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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.

Friday, September 21, 2018

Small is beautiful

I might have been talking about my new (to me) romantic guitar, but I'm not.   Instead, more on practicing.  It's so easy for frustration to set in when learning something new.  Try it, try it again.  Almost get it.... Nope it's gone again.   Seems to be the story of my life right now. It's not like I'm not practicing, though admittedly having a furry friend has cut into guitar time somewhat.  So I started thinking about the way I practice. My morning routine involves working through a list of technical exercises as a warm up, taking the dog for a walk,  eating a quick breakfast, then back to the guitar for a bit before heading out to work.  Invariably the dog is nosing at the guitar before I finish the technical exercises and the shorter days mean I have less and less time to practice after the walk.  At least that is my excuse for the fact that I'm still making the same mistakes and having the same problems today that I was having at the beginning of the week.  Each day I start, I fumble, I work at it until it comes right, then move onto the next thing.  And then I realized that I am so focused on getting through everything that I am not taking the time to properly practice things that are not working.

So today I did something different: I worked on only small sections of the technical stuff (but stayed with them a lot longer).  I picked only one or 2 measures of pieces to work on and forced myself to think about them, check the sheet music, then play them in slow motion to see why I was still making mistakes.  What happened? For one of the measures I was working on I ended up changing position and fingering allow me to fret a part I've been having problems with.   And in the shifting exercise I've been struggling with, I noticed that my hand snugs up against the guitar neck much better when shifting relaxed than shifting tense.  Huh? Have to explore this more, but maybe it will help me a) find the notes at the other end of the shift and b) recognize if my hand is relaxed or not (believe it or not, unless I stop and think I really can't tell).

Moral of the story?  make it small and take it slowly,...

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

It pays to revisit old pieces sometimes...

I have been struggling with some new skills recently.  The first?  More comprehensive damping of strings - starting with identifying where they need to be damped, figuring out which hand is available to do the damping, and then finally trying to choreograph it while actually playing the notes!  This is still a work in progress.  At least I fondly hope and anticipate there will be some progress at some point...   Tapping your head and rubbing your tummy is child's play by comparison.  (Oh wait, that is child's play πŸ˜‰).  The second is to shift around the fretboard without adding a whole boatload of tension.  I seem to have failed to grasp the concept that relaxing during the shift is a much better way of shifting than tightening up.  Seems obvious in retrospect doesn't it? Again - working on it.  Don't hold your breath.

While struggling with these apparently immovable obstacles, I've been more than a little frustrated.  Throwing balls for the puppy has become a too-attractive substitute.    However I started to relearn an old piece, the beautiful "Un Dia de Noviembre" by Leo Brouwer.   I've heard that it's difficult to incorporate improved technique into a piece where there is old muscle memory - and indeed if I'm not concentrating - off I go automatically again.    However there are some rewards as well as challenges to applying new technique to old pieces. For instance in the Brouwer second half I could never actually play all the notes with the barre, but now I can - and in that same section the previously- fudged slurs show hope that they will emerge nice and clean.  If pushed, I can now play the piece in time with a metronome rather than adding in technique-related pauses, and my improved knowledge of the fretboard means that reading the notes has not been a major hurdle in itself.  And for the rhythmically challenged (ie me) I was able to check the tricky timing by inputting it into Musescore.  Now just need to practice
I like this version - low key and doesn't rush...
So although the major challenges of the day remain unconquered, there have been small successes... I'll take what I can get, and keep working on it.

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

OK done! What's next?

When I get focused - everything else goes out the window (metaphorically speaking).  I was determined to get the videos submitted for the certificate, and as the opening date for submissions approached, it seemed I was doing nothing else guitar wise apart from trying to get to a point where I could play all the pieces in a row without too many errors.   It worked - I submitted the videos at the weekend, breathed a big sigh of relief, and ... well  no I haven't got straight onto all those other projects that got put on hold after all.  Instead in the last few days I've indulged myself by learning fragment of a simple but beautiful JS Bach piece (BWV 1056) arranged by Edson Lopes.    Working for the certificate really demonstrated to me the stages a piece goes through in development - there's the initial "learn the notes" stage where you can kinda play it through with the music.  Then there's the memorization stage - where dynamics and phrasing is being added but mostly just trying to get a picture in my head to follow.  Then there is the recapitulation stage after I get some feedback from my GT - this can cycle a number of times - and finally there is the practice performance, where eventually I hope to be able to pick up the guitar and play it through cold - perhaps not at its best but still take a decent shot at it.   So this piece is at the "I just memorized it" stage - it takes multiple attempts to get through it without forgetting the next bit or misplacing a bass note, and as yet there's precious little in the way of organization.  Stay tuned for the "after input' stage! πŸ˜‚

And when I feel like concentrating again - maybe another Bach piece now I seem to be in that headspace - Prelude #1 is on the list for the next certificate (perhaps be ready next year) so I might start work on that.  Though I suspect it is going to take me quite a long time to get that one under my fingers!