Summer School – 5

There are several items that are worthy of note, but which span and serve as a general background to the week’s activity. I will list them here.

The most notable is the fact that most of the people attending the summer school, even if it is their first time, already know each other from the message boards on the CGC website. In addition to the various learning activities provided, there is a very active online community. I have not seen an online group with a spirit like this since the mid-1990’s. There are no trolls, and there has never been a flame war. Members are adults, respectful and interested in using the forum to share with others who are going through the same challenges. The result is that when people “met” for the first time, they were meeting with people they may have known for years.

The formal activity of every day ended with a concert. Each of the teachers performed on the small stage of the Rose theatre. While everything was of interest, these were a special delight. The performers seemed to connect with the audience on a level that was more than what happens when playing for strangers. Students got to share this experience as there were two open mic nights, where students were able to perform in a concert setting. The audience for these was very enthusiastic, an enthusiasm that came from the shared nature of the experience.

Meals were shared in the student cafeteria, so at any meal you would probably find yourself sitting next to someone new, whether that person was in your small ensemble, someone who had been having an online conversation with you, or someone you hadn’t had a chance to chat with since last year. Conversations either started or ended with guitar topics (although there was always an undercurrent of tales from home, travel or other things that kept everyone from becoming too intensely guitar-focused).

After the full day’s activities, and after the evening concert, one of the common rooms in the dorm became the center of an evening get together with wine, beer and assorted snacks. Most of the students and teachers would stop at some point in the evening. The highlights of these gatherings included a rolling game of eight ball, an impromptu concert by Berta Rojas and Nicoletta Tedesco, and a performance by a bluegrass band made up of Simon, Devin and Jacques, with a guest appearance by Caroline Eckman, who made the trip to Boston just to sing with them.

I think I have captured the essence of the summer school here. If anything further bubble up, I reserve the right to add to this.

Summer School -4

Playing in the band – Part 2: The orchestra

If your image of a classical guitar player is of someone sitting alone in a room, guitar in hand, practicing scales or working on repertoire, then that image must crack a little bit when placed against the small ensembles. It will probably shatter when you put that guitarist on stage with 60 other guitarists.  Yet, that is exactly what we did every afternoon as our last group exercise of the day.

Our guitar orchestra was arranged on the stage in four general groups, corresponding roughly to the four sections of a traditional orchestra. The first challenge was simply getting seated on the stage. Many of the guitarists were self-contained, that is, they used guitar supports that allowed them to sit with their feet flat on the floor. An equal number, however, used the traditional footrest. This resulted in a lot of shuffling, adjusting chairs and getting ready to play. Tuning was an interesting exercise as we moved thru the strings. Using this method, a single guitar our of tune would project over the other 59. I found this fascinating.

We were assigned two pieces. The first was Marcello’s Oboe Concerto. This was a special and exciting project being done by the orchestra director, Janet Agostino. She is working on a doctorate in musical transcription and part of her research consists of doing actual transcriptions. The Marcello piece was originally written for orchestra and oboe but was now to be performed by guitar orchestra and cello. This was the only piece that was sent to everyone prior to arriving at Endicott.

One of the more interesting aspects of this was practicing one part of what would become the soundscape of the orchestra. The first “aha” came when we practiced our parts together and shared that moment when everyone realizes that everyone is playing the same piece and it sounds like music. The second “aha” was the first time we were joined on stage by Jacques Lee Wood and heard the cello part that we were supporting. It was pure magic.

We practiced the piece for five days, tightening the sound, working on dynamics, and learning how to play in a group that large, which for amateur players like myself, included learning how to keep track of several measures of rests.

The other piece was a much more playful piece called “Viva Jujuey” arranged by the Australian guitar composer Richard Charlton. This contains many fun parts, including one section that listeners will recognize as Paul Simon’s “I’d rather be a hammer than a nail.” The piece also included percussion, which might cause the reader to ask, “how did you get percussion?”

In one section of the piece Guitar 2’s were asked to rap on the back of their guitars for the percussive effect. At another point, Raffaele Agostino used a guitar case to bang out the bass drum part. It was impossible not to smile at the end of this.

The orchestra served as one of the highlights of the week for many reasons. Not the least of which was that our recording of the Marcello piece will now become part of Janet’s doctoral portfolio.

Next (and last), a potpourri of brief items that have not made it into any of these posts.

Summer School – 3

Playing in the band – part 1

Prior to attending summer school last year, I had no experience with playing in any kind of ensemble, be that a duo, a small ensemble, or a guitar orchestra. I had never ventured into any kind of group music. However, now that I had some experience with it, I see incredible value to ensemble playing, and I was looking forward to the ensemble work this summer. (after re-reading this I should also add that what follows is my general impressions – I did not discuss these with anyone at the summer school).

The general outline of the first day of the school is that ensemble music is distributed, and parts assigned, at the first meeting of each of the ensembles. Since each of the ensembles is divided very roughly into a range of players of similar ability, it gives the ensemble director some latitude in assigning parts, and in moving people into parts that they can play. The other very clear impression is that each of the pieces, for whatever level, is selected to be a “stretch.” I don’t think that anyone can simply sight-read the piece on the first day.

My ensemble was led by Colin Davin. The two pieces we were going to work on were the “Intermezzo” from the opera Goyescas by Enrique Granados, arranged for 4 guitar parts, and a jazzy tune called “Toots”, which was a tribute to Toots Thielman. On the first day we spent most of our time on Toots, which would turn out to be something of a mistake. We did not see just how difficult the Granados piece would be.

As it turned out, that Granados piece presented two major challenges – there were several sections where the music is played above the 12th fret. The problems we experienced with this was first, just reading the notes – there are a lot of leger lines when reading a G or an A on the 15th or 17th fret of the first string. The other was fingering the notes – on a classical guitar there is not usually a cutout and, speaking for myself at least, I was not familiar with positioning and moving my hand up that high on the guitar. Yes, it *should* be easy – all the notes repeat at 12 – but it wasn’t.

The other difficulty with the piece was the timing. Most of the notes were to be played on the off-beat, with eight note rests starting many of the measure. While this would be something that could be worked out playing alone, with 12 other guitars it became quite the challenge.

Each of the ensembles had 5 days to get their pieces together for the final student concert. This gave a sense of urgency to learning the pieces and just the right amount of encouragement for people to get together outside of the normal hours to practice. One constant of the summer school is small groups of guitarists gathered almost everywhere practicing ensemble pieces, or ensemble voices. I think it was something that added to the camaraderie of the week. In the end, while I would not rate our performance of Granados internet ready, I think we did a passable job.  

Next – a 60 voice guitar orchestra.

Summer School – 2

The teachers

This entry could be very short – a simple list of the teachers at the school. That would not do justice to the styles and interactions, and to some of the history that they bring to the table. This was reflected at the summer school not only in the individual lessons but in the small ensembles that they led.

The central focus of the summer school must be Simon Powis. He is a young Australian guitarist who plays wonderfully and who has taken the idea of an online guitar school from that single phrase to encompass something that now includes 4 teachers,  spans 8 grades of repertoire and technical exercises with recorded video lessons for each grade, along with live lessons via Zoom. Simon’s teaching style involves, at least for me, a review of the piece that I have played, then a deep dive into one or two aspects of the piece that can be used as a gateway into something that I can work on over the next weeks. This can be something technical, as in hand position or fingering, or it can be something musical, as in how to interpret the phrasing of a piece and bring that phrasing forward in a way everyone can hear.

When I heard that one of the teachers this year would be Berta Rojas I immediately began looking forward to seeing her. I was not disappointed. Berta led multiple teaching sessions at the school and her teaching style was both unique and quite a treat. Most of the students assigned to Berta for the sessions I watched had the technical ability to play some rather difficult pieces. Rather than detailing any technical details of the playing, she focused on the musicality of the piece. At times the audience was recruited to sing along with the guitarist, focusing on phrasing, breathing and making the piece musical. It was a different approach to the music that I would humbly suggest focused on something that many guitarists need – making beautiful music with the instrument. An example of her playing can be seen here.

Two teachers who have been at all the summer school sessions are Janet and Raffaele Agostino. They perform under the name of Duo Agostino. They also share the distinction of being Simon’s original teachers in Australia prior to his enrollment at Yale. Both Janet and Raffaele demonstrate the patience and perception of teachers who have been working with classical guitarists for over 25 years. Their sessions also demonstrate the ability to listen to student playing and determining the one or two things that a student needs to move forward and progress in the piece they are playing. Both also demonstrate a sense of humor and humanity that makes all students feel welcome. You can see them perform here and here.

An unexpected treat for many of the guitarists was cellist Jacques Lee Wood. He was advertised beforehand as willing to work with students on the Bergmuller Nocturnes for cello and guitar.  A number of guitarists chose to work on these pieces. However, an equal number chose to work with Dr. Wood on original arrangements for cello and guitar on pieces that reflected the unique sound that can be generated by a duet featuring the sustaining voice of the cello paired with the more staccato sound of the guitar. Combined with Dr. Woods dry sense of humor his sessions were a highlight for all who attended them.

Although this list seems to get longer and longer, it somehow seems inappropriate to describe Colin Davin as “another teacher.” He was a student of Sharon Isbin at Julliard, a two time finalist at the GFA competition, a member of the faculty at two universities, and has performed around the world. As a teacher he shares the same welcoming attitude and wit as the teachers listed above and demonstrates an outstanding and deep knowledge of guitar that allows him to play, and demonstrate, difficult passages. He can be seen performing with Sharon Isbin here, and solo at the Metropolitan Museum playing a 1953 Fleta here.

Although they will be listed last, that is only an artifact of the fact that there had to be some organization to this section. Dave Belcher has been community manager and teacher at Classical Guitar Corner for several years and is a favorite of the members of the community. He has a friendly, welcoming teaching style and a deep knowledge and love of music.

Nicoletta Tedesco is the newest member of the CGC team. She is a soon-to-be graduate of Yale and a student of Ben Verdery. Her teaching was detailed and reflected an understanding of the skill of each person she worked with. Summer school was the first opportunity most members at the school had to interact with Nicoletta, as she had just joined the CGC team. She was an immediate hit with everyone, and her energy and enthusiasm kept the open mic night flowing along.   

Next, a look at working with a small ensemble and large guitar orchestra.

Summer School – 1

Summer School

I recently came home from a week-long guitar summer session. I thought recording some of my impressions would be a good use of this space, both as a memory refresher for myself as time goes on, and to paint a picture of what a guitar summer school looks like for those who might be interested. I see this as running for a few days in order to cover the various aspects of the week.

I imagine the first thing to say is that the school is run by Simon Powis and the Classical Guitar Corner Academy. CGCA is an online school that seems to be quite unique in the space. In addition to the recorded classes, live on-line teaching, and a very large and active community of learners, once a year Simon puts together a week-long summer school on the campus of Endicott College in Massachusetts.  Students are assigned to dorm rooms at the college. Everyone stays at the same dorm, which also allows for the socialization in the evening after class.

The structure of the day is relatively consistent over the week, which give overall structure to something that could become quite chaotic without such a framework.

The first session of the day is the small ensemble. The 60 students in attendance are broken into 5 groups for work in small ensembles. The first time students see the music they will play is that first day. The division into ensembles is very roughly according to grade level, although each is more in a range rather than a strict stratification. The various groups and the multiple parts needed provide each person with a goal that is just beyond their current ability (but which is achievable!).

Following the small ensembles students are given some time off the guitar and attend a presentation/lecture done by one of the instructors. Some details of these will be forthcoming in a future installment of this blog.

Lunch is followed by individual lessons. Each student has two lessons over the course of the week.  These lessons are arranged before arrival and each student selects the pieces they would like to work on. The lessons are open, so any student can watch any lesson, although in all cases the audience maintains a respectful silence so the student and teacher interaction is the focus of the lesson. Entry and exit is suggested to coincide with the half-hour boundary, although lessons running a few minutes over tends to blur this as the session goes on. It seems to be something that everyone expects and accepts.

Individual lessons are followed by guitar orchestra practice. 60 guitarists are assembled on the stage and divided into 4 sections, roughly corresponding with traditional orchestra breakdown. This could be a somewhat daunting task as all of the orchestra members are amateurs, most of whom have either never played in this large a group before, or not since last summer school. The large orchestra director is Janet Agostino and she demonstrates just the right balance of iron fist in velvet glove to keep everyone progressing and on task.

The day finishes after dinner with a concert by a member of the teaching staff. While I will go into greater depth on these concerts, the one thing I would add as part of the overview is that each of the performers varies the repertoire from pieces that anyone familiar with the guitar would know to newer pieces that extend the experience of the audience and provide something new for their ears.

Over the next few posts I will explore more about each of the elements of the day at summer school.

A Concert in Lancaster

Last evening, I had the pleasure to see one of the society’s members, Frank Zarefoss, perform in concert. In addition to being a member of the Classical Guitar Society, Frank plays jazz and rock in and around central PA. Last night’s concert was dedicated to the classical guitar.

The first section of the concert was devoted to a suite by Alexandre Tansman,  In Modo Polonico. Tansman lived from 1897 to 1986 and described himself as a French-Polish composer. For those not up on their Polish, it translates to “In a Polish Mode”. As I listened to the suite some of the pieces echoed old polish songs I had heard performed before, most notably the Kujaviak. The full suite is listed here:

  • Entree
  • Galliarde
  • Kujawiak
  • Tempo de Polonaise
  • Kolysanka
  • Reverie
  • Alla Polacca
  • Kolysanka No. 2
  • Oberek

Frank played the entire suite quite nicely, bringing out the subtlety of the polish rhythms running behind the pieces and making them “Polish.” This is an interesting piece and an interesting composer that I would like to explore further.

The second half of the program consisted of repertoire that would be familiar to most classical guitar students and aficionados, three pieces from Bach’s Cello Suite No 1, and pieces by Gluck Satie and Villa-Lobos. All were played deftly and with the feeling that they had been friends of Frank for a long time and he wanted to introduce his friends to his audience.

The audience was small but focused intently on Frank’s playing. A good time was had by all.  

An additional benefit was that two members of the audience were interested in becoming members of the society. Hopefully next month’s member concert will continue to help us spread the word.

American Guitar Music

Not too long ago I read a book called “The Guitar in America: Victorian Era to Jazz Age.” The book was not actually about only the guitar in America, but about the banjo, mandolin and guitar societies that seemed to be a large part of the culture of music making from around 1880 to 1930.  The book is rather dry, and actually seems to be a commercially published version of someone’s doctoral dissertation. The title seems to be an acknowledgement that banjo, mandolin and guitar are not hot topics in the bookseller’s world.

The two big takeaways I got from the book were first to explain something I had always wondered about – my mother played in a mandolin orchestra. I had always thought this was something weird that she and her friends had gotten into as part of the social scene in the 1930’s. It turns out that this was something that existed all across America and which attracted many people. Perhaps this was the previous iteration of the classical guitar societies that are here in Lancaster, and in Philadelphia, Baltimore and elsewhere.

The other was to introduce the name William Foden as a guitarist and composer. Foden was acclaimed as one of the best guitarists in America at the turn of the century. At the time he was working much of what we now consider the classical repertoire was being created in Europe by folks like Albeniz and Tarrega.

Foden could (and did) play those standard “Spanish” pieces, but he also created a number of uniquely American pieces for guitar. These are not widely played or known. Finding anything about Foden is a bit of a struggle. There are some performances on YouTube, but not nearly the volume you get for anyone else.

If you are interested there are some pieces by Foden on an old (1994) album called “American Pioneers of the Classical Guitar.” Not to worry – finding this will not take you hunting through the racks of old record stores. The album is available on Spotify.

There are also some links out on the web. Our friends at the St. Louis Classical Guitar society sponsor a radio program. Since I believe Foden was active in St. Louis they are very tuned into his work.

I also found a program on YouTube that features two pieces by Foden. Take a look for yourself.

I think the interesting thing is that these are so…American. I cannot say why, but whatever it is, it is unique. You could not mistake this for the music of any other country. That makes them very special in the guitar repertoire.

I am working on a Foden duet with another member of the society. With any luck it will be ready for our June members concert.  

Community

For a very long time I thought of playing the classical guitar as a solitary activity, conducted alone, where progress was measured by the ability to play a new piece, or to play an old piece better. Events over the past few weeks have proven me wrong and it has been quite an education.

I started to list these things as “first, next, last” but that does not work because it forces a priority that is not really there. So although these items are in order, they are all of equal importance.

  • I tested in the online school for guitar where I am a member. The test consisted of recording 4 pieces of repertoire and a longish technical routine, then posting it to a corner of the website reserved for such things. The “community” part of this does not have to do with taking the test, but with the reaction to it. (although testing is a shared experience in the community) Multiple members posted follow-up messages commenting on things they liked in the test. As someone who only hears what was wrong, reading what people thought was right was very interesting and went a long way to reducing my stress over the test. I have since spent some time this week listening and commenting on other players in the forum.
  • I spent time this week rehearsing a duet with a member of the Classical Guitar Society. The piece was by William Foden (someone who will become the focus of a future blog entry) and I had practiced one of the two parts. I was unsure of how I would do, but by the final run through of the day we made something that could pass as music. Hearing this, and playing this, gives a feeling of accomplishment that I never got when playing by myself and is a genuine pleasure.
  • I have also been working on the ensemble pieces we will be playing at the members concert in June (see the upcoming events tab for details). The feeling here is different that when playing a duet because my piece in only one of three or four, and usually I am doubled by one or two other members. Here the feeling is still of accomplishment and pleasure, but very different. I think it is more like listening to a fugue.

I have read that fugues can be listened to as a “wall of sound” type piece (hmmm- is this where Phil Spector got the idea) or by following one of the voices, but never both ways at once. The listener needs to choose, and can shift back and forth, but only one choice can be heard at a time.

When playing in the ensemble I think this choice dims and you CAN hear both the individual parts you are playing, and the collective ensemble sound.

All these various group exercises have had several interesting benefits, not the least of which is to increase the number of pieces I can play, but also to play all my music better. I suspect I will return to this topic again as I look for something to write, but for now, and as usual, I seem to have gone on quite long enough.

DEsert Island Downloads

Desert Island Downloads

I was always fascinated by a radio program called “Desert Island Disks”. I loved getting to know people by looking at the music they would choose to be stranded with. I thought I might use the idea to give anyone who has been reading this a bit of an introduction to who I am – who is it that has been filling this blog with all this info? Yes there are a few classical guitar recordings, but that’s not all. BTW, all are available on Spotify if you care to listen.

  1. John Williams, The Ultimate Guitar Collection. I don’t know if this is really the ultimate collection, but it is a legendary performer playing the core of the classic repertoire. If any of these tunes get tired, listen to one of the other tracks, then come back and it will be fresh again.
  2. Berta Rojas, Intimate Barrios. I don’t know if anyone else would rate this as desert island worthy, but the sound of her guitar is so perfect, so balanced and so present I just want to listen to this album over and over. And that Barrios guy writes some pretty good tunes.
  3. Anushka Shankar, Traveler. While the disc is good, if I could have a recording of the live concert in France, I would prefer it. The music explores the interplay and relationship between classic flamenco and Indian raga.
  4. Igor Stravinsky – The Rite of Spring. Pierre Boulez and the Cleveland Symphony. This is the one I bought when Frank Zappa told me I needed to listen to this piece. I may be partial, but this is the one I have had in my library for years. It is here because I can’t resist the image of staid ballet fans ripping the chairs from the floor and throwing them at the stage.
  5. Ode to Freedom – Beethoven: Symphony No. 9 Official Concert of the Fall of the Berlin Wall 1989. How can you not have this? Performed at the newly liberated Brandenburg gate, it combined Bernstein with German musicians from both sides of the newly united city. Priceless.
  6. Benny Goodman. Famous 1938 Carnegie Hall Jazz Concert Complete. Perhaps a perfect compilation of big band jazz. All the songs are great, but the two standouts are “Don’t be that way” – when Gene Krupa breaks the band out of the overly polite respect for where they are playing and makes them play jazz, and “Sing Sing Sing,” which just burns the house down. Take a look at the names of the players on the stage.
  7. Miles Davis, Kind of Blue. Everyone raves about this album. Take a listen. You will rave about it too. In addition to Davis, the horns include Cannonball Adderley and John Coltrane. This has been called the best jazz album of all time. Sounds like something to explore while waiting to be rescued.
  8. Bob Dylan. 1966 Royal Albert Hall Concert. This was a tough choice, since it is taken from the most productive period of Dylan’s career. I almost went with Highway 61 revisited, but this concert shows that most of the songs from this period were all written at the same time, and the sheer raw energy of the Hawks will never be replicated. One tiny window into this show, “Just like Tom Thumb’s Blues,” was released as the B side of (I think) the 45 of “I want you” back in the 60’s and it was worth waiting for the rest of the show.
  9. The Velvet Underground and Nico 45th Anniversary Super Deluxe Edition. Who knew when this album was released that it would capture a certain slice of the rock subculture so perfectly? As I recall, it was only played on obscure college radio stations, rarely if ever on commercial FM and never, ever, ever on AM. It spawned the now legendary quote by Brian Eno about its low sales, “I think everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band!” This collection includes the original stereo LP, outtakes, alternate recordings and even all of Nico’s first album.
  10. The Beatles – Live at the Hollywood Bowl. Looking back at all the Beatles did, the thing that I think I want to remember is that this was a damn good rock and roll band. This recording was the Beatles at their best as performers. They played live with the same sound they achieved in their early album and they could really play their instruments.