CCS International Concert Management
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
The 1% Solution
I am the Greatest
Memoirs of a Newsboy
A Balancing Act
For Art's Sake
It's an Epidemic! Are you Next?
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.
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.
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
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?
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
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
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:
Long, flowing, complete melodic
Melody in the bass
3/4 time signature
Steady, 3 note chordal accompaniment
Short, incomplete melodic ideas
Melody in the top voice
Alternating 2/4, 3/4, and finally a
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.
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
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
|The 1% Solution
intoned Aetitao. Ta-dum…ta-dum…ta-dum was the sound of
the slow steps on the worn paths of reddish soil.
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.
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…,
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
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!
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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?
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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!).
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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)
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.