Sunday, January 29, 2023

Two Useful Exercises for Guitarists

I had the opportunity to participate in two master-classes with Pepe Romero in my younger years. One was a brief one in Canada and the other a month-long session in Salzburg at the Mozarteum. What set Pepe's approach apart from other classes was the focus on technique. Each class began by playing some basic technical exercises together and the result was that by the end of the class everyone had acquired more technical confidence. This was valuable because most guitarists are still a bit weak, technically, compared to violinists and pianists.

I picked up these two exercises from the master-class and I still use them as a warm-up to this day. The first one is a scale exercise. Most guitarists use the Segovia scales which are certainly useful, but this approach is a bit different. Instead of diatonic major or minor scales, the exercise uses chromatic scales. Very simply it goes from the lowest to the highest note so it also keeps your extension to the highest frets in shape. I'm not going to write out the whole gamut as it is obvious how it is to be fingered. Once you get to the first string, just keep the pattern, shifting up. Once your first finger shifts to the fingerboard past the body, the problem is where do you put your thumb. You have to practice very slowly sliding your thumb from behind the neck to resting along the edge of the fingerboard. With practice this will become quite easy. The right hand fingering is simply to work all the possibilities. These days I am using pm, im, ia and ma.

Click to enlarge

The other exercise is for the right hand. This is a rasgueado exercise which classical guitarists normally don't do but it is perfect for both warming up and strengthening the weak side of the hand. On the open strings use this pattern: c ("chico" standing for the little finger), a, m, i (all downstrokes) and i coming back as an upstroke. The trick is to stack the fingers so, for example, the c is stacked behind the a, the a behind the m, the m behind the i and the i held with the thumb. This is so you can put pressure on each finger in turn, releasing it with a sudden burst of energy. As the greatest accent is on the c, this allows you to strengthen the weak side of the hand. You can rest the thumb on the sixth string for stability. Try to make the five-stroke pattern as even as possible.

And for listening, a little piece by Turina, the Fantasia Sevillana which uses a lot of rasgueado:

Friday, January 27, 2023

Friday Miscellanea

Study shows that listening to music during stressful times can boost your mood and reduce stress. Well, duh. This study was done exclusively with participants from Austria and Italy and no information was given as to what music they listened to. I'll bet that the results would be different if you listened to Mozart or Metallica, Brahms or Björk.

* * *

Here is what music-loving economist Tyler Cowan listened to in 2022:

I am listing only new releases:

Bach, Johann Sebastian, complete Sonatas and Partitas for violin, Fabio Biondi.  Perhaps the only recording I like as much as the older (stereo) Milstein performance?

Bach, Johann Sebastian, The Art of Life, Daniil Trifonov, The Art of the Fugue (favorite of Thomas Schelling!) is the main work here.  Schelling, by the way, was especially fond of the Grigory Sokolov recording of this work.

van Baerle Trio, Beethoven complete piano trios

Beethoven, Kreuzer sonata for violin and piano, Clara-Jumi Kang and Sunwook Kim

William Byrd, John Bull, The Visionaries of Piano Music, played by Kit Armstrong

Handel, George Frideric, Eight Great Suites and Overtures, by Francesco Corti on harpischord

Matthias Kirschnereit plays Mozart, the complete piano concerti, and two Rondos

Mozart, La flûte enchantée (yes in French), conducted by Hervé Niquet

Shostakovich/Stevenson, mostly Op.87, piano music, by Igor Levit

Szymanowski, Karol, Piano Works, by Krystian Zimerman

By far my biggest discovery was Benjamin Alard playing the complete keyboard works of Bach, mostly on organ and clavichord.  These are some of the best recordings of the best music I have heard, ever.

* * *

The Guardian's listening list for January for the 26th is this piece (more interesting than today's piece) but the selections seem largely random:

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This might be Arts Council England’s lowest moment.

Last night, in response to protests from every major opera company at its lack of an opera policy, ACE issued this statement:

At the Arts Council we have a single 10-year strategy, Let’s Create, which shapes all our investment and development decisions. We will not therefore develop separate artform or sub artform strategies. But as the national development agency for creativity and culture, for the past few months we have been planning to commission an independent piece of analysis, designed to focus on consideration of opera and music theatre in relation to Let’s Create. This analysis will help us shape our future investment in opera and music theatre and to develop a shared understanding with the sector of the challenges and opportunities currently faced by it. We will share further details of this work later in the Spring.

I think the problem here, and one that comes with every "national strategy," one that Friedrich Hayek pointed out many years ago, is an epistemological one. Incidentally, it is the same problem that dogs most socialist policies. The problem is that a central authority, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union or the Arts Council of Great Britain, develops a national policy (Stalin's Five Year Plans or opera in the UK) that will somehow lead to future progress. This policy is developed by a small group of administrators but applied at the local level. The knowledge problem is quite simple: no matter how much data they gather, the central authority lacks knowledge of what is needed at the local level. In the Soviet Union, exactly how many what what kind of tractors are needed in a specific district in Ukraine; in the UK, exactly what kind of opera and production will appeal to the audiences in Manchester or Glasgow. Central planning is notoriously bad.

* * *

Also from Norman Lebrecht, never reluctant to over-share his opinions: Why I hate Beethoven’s Pastoral symphony. Let me summarize:

  • because his stepmother liked it
  • because it is atypical: "The Sixth, however, is sheer escapism, a springtime day evoked in deep midwinter and telling a story, which Beethoven never normally does."
  • because he hated hiking in the countryside
  • because he hated Bruno Walter (the conductor of a famous recording)
  • because Theodor Adorno: "Adorno, for me, cracks the Pastoral enigma. If we accept his proposition that Beethoven delivers both text and subtext, narrative and analysis, we can make of the symphony whatever we like – whether a benign Sunday jaunt or a thunderous sermon against a world bent on self-destruction. We can both love the melodies and loathe the context."
There, now you don't have to read it.

* * *

Let's have some music. First, Bach, the Prelude and Fugue in C minor from the Well-Tempered Clavier, Bk I played by Benjamin Alard:

And, of course, the Pastoral Symphony of Beethoven conducted by Bruno Walter:

Finally from one of the very few people to have recorded all the Bach cantatas, Maasaki Suzuki and the Bach Collegium Japan with the Cantata BWV 30:

Tuesday, January 24, 2023


Way back when I was a student I worried about phrasing: it seemed important, but did I understand it or even know what it was? So I picked up a book on phrasing but after reading it I seemed to know little more than before I read it. Let me try and explain why this happened.

Phrasing, as I understand it today, is simply how a musically aware performer responds to the musical text. What notes are grouped with which and in what way, what is joined and what is separated, basically, how is the meaning of the music articulated in performance? I don't mean the socio-political subtext, I simply mean the musical meaning.

So a proper book on musical phrasing would first explain all the possible musical structures and meanings and how to respond to them in your interpretation. Ah, yes, well that is why there aren't any good books on musical phrasing. Looking at Amazon there are a whack of books on phrasing for jazz and blues players, but only this one for classical: Hermann Keller, Phrasing and Articulation, which is probably the one I read. Actually, since I read it so long ago when I was not very educated, it might be excellent. I would have to re-read it to offer a proper criticism.

But the general problem is still there: an understanding of how to phrase depends on a general musical understanding of things like theory, structure and history. Or you could simply phrase things the way your teacher shows you, which is what a lot of musicians do. But I think it is better to figure things out for yourself.

As this is just a humble blog, I won't explain all about music structure and history, but I will give you two examples that might be illuminating. The first is a YouTube clip from The Independent Pianist discussing an interesting interpretive choice by Sviatoslav Richter and comparing it to a more conventional choice by Alfred Brendel. The choices involve what is essentially rubato. Here, have a listen:

My second example is from the Sonatina meridional by Manuel Ponce that I am re-learning right now. I won't put up any YouTube clips because I can't find any that illustrate my point so I will just give you a written musical example:

Click to enlarge

This is from very near the beginning of the movement and this passage is the second theme of the exposition. I input the notes into Finale and the black notes are the theme while the red notes are an accompanying figure that is in the form of a descending sequence. Most players just play it pretty much as written with perhaps some oomph put into the sixteenth notes in the interest of virtuoso expression. But the more interesting interpretive phrasing would be to separate the descending harmonic line, which is quite interesting in its alternating 2nds and 3rds. How do you do this? A couple of ways: just give those notes a tiny bit of rhythmic extension, hold them a very tiny bit longer than their actual value, and second, give them a different timbre, perhaps a bit warmer than the sixteenth notes. I suppose if I had lots of time this morning, I would record myself illustrating this, but why don't you try it for yourself? I think you will see what I mean.

What this does is add another dimension to the passage. Instead of there being basically one idea punctuated by some chords, there are actually two ideas that contrast with one another. So this is an example of how phrasing is suggested by the musical structure. The best way to sort this out is to play just the lower voice(s) by themselves so you hear how they connect with one another, then put it together. Actually, as Oscar Ghiglia often emphasized in his master classes, you should always play through the harmonies of every piece you are learning, listening carefully so you are sure you hear and understand them.

Sunday, January 22, 2023

What I'm Reading Today

I finished that book on technical analysis of stocks, thank god. Useful, sure, but oh so dreary. I discovered poetry sometime in my late teens after we moved to Vancouver Island and a slightly better municipal library. The poets I read then included T. S. Eliot because everyone said he was wonderful, Ezra Pound, because Eliot said he was wonderful (he dedicated The Waste Land to him) and Shakespeare because we read him in school. My first year English professor introduced me to Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens and Theodore Roethke. I discovered Rainer Maria Rilke on my own.

Alas, moving to Mexico meant that most of my library had to stay behind so I haven't actually owned any Eliot for a long time now. But I just got his Collected Poems and re-reading The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock was a deeply moving and eerie experience. I first read it fifty years ago but I haven't read it in at least twenty-five years. The lines still echo in my memory.

Let us go then, you and I,

 When the evening is spread out against the sky

 Like a patient etherised upon a table


In the room the women come and go

Talking of Michelangelo

I am so glad I read this when I was young as it resonates so much more now when I read it many years later. It reminds me of the very odd sensation in the two-part finale to season three of Battlestar Galactica when some members of the crew begin hearing (hallucinating) strange musical fragments that elude identification. Finally, at the very end a dead crewmember is resurrected and we hear the song in its entirety: it is All Along the Watchtower written by Bob Dylan with a very famous cover by Jimi Hendrix. The moment when you realize what song it is, and if you are old enough to have heard it when it was released, is very like the sensation of re-encountering a very great poem like Prufrock.

And I have The Waste Land, The Hollow Men and Four Quartets to look forward to!

Here is the song in the context of the series:

And here is the Bear McCreary arrangement on its own:

Here is the Jimi Hendrix cover:

 And finally the Bob Dylan original:


Living in Mexico

My commentariat are a polite bunch, never asking prying personal questions--or maybe they are just not interested! But I have the urge to talk a bit about living in Mexico and why I moved. It was February in 1998 and Montreal had experienced a genuine climate crisis: a five-day ice storm. An ice storm occurs when the temperature of the air is just above zero and the temperature of the ground is just below zero, so when it rains the water turns to ice when it hits the ground. Driving and even walking is nearly impossible as everything is coated with a layer of ice. Oh, and those big electric transmission towers? Covered with tons of ice, they tend to collapse:

A typical ice storm lasts maybe a day, but in early January 1998 it went on and on, for five days. At which point those really big transmission towers had maybe 300 tons of ice and, as you can see in the photo, every twig and branch had a cocoon of ice. Montreal is on an island in the St. Lawrence river and there are five main electric lines to the island. Four of them were down and a lot of local neighborhoods had no power because fallen trees had taken out power lines. The city engineer told the mayor and premier of the province that there was no power for the downtown office towers so nobody would be going to work for a while and there would be enough power to either run the Metro, the Montreal subway, OR to have water pressure. Not both. So they shut down the subway.

We left on a Friday afternoon after a couple of days with no power. We took the subway to the bus station and as we arrived they were shutting it down. The office towers were already dark. Eerie sight! We took the bus to the nearest town in Ontario that was out of the swath of the storm and stayed there until power was restored. In our neighborhood that took eight days. We started to think that there must be a better place to live, weather-wise.

A month or so later we had a friend over for dinner who used to be a vocal coach for the Mexico City opera. He was raving about San Miguel de Allende, where they loved to go on the weekends. San Miguel is one of the colonial silver cities, meaning cities founded by the Spanish in central Mexico during the era when immense quantities of silver were being mined and sent back to Spain. San Miguel was just a stopping place on the route from Zacatecas and Guanajuato to Mexico City and it became nearly a ghost town after the Mexican revolution of 1910. But in the late 40s and 50s it was discovered by a generation of arts-oriented Americans who found they could study art here under the GI bill as the Instituto Allende offered a master's degree. The expat community has been growing ever since and now is about 10% of the population.

No ice storms here. This photo could have been taken at any time of the year:

There are lots of other things I love about the place, health care in particular. A visit to your doctor costs $75 US, I can get an MRI the next day, I can see a specialist within a week and the costs for everything are very reasonable. I paid $150 for that MRI. There are three private hospitals in San Miguel and if necessary a doctor or a nurse will come to your home. In Canada, things are very different. A referral for treatment will take anywhere from six months to over a year.

There is a downside, of course. I miss the rich collegiality of the university community I was part of for over twenty years and it is pretty much impossible for me to get a piece premiered here. My String Quartet No. 2 will be premiered in three concerts in May. In Vancouver!

But, you know, I don't miss that winter weather.

Sibelius said that his Symphony No. 6 "always reminds me of the scent of the first snow."

Friday, January 20, 2023

Friday Miscellanea

I've been a fan of Bob Dylan since the late 60s--and at eighty-two years old he is still going strong: The Inner Life of Transcendent Genius.

American popular music, however—if one excludes jazz—has arguably produced just one transcendent genius. Bob Dylan is now in his 82nd year, and over the course of 60 of those years, he has changed his medium as utterly and completely as Orson Welles changed cinema or Cervantes changed world literature. Dylan has effectively divided American popular music into the era before his emergence and the era that followed, in which everyone—willing or unwilling, consciously or unconsciously—trod in his footsteps.

You might as well read the rest.

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 That nexus of arts coverage, the Wall Street Journal, has a review of Stephen Walsh’s The Beloved Vision: A History of Nineteenth Century Music.

Historians speak of the long 19th century, from the French Revolution to the Great War, and that is more or less how Mr. Walsh uses the denomination. It was, he writes, an era “of stylistic diversity, a time when a composer asserted his or her existential being through a recognisable, even idiosyncratic musical language, after centuries during which composers”—think of Handel or J.S. Bach—“were generally less concerned with self than with craftsmanship.”

Hmm, that sounds interesting.

The 19th century was a time when the aristocracies that sponsored gifted musicians and composers died out and were replaced by public and private institutions—large professional orchestras, concert halls and conservatories. The conservatories dramatically improved the technical skill of musicians and offered a place for gifted composers to learn the newest techniques; orchestras and opera houses largely took over the job of commissioning new works. Many decades would pass before these institutions, grown sclerotic by government funding and no longer responsive to public tastes, would enforce banal orthodoxies on young ambitious composers.

European music, in other words, had not yet become overinstitutionalized and overcredentialed, as ours has been since the middle of the last century. In Vienna, we are reminded by Mr. Walsh, Mozart worked from 1781 as a freelance musician. Beethoven, too, survived on publishers’ commissions and charitable sponsorship. If they had been born two centuries later, both would have been appointed to endowed professorships, paid handsome salaries, feted by arts organizations, further subsidized with prestige prizes, and never heard from again.

My emphases. Now there is certainly a grain of truth there, especially the first passage that I have bolded. But while the second is certainly true of many composers who teach composition from comfortable tenured posts in universities and conservatories, there are many others who roam the musical universe, living on commissions and the sweat of their brow. Some names: Philip Glass, Steve Reich, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Thomas Adès, Sofia Gubaidulina, Caroline Shaw and others. So, I find I have to strongly disagree that Mozart and Beethoven would have disappeared into the halls of academe, never to be heard from again.

* * *

This seems to be a perennial theme: 7/11 stores are blaring out classical music to deter homeless individuals from loitering outside because the vagrants 'find opera annoying'

Jagat Patel, who owns a 7-Eleven in the Riverside neighborhood of Austin, told Fox 7: 'Studies have shown that the classical music is annoying. Opera is annoying, and I'm assuming they are correct because it's working'.

Ah, that other perennial theme: "studies have shown"! What we need are some studies showing how really annoying EDM is.

* * *

 Here is a different take on the film TárThank you, Cate Blanchett, for taking up the baton for female conductors.

And now Todd Field’s film Tár about a female conductor is the toast of Hollywood, anchored by Cate Blanchett’s firebrand performance. The film is a glinting prism in which everyone will see different things. For me it asks timely questions about the abuse, fragility and illusion of power. Chatting to Cate and Todd at my book launch, it’s no surprise to me, having spent 30 years in this profession, how enrapt they both remain by this most beguiling of art forms.

* * *

From the BBC: Gen Z and young millennials' surprising obsession.

If asked to guess what under 25-year-olds are listening to, it's unlikely that many of us would land upon orchestral music. And yet a survey published in December 2022 by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (RPO) found that 74% of UK residents aged under 25 were likely to be tuning into just that at Christmas-time, compared with a mere 46% of people aged 55 or more. These figures reflect not only the RPO's broader finding that under 35-year-olds are more likely to listen to orchestral music than their parents, but also the widespread surge in popularity of classical music in general, particularly among younger generations.

That is rather unexpected, given the constant complaints in North America about the aging classical audience. But I have been saying for a long time that things are different in Europe. Part of the story is the rise of young artists:

British concert pianist Harriet Stubbs is another avid proponent of classical music for modern audiences who has been finding her own ways of drawing in new listeners. During lockdown, the musician, who usually splits her time between London and New York, performed multiple 20-minute concerts from her ground-floor flat in West Kensington, opening the windows and using an amplifier to reach listeners outside. "I gave 250 concerts," Stubbs, who was awarded a British Empire Medal by the Queen for this mood-boosting act of service, tells BBC Culture. "I did a range of repertoire from my upcoming album, and also things like All By Myself, which I chose ironically for that audience. And the thing is, people who thought they didn't care for classical music came back every day because of the power of that music."

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We have to start with Bob, don't we. Here is "Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands" from Blonde on Blonde:

And here is Harriet Stubbs playing the Scherzo #2 by Chopin:

 Lastly, Dmitri Shostakovich playing his own Prelude and Fugue in E minor:

Tuesday, January 17, 2023

More on "Soft" Practicing

I realize that my post the other day was too short to really address this. The basic principle relates to the idea of balancing two different elements, in this case energy and control. A lot of the technical problems guitarists have stem from inadequate control of what the fingers are doing. If you don't have good control, then you can't build a solid technical foundation. One of the things that always impressed me about John Williams was that once he learned a piece, he was pretty much rock-solid every time he played it. This shows how great his control was.

So how do you get this kind of controlled technique? Well, you do have to start young, past a certain age it is doubtful that you can achieve a really great technique. But the daily issue is that you have to balance your energy and your ability to control this energy. The problem students typically have is that they have enthusiasm and energy, but lack control so when they practice they are, essentially, practicing sloppiness.

The solution is to reduce the energy to an amount that you can control. Then, as your control develops, you can increase the amount of energy, being careful not to put in more than you can easily control. This is pretty much the secret of good practicing. Well-controlled movements repeated until they become automatic. Every time you allow an uncontrolled movement, it sets you back and you will have to practice to remove that muscle memory.

A violinist once told me that he couldn't teach a concerto he was about to perform because he might recall the mistake a student made!

So this was why I talked about "soft" practicing: the idea is to soften the movements and energy in your hands down to levels that you can easily control. Most guitarists probably know this instinctively, but it doesn't hurt to be consciously aware of the principle.