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Queen Guitar Rhapsodies

Paco de Lucía (21 December 1947 - 25 February 2014)

An Appreciation From a Classical Guitarist's Point of View

Paco de Lucía (Paco de Lucía LP Philips 6328 171), 1973

Paco de Lucía (Paco de Lucía LP Philips 6328 171), 1973

I was having breakfast in my favourite bar in Madrid when the owner came over to tell me about Paco de Lucía. The TV was on in the corner and the tragic news ran in a slow-motion subtitle across the screen.

Although I never met him I felt immensely sad. I have lost a life-long companion, which is in effect what he has been to me since I have followed his playing since I was a teenager. "How does he do that?" This was always the question I asked when I heard him. And then "I think I can see how he does it, but it is still impossible!"

I hope that all the tributes to him do not overlook his insights into, and successes with the music of Falla and Rodrigo.

Paco de Lucía was born in Andalucia as was Manuel de Falla. Both drank profusely of the rich fountain of flamenco music there. Falla studied and lived in Paris and immersed himself in the contemporary music trends of Ravel, Debussy and Stravinsky. Paco de Lucía followed a different path by steeping himself in the traditions of flamenco through the guitar playing of Niño Ricardo and Sabicas. He travelled extensively through Andalucia listening to and learning from Flamenco artists.

Listen to Paco de Lucía's arrangements and recordings of the music of Manuel de Falla, and remember he learnt it by ear for he could not read music. As he said (and I paraphrase from memory, translating from the Spanish) in an early Spanish TV profile:
"I sit every day on the sofa with a guitar on my lap and if something happens, very good, if not I leave it for another day."

The rasgueados with which he decorates the beginning of the fast section of the Miller's Dance, are pure flamenco but also totally in accord with the style of Falla's music too.

And who can forget the iconic image of Joaquín Rodrigo sitting on stage next to Paco as he stormed effortlessly through the scale passages of the Concierto de Aranjuez, albeit with sweat pouring off his brow! The scene looked thoroughly stage-managed, but according to his daughter Cecilia Rodrigo the composer was only sat on the stage because of the audience ovation. Consequently, as an "encore" the slow movement was repeated, this time with both of them side by side.

Joaquín Rodrigo said that Paco de Lucía's playing of the Concerto was the interpretation of which he had dreamed. Paco himself said he concentrated on the Spanish essence through rhythmic precision, and that this was an aspect often overlooked by classical guitar players in pursuit of tone, and sacrificed because of its difficulty.

What classical guitar players can learn from this remarkable artist

Paco de Lucía's accomplishments were so many and so amazing that I pick on just a few:

- Develop a great technique based on solid rhythmic foundations. His sense of rhythm was rock solid.

- Become familiar with the "classical" tradition just as Paco did with the flamenco one. This means listening to lots of music and studying style, harmony and performance practices.

- Be not afraid of breaking the mould and being innovative. Look at what Paco de Lucia managed with Flamenco Fusion - he invented it!

- Explore other musical styles if they take your fancy. Work at them to the limit of your ability. Listen to Paco's "recreations" of Falla's music and be inspired.

- Test yourself and explore. Be demanding of yourself, as Paco was. By his own admission he pushed himself to the limits in his arrangements and compositions.

Even if you dip no more than your toe in each of these you will be enriched. What's more you will continue, in your own individual way, Paco de Lucía's legacy. And there can be no greater tribute to him than that.

1st March 2014, Southampton, England

My Wet and Windy Week in London Town

Carlos at the Royal Albert Hall in the London rain, 2010

Carlos at the Royal Albert Hall in the London rain, 2010

John Dowland’s Forlorn Hope Fantasy sums it up, but there is lots more to it than that…

This has been a week of renewing my acquaintance with a diverse set of activities and events. They have included listening and discussing musical gems with my students, the Great British Weather (GBW), and a London underground (subway) strike. Oh, the pleasures and woes of each in sequence would fill verse after verse of one of those interminable epic songs so beloved of ancient minstrels! Taken ensemble they form the disunited whole on the brink of chaos, that has characterised life in the capital this week. And all the while music itself acted as a thread weaving its way through my rich tapestry of existence, and as threads do, turning mere fabric into a warm garment with which to wrap myself and feel good.

If my slightly archaic language seems more akin to that of Tudor monarchs than of the modern House of Windsor, it is because the musical highlight of the week for me has been revisiting John Dowland’s Forlorn Hope Fantasy with one of my students. Although composed during the reign of Elizabeth 1 (she, the defeater of the Spanish Armada) this great music has a totally contemporary feel in its emotional unease and uncertainty. The piece occupies a pre-eminent position in the music for lute and guitar – more of this anon.

This week in London started on Sunday with my return from Madrid whose tapas bars and restaurants are some of my favourite haunts when I take time off. Truthfully I have to tell you that I cannot now recall whether it was not raining when I arrived. The name of the game this week has been to step out during the brief respites from lashings of rain and violent gusts of wind. One evening I meandered from one side of the pavement to the other – not, you understand, because I was drunk but because of the gale force wind. I pulled my hat down on my head as far as it would go, so far that I was scarcely able to see where I was going, and all to no avail, for whoosh, off it flew and skipped madly along the pavement coming to rest against a wall. There I was on Exhibition Road next to Imperial College feeling completely miserable as I picked up my bedraggled head-cover. At that moment a jaunty voice from a distinguished-looking gentleman said:
“You’re lucky, my hat has ended up in that basement over there, and I am waiting for the security guard to retrieve it for me. Ha, ha, ha!”
Now there is nothing on earth more likely to encourage the English to make conversation with complete strangers than pets and the GBW. If they cannot find anything to say to each other about these topics they are quite likely to meet every day of their lives at work or as neighbours and never exchange a single word or pleasantry!

Soldiering on, I pressed my hat to my side whilst trying to avoid being blown off my feet from the pavement into the oncoming traffic. My face was by now covered in rain-water, whilst thin streams of the stuff began to form a whole new landscape on my bald head. The underground entrance came into view, just another hundred yards or so and I would reach safety, except of course, the underground might not be running because the staff were on strike! Is this what John Dowland had in mind with his Forlorn Hope Fantasy, a musical tale of almost unremitting gloom from a composer who may have been a Londoner himself? Who better to reflect on the ups and downs of city living than our lute-playing hero?

It has no words, and yet the tortured melodic line speaks as eloquently as any Italian madrigal of the time

Seriously now, let me tell you what other music I have heard in my intense week of teaching: Tarrega’s Capricho Arabe, Bach’s Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring and the Allemande from his 4th cello suite, Rodrigo’s En Los Trigales and Tres Piezas Españolas, Albeniz’s Asturias, Ginastera’s Sonata, Mompou’s Suite Compostelana, and Walton’s Bagatelles. That is an impressive range, but nothing resonated more with me than Forlorn Hope, it seemed to chime in with my mood. The piece itself is a masterpiece. It is perfectly structured. The harmonic language takes unexpected dark turns through its chromatic counterpoints. It has no words, and yet the tortured melodic lines speak as eloquently and as powerfully as any of the madrigals by Claudio Monteverdi or Carlo Gesualdo, both contemporaries of Dowland. If you have not heard this work, listen to Julian Bream’s stunning rendition after you read these words!

And so I staggered on towards the end of the week. Even as I write I hear the damp tread of car tyres splashing water as they drive past my window through yet another downpour. But not all is gloom: a yellow disc appeared high up for 30 minutes or so one day this week, I think it was on Thursday about 11am. I, in the company of other fellow creatures, stopped in our tracks and stared in wonder. The sun – hello!

And what does Forlorn Hope have to say about that? Everything. The piece winds its way through melancholy and darkness with shafts of sunlight piercing its gloom once or twice, before turning an emotional corner on the home straight towards the finish. A contrapuntal sequence contrasts an obsessively melancholic melody with uplifting passage-work of great virtuosity. It seems barely credible that it can all be played on one lute. I wouldn't exactly call it a triumph of light and hope, the finale is too short for that. It is more a smile than an arm raised: in musical language a plagal finish rather than a perfect cadence. It is as if Dowland were saying only God Himself can alter my mood and lead me, if not to lasting happiness itself, at least towards brief moments of elation and acceptance.

Acceptance and brief moments of elation, ah yes, that was the name of the game this week, to cope with the various challenges in London town. Thank you John Dowland. Thank you Forlorn Hope Fantasy. Maybe there is light at the end of the tunnel after all.

8th February 2014, London

Listen here to Julian Bream play Dowland’s Forlorn Hope Fantasy

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Good Left Hand Fingering Is Not Rocket Science

It is the happy compromise between the ideal, the possible and the musical. And what’s so hard about that?

It is a curious fact that guitar music is profusely fingered no matter the difficulty. There is no distinction between beginners' pieces and state-of-the-art solos: the reader is confronted with a profusion of indications referring to strings, fingers, positions, whole barrées, half barrées, and slides (confusingly indicated in the same way as glissandi). In a world of my making I would insist on thorough fingering for simple pieces but progressively less fingering as they become more difficult, although this may seem at first glance the opposite of what you might think appropriate. My thinking goes something like this: beginners need all the help they can get, but advanced players only need a rough fingering since we must assume that they already know their way around the fingerboard.

My problem with excessive left hand fingering indications is compounded by the alarmingly uneven quality visited upon them. It matters not whether it is a Bach fugue, an Albeniz arrangement or a much easier piece, there is no trusting the fingering. Some arrangers appear to wilfully devised awkward and unmusical fingerings, although it is more likely they know no better. And yet, good left hand fingering is not rocket science. It is no more and no less than the happy compromise between the ideal, the possible and the musical. And what’s so hard about that?

So here is a pocket guide for starters. I mean it as just that – for starters. Then we can take it from there. You may think it all rather obvious, but I am witness to the fact that even the grandest arrangements and editions often fall short of these common sense suggestions:

Guide fingers
For awkward shifts and changes slide with a finger along the same string.

Sliding along the neck
This follows on from the use of guide fingers. The strongest fingers for sliding up or down a string are the 2nd and 4th fingers.

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

Whenever possible avoid holding down two notes by stretching 3rd and 4th fingers in the same position
The stretch is much easier between 2nd and 4th, and 2nd and 3rd.

Slurring is best avoided between 3rd and 4th fingers

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. Avoid if possible

This has been my introduction and rough guide to left hand fingering.

4 February 2014, London

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Easy Ways To Improve Learning Without Driving Students Mad

Carlos teaching Apache children, 16 January 2014, photo by Dave Barton

Carlos teaching Apache children, 16 January 2014, photo by Dave Barton

- My day with the Apache children surprises me and makes me think again -

Last week I wrote about my day teaching at the San Carlos Secondary School on the Apache territory in Arizona, and their presentation the very next day of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy in my concert with Brad Richter in Gold Canyon. This was a considerable achievement on their part, bearing in mind that their grasp (save for one student) of the music 24 hours prior to performance was sketchy, at best. How did they do it?

For learning purposes at any stage of development this musical theme has almost no equals. It is universal: as I sit writing these words in Mexico, nearby church bells are chiming the top of the hour to the tune of Ode to Joy. It has been taken up as the European Union's anthem. There is scarcely a more instantly recognizable affirmation of humanity than this theme, unless of course you move over to the other side and consider Bob Dylan’s Blowing in the Wind or We Shall Overcome (which became a musical back-drop to the Civil Rights movement in the 1960's led by Martin Luther King) or the Beatles’ All You Need Is Love which unlike the other two offers more than just yearning, but realization itself.

Ode to Joy contains a universal message conveyed via instrumental music and through singing, the former quietly introduces it in the final movement of the 9th Symphony to the waiting singers who then deliver it with Schiller’s words at the top of their voices. Its instrumental beginning is why it so suits learning on the guitar.

There is one more reason why it is so apt to aspirant instrumentalists (not just guitar players). The theme itself contains only six notes. Six notes! What’s more they are all in the same key set at an uncomplicated rhythm in a manageable tempo. That is why the Apache children were able to master it relatively quickly, starting almost from scratch. Crucially, they did so with scarcely any reference to written notation. They relied on finger patterns and aural recollection. When they had almost nailed it, the notes were written up on a white board for all to refer to, but I noted that not a single one so much as glanced at them or used the white board as an aid to memory.

Allow me to make a list of some of the devices the children used to learn this tune of just six notes:
Tactile memory
Aural memory (assisted by recall, assuming they already knew the tune)
Note identification by name to reinforce the location of finger, fret and string
Group playing kept the rhythmic momentum moving onwards without breakdowns

Carlos teaching children in Guanajuato, Mexico,2007

Carlos teaching children in Guanajuato, Mexico,2007

Let it flow without the complication of reading notation
I am the first to advocate sight-reading as an essential feature of guitar playing. But here is the rub: a melody of six notes across three strings is indeed a considerable feat of coordination. Why complicate it with adding yet another skill: reading at an early stage of development? There is a contradiction between technical development and reading ability, the former moves ahead much faster than the latter. An insistence on reading only slows down the development of playing the guitar itself.

So here is my conclusion from watching and helping the Apache children: at early stages of development treat playing and reading from notation as separate skills. This could lead to attaching more rather than less importance to them. Better still, they will not act as a brake on developing loose-fingered uninhibited playing. For example, why should not beginners learn to play tunes and chords way up the guitar in the higher positions? The reason why this is unusual may be because reading all those staff lines above the 7th fret has yet to be introduced, hence no playing up there. What a pity!

Dedicated sight-reading exercises from day one will give it the importance it deserves and will not hold back playing skills which can flourish without recourse to notation. The more agile students are often impatient with reading notation, so why not go with the flow, and not frustrate them or drive them mad with what appears to them an unnecessary means to learning to play? Let them roam freely across the strings and frets, and then, at the right moment create clever pauses during their upward rush which we could call “reading time”. In this way, the euphoria of playing and the quieter skill of reading could be combined without getting in each other’s way. At some indeterminate point in the future, depending on the student’s inclination or skill, they will converge.

After all, playing freely and happily is what we all should aim to do. And where better to start than in the music which is all about freedom: Ode to Joy?

My other scary face-to-face experience
By the way, I must tell you what the “the other experience” was to which I referred in last week’s post regarding meeting Apaches face to face for the first time. It took place on a nearly deserted beach in the Northern Territories of Australia at the turn of the century. It was close to dusk. I was walking along a path with tall bushes either side just next to the sand towards my hotel which was just 300 hundred yards away. In the distance I saw a person approaching, the only person in sight. As he neared, I realized he was an Aborigine. It was the first Aborigine with whom I had ever come face to face. My heart beat faster and I was scared for absolutely no rational reason!

And those two experiences have remained etched deep in my mind.

24th January, Mexico

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My Week In Arizona And My Ride Through The Apache Reservation

Carlos in the Superstition Mountains, Gold Canyon, Arizona, USA, 17th January 2014

Carlos in the Superstition Mountains, Gold Canyon, Arizona, USA, 17th January 2014

- but is there space here for Beethoven and the guitar? -

On Thursday, in Arizona, I had a strange sensation, of the kind I have only had once before in my life, and which I don’t think I am likely to experience again. We were in a large high-ceilinged gymnasium at the San Carlos Apache Reservation Secondary School awaiting the arrival of students for a lecture-recital by guitarist Brad Richter, director of Lead Guitar. I was there to help in his pioneering programme of guitar teaching in disadvantaged schools, and to play some concerts together.

The gymnasium was unnaturally quiet, the only sounds the echo of our voices tossed from one wall to the other, as we waited for the siren to sound. I felt curious and excited as the students charged in. Within a minute or two more than two hundred of them – talking loudly one to the other as teenagers do – took their seats. As they did so, my excitement was mixed with a wholly irrational fear. Here I was for the first time face to face with dark-skinned Asiatic-featured Apaches, many of them - and me in a small minority. Was this fear some primeval force lurking deep in me, inherited from generations past, and had it once upon a time served some useful survival device? The thoughts swirled around in my head as I observed them chattering contentedly with each other.

Within a short space of time they were drawn into Brad’s engaging recital and presentation, and a few minutes after its conclusion I was deep into showing a handful of them the notes to Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, a project they had started but a few days earlier. Keen and concentrated on their task for well over an hour, I was struck by their nimble fingers and relaxed approach. The question hovered unspoken: would they be ready to play in the formal evening concert Brad and I were giving the very next day? Could they deliver a passable version of that great music to a large audience without being intimidated?

I had arrived in Arizona on Thursday 9th January and immediately set about coming to grips with rehearsing the new music in our programme which included the splendid but difficult Three Duos especially composed by Brad, and my arrangement of music from Michael Nyman’s The Piano.

We each played some solos too, adding up to an original programme unique to us and no one else (even if it sounds immodest as I write these words!). We gave three concerts during the week ranged across Arizona which involved driving across some of the most beautiful landscapes I have ever seen. A cloudless sky leans down to touch the red-rocked barren mountains in the near distance, while cactus grow profusely all around, their short arms seemingly extended in greeting.

My drive through a landscape unchanged since the beginning of time

Most memorable of all was the drive through the Apache reservation: an unexpectedly large expanse of hundreds of square miles occupying an area the distance from London to Manchester. Here I was able to feast my eyes on a landscape unchanged since the beginning of time, save for the occasional dwelling and for the road on which we were travelling.

The land belongs to and is occupied by the Apaches but no agricultural landscaping nor deforestation and scarcely any building projects have occurred, revealing a profound sense of wonder and respect for the land. On various days we found the time to take a stroll through the Superstition Mountains in Gold Canyon. Some of the rocks and peaks appear to have been carved by an anonymous hand; it seems barely credible that nature alone could have developed these beautiful shapes. No wonder many of them are sacred Apache sites.

To Beethoven or not to Beethoven?

And so we came to Friday, our final day, an important concert for us and for the Gold Canyon Arts Council attended by local dignitaries. The teenage Apache guitarists arrived an hour before curtain up. They were in a jolly and confident mood although they had only been playing the guitar for a very short time, in some cases mere days. We went through the Beethoven again together. Clearly they had been meeting by themselves since the previous day to nail down the piece.

Carlos teaching Apache children, 16 January 2014, photo by Dave Barton

Carlos teaching Apache children, 16 January 2014, photo by Dave Barton

Brad, myself and the five teenagers waited in the wings while a series of introductory speeches were delivered. They included an impassioned request from Gold Canyon Arts Council Artistic Director Dr. Jack Kukuk for more financial resources to continue and develop the good work of Lead Guitar. On cue we took to the stage and launched into Ode to Joy, the theme from the final movement of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. Unperturbed, the young guitarists played with confidence, even gusto! It was a triumph for them and a moving occasion for everyone, the symbolism of the chosen music was plain to sense. After all there is no better and more appropriate music than this: Beethoven’s affirmation of the brotherhood of man, a sing-at-the-top-of-your-voice cry to join hands, for we are all in this world together. This chorus has never been surpassed.

Everyone went home happy: the Apache teenagers for their cool playing, the audience for a special occasion, Lead Guitar for raising more funds and awareness, and me for being party to an unforgettable week.

You may be wondering what was the first occasion to which I referred in the first paragraph, when I had a similarly strange sensation. It was on a nearly deserted beach in the Northern Territories of Australia at the turn of the century. But that´s another story….

19th January 2014, Mexico

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The Warm-Up

- 5 minutes could make all the difference between going on and stopping -

As a fellow plucker it is very sad when I learn that one of my fraternity has been struck down by some disabling RSI affliction like tendonitis as a result of his/her playing. And not just one, for I have known many afflicted this way.

RSI has a tendency to creep up on you when you are least expecting it. With the benefit of sufferers' experience it is possible to see how the chances of it happening to you can be considerably reduced by taking a few basic precautions.

To avoid long-term harm to your fingers, hands and arms:

Practice in a relaxed frame of mind.

Take frequent breaks, at least once every 25 minutes, and take even more frequent mini-breaks every five minutes or when your hand tires, whichever comes first.

Warm-up before launching into difficult pieces or serious playing.

A 20 minute warm-up is better than a five minute warm-up, but a five minute warm is better than nothing.

The Five Minute Warm-Up
a/ chromatic scale- slow to medium speed = 30 seconds
b/ slow to medium speed scales/s = 1 minute
c/ open string arpeggios = 1 minute
d/ chordal arpeggios = 1 minute
e/ left hand stretching exercise = 30 seconds
f/ chord sequences, improvised or written down = 1 minute

These are among the most valuable five minutes you can spend playing a musical instrument. They are precious because they could make all the difference - just ask one of those unfortunate players with RSI.

At the same time enjoy the time, for like all your practice it is a journey of discovery and improvement. Enjoyment is a sure way of feeling more relaxed, and those two together will go a long way to set you on the right productive path.

This has been my rough guide to the benefits of a five minute warm-up.

11th January, 2014, Arizona, USA

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What You Need To Do To Learn A Piece Of Music In Three Steps

The three headings I have used in a previous article for how to learn a piece of music in three steps are:

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

If you think these headings sound like quite a task, then maybe you should consider their individual component parts. Here are the main ones:

Good sight-reading speeds up the learning process.

The process of memorising helps reduce errors because the repetition involved helps focus the mind.

“The 5 time test”:
Repeat phrases five times in a row without a mistake, before moving on to the next phrase.

Keep going in slow time without hesitations ::
Avoid the “stutter” mode of playing. Playing slowly helps eliminate this unfortunate tendency.

Phrasing and dynamics:
Phrasing and dynamics mirror the rhythms and inflections of speech, with its pauses and changes.

Figure out the harmonies:
A familiarity with chords and chord shapes helps create a better understanding of the music, and helps the memory too.

Build this up in stages, starting with short periods of 5 minutes to a maximum of 25 minutes, before taking a break. Relentless playing without breaks is bad and even damaging in every way.

Make a start on these and soon you will be able to approach the three steps of learning a piece of music with greater confidence. All the links here take you to previous articles where I have written about particular aspects which will prepare you for the three steps, including a more detailed discussion of the first step and the second step.

This has been my rough guide to how you need to prepare yourself for learning a piece of music in three steps. Good luck!

4th January 2014, London

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My Favourite Pictures of 2013

Here is a selection of my favourite moments of 2013. Hope you like them.

- Happy New Year! -


13th February, Uruguay: round the corner from Montevideo’s Metropolitan Cathedral where Agustín Barrios may have been inspired to compose his piece La Catedral -

A small cathedral in the heart of the city approached through a classic Latin American garden square

A small cathedral in the heart of the city approached through a classic Latin American garden square


13th March: at BBC Radio London posing after an interview for the Saturday Breakfast Show. From left to right: presenter Simon Lederman, yours truly, pianist Peter Cowdrey and presenter Joanne Good -

BBC Radio London with pianist Peter Cowdrey and presenters 13th March

BBC Radio London with pianist Peter Cowdrey and presenters 13th March


26th March: the beautiful Manoel Theatre, Valleta, Malta, one hour before the start of my performance -

Am exquisite theatre in the style of Milan's Scala Theatre

Am exquisite theatre in the style of Milan's Scala Theatre


13th May: arriving for a recital at the Hotel Alfonso X111, Seville, Spain -

The hotel has been recently restored to its former glory

The hotel has been recently restored to its former glory


27th July: with composer Michael Nyman in Mexico City discussing my arrangements for solo guitar of his music -

With Michael Nyman in Mexico City, 27th July

With Michael Nyman in Mexico City, 27th July


10th August: Switzerland - perhaps the most beautiful country in Europe? -

Overlooking Lake Geneva, Switzerland, 10th August

Overlooking Lake Geneva, Switzerland, 10th August


31st August: return to Lammas, Norfolk, for a benefit concert at the village church and look who I find 5 years on....

Carlos reunited with Dark Horse in Lammas

Carlos reunited with Dark Horse in Lammas


8th September: caught in the middle of a Saint's Day procession in Malaga, Spain -

Malaga, procession for local patron saint - Santa Maria de la Victoria

Malaga, procession for local patron saint Santa Maria de la Victoria


16th October: in my secret location getting away from it all. Totally idyllic -

View from the window of my secret hide-away location, October

View from the window of my secret hide-away location, October


16th November: back in Old Blighty and where better than this lovely church in Widdington, Essex -

Widdington, Essex, UK, November 16th photo by  Annie Heslop

Widdington, Essex, UK, November 16th -photo by Annie Heslop


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Learn a Piece in 60 Minutes

Carlos interviewed on Radio Nuevo Leon Monterrey, Mexico, 2009

Carlos interviewed on Radio Nuevo Leon Monterrey, Mexico, 2009

A fast-track approach that works, and what you can learn from Parkinson’s law

Yes, it can be done! Take a piece which you know is comfortably within your ability. By that I mean that you can sight-read it first time through, hesitantly maybe, but you know it is definitely just within your reach. Now put a clock in front of you so it is always in view. Give yourself 60 minutes to learn to play it fluently, mistake-free and musically. This is not likely for most on present practice procedures but I think it is possible. Before I give you an outline of how, let me describe the conventional approach to practice, not that I am suggesting for one moment it has anything to do with you.

Normally the player is tempted to regard learning this not-too-difficult piece as a three day job. The first day would consist of read-throughs to get acquainted with the difficulties. This often turns gradually into a sort of mad-cow version of A to Z playing. A to Z playing is all about starting at the beginning and staggering through to the end, then starting again at the beginning and staggering through it all over again. The mad cow comes into it because the bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) disease contains a symptom alarmingly similar to A to Z playing – you go round in circles. In the sad case of the cow it is fatal, in the fatal case of the guitar player it is just sad.

So we come to the second day. This involves more mad cow activity only this time the player stops even more frequently to correct mistakes – that is, played correctly just the once, and then he/she moves on. This is mad cow turned into dance: round and round with one step back for every three steps forward.

So we come to the third day where mad cow and constant hesitations are now exquisitely choreographed into a predictable sequence of stops and starts like an over-the-top tango but without the grace and titillation, more like cars in a traffic jam with finger squeaks in place of grinding brakes, and here is the worse part: with no flow or dynamics or expression.

Some of the best advice I can offer you for avoiding all this and squeezing your learning into 60 minutes comes not from learned teachers writing about music, but from a man who got bored with the prospect of being a history professor for the rest of his life. Instead he decided to become a writer of naval history. And when he tired of that he began writing about the inefficiencies of Government departments. His sharp wit and ability to think out of the box offer something even to unrelated skills like music-making. One day in 1955 Cyril Northcote Parkinson wrote an amusing little article which he presented to the Economist magazine. It caused such an impression that three years later in 1958 he expanded it into a book called Parkinson’s Law: The Pursuit of Progress.

In a nutshell Parkinson’s law states:

"Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”.

An appendix to this brilliant quote is actually more unsettling to the mad cow guitarist time-traveller with no clear finite end in sight. This is what he wrote:

“The thing to be done swells in importance and complexity in a direct ratio with the time to be spent”.

And just in case his readers didn’t get it here is the coup de grâce:

“Delay is the deadliest form of denial.”

With those three insights the A to Z guitarist has all he needs to improve his ways and be able to learn a brief piece in 60 minutes flat. Bear them in mind when reading the following:

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

Those were the headings for a previous article I wrote called How to learn a piece of music in 3 steps.

"Allow time to improve" can mean 15 minutes or 15 hours, depending, naturally, on the difficulty.

So why not do as the pianist Arthur Rubinstein did for a bet? He was locked into a room for a few hours whence he emerged having learnt and memorised a piece of music of some considerable duration. Within the compass of your experience and ability you can do the same. In fact we could create a whole new long-worded law which goes something like this:

3 steps of learning + Parkinson’s law + a 60 minute bet = An adrenalin-charged, sweat-soaked performance from scratch, with flow, verve and expression


21st December 2013, London

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The Virtuous Guitarist Is One for All Seasons Not Just For Christmas

- vir·tu·ous (vûrch-s) = having or showing virtue -

Imagine yourself sitting around the log-fire on Christmas day with the extended family around you. Some of them, maybe the older ones, are half reclined in slumbering mode, the very young ones are charging around full of energy. Aunt Mavis over there is wide awake and chattering away. She loves music and singing, and has always been really keen on your guitar-playing. Suddenly she looks up at you, eye-brows raised in anticipation and says “why don’t you take out your guitar so we can sing a few Christmas carols and songs?” You think to yourself, I can’t do that. I don’t know the chords. I think I have a book of Christmas carols arranged for guitar somewhere but my reading is not up to speed. For a brief moment you are really upset with yourself. But actually there is a way forward.

Let me take you back to the title at the top of the page. You may be forgiven for reading at first glance the word “virtuoso” rather than virtuous - that is why I have spelt it out for you as it appears in the free dictionary.

Virtuoso, on the other hand, is defined as “a musician with masterly ability, technique, or personal style”. Clearly there is a strong connection between the two, The differences lie in the “masterly ability” of the virtuoso and in the “moral excellence” of the virtuous. “Moral” is a dangerous old word, so let me substitute it with a few less loaded and more appropriate descriptions of the “virtuous” guitarist. Allow me to keep the word excellence. You could become an excellent all-round musician without reaching the dazzling heights as a player designated by the description “virtuoso” There are other skills you could develop.

How about these?

1. arranging
2. composing
3. improving your sight-reading
4. improving your knowledge of harmony and chords
5. playing chamber music
6. improvising

All these descriptions could be proudly included in your range of skills, and not necessarily all of them. Any three would be enough to get on with. Virtuosity could become the target at the end of the rainbow, even over the rainbow (I think the lyrics of that song are as good as the tune itself – but that’s another story). It could give you the impetus, that burning desire to continue your practice and your dream. At the same time you could slowly and steadily build up all the other skills, the virtuous skills, which are more easily within your reach. As you do so, your technique will develop in leaps and bounds because you will be less anxious about it, having set a more realistic target. By these means, you will be closer to becoming a virtuoso than you once imagined.

So why not make a start now on becoming a virtuous guitarist, even turn it into your New Year’s resolution? The first one to be pleased and impressed would be Aunt Mavis, who come next year, will congratulate you on your progress as you confidently strum a few telling accompaniments, improvise connecting links, change key to suit her singing voice, and play a solo or two on request. “Your playing has really come on this year” she will say. “Have you been taking lessons?”

Your reply could be yes, and you might add “I decided to become a virtuous guitarist, too.” And not just at Christmas time.

15th December 2013, London

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