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Queen Guitar Rhapsodies

Live Guitar Playing Wins Hands Down

My day out ends in a five hour marathon

On Wednesday I found myself in a rare mood. I was neither under any obligations nor wishing to make myself busy. I took a day out and ended up at the Royal College of Music in London listening to various guitar recitals by students as part of their degree courses. Sometimes it is good to just do as you please, and to decide so as the day progresses. I had no idea whether I would wish to stay long or not. But I did, for five consecutive recitals. In the process I found myself too. When I say I found myself I mean I came to various conclusions which were more or less confirmations of what I have been thinking since I too was a student in the same establishment. In the meantime – that is, between 1969 and the present day - I have vacillated between quite different views. It is good to come to a firm opinion at last. But first let me tell you what I heard.

The music I had the pleasure of hearing included three performances of Benjamin Britten’s Nocturnal Op. 70, two performances of Alberto Ginastera’s Sonata Op. 47, and one performance each of Magnus Lindberg’s Mano a Mano, and Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s Caprichos de Goya numbers 1 and 2 from his 24 Caprichos op. 195. I also listened to Fernando Sor’s La Calme – caprice Op. 50, Isaac Albeniz’s Sevilla from Suite Espaňola Op. 47 and J.S.Bach’s Partita BWV 1002. The weakest piece by far was Sor’s La Calme. Of the others Bach and Albeniz are the odd men out. How’s that, I hear you ask. Odd only in that theirs’ are the only pieces not composed for the guitar.

And once we are at it, let me continue to find links or exceptions in the rest of them. Britten, Ginastera, Lindberg and Tedesco were, or are not guitar players. At least three of them hardly knew anything about the guitar before they composed for it. My first conclusion of the day was this: good composers do not need to be able to play the guitar to write good pieces for it. I know this view flatly contradicts frequent assertions but I am sticking to it.

All of the works were of a duration in excess of 13 minutes. They go against previous trends of composing short miniatures as for example, Frank Martin’s Quatre Pièces Brèves and Manuel de Falla’s Homenaje. That’s my second conclusion: long works work on the guitar too!

I leave two more - and for me important - conclusions to last. The first is that all four of these works are tremendous additions to the repertoire. The Caprichos by Castelnuovo-Tedesco are endlessly lyrical and inventive. The Britten Nocturnal is a hypnotic evocation of the composers’ dream world, culminating in the unforgettable musical gesture of ending the work with Dowland’s great song Come Heavy Sleep. Ginastera’s Sonata alternates extremes of lyricism and rhythmic excitement as no other piece of guitar music. Magnus Lindberg’s Mano a Mano is a composition on a grand emotional scale embracing a kaleidoscopic musical language.

And what is my last conclusion? Three of the works were composed in the 1950’s, ‘60’s and ‘70’s. They are admired by musicians and regarded by them as emblematic pieces. With time they may become accepted as essential listening by lovers of guitar music, guitar aficionados and concert goers. They may even inspire an evening’s outing to hear the music in all its nuances as only a live performance can do. I hope to be present to share in just such an occasion. Why, I would even do more than change all my obligations and take the whole day off to witness such a thing: I would invite everyone I know to it too.

London, 24 March 2012


How Many Hours You Really Need to Build Up your Technique

You decide and create your own personal development plan

Four, six, eight, ten even twelve hours per day – these are just some of the random, even wild figures put forward by some teachers and players as necessary for technical advancement.
With their advice in mind respectful and dedicated students embrace these targets with determination and enthusiasm, sure that their guitar-playing aim of supreme control will slowly but surely come into view.

With time, and more often than not with youth on their side, here is one medium and long term goal which will underpin and assure their instrumental ambitions. The logic is irrefutable: without technique they cannot play much of the guitar repertoire; once they have it they are free to roam and forage through its abundant pastures.

Roll on four, six, eight, ten and twelve hours per day practise-sessions, inching the diligent forwards to the technical paradise, and an essential springboard onwards and upwards. Teachers are right to insist on constancy, patience, and long term planning, without which even the most talented player will get nowhere. But are they right to clutch at such figures and make generalised assertions about daily commitments? Are we not all different, some of us more nimble than others? And is it not so that some players are more artistically and musically minded and less inclined to practise technique, while others are the opposite?

Each of us needs a personal development plan rather than receive unsubstantiated catch-all advice
Let us encourage the brilliant young virtuoso with bags of technique to spare to spend more time developing artistic maturity with and without playing the guitar. Let us encourage the expressive player with insufficient technique to spend more time developing it. Four hours spent on technique by the one could be more wisely spent differently, whilst for the other they would be a sound investment.

As for practising more than six hours per day I think the law of diminishing returns begins to take effect. I have rarely exceeded six hours since both my hands and brain can take no more, and of those six never more than two on technique alone.

But then I follow my own personal development plan, and nobody, so far, has suggested to me anything to the contrary.

Read more in previous blogs:

Play The Guitar, Naturally (click on February 2012)

Good Sight-Reading Speeds Up Your Learning (click on November 2011)

The Virtuous Guitarist (click on August 2011)

10,000 Hours’ Practise Makes Perfect (click on August 2011)

Guitar Practise: Brain Rules All (click on May 2011)

London, 18 March 2012


Beauty Is In The Hands Of The Player

….while the listener decides the meaning of it all

To sit with your guitar and make music may be your idea of heaven, but are there any other requirements necessary, apart from technique and musicality to reach that exalted state, and to be accepted within the divine threshold? Sheer practise and determination bolted onto talent may be a good starting point but St Peter at the Pearly Gates may be looking for other qualities too, and yes, I am still referring to musical ones.

Music goes further than technique and expression, for the whole, at its very best, is greater than the sum of its parts. It touches our emotions in a way no words can describe and sets free our imaginations since it comes with no images. No description of it is ever adequate, and no two people describe the effect of listening to music in the same way, for the same music can mean completely different things to each of them. In spite of this ambiguity, there is no doubt that music goes from the heart of the player straight to the heart of the listener, whether a meaning is agreed or not - that is, if it has any meaning at all, for Stravinsky said music has none:
I consider that music, by its very nature, is essentially powerless to express anything at all, whether a feeling, an attitude of mind, or a psychological mood.”
Leonard Bernstein wrote:
“Music, of all the arts, stands in a special region, unlit by any star but its own, and utterly without meaning ... except its own.”
And here he is again, a little more romantic perhaps:
“Music . . . can name the unnameable and communicate the unknowable.”

We can move our listeners to tears but know not why
So where does all this leave the contemporary guitar-player? We can move our listeners to tears but know not why because our music may have no meaning! Maybe we can all agree that music simply triggers a powerfully emotional response, leaving any meaning for the listener to decide.

But it was not always so. Pythagoras (6th century BC) believed that music was part of a great cosmic significance. Numbers and mathematical proportion governed the laws of the universe. The beauty itself of music was explained by its mathematical divisions into the 4:3:2:1 ratio which underpins the entire edifice of our harmonic language. Music is not just an art but a science. He went further: the entire universe vibrates to a giant harmonic sequence as do the laws of nature. This may all seem quite fantastic, but in recent times the scientist John A. Newlands in his work with atoms and elements discovered properties repeat themselves at every eighth element (referring to their atomic weights). Music repeats its properties at the eighth interval: it is called the octave. Newlands’ scientific discovery is called the law of octaves.

It is but a small step to deduce that if the basic intervals of music that determine the beauty of music are rooted in natural laws, then beauty itself could be the ideal – and so it was for Pythagoras and the ancient Greeks. Following this path we may be a little closer to finding whether there is an inner meaning to music through the pursuit of beauty, nor would we be alone in doing so. The Arabic philosopher Al-Farabi writing more than a thousand years after Pythagoras in the 9th century AD was also convinced of the cosmic significance of music, and of its therapeutic powers too. The Romantic poet John Keats concentrated on the ideal of beauty elevating it to a moral status, thus giving it a psychological spin:
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty —that is all”

Back to our guitarist, poised to play, does he need to think of music's inner meaning? No. Does he have to agree with Bernstein or Stravinsky or Pythagoras? No. Does he have to make a thing of beauty (whatever that is) of his playing? Yes. Does he have to create a union of spirits with his listener? Yes. Maybe by these means, and these means alone, he will add that extra dimension to his music that will persuade St Peter to swing open the gates and point him in the direction of enlightenment and eternal bliss.

Read more:

Igor Stravinsky 1882-1971: "Chroniques de ma vie" (1935), reproduced in Morgenstern, "Composers on Music" (Pantheon, 1956)

Leonard Bernstein: 1918-1990: The Joy of Music

Kenneth Sylvan Guthrie: An Anthology of Ancient Writings Which Relate to Pythagoras (570 – c. 495BC)

John A. Newlands 1837-1898: On the Law of Octaves

Al-Farabi 872-951: Meanings Of The Intellect

John Keats 1795-1821: Poem - Ode on a Grecian Urn

Some of these books available from:
www.amazon.com

London, March 2012


Today’s virtuoso guitar player needs a Renaissance education

While the sum of human knowledge has become vast, our specialities have become ever narrower

Once upon a time a person could seriously consider encompassing the whole of human knowledge in his or her education. By the 19th century this was no longer so. Education had to become selective, and the closer we come to our age the more selective it has become. Even in our small world of music very few of us can hope to become familiar with the works of every fine composer who ever lived.

How has education become selective given this avalanche of information and knowledge humans have accumulated? The answer is, by means of narrowing the range of subject matters. Gone are the days when a “gentleman” was expected to have knowledge of French, Latin, astronomy, theology, Roman history and geometry. Even Queen Elizabeth 1st, born in 1558, was conversant in half a dozen foreign languages or so, and as an apparently bright child was also instructed in grammar, theology, history, rhetoric, logic, philosophy, arithmetic, literature, geometry, and music. Many of these subjects were not useful, but rather accepted as being a necessary part of becoming an educated and cultured person.

The narrower education syllabus offered today has also affected our own world of the guitar

Specialised in music, and focussed on the guitar, the young student may be forgiven for thinking that the wider education of yesteryear is either a luxury he cannot permit himself, or just plainly unnecessary. But is it so? Wouldn’t the naturally inquisitive mind wander farther afield as in this example below which I ask you to imagine:

- On the music stand is perched the minuet from the Sonata in C by Fernando Sor
- The guitarist becomes curious as to the life and background of the composer and the composition
- He notices that Haydn also wrote loads of minuets and wonders if there is any similarity, which he soon discovers there is
- He asks himself why did Sor compose like Haydn and not in the strumming style of previous Spanish composers
- He finds out that Fernando Sor was caught up in the volatile political climate of Napoleon, and his military incursion into Spain, and that he left Spain as a political refugee….

I won’t go on any further. It is clear that even a brief exploration of the music of Fernando Sor, to name but one, leads to other composers, musical style and fashion, and to the social and political background of the time! Whereas education once would have homed in on all these aspects separately, the student today may have to build a spider’s web of knowledge spun around the central issue at hand. In case you have forgotten, that issue is learning the guitar and interpretation.

Once whetted, the appetite for a wider general knowledge may become ever keener. It no longer stops at gaining information related to the piece of music. This can lead to the guitar student dipping into literature, theatre, film, dance, painting, photography, science, philosophy, politics, rock, jazz and lots, lots more. All of these, I believe, feed back into the playing through the greater maturity and artistic consciousness of the player. How it does so, is another matter.

Maybe our change in attitudes to education is inevitable. I will not venture an opinion but leave it to you. All I do know is that to become a good interpreter on the guitar invites casting wide and afar the net of curiosity. Before you know it, our curious guitar student has become Renaissance man again!

Read more:
www.elizabethan-era.org.uk/education-queen-elizabeth-i.htm

London, March 2012


Play The Guitar, Naturally

An attitude of mind from the very beginning


Playing a musical instrument demands the activation and control of hundreds, thousands of nerve endings and muscles, all of them coordinating left and right hand fingers in a seamless display which should attract no attention to the inherent difficulties. It is not surprising that theories, dogmas and schools of thought exist claiming to be the most efficient way forward for developing technique. Careful reading and adherence may convince the student of this. I don´t dispute that some are very good and have been evolved by extremely clever and analytically minded musicians, providing excellent methods. It is very important to understand how to develop a technique in a structured and progressive manner.

As an instrumentalist practices away, hour after hour, there is little more gratifying than to feel that he or she is improving steadily. He can feel rightly proud of his determination and discipline. After all, it takes great patience to do so. And maybe it is all thanks to a particular method.

In the process of practice he sets himself targets for improvement. I have advocated these myself many times. The combination of a deeply determined player, a technical methodology, and musical aspirations is surely indispensable to becoming an accomplished player. As the player improves complexities increase, and so do the expectations the player has of himself. The technique continues to push at the boundaries, ever more so.

In all this storm of activity it becomes more likely, rather than less, that the player begins not to notice pains and discomforts. Worse, he may notice them but feel they are a necessary part of self-improvement. As we know, they can lead to many problems for the player, and in extreme cases to irreversible damage. The trouble starts not at the advanced stage of playing but with an attitude of mind from the very beginning.

Fingers and hands can achieve dexterity without tension

The attitude goes something like this: "it is very demanding to become a player with a really good technique. It takes years. The fingers and hands have to be coaxed to do difficult and convoluted movements. But with sufficient practice, following certain principles, they can be made to do so".

Now, I agree with almost everything but don’t like the sound of the last few words: can be made to do so. Nowhere is there any suggestion that the fingers and hands can achieve dexterity without tension nor that instruments, including the guitar, have evolved in their design to suit effortless playing, for the spacing of frets and strings are suited to the great majority of adult hands.

When we say about a player “he is a natural” we are expressing admiration about how easy he makes it look. We are also saying it looks so natural. Maybe this is a case of the chicken and the egg: because he is relaxed and natural in his approach is why he is so good. Making the best use of the natural inclinations and disposition of the fingers and hands is a sure way forward.

Try this as an experiment:
- Close your fist gently
- Hold the hand in front of you, palm upwards
- Open your hand slowly until you can see all the palm of your hand but not yet the beginning of the fingers
- Now without changing your half open hand incline your wrist towards you

Do you notice your left hand is now in an almost perfect position for playing the fretboard and completely relaxed?
Now repeat the same thing with the right hand. At the very end rotate your arm so the half open hand is facing downwards. Do you notice your right hand is now in an almost perfect position for playing the strings and completely relaxed?

Within five minutes, you can get almost everybody to understand these positions and repeat them effortlessly, poised at the guitar ready to play, even complete beginners…and they make it look natural too!

To sum up
Be natural by following basic principles of movement = Relaxed technique = Faster improvements = Effortless playing

If only our deeply determined instrumentalist reminded himself of these simple basics as he earnestly follows complex manuals of advice while rattling through endless scales and arpeggios he would be more likely one day to hear those wonderful words ringing in his ears: “he’a a natural”.

Read more:
Hard to find, but well worth the effort:
Lee F. Ryan: The Natural Classical Guitar: The Principles of Effortless Playing (1981)

Mexico, February 2012


Which Sex Is Your Guitar?

Everything you wanted to know, but never thought of asking

Which Sex Is My Guitar?

In case you didn't know, I will enlighten you: guitars have a sex. Why do I think that? Because I have observed and played lots of them, and sometimes lived with not just one but several at the same time. I have loved them all. Some have been very feminine. Some have been very masculine. Others have been mostly feminine with masculine qualities or mostly masculine with feminine qualities.

I can hear you thinking "I know where this is going: the feminine curves of the guitar and all that stuff." And I say to you, no, not at all, it's much more interesting than that tired old cliché.

The question - which sex is your guitar - may come as a surprise to you. Quite likely you have never thought of it before. You may think it nonsense and quite irrelevant and all that matters is how you play it, and what to play on it. And even if it were true it can have no influence on which new guitar to buy.

Yet all these activities and decisions could be assisted by considering the question, OK, two questions, which sex is your guitar, and if you are considering swapping it for a younger model, which sex would you like that one to be.

For starters, consider the action (the height of the strings from the finger-board). A high action is hard, loud and doesn't often buzz, whereas a low action is soft, quieter and buzzes quite easily. Replace "buzz" with "cry" and read the last sentence again.

Now think of the scale length. A short scale length of 64 centimetres from saddle to nut is sometimes referred to as a lady's model. The extra scale length of 66 centimetres is considered tough and made for larger hands.

Now do you see where I am going with this? No? Well how about the sound itself? Some instruments have a loud, brilliant, percussive sound. Others are sweet, even and - most admired of all - described as having a great sustain.

"Hang on a minute " I hear you say, "a sweet sound may be a feminine attribute, but surely sustain can be both feminine and masculine?" Maybe, maybe not. A loud guitar (masculine) gives an impression of sustain, but it is rare for the same instrument to have both volume and sustain in equal measure. Therein lies the rub for many a toiling guitar maker.

There are guitars on Mars and Venus and on some planets in between

For your guidance allow me to summarise the extremes for you to best identify your preferences. On Mars there are thicker-bodied guitars of 65 or 66cm scale lengths with higher actions, loud basses, and brilliant trebles which go "ping". On Venus there are smaller-bodied guitars with scale lengths of 64 and 65cm scale length with soft actions, sweet trebles, and loads of sustain, which go "rrrring". There are various planets in between on which live guitars with mixed qualities.

So at the risk of boring you let me ask you the question again: which sex is your guitar? Since you have persevered this far let me re-phrase that in the light of my comments. Given its qualities, to which sex does it belong, or of which sex does it contain more characteristics?

Now I can hear your brain whirling. Excellent. You are in the process of identifying its gender and all the advantages that go with discovering more about your likes and dislikes. If you are thinking of buying another one all I ask of you is not to rush out and buy the first feminine or masculine guitar that takes your fancy. Take your time to get to know each other, whether he or she minds or not.

You are going to live with him or her so remember my words of caution: act in haste, repent at leisure. Leave that sort of behaviour to the unenlightened.

February 2012


Practise Alone Does Not Make Perfect

Progress is measured by quality, rather than the quantity of time dedicated to it

The scene is a familiar one imagined and sometimes witnessed by musicians and non-musicians alike: the aspiring virtuoso crouched over his instrument practising for hour after hour, day in and day out. As we peek in at the doorway of the studio with a nod of amazement, we all wonder and admire the determination, the patience, the sheer endeavour required to reach the highest echelons of instrumental accomplishment. Artur Rubinstein the pianist said “If I don’t practise for one day I notice it, if I don’t practise for two my friends notice it, and if I don’t practise for three days the whole world notices”. Andrés Segovia claimed he practised five hours every day, although I don't know quite how he managed that while travelling during his endless world tours.

Maybe, in the light of the above comments from illustrious musicians the best advice we can offer to the young musician is to be prepared to dedicate many hours to his or her craft. But will it be enough to achieve excellence? How many have not quite managed it, even after extreme dedication? Are there other qualities necessary apart from a natural pre-disposition? What did Rubinstein and Segovia bring to their practise which turned them into the special artists they became?

“ It matters not whether we repeat a phrase ten times or a hundred times if we do not learn something from each time that we do so”

Franz Liszt the pianist gave us a clue when he said “if you can play a phrase slowly ten times in a row correctly, then you can play it at any speed you like”. Although this sounds rather optimistic to many a mere mortal, it is very good advice. The key word is slowly. It tells us something about the type and quality of the practise, for that is what matters. It matters not whether we repeat a phrase ten times or a hundred times if we do not learn something from each time that we do so, so as to improve it the next time.

The hardest thing is to practise slowly and to observe what needs correcting or improving. Once those hurdles are overcome a player improves hugely. Many students do not and cannot find the patience or discipline to practise slowly, nor do they observe and listen with sufficient detachment to correct their errors.

Even when the practise speeds up to performance speed the student has still to understand how best to improve his playing, and how best to use his practise time. So we come back to our guitarist, pianist, or violinist friend, practising away five, six, seven or eight hours a day. How much of that time is being well spent? And how much has been wasted in the wishful thinking that he inevitably will reach the goal simply by sticking at the practise for long enough?

Practise is a journey towards the unknown that pushes at the barriers between the possible and impossible. The destination is uncertain, for a student can never know how good he can become until he or she embarks on that journey. It includes not only improving technique but also interpretative and musical skills, which is why the quality and thoughtfulness of a student's practise is so important.

If you are an aspirant professional or a dedicated amateur ask yourself some of the same questions above. They may lead you to a new and more profitable way of practising, and so turn you into a better player.

Read more:

My blog: 10,000 Hours' Practise Makes Perfect posted 7th August 2011

My blog: A Practise Session In Three Parts posted 23rd October 2011

Andrés Segovia: An Autobiography
www.amazon.com

February 2012


The Cape Town Connection

Carlos with Abigail and Nelson Mandela's prison Island in the background, Cape Town, 24 January 2012

Of sharks unhinged and other curious tales

Last week I was in Cape Town, South Africa for the first time in nearly 30 years. Nothing, or almost nothing is the same, not even the sea and beaches. How could the sea change, I hear you ask? Well, to be precise: what’s in the sea and who’s on the beaches. Let me start by telling you about my visit in the 1980’s.

I was on a national concert tour of solo recitals and concertos with various orchestras. Towards the end of my stay in Cape Town the late Elsperth Jack, professor of guitar at the University, threw a party to which came musicians, writers, artists and teachers and others I can’t now recall. I played a few pieces, others did the same, and a good time was had by all. Afterwards I was told by some present that it was the first time they had attended together a social gathering of blacks, whites, and “coloureds” (the official definition at the time for mixed-race peoples). I was really moved. I could see the effects of apartheid and segregation all around and glad that even in the more liberal atmosphere of Cape Town this occasion had been special.

In spite of knowing the old South Africa I wasn’t prepared for all the changes as I arrived in Cape Town on the 21st January in a heat wave. I was greeted at the airport by my friend Margaret Carey whom I know from her time in London. What a pleasure it was to stay with her and the family in their spacious home. She arranged for me to meet up with some of my ex-students James Grace, Michael Hoole and Peter Muhl. They have carved out distinctive and distinguished careers for themselves with the guitar. I also met guitarist Avril Kinsey and Steven Felmore who designed so beautifully my book An Easy Guide To The Guitar.

One day we took the cable car to the top of Table Mountain, 1000 metres above sea level, and watched the sun set while we picnicked. Another day Margaret’s family and I imbibed the odd bottle or two of wine while enjoying local dishes at the Delheim vineyard which dates back to the 1690’s. We sat al fresco and feasted on the Ostrich bobotie, which is ostrich meat cooked with raisins, apricot jam, curry powder, chutney, nutmeg and an egg on top. That happy mix of ingredients is typical of the people of Cape Town today who give the impression of just that, happy and a mix - a happy mix!

So how are things different from my first visit in the sea around Cape Town? (Skip the rest of the paragraph if you are a bit sensitive!) The answer lies with the sharks and their recently acquired taste for humans. Apparently, the adrenaline-charged pastime of descending in a cage so as to come eyeball to eyeball with frustrated sharks has encouraged them to exact their revenge on us teasing humans. Catching sight or sniff of an uncaged person out for an innocent frolic in the sea proves irresistible – well, put yourself in their position.

The beaches have changed too. Sun worshipers of all colours now enjoy them together but are wary of tell-tale fins coming ever closer to the shallow waters of the best beaches, the very same beaches which once were the exclusive preserve of whites. The blacks, on the other hand, were designated the ugliest, narrowest and dirtiest strip of sand and water, often close to sewer outpours and oily discharges. Segregation didn’t stop at beaches but also park benches, public transport, pavements, airport lounges, hotels and restaurants. More importantly schools and towns were totally separated by law.

Allow me to point out the obvious given that I love flights of fancy and time travel. Anyone over 40 years of age remembers the old South Africa during which time they became young adults, but for 30 year olds such as Margaret’s daughter Marianne and her husband Roger it is no more than a childhood memory.

So what of the youngest friend I made in Cape Town, Marianne’s and Roger’s 2½ year old daughter Abigail? She is as distant from the time of apartheid as today’s 25 year old was at his birth from the 1960’s Civil Rights’ movements in the USA and in Northern Ireland. More startling still, she is as distant as today’s 60 year old was at his birth from Mahatma Gandhi’s peaceful rebellion against British rule in India in the 1930’s.

As I held Abigail in my arms for the photo Robben Island was just visible in the bay behind us. Here Nelson Mandela was incarcerated, cruelly and uselessly for 18 of his 27 years*. Abigail will discover that one day soon and will ask why. When she reaches my age in 2071 she may be able to answer the question I pose of her now: will Robben Island become the memory of a bygone age, or continue as the symbol of an ongoing struggle worldwide for justice, peace and harmony between peoples?

I would like to hold those thoughts in my mind and not let them go, fondly hoping that in that distant time to come, she will turn round to me and answer my question with confidence:
“Yes, we’re getting there.”

*In the winter of 1964, Nelson Mandela arrived on Robben Island where he spent 18 of his 27 prison years. He was released in 1990.

Read more:
Carlos Bonell: An Easy Guide To The Guitar
Art design by Steven Felmore
http://www.amazon.com

Delheim vineyard and restaurant
http://www.delheim.com

Table Mountain
http://www.tablemountain.net

Nelson Mandela and Robben Island
http://www.africanhistory.about.com

February 2012


Speed Up Your Learning

You may wish to learn more quickly but feel you are stuck in a learning process you don't know how to change. Here is a four point plan which may help you do so.

1. Set the stop-watch
2. Scan the music
3. Concentrate on three run-throughs
4. ...and don't forget to remember...

Self-confidence is an essential pre-requisite for setting all this in motion, as it is for any change or improvement you are considering. To help you feel more confident and make a good start choose a piece well within your ability.

1. Clocking the stop-watch
Setting a time frame quickens the pulse and does wonders for the concentration. Give yourself no less than twenty and no more than sixty minutes.

2. Scanning the music to form an overview
Choose a realistic length: the more difficult the piece the shorter the section to learn. Scan the music almost as fast as a computer scan would! Consider form, structure, texture, rhythm and tempo. Do so without playing and without going into a lot of detail. An effective scan will give you an overview and help you prioritise the next steps.

3. Concentration and the three run-throughs
Now begin playing through the piece slowly, the speed determined by your scanning. Keep your concentration at a peak. Don't answer the phone if it rings and don't engage in conversation, however tempting. Both will throw you off balance from your task. Besides, you will have to reset the stop-watch, although most likely you will have probably forgotten how long you have been at it already.

FIRST RUN-THROUGH: try to remember where you hesitate or stall. At the end of the first run-through practise briefly those phrases.

SECOND RUN-THROUGH: play at the same speed as the first run-through and try to play through the tricky passages in time. At the end practise again the difficult passages.

THIRD RUN-THROUGH: speed it up, but not a lot. Concentrate and you may to your surprise sail through the piece.

4. Remember, remember...
Part of your concentration should be dedicated to remembering what to do and not do next time round. At this stage of the learning process the fingering reflex memory is not reliable and keeps repeating the same errors unless your brain steps in, so to speak, and takes charge.

Brief pit-stop to take stock
Now relax and switch off for a moment or two. This will help you refocus on how far you have come, and to where you think you can progress in the time you have allowed yourself. You could go in various directions:
- reduce the errors or
- play more smoothly or
- memorise key phrases

Enough is enough
By the time you have reached your time deadline your brain will feel it can take no more. You may also feel exhilarated. If so, the chances are you have taken your powers of learning to a new level of speed and intensity. Congratulations.

This has been my rough guide to speeding up your learning.

January 2012


Good music, bad music, what’s the difference?

Try as I might I can’t get a handle on my own New Year resolution number eight: to not waste a moment on indifferent music and to dedicate all my energies to only good music. The more I think about it, the more difficult it is to define good music.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying I cannot identify good or indifferent music when I hear it. I can. My problem is defining the character of each, so let me rely on conventional wisdom in this regard to see whether it can help me do so.

Good music is original and expresses something new
If this were true it would cast most music to the waste paper basket of history and we would be stuck with endless replays of a handful of works. This might be a definition of great music, which is something else over and above my question.

Good music has to be complex
No, I don’t think so. Some good and even great music is simple and repetitive. Repetitive? I hear you say. Yes, as in Ravel’s Bolero, and as in the repeating sequence of a four chord cycle which dominated Western music for hundreds of years.

Good music has a wide emotional range
Yes maybe. But Samuel Barber’s Adagio for strings and the theme from the slow movement of Joaquin Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez would not qualify since they dwell in a narrow emotional world of melancholy and nostalgia.

Good music is expressive and revealing of a personal emotional state
Yes, but so also is bad music.

Good music is contained in memorable and heart-stopping moments
Yes, but a continuous succession would become emotionally draining on the listener, and maybe only works well as film music.

Well, enough teasing. What is the answer? Maybe good music is the pleasing combination of elements of most or all of the above factors in one and the same piece. Stir and mix the ingredients in the right proportions, and there you have it, a good piece of music.

I am glad I have sorted that out. Now I can go back to fulfilling my New Year Resolution number eight. It has also given me a clue as to how to go about composing good music, which is scary, because that was nearly my New Year’s resolution number six where I set myself to compose a great piece. Thankfully, although all great pieces are good, only a few good pieces are great. I think I may have to revise that one, lower my sights, and first try to write a good piece according to my own definition, rather than a great one.

That is quite enough to be getting on with for now and the rest of the year.

Listen to:
Ravel’s Bolero
Samuel Barber’s Adagio For Strings
Joaquin Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez, second movement

January 2012