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On Being a Music Major

2008 November 3
by Christopher Davis

A lot of people play guitar.  Generally speaking, people start with rock and pop and keep doing the same thing or move on to more of an “art music” type activity (including jazz).  With the rise of programs that cater to popular/commercial music training, it’s becoming easier for those pop/rock players to get higher degrees in music.

I happened to have “moved on” (ha! I still play metallica.  Sometimes.  Don’t tell anyone.) to classical guitar.  The school where I did my undergrad was very much “art music” oriented.  However, the jazz program was very strong there and I managed to do jazz combo, big band, lessons and jazz theory.
Here are some things that those considering being a music major should know:

  1. Music Theory Sucks.  Between this and music history, a music major has a tough course load.  To give some perspective, a little over half of my theory class failed at some point along the two year journey–theory I started with about 45 people and by 20th century theory (theory V) there were less than 20 of us.
  2. Practicing is not an option.  Most amateur guitarists have no clue how dedicated music majors have to be.  Progress has to be made, and that means spending at least a few hours/day locked in a small room with nothing but the instrument and some music.
  3. Expect to take a piano class.  That’s right.  Piano.  Almost all music majors are required to take a group piano class.  If an incoming student has had previous piano experience, they may be required to take private piano lessons.
  4. Gen Ed classes get in the way of being a music major.  To put it another, less-kind way Gen Ed classes suck.  And they take up practice time.
  5. 15-18 credit hours/semester is the norm.  Sounds fun huh?  Essentially this means that the normal music student is a full time student like any other major…but they have 2-6 credit hours of lessons which they are required to practice for.  Also, the average music major will participate in one “large” ensemble.  For the wind players this means Band or Orchestra.  For guitarists, this might mean jazz band or guitar ensemble.  These are 1 credit hour courses that might take up 3-4 hours of time during the week.
  6. Changing majors?  Coming to a music major a year or two late?  Expect to add another year to the time spent on undergrad.  Most music programs are highly sequenced and require people to take classes in a very specific order.  Combined with a massive amount of credit hours required for the average major, it’s a recipe for the five-year plan.

These things are not meant to scare people away.  With these in mind, here’s some stuff that can help:

  1. Be sure that music is for you from day one.  Music majors don’t have time to question and add years to their degree.
  2. Be strong on the rudiments of music from day one.
    This includes, but is not limited to:  strong reading ability in all clefs (treble, bass, the C clefs–alto and tenor), thorough knowledge of scales/modes and how they are constructed. Be FAST at interval recognition on the staff or aurally, and have basic knowledge of the type of chords (major, minor, augmented, diminished, dominant 7th) and how they are constructed.
  3. Get in the habit now of practicing 3-4 hours/day…or more.
  4. Take a few piano lessons.
  5. Learn the entire guitar fretboard…really well…to the point where it can be visualized mentally.  Also learn what various intervals and chords look like on the fretboard.
  6. Practice music reading everyday.  This might be sight reading or just figuring out notes on the various clefs.

Classical Guitar TV

2008 November 1
by Christopher Davis

Kevin R Gallagher, the 1993 GFA competition winner (among other prizes), has started to post a few video lessons on youtube.  Mr. Gallagher also has a great album (aff.) with Naxos.

Check out the lessons on youtube

Kevin’s Website
Kevin’s Blog

The Six Day Week

2008 October 30
by Christopher Davis

I’m taking a day off from practicing today.  I came on this six day practice week a while ago, but it was not my own idea.

Notably, Ricardo Iznaola mentions it in his book, On Practicing: A Manual for Students of Guitar Performance, mentions the following:

“The week should consist of six days only, with a seventh day of rest from practice (although you may play all you want on that day!).”

Obviously, I agree.  However, most people strictly schedule every aspect of their practice, I do not.  Nor do I like the idea of doing that.  “Well, I spend 20 minutes on scales and 10 minutes on etudes and 5 minutes checking my phone to make sure I have missed anything while I was practicing,” sounds dumb to me.  I am a fan of goal oriented practice.  I’m not a fan of scheduling a day off.  Let it happen organically.

If you don’t feel like playing one day, don’t.  This is especially true for aspiring professionals or people in school for guitar.  We get so focused and burnt out, that it can be detrimental to push ourselves too far.  Taking a day off when those feelings begin to set in can be a great refresher.

From a “real life” standpoint, some days just suck.  Being extremely busy or having a few other things to do can take up all the practice time available very quickly.  Most times these days aren’t planned, they just happen.  Well, that’s a great day to take off from playing!  It’s one less thing to stress about.

The only thing to be worried about is to keep that to one day a week and be sure to pick up the instrument the other six days.  Usually, after a day off, I miss the instrument and I’m more excited to get back to it; the taking more than one day off rarely is a problem.

Performance Anxiety…

2008 October 27
by Christopher Davis

…sucks.  In fact, let’s not even give it the dignity of calling it anxiety.  Let’s call it what it is:  stage fright.  We go to play in front of a crowd and we get terrified.  Hands shake – the confidence we had in the practice room disappears, and our hands go on autopilot while our brain observer and laughs at us making mistakes we’ve never made before.

Performance anxiety sucks.

Where I’m at school we have a performance class every Monday afternoon.  This gives all of the guitarists (about 15 of us) an opportunity to perform in front of people every week.  It’s really an outstanding resource, but it certainly doesn’t make performing any easier.  In fact, a room full of guitarists is one of the most intimidating situations we can play in!

Here’s my trick:  acknowledge the nervousness.  Accept it.  Move on.  And as mistakes happen acknowledge them and let them pass by.  It doesn’t matter anymore.

Then be extremely gracious and say, “thanks!” enthusiastically to everyone who says the performance was awesome (even though you disagree with them).  This might be the hardest part.

Play Lines

2008 October 26
by Christopher Davis

When I was but a young, freshmen guitarist doing my undergrad work, I had the opportunity to play in a masterclass for the Assads.  Naturally, I was terrified – I just started classical a few months ago.  While my own playing went…mediocre at best, I learned a lot from listening to other play and hearing the Assad’s advice.  I had the privilege of working Odair.

One thing he said stuck with me.  It was to play the lines of music separately.  Generally speaking, in tonal music the two most important voices are the melody and the bass.  Many times the melody is the top note in guitar music, but not always.  Arpeggio textures are a bit more involved as the melody can be almost wherever.  With “modern” music there’s no real syntax, so the melody can be anywhere!  For instance, in Brouwer Etude No. 1 the melody is in the lowest register.

But back to Odair.  The student in question was performing Segovia/Sor Etude No. 6.  After he finished, Odair asked him to play on the melody.  Then only the bass. Then the student put it back together, and it sounded like a different piece!

Most of us did not start on classical guitar–I certainly didn’t.  So we get very used to hearing these vertical chord sounds.  When playing classical/art music it easy to get caught up in the vertical sound and we forget all the horizontal lines!  My own teacher busts me on this all the time.

Try this:

  1. Identify the melody in a given piece
  2. Play that voice alone
  3. Sing/hum the melody
  4. Playing only the melody, try to get it sounding as musical as possible, practice it that way more than a few times
  5. Stick the voice back into the context of the piece (play everything again).  Listen carefully for the voice (humming/singing it works well to bring it out) and try to get it to sound exactly as it did when it was played on its own.  This step is harder than it seems!

This is a really handy practice technique, and can be done with any voice in a piece.  Sometimes those inner voices have some great stuff waiting to be revealed!

How do you make pieces more musical?


Wisdom from David Russell

2008 October 25
by Christopher Davis

Cliff Notes:

  1. Start the day with the guitar
  2. Have a basic technical routine that essentially walks through the first lessons (basic RH and LH stuff)
  3. We, as musicians, want to preserve our enthusiasm for the instrument
  4. Keep a few beautiful, well played pieces in your head and under your fingers
  5. Whenever you start to loose that sense of fun, or get bogged down in playing difficult works, go back and play through those beautiful pieces

Personal Note:  I hate practicing at night.  I’d rather it get it done during the day.  So each morning when I walk up, I grab some breakfast and start practicing.  It takes about a half hour to go through the “first lesson” things pertaining to the right and left hands and run through all the basic arpeggio patterns.  The bottom line is that starting each day with the guitar is awesome, and very effective.  So wake up a few minutes earlier, make some great coffee and enjoy playing!

What do you do to get ready to play each day?