Saturday, September 27, 2008

Musing Musical Monk Mulls Move

How's that for alliteration?

For the past year, I've been thinking about leaving Alpine. I don't really want to leave - I absolutely love it out here - but several factors are weighing on my mind. For one thing, my mom turns 80 on New Year's Day, and I'm the only family she has, so I ought to be closer to her, and secondly, I'm well connected out here and all the way to Tucson now musically, so I will still be out here enough playing gigs. Finally, I need a bigger market - San Antonio is my home town and there are 2.3M people there these days - so logic and necessity have both conspired to prompt me into action. This is no small deal, as I positively hate moving... but I've been here five years, and that seems to be the maximum time I spend in any one place, going by the pattern of my life.

Well, being that I've been a housing inspector for both FEMA and HUD in past years, lets just say that I have impossibly high standards for a house. I've been looking for a while, and have turned down a house or two because they weren't "perfect" - I know an amazingly detailed inspector in San Antonio who I have working for me - and I must admit that I figured that my standards would delay the process for a year or more.

Well, God has a sense of humor. It's - needless to say with the credit crisis - a buyers market today, and guess what just came up for listing? A small house just a couple of miles from mom's place that belonged to a building contractor! He's been in the place seven or eight years - the house is 25 years old - and it's a tricked out hot rod for such a small house. I'm talking 1,400 square feet, three bedrooms, two baths, corner lot (Mom's place is well over 2K square feet).

Super clean looking from the front.

New roof, fresh paint, nice landscape work.

The contractor-owner redid every room in the house: dining area.

Living room.


Master bath (Hall bath has a tub and is completely tiled in bright white: I probably won't set foot in it for fear of smudging something. LOL!).

So, this is the ultimate bachelor pad for me. Perfect in every detail, redone by a meticulous independent contractor like I used to be... so, I put an offer in on it. Oh, the back yard has a covered section of the patio with ceiling fans (!) and an open stone section with a permanently installed gas grill. YESSSSSS!

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Keeping Scale Practice in Proper Perspective (Updated)

As regular readers know, I'm not a big fan of practicing scales, and I think too much emphasis is put on scales by some teachers and performers. Sure, learning scales is an important part of the process of learning the idiom of the guitar and developing basic technique, but they can be overdone, and much time can be wasted by practicing them too much.

Perhaps it is inevitable that going through a phase of playing scales "too much" will be a part of most guitarist's learning and evolution process, but if this phase is overly long, scales can become a retrograde force that actually inhibits musical development. This is exactly what happened to me when I was at Berklee back in the early '80's. My goal was to be able to play single lines very fast, picking every note using alternate-picking plectrum technique. A few years earlier, Al Di Meola had come out with the Elegant Gypsy album, and it completely wiped me out how fast and clean his lines were. So, I spent hours and hours and hours, day after day after day, week after week after week, month after month after month, year after year after year... practicing scales and non-scalar finger independence exercises trying to achieve that kind of velocity. I got pretty close, too, but I continued in this scale addiction long after I had developed plenty good single-line technique, when my time would have been much better spent working on learning other aspects of music.

The bottom line with this is, by the way, genetic potential: You either have the genetic makeup to play blazingly fast, or you do not. I've studied quite a bit about this, but I don't want to get bogged down in an esoteric physiological discussion here, so let it suffice to say that there are many factors involved, including individual ratios of fast-twitch to slow-twitch muscle fiber, how thick or thin the myelin sheaths around the nerves are, and how an individual's particular genetic expression has them handling neurotransmitters. It is exactly analogous to being a world class sprinter: No matter how hard most individuals train - they can follow an Olympian's regimen exactly - they simply lack the genetic potential to compete at that level. Same with playing scales fast; most guitarists simply lack the proper genetic expression to keep up with Al Di Meola, Paco de Lucia, Pepe Romero or whomever. Through many years of over-practice, I was able to get close to Di Meola speed, but I could never get that last little bit of super-extraordinary velocity... because I don't have the proper genetic makeup.

Knowing this stark fact of reality can save a guitarist literally years of fruitless labor. If you have gone through an extended period of scale over-practice, have listened to your teacher's advice, have gleaned every last little tip you can from interviews of and articles by your favorite speed demons, and you still can't get to that level of velocity, don't sweat it. Far from being alone, you are in the vast majority. Stop wasting your time, stop beating your head against the genetic velocity wall, and get on with discovering what you can do better than anyone else, and become the musician you were meant to be.

My favorite quotation about this speed-obsession phenomenon comes from Winton Marsalis:

"The ultimate expression of technique is not velocity, it is nuance."

That's it exactly. What makes a virtuoso in his fifties or sixties - well past physiological prime - so vastly superior to a young prodigy is nuance.

As a direct result of that earlier series of changes I went through while at Berklee, when I switched to playing using classical right hand technique at age 29, my period of being addicted to scales was years behind me, I actually had a distaste for them, and I didn't want to repeat my previous scale-addicted phase at all. It is probably no surprise then, that my linear playing using classical right hand technique has always been pretty lame... OK, very lame.

When I decided to go the solo guitarist route again four years ago - instead of just composing - I even decided to not play scales at all, relying instead on a metronome slow-play regimen to get the music tight. And, that worked fantastically well... until I started playing pieces with extended single line passages and composing my series of twenty-four Lineal Studies.

The problem, then, is one of perspective: Achieving a balance that will allow one to maximize technical potential, while not getting obsessive to the point that other areas of one's musicianship suffer. I can't tell you what will work best for you, as that is something you'll just have to discover for yourself. But for me, just adding a hour of scale free-practice (no metronome) into my routine has worked quite well as a start.

What I do is, I play all seven of the in-position two-octave mode forms (versus position-shifting forms such as the Segovia scales) from the twelfth or thirteenth fret - depending upon whether the mode form spans four frets or five - down to open position and back up. I do this four times: Once with rest-stroke starting with the i finger, free-stroke starting with i, rest-stroke starting with m, and finally free-stroke starting with m.

Instead of calculating the form's name by the position of the index finger (1) - where the form spans two octaves and a third - as is the usual practice, I calculate it from where the pinky (4) is, which gives an even two octaves. I do this so that there is only one note played on the low E string, which can't be a rest-stroke (Segovia created his position-shifting forms to deal with this issue, but in-position forms are better for improvisation, obviously).

Going through all seven of the mode forms - Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian, and Locrian - in this way takes about an hour, and I just treat that as one of my two or three daily practice sessions. This means that as I cycle through the 64 pieces currently in my set, I end up doing scales every other day. This is plenty often for my regular set-maintenance practice routine.


UPDATE 09/21/08: Since I originally posted this, I have reversed the order of the mode forms, starting out in open position and playing them to the very top of the fingerboard. Since I play only cutaway guitars now, and the Godin has 19 frets, the Reynolds fretted Glissentar has 22, and the RMC Parker Nylon Fly has 24, this makes the sessions 1.5 to 2 hours each, which is in keeping with the time range of my repertoire maintenance practice sessions. The original idea was to gently stretch the hand out while warming up, but that meant I only played the open position forms once each pass. This way, I begin and end with the open forms, and I'm getting comfortable in every position on my three guitars. I figured that since I had done a lot of scale practice when I was young, the left hand would outpace the right in development speed, and this has been the case. However, since I have four years of practicing and performing under my belt this time, the right hand is progressing quite quickly too. I'm actually looking forward to my wintertime metronome practice regimen, when I can play these super-slow and really tighten them up. Yeah, yeah; I should have done this earlier. Live and learn, live and learn.


When I get into my winter metronome slow-play regimen, I'll add one of the mode forms at the beginning, and each of the others successively in between the categories of pieces as I go, which means I'll hit them all several times from the beginning of December to the end of February. By that time, my linear playing ought to be tight and smooth, if not particularly fast, and as the Lineal Studies start to come together for me - it was problems with those that lead to my deciding to add scales back into my regular routine - I ought to be achieving some decent velocity again.

So, I hope my experiences here are helpful: You don't want to go overboard with scales, but you don't want to throw the baby out with the bath water either. LOL!

Thursday, September 11, 2008

09/11/01 Plus Seven Years

Seven years ago this morning, I awoke at my condo in Adelphi, MD - an inside-the-Beltway suburb of Washington, D.C. - to go to work a mere three miles south in Hayattsville. It was one of those impossibly crisp, cool, preview-of-fall days wherein there was not a cloud from horizon to horizon and the sky was unusually deeply blue.

I rode "Leviathan" - my then-new 2001 BMW K1200LT motorcycle - to work that morning. Even a three mile commute on that thing was a riotous joy to me then, so I arrived to work smiling from ear to ear and in an excellent mood.

Things were fairly slow at work that morning - I alternated between being a Case Reviewer and a Field Inspector for FEMA back in those days - so I grabbed a cup of coffee, booted up my computer, and began working the cases in the queues.

It wasn't very long - I don't think I'd finished my first cup of coffee yet - before someone said that an airplane had hit one of the World Trade Center towers. The guy didn't sound overly alarmed or breathless, so my first thought was that it was a small private aircraft, and so I just kept working.

Within a very short time, however, someone said it was an airliner, and that one of the WTC towers was ablaze. For some reason I still can't comprehend, I wasn't freaked out by this news either, and I was still working when someone yelled - actually yelled - that a second airliner had hit the other WTC tower. Probably needless to say, this got my full and complete attention, and I had a bottomless pit feeling in my gut.

I can't remember clearly the exact chain of events after that, but I got down to the employee lunch room, where they had CNN on the TV, just in time to see the first tower collapse. I couldn't watch any more of it.

Back in the mid to late 80's, I lived in Hoboken, NJ and worked in Manhattan. I was in a rock band, did some studio work, and during the summer I worked as a bicycle messenger to keep in shape and make some extra cash. Several clients of the outfit I rode for were in the WTC towers, so I'd been up and down them many times. On nice, clear days, which were few and far between in the Summer, I'd take a break on the observation deck to enjoy the spectacular view. Additionally, whenever I went to the towers, I'd walk between them just to look up and capture the vanishing point effect. It was so awesome it made me laugh every time.

The photo doesn't do it justice, but it is the closest I could find.

While sitting back in my cubicle in shock, yet a third call came out that an airplane had hit the Pentagon. Though the Pentagon was several miles across town, because I had a south facing window, all I had to do to confirm this was to look over my left shoulder: There it was, a rising black semi-mushroom cloud against the now fierce looking blue sky.

Everything after that point was a blur, but because we were federal employees the powers that be sent us home around lunch time. I distinctly remember how ironic I thought it was that my mood on the ride home couldn't possibly have been more opposite of that on the ride in.

I spent the rest of the day on the internet and watching TV - I have cable piped into my computer, so I can watch TV in a small window on my monitor as I surf - just trying to absorb it all and make some kind of sense out of it. It was just the beginning of a very long process.

For the next eighteen months, on and off, I reviewed cases from the 09/11 terror attacks, and some of them were heartbreaking in the extreme. I was never sent to New York to do field work, and I was actually thankful for that. Personally, I have no problem with death and destruction that is brought about by natural disasters, as harsh as that might sound, but working those 09/11 cases was positively spirit-crushing. I was happy to be sent out to other disasters, and assigned to work other case files.

Some FEMA people were on the scene almost immediately, of course, and one of them emailed me this picture jut a couple of days later.

I couldn't believe that this was all that was left of those towers I'd been in so many times, and I couldn't believe that over 2,700 people died that day.

My idea to return to Texas and resume being a musician dates from precisely this time. Whether or not I'd ever have to work a terrorist attack again, working 09/11 cases made me lose my stomach for the job. It was only ever an accidental mini-career that arose from a part-time job I took as a DMA candidate while at UNT anyway, but I know for certain I'm thankful for the experience, as strange as that might sound. I can't explain, so I won't even try.

Monday, September 08, 2008

A Gig with a View

This was the view from where I was performing on Saturday.

First of all, this was on a private ranch, and it never looks that green: We've had the rainiest summer for years around here, and everything is spectacularly green. Usually, it's quite brown this time of year. Second, that is not a river or a lake, but a dammed creek, and it's hardly ever that full either, as you can tell from the amount of greenery that is in the water. The dam is just out of the shot to the left. Third, this ranch is over ten miles from the nearest paved public road, so it took a long time to get to the gig once I actually got to the gate. The place is huge!

And people wonder why a musician would drive a vehicle like this.

Though I didn't need to use the 4x4 this time, I have in the past on some of the grades these ranch roads have. One of the most fun parts of the gig was leaving: On the way out I put on my PIAA off road lights and played Baja 1,000 with my truck. Ten miles of off road racing. Massive fun! LOL!

Finally, I don't want to tell you who the ranch belongs to or exactly where it is, as he's quite famous and likes to escape there. All I'll say is that it is outside of Big Bend National Park, and looks like it might as well be the park. Incredibly cool ranch, incredibly cool folks, and an incredibly cool gig.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Gavotte II - J.S. Bach

After some higher-than-normal-pressure gigs last month, which necessitated many hours of practice, I am back to my repertoire to-do list. Currently, it looks like this (I usually only keep track of ten):

01] Gavotte II - J.S. Bach (A minor)
02] Bourree - Jethro Tull (D minor/Drop-D tuning)
03] Scherzo - G. Pepper (G major)
04] Mysterious Barricades - F. Couperin (C major)
05] Mood for a Day - Yes/Steve Howe (F-sharp flamenco)
06] Sonata - G. Pepper (A minor)
07] Jesu, Mein Freude - J.S. Bach (G major)
08] Toccata - G. Pepper (E minor)
09] Sleepers, Awake - J.S. Bach (D major/Drop-D tuning)
10] Fugue - G. Pepper (A minor)

My approach to this as been, for the last four years - this month is four years since I picked up the guitar after four years of not touching one - to learn one of my pieces, a standard classical repertoire piece, and then a contemporary "crowd pleaser" type of thing. I've done quite well for only four years back into the game, as I've learned 63 pieces in these 48 months, and my complete set is now +/- three hours in duration. The goal is to have 3.5 hours of music, as most of the dinner club and piano bar gigs I do want me there for four hours with a half-hour break.

I have my set organized into suites that go around the circle of thirds from A minor to A major, with pieces up to five sharps (G-sharp minor and B major) and three flats (C minor and E-flat major) mixed in to add some variety within the suites. At the beginning of each suite is a prelude I wrote - I've done fourteen so far: all of the sharp keys to B major plus F major and D minor) - and then one of my Axial Studies. After that, the pieces alternate between standard repertoire classical pieces and my stuff, and every set ends with a contemporary crowd pleaser, one of which is actually mine. Here's the list of crowd pleasers in order by suite:

1] A minor: Classical Gas - Mason Williams
2] C major: Desert Song - Eric Johnson (In A minor, as I never have found a crowd pleaser type of piece in C)
3] E minor: Spanish Fly - Eddie Van Halen
4] G major: A Day at the Beach - Joe Satriani
5] B minor: Scherzo - George Pepper (This is the "classical" one from Sonata Zero)
6] D major: Eu So Quero Um Xodo - Dominguinhos (This entire suite uses drop-D tuning)
7] F-sharp minor: Mood for a Day - Yes/Steve Howe
8] A major: Stairway to Heaven - Led Zeppelin/Jimmy Page (In A minor, obviously)

Additionally, the A minor suite has Joe Satriani's Tears in the Rain, the D major suite will have the Jethro Tull-ized version of the Bach Bourree I arranged - It's just like Jethro Tull for the A section, but I did the same syncopated treatment for the B section as well: it totally kicks ass) - and the final suite in A major also has Chet Atkins' Yankee Doodle Dixie in it. So, as you can see, I have only two of the crowd pleasers left to learn - Bourree and Mood for a Day - and along with the Scherzo in G major - the jazz counterpoint piece from Sonata One - this will complete all of the pieces for the Heavy Nylon CD I'm working toward. My tune Heavy Nylon is, by the way, the finale or encore piece for the set.

With only five pieces left on my to-do list before I've learned all of the crowd pleasers and Heavy Nylon pieces, I'm getting pretty psyched. Over the past four years I've gotten pretty severely depressed at times just looking at the sheer volume of work ahead of me, but now there is actually light at the end of this tunnel I've been in since September of 2004.

Not only that, but when the last crowd pleaser is out of the way, I'll only be alternating between learning my pieces and standard repertoire classical pieces, so I'll be both catching up on the backlog of my stuff yet to learn, and finishing up on the CD of standard rep pieces I want to do, which will be called Electric Chestnuts.

They say time seems to pass faster as you grow older, but I have found a way to make time pass excruciatingly slowly if you are in your mid-forties to fifty: Compile a list of +/- 80 pieces of music you want to memorize, and get to work on it. LOL!

Yes, I memorize everything, and I reenforce it with very slow metronome practice, which I've mentioned here several times previously: You'll never catch me on stage with a music stand in front of me. Perhaps it's my former life as a rock and jazz player that is to blame, but I've always though sight-reading classical guitar music was completely impossible. I've met some amazingly good classical players, but none of them could really and truly sight-read like a monodic instrumentalist or a keyboardist can. And, since they can't really read having music on a music stand on stage when they perform strikes me as a bit pompous and, well, fraudulent.

My view of it is this: Standard music notation evolved to become tablature for organ and piano, and monodic instrumentalists and instruments with very limited polyphonic capacities, such as bowed string instruments, can use it OK, but the guitar is such a difficult idiom that sight-reading standard notation with it is like reading French, translating it into Mandarin in your head, and then reciting it aloud in English all at the same time. It is ridiculously difficult... which is why Baroque lutenists used lute tablature.

Anyway, I'm getting into one of my Epic Musical Musings digressions, but the new version of Encore I'm getting allows for guitar TAB under standard notation, and I plan on using it! From a practical standpoint, anything that makes the process of learning, memorizing, and performing guitar music easier, is valuable. As for composing, I think in standard notation. LOL!

At long last, here's today's piece:

As I've mentioned previously, I don't really like most of Bach's lute pieces, cello pieces, and violin pieces, and this is the very last lute suite piece I plan to learn. Gavotte I, for example, I positively can't stand. Most of Bach's music for solo instruments is so over-loaded with mechanically inefficient and quasi-improvisatory noodlings that I really can't even listen to it anymore. These tight, tiny little gems are all I like, and all I'll play of it. The one exception to this are his preludes, which are almost all great, but I write my own damn preludes, so I don't play any of his.

One piece of Bach's, the Bourree in B Minor from the violin sonatas and partitas, pissed me off so much I've actually re-composed the thing! I love the way it begins with the big strummed chords (in the guitar transcription), but a lot of the material in the middle of both the A and B sections is so mind-numblingly rambling that it just drove me insane. So, I just took the parts I liked and composed a completely new piece out of it. I call it, Bourree After Bach (Double entendre intentional). It's come out amazingly well by my reckoning, and is actually longer than the original, but I expect it will piss off all of the usual suspects who think Bach is sacrosanct. I actually look forward to those reactions. LOL!

Of the lute pieces, the only ones I play are the Sarabande in A minor from the same suite as this Gavotte, and the Bourree in E minor from the suite that is in that key for the guitar, and that's it: Only three pieces. I seriously do not like the rest of those suites, excepting the preludes, as I mentioned, and the lone fugue in A minor, which I may learn at some point, but it's a real bitch to play, and I have way more than enough pieces in A minor.

For the Sarabande in A minor, I completely ditched the traditional fingering and used my own fingering that gives as much over-ring as is possible: Just bucket-loads of sounding seconds and thirds. This turns an already strange and wonderful little piece into something positively spooky, especially when played on electric nylon string with the detune chorus and hall reverb I use for that suite's "virtual acoustic environment." I also use harmonics near the end of the B section (where the notorious super-wide stretches are), and this gives a really creepy effect that I just love, in addition to making that section easier to execute (all the over-ring fingerings make it more difficult, however).

So, since the Sarabande is the third piece in my A minor suite, and this Gavotte will be the seventh, I wanted to harken back to those over-ring effects I cultured earlier with this piece. The resulting fingering makes the interpretation a really cool, colorfully dissonant, and sorta/kinda impressionistically-blurry take on the thing in places. I like it a lot, but then, I'm an iconoclast and a philistine.

Though I'm about 95% certain of the left hand fingerings, the right hand stuff will probably change considerably as I work the piece up: They always do. As for the unorthodox placement of the finger numbers, when the notation is this tight - I wanted to keep it all on one page - this older version of Encore's minimum text box size makes the numbers clash and blot each other out. Sorry about that.