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Queen Guitar Rhapsodies

Bring Out That Note

Three tricks to transform the sound of your chord-playing

One of the qualities of really good playing is the ability to highlight at will different notes in a chord. Here are a few tricks easy to incorporate into your playing which could transform it in just a few minutes.

Highlight top note
Turn the wrist slightly to the right. The fingertips and nails are now more parallel to the strings. This helps create a brighter tone especially in the ring finger, and so brings out the top note of the chord.Remember to turn only the wrist and not the shoulder.

Highlight middle notes
Turn the wrist towards the left so that the fingers come into the strings almost sideways. The thumb is now almost behind the fingers. The sound you produce this way is very rounded and brings out the inner strings.

Highlight bass note
Raise the wrist so that the thumb approaches the bass string at an angle between 50 - 75 degrees, which most likely is a lot higher than to what you are accustomed. This should produce a deeper tone which more easily projects the bass note.

Practise Tips
1.
Take a chord of C Major, with the notes on first, second, third and fifth strings. Play slowly as an arpeggio highlighting one or other note. End the sequence in time by playing the chord on the beat with the same highlighted note.Repeat process highlighting different note.

2.
Play the C Major chord ten times in a row highlighting one or other note. Set yourself the task of producing exactly the same sound and balance ten times in a row.

3.
Take the exercise to the next level and Invent a simple chord sequence with different highlights.

4.
Now play the chord with perfect balance between all the notes.

Don't be surprised if your listening awareness has really improved in the short time since you started thinking and practising all this - well done!

This has been my rough guide to bringing out notes in chords.

14th July, 2013, Valencia, Spain

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Interpretation And What It's All About

Three Keys to Total Immersion

You are likely to be familiar with the individual keys I describe below. Each of them is very important and critical to good playing and becoming a fine musician. When you put them together they add up to more than a sum of the parts - they become the guiding principle for your development as an artist. This may sound a bit grand but I hope that by the time you read to the end of the article you will agree.

These are the three keys:

1. Learning and understanding
2. Internalising and reflection
3. Externalising and projection

Here are a few words about each:

1. Learning and understanding
This is as long a process as is your proverbial piece of string. It may include memorising (which I would recommend) and it will certainly include reaching a state as close to mistake-free as you can get. It involves thinking about mood, dynamics, tempo, style, colour, and all the things that we associate with a convincing performance. But this is only the beginning of you reaching your goal of total immersion. Now you proceed to the second key.

2. Internalising and reflection
This is a stage which cannot be hurried. It can vary from days to weeks to months depending on the style, complexity and difficulty of the work. At this point your sub-conscious mind becomes really important. In stage one your conscious mind was grappling with aspects of technique, fingering and learning. All that has been largely sorted. The work is now close to coming under control. Yet (as no doubt is already familiar to you) you feel you have to live with it for it to become settled, assured and relaxed. It is no longer so important to keep practising it, for your subconscious mind is begiinning to take over. That is why you may have already found yourself humming or hearing the music in your mind quite unexpectedly when you are miles away from the instrument! These are wonderful moments which can give you great new insights, so let them flow without interruption even if you go into a daydream.

One day you will wake up and feel like playing it to someone close. Take care, you are close to being able to do so, but not quite there yet. You are now about to turn the third key!

3. Externalising and projection
You feel ready or nearly ready to play the piece to your friends, family and supporters. What else do you have to do, if anything, to make it happen to the best of your ability? Allow me to tell you a little personal story by way of an answer. When I was in my twenties I played a famous repertoire piece to a close relative. I had never played it to anyone else before. He was not a musician, which is good since unwittingly non-musicians can be both the harshest and at the same time the most honest critics. Once I had played he said “that was really good, but I think it needs more juice.” More juice is a perfect description of what I needed to do.

Externalising is the final stage of any interpretation. You can “feel” as sensitive as you like, and be moved by the music in your mind and in your heart, but that is no use to a listener if you are not showing it in your playing too. Externalising is all about subtly projecting yourself and the music, just as you project what you feel and think as a person. Some music may require “more juice” than other, for example Romantic music versus Baroque music. To draw (literally!) another comparison: you can be as subtle as painting in water colours or as bold as painting with oils. Your personality and your attitude will largely determine to which of the two extremes you are more inclined. But project you must, just as an actor does – and actors too vary in how they project according to their personality and attitude.

This has been my rough guide to the three keys to a total immersion in interpretation.

3rd July, 2013, Cádiz, Spain

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Benjamin Britten - the greatest non-playing guitar composer of all time?

Tonight in London Gary Ryan played the Nocturnal Opus 60 by Benjamin Britten to start off his recital at the Bolivar Hall for the Transformations Music Series. This was a brave thing to do, given the intensity and length of the work. He followed by accompanying tenor Thomas Hobbs in Britten's English Folk Song arrangements. These works represent two thirds of Benjamin Britten's entire works for guitar, the other work being the Songs of the Chinese.

Presented with the manuscript of the Nocturnal Julian Bream was astonished to note only one unplayable chord in the entire 20 minute work, and this from a composer who could not play the guitar. Amazingly, Britten himself was rather upset when he realized his one and only error! Here is a work which deals with every aspect of guitar technique placed magnificently at the service of a wide range of expressive variations depicting various states of sleep ending with John Dowland's song Come Heavy Sleep. Nightmare, restlessness, peace and tranquility are all vividly depicted in scale and arpeggio passages, double octave sequences, complex five part chords, and pizzicato and tremolando techniques.

In the English Folk Songs the guitar colours the words with a few carefully chosen chords and harmonics. The songs themselves vary between charming, moving and amusing lyrics with the guitar underpinning them with the equivalent of a few masterful brush-strokes.

All this from a composer who couldn't play the guitar - Britten's 'feel' for instruments was remarkable, and his preparation and study of the possibilities of each instrument he wrote for was legendary.

If you haven't heard these remarkable works, go and do so now! Drop what you are doing, and immerse yourself in the sound world of a master composer.

28th June, London


The Future is Fiction

Make your musical dreams come true in real time

Sernancelhe 2013, with invited concert guitarists of the jury who also performed at the Festival: from left to right: Pedro Rodrigues, Thibault Cauvin, Julio Guerreiro, Paula Sobral and Carlos Bonell (not in photo is recitalist Artur Caldeira)

Here I am at Oporto airport, Portugal, after a few lovely days spent at the Sernancelhe International Guitar Festival and Competition. Sernancehle is some 90 miles from here, up in the hills, in a rural and utterly unspoilt location with little evidence of international tourism. Much has remained unchanged in the past half century. Here gathered some of the finest guitarists of the younger generation to compete, as well as more senior members of the fraternity including yours truly to listen, judge, award and entertain in our own right eager audiences of local people.

I noticed, to my surprise and consternation, that I was the oldest plucker in their midst. I seem to have travelled in time from being a mere youth (like the competitors) to my present advanced state of three score and three years scarcely ever noticing the difference - until brought face to face with the stark reality, as in these past days!

Anyway, to return to what I was saying - I have at this moment nothing to do except wait for my flight back to London, so, as is my wont, I have bought a newspaper. Usually I buy a local one - if I am in New York it would be The New York Times,in Mexico El Nacional, but here my attention was grabbed by the nearest newspaper on the stand, El País from Spain.

Turning to page 38 I note the title (in Spanish) for you "To Act Or Nor To Act, That Is The Question" - I have it open at the page as I write. It refers to a gathering organised by the BBVA Foundation of 10 great and wise men and women creators from the world of Science, Economics and Music. They are all major prize-winners. The youngest is 57, and the oldest 91 - no spring chicken here.

Faced with the question of how to deal and prepare for the future there is a disconcerting agreement of opinion. They all feel it is very difficult to predict or plan for it, even when we are certain of the present. Of all of them, Susan Solomon - who researched and discovered vital aspects of the ozone layer - gives the future of her speciality the most positive spin:
"this is a new type of chemistry, opposition to it is very healthy, although there is a danger of too much of it. The truth always emerges in science, and usually quite quickly. It is a bit like a symphony, it all comes together, but this wouldn't happen without disagreement."
The point of course, is that disagreement about this matter is still very intense.

These highly intelligent people all try to balance in their discourse the demands of the present and near future with the uncertainties of the long term.

And so it may be in our small world of music too. It may be best to throw ourselves 100% into making the most of the present, with a small peak into the near future by asking ourselves questions such as what we want to achieve in the next year or two. It is good to consider further down the line (five, ten years hence) but like the larger world out there that is just conjecture, full of unpredictability.

Bearing this in mind all our technical and musical development could be planned for the right now and soon, keeping an open and flexible attitude as to how to develop and change it, just like the world of science and economics.

This brings me back to my Sernancehle experience: I have lived mostly a life rooted in the present and near future, and so have not often noticed the march of medium to long term time in my personal existence, until those occasions when I have been surrounded by the fresh faces of youth, as during this week.

Let me be honest: it has surprised but in no way disturbed me. Time and its passing is not just inevitable, it is wondrous and beautiful. Personally, we can embrace it positively. Let us hope we can say the same of the world itself in sixty three years' time!

23rd June, 2013, Oporto, Portugal


Creative guitar-playing starts at six years old

Too many rules can put us off, just like it did brilliant young Jack

In 2012 a young man fully 15 years old invented a fast and inexpensive test for pancreatic cancer which could save thousands of lives. He is the recipient of the $75,000 Gordon E. Moore Award, the grand prize of the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair. His name is Jack Thomas Andraka, and he was born in Maryland, USA in 1997. He played the piano as a child and “like everybody gave up.” He also says that he disagrees “with our bulimic education system learning by rota and then puking up all the facts in an exam.”

After being disruptive and a rebel to the age of 11, young Jack began to behave at school and get high marks. He is still at school of course. He says that he goes to a “really bad school”, not a fancy school at all, with a 50% drop-out rate. None of this appears to have put him off for in addition to his grand prize he won an additional $100,000 in smaller individual categories of scientific invention, and so, amazingly, did his brother, who has clocked up $96,000. Which brings us to his parents and upbringing:

“I am a creative thinker. My parents never told me answers. They told me how to think, not what to think.”

In just a few words, young Jack has given me a lead as to how we could proceed to teach the guitar and other musical instruments to bright young children, the types who are restless, creative and not too keen on receiving precise instructions. Not all children are like this, some really welcome clear direction as to how to do things and feel a bit at sea without it, but there are many others like Jack. After all, here we have a brilliantly creative teenager who gave up the piano, much to his loss and the piano’s.

In his book Compulsory Miseducation Paul Goodman describes in expert detail where much education goes wrong. The book made a big impression upon me. At the time I read it I decided to put some of its conclusions into practise. I encouraged personal creativity in an adult class of beginners I was teaching. This included improvisation and never telling them how to do things unless they asked, which of course they did, but not as often as you might imagine. Why? Because they were all going crazy observing what and how I did everything. By the end of the first year their technical development was on an equal footing with more conventional teaching, but importantly, their creative sense was way ahead. They whizzed around the instrument with confidence and some had developed into budding guitarist-composers and guitarist-singers. My conclusion was that each student felt he or she had developed in a very personal way, without the weight of “doing things properly” hanging over them, but rather the greater confidence which comes from “doing it my way”.

….Which brings me back to Jack and the young Jacks of the musical world. We can ill afford to stifle creative talent in young children by loading them with endless lists of how to and how not to do things. I ask myself now: what does a young child really need to know to play with confidence and accuracy? This is the same question posed by Venezuela’s pioneering learning method El Sistema which in effect turned learning on its head by encouraging young children barely able to play to sit alongside accomplished teenagers in a symphony orchestra. Many of the players of the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela who caused such a sensation at the BBC Proms were brought up like this in an all-embracing culture of learning. I know this from first hand experience since I played with various of the Venezuelan youth orchestras myself.

My experiences with the Venezuelan Youth Orchestras were wonderful – a whole story of their own for another time.
16th June, 2013, London

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Oh Summers, Why Art Thee Gone, Never To Return?

A time there was to play my guitar in a Spanish wheat field

I have two images of summer which recur in my mind yearly around this time when I feel its imminent arrival: band-stands in London parks and wheat fields in Valencia close to which I, not yet a teenager, played my guitar.

The summer over-excites the English for there is no knowing how long it will last - this may be the last day, even the only day all year. Enjoyment is frenetic, loud and sweaty. When I was a child my summers began by rowing with my father on London's River Lea. Sometimes I lay on the grass of my local park smelling and feeling its wetness, surprised by the tickly feeling of an ant crawling across my ankle. Around me children and young men (so grown-up and monumental to my child's eye) organised impromptu cricket matches, while mothers spread out a picnic of cheese and cucumber sandwiches. The sound of a band striking up would draw me running to it in breathless excitement.

Iron-coated wheels driving the donkey-drawn carts would wake me in the morning

Some years I spent July and August in Spain with my relatives in a Valencian village a few miles inland from the coast: me as a child and a dozen others, none of us taller than the longest stem in the wheat-field through which we dared plunge to spite the farmer. Summoned after a thorough washing and change of clothes for our merienda (tea-time), I would devour a massive French stick of bread stuffed full of thick Spanish omelette, tasting better than anything before or after on that day. Uniformed maids hovered around attending to details, just like a scene from middle-class Edwardian England.

The sound of iron-coated wheels driving the loaded donkey-drawn carts would wake me in the morning, one solitary sunbeam piercing through a crack in the wooden shutters enough to alert me to the blinding light and imminent heat of the day.

Early summer in London always surprised and delighted by the ice-cream van arriving with acute timing to park itself at the top of the street, blasting out snatches of tune. Children including me begged their parents for a lolly, a choc-ice, a cornet, anything please please mum, for this was the greatest pleasure of all time, the English equivalent of my Spanish merienda.

I played hide-out in the unreconstructed bomb site where a terrifying tramp, rarely seen, was supposed to live in the tangle of weeds and broken brick-work which was once a house in the East End of London.

Most afternoons I would play a guitar on the patio of our house facing the wheat field

In the evening the smell of white jasmine would spread through the Spanish night while I crouched down to see the mysterious glow-worms in the flowerbeds, a chorus of cigalas providing the musical background. Up above a million stars twinkled in a pure unpolluted darkness undimmed by city lights.

Most afternoons, especially when I became older, I would take out a guitar and play through my pieces, often to entertain my relatives, friends and neighbours gathered in the patio of our house facing the wheat field, in the very village where lived one of Tarrega's surviving students (not that this meant much to me at the time).

When I was very small we would linger in Spain until the first week of September and await the crashing thunderstorms and violent rain which signalled the end of summer.

As a teenager I would return before the storms to London for the start of the school term. Putting on my school uniform on the first day was a defining moment: summer had been well and truly nailed into its coffin.

The only thing to look forward to on that grim day was resurrection itself in the shape of the next summer.

9th June, 2013, London

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June is Here….Oh no, It’s Exam Time!

How not to panic and do brilliantly

Wearing my other hat as a dreaded examiner I can let you in on a few simple truths which may guide you to doing really well, You may be playing to an exam panel, or writing a paper – no matter, the preparation should be quite similar.

What the examiner is not looking for
Mistake-free, flawless playing worthy of a debut recital in an important venue
Nerve-free presentation full of verve and flair
Skillful spoken answers full of wit and wisdom

What the examiner is looking for
Musical playing which shows an understanding of the piece in question
A reasonable control by you over your nervous disposition
Straightforward answers to direct questions which reveal you have investigated the subject in question

What the student should not be doing
Partying every evening after practice and homework in order to feel that he or she still “has a life”
Practising eight hours a day till hands start hurting
Reading though all the papers quickly rather than taking a more measured approach. Same goes for practice: slow practice rather than quick and frantic

What the student should be doing
Revise steadily every day by making notes of the material with which he is not so familiar
Practise slowly every day all the tricky passages
Away from the instrument, play the pieces through in your mind, and note the artistic essence of your imagined playing
Reunited with your instrument recreate the artistic and expressive character you imagined

In a previous article Pass your Exams and Play Well in Concert I wrote a time plan with a countdown to E-Day which you may find useful too.

Good luck!

This has been my rough guide to how not to panic and do brilliantly.

1st June, 2013, Mexico

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In the drop down menu click on Tips and Advive: How to Practise for more associated articles


Musical Expression is More Important than Virtuosity…or is it?


- There is no right and wrong answer, it is a lot
more interesting than that -

When all is said and done, and when the last resonance of a virtuoso performance has ended, what lingers longest in my mind is the musical personality of the player. At least, that´s how I feel. I can still remember after many years truly great musical moments from Andrés Segovia, Julian Bream, John Williams and pianist Artur Rubinstein – their virtuosity buzzing away in the background while their musical personalities filled the foreground.

Segovia was broadcast live on BBC Radio playing Castelnuovo-Tedesco´s Guitar Concerto no. 1 with a London orchestra in the Royal Festival Hall during the early 1960´s – it was the sheer beauty of the sound, the unmistakable touch identifiable in seconds that I still remember. I was 12 years old.

Julian Bream played in the Fairfield Halls Croydon various times. I was there for several of the recitals between 1967 and 1972. On one occasion he played a Bach Fugue in A minor arranged from the violin. The counterpoint was amazing: he produced both normal and ponticello sounds at the same time with his fingers spread out to achieve the effect with breathtaking phrasing.

John Williams in his first outing with the music of Barrios at the Wigmore Hall in the early 1970’s played the Allegro from La Catedral with a rhythmic clarity and accentuation that illuminated the music.

I saw Artur Rubinstein play when he was in his late seventies. He produced notes as beautiful as a string of pearls and gave the impression that he was making it all up from one second to the next.

The reason why I mention these long past events is to illustrate my point: it is the musical personality that lives on in my memory. Virtuosity is breath-taking, exciting, and makes us sit on the edge of the chair. It leads us to jump up in exhilaration. But musical personality assumes virtuosity and includes it, whereas virtuosity itself can exist with little musical personality. That is why virtuosity alone quickly tires me as a listener and maybe you too.

It is not necessary to possess loads of technique to be expressive

Call me sentimental, but I am much more moved by a young child showing expressivity in a rudimentary but recognizable style, than by a whiz-kid who flashes emptily through the notes at the speed of lightning. Children can play with expression, understanding, colour, tone, timing, rubato, vibrato, meaning and all that goes into creating a moving musical experience. It is not necessary to possess loads of technique to be expressive.

There is a duality in our playing: on the one hand the importance of expression in all its different guises and on the other (or rather in the same hand!) the importance of impression. Both have a place in the scheme of things and every player consciously and unconsciously creates a balance between them, partly influenced by the playing styles prevalent at the time.

If technique is science and expression is art then I come down firmly on the side of the expressive art backed up by an invisible science. Others may love to see all the moving parts whizzing around in a mechanical and human tour-de-force, and may recall from performances of yesteryear the thrill of stunning virtuosity more than anything else.

Such is the variety of human reactions tempered by our personalities and by the age in which we happen to live. There is no right and wrong in this, it is lot more interesting than that. Ideas about interpretation and what constitutes an ideal performance are not fixed, they are slowly but surely in a constant state of development, just as we are too, as individuals and as a society.

25th May, 2013

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Sight-Reading for Starters - Six Secret Tools Exposed!

- you can improve your sight-reading dramatically by working at musical and technical aspects which appear to be unrelated -

If you want to improve your sight-reading and have never before dedicated time to it, you may be asking yourself how to to do so. In previous articles I have given practical advice. But there are other things you can do too to help develop your sight-reading skills, even as you walk around or are travelling without a guitar. Here is a list of six to be getting on with. Excellent sight-readers rely on these aspects quite often without realizing it, they just take them for granted.

Here they are:

1.
Scanning the Score
Look at the music before playing through it. Take in as much information as possible. This includes tempo, key, rhythm, harmony, form and style.
Practise: take your time going through these aspects before playing.

2.
Speed-reading
Sharpen your reflexes by looking ahead, as much as a bar or two or more as you play. Test yourself on how quickly you can identify notes and chords and how quickly you can associate them with the fingerboard.
Practise speed-reading by taking in whole sentences at a glance when reading newspapers or books.

3.
Fingerboard knowledge
How quickly can you name notes on the guitar? Test yourself by calling out a note, any note, and identify the fret, on every string. You don't need a guitar to do it. Do it now as you read this - for example, g sharp on every string.
Practise: if you took more than 3 seconds to name any one of them then you should do this exercise every day. If you named each in less than a second, well done.

4.
Chords and harmonic progressions
Here is a powerful key to improve your sight reading. The more quickly you can identify a chord, arpeggio or harmonic progression the more likely your fingers will go to the right shapes and notes.
Practise: make a start by taking simple studies by the Classical masters like Sor, Giuliani, Carcassi and Carulli and try to account for as much of the harmonic movement as possible.

5.
Rhythm Rules
It is not enough to be able to place the notes on the right frets, they have to sound in the right place at the right moment! What's more, if you make rhythm the driving force and not accurate note-playing, you may be surprised how quickly your fingers react to finding the right notes.
Practise: take more complicated looking rhythms and clap or sing them without playing. Don't limit yourself to easy guitar music where so much of it is unchallenging.

6
Form and style
This is the underpinning which adds class to good sight-reading: for example, improvising ornaments in Baroque style or playing Romantic music with expression.
Practise: where to start? Well, make a start today on listening to as much music of different styles as possible. It's free on YouTube! The surest way to learn is by listening to good playing.

For a practical guide to getting started on sight-reading read one of my previous articles Good Sight-Reading Speeds Up Learning which Includes The Five Play-Throughs' Plan.

18th May 2013, London

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From Madrid with Love

- how travel does alter the mind -

As far as I am concerned travel does not so much broaden the mind as alter it - at least for the time being. It consigns the everyday concerns and chores of our normal habitat to an untroubled area at the back of our memory. Pressing issues quite suddenly seem less important.

The simple dislocation to another place gives us a precious insight: perspective.

And maybe because I am a musician I am aware that a new location means a change of rhythm from an allegro frenetico to an andantino tranquilo, at least that is my aim wherever I go whenever possible.

All these thoughts have been racing through my mind this week in one of my favourite places, Madrid, where I am spending a few days with my great friend, the guitar-making innovator Juan Menduiña before continuing to Seville for my recital on Tuesday.

In the local bar café, I watch with delight families gather noisily for Saturday lunch, while in other corners old men play cards and dominoes. In the evening the TV relays live a bull-fight with strutting matadors, furious bulls and death itself reviewed in slow replay. Political correctness has not reached this area - small children look up untroubled at the screen as they run around the tables.

Travel does more than give perspective - it marks time itself. It has encouraged me to observe, savour and appreciate things around me slowly changing in places familiar to me from previous visits.

Take Juan Menduiña's guitars - and you would be fortunate to do so for they are wonderful instruments - where small changes since the last time I was here have led to significant developments. While trying out his latest instruments I practised away at the pieces I am playing on Tuesday. Doing so in the spacious environment of his workshop inspired a different edge and concentration to my playing. Could it be that travel renews the brain's neurone connections too and leads to a new enthusiasm for the familiar?

Travel gives perspective.
Travel alters our rhythm.
Travel renews enthusiasm.
Travel gives us the gift of time itself: time to reflect, time to observe, time to enjoy.

12th May 2013, Madrid

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