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Queen Guitar Rhapsodies

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

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

Carlos: portrait photo by Sophie Davidson, 2010

Carlos: portrait photo by Sophie Davidson, 2010

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

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

Harlequin: Orla Kiely wallpapers

Orla Kiely wallpapers

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

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

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

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

8th February 2015, London

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My Return To Barking Mad London

- only music stops me from tipping over the edge -

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

31st January 2015, London

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2015 Highlights I Am Looking Forward To

Assisi, Italy, 2007

Assisi, Italy, 2007

Very pleased to share with you some highlights from my activities for 2015:

24 – 26th January, Oklahoma, USA
I will be recording Once We Moved Like The Wind. This is a concerto for two guitars and guitar orchestra by Brad Richter. Inspired by and partly based on Apache themes the three movements require humming, whistling, stamping and other effects from the orchestra, as well as conventional playing. It is hugely evocative and very moving.

21st February, Gitarrenland, Germany
I am honoured to be playing with three amazing guitarists: Roberto Aussel, Máximo Diego Pujol and Wolfgang Weigel in some great music composed by Máximo. Can´t wait to hear the first notes as we, the band, strike up the music. The concert is called MY GENERATION. And what generation would that be, may I ask?

1st - 20th April, Mexico
Currently being organised is a solo tour across the country. I have done this before. There are some beautiful cities and villages in this great country.

May and June, England
I will spend some quality time in Old Blighty, playing and teaching. These are my favourite months in London. I always feel summer is just round the corner. Quite often that is exactly where it stays.

July, Spain
I will be playing in various festivals in Spain including in Tárrega´s birthplace, and in Jose Romanillos' adopted home town of Siguenza.

Monday 10th - Thursday, 13th August
Benslow Music Trust
Guitar Summer School
Hitchin, near London
But a short train ride out of London, this is a most beautiful location. For sure, the course will contain technique, interpretation, ensemble playing etc., but just how much time on each and also the choice of pieces will be determined by the students. I shape the course according to who turns up. Booking opens 2nd February.

Hope you enjoy 2015 as much as I intend to.


It’s Official: Scientists Prove Practise Makes Perfect!

Also: an Apache Concerto, the best fish dish ever, and my week in Mexico

Geronimo the great Apache warrior chief - to whom Brad Richter has dedicated a concerto for 2 guitars

Geronimo the great Apache warrior chief - to whom Brad Richter has dedicated a concerto for 2 guitars

My eye was caught this week by the latest research from Cambridge University with the fetching title “Practise really does make perfect”. Well, that certainly puts my scribbles in perspective! Now this new research gives it a scientific stamp of authority. It goes further, it gives the green light to learning slightly different techniques at one and the same time. For example: free stroke and rest stroke (tirando and apoyando). I had to read it several times to understand it, and will tell you all about it. By the time I had grasped the essentials, I was sorely in need of nourishment. So allow me first to enthuse about a Mexican fish dish called mojarra al mojo de ajo before telling you more about this important article.

The best Mexican fish dish in the world: perch in a garlic sauce

The best Mexican fish dish ever: perch in a garlic sauce

It helps, of course, that I am currently stationed in Mexico and was already familiar with this fantastic fish dish. So I rounded up a few friends and insisted we go to the restaurant which cooks it best. This is a completely unassuming venue, frequented by local people, with absolutely no frills, or airs and graces. I won’t tell you where it is otherwise coach-loads of eager fish-eating tourists might descend upon it and ruin it. So what’s all the fuss about? Mojarra al mojo de ajo is perch fried in garlic which is chopped into tiny pieces and scattered across its body, accompanied by chopped green pepper and rice.

After this culinary delight I returned to my stables to carry on my preparations for next week’s recording in Oklahoma of Once We Moved Like The Wind. This is a concerto for two guitars and guitar orchestra by Brad Richter. Inspired by and partly based on Apache themes the three movements require humming, whistling, stamping and other effects from the orchestra, as well as conventional playing. Dedicated to the great Indian chief Geronimo it is hugely evocative and very moving.

More about that new research:

“Researchers from the University of Cambridge found that the particular motor memory which is active and modifiable in the brain at any given time depends on both lead-in and follow-through movement.”
OK, stop there. Think of “lead-in” as the right hand finger movement towards the string, and of “follow-through” as the movement after you play the string. So, both movements are remembered by the brain separately.

…”and that skills which may otherwise interfere can be learned at the same time if their follow-through motions are unique.”

Well, you could knock me down with a feather: I have been saying the same thing in musician layman language for years. The approaches to the string playing tirando or apoyando are almost the same (the lead-in). But the release of the string is different (the follow-through). What is significant for guitar players is that by separating in one’s mind these two elements we can give a huge helping hand to the brain’s learning process. By doing so, the free and rest strokes techniques can easily be assimilated.

I have to admit I did mull over the article’s learned prose and implications even as I got stuck into the fish. Apache notes flitted across my brain waves too, laced with the pleasure of a garlic dressing. And why not? Such is life.

17th January 2015, Mexico

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10 Reasons Not To Practice

It can be a complete waste of time. There are other ways to improve your playing.

Carlos with pub sign in Carrick-on-Shannon, Ireland, 6th July 2012

Carlos with pub sign in Carrick-on-Shannon, Ireland, 6th July 2012

1
Contrary to popular opinion practice does not necessarily make perfect. Often it leads to a repetition of the same mistakes.

2
Practice is not compatible with many people’s main interest which is going out to have a good time. Instead you are rooted to your chair going over and over the same passage, while outside you can hear the happy chatter and laughter of people enjoying themselves.

3
Productive learning can go on in your head without at the same time fumbling around the fretboard.

4
A rest from practice relaxes overworked muscles and distracts the brain from unresolved problems. After, you come back refreshed and sort out your playing in a jiffy. Conclusion: no practice is better than banging your head against a brick wall.

5
Some people actually enjoy practicing because they think that´s what playing the guitar is all about. It’s not. You can make beautiful music without any practice at all. Think of the word “play” as in having fun. That is what playing the guitar can be about too.

6
Some say they enjoy the challenge of difficulty and that without it they are not motivated. This is like saying they would rather climb up the north face of the Eiger than go for a walk in the hills. I say they need their heads examined.

7
Some say six hours’ practice is better than three. Rubbish. The law of diminishing returns applies here. The brain can only take so much punishment. You may feel worthy, but has the time spent been worthwhile?

8
It is reassuring to think you stick to a regular practice routine. But are you getting any better? If not, your practice is a waste of time. There are other ways of getting better, apart from improving the quality of your practice. If you can’t think of any it’s because you have already forgotten the points above.

9
If you think what I have written is a load of nonsense explain why. It may help bring the value of practice, if any, into focus.

10
If you think I have been serious in all that I have written you need to stop practicing for a while and take medication to restore your sense of humour. To do so you will have to go to your local surgery. The advantage of that is you won’t be doing any practice while you wait to be seen by the doctor.

10th January 2015, Mexico
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Proper Practice Procedures Produce Pleasing Players

- Stick to them and 2015 will be a great year for us - unless events take over like in 1915, 1815 and counting…...

A happy image from 1915: writer James Joyce strumming away

A happy image from 1915: writer James Joyce strumming away

“Must do some proper practice” – how many times have I said that to myself or heard students and associates say so? Proper practice is what you need to achieve your aims. Once those are clear in your mind then you can set about establishing your practice schedule.

The beginning of the year is one of those few times when we universally pause for thought and take stock of where we are and where we want to go. This, then, is the the perfect time to do this with regards to your playing. You may be aiming for one or more of these targets:

1
Play through and learn lots more pieces
2
Learn just a few pieces, but really well
3
Develop your technique
4
Improve your sight-reading
5
Learn more about improvising and harmony

Set out a plan of where you would like to be in a year’s time. Once you have decided, halve your expectations! No point being crazily over-ambitious, better to be cautious and agreeably surprised. Now, conveniently, the year can be subdivided into 12 months, each month into 4 weeks, and each week into 7 days. You can set yourself mini-targets. Keep vetting your progress and re-adjust your targets if they prove too difficult, or, step up the practice to meet your goals, whichever is the more realistic.

100 years ago – with World War 1 in full swing the first Zeppelin raid on Great Britain takes place on 19 January

100 years ago – with World War 1 in full swing the first Zeppelin raid on Great Britain takes place on 19 January

Look forward with enthusiasm and optimism to this year, but be mindful of the unpredictable. As British prime minister Harold Macmillan used to say: the only things that get in the way of planning are “events, dear boy, events.” The keen guitar player who arose on the morning of 1st January 1915 - the last occasion we had a ’15 year - was in the midst of the 1st World War. If he were in the army, he could not know where he would be by the end of the year, or what would happen to him. Go back another hundred years to 1st January 1815. As the aficionado strummed his guitar he could close his eyes and smile in relief that after many years of war Napoleon had finally been dispatched to exile. His eyes would open wide, horrified, if he were to know that within a few weeks he would escape and that one last bloody battle would have to be fought.

200 years ago - Within a few weeks of New Year’s Day 1815 The Emperor Napoleon had escaped and plunged Europe into a new crisis

200 years ago - Within a few weeks of New Year’s Day 1815 The Emperor Napoleon had escaped and plunged Europe into a new crisis

So, fellow pluckers, the future is unpredictable so cradle your guitars, enjoy the moment and enjoy the year, and hope for the best. That, I think, should make you practice with even more determination. The time to live and play and do what you believe in is…now!

3rd January 2015, Mexico
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HAPPY NEW YEAR!

My next blog will be posted during the first weekend of the New Year 2015.

Best wishes to all for the New Year.

Carlos


Quotes Are Not Just For Christmas, But For Life

Here are a few quotes which I have found thought provoking and amusing during 2014. Enjoy Christmas, or if you prefer, Happy Holidays!

“In order to change the world, you have to get your head together first”
Jimi Hendrix

"Humor can get in under the door while seriousness is still fumbling at the handle"
G.K. Chesterton

"The dignity of the artist lies in his duty of keeping awake the sense of wonder in the world."
G.K. Chesterton

“For fast-acting relief, try slowing down."
Lily Tomlin

"It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless
you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived
at all -- in which case, you fail by default."
J.K. Rowling

"A problem is your chance to do your best."
Duke Ellington

“Today I will be happier than a dachshund on stilts”
Author unknown

“What gives the artist real prestige is his imitators”
Igor Stravinsky

"Everybody's got a past. The past does not equal the future
unless you live there."
Tony Robbins

18th December 2014, London

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One Man's Private Passion Goes Public - 300 Years Later

- The Crown Jewels of English Lute Music now available free online in Matthew Holmes' hand-written manuscripts -

His name was Matthew Holmes. During the day he led church choirs and encouraged worship in Christ Church, Oxford and Westminster Abbey, London. When his work was done he would burn the midnight oil (literally) and copy out painstakingly lute pieces by all the finest composers of the time. Between 1580 until his death in 1621 he wrote out more than 650 pieces. That is more than one piece every month for 40 years. To do so, he would have had to borrow the original manuscripts or publications.

Matthew Holmes was not a professional player. He was a fine singer employed by the Church. His massive collection of pieces was most likely made for his own pleasure and satisfaction. Or was it? Maybe he understood the enormous artistic value of these Elizabethan composers and wished to collect them together in one volume, just as we might create a family scrapbook to savour and share precious moments.

In a press release and internet mailing Cambridge University Library has announced this week that it “is launching a new Music Collection with the online release of the 'crown jewels' of English lute music. Dating from the late 16th and early 17th century, the manuscripts contain handwritten copies of scores by John Dowland, Francis Cutting and dozens of other early modern composers.” It has done so in conjunction with The Lute Society which has have for many years provided generous support of a very high calibre to students, amateurs and professionals.

Glancing quickly through the index and pages of the Matthew Holmes Lute Books I opened up a pdf called “Exercise” by Anonymous. There, jumping out of the tablature, was a full-blown tremolo study. Nothing could have brought this collection more to life than to imagine a dedicated amateur player such as Matthew Holmes trying to get a good tremolo on the lute – in about 1590. Rien ne change... Apart from that you will find some of Dowland's masterly works, and music by John Johnson, Francis Cutting, Anthony Holborne, Daniel Bacheler, and Robert Johnson. Also included is consort music, a favourite of Queen Elizabeth herself. There are dedications to Sr Walter Raleigh and William Kemp, the most famous clown of his day and associate of Shakespeare himself. The history of that time is etched on every page.

All this is thanks to the work of Cambridge University Library who have digitalised every page. At the press of a key you can download each and every one of them. As John Robinson of the Lute Society says: “The collection is an invaluable legacy for professional musicians and musicologists as well as amateur enthusiasts. Digitisation means that the original sources of lute music can be viewed, studied and played.”

Here is digital technology at its best. All you need is an internet connection and you are face to face with some of the greatest music for plucked instruments ever composed.

So, thank you, Cambridge University Library and thank you, Thomas Holmes. I don't think Thomas would have ever imagined his private passion for lute music, as contained in his bound volumes, would one day become instantly accessible viewing to the entire world.

Enjoy!

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My Rude Guide To Rubato And How To Make It Work For You

Classical guitarists are famously reputed to be unable to string together a sequence of phrases without an exaggerated reliance on expressive devices such as arpeggiated chords, vibrato, glissando and above all rubato. Ah yes, rubato. The very word has a mystique to it. It is treated with deference for some feel it contains the very secrets to musical expression. An artist who can rubato deftly is regarded as a superior type. But many a guitarist, it is said, confuses rhythmic anarchy with the genuine rubato article. Paco de Lucia is on record as saying he wished to restore rhythmic precision to the playing of the Aranjuez Concerto after listening to so many wayward performances.

Now, you may detect a note of irony from me. And indeed, that would be correct, for I think a lot of the criticism is appropriate. At the heart of the classical guitarist’s dilemna is that he/she cannot think of expressive playing without rubato. Here is a short guide to the do’s and dont’s of what rubato is about:

Rubato is not about:

1
Changing rhythm and time values because otherwise the music “might be a bit boring.”

2
Slowing down at every cadence point and milking it for all it is worth

3
Playing as you “feel” the music. Relying on “feel” alone is a lame way of avoiding other important considerations. Besides feelings are not a sufficient guide, whether it be to music or life itself.

4
A conveniently easy way of dealing with difficult passages which would sound best played in tempo.

Rubato is about:

1
Consideration of it for the musical phrase in question, and its place it in the structural scheme of the whole piece.

2
Taking note of the composer’s own indications.

3
The musical style of the period.

4
Creating smooth curves of speeding and slowing down which are often scarcely perceptible to the listener.

5
Rubato has a secret gentle rhythm of its own, as opposed to the sudden stops and starts so beloved of some players. These are sometimes OK, but not as frequently as rubato addicts go for.

To sum up: rubato is a hugely important element of music making. It should be treated with the same caution and consideration as all the other expressive devices at our disposal. At its best it is elevated from the realm of a personal whim to something altogether more interesting.

This has been my rough guide to rubato.

6th December 2014, London

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