“All Through the Night” (Welsh Air) and a Scottish Folk Song on Classical Guitar

The following is my 11/7/16 performance of “All Through The Night,” the final nonsupplemental piece in volume 1 of The Christopher Parkening Guitar Method:

I worked on this piece off and on over the months, along with a bunch of other pieces.  It’s harder than many other pieces in the book because of frequent chord changes.  I still have a lot of room for improvement:  it could be more legato, and I could raise the tempo and improve the dynamics.

This is how it sounds today, after not practicing it for more than ten days (I was out of town and didn’t take my guitar):

This is how it sounded soon after I started learning it, last December:

Finally, here’s my 11/8/16 performance of a Scottish folk song (a supplemental piece in the same instructional book).

Learning “Spanish Romance”

A couple years ago, I posted that I had taught myself how to play “Spanish Romance”.  In retrospect, I really should not have attempted learning it until about two years into guitar study.  After I started guitar lessons, I learned that my fingering patterns were inefficient, I paused at the wrong points in the piece, and that there were other problems.  I was also concerned that the tablature  I had used to learn the piece wasn’t entirely correct in some parts.  (Later, I discovered that the tablature was fine: there are multiple versions of this anonymous piece.  By that point, I was able to read sheet music for guitar.)

As the first full piece I tackled (it’s a classical guitar piece of moderate difficulty), I learned it coarsely, not knowing at the time how best to learn a new song.  I then abandoned it for several months, thinking I’d later return to a “correct version” of it after I had learned more about playing guitar.  That, too, was a mistake.

This is one of my earliest recordings of this piece, from Christmas, 2013:

Two months later, it sounded like this:

When I finally returned to the piece, I learned that my problems with it were as much about a multifactorial host of other inefficiencies as about learning the wrong fingerings:  I had to prevent the buildup of hand tension (especially during stretches and barres) in the difficult second half, increase my left hand strength, figure out how to barre reliably, play with better dynamics/musicality, and start using a metronome to eliminate unwanted pauses between fingerings.  I’m now significantly more sophisticated in my approach to guitar and in learning new songs.

The saying among classical guitar students, according to my instructor, goes: “I chose classical guitar because of ‘Spanish Romance’.  I quit classical guitar because of ‘Spanish Romance’.”

It’s a deceptively difficult piece, “a ‘trap’ for beginners.”  Frederick Noad writes, “From its sound this is always supposed to be a fairly easy piece.  In fact, it needs considerable practice…”

I practiced it about three days a week for about ten minutes each time.  Later, I became more serious about smoothing out the second half and worked on specific issues in that section for several minutes every day.  (I practice/play guitar 30-60 minutes a day, most days.  If I practiced with a professional’s schedule of many hours a day, I’d be orders of magnitude better than I am now, of course.  Guitar is just a hobby for me.)

I noticed that when I don’t try to resolve specific problems during practice (and instead just play the whole piece or large segments of it), and when I don’t record myself regularly, I don’t improve.  (Of course, deliberate practice is much more effective. By not working on specific problems and not getting feedback, improvement slows down.)

This is how the piece (the version found in Parkening’s book) sounded on November 2, 2016 (no segments repeated):

I still have a lot of work left on “Spanish Romance”.  It will probably be at least six more months until I can play it significantly better than I play it now.  (I’m learning several other pieces concurrently, as I always do.)

Here are a few other recent recordings:

This one, from September 28, 2016, is at a faster tempo and with repeated segments (the way it’s supposed to be played):

Finally, these two recordings, from October 20, 2016, have been the most popular of my “Spanish Romance” recordings on SoundCloud during the past half-day that all of these recordings have been online:

Für Elise on Classical Guitar, Abbreviated

I was excited to find an abbreviated version of Für Elise in the supplemental section of volume 1 of The Christopher Parkening Guitar Method.  I started learning it in December, 2015.  This is how I sounded when I started practicing this piece:

I’ve now practiced it for a bit more than six months, along with many of the other 87 pieces of classical guitar music I can now play. I still practice guitar for about thirty minutes daily.  Here’s how it sounds now:

(That intermittent snapping sound isn’t a crackling fireplace.  It’s a creaky wooden chair!)

I just checked it against David Brandon’s performance on the CD accompanying the book. It sounds decently similar.  I still have places where I can improve–e.g., it could be more legato at the beginning and I should have slowed down at a couple points later on–but, as they say, musicianship is a marathon, not a sprint.

How I Learned to Barre Cleanly, Without Buzzes, Squeaks, or Muted Notes

Barre chords are notoriously difficult for the beginning guitarist.  Now that I can finally, and to my own amazement, barre cleanly, I can tell you that it’s because barre chords are taught poorly.  There’s no reason I shouldn’t have been able to barre perfectly from the very beginning, except that the critical information I needed was found in only a single source:  Frederic Hand’s Classical Guitar Technique and Musicianship.  Hand recommends two things that instantly fixed my barring technique:  hyperextend the barring finger and place it straight down on the strings, without flexing it and without rolling or curving the finger to either side.  This works every time for me.

Before this revelation months ago, I was subject to all manner of confusing recommendations.  The Parkening Guitar Method recommends pressing “somewhat on the side of the finger” and stresses “position” of the finger over “pressure.”  Numerous internet resources also recommend pressing on the “bony side” (physicians call this the “lateral” or “medial” side) of the finger instead of “with the flesh” (volar side).  Pumping Nylon, the classical guitarist’s technique handbook par excellence, mentions various useful things like using the whole weight of the arm to barre instead of just squeezing with your finger and thumb (your fingers tire quickly if you don’t use your arm!).  It also mentions releasing tension whenever possible, squeezing only the strings necessary for the notes you want to produce, curving your barring finger for certain chords.  Et cetera.  Some resources style the difficulty of the barre as a rite of passage:  when you figure it out, things will progress more quickly, they promise.  Others recommend a tincture of time:  you’re a beginner, after all.  It’s okay if you squeak or buzz when you barre!  With more experience, you’ll get it…

But I still buzzed, squeaked, or muted notes occasionally when I barred.  None of the sources I reviewed mention the straightforward method Hand recommends and which worked instantly for me.  It worked because it stopped me from flexing my finger ever so slightly, which is what produced the buzz, squeak, or muted note.  It was a discrete leap, a 0/1, on/off thing, fueled by correct knowledge alone (not by strength, not by experience) to a new, satisfying level of skill.

The best way to learn is to have a personal instructor or coach.  Even one-on-one instructors, though, can’t identify every problem that arises.  They are only human.  One must supplement with other sources of information.  The bar of quality for these other, depersonalized educational strategies, such as books, articles, lectures, and videos, is so effectively low that syntopical browsing, as I did for barre chords, is often necessary to fill critical gaps in knowledge!

Drawing and Observation

I used to believe that learning to draw generally made me a better observer.  I no longer believe this.

In a literal sense, learning to draw does improve visual observation, because it improves one’s ability to appreciate shape, style, value, intensity, hue, and other visual characteristics.  After sketching something in the field, especially from multiple angles, one gains an almost eidetic memory of it.  And learning to draw what is seen helps to break the tendency to stereotype.

However, I no longer believe (in my own case, at least) that this improvement transfers to anything other than visual observation.

I arrived at this conclusion about two weeks after starting guitar:  I was driving home from work one day when I realized that my musical taste had changed:  in the span of two weeks, I had gone from listening indiscriminately to whatever was on the local/satellite radio to listening almost exclusively to classical and bluegrass music on Pandora, which I previously couldn’t even tolerate!  Now, I can listen to almost anything and experience a much greater level of appreciation and understanding than before I started learning an instrument.

In hindsight, the reason is clear:  by attempting to play an instrument, by struggling to produce musical sounds, I began to appreciate what goes into creating music.  In some sense, I was going through the same struggles the musicians on the radio went through years or decades ago, and I suddenly understood.  Classical music, bluegrass, and other styles were no longer foreign but fascinating.  I finally had a useful frame of reference.

Learning to produce music is all about observing deeply, about paying attention, and about letting yourself experience its beauty.

The same experience is true of drawing, painting, medicine, mathematics, computer science, travel, parenthood (so my friends with kids say!), or other fields of endeavor.  It’s often impossible to genuinely appreciate something until you’ve thoughtfully “been there, done that.”  You begin to understand, and this improves your ability to observe.*

*Update 6/14/15: could this phenomenon be related to mirror neurons?

On the Three-Wattled Bellbird and Learning Guitar

I’ve finally reached the 77th piece of music, “All Through the Night,” in volume 1 of The Christopher Parkening Guitar Method. I’ve been practicing it for weeks now. It’s technically the last “required” piece in the book, as the remaining pieces are supplements.

Learning guitar–perhaps learning any instrument–is hard. For me, it has been much harder than learning to draw. I feel like a human songbird, carefully and clumsily developing my voice. 77 songs!

Speaking of songbirds, when we visited Costa Rica’s Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve in 2013, we hoped to see the resplendent quetzal. Thanks to our guide, we saw many of them, both male and female. We were very lucky. Many travelers visit that same forest, in search of the same bird, and don’t see it.

Male resplendent quetzal photographed through a spotting scope.
Male resplendent quetzal photographed through a spotting scope.
Another male resplendent quetzal photographed through a spotting scope.
Another male resplendent quetzal photographed through a spotting scope.

However, there was another, more unusual bird we encountered in the high forest: the three-wattled bellbird. (The bellbird and the quetzal both feed on fruits of the unique wild avocado found only in Monteverde…it’s similar to other types of wild avocado but is larger.)  We heard the male bellbird during our entire time in the cloud forest and then eventually saw it atop a tall tree. The male bellbird produces a loud “bonk”–possibly the loudest bird call on Earth–as part of a complex three-part mating song that includes extremely high pitches. The only part that we heard during our hike, however, was the “bonk.” Somewhat uniquely, instead of being instinctive, the bellbird’s song is learned and refined over years. This long “incubation time” for the development of its song is one of the reasons (or so we were told) that it is not reproductively prolific. It’s a rare, endangered species that was once considered common until it was discovered that the same small population simply migrates regionally to different places at different times of the year!  We were told that it is protected in Costa Rica and Panama, but, unfortunately, not in Nicaragua, to which it also migrates but from which it sometimes doesn’t return.

Read more about the fascinating three-wattled bellbird here.

Male three-wattled bellbird calling from high atop a tree. Photographed through a spotting scope.
Male three-wattled bellbird calling from high atop a tree. Photographed through a spotting scope.

I can’t help but think about the three-wattled bellbird while I learn guitar. As with the male bellbird’s mating song, the guitar also has a long, difficult learning curve. The skillful player of guitar is atop a tall, hard-earned mountain of skill, even though she makes it look so easy. All guitarists climb that mountain when they practice.  The trick to staying with guitar or any other instrument is enjoying the sound of individual notes or note sequences, even enjoying the feel of the instrument.  The more skill you gain, the deeper the enjoyment becomes.

You can never be too good of a guitar player. As a guitarist (more generally, as a musician!), you’re constantly growing. Even simple pieces can offer lifelong growth, with different dynamics, different styles of play.

Here are a few examples of how I’ve grown since I started learning classical guitar in February, 2014:

Study 19

When I first start learning a piece, I cannot play it all the way through without stopping.  At some point (days or weeks later), I finally have the piece more-or-less figured out, even though it still has a long way to go before it sounds decent.  Here’s my performance of Study 19 from the Parkening Guitar Method on March 22, 2014, when I first started learning it:

Fourteen months later, here’s my performance of the same piece:

Allegro

This next piece is Allegro, composed by Mauro Giuliani.  My first recorded performance of Allegro was on August 23, 2014:

Eight months later, it sounds like this:

I’ve come a long way since my first efforts.  My guitar instructor, however, who has played classical guitar for decades, sounds significantly better.  He plays with nicer dynamics, better control.  It’s heartening to know that the guitar–or probably any instrument–is anything but trivial and that it offers an open-ended, lifelong, immensely rewarding challenge.

Tune Your Guitar After It Adjusts To Your Body Temperature

Until recently, I always checked the tuning of my guitar at the start of each daily practice and found it to be off.  I thought it just didn’t stay in tune.  I realized recently that I was wrong:  it actually stays in tune quite well!

Here’s a tip I haven’t seen in any guitar-related book or website:  check your guitar’s tuning after it has had time to adjust to your body temperature.

I accidentally discovered that if I play scales at the start of guitar practice sessions, and then check the tuning about five to ten minutes after the guitar and its strings have had time to warm up, then no adjustment to the tuning is necessary at all:  it’s perfectly in tune.

However, if a tuning check is the first thing I do upon picking up the instrument, then it’s almost always out of tune.

So, while many other factors can affect the tuning of your particular instrument, a subtle factor to keep in mind, that I haven’t encountered anywhere else, is that tuning should not be the first thing you do at the start of a practice or play session.  Instead, it should be something you do after the instrument has adjusted to your body temperature.