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Monday, June 10, 2019

How to REALLY learn a piece - Allemande or die!

I guess we've all heard the excellent advice from our guitar teachers: spend the time on the hard bits, take it slow enough to play it right, record yourself, listen back to that recording, no- listen back to that recording with the score; yes and remember to mark the score with the bits to practice.   I have to say I've done some of all of these in the past, but maybe not of all of them.  But the Bach finally forced the issue  - it was obvious I couldn't fumble my way through it  - there were just so many challenges: finger sequencing to stop various strings from ringing, bringing out different voices, fretting things that were difficult for my hands, maintaining legato, dynamics, not breaking up the musical line... keeping in time.... the list goes on!  Our group (named by one enterprising individual "the Allemanders") decided to forge ahead with more sections of the Bach after the official challenge finished, and meantime I have been working on the first half too, and trying to relearn another piece for a masterclass with a number of challenges I had never completely sorted out.  Time is limited.  My hands can't do the number of hours practice that might be require using my old techniques.  Time to get it together.  First I recorded the other piece (I'll call it piece "B) on my phone, warts and all.  Then I identified all the parts where I was stumbling on the score, took each of them very slowly and tried to figure out why I was failing and what needed to be done to correct the issue.  Then, and here's the crucial difference, I took it another step - I wrote down the problems as a list, noting the specific problem and what I had come up with to solve it.  It looks something like this:

MM 2 and subsequent: Barre damping off one note.  Solution - place barre finger further back
MM 16  late transition as key changes: memory issue - practice just the transition
MM 23 Em descending scale campanella: damping off 4th string while fretting  5th : solution - move hand further over to keep finger more upright.
MM30-33  Confusing section with changing rhythm, positions and RH finger sequence: practice each transition separately, practice RH alone, memorize the start notes for each position.
MM  35-36: damping off notes bc of big stretch: solution - fret notes off fret so fingers can reach.
MM 37 late to harmonic, it sometimes doesn't sound right:  practice just the transition.  Remember to touch i first before trying play harmonic with a.
MM 42  hesitation - practice transition
MM  44 memory slip in upper position - practice super slowly, memorize notes,  so not relying just on the sequence.

A lot of work?  Perhaps - actually it took much less time to write it in my notebook as I used many fewer words!   So now when I come to practice the piece, I go to my list, review what I'm supposed to be doing differently.  Then I practice those measures, finishing with linking them up to adjacent parts of the music.  I'm making progress - wish me luck I get it solid  enough for a masterclass in a couple of weeks!

Thursday, May 9, 2019

BWV 996 Allemande excerpt to show progress over 1 month

Well it’s been a busy few months. Orchestra had 3 concerts at the beginning of  May and is now done for a while, and finals of beginner music theory loom next week. My ears can’t say they are well trained but they hear more than they used to.  On to the next thing...
Started to work on materials for grade 7, which apparently involves actually understanding the music rather than just learning the notes, so all the music theory may be useful after all.

This month, the classical guitar corner academy set a challenge: take a prescribed section of one of the pieces of the grade repertoire, and work on it for a month. Make one video a week to document progress and get feedback. My piece is the last 6 measures of Bach’s Allemande, BWV 996. After some discussion about voices, etc. my GT suggested making a video to demo what I was trying to achieve for this week’s video. I briefly thought about doing this via musescore.com, but rapidly ditched that idea because I haven’t yet figured out how to put several voices on one staff in musescore. So back to technology I can handle. As sleep was a faithless friend this morning I got up at some ridiculously early hour to put the pieces together. How? First I marked up a copy of the music with highlighters to isolate the voices/repeating motifs.  Then I used my iphone to take pictures of each measure. These came out pretty dim, so I edited them with photoshop, then dragged them into my favorite  video editor ( movavi). Then it was merely a matter of recording the section on the iPhone using the twisted wave app, exporting the .wav file to movavi and lining things up. OK I accidentally chopped off a bit of the music, my lining up is a bit approximate,  and I’m still working on the playing aspect, but for a couple hours work it didn't turn out that badly... hopefully with a week’s practice next week’s video will be more polished!


Edit:  so we are a couple of weeks on, and I thought it would be interesting to post progress.  In the meantime, I've been reading " The practice of practice" book by Jonathan Harnum.   One of the things he talks about in the early chapters is how music practice can incorporate many other things apart from sitting down with your guitar and playing - including listening to others play the piece.  I'm always fascinated by how my listening changes as I get to know a piece, and although I had listened to a number of versions of the Allemande before starting to learn it, going back and listening again was illuminating now that I can think about other things apart from just playing the notes. Where exactly should the crescendos (and decrescendos) fall?  Which voices or notes should be brought out? How much rubato? The 2 versions I listen to most on YT are Matthias Lang and Classicalguitar2.  The first is a virtuosic rendition, encompassing superb phrasing, perfectly controlled dynamics and speed with considerable rubato.  The second to my ears has less fire and excitement, but with its slower more nuanced approach suits me better.  Both bring out a part of the melody I hadn't noticed before, so the current challenge is to incorporate that.  Regardless,  I'm going to keep working on it and listen again for what pops out in another couple of weeks, but here is where it is now. 
Final update: a little late on this, but more to come in the next post.  This is where it went after another 2 weeks - still slow, but a bit more fluid.

Saturday, February 2, 2019

Yikes! music theory is not quite what I expected

I am the epitome of a guitar hobbyist - I delve into things as they interest me, and  usually launch myself at them with little thought of an overall plan.  This, up to now, is how I've pursued my classical guitar hobby.  However as I pass the 5 year mark taking CG lessons with the same teacher (who apparently has the patience of a saint), I am determined to learn a little more apart from how to sequence my fingers to make a pleasant sound on the guitar.  As I have now officially retired from my full time position, I have been able to enroll in music theory 101 in a local college.  The class is small, and as expected, I'm the only old person in the class.  That being said, because the students are all different - performance majors, education majors, music minors... with instruments varying from clarinet to percussion to voice,  it's quite an eclectic group even without me.    So far the theory is pretty basic, but moving fast - in a couple of lessons we've already been through the major scales in every key, plus notation in treble and bass clefs.  I'm glad I remember something from piano lessons as a kid because everything is based on the piano keyboard.  I tell myself this is because the piano is so much easier than the guitar. πŸ˜‰

The challenging part is the ear training. Who knew that singing solfege was going to be a major part of it?  Oh well - it's other peoples' ears that will suffer.  Actually the ear training is the main reason I'm doing it in person rather than online - I'd probably do fine with an online theory course such as that offered by ABRSM, but the ear training is another matter. I figure it's got to help my playing (and my eventual goal to arrange music for the guitar)  to be able to "hear' the music without actually playing it ...

Progress forward on actually 'playing' the guitar has come to a grinding halt.  While life is getting in the way, I'm taking a break from trying to inch my playing up a notch and instead am going back to relearn some easier pieces.  First on the docket is Birds Flew over the Spire by Gary Ryan.  It would be nice if I can do a more convincing performance of it with the benefit of a couple of years practice.  We shall see.  I've also been half-heartedly looking through the pieces for orchestra, which are great pieces that however are full of funky Latin rhythms ( I can just see the conductor getting increasingly steamed as we totally botch it).  Today's project is to get some of them into musescore because  counting just isn't cutting it...

Friday, December 21, 2018

There are goals and there are GOALS.

Instructional sites are full of advice about using practice goals:   "Set a goal for every practice session";  "clearly state your short-, medium- , and long-term goals"; "work out your long term goals and work backwards to schedule the work towards them", "list your goals on practice log and mark off how many times you work on them"; "break your goals down into small bite-sized chunks";  "Make your goals so that your practice can always end on success"; "if you can't achieve your goal, make it smaller, go slower!" And the list goes on.  But there are some things that involve a shift in mindset, a difficult new technique, or more flexibility or strength that will take weeks or months for the penny to drop --  how do you have goals for those?   I've been thinking about this while I've been sweating my way through one painful measure at a time of a Bach piece - each measure taking me days to figure out and make my fingers do it (and then I promptly forget and have to go over it again).  Yes I can break it down into smaller goals (figure out which notes need to be damped, work out the fingering that allows me to do it, practice at a speed that will allow me to do it, figure out which notes need to be emphasized, etc)   But there is so little progress in a given practice session that it's hard to feel like it was successful.  And you know what?  You really do need a little success to encourage you to keep plugging away at it!

So is there another way to approach this?   I had the same realization when I made myself practice sight-reading.  In my case I don't see any obvious progress from day to day or even week to week.  So I set myself a goal of working my way through sight reading materials every day, the goal being to do it for 15 minutes.   Once the need to achieve a perfect read-through was taken away, I found it much more fun to do it, and often the 15 minutes stretched to 30 minutes.  And after a while there WAS progress  - but it crept up so slowly I didn't notice it (but when I did, there was a real sense of achievement!)  The secret there seems to be just to put the time in, and when enough incremental progress has been made that there is finally an achievable goal, then, and only then, set the goal.

Even though I wrote this down, I still had a hard time making myself practice the Bach - a week went by while I ignored it,  Today it was almost back to square one.  However just like parking a thumb on the string and thumb damping, I'm hopeful it will eventually click.  In the meantime, I'll just practice a measure for 15 minutes at a time and see what happens...

Friday, December 14, 2018


Someone mentioned feeling overloaded with music books the other day, and I thought to myself -that's exactly how I'm feeling with respect to learning to play...  Even though I don't have to deal with exams or others' expectations, my own internal expectations mandate that I should somehow be progressing faster (or at all, maybe).

 I think part of it is how difficult I'm finding the music I'm currently learning.  I spent over an hour trying to work out how to play one measly measure this morning, and even then I'm not sure I came up with a good solution.  And what about the seasonal music I promise myself I'll learn every year then leave till it's too late?  And my poor duet partner has probably given up on me because I still haven't got around to learning the music.  Then there's all the new orchestra music that's about to arrive.  Not to mention I'm still trying to learn to sight read and figure out how to arrange things......  

I think it's time for some triage.  Either I drop everything else for a while while I concentrate on getting a handle on the hard stuff, or I give the hard stuff a break, learn a Christmas tune or two, and do some enjoyable messing around. As my GT is on break for a few weeks, I'm beginning to think it's the ideal time for the second option 😁 

Monday, November 19, 2018

It's that time of year again...

Even though I often feel like I'm standing still in my guitar playing (or worse, going backwards!) looking back over a longer period, I can see that progress is actually being made. 

Last year I made the list of the 10 most useful things I learned - I think they bear repeating (see end) but this year I'm going to do a round up of the 5 things I accomplished this year (and what got me there)

1. I got to play in public.  This was a big deal.  Before then I rarely managed to play for anyone without collapsing with nerves.   It took a series of steps, the initial one (I would never have thought of) suggested by my teacher - ie practicing playing a piece through in lessons very, very slowly.  Over several weeks I was able to ramp up the speed until I was actually playing it at tempo in lessons, then in online masterclasses and finally in an open mic.  It's still not great, but the most useful thing is I really did get used to making mistakes and continuing to play - and not getting too bent out of shape about it.
2. I passed my level 3 certificate (grade 6).  This involved working on pieces for months not weeks, and running the entire set every day for weeks before recording it.
3. I got really comfortable using the phone as a practice tool.   Record - listen - did I actually get the tempo steady or am I still speeding up? Can anyone else apart from me hear the dynamics?
4. I started to play duets  - first with my teacher, then with other players.  I played a duet at the open mic at 2 summer camps, and recently got asked by others, so I'll be working on this in the coming year.  I enjoy duets, it is a change from solo practice, it's not quite so stressful to play in public (though it's stressful enough) and the final result can be more complex than a solo at my level would be.
5. I signed up for music classes at our local university.   This involved getting over the feeling that I wouldn't be good enough, and just giving it a try - they say turning up is 90% of the battle, so I'm showing up in January πŸ˜„ - just theory at this point, but you never know...

And here is last year's list of the most useful things I learned with a few tweaks...

1.  Sometimes the best only way to keep in time is to count along with yourself.  
2.  Work out the fingering and write it in.  
3. Playing super slowly really helps with memorization AND errors.  
4. Don't ignore the score after you've memorized the piece
5. Practicing things 4x in a row correctly before moving on
6. If you can't seem to 'get' the LH fingering, check the RH!   
7. Start learning the dynamics and articulation sooner
8. If it's not working after a number of iterations, rework it.
9. Recording yourself is really really really useful. YEP!
10. Work up pieces until they are solid enough that they don't  fall apart under performance pressure - that means playing them super slowly without getting lost, playing them with eyes closed, visualizing, whatever it takes.   

Saturday, November 17, 2018

How many ways are there to damp a string?

This is my current nightmare.  Other people might lie awake pondering car problems or how to avoid having to deal with the leaky roof but me, I try to wrap my head around how to damp guitar strings.  (Actually I worry about leaky roofs and strange noises in my car too, but that's beside the point).
I've been familiar with damping bass strings for a while - but now I'm looking at damping any open string, which means treble strings too.  It's proving something of a challenge, so I thought I'd sit down and list all the ways I know currently.

Bass strings thumb
- if the thumb is moving to the next highest string, then its pretty easy to touch the ringing string with the  thumb while playing the next  note.
- and if not adjacent, you can still use the side of the thumb to damp the bass strings though it involves moving your hand
- you can put your thumb back down on the note you just  played
- if you’re moving the other way, from eg D to E string, you can go back and damp with the thumb after playing the next note

- If moving to the next lowest string, eg E to B string as you play the B string note  you can flatten the left hand finger so it touches the higher string
- with the right hand you can drop another finger onto the string, e.g. play B string note with m and simultaneously drop a onto the E...
- you can use fretted notes instead of open strings -
- you can place a left hand finger early onto a fret you will soon be playing
- I guess you could reach  over and stop a bass string with the left hand

I’m still experimenting with this stuff so I’m sure there are more ways to learn - and all I can say is that it makes it exponentially  harder to figure out which fingers to use! And that doesn’t even begin to address  the question of which notes - really- need to be stopped and which can  inoffensively ring over😳