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Queen Guitar Rhapsodies

Easter in Mexico With A Few Screws Loose

Assisi, Italy, 2007

Assisi, Italy, 2007

I have spent much of Good Friday on my hands and knees trying to find loose screws (which have fallen off the peg box), playing and comparing guitars (a total delight), and watching Easter processions (a strange mix of the cruelty of ancient Rome and peaceful Medieval chants).

Is there anything more annoying than not tracking down a guitar buzz? Ponder briefly: unwind all the strings, file away bits off the nut, wind them up again with hopes raised, only to have them dashed by that buzz again. OK, start over, let's try  something else: strings off, raise the action at the bridge with a sliver of wood, wind up those strings and ....yes, I mean oh no! There it is again. And so on.

Very kindly, Perfecto Rubio, the excellent guitar maker, has tried his best to fix it, but more than that,  has lent me one of his beautiful guitars to be getting on with.

Meanwhile, out in the real world (or unreal, depending on your point of view)  street processions led by priests, church wardens,  police, and fire engines move slowly  through the streets. A motley crowd of local people and an ambulance bring up the rear. 

Laboriously detailed recreations  of the last days of Jesus are re-enacted in full uniform - Roman soldiers whip him as he carries the cross through town in the searing heat and out to a hill for a mock crucifixion. Herod, Pontius Pilate and the Virgin Mary all have bit parts in this three hour saga. Out of the town  they wind, hundreds of feet trudging in eerie silence through the country lanes kicking up clouds of dust.

Meanwhile back at the ranch the buzz on my guitar moves from note to note like an invisible fly fleeing the swat. No sooner have I cornered it than up it rises and causes trouble with another note. I'll tell you what: I am going to forget it and give Easter my full attention. In the scheme of things a buzz is just a buzz, easy come, easy go. But the events of this period are transcendental, whatever our personal feelings and convictions.  

3rd April, 2015, Mexico

Marilyn and I

Marilyn playing the lute, and I

Marilyn playing the lute, and I

The story of how I ended up with her playing the lute

Was there ever a more surprising woman than Marilyn Monroe? After playing the dumb blond to perfection she decided she had had enough of that and got together with egg-head writer Arthur Miller. Unfortunately it didn't work out, but she did get a great part from him in The Misfits . What very few people know is that I have come face to face with her.

It all started with my arrival on Hilo. This is a Hawaiian island with a volcano actively spewing larva as I write. Down it dribbles slowly, a few feet per day, destroying everything in its path. Like some horror film in slow motion you see it coming and there is nothing you can do about it. For the rest, life proceeds as normal.

A rock band in full flow greeted my arrival in Forest Market. Not just any rock band, but a three guy outfit giving it all they could with a combined age of around 200 years. Minutes later a loud rushing noise neared at alarming speed. Could it be the volcano letting rip? I spun round to see a large mob of motor bikers roar past on some really neat expensive machines. But then they could afford it, for they were all at that menopausal stage when blokes do what they had always wanted to but couldn't - till now.

A stroll through Forest Market revealed a community of earnest creative types mostly from the rest of the world selling their own jewellery, art photos, clothes and paintings. I stopped to enquire about some striking paintings, whereupon a glamorous artist called Suraya drew me into earnest and intelligent conversation about the state of the world. I listened, yes, but couldn't take my eyes off her, if you get my meaning.

Which by an uplifting association of ideas brings me to Marilyn Monroe. Later in the week I stumbled upon a gallery of photo prints including this one of her with a lute. Note the care which has gone into the elaborate setting. It is like a romanticised medieval dressing room. The lute is beautifully unreal. Marilyn's left hand clutches tightly at the fret board. Her white outfit suggests innocence. But her expression is one of feigned discomfort as if to say "now look what they got me doing" - the masterstroke of a great comedienne.

Marilyn was a lost soul, an underrated actress and a fabulous singer. Writer and director Billy Wilder said - "she was remarkable. She had a quality that no one else had on the screen, except Garbo. No one. She was a kind of real image, beyond mere photography. She looked on the screen as if you could reach out and touch her."

And that is the story of how I came face to face with Marilyn, and felt I could reach out and touch her.

27th March 2015, Los Angeles, USA

10 Painless Ways To Learn How To Read Music Fluently

- and play through all your favourite music, no sweat -

Walking around somewhere in the South last year learning without a guitar in sight.

Walking around somewhere in the South last year learning without a guitar in sight.

Play through single line music like recorder sonatas by Telemann and other Baroque composers.

Play through very simple pieces from guitar tutors.

Make continuity the priority. Don't stop to find the right notes.

Learn to identify and play different rhythms at sight. You can do so without playing.

Improve your knowledge of the fretboard by naming the notes under the 1st and 4th fingers in different positions. Name them out loud rhythmically e.g. one note per second.

Improve your knowledge of the fretboard by calling out a note - any note - and playing it on every string. Do so rhythmically e.g. one per second.

Repeat 5 and 6 above without playing the guitar. You can fill idle moments doing so while standing at a bus stop or stuck in a traffic jam.

Name the chords and/or harmonic scheme. Become familiar with chords in the open string keys, not just in 1st position but all the way up to the 9th. This knowledge will really speed up your reading skills.

Treat sight-reading as speeded up learning. Give yourself a finite length of time, say 15 minutes, to play easy pieces perfectly.

Convince yourself that 1 to 9 are important and you will soon be on your way to becoming a good reader.

20th March 2015, Dallas, Texas, USA

10 Key Ways To Become A Brilliant 24 Carat Gold Player

- tick them off one by one and you’ll be on your way sooner than you think –

Carlos at the Centro de Cultura, Barcelona, Spain, 4th November 2011 photo by Enrique Ruiz-Tagle Pezoa

Carlos at the Centro de Cultura, Barcelona, Spain, 4th November 2011 photo by Enrique Ruiz-Tagle Pezoa

Improvement is like building blocks - slowly and steadily. There is no need to get impatient. That leads to frustration and tension.

Listen, compare and imitate. When you can play a phrase exactly like Jimi Hendrix or Eric Clapton or Julian Bream then you will be able to play it in any way you wish – preferably your own way.
Read as much about your area of interest as you can. That includes musical, social, and historical background,

Play in time, and drive yourself nuts developing rock solid tempos and rhythms.

What separates a few players from the rest is beautiful phrasing. This can involve developing a singing/lyrical style, allowing phrases to breathe, and giving them space.

Accurate playing means just that. No smudges, buzzes let alone wrong notes. OK, so you already know this, but are you practising slowly and carefully enough to make this happen? By slow I mean at a snail’s pace, and not just once but all the times necessary until it is perfect….only then move on.

Good tone is the first thing that grabs the listener. It doesn’t need a brilliant technique to do so. Anyone can acquire it. The problem lies in producing it under the pressure of playing difficult passages. Don’t put off good tone to tomorrow, do it now!

It is easy to reduce playing to a dynamic monotone. Dynamics are one of the casualties of concentrating on accuracy since it is easier to play without them.

The art of interpretation depends on transcending difficulties and transporting the listener with your playing to a special place somewhere above the clouds away from our ordinary world! This may sound a bit far-fetched, but is it? Convince yourself that this is what it’s all about and you will think of your playing quite differently. Say to yourself you can do it too.

Playing involves co-ordinating all of the aspects above. It is hard to keep your mind on all of them simultaneously, so think of them one at a time. Let your mind flit from one to the other as you are playing. Think of them as a check list.

14th March 2015, London

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10 Ways To Improve Your Playing Without Even Touching The Guitar

- give the old box a rest. Many things can be learnt in your head while walking down the street -

Walking around somewhere in the South last year learning without a guitar in sight.

Walking around somewhere in the South last year learning without a guitar in sight.

Given the determined and obsessive nature of most instrumentalists, in which category I include myself too, it may come as a welcome relief to realise just how much you can and should do away from the instrument. All of it can be done from the comfort of your own home. But pause a moment, that is if you can tear yourself away from your practice, to reflect how much dead time you have on your hands: walking to College or to work or to catch a bus, sitting in it, listening to boring old lecturers droning on, coming home to grumpy mum telling you off for not eating your din dins. Need I go on? During all this time you could be filling your head with the following thoughts. Enjoy!

Listen to other players on YouTube. Learn from how they play - well or badly.

Sing or whistle the pieces you are learning. You will be surprised how naturally you phrase without the technical burden of playing the instrument.

Read all you can about the life, musical and historical background of the composer and of his/her ideas about music and interpretation.

Check your memory: name all the notes in sequence of the pieces you have learnt. Reminder- put that guitar away.

Check your memory: visualise all the frets and strings and fingerings. Name them all in sequence one at a time. You may drive yourself potty doing so. This is more safely done while walking rather than driving.

Total recall: visualise the notes,frets, strings and fingerings patterns all at the same time.

7 Fretboard knowledge: call out a note, any note,say g#, and locate it on all the strings. Name the frets in rhythmic sequence. I suggest one per second.

Fretboard knowledge: concentrate on a position, for example the 9th, and name the notes under the 1st and 4th fingers on all the strings. Call them out in rhythmic sequence. I suggest one per second.

Imagine the ideal tone/sound you wish to make. Don't close your eyes, you might bump into the lamp post.

Imagine how you are going to make the ideal sound - free stroke, rest stroke, over the sound hole etc etc.

You have now reached your destination. Fold up this part of your mind, get on with the rest of the day, and wait impatiently to put it all into practice later today.

This has been my rough guide to learning without the guitar on your lap.

7th March, 2015, Madrid

The Wow Factor: Guitar Masterpieces Are Alive And Well And Awaiting Your Pleasure

- but the guitar world is the last to recognise this, as was revealed in London on Thursday –

Laura Snowden

Laura Snowden

It is not often that a major concert hall in London presents a concert at its own financial risk called 20th Century Masterpieces for Guitar. Thus it was with some excitement I went to St John’s Smith Square to see and hear Laura Snowden play a programme of just four works: Villa-Lobos’ 5 Preludes, Britten’s Nocturnal, Mompou’s Suite Compostelana, and Torroba’s Sonatina. This was a highly contrasted set of works although three of the composers were born within six years of each other, and two were Spanish. If there was any similarity it was naturally between the Spanish works by Mompou and Torroba.

Federico Moreno Torroba  Photo courtesy of zarzuela.net

Federico Moreno Torroba Photo courtesy of zarzuela.net

But the similarity is not based on style or inspiration but instead in the masterly craftsmanship of their compositions. Unexpected harmonies and modulations ring out at precisely the right moments to keep a listener enraptured and on the edge of his/her chair. No sooner has one rhythmic sequence got our foot tapping but an exquisite melodic phrase makes an appearance.

Federico Mompou in 1920. Photo courtesy of Zefir Records

Federico Mompou in 1920. Photo courtesy of Zefir Records

These pieces contain a deceptive simplicity in their seductive harmonies a million miles away from the atonality rampant all around at the time of their creation. Consequently for many years Mompou and Torroba, as other composers like Malcolm Arnold in the UK, suffered the stigma of not keeping up with the dissonant times. Regarded as throwbacks and reactionaries they were not afforded the respect which would have been their due if they had composed “squeaky gate” music.

Villa-Lobos’ Preludes also have come in for quite a lot of stick. This includes a completely irrelevant comparison to Agustín Barrios’ output, as if these two very different composers could not coexist in our minds without us having to make a choice as to who was the better artist. And where does this idle chatter come from? The guitar world ofcourse!

Heitor Villa-Lobos enjoying a cigar

Heitor Villa-Lobos enjoying a cigar

And finally, Britten’s Nocturnal, almost universally regarded as a masterpiece. It is a supreme stroke of irony that this is the one piece which borders on, flirts with, and at times bathes in, atonality. It is a magnificent achievement in every way: expressively, guitaristically, and as a composition culminating in a Dowland song, English from beginning to end.

So there we have it: a Brazilian and a Spaniard (Torroba) dipping into their folk heritages but steering their music into new waters; another Spaniard (Mompou) creating an impressionist tapestry of notes and harmonies of shimmering beauty; and an Englishman completing the circle of 16th and 20th century music in his only solo work for guitar.

The concert was delivered magnificently by Laura Snowden with total conviction and artistry. I declare an interest: she is still a student at the Royal College of Music, and I am one of her teachers, and I say all this with great pride and satisfaction!

The only thing missing in this event was a sizable audience. No hoards of eager pluckers here comparing nail shapes and strings – all conspicuous by their absence. That is a pity for it was both inspired and novel to pitch these disparate masterpieces in the same programme. Maybe guitar fans still need to grow up before they see the significance of such a concept, and roll up to support concert promoters and artists who have the courage to put their money with their mouth is.

1st March 2015, London

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10 Things About Guitar Playing You Want To Know But Never Dared Ask

Assisi, Italy, 2007

Assisi, Italy, 2007

Here is an imaginary conversation in the manner much loved by the Ancient Greeks of an imaginary conversation between a student and a wise old sage.

Is a really expensive guitar worth the money?
No more and no less than an expensive car. Depends what you are looking for.

OK, with a car you know what you are getting, but with a guitar?
If you ask that question I suggest you look,listen, and if possibe play a range of guitars. It's the equivalent of test driving a car.

Actually I have tried really expensive guitars and I didn't notice a big difference between them and ordinary ones.
In that case buy a cheaper guitar and save yourself enough money to buy the car as well.

I have been practising a lot for ages and don't seem to get any better. Should I just give up?
Many players don't realise they are improving because progress is often slow. Try adjusting your expectations to something more realistic.

Progress is slow in spite of me spending hours at it, so what's the point?
If you ask that question then it is because you are not enjoying your playing. There are lots of other things you can do with your life. Try them instead.

I am thinking of stopping lessons with my guitar teacher. I don't know how to tell her that I can learn the same stuff on the internet.
The internet cannot replace the dedicated attention of a good teacher. The way to tell her is slowly and gently and hope for the best.

I often get bored at classical guitar concerts. Am I missing something and will I enjoy them more as I get used to them?
Maybe not. There is a lot of indifferent music in guitar concerts which needs to be played really well to be entertaining, and even then your patience might wear thin.

The guitar music I really want to hear is not played often in concert. Why don't they played more pieces with good tunes?
Young guitarists straight out of College are still under the influence of Academia which emphasises the difficult and the demanding. Older guitarists grew up under the pressure of avoiding the traditional repertoire. The consequence is the frustration you express.

Do really good players need to practise a lot, or are they born with the gift?
The amount of practise varies from player to player as does the size of gift. I prefer to call it a predisposition. No one gets good without quite a lot of practise however gifted.

I like to use the pieces I learn to express myself by adapting them, but my teacher says I should stick to the notes.
There's a fine line between interpretation and reinvention. You will be safer calling it reinvention, because interpretation suggests playing all the written notes whereas reinvention doesn't. Now here's the rub: you better make it interesting otherwise it will sound like self-indulgent rubbish.

10 Reasons Why Practising Can Do You Harm, And How To Avoid Total Meltdown

Luis Milan Seminario, Xativa, Spain, 2006

Luis Milan Seminario, Xativa, Spain, 2006

Many is the talented guitar player who has come seriously unstuck by ignoring the warning pains I describe below. And believe me, pain is a warning. Sometimes it goes away. More often than not, it doesn't. Instead it gets worse. So if any of these conditions apply to you, do something about it – now!

Your left wrist begins to hurt. Sometimes you can scarcely bend it.
Stop! There is too much tension in your arm, hand, fingers and even shoulder. Get help.

Your left shoulder is in pain, but curiously not while you are playing. So this encourages you to keep on.
Stop! There is too much tension in your arm, or hand, or fingers, or shoulder, or back, or all of them at the same time. Get help.

You are feeling discomfort in your lower back, and sometimes pain. But it’s OK when you play cross-legged.
Stop! There is too much tension somewhere in your back. Get help. Playing the Classical Guitar cross-legged like our Flamenco cousins is not really an option.

Your right hand fingers seem to have minds of their own. Sometimes one of them curls up without you asking it to.
Stop! There is too much tension somewhere in your right hand, or wrist, or arm, or elbow. Get help.

Your hips and legs feel all stiff.
You are sitting tensely. You may be tensing the muscles in your legs. Your back may be sloping.

Your left foot and ankle are tight and prevent you from walking freely.
You are curling up your toes and tensing your ankle on the footstool while playing and practising.

Someone close tells you that you are grinding your teeth and pulling ugly faces as you play. You don’t want to believe it but have to when all your relatives start nodding reluctantly in agreement with the accuser.
You are tensing your face muscles, and your mouth, and your forehead while playing. You probably have been doing so for ages without realising it. You may even be suffering from self-induced headaches. Do some slow, quiet practise while looking into a mirror. Looking at your own reflection can have a calming influence on you.

One of your fingers is hurting, while all the others are fine.
Stop! There is too much tension in your hand, not just in that one finger. Get help.

You feel discomfort in your right shoulder, even pain.
Stop! There is too much tension in your arm, or hand, or fingers, or shoulder or back, or all of them at the same time. You may not be resting your arm in a relaxed manner on the guitar. Get help.

While you are playing or practising you feel fine, but when you get up you feel stiff all over: both arms, your hands and your back.
You are so determined and driven in your purpose that you become oblivious to your body complaining to you in the only way it knows how: through pain.

Pain may be caused by reasons unrelated to your guitar playing. First you have to make sure that you are not suffering from a medical condition. If it becomes apparent to you that your pain and discomfort is caused by the guitar then you would be well advised to take professional advice from therapists, practitioners of the Alexander Technique, or teachers who know how to address the issues involved with good advice. Don’t be fobbed off with banalities like “you just gotta relax.” That is not enough. You deserve better than that in the shape of the practical steps you need take.

This has been my rough guide to why practising can be bad for you and how to avoid total meltdown.

14th February 2015, London

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A Delicious Day Out On The Town – With Just One Problem

- for everywhere I go I am reminded of guitar playing -

Carlos: portrait photo by Sophie Davidson, 2010

Carlos: portrait photo by Sophie Davidson, 2010

Decided to put the old box away, close the lid, and escape for the day. I spent it seeking out experiences totally unrelated to guitar playing, and yet the more different, the more I was reminded. I mean, how can having tea in a bookshop and visiting the Orla Kiely Ladies’ Clothes Shop in Convent Garden bring me back to the guitar? Well, it did and to the art of music itself too.

Orla Kiely's modestly called Ladies’ Clothes Shop contains a lot more than clothes. Situated in Monmouth Street, next to the Royal Opera House in London's Covent Garden district it provides an aesthetically unified experience. Hats, coats, shoes, wallets, umbrellas, stationery, books, kitchen and bedroom furniture are all given the treatment. Gentle, geometric patterns, at the same time both abstract and feminine, are everywhere. In her beautiful book Pattern she wrote of how she is inspired by the sheer quality and inventiveness expressed in print of the mid 20th century. She admits to “a particular nostalgic affection for the patterns of the 1960s and 1970s.”

Harlequin: Orla Kiely wallpapers

Orla Kiely wallpapers

Walking into the shop means stepping away from now, back into a recent age, dressed up for today. Every nook and cranny has been considered carefully and treated to her patterned design, not just the merchandise but also the wooden floors, the ceilings, the walls and the window.

OK, so what has that to do with music and the guitar? The connection lies in the attention to detail, the displays unified by a common theme, the exquisite finish, the harmony of style and motifs. I am almost using musical language itself to describe the impression caused upon me. Consider and reflect on these four aspects: are they not what we seek to achieve or experience in music? That is why, my perusal of Kiely's shop interior so vividly reminded me of the guitar, music and my aspirations.

Tea in the bookshop was another matter. One of the great pleasures of buying books today in cities like London and New York, is to find a café bar and comfortable sitting areas within the same four walls. You have to do no more than arise from your seat and stroll around the perimeter, pick a book, take it back to your table, and decide whether to buy it while you partake of refreshments. Thus it follows that books about music were at the reach of my outstretched hand, with my eyes inevitably scanning the shelves for unsuspected new publications centred on the guitar.

And so ended my pleasant day, which started as an escape, but developed into a series of surprising and stimulating reminders of music itself.

8th February 2015, London

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My Return To Barking Mad London

- only music stops me from tipping over the edge -

Carlos in the London rain, 2010. Photo by Sophie Davidson

Carlos in the London rain.Photo by Sophie Davidson, 2010

Arrived back in London town, shocked, on Wednesday after a most stimulating and enjoyable time in Oklahoma recording Brad Richter’s Once We Moved Like The Wind concerto with him and a whole bunch of talented and enthusiastic guitar players. They made up the guitar orchestra, in an unusual scoring for two guitar soloists accompanied by a 25-strong ensemble. We could have a recording of it available in the next couple of months, so watch this space.

Shocked indeed. Well, put yourself in my place. Within minutes of setting foot on my home patch I saw a lady walking a dog - so small that you probably need a microscope to find its claws - dressed it up in an oversize expensive looking blanket, within which it waddled along the pavement at the end of a short lead. Just as I registered this specimen of an animal we passed a local newspaper billboard advertising its latest edition with the following title screaming out in caps: MONGREL DOG SAW OFF BURGLAR. Yes, I read it twice too. I mean, is that it? That, it seems, was the major news story of the week in a downtown London borough hosting half a million inhabitants.

The next morning I went for a long walk to combat my jet lag. As I steered myself across Hampstead Heath I came face to face with a middle-aged lady as wide as she was tall being pulled by four large dogs, each on a lead. Just as we passed each other she called out loudly: “Whatever you’ve picked up put it down.”

For an instant I panicked. No one else around, so what have I done? I checked but I had nothing in my hands. Silly me, I should have remembered I was in barking mad London. She was talking to one of the dogs, of course.

A semblance of sanity greeted me in the afternoon when I arrived at the Royal College of Music to meet up with some of my students. Sanity is relative; to outsiders the obsessive dedication to practise we musicians are so keen, even addicted to, may seem bordering on the lunatic. But at least it is a human lunacy. I climbed the stairs to my teaching room as glorious sounds cascaded along the elegant Victorian corridors, pianists and violinists playing away dementedly, each in their own little world. No yapping, snarling or straining at the leash here, my friends, but something else I for one can more easily relate to.

Joaquín Turina’s Fandanguillo was first up. Has any other guitar composer enjoyed the minor 7th chord as much as he, except for Federico Moreno Torroba? Funnily enough he was next in the shape of his lovely piece Torija. Now, Turina’s mentor was the great Manuel de Falla, who is credited with amazing hearing. On one occasion, in company, he alone could hear the sound of a dog in distress. It was a mile away.

Falla cared about dogs. So do I of course. And I secretly envy people who can talk to their canine friends in public without embarrassment. That’s better than talking to yourself out loud, which is what I do. Maybe I am barking mad after all.

31st January 2015, London

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