Monday, November 23, 2009

Mega-Project: Transcribing My Entire Set into Encore

Five years ago this September just passed, after seven years away from the guitar, I decided to pick it up again with the idea that I'd prefer making less money performing and teaching, than making lots of it and just composing on the side. Since I found myself at 45 with no wife, kids, pets, or girlfriends, why not? My goal was very specific - get 3.5 hours of music memorized so that I could perform a four hour gig with a 30 minute break - and I didn't want to waste any time on anything that wouldn't get me to that goal.

Well, there aren't any books on how to do this, so I was on my own, which is fine by me. I knew I could figure it out by experimentation, and I had many years of playing under my belt previously, so I just went to it. The first thing I did was to re-memorize all of my own compositions for solo guitar, which number over 40 now, and while I was doing that, I broke the monotony by re-memorizing all of the classical standards I'd known previously. All I was doing was memorizing and playing the music, nothing else: No exercises, no scales, nothing.

I took my first gig exactly six months after I got started with the project, which was probably too soon, but it was a friend's art opening, so it was a zero-pressure first gig. A month later, I took my first restaurant background music gig, and did that for a few months and got comfortable in front of an audience again.

Then I got the idea to re-learn some more contemporary pieces that I used to play on steel string, as well as to make my own arrangements of other "crowd pleasers," to broaden my appeal and increase my marketability. Within two years after I started, I was getting into some complex syncopated stuff, so I realized I'd have to do more than just memorize and play the tunes, I'd have to practice them slowly with a metronome as well. That's when I first got back into some technical work.

I realized at that point that I'd learned too much music too fast, and in a haphazard manner, so I eventually had some memory failures and had to go back and re-learn sections. As my set got larger and larger, this started to happen more and more, and I was unable to memorize new pieces as fast as before. So, I started getting my practice routine more and more organized and efficient, and I also got to the point where I realized I needed some regular scale practice to improve my right hand accuracy for some pieces, so I added that in too.

Well, by the end of last year, when I moved, I had over 60 pieces memorized, so my pace was more than one per month, but I was constantly consulting many different sources - books, compilations, &c. - when I wanted to refresh my memory on some pieces. Then it hit me: I should put every piece in my set into Encore so that I have everything in my four computers - two laptops and two desktops - and can access them at any time whether I'm home or on the road.

Of course, as I got more and more into the contemporary crowd pleaser thing, I was putting my arrangements into Encore anyway, but when I actually looked at my set, I was amazed by how many of the pieces existed only in my memory: Stairway to Heaven, Classical Gas, Desert Song, and Spanish Fly. I actually learned Desert Song from an ASCII TAB I found online.

Needless to say, I can't do anything half way, and so I decided to make fresh copies of all of my own pieces as well. Some of those files date from the late 90's, and Encore has been through several major revisions since then, so some corruptions have crept into the files as the program's parameters have been redefined (Especially as regards to MIDI playback). By doing this from scratch - as a virtuoso Encore user now - I can finally get all of my music into a publishable form. I actually have some guitarist friends bugging me to do this now, so there you have it: I'm making fresh files of over 70 pieces of music.

I'm doing several stages of each as well: An Urtext version of the notation only, a second version with the notation and r/l hand fingerings, a third version that ads the position and string indications, and then a fourth and final version with expressions. This is a monumental task that will take months, but at the end of it I will have rebuilt my set from the beginning better than ever, and when I do metronome practice I'll be able to play along with the MIDI file. I actually exclaimed, "Woah!" when that realization hit me.

So, the technology that I've picked up gradually over the past years is now going to be completely involved in my new practice method, just as it has been in my composition method for many years. And, I might add, when I decided to master counterpoint back in 1986, it took me exactly seven years to get to what I considered a virtuoso level with it: I could compose a J.S. Bach Art of Fugue style piece by 1993. When I got to that point, by the way, was when I was using my first version of Encore. Well, I figure two more years and I'll consider myself a virtuoso performer as well. It's a good feeling, because I now know and have control of all of the elements I have to master to accomplish my original goal: To have 3.5 hours of music residing perfectly in my memory, and the ability to efficiently maintain that, and to be able to play it all with a solid level of technical mastery.

BTW: I've worn out my old Kensington Orbit Optical Trackball, and so I've had to replace it.

I've used trackballs exclusively since 1993, when I got my first version of Encore and was trying to enter notation with a mouse. Total insanity. I had an early Logitech then, and got an Orbit mechanical version when I switched to Macs, but this is the best trackball ever made for music notation entry. You don't need a dozen little buttons, just two big ones, and it fits my hand perfectly. Plus, the optical tracking with the Mouseworks utility software is adjustable to an amazing level of fineness, all very intuitively. The old one on the left lasted about four years. You can see that the paint has been worn off by my fingers! Eventually, the clicking got spotty, so it had to go. Not bad for a device that costs less than $25.00! yes, I've tried more expensive ones. They suck because there are too many buttons and they are too small. This is the most perfect trackball ever made, IMO.

Georgia agrees.

As of now, I've completed the Urtext and Fingering versions for 31 pieces, so I'm ripping through it, but after I have all of the first two versions in for all of the pieces, I'll go back and do the final two versions for each piece. What I'm doing is, I'm reading the music as I practice for the completed pieces as I go through my four-day practice routine, and each time through I'm adding the new ones I complete. I really only need the fingerings, so that's why I'm not worrying about the position and string indicators or the expressions at this time. Of course, I'm also catching and correcting errors. I found a notation error in a fifteen year old piece the other day! Fingering errors I can understand, but how that wrong note survived for so long is beyond me. By the time I get the music entered, I will have re-memorized my entire set. Tres cool, non?

One of the readers I communicalte with via email set me a missive the other day with the title, define: virtuoso. That's what I'm working on for my next post.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

When you memorize, do you do it aurally? Do you think in terms of standard notation?

5:40 PM  
Blogger Hucbald said...

I memorize from sheet music mostly, but every now and then I'll use a TAB if nothing else is available.

Additionally, once I have a piece memorized, I usually make many changes over the first few months I play it, so they evolve into my particular version of the piece. By putting them all into Encore as standard notation, I'll be able to have all of the pieces in standard notation as I actually perform them.

My arrangement of Stairway to Heaven, for example, has grown into an epic arrangement since I first memorized it from a version I found in a guitar magazine. I need to get these things documented!



6:34 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sorry, what I was trying to get at was whether you visualised the music, the rhythm especially, (visualizing finger placement would be a given I can assume) perhaps in std notation or some other personal mnemonic.

Or whether it the converse and your memory of the rhythm is completely aural.

3:52 AM  
Blogger Hucbald said...

OK, I see what you're getting at. Good question.

I do not think in terms of a visualization of the notation when I perform, I'm more or less "singing" the music in my head when I play, so I guess that would be aural.

As for the fingerings, I call that, "finger choreography" because it is very much like memorizing dance steps. I practice very slowly with a metronome to get the fingerings precisely memorized, so I suppose that's some sort of geometric pattern recognition at work there.

Eventually, that all operates at a subconscious level, and I don't have to "think" about the piece at all, it just "happens." In fact, one of my landmarks for when I have a piece completely memorized is when I can basically daydream and perform the piece in a completely detached manner.

Like I tell my students, the goal isn't to be able to "emote" the pieces you memorize, because four hours of that would be exhausting. The goal is the opposite of that: To be able to perform the piece without thinking about it at all. I can sit down for hours at a time and perform that way. I save the "getting into it" performances for shorter concerts, where I'm on a stage with an audience who are paying close attention. For background music gigs in restaurants &c. I basically girl-watch while I play. LOL!

Hope this helps.


2:06 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Interesting. How long does it take to reach that level? Both in terms of years of playing before you could achieve that with any piece.

Also, now that you can do that, how long does it take to memorize a piece thusly? Naturally different pieces would differ.

I suppose what I want to ask is, is there a certain minimum amount of "time" as opposed to repetitions required?

How many repetitions do you play for a certain section?

9:50 PM  
Blogger Hucbald said...

In a certain sense, every piece is different, depending on the length, level of difficulty, and the techniques employed. In another sense, they fall into classes.

At the extreme end of the difficulty scale are the two tap technique pieces I play, Eddie Van Halen's Spanish Fly and Joe Satriani's A Day at the Beach. I play those two pieces more than ALL of the rest of the pieces in my set: 5 to 7 times each EVERY TIME I PICK UP THE GUITAR. It just takes a monumental amount of work to get those smooth and keep them that way. Plus, I have to maintain the callouses on my right hand fingertips by playing them a lot, or the tapped notes simply won't ring. Tap is orders of magnitude more difficult with nylon strings than with steel strings because the action is higher and the strings are lighter (So you really have to slam them to make them ring).

At the other end of the scale are the figuration preludes I play, which have repetitive right hand patterns and just difficult chord changes with the left. I can get by playing those only once or twice each time I come to them during my practice cycle.

In the middle are the sectional counterpoint pieces, which have repetitive forms, but much more intricate right hand parts. I'll play those 1.5 times each time they come up. IOW, if I perform them as A, A, B, A, B, A live, I'll practice them A, A, B, A, B, A, B, A when I practice so that I hit the B's three times.

It takes a beginning student about 18 months to two years to get to deep memorization of simple pieces like some of the Bach Lute Suite miniatures. Three to five years to get to intermediate pieces, and seven to ten years to get to a real virtuoso level.

2:01 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

First off let me say big thanks for taking the time to reply! Ok, now back to picking your brain..

Do you ever use any mental rehearsal techniques? I know for instance, martial artists and other athletes will use mental imagery for training.

5:47 AM  
Blogger Hucbald said...

That is a very interesting question that will send me off on a related tangent. The short answer is no, but yes, or at least sort of.

I don't seat myself in a Lotus position, close my eyes, and imagine my way through my set, but I do have music playing in my head, basically 24/7/365.

Usually, this is on a subconscious level, but every now and then it will bubble up and I'll think, "Huh. I've been playing Classical Gas in my head all morning without even being aware of it."

This relates to something I call, "the half-life phenomenon": When a person has been doing something like playing an instrument or composing for over half of their life, the activity tends to take over the entire brain, and so you are working on it without being conscious of it all the time. I'm 52 next month and have been serious about guitar and composition since I was 18, and I really did notice this effect back when I was about 36 years old. For me it really is more about composition, so I usually notice I've been auditioning themes subconsciously, or something like that, but lately, since I've been hitting the guitar hard the past five years, it's more and more a guitar dominated phenomenon.

The tangentially related topic I'd like to hit is physical fitness. I've gotten fat and out of shape as related to cardio work over the past five years, because the number one most important thing in my life has been progressing as a guitarist. Sitting around all day with a guitar in your lap is a GREAT way to reduce your basal metabolism and gain weight! LOL! I used to run marathons when I was younger, and I was also a bicycle messenger in my 20's, and I remember how much being in shape helped my playing, not just in terms of stamina, but also in terms of focus. So, I've always expected that I'd get back into running or cycling when I had the guitar playing at the appropriate point, and when I finish this transcription project, all of the elements will be in place such that fitness is again a top priority.

In the mean time, however, I have a Bowflex, and I do a lot of forward and reverse wrist curls to give myself Popeye Forearms. There is nothing, but nothing, like having an excess of strength to make guitar playing easier! I also do a lot of stretching, which wards off lower back problems and sciatica. Classical guitarists are HIGHLY vulnerable to sciatic nerve problems because they sit with their left foot elevated all the time. I know a couple of guys who were nearly crippled by it, and if they would just sit on the edge of a bed with their left leg bent on the bed, and their right on the floor, bending forward until they can touch their chin to their left knee, THAT WOULD BE GONE! I do that with both legs, and I have better flexibility than most thirty year olds.

OK, Happy Thanksgiving. I have to go to moms and eat too much. The jogging will be a New Year's resolution. LOL!

9:33 AM  

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