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What I Really Learned in School

2011 October 19
by Christopher Davis

Anyone who happens to have connected with me on Facebook may have seen that I recently took a full time job. This effectively put my doctoral school “career” on hold for a while (perhaps indefinitely).

In the past six months I’ve been learning a ton very nerdy computer stuff: programming with Python and PHP, WordPress development, SEO, and a lot about building web apps with Python.

All of that, combined with some on the job training, led to a job offer in August. It was a good opportunity for an interest that’s been three years in the making. So I took it. But, as large decisions are wont to do, the choice led to a lot of contemplation.

One of the first things on my mind was, “haven’t I wasted all my time? Seven years in school for a profession into which I’m not going?”

What We Really Learn in School

Simon Powis posed the question of whether or not school in the US was worth it. Speaking, of course, from the perspective of someone from Europe (or Australia, like Simon) coming over for school.

School is freakin’ expensive, and I have the student loans to prove it. Did those thousands of dollars go to waste, given my recent career decision?

The answer is no.

Folks who think they go to school to acquire a skill are mistaken.

You go to school to figure out how to learn and be in an environment that gives you the tools, time, and general lack of real-world consequences to do so. Skills are more easily and cheaply acquired outside of a traditional university ($100/week of lessons vs. 10k/semester of tuition?).

Learning How to Learn

One of the things I’m most curious about when I do interviews with guitarists is how quickly they’re able to learn music. That question has appeared in a few videos, but almost every interviewee gets asked it.

The answers are surprising. Everything from a few days to a week to have something performance ready. Most will tell you they like to spend more time with a piece than that, but such things are not always possible.

A week? To learn something like Bach suite or something similar? Putting aside how impressive that is, consider what that really means. The performer has an impressive ability to absorb a lot of information in a very short time.

He or she has figured out how to learn. In fact, they’ve perfected the skill.

That’s what school is good for. A relatively safe environment, free of the consequences of the real world, for students to figure out their own learning processes.

Why I Didn’t Just Waste Seven Years

During my freshman year of college, I had a terrifying music theory teacher. She took off points if your four-part wasn’t formatted correctly, never missed those parallel fifths you tried to hide, and has very little patience for those who couldn’t keep up.

This is fairly typical for undergraduate theory courses. They weed out the folks who can’t hack it. In my case that meant about 70% of the class failed at least a semester during the first year.

So I started studying. This was perhaps the only time in my life that has required intense studying. I read my book and highlighted key passages. They I read it again and took notes.

And a pattern begin to emerge. When I wrote something down, I remembered it. I figured out how to get the best possible results with the least amount of effort. This is everyone’s goal, even if they don’t admit it. I passed every music course while I watch a lot of my friends struggle.

That little bit of wisdom served me well for the next six years of school and continues to serve me well today. And all that theory training? It’s a lot like programming. Once you understand the syntax, everything becomes easier.

Most of us don’t really need school to acquire knowledge or skills related to a profession — employers like to see higher education on a resume, however. The internet makes that cheap and easy. But the internet does not provide a shield and the warm cozy envelop of a college lifestyle in which to really figure some stuff out.

School is important, but it’s important to understand the real reasons why that’s so.

Wait, Quit School?

Yeah, that’s kind of a big decision. And it took me a while to work up the courage to tell you, the reader of this site, about my career change.

If you survived that bunch of rambling above, perhaps you’re curious as what my quitting school means for this website. Does this somehow discredit all the information on this site? Did I need that school credit to be worthy to spread information about the classical guitar?

Due to the above line or reasoning, I decided it didn’t. Feel free to stop reading if you feel otherwise.

What does all this mean for Nothing. Operations continue as normal. This site has been around for nearly three years now. It’s fun! and it’s one of the reasons I got started on the computer geek path.

Thank you so much for reading. Whether this is the first post you’ve read or the 650th, your visits are what keeps me motivated to continue and grow this site for the next three years.

Let’s Get Louder: Amplification Solutions for the Classical Guitar (Part One)

2011 October 17
by Giacomo Fiore

Classical Guitar Amplification

The contemporary guitarist is destined to encounter performance situations in which amplification is necessary—from the vast majority of orchestral concerti to TV and radio shows, in addition to less formal (but equally lucrative!) settings such as weddings and background-music gigs. Fortunately, technology has improved considerably in the past dozen years or so, leading to a variety of viable choices that will enable you both to be heard and to be proud of the sound you’re producing. Let’s look at some of the options on the table, starting with some of the most popular internally mounted amplification solutions.

The first choice to make is whether to use a dedicated guitar for plugged-in performances, or to have only one instrument. In this latter case, and especially when dealing with expensive concert guitars, the installation of any internal pickup must be weighed against its impact on resale value (guitarists and collectors are after all a picky bunch) as well as any effect on acoustic/unplugged tone.

Underwhelming Undersaddles

I’m afraid I’m not the biggest fan of undersaddle (piezo) pickups for a number of reasons. Through the years, I’ve found that installing anything under the saddle runs the risk of altering a guitar’s tonal response. In addition, the vast majority of piezo pickups are designed to work with preamps installed inside the guitar. This requirement is an additional deal-breaker for me, as I have found that even the lowest-profile preamps, with their batteries and dangling wires, adversely affect an instrument’s resonance and responsiveness. To top it off, most (but not all) piezos produce somewhat of a compressed and “quacky” sound which is a far cry from the natural tone of the classical guitar.

To their credit, piezos are relatively feedback resistant, and their tone can be greatly enhanced by digital modeling systems such as the Fishman Aura and D-TAR Mama Bear: in this light, a dedicated stage guitar with a newer-generation undersaddle piezo pickup can be a satisfactory plugged in solution for anyone but the most demanding of tone freaks. As an added bonus, piezos work great in solid body, nylon-string guitars, yielding a serviceable “gigging” instrument that is almost completely impervious to feedback.

A Less Invasive Option

Soundboard Transducers (SBTs) are a family of pickups which are also installed inside the guitar—but they are attached to a brace or to the underside of the bridgeplate. In comparison to undersaddle pickups, they offer a more natural sound at the expense of an increased sensitivity to feedback. SBTs can be either active (with an internal preamp and batteries) or passive—these latter ones should be plugged into an external preamp using a cord no more than three feet long. SBT installations, when done well, leave the guitar almost unscathed except for the addition of an endpin jack—the transducers are negligibly light, and the lone wire can be run along the side of the instrument—thus offering a reasonable solution with regards to their effect on value and unplugged tone. Companies like K&K and McIntyre produce extremely natural-sounding and reliable SBTs.

One final word about preamplification: there is a saying that goes “your amplified guitar sound is only as good as the weakest link in your signal chain.” Choosing a clean, quiet, and powerful preamp is as important a step as the choice of a pickup system. Passive pickups in particular require extremely high input impedances (generally greater than 1MOhm, sometimes as much as 10MOhm). There are several excellent commercial choices to be had; I recommend looking for preamps that offer variable input impedances and a flexible EQ section—“sweepable” or parametric midrange controls are especially useful. We’ll talk more about EQ and other amplification solutions, including removable and external ones, in the next installments of the series.

Image by JimK

2011 Michele Pittaluga Guitar Competition Winners

2011 October 17
by Christopher Davis

The Michele Pittaluga Guitar Competition was held September 26 – October 1, 2011.

First Prize: Cecilio Perera (Mexico)
Second Prize: Kyu-hee Park (South Korea)
Third Prize: Jonathan Bolivar (Venezuela)

Cecilio Perera

Cecilio Perera

Watch Winner Cecilio Perera Play


2011 Francisco Tarrega Classical Guitar Competition Winners

2011 October 16
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by Christopher Davis

The 2011 edition of the Guitar Competition Francisco Tárrega was held August 29 – September 2, 2011.

First Prize: Srdjan Bulat (Croatia)
Second Prize: Andras Csáki (Hungary)
Other Finalists: Mircea Stefan Gogoncea (Romania) & Marko Topchii (Ukraine)

Watch Winner Srdjan Bulat Play


How to Structure Your Next Recital Program

2011 October 2
by Giacomo Fiore

Omitting the Intermission

Having warned about the dangers of excessively long programs in the first installment of this series, let me backtrack and suggest that sometimes a program might work better without an intermission at all. Some venues (either the most “sophisticated” ones, or those not accustomed to classical recitals) have a dispiriting tendency to empty out at midpoint. Even though the more cynical among us would be nonplussed—after all, those leaving early have already paid for their tickets—it goes without saying that coming back to a half-empty hall is a disheartening feeling that can undermine your confidence.

A short, 40-45 minute program (made of mini-suites and one larger piece, perhaps) can easily fill an hour’s worth of time, leaving the audience refreshed and actually wanting more—which should be the aspiration of any performer. If the venue is OK with that, you might suggest inviting the audience to stay for a post-performance informal chat about the music, or alternatively introduce the whole program with a pre-concert mini lecture (20 minutes top, in my opinion). That way you’re still providing an evening’s worth of entertainment, while keeping things fresh as opposed to the “same old” format.

Location, Location, Location

If you’re sticking to the two-halves approach, it might be beneficial to divide each half into two “quarters” when choosing the placement of your pieces. Of these four sections, the one I find most interesting is the one immediately following intermission. It’s an optimal time for experiments: You are hopefully still warmed up and in-the-zone from the first half, and you have also had a chance to regroup mentally by taking some private time backstage. The audience (or what’s left of it … HA!) is back from munching on cheese-and-crackers and eager for more music. If you have a newish piece you’re performing for the first time, or something particularly challenging for you and/or for the audience (a thorny contemporary piece, for instance, or a Pantagruelian set of variations), first-in-the-second half is a prime spot.

From a strictly utilitarian point of view, even if things are less than thrilling with your “experiment,” you’d still have the finale to end on a positive note and leave a lasting impression of success.

Making Suites, Breaking Suites

As I have written before, I am not particularly fond of playing short pieces in isolation: I find that weaving in and out of focus to be a little treacherous for my nerves and overall performance composure. The obvious solution is to create small suites out of short pieces: For example, you could pair a short Ricercare with a more elaborate Fantasia, or arrange a triptych of one-movement sonatas. These suites need not be by the same composer—you could contrast two related pieces by different composers by pairing them and playing them in succession.

Key relations between the pieces you choose offer another opportunity to enhance the musical flow of your program: “Strong” tonic relationships (such as a perfect fifth or fourth apart) will give the music momentum, whereas moving between two keys a major third apart will refresh the tonal palette while keeping a common tone (try playing C and E major chords back to back—you’ll notice a kind of modulation typical of 19th Century composers such as Schumann and Chopin). I especially like to make my suites obvious on the printed program, using headings such as “Four Pieces from the French Baroque” or “Three Scarlatti Sonatas.”

On a loosely related thought—while the current practice is to play Baroque suites in their entirety, these pieces were not necessarily so performed in their time. In that light, extracting selections from longer suites could be a valuable way to fine-tune the balance and flow of some programs.

Next week we will explore program notes and spoken introductions.

Free Guitar Method from Classical Guitar Canada

2011 September 27
by Christopher Davis

A while by featured a review of the Guitar Victoria Method, a book by fellow classical guitar blogger Bradford Werner of Classical Guitar Canada.

Bradford has decided to give the PDF version of this book away for free, and you can get it here. All that’s required is a name and email.

Guitar Method

Kithara Duo in Fort Worth, TX

2011 September 26
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by Christopher Davis

The Kithara Duo

Kithara Duo opened Guitar Fort Worth‘s 2011/12 concert season on September 9th, 2011. Fernand Vera and Olga Amelkina-Vera make up the husband/wife duo.

Their concert opened with a short work by Olga: Prelude and Bagatelle. It was a restrained work, with a lot of beautiful harmonies. The next work, Los Buzos, was a originally a song by Fernand’s grandfather. This was the work where it became clear just how tight of an ensemble the Kithara duo is. There were times when you could not tell where one guitar stopped and the other started. Their tones, beautiful individually, matched perfectly as each player floated in and out of the melody and accompaniment roles of the song arrangement.

Prelude and Fugue No. 4 in E Major, a selection from Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s Well-Tempered Guitars collection came next. Again, the tight musicianship shined here. Each voice of the fugue came in and out and necessary. If I could pick a word to describe this interpretation it would be deliberate: carefully thought out and executed extremely well. Two works by Alfonso Ferrabosco the Younger were next in line. Both pieces sounded very much like Dowland — contrapuntal, fun little works. An excellent follow up to the heavier Tedesco work.

The first half closed with another work by Olga: Beings, a short suite meant to capture the essence of several mythical creatures. There are times when modern works for guitar make uses of extended techniques just to use them. That is, they don’t add any musical substance of value to the work in which their placed. Beings is not one of those works. Every effect added to the mood and created a beautiful, evocative sound scape that, combined with the composer’s remarks, accomplished exactly what the piece set out to do. Each movement, Minotaur, Sylphs, and Salamander very effectively conveyed the image of the being after which it was named.

After intermission, the duo resumed the concert with Yurikago no Uta (Cradle Song) by Shin Kusakawa and Oborozukiyo (Dim Moonlit Night) b by Tei-ichi Okano. Both works were beautiful.

Next cam Mallorca and Rumores de la Caleta by Albeniz. To be frank, I’m a bit burnt out on Albeniz. It’s been a large part of the program at every concert I’ve been to in the past year. That said, I would like to hear more Albeniz like this. The duo tackled Albeniz’s sectional forms in such a way that they flowed together better than any other interpretation I’ve heard so far.

Another arrangement by Fernand, this time a medley of Irish and Scottish traditional music, followed the Albeniz. This was a fun piece, and some very creative arranging by Fernand made it a pleasant listen.

The penultimate work was another prelude and fugue by Castelnuovo-Tedesco, this time in B-flat major. Again, super-tight ensemble playing made this work. The duo effortlessly handled the involved counterpoint of the fugue.

The concert closed with Lo Que Vendra by Astor Piazzolla. Great playing here too, but I felt like it was a bit too restrained. More grittiness and energy would have added an extra element to close the program stronger.

See the Kithara Duo

If you get a chance, check out the Kithara duo in concert. They are a great ensemble. If they don’t happen to be in your area, you can check out their Beings CD. It includes the work by Olga mentioned above.

Austin Pictures: The Biggest Guitar Concert (Ever?)

2011 September 25
by Christopher Davis

Austin Pictures is a huge, multimedia concert which includes one string quartet, one guitar virtuoso, a new piece of music, 100+ young guitarists, and artwork by high-school artists (including a video about their work). It all happens October 1, 2011

The whole concert is put on by the Austin Classical Guitar Society, and opens with a new work by Joseph Williams II for string quartet and 100+ person guitar orchestra. The entire conglomeration will be under the baton of Peter Bay, the conductor of the Austin Symphony Orchestra. Here’s Joseph talking about his piece.

The concert closes with Jorge Caballero performing Pictures at an Exhibition. This is where the high school artists come in.: they were commissioned to create artwork representing each movement.

Sandwiched in the middle is Caballero performing several pieces with the Miro String Quartet.

If you’re interested, and in the Austin, TX area, tickets are still available.

Three Ways to Build a Program

2011 September 23
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by Giacomo Fiore

We’ve talked about some guidelines to keep in mind when crafting a new program — but what are some criteria to actually make a good one?

1. The Ecumenical Approach

Also known as the Senior Recital Program: a bit of everything, with selections from all major stylistic periods (for the uninitiated: Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, Romantic, and Contemporary). Nothing wrong with that, but even this kind of “catch all” program can greatly benefit from some thematic cohesion. For instance, you could fashion a program of music all coming from a particular country, or only program pieces that share folk-music influences. Ecumenical programs can be especially good for general, non-specialized audiences, but risk running into the “gee, not another greatest hits recital” reaction from a more seasoned crowd.

2. The Highly-Specialized Approach

An obvious counterpart to the Ecumenical approach above, highly specialized programs focus on a single repertoire, sometimes even on a fraction thereof. Examples: an all-Bach program, or one featuring only British Music from the 1980s. Needless to say, the risk here lies in the lack of variety: only the most hardcore of music lovers will enjoy the fine shades within such monochromatic selections. If you want to go this way, make sure to weigh the individual pieces in terms of tempo, character, and overall heft, ensuring the totality of the program has some kind of ebb and flow. It can be done, and it can be tremendously rewarding.

3. Hybrid/Thematic Approaches

These latter types are the ones I find the most fun. They can feature music from one or more stylistic periods, but the emphasis is placed on the inter-textual discourse between the pieces. The critical aspect lies in actually finding good themes that run through the pieces—avoid, as one of my teachers once warned me, trying to fit a square peg in a round hole. Music and politics, once again folk-music derivations, actual quotations or derivative works, music inspired by other arts: the list is basically endless. To be clear—themes don’t necessarily need to run through all pieces. Sometimes they’re best used to set pieces against each other—for instance in a program two main themes, each theme linking the works in each half.

More complex relations can of course be set up: the first piece might be linked thematically with the second, but share its country of origin with the fourth, which is in turn related with the finale…you get the picture. Once you make these links clear to your audience through some choice words, whether written or spoken, they will have something else to follow in addition to your interpretations. The web of cross-relations I am suggesting, rather than a scattershot collection of pieces, is one of the best ways to ensure a varied yet cohesive program, one that will enthrall the crowd and make your performance even more memorable.

Speaking of memorable performances, I remember a recital by cellist Bonnie Hampton in San Francisco a few years ago. Hampton is a champion of contemporary music, and has performed most if not all major cello works of the past century. What she did that night was sheer genius: she presented six modern works for solo cello, each introduced by one of the preludes from the six Bach Cello Suites. The resulting dialogue between past and present was simply fantastic, and the setup made each piece resonate in a new and powerful way.

Next week, some tips and tricks on program flow, optimization, and more…

New CD from Sharon Isbin (and Steve Vai?)

2011 September 14
by Christopher Davis

Sharon Isbin released a new CD on August 30, 2011 titled Sharon Isbin & Friends: Guitar Passions. As the title implies, it’s not just Sharon Isbin. She reached outside the classical guitar realm to pull in the likes of Steve Vai, Nancy Wilson (Heart), Stanley Jordan and others.

The video below includes a bit of Steven Vai and Isbin playing together. Based on that bit, I’d say that this definitely is not your typical classical guitar album.