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Queen Guitar Rhapsodies

The Virtuous Guitarist 2

More About The Development Plan

My blog last week seemed to strike a chord (pardon the pun) with many readers. Thank you for your feedback - it is very helpful and most appreciated. Here are some more thoughts about becoming a virtuous guitarist.

The development plan includes six main points:

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

They are interrelated as I will describe. You can start with any point of the development plan. You can choose and develop it according to your personal inclination and preference.

Learning is a process which can be based on an organised and progressive method, and that's good, but it can also be quite different. Your learning could develop as a jigsaw puzzle: one piece over here (for example sight-reading) and another piece over there (for example composing). When you have enough jigsaw puzzle pieces in place you will see the bigger picture. In other words your learning becomes 'joined-up'. This is how children learn. That is how their brains work. Maybe we can learn something from our own childhood experience in this.

To sum up so far:
- the alternative development plan is based on six main points
- they are both separate and interrelated
- you adopt the learning process that best suits you

Now let me suggest how you can have loads of fun with the development plan as well as feel really inspired in your guitar-playing. Say you start by wanting to arrange a favourite piece, any piece. It could be the theme from Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, an orchestral Prelude by Wagner, or a more manageable Sonata by Scarlatti. You choose.

To arrange a piece you will need to play / sight-read an original score. In the case of an orchestral work get hold of a piano reduction. As you struggle to read a piano score you will improve your sight-reading. You will also improve your knowledge of harmony by having to re-arrange the chords in a convincing manner for the guitar. As you work at the arrangement you will become very familiar with the original composition, thus helping you understand the process of composition for your own attempts.

You started from one of the development points: arranging. Now look where it has taken you:
arranging = sight-reading + chord analysis + finger-board knowledge + awareness of compositional process.

If you prefer to begin with improvising then the inter-action with the development plan could be as follows:
Improvising = composition + arranging + chord analysis + finger-board knowledge.

If you improvise with fellow musicians then you would add chamber music to that list.

Yet another example: let's start with chamber music. Some of it needs some changes to the part if you are playing from an arrangement (for example, music for guitar ensembles). Inter-action with the development could be as follows:
chamber music = sight-reading + arranging + chord analysis

Your technique may improve in leaps and bounds as you work at the development plan. Since you would not put an emphasis on technique, you would no longer be anxious about it. A relaxed approach to learning is the surest way to improve.

You need not undertake any preliminary work to get going on the development plan unless you really want to. You can jump in with both feet. The jigsaw puzzle will gradually emerge after you have splashed around a while.

When you see how the pieces fit together you will wade happily through the realm of the virtuous guitarist.

This has been my rough guide to The Virtuous Guitarist.

September 2011

The Virtuous Guitarist

An alternative development plan that does not include virtuosity

'Tis a pity that playing the guitar requires practise. When I think of the hours I have spent at it in order to get my fingers sufficiently nimble I wonder what other useful activity I might have pursued instead. You may think I speak in jest but I do not. In an ideal world of my design we would all be able to slap our fingers onto the fret board and will them to do as we please with the minimum of fuss and preparation.

So it is entirely reasonable that many aspirant players give up when they see the horizon of accomplishment never draw any closer. Why give up all that time to chasing an elusive goal when you could profitably spend it achieving other realisable aims?

Those players who do not fall at this particular hurdle may persevere to gain a technique sufficient to meet the demands of some, although not all of the repertoire. The path to ultimate virtuosity is strewn with frustration and longing, with the desire for making music undimmed, but the means not quite up to the task.

Anyone reading this who is not a player may think there is no point in playing unless you are a virtuoso. And they are right if the purpose of playing the guitar or any other instrument is just that.

But maybe there are other things you can do with the guitar. You could become an all-round musician without reaching dazzling heights as a player. The skills you could develop might include:

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

With enthusiasm and in a spirit of discovery you could undertake a fascinating journey which incorporates not just one but all six points above. One day you might pick up the guitar and play your own arrangement made to measure, of one of your favourite pieces. To the admiring listener you would explain the harmonies by improvising a sequence using a similar chord structure. Naturally you would be asked whether you compose and you could reply in the affirmative with suitable and sincere modesty, and proceed to play one of your compositions. The listener - who would now reveal himself or herself as a flute player - would just happen to have a bag-load of flute and guitar music in the other room.
"Oh, great, let's play some" you would say, confident that the hours spent developing your prowess at sight-reading would stand you in good stead. And so it would.

And so you would be able to tick off all six points of the alternative development path, with deserved satisfaction. Only then would you notice the virtuoso at the back of the room who might stroll up to you sheepishly and not without embarrassment say:
"I can play most guitar music but I can't do what you can, and I wish I could..."

Maybe such honed skills would give you great happiness. You would have developed confidence and fluency with the instrument. You would roam confidently in the small but respected realm of the virtuous guitarist. And maybe, just maybe, to your surprise, without planning it, you might find yourself only a few steps short of virtuosity itself.

August 2011

Time Travel, The Cycle of Life and Guitar Festivals

One week of concerts brings them all together

This afternoon I travel by train to Chichester from London. Not far from Chichester is The West Dean Estate, one of the most beautiful locations in England. I will play there this evening. The Sussex Downs and its rolling hills stretch out in front of the magnificent stately home, now endowed to the nation and dedicated to the pursuit of Arts and Crafts. It is also the home of UK Guitar Festival which takes it over every year at this time.

On Monday I continue to Taormina in Sicily. Here there is a medieval town built high up on the hill. As you look down from various vantage points you see the Mediterranean sea lapping against the sheer rocks, a spectacular sight, cherished by the great Italian actors of the 1950’s including Marcello Mastroianni and Sophia Loren who made it their summer retreat and holiday spot. I will play there on Tuesday.

On Thursday I continue to Derry in Ireland. The City walls and the black and white paintings along the sides of the brick houses are alone worth a visit. Here too I will be playing, on Saturday night.

I have played in each of these places very frequently. In West Dean I first taught and played in the 1980’s before the start of the festival. I have visited Taormina and Derry every year for some considerable time. Revisiting festivals is a way of meeting up with old friends and making new ones. The passage of time, even one year, reveals small but significant changes, some for the better too! Seeing and meeting new guitar lovers of a much younger generation is very encouraging and inspiring.

But there s a longer time cycle of which I am aware. It extends back 50, 100, 500 and millions of years. Take the The West Dean Estate: it was owned by Edward James who befriended artists including Salvador Dali more than 60 years ago. He designed and created a sofa in the shape of Mae West’s lips. It is still there to view in the house. Outside the Sussex Downs have been there for millions of years, gradually taking their present form with human landscaping. Then there is Taormina. A perfectly preserved medieval town takes me back 600 years, and the rocks below millions of years. The sea has lapped against the rocks for tens of thousands of years. I imagine once the sea and ice covered the entire area, then as they gradually retreated rocks and precipices were created a few centimetres per year. Derry too has a past. Some of it is better forgotten, although impossible to do so. The past is all around : in the medieval walls, in the paintings, in the conversations of the people. History has marked it, and made it all the wiser. History - recent, ancient, and pre-human – is everywhere to see, to hear, and to learn. It moves in different cycles, from the yearly to the unimaginably long.

How does that awareness affect my concerts this week? I don’t know! But I will tell you one thing: making the odd slip here and there no longer means the end of the world. The world started thousands of millions years ago and will continue for some considerable time longer after my guitar has stopped resonating.

Meanwhile I will do my best to enjoy every moment of the present.

Read more:


Taromina, Sicily:


Does Music Predict The Future?

What we can learn now from Stravinsky’s The Rite Of Spring about the First World War

Question to you the reader: where do the terms and principles come from listed here below? Here they are:

1. Equality
2. Unification
3. Regulation and control

Are they from a political manifesto for an independence movement? No. Are they a management manual for discussion proposed by the police force after the riots in England this past week? No, wrong again. Are they from a Communist manifesto? Good try, but still wrong.

I will tell you where they come from: they are from an article Composition with Twelve Notes by the composer Arnold Schoenberg (1874–1951) published in the 1940’s. Here are some quotes from the essay:

“The regular application of a set of twelve semi-tones emphasises all the other tones equally, thus depriving one single note of the privilege of supremacy.”

“The third advantage of composition with a set of twelve semi-tones is that the appearance of dissonances is regulated.”

These two quotes above are translated from the original text. The numbered headings above are my own, but the words are taken directly from the composer’s own text of three guiding principles.

Schoenberg devised this method of composition in the 1920’s. It is called serial music. Music was heading this way, for there were signs of the breakdown of tonal music for some time before then. Tonal music (as opposed to atonal music) contains tunes and chords which have dominated music for centuries, whether in “classical” music or “popular” music.

There were signs too of a breakdown in society before the catastrophic First World War (1914-18) and the Russian Revolution of 1917. In the confusion of social and political upheaval it was difficult to see where it was all heading. The benefit of hindsight is a wonderful thing.

Bur what if music, in spite of its abstractness, actually parallels society’s changes? Even more startling, what if music actually anticipates them? All we would need do is to listen and know where we are heading.

Here are some historical facts about three music events. Two of them included premières which changed the course of music:

Berlin, 16 October 1912: Schoenberg’s chamber opera Pierrot Lunaire is greeted with whistles and laughter. The text uses poems which imply or refer to self-discovery through alcohol and sex.

Vienna, 31 March 1913: Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony No. 1 Op. 9 is performed. Although not a première, people leave the theatre noisily and fighting breaks out. Later in the concert Schoenberg had to appeal for calm when more fighting broke out, but eventually had to call the police and cancel the last work on the programme.

Paris, 29 May 1913: Stravinsky’s ballet The Rite Of Spring is premièred. Just two months after Schoenberg’s concert in Vienna a riot occurred at the ballet. Nijinsky had to shout instructions to the dancers from the wings, for the noise from the audience was so deafening that they could not hear the orchestra.

Now consider these dates:

Sarajevo, 28 June 1914: Assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand

28 July 1914: Start of the First World War

February 1917: First revolution in Russia deposes the Tzar

October 1917: Second revolution in Russia creates a Bolshevik (Communist) Government

My two quotes from Schoenberg echo the Communist revolution and its aims: that all notes should be equal is the equivalent of all people being equal. Although the composer wrote this in the 1940’s, his music before the First World War already pointed in that direction. The violent public reaction to the music in the 1912 and 1913 concerts is no surprise. The musical language was new or revolutionary. The subject matters in the ballet and opera were without precedent including ritual violence in The Rite Of Spring.

Now, wasn’t the First World War a terrible ritual of violence, with the bunkers replacing the theatre stage, and the slaughtered soldiers in place of the ballet’s pagan victim? And are not Schoenberg’s words about his musical language, “depriving notes of supremacy”, the same avowed aims of the Communist Revolution?

Maybe signs were there in the music I have referred to of the impending violence and changes to come between 1914 to 1918. And just maybe, if we too can now learn to read the implied signs in music, we can look into the future. If this is possible then music will be considered more than a reflection of society’s values, but an indicator of impending changes.

So the next time you whistle a new tune as you walk down the street, remember there may be more to it than meets the eye, or rather, parts the lips.

Read more:
Arnold Schoenberg, Composition with Twelve Notes

The Diary of Vaslav Nijinsky

August 2011

10,000 Hours’ Practise Makes Perfect

We're All Going On A Summer Holiday, Except The Dedicated Few

Just before leaving on my summer travels I went to the Royal College of Music to meet some students. It was the 13th of July. By this date the term was finished, and most students had returned home, although some stay over for the holiday period or live in London. Walking around the almost empty building I could feel that the elegant 19th century corridors and high-ceilinged teaching rooms were themselves earning a well-deserved rest from the constant activity of term-time.

From a very few of these rooms I could hear drifting towards me the sounds of some very fine players. Violinists, pianists, and chamber groups of excellent quality encouraged me to pause and listen at the doorways, reminding me of Igor Stravinsky who in old age would stroll anonymously through the corridors of a music conservatoire local to where he lived in Asolo, Italy.

Maybe it is no coincidence that the few students still coming in especially to College to practise and rehearse are very good players. While others are socializing, at the seaside or resting – and who can begrudge them the respite? – a handful continue the steep ascent towards a self-defined level of accomplishment. That extra determination marks them out from an already highly motivated group of peers. Slowly but surely they are notching up the 10,000 hours that Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers considers a necessary requirement for becoming first-class musicians, sportsmen, scientists and other demanding professions.

Consider the young guitarist, aged 7 years of age, who innocently picks up the instrument and becomes smitten. For the first 7 years he/she may play/practise one hour per day: that adds up to 2,500 hours. From 14 – 17 years of age it might become one and a half hours per day: that is a total so far of 4,000 hours. Now, at the age of 17 the player prepares for the audition at a College, at which let us assume he/she is accepted for a four -year undergraduate course. The time now dedicated to practise increases dramatically: let us say to between three and four hours per day: This translates into 1,200 hours per year. In four years the total is 5,000 hours. The grand total so far is 9,000 hours. The extra 1,000 hours will occur after leaving College, in the profession itself.

Now consider the case of dedicated child prodigies, many of whom go to special music schools for gifted children. By the age of 17 they may have clocked up twice as many hours as the example above: 8,000 hours. Let us assume that at College they study half as much again as their companions: 7,500 hours. The grand total so far for them is 15,500 hours!

15,500 hours represent one year and nine months of your life. By the age of 21 or 22 a brilliant young musician may have spent 15% of his/her waking hours developing musical skills. Alas, such time management is not a guarantee of reaching the dizzying heights. How you spend those hours is the real issue. About that not even the Conservatoires can agree in detail, but only in broad outline. For example, does the study of composition, music theory and history directly improve instrumental playing, and if so, how much?

As for the students still practising deep into the summer holidays all I can say is they sounded wonderful, and that they are well on their way to passing the 10,000 hours’ frontier. Some may be exceeding 15,000 and heading towards 20,000.

If you are reading this, and feel disappointed you may not have dedicated this time, do not despair. There is more, lots more, to playing the guitar than being a virtuoso. More of that in another blog.

Read more:

The Yehudi Menuhin School for gifted children:

Igor Stravinsky: An Autobiography

Malcolm Gladwell
Outliers: The Story of Success

August 2011

My week in Norway

This has been a tragic week for Norway. I was there before, during and after the violent day of 22nd July.

On the 18th July I arrived in Geiranger. If you are familiar with the rich, green landscapes of England, Ireland and Scotland you will be prepared for the ultimate green experience that is Geiranger.

Geiranger is surrounded by fjords. Rocky inclines in grey and black drop steeply into the lakes, smoothed and polished by the waterfalls etched deep into their sides. The sound of running water is all around. The rest is silence. Cows graze on the pastures, stepping forward curiously as I strolled past.

That evening I played my "Tribute to Lorca" programme, referring briefly to the poignant anniversary: seventy five years to the day since the beginning of the Spanish Civil War. Spain is still trying to come to terms with it even now.

Norwegians are proud of their beautiful country: they have looked after and nurtured nature's gift to them. Their characters reflect the peace, tranquillity and beauty of their surroundings.

On Thursday 21st July I was in Tromsø, high up in the Arctic Circle. Strolling its streets with my companion in a very pleasant temperature we came across an old bakery. We chose a delicious-looking bread roll. When it came to payment, I realised to my embarrassment that I did not have any local currency. The lady smiled and said "it doesn't matter, take it as a present."

From there I went to the fishmonger on the harbour-front and cheekily asked them to slap some fish into the rolls. Again, I was treated with kindness and courtesy. Taking our lunch outside we sat on a stone and watched fishing vessels leaving and entering port. An old man walked by slowly with all the time in the world. Some young children played excitedly nearby. I ate my Norwegian fishy bread-roll contentedly. None of us knew this was Norway's last day of innocence. On the next day terrible events marked the country forever.

The fjords, of course, will continue, as will the green meadows and incessant waterfalls. So too, I am sure, will the Norwegians' good nature, tolerance and hospitality.

Read more:

July 2011

The Earl of Harewood

I was very sad to read of the death of the Earl of Harewood, first cousin of the Queen, He was a man who did great things for the arts, especially opera. My good friend the writer Graham Wade reminds me that the Earl organised a series of celebrity concerts at his stately home, Harewood House, including a solo guitar recital by me. I remember playing quite a demanding programme including Ponce’s Sonata Romántica.

After the concert I was invited to have supper with the Earl, his wife the Countess of Harewood and their close friend Lord Saville. For a while I couldn’t figure out how the waiters arrived exactly on cue without so much as poking their heads round the door, until I detected the secret bell under the table discreetly pressed at the right moment to summon the next course. I stayed overnight and slept in a four poster bed with an amazingly soft mattress, presumably the result of many generations of slumber thereupon. In the early morning there was a knock on the door. Without waiting for a reply the maid waltzed in, flung open the curtains, left me a tray of tea, and flounced out again!

Read more:

July 2011

Summer in the City

Why and how to practise when all you want to do is go out

Carlos with bus and crowds in Regent Street, London

After Venice, Treviso, the Parma hills and the Italian lakes I returned home to London. Now, I love London: I was born there and grew up there. So don’t get me wrong – but why is the West End so full of people, and buses, and noise? And (I never thought I would say this) why is it so hot!? Having left behind the streets of Venice full of tourists, I find they have all followed me to London. Help!

So how to practise the guitar with all the distractions of a city bursting with life? Here is my advice:

- Repertoire? Choose “summer” pieces like Spanish music by Albéniz. If that is not to your taste then something jazz-inspired or Latin-sounding. Unless you are madly keen to do so, do not bother with Bach and the like – leave that for the autumn evenings.

- Technique? What technique? Scales are sticky and sweaty: rattle through them only early in the morning.

- Sight-reading? Oh yes, that. This is the perfect time – no pressure, just take it easy and enjoy doing it badly.

- Going out? Definitely yes. Put your guitar away and enjoy an art gallery, strolling in the parks, having a drink on a café terrace and anything else that takes your fancy. It will put you in such a good frame of mind that you will breeze through your practise in an excellent mood.

July 2011

Never mind the arpeggios, what shall we have for lunch?

How food and music go hand in hand

Casa Cozzi, Treviso, June 2010

Here I am sitting at a long table with students about to enjoy a pasta dish. It was taken in 2010 at the Treviso Guitar Summer School in Italy. Every morning, the first question was not about scales or arpeggios but “what shall we have for lunch?”

After this year’s Summer School I went directly to another wonderful, but very different part of Italy – Val Sabbia near Brescia, a two hour drive out of Milan. There I presented a concert with my great friends and colleagues Claudio Piastra and Flavio Cucchi. We call ourselves the New Guitar Trio. We rehearsed for a couple of days in a mountain retreat 800 metres high in the Parma hills. All around were trees and fields and hills. All I could hear were the sounds of tractors, dogs barking and the occasional car winding around the steep bends. Hidden in the trees, a short walk away, was a restaurant with an elderly but sprightly lady providing delicious home-cooking.

June 2011 arriving in the Parma hills for rehearsals

On the third day of my arrival we recorded a few pieces from the programme in an 8th century church. At lunchtime the three of us, together with the recording engineers and producer, went for a proper sit-down meal in a nearby restaurant. For the first 10 minutes or so they spoke earnestly and in detail about the preparation of various dishes. I thought to myself: only in Italy would seven men dining alone do such a thing!

The concert in Val Sabbia was in a church with a jovial and helpful priest called Don Dino. The organiser is the enterprising and far-thinking Nico Bello who brings together local communities, traditions, music and yes, food, to create special events and festivals. He has done so with twenty communities already. After the concert we all went out – you’ve guessed it – for a wonderful meal of local hams, handmade pastas, various cooked meats and lots more.

So, after spending two weeks in Italy I returned to London. Today I am playing in Pakenham near Bury St Edmunds, again in a beautiful church. I am told that during the interval snacks and drinks will be available in the marquee. After the concert I am invited to a proper sit-down meal.

Music and food have gone hand in hand during these past few weeks, as they did for Duke Orsino even more extremely in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night:
“If music be the food of love, play on,
Give me excess of it; that surfeiting,
The appetite may sicken, and so die.”

The idea was to get rid of his love sickness by over-indulging in food and music to the point of nausea. No need for that, I say, just stop short of that and enjoy all three – music, food and love!

Visit the restaurant at:
Hotel Parco della Fonte,
Vallio Terme,
Brescia, Italy

July 2011

The Treviso Guitar Summer School and Festival

España, Lorca and ten great days near Venice

Carlos arriving in Venice for his recital 24th June

I have spent ten days in an idyllic setting near Venice teaching and giving concerts. The setting was a large house set in grounds of green pastures and cultivated farmland, stretching almost as far as the eye could see. Song birds, crickets and guitar music created a sound-space, and the occasional breeze wafted strains of Vivaldi, Tárrega and other music across the sun-drenched fields.

This has been a summer school with a difference. For the first few days I taught a group of young children assisted by Francesca Rossetto. They overlapped with a small group of brilliant young guitarists from Italy, England and Spain who came together to make music and present concerts in the region around Venice. We presented solos and guitar quartets with me participating. In Venice itself I gave a solo recital linked to this year's Festival theme: Spanish music and the 75th anniversary of García Lorca's death.

Why was the summer school so special? Because it gave an opportunity for the students to be involved in concerts playing solos and chamber music with me in a beautiful part of Italy who’s historical roots are at the heart of Western culture.

The large house in which we held the course is owned by the Benetton Foundation and offered residential accommodation too.

left to right, 1st Stefano de Polo, 3rd Carlos Bonell, 4th Laura Pollini, 5th Luciano Benetton, 11th Stefano Trevisi and students - Casa Cozzi, Treviso, June 2011

Luciano Benetton himself takes a close interest in the musical activities of the house, Casa Cozzi.
We organised a special private concert for him and Laura Pollini presenting a programme which included Brouwer's quartet Cuban Landscape with Rain, the Rodney Bennett’s Impromptus, Bach’s Adagio BWV 1001, and Domeniconi's Koyunbaba. I played my arrangements of Canto Mozarabre, Los Cuatro Muleros and Here Comes the Sun, after which we all had a very pleasant supper al fresco.

The summer school is organised by "Arte e Pensiero" with two visionary directors, Stefano de Polo and Stefano Treviso who are developing brilliant artistic projects in the region. The Benetton Foundation lends its invaluable support to the projects.

There will be another course next year too. Watch this space for more information.

Students who participated this year:
Antonio Amodeo (Italy)
Giacomo Bigoni (Italy)
Alejandro Ceballos Zamanillo (Spain)
Anthony Guerrini (Italy)
Agostino Maiurano (Italy)
Cassandra Mathews (UK)
Francesca Rossetto (Italy)
Serena Tammaro (Italy)
Silvia Vaccher (Italy)
Neil Worley (UK)

Guitar quartets we performed:
Leo Brouwer: Cuban Landscape with Rain
Leo Brouwer: Toccata
Karl Jenkins: Palladio arranged by Gary Spolding, Lathkill Music Publishers
P. Tchaikovsky: Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy arranged by Carlos Bonell

Solo music studied and performed included works by:
Albéniz, Bach, Brouwer, Domeniconi, Falla, Granados, Lorca, Mertz, Ponce, Rodney Bennett, Sainz de la Maza, Smith-Brindle and Tárrega.

24th June - Chiesa di San Pantalon, Venice
25th June - Olmi de San Biagio, Treviso
26th June - Spazi Bomben, Benetton Foundation, Treviso
27th June - Casa Cozzi, Zero Branco, concert for Luciano Benetton
28th June - Casa Cozzi, final concert

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June 2011