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.  

Playing in the Band

Playing in the Band

I don’t think that anyone except classical guitarists and pianists are inclined to play their instruments solo. Every other instrumentalist I can think of practices in order to play with other people, whether that is in jazz, rock or bluegrass bands, string quartets or orchestras, or other groups. Classical guitarists just sit in rooms, all alone, playing pieces for ourselves. I used to joke that the classical guitar gave a voice to my natural misanthropism.

Last year I attended a classical guitar camp and in addition to presentations, lessons and concerts, there were regular group classes. One was a small group ensemble, and one was a large guitar orchestra that consisted of everyone at the camp playing together. All together I think I learned 7 pieces in total, ranging from some relatively easy pieces to some devilishly difficult ones with weird syncopations.

At first, I viewed these groups as a “something I needed to do.” It was part of the experience as crafted by the people running the week. If it stood between me and what I “really” wanted to do so be it. I would persevere.  By the end, when we performed in concert as a group, I had a great time and I was hooked. There is something about being one voice in a multi-voiced group that cannot be duplicated without other players and which I don’t think can be described adequately in words.  

When I got back from camp, I started looking around in earnest for a group that might allow me to do this. I thought of Wilmington and Philadelphia, but they were just too far away. I had heard there was a Lancaster Classical Guitar society, but I had trouble finding them. When I finally connected, I started attending the monthly meetings.

These are something that I genuinely look forward to. Everyone has a chance to play something they have been working on, but it is not required. Some do, some don’t and it changes from month to month. Then we start on the group pieces.

The one thing that I think separates solo guitar pieces from ensemble parts is the interplay between voices. There are syncopated rhythms and point counterpoint sections. Practicing my part as a solo exercise does not give the same reward as playing it as one voice in 3 or 4 others. That reward is one of the genuine joys of playing in an ensemble.

The Guitar Moves Online

Many years ago, I took classical guitar lessons. These were taken with a live teacher and I enjoyed them very much. At that point learning guitar was a much different affair. There were very limited resources. I remember hanging out at the Spanish Guitar Center on 48th Street in New York trying to soak in the ambience. There was no YouTube and there was no internet. If you did not see it live, you just didn’t see it.

I studied while I was in school in the 70’s and did manage to keep it going for a bit after I graduated, but then life intervened and I put my guitar away. I would take it out periodically, but never had the same drive to keep practicing. I was never able to get back to where I had been.  

Several years ago, I decided to make a concentrated effort to play again. I had been trying to establish a pattern and a habit and was doing fairly well, but I could feel myself slipping. I was looking for some external motivation when I found an online school called the Classical Guitar Academy (see the resources page).

This was something that just didn’t exist “back then.” CGC was a global community of classical guitarists. If there is a “common” thread it is that there is no common thread. There are old folks, young folks and folks in between. There are beginners, almost beginners and some pretty experienced players, some of whom have even released recordings.

On the site there were recorded video lessons, exercise books and grades, so three years ago I joined. So, what is it like taking lessons online?

Well, it certainly is different. But it is also very much the same. Practicing any instrument really comes down to how much you are willing to do by sitting alone with yourself, practicing something until it comes smoothly.

The good differences are that the lessons exist as recorded artifacts and if you don’t get it the first time you can hit the replay button – there is no waiting for the week to go by so you can say “what did you mean by this…”

You can also see the curriculum laid out in front of you. I remember “back when” always wondering what the next piece I was going to get to play would be. This might be because I started playing before anyone had developed a real curriculum, but since there are several standardized courses this might not be such an objection any longer.

What is not the same is that the teacher is not in the room with you. You do not have someone looking at you in the same room, grabbing your hand to examine your nails, or any of the other things that occur in a one on one live lesson. There are live video chat sessions and I have begun to take advantage of these. These are becoming a real benefit and I have managed to fix some very basic mistakes I was making.

The one thing that cannot be duplicated on line, as least not that I’ve seen, is the ability to play with other people. This is something that I underestimated for years, but which I have started to do with regularity. Fortunately, I have the Classical Guitar Society of Lancaster as a local group that regularly plays live.  

Next time more on ensemble playing.

East Meets West – 2  

Once upon a time, when I was young and taking a music class on non-western music, I wrote a paper on the roots of Flamenco music. Unfortunately, this was long enough ago that the paper was written with a manual typewriter on paper and I have no idea whatever became of it. The only trace of it are the vague memories of what I wrote.

Those memories, however, do seem rather interesting in light of something that I found recently.

My main thesis was that Flamenco started in India, but then  traveled into Europe and across the middle east, during which times it picked up influences from Hungarian gypsies, Jewish cantors, and Islamic song before finally coming together and blending with the native influences in Spain.

This may have been interesting as the fevered ramblings of a young mind, but recently I have been watching a concert given by Anushka Shankar and her supporting musicians, and a flamenco troupe featuring a guitarist and singer. You can see the video here.

The amazing thing for me was that hearing the interplay between the guitar and sitar makes that link between east and west very clear.  The Wikipedia page on the studio album describes it in a way that makes me happy to know that I was not the only one to notice this link:

Shankar first came across flamenco when she travelled to Spain as a teenager. During that trip, she visited a small flamenco bar and was electrified by different stage performances. Her album Traveller was built around the idea that Spanish flamenco may have its origins in India. “In Indian music, we call it ‘spirituality,’ and in Spanish music, it’s ‘passion’.


East Meets West 1: Closer to home

This will be the first of what I think will be a number of posts that will discuss the link between eastern and western music on the classical guitar. In some ways it is the easiest one to write because it details a Lancaster connection to a very long tradition of musical cross pollination.

I first heard the phrase “east meets west” in relation to an album by Ravi Shankar and Yehudi Menuhin which featured two master musicians of different traditions making music together.

At about the time that the CGSL was forming, a student of Ernesto Tomayo, Matt Bacon, was starting out on a journey that would take him first to the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and then to the Peabody Institute of Johns Hopkins in Baltimore.  Most recently it finds him as a member of the faculty at the KM Music Conservatory in Chennai, India.

In December of 2018 Matt was back at home in Lancaster and one of his visits was to the CGSL where he performed at a private salon for the members. One of the highlights of that performance was Matt’s performance of one of the Etudes he had written for a book entitled Elements of Indian Music.  The book documents the theory of the Indian tonal system and provides examples of how the theory would be incorporated into actual musical examples.

If you would like to see Matt perform one of these pieces, and read a little bit about the book you can try this link. It will take you to Guitar Salon International site where there is a video of Matt playing one of the Indian inspired pieces on a 2017 Felipe Conde Crespo guitar, and a little bit more about the book.

A new journey

As we start 2019 I look forward to an exciting year with the guitar, and with the Guitar Society of Lancaster.  My first goal is to try to find where everyone went. A little background is probably in order –

Several years ago Lancaster Pa hosted an International Guitar Competition. You can find details here. I remember two things about that event. There were two beautiful performances by Ana Vidovic and Ernesto Tomayo on Friday. The more interesting thing however was that the concert filled the Ware Center – the local concert hall. It seats 350, and as I recall, there were no empty seats. So my first question is who were all those people, and my next is where did they go? I will provide more details on my search as we go forward. If you were in the audience and you have an interest in classical guitar, please drop us a note and let us know!