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Queen Guitar Rhapsodies

More things about strings

No guts, but plenty of polish

Andrés Segovia pioneered the development of the nylon strings in the late 1940’s with Albert Augustine and described it as a breakthrough. Out went the unravelling, sticky, difficult to tune gut string. In came the smooth and reliable nylon. Although gut strings have a warm characteristic sound nylon had the edge – they were brilliant, stayed more in tune, and did not break and unravel.

So have there been any more string breakthroughs in the 60 years since that time? Yes, I think there have been two. The first, widely accepted, is the development of treble strings made of carbon. They have improved sound projection and sustain very considerably, although on some guitars they can sound thin and strident. The second, less well-known development, has been of semi-polished basses. These reduce left-hand squeaks and sliding noises by up to 80% and make playing and recording much easier. At present they cost twice as much as normal strings but are well worth it if you are after producing a clean sound environment in your playing.

Can’t tune, won’t tune
An eternal problem with the guitar is tuning it and keeping it in tune as you play. These are some of the factors that influence tuning:
- Placement or misplacement of the frets by the maker – one millimetre can make all the difference.
- Octaves in tune, other notes out of tune (or vice versa). This is partly due to the compromises of “equal temperament” tuning – see my “read more” suggestions below to find out more.
- Temperature and humidity changes.

And who or what is on the front line taking the credit or blame for these variable factors? Yes, your poor old strings. There is very little they can do about any of the above, although they deserve criticism if they themselves are uneven or inconsistent. If so, they will never tune. Some string manufacturers are better than others regarding this important aspect of quality control.

High tension vs medium tension vs low tension
High tension (HT) strings sound louder and more percussive than medium tension (MT) strings and are more likely to reduce buzzing basses. But HT strings make playing more difficult and wear out the nails more quickly. Low tension (LT) strings have a lovely singing quality, but are quieter and more prone to buzzes. MT strings are a favourite compromise.

Your choice of string tension may be greatly influenced by “the action”. This is determined by the height of the string above the fret-board at the nut and at the 12th fret. A height of 4 millimetres or above at the 12th fret is considered a high action. The combination of HT strings and a high action is hard on the left hand, especially on barrées and slurs. A high action should encourage MT and LT strings with no buzzing. Conversely a low to medium action of 2½ to 3½mm could work well with HT strings. Of course, you could experiment with changing the action on your guitar by raising or lowering the bridge and nut. I advise you to seek professional help on this: the margins are so fine. Lowering the action will make the guitar easier to play whatever tension strings you use.

Practical tips
Try mixing string tensions: a HT 6th string with MT on all the others. This tightens up the guitar, reduces the chance of buzzes on the low string, and is a good compromise.
Allow new strings (especially trebles) at least 48 hours to settle for best results regarding tone.
Check tuning accuracy at the 12th fret with an electronic tuner. Be prepared to discard some strings for faulty intonation. Return to manufacturer with a rude note, but don’t tell them I told you to do so!
As the basses begin to wear out wash them or take them off and string them up the other way round. This will give them a new lease of life. Once the trebles start becoming rough to the right hand touch or start playing out of tune throw them away. Better still, introduce them to some beads so that together they make a necklace. Maybe you can think of other useful employment for them.
Treble strings usually last 2 or 3 times longer than basses so there is not always a need to change all the strings at the same time.
Invest in a manual or electric string winder. This speeds up changing strings and doesn’t tire out your wrist bearing in mind that changing all the strings could require more than 200 turns of the tuning pegs.
Sweaty hands and fingers will wear out strings in an alarmingly short space of time. My advice: keep washing your hands and save money.

Read more:

The development of nylon strings:

Equal temperament tuning:


D’Addario Pro Arte EJ46 include lightly polished basses

Royal Classics pack of carbon trebles

Savarez Alliance Corum strings include carbon trebles

String winder:

June 2011

All about nails and strings

Some pre-requirements for playing the guitar

Nails and strings – two subjects of constant concern for guitar players. When do you change the strings? What strings should you put on? And how about your nails: wearing down through practise, maybe damaged accidentally, or just plain weak. How do you save them, preserve them and strengthen them?

I am going to tell you about some of the things I have learnt through personal experience. I am not suggesting that these are the only methods or remedies. I couldn’t do that without an exhaustive investigation. But they have worked for me.

Variable factors
The strings you choose should depend on how loudly you play, the height of the action on the guitar, the instrument’s tendency or otherwise to buzz, the balance between bass and treble, and not least, the sound you like to produce.
Without wishing to avoid the questions I posed above let me say that different strings suit different guitars and different players. Here are some examples:
- a player who likes to make a loud sound on a guitar with a low action. My advice - high tension strings.
- a player who likes to make a loud sound on a guitar with a high action. My advice - medium tension strings.
- a player who likes to make gentle sounds in his living room, the only location where he plays the guitar. My advice – low or medium tension strings.
- a guitar with strong basses and weak trebles – try carbon strings on the trebles.

My advice based on what I do
Although time-consuming I experiment with lowering the nut and bridge to the lowest point before the guitar begins to buzz and play with medium tension strings. I like the way strings sustain and respond to the touch. Sometimes I put on a high tension 6th string and medium tension strings for the rest, and find the guitar responds differently again.

So let us imagine you have fixed the strings and action. You are happy that the guitar sounds good, it doesn’t buzz, and the action feels right. Now you have to consider the all-important part that comes into contact with the strings: your nails.

Treat them with respect
The most important thing you can do in the short term to preserve your nails is to learn how to play at an angle to the string that doesn’t wear them out, and to develop smooth relaxed strokes. In addition, please treat the nails with the respect they deserve. In other words, don’t bash them against the strings for an hour as loud as you can, and expect them to be happy and undamaged! For most people the nails will complain in the only way they know how, wearing and even splitting.

Always play with your nails as smoothly polished as possible. Use an emery board and fine emery paper around and underneath the nail until there are no catches, ridges or imperfections.

What you eat
In the medium and long term you can strengthen your nails by encouraging them to grow strongly by what you eat. Find foods that contain calcium, zinc, silica, biotin, folic acid, vitamin B6 and B12 and cod liver oil. Here are some of the foods that include these: fish especially herring and salmon, oysters, liver, watercress, spinach, alfalfa, lettuce, kale, kelp, asparagus, sesame seeds, sunflower seeds, walnuts, nuts, wheatgerm, oats,brown rice, buckwheat, soya beans, bananas, fruit, molasses, and cider vinegar.

Nail-friendly breakfast special
Try this for breakfast at the weekends: wheatgerm-sprinkled oatmeal porridge with bananas and soya milk. Sweeten with honey.

Nail-friendly main meal
Raw oysters with lemon juice as a starter followed by:

Grilled salmon with lemon juice, and watercress and spinach salad, toasted sesame seeds, boiled buckwheat (a rice substitute) with a dressing of cider vinegar and olive oil. And if you don’t like salmon try herring or another oily fish.

There are other ways….
You can also take vitamins, minerals and cod liver oil in capsules.

You can apply nail-strengthener liquid directly to the nail.

A word about splits and breaks
Unless you break a nail off completely and lose it, most breaks and splits can be repaired. A mix of super-glue and resin can hold a split nail together for up to 2 weeks. Read the instructions carefully, especially when you apply super-glue to the nail. Apply it first onto a tooth-pick and from there onto the nail surface. A word of caution: some nails are more vulnerable to the effects of super-glue than others and can suffer. If in doubt take advice.

My advice based on what I do
I do take care about my diet, and not just for the nails but for my general health, which in turn helps the nails grow strongly. I apply nail protein directly to my nails. When I damage a nail I use the nail kit I recommend below and that sees me through thick and thin (pardon the pun).

This has been my rough guide to strings and nails.

Por Arte basses: 6th string high tension, medium tension on the rest

Royal Classics carbon trebles, sonata basses

Savarez Alliance medium tension carbon trebles, high tension basses

Read more:
Bartram’s Encyclopedia of Herbal Medicine by Thomas Bartram 1998

Try nail strengthener:
nailtiques: formula 2, nail protein

Try nailkit:

June 2011

How I arranged Beatles classics for classical guitar

I first heard the Beatles when I was a young teenager just as they were starting to cause a big impression. They were appearing on a BBC radio programme. I was impressed by the strange vocal harmonies of a style I had never heard before from anyone. Little was I to know that many years later, in 2006, I would be able to ask Sir Paul McCartney himself about that early material, which I did. I was in his studio helping him with the concerto for guitar and orchestra he is composing. His reply was modest in the extreme. Sitting at the piano he said:
"Well, we only knew how to play the white keys…."

And yet "only able to play the white keys" is a great clue to some of the Beatles music. The white keys produce modal harmonies as used in folk music. They produce parallel harmonies too. Beatles’ music contains both of these elements and lots more besides. I followed the Beatles through every recording they made from 1962. I was growing up and developing varied musical tastes ranging from Classical to Rock.

It felt perfectly natural when they started using "Classical" accompaniments as in Yesterday and Eleanor Rigby. As I became more familiar with the harmonies of Flamenco, Classical, Baroque and Medieval music, the music of the Beatles - with their chord structures, modulations, falling bass-lines and use of colourful instrumentation - sounded like a natural continuation from the other musical styles with which I was familiar.

So how did I go about making the arrangements? The first decision was to decide the keys in which they sounded best, and in which they are easier to play. These two are sometimes in contradiction so I took time to come to a decision with some of the songs. For example, in Lucy in the Sky with diamonds I wanted to use a lot of harmonics (high bell-like sounds) to reflect the idea of diamonds. I also wanted a very open sound for the chorus with rasgueados (Spanish-style sounding strums). The result was the key of A and a dark sounding sequence of chords in B flat, followed by the chorus in G.

Listen to the sound samples here on the website and I hope you can hear what I mean at these timed moments in the piece:

Go to the Magical Mystery Guitar Tour page, then click on :
Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds:
0” “open” sound
32” harmonics
48” “dark” sound - sequence of chords in B flat
1’10” “open” sounding chorus with rasgueados
1’35” more harmonics

The arrangement continues to develop passages with harmonics and arpeggios (succession of notes played on different strings) until the end of the song when it slips smoothly into a neo-Baroque sequence inspired by the falling bass-lines of the song.

In George Harrison’s Here Comes the Sun the decision about key was simple: it sounds great on the guitar in A, but how to create the rhythmic buzz? I did it by alternating the syncopated melody with bass and chords, after starting off the arrangement with an extended introduction. There are two other aspects I used through many of the other arrangements. These are the changes of octave in the tune and the use of rasgueados, which give variety and emphasis.

Go to the Magical Mystery Guitar Tour page, then click on :
Here Comes the Sun:
0” “guitar” introduction
15” tune with alternating chords and bass-line
41” 2nd part of tune changes octave
57” Chorus with rasgueados
1’27” repeat of tune, this time with rasgueados

Later on in the piece I go into a long section which sounds like an improvisation, but it isn’t! I worked it out carefully. I pick up from the 4-note idea of the tune and extend it through changes of key and arpeggios until returning to the tune again.

The easiest pieces to arrange were Yesterday, Because and Michelle. The piece which took me longest was Strawberry Fields, with Somewhere a close second. I loved the little triplet idea near the beginning (Straw-berr-y / Fie-lds- for/ E-ver). It is so playful and unexpected. This gave me the idea for developing it further in the piece. You can hear the beginning of this idea on the sound sample. The lowest string is tuned down to D, with the piece arranged in G.

Go to the Magical Mystery Guitar Tour page, then click on :
Strawberry Fields:
20” triplet idea : Straw-berr-y / Fie-lds- for/ E-ver
25” first development of triplet idea
56” repeat of tune, this time with added tune/counterpoint on high string

I hope this gives you some ideas of how I set about making these arrangements. My aim has been to make these Beatles’ pieces sound as if they had been composed as guitar solos. If you agree, then I will have succeeded.

Listen free to track samples:
Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, Here Comes the Sun and Strawberry Fields from the Magical Mystery Guitar Tour CD – click on More details

Read more:
My blog: Magical Guitar Tour album: all about a day in the recording studio, 20th December 2010

Buy album:
click on Store

June 2011

Guitar practise: brain rules all


It is self-evident that all learning and playing depends on the information and messages you transmit to your hands from your brain. There you are, playing your guitar, ideas come to you and you try them out, and sounds emerge as you play which give you new ideas. Back and forth they go: you play, you listen, you think, you play, you listen, you think and so on.

Think - play - listen

What is the balance between these three aspects? It varies from person to person. Some of us are more intuitive and others more cerebral. Before making a suggestion of how to create a balance let me first paint some brief portraits in words of character tendencies which emphasise one or other of these aspects:

The go-for-it-type-player:
Play - listen - play - listen
Note here there is little or no reflection or pause for thought. Often this sort of player hardly pauses for breath and practises everything fast or very fast. When mistakes occur he or she gets very frustrated and talks or shouts out loud using rude words! At the end of a practise or playing session there is a vague feeling of frustration, of hit and miss, of “some days it works and some days it doesn’t.”

The long-term-type-player:
Think - play - think - play
Note here there is little or no listening. This player creates very specific tasks for himself and often follows prescribed methods, sometimes of his invention. Characterised by a praiseworthy determination in relentless pursuit of the faraway goal the only thing that is missing here is actually listening to the sounds coming out of the guitar which in extreme cases may be feeble and unmusical.

The get-it-right-now-type-player:
Listen - think - listen - think
Note here there is little or no playing. This is the most unusual type of player. I was told a story by someone who overheard a leading viola player practising. It sounded awful. When teased about this, the viola virtuoso replied “I only practise improving what I can’t play. There is no point practising what I can.” I myself heard a chamber group of piano and string quartet practise together just 3 bars. They kept at it for about 15 minutes. But here is the important point: between each repeat there were long pauses while they reflected on how to improve it.

Creating a balance between these three aspects - play - listen - think - is up to you. It will depend partly on your personality and how you like to learn, but here is an example of how you might make the best of these three features:

Balanced approach:
Think - play - listen - think - play - listen

Play and listen to the piece you are learning - try to remember exactly where it went wrong or what doesn’t sound quite right. Concentrate on the problem passage. Repeat very slowly.
Play and listen: where and what doesn’t sound right?
Think: why is it difficult?
Think: do I need repeat this many times or is there another way round it?
Think: what is the way round this?
Think: is there a better fingering?
Think: is it a matter of technique? If you find another way, do it again and play and listen.
Listen: does it sound better?
Think: if the answer is no will it sound better if I practise it a little more or is this a dead-end?
Play and listen: if it is a dead-end think what other technique or techniques do I have to develop to play this and how shall I develop them?
And so it goes on.

So think - play - listen can expand to become:
Think - experiment - change - play - listen - think - confirm or reject - experiment again - play - listen

The basis underpinning all this is your conviction that you can get better much more quickly provided you harness together thinking, playing and listening.

This has been my rough guide to a more balanced approach to practise.

May 2011

Guitar playing for adult learners

Three grown-up rules

Throughout my life as a teacher I have met and encouraged two types of adult learners. There are the children who take up a musical instrument, give up after a few years and come back to learning in adult life, and then there are those who never played as children and start to learn as adults.

Returning to play after many years does not mean starting all over again. Deep in your mind and in your fingers is a memory of your initial learning. Now as an adult learner you have the possibility to use your mature intelligence to pick up from where you left off and continue to build.

Starting to play from scratch as an adult is a different experience, especially if you have never played a musical instrument. But here too you have the advantage of a mature intelligence at your service.

For adult re-learners and beginners I would suggest bearing in mind the following:

Be clear about what you are trying to achieve, since you are extremely unlikely to become a virtuoso!

You can become a fine musician and a good player.

Your music and playing could and should give you a lot of happiness, relaxation and fulfilment.

1. Why are you doing it? Just because you can’t get your fingers round all the pieces you would like to play doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy having a go and get lots out of it. Fred James, a great friend to me and my mentor when I was sixteen years old said something to me which I found difficult to understand at the time, but which I have grown to admire:
“ If something is worth doing, it is worth doing badly”.
This does not mean that you don’t try to play as well as you can, but it does help you to understand your limitations and yet appreciate and cherish the fine piece of music you are trying to play.

2. What you can achieve with your curiosity, patience and determination can help you understand, analyse and appreciate music. This will help you play more musically. You can improve your reading skills so you can play in small ensembles and guitar orchestras. You could even turn your hand to arranging and composing your own pieces.

3. How you could feel – a sense of fulfilment and completion should come with you developing your playing skills. This sense may have nothing to do with actually becoming a good guitarist, but everything to do with enquiring and exploring through your guitar-playing that great universe – music itself.

This has been my rough guide guitar playing for adult learners.

May 2011

Lorca and the Golden Polyphemus

Poet, dramatist, painter, pianist...guitarist?

Federico Garcia Lorca

Few poets have written such striking images of the guitar - its sound, its emotional impact - as Federico García Lorca did. Through his life he loved it, for its ancient roots and flamenco expression, and wrote various poems about it. He congratulated his great friend and mentor Manuel de Falla on his one and only guitar composition – Tombeau – but admitted he could only play the first few bars. “My fingers get caught in the strings, and I make such an awful noise that my mother snatches the guitar away and hides it from me.”

As a teenager he showed remarkable gifts as a writer, musician and painter, and for a time was uncertain which path to pursue. Throughout his life he continued to play the piano. My uncle went to study in Granada in the early 1930’s and became a personal friend of Lorca. He told me that he was a great improviser: ask him to play a Haydn minuet in a ragtime style, or in any style, and he would. He would love to entertain his friends late into the night, and continue playing while everyone was falling asleep all around. At other times, the improvisations would turn into serenades and everyone else would creep out of the room when someone caught the poet’s eye. According to my uncle, Lorca would pick up the guitar from time to time and yes, he was able to play simple things on it, mostly in a flamenco style.

He was friends with two great guitar players: the Granada-born Angel Barrios and Regino Sáinz de la Maza. In the flamenco song competition of 1922, the brain-child of Falla, Lorca also rubbed shoulders with Andrés Segovia. And it was Segovia who proved crucial to the poet's publishing ambitions by praising his poetry. But it was with Sáinz de la Maza that he shared the greatest friendship in an illuminating correspondence. Still in his early twenties Lorca wrote to him that he sometimes felt there was not one Lorca, but many Lorcas, neatly folded and stacked in the “warehouse of eternity” waiting to fly free. Twenty years later, after the poet’s death, Sáinz de la Maza would give the première of Joaquín Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez for guitar and orchestra in Barcelona. These lines by Lorca seem to anticipate the theme of the slow movement:

The wail of the guitar begins,
it is useless to stop it,
it is impossible to stop it.

Lorca grew up in Granada, and had a love-hate relationship with it. As poet, dramatist and theatre director he achieved international recognition as few other Spanish artists have done. When he returned to Granada at the beginning of the Spanish Civil War – against the advice of all his friends - he was arrested and disappeared. His body has never been found.

In my Lorca tribute concerts I use Albéniz’s Granada as a musical symbol of his upbringing and tragic death. He loved the music of Albéniz, and wrote a sonnet to the composer. I also have turned to the dozen or so folk songs he arranged for voice and piano. His harmonisations are simple but very effective. I have taken them a step further and re-arranged them for solo guitar. In doing so I have also remembered Lorca’s feel for the guitar, his love of flamenco, and his dark imagery:

The guitar
causes dreams to weep.
The sobs of lost
Escape through its round

Yet there are two more images which I find amazing. The one is his description of the sound-hole as a spider’s web designed to “trap sighs” and the other is his comparison of the guitar to the Greek God Polyphemus in the poem Adivinanza de la guitarra dedicated to Sáinz de la Maza. Polyphemus was the god with one eye in the middle of his forehead. Better still, he was no ordinary Polyphemus, if there was such a thing, but a “Polyphemus made of gold”. Therein lies great poetry, and an inspiration for guitar players to live up to.

Photo of García Lorca and poem extracts by kind permission of La Fundación García Lorca:

España: Carlos Bonell plays Spanish music at the Bolivar Hall, London, 20th May 2011 at 7.30pm including a 75th anniversary tribute to Lorca
Tickets £10 on the door, or in advance in Store at:

Read more at:

Poem Adivinanza de la guitarra in English translation:

Selected poems with parallel Spanish text published by Oxford World’s Classics:

A biography of García Lorca by Ian Gibson:
Federico García Lorca: A Life

I am grateful to author and historian Graham Wade for his advice in the preparation of this article.

May 2011

How to make the best of a 30 minute practise session

Practise versus playing

Some of you may think that if you have only 30 minutes available then it is not worth doing any practise. But I think you are wrong. There is quite a lot you can do with 30 minutes provided you use your time wisely. Notice I say "practise session" as opposed to "playing session". A playing session can be just five minutes and can make you feel great. For example, you might come home after a day at school or at work and feel a bit tired or wound-up, so to feel better you pick up the guitar and play a piece which has been going through your mind all day. That is good and makes you feel great. The only word of caution I would offer is to not to launch into a difficult piece which stretches and bends the fingers without some minimal warm-up exercises.

Stage 1: warming-up is important

So let me now concentrate on the subject in hand: the practise session. What are you trying to achieve in those 30 minutes? Maybe it is just to keep your fingers going and elastic without a specific piece in mind. Maybe you have a piece in mind that you are learning. Maybe it is some particularly difficult passages that you are determined to get right. With all these goals in mind my advice is going to be the same. Firstly you need to warm up your hands and fingers. To start with you must sit down in a reasonably calm frame of mind. It is no good rushing in, and storming through scales still in a sweat. Your hands will reflect your tension and it may be a frustrating experience. You must find a way to bring a measure of calm to the proceedings. Apart from having a drink, or deep breathing exercises, or whatever is your inclination, the trick may be to play a beautiful slow chord sequence. Music does have a powerful calming effect in itself, so find your own sequence to help you calm down. After your calming sequence, try just a few minutes of scales and arpeggios. These can be of any type you like. Start slowly and quietly - this will also help you play without tension and help the fingers. Gradually, over a period of no more than five or six minutes, get louder and faster and try a few changes and improvisations. Within ten minutes or so you will have warmed up with a favourite sequence (and as you can see I recommend a chord sequence), scales and arpeggios. These form the basis of all guitar technique. You have warmed up the fingers with these critical aspects. If you still feel you need more warming up before moving onto stage 2, then keep at it a bit longer. Remember we are all made differently, some of us need hardly any warming-up and others a lot more.

Stage 2: stepping up a gear

After five to ten minutes of the warming up exercises you can now try playing some of the difficult passages from the piece or pieces you are learning. Remember you only have 30 minutes. For the next ten minutes or so concentrate on slow deliberate practise of those passages. Try not to stray from this, which is not easy. If in doubt place a clock in front of you and see how long ten minutes really is! Always start practising those passages really slowly before increasing the tempo. Don't try to do too much - four or five passages may be more than enough. It is better to make headway with a little than spread yourself too thin.
By the end of stage 2 you have been practising for some twenty minutes. Put your guitar down and walk around for a moment or two so as to clear your mind. You are now ready to move to the next stage.

Stage 3: the moment you have been waiting for

You now have about ten to 15 minutes remaining. You are warmed-up. You have done some concentrated practise. Now reward yourself. Play through your piece/pieces and throw caution to the wind. Enjoy yourself and give a performance regardless of mistakes, hoping of course, that your stage 2 practise has already improved things. Playing all the way through a piece without stops and starts is very important and no less so when you have a 30 minute session, for it makes you feel this is what you have been building up to. It brings your brief practise session to a fitting, and hopefully enjoyable finale.

At the end of the 30 minutes as you put the guitar away you should feel this has been 30 minutes well spent.

This has been my rough guide to how to make the best of 30 minutes practise time.

May 2011

Playing in public

Three steps to performing without nerves


Is there anybody out there who hasn’t felt nervous about playing in public? Let’s see whether this sounds familiar as the moment itself approaches: dry throat, sweaty palms, heart racing, and other symptoms. In extreme cases, some people, including experienced performers, feel physically sick. These reactions are enough to make people give up any idea of further public performances, the whole experience is so terrifying and entirely negative.

Inside us there are two voices competing for supremacy. The negative voice is saying:
“…difficult passage coming up, I think I may be going to make a mistake. …that person in the audience who is coughing is putting me off, I can’t concentrate…..what am I going to do if I forget the next phrase?…” and so on.

The negative voice is undermining. Worse, the negative voice is self-fulfilling. The negative voice is primeval as it whispers:
“…so many pairs of eyes staring at me. I feel so vulnerable.”

You want to flee at that moment, and hope a large hole on the stage could appear under your feet through which you would so.


But there is a positive voice trying to make itself heard. That is the one to encourage. The positive voice has various messages and they are all to do with positive thinking. They create the basis for playing calmly and well. They include three positive steps for being able to perform in public:


They are not separate elements, for they interact and help each other.
That is why you could place them in a different sequence, for example:

1. Self-belief
2. Preparation

Let us consider each in turn.

1. Preparation

Your preparation should be thorough so that the moment you walk on to play you should be able to say to yourself:
“I have prepared myself completely for this moment. I have done everything I could possibly do to play at my very best.”
The preparation should include:
a). practise until perfect
b). secure memorisation
c). certainty about interpretation

I have already written a whole blog each about a). and b). You can find these blogs scrolling down below this one. Regarding c). make sure that you know how you wish to interpret the music, avoid vagueness and uncertainty.

2. Self-belief
Have confidence in your own judgement, and that your performance can be excellent. Your decisions about technique and interpretation are based on your ideas, your research and your own emotional reactions to the music. Project them well and your personality will shine through. John Lennon said about the Beatles:
“First we had to persuade ourselves we could be the best in the world. After that it was easy.”

3. Communication

Your listeners have come to enjoy a musical experience. This may include excitement, lyricism, stillness, simplicity, spirituality, virtuosity and lots more besides. The vast majority of your listeners have not come as judges and examiners to be shocked when you make a mistake or to be critical of your interpretations. They are there hoping to be transported to a special and magical place: musical heaven! Together with your audience you can reach it. The positive vibrations between you move in both directions and create a special, even unique, mood. You can imagine the vibrations moving back and forth between you in waves. You the performer are the medium. The musical atmosphere and shared experience you have created with the audience have a life and momentum of their own, bigger than its component parts.

- encourage positive thoughts, deny negative thoughts
- thorough preparation
- secure memory
- decide interpretation with confidence
- self-belief you can do it
- communication

This has been my rough guide to avoiding nerves in performance.

Read more:

My blog: Memory’s Mysterious Moods 2
April 2011

My blog: How to learn a piece of music
March 2011

The Aranjuez Concerto in Guanajuato

Fiesta time in ex-Spanish Mexico

The university town of Guanajuato is my favourite town in Mexico. In fact, it is one of my favourite places anywhere. Not surprisingly, it is a UNESCO world heritage site. It has narrow cobbled streets leading to small squares with pavement cafés, grand ex-colonial Spanish style residences presiding over the main streets, and Baroque churches with intricate stone carvings springing out as you turn street corners.

Guanajuato made a fortune from the silver mines right underneath its pavements. Even now the maze of underground tunnels is in use as roads, walkways and underpasses. A magnificent opera house dominates the central square where Verdi's opera Aida was staged for the inauguration in 1903. And here I have come to play the Aranjuez Concerto in the main theatre El Teatro Principal, with the University Symphony Orchestra as part of the town festivities and Guitar Festival.

On the evening before the rehearsal I sat on a bench in el jardín de la unión, the main square. Opposite on another bench sat a mariachi musician in full outfit quietly strumming a guitarrón, a huge bass guitar, every few minutes glancing at his mobile phone. On the same bench as me sat a trumpet player, silently mouthing and fingering the instrument. There were at least four streams of live and recorded music vying for my attention, creating a chaos of conflicting styles and noise in the name of music. At one point the mariachi musicians left hurriedly, presumably to fulfill an engagement just received by phone.

Thursday’s midday performance of Joaquín Rodrigo's Concierto de Aranjuez was a memorable occasion. In a gala atmosphere the audience was received by hosts and hostesses dressed in 18th century costumes. We gave a good account of the music in spite of loud crying from a small child who clearly was not enjoying the proceedings.

At lunch a jolly time was had by all, which included Raul Barajas, the maker of the wonderful guitar I played in concert, my friend the guitarist and teacher Antonio Muñoz, and the very fine composer Miguel Sagrero.

That evening Guanajuato was all dressed up for the traditional baile de las flores, dance of the flowers, where young men reward young women of their choice strolling the streets with a flower as a prelude to courtship – very charming. By the early hours, much the worse for wear, they were mostly staggering about in search of food, water, coffee, and yes, even more drink.

During the festival I met for the first time American guitarist and Bach editor supremo Frank Koonce whose work I have much admired. On Friday morning, well relaxed after the previous day’s performance I had breakfast with Mexican guitarist and composer Julio César Oliva, and the Guitar Festival Director and main mover of all things 6-stringed in the region, José Montenegro.

From left to right - Julio César Oliva, Carlos Bonell, José Montenegro

We sat in the patio of the hotel to the accompaniment of loud singing from two large colourful but caged parrots. It was only nine in the morning yet the shades were up to protect us from the hot sun. Julio is a very quietly spoken man of very wide interests as well as a brilliant compose and arranger. José Montenegro is a man of great vision and organizational ability, a combination not often found in one and the same person.

So we had a jolly good breakfast which included huevos a la mexicana, scrambled eggs with green peppers and chili, and after a discussion ranging from music to how we would solve the world’s problems, arose, had our picture taken, and went on our separate ways.

Since I am a guest professor at Guanajuato University, I know I will soon be back.

Read more:


Juarez Theatre, Guanajuato

Mariachi musicians

Joaquín Rodrigo

Selected music of Julio César Oliva is published by:

Frank Koonce

Listen to:
Antonio Banderas - Cancion del Mariachi (Music Video)
Julio César Oliva
at http://www.youtube.com

Composer Miguel Sagrero is on Facebook
Guitar maker Raul Barajas Becerra is on Facebook

April 2011

Memory's Mysterious Moods 2

Three steps to memorising music

The single greatest fear of all performing artists is that of forgetting. Never mind wrong notes, or playing out of time and out of tune, no, they are as nothing to ‘drying up.’ The very thought of coming to a grinding halt half-way through a piece in front of your family, friends or in concert, is enough to send a shiver up your spine. Nothing is more likely to undermine your confidence.
It is true some people have better memory than others. But then some people have greater facility than others. We have a natural predisposition for different aspects of playing and that includes memorising.

Technique is considered a matter of practise. Not so the ability to memorise, although Stravinsky didn’t think so when he played a recital of his own music and had a few memory lapses. After that he said he sat down to practise in such a way it wouldn’t happen again - and that was with his own compositions! On the other hand pianist Arthur Rubinstein had such a gift for memorising that he once accepted a wager and was locked into a room with a piano for a brief period whence he emerged able to play a new piece from memory. Toscanini was celebrated for conducting symphonies and operas entirely from memory.

There is only piece in the history of music I am certain you can all memorise in a trifle - John Cage's 4’33” seconds of silence! OK, joking apart, there are ways you can improve your memory and feel more confident about playing from memory. Broadly speaking the three key aspects of memorisation are:

1. Reflex
2. Visualisation
3. Association

1. Reflex memory is the most immediate. The fingers seem to have a mind of their own, which is good news. Finger memory is a sequential memory - once you get going it’s like an engine, it seems to go by itself. It is assisted and sometimes driven by playing it by ear, so do encourage your ear to lead you to the next note. But like engines, the ear and the fingers can go wrong unless you prop it up with.....

2. Visualisation
Anticipate the next move while playing very slowly. Plot the movement of each finger. Now put the guitar down and visualise the finger movements in slow motion to and from each fret and each string. Struggle for a minute or two and then pick up the guitar and play the same passage very slowly. Concentrate on remembering the fingering sequences. Now put the guitar down again and visualise it all. See, it’s easier now! You are creating the building blocks of a stronger memory.

So far we have aural, reflex and fingering-pattern memory. What else can we do to help the memory? Well how about the tried and tested method of all memory exercises - the association of ideas?

3. Association
In instrumental playing this means that placing a finger on the third string at the second fret produces the note A. It means that that the next passage is a fingering sequence like a scale of G backwards. It means that the next chord is not just four notes together but also C major at the third position.

In each of these examples the memory works like this -
reflex memory + visualisation of fingering patterns + musical recognition = strong memory

Here is a plan to try this out and check how reliable is your memory -

a). Play a brief passage you already think you have memorised.
b). Repeat very slowly anticipating in your mind the next moves.
c). Repeat a little faster.
d). Put the guitar down and visualise fingerings, frets and strings one at a time.
e). Play again and this time name the notes as you play them - all of them.
f). Put the guitar down and name the notes in slow sequence - all of them.
g). Try to recognise musical patterns, connections and harmonies.

Inside your brain you are at the cinema. You are watching a film of yourself playing the phrase.
Try to visualise the frets, strings, fingers, notes, musical patterns and harmonies at one and the same time!

If you have never done anything like this before you may find it difficult. But keep at it. You may never become as good as Rubinstein and Toscanini but you will be better by far than you were before.

This has been my rough guide to memorising music.

Read more:
Kato Havas: Stage Fright, its causes and cures

Igor Stravinsky: An Autobiography

Arthur Rubinstein: My Young Years


Listen to:
John Cage 4’33” (Silence)
BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Lawrence Foster

April 2011