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Queen Guitar Rhapsodies

Student Days: 3 lessons for life I plucked from guitar-playing

My sight-reading scores a hit
One day, while still his student, John Williams asked me round for a social evening at his house. We had a nice meal and some wine. There were other people present although I can't remember who they were.
"Would you like to do some playing?" he asked. He brought me a guitar and some music. He sat next to me with his guitar and music. Full-speed we launched into Vivaldi's Concerto for 2 mandolins and orchestra. I had read through it once before some years previously. It was my last year at College. A few days later John phoned me up and asked me to form part of his group John Williams and Friends with concerts through the UK including London's Royal Festival Hall. We also recorded the album John Williams and Friends for CBS. On it we performed the Vivaldi concerto.
Lesson for life:
My persistence at developing sight-reading skills paid off in a way I had not expected, for John, in a most discrete and elegant way, had in effect auditioned me. It was my first big break, and I never looked back.

Why some dressing-rooms just won't do
I travelled some twenty miles out of town to a small music society for one of my first recitals. I used public transport and arrived keen to prepare for the event by doing some quiet playing. The organiser was there to meet me. He showed me to the stage area where I rehearsed for a while, and afterwards I asked him to take me to the dressing room. I followed him through a white door and found myself in a public toilet. He said there was no other room available.
Lesson for life:
There always is a private space available better than a public toilet, but I didn't know that at the time.

How a pretty girl turned over and nearly ruined my concert
I was twenty years of age and was very attracted to a lovely girl with long flowing black hair, just one of her various notable attributes. I kept on trying to win her over. One day I asked her whether she would turn the pages for me in a concert I was presenting with a harpsichordist, and to my great excitement she said yes. There was one critical page turn required which she had to do as quickly as possible. In the concert she gripped the edge of the paper, and with the speed of a slap she turned the page. Unfortunately, all the music went crashing to the floor. She gathered it up and replaced it on the music stand - in the wrong order. In the following years she went on to become a fine musician and well-known personality, who as far as I know turns over her own music.
Lesson for life:
Prettiness is not a sufficient qualification for page-turning, but perfect for head-turning.

Salalah, Sultanate of Oman, 9 June 2012

Put that Guitar Down, and Practise in Your Head

The mind matters more than you think

Imagine that you are scheduled to perform a difficult work which you have never played before, let's say it is the Aranjuez Concerto. Now imagine that a month before the performance you fall ill and cannot get out of bed to practise, but have to lie still. The diagnosis is that you will recover and be OK a few days before the performance but must not practise until then.

This is precisely what happened to the great German tenor Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. He was scheduled to perform a major role for the first time, fell ill and could not sing until almost the day of the performance. No one would have objected if he had cancelled his appearance. It would have been quite reasonable; but he didn't, he went through with it. How did he do it? And what can we learn from this?

The singer lay in bed for several weeks reading through the music, singing it in his head and memorising it. I do not suggest this is something we should all be able to do, but rather something to which we could aspire.

Consider the skills required to accomplish this as a guitar player or instrumentalist:
- reading and aural skills which include hearing the music in your mind without playing. Simultaneously listening to recording will assist this process.
- visualisation skills which include fingering the music and imagining yourself in full flight playing it.
- taking note of the difficulties and repeating until completely smooth, all in your mind of course.
- memorising skills based on aural recollection, visualisation and analysis.

This singer was not alone. I have known players who prefer to memorise by just looking at the music, rather than the more frequent method of repetition and tactile memory. They may have a pre-disposition for this, but they have also worked at developing it.

Maybe it would be a good idea to explore these less usual avenues of learning, and how more unusual can you get than not picking up the guitar to learn and memorise a piece!? But then you would be using the best part of you - your brain, 85% of which lies there unused and undeveloped. This might just be your chance to discover unknown talents within you - and become brainier into the bargain.

Olden, Norway, 2 June 2012

100 Lessons for Life I have Plucked from Guitar Playing

The Early Days: Chapters One to Six

How I nearly missed my own first performance

I was about 10 years old and with my full-size guitar went alone to play in a shared gig at the Caxton Hall (or somewhere similar, not quite sure). It was a winter's night in London during the late 1950's. The bus conductor - that's the one who collected the fares and dispensed dinky paper receipts from a miniature mechanical device with a rotating handle strung round his neck - recognised me as a regular passenger on my morning run-ins to school.
"Isn't that wonderful that you are going to play in a concert". he beamed, "don't worry, I will tell you when we reach the stop." Well, you guessed it, he forgot, and I had to walk back what felt like three miles but was probably no more than five hundred yards.

I was first on the bill, and John Williams, still a teenager, was last. Afterwards he came up to me and gave me some good advice about my playing. It was the first meeting of our life-long association.

Lesson for life:
Don't travel by bus to your shows unless you know where to get off.

Parents and musos are just like everyone else - or nearly

I was five years old when I started to play. My first teacher was my father who was a keen amateur player of Spanish music. He played by ear, and had no knowledge of musical notation. My mother had a lovely voice and we would accompany her together. We would play and sing our arrangements of Jota Valenciana, Ines, Eres Alta y Delgada, Cielito Lindo and lots more. My father had facility and a fine ear but no time or inclination to practise. One day, when I was seven or eight years old I asked him:
"Dad, can I play that bit where you get stuck and miss the fret?" He looked up a bit hurt and said:
"No, that's my line."
I felt awful that I had upset him.

Lesson for life:
Music is personal, tread lightly when it comes to dealing with other players and their abilities, whoever they are.

9 years old and time to move on

I first learnt to read music on the guitar in my lessons with a plectrum guitarist called Mr. Le Sage in Clapton, East London, near where we lived. He was a kind and gentle man who patiently took me through the Clifford Essex guitar tutor. After a year or so he told me there was nothing more he could teach me. I was nine years old and I was stunned. Up to that time I thought adults knew everything.

Lesson for life:
Adults are not Gods, so avoid the ones who act as if they are, and seek out wiser mortals.

A musical rebel with a cause is slapped down at school- and look where he is now

I was sixteen years old when a mate of mine defied the music teacher and played one of his own weird atonal pieces in the school concert, in spite of being instructed not to. He whistled and puffed through his flute, banged it on the music stand, and issued fearful shrieking noises from it in a rebellious mood. Although the piece itself was almost completely tuneless the real outrage was defying the authorities. Punishment was immediate: he was banned from further public performance for some time. This same cheeky chappy is now the senior editor for an important London publisher.

Lesson for life:
Authority will hold you to account for defiance, whether in school or in the world beyond. Then when you are in charge, it's your turn to rule. That's the way the world goes round.

Sight-reading Ferraris play with a push-bike guitarist - me

While at William Ellis School in North London I played music with violinists, cellists and pianists. None of them were much older than me, but their music reading skills were way ahead. They were like Ferraris on their respective instruments, accelerating to 100 miles per hour in a few seconds. While I pedalled away on my push-bike guitar still at bar two, they were already at bar seven. I resolved to change this humiliating situation and through hard work and determination eventually replaced my guitar pushbike with a motorbike. It was a big improvement, but I kept working at it right through my teens and during my student days too until one day my persistence paid off spectacularly - but that's another story.

Lesson for life:
Improve your guitar-reading skills so you can keep up with other musicians. Illiteracy is a handicap in all walks of life.

My first paid engagement was with attractive young women and lots of drink

I was asked to play in the reception to launch a new sherry by a Spanish importer. Attractive young hostesses in flamenco dresses served the drinks. I provided the music: a sort of pseudo-flamenco complement to the generous servings of jerez which I too was strongly encouraged to imbibe. In this heady atmosphere at the end of the evening, and rising to my full sixteen-year-old height, I veered towards the organiser and asked him to pay me more money than agreed beforehand, all the time trying not to slur my speech. He gave me a withering look and uttered a few words which put me firmly in my place.

Lesson for life:
Always be nice to a promoter who pays you a fee for an engagement shared with pretty girls and plenty of drink.

Well, that's quite enough nostalgia for the moment! The remaining 94 lessons learnt will appear from time to time in this space, some more serious than others, but all plucked from my experiences with that wonderful, mysterious box: the guitar.

Alesund, Norway, 26 May 2012

Behind The Scenes of My Appearance on BBC Breakfast TV

Carlos on BBC Breakfast TV with presenters Charlie Stayt and Louise Minchin 18 May 2012

Wednesday morning I awoke in Mexico, Thursday over the mid-Atlantic and Friday in the hotel right next to the BBC TV headquarters in Manchester, UK. On Friday morning I was a little apprehensive for I was not sure whether I would be in a fit state to rise, shine and deal with an early morning show, and even less whether I would play well to the TV audience. Luckily I was not alone: my producer and great friend David Young, Lisa Davies my promotions manager, and Michael Armstrong the singer were there with me too, for they had all come up from London the previous evening for the occasion. They made me feel very confident.

I got up at 7am to run my fingers quietly up and down the guitar there in the hotel room, had a light breakfast, and together all four of us strolled the 300 yards across to the BBC TV arriving 30 minutes before I was on. The make-up girl took one look at my face and urgently whisked me away to do her best to improve it. The studio manager then escorted me to the spotlit studio from where Breakfast TV is broadcast.

I waited briefly in the wings and checked the tuning of the guitar standing up. Within minutes I found myself on the sofa with presenters Charlie Stayt and Louise Minchin who were friendly and informal and set me at my ease straight away. The programme projected my Strawberry Fields video and also a brief clip of Sir Paul McCartney and me which made me feel really good when I came to picking up the guitar and playing. Honestly I can say it never once crossed my mind that at that moment I could be reaching out to an audience bigger than half a lifetime of live performances!

In the seconds before we went live on air I discussed with the presenters how long to play for, and we settled on one and a half minutes. My mind whirled as fast as its excited state would allow and I decided on the introduction to Yesterday and the first part of Here Comes The Sun. As I talked on air I thought to end the introduction with some high note harmonics to lead me into the second piece. Altogether I found the conversation completely relaxed and the playing exhilarating.

After the show the presenters, David, Lisa, Michael and myself had some pleasant moments together, just like artists and managers would after a live show. We said our goodbyes, and with David I drove down to London towards our next pressing engagement, which was my concert the next day in Marlow that David was producing and managing. Even before stepping into the car, his phone had started ringing non-stop with ticket requests for the next day’s concert. By late afternoon the concert had sold out.

To relax and unwind I went out Friday evening for a meal. Just as we were reaching the dessert my phone rang. It was David on the other end telling me that the Magical Mystery Guitar Tour album had jumped straight to number one in the UK Classical itunes chart. Let me tell you that banana fritters with toffee sauce have never tasted so good.

London, 20 May 2012

My Tour of Mexico Keeps me Wide Awake

And yet sleep is better than practise

I have just finished a five concert tour of Guanajuato and Queretaro in Mexico. I enjoyed every moment. The only problem was sleep: not enough of it, and what sleep I did have happening at the wrong time. Just imagine arriving in Mexico on an 11 hour flight from London. I set out at 1.30pm and arrived at 12.30am the next day, except I wasn’t arriving in UK time but Mexico time, so it was 7.30pm instead. My first concert was 48 hours later at 8pm. That is 8pm Mexico time, but 2am UK time!

The priority when I am on tour in a different time zone is not practice but sleeping at a time which encourages me to be wide awake to produce my best playing. I arrived in Queretaro for my first engagement by car, went out for lunch, and still not having touched the guitar that day went to sleep, waking up in time to have a shower, be collected and taken to a magnificent patio where the concert took place. A large crowd turned up, lively and excited. I stayed awake and played my best.

My next concert was a few days later so I planned to adjust to local time no problem, except my body was having none of it. I could hear my body think:
“Why should I adjust to a new time zone when there is no urgent need to do so for a few days?” And so it turned out!

Still, my body did behave and I was wide awake for my next performance in San Miguel de Allende, an old town in the province of Guanajuato which has largely been populated by Americans. At the beginning I asked the audience:
”¿Quienes de ustedes no comprenden el ingles?” Not a peep from anyone! Everyone understood English. I refrained from asking the more searching question “how many of you cannot understand Spanish?” So I spoke in English to a largely American audience in a picturesque town in the depths of Mexico – a rather surreal experience.

A couple of days later I drove to the bustling city of Irapuato near the capital of Guanajuato. Here a large theatre in the middle of town awaited me. Rather like Queretaro a well kitted amplification system was provided and fine tuned expertly. By this time I was almost well adjusted to a regular sleeping pattern, except for the extreme heat which invited one of the greatest pleasures known to man, or at least to me: the Spanish siesta. I love siestas so I am not complaining.

By the time of my Irapauto recital I had presented two different programmes in three concerts: Magical Mystery Guitar Tour and 400 Years of Music for Guitar. The first programme centres on my arrangements of music by the Beatles and Queen and Spanish music. The second programme includes the Villa-Lobos preludes, a Bach suite, music by Weiss, and Smith-Brindle’s El Polifemo de Oro as well as some Spanish pieces . Yet in spite of having to provide more than two and a half hours of music on tap from memory, I had little inclination to practice, instead - yes you have guessed it – I just wanted to sleep! After each performance as is customary there was a late supper with the organizers and friends, and this most necessary, pleasurable and beneficial activity takes precedence over sweet dreams. But forget the idea of a lie-in, early each morning I was summoned by eager students to listen and advise and issue supposed words of wisdom.

My last performance was in Salamanca. As I drove into town I saw large posters of my person at almost every bus-stop – very flattering indeed. Not surprisingly given such a publicity campaign the concert was sold out in advance and still people clamoured to get in on the night. This concert too took place in the magnificent patio of a huge ex-convent. This time I played a programme called Los Beatles, Queen y Música Española and I believe a good time was had by all including me. The contrast between the styles of music worked beautifully.

The day after this last performance I briefly considered doing some playing on a splendid brand new guitar I had just acquired from Vicente Barajas Martinez, but yet after a few notes I tucked the guitar back into its case and myself into bed, and slept for the best part of ten hours on and off. I am still in Mexico and now feel quite good and rested. The problem now is flying back to London and going through the whole thing all over again in reverse. It will be a 10 hour flight starting at 9 in the evening and arriving at 7 in the morning the next day, but since I will be in London and not Mexico it will be 1pm. The advantage of that hour is that it is so very close to siesta time. What bliss!

And so I am about to wave good-bye to Mexico once again – that marvellous culture where the Spanish, the European, and the pre-Spanish Aztec compete for prominence, each clearly delineated, each contributing to create something very special.

Guanajuato, Mexico, 12 May 2012

My Top 20 List of What I Hate Most about Guitar Concerts

The perils of performing and how to avoid them

I have frequently been asked by students and guitar players for advice as to the stage craft of everything to do with playing in public. I have been reluctant to give it for a simple and selfish reason: that anything I say could be held against me about the way I carry on myself although I am the first to admit I am not perfect! As long as you bear this in mind, and because I have learnt so much from observing others' mistakes, I have decided at last to speak on this matter.

Here below is my not always serious list of negative comments, together with a score for hate factor out of ten and advice for improvement. I have written it in a chronological sequence from the artist's walk onto the platform at the beginning, to his triumphant withdrawal from it at the concert's conclusion and his subsequent dealing with fans.

Allow me to set the scene: the hall is full. There is an excited buzz of conversation. Old friends and acquaintances greet each other, yet to take their seats. The house lights begin to dim. Everyone hurriedly sits down. Lights now focus on stage centre. The conversation is stilled and an expectant silence replaces it.

1/ On in a flash
The artist walks onto the stage the moment the lights have dimmed.
Hate factor: 5 / 10
Advice: wait, create more tension and expectation. Count slowly to six and then walk on.

2/ The artist's appearance
He (not usually she) is dressed casually, with ill matching top and trousers, and scruffy shoes.
Hate factor: 6 / 10
Advice: do not confuse casual informal with elegant casual. Take sartorial advice, and not just from your mum or girl-friend who adore everything you do.

3/ The artist walks to centre stage
Aided and abetted by the inappropriate clothing, I can scarcely suppress a laugh as I perceive the artist walk more like a penguin than the graceful mammal we humans claim to be.
Hate factor: 6 / 10
Advice: look at how singers walk on because they have good training in this. Watch yourself on video however painful! Take advice.

4/ The artist sits down
Instead of launching straight in, he starts tuning the guitar. Why? Has it gone out of tune in the ten seconds that have elapsed from the last-minute tuning back stage? The tension goes out of the hall, and members of the audience sit back just when they should be on the edge of their seats.
Hate factor: 8 / 10
Advice: tune up to the last moment before walking, or waddling on. Don’t use brand new strings if you can help it.

5/ The artist begins to play
You would think that from now it would be plain sailing. But no, the first note is preceded by a nasal sniff and the rest of the piece punctuated by loud breathing, and yes, do I hear some humming too? All this is often complemented by face-pulling worthy of a medieval prisoner recollecting a tortured time spent in the Tower of London.
Hate factor: 9 / 10
Advice: relax and enjoy yourself. Keep your emotional reactions away from your face. The pit of your stomach is a better place, and it's invisible.

6/ The artist stands to take applause
At the end of the first item he stands to take applause although you wouldn’t think so from his stance. Feet apart, he leans over so far that he seems more interested in checking whether his flies are zipped up.
Hate factor: 5 / 10
Advice: check your flies before the start of the concert, not during it.

7/ The artist plays item 2
More endless tuning before the start....what´s more, why is it so loud? Is he hard of hearing?
Hate factor: 8 / 10
Advice: speed up your tuning. Practise at home tuning quickly.

8/ The artist tunes up between movements
Why? It sounded fine to me. And again, why so loud? It ruins the mood.
Hate factor: 9 / 10
Advice: If you have to tune, especially now, do it quietly.

9/ The artist stands to take applause again
This time, certain that his flies are done up he stares glumly at the audience. Suddenly at the last moment, he leans over alarmingly, as before.
Hate factor: 0 / 10 - I am not annoyed at all, it is the funniest thing I have seen since I last watched one of Buster Keaton´s silent movies.
Advice: look up, not down.

10/ The artist plays item 3
Yet another tuning session beforehand which this time sounds more like a total mechanical overhaul. He pulls and yanks at the strings, and just when I think he has finished he starts all over again.
Hate factor: 9 / 10
Advice: yank if you must in private, but in public treat your strings with respect.

11/ The artist speaks
He has a voice, but what a voice! Cracking with tension and unscripted, he launches into a boring speech delivered in an unintelligible monotone full of hesitations and repetitions.
Hate factor: 10 / 10
Advice: contemporary fashion dictates that the artist must “relate” to the audience by speaking to show “he is human”. This of course is all a load of rubbish. Nevertheless, we are all stuck with this assumption, and that includes me. Speaking to the public is an art in itself which needs thought and practise. It should be clear, informative and entertaining.

12/ The artist leaves for the interval
I am getting ready to laugh again at his bowing, but this time he only leans forward enough to check his shoe laces. That´s better, but where is the smile of thanks for the waves of applause?
Hate factor: 5 / 10
Advice: show your gratitude with a smile. Whether you think it is deserved or not is your business not the clappers' whose clapping deserves your grateful acknowledgement.

13/ The artist returns for part two
Now feeling more confident, he springs onto the platform and nearly trips on the last step. He proceeds as if nothing has happened. This of course is pure Groucho Marx.
Hate factor: 0 / 10 - not annoyed at all for this show could become a great comedy act.
Advice: turn all stage mishaps to your advantage by smiling or laughing or making a funny gesture.

14/ The artist begins to play, part two
Similar factors to part one begin to work their magic or not: loud tuning, silly speaking, awkward bowing and more.
Hate factor: 5 / 10
Advice: take care otherwise your audience will begin to think you are odd rather than endearing.

15/ The artist speaks again...and again
As he becomes more relaxed, his mouth goes out of control. What’s he saying now? I can’t make out a word of it, and those in the front who can, look bored.
Hate factor: 9 / 10
Advice: look at your audience, do they look interested and entertained, or are they fidgeting and restless?

16/ The artist reaches the end
Believing that a final bow must be worthy of the name, I now watch the back of his head as he cranes forward. He holds this ridiculous posture long enough for me to study every uncombed hair on it.
Hate factor: 0 / 10 - this bowing is an art form all of its own.
Advice: not sure whether he should keep his present style or not – it is so hilarious. Since you would be horrified if anyone thought this of you, you might decide to go to great lengths to improve it.

17/ The artist plays his first encore
Anxious to prove himself in his party piece and dreading the humiliation of going home without having done so, he steps out too quickly.
Hate factor: 9 / 10 - the audience sees straight through this artifice.
Advice: hold your nerve. Take a bow without the guitar, return backstage, count to ten and return to play.

18/ The artist plays his second encore
With the audience nicely warmed up, he now blows it by playing the wrong piece.
Hate factor: 5 / 10
Advice: think this one through. Do you want your audience keen to get home for a cup of tea, or do you want them jumping up and down with excitement screaming for more?

19/ The artist retires back stage
The last applause over, he goes back to the dressing room. He starts to change into his ordinary clothes in a hurry to catch last orders in the pub with his mates who have come to the concert. A member of the audience shyly knocks on the door. Our artist opens it with his unbuttoned shirt hanging out of his trousers.
Hate factor: 9 / 10
Advice: wait, the show isn't over until the last punter has left the theatre. You the artist are the first in and the last out.

20/ The artist signs autographs
With his shirt tucked back into his trousers he steps out to greet the hordes of fans screaming for autographs and a photo. “Sorry, I don´t have a pen, do you?” says he, quite unprepared. As for the photo, why did he allow theToilet sign to show in the picture, and why oh why is he looking so serious?
Hate factor: 7 / 10
Advice: bring a nice pen and check the photo background. This is show-business time: hug your fan and smile.

So there you have it, my top 20 list of pet hates. Classical artists, not only guitarists, have a lot to learn from singers, dancers, actors and even rock artists. The show is not just about playing the music. It´s a lot, lot more than that.

To watch:
Films by Buster Keaton, who never smiled whatever the circumstances

Films by Groucho Marx in the Marx Brothers, who turned a silly walk into an art form

San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, 5 May 2012

I know you can hear me, but are you listening?

Carlos in Taxco, Mexico 2006

To Mexico I fly, with Mozart somewhere in the background

The brain decides what we hear and to what we listen, not our ears. This startling thought connected to music was forming in my mind as I entered Terminal 5 at London's Heathrow Airport to take a plane to Mexico.

My check-in proceeded smoothly. I heard and listened to everything said to me by the charming official. Subsequently, I heard and missed not a beat of singer Billie Holliday while I simultaneously sipped my coffee and read a newspaper. I listened gladly to the re-mastered tapes of her voice, as if recorded yesterday. Almost immediately, an earnest couple nearby caught my attention as they talked too loudly without once glancing at each other. Each in turn delivered a brief monologue, to which the other responded with another. Clearly they did not wish to listen, although their hearing seemed fine. Frankly I would have preferred not to hear them at all, but as I became engrossed in my reading, their conversation receded into the background. I could hear it but I was no longer listening.

Now we are in the air, I have one of Mozart's beautiful Prussian String Quartets playing through my headphones. As I consider how to phrase the next sentence my mind half shuts out the music, but no sooner have I reached a full-stop and I relax momentarily than it switches back to listening to the Mozart. While my hearing of it is constant, my listening fades, returns, and fades again.

My airport experience was not unusual. But consider it again for a moment: drinking coffee, reading a newspaper, Billie Holliday singing, overhearing a loud conversation and listening to departure announcements all at the same time! This should produce a chaotic overload of information, but such is the nature of our brains that it steps in and, as if by magic, creates order out of chaos with a hierarchy of importance - foreground, middle ground and background. And so, too easily, uninvited, the brain does the same to our own playing, it creates different levels of concentration and listening attention. This is not surprising if you consider the task in hand: getting the right notes, phrasing, mood, playing in time, good tone, and rhythmic accuracy to name a few. Managing these quite often leads to selective hearing of only what is our uppermost concern at that moment.

To avoid a chaotic overload of information, our brains try to stop us listening simultaneously to all aspects of our playing

In our practise the natural tendency is to concentrate on one quality more than others, and this is good. But it does have a disadvantage, which is the tendency to become used to, even immune, to negative aspects still bubbling away, relegated by our brain to the background. We no longer listen to them, all thanks to our brain trying to be helpful by creating foregrounds and backgrounds. The ultimate goal is to listen to our own playing as an integrated whole. This means encouraging every part to the foreground on demand, becoming aware even of what we don't want to hear, for example poor tone.

So my advice is to give your brain a good talking to, and insist that it forces the ears to listen completely to everything you play, and put an end to a selective process which is its wont. By doing so you may be most pleasantly surprised: your playing may sound a lot better than you previously thought, or of course, it might mean back to the drawing board!

Now I have nearly finished writing I am hearing again the aeroplane engine noise, nearby passengers giggling (maybe at my manically concentrated look as I type this), and the Mozart quartet, which has been playing on a loop. I think it has gone round eight times, but I am not sure. You see, my brain was looking after me while I concentrated on writing this article, forcing everything else into the background. I am pleased to say the time has arrived to enjoy the Mozart and its ever-so-strange modulations.

And yes, this time, ninth time round, I will really listen to it, and not just hear it.

Read more:
Lateral Thinking: Creativity Step by Step by Edward De Bono,1973

Estado Mexico, Mexico, 28 April 2012

How to Develop Your Own Interpretations: Five Key Points

Carlos at the Latin Quarter Guitar Festival, London 2004

There are three questions which always arise when talking about interpretation. Why are some interpretations of the same piece so different one from the other? What do good players do to make their playing so recognisable? How do you arrive at an interpretation of your own?

To help answer these three questions I suggest there are five key points which unlock the key to interpretation:

Listen to music and compare
The overview: from the outside looking in
The detail: from the inside looking out
Intuition and spontaneity
The final mix

Listen to music and compare

This is the start and end point of all learning. Start by listening to good players, and end by listening to your own playing - how do they compare? Remember the why - what - how test [w - w - h]. Why is one better than the other? In what do they differ? How to improve?

The great scientist Isaac Newton said "if I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants". That is how we should approach devising an interpretation: with both confidence and humility. At the beginning it matters not that you may be copying a master performance. On the contrary, that is a good exercise. The great pianist and teacher Artur Schnabel said "once a student can play exactly like I play, then he will be able to play it any way he likes".

The overview: from the outside looking in

Now set aside listening to other players' versions. Consider the following: what is going on in this piece, why does the composer compose what he does at any given moment, how best to project your conclusions in your playing. Subject each of the following too, to the same w - w - h questions:
- mood/character
- tempo/s
- harmony/harmonies/modulations
- texture
- rhythm/s

Your deeper understanding of these over-arching aspects will transmit itself, sometimes without you realising it to your playing, and give the music form and cohesion.

The detail: from the inside looking out

With the guitar on your lap pick and play key phrases. What are key phrases? They are the ones that stand out for you as the most memorable (and probably for the listener too). Enjoy them. Experiment with fingering the same phrase on different strings. Try out if appropriate vibrato, glissando, beautiful tone (always appropriate!) and different colours. How does it sound best?

Sometimes a phrase reveals the essence of an entire piece, and shows you how to best shape your playing of it. For the film The Queen actress Helen Mirren said that she felt the Queen's character open up before her by successfully recreating her manner of walking! And it can be the same for you in music, a detail can illuminate the whole piece, and show you how to shape much of the surrounding musical material.

Intuition and spontaneity

Throw caution to the wind, no matter the mistakes, play through the piece. Allow your imagination to roam free. Exclude nothing. Live in the musical moment: in this phrase, in this change of key, in this chord. Play every note and nuance with beauty and intensity.

The final mix

This is the time to bring together all the considerations from points one to four. Remember what you are trying to achieve: to move the listener with your own interpretation.

Comparison: be neither shy of recalling great interpretations by other players nor cautious of asserting your own ideas.

The overview: a piece delivered with a clear projection of mood, form, shape, texture, harmonies, and rhythm draws the listener into the special intimate world of your interpretation.

The detail: for the listener a beautiful phrase magically played can be unforgettable.

Spontaneity: this is probably the most exciting aspect you can communicate, and yet the most difficult. Each performance for you has to become a re-invention and a re-discovery of the music, in effect much more than a re-creation.

The final mix: shake and stir this heady potion and serve cool, hot, or somewhere in between, but do it your own way.

Personality types and a surprising conclusion

How you mix the four points is up to you, and will reflect your personality, musical and otherwise.

At one extreme we have the cool, rational, forward-planning type who will probably give much more time to points one and two. At the other the excitable, emotional, spontaneous type who will probably give much more time to points three and four. Both may come up with very good insights and performances, quite different one from the other.

Hang on, I think we have just answered the very two questions I posed at the beginning! Let me remind you of them: why are some interpretations of the same piece so different one from the other, and what do good players do to make their playing so recognisable. We may have an answer to both:

- good players are recognisable because they shake and stir all the elements we have discussed in their own distinctive way, and thus inevitably create a personal interpretation -

And what about the third question: how to arrive at an interpretation of your own? My answer is that if you have followed me this far you now hold the key to developing your own interpretations. It will surprise you to learn that you may already be doing so without you knowing it. Why? Because your striving for perfection makes you think you still have a long way to go.

And maybe, that's as it should be.

Read more:
Principia by Sir Isaac Newton, published in 1687 in which he formulated a theory of gravitation and stated his three laws of motion

Watch the film:
The Queen directed by Stephen Frears, starring Helen Mirren

Listen to:
Artur Schnabel, pianist

London, 21 April 2012

Cannot, Must Not Practise Scales In Public

I have gained a new secret audience by doing so

You may not believe this when I tell you, but I find it hard to do any practice when I am on tour - that is, any practise at all. Why? Frankly, I cannot bring myself to play scales on my guitar in an aeroplane while fellow passengers around me are trying to sleep. It's the same with hotel rooms: I think twice before practising in them too, mindful of the numbing effect it would have on me if I were the occupant next door. And if I were to have my own tour bus, I couldn't possibly sit at the back and get on with it either.

You see, I regard scales and arpeggios and ligados and continuous slow repeats of passages as being a very private business. I don't want anyone to hear me. It's like the difference between getting dressed and going out all dressed up. Playing scales is getting dressed, playing music is going out all dressed up.

With my guitar leaning uneasily against the chair I could swear its one eye was pleading with me to have a strum

So how am I to resolve this problem? I would like to feel free to practise. I know it's good for me. I realise it's about time I worked out how to do so on tour without feeling self-conscious and shy about it.

Yesterday I was in my hotel lying down mulling over the matter, my guitar leaning uneasily against the chair. I could swear its one eye was pleading with me to have a strum. To please it I got up, perched on the edge of the bed, held the guitar to me, coaxed a sound or two out of it, and yes, gradually I saw the light. No, I don't want to take all the credit because it wouldn't be fair. It was my fingers rather, who stumbled upon a solution.

I sat there and found them searching for melodic variations within the scale patterns, rearranging the sequence of notes in a most pleasant manner. It felt as if my brain were not involved, they (the fingers) did it all themselves. On the other hand my mind completely directed the reshaping of the arpeggios. For a long time I have advocated 1, 1V, V, 1 sequences in a continuous rhythm as in my Technique Builder book. They sound good, both to player, and importantly, to the listener. What's more they are fun and beneficial to play. As for slurring exercises they are so quiet they cannot easily be heard from another room. They don't disturb anybody. It is a pity I can only keep them going for sixty seconds or so without my hand aching. I assume it is the same for you - sixty seconds and that's it, otherwise either I am seriously deficient or you are taking special finger steroids.

An agreeable limbering up in public places will keep me and any involuntary listeners relaxed

How about the slow repeats of phrases, is there a way around that to make them more listener-friendly? No, but yesterday I took particular care to play them musically and improve them with each repeat, all this not to annoy eavesdroppers trapped in the vicinity.

So there you have it, an end to practise as I know it, and from now on a new and altogether more agreeable limbering up in public places will keep me and any involuntary listeners relaxed. The only drawback is that I may acquire a whole new closet audience, hunched up on the other side of partitions, ears glued to the doors and walls, following my progress. This rather defeats the purpose since I still want to keep my practise to myself.

I know, I have just had an idea. I will hang up a notice on the outside of my hotel room door which reads:"if you like what you hear come to my concert tonight. Just slip $20 under the door and I will reserve you a ticket."

The sight of dollar bills gliding silently across my hotel room carpet will surely encourage me to play joyfully within the confines, and stimulate further creative thinking about how to transform my embarrassment into a tidy profit. As for private practise, that can always wait until I get home.

Read more:

Carlos Bonell: Technique Builder (1998)

Venice, Italy, 14 April 2012

Music makes some parents mad

- while for the child it's like driving a fire-engine

The path to instrumental accomplishment is strewn with obstacles, whereas the one to virtuosity eases the nearer you get to the finishing line. What this means in straight language is this: if you have an average talent you will have more difficulty getting by, but if you are a whizz kid you will have a clearer pathway ahead.

Consider for a moment the difficult situation, even plight, in which an average child finds him or herself. She loves the sound of music, the feel of the instrument, the idea of making music. She follows instructions (often over-reaching and poorly explained) and achieves reasonable, but not outstanding results.

The sceptical parent makes an obstacle course of learning music

Obstacle number one is already upon us, for some sceptical parents now openly tease the child on the screeching sound of the violin, or the slow progress on the guitar (or whatever instrument they have chosen). Soon they question the expense of paying for tuition since the results are not in accordance with their expectations.

Let us assume these same parents are encouraged by the teacher, and by the insistence of the child to continue the lessons. Now looms obstacle number two: the teacher himself, who can scarcely disguise his impatience with the slow progress. He may insist on a tedious set of exercises in the mistaken belief that the child will benefit and improve as a result.

And still the child persists, now approaching her teens. The parent has one more blow to deliver. "You should be spending more time on your homework and build up something which might be really useful". By "really useful" is meant "your future job".

The parent may draw aside the teacher confidentially and ask the question: "is she good enough to be a professional player?" Needless to say anything short of a ringing endorsement will fuel the belief that the offspring is wasting her time, regardless of the fact that the youngster has yet to consider a profession. Faced with this pressure many youngsters throw in the towel.

Some people think they are Mozart's dad

So far we have discussed the sceptical parent. Now consider the opposite effect: that of the doting parent. This type usually has no first hand knowledge of playing a musical instrument, and may even be living vicariously through the child. The slightest fluency and ability to play a simple tune is greeted with exaggerated praise. The child soon becomes aware how to best please the parents: by playing, either badly or well, it seems to make no difference. Disturbingly soon the parent begins to imagine a glittering future for his or her imagined little genius, and assuming the role of a Leopold Mozart, but with none of his expertise, begins to become more demanding: "why don't you learn more pieces? And how about that Vivaldi music so-and-so plays on the CD, why don't you learn it?" Our little one makes an appalling hash of it, and still the once-doting parent (now more manipulative) cannot see that he is making unreasonable demands, frustrating his offspring, and undermining her true potential.

Why should an average child endure all this? If a child at the age of seven shows an interest in science do parents immediately start considering her a future brilliant mathematician?

If a child loves drawing or fire-engines or running around the playground, is she considered a future Picasso, or fire-engine driver or an Olympic athlete?

Maybe in their dreams parents may wish so but they are unlikely to visit upon the child the sort of pressures I have described above.

Only the performing arts - music, acting and dancing - seem to bring out the extremes in parents' expectations. Most children are talented in an ordinary way in music just as they are in other subjects. Being partial to music myself I would say that the benefits to a child of playing music ordinarily are as great, and sometimes greater, than ordinary accomplishment in other subjects.

Once a child has enjoyed in a relaxed and joyful manner making music to the best of her ability she will never forget that experience and will quite likely return to, or wish to return to it in later life. But if the parent makes unrealistic demands of her, she will remember her experience of music making with hurt and sadness.

So grow up, parent person, let your child enjoy playing music to the best of her limited ability, and you over there, yes you, take off those rose-tinted spectacles and calm down. Remember this, music like all precious human achievement is worth doing for its own sake and for the pleasure of learning. The journey is as worthwhile as the destination, and quite often more so. Please don't confuse the two.

Where does all this leave the whizz kid? Onwards and upwards - but that's a story for another time.

Cadiz, Spain, 7 April 2012