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Queen Guitar Rhapsodies

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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Forget About Being Normal, It's Good To Be Crazy

- For three glorious days this week the world has gone completely mad, throwing Matisse's armchair out of the window -

Carlos in Parracho, Mexico, with cigar and fire truck

Carlos in Parracho, Mexico, with cigar and fire truck

This week, hanging about in London led me to the Matisse Exhibition at the Tate Modern. On the way I had Mexican tacos from a stall by the river Thames which bore a passing resemblance, and no more, to the real thing. They had been adapted to the more moderate English palates which I have noted recoil in terror at chillies, as if some unconscious memory of ancient encounters with Aztec warriors has left an indelible impression.

The Tate Modern Museum in London is a classic example of modern design carved out of an old building. Walking in through the front entrance I was momentarily disorientated: was this an airport hanger waiting for its next delivery? It is huge: an attempt at creating something grand, but the result is more posing than imposing. The next trick was how to get off on the right floor. Once arrived, so much time had elapsed in hunting down the gallery that I felt in need of a drink. This,of course led to a new find-the-location adventure, rewarded, having bagged the café, by a spectacular view of St Paul's Cathedral, a monument saved from oblivion by the mere chance of a German bomb failing to explode during World War II.

And what about the Matisse paper cut outs, did they live up to his own dictum?

“What I dream of is an art of balance, of purity and serenity devoid of troubling or depressing subject matter ….a soothing, calming influence on the mind, something like a good armchair which provides relaxation from physical fatigue.”

Cut outs like a good armchair.... All very sweet, but compare this to Matisse's great contemporary Pablo Picasso:

“Ah, good taste! What a dreadful thing! Taste is the enemy of creativeness.” 

I know which of those two attitudes I prefer, and it's certainly not the one with an armchair in it. Having perused the many pieces of brightly coloured glued paper in the shapes of birds and leaves, I quickly got the point, and that is, that there was no point. Very pretty, beautifully arranged, and lovingly assembled, but pointless, for it stirred me not. How could it? Can an armchair stir you? No, it sends you to sleep. Give me crazy Picasso over normal armchair loving Matisse any day.

The Tour de France in Pall Mall- where did you say?
Fleeing from the Tate hangar entrance (just in case an aeroplane decided to enter) I noted that the Tour de France was most likely arriving in Pall Mall at that moment, no more than a mile away. Now, I still can't get my head around the Tour de France in England. What's it doing here? Has it lost its way? Don't the cyclists carry maps? What bothers me most are the huge crowds getting hysterically excited about a bunch of sweaty men huddled over their bikes whizzing past at 40 miles per hour dicing with burn-out, dehydration and heart failure, while ambulances follow behind like vultures waiting for something nasty to happen. I hastened to the underground (subway for our American cousins) to depart the centre of town and was agreeably surprised to find it almost deserted. Of course, I was travelling in the opposite direction, away from the action.

I sat in a carriage with only two other passengers for company. One was a young girl, the spitting image of the tragic Shakespearean heroine Ophelia as depicted by Sir John Everett Millais in his classic Victorian painting. There she was looking sad and lonely, with a garland of flowers on her head, while her eyes peeked out of the blond hair covering most of her face. Meanwhile five seats along a body builder in shorts and a t-shirt was examining closely the tattoos on his legs and arms, as if deciding where more etchings could be inflicted. It came to me in a flash: all the crazy people, including me, were hurtling in tube trains through the tunnels of subterranean London escaping the frenzy of normal humans above. Here was a real life repeat of my Tate experience: normal Matisse versus crazy Picasso – yes, but what did it all mean?

A couple of days later, all became clear
I was watching this football match, you see, Brazil versus Germany, and I got up to make myself a cup of tea. By the time I came back 6 minutes later the score was 5 – 0! Whilst my back was turned the normally ever so sensible Germans had gone on the rampage with joy and abandon, while the crazy Brazilians hid behind the sofa crying like babies. Here was the event that explained everything: for three glorious days the world had gone completely mad, throwing Matisse's armchair out of the window. Ophelia was alive. Ten thousand cyclists were lost. The Germans had become Brazilians. And me? I headed home, took out my guitar, strummed a chord or two and recovered my composure.

Yesterday brought my week to a gastronomic conclusion. I dined at Getti's restaurant in Marylebone High Street where friendly and attentive Italian waiters served an exquisite polletto alla diavola (grilled baby chicken with chilli sauce) and fegato di vitello (calf's liver). The whole experience was totally calming. No doubt they were going crazy in the kitchen, but such is life.

12th July 2014, London

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My Summer’s Week In London Town

- A rare burst of good weather brings out the best...and the unexpected -

I have spent a delightful week in London in diverse activities, enhanced by a burst of good weather with unrelenting heat and sunshine. Let me speak of the latter first: for the radiance of bright light is unusual in this great city, its single greatest handicap being the melancholy greyness that hangs around more often than not. But not these past few days, a brilliant hue dominated until the gradual fading of the light, late in the evening,

On Saturday I went to Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre on the River Thames to see and hear the Stephen Warbeck Ensemble at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. Recently opened the playhouse is a loving recreation of a performance space where Shakespeare would feel at home: a small Jacobean-style theatre lit almost entirely by candles. The evening was a sheer delight, from Warbeck’s entertaining introductions to his exuberant film music enhanced by the pleasure of seeing on stage my son Dario as guest, and even if I say so myself playing brilliantly as he recreated live his recording of the guitar music from Captain Corelli's Mandolin.

Next stop: The Glamour of Italian Fashion 1945 – 2014, an exhibition at the beautiful Victoria and Albert Museum which shows how style and romance can come together in a perfect accord of exquisite taste. If you are passing through London, don't miss it.

The week proceeded most amiably, for I had drinks with my old friend, guitarist Julian Byzantine, down at the “99” pub in South Kensington, so called because the Royal College of Music round the corner is reputed to have only 98 rooms. The next day I was back at the Royal College of Music itself, stumbled into a brass concert by the Royal College of Music Brass Ensemble and was blown away by Richard Strauss’ tone poem Also Sprach Zarathustra / 2001 Space Odyssey opening theme arranged by Christopher Mowat and directed by Nigel Black. When I say blown away, I do mean the massive sound blast lifted me off the floor and pinned me to the wall, or at least that is how it felt. It left me slightly deaf for about five minutes with my body vibrating all over for twenty – so please don't stop, Nigel, I'll be back for more as soon as I can.

Driving home later that same evening I passed my favourite animals out strolling: horses from the Duke of Westminster’s stable in Hyde Park. A few minutes later along the same drive the US Ambassador’s residence lies hidden in the overflowing foliage of Regent’s Park, where a most posh do (related to the 4th July Independence Day celebrations) was taking place judging by the elegantly attired guests approaching it and by the security all around. A few hundred yards away another trot-load of horses: this time police ones in training. From there a descent to Camden Town, where more foreign languages are spoken per square inch than anywhere else I know, and all thanks to the eccentric and charming Camden Market which so fascinates overseas visitors. Within seconds I was home, put my feet up, and watched the film Lost in Translation, a perfect way to wind down from the noise, heat and bustle of London on a summer’s day – so perfect, I fell asleep! I will be in London next week too, let’s see what surprises lie in store for me then.

4th July 2014, London

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10 Suggestions For Controlling Your Nerves While Playing In Public

In the weeks previous to the performance event, prepare yourself as thoroughly as you can in your practice. Go over and over the pieces. The phrase "it'll be all right on the night" is meant as a joke. Without lots of preparation it won't be all right on the night.

Check you have memorised well.. Fear of forgetting is the greatest source of insecurity.

If you are reading from the music, make sure in concert you look at your hands or at the fretboard in the same places as you do when you practice.

Practice difficult phrases by themselves very slowly until you can play them at your desired speed five times in a row without errors. If you can't, choose easier pieces.

Go over the pieces in your mind in the weeks before: that includes fingering patterns, musical notation, phrasing and overall feel.

Keep playing the same pieces in different events. They will get better and you will gain hugely in confidence by so doing.

The more often you play to others, the more likely you are to control those butterflies in the pit of your stomach, and the shaking hands.

The performance is not an exam, it is an experience shared equally by everyone present. If you prefer you can think of it as a circular experience: the listeners transmit their best wishes to you which help make you feel good. You in turn move them with your playing, which leads to the listener communicating their pleasure back to you.

Think positive thoughts before and during playing. Inside us there is a war going on between a positive voice and a negative one. Keep talking up your positive voice, and knock that negative one on the head for it is very destructive and undermining of your self-confidence.

In performance breathe deeply, concentrate on the spirit of the music and the mood you wish to create. Everything else will take care of itself.

Playing in public is an emotional roller-coaster. Our feelings during and after often bear only a slight resemblance to the actual performance. Some convince themselves that their disastrous appearance was nothing of the sort, that it was wonderful; mercifully these types are not frequent. More often than not there is an opposite reaction: a huge disappointment at having made a series of crashing mistakes. To everyone else of course, they were just minor blips. A cool-headed self-appraisal is the thing to aim for; that is the way to stay sane, and really improve into the bargain.

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Just invented in Spain: A Machine That Connects To Your Inner Feelings

It can measure how much you like the guitar music you listen to (and that's just for starters...)

While having a delicious coffee in a bar in Spain my attention was grabbed by an article in the El Mundo newspaper of Monday 2nd June. A Spanish company grandly calling itself Sociograph Neuromarketing (SN for short) claims to have invented a device which can reveal our innermost sensations. Two black plastic-looking rings around the index and middle fingers, wired up to a flat box, measure our attention span and emotional reactions.

Predictably, it has been put to profitable use. The newspaper reports Elena Martín, director of SN as saying "it is the key to a better understanding of our potential customers. We record the skin's electrical activity and with this technique we can register the reactions of the subconscious mind." By this means the decision was made to use British Pop rather than Latin-American Mambo music in a TV advert. Volunteers connected to the machine were registered peaking more for one than the other at the end of the ad when the product's name was declared. Thus, at a Freudian stroke of the peakometre, was the music chosen.

This machine has as yet no name
Enough jesting on my part, let me get serious about naming it. I propose calling it the Peakometre Internal Sensation Sensor (P*** for short, the asterisks are there to avoid spelling out the unfortunate initials).

Disarmingly, Javier Lopez, director of the Spanish television network and media production company Mediaset España said about P*** "we are in the process of discovering how to apply it." Allow me, Señor Lopez, to make two suggestions :

Set a minimum threshold of P*** peaks and if it is not reached don't just tweak the drivel, scrap the entire programme.

Whilst you are about it, cut out the boring bits in music. This means skipping most of the development sections in classical symphonies, and except for some high notes all of those interminable arias in Grand Opera sung by over-earnest fat sopranos pretending to die of consumption.

I suspect vast swathes of classical guitar music would fail to make the P*** grade. We would be left with a handful of potboilers, and of these just the juicy bits.

A climax is only effective with a build-up
Why, we could end up in a world made up of only extreme sensations. We would spend our time in endless states of ecstasy, our curiosity in a state of heightened alert at all times, and by the end of the day flop into bed exhausted from non-stop excitement. It would be like an endless replay of the best goals without the football in between; the first fifteen fabulous, but after that? I for one lose interest quite quickly. To make sense of the climax we need the steady-state type moments from which emerge the build-ups. Artists and musicians already know that the quality and duration of a build-up is crucial to the success of the climax, or put another way, goals need good football, they don't suddenly happen from nowhere.

So I congratulate SN and TV moguls on their mind-blowing invention. It certainly has its uses. It measures reactions, like a sort of lie detector in reverse, but please, don't get too serious about taking the P***.

Now, I've always wanted to say that.

21st June, 2014, London

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10 Rules For Becoming A Complete Guitarist (or how best to fake it)

Take an active interest in all styles of music and guitar playing, not just the one you are most drawn to.

Listen to recordings and play back your favourite bits by ear. You will drive yourself crazy working it all out, but developing this skill will be worth it.

Learn to read music fluently, so that you can play music by master composers just as they wrote it.

Dedicate time to steady technical development. Where to start? Well, Fernando Sor alone wrote more than 300 studies.

Learn chords, their inversions and variations. Set a target: to play chord sequences in all the guitar keys.

Know the structure, harmonic development and historical background of the music you are learning.

Take the mystery out of improvising. Start with simple patterns, preferably in the company of someone more experienced than yourself.

Develop a good tone. The most important key to this is to listen to yourself at all times. This is not easy, but facilitated by recording yourself.

Compose your own music. You may have a hidden talent. If not, the learning experience of trying has huge value.

Give your music a social dimension. Play informally to and with family and friends. This might develop into more formal occasions.

Dip your musical toe into each of these and you could pass as a master faker. Immerse yourself and you become a complete guitar player .You may think some of my suggestions over ambitious, and that I must be mad to expect them of you. I am, and so are you to have read this far. You can always go back to being normal any time you like.

Happy travels on your journey to becoming the complete guitarist.

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Bring Live Music To Your Work Place

You will be doing everyone a favour by significantly reducing stress levels

There is never enough time. Why is a day only 24 hours long? By the time we have arisen, freshened up, had breakfast, travelled to work, slaved for most of the day, and returned home, there are precious few minutes left over for what many of us really want to do: play music. It drives some people to despair: when oh when (they say to themselves) am I going to get a life?

Now here is the upside: imagine combining your passion for music making with going to work. I don’t mean becoming a professional musician, I mean bringing live music into the workplace; taking your guitar in and playing away at the lunch break could be just the beginning. You could create your own band of like-minded enthusiasts on diverse instruments right there! I jest not.

Consider this: according to The American Institute of Stress “numerous studies show that job stress is far and away the major source of stress for American adults and that it has escalated progressively over the past few decades”. At the same time an authoritative investigation by Dr. Barry Bittman discovered that “playing a musical instrument reverses multiple elements of the human stress response on the genomic level (Medical Science Monitor Feb. 2005).” His team included researchers from Loma Linda University School of Medicine and Applied Biosystems, the developer of the original technology that led to the successful mapping of the human genome announced in June, 2000.

There you have it: starting a music group at work could lower stress levels significantly. According to a Music at Work programme “the more we can ‘play’, have fun and revitalise, the harder and more efficiently we’ll work. Recreational music making has been scientifically proven to reduce employee stress and depression, and improve employee retention. Not only that, it encourages greater interaction, deeper relationships both with colleagues and between junior and senior staff, and creative problem solving.”

This all sounds very fine and dandy. And to think you could start off this laudable process yourself in your own workplace with a mere strum at lunchtime. Go for it!

7th June 2014, London

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It Has Been Scientifically Proven That It Is Better For You To Play A Musical Instrument Than Read A Newspaper

Here are nine more totally off-the-wall reasons of my own

In a thoroughly researched 2005 study the conclusion was “stress-reduction was far greater for individuals participating in their first group keyboard lesson than for subjects who simply relaxed and read newspapers and magazines.” Oh yeah? I could have told them that without going to all that trouble. Here are nine more totally off-the-wall reasons of my own, which I have not subjected to any kind of rigorous analysis.

Reading newspapers is a triumph of hope over experience. You start with enthusiasm and curiosity, and end up depressed and dejected by all the terrible stuff going on in the world.

Playing the guitar is a triumph of experience over hope. You know it is really hard, but by that time you have played for an hour you feel exhilarated.

Most newspapers are intensely annoying because they carry photos of totally vacuous looking pop stars and actors who have nothing in their heads except the wish to be rich and famous.

Guitar playing is full of delicious surprises. Just when you are about to give up on a difficult passage, voilà, it comes good!

News stories and headlines are variations on a limited variety of drearily predictable themes. Read one in May and read another in September and you probably can fill in the gaps by yourself.

Unlike newspapers, guitar music has more themes and variations than most of us have had hot dinners. Sor, Giuliani and Carulli wrote enough of them to fill the Tower of London. No need to lock them up though, you are welcome to carry them off and dump most of them somewhere in the middle of the English Channel.

Newspapers are covered in ink that stains your fingers just as you reach for the toast over the breakfast table. It puts you off both further munching and turning the page.

The only dirt you acquire when you play the guitar is from sliding along the strings. It leaves a straight black line on your finger tips and makes you feel really worthwhile.

American writer Mark Twain said “If you don't read the newspaper, you're uninformed. If you read the newspaper, you're mis-informed.”

I say : “If you don't play the guitar, you're undernourished. If you do play the guitar, you can never have enough.”

31st May 2014, London

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10 Simple Rules For Happy and Efficient Practice

Get yourself into a relaxed frame of mind.

Open the window. Practice in a well-ventilated space.

Start with some gentle arpeggios or chord sequences.

Don’t push yourself too hard too quickly. Keep it simple for as long as you are still warming up.

Do some sight-reading.

Do your technical work-out first. This could be five minutes or an hour according to your time schedule.

Move on to the pieces you are learning.

Divide your time between detailed practice on difficult phrases, and playing through the entire pieces/s.

Find time to revise familiar pieces so you don’t forget them.

Leave the most pleasant piece/s till last.

- Other articles you might like to read:
Learn a Piece in 60 Minutes
How to make the best of a 30 minute practise session
How to learn a piece of music in three steps
The Five Minute Warm-Up

This has been my rough guide to good practice. Hope it helps!

23rd May, 2014, London

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If a Piece is Worth Playing, it is Worth Playing Badly

To specialize in learning pieces perfectly should not discourage us from casually exploring other things, like life, the rest of music, and the meaning of the universe - to name but three

At first glance the title sounds crazy, but is it? The original quote is "if a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly" from a book by essayist, philosopher and detective story-writer G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936) - he of the Father Brown stories. The book is called “What Is Wrong with the World” and was published in 1910 (click on the title for a free download of the book). I will tell you more about this great thinker in a minute, but first I will take a journey around the quote to try to come to grips with understanding it.

In a time where there is more information available more easily than at any other period of human history, why is it many seem to have little awareness and knowledge outside their chosen area of interest? There is no easy answer to this, but a good starting point could be with the lowly onion. The coarse outer wrapping of my answer is that (to take an example) guitar players know less because they care less, but the soft tissue inside tells another story:
“I would like to know more, but I do not have time to find out because it has nothing to do directly with what I am doing.”

If time is spent in the exclusive pursuit of excellence in playing, then there is precious little left over for other activity. Fair enough. After all, if you are to become a brilliant player you must dedicate yourself single-mindedly to it. The same would be the case if you decided to become a rocket scientist, or a surgeon, or a lawyer. That is why we live in a world of specialists, a trend Chesterton noted (and lamented) even in 1910. But is that it? Is it our destiny to become ever more specialized in ever more narrow fields of complex endeavour? Are there no more layers left in our proverbial onion?

G. K. Chesterton in pensive mood

G. K. Chesterton in pensive mood

Before I answer let me return to G.K.Chesterton. He saw himself primarily as a journalist, but he was a lot more than that. He rivals Oscar Wilde in being able to spin a hilarious line, as in:
"Music with dinner is an insult both to the cook and the violinist."

He can write a moving verse, as in his poem A Second Childhood:
"When all my days are ending
And I have no song to sing,
I think that I shall not be too old
To stare at everything;
As I stared once at a nursery door
Or a tall tree and a swing.

And relevant to this article:
"There are no uninteresting things, only uninterested people."
….which brings neatly back to my questions.

We are on a merry-go-round in a world of ever-increasing specialization, and it is very hard to jump off
Apart from those vast acres of unexplored guitar music, other areas of human activity lie there waiting for our perusal; what Chesterton called the “Universality.” Personally, I would like to know more about astronomy, and about human evolution. I would like to be a carpenter and make my own book cases. I would like to drive a car across an ice field without skidding. I would like to know why Fernando Sor published a guitar piece in keyboard notation once in his life and never again. Pursuing these curiosities I feel a delicious sense of freedom, quite unlike the demands of playing a piece to perfection, for my urge is perfectly satisfied by imperfect knowledge and accomplishment. I need only name half the planets in our solar system, and none of my ancestors previous to homo sapiens. I may build a lop-sided bookcase and I may drive my car crazily across a frozen track. My imperfect grasp of them matters not, what is important is that I want to do them at all.

Here is a little verse I have written to sum it all up:
The onion has been peeled,
A thousand pieces revealed,
Carefully recomposed,
For a future supposed,
When her manifold ringed treasures,
Serve layers of sweet pleasures!

And that is the meaning of the title: success, excellence and specialization go only so far, the rest of that big wide world awaits us to explore and tinker with and try our hand at, with nothing to prove and everything to discover.

17th May 2014, London

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