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Queen Guitar Rhapsodies

Memory's Mysterious Moods, Why Sam Played It Again in Casablanca, And What Guitar Players Can Learn From Both

"Play it, Sam" in the film Casablanca cues one of the cinema's great tunes. Within seconds a pearly tear-drop glistens on Ilsa Lund's (Ingrid Bergman's) cheek, while Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) stares into the far distance transported moodily to a distant time and place. And all because of that tune - such is the power of music's association.
I hope to show you how the association of ideas can also help you memorize, for association is one of the three key aspects of playing from memory. The three are connected, one leading to another. They are:

1. Reflex
2. Visualization
3. Association

Once you understand how they work, you can begin to improve them.

Reflex memory is very strong. You only have to begin a fingering pattern and the rest of the piece comes tumbling out of your mind and fingers. The problem with reflex memory is that it is sequential. In other words, if you trip up or are nervous, then you are likely to come to a stop, and so find yourself in big trouble.

How to improve reflex memory:
You can help reinforce it while you are learning a piece. Focus on the fingering pattern itself in slow motion. Only in slow motion will you observe the step-by-step movements and be more likely to strengthen the reflex memory.

How slow is slow? Slow enough to have to think of the next fingering movement. To make the reflex memory in the fingers strong you first have to make conscious every sequential step. To do this even more effectively you move on to the next stage: visualization.

Visualization is an extension of reflex memory. As you practise slowly, you are already using a visualization technique by visualizing the next movement. Visualization can be developed further to improve the memory.

How to improve and extend visualization techniques:
- play in slow motion visualizing the next movement before you make it
- put the guitar down and visualize yourself playing:
i). the fingering patterns
ii). the notes
iii). both fingering patterns and notes together

Association of ideas is an intrinsic part of memory. A smell, a sound, a song - they can all instantly remind you of events a long time ago. The key to this aspect of memory is that the association is often between unrelated ideas. A song can remind you and transport you vividly to a location or event. As Time Goes By in Casablanca creates a dramatic context by becoming an "association" trigger. Sam has only to play it to conjure a flood of memories.

How can we use this stirring aspect to help improve our memory of pieces?

How to use association of ideas to improve memory:
The visualization technique should have already created a strong association between fingering patterns and the notes. Now create 'association gate-posts' for the piece, focusing on form, structure, melody and harmony too.

In this following example I highlight the key elements of association.

An example of association of ideas:
The chord half way through the piece played with all four left hand fingers is a C dominant 7th, taking us back to a return of the same melody as in the beginning, only this time it is in the key of F, and on the second string. The notes of the tune return slightly modified, starting with the second finger. Written down all this sounds laborious, but the brain works at the speed of lightning and can process information in a micro-second, spinning all the various elements above into a web of connected threads.

The ideas above can superficially appear unrelated to the apparently more urgent demands of learning a fingering sequence, but both the visualization and association techniques above can give much greater security to the strong, but brittle reflex memory.

Whether your nerves will hold it all together when it comes to playing in front of others is another matter, but in your advance preparation you will have done much to keep them in check.

By the way, memory can play all sorts of tricks when it gets into a mood. I have seen Casablanca at least four times and could swear I heard the line “play it again, Sam”. Yet that line is never spoken in the film, only “play it, Sam”. Maybe memory will always be a bit of a mystery after all.

Read more:
My previous blog Memory's Mysterious Moods 2:
Three Steps to Memorising Music

posted 10th April 2011

My previous blog Memory's Mysterious Moods:
Why I forget what I have forgotten but can remember music

posted 20th March 2011

Kato Havas: Stage Fright, its causes and cures

Igor Stravinsky: An Autobiography

Arthur Rubinstein: My Young Years

November 2011

Good Sight-Reading Speeds Up Learning

...and why some players go fishing instead

The value of good sight-reading extends beyond playing fluently at a first reading. It speeds up the process of learning too. Poor sight-reading is reflected in slower play-throughs and more hesitations. Good sight-reading reduces the hesitations and so accelerates the initial process of learning a piece.

Now consider the five play-through stages to improve sight-reading and see how they can also improve the learning process:

The Five Play-Throughs' Plan
First play-through: allow yourself all the time in the world, out of time too, to find out where the notes are. Try to understand the chords and harmony.

Second play-through: Consolidate what you have already done. Take care to remember where you have doubts and hesitations. After, practise individual phrases by themselves.

Third play-through: Play slowly in time. After, practise again individual phrases by themselves.

Fourth play-through: Let the rhythm now be your driving force. Keep going in time. You now know, more or less, what the harmony is, and you half-remember the notes, so this will help with difficult passages. After, practise again individual phrases by themselves, slowly.

Fifth play-through: Treat this as a stricter version of the fourth play through!

With this plan, sight-reading and learning are interchangeable at the initial stages of learning. Note that it can also improve your memory because you will begin to memorise passages by the fourth play-through. After, dedicated and repeated practise may be necessary to improve difficulties, and that is a different discipline altogether. And yet, improved sight-reading does have an effect on practising difficult passages too.

Gone fishing for bar 48 - back in five minutes
Poor sight-readers take ages to find in the music the difficult phrase they wish to practise, and even when they do they cannot play it by itself without starting the piece all over again. This means that they seldom practise that phrase exclusively. Precision practise - to coin a phrase - of particular phrases is necessary for marked improvement. Since so much time is spent fishing for the notes in question disheartened players are likely to give up the pursuit. It is as if they hang up a notice which reads "gone fishing for the notes of bar 48 so as to practise them. I won't be a moment, although I fear it might be more like five minutes". The answer of course, is to improve sight-reading. In this way, the fishing expedition will be greatly accelerated, and there will no longer be such a frustrating search for fish, or rather, notes!

To summarise:
- Good sight-reading reduces hesitations and so accelerates the process of learning a piece.
- The Five Play-Throughs' Plan is good for both sight-reading and learning.
- Improved sight-reading helps locate difficult passages for precision practise.

This has been my rough guide to how sight-reading can speed up learning.

Read more:
Straining Sight-Readings' Sinews: An Introduction To Painless Improvement
posted 30th October 2011

November 2011

Straining Sight-Reading's Sinews

An introduction to painless improvement

A joke, sad but true
There is a joke doing the rounds which goes something like this: if you want to get a pianist to play with enthusiasm put a piece of music in front of him, and if you want to stop a guitarist in his tracks - put a piece of music in front of him. Sadly, this joke is a true reflection of the present state of affairs, for few are the guitarists who can play music at sight with any degree of fluency and musicality. Yet, this is not the case with other classically trained musicians.

At a first rehearsal with the London Sinfonietta, I have heard Sebastian Bell the flautist play the flute solo from the third movement of Malcolm Arnold’s Concerto for Guitar and Orchestra. A zillion notes tumbled out of his end-piece at 200 miles per hour, note perfect. Afterwards, when I asked him whether he had practised the part he replied he had never seen it before. When I played some trios with violinist Pinchas Zukerman and flautist Eugenia Zukerman I presented them with the music at rehearsal. We played through entire works with scarcely a mistimed entry or faulty rhythm between us. At music conservatoires around the world guitar students receive a rude awakening when they first play chamber music with fellow students. If they come unprepared, expecting the others to falter as they do at a first reading they are surprised and even stunned by their colleagues' competence and agility.

Such have been the recurring difficulties faced by guitarists in this regard that for hundreds of years guitar music was only published in tablature and not in musical notation. Since tablature is a visual recreation of the fretboard the problem of reading music was neatly sidestepped, although making it impenetrable for other musicians by turning it into a club with entry restricted to guitarists. More seriously, the tablature-reading guitarist with limited music-reading skills, was - and still is - greatly handicapped in becoming familiar with the wider world of music.

So what is the big deal about sight-reading music on the guitar? Is there a good reason why guitarists cannot sight-read as well as other instrumentalists? The answer to the question is yes.

Why guitarists cannot sight-read
Let’s face it, the guitar is a funny old instrument when it comes to tuning. Whereas all the bowed instruments are tuned with the same interval between each string, the guitar has that one spoke in the wheels: a different interval between the 3rd and 2nd strings. As a consequence chords cannot be fingered uniformly across all the strings. Chords on three adjacent strings only share the same fingering pattern on the lowest three strings, and on the 5th, 4th and 3rd strings. The pattern produces a different chord on the other strings, because of that odd tuning between the 3rd and 2nd strings. As for chords across four adjacent strings, the pattern cannot be repeated at all.

Playing single-line melodies above the seventh fret should present less difficulty, but here we come up against the lack of familiarity with music-reading practise in those high regions, while the tuning denies quick identification and repeated patterns. In the lower positions the choice of fingering across the strings creates uncertainty or indecision as compared to wind instruments, such as the flute, where there is only one place, and no more, to find each note.

All in all, the poor old guitar player has a hard time of it as far as music-reading, largely because the guitar has an unhelpful tuning with irregular patterns whether in single-line music or chords. So we come to a second question I pose. Is it realistic to expect and demand of the guitar player that he or she should read as well as other instrumentalists? The answer is maybe. But how, I hear you ask?

Never mind the notes, rhythm rules OK?
Fixated as he or she is on finding where the notes are on the fingerboard, the guitarist allows rhythm and momentum to falter in the frustrating pursuit of locating notes. After all, you have to play the correct notes otherwise it sounds wrong, right? Wrong! Forget the right notes and concentrate on keeping going at all costs. If in doubt guess the notes you can’t reach in time, but don’t, whatever you do, stop.

Here is a rough guide as to how you could start out on this process:

First play-through: allow yourself all the time in the world, out of time too, to find out where the notes are. Try to understand the chords and harmony.
Second play-through: Consolidate what you have already done. Take care to remember where you have doubts and hesitations. After, practise individual phrases by themselves.
Third play-through: Play slowly in time. After, practise again individual phrases by themselves.
Fourth play-through : Let the rhythm now be your driving force. Keep going in time. You now know, more or less, what the harmony is, as well as half-remembering the notes, so this will help with difficult passages. After, practise again individual phrases by themselves, slowly.
Fifth play-through: Treat this as a stricter version of the fourth play through!

A different mindset
Making the rhythmic drive your priority requires a different mindset. Once you have acquired it, you may be surprised how effective it is in getting the mind and fingers to work more effectively together.
Quite soon, you will be able to dispense with the second and third play-throughs and go straight from the first to the fourth. After that, work at dispensing with the first three, and start straight away from the fourth play-through, with rhythm and continuity as your driving force right from the beginning. In so doing you will have made them more important than playing all the right notes. This is the secret of all good sight-reading.

Good sight-reading on any instrument depends on creating the impression of playing musically as many right notes as possible in time. With experience a player second-guesses notes as out of the corner of his eye he sees an arpeggio of, say, E major, coming up on the page. He may miss some of the notes, but will still keep going. In effect, he is busking it, and yet it sounds good. Some players, and they could include you, with experience eventually play correctly all the right notes in perfect time, for the sight-reading reflex can be developed phenomenally.

A player straining all sinews and completely concentrated on the sight-reading at hand is a splendid sight to behold, and a wonderful thing to hear. What greater satisfaction could you demand from your music-making than one day, being able to do this?

Listen to:
Malcolm Arnold – Guitar Concerto recorded by Julian Bream with the CBSO conducted by Simon Rattle at http://www.amazon.com

October 2011

A Practise Session In Three Parts

Warm Up, Step Up, Smooth Play – the keys to feeling and sounding good

The three parts of a practise session are the warm up, a technical work-out, and learning pieces - in that order.
There is a smooth transition between each of these. You can slide gracefully into the technical work-out from the warm up. You can link the second and third stages by playing difficult extracts from pieces. The problem is you may be tempted to give the exercises a miss and go straight to the final stage, although you are unlikely to go back to doing them after you start on the pieces.

Let us imagine then that you are nicely warmed up and poised on the edge of the chair uncertain whether to launch hell-for-leather into a three-octave scale, or into the smooth soulful harmonies of the piece you are learning - which way to jump? What could induce you to delay the gratification of playing in favour of a technical work-out?

The Step Up
Think of a technical work-out as a journey of discovery, a push at the boundaries of the impossible, a creative effort in devising exercises, your very own exercises, however brief. They could be a development and more demanding version of the warm up itself. Moving on seamlessly from the warm up to the technical exercises and studies you could find yourself gradually raising the stakes of difficulty and challenging yourself onwards and upwards.

By making the technical work-out interesting you will not be so likely to skip it altogether. You will avoid mindless repetition, which leads nowhere. You will embrace thoughtful enquiry and innovation. You will observe, reflect and experiment: three important pillars of self-improvement. Once this new spirit pervades your technical development, it will be a step up in every way, so let's call it that: The Step Up.

Smooth Play
The Step Up can become an interesting part of your practise session. Listen carefully and become creative. Experiment. As a consequence you may hear yourself improve more quickly. In its midst, a technical aspect may remind you of a difficult sequence or passage from a piece you are learning. Proceed to practise and play that sequence and surrounding phrases in the piece. You are now gliding (effortlessly, I hope) into the third stage of your practise session: learning and playing pieces.

Warmed up and thoroughly stepped up, you move on to play through all the piece for your delight. Build up to it and enjoy. When it goes well it will sound smooth and feel good. Let us call it Smooth Play.

Think of the three stages of a practise session as warm up – step up – smooth play.

You can transit the first two in just a few minutes if you so wish. After that, you may linger in the land of Smooth Play for as long as you like, unless you can think of a better place to be.

Read more from my previous blogs:

The Five Minute Warm-Up
Posted Saturday 8 Oct 2011

Guitar practise: brain rules all
Posted Saturday 29 May 2011

How to makes the best of a 30 minute practise session
Posted Saturday 8 May 2011

October 2011

Up To Uppsala, Down To Bromley, Bach And Mahler

Within three days I have played two concerts, one in Sweden, the other in England. They could not have been more different. In Sweden on Thursday, I played at a large festival in a small town. In England on Saturday, I played at a church in Bromley, an outer suburb of the greatest city in the world, London.

The Uppsala Guitar Festival in Sweden is so big and well attended that it feels like a convention, with the opening event featured on the front page of the national newspaper. Uppsala is a town whose name, when pronounced in an English accent, rhymes with 'parlour' and 'Mahler'. Maybe it is no coincidence that the hugely popular guitar festival held there combines the grand ambition of a Mahler symphony with the intimacy of friends talking in the parlour or, if you prefer to use a more modern turn of phrase, the front room. That combination is quite an achievement, and I found it both impressive and delightful.

Not that all is plain sailing. No sooner have you reached your main destination and centre of activities - the concert hall - than you are faced with a challenge: the longest and steepest escalator you have ever seen. I reached the top not daring to look down, only to find myself staring up at yet another escalator disappearing into the clouds. Provided you survive this test your arrival at the top is greeted with spectacular views of old Uppsala and if you have timed it right, the beginning of yet another great concert in the Festival.

So now you know, bring warm clothing and an oxygen mask to cope with the escalator heights, and be prepared to see a whole town turn out for this magnificent celebration of the guitar.

After my performance on Thursday I flew back to the UK on Friday in time for my next concert. On Saturday afternoon, I drove down through heavy traffic from central London, to be greeted on my arrival by various organisers of The Bromley Guitar Society at a church with perfect acoustics. The Society depends entirely on local support and a team of volunteer administrators. It was a thrill for me to play once again there, and feel the passion of its dedicated audience on their 30th anniversary concert. My programme included Bach's Lute Suite in E minor, which I hadn't played for some time, and all five Preludes by Villa-Lobos. I was reminded what wonderful music they contain, each in their different ways.

Whether in Bromley or in Uppsala it is heartening to sense such excitement for live music and the guitar. Long may it continue to be so.

Read more:



October 2011

The Five Minute Warm-Up

A 5-minute warm-up session sounds so short as to hardly be worth the time and effort. Yet warming up the hands and fingers before playing is very important - and five minutes can make all the difference.

First a brief digression by way of an introduction. Not all players need to warm up before playing. There are many players who can pick up the instrument and launch straight into playing difficult passages at speed. This facility is no reflection of their ability, for I have known excellent players who need an hour's warm-up to play fast and accurately.

In from the cold
For the purposes of this article I will assume that most readers fall somewhere in the middle of the two extremes: they need some warming up. At the beginning of a playing session, the average player feels his/her fingers a little stiff and stretches feel awkward and inaccurate. If they have come in from the cold, and their fingers are cold, then the stiffness will be even more pronounced.

The Warm-Up
1st stage - 45 seconds:
Simple chromatic scale in 5th position. Play slowly using firm rest-strokes. Repeat in different positions down to 1st position.
Purpose: loosen up left-hand fingers without stretching, simple movements in right hand.

2nd stage - 1 minute:
Right-hand open strings. Play more quickly than in 1st stage, 4 or 8 times each string. Repeat using different finger patterns.
Purpose: alternating right hand fingers.

3rd stage - 1 minute 30 seconds:
Simple arpeggio sequence. Create a sequence with a repeated rhythm, for example E - A minor - B7 - E. Start with a four note pattern per chord and expand to 16 notes per chord over 2 or 3 octaves.
Purpose: coordination of the two hands, finger extensions, left hand and arm movement.

4th stage - 1 minute:
Play a pleasing chord sequence, maybe of your invention. This could take the place of the 1st stage if your fingers feel good straight away. Suggested sequence: C - Am - Dm - G7. This sequence is part of the history of Western music from Bach to 1950's pop!
Purpose: playing notes together with good sound, relaxing hands, and balance.

5th stage - 30 seconds:
slurring (ligado) exercises. Slur two notes, then four and eight using all the combinations of left hand fingers (12 in total), starting on lower note and then from higher note, for example: 1212/1313/1414/2323/2424/3424 and then downwards 4343/4242 etc.
Purpose: slurring exercises are really demanding of the left hand.
Warning: do not cross discomfort threshold, even if you reach it in 10 seconds.

6th stage - 15-30 seconds:
Stretching exercises in left hand. Secure the little finger on a high fret and place other fingers behind, one at a time, on different strings, gradually stretching back as far as they will go, for example - the little finger on 12th fret 1st string, 3rd finger on 10th fret of each string. Now secure 1st finger on 8th fret and place 3rd finger on 10th fret of each string.
Purpose: lubricating the fingers - at least that is how it feels when I do it!
Warning: do not cross discomfort threshold, even if you reach it in 10 seconds.

TOTAL TIME: 5 minutes 15 seconds.

Within five minutes or so you will have put your hands through their paces in a gentle, progressive manner, ending on the more demanding slurring and stretching exercises. You can of course invent your own variations. If you feel good then progress to simple pieces or studies. If you still feel stiff, you may have to continue with each of the points above a bit longer.
This has been my rough guide to a five minute warm-up session.

October 2011

Flying Fish Guitarists And Other Animals

What we can learn from our fellow creatures

Awaking this morning I lay very still, mindful that my-writing-a-blog-day had come round one more time.

From nowhere a thought suddenly entered my head: that observation in a spirit of jollity is the surrogate mother of invention. And although it is not enough by itself, jollity surely oils the wheels of learning too.

Finding myself in a thoroughly good mood, a frivolous question occurred to me: if animals could become musicians which of their natural character traits would be advantageous or otherwise, and which would we, in observing them, wish to imitate or avoid?

Here is my list of likely or unlikely animal-guitarists marked accordingly out of ten as in a school-report.

The dog: obedient to instructions, but pitiless with a bone until picked clean.
Technique: 10
Potential Musical Expression: 7
General Remarks: determined, but needs to develop more ideas of his own.

The cat: wary and curious in equal measure of the unknown, although quickly loses interest and goes about its other business.
Technique: 6
Potential Musical Expression: 8
General Remarks: gives up too easily

The eagle: examines the territory from a distance for a long time, and then dives with certainty.
Technique: 10
Potential Musical Expression: 6
General Remarks: very precise, but could broaden his interests.

The ostrich: buries its head in the sand to avoid seeing difficulties only to run away at high speed.
Technique: 5
Potential Musical Expression: 5
General Remarks: needs to face facts and work harder.

The lion: without prior application turns up at the feast uninvited and goes directly for the most tasty cuts.
Technique: 0
Potential Musical Expression: 2
General Remarks: oozes charisma but so far shows little capacity for hard work.

The magpie: attracted by all that glitters, fills his nest with shiny but incongruous objects.
Technique: 5
Potential Musical Expression: 8
General Remarks: flashy and superficial - needs to organise his work more coherently.

The ant: works ceaselessly, setting itself the task of pushing heavy objects vast distances.
Technique: 10
Potential Musical Expression: 7
General Remarks: determined but needs to develop more ideas of his own.

The cheetah: can outrun all other mammals over a short distance, after which it just gives up.
Technique: 8
Potential Musical Expression: 8
General Remarks: what a pity he is too easily discouraged.

Flying fish: after a long period submerged jumps out of the sea and flies, scattering silver threads of water which glitter in the sunlight.
Technique: 10
Potential Musical Expression: 10
General Remarks: a brilliant player in the making.

Ok, I may have got carried away by the flying fish, but I hope you catch the drift of where I am going. If all of these creatures could play the guitar their characters would either hinder or help them in their work. Of course, no amount of effort would ever turn them into proper musicians, unlike us humans.

We alone are able to harness our best endeavours to do anything we like, once we have made up our minds to do so, making the best of our positive aspects, and improving upon our more negative ones. As the thought took hold I quite suddenly jumped out of bed and grabbed my guitar tearing into a piece with the speed of a cheetah, the tenacity of a dog, the focus of an eagle, the strength of an ant, the grace of a flying fish, and the charisma of a lion.

It was exhilarating. My day had begun wonderfully. To no one in particular I whispered: thank you, animal friends, you have shown me the way forward.

October 2011

Mexico's Street Musicians Celebrate Independence Day

Independence day in Mexico

I was in Mexico last week during the Independence Day celebrations.

This was quite an experience for me, since I am of Spanish background. Spain, like the UK, has dedicated huge amounts of energy to not giving independence to the (now) ex-colonies, and here I was in Mexico listening to a roll-call of names honoured for having sacrificed their lives to their independence struggle with Spain. Although the leaders of the first ram-shackle rebellion which started in 1810 were caught and executed Spain's torment of Mexico started much earlier with Hernán Cortés, the cunning and ruthless adventurer who conquered Mexico during the 1520's in the name of God, Spain and the King. He completely destroyed the magnificent Aztec capital and looted much of the gold shipping it back to Spain, as well as inflicting unspeakable horrors on the population.

Small wonder then that I detect a tragic undertone behind the stoic exterior of many Mexicans, their features shaped by the pre-Spanish origins of those first immigrants who crossed over from Asia into the Americas some 20,000 years ago or so. There is a turbulent interior which their quietness and almost infinite patience with adversity cannot mask.

Back to Independence Day – I saw a huge procession wind its way round the whole town. In it were representatives of the armed forces, the police, ambulance drivers, horsemen, senior citizens and above all school-children of all ages marching in quasi-military style – two short steps and one long. The procession was animated by the many bands, most of them populated by teenagers blowing trumpets and other brass instruments, and beating a variety of drums. They played some quirky rhythms in perfect unison, needless to say all performed nonchalantly from memory.

The next day I sat in one of my favourite restaurants, an unassuming place with its front door permanently open to the busy pedestrianised street beyond. It faces an ancient wall, once part of a monastery. It was Friday 16th September and a national holiday to mark the uprising 201 years to the day. Hundreds of people streamed by: families with two, three and four small children, young couples hand in hand, and older people out to savour the atmosphere.

I sat at my table about to dig into my plate of grilled fish when I felt a faint tap on my shoulder. A very old lady, completely bent over, extended her arthritic hand towards me. It reminded me of Agustín Barrios' similar experience which inspired his sublimely beautiful tremolo piece Una Limosna Por El Amor De Dios.

A few minutes later three unlikely characters set up camp just outside the front door: a tall, long-haired young man who could have passed for a North American Indian, a manly-looking young lady dressed in jeans, and a more feminine-looking girl in colourful clothes who was carrying a rain-tree. The other two had strapped to them a big drum each. This could have been an inferno of deafening sounds but no, gradually there emerged a thrilling improvisation of irresistible rhythms and vocal interjections that was greeted by a loud collective cheer of bravo! from the diners. Their music had summoned some ancient spirit and transported me to a distant place and time interrupted only by the rain-tree girl coming round every table with a smile and a collection tin.

No sooner had I returned to the present, and taken another mouthful or two, than a boy of 16 or 17 years of age stood at one end inside the small restaurant, quietly tuned the guitar he was carrying, and without any introduction sang to his own accompaniment a series of Mexican ballads in an expressive and engaging voice. We were back in the present, in the music of the rancheros and today's idol Alejandro Fernandez, a tenor of operatic projection and magnificent presence.

On the next day I went out of town to see the archaeological remains of the city of Tula the centre of the pre-Aztec Tolteca civilization which thrived from 900 – 1200AD. Beautifully carved columns are witness to a people who appreciated the finer things. As I left the site I saw two hollow wooden frogs for sale. The seller, who turned out to be the maker, explained they were replicas of ancient Tula musical instruments. A little stick rubbing the frog's contoured back produces an amazingly croak-like sound! What fun they must have had – those ancient people long gone – with this frog-percussion instrument.

And so ended a memorable week for me, viewing as an outsider a country's celebrations, but as an insider a series of varied musical displays that will linger in the memory for a very long time.

Read more:
The Aztec Empire by Felipe Solis Tula

Tula and the Tolteca Civilization
Listen to:
Agustín Barrios: Una Limosna Por El Amor De Dios
On CD From the Jungles of Paraguay: John Williams Plays Barrios

Alejandro Fernandez: Mexican ballad singer

September 2011

The Virtuous Guitarist 4

How the Alternative Development Plan is important for all classical guitar players

In this article I will try to show how all student guitarists can become better players by adopting the Alternative Development Plan (ADP).

To sum up so far: the ADP assumes a different approach to guitar playing. Its' aims are excellence in all-round accomplishments. The six-point plan develops creative, musical, technical and theoretical aspects of guitar playing.

This is the six-point plan:
1. arranging
2. composing
3. sight-reading
4. knowledge of harmony and chords
5. playing chamber music
6. improvising

The ADP is particularly appropriate to student guitarists interested in arranging, composing and in playing chamber music. The ADP is also important for all those guitarists who want to become better players, for it can improve a player's performance.

How the ADP can improve a player's performance
This is how all six points of the ADP can improve performance:

1. Arranging music improves your knowledge of the fingerboard, of chord inversions, of musical textures and so makes you aware of these qualities in the pieces you are learning to project them in your interpretations.

2. Composing music improves your awareness of musical ideas, themes, development, form and structure and so makes you aware of these qualities in the pieces you are learning, to project them in your interpretations.

3. Improved sight-reading increases speed of reading and helps to quickly locate the sections of pieces which need practise.

4. Improved knowledge of chords and harmony helps to create the building-blocks for memorising pieces and consequently gives you more confidence in performance.

5. Playing chamber music improves your reading skills and playing in time, and so makes you aware of these qualities in the pieces you are learning, to project them in your interpretations.

6. Improvising develops arranging and composing skills at lightning speed through faster musical and technical reflexes.

Here is the same thing summarised in an equation:

arranging (knowledge of fingerboard and chordal inversions) + composing (musical awareness) + sight-reading (effective practise + faster learning) + knowledge of harmony (memorising) + playing chamber music (keeping in time) + improvising (faster musical reflexes) = learning pieces more quickly + playing more securely + more knowledgeable and musical interpretations

The Player's Development Plan
Building on the learning skills of the ADP, the Player's Development Plan could be an eight point plan that looks like this:

1. learning pieces
2. developing technique
3. arranging
4. composing
5 sight-reading
6. knowledge of harmony and chord
7. playing chamber music
8. improvising

This may seem a daunting task but it need not be. Make it fun, make it a voyage of discovery. Take your time. As I described in The Virtuous Guitarist 2, learning is like a jigsaw puzzle. I assume that if you decide to follow The Player's Development Plan points 1 and 2 are your driving force. As far as points 3 to 8, start where you like. Take time out from your practise to do so, you will benefit from this in the long-term. The improvements will be gradual, but the satisfaction immense from the beginning. As the jigsaw pieces begin to fit together so will the various strands of your newly acquired knowledge and skills begin to interlock. You will become a more curious player, and then a more knowledgeable one, and finally a better guitarist.

Read more from my previous blogs:
The Virtuous Guitarist:
An alternative development plan that does not include virtuosity

Posted 28th August

The Virtuous Guitarist 2: More about the Development Plan
Posted 3rd September

The Virtuous Guitarist 3: Getting started on the Alternative Development Plan
Posted 10th September

10,000 Hours' Practise Makes Perfect: We're All Going On A Summer Holiday, Except The Dedicated Few
Posted 7th August

Guitar practise: brain rules all
Posted 29th May

How I arranged Beatles classics for classical guitar
Posted 5th June

September 2011

The Virtuous Guitarist 3

Getting started on the Alternative Development Plan

The Alternative Development Plan (ADP) assumes a different approach to guitar playing.

Here are the main points I have discussed so far in the two previous blogs:

- Its' aims are excellence in all-round accomplishments.
- It is based on a six-point plan.
- The six-point plan develops creative, musical, technical and theoretical aspects of guitar-playing.
- The ADP does not include practising to develop a virtuoso technique directly, but rather arriving at it, or close to it, through the ADP.

This is the six-point plan:

1. arranging
2. composing
3. sight-reading
4. knowledge of harmony and chords
5. playing chamber music
6. improvising

How to get started? Start on any one point that attracts you. Ideally, you should work with a sympathetic teacher who can guide you through the six-point plan. No matter whether you are a complete beginner or an advanced player if you like the ADP then you should set this as your goal and discuss it with your teacher.

If you are on your own then may I suggest the folowing:

Start on something simple. If your music reading is really basic then choose a tune by ear or in tab notation. Choose a tune you like, of any style. Start with the tune itself. Choose a key which sounds good on the guitar. Work out, or find out through the music or tabs, what the chords are. Based on the chords add a pleasing bass-line or simple chordal accompaniment to the tune.

If you have got this far you have made a good start. Already you will have considered various interesting musical features which include:
- transposition (changing the tune from one key to another until you are happy it sounds good)
- harmonisation (adding a simple bass-line and chords)

Further development:
- Playing the tune in different octaves of the guitar
- Creating a more interesting bass-line and chordal accompaniment

All this will help with other aspects of the ADP such as composing, improving your knowledge of the fingerboard for sight-reading, and improving your knowledge of harmony and chords.

You could start by deliberately imitating a favourite style or piece. For example, write a song in the style of your favourite group, or a guitar piece in the style of a Sor minuet, or of a Tárrega mazurka, or of a study you may be learning. If you are still stuck you might try to plot the piece as a graph: invent a chord sequence and add connecting notes to turn it into a tune with chords. Another way may be to think of an interesting rhythm and then add the notes. Both these methods have worked for really fine composers including Bach and Stravinsky!

If you get this far you will have considered:
- Musical style e.g. why is a Sor minuet different from a Bach minuet?
- Form, harmony, melody, cadences, changing key and lots more

Further development:
- Study a favourite composer's music to find out why it sounds as it does
- Set yourself exercises e.g. how to change key smoothly

All this will help with other aspects of the ADP such as arranging, improving your knowledge of harmony and chords.

This is a sore point with many guitarists. It is not easy to read well on the guitar but that should not put you off making a start.
Begin by becoming fluent reading one-line music in different positions on the guitar. Pick some really easy one-line music. For example, beginners' tutors for violin or flute or recorder, or even a guitar tutor! Develop your reading slowly, in time, in different positions on the guitar.

If you get this far you will have considered:
- Notes on the fretboard
- Rhythms

Further development:
- Name all the notes on the fingerboard without hesitation
- Play simple grade pieces at sight, smoothly in time

All this will help with other aspects of the ADP such as arranging and composing.

Contrary to the sales pitch of some publications it is not necessary to learn hundreds of different chord shapes. Once you know a few you can move them up and down the guitar fingerboard.
Here is a guide to how to improve your knowledge:
- Find out the basic chord shapes
- As you learn a piece ask yourself at any point in the piece: what is the harmony here?

If you get this far you will have considered:
- Notes on the fingerboard
- Form, harmony, melody, cadences

Further development:
- Chord inversions, chords of the 7th, 9th, 13th
- Musical style e.g. why is the harmony of Sor different from the harmony of Bach?

All this will help with other aspects of the ADP such as arranging and composing.

Playing chamber music is fun. It also makes accessible music you may never play solo. You will have to learn a whole new way of projecting the sound of the guitar. You will have to adapt to, and balance your playing with other players.

If you get this far you will have considered:
- Playing in time
- Listening and adapting

All this will help with other aspects of the ADP such as arranging, composing, knowledge of harmony, playing rhythmically.

Take a chord progression which you can pre-record, and make up simple melodic patterns with it. It need not contain more than two chords.

If you get this far you will have considered:
- Which notes 'fit' into which chord
- Creating connecting melodic patterns

Further development:
Improvise chord sequences and add more extended melodic patterns with them.

All this will help with other aspects of the ADP such as arranging, composing, knowledge of harmony, the fingerboard.


As you work the ADP, all the while your fingers will be working busy as bees along the fingerboard, and up and down the strings. They will be involved in many activities.
The left hand will be stretching to reach and discover chord shapes, and more.
The right hand will be creating patterns in your improvising and arranging, and more.
More importantly your brain will be fully engaged in stretching technical means to meet different musical aims.
Your technique will be improving in leaps and bounds.

In the midst of all this activity you may feel the need to do some focussed technical practise to improve this or other aspect of your playing. This is good. And of course it will edge you ever closer, as the virtuous guitarist you have become, to the virtuoso you might still wish to be.

Read more from my previous blogs:
The Virtuous Guitarist:
An alternative development plan that does not include virtuosity

Posted 28th August

The Virtuous Guitarist 2: More about the Development Plan
Posted 3rd September

How I arranged Beatles classics for classical guitar
Posted 5th June

September 2011