Category Archives: book review

How to practice effectively [video]

This is a short video from TED Talk on how to practice more effectively. It includes some useful tips & really interesting information based on what we know about the brain & how we learn tasks.

This ties-in with my previous blogs on rehearsal & my own (admittedly rather limited) research on music and the human brain [see previous posts]. Let me know what you think!

If the above video doesn’t work, here’s a link so you can access the short TED Talk video on YouTube.

Enjoy! xx

What’s your biggest guitar issue?

ATTENTION GUITAR FRIENDS!

This is a call for submissions!

One aim of my blog is to offer guitar & music-related advice and for the next few posts, I’d like to pass the power in dictating the topic of discussion to YOU. So tell me: what is the is the biggest issue you face in learning the guitar?

I’m happy to examine any relevant queries which have been bugging you. They could be technical (finger tapping, getting the right tone out of an amp), or more vague (who do you feel the best guitarists to listen to when learning Afro-Cuban jazz, etc). You might want to ask about bass guitar, ukulele or band performance/management in general. Feel free!

You can message me here, leave a comment in this post, or drop me a DM/tweet via my Twitter account: @tim_guitarist.

I look forward to hearing from you & talking your queries over the next few weeks!

Tim x

Albêniz’s ‘Leyenda’- open to interpretation

Interpretation is key to making music more than the robotic sounding of written notes on a page. It plays a large part in ensuring music remain an art, rather than a means of sequencing sound (this too can be a form of art, when done well, but that’s another article altogether).

I was recently asked to perform Spanish guitar music at a friend’s wedding service. Amongst other choices was Leyenda (meaning ‘legend’), one of the ‘big’ pieces classical guitar repertoire. Originally written by Spanish composer Isaac Albêniz (1860-1909) for piano, but transcribed for guitar within Albêniz’s lifetime.

The most famous transcription of this piece is by Andrés Segovia. Hear the great player performing it himself on this YouTube video. You may notice that Segovia’s interpretation is slower than more recent recordings. I’ve had some pretty interesting discussions with guitarists in the last few weeks and months regarding artistic interpretation. In almost all of these chats, the focus has been on the interpretation of the performer

However, what we hadn’t considered is the interpretation of the composer, or the arranger. When I say arranger, I mean one who transcribes music for other musicians to perform, rather than a player making interpretive changes solely for their own performance.

I came across a great article by composer & arranger Stanley Yates about this piece, which I wholeheartedly recommend you read here. In this article, Yates not only provides a large (and most welcome) amount if background information on the piece, but explains why his new arrangement differs more from Segovia’s than you might expect. The chief differences for me are the absence of sixteenth triplets in the opening section, which was Segovia’s invention (be honest, how many of you knew that?!) and a few differences to the interval of certain ‘grace notes’.

You can download Yates’s arrangement of Leyenda for free via this link to his website. I strongly recommend that you do this, in order to see these differences for yourself, and experience a very different side to a piece you thought you knew intimately.

The source for Yates’s arrangement is the original published piano work. He argues that he has attempted to stay true to the original piece without being pressured by the subsequent traditions of this piece which have grown over the last century. To say any more would be to rob Yates’s article completely – take some time to read it for yourself, and as always, please let me know your thoughts. Artistic interpretation has been a keen area of interest to me for a long time, and I am happy to open up a long-running conversation on the topic with readers & fellow music lovers. Get in touch!

Tim x

Mundane Science Fiction – taking fantasy out of the future

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Picture courtesy of Quora.com

Ok, so I’m a music writer first and foremost. The vast majority of my posts deal with (in no particular order):

  • The positive effects of music on overall wellbeing
  • Music therapy & community music articles of interest
  • Updates on my writing & recording work, focusing on new projects
  • Thoughts & discussions on the wider world of music, in all its beautiful and varied forms

However…

I do, on occasion, venture away from music and enter the wider world, focusing on my other favourite subjects: history, politics, travel and of course, books.

Like most people who write, I’ve tried my hand at fiction. I’ve started around five or six ideas for stories, only three of which were long enough to become novels. Two of these were science fiction. My love of sci-fi comes from a childhood spent reading the greats such as Asimov, Dick, Clarke, Banks and many, many more. Anyone who states that the genre isn’t proper literature has most likely not read the right books. The imagination required to conjure up these worlds and peoples goes fast beyond the standard writing advice of ‘writing what you know’.

Critics of sci-fi do have one valid gripe: in all of the grandiose settings and fantastical elements of the genre, characterisation can sometimes suffer. It is certainly true that only the very best sci-fi combines the huge space-opera backdrop with the human elements of character-driven plot lines. In that regard, can too much imagination be a bad thing?

Enter the relatively new sub-genre of mundane science fiction, a term first coined by Geoff Ryman and others in 2004. Those of you who follow my music blogs will no doubt be aware I have a dislike of genres and labelling. Good music is good music – shouldn’t the same be true for fiction? Well, perhaps with a focus on characters and more believable conflicts, it can.

The best way to achieve this? Remove the supernova-sized set pieces; the spaceships travelling at light speed; aliens from other worlds; time travel; in fact, anything considered to be outside of our current understanding of physics and the universe as we perceive it.

The Guardian newspaper wrote an excellent piece in 2008 introducing readers to the genre, which I happened upon recently which you can read here. This article and the original blog by SFGenics explain mundane sci-fi so much better than I can, but the basics involve a lack of the ‘fantastical’ elements mentioned previously, focusing instead on human stories and character-driven plot/conflict.

Interestingly, I have noticed that most of the books considered part of this movement (if you want to call it that) are set in the present day, near or approaching future. There is almost no likelihood of seeing a mundane sci-fi novel taking place in the year 30,212 A.D. because who knows what the world will look like then, and how could such ignorance be presented as mundane?

Another noteworthy feature is a focus the dwindling resources of this planet. In forcing themselves to look inwards, rather than to the stars, many mundane sci-fi writers imagine a future where food is scare, or climate change has irreparably damaged our ecosystem. Their stories focus on how these environmental perils being either fought against, or survived through by the protagonists.

In the full ‘mundane manifesto’ blog, which you can read here, a few classic works are included, including ‘Do Androids dream Of Electric Sheep?’ by Philip K. Dick, which became the classic movie Blade Runner, and ‘1984’ by George Orwell. These two contrasting examples of a near dystopian future should tell you that even without the wider galaxy to play with, there is plenty of interesting topics to be mined here on Earth.

To finish off, I’ll return to music an anecdote from Peter Gabriel. When working on one of his classic albums, he instructed the drummer not to play cymbals for the entire recording sessions. Effectively, he forbade cymbals from the entire album. While some might balk at such a draconian measure and say it’s a fast way to ruin his music, the end results were quite surprising. Forced out of his usual default playing patterns and styles, the drummer at these recording sessions had to entirely rethink his drum kit. Approaching it in this fresh manner brought out rhythms he would have never dreamt up otherwise.

As well as this, I have previously written on the amazing results pulled off by the late record producer George Martin in a previous blog post. Martin had severe limitations on the equipment he was using, but with The betakes, created the most technically astonishing music, certainly for their time. Some might use that example of ‘rooming the safety net’, but to me, it stands as proof that sometimes creativity works better within limitations. As I said earlier, what applies to music can also apply to fiction. Sometimes to ‘think outside of the box’, one has to be in a box to start with!

So what do you think? Get in touch and let me know!

Music & Wellbeing (Part 7): Final thoughts & additional reading

I hope you have enjoyed reading these extracts from my dissertation on the value of music on our overall wellbeing. I wanted to finish off this mini-series with a few final thoughts.

First of all, it goes without saying that a lot more research needs to be conducted in all of the areas I have covered. From music’s impact on the brain to it’s beneficial applications within the education system, we have only begun to scratch the surface of what could be possible. Music’s transformative power needs much more investigation and research than, unfortunately, we seem able to support financially in the country at the present. Having said that, there are a few great organisations out there, most of them charities, which are performing Stirling work even in these most difficult of economic times.

Nordoff-Robbins are the UK’s largest and oldest Music Therapy charity. Most of the MT courses on offer at UK universities are provided in conjunction with them, usually following their methods of practice. Another fantastic charity is Sunbeams. Working in the North-West area (Lake District, Cumbria) with a range of people, including children and adults with severe or multiple physical and mental difficulties, Annie Mawson’s organisation has won great praise and acclaim for it’s community music practice. I wholeheartedly suggest you check these guys out and donate if you can.

All the papers, texts and books I referenced in my mini-series were worth a greater look and I would encourage you to look through my references list at the end of each article, and read as many of the titles as possible. However, of all of these, may I humbly suggest Daniel Levitin’s astounding book on music and neuroscience ‘This Is Your Brain On Music’ and Oliver Sack’s ground-breaking tome ‘Musicophilia’.

As for the practise itself, get out there! Get volunteering! Use your hard-learned musical skills in the community to enrich the lives of those around you, especially those less fortunate, children, the elderly, disabled, ill and the isolated. Music is very much the world’s universal language – let’s use it to the best possible effect.

Warm up & practice recommendations

This week, I’ve had the rare luxury of free time. Free time to pick up my guitar whenever I like and play. Not specifially for any particular goal, just to PLAY for the love of playing.

In doing this, it has occured to me just how little I get to do this. Usually I pick the axe up to practice or prepare for an upcoming show or to learn new material. The rest of the time I’m actually at a gig playing.

Using it as a great opportunity to go over my classical repertiore, I found it almost scary how much my disclipline had slipped. Don’t get me wrong, I still play well and in a musically pleasing manner (in my opinion, anyway!) but there are ways of performing on gutar (with classical peices in particular) which enhances the music and makes playing easier (not to mention lessening any strain and preventing injuries long term).

So this week, I have been delving into my old practice and warm up notes and dug out my old favourite, Pumping Nylon by Scott Tennant. For the classical guitarists out there who do not have this book, I strongly recommend you purchase it as soon as possible.

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This book focuses solely on technique improvement for both hands (including thumb for the right hand). After the initial basics and starters, it progresses into joint techniques (working exercises for both hands together) and demonstrates a closer look into flamenco techniques. These not only go to strengthen your right hand, but to widen your overall playing ability. It also includes specially written study peices to incorporate all the techniques it has taught.
About eight years ago, I suffered a broken ring finger on my right hand. This has never fully regained it’s original strength (and as a result my regular concert days are mostly behind me). The exercises in this book went a long way in helping my rebuild the muscle and bring my ability back, something I feared would necver happen. Because of this, the right hand techniques and exercises int his book are of particular importance to me.

That’s the basic warm ups covered, but what about actually rehearsal starters? For me, as with many classical guitar players, the studies (or ‘Etudes’) of Francisco Tarrega and Fernando Sor provide plenty of examples for rehearsal focus, especially with right hand technique. It’s absolutely amazing the depth of ground these two player/teacher/composers covered in advancing the technical study of the guitar and I cannot recommend them highly enough.

Alongside these, there are also the studies of Mauro Giuliani. Although his concert and recital peices are widely known (in fact the staple of most player’s repertiore), his studies are often neglected. However, I would definitely suggest investing in a transcription of his complete studies. While not as technique-practice heavy as Sor (who, in contrast, is remembered historically more for his studies than his concert peices), they present a more musically varying set and some new colour into your practice routine.

My standard practise routine (looking at my old notes from my true classical playing days) went roughly as follows:

5-10 mins warm ups (both hands, featuring exercises from Pumping Nylon and scale practice)
Selected studies from Sor, Tarrega and Giuliani (2 or 3 from each, focusing on specific improvement areas)
Looking at any new peices to learn; slow play-through; focus on tricky areas; attempt to play through without stopping (I would try not to spend more than 20-25 minutes on this to prevent fatigue or frustration – the peice can be returned to on the next day)
A better known peice which also requires mastering. Ideally play-through should be reached far more quickly
Another peice (already known) to ‘refresh’ the fingers (ideally this will also be an upcoming concert peice)
‘Free playing’ – At this point, I could have been rehearsing for up to an hour and a half, so this should be an old favourite or two which you know well, to act as a ‘cool down’. Be careful, though, to remain watchful on technique and accuracy, as this is more likely to slip on peices you are over familiar with.

These, of course, are my tips only. I would however be deleighted to hear from other guitarists and their tips/routines for warm-ups and rehearsals. You can contact me via this blog or via my Twiiter handle: @tim_guitarist

Good luck and happy practising!

Book Review: Higgledy Piggledy Jazz for Classical Guitar Ensemble

Higgledy Piggledy Jazz is the brainchild of teacher and composer Elena Cobb (http://www.elenacobb.com/index.html), who is on a dual mission to introduce more Jazz into children’s learning, and make it fun at the same time. As well as her books for Piano, Elena also has versions for guitar and alto sax students, and it’s the Classical Guitar Ensemble book I am reviewing today.

Ten of Elena’s Piano peices have been arranged for a combination of duo, trio and quartets and set in order of technical complexity. The scores are clear and easy to read, with each part clearly marked*. The first few peices in the book are variation on Blues in C and very simplistic. The main melody is one Jazz lick repeated and varied for the chord underneath. The accompanying parts are equaly repetative, and any player beyind the initial stages will quickly bore of it. My suggestion to teachers would be to rotate the lead between players, provided all of them were at the same technical level.

On the plus side, as the book progresses there are some interesting musical ideas, and the three guitar players Elena has called in to arrange these peices have done a good job here. I really feel the intermeadiate peices work better. My personal favourite is ‘Polka Butterfly’, a charismatic duo which would stretches students into a new style. As mentioned before the page layout is clean and easy to read, and I love Elena’s mission to introduce classical players to the swing rythym, something not widely present in the classical guitar repertiore.

My one suggestion would be to include a page at the front to explain notation and guitar-specific symbology (such as the fingering labels and guides for which string to play certian notes on). I appreciate that this book is primarily for teachers, who would provide the guidance on these things to young students, but it would serve as a useful look-up reference page when practising at home.

All in all, this is a useful book for teachers who are looking to encourage their emerging classical guitar students into exploring new styles and mpore contemporary ways of playing. It is also a valuble tool for young ensembles. One of classical guitar’s downfalls is that so often it is a solo venture; it’s uplifting to know tha Elena is working to ensure young students of the guitar do not feel that isolation, and her book will go a long way towards that end. Highly recommended for any classical crossover teachers of children.

[*N.B. – There is also a Tabluture version of this book, for children who are still coming to grips with reading music]