December 31, 2010

Getting comfortable with recording

It's often said that you get used to recording by recording more. While that's kind of true, it's not very helpful to look at it that way. If you feel miserable every time you record, recording 100 times isn't likely to make you happy.

It can be helpful is to frequently use recording as a tool. Don't worry about takes being "keepers" because none of them have to be. Try recording just a phrase at a time, listen back and work on the details.  

You'll eventually start to get used to it and be able to perform better when that red light is on. As you get comfortable working this way, try longer sections of pieces. Gradually work your way up to recording whole pieces.

Mistakes: Chicken or egg?

Fear of mistakes is usually what stresses people out about recording, and ends up being the cause of those mistakes. Strengthening your memory and practice techniques will help you cope with this, but you need to work on your attitude about the process, too.

Give yourself permission to make mistakes and remind yourself of why you play in the first place. Hopefully you're doing it because it's fun and you love it. It's great to feel proud of your accomplishment, but if you play because you have something to prove, you're setting yourself up for a world of struggle. 
You need to break the vicious cycle of "I'm worried I'll make a mistake. Oops, I made a mistake. Now I'm even more worried about it..." Mistakes will help you learn.

Make a distinction between transient errors like missed notes and errors of judgment like unclear phrasing and missing dynamics. Technical goofs happen and can be prevented, but often times they happen because of vague musical idea. You should definitely learn to clean up your technique bue also be really clear about what you want to do and present in your playing.

Of course, it sometimes just comes down to plain old insufficient preparation. Well, at least you've learned what you need to work on in order to be able to record it well. Instead of getting stressed about it, make note of what you need to work on, take a break, and then dive back into practicing.

Other approaches

Sometimes the recording process itself can be a big source of distraction. Some suggestions for dealing with that:

  • Devote some time to working out your recording setup without trying to get a good performance. Once you find a sound you like, just leave your equipment set up, or figure out how to set it up easily. I worked out my "best quality" setup so I can be ready to record in about 5 minutes. For my day to day recording, I just set my edirol on the table in front of the guitar and forget about getting ideal placement.
  • Don't bother stopping and starting your recorder in between takes, especially if it's digital. You can trim out the stuff you don't want later. Just get it going and start playing. If you want to do another take, just allow yourself some time to relax and start another. I find that stopping and starting the recorder in between takes turns into an opportunity to act out frustration and it can quickly become a downward spiral. Just let it roll. 
  • Don't try to do a ton of takes of one piece in a row. If it's not happening after a few takes, take a break or record something else for a while. You can always come back to the first.

PS: Speaking of recording, I've been looking forward to Marc Teicholz's "Valseanna" since GSI first announced it. I'd held off on buying it because I hoped that they might make it available for download, and lo and behold, it's now available on iTunes! This is a really sweet album, 18 waltzes played on 18 vintage guitars, although I'm not quite sure how Pepe Romero, Jr's 2004 guitar counts as vintage. I heard Teicholz play a few times when I lived in the SF Bay Area and really enjoyed it every time. He's such an unpretentiously expressive player. Check it out!

December 24, 2010

Pepe Romero & Joaquin Rodrigo

Here are some videos which are somewhat buried on Youtube, that I find inspiring and insightful. Both feature Pepe Romero and Joaquin Rodrigo, a look into their working relationship, and a bit of the creative process behind these works.

The first offers some background about the famous Concierto de Aranjuez.

This one is in Spanish. My spanish is weak but I was able to follow most of it well enough (at least until they get to the part about astronauts). It's about Concierto Para Una Fiesta, which is one of my favorite guitar concertos. It's not nearly as well known as the Aranjuez but to my taste, it's even better.

December 17, 2010

Book Review: Effortless Mastery

"The effort it takes for you to perform music equals the distance between you and mastery"
- Kenny Werner, Effortless Mastery.

In Effortless Mastery, Kenny Werner tells the story of his falling in love with music, being overwhelmed and hitting to rock bottom in music school, and how he picked up the pieces and put them together to become the master musician he is today.

He also gives you a clear, but thoroughly humbling, path to developing your own mastery of music.

It also comes with a CD with the author guiding you through four meditations with a veil of reverb and over a backdrop of tinkling piano. This can be really off-putting for some people (certainly for me, at first) but it's an essential part of his method and a very effective one at that.

Think of it as an attitude adjustment which most of us genuinely need. For me, it really helped break the cycle of frustration, to relax and enjoy the process.

Don't base your self-esteem of your music

It's really easy for a lot of us to get frustrated with ourselves when we fail. A lot of us try to play music that's too hard for us, or we want to play faster before our muscles develop the necessary coordination. Sometimes we prepare difficult music inadequately for performances and when the performance don't live up to our expectations, the aftermath can feel really awful.

Werner wants us to free ourselves from our judgment (there's a time and place for judgment, and it's not in the middle of a performance!), expectations, and desires  - especially desire to be great, to improve, to not suck for just a few minutes... and open our ears and accept the sounds we are actually making. From this mental space of humility, honesty, and acceptance (yes, even of mistakes), we can begin to make progress.

Steps to Mastery

He presents a method for focused practicing that I won't describe, because you should really read the book and hear about it first hand. It is a humbling process, but from it, real progress can be made... and it can be applied to anything you work on.

You may be surprised at how fast or slow this progress comes, but you can be sure that it is genuine, and that's the best part. In time, you will be able to rely on yourself to perform your music perfectly, effortlessly, and without thought.

It works

This seems like quite an idealistic path but it is actually pretty realistic. We really can't force yourself to improve any faster than we're ready to, but there are a million obstacles we can set up for ourselves that will slow it down. Effortless Mastery is a simple plan for freeing ourselves of those obstacles.

The ideas in this book are not totally new or unique, but I like the way they are distilled to a simple and clear path. I think that most books in this genre say essentially the same things, but they say them in different ways, and some may resonate better with some readers than others. I will review others that I have read when I get a chance.

December 10, 2010

Measuring progress

Tracking progress is a popular topic on guitar blogs I read. With all the day-to-day ups and downs, the best advice is to measure progress over the long term. Set some goals and work on them.

Keep revisiting something easy

Something you can do that is really fun and rewarding is to revisit your easiest repertoire. It's tempting, and OK, to leave the stuff behind as you progress. It'd be great to fully master every little bit of music before you move on, but there are so many facets of even the simplest music that you'd probably get overloaded or bored if you tried to do it all at once.

But hold on to that music. Pick something easy (preferably something you learned early on) pull out the music and play it a few times every 6 months or so. Even better, record it every six months and listen to your earlier recordings after you record it again. Compare them, see what has improved and what hasn't.

Notice how your phrasing has changed, notice how you start to make choices about things that you never even noticed before.  If you recorded it, notice how your tone and timing improve.

Use it as a pick-me-up

Sometimes when I'm having rough day, I like to pull out something really familiar, like some simple Sor studies, and play them for a while. It helps me let go of my frustration and remind me of how good I'm able to sound. Then when I go back to my current music, I feel refreshed. It's a way of recalibrating.

That reminds me of something jazz bassist Sean Malone once said to me (or maybe I read it in an interview? I forget) to always start off practicing with something really easy that you can nail every time. It will set the tone for the rest of your practice.


PS: I've rereleased another old recording of mine, November. It's an ambient electric guitar looping album I recorded about 10 years ago. If any of those words sound interesting to you, give it a listen :)

December 3, 2010

How to practice things that need a lot of repetition

Some things you practice may require a lot of repetition to train your muscle memory. It's tempting to just keep repeating an exercise thinking you're going to build up strength, but little errors will compound and turn your playing to mush.

Here's an effective way to get things done:
  1. Get a clear idea of what you're trying to do before you start. If you don't know what it should sound like, ask your teacher to demonstrate or find a recording of a piece which uses that technique.
  2. Set your metronome to a speed where you can do the exercise as closely to that ideal as possible. When in doubt, err on the slow side. 
  3. Play the exercise a few times. Do it for maybe 10-15 seconds and stop. It's important, at this point, not to worry about how it sounds.
  4. Take a break for a 10-15 seconds and relax. Recall that clear idea of what the exercise your playing should sound like. 
  5. Repeat steps 3 and 4 a few times, for about five or ten minutes.
  6. Take a longer break. 2-3 minutes. Put the guitar down, stand up, think about something else for a bit. 
  7. Recall that ideal again. Repeat steps 3-6 until you run out of time or are ready to move on.
In your next practice session, begin again at step one. The trick is to do it as much as possible in the time you have, but take little breaks so you stay focused and don't get tired. The breaks also give things a chance to sink in.


PS: I was recently contacted by Jason Wehr, another guitarist in town who saw my craigslist ad and liked my recordings. He sent me a link to his youtube channel and I liked his playing, so now we are working on duets together. Our first gig is December 8th at the Anacortes Museum, wish us luck!

November 26, 2010

Why every musician should compose

Composing is a discovery process. When you compose even a bit, you learn about what goes through composers heads when they compose, and you will learn to interpret their music better. You will learn what makes music work (or not work).

I periodically go through phases where I am obsessed with the idea of composing. Usually, no more than a few sketches come out of it and few pieces get finished. It was frustrating until I considered that maybe I wasn't really trying to write the greatest guitar sonata ever, but instead I was examining my understanding of and relationship with music.

It's just like writing

You don't have to write a whole novel when you sit down at the word processor. You can start by jotting down an idea or two, maybe just vague notions in your head, and do your best to put them into words. As you do that, you may notice connections and ways that those ideas can fit together, or ways that they don't fit together.

Sometimes you need to write the same idea a few different ways before the right one appears. As the ball gets rolling, new ideas will appear on their own.

It's also like drawing

Don't tell me you can't draw. When you've got a blank piece of paper, you don't have to fill every sheet of paper with some painstakingly detailed landscape. You can sketch things out, or doodle. Sometimes just a stick man will do.

The hardest part is getting started.

Ever have a little fragment of a melody go through your head? Sing it. Find it on the instrument. Figure out some chords for it. If you can only find part of it, make up the rest. It doesn't have to be good, and if it's not, you don't have to play it someone else or even think about it ever again.

You don't even have to write it down, just play with it. What kind of accompaniment would Carulli give this melody? What about Villa-Lobos? How might Debussy have written it differently?

Note: Christopher Davis recently did a great interview with GFA winner Johannes Möller. In the second video, Johannes talks about composing. I wrote this post before I saw the video, so I'm happy to see some of the same sentiments but also some other great points of view. Check it out.

November 19, 2010

How to divide up practice time

Dividing up practice time

Teachers usually recommend dividing up your practice time between technique, studies, and repertoire. Since there are a variety of techniques musicians master, so if you have only half hour to devote to technique, how should you divide that up?

Whether you have half an hour or three hours for your technique practice, I think you should pick the highest priority thing and just focus on that until you master it.

Move on when it is obvious you are ready to move on.

I am feeling the pressure of upcoming performances, but I am still spending most of my practice time on one scale, over and over again, for hours.

What about everything else?

What about arpeggios, tremolo, slurs, and all the other elements of technique? Aren't I ignoring those?

You could look at it that way, but there are and will probably always be aspects of my technique I'm not happy with. Right now, my playing will benefit the most from mastering my scales.

I would rather make a big improvement in one area of playing rather than making incremental improvements in several.


This might seem really boring, but the truth is, two hours of scales a day was too boring for me when I was trying to concentrate on them as hard as I can.

Now I just do them while I read blogs/facebook/twitter/whatever.

When I'm ready to move on to music, I put the laptop away, get out my music, and get to work with a fresh mind. I'm tired mentally or physically from the scales.

In fact, I'll hardly feel like I've done them. That's pretty much the point. When you're playing music, you don't want to think, "here's that hard scale." You want to just do it. That is why I practice this way. In the past, I would have thought this was an awful idea, but as far as I'm concerned, the progress speaks for itself.

I'm not saying that I never listen to what I'm doing to check my progress. I'm always listening to it.


PS: And now for something completely different. I recently completed an ambient/electronic/space music album under the name Glissant. Check it out!

November 12, 2010

What is efficient?

"When working on the exercises, the guitarist must keep in mind the fact that mechanical repetition is worthless. Every time an exercise is repeated one must consciously correct and/or improve upon the previous playing."
- Ricardo Iznaola, Kitharalogus

"Practicing without thinking about what we’re doing prepares us for real world performance conditions, where we often have to work on automatic pilot mode, especially at the technical level.
I thought I was the only one doing this until a guitarist (and a famous one too, who will remain anonymous) came to visit Corpus Christi. When I went to the hotel to pick him up for the concert, I was surprised to hear, behind the door, intense practicing with the TV at full blast."
- Philip Hii, Art of Virtuosity for Guitar book
Both of these seemingly opposite schools of thought have their adamant supporters, and both have produced stellar musicians. How can that happen?

People are all different and some learn differently, but let's face it, not much about playing any instrument is particularly natural. Sure, some people take to it easier than others and we can use principles of nature to guide our efforts, but when it comes right down to it, everything we do is a learned adaptation to the requirements of the instrument. It will take time to develop.

Some will argue that 'mindless repetition' may not be taking the quickest path, and you are also perhaps running the risk of developing bad habits. But by letting your muscles figure things out on their own and leaving your mind out of it, you are cultivating the ability to play instinctively rather than calculatedly.

Iznaola's recommendation, on the other hand, can easily lead to end-gaining, which is often difficult to see until you're already mired in it. That doesn't mean the approach doesn't work, but I know that I tend to get obsessive about things and am prone to end-gaining, and I think that's why I have had mixed success with it.

Given the examples of success, I conclude that both approaches are valid and have their place, but perhaps aren't equally suited to everyone.

Efficiency IS Important

I'm not advocating wasting your time, and there are clearly times when efficiency is key. For example, the faster and more completely you understand a piece of music, the quicker and easier it should be to learn correctly. Having a secure and well-rounded technique will allow you to focus on the musical aspects of it without getting distracted by the technical side. That is efficient.

All the individual elements of your technique should be as efficient as possible, too. No wasted motion, no stumbling, and no delay as you prepare. While a thorough understanding of the ins and outs of technique is a great start, it offers little advantage until you put in the time imprinting the motions into your muscle memory so they become absolutely instinctive.

How long does it really take?

When I was working as a software engineer, the only times I could get a two-hour task done in two hours was when I had no interruptions. A ten minute interruption didn't make that task take two hours and ten minutes, it made it more like three hours, because of the distraction, the context-switching, and getting back into the groove.

So if a technique on the guitar is going to take 10 ideal-world hours to learn, the more time you can focus on it at a time, the sooner you'll get there. Every interruption will incur some penalty, so maybe doing it an hour a day will make it take 11-12 days, but doing it 10 minutes a day will probably take 70-80 days.

That is, if you can stay motivated and interested enough in working on that same thing 10 minutes a day for 70-80 days. If you're like most people, you'll probably get bored with it, or decide it's good enough for now, and move on to something else before you've really got it nailed down.

Mindless Repetition
One of the things I believe in is practicing in a state of no-mind. You practice without thinking too much about what you’re doing.
- Philip Hii, Art of Virtuosity for Guitar book
There's no real shortcut to developing technique. The closest thing to a shortcut is to have a clear sound-picture in your head of what you are trying to achieve, to have a sense of the right way, and guidance from a teacher.

Then you need to set your metronome for a speed where you are able to play the exercise/technique comfortably, no matter how slowly that is. Set a timer (I use for 20-30 minutes, or an hour if you can, or even two, and just have at it. Work on one thing at a time and build the muscle memory until you get to the point where your hands just do it for you. You will know recognize that feels like when it happens. And if it doesn't sound right yet, keep at it.

November 5, 2010

Electric guitar, part 2

It's quite a different experience, beginning again but with so many years of music experience behind me. It's not quite as fun as being a kid making loud noise for the first time but it's a lot more satisfying. Back then, I started off trying to learn Classical Gas on my mom's nylon string guitar to convince my parents they should buy me an electric guitar (which they did, even though my Classical Gas was unrecognizable), then a pile of guitar magazines and a vague sense of music carried me on from there.

The first order of business is learning to use a pick again. Why the death-grip on the pick and the tension in my forearm? Even if I lighten up the grip the tension remains. Is it just unfamiliar muscle work now and something that will go away on its own, or should I focus on this aspect right away since I'm aware of it?

The Guitar Mastery Blog covers a lot of picking-related issues with a good (and realistic) attitude.

October 29, 2010

Electric guitar, part 1

Earlier this week, I gave in to a long-suppressed urge and traded my flamenco guitar for an electric (thanks to Craigslist and Jason at the Shred Shed!). I'm not even sure yet what I am going to do with it. I don't even have an amp yet, so I've been playing it through Guitar Rig Player on my MacBook. 

I confess that for the first few days it was a real distraction from my classical guitar practice. It's not the only reason, though; I've been putting a lot of energy into a new business venture, which is not a problem, but it has made me focus my guitar practice more into a few hours at the beginning of the day. That's when I prefer to work on guitar, anyway, but with a few nights of poor sleep, I found it harder to focus on the classical guitar stuff.

The real reason, and it's time to admit this to myself, is that I'd lost interest in the set of pieces I was working on. I worked on them last week with a lot of energy, but some of the details were far enough beyond my reach that I ended up practicing the fun out of them. It's good music, but I just need to come back to it later. In the meantime, I've been relearning how to play electric guitar.

October 13, 2010

A piece from Joseph Miller

I found this while searching SoundCloud for classical guitar. I have worked with some students in a class I TA'd for a while on this piece, and I thought it was kind of nice but failed to really appreciate it until I heard this recording. I know nothing about this Joseph Miller guy, but I enjoyed his recordings. Check him out.

Rose in a Garden - Carlo Domeniconi by JosephMillerGuitar


exploring a piece

I'm hanging out in Montana right now, visiting Glacier NP and hanging out with my parents. I brought my guitar, but I've got a lot of projects in the works, so throwing in all the hiking and stuff is limiting my guitar time. So, I decided to pick a piece (Brouwer's Ojos Brujos) that's not long or hard but has some challenges, and explore it. I've played through each voice separately, tried a variety different fingerings for each part of it, ways to play the repeated sections differently, thought about the transitions between sections, etc. As a result, I've gotten most of it memorized without giving any thought to memorizing it, and I've also come up with some unexpected fingerings that help smooth out things I had trouble with and make the melodies sing nicely, too.

I've enjoyed this approach, just getting to know the piece inside and out before committing it to memory. I suppose that if I needed to work up a piece on a short deadline, this approach may not be the best, but I've been able to learn a lot from it.

October 11, 2010

Brouwer's Estudios Sencillos

This is a quick buyer-beware; you can still find the Brouwer studies in 4 short, very expensive volumes in lots of music stores. You can also find ALL 20 of them, plus a bunch of other great music he wrote, in one book, for the price of one of the individual volumes.

October 3, 2010

Concert Review

I wrote a guest post for the Classical Guitar Blog about Jorge Caballero's concert in Seattle last night.

I have to say, I miss the concert halls in the SF Bay Area. Petit Trianon and Herbst theater had really great acoustics, but I am not impressed with Benaroya Hall in Seattle. It just doesn't work as well for guitar.

September 28, 2010

Recording: Sor Studies

I want to make a point of recording myself more often and getting comfortable in front of a mic, so I am planning to record something at least once a week when possible. Today, I sat down with my book of Sor Studies and recorded a few that I have worked on occasionally. I've never really tried to memorize these studies, but I have worked on more than half of them in the book and I like to just come back to them from time to time and apply whatever new things I've learned since the last time. They're perpetually works in progress for me, but I am not particularly interested in performing them so I just use them to see how I'm doing. There's always something new to discover in them, and there's an awful lot of them, so I consider it one of the best bang-for-buck guitar books I've ever bought.

My recording setup and my Extreme Isolation Headphones let me listen to myself as the mic hears me even as I'm playing, because the sound of the guitar in the room doesn't bleed through so much into the headphones. Normally, I hate that, because it sounds weird without the room acoustics. But I realized today that it's a handy tool for practicing, as well; it lets you hear what you're doing approximately as an audience would. It makes it obvious how much you need to exaggerate things like tone color changes, dynamics, etc in order to get them across to the listener.

Here's today's recording:

Fernando Sor: Studies Op. 44 no. 11, Op. 60 no. 7, Op. 44 no. 9 by wbajzek

September 27, 2010

Some thoughtful quotes from an interview with a horror writer

This is from an interview with Thomas Ligotti, a modern horror writer who's one of my favorite authors. I think that what he has to say about writing a story applies just as well to the process of composing or studying and performing music:
I’ve always had to know enough about the story I’m going to write and be enthusiastic about it to make it worth the bother to write the thing in the first place. So I meditate on it, make tons of notes, ask myself if there is something missing from the story that should be there or something that’s there and shouldn’t be, and rack my brain to take the idea of the story to the farthest limit it will allow. Satisfied that the story will be worth writing, I start writing it. In the process, I usually come up with better ideas than I had originally planned. If that didn’t happen, the story would only be adequate, as a number of my stories have been. It’s not possible to plan every metaphor and structural aspect ahead of time, of course. I’ve had to trust that my abilities in these areas won’t let me down.
Here's another interesting quote from his answer to the preceding question.
Then I read Poe and Lovecraft for the first time and found what I didn’t know I was looking for: writers who put themselves on every page of their work, who wrote like personal essayists and lyric poets. Every fiction writer I’ve ever admired wrote in this manner.
A lot of emphasis gets put on respecting composers' intentions and studying scores carefully, but in the end most of the the best and most widely respected and listened-to performers are known better because they put themselves into everything that they play. If you compare Barrueco and Williams playing a piece, I am sure they both are attempting to convey the meaning of the score, but in the end they always sound like themselves.

September 23, 2010

Some thoughts on interpretation

I've been playing Heitor Villa-Lobos's Prelude 3 for about 3 months now. You can hear this morning's recording of it in my previous post; usually I play it twice (as written) but it's a tricky piece to pull off that way. I read a quote recently (I think) from Antigoni Goni, which I can no longer find, where she said something to the effect of, "when part of a piece repeats, just as we are all changed by the passage of time." I think she's a real master of this idea, by the way; I am very fond of her recordings and it sounds to me like she never plays anything the same way twice. Every repeated section has some new facet or insight.

Back to Prelude 3. This is an oddly formed piece in which the entire thing repeats, and the second page of it repeats as well; the long pedal segment gets repeated four times if you play it all as written. What is one to do with that?

Another interesting thing is that yesterday I sat down with the score and listened to nearly a dozen recordings of it, not a single one plays it exactly as written, rhythmically. Note values are lengthened, shortened, etc, in the extreme. I'm not talking about a little rubato; I mean, sometimes what is written as a half note gets played as an 8th or 16th. Furthermore, if one DOES play it exactly as written, it sounds kind of flat. Some parts sound rushed, others will sound like they come in very late.

The question is, what did HVL intend when he wrote it? Did he mean for it to be played so romantically, but wrote it the way he did to make it fit the notational constructs properly? Or has the tradition of playing it romantically overshadowed what's written in the score? Of course, there are segments were, dynamically, many performers do the exact opposite of what the composer calls for, and it's hard to make the case that they are following his intention that way.

The point I am getting at is, what's most important? The composer's intention or the performer's own style? I'm not so sure that's even what really matters; I think the most important thing is that the performer is convinced by the interpretation they use and the audience will pick up on that and it will communicate the them. Otherwise, if the performer is unconvinced, how can the audience be?

Something different: recording the guitar at home

I felt like I needed to do some recording, to try to get more gigs, so I started working on that this week. Recording guitar is tricky, especially at home and on a limited budget. I record using my Edirol R-09HR, which is incredibly handy and easy to use. I think it's a great field recorder, but I haven't been happy with its internal mics for recording guitar. Let's face it, the guitar's just not all that loud, and so you either need very sensitive mics, or you need to mic the instrument really closely. These things have resulted in too much background noise, or an unnatural guitar sound.

A few months ago I bought a pair of Naiant X-W mics, which are very affordable and sound great. I have had great success with them for recording flute and fiddle, and recently, my wife's piano trio (piano, violin, cello). These are pretty loud instruments, though, which the guitar isn't. I was still running into the same problem; I had to mic the guitar pretty closely, or get too much background noise. This recording of En Los Trigales was done that way; the mics are about 20 inches away from the guitar, spaced about 6 inches (which, having only one stand, is all I can manage at this point). It is pretty good but, given the mics sensitivity, the echo of my room became a problem on the staccato passages. I masked this a bit by using some digital reverb; in this case, it was TC Electronic's free M30 reverb. In hindsight, I think I used too much and I don't think it sounds very natural. Once upon a time, I had a TC Electronic G-Force, and their PerformanceVerb reverb plugin and loved them. I hate to say it, but I don't think the newer plugin sounds as good.

Joaquin Rodrigo: En Los Trigales by wbajzek

Today, I did some more recording with a different setup; I switched to my CAD m179 mic, set to the hypercardioid pickup pattern. This is a very sensitive mic with a fairly flat response (compared to other mics I have owned), and using this pickup pattern I was able to avoid some of the echo from the side walls. This let me move the mic back to about 3.5 feet away, and I think it picked up the full range of the guitar very clearly without problematic background noise or room echoes.

I was skeptical about recording the guitar in mono, even though I am really fascinated by mono recordings. I knew it could be done but until today I'd never achieved a satisfactory sound that way. In this case, it does sound a bit brighter than I think my guitar actually sounds, but I left that alone, figuring it would just help make the recording clear. It picked up the bass really nice, I think.

I used digital reverb again; this time, the free Lernvall Audio LAConvolver plugin with an impulse response file recorded in a church somewhere. I am really pleased with how this round of recordings turned out; unfortunately it still suffers from ambient sounds, like cars driving by and stuff, but for demo purposes, that's OK. Such is life. I actually had to call it a day as the garbage truck arrived and I knew that the rest of the morning was going to be filled with beeping and crashing noises.

The following two tracks in this post were recorded with this setup. I plan to do more soon, and will experiment further... I may be able to get away with moving the mic a little further away from the guitar, which would help tone down things like nail noises and string squeaks which would not be so prominent in a performance anyway.

Heitor Villa-Lobos: Prelude 3 by wbajzek

I will continue posting clips to my Soundcloud page as I complete them. So far, all of them have been recorded with my Robert Garcia "'37 Hauser" model guitar, with an adirondack spruce top and indian rosewood back and sides. I'm just crazy about this guitar, and love playing it.

Leo Brouwer: Estudios Sencillos 1 & 2 by wbajzek

September 15, 2010

Recent gig post-mortem

I gave a couple of solo performances this past weekend, for the first time in a few years. They went great! The first was as background music for a reception at my local library. It sort of fell out of the sky for me, was a nice warm-up opportunity for me as it happened to be on the night before my scheduled recital. Aside from the incredible hospitality of my hosts, I had some nice comments from the attendees, and found that many of them gathered around me rather than away from me. Always a good sign! Background music gigs are sometimes a bit awkward but I was made to feel very welcome.

The following day, I played at the Burlington, WA public library's concert series. I had seen Noteworthy Duo there a few months ago, and felt like it was a surprisingly great place to perform. It has a very welcoming atmosphere and great acoustics. I am a big believer in the intimacy of live performances and would generally prefer a house concert over a large hall any day, and this place has a living room -like feel to it with acoustics that allow you to hear the music clearly anywhere in the large room.

I played the following program:
  • J. S. Bach: Cello Suite 3 BWV1009
  • Heitor Villa-Lobos: Etude 1
  • Heitor Villa-Lobos: Prelude 3
  • Agustin Barrios Mangore: La Catedral
  • Leo Brouwer: Dos Aires Populares Cubanos
  • Joaquin Rodrigo: En Los Trigales
Aside from the Barrios and Rodrigo, these were all pieces that are new to me as of this year. How did they go? Well, I really like the Brouwer pieces but they didn't seem to fit, somehow. Perhaps they would have been better before La Catedral, to break up the mood a bit, but I have to admit, they just don't feel like "my" pieces. I no longer plan to keep them in my concert repertoire. Brouwer is one of my favorite composers, though, and very influential to my approach to the guitar, so his music will continue to play a role in my repertoire.

I had actually prepared Rodrigo's Sonata a la Espanola, as well, and I wish now that I had played it. The main reason that I didn't was that somehow I managed to go well over-time before I got to it, which is odd because with it, I had clocked my rehearsal performances at 61 minutes. It means that a bit of tuning and a few brief words in between pieces and perhaps a some slower than intended tempi filled up more time than I would have guessed. On the other hand, I still felt a little uneasy about the last movement of the Sonata, and everything that I did play I was able to play with total conviction.

I suppose that is one of the big differences between these performances and the ones I did several years ago; I haven't necessarily studied this music for as long, but I have done so more thoroughly and confidently than before. Part of that comes from the experience I have amassed in the years since, but a lot of it is a change in approach, too.

I have come to understand and appreciate in a deep way, the importance of one's frame of mind while studying, practicing, listening, and performing. This is a direct influence of Kevin Gallagher on me and he writes about it quite a bit on his blog. I think that for me it boils down to the fact that I can have an understanding and intention in mind before I play, and I can look back critically on what I played, but when I play I need to just trust myself to do what I have trained to do. In essence, I played these two performances the same way I play irish flute in social situations ((non-jam) sessions), which is that I listened and enjoyed the music while my body did the work for me.

I think that this is what all accomplished performers do, and is kind of a prerequisite to real musical communication, which I believe I was able to achieve at least some of the time. Everything I have read or heard about performing well can be rephrased or interpreted in this way. For me, it's something new; I have been working on it all year and started finally breaking through the inner-critic and other barriers I've set up over the years and I'm happy to say that these were the best solo-guitar performances I've ever given because I was able to listen to and enjoy every note I played as clearly as if someone it was someone else playing it for me.

July 16, 2010

Things that bear repeating...

I just read a nice blog post from Bob Wooldridge about a concert and workshop given by Jorge Caballero at the GFA convention. There was a nice quote in it:

The workshop started out with Jorge simply asking if anyone had any technical problems that they would like to discuss. But I believe that Jorge was engaging in a somewhat Socratic attempt to shake up our thinking. Several things were suggested as technical problems. Tension, scale velocity, tone, etc.. but Jorge's answer was that these were not really technical but musical. In other words, almost all technical problems are fundamentally musical in nature!
In fact, my teacher Kevin Gallagher said pretty much the same thing to me in my lesson today. I really believe it, and for me it's one of those things that I was starting to grasp and then suddenly it seems like the whole world is shouting it at me.

I can give a really concrete example for it. For a while I've felt like I just wasn't getting out of my guitar what I knew it was capable, in terms of volume and tone. For a while I thought it was because I was trying a different nailshape and wasn't used to it yet, or hadn't gotten it quite right yet. Kevin pointed out to me in a lesson that I was missing some notes in faster passages, or at times they were there but not consistent with the surrounding notes. I started paying a lot more attention to the consistency of volume and tone, not so that everything was even really but so that it fit in better with the "trajectory" of the line. So if I meant to play a line at a given volume level, that all the notes fit in, or if I was making a decrescendo, that each note had the right volume and tone for its place in the line.

Of course it helped right away, but the best thing about this was that it made me pay a lot more attention to the sound I was producing. It made me take the time to listen to things like chords and arpeggios. Did each note in the chord have the right "weight" behind it? Did the voices within the chords sound connected to the adjacent chords, as with the single-note lines mentioned before? Without these details in place, the sound gets unfocused and deteriorates.

Now, this is the kind of thing that if I were to try to think about every detail while I was playing a piece, I wouldn't be able to play it. But in practice, I could take it a bit at a time and start building the correct habit. Obviously, there was technique involved in solving these problems, but the reality is that technique wouldn't make sense without the musical context and that educating the ear and letting the rest follow is often a much easier way to accomplish thing than to focus closely on the mechanical aspect and risk getting distracted from the result.

The result has been that I feel like I'm producing a lot more sound with the guitar, although the reality may be that it seems louder because the music is coming through more clearly. To use another metaphor, you could look at it like an improvement in the signal to noise ratio.

June 18, 2010

Conflicting advice

This is a tricky one. I have a moderate-sized collection of guitar method books, which I like because there's always something interesting to learn from a good one. Sometimes just one new insight can make it worthwhile.

Lately, I've been pondering "The Art of Classical Guitar Playing" by Charles Duncanwhich is loaded with really interesting insight and what sounds, at first glance, like advice which conflicts with other methods I have read. While many authors write about staying as relaxed as possible while playing, Duncan talks about maintaining functional tension (that is, tension which helps your playing) and avoiding dysfunctional tension (which hinders your playing).

This is a bit of a paraphrase, but one specific example I can think of is where he says "an effective playing position is not so much a repose as it is an equilibrium of forces." Meaning that he recommends that rather than finding a totally loose, passive way of holding the guitar, that you instead should use the natural springiness of the body to hold things solidly in place. However, if you were to force yourself into a position resembling the photo in the book without understanding the method behind it, you could very well end up using a lot of dysfunctional tension to maintain that position.

It occurred to me recently, in an email discussion with Philip Hii about his Art of Virtuosity books, that the main differences between what these authors are saying could largely be a matter of terminology and perception. After all, if you truly eliminated all tension in your body, you would pretty much just fall down in a heap. Where one author may say "relaxed," another may say "using balanced forces." This shouldn't be a big revelation but it may account for why seemingly opposite approaches can produce virtuosic results for different authors. They may not really be opposite at all, when you get down to the actual intended experience of playing.

This is why I think that while books have their place, the best "method" is still to find a good teacher and keep an open mind.

June 15, 2010

Pepe Romero & Wilhelm Hellweg play Carulli and Diabelli

This is a recording I really love.

I was really happy to stumble upon it when I did... I don't even remember how I found it, but I have listened to it time and time again and am always inspired by it. I hope it gets a proper CD release some day, along with the rest of Pepe's back catalog.

Visualization followup

I think that unless I have the time to devote my full undivided attention to this process, it's probably best to work in small chunks, probably with overlap. I went for an hour-long walk yesterday and tried to mentally play through the whole Bach cello suite, but it was too hard to maintain my attention with all the sensory input of being outdoors walking around town. I found myself easily distracted by things like crossing the street and trying not to get hit by cars. :)

June 14, 2010


This topic comes up an awful lot, and I'm not going to go into too much detail about the process, per se. Here is a good article on it from Richard Provost's book The Art and Technique of Practice to get you started if you don't know what I mean.

I've been working on Bach's cello suite #3, and as of a week and a half ago, I considered myself successful in memorizing the whole thing... Which was a nice accomplishment for me, since it's the longest single work I have committed to memory so far with the intention to perform. Well, in anticipation of my lesson last week, I recorded it for my teacher and frankly, it was a bit of a disaster.

At first I tried to rationalize it, saying the music is still new to me, and it was first thing in the morning with no warmup, and, being doubtful of the security of my memory, I had the music in front of me "just in case." I didn't put too much stock in the disastrous nature of this recording, because of those factors, but during the lesson it dawned on me that it probably WAS as well as I could have expected to perform it for an audience. There are all sorts of factors going on which can affect a performance, and the reality was that my memory of the piece was not strong enough to pull it off.

That's OK, because the performance is still months away, but I decided to accept this wake up call and get to work on it. I have been using a visualization process in which I play through each movement continuously in my head; hearing each note and feeling the correct fingering for each hand, without hesitation. This means that, for the left hand, I try to "feel" shapes, shifts, and stretches, too, even though my hands are not actually moving. And this, I think is the key; I have used visualization techniques before in the past but (and I thank Eloise Ristad's A Soprano on Her Head: Right-Side-Up Reflections on Life and Other Performances for my current understanding of it) now I am adding this specific muscle "pre-memory" aspect with great success. It has hard to say what is actually going on; it is sort of muscle memory, in that I think you need familiarity with the right kinds of motions to do this, but really what you are doing is imagining what it feels like to go through the motions of playing.

The big "a ha!" for me was after I went through this process for the entire suite twice, once before bed and a second time after I woke up in the morning but before I got up. I got up, had breakfast, went to my practice room and played the entire suite. At first, it was slightly shaky in the prelude, but soon I fell right into the music and played through the whole thing better than I ever have before.

It was not a flawless run-through and I think it would be too much to hope for perfection overnight no matter how many examples the "technique of performance" and similar books use of instantaneous success after a spontaneous insight. Truthfully, I fell a bit short of the "without hesitation" goal even in the visualization process, but that is part of the point; I found where I didn't know the music as well as I should, and was perhaps relying on muscle memory along when playing.

The important thing, though, is that with few exceptions, in that run-through I felt like I could trust my body to play do the motions of playing the music correctly, and I felt more free to perform from my imagination rather than my technique. What's more is that I found that I was more relaxed as I played, breathing easily and playing more effortlessly than before. Whether that came from the sense of security, or the fact that it didn't occur to me to visualize being tense, I don't know. :)

I felt so good about this experience, that I have made it a primary means of working on the music. My approach now is to work through music like this away from the guitar, reinforcing my memory of the piece until I can play it without hesitation. I do this as close to performance tempo as I can manage without losing sight of the details. When I do play on the guitar, I play through as slowly and deliberately as I need to be sure to do it correctly. If something goes wrong, I go over that section again correctly afterwards on its own and then with surrounding context from the piece.

My aim is to do the visualization work and slow practice daily, and play through once at performance tempo after 3-4 times I have played through slowly, to test the process. The process can feel a bit tedious and I think it's important to be able to see and enjoy the progress to maintain the motivation to keep it up.

I began this particular experiment last Tuesday, June 8th. I'll report back on how it's going in another week or two.

May 25, 2010

Coordination vs control

Today I managed to increase my scale speed by nearly 20%. I've done a lot of right hand work lately, but what seems to have done it today is a shift in thinking, to use relaxed sympathetic motion instead of trying to 'activate' the fingers individually. In other words, instead of thinking of i&m alternating, to move them as a unit led by one or the other, and conceptually, aiming for relaxed coordination rather than exerted control.

I put together an exercise to work on this, which has done the trick for me. Work on each group separately, lightly and quickly as possible, and preparing each motion at the earliest opportunity. Feel each repetition as a single impulse, and allow yourself to relax completely after each rep before repeating. Don't worry about working with a metronome, just see how fast you can do it. When it feels natural, try some scales and try to maintain the same mental and physical state.

This is a different way of working than I presented in my recent post about developing the right hand. I am having dramatically faster results with this new way of working, but I can't say for sure whether it should replace the other way or be used in tandem.

May 1, 2010


I'm reading another frustrating forum discussion about "am I limited because of ____"? The usual answers equate to, "of course you are. Just enjoy living within your limitation." The implied message is, "why even try?"

Think of these two statements:
a) My potential is inevitably limited.
b) My potential is eventually unlimited.

Which is more likely to get you motivated?

March 16, 2010

Developing the right hand

I found some pieces recently I would like to learn with tremolo passages, but I've never had a good tremolo in spite of years of attempting various techniques for working on it. My new theory is that I need to develop the weaker side of my hand, and I've come up with a good way to work on that which is working great so far.

The first set of exercises begins with playing 1-2-3-4 with the left hand. Starting on the 6th string at the first fret, 1-2-3-4, repeat on the 5th string, 4th, 3rd, 2nd, 1st, then up a fret and back across string by string to the 6th. Repeat this pattern all the way up the neck until you have the 4th finger at the 1st string 12th fret. From there, the pattern is reversed, descending 4-3-2-1 and descending back down the neck the same way it was climbed. You should end with the 1st finger on the first fret on the 6th string again. This is a fairly standard pattern of exercise which most will recognize right away.

The right hand fingering with this is a strictly repeated a-m-i the whole way. So beginning on the 6th strings, you'll play a-m-i-a, then on the 5th, m-i-a-m, i-a-m-i on the 4th, etc. I do this all with light rest strokes to keep the motions small and precise. If you're like me, you'll probably find that it becomes more difficult to coordinate this on the way back down the neck when the left hand pattern is reversed. I think this is because the brain will at first decide that both hands are playing the same pattern, and you will need to do the exercise slowly enough to gently and carefully convince your mind that the patterns are in fact separate. As this becomes comfortable, you can use different left-hand patterns... 1-3-2-4 ascending with 4-2-3-1 descending, 1423/3241, 1432/2341, etc.

The first exercise doesn't have to be completely mastered before going on but I think it's worth developing that for a while first. The next exercise uses exactly the same left hand fingerings as the first, but the right hand uses p-a-m-i for each group of four for the entire exercise. As that become comfortable, try (again with the same left hand pattern) using a-m-i-p for each group of four, then m-i-p-a and finally i-p-a-m. This will present tricky string crossings which will take a while to master.

The next step along the way is to practice scales using these same right-hand fingering patterns. This will again make for a variety of tricky string crossings and it will take some time to get comfortable with them. I begin with the standard "Segovia" fingerings for the scales and then progress from there, perhaps as follows although I think that there will be diminishing returns when it comes to spending a lot of time progressing through similar patterns.


As you go through these exercises, periodically try some simple tremolo exercises to see how you are progressing. I've come to believe a sentiment expressed by teacher Paul Croft on the classical guitar forum, essentially that good tremolo follows from good right hand technique. I don't mean to say you shouldn't practice tremolo on its own, but the exercises I've presented above are designed to develop the kinds of coordination and concentration that will help build that balanced right hand technique. I have personally made quicker progress by practicing this regimen than I had by practicing Giuliani arpeggios and tremolo in isolation.

One last thing I want mention is that a lot of us succumb to the temptation to mainly use p, i, and m for most of our music. Indeed, a lot guitar music particularly in the early stages is playable without making substantial use of a. I think it is worth fingering pieces so that a is used as frequently as m and i, if possible. Even if it is not necessary to the piece, it will be a great benefit to one's technique overall.

This post owes a debt of gratitude to Alice Artzt's book, "The Art of Practicing." In it, she describes more or less the same kinds of exercises, and a system for devising many more along the same lines. The exercises I presented here are inspired by her method and are ones that have been working well for me so far.