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Friday, June 8, 2018

Time for Guitar Camp!

I personally have not been counting down the minutes (unlike Roger 😉) until Classical Guitar Corner's adult summer school next week, but as the days approach I'm getting increasingly excited...  it was just so much fun last year.  I really didn't expect it to be so good - after all, the whole thing is anchored by rehearsals - rehearsals for smaller ensembles of 6-12, and for the whole crowd (this year I believe 50 guitarists!)   There was something about everyone being in the same boat (you've never seen this music before and you have to play it in concert in 5 days?  No problem!) and working together towards a common goal...  Not to mention lots of laughter with people who are equally obsessed with learning this instrument that is both impossible and inspiring.    Ben (Verdery) of course took everything just so seriously (not!) and Raffaele's (of duo Agostino) deadpan sense of humor had us in stitches on a regular basis during our small ensemble rehearsals - good job Janet got us all under control for the large orchestra...  Gotta shout out to Dave Belcher, who did everything from coaching to playing in concert and running round organizing.  New this year, Fred Hand will be teaching too - can't wait!  But this come-togetherness for support was everywhere - from the cafeteria to the open mic (when so many people were encouraged to have a go that we all had to sign up in advance this year!) And thanks to Simon (Powis - the organizer of this wonderful event) the impromptu/occasional "extras" (lubricated get togethers in the evening, yoga for guitarists by Evita Powis, BBQ day) have now become fixtures - I wonder what else will be added on an impromptu basis this year? perhaps a jam? Mandatory ocean dip? (kidding).  I will most definitely be reporting on this after my return... but I'm hoping that time s-t-r-e-t-c-h-e-s out while I'm there.   However I will be able to console myself when it's over - there will still be the very first Peabody Summer Guitar Intensive right on my doorstep to look forward to later in the summer 😊.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Avoiding Shiny Objects - or not.

I was fascinated to listen to the CGC podcast by Simon Powis on information overload (AKA shiny objects) and their role in derailing us from becoming better guitar players.  Everything he says is absolutely true.  The more we get distracted by other information/ avenues/ things to try, then the less time we are spending working on our goals, ergo the progress we make is slower.  And even though I currently keep a log of things I should be working on, the things that don't get written down still take up a substantial amount of "guitar time."   Why can't I keep focused?  I see other people post their substantial practice list and accomplishments and demonstrating significant progress from week to week, but not me.

However, (and it's a big however),  I would contend that a few shiny objects are what makes this whole journey so much fun.  Yes I want to improve my guitar playing (I still have that list of things I intend to play 'one day') but given that the real goal is to actually stay the course (see last week's post on the path of mastery), some fun is definitely in order.    Playing backup to my songwriter friend as she tries out her new compositions?  Sure!  Hosting the acoustic group for a singalong (and having to dig out songs where I can actually sing and play the chords)?  Definitely! Taking on a new duet partner who plays electric bass?  Why not?   Well actually there's a good reason why not- there don't seem to be too many duets written for classical guitar and electric bass...   But no problem!  We will just have to develop our own  arrangement..... which will require becoming intimately familiar with  musescore , figuring out how to translate jazz chords onto the fretboard, and both of us working together with the help of our respective guitar teachers to develop an arrangement. I can't wait to get started!   And in the meantime I will continue my snail-like progress in CG, and will just have to practice smarter with the time I am not spending investigating shiny objects 😂

Friday, May 25, 2018

Mastery ?!

Almost since I started learning classical guitar as an adult of (let's say) an indeterminate age, I've wondered where I'm going with it.   Kids might take up an instrument because they really want to be a Hendrix/Segovia or their parents push them into it.  But what about adults?  Of course it can be a rewarding experience finally being able to play 'twinkle twinkle little star' so it doesn't sound like your 4-year old playing (unless she's the new Segovia), and it's easy to get so involved in the learning process that the stresses of everyday living are temporarily forgotten.  But is that enough?  I've racked my brains for a suitable summit to aim for.  All my attempts to come up with an achievable "goal" seem strangely lacking.  Yes I'd like to be able to play for others at the odd open mic or for a nursing home.  Yes I'd like to be able to record some pieces that aren't too embarrassing to post on Soundcloud or Youtube.  And most certainly I'd like to learn more, perhaps take some college courses,  arrange some music for the guitar.  But is that all? 

Recently I was prompted (by one of Simon Powis' / Noa Kageyama's inspirational videos) to read the diminutive book 'Mastery' by George Leonard.   I had an "Aha" moment: like suddenly finding the solution to a problem you've been battling with forever.  His point?  It's not the goal that's important. Instead it's the immersion in and enjoyment of the process of working towards mastery, whether it be in martial arts or playing the classical guitar.  In fact striving single-mindedly towards a goal can be counterproductive: it can erase pleasure and derail forward progress as we push on without taking the time to thoroughly learn, understand, and absorb each step on the path.  It causes frustration as we seem to be stuck on an endless plateau.  Again.  Instead, he says,  the 'goal' is staying on the path to mastery with the complete understanding that true mastery will never be achieved, either as an accomplished professional or a dabbling amateur.  (And in my opinion there couldn't be a better instrument than the classical guitar to demonstrate how true mastery can never be achieved 😂)

Too heavy for  a Friday before the holiday weekend?  Probably.  But I feel strangely liberated. So what if I'm still trying to get Adelita to sound vaguely musical.  I can enjoy each small step on the way... and maybe I'll eventually move off this plateau, but in the meantime, I'm still on the path.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

What I like to play: fun intermediate pieces for classical guitar

Optimistically speaking I'm an intermediate level guitarist.  OK so I'm not an optimist, but I'm trying to be more optimistic!  Pieces at my level can be pretty boring - studies meant to teach various skills - ugh.   I've found it hard to find pieces that interest me enough to put the work in to learn them.  I don't think I learned a single piece by Sor, Carcassi, Carulli, etc. up till recently... (I haven't been struck by lightning yet either).

Regardless, here is a list of pieces I thoroughly enjoyed learning in case they would interest you.  Some of them I learned quite soon after I started learning guitar, but I still enjoy them now.  They are all short and melodic (at least I think so).   I have to give credit for some of them to my guitar teacher, but most of them I heard someone else play first...either at our local guitar society or on Delcamp...

Rose in the Garden by Carlo Domeniconi
Sepia by Thierry Tisserand
Vals de Primavera by Thierry Tisserand
Slow Blues by Alexander Vinitsky
Pavane #1 by Milan
Un Dia De Noviembre by Leo Brouwer
Evocacion by Jose Luis Merlin
Birds Flew over the Spire by Gary Ryan
Royal Plum Pudding by Andrew York
Simple Study #6 Leo Brouwer
Mad World   (Originally by Tears for Fears)
Valse Choro Francis Kleynjans
Nocturne #2 by Mertz
Giuliani op 50#17

And here are the pieces on my current wish list for next year (after I've finished the level 3 pieces I've been working on forever)

Promise  Yvonne Bloor
Wild Mountain Thyme (Scott Tennant arrangement)
Pagina de Radio (Pujol)
Arabian Dance (Tchaikovsky - arranged by Kossler)
Joropo (Jose Luis Merlin)
Testament de Amelia  Llobet
Prelude in D major Cello Suite Bach

And maybe one day...
Home Andrew York
Julia Florida  Barrios

Maybe you'll hear something you will enjoy learning too 😊

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Focusing Power...

Recently a number of things came together for me as a result of my latest attempts to overcome performance anxiety... 

- I participated in a challenge to improve a single discrete skill.  This involved practicing that specific skill every day for a month and recording it weekly.
- I made myself 'perform' for others several times a week, including in person to my teacher and a friend, online by Skype/Zoom, in 2 guitar circles, and at an open mic.
- I got expert advice on performing from my teacher - most notably by practicing pieces unbelievably slowly to activate different types of memory.
- I read a number of articles on ways to address performance anxiety - the piece of advice that most resonated (particularly now I am getting some experience performing) was to change expectations.  I had always considered that the only acceptable performance was one where I played to the best of my ability - any mistake would set me on a downward spiral to disaster.   The article pointed out that this was unrealistic - particularly at the beginning.  The goal instead should be to recover from mistakes and keep playing!  The other thing it said was to develop a mistake recovery plan and practice it (deep and steady breathing was suggested).

Why am I listing these things?  because it reminded me of something my guitar teacher said when I grumbled to him about falling apart when trying to play for others.  (Honestly I don't need to tell him this - he experiences it on a regular basis in lessons!)  Getting back to the point, he asked me whether I had made addressing this deficit my specific focus.   And now I think I understand.  It's not something you work on occasionally.  It's something you address systematically and often over a period of time in multiple different ways,  continually analyzing and applying the results forward.  And this article talks about focusing on a process rather than a goal - interesting.

Have I conquered performance anxiety? Of course not.  However I am more often than not managing to play through mistakes and keep going.  (Hopefully this will eventually translate into better performances).

Wednesday, May 9, 2018


I've recently been participating in challenges that are posed by the online guitar school I subscribe to (classicalguitarcorner.com academy).   The latest one was "scales".  Which scale?  Well, any scale you are working on -  you post the scale, what your focus will be, and a one minute (or less) video of you playing the scale at your starting point.   I picked a 2-octave G scale in 6ths with a goal of legato shifting because I have to learn it.  It's hard, so I try it for a few days, get back to where I was last time, then give up!  The motivation to keep working on it in the scales challenge was the requirement to post an update video every week for 4 weeks... 

What happened?  Fear of exhibiting no progress on the weekly videos caused me to practice it each day for around 10 minutes.   And I not only conquered those awkward intervals above the 12th fret, but got the whole thing up to tempo - yeah!  Which got me thinking - maybe I need to do something similar to make me apply concentrated daily effort to other gnarly challenges, like that D# slur in Adelita - or maybe almost any part of Adelita come to think of it - i.e. some personal accounting. 

I  wasn't thinking to do weekly videos though.  Instead I decided to try dot journaling (AKA bullet journaling) - much more attractive to us female types than a spreadsheet (it used to be called a diary in my day,  and had lines, not dots, but what the heck).  And it doesn't require logging in to fill out!   I've seen some absolute works of art online - but my journal is rather more prosaic and pretty much reflects my usual state of mind (scattered).   I am finding coloring in those little pink squares can be quite satisfying...  I started out thinking I would list all the things I need to practice, but I'm refining it as I go on.  I've seen it needs modification - there are not only the larger chunks (practice running through that piece!  learn that section!) but also smaller challenges, like practicing a single shift.  And there needs to be a spot for notes, such as 'moving the thumb makes that work.' So maybe I'll rearrange things on the next page.  Finally I might get a journal that already has the lines connecting the dots!

I've found just glancing at it before I start practicing gives me a good idea of what I might have been missing out on, it remains to be seen whether it will actually make me practice the tough stuff 😆

Monday, May 7, 2018

Performance Anxiety - again

I'm coming to the conclusion that learning to deal with performance anxiety is like painting the Forth Bridge...  Why the Forth Bridge? - anecdotally the painting process never stops - once you reach one end, you just toddle back to the other end and start again - ad infinitum.

After a particularly discouraging personal performance in our orchestra in early April I determined to once again tackle this exasperating problem - this time simply by grabbing lots of opportunities to play for others - online, to a friend, my guitar teacher, to small groups of guitarists I know well, and yesterday in a small playing circle I didn't know so well.   Has it transformed me from a state of near panic (gripping the guitar with rigid cold sweaty hands like it might jump up and run away) into a confident performer?  Sadly, no.  However things have improved - although the physical symptoms have not disappeared, they have abated somewhat, and I have managed to play several times for my GT and other people.  Not particularly well, and with lots of fumbles plus the occasional outright wrong note, but mostly getting from the beginning to the end without stopping.  I actually thought I was doing a little worse yesterday, then recalled that we had to play completely cold with no warm up at all, so it wasn't so bad, considering.  And I didn't even stand out because everyone (even the more experienced players) were apparently suffering from the same problem! 

What did I do to even get this far?  There were 3 components:

I had help from my guitar teacher on preparing the pieces.  Specifically I've been working on the same 5 short pieces for the last 9 months - so I know them pretty well.  And GT had me play them super slowly - to the point where muscle memory failed and I was forced to think about the notes and what was coming up next.  I still find this surprisingly hard but it sure helps when you get brain freeze when trying to perform...

I've been gradually ramping up the stress level and (hopefully) building up positive experiences -  it doesn't help to march out to play a masterclass first off, then crash and burn - makes things ten times worse the next time.  Experiences from low to high stress, for me that would be:

  1. Recording self
  2. Videoing self
  3. Playing for a friend (ie a real person) who doesn't play guitar
  4. Playing for teachers online (via classicalguitarcorner.com academy)
  5. Playing for a nursing home Alzheimer's unit (I did this a while ago - the first time was excruciating, but after that it wasn't too bad - I could count on the audience not remembering the mistakes!)  I need to get back to it though because the performance practice definitely helped.
  6. Playing for my teacher - really I should be used to this, but 'performing' for someone who is critically appraising my playing is the absolute worst stress...
  7. Participating in playing circles with other guitarists (why guitarists? they hear the mistakes!)
  8. Playing at a low-key open mic - there's a cafe near us where the open mic happens while people eat that's a distinct possibility. 
  9. Playing at a higher stress open mic, like at our local guitar society or inviting a group of people round to a house concert
  10. Playing in a masterclass... (just the thought makes me feel queasy).
I've reached #7 so far but I have a feeling it's going to be like learning to play the guitar - it gets exponentially harder...

I had to make a commitment.  Each time there's an opportunity I would normally skip, I have to remind myself that this is the only way I'm going to get more comfortable (even while I'm busy making excuses to myself as to why I should pass).
So tonight, I'm definitely going to play something online.  For certain.  Definitely...  Well most likely anyway!