I don't go to bed until at least 2am in order to conform to local custom. The Spanish are not early risers in summer. I would go further, they regard any time up to 10am as dead of night - not surprising since they stay up till very late indeed to feel the first cool breeze stir through the concrete streets in the small hours. The pleasure and relief is hard to describe, and witness to it is the insomniac hyper-active population. Yesterday I could swear I heard fire crackers greet the breeze upon its arrival, although I admit it may have been a hallucination due to lack of sleep.

I have completed a neat journey these past weeks. I started off in Switzerland, home to great pine trees a few of which end up giving of their best as tops in quality guitars. Some of the strange large gnome-type long-haired men I met wandering round the village near Geneva may have been the very same lumberjacks who cut down the very tree from which was carved the very guitar I am now holding in Menduiña's workshop! Fanciful, I hear you think, but there have been some even weirder coincidences in my life.

But that is another story...

17th August 2013, Madrid, Spain

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My Week in Switzerland

Carlos overlooking Lake Geneva

....of cow bells, arranging music and climbing the hills

"The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched, but must be felt with the heart."

-- Helen Keller

Once upon a time not so long ago the loudest sounds on earth were not produced by humans. A cow mooing here and a horse neighing there would pierce the silence of Europe's countryside, and specifically Switzerland where I have spent this week.

In the echoing hills people could converse at considerable distances without shouting. By raising their voices they were heard a mile away. A fiddle, a recorder and yes a guitar, could really make the hills come alive to the sound of music, without amplification.

My heart beating and out of breath I have struggled up the hills around St. Cergue until reaching summits 1200 metres high. From there I can hear cow bells, the distant whining of car engines and leaves shaken by the breeze. I have caught panoramic views of Lake Geneva and the city clinging to its shores. Beyond it, miles away, I can see the snow-capped Mont Blanc and her sister mountains, enclosing this land mass of Europe in a silent embrace.

Carlos at the UN World Health Organisation in Geneva, August 2013

Yesterday I went for lunch at the United Nations' International Labour Organisation in Geneva and followed it with a walk around the grounds of the Château de Penthes and the Botanical Garden. Strangely enough the Garden seemed devoid of people: more like the hills beyond than a city park. A recent storm had uprooted several huge trees - one of them still lying on its side like a wounded animal.

Back in the village in this nearly idyllic setting I have worked on various musical arrangements which I shall be playing in the Autumn. Without interruptions I have made rapid progress as I scribble my notations on manuscript paper. Taking a break one day early in the week I strolled through the village and stumbled upon Peter and Claudine Boswell's Café Chez Claudine where I had a delicious café au lait and a scone à l'anglaise. Sitting back I admired the original paintings and photographs decorating the walls and perused one from an extensive library of good books, mine for the asking.

Yesterday afternoon, three unsaddled and unblinkered horses tied together were walked briskly through the village high street. They were calm and untroubled. Beautifully groomed, the sunlight bounced off their flanks. The rhythmic interplay of their hooves could still be heard as they receded from view. A queue of cars straggled nose to tail behind them, their engines reduced to a quiet purring.

In the hills above, a wild deer briefly emerged from the trees, while cow bells jingled all around. The storm clouds were gone. The late afternoon sun had begun to cast its long shadows.

10th August, 2013, St. Cergue, Switzerland

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Interpretation For Starters

Eight steps to make it your own

It is a curious thing that a fine interpretation does not sound like "an interpretation" but more like the only way that piece of music could possibly sound. A good interpretation does not suggest or even imply an alternative interpretation: it sounds like the real deal! It is only when you hear an equally convincing alternative interpretation that you become aware that there is an alternative.

How can you as a player become good enough for a listener to think that your interpretation is the only way the music should sound? Here are a few suggestions for making a start:

Listen to recordings, watch videos and go to live concerts to compare different interpretations of the same piece.
Note the differences and ask yourself which you prefer and why.
Is there a general mood in the piece and if so what? If it changes mood, how would you describe it? What is the tempo you have in mind and does it suit the mood? Words are inadequate but try your best.
Are you bringing out the melody? Does it sing, or just plod along?
What is the effect of such-and-such a chord at that particular moment? Why is it so moving or dramatic or touching? How do the chords affect the melody?
Consider phrase lengths, rhythm, accents. Look and play through the music and try to understand - with whatever knowledge you have - the shape and harmonies of the piece.
Work out a fingering which matches your musical ideas.
Now go back to numbers 1/ and 2/ and you will hear them differently, for you will find that you are a lot more certain why you like one interpretation over another.

By now you are developing clear ideas of your own. As you play you will begin to project them too. Your own interpretation is beginning to take shape.

You have made a start on what being a player is all about.

This has been my rough guide to making a start on interpretation.

4th August 2013, St. Cergue, Vaud, Switzerland

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Plane Talk: Is This Seat Free?

An amazing exchange before take off puts me off any further conversation

Spending as I do so many hours on airplanes I agree I may be a bit touchy. I mean, there I am trying to get some sleep or read a book but instead I am put off by silly conversations around me. It happens all the time and can drive me to distraction. But this one was different. It happened the other day on a long haul flight just before takeoff. I was quite relaxed and unconcerned looking out of the window when this tall gentleman in a white suit and panama hat came over to the row in front, leaned over and spoke rather loudly to the person sitting in one of the seats. His tone and manner grabbed my attention. It was riveting. I think that by the time you read my recollection of their conversation you too will be sucked into their amazing exchange. Here it is as far as I can remember it.

Gentleman in the panama hat, let's call him Passenger 1 (P1):
P1: Is this seat empty?
Well-built, roughly spoken gentleman, let 's call him Passenger 2 (P2) :
P2: Yes.
P1: Of course it is, what I mean is, is there anybody sitting there?
P2: No.
P1: [whispering] It hasn't been commandeered by anyone who has just gone to spend a penny, by any chance?
P2: No.
P1: So the seat doesn't belong to anybody?
P2: No.
P1: Jolly good, in that case do you mind awfully if I sit here?
P2: Yes.
P1: You do mind if I sit here?
P2: Yes.
P1: But the seat is free, isn't that so?
P2: Yes.
P1: I don't understand. So why do you mind if I sit here?
P2: Because you are a fifty thousand ton ocean-going liner upper class twit. I don't want you sitting anywhere near me. If you sit there I will pin your tongue to the back of your throat so that you will only be able to utter noises through that other passage up which you enjoy spending so much of your time. Do you understand me?
P1: This is fascinating. You see, I travel frequently on ocean liners as well as on airplanes. How could you know that, you're not psychic, are you?
P2: Yes, I am bloody psychic.
P1: How jolly interesting. You must tell me all about it.
P2: No I bloody won't. Now if you carry on for another five seconds I will cut you into pieces, remove your insides, throw them out of the plane, and take home your face to use it as target practise. Now do I make myself clear?
P1: Ah yes, you do. You see, I was an army surgeon until I retired last year. So I'm afraid I've seen lots of soldiers in pieces - a ghastly business. Removing part of the insides, now that is tricky, but I've done that too. And using a face as target practise, well, I grew up with that, it's standard army procedure to use cut out faces for target practise.
It seems we have a lot in common.
May I sit down?

PS: as you may guessed this conversation never took place, it is a pure fantasy on my part. Mind you if anybody like that panama-hatted man wishes to sit next to me on my next flight I will have a firm plan in place....

London 27th July, 2013

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