April 29, 2011

Sustained notes within a line

This has come up a few times for me recently, and while it's not an original idea, I thought I'd share it for those who don't know about it.

Classical guitar is a rather percussive instrument with quick decay, and often times the music we play has notes written within a line which are far longer than the instrument will actually sustain. Yet, when you hear this music played by a great guitarist (whose expensive guitar may or may not offer an extra millisecond of sustain), the line sounds unbroken.

There are tricks for increasing sustain, vibrato can help, but this is what really makes it work. You need to match the next note to the memory of the attack and tone of the sustained note. Otherwise, if you accent it too much or too little, you may give the impression that you're starting a new phrase.

Also, sometimes (especially in baroque or renaissance music), a voice can disappear for several measures before returning. To my ears, it's particularly effective when, for example, a piece with three voices sounds like they're the same three voices throughout. This doesn't mean there can't be dynamics or variation in the tone color, it's a matter of intention and attention to detail. I noticed this effect a lot with Paul Galbraith's Bach recordings.

What it all boils down to is that you should make a goal of matching the sound your create with the instrument with the intention you've got in your head. Then you just need to listen a lot to great music and educate your imagination.


PS: I've concluded my video project, as I have to finish moving out of my house and am just too busy for the next few days. I will keep posting music I work on periodically, so please subscribe to my Youtube channel.

Here's a link to the playlist with all 13 videos I made this month.

April 22, 2011

Get off to a good start

I've discovered through my video project that I've been able to play (and record) pieces that I've worked on for only a day as well or better than ones I've worked on for months or years. It's not comfortable to admit that, but now that I know this, I can make progress and hopefully help others who are in the same boat.

You see, usually I would sight read through various pieces I liked from time to time, to gauge my readiness for a given piece. If I could play all of it, I would decide it was OK to start learning it. 

The problem was, I had unwittingly already started learning it in a lazy and unfocused manner and I'd probably ignored the fingerings, missed some dynamic markings, etc, figuring it was OK because I would address them when I started learning the piece for real. But I'd built in some habits already, and then readying a piece for performance was a process of unlearning the errors and shaping the piece the way I wanted it. 

Well, I've had no time for that, so I had to just decide on an overall interpretation for the piece, break it down into manageable chunks and then commit to getting them to sound how I wanted ASAP. Then I could put the whole thing together and refine things from a more solid state of preparation.

The lesson is this: The more attention paid and intention invested in the details at the beginning of the process, the quicker, better, and more consistent the results. 

April 15, 2011

Video project

As I've mentioned before, I am working on a project to make a video every day (when possible) for the rest of April 2011. I'm having a great time with it, and heartily encourage others to give it a try. Here's a link to my Youtube playlist for this project. I invite you to subscribe to my channel!

Here is my process:
  1. Choose a piece (or related pieces), preferably something relatively simple and unfamiliar to me. They will very in difficulty but will need to be short enough to not require page turning, and should not have more than a few technical difficulties. 
  2. Record myself sightreading it.
  3. Analyze the result; make note of any difficulties, determine interpretation.
  4. Isolate technical issues and practice
  5. Refine interpretation
  6. Record again and post!
The audio will be somewhat close-mic'd (2-3 feet away) and will remain unprocessed.

The end result probably won't be perfect, but one thing I have learned from performing is that at some point you just have to let the music out into the world. The sooner and more often, the better.

I've just started, but here are some random things I have learned or been reminded of so far:
  • Recording yourself is good, especially with video, but doing it frequently is even better. The feedback you get is incredibly helpful.
  • Give yourself a deadline every now and then to help you focus. A recital, open mic, video recording, etc. 
  • I need to pay more attention to my right hand fingerings. I'm surprised by how much I repeat fingers, although left to its own devices, my hand will start alternating once it becomes necessary to achieve the necessary speed.   
  • Left-hand positioning is really important. I don't think there's one universally "perfect" position, but if you're making a shift (for example) make sure you land in a position that's advantageous for what you're about to play. 
  • You can learn a lot about your playing by watching your face while you play.

April 7, 2011

Whose art is it anyway?

Take a piece like Villa Lobos's Prelude #3, and compare several recordings of it to the score if you have it. There is a sort of "traditional" interpretation of this piece, in which performances tend to follow a similar (to each other) contour of dynamics and rubato, to the point where the rhythms you will hear no longer really resemble what the composer notated.

There's a similar sort of tradition with Sor's famous B minor study, Opus 35 #22. My copy of "Complete Sor Studies" has the tempo marked Allegretto. Every 19th century copy I've seen of the piece says Allegretto... Yet there seems to be a contest amongst performers to be give the slowest performance of it.

That study clearly works well when played slowly. Sor could have written "Andante" and no one would have thought differently of it. But he didn't. So does everyone who plays it slowly do it because they spent time with the piece and decided slow was best? Or was it because that's what they were used to? Maybe Segovia's edition has a slower tempo marking.

Prelude #3 works just fine when played with that particular pattern of rubato. But I was actually surprised when I read through it the first time, that some of the written rhythms were so different from what I was used to hearing and I can't help but think that if HVL would have written them differently if that was what he really wanted. We should at least consider that. Somehow I doubt that everyone that plays it that way studied the score, and chose to play it exactly that way because of the contents of the score.

We can get so accustomed to hearing a certain type of interpretation of a piece that when played strictly as written it sounds amazingly wrong. Don't be afraid to play something differently from how it's written, if that's what moves you, but consider whether you're making your own artistic choices or letting someone else do it for you.

April 1, 2011

Between the notes

We need to develop technique so we can communicate with our listeners. We often get caught up in what is cool, or difficult, or whatever, but that's not really worth much if it doesn't help us communicate.

We can work endlessly on scales, arpeggios, slurs, tremolo, etc, but that's just where technique starts. Real technique is attention to the details that make the music come alive. Virtuosity is mastery of the details of those details.

Listen to some great flamenco guitarists, and notice when they buzz notes. It's not random and it's not merely because of the setup of their guitars. It's integral to the feel of the music. You learn that by listening.

Listen to when a singer or flute player breathes, and the sound of the breath. That's part of the music.

As a fan and player of irish music, I can't tell you how obvious it is when I hear someone who thinks that all there is to the music is playing the notes. I could learn flamenco falsetas from a book but to a real flamenco afficionado it's just going to sound like a classical guitarist reading the notes. It has to have the right feel, and you learn that by listening.

When people say "music is in the space between the notes," they don't just mean the rests. They mean that the notes are one of many aspects of music, and they all require our attention.