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Queen Guitar Rhapsodies

Leading The Guitar In The USA

My tour includes concerts and teaching for one of the world´s most innovative guitar teaching programmes

15th Septemner 2014, at the Enid Symphony Hall, Oklahoma, with Brad Richter explaining a point of interpretation to the orchestra, with Matt Denman the conductor on the right.

15th Septemner 2014, at the Enid Symphony Hall, Oklahoma, with Brad Richter explaining a point of interpretation to the orchestra, with Matt Denman the conductor on the right.

I left London for the USA on 9th September not knowing whether I would return to a United or Disunited Kingdom. Would I need a work visa to play gigs in Scotland? Would there be border patrols to keep the English out from crossing over illegally? Well, I have found out this morning that neither event shall come to pass, at least not until another referendum turns this one upside down. While I have been in the USA Presidential announcements (or more accurately pronouncements) have made more likely the 3rd incursion in 22 years into Iraq by America, together with whatever Allies it can scramble together. Now that is quite a lot of momentous activity on the world stage to be getting on with in the space of 7 days, and enough to make a humble plucker such as myself feel as insignificant as a grain of sand about to be roughened up by stormy weather. Funnily enough, I did run into the left-overs of hurricane Odile in Arizona and was warned about the possibility of death by drowning in the Arizona desert. Yes, you read that right, in the desert! Flash floods, creepy crawlies and snakes seeking shelter up my leg, military aircraft speeding past overhead (to Iraq?), the wail of exquisitely out of tune bagpipe players with knobbly knees heralding (or not) a new Gaelic dawn – all this I imagined, and some of it I even experienced.

Right, back to business: my first stop was Oklahoma City and rehearsals with Brad Richter for the world première of two movements from his Concerto for 2 guitars and Guitar Orchestra. I also had to revise the work we had first played in January: the 3 duos of fiendish difficulty and rhythmic complexity, enough to drive a calm type like me to total distraction until I got it right. But before I tell you more about the première you have to understand the background. Pardon my flippancy; I am not referring to music but to the Oklahoma spoken accent which is the cutest of all the American variations on our dear language. To an Englishman it is the stuff of Hollywood and cowboy films. It took me a few hours to actually hear what people were telling me since I could not get past just listening to their mode of speech. If Buffalo Bill and Davy Crockett had strolled in wearing head gear made out of fox tails, sat down and tuned their guitars ready to play in the Guitar Orchestra I would not have been surprised. But they didn’t, instead some 75 young people ranging from approximately 10 to 20 years of age took up their positions.

The concerto takes its inspiration from Apache culture and history
Brad Richter has listened to hours of archive material and composed a moving and hugely accomplished work inspired by it, even borrowing Apache musical themes, stitched together with sound effects which include “prepared” guitar, whistling, and foot stamping. One movement takes its title from a phrase spoken by the great Apache warrior and leader Geronimo: ”once we moved like the wind” – a reference to how the tribe on foot evaded capture by the American army for years.

We repeated the concert a few days later in the Enid Symphony Hall, Oklahoma, a beautiful space which could easily have been transported, brick by brick, fresco by fresco, from 18th century Europe. This time the orchestra was reduced to some 25 players and conducted with great authority by Matt Denman, who manages the guitar teaching programmes in the state. The concerto received a standing ovation just as on the previous occasion.

And where, I hear you ask, do you get 75 young guitar players?
They come from different schools who have been made an offer they find difficult to refuse: guitar teaching free at the point of consumption. The same goes for Brad Richter’s own idea - Lead Guitar. He, together with a like-minded group of idealists, including some brilliant fund raisers, has turned Lead Guitar into an important organisation for teaching guitar in schools. This has now made guitar players of close to 11,000 students in 5 states across the nation. I got to meet and teach some of these students on my next stop in Tucson, Arizona. Brad has devised a carefully graded course, based in the initial stages on group learning and ensemble playing. This, in my opinion, is a brilliant approach. Teachers at local schools are trained in-house – some of them are only a few steps ahead of the students, but have the advantage of being experienced teachers.

Remember how world events were making me feel a humble plucker as insignificant as a grain of sand, at least on my arrival? Well, not so by the end. To see so many children and young people dedicated to a musical instrument, to know they turn up for rehearsal week after week, to see them undertakes the rigours of practice for a public event – this was enough to make me look up and realize that although a single grain of sand alone may not amount to much, a beach made of many together create something beautiful and ever-changing and eternal, an affirmation of a lot that is worthwhile in life itself.

19th September 2014

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10 Suggestions For How To Succeed As A Performer, Awesome As You Are Already

- concerts and gigs are not only about playing well -

1
Consider every aspect related to a performance. You may be completely centred on the music, but your audience is affected by a lot more than your playing. First a word about the music...

2
Choose your programmes according to your strengths. It's not about what you would like to play, but what you can already play well. The former belongs to your student days, the latter is about being a pro.

3
Dress well. Take advice. Girls tend to over-dress, while blokes look like they just bought a boring black shirt from the nearest discount store.

4
Plan what you are going to say to an audience from the platform, and stick to it. Make it interesting. Avoid silly observations such as "Villa-Lobos was a famous Brazilian composer." Rather, describe in one sentence why he was famous. If you can't think why, find out.

5
Still on the matter of public speaking, pitch your remarks according to the type of audience. A guitar festival is quite different from a benefit concert in a local community.

6
One more thing: don't mumble, and speak more slowly than you do usually. If you can't project your voice use a microphone. Think: how would an actor say these words?

7
Be polite and friendly to your promoters and whoever is looking after you. Do not take them for granted. Some are rich impresarios, others may be unpaid volunteer staff.

8
Be polite and friendly to your audience after the show (and yes, it is a show, no matter what type of music you play). You will be asked the same questions again and again. Answer them as if it were the first time.

9
You are only as good as your last performance, at least for the foreseeable future. The day you become a huge star it still won't be any different. Things will only improve when you get to 80 or thereabouts, for at that age you will be admired for managing to play at all!

10
If you have made a CD give it as a present to whoever is looking after you. Sign and date it with a personalized dedication. One day in the distant future that same person may come backstage and show it you with pride and satisfaction, or of course, it might be a grandchild who does so - that's if you are still on the road at 80.

13th September 2014, Oklahoma, USA

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I Feel A Drip On My Classical Tour

- arriving at a southern resort I meet a weird gypsy guitarist, and get wet-

In a Southern seaside resort this week, note the  umbrella

In a Southern seaside resort this week. Note the umbrella

Yesterday it began to rain as my manager and I drove from the airport. When we arrived in this beautiful seaside town the rain got worse. In the restaurant, usually al fresco, the staff had improvised some transparent plastic curtains, and yet the water was creeping in under them. Other people joined us for supper including a strange looking guitar player.

We got up to leave at midnight. It was pouring, the sort that soaks you to the skin in 10 seconds. In spite of this we decided to run for it since the hotel was just 300 yards away. I carried the guitar and a bag, my manager the suitcase. Water was flowing down the streets towards the sea-front. We trod not in puddles but in six inch deep streams moving at an alarming speed. The only thing missing in them were live fish.

This morning I got up and stepped out for breakfast and blow me down, it started raining. Soaked once again I took refuge in the first bar I came across. I am now sitting outside under cover, rain lashing down on the wooden roof extension, staring at the grey sea and at brilliant reflections of wetness all around me. The temperature has dropped three degrees in 20 minutes so I am shivering.

I have only myself to blame. It is perfectly obvious now that coming to the Mediterranean in summer without a large umbrella is sheer folly.

Now I know you want to know all about the weird guitarist. Firstly, he shaves his head although he could have a full crop on his nut if he wished. I hate that. He wouldn't tell me what he had played, except - waving rather importantly - to say he had improvised all night. When I asked him where he lived he said he didn't. He has no fixed address because he travels all the time playing gigs, so has no home except where he happens to be. I said "you are a genuine gipsy musician" and he took this as a great compliment. I thought he ticked all three boxes of my PPP test: phoney, pretentious, and pass-the -sick-bag.

By the way, after writing all this at the breakfast table, I must tell you it is still pouring with rain.

-----------------

It is now evening. The rain has gone. A beautiful breeze is blowing. The clouds have been swept away to reveal a blue sky with flecks of gold from the setting sun. Life is beautiful after all.

5th September 2014, Southern Europe

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Back To School

September means a fresh start for everyone, guitar-players too. Resist the pressure to conform and do it your way.

-

The long summer holidays are nearly over. No more digging holes in the sand to watch the sea-water fill them; nor sitting at the table with the huge round dish of a paella staring back at me; nor having a French loaf stuffed with Spanish omelette at tea time; nor running up the hill and see if you can catch me; nor lying in bed listening to the farmers going to work at the crack of dawn – these are my memories of idyllic summers in Valencia. Yet all the time in the back of my mind I was counting the days to the dreaded return like a detonating time-bomb.

It doesn’t have to be like this. Return to school should be a totally positive experience. Instead I remember severe unsmiling teachers, silly rules, and a semi-militarized regime. It’s all quite understandable I am told. After all, how else do you keep hundreds of children well behaved and attentive and sufficiently calm? No matter how many children are in the classroom you have to have quiet and concentration for them to learn something.

While learning is based on the collective principle there will be disorder, sometimes minor, sometimes major. We are all different, and we learn in different ways. Some thrive on exams, others on course work. Some are analytical, some are intuitive. Some are ready to learn at 10 years of age, others at 13. And so it goes on. The ideal learning is not in a class room with a catch-all approach reinforced by discipline but one to one: if only we could all go back to enlightened private tutors visiting us, or we going to them! Which brings me back to guitar playing.

Mis-education not only affects how we learn, but also what we learn. Forget about the “right” technique and of how to acquire it: there is not only one approach, there are many. Forget about “the authentic” Baroque style: views vary of what that is. Forget about “how you are supposed” to interpret such and such a piece: there are different ways of doing so. Forget about how you are “meant” to do things. One thing is for sure: the best way for you to be yourself and comfortable in your skin is to do it your way. Frank Sinatra was right!

To find your way now is a good time to start. September is upon us. A new season beckons. Make a clean break with the pressure to conform to the rules and decide for yourself.

30th August 2014, London

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Essential Rep Unwrapped 1

- an insider's guide to Falla's Tombeau -

No matter the level of your playing, there is every reason why you should familiarize yourselves, and scratch or bluff your way through great music. More so, if it is not difficult to play. By doing so, you can get to understand and appreciate music all the more, almost getting inside the composer's head. And if you do not play and are a listener, youoo can also savour more deeply music's magic with a little extra knowledge.

There is a small pile of such guitar music out there, shining like gold nuggets waiting to be picked. On great music, not difficult to play, is what I am going to begin to concentrate in this occasional series of articles. To start, please wheel in, with an imaginary fanfare, this great little piece: Manuel de Falla's Tombeau: Hommage à Debussy.

For timing references open this link to Julian Bream's recording on Youtube

Only about four minutes long the work manages to combine essential aspects of Spanish and French Impressionistic music, no easy feat. Falla interweaves them without any clash of idiom.

0.00"
The "Spanish" sound is based on the medieval Phrygian mode, which is all the natural notes (no sharps or flats) starting on E. The second note in the scale is F. All of the first 18 notes in the melody consist of just these two notes alternating.

0.30"
Having established this "Spanish flamenco" sound, Falla then throws in a C#. This note is straight out of a whole tone scale starting on F, and belongs to the world of Claude Debussy, (the dedicatee of the work). Play the scale F - G - A - B - C#, and you'll hear it straight away.

0.45"
The next surprise is the B flat against a G bass, giving it a minor feel. This, together with the C# breaks the French spell and brings us back to the Spanish mood. A truncated reprise of the 18 note opening follows.

1.17"
The F is altered to an F#, thus neatly transforming the opening phrase from Spanish to French. But The D, C#, B flat, A. shape of the melodic line that follows creates a Moorish feeling paving the way for the next development.

2.02"
An abrupt change of rhythm takes us to a Spanish taverna and an improvised sounding flamenco riff which quickly winds down and brings us back to the opening two-note alternation.

2.44"
A brief recap of the opening material sounds even more like a lament after the rhythmic interlude.

3.30"
This breaks off suddenly to reveal a fragment from Debussy's Une Soirée en Grenade for piano solo. The Debussy quote contains musical elements evident in the rest of the Tombeau. These include the rising scale pattern and the basic habanera-style rhythm.

3.55 - 4.03
The piece ends as it started with the melancholic Spanish two-note figure, dying away to nothing.

Falla made an arrangement of this, his only guitar piece, for solo piano, and also for orchestra, so he must have been pleased with it. So should we be, its stark beauty a challenge not to virtuosity but to our ability to communicate its melancholic essence and mixed musical language - the work of a master composer.

23rd August, Londonderry, Northern Ireland

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A Journey Home From Benslow Music Hits All The Wrong Notes

- my companion and I are involved in a hair-raising escape from near death on the London Underground Subway -
-

I have just spent a delightful weekend at the Benslow Music Course with Tracey Cool, Judith Gregory, Richard Kenney, Adrian Scandrett and Carin Wilkinson, fine students each with quite distinctive personalities of a most attractive kind. I came home on the train with Judith, chatting about this and that, and about cantilevered staircases. What are they, I hear you ask? They are constructions with no visible means of support, which is kind of puzzling. Little did we know then how dramatically a staircase would affect us later in the day - but more of this anon. Deep into a wide-eyed exchange on the subject we realised too late that we were on the wrong London train. Loaded with bags and guitars, plus Judith's push-bike, there was no way we could jump off in time.

Instead we travelled on to the end of the line, Moorgate, where seeking ground level we got on the up escalator. The first inkling of all not being quite right was when the bike showed a mind of its own. Instead of up it started wheeling down. Pulled by the force of gravity, it dragged the owner with it. Like a pack of cards collapsing, everything followed with a grim inevitability. The bike sliding away from her, Judith slipped. I tried to hold her, and then I slipped. I let go of my guitar when I felt all was lost and collapsed like a cowboy shot in a spaghetti western. Before you can say how's your father we were both flat on our backs, and thankful for it, rather than tumbling all the way down to the bottom. Total silence descended as the motor shut down and the escalator came to an emergency stop.

Miraculously, we dusted ourselves down, climbed up the stilled escalator, apparently no harm done. And that is the story of my hair-raising escape from near death on a London Underground escalator, as two guitars, two bags, a fully-grown adult and one push bike nearly rained down on my unprotected bald personage. But my journey did not stop there.

We parted company and I proceeded, got off at my station and stood at a bus-stop. Then it really did start to rain, first in silly spits of drizzle, and after in large dollops, until my shirt clung to me in a mangled soggy mess. Rivulets of rain water formed on my spam and dripped down my nose, creating tributaries and streams all over my face which I could not wipe off because, remember, I was holding a travel bag in one hand and a guitar in the other. Bach's Air on a G string kept going round my head like funeral music.

I blame architects for our near disaster. If they didn't build silly cantilevered staircases we wouldn't have missed our stop while deep in discussion trying to understand how they work. Driven bonkers by cantilevers' weird geometry, we ended up in an asymmetrical heap of our own with arms and legs waving crazily in the air. And now this: lashed by wind and rain, soaked to the skin, and carrying my possessions like some poor immigrant new in town.

By the way, are the Underground escalators cantilevered and driven into the side panelling with no visible means of support? Don't even think of answering if you are about to arrive at your destination - you'll miss it. My mind boggles what could happen to you next. And anyway, what's so important about how cantilevered staircases work? It's not, like, a matter of life and death.

Or is it?

16th August 2014, London

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10 Ways To Make Your Interpretations Come Alive

...and make them personal

1
Consider the style and period of the music.

2
Discover the life, times and personality of the composer.

3
Discover specific comments (if any) by the composer or his contemporaries about the work.

4
Consider the general mood of the work.

5
Consider the specific mood of each phrase to give them character and meaning.

6
Consider the rhythmic shape of the work and of each phrase.

7
Consider the shape and form of the melody.

8
Consider the harmonic sequence.

9
Consider the interaction between melody and harmony.

10
Listen to other interpretations. Appreciate them and forget them. Now do your own thing.

9th August, Hitchin, UK

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No Rain In Spain These Past Two Weeks

I meet up with Jose Romanillos at the Siguenza Guitar Festival in a heat wave

Back in London after a great two weeks in Spain, where the sun only stopped beating down on my bald head when the moon came out. My activities centred round the very first Guitar Festival in Siguenza, Guadalajara.

The Festival called "Guitarra" described itself as “a 3-day international music festival organised by Jose Luis Romanillos (Jnr) dedicated to the celebration of the guitar in all its forms - classical, flamenco, jazz, acoustic and electric. The festival takes place in the medieval town of Sigüenza, situated 125 kms north-east of Madrid which is the home of the celebrated guitar-maker and author, Jose Luis Romanillos”.

Siguenza is a small town, so small that if you blink you miss it. With a population of barely 5000 people it would not take long to be on speaking terms with most of them – give me 6 months there and I would even write you an account of complex family relationships and related juicy gossip! But Siguenza is more than just another sleepy town an hour and a half’s drive out of Madrid: it is a return to a bygone era – a wonderfully preserved medieval town with castle and cathedral, completely untouched and unspoiled by more modern architecture. Peaceful it may now be, but its history is as turbulent as any you will find in Spain. It has been under the control of Visigoths, Romans, Moors and Christian Castilians. Tell-tale signs of the Moorish occupation are everywhere, although their influence is not fully acknowledged in tourist guides. In the Spanish Civil War it became a battleground between the opposing forces.

It is here in this peaceful retreat that Jose Romanillos has made his home for many years and created a museum which includes some of his collection of notable instruments. Although it may not be in the collection, I was fortunate enough to be the first (together with Gilbert Biberian) to play one of his guitars in concert, way back when I was just 17 years old. I will never forget the look of amazement on Romanillos’ face after the concert!

Its beautiful Cathedral, castle and streets gives this quiet little town now a great sense of tranquillity, yet under its pavements and behinds its facades the ghosts of war and conflict linger. So against this backdrop, enter the very first Siguenza Guitar Festival in honour of the great guitar maker Jose Romanillos. He has dedicated his life to making beautiful instruments in the footsteps of the first maker of the modern instrument Antonio De Torres about whom he has written a book Guitar Maker-His Life and Work .

The Festival was also an occasion to screen the first showing of the film José Luis Romanillos: Guitarrero, directed by David Herranz, a moving account of his life, struggles and accomplishments, as well as present his latest book, about making a Spanish guitar. Among the events was a performance by my old friend Paco Peňa and an off-the-wall late night show by Stradivarius, a quartet of girls in a classical cabaret who provided a complete send-up of classical pomposity.

The Festival is organised and directed by Jose Luis Romanillos, son of the guitar maker. Members of the family were all around for this special occasion and celebration.

3rd August, 2014, London

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10 Ways To Improve Your Playing During The Summer Holiday

...and still have fun in the sun

1
Play relaxed - do as you please when you please.

2
By all means do lots of technical work-outs if you feel like it, otherwise don't.

3
Explore those aspects of your guitar playing you never get round to doing during the rest of the year, for example improvising, understanding chords etc.

4
Some people take a holiday book to read while turning bright red under the sun. You could take an equivalent weight in sight-reading pieces, read them indoors, and not look like a tomato on legs.

5
You know that piece you have been wanting to learn for ages? This is the time to do it.

6
If you don't feel like serious practice, don't. Play for fun instead. Actually, you may remember that's what it was all about once.

7
Round up a few friends, neighbours or holiday makers you have just met and organise an impromptu musical evening with singing, playing and a few drinks on the side. It will bring out the best in you, guaranteed - provided you don't get started on the conga as well.

8
Find out about the local cultural life. You could surprise yourself with something quite thrilling and totally unexpected.

9
Try composing something in your care-free state away from home. It is the ideal moment to lose creative inhibitions.

10
The common thread through all of the above is that the change of location and the change of rhythm (pardon the pun) are excellent opportunities to improve your playing in an unstructured way. Simply by being relaxed and having bags of time great things could happen. All you have to do is turn on the relax-and-let-go switch, and turn off the I-must-do-some-proper-practise switch.

26th July, Siguenza, Spain

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Music Can Make A Difference In A Violent World

- what you can do to help it happen -

This week has witnessed terrible events in the Ukraine and the Middle East. Our capacity for violence seems to know no limits. The more 'advanced' and 'civilised' we become, the worse too the pain and suffering humans inflict upon each other. It is as if evil were in some grim competition with goodness itself, to show there are no depths to which it cannot sink.

In comparison to this titanic struggle music seems so feeble and peripheral. To sing and pluck and strike the keys seem like pulling up your collar and whistling into a strong wind - who cares? Who is listening? What difference does it make?

Music cannot impact in the same way as direct action. Music is not explicit like the spoken word. Music has no graphic message like Picasso's Guernica painting, or like the best modern day graffiti murals.

Music fills the spaces words cannot reach and paints fantastic images in an unfamiliar universe
Music is the nearest we get to dreaming with our eyes open. Music consoles the broken-hearted, the desperate, and those struck by tragedy. Music brings joy and exultation to those in more fortunate circumstances. Above all, music lifts the spirits and digs deep into our inner souls.

So, whether you sing or play, whether you are involved in music for pleasure or are a seasoned pro, I suggest you can make a difference.

You can do so within your immediate circle, and some of you beyond it.

You can bring tears to the eyes and wipe them away too at the brush of a string, or with a velvet tone sung in a half breath.

You can raise a smile.

You can lift people's spirits in a few seconds.

You can make listeners jump out of their seats with excitement.

You can fill them with optimism and dynamism.

And best of all, you can make people feel that all human behaviour could benefit from the noble sentiments of a musical experience.

Maybe they could spread beyond musical experience to other areas of our lives. This could be our contribution to improving the world. If music can help in its own small way do that, then we are indeed involved in something as important as it is mysterious.

19th July 2014, London

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