For much of my performing career, I have been an avid memorizer. My reading skills have always trailed my chops, and as such I’ve always felt eager to memorize a piece of music as quickly as possible, thus freeing myself from the constraints of reading notes from the page. In a way, that has served me well: most of my undergraduate and graduate work required the memorization of pieces for juries and recital, and my quick memory turned out to be an asset in those situations. Even though I couldn’t necessarily keep all of my repertoire under my fingers, having a strong memorization base allowed me to brush things back up to performance standards quickly and efficiently.
From a performance standpoint, I still believe that having a piece memorized means knowing that piece in an intimate and profound way—a desireable springboard from which to undertake any sort of interpretive work. I’ve also encountered a couple of psychological studies that showed how an audience reacts more positively to performances from memory—even when they just believe they’re witnessing one, as in the case of a group that was shown a video of a cello performance framed in such a way to leave the music stand (from which the cellist was reading) out of the picture. My own audiences have expressed their appreciation (and sometimes downright amazement) after hearing hour-plus long programs of intricate music performed entirely from memory. Up until a few months ago I would have just shrugged and told them “that’s the only way,” but more recently my perspective has been changing.
To cut to the chase—I’ve gotten busy. The intense dedication to practicing and memorizing new repertoire I could afford while working on my Master’s is a thing of the past. At the same time, I still keep an active performance schedule (easily more active than when I was in school), and I make it a point to perform something new as often as possible.
As my first performance of the year approached and the venue kept asking for program specifics for an outgoing press release, I was forced to make a decision. I really wanted to present a new piece, Toshio Hosokawa’s haunting Serenade, but its fifteen minutes of slow, microscopic development was proving impossible to memorize in time. I could play the piece, but not from memory.
As I kept practicing with the score, I decided to give it a go. I would focus my practice on performing the piece while reading it. I sent off the program with the Hosokawa on it, crossed my fingers, and kept practicing my page turns.
That performance was a real eye-opener for me. Not only could I program and play a new piece, but the experience of performing from the score was fresh and positive in an unexpected way. Having the music in front of me allowed me to relax and really be “in the moment”, not having to worry about what was coming next, and letting the music unfold at its own pace. The sheer presence of the score seemed to irradiate a feeling of security, giving me a solid ground upon which to build a lighter and freer interpretation.
I have been reading a few new pieces on pretty much all of my concerts for the year. This new practice has also enabled me to work faster and better in learning new music, leading to fresher and more diverse programs. Furthermore, as some of the music I am playing is undeniably complex, it makes sense to focus on more exquisitely technical and interpretive elements, rather than racking my brain trying to remember which crazy chord follows that other, slightly different crazy chord.
As with so many things in life, virtue is somewhere in the middle—in my case, a memorization-only approach was putting the brakes on learning and presenting new repertoire. Whatever your performance level and situation, consider re-evaluating your memorization paradigm to see if there is room to shake things up a bit. You may be positively surprised by the results.
Classical musicians of all kinds have a tendency to emphasize their pedigree as much as possible, citing illustrious mentors and collaborators as the easiest way to establish their credentials. In the second part of the twentieth century, it seemed as any guitarist hoping to “make it” needed first to secure Segovia’s stamp of approval—a process that was not necessarily failsafe, as it gave us many first-tier artists as well as the great Esteban. Pianists and violinists can aim for longer-reaching (and perhaps loftier) pedigrees—I have met a couple of musicians who could boast a pretty much direct lineage from the likes of Johannes Brahms and Clara Schumann.
Guitarist Julio Reyes studied guitar with his father, a native of Paraguay who came to America as cultural ambassador. Carlos Reyes had been a student of Dionicio Basualdo—a pupil and friend of Agustin Barrios, as shown by the dedication his Vals Op. 8 No. 4. However remarkable, such pedigree would mean little unless accompanied by convincing performances; fortunately, Reyes’s debut recording Heart Strings delivers.
The disc contains thirteen compositions among Villa-Lobos, Chopin, Lauro, Carlos Reyes, and of course Agustin Barrios, the most represented with eight tracks. Reyes’s plays sensitively and with exquisite musicianship. Never hurried, never strained, his technique seems to exist only to serve the underlying musical meaning. I was not overly surprised in hearing his deliberate and convincing phrasing, as I knew that Reyes is also an experienced conductor, having served as an assistant to Kent Nagano in the 1980s and 1990s, as well as having directed the second performance of Joseph Redding’s opera Fay Yen Fah (which was premiered, and then rapidly forgotten, in 1925). As I listened to Reyes’s performances, I heard a musician who just happened to play the guitar, and that helped instill some new life in the well-known and often-heard repertoire. His appropriately slow and longing interpretation of Barrios’s classic Julia Florida was a favorite of mine.
The one track that is completely novel is the premiere recording of Gratitud by Carlos Reyes, a warm vals dedicated—you guessed it—to Dionicio Basualdo. The short and charming composition is both inventive and idiomatic, and I would hope to see it published sooner rather than later.
About the only fault I can find with the recording is the less than stellar sound quality. There is a noticeable hiss underscoring each track, and becoming especially distracting in the quieter passages. I am also not crazy about the quality of the treble sound, whereas the low- and midrange strike a good balance between clarity and warmth. Conversely, these sonic characteristics contribute to giving the recording a character of yesteryear, especially combined with Reyes’s decidedly vintage phrasing. I would be happy to trade such minor audio quibbles for the deliberate and mature musical expression that Reyes conveys throughout this recording.
Presently Julio Reyes keeps busy teaching, performing, and lecturing on the interpretation of the music of Barrios. I heartily recommend checking out his honest and beautiful work; aside from the sheer pleasure derived from listening, there is much to learn on a musical and interpretive level from every aspect of his playing.
How often is it that, as musicians, we find ourselves stuck, seemingly unable to move forward, get better, or grow, simply put: we have reached a “plateau”? The truth is that this is a universal occurrence; there is not a single player out there that has not encountered this regardless if they are a guitarist, violinist or even a conductor. How is it possible then, that one can overcome such a seemingly immense problem? The answer is as difficult as the problem; the reality is there are multiple answers one of which I will talk about over the course of this article.
Recently I found myself with almost no time to practice, I was in the midst of a life change; I had finished grad school, was expecting my first child and was faced with the prospect of finding consistent work to support my growing family. I first crammed in as much teaching as I could and even began working at Home Depot. Needless to say this leaves little time for practicing guitar. As much as it pained me to take as much time away from my instrument as I was, I found myself realizing new things about playing, practicing and how better to use my time, which was essential. This is where I realized a tremendous way to get over the “plateau” hump and push forward into new territory.
Instead of the hours of time I previously had to practice, I now had an hour here and there and either had to just play and enjoy myself or find a way to get better. What I realized is, if I changed how I thought about a passage of music I was working on it made it easier. When I found myself struggling to get something in my fingers I started to look at it, analyze, immerse myself if you will and this is when I realized that if I think of something as “complicated” instead of “difficult” the ensuing work I did was much more stress free. Before dismissing this as simple rhetoric, consider the definitions of these words. As defined by the American Heritage College Dictionary, complicated is defined as containing intricately combined or involved parts. Difficult is defined as hard to do or accomplish; demanding considerable effort or skill; arduous. How much more telling can one get than that?
It is my belief that looking at a piece of music, a phrase, measure or beat as complicated instead of difficult a practicing musician can subsequently set themselves up for success. The results of this mental change for me has resulted in a much deeper understanding of the piece I am playing because I am not simply relying on multitudes of repetitions, believing that “hard work and perseverance” will be the answer. I find myself instead, looking at the most basic elements, what are the notes? What is the rhythm? What is the shape of the phrase? Dynamics, fingerings, both right and left hand events as well as countless other details I know I am supposed to look at when practicing but often times gloss over. Choosing to look at music as
something of a puzzle, both to be put together and taken apart, demystifies it in a way that is far less intimidating and much more enjoyable. The added benefit is that being deeply immersed in a piece, whether it is the Capriccio Diabolico or Sor’s study in B minor, has lasting effects and will carry into the next piece you learn, which, is one of the goals of practicing.
Is Change Your Perspective the Answer
Is this simple play on words the answer? No. Is this one answer? Yes. I do not believe that this will work for everyone, but it did work for me. It has made my practicing much more enjoyable and productive. Instead of looking at the guitar wondering how I can learn this piece, beat it into submission and will it into concert readiness I take joy in finding the loopholes that make it easier. The best players, the ones we all look up to, practice this way, they are not repeating passages endlessly, they are finding the small things to work on, the items that seem negligible, but when added up are huge. Change your perspective; you may like the way it feels, and ultimately, the way it sounds.
I started playing guitar hoping to impress girls. I ended up talking about my nails with a bunch of middle-aged guys
Part fetishism, part necessary evil, and part endless source of embarassment, the fingernails are both a guitarist’s trusted companion and their crux. Although mother nature blessed me with some reasonably strong claws—I often perform on steel-strings and the nails usually survive to tell the tale—accidents are always waiting to happen. It also seems that breakage happens more in the fourteen days or so before an important recital, not necessarily affecting the performance, but effectively pushing me to the brink of neurosis as I file, patch, wrap, and generally nurse the damaged nail in a series of desperate salvaging efforts.
Here are some general nail care (as in precaution) tips that I would like to share. Most of them are common sense, but so are most of the genuinely good things in life.
1. Keep your nails short
I know, I know, you’ve toiled to develop your beautiful tone and lightning-fast technique for years, and nail length plays a fundamental role, down to the micrometer. If however you can afford the time to experiment a bit, try filing your nails down to just a couple of millimeters (that’ a little over 1/16”). I have found that adapting my right hand technique to a shorter nail lenghth is a matter of minutes, and I am always surprised at how much cleaner, warmer, and clearer I sound with shorter nails. The underlying benefit: short nails are stronger and will often survive situations when a longer nail would break. One downside (aside from the fact that short nails might not work with your technique) is that if an already-short nail breaks or chips, you don’t have much room for a salvaging/rescuing operation.
2. Organize your pockets (gents) and purses (ladies)
Nails and metal don’t mix. Your house keys especially can do a number on your precious keratin…and so can that miniature nailfile you thought you’d always like to have around. The solution? Keep potentially hazardous objects in your left front pocket, or in a separate compartment of your purse/murse. Also, get in the habit of carrying purses and bags on your right side, so that you are likely to reach into them with your left hand. This latter point leads seamlessly into the next one, that is…
3. Train yourself to reach with your left hand
Door handles, car doors, miscellanea objects you need to pick up: a slight miscalculation in reach can mean losing a nail. This is a tip that I got from a Christopher Parkening interview many years ago, and I’ve tried to follow it as closely as I can. To offer a (slightly painful) example: I just recently cracked my thumbnail when trying to get my laptop out of my messenger bag. The laptop got stuck against a half-open zipper, I lost my grip…and crack. Just what I needed with a schedule full of performances.
4. Wear gloves
This last tip is really the most basic of all, but it cannot be emphasized enough. Whenever you’re doing something potentially hazardous for your nails (and, I might add, your hands), a sturdy pair of gloves are an absolute necessity. Light gardening gloves with a no-slip palm work perfectly—as in my cautionary tale above, slipping objects are among the most dangerous things for your nails. Beware of cardboard boxes and heavy, bulky things in general—always offer your friends a helping hand for their big move, but make sure the hands you offer are safely guarded by some nice gloves.
There is a fantastic feature on the emotional and existential challenges of recording classical music in the February 6th issue of The New Yorker (you will need a paid subscription to read it). The author is Jeremy Denk, pianist and über-gifted music writer, who recounts his trials confronting Ives’ Concord Sonata in the recording studio.
Rather than give you a blow-by-blow of what I consider one of the finest pieces of writing about music I’ve come across in recent times (I am not alone in this assessment), I thought I would use Denk’s essay as a platform for some of my own musings about recording. (Hint: If you decide to read the New Yorker essay, you will find much of what follows articulated in a more elegant and articulate way).
First, a basic yet dangerous dichotomy. Recording creates commodities that are meant to be sold, or, in the alternative, post-Napster music industry we live in, to help performers generate revenue through booking better gigs, securing academic positions, and so forth. On the flipside, recordings are also documents of who we are as performers at any given time—a snapshot of sorts, a frozen moment in the life of an artist. These two elements are intrinsically at odds—the commodity side implies some kind of permanence (see for instance the listener’s quest for a “definitive” interpretation), while the documentary nature of the process necessarily hints at the transitory and ephemeral.
The other “problem” with recordings lies in the technical/technological realm. I have yet to meet a classical recording artist who would deny their extensive reliance on editing. As artists take advantage of the possibility to produce an immaculate (if doctored) performance, contemporary audiences have also come to expect the same level of “perfection” from live performances (often because they are blissfully unaware of how much editing has been done in the process). In a sort of vicious circle, performers end up taking fewer chances on stage, aiming for a technically sound rendition rather than an interpretively adventurous one.
Denk touches on both of these points and then some, but my favorite part of the piece was his analysis of what went through his mind during the actual process of recording. In my own (much more limited) experience, I have encountered some of the same feelings—the alienation when confronted with a familiar passage that has suddenly and inexplicably become elusive; the maddening efforts to replicate an “almost perfect” take; the voice in my head quipping that every tiny interpretive choice I am making is being documented and engraved in secula seculorum, Amen.
All of these inner difficulties make the recording process a completely different ball game than live performance—and perhaps one for which traditional musical education does not really prepare us.
At the end of the essay, Denk paints a picture of himself, secretly (and perhaps ashamedly) listening to the finished recording. I have found it can be extremely difficult to silence the inner critic and just enjoy the playback of the little bit of noise that I made. Beyond the mere production of a commodity or the safekeeping of a historical moment, recording is a privilege—it holds the possibility to create and curate something to be cherished as well as shared. All of the narcissism and self-doubt notwithstanding, it remains a worthwhile endeavor not just from a pragmatic and professional standpoint, but also from an artistic and emotional one.
As you cross from Sonoma into Mendocino County, the landscape goes through an almost instantaneous kind of change. The terrain becomes rougher, the hills more stark, with clusters of Serpentine rocks piercing the ground. The grey sky above and the almost complete lack of traffic were the perfect complement to my morning drive. I was heading to visit the workshop of Greg Byers — someone I instinctively think of as a “Bay Area builder” until it’s actually time to go visit him.
Once you reach the town of Willits—some 150 miles North of San Francisco—you have to make a right turn and prepare to leave the beaten path for a while. Cell reception drops almost immediately as you reach the hills. The road narrows, then becomes unpaved. Climbing up and down the hilly ranges you are rewarded with some truly breath-taking views. After about fifteen miles, just when you start to wonder if you’ve made a wrong turn, you finally come into sight of Greg’s house and annexed workshop, sitting in a quiet and picturesque clearing.
Greg had sent me an email the previous week to tell me he had both a cedar and a spruce guitar strung up in the shop. Since my own build was scheduled to commence soon, and I remained undecided in the great spruce/cedar dilemma, it seemed to me that the three hour drive was a small price to pay to be able to indulge in a detailed comparison.
Alas, such comparisons are often nothing more than glorified fool’s errands. Greg had not two but three finished guitars in the shop—one had come back for a repair. However, there were some subtle construction differences between this guitar and the two newer ones, so we decided to eliminate from our comparison. Still, the cedar-topped one was about forty-eight hours old, whereas the spruce had been assembled for close to a month.
For close to two hours I went back and forth, changing guitars (and my mind) every five minutes. Greg sat patiently working on the frets of a fourth guitar, chiming in from time to time with a comment or a request. He is a gracious and welcoming host, but he’s also good at “staying out of the way,” so to speak, as I was trying to figure out what I was hearing.
The differences were subtle, but still significant. Hard to attribute them to the top wood alone—back and sides were also different, in addition to the afore-mentioned age. In the end, I decided for the spruce, partially reassured by the fact that, in all honesty, I could be perfectly happy playing either guitar.
We spent another half hour or so going through sets of woods and discussing more trivial ordering details. Conversation kept drifting to other subjects—Greg is a Renaissance man, and I’m a blabber: we make a pretty dangerous pair. Eventually I forced myself to leave—the rental car had to be returned by evening, and I had a long drive ahead.
As I reached Willits on my way back, its distinctive blend of Far West and Hippie traits struck me as positively frantic, rather than just quaint. I had left the wilderness and was back into the faster-paced world that I’ve known for all my life.
Chances are you live within driving distance of a skilled luthier. See if you can schedule a visit to the workshop, meet the artist, and play a guitar or two. You don’t have to be a customer, but you may soon be…
With Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Gruppen (1955–57), a massive piece for three orchestras and three conductors, the electric guitar began spreading from rock and roll dance halls and smoky jazz clubs to the classical concert stage. Ever since, an increasing number of composers have been featuring the instrument, with some actually making it the centerpiece of their musical aesthetics. I’m a firm believer in guitar equality—all instruments in the plucked strings family have the right to be employed on the concert stage for so-called “serious-” or Art-music. With that in mind, let’s take a look at some of my favorite composers working with electric guitars. All of the works I mention are available online at either iTunes or Amazon.com.
If you say “classical music for electric guitar” most people immediately think of Steven Mackey. Mackey—who teaches composition at Princeton, just to establish his street cred—channels the garage rock sound of his youth in a lot of his writing for the instrumentment. Notable pieces are the concerto Tuck and Roll, string quartet and guitar pieces Lost and Found and Troubadour Songs (both written for Kronos), and the mixed guitar ensemble Measures of Turbulence.
Another composer whose work is founded on the guitar is Glenn Branca. A proponent of Just Intonation (the tuning of musical pitches according to pure, whole-number ratios), his favorite ensemble is the electric guitar orchestra (often very large and VERY LOUD ones). His music is monolithic, glacial, impassible, gigantic. Check out Harmonic Series Chords, any of his Symphonies, and Indeterminate Activity of Resultant Masses.
Lois V Vierk hasn’t composed for guitar as much as either Branca or Mackey, but her writing for the instrument is a joy to hear (and to play, despite the fact that it’s extremely challenging). Her three pieces featuring guitars (Go Guitars, Io, and Red Shift) are very different yet incredibly coherent from a musical and stylistic point of view. Go Guitars makes a great introduction to her oeuvre: it features five microtonally tuned guitars (six Es with various quarter-tone inflections), to be played either by five players or most often by a soloist plus tape. The music is hard to describe—thick textures, subtle progressive changes, and incredible sequences of staggered glissandos.
I’m especially fond of the work of Larry Polansky, a composer, guitarist, improviser, computer music programmer, and overall polymath. Polansky teaches at Dartmouth and he’s currently a visiting professor at my own institution, UC Santa Cruz. He’s written dozens of pieces for guitar—classical, steel string, and electric—with or without electronics, and using a variety of just and tempered tunings. Some of his pieces (like the collection Songs and Toods) require the guitarist to play and sing complex independent parts (often in different keys, in a nod to Charles Ives); others are simple, quiet, and utterly beautiful. Most of his music, programs, and writings are available on his website; a large number of his guitar works were recently recorded on New World Records (NWR 80700).
Finally, a truly remarkable piece is Morton Feldman’s The Possibility of a New Work For Electric Guitar, written for Christian Wolff in 1966. The only copy of the piece was lost when the guitar case in which Wolff had left the manuscript was stolen from his car; Wolff went on to recreate a version from memory (Another Possibility) in 2004, but more recently a recording of a 1967 performance was found in the archives of KPFA radio in Berkeley, and transcribed for publication (which I believe is still forthcoming) by guitarist Seth Josel. Here is an account of the story (PDF), and here is a video of Larry Polansky performing Wolff’s alternative version.
When you include the many composers I have failed to mention (such as big names John Zorn, Fausto Romitelli, George Crumb, and Tristan Murail, in addition to scores of younger and emerging composers), you will see that the contemporary guitar repertoire is augmented by many rich and evocative works. If you have some experience with electric guitars, consider expanding your current practice regimen to bring your touch back up to speed—you never know when the local new music ensemble will need an electric guitarist who can follow a conductor!