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Queen Guitar Rhapsodies

Summer's sweet scent of alternative guitar-playing

- And how the virtuoso too can become virtuous -

Now that we are closer to September than July (how did that happen so quickly?!) this may be a good time to start putting all the summer larking-about behind us and think ahead about what we wish to make happen in the next year or so. Although the new calendar year is some way off, I think the real renewal begins in September when schools and colleges start up and our summer holidays gently slip away into the fond recesses of our memory. The pleasure of dedicating our time to a fulfilling activity such as playing the guitar, whether professionally or for fun, is that we choose what we wish to make happen, from a long list of possible musical accomplishments. To become a better guitarist, spread your bets and work at becoming an all-round musician, for in the world of music a jack-of-all-trades has frequently the advantage over a master of one!

But first let me recap the summer’s activities. You may have spent agreeable hours on some or all of the following:
1. arranging
2. composing
3. sight-reading
4. knowledge of harmony and chords
5. playing chamber music
6. Improvising

This is what I call the Alternative Development Plan. Why? Because it makes no reference to the aspects of playing which more often than not obsess players: learning pieces and developing technique. Instead it focuses on other aspects of musicality, to which I earnestly hope you have attended during the summer period. If you have done so, congratulations. If you haven’t, well it’s never too late to get started. In previous articles I have described in some detail the how, what and why of the Alternative Development Plan (ADP). These are the articles: 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.

You may wish to create a development plan that does include learning pieces and developing technique since there is where your main interests lie. I encourage you to do this too now in September and so create a complete development plan. This I call the Player's Development Plan (PDP) and it looks like this:

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

I described this fully in the 4th chapter How the Alternative development Plan is important for all classical guitarists.

So why not enjoy the last two weeks of August exploring the ADP, informally, curiously, even casually, mindful that when September comes you will unleash the full PDP off its lead and be pulled along with a smile on your face towards new heights of playing pleasure and satisfaction. If you are a student or a young professional, get cracking on all of them. By this time next year you could be a more all-rounded musician, and consequently be looking forward to a diverse and increasingly profitable engagement with music.

London, 18th August 2012

The Ordinary Extraordinary on show these past two weeks

Carlos at the BBC Manchester studio

- What musos can learn from the Olympics -

As the Olympic Games in London 2012 draw to a close what can we learn from them and relate to guitar playing? Jumping higher, running faster and throwing further are entirely sporting activities, but are the techniques only specific to them? And what does the determination and dedication to reach such excellence tell us?

I watched Jamaican runner Bolt run at 35 miles per hour and win both the 100 metres and 200 metres. The playback at a third of the speed was very interesting, it was like music. His feet, even on the replay, seemed to barely touch the ground. He reminded me of what dancers say "when we move around the stage and especially when we jump, we think of movement as upwards not downwards". In music we talk of upbeats and downbeats. Upbeats give rhythmic vitality. Downbeats give firmness and finality. To run fast, Bolt moves in upbeats. To play fast, musicians think in upbeats for this way it sounds better.

A British female cyclist caught my attention. She is a medal winner, but has suffered lots of health problems over the past years, enough to have deterred many from continuing. Another British competitor, taking part in an equestrian event, has during his career broken more bones in his body than I knew existed! Already in his 50's this was his fifth Olympic Games, and finally he won a medal - best of all for him it was gold. I am sure there are many other moving stories of struggles against the odds by other athletes, but I refer only to British athletes since they are the ones I have read about in UK newspapers. These stories reveal an awe-inspiring ambition to reach the very best result.

So, what is the very best result in guitar playing or in music? Is it technical excellence? Yes. Is it to be number one? Maybe, but this can only clearly refer to winning competitions. Is it to become as fine a musician and artist as you can ever be? Emphatically yes! Some will have all the advantages to do so, and others less so. We can draw inspiration then from the sacrifices of those Olympic sportsmen who have done so in their field, some with so many difficulties.

And then there are the group sports activities. Whether it be team sports or synchronised swimming, creating a perfect ensemble is essential, as it is for a musical ensemble. To see the high level of coordination achieved inspires me to set ever-higher standards in playing music in ensemble too.

Finally, sports activities and musical performances share another important element: the audience. Most Olympic competitors have spoken of the inspiration and strength they drew from the cheering audiences. We do the same in music, or should do so if we are in tune with them. The energy and goodwill which audiences display draw from me as a performer a special edge, and focus my mind on communicating the beauty of the music. For the athletes the adrenalin rush drives them to smash world records, for the musician it can lead to a unique expressivity.

The next Olympic Games will be in Brazil. I look forward to discovering connections between sports and samba, for I can easily imagine them already!

Madrid, Spain, 11th August 2012

Catch up with Carlos

- Carlos is on holiday this week, but you can read here the latest biographical profile of him hot off the press including previously unpublished material -

Carlos Bonell has been described by Classical Guitar Magazine, UK as “one of the great communicators of the guitar world”. He has recorded more than twenty albums and played in forty countries, with concert appearances ranging from intimate recitals to concertos with symphony orchestras.

His latest album Magical Mystery Guitar Tour, inspired by his association with Sir Paul McCartney, is dedicated to the music of the Beatles in Carlos' own arrangements for solo guitar. It went to number one on the UK iTunes classical album charts in May 2012.

Photo: LP album cover for Guitar Music of the Baroque, 1977

Carlos was born in London of Spanish parents in 1949. He started to play at the age of five, learning to play Spanish folk music on the guitar from his father who was a keen amateur guitarist, while also studying the violin more formally at school. He completed his studies at the Royal College of Music with John Williams, where he was appointed the youngest ever professor at the age of 22. His solo début in 1971 was a sell-out concert at the Purcell Room in the Royal Festival Hall, London; his concerto début was with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in 1975. The same year saw the release of his first LP recording Guitar Music of Spain.

In 1976 Carlos recorded a Grammy nominated album with John Williams and Friends for CBS with the unusual instrumentation of two guitars, marimba, xylophone and double bass. The group performed throughout the UK for several years. Carlos' New York début was at the Lincoln Arts Centre in 1978. The next day the New York Times described him as “an artist of superb poetic gifts”. Appearances at many international festivals followed including The City of London, Aldeburgh, Helsinki, Israel, Tanglewood, Sydney, Istanbul, and Hong Kong.

In 1981 Carlos made the first of three recordings of Rodrigo's Concierto de Aranjuez. Recorded in Canada with the Montreal Symphony Orchestra and Charles Dutoit for the Decca label, it was the first-ever digital recording of the concerto and was hailed as “a magnificent triumph” by Classical Music magazine. It was awarded a coveted rosette by the Penguin CD Guide and has been frequently singled out ever since as the finest version available.

During the 1980's Carlos began to record soundtracks for film and TV. They have included the Hollywood films City of Angels and The Honest Courtesan, and for BBC TV Inspector Morse and The Politician's Wife.

In 1985 Carlos formed the Carlos Bonell Ensemble, a four and five-piece ensemble of 2 guitars, flute, panpipes, soprano saxophone and bass. From 1987 to 1990 it gave frequent performances at London's Barbican Centre, South Bank and Wigmore Hall. Over the following years the ensemble toured in more than 20 countries and recorded an album The Sea in Spring.

1986 proved a high point for the popularity of Carlos playing Rodrigo's Concierto de Aranjuez: he presented it five times in London's Royal Festival Hall with the The Royal Philharmonic, the London Symphony, The London Philharmonic and the English Chamber Orchestras.

Between 1987 and 1995 he recorded seven albums ranging from music for solo guitar to concertos with the English Chamber and Royal Philharmonic Orchestras. His concerts included the premières of works by Humphrey Searle, Stephen Oliver, Howard Skempton, Richard Charlton, Ottavio Négro, Barrington Pheloung and others.

In 1995 Carlos gave a landmark benefit concert at London’s Wigmore Hall with John Williams to raise awareness of the plight of children caught in acts of war around the world. All proceeds were donated to the organisation War Child. This was one of many appearances with John Williams during a lifetime's association. Other artists with whom Carlos has recorded and appeared in concert include guitarists Paco Peña and Martin Taylor, violinists Pinchas Zukerman and Salvatore Accardo, and singers Patricia Rozario, Teresa Berganza and the late Philip Langridge.

Photo: benefit concert at The Forum, Kentish Town, London with John Williams and Paco Peña, 1999

In 1997 Carlos visited Australia for the first time, returning several years later in a nationwide tour including all the major cities. After his first visit to Latin America in 2000 he returned every year until 2007 to play with Venezuelan orchestras associated with El Sistema, working closely with some of the younger players prior to performances. This led eventually to recording the Queen Guitar Rhapsodies album with the Lara Symphony Orchestra who pioneered El Sistema.

From 2001 Carlos has continued to première new works. They have included pieces for solo guitar by Carlos Cruz de Castro, Gordon Mizzi, Phillip Houghton and Armand Coeck, and works for string quartet and guitar by Laurence Roman, Paul Coles and Lucas Suarez. Carlos’ first DVD Classical Guitar Performance, released in 2005 contained a one hour live performance with introductions spoken by Carlos in English and Spanish. In the same year New Holland published Carlos' first book about the guitar: Guitar - An Easy Guide.

In 2004 he directed the Latin Quarter Guitar Festival in London, bringing Australian guitar maker Greg Smallman to speak of his work in Europe for the first time, and presenting a series of recitals by guitarists of the younger generation including Pavel Steidl and Xuefei Yang.

The following year in 2005 saw the first London International Guitar Festival, of which Carlos was founder and artistic director. The festival has remained to this day the largest guitar festival ever presented in London with events in five major concert venues. It included an 80th birthday tribute to Venezuelan guitarist Alirio Díaz with his participation and that of other Venezuelan musicians; concertos with the Chamber Ensemble of London; and duets by Carlos with John Williams and the flamenco dancer Elisa Perez-Saponi.

In 2006 Carlos began to help Sir Paul McCartney who is composing a concerto for guitar and orchestra. Over many meetings he has notated and recorded drafts of the guitar part. The work was featured in a June 2007 cover article by The New Yorker magazine.

In the same year 2006 he undertook an extended tour of the USA which included Fort Worth, Dallas, Atlanta and Las Vegas. In 2007 he was awarded the prestigious Spanish prize Premio Trujamán for his work for the solo guitar, and in 2007 and 2008 presented further editions of the London International Guitar Festival.

Carlos' interest in bringing the classical guitar into the mainstream led in 2008 to his album release Queen Guitar Rhapsodies, in concerto-style arrangements of music by the group Queen for solo guitar and symphony orchestra. It was widely praised, including by Queen’s Brian May.

Photo: Guanajuato, Mexico, 2011

In 2010 he returned to Japan for an extended tour and initiated a concert series in London called the Transformations Music Series, presenting innovative guitar-related concerts at London’s Bolivar Hall, a venue with one of the finest acoustics in the heart of the capital.

Carlos is greatly in demand as a teacher, conducting international teaching courses in Italy, Spain and the UK. In addition to his teaching as senior professor at London's Royal College of Music he is Profesor Invitado at the University of Guanajuato.in Mexico. In Venezuela he was awarded the Cátedra Internacional de Guitarra Carlos Bonell in recognition of his teaching activities.

Throughout his career Carlos has devised and presented themed programmes which have attracted new audiences to the classical guitar. They include The Life of Joaquín Rodrigo in His Own Words and Music with Cecilia Rodrigo reciting the words of her father; Tribute to Lorca in Words and Music in memory of the great Spanish poet and musician; Millennium Guitar, the First 1000 Years released on CD in 1999; and Magical Mystery Guitar Tour released on CD in 2012.

From 2012 Carlos has been presenting Magical Mystery Guitar Tour in concert. As well as going to number one on the UK classical iTunes charts, the album also entered the top ten in the overall UK iTunes charts.

Biography updated 24th July 2012

Here Comes The Sun and I say -

Play my guitar in London, with the Olympic Games just down the road? Not likely.

The trouble with Tuesday this week was that the sun came out just as I was poised to play through some of Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco's 24 Caprichos de Goya, Op. 195, pieces which are probably underrated, and certainly underplayed. The sun over London is far from underrated, the problem is that it's a serious underachiever. For three months it and a grey mass of fast-moving never-ending clouds have played cat and mouse, with the sun cast as the hidden cat.

Finally it pounced, four days before the start of the Olympic Games shooting the temperature up to a fantastic 30 degrees, whilst I, in my studio hideaway, was arranging my music on the music stand. At first I thought it was a flash of lightning, or a power surge. I had forgotten how dramatic a sunbeam suddenly piercing the gloom can be. The cat had appeared, and the mice stood no chance, they were gone. And so too was my will to play through the Caprichos. Like a hypnotised victim I ventured zombie-like into the street blinking slowly in this new and unfamiliar light.

As if that were not sufficient distraction, how was I supposed to return to my Caprichos on Friday with a 3 hour opening ceremony - hyped up to be not only better than the Beijing Olympics but probably the most amazing thing since man landed on the moon - to welcome an Olympic Games projected now to be costing in excess of 30 billion dollars with 10,000 athletes taking part? Yes, I think the Caprichos will sit neglected on my music stand a while longer.

On Wednesday I went for a meeting in the heart of London, South Kensington to be precise, and afterwards walked across Hyde Park to Park Lane where I jumped onto a shiny red bus to Oxford Street. Occasionally I heard English spoken around me, otherwise it was Italian, Spanish, French, German, Arabic and other languages I did not recognise. Great are the number of visitors, and in greater numbers still they continue to arrive. Some react to the heat by half-stripping, for others it's not enough. I saw one lady dressed in jacket and scarf, presumably where she comes from 30 degrees is chilly.

Part of Hyde Park has been turned into a tented Olympic shopping mall, and in the subway underground many large posters boast of companies with connections, real or tenuous to the Games. Overhead meanwhile, shop displays, banners, and Olympic flags large and small consign all other merchandise to second place. Oxford Street proved a problem, for most tourists do not move along at a normal pace, instead they walk v-e-r-y slowly. Not looking irritated while overtaking became my concern, for would it not be extremely bad manners to those starry-eyed visitors enjoying a once-in-a-lifetime experience? For them it’s not just London, but the Olympic Games in London. And not just the Olympic Games in London but the sun out and doing its best for the Olympic Games in London. Why, this combination has only happened once before in the entire history of the universe in London.

In town again on Thursday I was stopped in my tracks at Oxford Circus where the roads were closed for the first time I can remember. Hundreds of people with their backs to me were milling around, cameras at the ready. It suddenly dawned on me I had stumbled upon an Olympic event. Within minutes a huge cheer went up and I saw the top of the Olympic torch flash by. I couldn't believe my luck to find myself by chance at that precise moment in that very place!

The prelude to the London Olympics in 1948 started rather like this week in a heatwave, but on the eleventh day it poured with rain and by the end the temperature had dropped to 9 degrees! At the risk of depressing you by stating the obvious: is history about to repeat itself? Yes maybe, as far as the weather, but in all other matters let us rejoice how our world is so improved since 1948 when it was emerging from the devastation of the 2nd World War.

I will tell you one thing. If the temperature does drop, and if it starts raining, and if I tire of watching the games, and if I am no longer curious to go and see the hoards of foreign visitors of all shapes, sizes and colours adorning Piccadilly Circus, and if I prefer the quiet solitude of my own space, then I will return to my Tedesco Caprichos abandoned and gathering dust. Once the excitement is over, and when the echo of the applause for the final competition of the Games has died away, and when the last of the doting visitors have flown back to their homes, and when London has cleaned up, shaken its collective head as if awaking from a dream and returned to normality, that will be the day when I will think of nothing better than playing the Tedesco Caprichos.

Surprised and even shocked as you may be to learn of my present state of mind, let me reassure you that I will return to pluck, strum and study energised, inspired and renewed by all I will experience in the weeks to come.
London, 28 July 2012

The "1% rule" wins Olympic Gold - and makes for good guitar playing

- Music and sports have a lot in common for it's all about attitude -

After my rant last week about the imaginary Guitar Playing Olympics you may think I have nothing good to say about the games. For a moment I thought so too, but realised over the past few days that it would be short-sighted on my part to see nothing worthwhile in this summer's Olympic Games. There is plenty to learn from them and from the competitors, not just from the winners but from the losers too.

For starters, let us consider as guitar players (or any other instrument-players) the following quote:

"We've got this saying, 'performance by the aggregation of marginal gains.' It means taking the 1% from everything you do; finding a 1% margin for improvement in everything you do....”

If a teacher had said this in a lesson just as you were considering a career in music you would have probably been curious. If that same teacher had already proved the success of his methods then you would be hooked. The 1% margin refers to every aspect and that includes the instrument you play, how you sit, the angle at which you hold the guitar, how you pluck the strings, how you press the strings down with the left hand and lots more. But that quote does not come from a music teacher, but from Dave Brailsford, British Cycling's Performance Director and the general manager of Team Sky, and he wasn't talking about music - he was referring to his work with the cyclists. British Cycling won eight gold medals at the Beijing Olympics in 2008 and is expected to win loads of medals again at the games next week. Clearly the 1% theory is a lesson which can be applied to musicians too in their pursuit of excellence.

Ancient Greeks included art, music and sport as competitive activities in their Olympic Games, from which I presume they were aware of how they complemented each other. They considered music important enough to sub-divide it into various types of categories including one in which songs were accompanied by the kitara, a plucked-string instrument. As late as 1948 there was an Olympic prize awarded for musical composition.

Consider the state of mind required to win a sports medal. It involves total concentration and self-confidence. These same qualities are required to play music in concert and to compete in music competitions. A champion in full flow, whether it be running or jumping or swimming has his mind in tune - pardon the pun - with a perfect technique. The same goes for playing a musical instrument.

One of the reasons why there are more losers than winners is that self confidence and excellent technique are qualities which don’t necessarily go hand in hand: there are excellent players with little self confidence, and just as surprisingly, not very good players overflowing with confidence. Neither of these combinations are conducive to winning, whether on the sports track or on the concert platform.

To see an athlete create a good balance between concentration, self-confidence and technique is to see a potential winner. It is the same for a guitar player, although two more qualities are required: musicality and the “a” word – artistry. These are more difficult to define, but their absence is conspicuous. In a guitar player we look for all five: concentration, self-confidence, technique, musicality and artistry.

Olympic winners almost certainly have all of the first three elements, and in the coming weeks it will be fascinating to try to anticipate the competitors who have them and those who don’t. The best of the great sportsmen are so pleasing to watch that their technique is a beauty in itself. In this way they come close, unintentionally, to being like artists, for an excellent sporting technique conveys the same ease, fluency and rhythm as an instrumental one.

The three elements of concentration, self-confidence and technique provide the context and support for a player and a sportsman to perform. The face-pulling and nervous ticks; the grunts, moans and desperate utterances of self-encouragement; the false starts as the starting gun is fired – all of them are an indication of the momentous internal struggle being waged inside the competitor by the pro and anti forces of concentration and self-confidence. Many musicians go through a similar experience in concert, only they disguise it more.

And the losers have something to teach us too. They teach us that if a thing is worthwhile it is worth doing for itself, and not just for winning. Music is worth doing for itself too, especially not just for winning.

There is good news for all of us: apply the 1% rule to every aspect of your guitar playing and you may end up with a 20% gain. And that may make the difference between losing and winning – or in musical language playing well or playing brilliantly.

London, 21 July 2012

Stony faced and furious at the Guitar Playing Olympics

Carlos interviewed on Radio Nuevo Leon Monterrey, Mexico, 2009

While at the real games, get ready for bucket-loads of tears

Picture the scene at the Guitar Playing Olympics as the finalists come on stage to hear the result of the competition. Dressed in track suits they await the announcement from the president of the Jury. “For his wonderful performance of the Bach Chaconne the first prize goes to….” On hearing the result the winner performs a hand-stand, runs across the stage with his arms above his head, and finally jumps up and down screaming “yessssss” at the top of his voice. Meanwhile, the losers fall to their knees crying - not just a few tears, but bucket-loads of them, with sobs and shoulders heaving. OK, let me admit to inventing this unlikely scene, but get ready for the real Olympic Games that very soon now will show silly spectacles such as I have described.

In real guitar competitions the only players likely to shed tears are the winners, in which case they are tears of joy. As far as the losers they fall into various categories: the stony faced, the smilers, and the furious - none of whom cry in public. Stony faced are those who wish to disguise their sense of disappointment; smilers are those who can’t believe their luck in getting this far anyway; furious are those who think they deserved to win but have been cheated. There is only one happy bunny in these proceedings, and he or she is the winner.

The trouble with guitar-playing is that it is more than sport, it is also an art. If only we could create a genuine knock-out competition in the Olympic style then it might be easier to designate straight winners and losers and so dispense with the stony faced and the furious. What’s more it might be fairer. To run a race one second faster than the next man makes one indisputably a winner and the other a loser. To win a guitar competition because one is more musically “persuasive” or technically “virtuosic”, let alone because one “has more personality” - whatever that means, invites stony faced and furious reactions from the other competitors.

Sportsmen and women live in the past and present....musicians live in the present and future

Sportsmen and women live in the past and present. They have worked and trained towards the specific goal of winning at these Olympic games. A future games may be too late, they may be too old. Musicians live in the present and future. When they win, their prize is a future garlanded with cash and concerts; lose and there is always another competition just round the corner. Musicians don’t care for their past performances, they think they play better now, and will play even better tomorrow.

Sportsmen cry because they cannot deny they are second or third best, but musicians can, for the measure of their success is vague. So why not start a Guitar Playing Olympics with clear, simple rules about winning and losing? Let’s cut out all the nonsense about “art” and just stick to the basics. Anyone brave enough out there to get the ball rolling on this?

I can think of only one disadvantage of a Guitar Olympics in the unlikely event that we can ever agree the rules, and that is the ridiculous sight of players crying like babies while the winner buzzes around like a hysterical footballer after scoring a goal. Maybe one happy bunny, various stony faced losers and a furious runner-up are not that bad after all.

London, 14 July 2012

Adding an Irish twist to my Magical Mystery Guitar Tour

Carlos with pub sign in Carrick-on-Shannon, Ireland, 6th July 2012

Stepdancing, traditional music, lots of pubs.... and more, at Carrick-on-Shannon's Music Fest

Last week I was playing in the rainy Lake District, and this week in the rainy west coast of Ireland. Rain is good – it creates green vegetation of ever-varying hues. Rain is bad – it lands on my bald head and dribbles down my face. Taking no notice of my bedraggled self I ventured forth on Thursday to explore the small and charming town of Carrick-on-Shannon where I was scheduled to play the following day, 6th July, as part of the most appropriately named Water Music Festival. Strolling through its entire length and breadth does not take long, but stopping at every pub on the way is a different story since there is one every few yards. And that really is something noteworthy of a town with a population of a mere three thousand five hundred or so.

Apart from the pleasures of drinking (in moderation) Carrick offers two most agreeable pastimes. Firstly, the sociable gathering of people who have known each other since childhood as happens inevitably in small communities but regrettably not so frequently in the cities, and secondly, live music in the shape of local musicians. And thus I stumbled upon a delightful quartet of players in the back space of Cryans Bar on Bridge Street. Made up of a wooden flute, two violins and a concertina, they played their way earnestly through reels and jigs, almost always in unison and octaves, with just occasionally a harmony note to warm the proceedings.

Earnest too were the players in Market Yard, this time consisting of a larger group of violins, concertinas and a guitar. Quite suddenly two girls no older than ten years of age came to the wooden platform in front of the musicians and performed an Irish stepdance. This dance-form which gained international recognition through the Riverdance theatre shows is characterised by arms to the sides, upper bodies inflexible from the waist up, but legs and feet a flurry of activity. A thought occurred to me: Spain and Ireland share a common heritage as two of the most Catholic countries in Europe, but have developed completely different dances. Contrast the stepdance with arms glued to the hips as if in a straitjacket with flamenco from the deep south of Spain which relies on the fingers, hands and arms to expressively carve out imaginary shapes above the waist-line.

The next day Friday I went for a long walk after breakfast, practised for an hour or so before lunch, went for another walk afterwards, and then off at 5pm to St George’s Church for my concert at 6pm. I was greeted by James Phillips, an informal and dynamic member of the festival's organising committee, who had accompanied me around town the previous day.

For the concert I chose to present my Magical Mystery Guitar Tour programme which the capacity audience received with enthusiastic applause. As well as my arrangements of music by Queen and the Beatles I also played such classics as Asturias and Memories of the Alhambra. Many audiences have not heard these pieces live (or at all), and this music never fails to cast its spell and gain more converts to the beautiful sound of the guitar. At James’ suggestion I played Brian Boru’s March as an encore and to my delight some of the audience started humming to it. As a coda I ended with a fragment of Turlough O'Carolan’s Planxty Irwin. O'Carolan was a blind Irish harpist who composed some lovely music now considered part of the folk music heritage of Ireland. He settled in County Leitrim where he died in 1738, and is buried in the beautiful village of Keadue, County Roscommon, only a few miles from Carrick.

After the concert I walked across with James, the excellent guitarist and composer Darragh O’Neill who was once my student, and a couple of female acquaintances to the very fine Victoria Hall restaurant owned by Keith Nolan. As well as a restaurateur he is one of Ireland’s leading photographers. As we approached I was introduced to the man himself, an array of cameras and zooms strung across his shoulders. Inside the restaurant wonderful portrait photos of glamorous Anabella Jackson, Keith's wife, adorn the walls. Also there, are two photos separated by twenty years of Ruairi O'Bradaigh, former chief of staff of the Irish Republican Army and President of Sinn Féin. In the one he smiles benignly in the company of friends. In the other he looks like a distinguished grand-uncle.

And so concluded my all-too-brief visit to this characterful part of Ireland. The lilt of the beautifully spoken English will linger long in my mind, as will the profusion of local talent manifested in musicians and dancers. So, too, will the warmth and hospitality of all the people of Carrick-on-Shannon.

Read more:

Carrick-on-Shannon Water Music Festival:

Cryans, Traditional Irish Music Bar:

St George’s Church, where I gave the concert:

Darragh O’Neill, guitarist and composer:

Victoria Hall Restaurant:

Keith Nolan, photographer and restaurateur

London, 8 July, 2012

Up to Ulverston with my Guitar for an Evening of Tangos

Piazzolla, Stan Laurel and the Quakers – they were all there too

Carlos at the Coronation Theatre, Ulverston with statues of Laurel and Hardy, 30th June 2012

On Friday night I became one quarter of a Piazzolla tango band at a small cafe-restaurant in Ulverston, Cumbria, UK – a town mentioned in the Domesday Book of 1086. After the event I retired to the nearby accommodation at Swarthmoor Hall, a Quaker retreat from 1652, having reached this particularly enchanting part of the country thanks to Joseph Locke and the Lancaster and Carlisle Railway, constructed in 1840. Yes, I have to admit I am obsessed with dates! For me they are like the bannister on a staircase with each step an event in history, and what, may I ask, would a staircase be without a bannister but something a lot less interesting to look at?

Music was the thing, the main thing which dominated proceedings for me on Friday and Saturday, and also too for the town, with significant proportions of its population involved in the production and success of a festival, the Ulverston International Music Festival. My first participation was in Buenos Aires revisited - and what a great title. Astor Piazzolla turned the music of tango on its head, transforming it from an exotically sensual dance to a rhythmically complex and emotionally-loaded affair.

Buenos Aires' born Eduardo Garcia made all the musical arrangements, playing the reptile-like bandoneon with deep feeling, his facial expressions a perfect reflection of the music's emotional turmoil. Russian-born violinist Dunja Lavrova provided a neat counterpoint: standing, swaying and smiling as her bow swept its way through the beautiful melodies. As for pianist Anthony Howitt I can't tell you anything about his face for he had his back to me... but if his playing was anything to go by it must have been in a constant state of rhythmic animation. The ambience was great. The small cafe really did feel like a smoky cellar in Buenos Aires, not that I have ever been to such a place myself.

The silences of a peaceful country retreat deceive us into thinking that all has always been well

We finished the performance close to midnight and I eventually tumbled into bed in the small hours of the night. The accommodation just outside Ulverston was as quiet as quiet can be, the only sounds were the echoes in my mind of the evening's music. But the silence at Swarthmoor Hall is no true reflection of the dramas this place has witnessed. In the mid 17th century it became a focal point of the struggle for religious freedom of expression with its owner Margaret Fell at various times meeting with King Charles II to petition him, until she too was imprisoned. Such are the silences of a peaceful country retreat, they deceive us into thinking that all has always been well.

My second engagement was on the very next morning at 11am – a recital of two parts in the Coronation Hall. I was greeted by a full house and a beautiful natural acoustic, I could not ask for more. As I arrived I saw two statues on the pavement in front of the theatre. Well well, they were of Laurel and Hardy, for Stan Laurel was born in Ulverston to become one of the funniest men in the movies. Buster Keaton said:
“Charlie Chaplin wasn't the funniest, I wasn't the funniest, this man was.” And I agree with that.

By 5pm I was on my way back to London by train. I notice that many passengers, including myself, pass much of their journey chatting and looking out of the window at the passing countryside, or reading books, or newspapers, or writing on lap-top computers, or annoying everyone else speaking loud banalities into their mobile phones. Maybe some curious travellers wonder as I do about the construction of the railway line on which we are travelling. What did it take to build a railway line across bogs and reclaimed land, and across the Lake District hills and mountains? Why a mountain pass here and a tunnel there? All this struck me because of an interesting plaque I spotted at Lancaster station while waiting for the London connection. It reads:
“Lancaster station opened 1846 by Joseph Locke 1805-1860 engineer to the Lancaster and Carlisle Railway and President of the Institute of Civil Engineers”.

To read about the life of Joseph Locke is to learn something of the amazing engineering constructions of the 19th century. People like him changed the world around us to what it has become now. It is almost inconceivable that anyone could do so again, and may be that is a good thing too for railway lines cut through countryside and communities, defacing them and sometimes causing huge environmental damage. It could only have happened then in the mid 19th century, neither before nor after. Maybe that's why I am so keen on dates. Yesterday we built the railway lines, and the day before (in 1686 to be exact) we passed a law of religious toleration which allowed Quakers at last to worship freely in Swarthmoor Hall among other places.

Ulverston's population is barely 12,000 and yet it hosts a wonderful festival every year. That part we can see and enjoy, but round every corner and under every stone there is an invisible history of events and peoples past waiting to be rediscovered and remembered, but too often forgotten. They have shaped all that we are and all that we do now.

Meanwhile, back to Piazzolla's tango music. Few composers have re-invented music or a genre, as he did. How did he do that? Why did he compose the way he did, what was he like, and where did he grow up? That's a lot of questions. Oh dear, that date feeling is coming all over me. Back to the history books ….again.

Read more:

Ulverston International Music Festival

Swarthmoor Hall, country house and Quaker retreat

Eduardo Garcia, bandoneon

Dunja Lavrova, violin

Anthony Hewitt, piano, and Festival Director

Laurel and Hardy Museum, Ulverston, Cumbria, UK

Joseph Locke, railway engineer

London, 1 July 2012

Playing Music In Groups Helps Advance Social Abilities

….so where does that leave the solo guitarist?

Our society has been shaped for centuries by two apparently contradictory forces: collaboration and competition. Entire social and political systems have tried and tested one or the other, and sometimes combinations of both. Whether any model has been successful and contributed to the sum of human happiness is another matter.

In the small world of music the same tendencies are reflected, although the negative effects are a lot less damaging than in the world at large. The virtuoso soloist competes with his peers for attention and supremacy. An entire sub-culture of officially appointed competitions has been invented to support him. There is even a guitar competition open only to previous competition winners – the winner of winners vanquishing all contenders and thus becoming the last one left standing. Sometimes the competitive element is unavoidable, for there is a limit to just how many virtuoso pianists or violinists or guitarists can be accommodated in a concert circuit or series. On the other hand, competitiveness can have positive outcomes: comparisons form an endless debate for music lovers, frequently leading to partisanship which further stokes the flames of rivalry between players, driving them to achieve ever-higher standards of excellence

Where competition can have both a negative and positive effect in music, collaboration appears to be only a force for the good. All duos, trios, quartets, chamber music ensembles, symphony orchestras and rock bands can only function courtesy of collaboration; the more united they are the better they sound; the more together they sound the more we admire and are moved by the music that flows from them. To achieve great things in playing music with others requires more than loads of practise and rehearsing together: it needs a meeting of minds and such familiarity that one player can anticipate another’s next move intuitively. For the musicians who enjoy this feeling it is a wonderful experience. To reach it is the wish of all who participate, with the pleasure of working towards it almost as intense as its realisation. Apart from musical ability, the collaborative skills required are of a very sociable kind.

The benefits of developing collaborative skills in music-making have been highlighted in a year-long study on children aged 8 to 11 by the University of Cambridge. It indicated that playing music in groups on a regular basis greatly improves a child’s ability to recognise and consider the emotions of others.
“We feel that the program of musical activities we’ve developed could serve as a platform for a new approach to music education – one that helps advance not just musical skill but also social abilities and, in particular, the emotional understanding of others,” says Tal-Chen Rabinowitch, from the Centre for Music and Science, who led the study. This confirms the results of previous studies, as well as the experience of many music teachers.

By coincidence, this very week in the UK, the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela has been playing a series of concerts including one at Stirling Castle in Scotland shared with 120 Scottish primary-school children from the only-too-recently deprived area of Raploch. The orchestra itself springs from El Sistema, the music education system which has succeeded in encouraging thousands of children to exchange their membership of violent street gangs for the more peaceful membership of symphony orchestras – and in the process become brilliant musicians. The advantages of collaborative music-making can scarcely claim a more uplifting example than this - and by the way, of the Scottish children in Raploch 450 of them are now learning musical instruments.

So where does all this leave the classical guitar, that intensely solo instrument? Does today’s child guitarist have to see the future as a permanent pasture of solo activity, with bull guitarists bellowing away on the aspirant professional front, charging into the ring of one competition after another to gain the approval of the high priest judges of our plucked fraternity? And if he cannot attain such proficiency will today’s child guitarist feel a musical failure in the years to come?

Maybe the collaborative route has an important significance today too for the youngsters of the guitar world. If it is true, as it appears to be, that playing music in groups greatly improves a child’s ability to consider the emotions of others, then learning to play guitar in guitar ensembles presses more than just a few worthwhile musical buttons – it is vital for developing his social skills through music-making. What’s more, his self-esteem and ability as a professional or amateur player in adult life will be on an equal footing to those lucky children who are at present playing in musical groups.

Guitar ensembles are more and more evident in guitar education today: one day they may be regarded as an indispensable part of it.

Read more:

Cambridge University Study: Music of kindness: playing together strengthens empathy in children

El Sistema: The story behind our Queen Guitar Rhapsodies recording in Venezuela with the Lara Symphony Orchestra, by Producer David Young, here in the Queen Guitar Rhapsodies Page:

Educational project for transforming lives through music: Sistema Scotland

London, 23 June 2012

What I Thought as I Strummed My Guitar from the Norwegian Fjords to a Desert Oasis

The rhythm of time itself is our great master as we sit poised to play

I have just returned from a week in Dubai and Egypt and am back in London. Before that I was in Norway, as far north as the Arctic Circle. Two more different climates and landscapes are hard to imagine. The sloping green precipices of the Norwegian fjords rise out of the deep lakes. Cascades of water freeze to ice, consigned to stillness by a sudden drop in temperature. The spruce and maple trees populate immense stretches, scrubbed clean by frequent rain, and reaching for the sun when the brilliantly blue sky smiles upon them. While I was there the temperature varied alarmingly: from a pleasant spring day while the sun was out to a bitter cold wind under the passing clouds.

Contrast this with Arabia. Less than 48 hours after leaving the hand-carved beauty of Norway I found myself in the sweltering heat of Dubai, a city reared from the desert sand dunes. The moment I left the city all I could see was sand and yellow rocks and the shimmering white heat rising to the sky. No road save the one I was on, nor signs of human habitation were visible for miles and miles. If heat has a sound then it is here you will hear it - in the desert - for it is a silence quite unlike other silences.

It was only recently that I realised fully that all the mountains in the world, and the sand in the deserts, and the fjords in Norway, and all the valleys shallow and deep were formed over millions and millions of years. Every year mountains change by a few inches, sands multiply or reduce by tiny amounts, as do all the fjords and valleys. Our natural landscape is in a constant state of change, so slow that no human can perceive it in one lifetime.

Landscapes’ changes through time are the perfect counterpoint to living life-forms for they too are in a constant state of evolution. Over the past millions of years we have changed and become what we are now. Time has shaped our wonderful planet, and time has developed our amazing brains. Just as surely over the next millions of years we shall change in ways we can barely imagine; so much so that if we came face to face with them, we would not recognise our own descendants as human beings like us.

So what has all this to do with guitar playing, or any-instrument-playing? Everything and nothing at all - both are true! A couple of hours pleasantly spent strumming the guitar sat in the shadow of a fjord or on the edge of an oasis are not even a pin-prick in the time span which has brought us to where we are now. On the other hand, the rhythm of time itself is our great master as we sit poised to play. In music we don’t need to think of time as a near infinity, for we can learn to play a musical instrument to a most pleasing standard in a fraction of a lifetime. The changes will be barely perceptible from day to day, but within a few years they will be obvious. And if we can keep this up over a whole lifetime, and learn from time’s own diligence and patience, we too can construct something special and unique - in our own music-making.

Read more:
The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution by Richard Dawkins

London, 16 May 2012