• News
  • Magical Mystery Guitar Tour
  • Queen Guitar Rhapodies
  • Transformations Music Series
  • Store
  • Biography
  • Teaching
  • Tour Dates
  • Discography
  • Review
  • Sound & Vision
  • Gallery
  • blog
  • Contact
  • Buy tickets
Queen Guitar Rhapsodies

An Indian Diary

From A day out in Kochin to The Grumbleweeds

Carlos and driver in Cochin, India


Kochin is described in tourist brochures as “vibrant” but when I arrived it was half asleep, although the second most important city on the west coast of India after Mumbai. Because it was Sunday shops were closed, and there were few cars on the roads. Instead they were congested with other things, some of which could be described as means of transport, but more of this anon.

On arrival I stepped out and was faced with a choice of taxis or autos. Autos are covered motorbikes with seating for two at the back, whereas the taxis were just ordinary vehicles. So I chose an auto. I climbed in – no doors and no seat-belts, but fully air-conditioned.

“Drive me around please to see the city centre, buy some hand-made goods to take home, and stop by an internet café.”

And so my driver, Siyad, hurtled off. Other autos were doing the same, mere inches away, in parallel. I could easily have reached over and shaken the hands of fellow passengers. Siyad was an alert, and even rather fine driver, apart from accelerating where I would have been braking.

After chatting about this and that he said:

“No internet today Sunday, everything closed. I take you to my home.” Briefly alarmed I considered for a second or two while he drove through ever-narrowing roads and frequent potholes until coming to a halt at his front door in a pleasant back street. Of course everything turned out fine, otherwise I wouldn’t be writing you now. What is more I was offered a choice of hot teas and cold water.


After an hour or so we set off again. This time I noticed with curiosity other road-users, lots of them, all of them with an air of purpose and determination about them. Where were they going all these goats? Trotting neatly in single file on the inside lane, they showed more road sense than the human travellers dodging and weaving and honking in their assortment of autos, bicycles and motorbikes. I did spot one traveller who had had too much: slumped in a doorway was an ox, undisturbed.

Our first stop was the New Castle Gallery, a large shop on several floors selling jewellery, carpets, clothes and household embellishments, many of them hand-crafted. I loved everything I saw. What a joy the designers and artisans take in making such colourful things! I was attended with infinite patience while I decided what not to buy and take with me.


By this time I was getting hungry and surely so was Siyad, so we went to a simple restaurant and sat outside while they prepared a vegetable curry. I was thrilled to be eating a curry in India itself.

“Where is the bathroom?” I asked of the waiter.

“Just a moment.” He returned with a beaker of water. He waved vaguely towards my midriff and pointed to the side of the pavement. For the second time that afternoon I briefly panicked. Was it a custom here to do it in public? The thought crossed my mind as a crazy vision. I extended my hands. Slowly the waiter poured the water over them. That was my bathroom visit.

Soon it was time to end the day’s diversions and return to do some practise in preparation for my performances a few days hence. It had been a great day of discovery and surprises.


Another surprise lay in store for me a few days later, for one of the performances was a shared bill with those wonderful comedians The Grumbleweeds. For a long time to come I will be able to boast of accompanying Rambling Sid Rumpole in the ballad of the Woggler’s Mooley to the tune of Oh My Darling Clementine with The Grumbleweeds sung in the style of Kenneth Williams in Round the Horne.

And if enough of you don’t know to what I am referring I will have to write a whole new blog just about that.

Read more:
Kochin, India

The New Castle Gallery Shop

The Grumbleweeds

April 2011

Back to the Future with Bach 2

How Bach and Vivaldi fell out in Hollywood

Due to an overwhelming response from my readers, I am continuing for both of you my previous blog and fantasy story. Although it is a fantasy, it is not all made up, some of it is true - especially the historical bits and references to musical works. More importantly, time travel could one day all come to pass, in which case my blog will be regarded as prophetic. And then who will be laughing?

The story so far: a time machine has been invented that can bring people back from the past to the present. Bach and Vivaldi are living in Hollywood under contract both to the film studios and to their time traveller-manager. The revelation of their supposed identities has provoked a huge controversy. A majority of people are incredulous.

So now to continue the story. We find ourselves in a Hollywood TV studio with one of the leading interviewers of the day, a respected investigative reporter.

"Good evening. Tonight we have in the studio two men who have made extraordinary claims as to their true identities, and I do mean extra-ordinary. If true we have with us tonight two of the towering geniuses of musical history. How is this possible? Well, here is a little background.

"Ten years ago NASA started its Travel in Time Space programme, TITS, to reach distant planets and galaxies. In the process NASA made a surprising discovery: that it was easier to travel back in time and then forward to the present, than to travel forward in time and back to the present. The first manned TITS expedition travelled back a mere two hours. Within six years it had become 50 years, and here we are today travelling back as far as 1720, and amazingly, able to bring back to the present people from that distant age. Let me first turn to you, J.S. Bach, composer of Sheep may safely graze, Mass in B minor, the Art of Fugue and many other masterpieces.

"Mr Bach, you are widely considered as the greatest composer of the Baroque era, so what would make a man in your position, with your success, risk everything by stepping into a strange machine the likes of which you had never seen?"

JS, tense and heavy-cheeked, sitting almost on the edge of the chair smiled slowly:
"Because I did not believe it possible! I was sure it was a practical joke. But no, it wasn't."

And with that he gazed into the middle distance.

"What was your first impression on arriving in Hollywood?"
"That you have created a mad and wonderful world, side by side, and some things are both bad and good."
"Do you miss your previous life?"
"Yes and no. I miss the flowers and trees of Germany, the walks in the woods, the fresh air, and my wine collection. I do not miss the squabbling musicians, the dukes and bishops who were my employers, the cold unheated rooms."
"What do you say to those people who say you are making all this up?"
"I am very sad about this. I hoped my music and my ability would speak for themselves. But it is not so. I have spoken in detail and at great length about myself to learned historians and musicians who do not believe what I say. Imagine, they know better than me about what I have done in my life and what I have seen around me! I cannot believe it."

"Let me turn to our other guest, Antonio Vivaldi, composer of the Four Seasons, perhaps the best-loved classical music of all time. You were at the height of your success as a composer of operas. But still you stepped into the machine. Why?"
"It was a trick. The manager told me there was a pretty girl with long curly hair in there waiting for me. Afterwards I realised it was a joke so we both had a good laugh."
"What was your first impression of Hollywood?"
Vivaldi, a wiry, red-headed man with a penetrating look comfortably reclined in his chair.
"Amazing, I love it! It is better than my Venice. It is more practical to get around. Everything here works properly."
"Do you miss your previous life?"
"Not much. I miss the home cooking, but you have some fine Italian restaurants here with food I had never tasted before. And the girls in Hollywood, mamma mia, how do you say in English, are fantastic. And like Giovanni I do not miss the Dukes and Counts, they know nothing, isn't that right Giovanni? Nothing - just rich and ignorant. And here I love the studios and recording - magnifico. I never go back, never. I love this invention TITS. Thank you, TITS for bringing me here."
With real feeling he blew a kiss in the direction of the camera and waving his hands as a conductor slowly said:
"I - love - TITS"
"What do you say to people who accuse you of being a liar?"
"They're crazy! Just listen to my music - only one Antonio Vivaldi can write like that. Nobody sounds like me. Giovanni here cannot sound like me. Other musicians can sound like Giovanni, but no one can sound like me."

Bach glowered at the older man, 7 years his senior, and said:
"Most of your music, my admired maestro, sounds like you composed it before breakfast while feeding the hens. Only a couple of pieces stand apart."

Vivaldi's face turned nearly as red as his hair:
"Why you pompous fat man! Why do you speak to me like this? You compose the Brandenburg Concertos to sound like me, and the Italian concerto, and you copy my violin concerto just to be like me, il grande compositore Antonio Vivaldi. Hollywood Bach, now you write some fun music, but before you were so serious and boring."

At this Bach raised his considerable posterior from the chair and said:
"Come outside and say that."
Vivaldi jumped up holding his chair in front of him like a weapon, crouching dementedly.

What wonderful television, what huge audience ratings for the endless replays, and as for the managers in the background they were jumping up and down with delight and excitement.


Listen to:

J.S. Bach -
The Brandenburg Concertos
The Italian concerto for harpsichord

The violin concertos
Cantata "sheep may safely graze"
Mass in B minor
Art of Fugue

A.Vivaldi -
The Four Seasons
The concertos
The operas

Read more:
Stephen Hawking - A Brief History of Time

March 2011

Memory's Mysterious Moods

Why I forget what I have forgotten but can remember music

Yesterday Saturday arriving at London airport I took out the boarding pass from my pocket for the third time in an hour to check the flight number, I couldn't remember it. At the check-in I was given a new boarding pass with the departure gate. This number too I kept forgetting as well as into which jacket pocket I had put the ticket.

The flight number and gate number, that's two, but there were various other things I can't tell you since I can no longer remember what I forgot. Call me forgetful or absent-minded or any other word you can remember that springs to mind, how can I deny it? I am sure some readers need only read their boarding pass once for the information to be imprinted in their brains as they skip merrily towards their departure gate.

Memory is a funny old thing. On Friday I gave a concert in Sleaford, Lincolnshire, for a dedicated and well-organised Music Society. It was the third time I have played there in the same hall, the last time was three years ago. As I walked in I was surprised how much smaller it was than I remembered. I had a vivid image of it as twice the size, but of course I was imagining it.

My memory may be both false and forgetful although there are some things I do remember well, apart from my own name. For my concert in Ealing on 4th March I revived a piece I hadn't played for some 10 years, not that it needed much reviving for I remembered it all straight away save for two chords. The same goes for much of the music I have learnt through my life. I remember it without much difficulty.

When I wrote the history section of my book Easy Guide to the Guitar I did it all from memory recalling so many facts and figures that my concern was whether they were of my own invention. Was my memory playing me tricks? When my assistant trawled through them all we found most of them were correct.

It would be too easy for me to say I remember what is important to me and forget what is not. Music and history are two of my passions, maybe that is why I don't forget them, but so too is cinema yet I cannot recall as easily the names of films and actors.

As I say, memory is a funny old thing and works differently for each of us. I am friends with an excellent professional musician who knows hundreds of jokes but cannot play a single piece of music from memory! I have met someone who could recite series of names and telephone numbers new to him, no problem. This is how he described his skill:

"Just imagine walking through your home and locating each name and number in specific familiar places."

In other words the association of ideas helps memorisation, which is what I do with music, stitching together finger sequences, visualisation techniques, harmonies and structural awareness and playing by ear, nailing them all into the memory.

As I write these words you may be relieved to know (that is if you still remember how this blog started) that in spite of forgetting flight and gate numbers I did make it onto the plane. I am on it now. I know I am travelling to Singapore, but don't ask me the flight number, I've forgotten it again.

March 2011

How to learn a piece of music in three steps

1.Treat sight-reading or memorising as a fast track to learning
2.Alternate close-up detail with long-distance overview
3.Allow time for you to improve the piece and the “5 time test”

Now here is some detail about each of these headings:

Treat sight-reading as a fast track to learning -
If you are learning a piece from the music it will be a lot easier to do so if your sight-reading is good enough to make sense of it by a third reading. If your sight-reading is not good enough to do this then I suggest another approach here below.

The good sight-reader fast track:
1st time reading: read through it slowly but rhythmically, and never mind the mistakes.

2nd time reading: read it through again, and try to keep going in slow time without hesitations, and never mind the mistakes. Try to make sense of the music in your playing with phrasing and dynamics. At the end revise and play even more slowly the difficult bars, the bars with mistakes, or the bars where you couldn’t keep time. Now move on to:

3rd time reading: make a special effort to incorporate the improvements which you have just been practising, and be more demanding of yourself regarding keeping time, avoiding errors and making it musical.

The poor sight-reader memorising fast track:
Learn the piece phrase by phrase, and don’t move on to the next phrase until you have learnt and half-memorised the first one. To memorise effectively remember the fingering patterns and frets, repeat the rhythmic shapes until certain, and try to figure out the harmonies. Once you have half-memorised the piece try to understand the structure and shape through the harmonies, rhythms and melody. This will help fully memorise the piece.

Alternate close-up detail with long-distance overview -

This applies to every learner, whether a poor or good reader.

Close-up detail:
The close-up moments require you to extract just a phrase or a bar or even just one difficult jump and repeat it very slowly until you can play it smoothly, after which you can try it faster. Then you should play the passage in question from a bar before and see whether it still works. And then again, from another bar before that, and so on. After a few minutes of concentrated close-up detail work the brain tires so you now move on to:

Long-distance overview:
Play through the whole piece ignoring mistakes and not stopping. The priority is to create a smooth musical performance in spite of errors. Play through the piece several times and remember where the errors occurred. Now go back to close-up detail work and repeat the process.

In any practise session, whether it be 30 minutes or 3 hours alternate close-up practise of difficult passages with the long-distance approach of playing all the way through the piece. The time you spend on close-up detail may be a few minutes or 10 minutes. Time yourself and you will see how long 2 minutes of concentrated very slow close-up detailed work really is. Only continue for as long as you can concentrate. Then proceed to long-distance overview work, which is more relaxed.

Close-up detail work is like breathing in, while long-distance overview work is like breathing out.

Close-up detail work is like looking through a microscope, while long-distance overview is like looking through a telescope.

Allow time for you to improve the piece and the “5 time test” –

Playing music so that you sound completely at ease takes time. You may have to live with the piece for some months, and with really demanding pieces maybe for years. Pablo Casals, the first cellist in the 20th century to revive and play the solo suites for cello by Bach, waited 8 years before playing them in public. Don’t worry, you need not take so long with the piece you are learning!

And here is an interesting thing: you may not practise the piece for weeks, and yet it may sound better when you pick it up again. All the while the music has been bubbling away in your subconscious.

To prove to yourself that you have mastered the piece subject it to my “5 time test”. For this, take any difficult passage and play it through five times in a row without a mistake. If you succeed congratulations, you are on top of it. If you can’t play it correctly 5 times in a row, it’s like snakes and ladders, go back to number one and repeat very slowly.
This has been my rough guide as to how to learn a piece. Good luck!

Listen to:
J.S. Bach cello suites played by Pablo Casals

March 2011

My musical travels push the limits

From Lima to Frankfurt in five days

After Valaparaíso the next stop on my South American tour was Lima, Peru. The first morning I awoke there was Monday 22 February. For the rest of the week I was in a different location every day, ending up near Frankfurt, Germany, on the Friday. It was important to get plenty of sleep when it was available, and to keep calm when it wasn’t!

But first - Lima. I went exploring with a group of fellow artists for whom this too was their first visit. We were all taking a day off so it was a load of fun. Petra Casén – pianist, Alice Farnham – conductor, Nicky Martyn – comedian, Steven Whitfield – pianist and myself, all of us let loose in Lima! We drove in a large taxi through its’ long, straight streets many of them with ex-colonial Spanish houses in a good state of repair. Eventually we arrived in the large main square dominated by the town hall on one side and with trees and plants in the middle, thronging with local people and tourists. Off the main square were some curious houses and shops, in the Art Nouveau style reminiscent of Gaudi in Barcelona, Spain. All around there were lots of fully armed police with riot shields lolling about on street corners in surprisingly relaxed mood. Why, we were even able to have our photos taken with them!

Eventually, developing quite a thirst walking around in 25 degrees Celsius (and rising) we were on the look-out for a café al fresco, but not before trying to bluff our way into the main Post Office in process of refurbishment. No way, José - not even with me talking to the guard in Spanish telling him how important my friends were.

At the café in a side street off the main square conversation flowed freely between us, all of us joined by our common interest in and passion for the stage. We ordered some pisco, Peru’s national drink which is a delicious and clear brandy distilled from fermented grape juice. With it we had some empanadas, small baked pastries stuffed with beef, onions and olives. All of this was absolutely delicious. We warmed to our task, with plenty of laughter and banter, and asked the waiter to keep them coming (the empanadas not the pisco). So grateful were we to the courteous waiter, that after a lot of hand-shaking the girls among us gave him a fat kiss too.

Tuesday was my last day in Peru, and I was sad to leave that lovely city and my friends to embark on a long transatlantic flight arriving in dear old London on Wednesday. Struggling to get up on Thursday I went into town to rehearse with pianist Peter Cowdrey for our concert together in Germany. We worked on Boccherini’s Introduction and Fandango and Malcolm Arnold’s Serenade. That same afternoon we flew to Germany. The taxi driver who collected us at Frankfurt airport said:
“Last night it was minus 11 degrees.” We drove past snow piled up high next to the road. I remembered Lima with increased affection.

Carlos in Germany on Sunday 27th February

The next morning was Friday and we went to speak to and play for a class of 12 year-old children in a local school. They asked some thoughtful questions. One asked:
“What would you do if you were not a musician?” I think I will have to write another blog about it just to do that question justice, but not just yet.

Our concert on Saturday was a tribute to guitarist Julian Bream, part of the Gitarrenland Festival directed by the highly likeable and imaginative Wolfgang Weigel. I chose to play solo guitar music associated with him. Peter played some beautiful preludes of his own composition. We ended with the Boccherini and as an encore played my arrangement of Malagueña. Lost as to what to play for a second encore I started on Spanish Romance, Peter improvised a wonderful variation on it, and then we finished with a recap of Malagueña!

Sunday was a day off and together with Peter we went for a long walk in the morning across country to a huge castle in the distance, and freezing cold it was too. In the evening I attended a Festival concert called Orpheus Britannicus featuring Thomas Hobbs, tenor, and Gary Ryan, guitar. This was a wonderful concert by two brilliant young musicians, who conjured up atmospherically a world of British music from traditional folk song to lute works by John Dowland.

I reflected on my hectic week later that evening. A brief image flashed through my mind of my arrival in Lima the previous Sunday.

I imagined I could hear Louis Armstrong singing What a wonderful world.

Read more:
Lima, Peru

Peruvian food

Petra Casén – pianist

Alice Farnham – conductor

Gitarrenland Festival, Germany

Thomas Hobbs - tenor

Gary Ryan - guitarist

Watch videos of Julian Bream in performance

March 2011

Playing with "feel" - what does it mean?

When musicians are complimented for having "a good feel" in their playing we all think we know what is meant. A truth has been spoken for it refers to something deep within. But what exactly does it mean?

In some types of music "feel" is considered everything and is the ultimate accolade, for example when a jazz, blues or rock player improvises brilliantly. In the classical music world this is more often than not a specific reference as in "so-and-so has a good feel for the music of Joe Blogs" or "so-and-so has a great feel for the guitar".

Maybe they all refer to the same thing: that a musician appears completely at ease and at one with the music. This certainly applies to all the examples above. But in the non-classical world “feel” goes deeper. It touches what flamenco artists call "duende". The great flamenco singer El Lebrijano used to say "The days I sing with duende no one is better than me". The Spanish poet Federico García Lorca described the effect of duende on a dancer's body "as like a breeze on sand. It has a magic power...it can never be repeated, just as the shape of the sea is different with each wave".

Going back to the world of classical music a player of great virtuosity is hugely impressive, and so also a player who is called a great "interpreter". This last description is used almost exclusively in connection with classical musicians, ballet dancers and actors. Helen Mirren the actress described "getting into the role of the Queen" by walking like her and in this way more easily "getting the feel" of what she was like.

But none of the above is quite enough to gain that extra special quality and praise: playing with "feel" or "duende". Classical musicians can learn the technique, understand historical performance practise, play at the right tempo, and still it doesn't have "feel" or "duende".

In all music "feel" comes from something deep and even dark within the performer. The classical musician has to also get under the skin of someone else too: the composer. For this I try to get really familiar with many aspects of a composer's music apart from the notes themselves. Where did he compose it? Why? Who for? What was the performance space? What type of instrument/s did he have in mind? What sort of life did he lead? What was going on around him at the time? What sort of society did he live in? When I am familiar with all these aspects I close my eyes and imagine myself there, not necessarily as the composer, but present close by.

None of the above leads directly to playing with feel, nor even all of them together. They are not a point of arrival, but a point of departure.

"Feel" is more than virtuosity and stylistic appreciation, although these are necessary aspects of it. Risk and something born of the moment are an important part of communicating "feel". Lorca referred to spontaneous moments never repeated. Perhaps this is what Paganini had in mind when he said:
"In a performance what the public wishes above all is to sense danger".
His playing was described by Goethe as "a mysterious power which we all feel but no philosopher can explain".

Here are a few scattered notes I have made over time:
"Feel" is about digging deep and showing it.
"Feel" is living in the creative moment.
Interpretative "feel" is reliving the creative moment as if for the first time.
"Feel" is BB King ending a phrase with a sudden vibrato.
"Feel" is Julian Bream making magic of an ordinary musical phrase.
"Feel" is flamenco singer "El Camarón" spinning an improvised thread of a decoration around a melancholy tune.
"Feel" is an old lady who remembering a song from childhood summons it again with scarcely a voice but with tender emotion.

An old master guitarist is quoted by Lorca as saying:
"It is not a question of facility, but of a style that is really alive, in the blood, of an ancient tradition continued, and of something created in the moment".

Well that sums it up nicely and is enough to keep me going for some time to come! And I imagine most of you too.

Read more:
Federico García Lorca
Essay: Theory of the duende (in English)

See the film:
The Queen (2006)

You can find the following artists at http://www.amazon.com

Listen to BB King´s vibrato on electric guitar

Listen to how Billie Holiday sings the end of a phrase

Listen to Julian Bream playing Fantasies by John Dowland on the lute

Listen to flamenco singer El Camarón de las Islas

Listen to Glenn Gould´s first recording of Bach´s Goldberg Variations on the piano

February 2011

Chance encounter in Chile: A poet's house with a view

Hand-painted exterior in the artists' colony of Valparaíso

There is a city called Valparaíso that rises from the ocean, sprawls across the mountain side, and reaches for the sky. It is in Chile, and that is where I found myself this week.

I arrived on a quiet, mild and cloudy morning but by the afternoon it had turned noisy, hot and sunny. I decided the city was too big for me to wander aimlessly through its bustling avenues.

"Where is the old part?" I asked.
Puzzled look: "it's all old."
"Yes, but is there a historic town centre?"
"Over there" a stern tour guide replied pointing vaguely in an upward direction.
A softly-spoken assistant looked at me and said: "Pablo Neruda's house is up there."

Thank you. That was it: decision made. I had to see the house. Pablo Neruda was a great Chilean poet and winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1971. He wrote the most sensual poetry I have ever read:

"I have been marking with crosses of fire the white atlas of your body.
My mouth is a spider that has crossed it in secret."

view from Pablo Neruda's house, Valparaíso

The taxi struggled up an impossible incline at the high end of town and came to a halt outside a modern looking town-house. It is now a museum with the living room, bedroom and study room as Neruda left it and full of lovely paintings, artefacts and furnishings from when he came to live here in 1961. The small wooden-floored study room is on the fifth floor at the top of a narrow staircase, with commanding views. The bedroom has a window from floor to ceiling so the double-bed seems to hang in space high above the city and ocean. I imagined the poet lying in bed dreaming:

"Sometimes I awake and even my soul is humid.
The distant sea sounds and sounds again.
This is a harbour.
Here I love you."

Neruda's house

I decided to walk back down the hill and resisted getting on all fours to do so, it really was that steep. No more than 100 yards from Neruda's house I saw some ceramic tiles on a side-wall with quotes from poems by his friend the Spaniard Federico García Lorca.

Further down the hill some old houses had been turned into artists' studios. On one side of them were run-down buildings and on the other expensively updated ones. It reminded me of London's Portobello Road in the '60's and Milan's Naviglio district in the 80's.

I hope what happened in London and Milan can be repeated in Valparaíso: that the creative seed sown in the artists' area spreads and grows beyond the arts to improve the daily life of the majority of its' people. Were this to happen the first person to be overjoyed would be its famous son and activist Pablo Neruda himself, as too an old man from whom I asked directions in Puerto Montt. After courteously stopping to help, and on realising I was a foreigner he paused, looked at me, and said:

"Speak well of Chile."

Why, that's a line that Neruda himself could have spoken!

And speak well I will.

Poem extracts from 20 Love Poems by Pablo Neruda

Read more:
Pablo Neruda: 20 Love Poems in dual language edition at

Read more about Pablo Neruda:

The Pablo Neruda Foundation

See the film loosely based on episodes in Neruda's life:
Il Postino

Read more about Valparaíso :

February 2011

Back to the Future with Bach

He's alive and well - in Hollywood

From time to time I pick up a book about science and scientific discoveries in my so far fruitless attempts to better grasp how the modern world around us works. I still can't explain radio telescopes or jet engines or nuclear fission or micro-waves, to name but four.

If I could creep under the skin of the great scientists I might get to think and feel like them and see what they are on about. That is why I like to read anything and everything they have written ranging from Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time to non-scientist Bill Bryson's science-guide-for-laymen A Short History of Nearly Everything. Of the great scientist-writers one stands out for me, and he is Albert Einstein.

Everything Einstein wrote is stunningly thought-provoking. Some of it is on the edge. Here is one quote I don't understand but which I feel is profoundly exciting :

“The distinction between past, present and future is only an illusion, however persistent”.

Now, I don't know whether we will ever be able to travel through time but if Einstein has anything to do with it, and it may be a lot, the answer is yes. So, acutely conscious of my lamentable lack of knowledge and leaning heavily on Einstein's quote, allow me to imagine that at some point in the future, hopefully in our own life-time, we can go backwards and forwards in time.

Let me take it a stage further: if we can go back and forth, then we could invite people of the past to return with us to the present. Calling all past people: watch out for time-travel entrepreneurs for soon they shall be on their way, hurtling through time, contracts in hand.
Here is my not-so-fanciful story of a possible encounter. Imagine our intrepid entrepreneural time-traveller aiming for Köthen, Germany, the capsule dial set for 1720.

"Oh hi, JS, great to meet you" says the prospective manager, stepping out in Baroque disguise.

JS (Mr. Bach to you and me) is persuaded to step into the time machine and back to the future. He has signed a contract which guarantees him not only a return to the past at any time of his choosing but also board and lodging in any city of the present. Being a sly entrepreneur there is one clause in small print: Bach can reveal his true identity only with his permission.

Where does Bach in his new life regard his musical future as most interesting, secure and renumerative as he surveys the modern world and its' opportunities? Remember he can choose where to make his name but not actually reveal it. He is not an avant-garde artist and loves the music of the past. He is a fine player, arranger and musical director. He also has a family to support.

Casting his eye around he plumps for Hollywood. It fits all the familiar requirements. In his previous life he had a cantata deadline, a new one every Sunday. In his new life he has a film-score deadline, a new one every 2 months. He is asked by the movie mogul music-hirer:
"Do you mind rearranging music by other composers?" No, he is used to that. He is asked:
"Can you conduct the orchestra?" That's OK by Mr Bach too, for in his previous time he chose the players, trained them and directed them in performance.

Hollywood is fine, for between films he can pick up commissions and look for other opportunities, hopefully with a happier outcome than long ago when in an unsuccessful endeavour to gain new employment he composed the Brandenburg Concertos, thereby creating the greatest failed job application of all time. Just to think of the effort he put into that sends a shiver through Bach's body. No, he thinks, I am not going back to that.

So our friend the entrepreneur bides his time and when he judges it right makes his announcement as to the identity of the composer rapidly making a name for himself. Bearing in mind that at this point in the future people are just getting used to time travel, this is a major news story. "Rising Hollywood composer claims to be Bach back from the Baroque!" scream the headlines, this time more than just a play on words. You would think from our present perspective this would be an amazing, wonderful, brilliant event. Everyone in Hollywood would invite him to their garden parties and arts' organisations the world over would compete for his services. But, sadly no.

Questions are asked. Doubts are raised. Surely the real Bach can't be that guy driving around Hollywood in a station wagon with a brood of children and a young wife filing her nails learning to play the piano? That man who claims to be Bach can't be the one who writes music that sounds like Sibelius, Rachmaninoff, Gershwin, Ennio Morricone, John Williams and Michael Nyman all served with lashings of his own admittedly distinctive personality? Good he is, but his music has nothing to do with the Bach we all love and admire. No, this Bach can't be the same Bach who wrote all that Bach stuff. And if he is Bach why didn't he say so before? Let's have a DNA test to prove it... And so the controversy rolls on much to the delight of our time-travelling entrepreneur - the more publicity the better.

Artist's impression of Mr Hollywood Bach's DNA

He has also signed up Vivaldi and Beethoven whose true selves are still disguised. Vivaldi can't believe his luck and lives on the other side of the Hollywood hills from Bach (just as Stravinsky and Schönberg did in the mid 20th century). He has taken to film music and studio production like a duck to water. But Beethoven, well he is different. He hates the world around him, especially Hollywood, and leads a reclusive life in a New York basement apartment writing incomprehensible modern music.

Let's get back to Bach who can't believe he is now the centre of a media circus. Everywhere he goes come the photographers. He is accused of being a fraud, and his manager of being a conman. A DNA test is useless since there is none left over to compare to. He offers to compose a piece in the style of the old Bach to prove both Bachs are one and the same. But academics and respected critics dismiss this as a gimmick on the grounds that you don´t have to be Bach to compose like him.

And so into the fray steps Einstein who by this time is a past master of time travel. With amusement he witnesses the furious controversy about the true identity of the time traveller. With alarm he listens to calls for the arrest of the entrepreneur.

He phones Bach and says:
"Why don't you come over some time so we can chill out and play music together, just like I did in the old days with Heifitz?"
And so he does, but as they play together Einstein can't keep time. Bach puts up with this for a while until he turns round and utters the unforgettable line, as violinist Heifitz had done too: "What's the matter with you Albert, can't you count?"

From his lofty perch Einstein watches people squabbling and arguing where he hoped for accord and common purpose. I can just see him shrug his shoulders and mischievously misquote himself saying:

“The distinction between past, present and future -regarding human behaviour - is only an illusion, however persistent.”

Read more:
Stephen Hawking: A Brief History of Time, 1998.

Bill Bryson: A Short History of Nearly Everything, 2004.

Albert Einstein: Ideas and Opinions, 1954.

Albert Einstein quotes:

Listen to:
J.S.Bach: The Brandenburg Concertos, Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, 1999. http://www.amazon.com

J.S.Bach: Anna Magdalena notebook for harpsichord, dedicated to his young wife. http://www.amazon.com

February 2011

Playing scales can be fun

How I take the grind out of practise

For me no two days' practise sessions are the same, nor do I wish them to be so.

My practise sessions are learning experiences for pushing the boundaries. So, on day two I pick up from where I left off the previous day. That is why each day is different.

I like to start by improvising chord sequences. I practise chords to improve tone and voicing. As I get going I may add some connecting melodic moments of my invention. Improvising gets me into a calm and creative frame of mind. It might take 5 minutes or 20. I go with the flow.

After the chords I move on to arpeggio sequences, going round and round them. I focus on quality of sound, volume, speed, rhythm and accuracy. This too might take 5 minutes or 20. All the time I am listening and trying to improve what I am doing.

Once I am nicely warmed-up I tackle scales. I concentrate on the same qualities as the arpeggios and in improvising different patterns. The way I see it there are eight notes in a scale, so there are a lot of different sequences possible!

Chords, arpeggios and scales are the basis of guitar technique. That is why I dedicate time to each of them. In between each I go back to improvising, which does improve with practise. It can also be very exciting when I get a rush of ideas.

I may then practise passages from studies or pieces to supplement what I am doing, and if there is time I might go on to one of the great studies by Sor, Giuliani or Villa-Lobos, choosing the one which most suits the weakest link of my practise that day.

There is no point practising what I can already do. The key is to push at the boundaries, ever onwards and upwards, convinced as I am that thoughtful practise is the way to improve technique and musicality.

My advice to you is the same I follow. Take the grind out of practise and turn it into a journey of exploration and discovery. That's how practising scales can be fun!

This has been my rough guide to how I practise. I hope it may work for you too.

February 2011

No, I won’t stand on my head

Things I do and don’t do on the day of a concert

Carlos in concert at the Lauro International Guitar Festival, Venezuela, 4th December 2001

Not long ago, a brilliant musician was spotted standing on his head in his dressing room, minutes before the start of a concert, feet up against the wall. “Everything OK, sir?” enquired the steward. “Just fine” came the calm reply from somewhere near the floor. It just goes to show that there are different ways to get into the right frame of mind, although this one is a bit hair-raising or lowering, depending which way up you are, especially when I tell you the name of the artist.

But first, I am going to write about what I like to do. By the time I have finished you may or may not think I am mad, but one thing I can assure you is this: you won’t find me standing on my head.

When I give a concert I prefer to travel the day before. Knowing I have the whole day in front of me to prepare is a lot more relaxing than driving to the airport at the crack of dawn having to play the same evening. So there I am on the day, waking up in the hotel bright and early, ready for action. After a breakfast of cut fruit and yoghurt and coffee I may go for a stroll through town until 10.30 or 11am followed by some practise. Unless the concert venue is walking distance, I prefer to practise in the hotel, rather than driving through traffic. Lunchtime beckons at 1 or 1.30pm. I avoid meats with sauces (too heavy), fish (might not be fresh), salad (what if it hasn’t been thoroughly washed?) and eggs (one step away from salmonella). I have to admit to an almost irrational fear of food-poisoning on the day. Pasta with tomato sauce, soups and desserts are all OK.

After lunch comes siesta-time – a habit I acquired from my Spanish relatives in Spain back in my teens. By 4pm I am up again feeling rested and pick up the guitar to do some really slow playing of tricky passages. At 5pm I get ready to leave for the venue. I like to arrive there a couple of hours before the start and make sure everything is OK.

I hope I sound pretty normal so far although I will admit to various tendencies. I like to be left alone, lunch alone, and avoid extended conversations. I like the lighting and sound engineers to be ready for my arrival in the hall.

Just a couple of other things: in the dressing room I want a warm apple pie with plenty of cream on the side and a coffee 30 minutes before starting time, as well as a full-length mirror so I can see and talk to myself. What do I talk to myself about? How I am feeling, how I want the music to sound, and more – all to psyche myself up. Do I get nervous? Yes, if my few simple requirements are not met – call me superstitious if you like.

Mind you, I am not saying I can’t be flexible. Once, an hour before a concert on the south coast of England, I shared a plate of oysters with violinist Levon Chilingirian. Sharing may not be quite the right word: he had nine, I had one. I am not sure that the fishy aroma wafting across the stage from his direction during the performance was helpful to my musical concentration.

On another occasion, in Germany, oboist Heinz Holliger continued telling me a long story backstage without losing a beat while audience applause for the previous item thundered through the dressing room – and he was the one on next, not me!

I have seen a brilliant horn player on the phone backstage at the Southbank, London, fixing a future engagement seconds before walking on to play a very difficult piece by Benjamin Britten.

The great violinist Jascha Heifetz stepped out of a cab, walked straight into the recording studio where an orchestra was waiting and still wearing his overcoat said “shall we start?”

Every artist is different and there are no rules as to what is best. If anything connects all these stories it is the self-confidence displayed by all the musicians.

So who was the artist who stood on his head before a concert? It was the immortal, yoga-practising deeply thoughtful Yehudi Menuhin.

Now don’t you go standing on your head hoping you will produce a great performance! You won’t. Remember it’s practise that makes perfect. The rest is personal.

January 2011