Thursday, November 28, 2013

A Day in the Life of a Musician

I just ran across a photo essay about a recent Milwaukee Symphony concert. Good enough as these things go, I suppose, but when I see photos like this I always think that pictures of musicians playing are just about as uninformative as an audio recording of a painter painting would be. "Swish, swish, scrape, scrape."

But what musicians do every day might be interesting to non-musicians. I can't tell you the details about the working day of an oboist, but I am reliably informed that it usually involves manufacturing reeds with some very arcane equipment. I have certainly heard enough singers, pianists, string and wind players practicing to know what they do. But what I know most about is what classical guitarists do as I have been one for over forty years. Nowadays my musical day usually begins with this blog, but for most of my life it began with nail care. What? Yes, you heard me. Classical guitarists take very special care of their nails because the right hand fingernails are basically what produce the sound. I just took a photo of the items involved that sit on a cabinet beside my practice area.

Click to enlarge

Starting from the left there is very special open coat sandpaper for polishing, next is 1000 wt sandpaper for shaping the nail surface. Next to that is a diamond dust nail file, for shortening and rough shaping. Then there is a nail polisher from the Body Shop. Then there are two mechanical pencils. Never write on your music in pen!! Never, never! Next is a tuning fork (A=440). The very odd looking black object next to the tuning fork is an official Robert Holroyd string-tyer. My guitar, built by Robert Holroyd in Vancouver, has a unique bridge design. Instead of the strings being tied in a loop, you make a knot in the end using the string-tyer, then thread them through the bridge. With the nylon treble strings you have to melt the end so it forms a little ball to prevent slippage. That is what the lighter next is for. Then there are some packages of new strings. The little black box that is open behind is an indulgence I just bought. It is a Calvin Klein nail care accessory set with clippers, scissors, toenail clippers, tweezers and a diamond dust file.

After I prepare my nails I do warm up and technique maintenance. I have previously posted on my technique routine here. Then it is on to learning new pieces and finally reviewing old pieces. When I was a full time performer I would spend about four hours a day on this. Then, because I had two teaching jobs, I would head out to the university where I would teach for a few hours and then to the conservatory for a few more hours. Over the course of a week I would practice about 25 to 30 hours and teach a bit less. On top of this were rehearsals, concerts and recording. As I didn't have an agent any work promoting my career came after all that!

Speaking of rehearsals I am reminded of the wry humor of my dear, departed friend, violinist Paul Kling. We were preparing to do a concert together and were talking on the phone, scheduling a rehearsal. He suggested five o'clock the next day. I said that I had students all afternoon and after four hours of listening to students I couldn't possibly rehearse with him. Silence from the other end. Then he said, "you listen?" I should mention that at the time Paul Kling was chairman of the School of Music at the university, which made the remark much funnier.

Here is my recording of Recuerdos de la Alhambra with a little photo essay of the Moorish palace, the Alhambra, that inspired Tárrega to write the piece:

UPDATE: Another guitarist who is owner of a Holroyd guitar asked me about my string-tyer. Every time I write that word "string-tyer" I wince because I don't know how to spell it. But "string-tier" can't be right either... In any case, Bob Holroyd, to remove the necessity of having to yard on your bridge every time you replaced strings, made a string-tyer out of a piece of ebony. It has two different-sized holes, just like the bridge. So you make your knot, tighten it up in the string-tyer and then thread the string through your bridge. No need to yard on the bridge itself. Incidentally, this bridge design was not Bob Holroyd's invention. I came about as a result of a lot of long-distance phone conversations between Bob and Neil Hiebert, a guitar builder in Montreal, that I also used to know. In fact, Bob used to call this kind of bridge a "Hiebert bridge". Anyway, here are closeup photos of the string-tyer and the bridge, showing how the strings are affixed:


RM said...

"Instead of the strings being tied in a loop, you make a knot in the end using the string-tyer, then thread them through the bridge."

I never knew! I've been tying a knot in the strings by hand and leaving an extra length to allow for the knot to slip a a bit.

Can you post a close up of this string-tyer?

Bryan Townsend said...

See update.

RM said...

Thanks very much for posting this. The close up allows me to see the bridge clearly - aside from the tying system, it's quite different from mine, which is wider and has an ivory insert like traditional bridges. I also knew Neil Hebert, who told me that he and Bob met while working at Wilhemys in downtown Montreal, right across the street from Concordia. It's great to get this info, there are only brief mentions on the internet, and I've never seen another Holroyd guitar.

Ross MacIver

Bryan Townsend said...

You're welcome! Yes, Bob changed the bridge design a bit with every guitar. Mine is #24 (out of only 27 that he built). What number is yours?

I remember that music shop! I used to buy all my strings there...

RM said...

"What number is yours?"

Mine is #13. I posted that other comment on your post about your guitar. The inscription reads "August 1980. For my friend Pierre Benichou, R.G. Holroyd, 310 Water Street, Vancouver"