Things my Music Teacher told me

Things my music teacher told me . . .

again and again.

(Things I’ve taken an awfully long time to learn and still haven’t internalised fully. The joys of learning to play music when you retire! You can see how much, or little, I’ve learned in two years, and how much I have still to learn in the video clip below.)

Some things I have learned about playing classical guitar since I walked in to my first lesson just over two years ago:

Playing a piece of music beautifully at a fraction of full speed is infinitely better than playing it awfully at full speed.

Perserving and playing a grade 2 piece well is preferable to trying to play a grade 6 piece and doing it badly.

When performing, a common nervous reaction is to begin playing 15 to 20% more quickly than you did when practising. This more or less guarantees your performance will be disastrous. Slow down more than you think you should and enjoy the piece.

If you can play a piece of music flawlessly and slowly, you can play it properly at full speed. Conversely if you haven’t eliminated mistakes at slow speed, they multiply and magnify the more quickly you try to play.

Ego doesn’t matter. Technique does. If the piece sounds awful, it sounds awful. It doesn’t mean you’re slow or stupid. You just haven’t mastered stuff you need to master.

You don’t know a piece of music until you can perform it flawlessly, repeatedly. How well you think you play in practice is irrelevant.

Playing whole pieces of music from start to finish many times in sequence is not a way to practice effectively. You are just practising your mistakes and making them permanent.

The rhythmn of a piece matters. A crochet is not a quaver, rests should not be ignored and doted notes mean something. Learn the correct rythmn before trying to play the notes.

The left and right hands have different, complementary jobs to do. Don’t expect to play good music until your hands and fingers have had a chance to develop dexterity and strength. This will take years (and tears).

Videoing yourself is a good way to simulate the stress and tension of performancance, and so helps you prepare yourself. It is also a good way to pinpoint shortcomings in practice.

Videoing yourself also tells you more about how you move your eyes and hold your mouth than you might want to know.

A short video clip where I tried to play more slowly and accurately than I usually do. Something tells me I should be a bit self conscious about this, plodding along with the guitar for all to see, but life is too short.


This might seem like two posts in one. When I began to write the second one, the first suggested itself. They share a theme but in a way maybe only I can understand. See what you think.

I am growing old. 
That should be no surprise to me. It certainly doesn’t bother me much. After all, I’m on the same train as everyone who ever was, is, or will be.

Every one of us grows older with each passing hour and each receding day, as years blur into memory. Of course I didn’t always admit that. Neither does our culture which is obsessed with youth and denies the reality of ageing. It’s easy to go along with that narrative when you are in your early decades. I was immortal. If I thought about it at all, the idea of ageing was an academic one, and in my case was so far in the future it didn’t seem real. Old people I came across had surely always been that way. I could not imagine them as once having been my age, with passions, uncertainties and dreams not too different from my own. To do that would have confronted me with my own mortality. That simply would not have done. 

I don’t think I am too different from anyone else. A little strange maybe, a trifle eccentric, but essentially human. And so I can be charitable and smile inside when young people look through me now as if I were not there; some silly old bugger with white hair who has nothing of interest for them. I did the same thing once you see.

Would it surprise you to know I am happier in myself now that at any other time in my life?

In my working life I was always climb ladders to impress people who knew me. Every time I achieved more status though, it seemed to have little effect impressing others. I was performing but there was no applause. No one was looking. I undertook a series of projects through the years in the hope that people would admire me when I was successful. Once again, I discovered no one was looking. I realise now, a degree is a piece of paper. Credentials and titles look good in a c.v. Neither compensates for inner emptiness.
I have been receptive to spiritual themes since my late teens. This interest has expressed itself in different ways here and there. My childhood, teens and young adulthood were not the happiest of times in my life. It was not all bad of course, but I write in generalities. My Christian faith reignited in my early forties after my second marriage when I began to attend church again. I remember tears flowing down my cheeks during worship. The awfulness of where I had been and what had happened in my life was all too apparent, but so too was the love and acceptance that was beginning to heal me.
I empathise with people who suffer and struggle. Sadness and melancholy have been enduring states of mind throughout my life, but less so in later years. Now it’s a more gentle acceptance of what is. I am not so wrapped up in myself and the things I missed out on . . . and so on. I no longer wallow in self pity.
These days I am much more content within myself. I am happy to be just me; nobody special. I don’t need recognition, and am happy to saunter along out of the spotlight. When I was younger anxiety and emptiness drove me. Now I don’t feel I need to prove anything. People can take me or leave me as they find me.

I look to my wife, daughters and grandchildren, and can smile inside. What a lovely (undeserved) legacy they are. God has been kind to me.

I am ageing, but I am living, and life, well some of it, makes sense.

Now, for what I started to write about . . . 
See if you can see the link.

I have been learning to play classical guitar for two and a half years now. It’s the sort of thing some people do when they retire and have loads of leisure time. Well, no one else I know has done it, but bear with me.
I love playing. It is the most deeply satisfying activity I can remember. Intellectually and physically demanding, and more often than not frustratingly difficult, it engages me spiritually and aesthetically. I soar when I get a piece ‘right’ and rage when I think I should be able to do stuff I can’t. Who says the passion of youth has been spent? With me it’s found in vibrating nylon strings and a resonating wood lined cavity.

Which brings me to something I have noticed about myself; a trend I have noticed more than once. You see, when I began to study the guitar I approached it like everything else so far in my life. I was determined to master it! I was prepared to put in the hours and the work and I expected the returns. As my wife says to me no one works harder or practices longer on guitar than I do. She also comments on my lack of motivation for other household tasks, but that’s another story.

For two years I worked to bend the guitar to my will. I found an exacting and very competent teacher, swallowed my pride (I thought) and got to work. Sure, I began to play reasonably well, but I did not listen to my teacher when he advised me repeatedly to slow down. I was always wanting to go further, tackle more demanding pieces, and tick more boxes. What he was saying, and what I was not listening to, was that I needed time to master skills as well as effort. Frustratingly he insisted that I marked time spending weeks and months on the same piece, long after I thought I had mastered it. Except that I had not mastered it. I was continually stumbling here and there and never getting anything completely correct. It frustrated me of course (the mistakes) but I did not listen. I kept forging ahead, playing ever more complex music, but playing it in a way that no one, apart from myself, would ever want to listen to.

My teacher was kind but brutal. He observed that I was doing very well and had much potential, but essentially I was playing nothing at performance standard. Ouch! 

An epiphany (look it up if you don’t know) of sorts followed. I have changed the way I look at the guitar and I’m much the happier for it. I have spent the last two months on the same three pieces, noticing things I hadn’t previously. I’ve resisted the temptation to play ahead of my ability (well, alright, mostly resisted). The guitar is no longer something to be bent to my will. I am learning slowly to work with it, and I am playing more gently.

I have begun to see playing and learning music as a process rather than a destination. I am learning to live in the moment and enjoy the music as it is rather than powering on to some illusory goal. Old habits die hard though. Grades, standards and levels have always seduced me, but their allure is waning.

I am growing older. I know I will never be a concert guitarist. Time is against me (and so is talent if I am brutally honest). I will most likely never perform for anyone other than family and friends. That does not concern me. 

What does engage me is what happens when I pick up my guitar and play. Sometimes something magical. Most times not. Always reminding me of the wonder of being alive.
Note to self: There are no prizes, stupid. Life is not a competition. It’s a gift. Enjoy it and smell the roses while you can.

I’ll try and remember that as the years pass ever more quickly and the joints and muscles grow ever less cooperative.

Guitar Journeyman

Many years ago, in the distant past, I was an apprentice to to printing trade. Master printers were then called 'journeymen'. These days, in retirement, I have apprenticed myself to the classical guitar.
I have come to accept I will never be a guitar master. The guitar will always master me. It intrigues and delights me, but doesn't yield its secrets easily. Hard work and practice make difficult and complex skills easier, but even then, if ever I'm tempted to bask in the sunshine, my guitar waits to humble me. It's a humiliating experience to have a string buzz or my finger select the wrong string when I least expect it on material I have played perfectly multiple times before.
There are, of course, other bits that I manage to play badly most times. A string insists on buzzing discordantly when I play the barre chords in the music below:
That's ok. I am a humble person, mostly. I am learning that my guitar will cooperate on this, as in every other matter, only when it is satisfied that I know my business properly. Near enough is never good enough it seems.
My guitar, on the other hand, is not humble in the least.
It has every reason to act like an aristocrat. When everything comes together, harmony and voices from nylon strings are truly beautiful things. I hear them, transcendent and ethereal, and marvel at how flesh, nail and sinew, nylon and wood coax them into being. The sounds decay almost as soon as they're launched, but live afterwards in the spring in my step and the inner smile in my soul.
Now and then I clutch the guitar closer as I play, and feel my chest cavity resonate with its notes.
Truly beautiful. Worth every hour of practice I will ever do, to learn how to create them on demand and tame them at will. The guitar has won my heart. My hand and finger dexterity is struggling to catch up.
In the meantime I am grateful for the sense that progress is happening, even if it is slower than I would want. I read somewhere that it takes about ten thousand hours to master the guitar. I have been playing up to ten hours a week for two years. That makes it only another 18 years or so to go.
I read somewhere else that there is no end point in playing an instrument; that it is a never-ending journey that you can enjoy along the way. Maybe in that way I can see myself as a journeyman, if not a master.
A guitar journeyman? I'll cling to that.

A Guitar Progression

A Guitar Progression
Adventures in Guitar Consciousness
I posted the image below on this blog one year ago. It shows the old Yamaha guitar I used to strum and sing along with before life got in the way and it was left in a cupboard for 40 years. When I posted this I was feeling pretty pleased with myself, making music with my old instrument again. I was so pleased that after months of ploughing through all the teach yourself books on Kindle, I could play stuff. Well, I could play easy stuff, sort of, after lots of practice, and never without mistakes. The music in my head was beautiful. The sounds coming from the guitar were a little less so.
Listening to the former, and ignoring the latter, I began to tell myself I wasn't all that bad at it. My own opinion of course, untainted by contact with anyone who could actually play notes, chords and arpeggios without having their audience looking around for the exit.
Emboldened, I turned up at the door of a classical guitar teacher. You know! Someone who knew their way around a guitar; had a Masters degree in guitar performance and another one in composition. He combines private tuition with live performances on the national stage solo and in ensembles. If I had been looking for someone to massage my ego I should have looked elsewhere.
Luckily, I swallowed enough pride and humility to let him teach me things about technique and practice I had no idea even existed. He was polite, but he left no doubt that what I had been doing by myself had been largely a waste of time if I wanted to learn to play beautiful music. That he was in his early twenties was inconsequential of course, but it did not really make things easy for an old codger more used to giving instructions than accepting them.
I began again, from square one. Concentrating on correct fingering, posture, hand and finger dynamics, fingernails, breathing and paying respect to quavers and crochets as they were written on the page, saw me progress – far too slowly for my liking – through the book he recommended for preliminary students (pre-schoolers and the like). All the while, I was straining. Impatient to play real music, I often became angry with myself and with him, frustrated by how long it was taking to learn simple skills. As he reminded me though, ever so gently, the skills were not simple skills. They were complex fine motor skills. The process was not unlike a child learning to use a pencil for the first time. It would take practice and time. No shortcuts, was his repeated advice.
He was right of course.
So, another year has passed. I've purchased a more expensive guitar (below). I've learned much about playing the classical guitar and am playing pieces from the AMEB grade 3 level. Big deal I guess. Hundreds of school kids do that too, and better than I do. But I am beginning to realise that I do not care about that at all. I just love learning and playing.
I love the music I can coax from my guitar. On a good day I can almost slide into a trance while brain and fingers work together in a way impossible just twelve months ago. I can play a piece like Lágrima (Francesco Tarrega) imperfectly, but just as its name (teardrops) suggests, I hope one day to play it well enough to moisten the eyes of any listener. Another piece by Tarrega, Adelita, is more difficult, and could take me longer to get my fingers (and brain) around. So be it. The journey is what matters. The destination can be left to itself.
Other things I have learned at the feet of my young teacher this past year:
Getting angry with myself at mistakes or mastering a technique more slowly than I would like is pointless. It achieves nothing. A mistake is a mistake; nothing more; nothing less. Shrug it off and continue playing. Which reminds me of another of his maxims:
Do not stop when you have made a mistake. Continue to play as if nothing happened. Most probably your listeners will not have noticed (even though it is a clanging, jarring event for you). (Great advice, I guess, for future concert performers).
You cannot practice correct technique enough. Nothing short of perfection is sufficient. (Near enough is not good enough in this game).
Practise slowly; very slowly. In this way you can identify flaws in your technique and deal with them before they become ingrained. This is also the best (only?) way to learn a new piece. Practice a few bars at a time, very slowly. If you can play it perfectly, slowly, you can also then play it fast. (So he says anyway, and I am starting to believe he is right).
Caress the guitar as you play. Become one with it. Be part of the music. Use it as a meditation technique if you like. (I am trying this).
Do not interpret the music your way until you can first play it the way the composer wrote it. (I rankle at this).
The metronome is your friend. (Yes, well, maybe).
There is, however, one particular aspect of the guitar I continue to struggle with. Just one, I hear you think. Well there are many to be honest. For instance I always want to progress more quickly than my technique allows. I continue to become frustrated and grumpy when I can't play something right, although I am getting better at going with the flow. I detest the metronome but I suffer it because I know it is doing me good. No, the one aspect that is providing a big challenge to me – still – is overcoming anxiety and nervousness when playing in front of other people.
My teacher has no specific advice for me on how to remain calm and how to still jittery, disobedient fingers and thumbs when playing in public. No advice that is, apart from his observation that I need to work on it. Maybe he is not too worried as I am unlikely to be playing in front of a concert audience ever. That is so, but I really would love to be confident of playing for friends, even if I am a silly old man who needs to understand he is past performing age.
Well there you have it: A synopsis of a year of classical guitar lessons. Learned heaps. Feel good about myself. As my teacher tells me . . . God bless him . . . “a couple more years and we will have you playing beautiful music”.

A new Guitar

Well, I've done it!
I've succumbed to some slick marketing and bought a new guitar. I didn't get sucked in by the marketing . . . but a new guitar couldn't hurt, right?
A Katoh MCG 200S, it looks and plays beautifully . . . and it's made in China.
For those willing to look beyond stereotypes and prejudices, it seems some things manufactured in China are of the highest quality. The Katoh range of nylon string classical guitars are exemplary instruments; crafted carefully to the highest standards, or so their blurb says.
As far as I can see they are right. The finish is brilliant. Nothing is overlooked. No blemishes. Quality components and a good sound.
My old Yamaha has had 40 years to bed in and mellow (even though a lot of that time it stood unloved in storage) and it sounds great. The Katoh is better . . . not by a lot, but noticeably so. Maybe the meticulous solid wood construction helps there. My Yamaha is plywood, as are all cheaper hollow acoustic guitars. The Katoh soundboard is spruce timber that supposedly gives it a brighter, clearer tone compared to cedar. It may very well do that but my ears are not up to the job of deciding. I just love playing it.
With respect to quality of finish and the sound it produces, the Katoh was exceptional value, compared to a 'name' brand like Ramirez (about a third cheaper). I hesitate to quote what I paid as my wife is quite likely to read this.
It's been in my hands for only two weeks. So far it is an absolute pleasure to play. I know a guitar will only give out what human fingers put in to it, but somehow it seems to add a little value even to my plodding efforts.
A magic flute? No, but a lovely guitar.
Sorry guys, but it seems Australia is the only place you can buy them. Maybe they are exported elsewhere under a different name.

Rebirth of Passion

Rebirth of Passion

(I kind of liked the sound of the title.)

(My 'studio')
It's been almost a year now since I started trying to play classical guitar. On a whim I dusted off the mass produced Taiwanese guitar I bought in my teens that had stood unloved in the wardrobe for decades. Back then I strummed chords and sang with abandon, modelling myself on Cat Stevens, the Bee Gees, Don McLean and other long forgotten icons. Unfortunately loads of enthusiasm could not quite make up for reluctance to work hard, and my musical dalliance fizzled. My guitar was picked up less and less often, until it was stored away during the first of many house and life moves.
Years passed.
My old el cheapo Yamaha G55a (entry level) instrument caught my gaze now and then when I was poking around. It brought back a memory or two. I couldn't ever throw it away. Nor the sheet music that accumulated in those passionate times. I knew strumming a guitar and singing along with a wistful expression was behind me, and mercifully so, but there was something in guitar music that always held magic.
I heard the beauty of plucked strings, intervals and chords, now and then. It was calling me, but I never made the time. Competing priorities. One day, but never now. To be honest, I would have been embarassed to be seen (not to mention heard) plucking away, brow creased, tongue poking out with concentration. There is a necessary humility in beginning (again) to learn to play a musical instrument and I struggled with that; being a mature and responsible adult who liked to hide behind his straightness and respectability. No way was I going to put myself in a position where people would patronise me, or smile behind their hands at my folly.
So, for some reason, maybe it's that I am now retired, one day last February I took my old guitar out of its case and set about restringing it. Walking into a music shop was not something I had done for years and the task of asking for the correct strings confirmed I was going to need to learn some humility, and learn it I did.
Having taken the first steps, the next few weren't nearly as hard. The internet is a wonderful resource. Kindle has many classical guitar tutorial books in e-format. I downloaded one, and behind closed doors and closed windows, I begun to learn some theory of music and the playing of classical guitar properly for the first time, by myself, without a human tutor.
Impossibly hard it seemed at first. I plugged away. There was a correct way to sit, to hold the guitar, to use my hands. No shortcuts or adaptations acceptable. Naturally I struggled with these limitations. I am me, after all; the king of corner cutters! I didn't want to waste time playing scales. Just let me at the music!
For the first couple of months I wanted everything to happen more quickly. Discouragingly, I found pieces were not getting easier to play. The old habits of wanting results without hard work were very hard to lose. Eventually I purchased a hard copy of a spiral bound “Complete Guitar Method” by Matteo Carcassi (a pioneer of the classical guitar), and decided to follow it as best I could.
The book is well organised, or maybe it matched my preferred learning style. It was set out in a way I could understand. Scales, intervals, chords and arpeggios for each key were practised thoroughly before it moved to some related short pieces. This clicked with me. I got it! I began to play stuff that sounded good and that I could manage, but only after quite a lot of repetition.
Mind you, I suspect that the music I heard in my heard was not quite the standard of the music I played. No matter. I was in love. If you have slid up and down arpeggios, and marvelled at the richness of intervals and chords, you will know what I mean. Sublime beauty on tap. 'Heaven on a stick' is a phrase that comes to mind.
Understanding some of the structure of beautiful music and playing it, admittedly the simpler stuff so far, is one of the most awe inspiring things I have experienced in my life.
I know all this might sound nerdy. Classical music and stuff like that. Frankly I don't give a damn my dear. I reckon my ability to appreciate all music styles has improved after studying classical music. It's the glue that holds it all together, don't you know?
I look forward to practice. I devour it. I am transported by the melodies and harmonies, and frustrated when I can't quite get them right. Do you have any idea how difficult it is to contort your left hand across a fretboard with speed? Maybe you do.
They say a talented person needs around 10000 hours of practice to master the classical guitar and perform at concert level. A quick calculation tells me I have now logged almost 250 hours. Just a tad more to go then. I won't be performing before family and friends any time soon.
I am so happy with my new found passion. It's a lonely thing to learn by yourself though. I would love to find somebody else to play alongside. The world does not seem to be overrun with classical guitar enthusiasts however; at least not near where I live.
YouTube will just have to fill the gap.
A guitar teacher would be nice too. As much as I would like to have a teacher, I can't justify the expense. Some great players have taught themselves. It seems I will need to rely on my own determination and perserverence. Anyway, as long as no one else hears me, what does it matter?
The old fellow is enjoying himself. So what if he follows one of his passions in his own time and in his own way?
Oh, and while I think of it . . . my old Yamaha, mass produced in Taiwan decades ago, has mellowed and developed a fine quality sound with age. Perhaps its owner might be so lucky.

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