The Restaurant Gig

I was nineteen years old, playing in a wine cellar. I’d spent two hours bringing the audience to this point — chatting them up, telling stories about composers, mixing in a Classical Gas here and a Jobim number there.

Everything was set for the knockout. The waiters had stopped serving, the cash register had stopped cha-chinging, and a full house of patrons had put down their forks and stopped talking to hear me finish burning through Leyenda.

In those days, playing Leyenda, I used to picture a great wheel rolling across the Spanish countryside in darkness, with the landscape periodically lit by a flash of lightning when the big chords were struck.

So there I was, racing across Andalucia with the audience in the palm of my hand, when out of the corner of my eye I saw a sweet little old lady shuffling toward me. She had a kind smile on her face, one hand holding her cane and purse, the other hand extended toward me.

Now she was right in front of me. I still had a minute to go in the piece, but she wanted to give me a tip right then and there. She began nudging my right hand with her own outstretched hand, smiling sweetly all the while.

Still furiously rolling through the arpeggios and banging out the lightning, I motioned with my head toward the tip jar was, but she just kept smiling and nudging until she finally separated my fingers from the strings.

I gave up, smiled at her, and opened my hand to receive the offering. She smiled even more sweetly and delivered five dimes into my hand. Then she wished me a good night and slowly made her way out of the room.

I couldn’t think of anything to say or do, so I just put my guitar down, thanked my audience, and wandered outside for a walk under the stars, wondering what I had learned.

The Joy of Music

In an online discussion the other day, a guitar teacher said about one of his young students:

“I’ll be nagging her to find something new and worthy to say about these works. After all, what’s the point of merely repeating what others have already said?”

Which got me thinking: what’s the point of playing in the first place? A young student doesn’t need to know the answer to this philosophical question right away, but it’s a good thing for a teacher to know.

I don’t think the highest ideal is to find something new to say. It’s more important to find something true to say. If that true thing has been said before, fine.

For all of us, but especially for the younger students, music-making (and life itself) is a voyage of discovery. As a teacher, Job #1 is to help students discover beauty, meaning, and joy in the musical experience. You don’t do this by invalidating their experience as being pointless because they didn’t bring something “new and worthy” to the music. If they bring *themselves* to the music, that’s new and worthy enough. That’s a big part of the teacher’s job, helping the student to connect — not just by listing all the rights and wrongs of technique and interpretation, but by gently redirecting the student’s attention when she’s disconnected, and by staying out of the way she’s joyfully engaged with the work.

This little video says it all. This little student has a wise teacher who encourages the boy to be himself and stays out of the way when that’s happening.

The young student is encouraged to bring himself to the musical experience, in what ever terms make sense to him. This is the best way to bring something new and worthy to the music. Our individuality is a great thing to offer. It’s what we know best, and it’s something no one else can offer.

The Chaconne

In 1935, Segovia premiered his milestone transcription of Bach’s Chaconne and vaulted the classical guitar into the realm of “serious” instruments. In 1955, he recorded it. Thanks to Segovia, we classical guitarists feel like we own a little piece of this monumental masterpiece for solo violin.

Segovia Album Cover, Chaconne, 1955

Still, it behooves us to study great violinists playing this piece — and until late last night I thought I could do no better than to study the legendary Jascha Heifetz playing the Chaconne. 20 years ago I found a VHS tape of Heifetz playing it. That tape was my greatest treasure for several years.

Segovia had a story he would tell whenever he talked about the Chaconne. According to Segovia, the famous violinist Enesco gave the following advice to a student: “You must study the Chaconne all your life, but you must not play it in public until you are 50, because it is very, very deep.”

I learned the Chaconne when I was 17, but I took that story to heart and refrained from playing it in public. I found the Heifetz video when I was 40. I watched it countless times, studying every nuance that I could grasp, including, toward the end of the piece, the subtle expressions of emotion that would pass across Heifetz’s famous “great stone face.” To see this giant in his 70th year deliver this music… well, it seemed to me that nothing could be better.

As I said, I’ve always thought Heifetz was the last word on the Chaconne. But then, in the wee hours last night, I was reading about this being the 50th year since the JFK assassination. I read that a week after the assassination, at the first road show of the musical Camelot, the audience broke down in uncontrollable grief when the title song was sung.

Reading further, I found many stories of musical tributes to JFK in 1963. Among them was this story about Isaac Stern:

[Stern] recalled when he was in Dallas the day that his friend, President John F. Kennedy, was assassinated. Sitting in a cafe at the Dallas airport, while waiting for a connecting flight to San Antonio, a devastated Stern and a friend downed a bottle of bourbon. Looking out the window, they could see Air Force One which was carrying Kennedy’s body.

The next night, Stern was scheduled to play the Sibelius Violin Concerto in D Minor with the San Antonio Symphony, but at the morning rehearsal he told the conductor that the piece seemed inappropriate.

The only thing he felt he could play was Bach. That night he told the 4,000 people in attendance that musicians sometimes pray by playing certain kinds of music, and that he prayed by playing the “soul-cleansing” music of Bach. Stern asked the audience not to applaud at the end.

While playing the Bach Chaconne, he wept uncontrollably. After he finished the piece, there was dead silence. He put his violin back in its case, left the auditorium and flew back to New York.

Johannes Möller: Future Hope

pull a string, a puppet moves …

each man must realize
that it can all disappear very
quickly:
the cat, the woman, the job,
the front tire,
the bed, the walls, the
room; all our necessities
including love,
rest on foundations of sand —
and any given cause,
no matter how unrelated:
the death of a boy in Hong Kong
or a blizzard in Omaha …
can serve as your undoing.
all your chinaware crashing to the
kitchen floor, your girl will enter
and you’ll be standing, drunk,
in the center of it and she’ll ask:
my god, what’s the matter?
and you’ll answer: I don’t know,
I don’t know …”

― Charles Bukowski

The Crucible

crucibleThere’s a book that says mastery in any field comes after 10,000 hours of practice. The question arises: practice of what?

When it comes to technique, some of that time has to be spent in the “crucible” — which is to say, performance at your highest level. (Not noodling around playing background music for a tea party, or drilling Segovia scales while watching House.) In the crucible your body will produce an adaptive response. You can try to simulate the crucible by practicing with all your might, but it doesn’t work as well as the real thing.

I’ve probably mentioned this before, but one of the things Rey de la Torre told me was that Segovia used to go straight back to his hotel after a concert to work out technical matters while the iron was still hot, while Rey would grab some friends and go out on the town after a concert.

I know from my own experience that an hour giving a solo concert in front of a large and attentive audience was worth 10 hours of playing in a noisy restaurant, and worth 20 hours of practice. Maybe more. And that if I would go home and work on my guitar playing right after a good performance, while I was still hot, my results were always much better for it.

Intensity, not extensity, leads to the adaptive response. I’d fill that 10,000 hours with plenty of intensity

Seasick Steve

There’s a great guitar lesson here for any guitar player. In this beautiful example of “less is more,” Seasick Steve delivers the Hank Williams classic I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.

“Hobos are people who move around looking for work, tramps are people who move around but don’t look for work, and bums are people who don’t move and don’t work. I’ve been all three.”

Hear that lonesome whippoorwill
He sounds too blue to fly
The midnight train is whining low
I’m so lonesome I could cry

I’ve never seen a night so long
When time goes crawling by
The moon just went behind the clouds
To hide its face and cry

Did you ever see a robin weep
When leaves began to die?
That means he’s lost the will to live
I’m so lonesome I could cry

The silence of a falling star
Lights up a purple sky
And as I wonder where you are
I’m so lonesome I could cry

Enjoying the Journey

I’ve said it many times over the years: The most important thing I want to accomplish with students is for them to develop a happy life-long relationship with the guitar.

Well, I got a nice email yesterday…

John,

Stroll through my house and you’ll hear my son playing the piano or guitar, my youngest daughter singing at the top of her lungs, and for most of 2010 me working on Bach’s Chaconne, and from time to time my oldest daughter playing piano.

All that to say that music is a dominant force in the life of my family. My youngest is involved with a youth theater doing 3 musicals a year. My son just finished there and is now going to be a music director. He’s working on a music degree and may become a choir teacher. He loves music theory and is dreaming. (He and a friend started a production company — whatever that means). My oldest daughter is a pretty good pianist looking forward to starting piano lessons again. My wife is the Area Coordinator for the drama group and as the only non-musician in the family was the driving force for piano/clarinet/guitar/voice lessons.

Years ago, I wondered how I would get my kids not to walk away from music as I did when I was 14. I never figured out a plan, but they watched me play at home and perform. I think that gave them the spark to stay at it. We didn’t go on great vacations or have the latest video games because $ went to lessons (6 different lessons at one point) and went to buy or rent instruments. None of them would have done it differently.

Anyway, I was just thinking about the part you played in inspiring me and again wanted to say thanks. I have three kids whose lives have been, and will continue to be impacted by music. Never mind the kids, I was just playing and reflecting on how much I love to play.

By the way, about a year and a half ago my son picked up my Villa-Lobos book and in a week’s time read through Prelude 1 and had it memorized. Kind of surprising since he didn’t have any need to read guitar music before (gifted reader on piano though). He learned on his electric guitar and played it for me on a classical guitar. He played through every once in a while and then played it in a district music competition just over a year ago. He won for classical guitar which qualified him to compete at state… which he won. Then he played for about 4500 people at graduation. I would have been petrified and he was excited. Good night!

So again, thanks. You did a great job as my teacher and those lessons have lived on. One thing I learned from you was that I could play whatever. I have learned the Chaconne from just opening the music and going to work and I don’t think I would have figured that out if you hadn’t shown great works.

I hope you are doing well!

B-

Cedar or Spruce?

It’s an old guitar question: Cedar or spruce?

These are the two main choices for classical guitar tops. Many guitarists prefer one or the other. “I’m a cedar guy” or “I’m a spruce gal.”

Cedar is more forgiving than spruce. It’s easier to make a “good tone” on cedar. (“Good tone” usually means round and slick, with maybe some dark thrown in.) You have to have a more exacting technique to make spruce sound as round and dark as cedar. On spruce, every little right hand inattention will show up.

On the other hand, if you have a well-developed technique that features a variety of right hand touches (especially colors), the spruce will pay off in expressiveness.

Spruce is like a sports car that needs constant inputs, good in the corners. Cedar is like a big fat Cadillac, good for cruising.

Your mileage may vary. 🙂

Close Menu