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Essays on playing the guitar, by Jack Sanders, first appearing in Soundboard, the Journal of the Guitar Foundation of America:

Space Vision - New
Thunk-ercise - New
Out of Commission - New
Pen Pal
Structural Integrity
The 1% Solution
Ghost Story
I am the Greatest
Memoirs of a Newsboy
A Balancing Act
For Art's Sake
It's an Epidemic! Are you Next?
Mixing Concrete

Space Vision

Though commercial television broadcasts in the United States began in the 1930's, TV sets did not become common household fixtures until the 1950's. The Sanders home joined the TV world in 1958, but one of my earliest memories was the broadcast that took place on February 9th, 1964 - the Beatles, performing live on the Ed Sullivan Show. With two older sisters, both in their teens, there was no way that we would be watching Bonanza that night.

Other than the automobile, few products could be said to change our culture as much as the television did in the 20th Century. For the first time, viewers could see events around the world as they happened, or immediately thereafter. Whether we watched the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show, the John F. Kennedy assassination tragedy, or the first steps on the moon, history was being shown in our living rooms.

In addition, creative filmmaking was no longer reserved for the movie theater, and science fiction became a regular TV feature with shows such as The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits. When the 1953 film version of H. G. Wells' The War of the Worlds was first broadcast on TV it was a mesmerizing event. To a young boy like me these shows ignited a wonderment of the skies, and more importantly, the big question...

What would space aliens look like and what world would they come from? Even as a youngster I knew that telescopes had depicted Mars as a desolate, cold and inhospitable desert. Ray Walston's character, Uncle Martin, with his amusing built-in antennae in My Favorite Martian, did not stir the imagination in the same manner as the Wells' film, but the show was fun to watch. Space aliens would certainly be from distant constellations, and who knew if perhaps some were already living on Earth - morphing into human life forms. During my M.F.A. studies at Cal Arts, I became convinced that space aliens were, indeed, already amongst us.

Words such as "Zentralklang," "Nebennoten," and statements such as "Two Akzidentien, superimposed, count as one part. One whole is a Zentralklang with its Akzidentien, as notated on a symbol page, and has nothing to do with the number of parts which are obtained by plus-minus procedures." Or this, "The pitches in a Zentralklang, as well as those in a group of Nebennoten, can be composed at any angle between vertical and horizontal inclusive; groups of Nebennoten attached to the same stem can be permutated. In the vertical-ization of Nebennoten groups, horizontal groups can be superimposed." Say, what? Such is the language of composer Karlheinz Stockhausen who, as far as I can ascertain, never claimed not to be from outer space.


Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart serves as the definition of enfant terrible in most circles, and in the history of German music there has hardly been a shortage of other geniuses - no one would seriously argue against Bach, Beethoven or Brahms joining Mensa. However, Stockhausen (1928-2007), in his indeterminate score, Plus/Minus, was described as the "pinnacle of Germanic musical thought" by Stephen "Lucky" Mosko (1947-2005) - himself a brilliant, iconoclastic composer, conductor and pedagogue. Written in 1963, Plus/Minus consists of seven pages of note material, seven pages of symbols, and 35 numbered instructions describing the process of realizing a musical event for any number of players, instrumentation, and performance duration. Each page of symbols contains 53 boxes of geometric designs - one box per musical event. On a simplistic level, Plus/Minus presents the realizer with the opportunity to define and control all the parameters of the piece, with opposing forces - the Plus/Minus concept - coming into play in almost every instance.

Understanding the Plus/Minus instructions, which have all sorts of numerical and serial underpinnings, is a mind-numbing exercise that should be undertaken with expert guidance. I was fortunate to spend a semester studying the score under the tutelage of Lucky Mosko who knew the piece perhaps as well as anyone. After discussing the far-reaching ramifications of each instruction and creating numerous graphs of the various musical parameters, Lucky directed me to realize eight measures of music. I had no inherent desire to compose music, but this brief exercise gave me the opportunity to understand the "why" of writing music.

Just like an inspired chef might present one appetizer plate that beckons for a contrasting flavor in the next, a composer often creates musical gestures that demand responses from the ensuing phrases. Then, as a whole, these ideas create a dramatic work that speaks to the musician and, hopefully, the audience. This "plus-minus" effect is essentially how the antecedent-consequent phrase architecture of classical music periods works: the antecedent begs a question and the consequent answers. On another level, the simple rounded-binary structure, A-B-A, is successful only when the contrasting features of each section create a need for the divergent ideas of the other. In almost any aspect of music, response is necessary.

For the performer, sensitivity to this concept can be illuminating. For example, look at the opening statement of Fernando Sor's one-movement Sonata, Op. 15 (b). Without a single dynamic or expressive marking at the beginning or even during the entire piece, it is not too difficult to interpret the opening four measures: Four descending quarter notes spelling a C major chord followed by a resonant G major chord, which then leads to a suave melodic idea in C major presented in thirds over a tonic pedal tone. It is a proud musical gesture, but not especially so. The manner in which the guitarist decides to express the material that follows, from the fourth beat in measure four though the first three beats of measure eight, requires an exploration into how the contrasting ideas bounce off one another. Any number of approaches are feasible, each having consequences with the interpretation of what came before or after. Indeed, throughout the Sonata there is an action/reaction consequence to every interpretive choice - a game of musical dominos. Sor challenges the guitarist in that there is not only one viable interpretation, but most certainly there are wrong interpretations - those that don't account for the ebb and flow of musical ideas. As any furniture designer will attest, creating a chair is easy - building one that doesn't give people a backache is a different matter.

Whatever reactions the reader has to challenging, modern music like that of Stockhausen, Luciano Berio, or Elliott Carter is immaterial. Understanding how music has evolved can sometimes work in reverse. My studies of Stockhausen's Plus/Minus helped me see even Sor and Luis Milan's music in a new light. I have often thought that an enterprising guitarist/composer might undertake the challenge of creating Plus/Minus realizations for the guitar, perhaps as solo works similar to Stockhausen's Klavierstucke.

I, for one, would enjoy hearing guitar music that originated in another cosmos.


Imagine that you are the featured performer on National Public Radio's Tiny Desk Concert. The program will air live throughout the United States, and, to make it even more unnerving, the man standing against the wall is filming your every move. So, what would you choose for your opening piece? How about a tremolo showpiece such as Barrios' "Una Limosna por el Amor de Dios?" "No way," you think. Any nerve issues would be apparent in an uneven tremolo or clanged strings, especially when the tremolo is on the second string.

This, however, is exactly the piece David Russell chose on April 19, 2010 to open his appearance on the program. For David, the Barrios gem was an obvious choice, having performed the piece more than a thousand times. More importantly, "Una Limosna" is easy. Yes...easy. How could a work with tricky left-hand stretches and non-stop tremolo for over three minutes be a piece of cake? Quite simply, David made it that way. Here's an exercise that I use - which David and I discussed in correspondence about his performance.


First, sit with good posture. With your left arm relaxed and hanging at your side, place your right-hand fingers, P, I, M, and A on the first string. Don't move for a minute or more - a minute at the very least. During this time, focus on having the entire weight of your right arm resting on the guitar. Contemplate every pull, twinge, and sensation of tension until your right arm feels absolutely, totally quiet. Remain motionless without playing a note until you have succeeded in calming your arm and shoulder, and then remain still for a while longer.

Look at your right hand while maintaining the comfortable and still feeling in your arm. Visualize a little space between your thumb and index finger, with the tip of your index finger positioned behind the crease of the tip joint in the thumb. The opening that you created by resting your fingers and thumb on the first string should resemble a diamond or square. If your large knuckles are too flat, the opening would appear to be a rectangle.

Now, follow this next sequence very carefully, leaving your fingers on the first string until played. Pluck the first string with your thumb. The fact that your I, M and A fingers remain on the string means the resulting sound will be a "thunk," not a clear note. Then, pluck your ring, middle and index fingers in slow succession. The sequence will sound like "thunk, thunk, thunk, E...the last stroke being the only clear note. Do this repeatedly, observing the way in which your fingers move into your palm. The ring finger should follow through the most, the middle finger will have less follow through, with the index finger following through the least. Your right pinky should mimic the movement of your ring finger.

Finally, continue playing the tremolo pattern, but raise your fingers off the string, allowing clear notes to sound. Continue with the smooth movement that you achieved with the "Thunk Exercise," while maintaining the quiet feeling in your arm. Experiment with moving your thumb to different strings. Changing strings with your thumb should not alter your hand position. Of critical importance is that speed is a result of control. If you have the right feeling, over time, speed will come to you effortlessly. An effective tremolo will most likely happen when you ease back to your tempo, rather than push upwards.

Finally, apply the tremolo pattern to exercises, such as a scale played in octaves, thirds, sixths, or tenths. When you feel ready to attempt working on a tremolo piece, try stopping at intervals as short as each measure, quiet your arm, then continue. As you become more comfortable, extend the intervals between the relaxation points. More important than anything else is the maintenance of a relaxed arm. Trust me on this: you don't want to be scratching your ear lobe with your right shoulder when you play tremolo!

Watch David Russell's performance here.

Jack Sanders is a performer, pedagogue and luthier of modern classical and historic guitars. Watch him demonstrate the "Thunk-ercise" on Youtube: Jack Sanders/guitar/tremolo

Out of Commission

In 2011, David Starobin was recognized by the Guitar Foundation of America with an Artistic Achievement Award for his lifetime of performances, teaching, and, especially, the incredible body of music that he has commissioned from more than 300 composers. Almost every significant composer from the past 50 years, including George Crumb, Elliott Carter, Milton Babbitt, Mario Davidovsky, Lucas Foss and too many others to mention, wrote music for David. The torch that Andres Segovia lit when he asked Ponce, Rodrigo, Tansman, Moreno-Torroba, Castelnuovo-Tedesco, et al, to write pieces for him was well passed to Julian Bream and his list of notable commissions: Takemitsu, Britten, Henze, Walton, Tippett and others. Mr. Starobin carried the torch well, substantially raising the bar for guitarists who pursue commissions.

Not insignificantly, the respected composer Mel Powell also wrote a piece for Starobin. Setting (1986) was composed more than a decade before Powell's passing in 1998. A six-minute piece of atonal, pointillist musings, Setting is very challenging and has not established itself in the standard classical guitar repertoire. This despite Starobin's excellent 1993 recording on Bridge Records and Powell's significant musical background which vaulted him to the top of two very different musical genres - be-bop jazz and avant-garde classical music. Born in 1923, Powell played piano, composed and arranged music for Benny Goodman in the early 1940's, was a member of Glenn Miller's Army Air Force band during World War II, and even performed in Paris with Django Reinhardt at the end of the war.

Turning exclusively towards classical music in 1948, Powell studied composition at Yale with Paul Hindemith. Powell's compositional output was relatively small - the publishing house, G. Schirmer, shows only 41 published works in its catalog. The Pulitzer Prize was awarded to Powell in 1990 for his piece Duplicates: A Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra, a work commissioned by Betty Freeman for the Los Angeles Philharmonic. He taught composition at Yale from 1958 to 1969, whereupon he was called upon to be founding Dean at an upstart college outside of Los Angeles - Walt Disney's final dream project - California Institute of the Arts, sometimes affectionately referred to as Mickey Mouse U.

As a charter member of Mel's Mouseketeers, I never passed up the opportunity to enroll in any of his courses. Powell's Advanced Orchestration was a memorable course, as was a composition seminar. A man who spoke eloquently and with a flair for drama, Mel zinged the following during one lecture: "Whenever I hear a piece of BAD music, invariably it was composed by Villa-Lobos." As he spoke these words he turned and, with a wry smile, looked me right in the eye.

Other than perhaps The Jet Whistle for flute and cello, and Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5 for soprano and eight celli, the only music of Villa-Lobos to be regularly performed by college students is his guitar music: the Suite Populaire Brésilienne, the Twelve Etudes, Choros No. 1, and the ubiquitous Five Preludes. I have always assumed that being the sole guitarist in the class was why Powell looked at me. Apparently, other composers agreed with him; Aaron Copland referred to the most notable characteristic of Villa-Lobos' music: its "abundance."

However, Brian Head, composer, guitarist, teacher, Artistic Director (and past President) of the GFA, shares these thoughts about Villa-Lobos:

Ironically, none of this criticism applies well to Villa-Lobos' guitar music which tends to be some of the most concise and disciplined in his oeuvre. The Suite Populaire Brésilienne is pure simplicity and beauty. The Preludes are conventional sectional forms, and the Etudes are highly ordered and motivically focused. Really, the only examples of Villa-Lobos' impatience as an editor might be aspects of the Concerto and perhaps the Distribution of Flowers. But one can easily argue those are highly original and beautiful.

Admiring the music of J.S. Bach, Villa-Lobos modeled some aspects of his guitar works after the great master. One of the most notable examples is Etude No. 1 where Villa-Lobos mimics the dramatic harmonic scheme of some of Bach's preludes. This Etude has the interesting juxtaposition of a baroque harmonic structure with the impressionistic colors of chord parallelism. And yes, the Villa-Lobos Etude No. 1 is in the fingers of thousands of earnest classical guitarists, world-wide, at any given moment.

In fact, the venerable Etude No. 1 is not only studied and practiced vigorously - it represents one of the ultimate tests of our repertoire. How many guitarists practice this Etude, and how few perform the piece? Most guitarists fall into the same trap that I did when I began working on the Etude. When my teacher at Cal Arts, Stuart Fox, gave me the piece, I dutifully bought the Christopher Parkening album, In the Spanish Style, and proceeded to wail away, trying fruitlessly to play as fast as the recording. Usually spending upwards of 45 minutes drilling the 2 minute Etude, my self-preservation instinct kicked in after about a year telling me that no piece should be as physically punishing as this one - I must be on the wrong track.

I was. There was a significant problem in my approach to the Etude, and just about every piece that I worked on in those years. Struggling with the piece day after day, I always believed that the piece would get better and easier, which of course, never happened. What I didn't realize was the significance of physical association. By this I mean that whatever feeling the player is experiencing when practicing a piece becomes automatic whenever they play that piece.

The challenge with a piece like the Villa-Lobos Etude No. 1 is to make it feel physically comfortable as soon as possible. Should the piece feel easy on the first day, by repetition of good habits, it will be easier the next. A piece that feels difficult the first day will simply be more difficult the next. Establishing positive physical sensations on the first day of practice is of paramount importance.

How is this done? After learning the notes, rhythm, and fingerings of a piece, the next step is to play through each phrase or section, experimenting with various relaxation techniques:

1. With each chord change, release both arms and hands, shaking out any built-up tensions. Don't carry any accumulated tension from one musical event to another.

2. Play with a piano or mezzo-piano dynamic, both hands having a light touch - more energy can be added later as your comfort level improves. Depending on the piece, muting the strings with a cloth or sponge placed underneath so that you can practice with total fluidity, can be extremely helpful. Think of this as practicing pure movement.

3. Practicing at tempi that allow for complete control is critical. Playing in control means that the player is relaxed throughout their body, especially the upper arms and shoulders, which allows the finger muscles to move fluidly. If a player has locked up large muscles such as the deltoid and biceps, it will be virtually impossible for them to have relaxed finger movement.

Occasionally, I will challenge a student to play a piece for me, week after week, with only one stipulation - the student must be in 100% physical control during the entirety of the performance. They are allowed any tempo, dynamic, or other liberties they choose, but their body must not be locked up, what I call Static Muscle Mode, where opposing muscle groups are simultaneously contracted. Being in what I call Fluid Muscle Mode means that the player fingers feel light, loose, and easy. Once this is achieved, progress with the piece will be rapid, and performances will be at a high level.

For decades after they were written, the Villa-Lobos Etudes were performed infrequently. Perhaps in future years, Mel Powell's Setting will enjoy increased attention.

Pen Pal

Few guitarists in the world today have as remarkable of a career as does David Tanenbaum. Since 1977, when he won the Carmel Guitar Competition, David has probably logged millions of airline miles performing throughout North America, Europe, Australia, the former Soviet Union and Asia. His list of commissions includes many of the most important composers of the last half century - Hans Werner Henze, Terry Riley, Aaron Jay Kernis, Lou Harrison, and Roberto Sierra. In addition, he has collaborated extensively with Toru Takemitsu, and Steve Reich. David has worked with conductors Esa-Pekka Salonen, Kent Nagano and John Adams, while appearing with many top orchestras such as the Los Angeles Philharmonic, San Francisco Symphony, Minnesota Orchestra, and London Sinfonietta. Known as an excellent chamber musician, he has appeared with the Kronos, Shanghai, Alexander, Cuarteto Latino Americano and Chester String Quartets.

But, however much David has been consumed by music, writing has been an important part of his life and career. His critical editions, The Essential Studies (Guitar Solo Publications) are popular, and his articles have been featured in guitar magazines and journals worldwide. In an email, David noted that

It's the only kind of blank page I can deal with. I've never been able to compose, much as I want to. But my musical personality is like that of an actor, where I need a script, and often the more complex a script the more interesting the challenge is a good idea for me. Music was my first language- I read it before English - but from an early age I have been a voracious reader. When I was ten I read every Sherlock Holmes novel, and then I wrote a few stories in that style. I did that with many authors. This was a kind of ear training, but it developed writing skills as well. Now it's a way to cull experience, even to understand it. And it does help professionally quite a bit, as chair of the Conservatory guitar department and as a player out in the world. With social media these days, most of our communication, professionally and personally, is through writing… Because writing has become the main way we present ourselves to the greater world, I think one can argue that it is more important than ever.


My experience as a writer has been much more modest. One of my high school English teachers, Mr. Kagel, required that all his students write an essay each week on one subject. Mr. Kagel would qualify how we were to focus on our topic by posing a question such as “how is language used in a unique way” or “write about someone you admire,” and the like. Over the course of 15 weeks, I was the only student in the class who was able to address each question without veering away from my chosen subject which, of course, was surfing. This prompted Mr. Kagel to refer to me as a “mono-maniac” in front of the class as he put my final essay on the overhead projector for analysis. He said it with a smile, however, and I took it as a slightly-twisted compliment. Later, I found out that my B- was the second-best grade in the class. Grade inflation was non-existent then.

While at Cal Arts I took a general education course listed as “Writing I” and enjoyed the challenge of being asked to put my thoughts to paper on a variety of subjects. The instructor was very thorough and made detailed suggestions with regard to sentence structure and composition. Though sometimes confused by her corrections, I felt that I had learned quite a bit, such that “Writing II” was on my agenda for the following semester. “Writing II,” as it turned out, was a screenwriting class. Of the eight students in the class, I was the only screenwriting neophyte. After several weeks of vainly trying to conjure up a story about a surfing, guitar-playing secret agent that would generate a screenplay, I cried “uncle” and dropped the course. I couldn’t figure out how the protagonist could get the girl if he was surfing and practicing all the time.

The next opportunity to develop my writing skills took place over the course of ten years. After more than a dozen years of teaching at Pomona College, I felt that even though I was contracted as a part-time faculty, I should be eligible for medical and retirement benefits due to the quality of my teaching and the fact that I had consistently taught 25 hours or more per week. However, the Faculty Handbook clearly stated that only full-time faculty, tenured or adjunct, were eligible for medical and retirement benefits. With the full support of the Music Department, I began an email campaign to gain these rights for myself and the other part-time faculty.

Initially, the Dean referred me to his assistant who would scratch his head and say that according to the Faculty Handbook, benefits for part-time faculty were not possible. This would generate another letter from me stating that the Faculty Handbook needed to be re-written, as the injustice perpetrated on the hard-working part-time faculty was incongruous with the standards that Pomona College stood for. Back and forth this went. Every few months, I would spend perhaps two days sitting in front of my computer, carefully putting together a letter of several paragraphs with yet another perspective that would be emailed to the Dean’s office. Each of my efforts was scrutinized by my “editor,” my wife Carol, who would make corrections and suggestions.

After a few years, I began dealing directly with the Dean himself and on a couple of occasions he actually complimented me on the quality of my letters. Finally, after an initial rejection to a letter in the tenth year of my efforts, the Dean and Director of Human Resources schemed together a plan that enabled the part-time faculty to receive benefits. Had my letters and emails not have been carefully worded and constructed, would the Dean have taken me seriously? I doubt it.


Occasionally, I will hear of young guitarists who, having won a competition, have dedicated themselves to six or more hours of practicing in order to commit all of their efforts to the pursuit of a career as a musician. Ironically, many of the qualities that may determine a guitarist or other artist’s success may be non-musical skills - such as writing. I once had a DMA student drop out of school in a rage after a well-meaning teacher corrected the grammar and structure of several of his papers. Sadly, all of my efforts to convince him that his English skills were potentially as important as his guitar-playing abilities were rejected.

In addition, writing skills, it may be argued, parallel the process of developing an interpretation for a piece of music. Both require an overall concept that ranges from large to small, as well as good organization, development, and detail. Aside from this, clear, well-structured writing technique might contribute to being awarded grants, getting into college, gaining a teaching position, or making significant contributions to your performing career.

Above all else, make sure speel chek is working on your computer.

Structural Integrity

My senior year of high school was drastically different from the earlier years. I had already taken the maximum number of courses that were allowed each year and since I didn’t know what direction my college studies would take - business or music - I decided to cruise through the final year. As a result, my first class was third-period Physical Education, then Art, and two more electives. If the surf was good I would drive directly to the beach from my 2-6 a.m. job delivering the LA Times. If I didn’t make it to P.E., my teachers knew that I was surfing, and had given me permission to skip the class on those days. Often, I’d show up just in time to take a shower and get to Art, usually sleep-walking the rest of the day. The choice of calculus, or surfing, was easy to make.

After Art, was Music Theory taught by the Jazz Band director, John Magruder. With his engaging personality, Mr. Magruder was able to make the class both enjoyable and educational. A number of his students went on to have successful careers in classical music including John Yeh and David Howard who are clarinetists with the Chicago Symphony and Los Angeles Philharmonic, respectively. Magruder had a difficult task in the class, as several of the students, including John and David, had taken the course previously while others, including me, were new to the subject; therefore, he would typically alternate days in which he taught one group, then another.

After making the decision to attend Cal Arts, I asked my guidance counselor, Alan Chaplin, if I needed to take Theory 1 and 2 since I had already studied the subject for a year in high school. I must have made a good argument because Mr. Chaplin enrolled me in Theory 3. Two semesters of high school music theory were as good as two in a conservatory, right?

Big mistake…

As it happened, my very first class at Cal Arts was Theory 3, and my modest apprehension immediately turned into sweating-bullets panic. Mr. Chaplin was the teacher for the course, and his daughter, Diane, was one of the students. Compounding my insecurities, Diane, a wonderful cellist with an extroverted personality, seemed to know everything about music theory and didn’t hesitate to answer any question put to the class. Somehow, I managed to survive and continued to take any theory course and composition seminar that was offered. My reasoning was that a solid knowledge in theory would unlock the secrets of music – to understand and interpret pieces I would be performing.

It took a while, but ultimately I figured out that this was not the main point of learning theory. Theory does help in recognizing structure, various musical styles, and so on, as well as developing an overall musical awareness, but knowing what to do with the information from a performer’s perspective was not the point of the courses. Determined to be able to look at, play or hear a piece of music and make informed and intelligent interpretive decisions became my quest. I looked towards the guidance of composition faculty members and musicians of instruments other than guitar in order to broaden my perspective. Stuart Fox, the guitar teacher at Cal Arts, regularly tackled analysis of guitar works in our weekly Guitar Workshop class, but I wanted more.

Eventually, I realized that the rudimentary details were the key to developing interpretive skills. Much of what the performer must do to formulate ideas about a piece has to do with recognizing various elements and making simple decisions. In my experience, a thorough chord-by-chord analysis of a piece will not likely yield knowledge that will contribute significantly to a musical interpretation. Though it might seem as if I am undermining the importance of college level theory, quite the contrary, I encourage all of my serious students to ambitiously tackle as many theory courses as they can handle. I know how much it helped me, and want the same for them. Obviously, I can’t cover everything, but the following are a few ideas that usually yield positive results for me.

First, determine the phrases and count the measures of the piece. Sometimes, fascinating details will emerge that provide intriguing insight. Luis Milan’s first Pavana (1536) for vihuela has phrase structure that is reminiscent of classical era structures more than 200 years later. If looking at the original tablature, the phrases have the following number of measures in three sections: A: 8+8 mm; B: 8+10+8 mm; A1: 8+8 mm (divide these measure numbers in half for most modern transcriptions). A perfectly symmetrical structure begs the question - why did Milan extend the middle phrase by two measures? Of importance is that the 10 measure phrase is immediately before the climactic moment of the piece. Composers regularly disrupt the status quo at moments like this. Three eight-measure phrases begin the Pavana and create a consistent flow to the phrase structure. By stretching the middle phrase, Milan destabilizes the predictability and creates tension which leads nicely to the dramatic quick scales that follow.

The Prelude from J.S. Bach’s Prelude, Fugue and Allegro, BWV 998, has an entirely different scope to the phrase structure. I suggest that you look at a copy of this piece as you read the following paragraphs. By labeling the three opening measures, (T) for Theme, followed by the number 3 which indicates the three measures of the theme; then Episode (E) with the number 2, for the two measures of non-strictly thematic music, which are measures 4 and 5, and so on, we end up with the following phrase sequence:

T 3 (measures 1-3); E 2 (mm. 4-5); T 3 (mm. 6-8); E 5 (mm. 9-13); T 3 (mm. 14-16); E 8 (mm. 17-24); T 3 (mm. 25-27); E 10 (28-37); Cadenza/climatic phrase 4 (mm. 38-41); Coda 7 (mm. 42-48). A more simple presentation of the measures alone would look like this (theme in bold): 3 - 2; 3 – 5; 3 – 8; 3 – 10; 4 – 7. There are some intriguing ways of looking at these numbers. On a level of style, many baroque works have phrases that get longer as the piece develops. One such piece is the ubiquitous Bach Bourrée, BWV 996, where the first repeated section is 8 mm. and the second, 16 mm. The BWV 998 Prelude certainly follows the pattern of a growing structure.

On another level, Bach definitely played an additive-sequence-numbers game in this Prelude. The combination of a three-measure theme, plus the first episode of two measures, equals 5, which is the number of the second episode. Then, the combined numbers of the second group, 3 plus 5, equal 8, which equals the episode of the third group. The theme of the third group along with its episode should have equaled the number of the episode in the fourth group, or 11, but instead it is 10. Bach played a trick on us! Two possibilities come to me. First, just like in the first Milan Pavana, is where a composer upsets the structural pattern that has been established as a subtle, perhaps subconscious way of creating a musical disturbance in anticipation of a climactic moment. In this case, Bach has cut short a passage that should have been one measure longer. Another, quite compatible notion, is that Bach saw the number ten as representative of the Ten Commandments, thus, a musical magic-number of sorts (perhaps Milan had the same idea in his middle phrase of the Pavana). This idea is presented in the remarkable and entertaining book, Evening in the Palace of Reason, by James R. Gaines. Bach’s final number trick is that the ten-measure episode should have been eleven, which turns out to be the combination of the four-measure cadenza/climax, and the seven-measure coda. (Read either the book by James Gaines, or the monumental biography of Bach by Christoph Wolff, The Learned Musician, and I am certain that you will agree with me that the formula of the Prelude, BWV 998, is no accidental occurrence).

After all this, what should a performer make of this knowledge? It is quite simple; the breath of the performer’s phrasing should be in keeping with the length of the phrase’s development and dramatic nature.

Examine the harmonic activity level of the piece. This idea is deceptively simple, and I am going to give several examples of what I look for in this regard. As opposed to analyzing specific harmonies in a piece, look for the speed at which chords changes occur. In the aforementioned Prelude, BWV 998 by Bach, each three-measure theme statement has only one bass note per measure and all three bass notes are the same. And, in each case where the theme occurs, the bass note represents the key at that moment. Then, in the first episode, Bach creates more movement by doubling the bass movement to twice per measure; in the second episode, the movement becomes four harmonies/bass notes per measure. Keep in mind that Bach usually ties chordal changes to bass-note movement. Thus, if there is one bass note per measure, that means, in effect, that the entire measure can be felt as one harmonic idea. Therefore, in this Prelude, Bach really creates a lot of movement when an episode has four bass-notes-per measure. Interestingly, just before the climax/cadenza passage, Bach slows down the chordal movement, providing a calm-before-the-storm effect.

In the First Prelude by Heitor Villa-Lobos, the speed at which the accompaniment changes harmonies is tied to the dramatic development of the melodies. For the opening seven measures, the accompaniment remains on an E minor triad, thereby creating a stable, calm effect. Beginning with the eighth measure, Villa-Lobos changes chords more frequently - generating more energy, until the end of the phrase, where again, we have fewer chord changes. As each of the three phrases in the A section unfold, not only does the harmonic activity increase, but the further afield the harmonies become. And, I might add, the first phrase is twelve measures; the second phrase is sixteen; and the third is 23 measures – a Bach-like structure. Perhaps it is a stretch is to argue that measures 11 and 12 of the third phrase are a similar cadenza-like climax to that in the Bach Prelude, BWV 998.

Look for contrasting textures. Composers are always creating contrast in their music, whether it be section-to-section, or from one phrase to another. In some music, I look to whether the music is regular, or irregular, meaning whether the piece has consistency or inconsistency of melody, accompaniment or textures. A perfect example is to compare the A and B sections of the first Villa-Lobos Prelude. This gives us the following contrasting ideas:

A Section

E Minor

Long, flowing, complete melodic phrases

Melody in the bass

3/4 time signature

Steady, 3 note chordal accompaniment

B Section

E Major

Short, incomplete melodic ideas

Melody in the top voice

Alternating 2/4, 3/4, and finally a 3/8 meter

Irregular textures - Ascending arpeggio, punctuated notes, and chords

The final part of the B sections involves block-chords and harmonics in 3/8 time which serves as a dramatic contrast to all of the previous music in the Prelude. As in the aforementioned Bach Prelude, a performer might want to be aware of the stepwise growth of the three phrases in the opening section of the Villa-Lobos Prelude, with dynamics and phrasing synchronized to the size and scope of the phrases.

Another composer dear to the hearts of most classical guitarists, Fernando Sor, typically eschews dynamic markings in his music, especially the more virtuoso concert works such as the Op. 9, Variations on a theme of Mozart. Almost without fail, the guitarist can examine this work and assign a dynamic to the passage based on the number of notes that are occurring at that moment. For example, in the first variation, wherever Sor wants a vigorous dynamic, he punctuates the melody with a chord, bass note, or both. Where he simplifies the texture, he is suggesting a contrasting, softer dynamic. This is a typical manner in which good composers “orchestrate” their music, meaning they write thicker textures to create a more dynamic effect. This explains why Villa-Lobos typically only puts dynamic markings where the music violates this idea, such as in Prelude Four where he writes forte dynamics over the opening single-melody-note phrase.

Another prime comparison would be the Simples Etudes, numbers 1 and 4, by Leo Brouwer. Both works feature a melody in the bass voice, with a simple, two-note chord accompaniment. However, in the first Etude, Brouwer does not use rests where the accompaniment is not articulated, but does so in the fourth Etude. By using rests in the fourth Etude, he is subtly telling the guitarist to stop the chords when playing the melodic notes. Not having the rests indicated in Etude 1 suggests that the chords be allowed to ring. This modest textural change creates an important distinction from one piece to another.

Key Relationships. Identify the key relationships in any piece that you work on (understand that I am referring to tonal as opposed to serial or aleatoric music). Especially in baroque and renaissance music with unequal temperaments, composers generally had specific traits that they associated with each key. For example, the key of D major was often used for militaristic or celebratory music, due the fact that D major was well suited for the playing of brass instruments. However, even after equal temperament became accepted, Beethoven had specific uses for some keys, favoring C minor for some of his most profound and deeply emotive music.

Making an interpretive decision with regards to the key sequence in a piece can be relatively easy. For example, in the Bach Prelude, BWV 998, the theme is stated in the following keys (assuming the commonly transcribed key of D major): D major, A major, B minor and G major. Play a chord representing each key, one after another and in the order that the keys are stated, and listen to how they sound. Are different moods suggested with each chord? Then, relate those moods to the statement of the theme and see how it works for you.

Another crucial issue with regard to key relationships has to do with whether the modulations in a piece are amongst closely-related keys (keys that have no more than one sharp or flat different in their key signatures) or not. A composer who wants to create a surprise will often do so by modulating to a non-closely-related key. In another situation, a composer might choose distantly-related keys to create a feeling of disconnect, or distance.

Make sure long notes sound like long notes. It is common to have three or more different note lengths happening simultaneously in guitar music, and usually the long notes suffer the most. Paying attention to the long notes creates a wonderfully complex rhythmical texture, where to the listener, it seems like wheels are moving at different speeds. When you listen to music - classical, jazz, country, or even rock, notice how the notes at different speeds stand out.

Identify and Compliment. In the late 1970’s, I studied with Oscar Ghiglia for three summer sessions at the Banff Fine Arts Centre. Oscar, and my first classical guitar teacher, Peter Snyder, have a natural ability to hear music and know exactly how they want it to be phrased. All musicians have a certain level of natural musicality, and especially, if we take time to sing phrases, we are going to have a good feel for how to play a piece. However, having your analytic abilities mesh with your natural musicianship skills should always be a plus.

This is my catch-all saying for what a performer does with a piece of music: Identify a musical idea or trait and then decide how it can be complimented. That is the fun part!

The 1% Solution

Eyaa…Ko-Ngu-ne…Gu-iti…” intoned Aetitao. Ta-dum…ta-dum…ta-dum was the sound of the slow steps on the worn paths of reddish soil. “Eyaa…Ko-Ko…To…to…Na-na-ti.” Ta-dum…ta-dum…ta-dum…. The procession carrying the body of Toguiti made its way outwards from the center of the village encircled by malocas, the large huts that housed the families of the Kuikuro village, like all Upper Xingu tribes in the Amazon forests. The villagers donned ceremonial paint, red dye from the annatto plant in a band above the eyes of the women and young girls, with elaborate designs in black dye derived from the genipap fruit covering the faces and bodies of the men and boys. The few adult men left in the village, their numbers decimated by the cacadores de borracha (rubber tree hunters) and disease, wore bright feathered headdresses.

Although the Kuikuro numbered many thousands in the region, they generally lived in small groups. Toguiti had been the village leader, his knowledge and understanding of the spirit of the forest brought respect and appreciation. Upon his first sight of the cacadores he knew that his small village was in danger, the explosions from the thunder sticks of the cacadores made even the most fearsome jaguar drop from the trees like a stone. The mysterious small hole in Toguiti’s chest was the only evidence of how he died.

Ta-dum…ta-dum…ta-dum… Aetitao led the procession towards the ceremonial malocas building where manioc and fish would be placed in baskets to be buried with Toguiti. Upon reaching the sacred burial ground, four girls began playing uruá flutes with greater and greater intensity, weaving together a melismatic siren of ascending notes. Placing Toguiti in the grave on his side in a fetal position in order to facilitate rebirth as another human, plant, or animal, the village huati, or Shaman, placed the food offerings and began to wail along with the urua flutes. Suddenly, without signal, the flutes went silent. Only a final upwards yell came from the huati.

After several boys had finished piling soil on top of Toguiti, one girl began to play her flute very softly while the huati, more rapidly and in a falsetto voice, sang the chant over and over, “Eyaa…Ko-Ngu-ne… Gu-iti…, Eyaa…Ko-Ngu-ne…Gu-iti…, Eyaa…Ko-Ko…To…to…Na-na-ti.” Aetitao, the new village leader joined in the chant, her tones hushed, “Eyaa…Ko-Ngu-ne…Gu-iti….” The group began to leave the burial site via the southern path, and between the full-breath chants of Aetitao, the ta-dum…ta-dum…ta-dum of footsteps and drums lightly sounded in cadence. As the group neared the center of the village, their singing became full-voiced. Stopping at the plaza where the axis of the four cardinal directions intersected, the murmur of the forest abruptly ceased. Immediately, a powerful wind blew through the surrounding trees, encircling the villagers. Almost as quickly, the wind was gone, and, after a still moment, the sound of the Amazon returned.

Heitor Villa-Lobos dedicated his Fourth Prelude “Homage to Brazilian Indian.” There is no evidence that he had a scenario such as the story above, which is purely fictional, in mind when he composed the famous guitar work. Occasionally, I relate a simple version of the above tale to my students when they are working on the piece in order to give them a feel for the dramatic elements in the Prelude. This is perhaps an approach to musical interpretation that borders on the extravagant.


Prelude Number 3 by Villa-Lobos, subtitled “Homage to Bach,” is a pastiche of Bach’s numerous parings of prelude and fugue or prelude and toccata. Villa-Lobos begins Prelude No. 3 with an ascending passage which culminates somewhat surprisingly with a C major 7th chord instead of the more expected A minor harmony. Next, he writes a melodic sequence that ends on an E dominant 7th chord. From that point to the beginning of the B section at measure 23, Villa-Lobos teases the listener with a series of rhapsodic melodic gestures and dominant seventh chords, usually in parallelism chord fashion, which are never resolved as expected. To create even more ambiguity, Villa-Lobos has many of the chord sequences, such as in measures 10 and 11, move in melodic intervals of thirds, which creates a sort of Wagnerian tonal scheme of acceptable indifference. In the middle of the A section, measures 14-16 offer a point where, after enduring numerous dramatic gestures and unresolved dominant harmonies, the musical protagonist surrenders, as a person lost in an unfamiliar city might walk around in circles, not knowing east from west. Determining a new path, the music moves forth again, ultimately ending the A section on another unresolved E dominant 7th chord.

The B section of Prelude 3 features a motivic idea reminiscent of Bach’s use of implied polyphony, each descending passage finishing with a luscious harmony. The E dominant 7th chords occur in measures 27 and 34, with a brief resolution to A minor in measure 28, and a final, wearied, octave A at the end of the piece. This work, perhaps more than any in the Villa-Lobos opus, embodies Bach’s spirit in the way that the great master created a dramatic story in music through the search of a tonality that would only be resolved with the final note. The Da Capo seems incongruous to the dramatic element of the Prelude; perhaps it is another attempt to tie this work to Bach’s music where repeat signs are common.


I have presented vastly different interpretive approaches for two guitar works that just about every classical guitarist is familiar with, each of us having performed these Preludes or heard them many times. Whether the musician takes a fanciful or analytical tack, making an interpretive commitment that goes beyond basic dynamic changes and appropriate phrasing is what makes the difference between a solid performance and an inspired one. Reading into a piece on this level usually requires thoughtful consideration and imagination.

However, complicated presentations such as those described above are not necessary in order to create personal interpretations of music. For example, recently I was working on the variation movement of the Grand Sonata in A by Paganini with a young student. After fingering the theme, marked Andantino Variato, Scherzando, I mused that the music evoked an image of Charlie Chaplin waddling through the park. I asked my student if she had ever seen how the great silent-movie star walked in his movies. She had not, so I asked that she look at some YouTube clips of Chaplin to get a sense of his comedic charm. Having a feeling that a piece reminds you of Chaplin walking in the park is an interpretive concept that goes beyond basic musicianship. Intuitively, most musicians usually have interpretive feelings about the music they practice, but having a conscious idea allows the musician to commit their musical direction with more confidence. With apologies to Thomas Edison, music performance is 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration. But, what a difference that one percent can make!

Ghost Story returnToTop

The swell had gradually built in strength for five days. This was unusual for surf generated by Southern Hemisphere storms, which typically peak after two or three days. Before the advent of Internet wave tracking, Southern California surfers were dependant on the sparse information in the Los Angeles Times weather report in order to predict the size or direction of surf. Monday and Tuesday had been picture-perfect at the Wedge, a renowned body-surfing break in Newport Beach, famous for large, bone-crunching, and often unruly waves. On both days, numerous still and surf-movie photographers lined the sand, capturing the heroics and spectacular wipeouts of the daring wave riders. 

“Casper,” arrived early Wednesday morning, having surfed the Wedge the previous five days. On Tuesday, Casper, sometimes called “Mayonnaise man,” - monikers given to him by Kevin “Mel” Thoman for his aversion to tanning, had caught the largest wave he had until then ridden. The crystal-clear skies of the prior days were replaced by wet, pea-soup fog. The foghorn at the end to the long jetty at the Wedge blared regularly, creating a haunting aura. Upon setting his kneeboard, wetsuit, fins and towel on the sand, Casper peered out at the surf, barely able to detect white water, the result of the crashing waves. Some surfers were huddled up, sleeping, while others, including Wedge legend Ron “Romo” Romanosky, were flipping a Frisbee, waiting for the fog to clear.  The poor visibility would keep the crowds and media away on this day. 

After awhile, Casper and Dan, an affable Native American bodysurfer, decided that from what little they could see, the waves appeared to have good shape, and the thought of having the Wedge all to themselves was too tempting to pass up. Joining them was a second bodysurfer-friend of Dan’s who Casper did not know. They waited for a lull in the waves and made it out to the lineup. It was spooky being the only three surfers in the water; in between honks from the foghorn, it was eerily quiet, and they still didn’t have any idea of the magnitude of the swell. Adding to their uneasiness, the people on the beach were not visible.  After about 5 minutes, they detected a set of waves approaching. Typically, waves arrive in groups, called sets, of three to sometimes as many as a dozen waves. 

The three surfers immediately knew that they needed to swim out further as the approaching waves were exceedingly large. After paddling over the first two waves, Casper was momentarily stunned as the third wave was so large that it literally blocked out the horizon. This ominous black wall of water looked like the side of a three-story building. But the wave was perfect, as Casper could see to his right the gradual tapering edge of the wave that Wedge surfers looked for. 

Apprehensive as he was about riding a wave this large, Casper knew that he had to take the challenge. He was in the perfect take-off spot, and the thick fog had made the surface of the wave as smooth as plate glass. Turning around, Casper paddled towards shore in order to gain momentum. As the wave reached him, he was lifted higher and higher.   He stroked deeply into the water to push his five-foot kneeboard as fast as he could. Finally, at the peak of the wave, he felt his board begin to race downwards and he jumped to his knees. The wave was completely vertical now, the kneeboard’s left edge and single fin in the back were all that kept him from skittering out of control and being swallowed up by a wave that could easily kill him. 

Racing down the wave face, Casper’s board sliced through the water with the zipping sound of a razor cutting paper. The “drop,” which is the initial descent on a wave, is the most critical part of the ride. The Wedge was created in 1939 when the Army Corps of Engineers built a 300 yard rock jetty at the mouth of Newport Harbor in order to protect boats from the summertime southern swells. The incoming swells bounce off the jetty at the opposite angle, joining up with the next wave.  This essentially doubles the height and thickness, with each wave packing twice the power of most other surf spots in Southern California. Not getting enough speed meant that the wave would begin curling into a giant cylinder before the wave rider was able to get to the lower part of the wave, resulting in the surfer being sucked upwards and unceremoniously thrown forward as the wave crashes down - an especially nasty wipeout.   

As he reached the bottom of the enormous wave, Casper pulled a hard left turn, changing directions from downwards to lateral in order to stay ahead of the curl as the wave peeled from the center outwards. The speed that Casper had developed during the huge drop prevented him from any fancy turns.  This was surfing in the purest sense - feeling the power, drawing a line, and racing the wave until the end. The wave was so large that Casper rode it well past the adjacent surf spot, a gnarly wave commonly called “Cylinders.”

Upon kicking out of the wave, Casper began the long paddle back out to where the two bodysurfers were, avoiding the last few waves in the set. When he reached Dan and the other fellow, they were visibly shaken, and could barely talk. Immediately after the wave that Casper rode, two giant manta rays, about 300 pounds each, came up out of the water. Spooked by the thunderous shock of the giant wave, they rose up from the depths and flew over the water, side by side, flapping their wings, slapping the water with each stroke. Normally bottom dwellers, the panicked manta rays flew directly towards Dan and his friend, with one of the rays’ wings hitting Dan’s friend on the shoulder. Sadly, the disoriented rays washed up on the beach later that day, pummeled to death by the mammoth swells. 

The wave that Casper rode greatly eclipsed the one he had ridden the previous day. For the rest of the morning, he and his friends had one memorable ride after another. Casper’s last wave was also huge. A friend, ex-accordion player Bill Sinner, attempted to catch the wave as well, riding a fiberglass belly board (precursor to the ubiquitous Boogie board) often called a “paipo” board.  Bill was in front of Casper, and upon seeing that Casper had already gotten into the wave, he tried to pull out. This led to Bill getting thrown from the top of the wave, completely freefalling more than twenty feet, landing squarely on top of Casper. That neither surfer was seriously hurt was miraculous, as Bill was pushing upwards of 270 pounds.

Surfing waves of this size creates a special rush for a surfer. The intensity of the moment eclipses all thoughts beyond the present. Some surfers, like Gerry Lopez in the 1970’s and Phil Edwards in the ‘60‘s, epitomized the “pure surfing" style.  Neither of these famous athletes was known for slashing maneuvers.  Instead, they were admired for their ability to find the perfect energy track for each wave. Elegant, simple, and with dancer-like grace, they were considered the surfer’s surfer for their respective eras, complete opposites of most competition surfers who strive to maximize the number of maneuvers possible on any given wave. The mind set of “destroying” a wave by having five off-the-lip turns, a cutback, aerials and numerous other slashing turns on a 3-second wave was antithetical to both Lopez and Edwards.  

In almost any endeavor, there are a variety of approaches that are appropriate to a given situation.  Performing music in front of an audience has unique difficulties.  On the one hand, we typically have time to prepare our presentation and the experience to help us know what to expect.  Then, like the great golfer who gets the “yips” on the putting green, we can easily self-destruct in any number of ways.  Even if we don't have a meltdown in our performance, we can do things that work against what we have prepared. 

Recently I was in the audience at an international guitar competition.  There were many high-caliber performers, with several standouts.  One young woman in particular, demonstrated superior skills and preparation.  Her technique and tone were flawless, and, interpretively, her performances had tasteful phrasing, flair, and a sense of proportion from large to small.  In all, I thought that this young performer was clearly a notch above her competition.  She did not win, and I whole-heartedly agreed with the judges.   

Her downfall, in my mind, and I suspect the judges felt this way as well, was her self-consciousness.  Not only was every note played with a practiced perfection, virtually every facial movement was choreographed – each turn of her head, smile, and blink of her eyes seemed to be planned.  Granted, musicians are stage performers, and I would be the first to admit that the visual effect of a musician can be a powerful addition to the sounds we create, but there must be a balance.   

One of the last lessons that my first classical teacher, Peter Snyder, taught me was that the scale of the music-making should match the significance of the event.  If you are performing solo guitar before an audience of 40 people and are sitting only a few feet from the first row, you might consider that the audience is going to notice every little nuance in your playing, and every minute physical gesture.  On the other hand, performing a concerto with an orchestra before a large audience, not only do your musical efforts need to be exaggerated, but you can afford to ham it up a bit more. 

If you need convincing of this idea, watch a theatrical troupe staging a performance that is televised.  The cameras will often show close-up shots of the actors and actresses that will make their gestures seem silly, but the effect on the theater audience would be very natural.  An actor’s expressions are as important as any aspect of their art. Musicians need to be cognizant of the impact that their physical gestures impart on their performance.   

I recently had a lesson with a fine young guitarist who is extremely musical.  The piece that he played for me was quite polished and emotive, but was lacking a certain zest.  My first comments were complimentary, but then I asked him to come up with several adjectives to describe the spirit of the various thematic ideas in the movement that he had just played.  Upon re-performance, the sparkle that I was hoping for emerged, not only in how he played the music, but in his eyes and entire body – with genuine honesty. 

Be pure in your heart.

I Am The Greatest

“Great,” is hardly an underused word.  That was a great meal!  This is a great guitar! Wasn’t that a great movie!  Less often do we claim that something, or someone, is the greatest. “I am the Greatest!”  These famous words were spoken by Cassius Clay, now Muhammad Ali, after his heavyweight boxing victory over Sonny Liston in 1964.  Notice that Ali did not say, “I am great!”  Claiming that he was the greatest meant that he did not feel the need to share his kingdom with any mere mortals in the history of his sport, or those lesser boxers who were simply “great.”  Consider that in 1964, boxing was still in its heyday, and could boast a history that included the likes of Joe Louis, Gene Tunney, Jack Dempsey, Rocky Marciano and Sugar Ray Robinson.  As far as I know, neither Jascha Heifetz, Vladimir Horowitz, or even Andres Segovia ever made public comments that they were the greatest, however much they may have thought they were.   

“The Greatest” is an accolade that history rarely bestows on a person or object.  It is one thing to claim to be the best of one’s generation in a particular field, another to be the greatest of all generations.  For whatever reason, people like to bestow the honor of being “great” on anything from ice cream to autos, from the arts to presidents, but rarely do we bestow the honor of  the “greatest.”  After all, Alexander was merely “the great”, not “the greatest.” 

In the world of instrument building, only Antonio Stradivari (1644-1737) is universally crowned the greatest.   Of particular interest in the last 50 years or so, is the notion that there was a secret to his instruments.  Whether it is the “secret” varnish that various people claimed to have replicated, the minerals in the wood that were absorbed when the logs were floated downstream, or that Stradivari employed alchemy in his building process, we seem to think that there was a trick involved.  If we could figure out the trick, then wham-o, any builder could make great violins!  Of special interest to me is the fact that although two of his sons were dedicated helpers in the Stradivari workshop for decades, neither seemed to have maintained the legacy of building great violins after their father passed away.  How could that be?  Was Stradivari Senior so secretive that even his two sons, everyday workers in the shop, didn’t know the special ingredient? 

When queried about the key components of what makes certain instruments special, luthiers are typically vague as to the reasons.  Why is a particular instrument better or worse that the one before or after?  What makes their instruments better than the competition?  Most luthiers are constantly tinkering with just about every component in their instruments, whether it be the braces, the bridge, different woods, or what-have-you.   

A substantial part of what makes instruments sound unique are the hands that make them.  This is the factor that luthiers usually cannot control inasmuch as they are not aware of how their touch or approach might be different than anyone else.  Consider that if 5 master chefs made a particular dish using the same recipe and ingredients, most likely, each chef’s rendition would have subtle differences from the others.  Every step of the cooking process is influenced by the chef’s technique - the manner in which the ingredients are stirred, the desired temperature of the eggs, the order in which certain ingredients are combined, the design of the utensils, and so on.   

My guess is that Stradivari did not know all of the reasons why his instruments were better than most; the personality of the man drove him to build in his own particular way.  Every person has a creative “thumbprint” that makes their work unique, and instrument builders are no different.  I am certain that if you had five world-class guitar builders attempt to make an instrument exactly the same as the others, using identical plans and woods, striving for the exact dimensions and so on, each of the instruments would still bear the mark of their individual personalities. 

Two American luthiers have had dramatic influences on the guitars that many of us play today.  Thomas Humphrey, who, sadly, passed away this past April at the age of 59, left an indelible mark on the history of the classical guitar.  If imitation is the ultimate compliment, Mr. Humphrey’s legacy is assured, as hosts of guitar builders from around the world employ variations on his Millennium design, and a large number of excellent guitarists play his instruments. 

Another important figure in the world of guitar building is John Gilbert.  Fortunately, at 85 years young, John is still in his shop most days, though he has retired as an active builder, having turned over his building career to his son, William, in the mid 1990’s.  John’s instruments, with the distinctive “pin” style bridge, unique rosette, and powerful tone, have been a favorite of many of the world’s top guitarists, but it is in another way that John’s legacy will be forever felt.   

John’s converted-garage shop has been a pilgrimage destination for umpteen budding luthiers in the last 35 years.  Not only is his shop a favorite stopping point for many luthiers who happen to be in the San Francisco Bay area, but John has been a favorite lecturer for workshops at a number of GFA and other festivals over the years.  John’s approach is not to have others copy his building techniques or design; instead, he invariably challenges luthiers to be more in control of their art, whether recording the weight of bridges, devising stress tests for soundboards and braces, or simply urging them to improve their craftsmanship, tool and jig-making skills.  Reading various articles in the Guild of American Luthiers quarterly journal, there is hardly an issue that I’ve seen that doesn’t have references to building approaches that John instigated. 

Simon Marty, the terrific luthier (and avid surfer) from Down under, and I were having lunch in Sydney, Australia in August 1999 when he mentioned that he had visited John in the late 1970’s.  I would not be able to pinpoint any aspect of Simon’s guitars that specifically show John’s influence, but, nonetheless, Simon refers to his visit with John as being very significant.  In my own luthier career, which began in 1995, John has encouraged me with phone calls to see how I’m doing, and he has insisted that I feel free to call him whenever I have a question.  Most often, when I have posed a problem to him, the answer is “Jack!  What in the world would make you ever consider doing THAT?!”  Or, “Jack, THINK about it!”  Then, by leading me through the subject in a “Plato-esque” fashion, with questions, not answers, John helped me come to an understanding. 

The last couple of times that I have visited John’s workshop to show him instruments, I have prodded him to reveal his “secret.”  Wryly, John laughs and evades my queries…   

At least that is my story to you…

Memoirs of a Newsboy

Growing up in the Orange County area of Southern California, I began working in the newspaper business when I was 10 years old.  My next older brother, Paul, had found a job selling the Sunday edition of the Los Angeles Times in front of the local Thrifty Mart, a precursor to today’s supermarkets, and he asked me if I would work Saturdays while he worked Sundays.  So, for the next year, I spent Saturdays sitting in front of the market on a huge stack of newspapers that I was to sell for 25 cents, of which I could keep half.  Being young and unaware of the fact that my older, wiser brother knew that most people would want to buy a Sunday newspaper on SUNDAY, I persevered, asking everyone who walked into the store “wanna buy a newspaper?” 

Typically, after a full day of hawking newsprint, the first stop was the local vinyl disc store to peruse the bins of new releases.  At this point, my brother and I were totally immersed in the surf-music craze of the early sixties; our favorites groups were the Chantays, Challengers, Surfaris, and of course, the Ventures.   If the day’s receipts were enough to buy a record, that, and perhaps a donut, is where we spent our money.  My brother and I had begun taking guitar lessons at this point, and this was the music that our teacher would help us learn. 

My first guitar, a nylon-string classical, was purchased for $17.22 at Zody’s, a now-defunct discount department store along the lines of Target.  As you would imagine, this was not a fine instrument, but it was playable.  I thought that it was a better instrument than the guitar that was owned by our friend and neighbor, Jim, which was “purchased” using several books of were called “Blue Chip” trading stamps.   

At the age of 12, I moved up to a paper route, again splitting the job with Paul.  We alternated delivery days, distributing around 80 newspapers to homes in the neighborhood, and then split the route on Sundays.  The job had its pitfalls - carrying 80 daily or 40 Sunday papers in large bags that were tied to the handlebars of our bikes was not easy, especially when one of the dogs on the route happened to be loose and would give chase, nipping at my heels for a block or two as my skinny legs pumped the pedals furiously.  I haven’t been too fond of dogs since - I never got chased by a cat. 

Being chased by a dog was especially feared on Sundays, as we were supposed to deliver the papers before dawn, which meant rising at 3:30 or 4:00 am.  Certain areas of the neighborhoods were without streetlights, which made those streets ever more treacherous.  In a good month, we netted about $35 dollars each.  Unfortunately, getting stiffed by customers hurt our incomes considerably, so we sometimes ending up with $20 or less.  At this point, we were saving our modest incomes in order to upgrade our music equipment.  Paul and I shared the use of an electric guitar, a Stratocaster knock-off made by a company named Magnatone, which our parents bought for us when I was eleven.  The first substantial purchase was a new amplifier - the big decision was whether we should buy a Vox, which English groups such as the Beatles championed, or the locally built Fender.  For reasons that I don’t remember, we chose the Fender Deluxe-Reverb

For my 13th birthday, my parents bought me a better classical guitar, made by a company called Orlando, which I remember cost them about $80.  This guitar, with Indian rosewood laminate back and sides, and a laminated spruce soundboard, was actually a pretty decent instrument.  My teacher, Robert Lake, began to help me with classical technique, which at that point meant simple arpeggio exercises and finger picking arrangements of popular songs.   

Without a doubt, my brother and I enjoyed the full support of our parents.  With weekly lessons, encouragement, and help buying certain instruments, we never felt like we had to do without.  In a family with seven children, siblings learn to appreciate what they are given with few complaints, hand-me-down or otherwise.  One important development in my career occurred was when I was 18.  My mother, who was recently divorced from my father, took out a loan to buy my first hand-made classical guitar.  On this instrument, I was able to give my debut recital.  In order to make that purchase and help support 4 boys still living at home, she valiantly worked the graveyard shift at her job for several years. 

Soon after that recital, Peter Snyder, my first serious classical teacher, called me to his home for a talk.  A cellist with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and an amateur guitarist, Peter wanted me to go to a conservatory, with the hope of becoming a professional musician.  His argument was that a career in music was much like trying to become a professional athlete – now was the time.  Peter reasoned that if at the age of 28 I decided that I didn’t have what it took to make it in music, it was not too late to get a degree in business and still have a career.  However, if I went to business school, and then at the age of 28 decided to go into music, it would most likely be too late. 

How my guitar playing developed was far different than it is for many kids today.  I have known children with instruments valued at $3,000.00 - $4,000.00 who were not terribly dedicated to playing music.  How much of my drive to play was fueled by the satisfaction of having a say in the purchasing of instruments, I cannot say.  A former student, who worked with me for a dozen years starting when he was 5 years old, was an enormous talent.  I compared him to the great violin prodigy, Midori.  He and Midori shared phenomenal techniques at an early age, as well as poise, and natural musicality. When my student was 9 years old, there were times when we played through pieces together and I couldn’t keep up with him. His parents and I agreed that he had the potential for a major career and we hoped that by entering an excellent college program he would be challenged by the other fine young musicians at the school and take the initiative towards being a fully realized musician.  This young fellow was, unlike me (with apologies to my brother Paul), born into a musical family; several members play various instruments very well.   While my student did not have to work part-time jobs in order to pay for instruments and the like, he was also not overindulged, nor was he pushed into playing.  I’ve known musicians who were “locked” in rooms by their parents for several hours each day while they practiced.  This was certainly not the case in this family, who encouraged their children’s’ musical development without being overbearing. 

Unfortunately for the music world, after his senior recital, which included a tour-de-force performance of the Aranjuez Concerto with an orchestra, he effectively put his guitar in its case for good, and now is an executive with a large corporation.  Would he have been more fulfilled as a musician?  It may be presumptuous to think so.   

How does a teacher or parent encourage a budding talent in a healthy way?  The issue of whether teachers should encourage promising students to try to make their careers in music, or discourage students who they believe do not have the talent or skills necessary, remains a question every teacher needs to address.  Another of my former students, who at the time seemed like a good but not exceptional guitarist, is now a respected touring artist with over a dozen CD releases.  I also know of many musicians who achieved careers as performers but made other livelihood choices, both in and outside the art world.  Who knows where a person will end up, what path will eventually be traveled? 

After our family moved to Los Angeles in 1969, the next job my brother and I shared was, you guessed it, a Los Angeles Times delivery route.  Again, we traded off nights, but shared the Sunday paper delivery.  Our route was in West Hollywood, which at times can be pretty interesting between 2 and 6 am, to say the least.  This job lasted much of my 3 years in high school.  The advantage of this work was that after school each day I could practice uninterrupted for 3 hours until dinner time.   

The real purpose of this job was to finance cars for both Paul and me.  Fortunately, dogs were no longer a threat; however, there were other memorable moments.  One incident occurred at about 2:30 a.m. on Santa Monica Blvd., where the Times dealership was located.  I had rolled a large workbench to the sidewalk near where my car was parked, when a beautiful blond woman stopped her vehicle next to mine.  She got out, stood silently, and watched me work for several minutes as I tied the papers with the aid of an unusual machine that looked like a Rube Goldberg contraption.  Finally, I got the nerve to ask, “wanna buy a newspaper?”  She smiled, said “sure” and walked back to her car where she rummaged inside for a few minutes. While I was arranging newspapers in my car, she returned and laid several items on the bench, took a newspaper, and drove off.  The items that she left included a quarter (the newspapers were 10 cents at that time), a large Nestle Crunch bar, and a brand new 100 watt light bulb, still in its packaging.  Although puzzling at the time, this was quite clearly a defining moment that helped finance, nourish, and illuminate my music career. 


In the world of art, rarely has one person been able to leave as large a legacy as Andres Segovia.  As any guitarist knows, countless compositions, arrangements, recordings, students, and enthralled audiences are testament to this giant’s lifetime of work.  Few would disagree that one of the most far-reaching results of his influence has been the establishment of guitar programs in hundreds of colleges throughout the world.  Major conservatories, liberal arts colleges, community colleges, and even high and middle schools, now offer excellent instruction in one of the Western world’s oldest instruments – our guitar.  The schools have done a wonderful job of training musicians with fine techniques and excellent musicianship skills.  These guitarists generally have chamber music experience, and are comfortable with music from almost any period. 

Classical versus popular music differs on one major issue.  Performing popular music certainly requires skill and talent, but covets personality more than technique; in classical music it is the opposite.  How long do you need to hear Mick Jagger’s craggy singing before you know who it is?  I doubt that anyone would argue that Mr. Jagger’s singing technique compares to a classically trained voice.  Segovia was one of the rare classical performers who successfully combined both personality and technique at the highest level.  Keep in mind that during much of Segovia’s career, the general attitude was that the composer’s work was to serve performer’s expression as opposed to now, where the composer’s wishes are considered almost sacrosanct.  Segovia felt that he had the final say in how a piece should sound, and that it was his right to publish works written for him with changes that he made, albeit usually with the composer’s permission. 

Like many guitarists of my generation, as a youth I was inspired by the recordings of Andres Segovia.  My first Long Playing disc of his was “Maestro,” and I was mesmerized by his performance of Milan’s Pavan, the Andante Largo by Sor, and the Zambra Granadina by Albeniz.  But, it was a few years before I began to fully understand the mania surrounding the legend.   

The Arturo Valdez Guitar Shoppe in Hollywood was the first place where I met other classical guitar aficionados. When in high school, I went there to buy some strings and met an elderly gentleman who was friends with the proprietor.  This fellow had a cardboard box filled with music that he was selling as, due to age, he no longer played guitar.  At that time, my familiarity with the classical guitar repertoire was restricted to the likes of Bach, Sor, Villa-Lobos, and Albeniz.  I selected a number of works that I paid 25 cents apiece for.  In talking to this fellow, Segovia’s name came up.  His final comment stunned me with the virulent delivery, “Only a second-rate musician would ever change a Segovia fingering!”   The words “second-rate” were said with emphasis that I felt was a personal challenge.  I left without comment.   

In college at Cal Arts I was exposed to another sentiment regarding Segovia.  The general consensus was that Segovia’s playing was mannered, with exaggerated rhythms and musical gestures.  Still a remarkable performer in his eighties at that time, his early recordings were not generally known or available as reissues.  To build self-reliance, we were encouraged to “white out” Segovia’s or any other editor’s fingerings so that we might do our own, and it was generally suggested that we listen to performers of instruments other than guitar to help our sense of musicianship and interpretation.  I performed Bach’s Chaccone without even once looking at Segovia’s edition or listening to his groundbreaking recording, instead, drawing inspiration from recordings by violinists Henryk Szerying and Nathan Milstein. 

A few years later, one of my Pomona College students played in a summer master class for a prominent Segovia disciple.  During a lesson, the student made the tactical error of asking whether the dynamics in the Segovia edition of the Ponce Preludes were by the composer or Segovia (the Tecla edition had not been published yet).  This innocent and reasonable question was met with a barrage of angry comments including “who are you to question anything in this edition?!”   

A number of years ago, I made the foolish mistake of mentioning to a friend that I thought that I could identify performers of guitar recordings by their tone and style of playing.  The next time we got together, he played a half dozen solo guitar records on his stereo and asked me to tell him who was playing.  Needless to say, I didn’t much care for the taste of that humble pie.  When I initially made the comment, I was thinking of Bream, Williams, and of course, Segovia.  Who amongst us couldn’t immediately discern Bream’s brilliant tone and excessive room ambience, Williams’ power and control, and Segovia’s characteristically colorful playing? 

I must admit to making an about face regarding Segovia’s fingerings and recordings.  Of late, when one of my students considers learning a work that is available either with Segovia’s or other editor’s fingerings, I have leaned towards the great Spaniard with the suggestion that the student appreciate the manner in which Segovia exploited the sonorities of the guitar, as well as his general creative approach.  Much like the Busoni/Bach Chaccone, Segovia’s editions can be considered insightful to the romantic style of the late 19th and early twentieth century. 

Nowadays, fine performers tend to make great effort to understand and honor the composer and the stylistic concerns of the period.  Some, like Pavel Steidl and David Starobin, perform on modern and historical instruments.  When I hear the new generations of guitarists, I feel that we have done well to bridge the gap between the levels of playing of other instrumentalists compared to guitarists.  Nowadays, in order to develop a career, guitarists need to be well-rounded musicians, with supple techniques, good musicianship, and yes, personality in their performances.  The days of marveling over the guitarist who plays difficult music and hits all the notes, but without much else, is long gone.


The tour was going well. My friends, oboist Allan Vogel and Janice Tipton, flute, were fun to travel with, and along with my wife Carol, we found time to enjoy ourselves. However, Allan and Carol needed to leave Costa Rica a few days early, so Janice and I were going to perform the last concert as a duo. The performance was to be at a hotel in Monteverde, a mountain rainforest preserve that required a bumpy three-hour van ride. 

Upon arriving at the hotel around 9:30 in the evening, Janice offered to make the arrangements with the hotel desk as I waited in the van with our luggage and instruments. A half hour later, she returned to say that there was a mix-up, the hotel was full and there was only one room reserved for us, which meant, of course, that I was out of luck.  Janice said that a porter would take me to another “lodge” where I would have a room. I said fine, gave Janice her luggage, and we made arrangements to rehearse the next day. 

Moments later, a uniformed porter met me carrying a pen-flashlight, and asked me to follow him. Our pathway, which could not be mistaken for a trail, took us straight into the rainforest jungle. It was nightfall by now, so we trudged along, brushing aside vines (making sure they were vines, not snakes) and large jungle foliage, accompanied by the sounds of exotic nocturnal animals beginning their day.  I half expected Tarzan to swing by.  We walked for a good 15 minutes, and with my confidence about the situation sagging with each step, I wondered what sort of lodge could be out here.   Finally, we came to a clearing where a simple, white-washed, rectangular building with 3 doors stood. The porter used a key to open the first door and explained that this was where rainforest researchers often stayed. I thanked him, and he left without a tip. After all, he never offered to carry my luggage or guitar, probably figuring they would slow me down if we were jumped by a jaguar. 

Inside, the small room had a bed, table, lamp, and small bathroom. The cubicle smelled of powerful disinfectant, so at least it was clean. Evidently, I was the only guest that evening. I decided to read for awhile, and then get some sleep. After about an hour, I noticed something crawling under the door. It was a brilliant red and black furry caterpillar, about 5 inches long, with a triangular shaped body. On the one hand, I had never seen an insect as beautiful and unique as this creature crawling towards me. On the other hand, I was horrified to see that the gap under my door was about 2 inches high, allowing who-knows-what access to my room! 

I let the caterpillar crawl onto a piece of paper and then carefully shuttled it outside and continued to read for another hour. At this point, it was well past midnight and I was getting pretty bleary-eyed. The moment I set my book down, a medium-sized tarantula scampered out from underneath the bed.   Frozen, I sat paralyzed, as the 3 inch hairy arachnid turned and eyed me. It didn’t like the looks of me either, and immediately disappeared back beneath the bed frame. “What do I do now?” I pondered. Thorougly fatigued, I decided simply to go to bed and try to put it out of my mind. There were no blankets on the bed, just two bleached-white sheets and a couple of pillows, which I inspected to be sure my 8-legged guest didn’t have friends already bedded down. 

Sleep came surprising easy, until it began raining inside the room. The humidity was such that moisture was collecting on the ceiling and when heavy enough, raindrops would fall. I contorted my resting position so that the drops missed me – no easy task.

My mother used to tell a story of how when I was about 3 years old, she found me with a stick playing with a black widow spider. So I was not always arachnophobic. That development came Christmas day when I was 6 years old. My brother Paul had been given a microscope, so I went out and found a simple garden spider in order to get a closer look. The image of the insect’s hairy legs, multiple eyes, and blood-sucking fangs was immediately and permanently etched into my memory - the nightmares began soon thereafter. Perhaps this was a kid’s karma at work. 

I still get the creeps with certain spiders - mainly the large, menacing kind. Seeing tarantulas crawl over television personalities is always cause for a serious case of the heebie-jeebies. While living in the dorms at Cal Arts, I was returning to my room late one evening and needed to pass through a group of 6 people standing a few feet before my door. Carrying my guitar and a bag of music, I walked to within inches of a girl standing with her hand held out.  Stationary in her palm was an enormous orange and black tarantula, as large as her hand. I let out a choked little yelp - “ah!” and spun around, breaking into cold sweats as I walked back down the hall and down a flight of stairs to the floor below. This enabled me to get to my room from the opposite direction.  Mind you, I had been only 5 steps from my door before my panicked retreat.  

It turned out that the two guys in the room next to mine had an unusual pet.  That explained the odd chirping sounds coming out of their room at night, not quite like any cricket that I had ever heard.  

Whether I would I have had a phobia if I had not peered at the dead spider through my brother’s microscope, I cannot say. Certainly many people develop fears of snakes, heights, cats and so on without having had traumatic childhood experiences.  
With upwards of a thousand students in my teaching career, one common trait with virtually all of my students is that having been accepted to the Claremont Colleges, they are exeptionally bright and disciplined people.  A few students who start lessons as absolute beginners never, ever, make mistakes when they play their pieces for me.  Others, no matter how I council them on practice habits, make mistakes by the bucketload, while most students are in between the two extremes.  Certainly, one can debate issues of how our brains are “wired,” or other neurological matters, but I have no business discussing those points.  I suspect, however, another cause may be the critical factor. 

Our effort to play music speaks volumes about ourselves.  Quite simply, our success or failure to perform a piece well is likely determined the first day that we began practicing that piece.  I am certain that the best musicians make a habit of playing their pieces virtually perfectly from day one, and that when they do make an error, they analyze the problem and make sure it doesn’t get repeated.  They will figure out whether it is a fingering issue, a technical problem, or perhaps the passage requires a re-write.  The rest of us flub a spot in a piece, try it again, maybe getting lucky on the third or fourth try, and move on, doing nothing to guarantee success. 

A number of years ago I read an interview with a world-renowned musician who stated that he thought that most people practiced too much. His feeling was that musicians should play through the section or piece, once, perfectly, and be done with it. Repeat this the next day, and so on. At that time, I thought this was a holier-than-thou attitude and dismissed it. Of late, through my teaching and own practicing, I am certain that whenever we practice we are creating a behavior pattern:  either we traumatize the music with our mistakes, or we develop solid, confident, habits. The better musicians establish habits of positive reinforcement, while the rest develop varying degrees of destructive habits.  For the most part, we create a negative history with each piece where we are satisfied to make “X” amount of mistakes the first time we practice a piece, with the hope of making “X-minus 1” then “X-minus 2” errors in the ensuing repetitions.   

In order to improve as musicians, we need to constantly evaluate our efforts. Therfore, it is important to make a concerted effort to have realistic goals at each moment, with focused, clear concentration and disciplined habits.  There are many fine articles dealing with the specifics of how to practice, most recently Francis Perry (Vol. 35, No.2); Jason Vieaux (Vol. 35, No. 1 & 2); and Scott Tennant’s (Vol. 34 No. 3) articles in Soundboard.  Also, spend some time with Aaron Shearer’s method published by Mel Bay, Learning the Classic Guitar, Vol. 1; it has wise words for players of any level. 

And no, I didn’t look under the bed to see how many buddies my friend had, I didn’t need to compound my arachni-nightmares. Sweet dreams.

A Balancing Act

When I was 18 my teacher, Peter Snyder, asked me to take over his Los Angeles Parks and Recreation guitar class for kids aged 8-14. It was my first teaching experience, and I was excited. Peter had suggested that I use the Carcassi method book to teach the 20 kids, none of whom had any guitar experience. Before the daunting task of digging into the Carcassi, I showed the class proper hand positions and how to sit. 

After my 10 minute explanation on these finer points of classical guitar technique, it was time to make individual corrections. I was trying my best to be upbeat with the kids, making little jokes here and there. I approached a little blond-haired girl who was sitting well, but her left hand position was in need of some adjustments. “Let’s get your thumb in the right position” I said. Looking behind the neck of her guitar, I added, “Okay, where is your thumb?” The little girl looked up at me with sad eyes and said, “I don’t have any thumbs.” 

After the boulder settled in my stomach, I suggested that she put her palm behind the neck as a way of gaining leverage. After the class, I spoke with her mother and suggested that it would be extremely difficult for her daughter to play guitar without a thumb on either hand. The thumbs are indispensable, right? 

The left thumb is perhaps the most overused digit on our left hand. I cringe when I see guitarists push on their thumb with all their might. When they detect a buzz they try to eliminate the annoyance by pushing into the back of the neck - harder, harder, and then still harder! Sometimes, a guitarist will have made such a habit of this that their thumb muscle has developed into what looks like a bull frog throat bulging out. I’ve also seen guitars with dents all over the back of the neck from a thumbnail digging into the wood. 

Not that I’m one to talk. I vividly remember my college days when I would maintain a left hand death grip while practicing the Villa-Lobos Etude No. 1. No matter how hard I worked, I would get buzzes during the passage where the chords descend by half steps from the 10th position down to the first position. The epiphany came when I realized that all the extra pressure that I was applying did not make it to my 3rd finger - the guilty party of those awful buzzes. Realizing that this was not good, I dropped the etude knowing that I should start out on a new track. The adage “work smarter, not harder” was beginning to take shape. 

So, let’s get on with the discussion. First of all, rethink the role of the thumb. Consider that the left-hand thumb’s primary task is to balance the fingers, more specifically, the 2nd and 3rd fingers. The thumb and these two fingers are the core, so to speak, of the left hand. One problem for many guitarists is that they orient their thumb too much behind the index finger which makes the other 3 fingers have to reach, with the 4th finger often barely able to get to its fret. Most guitarists have better finger extension with their index finger than any other. So, if the thumb is put behind the index finger, it is balancing the finger that needs the least help. A simple method to get a feel for the thumb’s proper location is to hold a pencil with the left fingers and thumb as if all four fingers are on a string. Observe where the thumb seems to have the best leverage. Usually, this is behind the 2nd finger, or in between the first and second fingers. 

To figure the balancing point of the thumb in the context of a piece, simply place your fingers to the strings on a chord or passage with no pressure on the strings and with the thumb away from the back of the neck. Then, lightly touch the thumb to the back of the neck and you will naturally find the best position. Frequently, the thumb finds itself in the wrong spot due to excessive pressure, and as a result, little adjustments tend not to be made. Ideally, the left thumb should be moving constantly, always re-balancing the fingers. 

One of the best etudes for working on left thumb technique is the Carcassi Etude No. 2, op. 60. My usual approach is to have students simultaneously pluck the four-notes of each chord without playing the arpeggios – what I call “block chords.” I’ll have them play through the etude with no left hand pressure, just a feather light touch on the strings and with the thumb barely touching the back of the neck. If the student has relaxed shoulders, arms and hands, the movement from chord to chord will begin to smooth out, and their thumb will naturally find good balancing points along the neck. With chords that utilize an open hand position (where the fingers are aligned one per fret), such as a common first-position C major chord, the thumb should typically be in a position that averages the stretches between the fingers. 

Another of my favorite exercises is first position scales. With each open string I’ll have my student pause for a moment, both to relax their left hand and to reposition their left thumb. As the days go by, this re-balancing becomes automatic to the point that no extra time needs to be taken. I advocate maintaining the same curvature for the left hand fingers for every string while playing scale-like passagework. What this means is that the left thumb should adjust its vertical position with practically every string change. 

A simple test to determine whether your left hand curvature is correct is to lightly touch all four fingers to the 6th string at the third position. Then, move all of your fingers to the first string while maintaining the same finger curvature. In order to have the same finger curvature, you will have to move your thumb roughly behind the first string as well. Essentially, for linear passagework like scales, the thumb should be on the same vertical alignment as the fingers. This is opposed to leaving the thumb in the middle of the neck, thereby revolving around the thumb as a pivot point. This approach entails having a different finger curvature for each string due to six different hand positions. 

Were I now in a situation where a student who didn’t have thumbs wanted to learn how to play the guitar, I would explore a variety of approaches. With a guitar neck of appropriate thickness and width, I think it would be possible for someone to learn how to play popular or folk-style guitar to a reasonable degree. 

The class went fine, by the way, as soon as I ditched the Carcassi.

For Art's Sake

When I was a student at Cal Arts in the late 1970s, the Music School had a thriving composition department.  With Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Mel Powel on the faculty along with Morton Subotnik and Stephen “Lucky” Mosko, avant-garde music was on the menu every day.    I’ve never had an interest in composing music; however, I enrolled in every composition seminar that I could as a performance-major student.  Typically, I would be the only non-composer in these classes.  These courses gave me an opportunity to attend guest lectures by some of the important composers of the 20th Century:  John Cage, Elliot Carter, Morton Feldman, Earle Brown, and Aaron Copeland, to name a few.

I have always found the inner workings of a piece of music, you might say the “language of composition,” to be fascinating.  In 1978 I spent an entire semester analyzing Plus/Minus by Karlheinz Stockhausen under the tutelage of Lucky Mosko.  Anyone who knows of this monument of Western compositional thought understands where I am coming from.  Unfortunately, the drawback to this is that I tend to learn new pieces slowly, typically spending too much time exploring the possibilities of each motive, phrase, or section.   I used to be ridiculously picky with regard to fingering, attempting to be “true” to the music to a fault. 

It was at Cal Arts that I came to know Richard Artschwager.   Mr. Artschwager is not a composer, but a visual artist, and he was a visiting Art School faculty member at Cal Arts either in 1979 or 1980.  For a Work/Study job, I used to work in the “Super Shop” at Cal Arts where I would build furniture.  The Super Shop is a large metal and wood fabrication workshop intended primarily for art students to build sculptures and other types of artwork.  For a number of weeks in that late spring, I would occasionally see Richard in the Super Shop constructing a cabinet out of white oak.  I had heard that he had been a professional cabinetmaker before turning to the making of art, and it showed.  His choice of wood, crisp joinery and design, all spoke of a superior woodworker, a far cry above the furniture that I had been building. 

Also of interest was Richard’s appearance at the time.  He was a rather tall man, with a face, hair and beard reminiscent of Abraham Lincoln.  When I say that I came to know Richard, I am exaggerating.  I don’t recall ever speaking to him in the Super Shop.  All I ever knew of him was gleamed from watching his project develop over the weeks.  Whenever he left his cabinet in the shop, I would study it, noting every detail of the exquisite craftsmanship.  However, before the cabinet was completed, it disappeared.  This was close to the end of the semester in May of that particular year, and I was disappointed to not see the final piece. 

Shortly thereafter, at the end of that school year, there was a faculty art show in the main gallery at Cal Arts.  One evening, I was leisurely enjoying the show when I came across the cabinet that Mr. Artschwager had been building.  As I would have expected, the final result was stunning.  Every aspect of the cabinet, from design to final execution, was exceptional.  With reverence, I studied the cabinet for a good ten minutes or so.  Out of nowhere, Richard appeared.  I remember complimenting him on his work, and then asking whether the cabinet was intended to store prints or other artwork in the five or six thin, wide drawers.  

Taken aback, Richard gave me a rather serious “Abe Lincoln” scowl, and said “No, this is my life!”  Upon saying this, he deliberately pulled each drawer out to expose the empty contents and a different bottom for each drawer.  One was clear, another was a mirror, a third was black, and the other two or three were different colored glass.  I was speechless as Richard walked away.   

For years, I pondered the significance, if any, of this chance encounter. .  Initially, I wondered what each of the drawer bottoms represented.  The black glass possibly signified a tragic event and the mirrored drawer was symbolic of reflection.  Modern art can be deliberately confrontational to the audience or so complex that without a two-hour lecture by the artist, there is be little hope of understanding or appreciating the work.  In this case, I was caught off-guard, challenged by the artist, and left dumbfounded 

Ultimately, I came to believe that although it certainly would be interesting to know which of Richard Artschwager’s experiences were represented by the cabinet artwork, it is a mistake to focus solely on the artist and the relationship to their art.  The creation of art is one of the most indefinable of human acts.  What takes place in the mind of the creator, under what circumstances, and during what epoch cannot be recaptured, and, even if it could, I don’t know how relevant the information would be. Evidently, some of Mozart’s most spirited, exquisitely joyful music was composed during the darkest days of his life.  Does that knowledge really help an interpreter?  This is not to say that stylistic approaches to baroque, renaissance, classical or romantic are a waste of time, quite the contrary.   

My opportunities as a student to listen to lectures given by composers of significance gave me no edge with regard to interpretive matters with their music.  Similarly, when I have had the opportunity to perform for composers, typically, they have been unable to offer insight that enlightened me about their pieces.  Other performers who I have queried seem to have had similar experiences when working with composers.  The value in working with composers has usually been with regard to tempi, dynamic issues, problems with unplayable passages and so forth.  Indeed, playing for composers has been very worthwhile to me, but what does not usually get communicated is what inspired them to write the piece, or similar artistic issues.   

So, where does this leave us?  Fine art is created by exceptionally creative people whose intellect and life experiences are intertwined in their work.  Should you listen or play a particular piece, view a sculpture or dance presentation and think to yourself, “I don’t get it,” relax with the idea that if it is good art, you probably shouldn’t appreciate all that the work has to offer with one experience.  Whether you are in a performance situation, or an audience member, your relationship with art should be first-and-foremost, a personal one.  Each of us has had a unique life, one where experiences have left an indelible mark on our personality and perspective.  What does the black glass represent to you, the clear glass, and the mirrored one?  With time, you will come up with answers to these questions – your own understanding of art.

It's an Epidemic! Are You Next?

When pianists Gary Graffman and Leon Fleisher cancelled concerts in the 1960’s and ‘70’s due to problems with their right hands, it came as a surprise to many in the classical music industry.  Both musicians were at the peak of their careers performing in major concert halls around the world and concerto appearances with top orchestras.  Then, closer to home, guitarist and composer, David Leisner, stricken with right-hand problems, began canceling his busy concert schedule in the 1980’s.  All three musicians exhausted every possible option towards receiving a diagnosis of their hand problems with the hope of discovering a treatment or cure. They sought out physicians, physical therapists, psychiatrists, massage therapists, acupuncturists, and many others.  From professional musicians to talented amateurs, hand problems seem to be occurring in increasing numbers.  Is this era particularly problematic with regards to musicians with hand problems?  Or, is the information age just making us more aware of the problem? 

I’ve not come across a study that chronicled the percentages of contemporary musicians with hand problems compared with previous generations – did earlier musicians just walk away from their instruments if they incurred a hand problem?  As it turns out, Graffman, Fleisher and Leisner had developed focal dystonia.  With the advent of the internet, you can make contact with focal dystonia (FD) sufferers from around the world in dedicated chat rooms for musicians with FD as well as see video of them on Youtube.  Are we more susceptible than musicians before us?  If we examine possible causes of hand problems, including focal dystonia, we might someday find some answers.  First of all, a guitarist who practices Tarrega’s Lagrima and Adelita for a half-hour per day is an unlikely candidate for FD.  Musicians who get FD are typically practicing difficult concert repertoire for hours per day.  Graffman and Fleisher have stated that they were trying to be the fastest, loudest pianists of the land when they developed their hand problems.  David Leisner was working on the 12 Etudes by Villa-Lobos. 

What is focal dystonia?  A simple explanation is that it is where a person has involuntary or spastic, and usually painless, movement or contraction with their fingers.  For guitarists who have the problem manifest in their right hand, typically either their index finger sticks outward and they cannot move it, certainly not in a way that allows them to pluck a string under control; or, the middle, ring, pinky, or all three curl into the palm and they cannot return the fingers to the strings.  Another, probably earlier stage of the problem, is where the player has uncontrolled trembling and twitching with their fingers and they have extreme difficulty in locating the correct string to play.   If the musician has FD with their left hand, it seems that their fingers won’t obey mental directions and either point outwards, won’t lift off the string, or curl into the palm.   

Our bodies typically link muscles together in order to accomplish daily activities.  For example, if you are holding a pencil, it takes very little muscle action to maintain your grip.  However, it you are sitting in a chair, and a pencil lies 4 feet away, when you lean over to grab it, you will activate almost every muscle in your body, from muscles in your toes, legs, abdomen and back all the way up to your neck.  Our bodies link the muscles together in order to maintain balance, or to gain strength by combining muscle groups to share the work load.  The problem with musicians is that for fine motor movements, we often use too many muscles, and most of these extra muscles are opposing necessary muscles. 

One intriguing issue that FD brings up with regards to guitarists is that we tend to develop debilitating hand problems with the right hand more so than the left.  Consider that the left hand needs to move with extremely contrasting motions, along with sustained pressure, while the effort needed to simply pluck a string with the right hand is relatively minimal.  So, on a basic level, it seems that it should be the left hand that would be ripe for developing problems, not the right.  But the issue of speed is more of a factor with the right hand than the left.  Attempting to play quickly with the right hand under tension is likely a major factor.  I think this helps explain what may be the most likely cause of FD:  where musicians tense up opposing muscle groups in the arms – tensioning both the flexors and extensors simultaneously.  After perhaps years of doing this, the impulses from the brain begin to be scrambled and dystonia may occur.   

First and foremost, all the FD musicians that I’ve worked with or seen play have had problems with excess muscle tension.  There are three muscle areas that have been problematic:  the upper trapezius (between the shoulder and the neck); the deltoid (shoulder muscle that lifts the arm); and perhaps most important, the forearm extensor muscles.  It is interesting to note that most movements in playing an instrument, in fact just about anything we do with our hands, focuses on pulling our fingers inward towards our palms. This motion is brought about by contracting our flexor muscles, which are on the bottom of our forearms.  (Take a look at one of your forearms and notice that the flexor muscles are much larger than the extensor muscles.)  If our right index finger, for example, needs to move inward to our palm in order to pluck a string, the flexor muscle for that finger should contract, and the corresponding extensor muscle should release.  If this happens correctly, the index finger will move easily.  However, if the musician inadvertently contracts the extensor and flexor muscles simultaneously, then the flexor has to work more vigorously to overcome the added resistance that the extensor is creating, and strain develops. 

Two interesting approaches that the medical community favors in treating FD is the use of Botox to temporarily paralyze the arm, and arm/hand isolation – where the FD arm and hand are bound in a cast to keep the musician from moving the afflicted area for a time period of about a month.  Both of these techniques are supposed to help the brain forget the old way of playing so that the musician can, hopefully, relearn how to play without the FD symptoms.  I think there is validity to both of these techniques; however, if the player doesn’t radically change their approach to playing, the old problems will resurface.  Another problem with the use of Botox is that the effect wears off after awhile, and it takes ever increasing amounts of a very expensive drug to get the same result (and women in Beverly Hills need all the Botox that they can get!).  

For musicians who have developed FD, three issues need to be examined.  First, they must learn how to relax non-essential muscles and get complimentary muscle groups, like the flexors and extensors to coordinate properly.  Posture is a huge factor here, as proper posture allows the player to utilize the structure of their body to support itself, which allows many back, abdomen, and shoulder muscles to relax.  Frequently, I’ll point out how the player is even tensing their legs and feet unnecessarily.   Lately, I’ve been using a small bio-feedback monitor (Myotrac EMG Biofeedback Systems) to help all of my students learn how to control certain muscles. 

Secondly, develop new ways to play.  This is extremely critical in that the player has created an association between playing their instrument and dystonic movements.  In this regard, it is important to focus on improving hand positions and finger movement by mimicking playing with super-light touching.  One example is to sit with the guitar resting well away from the body – close to the left knee, standing up while playing, or even lying on a bed or floor, and then tapping a string with the fingers affected by FD, without any attempt to play notes.  This is to help the player develop different memories on how to move so that they can create new mental pathways to their fingers.  Another common problem with FD guitarists, at least the ones I’ve seen who have it in their right hand, is that they have too little movement in their large knuckle joints and tend to move almost exclusively with the middle joints of their fingers.  This is easy to fix with the super-light string touching exercise. 

Along the line of developing a new way to play, David Leisner has accomplished this by how he uses back muscles in a way that he never did before.  His use of the back muscles is similar to a technique that ballet dancers are taught in order to hold their arms in proper position for long periods without strain.  David is a rarity, having successfully overcome FD on his own.

Finally, practice habits need to be changed.  Micro-relaxation moments need to be programmed into pieces, and ease of movement needs to be associated with each piece.  Commonly, FD musicians tend to push their fingers incessantly without regard to how it feels to play. 

If the reader should suspect that he or she is potentially developing FD, perhaps first and foremost, you need to see someone, a physician or specialist, who has experience with musicians who have contracted FD.  Continuing to play in the manner that has caused FD will only make things worse.  Fortunately, focal dystonia has received substantial interest in the medical and research communities and there is help available. 

Ultimately, one of the most debilitating issues that a musician faces when they find that they have developed FD is psychological.  Where a player might have basked in the glory of successful performances and widespread recognition, or just the pleasure of bringing a virtuoso piece up to tempo, they now face a frustrating, demoralizing period where everything that they have known in their musical life is now in question.  

The scope of this essay is not to comprehensively examine focal dystonia or offer a cure, but to introduce the problem to unsuspecting readers.  I believe more musicians than perhaps ever have developed this problem due to our society’s emphasis on virtuosity.  I doubt that Claudio Arrau would have ever developed this problem...

Mixing Concrete

You need to relax” is a comment that virtually every musician has been told, or heard spoken to someone.  We often think that we know how to relax, or better yet, believe we are a relaxed player.  But the reality is that very few musicians can claim to be truly relaxed, and more importantly:  in control.  How many musicians feel that they can perform as well in front of an audience as they can in the practice room?  Not many from what I’ve seen.  The usual culprit is overt tension.   

One of the insidious problems with tension is the fact that typically, the more tension a player is saddled with, the more they are unaware of it.  I’ll never forget a moment when I was in college, my girlfriend, who is a fine violist, was showing me how to hold the viola and the bow.  She told me that I needed to relax my right shoulder and I replied that I was relaxed.  She said that I was not, and we dropped the issue.  Later on, the proverbial light bulb went off in my head.  For her to make those comments, and for me to respond in the manner that I did, made me realize that I had no concept of what being relaxed meant. 

Let’s examine some of the issues surrounding being a relaxed player – of any instrument. It is beyond the scope of this article to systematically cover each and every aspect of playing the guitar, so I’ll try to offer some general concepts that, hopefully, will allow guitarists to examine their playing and gain awareness of the problems.  First of all, we need a definition.  Mine is this:  Relaxed playing is the ability to activate the muscles needed, without the interference of other, non-necessary muscles.  There are two facets to this statement that are of critical importance to every musician.  First, we need to learn how to isolate the muscle groups that are needed for each aspect of our playing – and secondly, we need to understand the “tug-of-war” syndrome that so often plagues us.  This tug-of-war problem is largely the cause of tendonitis in our arms when we are activating the extensor and flexor muscles (forearm muscles that control the fingers) simultaneously.   

The first order of business is to examine our sitting posture.  Most important is to have the structure of our body, our skeletal system, support as much of our weight as possible. So, sit with a straight back, with your vertebrae aligned on top of each other.  When we sit with poor posture, we unnecessarily activate many lower and upper back, shoulder, and abdomen muscles.  I have my students sit up straight and relax as many torso muscles as they can, then I’ll ask them to slouch and sit straight again several times so that they become sensitive to the difference.   

Another important issue relating to sitting posture is the height that we hold the guitar.  Frequently, a reason many guitarists have shoulder and neck stiffness is due to holding the guitar too high.  When you are playing in first position, your left hand should not be above the height of your mouth.  If it is, then you are overusing your left deltoid (shoulder) muscle.  The weight of the right arm should be on the guitar, and if you hold down a chord with your left hand, the weight of both arms, plus the weight of the guitar, should be felt on your left leg.   

The stiffness in our hands is usually when we contract both flexor and extensor muscles simultaneously.  When we learn to play an instrument, we struggle to direct our fingers, and typically, we do so by locking up our arms and hands.  Thus, the tug-of-war begins, and we force our fingers to behave - what I refer to as imposing “Martial Law” on our fingers.  How do we rectify the problem?  First, we need to relax our torso muscles as much as possible as I mentioned earlier, and second, we need to learn how to get our finger muscles to coordinate their efforts without strain.   

For the right hand, I often ask my students to squeeze their fist for a few seconds, and then to release their hand.  While their hand is loose, I ask them to wiggle their fingers.  I tell them that this is how their right hand should feel when they play.  Then I ask them to maintain that feeling as they randomly play open strings.  The weight of their right arm should be resting on the guitar, and it should feel extremely loose and comfortable.  Ideally, this feeling should never be lost.  I then have the student play a simple p-i-m-a arpeggio, very lightly, making sure that they don’t tense up the forearm, and then they can try to make a subtle crescendo and decrescendo, all while staying loose. 

The left hand is a bit more complicated.  There are two states that the left hand maintains:  clamping and moving; and routinely, both are required at the same time.  Guitarists need to recognize when they are doing which, and more importantly, when to recuperate.  With every piece, guitarists need to practice releasing their left hand tension at critical junctures, such as open strings, shifts, and major chord changes where there are no pivot or guide fingers.  The idea is to take as much time as you need to relax and rejuvenate your left hand when you are learning a piece, and then, as the days go by, you’ll need less and less time to relax until the point arrives that you can do so in tempo.  Ultimately, the habit of practicing relaxation points, to the degree that they become automatic, is the most important aspect of becoming a “relaxed” guitarist. 

In addition to finding relaxation points, guitarists must learn how to effectively use the weight of their left arm to aid in pressing the left hand fingers.  Essentially, while clamping notes with the left hand, pressure should be coming from three sources:  the weight of the left arm “hangs” on the fingers to help apply pressure; the left bicep should pull ever so gently to relieve undue pressure on the left thumb; and finally, we do need to squeeze with our fingers and thumb.  An excellent exercise is to play through a simple scale without touching the left thumb to the back of the neck.  By using the weight of the left arm and subtle bicep pressure the player should be able to obtain clear notes.  Then, add the left thumb lightly, more for balance than for squeezing pressure. 

What does guitar playing have to do with concrete?  Mixing 94 lb. bags of concrete in a wheelbarrow is a physically demanding job, one that in working on various home projects over the years I’ve done all too often.  I must admit that when I used to practice or perform on the guitar, there was a similar feeling of struggle in both tasks, but not any more.   

My wife mixes the cement.

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