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Queen Guitar Rhapsodies

Lucy in the Sky with Royal Cufflinks

The Royal Footstool of Lammas which I shared with the Queen Mother

The Royal Footstool of Lammas which I shared with the Queen Mother

- and how a bad memory helped me feel good in yesterday’s concert -

Some friends have urged me to make a list, others to keep an overnight bag always ready. I have never heeded their advice. I am referring, of course, to my packing for travel to concerts. As a consequence I have forgotten something at one time or another. You name it and I have forgotten it, except for my guitar (how could I!?) and my head to which I am too firmly attached.

And thus it was yesterday in the village of Lammas, Norfolk, where I came to give a concert in the tiny but beautiful ancient church of St Andrew’s. It is approached on foot through a pathway between fields, set back from the road by some two hundred yards. On one side there is a flowing stream, and on the other a red brick wall built by French prisoners from the time of Napoleon. Lammas is a picturesque and rural village with a long history, three qualities very much to my liking.

This was one of various concerts I have presented over the past few years in this idyllic English village far from the shrill and strident noises of London whence I arrived in the afternoon. I felt good and relaxed, not least because I was staying with my great friend Major John Perkins who lives next door to the church.

Quite suddenly, I remembered what I had forgotten. So I said:

“Dear Major, I have forgotten my guitar footstool. Do you have something I can use in its place?”

In a short while he returned with a beautiful oriental-looking wooden footstool and in a matter-of-fact voice tone told me that this was the same footstool the Queen Mother had used on her visits to the house. Now, as you may know, the great lady was not a guitarist, instead she used it to rest her foot while dining at the table. Here was a footstool with a double function: to rest the Royal foot, and to balance mine for playing the guitar.

Shortly after I started dressing for the concert. To my dismay I discovered I had left behind my cufflinks.

“Oh Major,” I said with some embarrassment, “you may think me absent-minded, to which I readily admit. Can you lend me a pair of cufflinks?”

Without hesitation he offered me an exquisite set of golden cufflinks saying:

“These were given to my grandfather by King George V1 [the Queen’s father] at the time of the abdication [1936].”

A word about my host and concert organiser Major John Perkins. Now a sprightly 83 year-old he lives in the same large house where he was born, full of a lifetime’s memorabilia. The friendship between his family and the Royal Family has continued for three generations, as is vividly brought to life in the framed photographs which feature throughout his home. Now he dedicates his time to charitable works and to preserving Lammas’ historic and architectural heritage, while telling wonderful stories of his colourful life.

And so, as I sat down to present my Magical Mystery Guitar Tour programme I was acutely aware of my accidental encounter with history – wearing King George’s cufflinks in this lovely chapel while I balanced delicately on the same stool as graced by the Queen Mother’s foot! At last, and with relief, I have discovered the advantages of a bad memory, for had I arrived fully equipped I would not have enjoyed the privilege of my brush with royalty.

Oh, by the way, in case you are wondering what happened to them, I did give the cufflinks back after the concert which I thought was a jolly good one, even if I say so myself.

21st October, London

My adventures and misadventures with the Aranjuez Concerto

I am sitting safely and snugly at home after yet another excursion to play the Aranjuez Concerto. It is a nice feeling, especially as I remember some previous occasions which made me feel neither, but more of this anon.

Yesterday I played Joaquín Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez with the Maidstone Symphony Orchestra conducted by Brian Wright in Maidstone, a city of some 80,000 inhabitants in the county of Kent some 32 miles south-east of London. It all worked in my favour: a conductor with whom I have worked before and whom I admire, a fine orchestra mostly of local musicians, an excellent amplification system and last but not least a full house with some 1500 people in the audience. The Aranjuez concerto is a work which tests me (and most guitarists too) to the limit, there is scarcely a moment of respite in it. No sooner have I dispatched one set of scales than another looms ever closer, and once that one is over there is some other technical challenge mere seconds away. And where I can relax on the technical front in the fabulous theme from the Adagio there is no respite on the emotional level, the very opposite, for into that theme one has to pour every ounce of emotion.

To pit a delicate guitar against an orchestra, and to demand of its player to lead the way in itself requires a suspension of disbelief. This is defined in drama circles as “The temporary acceptance as believable of events or characters that would ordinarily be seen as incredible.”

The incredible is what Rodrigo managed in his concerto as well as creating a work of great beauty. That would be quite enough by itself, but when finally the orchestra is let loose at the end of the solo guitar cadenza in the slow movement the magnificent intensity of the music is one of the supreme moments of all music.

Playing a guitar concerto (and Rodrigo's Aranjuez is the concerto) is quite different musically from a solo recital, that is apparent to everyone. It is grander and more fragile, both at the same time. The fragility is not just contained in the guitar or guitarist, but in all that is required to lead up to a performance, above all in the meeting of minds between soloist, conductor and orchestra. But there are other considerations, some totally unexpected too.

I recall one occasion when I played the concerto, I think it was in Belfast. I arrived the evening before to be informed by the orchestral manager that the conductor had been taken ill and would not be able to appear, but not to worry they had engaged the services of another excellent conductor. I was happy with this, because I had already worked with him too. The next day, the day of the performance itself, I was having an early lunch when I received another call. The replacement conductor had been taken ill too! At this this moment I thought the concert was jinxed. A third conductor, the distinguished Lionel Friend, jumped on an aeroplane at a moment's notice and breezed into the hall some thirty minutes after the scheduled start of the rehearsal. We now had less than three hours to rehearse an entire evening's programme, not just the Aranjuez Concerto. Sensing the tension in the hall, Maestro Friend launched into telling the assembled orchestra and myself a lengthy joke from the podium to defuse the atmosphere. This was a high-risk strategy which could have back-fired if it had not been really funny, but actually it was. Everyone belly-laughed at some length, after which we were all in a jolly good mood to get on with it.

On another occasion I was invited to play a double bill of the Aranjuez and the Fantasia Para Un Gentilhombre with the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra, in a live concert recording for broadcast on national radio. As the conductor raised his baton to start the rehearsal a member of the orchestra asked a question – in Hebrew. I sat there patiently. Others joined in the conversation. The orchestra was a mix of players from Israel, the United States and the Soviet Union. After what seemed an eternity the conductor asked me to withdraw and return in 20 minutes while they sorted something out. I did as I was told. On my return the conductor told me there was a pay and conditions dispute but they were aware of the importance of this concert and would like to make a proposal: for the rehearsal: would I play and the conductor conduct while they, the members of the orchestra, watched without playing a note? I pondered this proposal for the best part of two seconds and said to the conductor:“no, I couldn't possibly do that”. I was sent away, this time to a coffee bar. An hour later I was invited back. They had patched up their disagreement and it was all systems go for the rehearsal, performance and broadcast, which actually turned out very well.

Yesterday conductor Brian Wright did remind me of a previous occasion of when we worked together. On that occasion the amplification system broke down before the start of the performance and we had to make do without. Believe me when I say, the Concierto de Aranjuez in a large hall without amplification is not the concerto we know and love from recordings. We compromised: Maestro Wright reduced the size of the orchestra and I played as loudly as I could.

After such outings, Maidstone yesterday was a walk in the park. That is why I am sitting so relaxed here today at home, and feeling good, for when all the pieces come together, on stage, back stage and behind the scenes, then that is a truly wonderful feeling.

London, 14th October 2012

A Virtuous Learning Approach Right from the Start

- My rough guide for putting it into practise
and how to develop from there -

Finally you have in front of you the music of the piece you so much wanted to learn. You take your guitar out of the case and tune it. You lean forward and open the music to page one. The music rings in your head but the dots are not what you expected, they are a lot more difficult to read. What to do now?

Finding the dots
You start with a big advantage, which is that you know how it is supposed to sound. If your reading abilities are not up to scratch you will find it a slow and difficult task to work your way through the piece, even knowing already how it is supposed to sound.

Advice for the present:
Take it a phrase at a time and repeat each phrase until almost memorised.

Long-term virtuous learning plan:
Improve your reading skills in these areas:
The fingerboard: name and play notes anywhere on the guitar fingerboard. Call out a note, any note, and play it on every string without hesitation.
The score: without playing the guitar visualise exactly where the notes are to be played and the fingering patterns.

Playing the first line
Now you have found the notes and have played through it various or many times you could move on to the next line. But before you do so try to make it sound like music, and not a sequence of notes.

Advice for the present:
As hard as it may be to do so while you are still not fluent with it and are not yet able to play it in time, try to think of dynamics, phrasing, and expression.

Long-term virtuous learning plan:
Once you have improved your reading skills take a more balanced approach to learning pieces with both technique and interpretation moving forward hand in hand.

Set realistic targets
By now you have realised the difficulty of the piece based on how long you have taken to learn the first few lines. Decide how you wish to proceed: will you learn just a couple of lines at a time, or will you try to improve the whole piece at every practise session?

Advice for the present:
Spend more time getting on top of one line at a time, and less on playing or staggering through all of it.

Long-term virtuous learning plan:
Once you have improved your reading skills you will be able to play through the piece with difficulty, but moderate fluency, almost from the first day. You will make a special note of where you make mistakes and home in on them. This is more fun and musical than learning one line at a time.

Getting to know the music
Treat the learning experience as a musical journey of discovery not just getting the notes under the fingers.
Ask yourself:
How does the composition develop?
What form does it take?
What is that chord (any chord you point to) in the piece?
What is the harmonic progression of the piece?
What are the expressive features I need to take into account?
Am I considering dynamics and tone among other expressive devices?

Advice for the present:
Look for simple over-arching answers. You may have no choice but to keep your answers basic at this stage, but at least your mind is exploring the artistic aspects of your learning.

Long-term virtuous learning plan:
Become more conversant with form, structure, harmony, and how expression is associated with them.

Back to fingering
Now you are more familiar with the piece ask yourself again whether your fingering patterns are both the easiest option and also the most effective musically.

Advice for the present:
Concentrate on easy fingering patterns which reduce the chances of a mistake.

Long-term virtuous learning plan:
Explore alternative fingering patterns which not only reduce mistakes but really help the musical flow. You will be able to do so quite quickly devising different patterns in the same location, and also exploring alternatives both in lower and higher positions.

If you want to catch up on my previous articles about the Virtuous Guitarist here are the links:
The Virtuous Guitarist 1: An Alternative Development plan that does not include virtuosity
2: More About The Development Plan
3: Getting started on the Alternative Development Plan
4: How the Alternative Development Plan is important for all classical guitar players
It is never too late to become a virtuous guitarist

There you have it, my rough guide to just a few aspects of how you can set out on the path to virtuous playing. You can make it make it a painless, enjoyable and learning experience, all at the same time. Have fun!

7 October 2012, London

The Five Time Test for Playing Without Mistakes

- and what I have learnt from flying elephants –

The five time test is a device for ensuring mistake-free playing while at the same time simulating the nervous demands of public performance. This is how it works: you try to play through a phrase or longer passage perfectly five times in a row. If it is mistake-free you move on to the next phrase, but if you make an error you have to go back and start again from number one. Say you play it through perfectly four times in a row, that leaves one do-or-die go for which you concentrate like mad to get right. That is why it feels like a public performance. The five time test is like a game but it toughens you up and helps ensure mistake-free playing.

By the way, while you have read this far and depending on the speed of your reading I have edged two to three miles closer to London at a speed of 565 miles (900 kilometres) per hour and at a height of 9500 metres (32,000 feet) on a Boeing 747 jumbo jet on my journey from Mexico. If you are squeamish about flying look away now for here are a few mind-bending vital statistics! A jumbo jet fully-laden weighs about 400,000 kilograms. An African elephant weighs 6000 kilograms, sometimes less, sometimes more. So a jumbo jet is the equivalent of 66 elephants tail to trunk rising smoothly into the air and staying up until such a time as we wish them to come down.

You could fly every day for 300,000 years without an accident

I know you are thinking what has this to do with the five time test. It has, believe me, as you will see. Allow me to go back to the flying elephants. The miracle of human achievement is not only getting the jumbo jet up there, but the reliability of so doing. The chances of being involved in a fatal accident are less than 11,000,000 to 1. That means you, or an elephant, could fly every day for the next 300,000 years without even a flap of the ears or a raised trunk of alarm. How did the engineering, construction and maintenance of aeroplanes get to be so reliable? Since I am not an engineer I cannot give you a scientific explanation but I can venture this suggestion, which is where I am heading: it certainly was not through a miserly five time test, but more likely a many-time test. Consider the progress of air travel safety, starting in 1903 with the Wright Brothers risking all to fly for 50 seconds and continuing through to the invention of the jet engine in less than 50 years. Commercial development followed by the late '50's with an impressive safety record: no more risking all here, but exhaustive checks and tests to increase safety.

In this context the musicians' five time test does seem a bit flimsy. If the aim is error-free playing it is but a minimum requirement. OK, the stakes are not life and death as with the 66 flying elephants, although you wouldn't think so judging from the distress mistakes cause some players. Error-free playing is certainly a necessary oil for the wheels of an artistically satisfying performance and is the wide-awake daytime dream of all players (which I wrote about just last week here in the Blog page).The five time test can help ensure that the mechanical parts of playing are all neatly in place, like the many-times' test of air travel ensure there are no mistakes as we lift off and fly. Think of the five time test as a mechanical device and not an artistic exercise. Take out the expression and concentrate on accuracy. This will help you stick to it.

To play a phrase perfectly five time in a row is not a lot to ask, certainly not compared to lifting a herd of elephants 11,000,000 times in a row without dropping them. The only risk of the five time test is that you might not incorporate this minimum safety net into your playing, and thus fall to earth with a bump. Thankfully it will be only from the height of your chair, and not from above the clouds.

Now, where am I? Oh yes, about to land for about the 2000th time in my life of travels. Let's see, that leaves another 10,998,000 flights before the chance of a mistake and before I, or my elephants, need start reaching for our life jackets.

28th September 2012, London

The Wide-Awake Daytime Dream of Perfect Guitar Playing

- You can make it happen -

Now that we are close to October and the summer holidays are fast receding into the realms of a dream world, I ask myself did they really happen? Did I really see the Olympic torch paraded through the London streets? Did I really stumble by chance upon the triathlon race in Hyde Park as I emerged from a dentist’s appointment nearby? Did I really spend a week in Madrid during a heat-wave with winds from the Sahara desert pushing the temperature up to 43 degrees? And while there did I really play a few notes on a guitar at Juan Menduiña’s workshop and immediately realize here was something special? This last is quite vivid, since I left Spain clutching the guitar and still have it close by as I write. What’s more I played it both in Derry and in Lima, so I am pretty sure I am not trapped in a dream world of my own making!

Dreams and reality: some say dreams are but a night-time rehash of our daily lives, concerns and relationships. I certainly have great fun interpreting my own and my friends’ dreams. I am an amateur at this but there are people who earn a living by doing so. They are called psychoanalysts. Wide-awake daytime dreams are another matter. They are all about our secret and not-so-secret thoughts and ambitions spurring us on into action. Wide-awake dreams occupy two thirds of our lives, the night time rehash one third. I am going to write about the wide-awake part.

So what have the wide-awake daytime dreams got to do with guitar playing? The answer is everything. I sit down to play. I am having a wide-awake daytime dream (no, I am not mad). In it I imagine how wonderful the music in hand should sound. I can hear myself play it flawlessly, expressively, with a beautiful tone. It is so good that it is perfect in conception and perfect in execution. All this happens as my hands are poised over the strings in the instant before I start playing. Without having such thoughts and visions I would just be playing a sequence of notes. And so would you. You may think I am over-ambitious. Maybe I am. Sooner or later I may have to face a reality some way short of my wide-awake daytime dream - and it might be the same for you too. But until that moment why don´t we both give it our best shot? Why not try to make the dream real?

Now comes the hard part: never losing sight of the ideal conception of the music as you labour to get the notes under your fingers. This means nailing down (pardon the pun) all the difficult passages until they flow seamlessly as in your wide-awake daytime dream. Your fingers may protest mightily at this imposition from on high. They need encouragement and to gain the confidence through repeated slow playing, which confirms perfect passage work at a slow speed. As minutes, hours, days and weeks pass by you increase the tempo. Like old friends you urge the fingers to return to the task with enthusiasm and familiarity until one day, yes, it sounds perfect – or nearly perfect, anyway.

The mind has no limits but is easily misled by our diminutive bullying fingers

But, if you gradually allow the fingers to dictate terms and affect negatively your wide-awake daytime dream conception then you are in trouble. For a start the change as you practice over time is so gradual that you are in danger of not noticing it. And what could be worse than confusing your wide-awake daytime dream (that is, your musical conception) with the insistent requirements of bumbling fingers whose pea-sized brains are squeezed into the tiny extremity of each of your digits? Your wide-awake daytime dream is contained in the larger space upstairs, in your mind. It has no limits that humans have yet reached. But it is easily misled and confused by all manner of things, including by our diminutive bullying fingers.

As long as I remember this I should be OK: that in my wide-awake daytime dream I imagine how wonderful the music in hand should sound. I can hear myself playing it flawlessly, expressively, with a beautiful tone. It is so good that it is perfect in conception and perfect in execution. The fingers can have their say in the proceedings, and it is an important say. Not listening to them contributes to the sort of problem I have described. Listening to them and incorporating their wishes into the larger scheme of things is a very good idea. Allowing them to dictate terms is not.

So, what is real and what is not? Playing music where you think you are fulfilling your wide-awake daytime dream conception but in reality have compromised; or when your dream is vividly in control, although mindful that your fingers may still need to catch up? Call me an optimist, but I would rather go with the second choice. And so probably would you if you have read this far!

One day next summer you may play one of your pieces fulfilling your wide-awake daytime musical dream conception, with your fingers nearly with you at all times. By the following month you may ask yourself did I really play it that well, or am I imagining it? Pressing together the tips of your thumb and index finger you might say to anyone listening “it was that close.”

Your wide-awake daytime dream could become real. Some may call you mad, but you know better.

Mexico, 22 September 2012

Gozando las delicias y sorpresas del Perú

- Mi semana en el Festival Internacional de Guitarra en Lima -

Por Carlos Bonell
(Traducción de Luis Ñopo Olazábal)

Es posible que ustedes no lo sepan pero mucho de mi tiempo en festivales de música lo paso con las manos alrededor de un cuchillo y un tenedor, en vez de una guitarra. Estar sentado frente a la mesa toma una parte apreciable de mi tiempo en estos eventos. Y, ¿quién soy yo para quejarme? E igual fue esta semana en Perú, con sorpresas sobre la mesa, más allá de ella, y aún debajo de ella.

Llegué a Lima el sábado 8 de septiembre para participar en el Festival Internacional de Guitarra Vivace Peru, donde también participarían Alisson Alipio (Brasil), Mauricio Opazo (Chile), Víctor Hugo Ñopo (Director del Festival), Dúo Matices (flautista Flor Vega Guerrero y guitarrista Hugo Castillo Vargas, ambos de Perú), Daniel Morgade (Uruguay) y un servidor de Londres, Inglaterra. Mi viaje me llevó desde México, aún en medio del verano. Soy un distraído y por eso había pasado por alto un detalle: Perú se encuentra en el hemisferio sur, y por lo tanto estaba llegando al final del invierno. Debo decir que me sentí algo absurdo al salir del aeropuerto en una noche fría de invierno y con una brisa congelante, luciendo un sombrero de Panamá y una chaqueta ligera, pero puse buena cara para agradar a mis encantadores anfitriones Víctor Hugo Ñopo y su esposa Rocío, quienes habían venido a mi encuentro para llevarme al hotel.

Si ustedes creen que las coincidencias son parte de un plan secreto, entonces disfrutarán ésto. Por casualidad, la última persona con quien hablé antes de mi salida del aeropuerto de la Ciudad de México fue Simone Iannarelli, el maravilloso guitarrista y compositor italiano, con quien me encontré camino a la puerta de embarque. Él llegaba y yo me iba. Por casualidad también, la primera persona con quien hablé a mi arribo al aeropuerto de Lima fue el mismo taxista que me trasladó durante mi primera visita a Lima el año pasado. Juntos tratamos de hacer nuestro mejor camino a través de varios puntos de control de la policía y de puestos privados de guardias de seguridad, en un viaje espeluznante pero legal, a través de una zona portuaria fuertemente vigilada. Me sentí como un héroe en una de las novelas exóticas de Graham Greene, pero ésa es una historia para otro momento. Pues bien, allí estaba, parado justo delante de mí, cuando salía por el pasadizo de la llegada de pasajeros. ¡Ese es el conductor, no Graham Greene! Yo les pregunto, ¿significan algo estos encuentros casuales? Y si así fuera, ¿qué con ello?

De las coincidencias que sorprenden a las sorpresas que no son coincidencia: Lima es una ciudad grandiosa, con edificios gubernamentales post-independencia, codeándose mucho con una arquitectura de estilo español neoclásico muy ornamentada. Con Londres, comparte la tendencia gris del cielo cubierto con interminables capas de nubes día tras día, matizado con una fina y persistente llovizna. Sorpresa número dos: Lima muestra todos los
signos de una prosperidad recién descubierta, y aún en desarrollo. Sorpresa número tres: La cocina peruana es exquisita. Cuando tengan la oportunidad, prueben el pescado crudo y semi-crudo con influencia japonesa con un toque peruano; prueben el Anticucho, que está hecho con trozos de corazón de res; prueben la lúcuma, una fruta verde y chica con una pepa brillante en el medio; prueben un vaso de Pisco Sour, una bebida alcohólica dulce y espumosa, hecha con Pisco que es un destilado de la uva, fuerte y vigorizante, una sola copa pues dos les irán a la cabeza, y tres los noquearán. ¡Esto es lo que yo pensaba a medida que disfrutaba del sabor, y no más, del Pisco a la hora del almuerzo el día de mi última presentación! ¿Es la cocina peruana la siguiente en seducir nuestros paladares en todo el mundo?

Otra sorpresa: mientras disfrutaba de un tiempo libre para pasear por la zona de Miraflores de Lima, recordé los cafés parisinos y el Montmartre de antaño. Allí, en el Café Haiti Haiti, pude ver -¿cómo decirlo delicadamente?- algunas personas con apariencia poco usual, incluyendo un hombre muy excéntrico y peculiar con el cabello gris ondulado que combinaba con un traje gris también, con una rosa en la solapa y una mirada penetrante en su ojo (en ambos ojos en realidad). Daba la impresión de ser distinguido y aterradora la vez. Al preguntar a mis anfitriones, resultó ser un poeta muy conocido.

Pero ya basta de hacer turismo. No estaba en Lima como turista sino para tocar, enseñar y ser presidente del jurado en el concurso (de guitarra). Para mi programa extendido del martes, elegí tocar los cinco preludios de Villa-Lobos, la suite en E-menor de Bach, la chacona en A mayor de Weiss, música de Tárrega, El Polifemo de Oro de Smith-Brindle y para cerrar dos de mis arreglos de los Beatles, Strawberry Fields y Here Comes The Sun, después de lo cual noté el público muy animado. Como piezas fuera de programa toqué mis arreglos de Yesterday y Los Cuatro Muleros. Para mi primer concierto en Perú presenté una mezcla de repertorio, y finalicé con mi toque personal de arreglos de los Beatles y de música española. Toqué con una guitarra hecha por Juan Menduiña, la misma que usé en Derry a fines de agosto. Esta vez no fue amplificada, y su proyección y calidad de sonido fueron muy impresionantes.

Usted debe estar impaciente por saber cuál fue la sorpresa que aguardaba cautelosamente debajo de la mesa, a la que me he referido en el principio. Fue un dulce y pequeño pájaro parecido a un gorrión que picoteaba las migas que caían de la mesa de mi desayuno en la terraza del hotel. Creo que le caí bien, pues al tercer día voló hasta la superficie de la mesa y brincó con sus dos piernas a pocos centímetros de mi mermelada.

Y más allá de la mesa, ¡volvamos al Festival! La Orquesta Nacional de Guitarra del Perú, con alrededor de catorce músicos, generó un sonido verdaderamente maravilloso. Está dirigida por Daniel Morgade, quien supo sonsacar un tono cálido y profundo de cada uno de estos muy finos músicos, muchos de ellos jóvenes profesionales. El Festival está en su infancia, aprovechando el entusiasmo de una fraternidad local creciente, y de un público extraído de los amantes de la música de todas las edades y orígenes, deseosos de explorar lo nuevo. Su emoción era tangible; me llenó de energía y me inspiró en mis presentaciones. Y solamente eso, querido lector, hizo que valiera la pena realizar este viaje a la tierra de Attahuallpa, el Rey Sol, el último emperador de los Incas.

14 de septiembre, Lima, Perú

Perusing Peru’s delights and surprises

- My week at the International Guitar Festival in Lima -

You may not know this, but much of my time at Music Festivals is spent with my hands wrapped around a knife and fork, rather than a guitar. Sitting at the table takes up a considerable portion of time at such events, and who am I to complain? And so it was this week in Peru, with surprises at the table, beyond it and even under it!

I arrived in Lima on Saturday 8th September for the Festival Internacional de Guitarra Vivace Peru featuring Alisson Alipio (Brazil), Mauricio Opazo (Chile), Victor Hugo Ñopo (Festival Director), Dúo Matices (flute player Flor Vega Guerrero and guitarist Hugo Castillo Vargas, both from Peru), Daniel Morgade (Uruguay) and yours truly from London, England. My journey had taken me from Mexico, still in the throes of summer. Call me absent-minded if you like, but I had overlooked a detail: Peru is in the southern hemisphere, and consequently coming to the end of winter. I have to admit I felt slightly absurd stepping out from the airport into a cool winter’s night and chilly breeze sporting a panama hat and a light jacket, but I put a brave face on it for the sake of my very charming hosts Victor Hugo Ñopo and his wife Rocio who had come to meet me and take me to the hotel.

If you believe coincidences are part of a secret design then you will enjoy this. By chance, the last person I spoke to before departure at Mexico City airport was Simone Iannarelli, the wonderful Italian guitarist-composer, into whom I bumped on my way to the departure gate. He was arriving, and I was leaving. By chance, the first person I spoke to on arrival at Lima airport was the taxi driver who had driven me on my first visit to Lima last year. Together we had tried to negotiate our way through police check-points and private security sentry posts on a hair-raising but quite legal journey through the heavily guarded port area – I felt like a hero in one of Graham Greene’s exotic novels, but that’s a story for another time. There he was standing right in front of me the moment I emerged into the arrivals’ hall, that´s the driver, not Graham Greene. I ask you, do these chance encounters mean anything? And if they do, what?

From coincidences which surprise to surprises that are no coincidence: Lima is a grandiose city with post-independence government buildings rubbing shoulders with heavily ornate neoclassical Spanish-style architecture. It shares with London a grey tendency in the sky department with endless cloud cover day after day, complete with a fine and persistent drizzle. Surprise number two: Lima displays all the signs of a newly found, and still developing, affluence. Surprise number three: Peruvian cuisine is exquisite. When you get the chance try the Japanese-influenced raw and semi-raw fish with a Peruvian twist; try Anticucho, which are slices of hearts of veal; try lucuma, a thin green fruit with a shiny bone in the middle; try a glass of Pisco, a sweet and frothy alcoholic beverage distilled from the grape, strong and invigorating, one glass only for two will go to your head and three will knock you out. That’s what I thought as I enjoyed a taste, and no more, of Pisco on the lunchtime of my last show! Is Peruvian cuisine the next best thing waiting to seduce our palettes throughout the world?

Another surprise: as I took time off to stroll through Lima's Miraflores area, I was reminded of Parisian cafés and the Montmartre of yesteryear. There in the Café Haiti Haiti I spotted – how shall I put it delicately – some unusual looking people including a most eccentric and characterful man with wavy grey hair dressed in a grey suit to match, with a rose in his lapel and a piercing look in his eye (in both eyes actually). He looked both distinguished and scary. On enquiry from my hosts he turned out to be a well-known poet.

But enough of sight-seeing, I wasn’t in Lima as a tourist but to play and teach and be president of the jury in the competition. For my full-length programme on Tuesday I chose to play the five preludes by Villa-Lobos, the suite in E-minor by Bach, the chaconne in A major by Weiss, music by Tarrega, El Polifemo de Oro by Smith-Brindle and to close two of my Beatles’ arrangements, Strawberry Fields and Here Comes The Sun, whereupon the audience became very excited indeed. As encores I played my arrangements of Yesterday and Los Cuatro Muleros. For my first concert in Peru I had presented a mix of guitar classics from the mainstream repertoire, and to end my own personal twist of Beatles and Spanish music arrangements. I played on a guitar by Juan Menduiña, the very same one I had used in Derry at the end of August. This time it was unamplified and produced quite an impression through its projection and quality of sound.

You may be impatient to learn what the surprise was lurking under the table, to which I referred right at the beginning. It was a sweet tiny sparrow-like bird picking at crumbs from my breakfast table on the hotel terrace. I think it took a shine to me, because by the third day it flew up from underneath to the top of the table and hopped on both legs to within a few inches of my marmalade spread.

And beyond the table, back at the Fest? The National Guitar Orchestra of Peru of some fourteen players made a truly wonderful sound together. It is directed by Daniel Morgade who coaxed a deep warm tone from each and every one of these very fine players, many of them young professionals. The Festival is in its infancy, harnessing the enthusiasm of a growing local fraternity, and a new audience drawn from music lovers of all ages and backgrounds eager to explore the new. Their excitement was tangible, it energized and inspired me in my performances. And that alone, dear reader, was worth the trip to the land of Attahuallpa the Sun King, the last Emperor of the Incas.

14th September, Lima, Peru

It is never too late to become a virtuous guitarist

- Your guide to a fresh start in September -

Summer is over and school is back. It’s all starting up again including your music. If your thoughts are turning to practice and playing, read on!

In previous articles I have written about the “virtuous guitarist”, suggesting an all-embracing approach to develop your skills. At first glance you may have read the word as “virtuoso”, but no, it should read “virtuous”. Virtuous is defined as “a beneficial quality or power, a commendable quality or trait” and comes from the Latin virtus for merit. The virtuoso should indeed be “virtuous”, but the virtuous need not be a virtuoso into the bargain, it is enough to aim for musical merit for the purposes of our September start.

The pursuit of becoming a virtuous guitarist brings together technique, interpretation, style, improvisation and harmonic awareness (among other skills) in an inter-active fashion which is both creative and enjoyable. Now September is here it is as good a time as any to begin work on an integrated approach to your playing. Here are the key elements to a virtuous approach to playing which I call The Player's Development Plan:

The Player's Development Plan:
1. learning pieces
2. developing technique
3. arranging
4. composing
5 sight-reading
6. knowledge of harmony and chords
7. playing chamber music
8. Improvising

The Player’s Development Plan (PDP) grew out of the Alternative Development Plan (ADP) which I described in The Virtuous Guitarist 1: An Alternative Development plan that does not include virtuosity. The PDP and ADP can be tackled by any player at any level, from beginner to advanced. It is never too late to change your approach and make headway.

For the moment let us take stock of where you are in your skills at this moment. Ask yourselves the following questions and score each out of 10, with 10 = excellent; 7 = OK; 5 = not good.

How virtuous are you?
How well are you able to sight-read a piece you wish to learn and which is within your playing ability?
How quickly are you able to devise new fingering patterns?
Can you describe the overall musical structure of the piece?
Can you name the keys and modulations (if any) of pieces you already play, with and without looking at the music?
Can you name a majority of the chords in the piece?
Are you familiar with other pieces by the same composer and can you compare them?
Do you know anything about the life and times of the composer, especially if he or she is dead?
Can you play from memory a majority of the pieces you have learnt?

Now add up the scores. If you have scored 64 – 80 you are doing brilliantly. If you have scored 48 – 63 you are doing OK but there is lots of room for improvement. If you have scored 40 – 47 you have no time to lose, get started now!

If you want to catch up on my previous articles here are the links:
The Virtuous Guitarist 1: An Alternative Development plan that does not include virtuosity, 2: More About The Development Plan, 3: Getting started on the Alternative Development Plan, and 4: How the Alternative Development Plan is important for all classical guitar players.

In my next article I will suggest a step-by-step approach to a specific piece of music. Meanwhile, good luck and may you have a fulfilled journey on your path to becoming a virtuous guitarist.

Mexico, 7 September 2012

Three weeks in August: from Madrid and London to the City of Derry

- Why the pursuit of excellence connects them all -

These past three weeks of August have seen me at three very different locations: in geologist Juan Menduiña’s workshop in Madrid, in London during the Olympic Games, and in the City of Derry Guitar Festival. One thing connects them all, and that is their pursuit of excellence, of which I have been both spectator and participant.

Armed with a new guitar from Juan Menduiña’s workshop I proceeded to Derry. Hang on, I hear you say, isn’t Juan Menduiña a geologist, not a guitar-maker? Yes he is a distinguished geologist who has published papers on his specialty, but through his work he has developed an expert knowledge of the transmission of sound waves, giving him new insights into guitar construction. A patented design, the Sistema Menduiña creates a pure harmonic resonance and a great evenness of sound across the instrument . You shall be hearing more from me about this in future articles.

Now where was I? Oh yes, at the City of Derry Guitar Festival. Derry is unusual in many ways. For one thing many towns wish to be taken for cities, but Derry is a city happy to exude the atmosphere of a small town. I found myself strolling down the street and greeting strangers with a cheery “good morning” to which came back the reply “geed morrnen”, which is Irish-speak for the same thing. I love the Irish accent and if I could choose one for my own speech it would be that one.

Back to my stroll: along the Strand Road I passed a very large drinking establishment which in the early morning is quiet, but at night is heaving with music and social activity. A few yards further along the Clarendon Bar harks back to a more traditional pub of the kind rapidly disappearing in England. Very soon I reached the excellently equipped North West Regional College which was hosting the festival. I was here for the 9th consecutive year and this is the Festival’s 10th anniversary year. Directed by the far-sighted Sean Woods it brings together all types of guitar-playing and attracts players and aficionados of different abilities, ages and backgrounds. I particularly like the emphasis on encouraging the new and the creative. In the students’ concert a charismatic young man accompanied himself in his first composed song in his first public performance – his name is Mic Friel. I hope to be hearing a lot more from him in the future.

Carlos with Sarah Murphy, Gary Ryan and Sean Woods in concert 24 August 2012, Derry

I myself played in the opening gala concert on the Friday night putting my new guitar through its paces in music by Bach, Brouwer, Albeniz and the Beatles. Later in the same concert I joined Gary Ryan, Sean Woods, and Sarah Murphy, flute, for performances of Pachebel’s Canon and Jenkins’ Palladio, and what a delight to play with these wonderful musicians and produce such quality of ensemble playing after the briefest of rehearsals. Creativity was also the name of the game in Gary Ryan’s Saturday night solo recital which included some memorable compositions of his own.

Derry’s Guitar Festival is building something for the long-term and reflects the city itself. The stunning Peace Bridge on the River Foyle runs through the middle of the city and was designed by architects Wilkinson Eyre. Architect Quentin Seik has written:
“Its inspiration was Derry's iconic hands across the divide sculpture; conceived as two distinct structural systems that work in harmony. At the middle of the river both systems overlap, boldly interacting to create a single unified crossing - a structural handshake across the Foyle and an embrace in the centre of the river.”
It is a few hundred yards from the Guildhall and is a symbol of hope for the future. The past has also been served well in the murals which depict scenes from Derry’s recent history and are an artistic wonder worth a trip by themselves.

Carlos and guitarist Amanda Cook posing with mural during the City of Derry Guitar Festival 2010

Walking back to the hotel on Saturday night was to witness Derry at ease with itself in party mood - excited youngsters in various states of unusual attire, and others, young and old, spilling out from pubs onto the pavements, all shouting, laughing, singing... One man looked at me carrying my guitar and shouted “long live music” to which I answered “I agree”.

Whether it be in Derry, or wherever you live, I hope you agree too.

Mexico, 31 August 2012

My Top 13 List of what I love most about guitar concerts

In a previous article (published here in May this year) I wrote about my top 20 list of what I hate most about guitar concerts. I don't want you to think I have nothing good to say about them. I do. I have thought long and hard and come up with a select list of nothing-but-nice comments. My reluctance to commit them to paper any earlier is due entirely to the devil himself, for just as he has all the best tunes, so too a negative tirade has an advantage over the softer edges of positive comments. This time my hate factor is replaced by a like factor, and I offer advice too, although you may consider some of it is in jest.

So here we go: accompany me to this imagined concert presented by an imagined guitar player.

Tingling sense of anticipation
Dressing up, leaving home with my beautiful partner on my arm, and arriving with enough time to have a drink, all give me a tingling sense of anticipation.
Like factor: 8/10
Advice: arrive early and enjoy the build-up.

Meeting old friends and avoiding others
Let's face it, there are some people you would rather not chat to not only in a concert hall foyer, but anywhere else, especially if they are munching one of those silly little tuna sandwiches while speaking loudly right up close reeking of fish. Successfully avoiding interaction with them, even if it means hiding behind a pillar is a big plus. Greeting old friends of whom I am fond is a different matter and a pleasure.
Like factor in meeting old friends: 8/10
Advice: avoid the others by taking a hat large enough to hide your face.

A programme with surprises
Now I have the printed programme in front of me let me see what is on offer...oh good, there are a few unusual items I don't know. How exciting - actually hearing something unfamiliar. That is very enterprising of the artist.
Like factor: 9/10
Advice to aspirant concert artists: stand out from the crowded field and stake out new territory.

Good lighting and excellent acoustics
I can think of no better support for an enjoyable performance.
Advice: take time to get the lighting right, and even more time with the sound if you need amplification.

A well-turned out artist
I do like to see an artist who has taken the trouble to dress up, rather than one who popped out for some groceries and then suddenly decided to give a concert instead.
Like factor: 8/10
Advice: nothing gives me greater pleasure than a well turned-out artist except for a well turned-out artiste.

A new insight
Very soon it becomes apparent that this artist has some interesting and original interpretations of her own. Taken together with some unusual items on the programme I am beginning to have a very good time indeed.
Like factor: 9/10
Advice: keep it up.

A beaming smile
Each burst of applause is greeted with a lovely smile from the performer. She appears genuinely pleased every time. Now I think she is a nice person, not just a good artist.
Like factor: 10/10
Advice: smiling is a beautiful gesture. If you have never done it before, try it now.

Well-measured introductions
She introduces some pieces, not all, and judges well how long to speak. She has a nicely modulated speaking voice and has interesting comments to make which really engage the listener, me included.
Like factor: 8/10
Advice: none, this is turning out to be a treat.

A pleasant interval bar
I grant I am quick off the mark, and run to the bar fast enough to get there first. It gives me great satisfaction to take my drinks without queueing.
Like factor: 8/10
Advice: call me superficial, but queueing at the bar for two thirds of the interval makes me fume, and not queueing at all is the next best thing to being at the seaside.

Encores' surprise
I have really taken to this artist. And she has not disappointed me with the choice of encores. They are unexpected and yet they complement the programme too.
Like factor: 9/10
Advice: choose well. Encores are like dessert: when they are good they are a perfect ending but when they are bad they ruin the meal.

A pleasant manner with fans
I go to congratulate her after and notice how gracious and friendly she is with everyone.
Like factor: 9/10
Advice: be yourself and show you are pleased with compliments received. You are pleased, aren't you?

Stepping out into a warm evening
I like the return to reality of car horns, traffic, and other humans walking by oblivious to the fact that they have just missed a great concert. What's more it's not quite dark.
Like factor: 9/10
Advice: go for a pleasant meal in good company and exchange impressions.

Stroll home
Finally it's time to go. With the sounds of the concert echoing in my head I walk still under the wizard's spell. Yes, that guitarist was a wizard for through her playing she made the magic box sing, speak, cry and laugh. Truly she showed it can be a magic box.
Like factor: 9/10
Advice: walk till you tire and then hail a cab - that's my idea of a perfect ending to the evening.

I have tried to capture the best feelings I have from a good concert. Just writing puts me into a very positive state of mind.
I hope it does the same for you too.

Derry, Northern Ireland, 26 August 2012