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Queen Guitar Rhapsodies

Pass Your Exams and Play Well In Concert

Carlos in Maidstone dressing room just before playing the Aranjuez Concerto October 2012

Make it happen now with this time plan

Whether you are sitting an exam or giving a concert, preparation and attitude are what make all the difference between success and failure. As far as preparation no artist in the history of exams and public performance has ever excelled without knowing the music thoroughly, and as far as attitude the only way to play really well is with a positive one. Maybe we can all agree upon those two statements! If so, we need to investigate them further and consider the requirements needed for each.

In a previous article Playing in public: three steps to playing without nerves I wrote about the negative and positive voices inside our heads and how to overcome those negative feelings with three positive steps for being able to perform in public:
1.Preparation
2.Self-belief
3.Communication

Preparation, self-belief and attitude start way before your public event so here is a rough chronological check-list which may be useful to you:

9 – 12 months to go
The preparation for your exam or public performance should start nine or twelve months before the event. The first vital step after making your decision and establishing a date is choosing your pieces. Choose not the pieces you dream of playing but the ones you think you could play well. Create a contrasted programme of style and difficulty. Listen to performances of the pieces by different artists. Research the music editions if there is a choice available (particularly of arrangements).

6 months to go
Look for opportunities to play your pieces in public. Book your appearances several months ahead now.

3 months to go
All your pieces should be close to ready by now.
Play to your friends and family, not just once but frequently. Explain why you are doing so. Frequent performances are an important pre-requisite for feeling familiar and confident with the pieces, and also show you where there are still weak links and passages.
Welcome comments and advice from your listeners.
Play the same pieces in your events and stick to them. There is nothing wrong with this: professional musicians do it all the time.

3 weeks to go
Try to create various more playing events even if it means rounding up your long-suffering family and friends.

2 weeks to go
Plenty of slow practise.
Play all of your recital or exam pieces, every day if possible. Play the set of pieces in the same sequence as the event.

1 week to go
Same as last week plus:
Avoid stressful situations and people. Get plenty of sleep.

1 day to go
If you feel nervous say to yourself: "I have done everything I know to prepare well for this event, there is no reason why I should not play my best.”

The day itself
If it is an exam or audition aim to get there various hours before your call-time. If the journey takes an hour allow for things to go wrong (public transport delays, motorway jams) and allow for three hours.
Do whatever makes you feel good. I love eating apple pie and cream before my concert, it gives me a great buzz, so that is what I try to do every time!
Stay calm. Don’t hurry.

And…oh yes, good luck. Not that you will need it, for if you have followed all the previous steps you will be perfectly prepared.

24th February 2013, London

Previous blogs I have referred to:

Playing in public: three steps to playing without nerves

Preparing For My Concerts With Just One Day To Go

No, I won’t stand on my head : things I do and don’t do on the day of a concert

For a complete index to my blogs click here


Echoes of Barrios

Carlos in Montevideo's Cathedral, Plaza Matrix, 12th February 2013

- I was in Montevideo's Cathedral last week-

I was in Montevideo, Uruguay last week for various reasons, one being its delicious summer climate, another that the city’s Cathedral inspired Agustín Barrios to compose, play and record La Catedral.

In the guitar world there is some controversy as to which cathedral inspired Barrios, with one in San Jose competing for the honour, but there are no doubts in Montevideo. "Four blocks along, and seven blocks up", said a policemen, one of many I came across on almost every corner. The streets are straight as a die, just like New York, although the comparison ends there. La Plaza Matrix is an unassuming square, one like so many with a charming public garden in the middle, flanked by cafes and shops. Little has changed here since the time of Barrios.

One side of the square is taken over by the Cathedral façade, a modest affair, its flat frontage set back only a few feet from the pavement. Dating back to the 18th century it started life as a church, and still now has only discrete amounts of gold and silver, with tasteful marble statues scattered around. Dignitaries and historical figures associated with Montevideo have found their last resting place here in La Catedral Metropolitana. Very striking are the white painted arches that sweep high and low along the nave from entrance to altar, just like the opening bars of Barrios' Allegro with its repeated arpeggio figuration.

The expanse of white walls serves to emphasise the oval ceiling above, creating the optical illusion of a great height that leads the eye to the disappearing point at its centre. This, together with the considerable echo, reminded me of the second part of the Allegro where the same passages alternate, first loudly and then quietly.

Rico Stover, the Barrios publisher and scholar has written about the composition:
“Passing by the church one day, he heard from within the music of J.S. Bach being played on the mighty church organ. The Andante religioso represents this impression. Upon its termination Barrios once again walks out into the busy street…the bustling, hurried temporal world. The Allegro solemne represents this contrasting impression.

As I stepped out of the Cathedral it was past 10am. Vendors were starting to set up their stalls loaded with antiques and memorabilia within the garden. There were bronze paper weights, postcards from the 1900s, beautifully hand crafted jewellery made in France and Italy in the 1940s, and even a well-thumbed book of Carlos Gardel's tango verses published during his lifetime.

A strangely warm and nostalgic feeling came over me as I imagined Barrios himself strolling through this square, and if not this square one very much like it. He may have sat at one of the pavement cafés, while shielding his eyes from the sun's rays as they suddenly beamed down from above a rooftop for the first time that morning. He would have reflected on the beauty of the Cathedral, its flowing contours a visual counterpart to the phrasing and rhythms of music. If he had arrived in the early morning he may have paused to listen to the excited chatter of birds circling the treetops while sitting on a bench with flowers and bushes at his feet. By late morning, bemused, he would have observed from his table the build-up of human activity in the square, and as both visitor and artist felt part of it and outside it.

Some things have indeed changed since the time of Barrios. But in the larger scheme of things they are not significant. The important things change little or very slowly and will forever be a spur to artistic creativity, be they mother nature, human behaviour or even... cathedrals.

16th February 2013, London

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Now comes the arty moment: pleasure, torment or a complete mystery?

Carlos in Maidstone dressing room just before playing the Aranjuez Concerto October 2012

More about the third step of learning a piece of music

“The acquisition of expertise in complex tasks is intricate and slow because expertise in a domain is not a single skill but rather a large collection of mini skills.”
Thinking, Fast and Slow, Chapter 22, by Daniel Kahneman, winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics

Here is a reminder of The Three Steps:
1.Treat sight-reading or memorising as a fast track to learning
2.Alternate close-up detail with long-distance overview
3.Allow time for you to improve the piece and the “5 time test”

So now you have reached the third step. You have the technique under control, or most of it. You can play it from memory, or nearly. You feel you are close to nailing it down and adding it to your repertoire of learnt pieces.

Now the final improvement factor, in other words the third step, is a strange mode. Whereas steps one and two have largely been concerned with the musical and technical nuts and bolts of the piece, step three is often a rush of less definable and more abstract activities. For example, these are some of the questions I ask myself at this stage:

Is my fingering the best compromise between the ideal sound and the practical consideration of being able to play it?

Does the tempo I have chosen project the mood of the piece?

Is my phrasing too obvious or not obvious enough?

Am I using too much rubato, and is it a distraction from the overall rhythmic shape?

Am I using too little rubato, and making it all sound too much in a hurry?

Have I got myself inside the piece itself, into its very core, in a way that whatever I do with it sounds good?

Have I exercised my imagination to its fullest? Am I holding back in a way I cannot explain?

Am I playing it as I think it “should” go, rather than how I want it to go?

No matter whether you are a budding virtuoso or an aspirant guitar player, this hammer is for you too

These are just some of the questions which hammer at me. Yes, I think hammer is the right word – a musical and most creative hammer which sets in motion a long process of maturity. No matter whether you are a budding virtuoso or an aspirant guitar player, this hammer is for you too. These questions shape your playing and give it musical life and expression, although this artistic reverie is frequently interrupted by the annoying intrusion of shaky passages and technical uncertainty, in spite of all your application to steps one and two. Difficult passages will always do that, and they demand constant revision and practice.

Back to the abstract: those are a lot of questions to which there are many answers. Here is Julian Bream talking in Tony Palmer’s Julian Bream - A Life on the Road:

“ …it was getting that first note which did the trick… and then the piece became a performance to which I could give myself “entirely” without thinking. It was this non-thinking, yet total awareness, which may have been the right approach here.”

But about another piece of music he says:

”The original key to this initial understanding on my part was finding the right fingering.”

And finally:

”…there are no rules, no fixed pattern. Every piece is different, and demands a different, a fresh approach.”

In The Brain/Mind Principles of Natural Learning Renate and Geoffrey Caine write:

”In addition to intentionally trying to make sense of things and master them, the brain/mind also processes information and experiences below the level of awareness.”

I cannot make a cosy little summary for you of step three. Here is where art and the imagination take over. Sometimes it is a pleasure and sometimes a torment, although almost always absorbing and uplifting.

You may be very close, for if you can look up in a daze from your practice having lost all sense of time in your pursuit of perfection, you may have taken a giant stride on your third step.

A giant stride, but only a stride mind you, for the third step is never finished.

9th February 2013, Patagonia, Argentina

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Why a telescope and microscope will improve your playing

Carlos in Maidstone dressing room just before playing the Aranjuez Concerto October 2012

More about the second step of how to learn a piece of music

To remind you of the three steps:

1.Treat sight-reading or memorising as a fast track to learning
2.Alternate close-up detail with long-distance overview
3.Allow time for you to improve the piece and the “5 time test”

The second step of how to learn a piece of music in three steps involves alternating work on close-up detail with long-distance overview. Close-up detail work is like looking through a microscope, while long-distance overview is like looking through a telescope.

These are two quite different ways of study and practice. Close-up detail requires slow, repeated practice of short phrases. Long-distance overview means playing through long sections or the whole piece as smoothly as possible, regardless of mistakes. The ultimate purpose is to assimilate the mistakes into a seamless whole.

In close-up detail you should first concentrate on accuracy. Play as slowly as required to achieve it. For many it means playing a lot slower than they imagined. But here is the best part, your brain will be delighted with you as slowly but surely it responds to your drip-drip approach. Only when you can play perfectly five times in a row should you try to increase tempo. And still the priority is accuracy, not expression. Gradually make more demands of yourself. Can you play it faster in a steady rhythm? Can you begin to make it flow? When you can begin to do that, can you then begin to bring out the voicing and phrasing? Each of these aspects should be worked on individually, starting as slowly as necessary, on short phrases sequentially, adding one to the next. Studying close-up detail in this fashion complements recent scientific thinking of how the brain works. Daniel J. Levitin of the Department of Psychology and Interdisciplinary Program in Neuroscience at McGill University has written:

- We now know that music activates regions throughout the brain, not just a single‘‘music center.’’ As with vision, music is processed component by component, with specific neural circuits handling pitch,duration, loudness, and timbre. Higher brain centers bring this information together, binding it into representations of contour, melody, rhythm, tempo, meter,and, ultimately, phrases and whole compositions. -

In long-distance overview playing you could concentrate on the expressive and artistic elements of the piece. Try your hardest to disguise uncertainty and create long flowing lines in spite of not yet being on top of the piece technically. Here is where new insights into the music may come to you. Don’t be in a hurry to correct errors through close-up practice if you find long-distance overview playing very productive.

Each practice session could be different: sometimes you could concentrate on close-up playing, sometimes on long-distance. Do not underestimate the importance of doing both. In The Brain/Mind Principles of Natural Learning Renate and Geoffrey Caine write:

- every skill and concept is better understood and mastered when there is an interplay between the specific elements and the concept or skill as a whole. -

Each of us must find a way of bringing together all the different elements which go into perfecting a piece of music. How we do it depends on who we are. To quote again from Renate and Geoffrey Caine:

- Although all people have many capacities and qualities in common, everyone is also a unique blend of experience and genetics………… And in addition to individual differences, there are social and cultural differences that impact how people learn. -

So there you have it, make each practice session a journey of exploration on step two of your learning a piece of music. Stop to examine each grain of sand, while at the same time admire the hill on the horizon. Before you know it, you will have reached it and be ready for the final test: step three on the climb to perfection!

1st February 2013, London

For a complete index to my blogs click here


How to learn a piece of music in three steps: more about step one

Carlos interviewed on Radio Nuevo Leon Monterrey, Mexico, 2009


In a previous article How to learn a piece of music in three steps I wrote:

1.Treat sight-reading or memorising as a fast track to learning
2.Alternate close-up detail with long-distance overview
3.Allow time for you to improve the piece and the “5 time test”

Step one may make you dizzy since I suggest it already involves sight-reading or memorizing – and that’s just step one! Not to worry, I encourage you to play to your strengths. Say you are a reasonable sight-reader then emphasize that aspect for the learning process, if you are not emphasize the memorizing process.

Can sight-read more or less? Try this: concentration and repetition
Sight-reading is not just about getting it right the first time, however praiseworthy the achievement of so doing, but about getting it close to right very quickly. That is where concentration comes in. Concentrate on the work in hand so you do not repeat the same error next time round. This is easier said than done, since the fingers seem to have brains of their own. This is where repetition comes in. Play the passage or phrase or piece enough times and you will find that eventually the big brain in your head will take over the little brains in your fingers.

Here is what BBC Science/ Bitesize has to say about repetition:

- If the experience is repeated, or the stimulus is very strong, more nerve impulses are sent along the new pathway. This reinforces the learning process and explains why repetition helps us to learn new things. Repetition strengthens the connections between neurons and makes it easier for impulses to travel along the pathway -

You will also discover this is not a million miles away from memorizing, for repetition will help you play more securely from memory.

Can’t sight-read? Memorise as you go along
Learn the piece phrase by phrase. This involves a similar process to what I have described above: concentration and repetition. Here the process is slower and requires even more concentration, for it is best to memorise as you go along. Learn very short phrases, one at a time. The slower your reading, the shorter the phrase you should learn. Repeat each phrase until you can play it from memory. Now take a step back to the previous phrase you memorized and join the two up, and so it goes on. Yes, I know, this is a slow and even frustrating process! That is why I advise Good Sight-Reading Speeds Up Learning.

Find the time to read this article too, it will save you time in the long run…..and make it all more fun.

26th January, 2013, Mexico

For a complete index to my blogs click here


Everyone else is making it up, except classical musicians

Carlos interviewed on Radio Nuevo Leon Monterrey, Mexico, 2009

- The benefits of improvisation come from just getting on with it -

Until quite recently improvising in classical music was quite a normal activity. It did not require particular talent, for it was part and parcel of music-making. For musicians it was one of various skills they employed. Improvising is still thriving in many other musical areas such as jazz, folk, and rock music. It is also alive and well in Eastern music, and woven into the very fabric of Indian music.

Notice I write the word classical music in italics. I don’t like the word, in the same way that I don’t like the reference to a classical guitar. The description is not accurate. What’s more it sounds over-refined and distant. Maybe it is a fair reflection of how it is perceived by both listeners and players. If so it may help explain what has happened to improvisation by classical musicians. It may be that the respect for every note and indication left to us by dead composers has led to us not daring to change anything. This has rubbed off into not improvising cadenzas in concertos, and not improvising introductions to familiar pieces. Yet there is overwhelming evidence that player-composers did just that.

In recent years some classical musicians have emerged who have taken up this challenge, and very exciting they are to watch and listen to. There are few of them, and those who are doing so are very good at it. And for this reason the mystique of the improvising classical artist continues.

But does improvising have to be considered something so special? Does it grow out of some mysterious space buried deep in the creative souls of a lucky few? Are the rest destined to listen admiringly and wonder how it is done? My answer is no, for the evidence from other musical cultures is that improvising is a musical skill like any other: it can be acquired. Some will be better at it than others, just like everything else.

The key is to remove at the early stages of development the over-riding importance attached to learning to play other people’s music, and to enjoy making your own. In the beginning improvisation can rely on following simple chord patterns repeated over and over again. It can then be enlarged step by step. In this way a new method of learning can arise whereby many technical and musical improvements can happen through improvising. It will not replace the usual method of practice, but will enhance it and turn learning to play into a much more enjoyable and creative exercise.

So, if organists can do it, why not guitarists and other instrumentalists too?

If this approach were to take off, I can see a day approaching when children would be asked to improvise a Baroque sequence, or part of a Romantic cadenza, or a piece of their own based on a four note fragment handed to them a few minutes before one of their grade exams. And if you think this is a bit far-fetched remember that organists have never lost touch with an improvising tradition and are still expected to do all I have described and more.

So, if organists can do it, why not guitarists and other instrumentalists too? The hardest part is making a start. After that enthusiasm, excitement, and creative juices take over, no matter whether the player is good at it or not. What’s more it doesn’t matter how good the player is at improvising, the benefits come from getting on with it.

If you are not sure how to get going, well….just make it up. After all that is what improvising is all about!

20th January, Mexico

For a complete index to my blogs click here


In the difficult times we live in guitar players can play their part

Carlos interviewed on Radio Nuevo Leon Monterrey, Mexico, 2009

Less frets means less taxes

This is a curious moment in the UK for every citizen is bound to make an individual declaration of earnings around this time in January to the Inland Revenue. This in spite of the rapid advancement of computer technology which sooner or later will automatically gather all information regarding our individual circumstances without the bother of consulting us individually. For the present, that day is still some way off.

In the matter of tax guitar players have an important role to play in setting an example to the rest of the national community. We could start by suggesting to the Revenue ways for it to increase its collection by specifically taxing wasteful modern guitar players. One of the earliest taxes, way back in medieval times, was a tax levied on the number of windows. Sheer genius! We could do the same with the guitar. Tax the number of fret spaces. Now I know some clever pluckers may follow the example of early house owners who boarded up windows to avoid the tax. How? By blocking off entire fret areas which they don’t need! Of course, I couldn't possibly give that my approval.

As far as our general economic woes I know I will not be very popular in my suggestions but hear me out before throwing the book at me. Here goes - whereas others are racking their brains to reduce their personal contribution, we could make a handsome gesture by helping the austerity drive which is supposedly going to lead sooner or later - some would say later rather than sooner – to the revival of the world’s economic fortunes. If indeed we all need to learn to live with less, and not to spend beyond our means why not look firstly to our instruments? For a start we could reduce the number of frets. I ask you, who needs 19 frets? Worst of all, and symbolic of the world’s extravagances which have turned so sour in recent times is the absurd addition of a 20th fret! We need it for just one or two pieces. So cut that out, or even carve it out.

Yes, I am warming to these noble thoughts which should shame the greedy among us desirous of the guitar in its full splendour: I say less frets and less strings. This would be frugal and set a good example. How about going one stage further. Why play a full size monster 20th century guitar when previous generations were perfectly happy with diminutive instruments, right up to the late 19th century? Those guitar players who insist on playing a 20-fret, 6-string modern guitar would be obliged to pay full taxes. Those who make do with less would pay less.

So, as you sit there poring over your tax return think carefully of how you could one day reduce your liability as I have suggested. When the day dawns of automated tax returns without recourse to our personal acknowledgement, guitarists (as other instrumentalists) may be let off if they can tick the box which asks whether you are playing a reduced guitar or a normal one.

You may smile at my whimsy. I hope you understand that at this time of year I need to lighten my burden by just such a flight of fancy. So far no one at the Inland Revenue has thought of taxing such a thing.

13th January, London

For a complete index to my blogs click here


Interpretation Is All In The Mind

- Ways to develop it and slip into a composer’s head -

Carlos interviewed on Radio Nuevo Leon Monterrey, Mexico, 2009

Here is something which may make you uncomfortable. No amount of technical prowess is alone going to improve your interpretations, for however good your technique becomes it will not make sufficient difference by itself. Interpretation is tactile: the fingers can help you feel your way whether you have a developed technique or not. Interpretation is cerebral: it can happen by making deliberate choices between various possibilities. Interpretation is intuitive: open your mind and let the music float in and out of it! Interpretation is emotional: let yourself go, and see where the music takes you.

But enough fancy talk from me, how can you directly improve your interpretations? Well for starters just make sure that the basics are in place. Here are a few to be getting on with.

Some basic building blocks of interpretation
1
Follow tempo indications and play in time
2
Decide the phrasing and catch the mood
3
Employ contrasts of tone and volume
4
Observe expression marks

Here are three processes which may help take your playing to the next level.

Developing your own interpretation
1
Understanding
2
Internalising
3
Externalising

Let me quote for the rest of this article from In the Frame: My Life in Words and Pictures by that wonderful actress Helen Mirren as she describes developing her starring role for the film The Queen. Remember that acting is like music: it is about technique and interpretation. We can learn a lot from great actors just as we can from great musicians.

Understanding
This includes the basic building blocks above. It should also involve a clear idea of the style, structure and form of the piece, as well as its melodic and harmonic development. All this needs only to be as detailed as your knowledge permits at the present stage of your development.
Helen Mirren writes:
“I locked myself away with a suitcase full of tapes about the Queen, and sat for hours in front of the TV studying her.”

Internalising
Now you have to live with the piece. Time has its own measure so don’t hurry it. The music ticks inside you. You hear it unexpectedly while you are walking or waking up. It is beavering away into the recesses of your mind. You may even feel the presence of the composer.
Helen Mirren writes:
“I thought I did not have to do the most perfect impersonation, just my personal impression, fed by my own perceptions, as a painter does…. I had already done some work with the dialect coach, Penny Dyer. She is a genius, coming at the voice and accent through psychology”

Externalising
This is all about playing to others and performing. A lot of aspects are involved in this, some of which I have discussed in previous articles. If your understanding and internalising has been thorough, and if you have taken into account my fancy talk in the first paragraph then you will understand what Helen Mirren has to say here:
“Out of nowhere, or simply out of the effect the clothes had on me, I slipped into her walk and into her head.”

So there you have it, practise your Bach or Tarrega or whoever takes your fancy, and then (to paraphrase Helen Mirren):
“One day out of nowhere, or simply out of the effect the notes have on you, you will slip into their music and their heads!”

This has been my rough guide to interpreting is all in the mind.

5th January 2013, London

All quotes are taken from the chapter: “My Amazing Year” from the book:
"In the Frame: My Life in Words and Pictures"
by Helen Mirren, published by Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2007

For a complete index to my blogs click here


A new approach to playing your guitar in 2013

Carlos interviewed on Radio Nuevo Leon Monterrey, Mexico, 2009

Just because your practise is urgent doesn't make it important too

I have had an idea for 2013. It's so obvious that I wonder why I haven't always had it uppermost in my mind. It's been there somewhere, and I have often acted according to it, but it has not always been at the forefront, rather more often than not it has lurked in the background. The idea lies there for long periods without so much as a peep from it, then all of a sudden rises seeking urgent attention pushing all other cerebral activity to the side.

My good idea will affect all my practise time, and will determine what to play, and how. Like many good ideas it is simple to understand and explain, but so much more difficult to accomplish. That's why my brain pushes it to the back of its in-tray.

Let's face it, our brain's in-tray has lots of things pending, some important and some less so, all competing for our attention. But here's the rub: the most urgent may not be the most important. They may need dealing with right away, so they push aside important activity. Let me give an example. While you are cooking you realise you have run out of salt. You run out to the shops to get some because it is urgent, but in the larger scheme of things it is not important.

What does this mean in terms of guitar playing (or any other instrument)? Our urgent daily activity goes something like this: we practise, we choose to learn a piece more or less within our ability, we dip into scale and arpeggio exercises, we get the fingers going on favourite studies.
But where does this leave the important things in the brain's bigger-scheme-of-things' in-tray?

So, here is my idea for 2013: move the important things to the front of the brain and let them determine the urgent things, not the other way round. Here's an example of how it works for you and me.

- Decide what you wish to be able to play by this time next year or the year after. It may be the Chaconne by J.S. Bach (and why not?).

- Now write a list of all you have to do technically and musically to achieve this. This is your important list.

- Now write a list of all the technical and musical study material on which you have been focussing these past months. This is your urgent list.

- Compare the two lists. If they are identical you are doing brilliantly. If there is no overlap then you better put your thinking cap on!

Here is a summary:
1/
- urgent means thinking sequentially day by day into the foreseeable future.
2/
- important means thinking backwards from what you wish to achieve in a year or two's time to what you need to do in the meantime to achieve this goal.

It's up to you to create a good balance between them, for it is as much to do with psychology and attitude as anything else. And all this applies to me too!

This has been my rough guide to urgent versus important guitar practise.

30th December 2012, Monte Carlo


It's Holiday time!

Carlos interviewed on Radio Nuevo Leon Monterrey, Mexico, 2009

How to take it easy and become a better guitarist at the same time

There is an idea going round that the only way to improve your guitar playing is through the hard slog of practise. This involves sitting on a chair at the correct height, holding the guitar at a good angle, foot perched on foot-stool (or guitar balanced on support), music stand in front with a hefty volume of studies thereupon, guitar at the ready, and off we go. This is all nonsense. It may be the most efficient way to practise but is certainly not the only way to improve your guitar playing.

Consider the season we have in hand, in other words the holiday period. Some of you may be visiting relatives for the first time since last year. You may be sitting through interminable sessions of family talk while watching boring old movies on TV and munching nuts. On Christmas day you may over-indulge in a lunch not because the food is irresistible but because the excitable atmosphere of the occasion goes straight to your head, as does the alcohol. Trying hard to keep that throbbing headache from spilling over into snapping at the many young children gathered and running over your extended legs and climbing over your lap as they chase upwardly mobile balloons, the last thought passing through that tired brain of yours is going to be “proper practise”, the sort of practise you promised yourself a few weeks back in your idealised vision of what to do with your time in these holidays.

I bet you didn’t remember there were so many children linked to the family. And I bet you may be thinking how difficult it will be to do some practise, with them running around and chasing you into any quiet space still available to you. So why not turn all this on its head and make something memorable out of it?

Turn to the children and say:
“Look what I can do.”
Play a few chords. They may love it, or they may groan and say:
“Can’t you play anything else?”
Either way you have their attention. Play them something silly but totally captivating. Can’t think of anything? How about improvising a piece made out of a drum roll (cross the 6th string over the 5th string at the 9th fret and play in the rhythm of a marching drum), add a set of harmonics (fairy music to the children), follow with strums at the nut beyond the first fret (well timed it will raise a laugh), and finish with catchy rhythms tapped with your right hand thumb and fingers on the sides of the guitar.

Once you have offered that improvisation some adult relative in the far corner may ask you to play that piece, oh what is it called, ermm, romance, or something like that. Oh you mean Spanish Romance? OK, here goes. Now you have captured the attention of the entire motley crew who makes up your Christmas festivity. You finish the piece with a smile and everyone claps and cheers, and someone actually says:
“you are very good, you know that?”
And you, secretly pleased as punch, reply modestly:
“no, not really.”

Auntie Rosie over there, about 110 years old, who looks the same year in and year out, and seems to have been around since your parents were children themselves, now breaks out into some soft singing of a Christmas carol. Others join in. You fiddle around quietly on the guitar till you find the right key to accompany with chords, chasing them across the fingerboard till you strike the right ones. Soon you get the hang of it and by the last verse have them nailed (the chords, not your relatives).

You end with a flourish. By popular request you play one more piece. You have saved your rousing party piece to last. They clap and cheer and offer you another drink, and if you have done really well, the last slice of Christmas pudding. You put your guitar away, and take it to the room next door where you slide it under the bed for safe-keeping.

Consider what you have done:
1
You have improvised a piece of nonsense, which nevertheless has caught the children’s attention.
2
You have brought musical class to the proceedings by playing a couple of solos, which everyone loves.
3
You have brought sweet harmony to the event by accompanying songs on the guitar.

To sum up: improvising, performing, accompanying, communicating, and winning the attention of small children – now isn’t that worth a lot more than a couple of hours of “proper practise”?

Hope you all have a Merry Christmas and a happy holiday.

22 December 2012, Lisbon