“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:

My Digital Divide

Every so often, I remember that I’m no longer creative in computer science or even in programming.  I’m now far from the source of creativity in computer science, by which I mean that I’m no longer at the cutting edge.  Lack of creativity in that domain makes good sense for me at this point in time.  But I could still be a programmer; one doesn’t even need a formal computer science education for that. (This is not to downplay the difficulty of programming.  It’s just not necessary to major in computer science to be a programmer, just as you don’t need an art degree to be an artist.)

After I left graduate school, I didn’t program for years.  This was primarily because I was very busy with other stuff (medical school, residency, and everything associated with and that followed those years).  When I wasn’t busy, I was distracted.  I did have spurts of interest in web programming (Rails, HTML/CSS, etc.) and “fun” languages (Haskell, Ruby, Python, etc.), but nothing really stuck with me.  I became dismayed by the fact that so much is incompatible with so much else, and that pretty much everything becomes obsolete after a few years.

Good algorithms/ideas are forever.  Unfortunately, software itself is ephemeral; hardware is also ephemeral, and vulnerable while it exists.  The open-source movement hasn’t been as prominent as for-profit companies have been, with their proprietary software and hardware that often disable customers from taking their data elsewhere. I do invest casually in my blog, but that’s mostly writing and pictures that can be stored as hardcopy.

Much of the programming code I wrote in college, for a large variety of interesting and often fun projects, is probably no longer accessible because it was backed up to CD-Rs that are almost certainly corrupted. (I’ve confirmed that some of my old CD-Rs from my college days are corrupt now.)  When they first came out, CD-Rs were touted as a storage technology that would last at least a century.  That turned out not to be the case.

A simple, inexpensive pen or pencil can be used to write or draw on paper produced by other manufacturers, or to write on many other materials. Paint produced by one manufacturer can be blended with paint made by others, and the range of colors produced by mixing paint at home is infinite. You can even create your own pigments (some artists do this). If you learn to play guitar on one brand of guitar, you can play on any brand.

Today’s digital creator, on the other hand, is at the mercy of manufacturers, programmers, and hackers.*  The relevance of any computer-based product is short-lived. Tech culture, as it is in 2016 (it doesn’t have to be this way), is largely different from the culture of, say, art or music or literature, in which there are pieces extant from thousands of years ago that are still relevant.**

*Imagine if Apple and Google sold paint, you bought a tube of it from each company, and they blended incorrectly because of proprietary formulations requiring you to stick with one company or the other.  This rarely happens with actual paint.

**For example, there are paintings (such as the “remarkably evocative renderings of animals and some humans that employ a complex mix of naturalism and abstraction” on cave walls at Lascaux, Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc, and elsewhere from tens of thousands of years ago that we can still appreciate), pieces of music (such as “White Snow in Early Spring” from ~552 BC, attributed to Shi Kuang, that is still played live), and well-known poetry and literature from ancient cultures that people still read and admire.

More Sketches in Graphite

I drew the following with a clutch pencil.  Some artists claim they don’t use anything other than clutch pencils to draw in graphite.  They value the stability of these instruments–unlike wooden pencils, they don’t change in length nor much in weight as you use them.

basket of pears

A basket of pears, above.


jianzi I picked up in Houston’s Chinatown.


My clutch pencil has a built-in sharpener.  The graphite shavings from this sharpener can be used to add tone and to vary value, as in the above drawings of my eye, thumb, and foot.  Without a clutch pencil, one would have to resort to a graphite block or regular pencil and rubbing with a tortillon, blending stump, or piece of chamois.  This risks damage to the paper, which some artists consider unacceptable.  (Other artists don’t care as much.)

Highlights can be lifted out with a rubber eraser (I prefer the Pink Pearl by Paper Mate) or with a kneaded eraser.

More Ink Sketches

orchid sketch

I love drawing on cardboard–I’m not sure if it’s the tone or the firmness of the paper that’s so appealing.  I was house-sitting for my parents on March 26, 2014, so I found a black ballpoint pen and some cardboard and quickly sketched one of my mother’s orchids before I fell asleep.  Here’s another drawing on cardboard, this one with an Ebony pencil.


My girlfriend gave me a lined Moleskine notebook.  I used a black Sharpie fine point pen to sketch the above face.  I don’t remember if I just drew an imaginary face or if I sketched the face of a statue somewhere.

foot drawing

I sketched my foot with Pentel Pocket ink brush pen while talking on the phone. Casual phone conversations are a great opportunity to practice drawing because it’s a nonverbal activity: you can draw and talk at the same time.

Rapid Sketches from Photos, Mostly of Birds, and Mostly During Call

During fellowship and shortly afterward, I spent some time moonlighting at a one-bed emergency department.  (Yes, a single bed.  It was great!)  One can only study so much while stuck in a call room waiting for patients to roll in, so I spent some of that time improving my freehand drawing skills by sketching birds from photos I found online and in magazines.  These graphite sketches–made with a clutch pencil–are shown below.

The cardinal and the golden jackal were drawn on a Boogie Board (an LCD tablet).