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Queen Guitar Rhapsodies

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:

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

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

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.

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

Rubato is about:

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

Taking note of the composer’s own indications.

The musical style of the period.

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

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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My Joined Up Week Ends With Legato Playing - The Flip Side Of Mistake Free Playing

- but it all started with crowds going mad in a department store -

This has been a joined-up sort of week. Not so much joined-up thinking, a state to which I still aspire, but rather in an external way. Let me explain. I ventured out from the relative safety and reclusion of my abode yesterday on so-called Black Friday. This is a shopping craze invented by our American cousins, and which like an epidemic has spread to our shores. Joined up were the dense crowds in their folly as nose to tail and shoulder to shoulder they frantically grabbed discounted goods. And yes, joined up in their thinking too. Who needs brainwashing when millions of people can be persuaded voluntarily to go crazy in this way on the same day in the same predictable shopping malls and stores?

Joined up has been my week in another, more thoughtful and calming sort of manner. I listened to various diverse pieces of music ranging from Manuel de Falla’s arrangement of the Song of the Volga Boatmen for solo piano, and Shostakovich’s Symphony no. 5, among other works. They are both stunning pieces which tell a story way beyond the notes themselves. The composers revealed totally joined up thinking to create such masterly works. Importantly, they were played in a joined-up way too.

So I come to the guitar nitty gritty of what I have to say. Smooth joined-up playing is the flip side of the coin on whose other face is mistake-free playing. Together they go a considerable way to giving an impression of excellence. It has a proper Italian word which elevates it to musical currency: legato. Legato playing is joined-up playing by another name. This is vital. Even with the best will in the world the guitar is a staccato instrument. The sustain is miserable. But, with art and deception we can lull the unsuspecting listener into a belief that he/she is listening to real legato playing. Leaving as little gap between notes is one of the major challenges of technique. Here is a rough rule for you:

The slower the music the faster should the fingers move between each note

Why? Because it creates the illusion of joined-up legato playing. The technique should start with the very first steps of the infant player, and should not be left as a final flourish to technique at later stages. I have tried it with young children, and it works. They understand what joined-up playing is all about.

So now you know why “joined-up” is my word of the week. I joined what felt like thousands of people to travel up an escalator in a big department store on Black Friday and found it as busy as Kings Cross Station in the rush hour. This was a thoroughly avoidable version of joined-up: people in a crush, people joined up in search of a bargain,

Maybe they were searching for a bargain guitar to practice joined-up playing? Somehow, I don’t think so.

29th November 2014, London

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Right Hand Technique Starts In Your Head

- first get the sound right, and dexterity will follow on from that-

Carlos interviewed on Radio Nuevo Leon Monterrey, Mexico, 2009

Right hand technique is about two things: sound and dexterity. Dexterity and speed can be achieved in different ways with widely different hand positions. Witness to that is the range of right hand positions employed by good players. It is clear, although maybe uncomfortably so for those who wish to turn technique into dogma, that there are many different ways of achieving them. More about dogma later on.

Sound can also be achieved in different ways but the scope is more limited. For example, any technique which includes a vertical release of the string is going to limit both the quality and quantity of sound. Good tone is all about how you can avoid the vertical release.

It requires some careful exploring but it is not difficult to achieve a good tone. What is more difficult is to achieve your tone. There is where you have to dig into your head, not into the strings! Small changes in how the fingers approach the strings produce big changes in sound. The election of free-stroke (tirando) or rest-stroke (apoyando) and how you decide to mix them will greatly colour the sound of your playing. You mean you don't believe in rest-stroke? Oh dear, I think you have been dogmatised!

Here is a simple but telling exercise. Put the guitar down, and imagine yourself playing the guitar, and hear exactly the sound you wish to make. It may be beyond you. If so, work to achieve it. It may be there under the fingertips, in which case all you need do is find it by experimentation. That’s why right hand technique starts in your head.

First get the sound right, and dexterity will follow on from that. It is much more interesting and in the long term more productive to think of it that way round. Do all your practice in a room with the window open. There are two reasons for this. One, good ventilation encourages you to think with a clear head. Two, there should be a sufficient aperture to allow the discarding of waste material, including dogmatic thinking, directly into a non-recyclable bin whose final destiny is an incinerator! Thus, with an open mind, and in a spirit of enquiry, you will achieve your very own sound and right hand technique.

21st November 2014, London
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Four Golden Rules Of Left Hand Fingering To Be Getting On With

While right hand technique hogs all the attention, left hand technique is considered mechanical and simple by comparison

Carlos interviewed on Radio Nuevo Leon Monterrey, Mexico, 2009

But is this really true? Tense left hand techniques are as responsible for tendonitis and other ailments as tense right hand techniques. In my article Three Basic Rules of Left Hand Technique And How To Stay Clear of Pain I discussed left hand technique. In Good Left Hand Fingering Is Not Rocket Science I discussed good left hand fingering. Poor fingering is the main contributor to awkward sounding passages. Good left hand fingering produces smooth flowing lines. With experience players should be able with confidence to decide when it is useful to persevere with a difficult fingering and when it should be abandoned. That decision should take about 60 seconds, rather than 60 days of suffering!

Here are four golden rules for starters:

Avoid jumps across the strings in the same or adjacent position with the same finger you have just used.

Avoid a consecutive movement of the first finger from holding a single note to holding down a barrée. It is much smoother and easier to land on the barrée from another finger.

Consecutive movements from half barrées to full barrées are difficult, especially in the same position. Best to go direct to the bigger barrée.

Use an open string to jump to and from a high position.

17th November 2014, London

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Manitas de Plata

Manitas de Plata

Manitas de Plata

Can’t let this moment pass without noting the passing away of flamenco guitarist Manitas de Plata. If ever there was a showman he was one! He was loved and adored by huge numbers who were turned on to flamenco by his very particular brand. Others were not so keen. I heard the story from a reliable source that Sabicas sat through one of his concerts and kept spitting on the floor. On another occasion he once boasted to a great classical player that he never did any practice. Why? Because “if I did I could get good, and might not make so much money!” Make of those stories what you will, but he had that one indefinable quality precious to an artist: he was a great communicator.

7th November, 2014
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10 Tiny Warm Ups To Get Your Guitar Day Started

- all of these exercises take less than 60 seconds each -

Open string arpegios in different patterns. How many variations can you make in 30 seconds?
Chromatic exercise at the 5th position thus avoiding stretching the fingers – yet.
Simple chord sequence in 1st position: try C major – A minor – D minor – G 7. You don’t know the chords and have been playing for at least a year? Drop everything and make it a priority to catch up.
Play the same chord sequence in arpeggio patterns of your invention.
Talking of C major: how about the scale of C major in 2 octaves? Start in 1st or 2nd position and move up to 5th position. This is your first left hand “jump” of the day.
Time for some slurring (ligado) exercises in 5th position. Try hammers or snaps between the following pairs of fingers: 1 - 2, 1 - 3, 1 - 4, 2 - 3, 2 - 4, 3 - 4; 4 -3, 4 -2, 4 -1, 3 -2, 3 -1, 2 -1. Congratulations, you have just played all the combinations possible between pairs of fingers.
Double up on the slurring exercises by playing only the first note of each group and slurring the rest: 1-2-1-2/ 1-3-1-3/ 1-4-1-4/ etc, thus combining hammers and snaps within the same exercise just like in real music.
How about a 3 octave chromatic scale starting on the low string E? Repeat ad lib changing right hand fingers free stroke and rest stroke.
Back to the C major scale: play the scale harmonised. Place the scale note at the top of the chord and add a 2 or 3 note chord underneath. Harmonise as you wish. Tip: you don´t have to invent a new chord on every note. The notes C and G of the scale could both be harmonised with the chord of C major.
Repeat the harmonised scale in arpeggios.
Hope this helps turn the warm-up grind into something enjoyable and challenging. You can extend each exercise for a lot more than 60 seconds (except maybe the slurs). Some of this may be new to you – but is the stuff of music itself, not just technique. The more we can mix them up the better for developing your guitar playing skills.

25th October 2014, Ferrol, Spain

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10 Ways To Fake Being A God Player

- the complete bluffer’s guide, which might just turn you into the real thing. Now, that is what I call weird -

Make a good sound by playing a lot over the sound hole.

Play in time – always. Don’t stop to fish for right notes, settle for a wrong one and leave it at that.

Don’t pull a face when you make a mistake. If you are playing with others, glance over slowly at someone else. Listeners will think they made the mistake, not you.

When you’re not sure what the music is about, play loudly.

Use a tuner that hides behind the peg box, not one of those hanging over the top like a watchful policeman.

Tune quietly and take your time if you have to. Loud tuning is gross.

Practice a good opening. During the middle, with a bit of luck, the listeners will drift off into some world of their imagination inspired by your opening, and not notice the errors.

Practice a strong ending. This will convince any doubters that you must be quite good to be receiving so much applause, even if they don’t understand why.

If you speak, do it well and with confidence. It may be worth getting some coaching. You could put the audience in such a good mood that they will forgive those cascades of missed notes.

Walk slowly, bow discreetly – none of that bending over with your feet apart showing the back of your head. Blokes, it looks as if you are checking whether you’ve done up your shoelaces or other part of your clothing. Girls, practice in advance, to make sure your bits and bobs don´t fall out of your flimsy attire.

Well, that’s it folks, now it’s up to you. By following this bluffer’s guide, you might become a genuinely good player in the process. Now, that is what I call weird.

25th October, 2014, Ferrol, Spain

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Essential Rep Unwrapped: Julia Florida by Agustín Barrios

– a man possessed, by a note obsessed -

Barrios in pensive mood - about Julia Florida?

Barrios in pensive mood

For YouTube link click here to my own recording of the work. The timings below refer to this video.

There is scarcely another work in the music of Barrios which reveals such an obsession. I am referring to the note “a”. It is such that from now on I will write it in capitals as simply “A”. Through the piece it makes 127 appearances - that is, on average once every 2.12 seconds. The strange thing about “A” is that its recurrence is not obvious, but discrete, almost disguised. By implication, this disguised obsession may refer to Julia Florida herself, after whom the piece is named. That is a conjecture I leave you to ponder. Julia Martinez de Rodriguez was one of Barrios' guitar students, and the niece of Francisco Salazar, a guitar aficionado, wealthy architect, artist and good friend of the composer. The piece was written in Costa Rica in 1938 while the composer was recovering from an illness and living in a house owned by Salazar.

More about that note “A”
“A” occurs both in the tonic chord D and the dominant chord A, and alternates between the two throughout the piece. It peaks in a stunning sequence of chords from 2.48" (bar 52). “A” begins or ends melodic phrases more than 40 times. Through the work “A” occurs in all four octaves acting as either melody note, bass note or inner voice note.

The emotional curves of Julia Florida: summary
Increasing excitement - Signs of obsession - Development/ intensity - Hesitation - Definitely obsessed now - Repeat of opening: contemplation -
- Coda: Acceptance/finality

Increasing excitement
In the first 60 seconds “A” appears 33 times in different octaves as melody or harmony note.

0.39” on YouTube link
The tune makes an extra big jump of a 6th and lingers in the highest octave of the guitar - increased hope and excitement?

0.42” on YouTube link
Signs of obsession
Obsession kicks in - “A” sounds on the first beat of every bar.

1.02” on YouTube link
Development/ intensity
An episode alternating Bminor and Eminor offers a break from “A”.

1.22” on YouTube link
One of the most beautiful moments is this G minor chord with a Bflat, the note next door to “A”.

2.04” on YouTube link
The melody assumes a continuos downward quaver movement, creating a sense of freedom and elation.

2.12” on YouTube link
Here begins a hesitating sequence with an E#. But do not be misled. As far away as that seems from “A” this is all an elaborate ruse to lead us back there. Here is how it works: E# belongs to the C# major chord which is the dominant of F# major which is the dominant of Bminor. From there it is easy: a falling bass line leads us to A minor. Yes, that’s right we are back with “A” at 2.37" (bar 48).

2.37” on YouTube link
Definitely obsessed now

The rhythm of the melody changes with a six note quaver sequence ending on the last note of each bar. This produces both a suspended feeling and an emphasis on the sixth note of every other bar, which, of course, is “A”.

2.48” on YouTube link
Here begins perhaps the most beautiful harmonic sequence with “A” at its apex. The pace of “A” apperances quickens: the sixth note “A” appears in every bar five times in a row, the last four in harmonics, taking us on a chordal journey through Aminor – A7 – F#diminished – G7, and finally landing on A7 again (with an E in the bass). The music comes to a stop, for “A” now hangs in the air, in an unresolved dominant 7th, its pathos accentuated by the bass note E. Instinctively the listener feels we have reached a turning point. And indeed we have, for the piece now starts all over again from the beginning.

3.06” on YouTube link
Repeat of opening: contemplation
Bar 1 – 4 (second time round): “A” now sounds like a contemplative echo of the beautiful harmonic sequence which preceded it: less about hope, more about acceptance.

4.01” on YouTube link
Coda: Acceptance/finality
Coda bar 57 – the end: Julia Florida ends with a slow climb through harmonics to the top note “D” (an octave above the first string 10th fret), in the style of the slow movement of Rodrigo’s Aranjuez Concerto which was composed around the same time between 1938-1939. Barrios may have been familiar with the Baroque convention of ascending notes symbolising the ascent of a departed soul to heaven. The musical effect here is one of peace, beauty and finality – or, if you prefer to conjecture, resignation and acceptance.

Role model Barcarolles
Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy:3 "Venetian Gondola Songs" from Songs without Words provided the inspiration for many composers. Chopin gave the barcarolle a darker twist in his masterly Barcarolle Op 60 while Offenbach captured a lighter feeling in the Tales of Hoffmann

References and suggestions:
Listen here to Richard Stover talk about meeting Julia (Florida) Martinez de Rodriguez.

Book publication: Six Silver Moonbeams: The Life and Times of Agustin Barrios Mangore by Richard D. Stover (May 1992) contains a wealth of information.

Music publication details: The Guitar Works of Agustín Barrios Mangoré. Volume 3 edited by Richard Stover, published Belwin-Mills, 1977

A second edition by Richard Stover of Julia Florida published in volume 2 by Mel Bay Publications, 2003, contains notable differences from the Belwin-Mills edition published in 1977 on which I have based this article.

17th October 2014, London

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Guitarists Can Learn To Play The Guitar Like Toddlers Learn To Walk

- they have no idea, and care not a jot, for "doing it right" and why should they -

Actually I was in dream-land - my mind had drifted off somewhere while standing in one of those tedious queues typical of airports. It was my fourth one of the hour at the Rome terminal - and has a more apt word ever been coined? Terminal boredom, interminable corridors, end-of-term terminal congestion. Anyway, in my head I was somewhere over the rainbow in bar 15 or so of Shostakovitch's waltz. I have arranged it for guitar and played it for the first time from memory last night.

Stood as I was in the confines of a self-imposed space with one hundred and seventy nine people in front and about the same behind, I suddenly felt a tightening of the trousers and a faint grasping. Before you get any crazy ideas let me tell you what it was. Jolted out of bar 15 I looked down to check my attire and spotted a very small hand holding on to my shin, as if it were a handle. Was it the hand of a hobbit, or a gnome come to life?

Neither. It was the hand of a beautiful, cuddly toddler boasting the best part of 15 months of age, staggering about, moving from one prop to another. What better targets to challenge the ambitious young mind than those vertical supports we call legs - any legs literally to hand?

Ah, but look - I heard her think to herself - at that open space. I wonder whether I can make it all the way across that vast area to the distant wall? And off she toddled, waddling like a duck, but as fast as an anxious pigeon. Made it, phew! Better get back to mummy. Ooops, just fallen down and landed on my backside. No point making an issue of it so I'll get up and carry on without breaking, er, rhythm. Yes, you may have guessed where I am going with this in parallel to guitar playing.

Let's call it the toddler technique. It is an awful technique.

I mean, worse than awful - plainly no technique, just grit and determination.

The only thing that mattered to the toddler was getting there, no matter how. Hold on to legs translates into anything you need to make it through the musical phrase. Falling down means making a mistake, yet - and this is a big yet - picking yourself up and carrying on as if nothing had happened, rather than lingering over the fret board while you gather your senses to get the fingers back into the sequence. Precious seconds tick past and all momentum is lost. Fingers dither. The musical phrase is forgotten. Hang on, wasn't that our target, like the toddler's wall?

Sooner rather than later the toddler will walk with total security and poise, having started out unawares of either. The toddler is end-driven, not means-driven. She has no idea, and cares not a jot, for "doing it right". There is a lot to learn here for musicians.

Those were my thoughts as I inched my way towards the boarding gate together with fellow passengers. Now where was I in dream-land? Oh yes, at bar 15 in the Shostakovitch waltz - playing it through to the end in my mind. I might not recall a note or two, but so what, it's no worse than the toddler falling down. I'll just pick myself up and carry straight on. And as for technique, what has that to do with it?

11th October, 2014

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From 78s To iPods – The Punter Has Outlived Them All

- Every recording technology has had its own specia ilmpact on live guitar concerts-

It all started with a 78 recording and the picture of a dog listening to
His Master's Voice coming out of a horn - a thin distant whine more to the taste of our canine cousins than to us humans. Anyone who has heard recordings from that time by Barrios and Segovia will know what I mean (especially before being remastered).

So audiences kept going to concerts to hear the real thing, hornless and whine-free.

Then came radio. That was better. It fired the imagination and whetted the appetite. It was live and thrilling but the sound came and went.

So audiences kept going to concerts to hear the real thing, no fading signal or missed climaxes.

LPs made their debut. One light-weight LP could contain a complete symphony while it took seven 78s to do the same. LPs were good but one false drop of the needle or one grain of dust not meticulously wiped away, and they were scratched forever. And nobody wants to listen to an exquisitely played tremolo study accompanied by an out of time click, click, click...

So audiences kept going to concerts to hear the real thing, clickless and scratchless.

The next break-through was the CD - indestructible, impossible to wear out, eternal.
A perfect white noise came out of it: seamlessly edited, instruments balanced at a 48 channel mixer desk in a hermetically sealed studio by engineers dressed as technicians in white gowns.

So audiences kept going to concerts to hear the real thing, mistakes and all.

The iPod - ah yes, this is where I was leading to all along. Glued to our ears, from it flows an endless stream of music. It soothes us on our journey to work, or as we jog our way around a green patch out yonder, or as we tread the urban footpaths while frantic police cars siren their way through congested streets. Cocooned from the metropolitan inferno, where would we be without it?

So audiences keep going to concerts to hear the real thing, in a peaceful environment with no distractions.

And here we are in the present age. The punter has outlived them all: His Master's Voice, EPs, LPs, CDs, Walkmans, and in time maybe the iPod too. He has savoured them, enjoyed them, even treasured them, and yet he's still there in the front row, with a tingle of excitement as the lights dim. The beautiful sounds strike up, instantly banishing reproduction systems to an inferior sphere, causing goose bumps at some expressive moment and a quickening of the pulse at some improvised virtuosity - all witnessed a few feet distant from the musician, his (or her) brow all of a sweat, the effort of concentration etched on her features, her gaze transporting the audience to the furthest reaches of an indefinable paradise.

That is the most important reason why audiences keep going to concerts to hear the real thing.

4th October 2014

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