January 28, 2011

Always have a positive musical intent

Philip Hii has been putting up a series of posts about speed and fluidity on his "Art of Virtuosity" blog recently. They're all great, so go check them out (when you're done reading this post!).

There's a section in his "Rebound" post that I wanted to look at:
If you find that you’re not rebounding quickly or that you’re hampered by a lack of speed in your plucking, you might want to check if lack of fluidity could be the culprit.
Make sure that as you play, you do not stop the finger at any point, especially when you have to rebound ie. change direction to bring it back to playing position again.
If you are, try moving the fingers upward after you pluck and rebound in a circular trajectory as described above. You might be surprised by the results.
Fluidity is at the heart of all efficient movement and is absolutely crucial for speed and power.
 -Philip Hii
I think that a lot of times teachers try to convey to students that they shouldn't pluck the strings upwards away from the top of the guitar, which is something that a lot of people instinctively do for fear or getting "stuck" on the next string. "Don't pluck upwards" can eventually get thought of as "there shouldn't be any upward motion."

But somehow you have to clear the string on the way back to playing position, and I think that no matter how you conceptualize it, there will need to be some upward motion. Following Philip's advice will help you understand the whole motion you're working on rather than leaving some of it to chance.

Bicycling exercise

What Philip talks about reminds me of something I read in Pepe Romero's "Guitar Style and Technique" book. Sadly, it is long out of print and I have only been able to borrow it, so I will just paraphrase; Pepe recommends, as an exercise, moving your right hand fingers in circles as through you're pedaling a tiny bicycle.

I have seen it said that this motion should be "avoided at all costs," presumably because if you pluck the string upward, you will get a thin and weak tone... but if you already know how to make a good sounding stroke, it shouldn't be a problem to coordinate the motion so that the upwards portion doesn't begin too soon.

Which brings me too...

Always have a positive musical intent

It's important to work on technique by itself but it always helps to have a musical intent when you do it. I have noticed at times that I can play, for example, scale passages faster in a piece than I could when practicing scales on their own. The perception of difficulty often makes things harder than they really are because when we focus on what we don't want to happen. If you focus instead on what you do want, you'll probably get it quicker.


PS: I have several upcoming gigs in the Seattle area, although the only gig that's really "public" is at the Burlington, WA public library from 2-3pm. But for those of you attending the recital-type performances, here's what I'm playing:
  • Rodrigo: En Los Trigales
  • Turina: Fandanguillo
  • Villa-Lobos: Prelude 3
  • Barrios: Julia Florida, La Catedral
  • Bach: Cello Suite BWV 1009
  • Llobet: Plany
At at least two of these performances, there will be a piano present, so with my wife Angeline I'll also be playing: 
  • Vivaldi: Trio Sonata rv82
  • Rodrigo: Españoleta (from Fantasia Para Una Gentilhombre)

January 21, 2011

You have to REALLY listen

"Concerts undoubtedly have great value in developing the student technically and mentally; but too often they have a directly contrary effect. I think there is a very doubtful benefit to be derived from the present habit, as illustrated in New York, London, or other centers, of the student attending concerts, sometimes as many as two or three a day. This habit dwarfs the development of real appreciation, as the student, under these conditions, can little appreciate true works of art when he has crammed his head so full of truck, and worn out his faculties of concentration until listening to music becomes a mechanical mental process. The _indiscriminate_ attending of concerts, to my mind, has an absolutely pernicious effect on the student."
-Albert Spalding, from "Violin Mastery" by Frederick Martens, 1919

It's difficult for me to imagine a world where one could attend two to three concerts a day, but now we could just substitute "listen to your iPod."

Immersion is important

I feel a bit conflicted writing this, because I used to listen to irish traditional music almost all day long at work, and I think it was a big help for me to build up my repertoire of tunes. There are many hundreds of tunes I can play pretty well on the flute that I put no conscious effort into learning. 

I'm convinced that immersing myself in the music of that tradition was crucial to learning it, as it would be with any form of music. After all, listening to music is fundamental for a musician, in order to develop a sense of style and continuity. 

Saturation is the problem

However, it's really easy now to listen to music all day long, and to get into the habit of listening passively. You may be fooling yourself into thinking you're picking up on the details when you're not. It's not a big step to go from "listening passively" to "barely listening at all."

Listening to yourself while you practice and perform is crucial to success. When you're accustomed to "barely listening at all" to music, you may find it hard to listen to yourself while you play, especially if you are already struggling with confidence issues.

You have to REALLY listen!

I discovered about year ago that I was sort of bracing my ears as I played, hiding from the sounds I was making. I found that when I wanted to play something loudly, I ended up not really hearing it at all. It was a total shock to realize this, but it explained a lot about how different my music actually sounded from what I wanted to it to sound like. 

I decided to take drastic (and almost painful) action. For several months, I stopped listening to music almost altogether. The only exception was when I could give all my attention to the music. I would sit on the floor in front of the stereo and listen to one piece at a time, following along in the score whenever possible. (YouTubeimslp.org and the Boije Collection are a great resources for this.)

I wasn't prepared for how quiet and weird my world became, compared to what I was used to. Almost immediately, though, I became aware of all manners of subtleties in the music that I listened to that I had never heard before. I began to hear what makes an interpretation work or not. I began to open up my ears to my own music again, and appreciate how much I really wasn't hearing.

That doesn't sound like me!

I've heard so many people say (and I've said it myself) that they're surprised by what they really sound like, when they listen back to a recording they've made of themselves. If you don't hear what it really sounds like while you're playing, you need to work on your listening skills.

Recording yourself is a helpful and important tool (and I encourage it), but it's not a substitute for being present in the moment while you're playing.

January 14, 2011

Louis Drouët: On the Method of Finishing a Piece

Some food for thought today culled from Louis Drouët's 1830 method for playing the flute. I left the pre-Victorian ESL wording alone, because I find it amusing, but the advice is good:

 On the Method of Finishing a Piece
"The word finish, as employed here, means to bring to perfection. Thus to finish a piece is to labour at it, until it is executed with much purity in the style, as well as neatness in the execution.
"To finish a piece, the question is not to play it to the end, to begin it again afresh and then tune and to continue thus for several days in succession, hoping to bring it to perfection by an execution of this kind. By such a mode of proceeding men become blinded to the piece which they study; they conclude by playing with coldness, and by executing the passages with rapidity, but without neatness; they become habitual to the defects of execution, which occur in the difficult passages, so much so, that they are unfelt by the performer though they strike the ears of his audience in the most glaring manner.
"The following is the shortest method to learn well and speedily, a piece of music that is to be performed in public.  
"It is necessary in the first place to play it once or twice successively, to have a true conception of its general effects. Of the degree of movement which is best adapted to aid it, and in a word that which tends most to identify it with the composer. After this first operation, should be recommenced slowly, a pause should be made at every period, every phrase, and even at every bar; all the details should be laboured with the greatest ease till the performer has acquired the tact of giving the composition every degree of elegance, grace, and dignity; and to display the brilliant passages with the most striking neatness, energy, and splendour. Afterwards from time to time the piece should be performed as if it were executed before the public."
- Louis Drouët, London 1830

January 7, 2011

What is expression?

Breaking rules for the sake of breaking rules isn’t usually art; it’s just anarchy. And following rules for the sake of following rules is just mindless conformity.
- David duChemin, "Don't Break the Rules" 
For a while now, I've been following photographer David duChemin's blog. This recent post from him really hit the nail on the head. I think the kind of expression a lot of guitarists have come to equate with "soul" is what duChemin aptly calls "anarchy."

Communicating with the audience

An expressive performance creates, for the listener, the feeling that the composer and/or performer wants them to experience.

It doesn't mean holding a chord a bit longer, hitting some note louder, speeding up, or slowing just because you're trying to "express yourself" and that's how you feel it. That might fool a superficial listener, but it's not going to hold up in the long run.

There are certain conventions that have evolved over the course of music history in order to accomplish this goal of creating an effect for the listener. This is where ritardandi, rallentandi, accelerandi, accent, dynamics, etc come in to play. This is phrasing.

If you don't understand these things and aren't using these things appropriately, there's a very good chance you're not really communicating with your audience effectively.

Learn the "why"

If these things are applied too clinically or carefully, they may still fail to communicate fully, but they will probably still produce a more convincing performance for the audience than when they are used "intuitively" but inappropriately. 

duChemin offers some great advice, too, for the artist or musician who wants to develop a genuine sense of expression. Think "musical expression" when he says "photographic expression":
Art created in adherence to rules is art about rules, not about passion or beauty or any other thing about which humans have made honest art over the centuries. 
That’s not to say there aren’t helpful principles, but they are only that. They’re guides to help us make our decisions, but divorced from the Why, separated from the reason they became rules in the first place, they’re more a shackle than a permission to experiment and express. I know the usual response to this discussion is that you have to know the rules first, then you can break them; I think that’s baloney too. Just knowing the rules is useless. We need to understand the principles of photographic expression, the reasons these rules came into play to begin with in the first place, then use or ignore them in the service of our vision as we need.
 - David duChemin

A mercifully brief rant

I started thinking about writing this post when I watched William Kanengiser play Sor's B minor etude and read the comments:
  • It is dry to say the least.He plays Sor with an
    Art Deco approach....beautiful tones and longlines.
    Lacking all the Accelerandi,Rallentando,and
    varying beat placement,dynamic contrast,and as
    you say ...color contrast....it is totally
  • like a midi
Now, anyone capable of listening to this recording objectively will hear plenty of accelerandi,  rallentandi, and everything else smithsherman claims are not there. These things are not even subtle, and sometimes they're pretty dramatic. 

So why are they undetectable to loadermen, smithsherman, and the 56 thumb-uppers? It's no wonder classical guitarists in general still have a poor reputation compared to other musicians.