Popular Posts

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😳

Thursday, November 15, 2018

What has Marilyn Monroe to do with my guitar playing?

She starred in a movie called 'The 7 Year Itch'! 
Whaaaat? - Patience!  All will be revealed in due course -

 When I started learning guitar I had a simple goal - to play some tunes on the guitar.  Although I started with a steel string, within a few months I switched to nylon, partly because I was taking group lessons with a classical teacher and partly because I found myself attracted to the beautiful sound of the classical guitar.   My goals, however, were still pretty much the same - play some tunes (and enjoy getting there).   But as time went on a funny thing happened - the more I learned, the more problems I started to hear. [Here I have to note that I'm surprised professionals don't wince the whole time they are listening students play -- on second thoughts, perhaps they do!]   So pretty early on my goals morphed into not only learning more difficult 'tunes' but also refining my playing so that it was less wince-worthy.    And I wondered to myself - as an older learner - how far could I get before my body let me down?   Yep - Type A personality here.   I finally settled on aiming to reach a playing standard of grade 8.  It seemed a sufficiently distant, though arbitrary, goal at the time.  Of course I didn't actually tell anyone (it was after all, rather a lofty goal given my age and lack of natural aptitude).

So I've held onto this "goal" over the last few years, but it might be time to reassess. Why?  A number of reasons:  I've been learning CG for 5 years, and if past history is anything to go by I will need to give my playing a new direction within the next couple of years.  I'm still just as addicted to learning CG (OK maybe now I sometimes give myself the occasional day off) but 7 years tends to be the length of my attention span for hobbies -gardening, flying small planes, speed skating...   (See, I did eventually get around to telling you what the title had to do with the subject, if only distantly πŸ˜‚) Also I'm going to be working on grade 7 material this winter, which means my glorified and distant goal might actually be attainable.  I love to play the guitar.  It still provides me with entertainment, stress relief, new friends, and a sense of satisfaction/achievement so I really don't want it to succumb, either to the '7 year itch', or to a sense of being 'done' if and when I get to grade 8.

Is it enough just to 'stay on the path' and ditch goals altogether?  Perhaps, but realistically I'm not good at standing still: I need something to aim for.  For now, grade 8 fits the bill,  however it may in fact be at or beyond the limit of my physical ability.  So I'm thinking about new directions and possibilities to take my hobby.  At least one goal is certain: not to succumb to the 7 year itch!

Friday, October 26, 2018


There are some things in life that are immutable.  In my case, new things are a struggle.  Once I get into something it's full speed ahead, but getting started is always tough.   How does this relate to CG?  After passing my Level 3 Certificate exam through CGC (grade 6)  I  thought I would charge right ahead with new pieces, perhaps tackling the next set of exercises and new repertoire for grade 7.  But wait! there are whole bunch of new skills to learn, such as being sure that individual melody voices don't ring over (what? treble strings?), and of course finally getting to grips with real dynamics and tonal variation.   Turns out that I wasn't really ready to get started these challenges quite yet.  For an interesting read on the interaction between work, fun, and drudgery, click on the graphic above, where the horizontal axis is what's driving us to do something (ourselves or someone else) and the vertical axis is how rewarding it is.  I'm not sure anything in CG really should be because someone else says we should do it, but it's worth checking if 'work' tasks are we really need to be doing to further our goals rather than what we think we ought to be doing.  Specifically how many of those technical exercises really are helping us play that Sor piece?

When I find myself not wanting to practice, I've learned to stop, take a breath and do something different. In this case I looked at the things I enjoy doing (mostly getting together with others to play and learning new - not too difficult - pieces) - and those that are harder to do (learning new techniques, sight reading, orchestra, playing for others) and decided to rejigger what I'm doing.   On the fun side, I signed up to join in an acoustic "play and sing" evening - something I haven't done in forever, plus a get together with some other CGC members (despite the 3.5 hour drive).  Also on the fun side, I started to learn a Pujol piece that has nothing to do with exams, and I've had waiting in the wings to learn for a while.  It requires 'strings ringing over' rather than 'string muting' and has a funky Milonga rhythm to boot For a detailed history of this rhythm and it's relationship to Tango, click here. Did you know it predated the Tango and originated with Argentinian cowboys?   Piazzola wrote a lot of pieces with the Milonga rhythm - here for example is a video of a beautiful guitar performance of Milonga del Angel, where the rhythm can clearly be heard.

Learning the Milonga piece is a lot of fun - it ticks a lot of my boxes - it's got a Latin rhythm, a cool melody, and it's immediately appealing to most audiences.   I've found the rhythm/accents to be quite challenging, and  I've been posting it a page at a time on the CGC forum as I get it to the "play through" stage, as an incentive to keep going.   My intention is to be able to play the whole piece through by the time of the CGC meetup ( in 7 days, gulp).   It's touch and go - still learning the last 2 lines, but with the added stress of an audience, playing it at that venue might be overly optimistic...  And sometimes practice doesn't go according to plan - like when I'm trying to nail the timing and my dog joins in with her squeaky toy (that's what you hear in the recording here). 

What about the "work" side?  I'm back to sight reading - 15 minutes, on the timer,  - not without hesitations, but everyone has to start somewhere.  And I did "play for others" a couple of times - a duet at a low key open mic, and 2 certificate pieces at our classical guitar society open stage, without it being a total disaster.   So I'm not entirely delinquent on the 'work' side of learning CG.

So that's where I am.  Hopefully by the next time I post I will be able to post the Pujol piece ... and having recuperated somewhat, will be ready to tackle the Grade 7 challenges.