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Queen Guitar Rhapsodies

November 1963: The Month That Changed The Guitar, And The World, Forever

In a TV interview in the late 1960's Humphrey Burton asked composer Benjamin Britten a question out of the blue. So far the conversation had been about Britten and his music. Softly spoken and understated in his answers, Britten revealed himself a quietly thoughtful artist of firm opinions. As if to spice things up a bit the interviewer bowled him a spinning top of a question:
"What do you think of the Beatles?" There you are; Ben, catch that one if you can. And he did. Without the slightest hesitation he replied:
"They are a fresh voice", and as he said so he relaxed and smiled.

On the 11th November 1963 Britten signed and dated the manuscript of his latest composition: the Nocturnal after John Dowland op. 70. It would be his only solo piece. Julian Bream premiered and recorded it the following year. But from the moment that Britten finished the music the world of guitar music changed, although we didn't know it at the time.

By November the Beatles had enjoyed their first number one hits: From me to you and She loves you. They were on a roll, and not just a roll, but the roll of all time. They were looking forward to their first gigs in the North of England later that month, and to the release of their album With The Beatles already enjoying massive pre-release sales.

In the United States the first news about the Beatles phenomenon was filtering into the press, while President John Kennedy was starting out on his re-election campaign for 1964, touring through key areas of the country. Dallas, Texas, was on the agenda.

11 days after the completion of the Nocturnal Britten arose to celebrate his 50th birthday, as did much of the UK. His immensely popular music from Gloriana was programmed as a celebratory event at the Royal Albert Hall. BBC TV had scheduled a special programme about him including the first mention of his life with singer Peter Pears.

On that same day 22nd November the LP With The Beatles was scheduled for release, while the Beatles themselves were making an appearance in Teeside at Stockton´s The Globe Theatre. Although we did't realise it at the time the Beatles were changing pop music for ever.

President Kennedy arrived in Dallas that morning ready to drive in an open car through the streets in the early afternoon (early evening in the UK). Meanwhile in Franco's Spain, composer Joaquín Rodrigo, was also feeling like a celebration. 22nd November, St Cecilia´s day, was his birthday too. And what better day for composers than St. Cecilia´s day, the patron saint of music?

The Beatles presented two shows, the first at 6.15 and the second at 8.30. At some time between the two shows news came through that President Kennedy had been shot. Within thirty minutes came the dreaded confirmation: he was dead. At the Royal Albert Hall, the performance of Britten's Gloriana was halted. No one could have been more disturbed than Britten himself by the news of the assassination of the youngest President in the history of the USA. His humanitarian and pacifist concerns were well-known. His previous work the Cantata Misericordium op.69, composed for the centennial of the International Red Cross had been first performed in Geneva on the 1st of September and was based on the parable of the Good Samaritan. And his previous work to that had been the War Requiem, premiered in 1962. During the 2nd World War he had been a conscientious objector.

Meanwhile fans from the first Beatles concert were streaming out of the hall to hear of the news. As young as they were, many of them went home in tears, the news completely overshadowing the elation of the concert. I was 14 years old at the time, and I knew straight away that something had changed forever.

By July the music of the Nocturnal came to life in a never-to-be-surpassed series of performances and an RCA recording by Julian Bream. The majesty of the music, and the dramatic climax as the music resolves into a serene major chord before the Dowland song provided an artistic high point for the guitar and earned it a new respect.

Up to that day, 1963 had been a good year for me. I discovered there was a world of music beyond the 'classical'. I listened to rhythm and blues, to Indian ragas, to old time blues-artists with haunting voices sounding as if they came straight from the cotton-pickin´ fields of the deep South (and some of them did), and to the Beatles.

Maybe the November 1963 timings of apparently unrelated events are pure coincidence. There certainly was no co-ordinated plan to release the Beatles album on the day of Britten's 50th birthday while the President's assassin took up his position, nor that the Nocturnal would be finished 11 days previously. But historical changes can emerge from pure coincidences and combine eventually into one bigger picture. Those changes can be a long time in coming as unrelated events. Or maybe historical changes can be like waiting for a bus that never arrives, and then what do you know, three come along at the same time. Deep down you know they didn't arrive together by chance; events further down the line of which we are not aware at the time made them happen. And so too with events on a larger canvas. 1963 was a time of change, and no month symbolised it more for us, particularly guitar players, as November.

In the present age important changes will come in music and politics when we least expect them, as happened fifty years ago. As then, at first we may not recognise their importance, and some of us will hate them.

This is what President Kennedy said:

"Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future."

Best to be ready then, for sooner or later the future will emerge to grab us by the hand, while we are waiting at the bus-stop looking the other way.

2nd December 2013, Cádiz, Spain

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The Cinderella of Guitar Technique

Make way for the fat one, and welcome it back into the fold of the finger family

Millions of words have been written about guitar technique in great detail: left hand, right hand, how to sit, whether to use footstools or not, rest stroke, free stroke, scales, arpeggios….the list goes on and on except for one thing. Of this one thing I think I can claim to be a champion. I am referring to that digital underdog, that workhorse of a finger, fat and stronger than the rest and consequently taken for granted. Have you got it yet?

There it is underpinning all that we play, without it there would be an emptiness, a stillness, a thinness of sound, that would make listening tedious, and musical textures barren. Now do you know to what I am referring?

It is the right hand thumb of course. It hangs from the hand like its brothers and sisters, but yet detached from them. Loud and ever present it is more likely to be told to keep quiet rather than speak up. Like some obese and unsociable member of the family its presence is inevitable, but its company best appreciated when quiet and discrete. When it leans down into the next string with some loving apoyando stroke it is more often than not told to go away and not to do that again. When it takes up all the strings in one clutch of an embrace some people wince at the exaggerated display. One clutch of an embrace….more commonly called a strum.

Yet strumming the guitar is the first instinct of the novice still in the first raptures of love with the instrument. Strumming is what is most associated with the sound of the guitar. Strumming is how Joaquín Rodrigo introduces the most famous theme composed in the history of guitar music in the slow movement of the Concierto de Aranjuez. Strumming is how we hear the individual notes of chords at their clearest. Strumming is also the easiest way to get to make a good sound. Strumming is the best way to get a big sound on the guitar. You can strum with the nail of the thumb and if you don’t have a nail, well no matter, it sounds just as good. Actually no, it sounds even better. Have you tried strumming purely with the flesh of the thumb with no hint of nail? Try it by turning the thumb to a strange angle.

So why is it that so few teaching manuals dedicate a whole chapter or more to the virtues of the thumb? Why is it that there is scarcely a beginner’s piece for classical guitar which makes any extensive use of the thumb strum? I can only speculate that the thumb is the ugly duckling of the finger family. To get lift-off with the thumb you need to strum by holding down a succession of chords. This is considered by some too difficult at developing stages. What rubbish! Ask any electric or folk guitarist what they think and they will look astonished and rightly so. At a higher level, strumming chords is considered by some a romantic excess, and frowned upon, no matter that this is a classic way to play the guitar advocated by countless manuals up to the 20th century. No wonder the thumb dangles there shy and unsure of what to do next.

So let us welcome back the thumb into the fold of the finger family with open arms, so to speak, and treat it with the deference and respect that its true versatility and importance merits.

24th November, London

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King John, The Crown Jewels, and my concerts in the south of England

Carlos at Grantham rail station 15 November 2013

Carlos at Grantham rail station 15 November 2013

A week of music and history fill my mind with memory's mysterious moods

I have spent the last week immersed in practice and preparation for two concerts I dispatched on Friday and Saturday. Both were here in the south of England from where I am writing these words, in locations steeped in history. Now there is nothing that sends me into more raptures than playing in small English country towns and villages, where I can feel the long shadow of history cast its silent but embracing spell upon me before and during my performances.

First stop was Sleaford in Lincolnshire where I have had the pleasure of playing for the vibrant music club on various occasions over the years. The concert took place in the Town Hall building. A Council Chamber acted as my dressing room, where I spent some considerable time looking at the wall-mounted photos of past councilors. One face particularly caught my attention: a gentleman with enormous bushy grey side-burns, a splendid example of Victorian facial hair extravaganza. Except he wasn't Victorian, but of the latter part of the 20th century!

Sleaford is mentioned in the 1086 Domesday book. It was already in existence before that. It is a short distance from two interesting towns: Lincoln, with its magnificent cathedral and Grantham.

Grantham is the rail station where I arrived from London, a mere hour out of town but another world. Grantham, whose greatest claim to fame in my book is that it is the birthplace of the late prime minister Margaret Thatcher. The greengrocer’s shop in the high street where she grew up has long gone, but a discrete plaque commemorates her presence. We mustn't forget Isaac Newton either, for he went to school here. And so on by car to Sleaford, a small town which was once witness to the closing chapter in one of England’s most dramatic political events. King John - he of the Magna Carta – sealed his fate and the destiny of England by reneging on various agreements with the Barons. In a desperate flight to save his skin he arrived in Sleaford in 1216 the day after losing most of his worldly goods including the Crown Jewels, which he saw sink to the bottom of the marshes. Days later he was dead.

Now I cannot claim that thoughts of the Crown Jewels spinning slowly to the bottom of a bog had any influence, positive or otherwise on my performance, but certainly they filled me with a sense of wonder and awe, and that is not a bad state of mind in which to start a concert!

Carlos taking applause for his concert at the church of St Mary the Virgin, Widdington, 16th November 2013, photo by Annie Heslop

Carlos in concert at the church of St Mary the Virgin, Widdington, 16th November 2013, photo by Annie Heslop

The next day Saturday I found myself in Widdington, Essex, a mere trifle of a distance (at least by non-British standards) from London. Widdington is a small village with a list as long as your arm of listed historical buildings. It too is named in the Domesday book. I played in the church of St Mary the Virgin where the vestry acted as my dressing room, and once again rather like in Sleaford wall-mounted photos filled my mind with images. Here was a picture of the church in the 1850's and another one from the 1890's. The church is simple and beautiful, seating no more than 120 or so. It was packed to the rafters. Afterwards I met a rich pageantry of local residents and supporters who had come to this benefit concert in aid of the church itself.

Neither Sleaford nor Widdington live in the past, in spite of the history they harbour under every paving stone. They are proud thriving communities firmly rooted in the present. A significant number of their population dedicate many hours of precious free time to worthwhile causes in aid of the community. These include the organisation of concert events for the local music societies, and the raising of funds to maintain their historical heritage. To see and hear and feel their strength is really quite moving, and one of the proudest things to which I can contribute, in my own small way, as a musician.

17th November, 2013, London

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There is More to Music than the X Factor

 

Education in schools is being undermined by sensationalist TV programmes

I return to my favourite hobby horse: the persistent under-valuing of musical education in primary and secondary schools. Earnest explanations of official goodwill towards its provision are plentiful, after all who would want to speak up against it? But there are under currents and unspoken reasons conspiring against. They go something like this: music is not a serious subject like Maths or Science, or even Literature. It is a pleasant past time and a fun diversion but not very practical as a career path, since so very few will succeed and become good enough to earn a living with it. And those who are good will succeed anyway with or without help at school because music is a gift, isn’t it? Either you’ve got it, or you haven’t.

TV has confirmed these ill-founded beliefs by creating those silly programmes with willing judges who should know better. According to these programmes, musicians arise fully formed from nowhere, their talent lying dormant, ignored and unappreciated for years until - yes, you've guessed it - they are “discovered”. Rough diamonds they may be, but what do you expect, they were picking at the coal-face till last week, just give them a couple of more weeks with top coaches (the judges themselves, who else!) and they will be complete magic.

The point is, according to the X-Factor-type programmes, success in music is all about getting "a break." I mean, on Friday Joe Lucky was collecting his wages, on Saturday he won the TV show and by Monday he was on the start of a 50 gig tour. Where does school come into it? Nowhere. It had nothing to do with Joe Lucky's lucky break. For you see, music, you can't teach it: like I've said, either you’ve got it or you ain’t.

The perverse logic of all this is, is that if talented musicians prosper without formal education, then musical education at school is mostly for the mediocre and for the music-as-a-hobby-minded. And what's the point of that?

If someone at school does show exceptional talent in music they may receive special help, especially if they can become a sort of mascot for the school. Otherwise the average music student should pay for their lessons, for music is just an activity on the fringes of education which has little relevance to the main aspects of their development.

But report after report has been published in the past 20 years or so cataloguing the benefits of musical education, much of it way beyond music itself. They have cited how many other skills are enhanced by it, due to the effect of music upon our emotional and intellectual well being.

Yet another report has just been published extolling the virtues of musical education, this time for its effects upon long-term health. According to the North-Western University of Illinois learning a musical instrument as a child could help to prevent deafness in old age since it appears that musical training has an enduring effect on how the brain processes sound. Training as a child for as little as four years can protect against the mental decline associated with deafness in old age, and not just the deterioration in the ear's sensitivity.

Overwhelming evidence in support of how making music in groups leads to socially responsible relationships has been demonstrated time and again. In Venezuela, Dr. Abreu’s Sistema has created a network of more than 200 orchestras throughout the country. Some of the recruits have been drawn from disenfranchised children on the fringes of criminal activity, who as a pre-condition for commencing musical training promise to give up anti-social behaviour. Others come from solid middle-class homes. Together they join the educational programme and make music. The Sistema is now gradually being introduced in the UK.

Musical education is hugely beneficial and impacts directly on children’s development. They may not all grow up to strut their stuff on silly TV programmers, nor become the next Nigel Kennedy, but the benefits to them and those around them are tremendous.

The idea of education is to create cultured, well-rounded young adults by the end of the long process from infant to the end of secondary school. In part it is to create skills for the work place, and in part to sharpen intelligence, decision making, rational thinking and all the mental and emotional processes we associate with maturity. Music fits fair and square into the centre of this, in ways which have been highlighted by many enquiries. The sooner absurd notions derived from sensationalist TV entertainment programmes are discarded the better it will be for the education of our children.

9th November 2013, London

For a complete index to my blogs click here


Poll Results for The 20 Guitar Pieces You Must Hear Before You Die

Latin-American composers have the widest support but three European pieces hit the top spot

INTRODUCTION
For the past month I have been receiving nominations from distinguished soloists, professional players and teachers, and from guitar-lovers in response to my request on Facebook, Twitter and on this page to help choose the 20 guitar pieces you must hear before you die, based on solo works and concertos, but not arrangements. Each considered the question in his and her own way: some from the heart and some from the head, and others from both. I hope it has helped to focus our minds on the important and the essential, on the enjoyable and the invaluable. Even better, it may give us food for thought, and offer a platform from which to develop what binds us all together, our love for the guitar and its music.

THE FACTS
394

nominations

100+
composers represented

15
pieces by Agustín Barrios were nominated

8
of the 16 composers in the top 20 had little or no prior knowledge of the guitar

2
living composers in the top 20

0%
of the pieces in the top 20 were composed before 1800

80%
of the pieces in the top 20 were composed in the 20th century

100%
of guitar works composed by Villa-Lobos were nominated

20 GUITAR PIECES YOU MUST HEAR BEFORE YOU DIE - POLL RESULTS

1 Britten: Nocturnal
=2 Rodrigo: Concierto de Aranjuez for guitar and orchestra
=2 Tarrega: Recuerdos de la Alhambra
4 Barrios: La Catedral
5 Falla: Homenaje a Debussy
=6 Sor: Introduction, theme and variations on a theme by Mozart Op. 9
=6 Rodrigo: Invocación y Danza
=8 Ginastera: Sonata
=8 Giuliani: Concerto in A Op 30 for guitar and orchestra
=8 Lauro: Venezuelan waltz “Natalia”
=8 Tarrega: Capricho Arabe
=8 Villa-Lobos: Prelude no 1
=8 Walton: Bagatelles
=14 Barrios: Vals op 8 no 4
=14 Barrios: Un sueño en la floresta
=14 Barrios: Una limosna por el amor de Dios
=14 Carter: Changes
=14 Berio: Sequenza XI
=14 Brouwer: Sonata
=14 Castelnuovo-Tedesco: Sonata Ommagio à Boccherini
=14 Koshkin: Usher Waltz

Runners up:
José: Sonata
Myers: Cavatina
Ponce: Sonata Romantica
Regondi: Reverie
Yocoh: Theme and variations on Sakura

CONCLUSION
Three quintessentially European pieces win top marks, but the composers with the widest base of support are the Paraguayan Agustín Barrios with nominations for no less than 15 different pieces, 4 of which reached the top 20, and Brazilian Heitor Villa-Lobos whose entire oeuvre for guitar has been put forward. However, neither of these composers delivered the killer punch to claim top spots for individual pieces: these go to Britten’s Nocturnal inspired by English lutenist John Dowland’s song Come Heavy Sleep, Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez inspired by the Royal gardens near Madrid, and Tárrega´s Recuerdos de la Alhambra inspired by Spain’s Moorish legacy, thus each referring to musical and historical chapters of bygone ages - in Europe.

The composers represented in the top 20 are polarised between those who were excellent players themselves, and the other half who came to write for the guitar with little or no prior knowledge. Of the latter, most were ably assisted and advised by renowned players including Casteluovo-Tedesco and Ponce by Andrés Segovia, Britten by Julian Bream, Ginastera by Carlos Barbosa-Lima, Elliot Carter by David Starobin, and Berio by Elliot Fisk. The results here confirm what many, including myself, have believed for a long time: that it is not essential for composers to play the instrument to be able to compose for it. What more proof do we need other than that two of the three top spots have been taken by such composers?

It is a remarkable fact that half of the pieces in the top 20 have been composed by 20th century composers who could not play – maybe the single most important development to have added significantly to the quality of the repertoire and finally begun to put to rest Britten’s assertion that the guitar is an instrument without a repertoire.

Whether these results would be repeated in a wider survey is hard to tell. There are some conspicuous absences here and the balance maybe would tilt to the more popular. On the other hand, the top three spots occupied by three emblematic pieces is as far as I am concerned entirely to my own taste and satisfaction!

1st November 2013
To read my article “Echoes of Barrios” click here

To read my article “Benjamin Britten - the greatest non-playing guitar composer of all time?” click here

To read my article “Adventures and misadventures with the Aranjuez Concerto” click here

For a complete index to my blogs click here


Trapped in Tijuana

 

Fog changes everything and fills my mind with fancy

There I was ruminating in bed, as is my tendency in the wee hours of the morning, debating with myself as to whether I should get up. Actually, less debating, more cataloguing all the things I needed to do on this, my departure day. My plane is due to fly at lunchtime. I need to leave the hotel at 9.30am. It was 6am and I hadn't packed, nor even risen, shaved or breakfasted. Come on, old boy, get up, I said to myself.

Just as I slowly eased one leg out of bed, my phone blinked silently as a message came through. I peered at the screen in my darkened room. All flights out of Tijuana today have been cancelled due to fog - not just in the morning but for the entire day. There is no alternative, I have been re-booked on the afternoon flight of the next day, that is, tomorrow Monday (as you can see I am writing in real time).

Now there is nothing more likely to alter my state of mind than an enforced idleness due to circumstances quite beyond my control. I am overcome by a delicious feeling of opportunity as opposed to the irritation and frustration which can all too easily become our prevalent mood in such moments.

Just think, a whole day in which to do anything I fancy, entirely at my whim and completely off the cuff. I could engage in any manner of activities which are either intellectually rewarding or purely pleasurable, or neither. My only predicament is the sheer choice at my disposal.

The beauty is that this is a gift wrapped in time-piece paper: a whole day, 24 hours of it, all 1440 minutes of them, waiting to be stroked till they purr like kittens, or if it takes my fancy to be abused as I partake of a giant pop corn container while watching mindless movies on my giant plasma screen.

On the other hand I have my guitar slumbering in its case quite unawares of what's happening, beckoning at me not to be neglected. Now would I dream of such a thing? I will, in due course, caress its strings, maybe talk to it softly, and then put it through its paces. Oh yes, I have just remembered there is still that piece I need to learn, and also an arrangement I haven't finished. Last night I gave a jolly good concert, even if I say so myself, but there were a couple of glitches I need attending to, so I should find time for them too.

Talking about last night, I gave the closing concert at the 20th Festival HispanoAmericano de Guitarra
and I hope a good time was had by all

This is a festival which I much admire. Under its imaginative director and guitarist Roberto Limón it has encouraged and presented much new music for the guitar, both solo and in chamber music, a lot of it played by Roberto himself. What's more the Festival presents young talent. This year 15 year old Mexican guitar player
Sergio Bucheli, studying at the Menuhin School in England, played a demanding lunchtime programme with aplomb, displaying an expressive artistic temperament well beyond his years. There were some interesting pieces in his programme which I must look up, maybe I could do that today too?

How else to occupy this day? Well, a couple of hours are speeding by as I write this very blog for your reading pleasure and my entertainment. Then there is that book I am reading. Have I mentioned it so far? No of course I haven't. It is called Remember, Remember (The Fifth Of November) - The History of Britain in Bite-size Chunks. If you are like me, and get your Tudors and Plantagenets all mixed up, this is the perfect book for you. Today I will nail them (the kings), once and for all, so as to converse with confidence about all the Henrys and Richards of our remote history.

That leads me to the pure pleasure part of the day - eating Mexican tacos and pollo al mole, which is chicken in hot chocolate sauce, and is totally scrumptious.

All this is due thanks to the fog and cancelled flight. I am so grateful to the elements for affording me this extra day in my life, and to the airline for its wisdom in cancelling a dodgy take-off. All I achieve today is a bonus, all I enjoy enhanced by its randomness.

Maybe I should feel like this about every day? I will give that some thought too as to how to achieve that. So that's another thing I will be doing later on, maybe after the tacos, to add to all the others - I better go now and get started. Bye.

27th October 2013, Tijuana, Mexico

For a complete index to my blogs click here


Silence, Please, I Can't Hear Myself Play

The true voice of the guitar is lost in the strident sounds of the city

An amazing landmark was reached by the human race during the first decade of this century: more than half the world's population now live in cities rather than in the countryside.

Allow the thought to swil around in your mind's imagination: billions of people living and commuting shoulder to shoulder in evermore confined spaces, sharing their precious spare time in the same overcrowded bars, restaurants, discos, exhibition and performance venues, their profusion providing both a reason for and an escape from the stressed and frenetic lifestyles of over-worked (and more often than not underpaid) metropolitan dwellers. The chances are that you are one of them.

I need not continue to elaborate the negative aspects since you will be only too familiar with them (as too of the undoubted benefits of city living). But let me ask you this: how high up your list of annoyances is noise? Have you noticed it is impossible to conduct a conversation on an average high street at normal pitch? When was the last time you entered a bar or restaurant with no background music? How often do the ear-splitting sirens of emergency vehicle stop you in your tracks and disturb the relative quiet of night?

City noises - foreground and background - destroy the lightness of silence. Such is their constancy that we have become unawares, or at least, undisturbed, by them. For many it goes further, the attraction of city life is the reassuring hum and din of human proximity. Remove it and many are left floundering in the unbearable lightness of silence.

Where does all this leave the music lover and the guitar player? The guitar is an instrument almost as quiet as the quietest save the clavichord and a very few others. its lingering resonance summons angel-like harmonics from deep inside its cavity. The loudest strums are more discrete than orchestral instruments lightly brushed or blown.

The sound of the guitar is best savoured to a background of total silence, save perhaps for the breeze stirring the leaves (as Joaquín Rodrigo liked to compare the sound itself) or as Federico García Lorca wrote:

The cry of the guitar begins,
The cups of dawn are breaking,
It is useless to stop her, it is impossible to stop her.

Lorca was prescient for maybe the near silence of dawn may now be the only time when the majority urban dwellers of the world can come close to hearing the full sound world of the guitar. And if you doubt the power of silence do as I have done these past few days. I have spent it in an ancient stately home far from the city. Every nook and cranny was stuffed full of, even dripping with history and...silence.

In the magnificent quiet every note rang true and long, my every musical thought arose blessed and anointed, every sound lingered and caressed the walls and trees and plants and returned enriched to my ears.

City living comes at a heavy price when we lose such elementary pleasures as the silence enjoyed by our forefathers. As a "classical" guitarist I seek a classical silence where to nobly strum and soothe my savage (and urban-savaged) breast.

And no, the stately home where I rediscovered silence is not mine! It was built during the life time of Henry V111 and is in a far country. I won't tell you where it is, otherwise you might seek it out, and your friends too, and their friends with their cars and motorbikes and mobile phones - and with their arrival silence would have bolted, yet again. And with it, me too.

20th October 2013, London

For a complete index to my blogs click here


My Week In London

Never mind the weather, the music has been enough to warm my cockles

It all started so well with the Gulf stream on its best behaviour. We were blessed with warm air and most pleasant temperatures until early in the evening. What’s more the sun was in a jolly mood and illuminated the busy comings and goings and bustle of city life for much of the day, and at least as far as I was concerned, put a smile on my face. Then it all changed on Thursday, wet winter making its unwelcome appearance. I hate winter. It does nothing for me whatsoever, although I am told it is good for the rotation of crops and suchlike natural phenomena. But rain, wet winds, and dropping temperatures are just not my cup of tea (not that I drink much of that!) and I have never got used to them, even though I was born and bred in this great country. Right, glad I got all that off my chest!

Then it got better again thanks to music. Music transports me onto another planet away from the mundane, the temporal. For the second time in 8 days I heard a performance of Stephen Dodgson’s In the Midst of Life. The first occasion had been at the hands of John Williams during the concert dedicated to the music and memory of Stephen Dodgson held at St James Piccadilly on Thursday 3rd October. This was a most moving occasion and gave the audience insights into the varied and complex musical personality of a wonderful man and composer. On the second occasion I heard it played by Cassandra Matthews in a class at the Royal College of Music in her own very personal rendition. This is a great piece, enough to lift the spirits on a cold day of even a grumpy old so-and-so like me! The work is half descriptive and half meditative; descriptive of the very same cosmopolitan hustle and bustle which energises me when the sun is out, and meditative in those poignant still moments which thread their way through the work. If you do not know this piece listen to it as soon as you can.

Carlos with Michael Nyman 26 July, 2013

On the same day Friday I lingered after the class to meet with some of my students for various lessons. At one point I casually glanced at my watch, not may I hasten to say because I was bored or wishing for the lesson to come to a speedy conclusion, far from it. No, it was because I knew that in some faraway corner of Europe - in Uppsala, Sweden to be precise – a concert dedicated to the music of Michael Nyman was about to commence with the composer himself participating. To my great delight the concert included my arrangement of the theme music from The Piano composed by Nyman. I arranged it for solo classical guitar + classical guitar 2 + electric guitar + soprano saxophone + bass guitar. My only apprehension was whether it would be well received or not. Would it be considered strange and disrespectful to the piano original?

At the time of writing I still don’t know whether it was well-received or not by the audience but something has happened which has pleased me hugely, and that is Michael Nyman’s personal note to yours truly in which he said how much he liked my arrangements. Now that has been enough to make a ray of sunshine pierce through the clouds and warm my cockles.

It’s a funny old thing how clouds and rain and wind can seem uplifting and dramatic when you get into the right frame of mind. And by Friday evening I was well and truly feeling good. Bring on sun and rain and cold and heat, one after the other in the space of an hour, they would make no difference to my spirits for my head is spinning to the musical events of the day, untroubled by the elements, nor even by the deafening sounds of the city which so often upset me.

So off to the cinema I went on Saturday night and saw Woody Allen's latest movie Blue Jasmine: a film all about the virtue of truth. This is a great film and I recommend it to you. Somehow, and for reasons I cannot quite put into words, it seemed a grand finale to my week: the film's themes a flip side to the music of The Midst of Life.

To be frank about that piercing ray of sunshine as I read Nyman’s note – it didn’t really happen, I just imagined it.

13th October, London

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Acting Like A Madman Improves Your Playing

...also jumping up and down, singing badly and becoming a rebel

“Freedom, flexibility, living in the moment, and a commitment to giving...” Wow, sounds like the earnest declaration of a new pseudo-religion, or the mission statement for a hippy commune, even a new political manifesto. And if none of these, at the very least the four elements could form the pillars of a new society in which I for one would like to live. Inevitably they would clash with the established norms of a more conventional way of life, and if you doubt that reflect for a moment on the very first word: freedom. There is scarcely a more emotional word in language. The very sound of it - freeeee - dom - starts with a long cry and ends with a dull thud (an accurate and unfortunate reflection of what happens in real life!)

But I digress, the quote is not about religion or hippies or politics, it is the conclusion by the University of Cambridge’s Centre for Musical Performance as Creative Practice (CMPCP) from an investigation into how musicians find creative inspiration. In association with other institutions which include the Royal College of Music the project has shown that musicians may be at their most inspired when they step away from their instruments and think about music in different ways. These include singing to yourself, hearing the music in your head, and imagining other characters dancing to the music. Yes I know, this all sounds one small step from the proverbial madman hearing voices in his head, but why not if it all helps to lead us to moments of elation? In the privacy of your home with no one to watch and point a finger of ridicule you could sing out loudly and badly and dance around the room arms outstretched with imaginary characters from a Royal Baroque household. And all for a good cause: to achieve greater expression.

The researchers concluded “that musicians begin to make a piece their own when they feel free and flexible enough to be spontaneous and take risks, and to trust themselves rather than simply rely on external validation from a teacher or others.” This I like very much, but notice how that f-word again – freedom – means not accepting the received wisdom from teachers, whence the early stirrings of important clashes and changes which are not always to the liking, to put it mildly, of institutions and societies.

”Performers also consistently talked about “being in the zone” or in a “flow” state.” This is really as important as it is elusive. When it happens it is an out-of-body experience, and pardon me for saying so, but this is beginning to sound like the hippy way of life of yesteryear with which these concepts are associated. As you see, there is something to learn from the most surprising sources.

”Finally, the participants in the project consistently showed that they were at their most creative when they were playing to, or imagining, an audience, to whom they saw themselves “giving” the music and their performance.” At last, we have reference to actually playing the instrument as a means to improved creativity in performance!

This is an important and fascinating study showing a way forward to becoming more creative which involves both positive and negative forces. The negative includes freeing yourself from the strictures of the printed score, not accepting teacher's word for it, and doing a lot less practice on the instrument.

The positive benefits are many: greater insights and better communication skills. And those are worthy of serious consideration.

6th October, 2013, London

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Guitar Playing Is A Cycle In The Shape Of An S

What the Sigmoid Curve Can Teach the Humble Plucker and how a mathematical formula can be used as a model for success

Let's say you spend a year or eighteen months practising /with great dedication but by the end don't have much to show for it. Now let us assume that in the following year the improvements really begin to happen in such a way that makes you think that all the work you put into your playing was really worthwhile. This would probably encourage you to follow the same path in your third or fourth year, and to keep to your proven procedure for self-improvement. It would make sense, right?

Wrong! That is, according to the Sigmoid Curve which is based on a mathematical formula that has been applied to many areas, notably as a "very good model for understanding business cycles."

This is how the Sigmoid Curve is described:

"Change is Inevitable...…in life and in business. Sustainable momentum in both comes from knowing when to make the jump to the next curve before the one you're on begins to plateau. As frightening as it sounds, you need to give up a good thing while it's still working in order to position yourself for future success."

Graph of the Sigmoid Curve

Can this be applied to guitar playing?

Imagine the Curve as an S leaning forward to the right. The Learning Phase is the first side of the S pointing downwards - all hard work and not a lot to show for it (just like the first eighteen months of practice). The Growth Phase is the second curve of the S when it climbs upwards. This is when you begin to see results (just like guitar playing after eighteen months).

So far, so good, but what about the third curve of the S? Here it falls away steeply and gets difficult. It represents the decline that tends to set in, according to the Sigmoid Curve. The consequence is that the business "will slowly die." Yes, but that may be relevant to business but surely learning a musical instrument or any other creative skill is exactly what sets it apart from boring business? Decline doesn't happen in music after three or four years. On the contrary you get better and better. Maybe, maybe not.

Here comes the really important part of the Sigmoid Curve:

Decline can be avoided if business reinvents itself

If we take note of this as musicians we might find it beneficial. Reinventing ourselves is a creative process which can include re-examining our technique and musical goals, rather than repeating tried and tested formulae.

At this stage let us examine and question everything we do. Turn concepts on their heads and ask ourselves "what if....?" and "why not...?" See where it leads us.

What we can learn from this is clear: after three or four years it may be time to move on, to develop and change. So far you may have worked hard at becoming a guitarist, but now is the time to make the jump to the next curve and evolve into becoming a musician. That, as the Sigmoid Curve shows, will be the exciting beginning of a new era in order to position yourself for future success.

.And when that cycle has run its course you will be ready to move onwards and upwards – where else, but to becoming an artist.

29th September, London

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