I was looking up some public domain versions of Asturias for guitar and accidentally bumped into one arranged for solo viola. I thought to myself "how on earth would that piece work on the viola?!". Then I heard this guy play it... please check it out - a fantastic and passionate performance that breathes a different life into the piece.
I really love hearing pieces we know on guitar being re-orchestrated. I made a page with a whole bunch of pieces re-orchestrated that you'll probably be familiar with: https://www.danielnistico.net/re-orchestrated.html
Leave a comment and let me know what you think of this version of Asturias :-)
If you can play something on the guitar then you can compose too (and compose well!).
So, why isn't a guitarist like yourself encouraged to compose?
It's the best way to learn about style, form, ornaments, harmony - you name it.
Why does a guitarist like you (and for a long time, me) choose to struggle playing pieces that are often beyond your capabilities?
Why not instead compose something that is within your limits and at the same time learn a ton about music too.
Then at the end of it all, you have something of your own to play - something truly special and remarkable that you can share with your friends, family and colleagues.
It doesn't have to be long and complex. Just short and simple gives you something beautiful.
And best of all, you can use what you already know as inspiration.
Frank's Inspiration - may it inspire you!
Frank composed a gorgeous tremolo piece in 1 month, through taking my online composition course (see video below to hear his piece).
Before doing that, he was a typical serious amateur player of today, one who:
- Plays pieces that everyone else plays
- Practices the same exercises everyone else practices
- Isn't trained much in harmony, form, analysis, etc.
Composing defies these norms.
After composing his own piece, Frank now has the ability to do it again and again and again. It gives him pieces that no one else on earth will have played, plus an extremely strong understanding of music. It deepens his relationship with the guitar, teaching him more about its inner workings, patterns and possibilities.
Below is a recording of his piece. I hope it inspires you to defy the norms and start doing something extraordinary.
It's time to kick that frustration, hardship and tedious attitude towards the guitar in the butt. You don't have to keep on following the same systems as everyone else - take the ultimate challenge below and you'll have lots of incredible, unique and fulfilling work ahead.
Ultimate Composition Challenge
1) Find a piece you love and can comfortably play
2) Analyze the basic content of that piece (form, key, harmony, phrase structure, etc.)
3) Compose something based on that piece (model composition)
Complete this challenge and you will go really deep in learning about the repertoire you can already play. Plus you'll wind up with a brand new piece of your own!
If you've ever tried to compose, you might find out that it's hard to get started.
And if you do get started, it's can be hard to finish!
This is what Julie had trouble with, but after taking my online course 'A Piece to Call Your Own,' she composed this gorgeous piece in just 1 month.
Before you start composing something, questions will probably start flooding your mind. Things like:
- What key should the music be in?
- How will the music develop?
- What chords should I use?
- How long should the melodies be?
- How do I transition from one section to the next?
Yes, it can be overwhelming. But it doesn't have to be.
A great way to get started with composing a full piece is to model a piece you already know.
Doing that will answer all of those questions.
It will give you a clear template to follow, so you don't have to think about all the theoretical details - just get immersed in the music!
What's exciting about this is that there are many different models to follow - as many models as there are pieces. That means you can use this process over and over again, just as Julie can now do:
"I had no clue how to get started but now I have a clear road map for my next piece!"
Departing from the model
Guitarists are obsessed with their fingernails - and for good reason.
Why is nail care important? Why is it important for you?
My thoughts are that the right hand is mostly responsible for projecting our musical voice. With it we control among other things our tone, dynamics, rhythm and color. Of course, the left hand also plays its part in all this too.
Like me, you've probably had an experience or two of a "bad nail day". This can feel horrible, because all the hard work you've done just goes out the window. No matter what you do, nothing can really fix bad nails while you're performing.
On the flip side, great nails can do some magic. They can make your sound rich and beautiful. Your dynamics and intentions just speak and the music flows like water so naturally.
Our little series on harmony in Rung's Choral is now complete! Starting today, I'll be doing a new series on the right hand and focusing on some very basic things including tone, dynamics, rhythm, color, and touch.
By just practicing on one open string, I hope to show you how you can work on many basic musical and technical elements in depth.
For today, I have made a video that shows you my approach to filing nails.
I would love to know your thoughts and hear from you about any troubles or battles you've had with fingernails in the past - I've definitely had my share of nail troubles!
~ One time when I was touring in China with my wife, I was zipping up my suitcase the night after our first concert and boom! My index fingernail got ripped off. I had about 2mm of nail left on one side of it and had to use that for the remaining concerts! ~
~ Another traumatic nail incident occurred the night before my master's degree recital. I was practicing some of Alberto Ginastera's 'Sonata', which has a lot of strumming in the last movement. My nails were gradually wearing thin up until that point, but that night my index fingernail just had it and it flew off onto the floor! The following morning I had to go over to my then teacher's home to get some help - together we managed to attach a false nail.
Towards the end of my recital, I was playing the very movement in the Ginastera Sonata with a lot of strumming in it and my false nail flew off into the audience! ~
Fingernails are a very important part of a guitarist's technique. If we don't have a system figured out for shaping and buffering them, it can be difficult to consistently maintain a beautiful tone. Nails can also cause trouble musically, as they can momentarily get caught on the strings if they're not the appropriate length. Same goes if they're too rough.
Here are my suggestions in a nutshell for nail filing:
1. Buffer your nails before each practice session.
- Playing for even 30 minutes can rough up your nails, so make sure they're always smooth!
2. Use a crystal nail file.
- Emory boards usually produce a rough and harsh finish on your nails, Plus they don't last very long.
3. Hold the nail file at an angle and file in one direction towards the middle of the nail.
- Watch the video to see what I mean.
4. File and buffer the tops of your nails.
5. Check the smoothness of your nails by rubbing them on the top E string.
I've created a nail kit that contains the exact equipment I use all packaged into a convenient travel pouch. It's so important that wherever you play - lessons, rehearsals, gatherings, performances, etc. - your nail quality will have one of the biggest impacts on your tone.
You also get:
- A short guide to help remind you of the key points for nail filing.
- A video where I demonstrate the nail filing and buffing process
- A free copy of my dissertation on fingernails
Why is warming up important?
A good warm up can encourage good habits to persist through a day of practice. It can also fire up our hands and playing for a performance.
A performance is often greatly affected (for better or worse) by the warm up you do the day of that performance.
I have heard of others experiencing something similar to the following scenario, and have also experienced this myself:
You work hard for many months preparing a program of pieces for a recital (or exam or casual performance, etc.). When you play it at home, everything goes accordingly - your hands do what you want them to do and the music just comes out naturally.
But then along comes the day of the performance. You only have about 30 minutes in the morning to warm up, because the rest of the day involves preparing your gear, traveling, sound checking, waiting, etc. etc... So in those 30 minutes, you quickly scramble through your pieces and just hope that your hands will be ready to play them come the time of performance.
So you're on stage now and about to play. Your hands feel like blocks of ice. You start the program and it's nothing like it sounded when you played it at home. Your hands just don't cooperate. Your program goes by, and by the end of it your hands feel great. But now the performance is over!
What if you had been practicing a set of warm up exercises that made your hands resilient to any situation - a set of exercises that enabled your playing in that above scenario to be on fire, allowing your musical voice to shine out rather than having your technique interfere with it. How would your performance go in that case?
I can testify from experience that the outcome would be very different. A good set of warm up exercises that you practice consistently (daily) has exponential pay off.
So what are some types of exercises to warm up with that guitarists tend to neglect?
1) Open String Exercises
2) Shifting Exercises
3) Scales in Bursts
You often hear guitarists who complain about how difficult certain aspects of guitar playing are (I used to be one of those people). Many guitarists say that things like making a really beautiful tone, shifting, fast scale passages and barring (i.e. the topics of this online course) are really difficult.
But do guitarists make it a primary concern to practice such things in isolation each day? I don't think guitarists generally do!!! To my knowledge, there is currently no standard system for practicing the more challenging aspects of guitar playing.
When you start practicing these fundamental exercises, then your musical voice can start to shine through. Technique no longer interferes with your music-making, but rather it enhances it. After all, that is the purpose of technique - to serve and enhance the music.
Learn about my online course by clicking here
When we play music, we're telling a story. What many musicians often do is perfect the notes but not the story they're telling.
This is like reading a novel but not thinking about the meaning of the words. Sounding out the words is fine, but isn't there so much more to language than that?
When you read and speak, you do things like:
1) Emphasize certain words
2) Inflect your voice to mimic the emotion of the words
3) Pause between sentences
4) Accent syllables a certain way
5) Vary the speed, timing and pacing
6) Change the volume of your voice
7) Listen to the person/s you're talking to and respond to them
8) Use your body language to enhance what you're saying
All of these (and more) can be translated into playing music. But how much time to you devote to perfecting these types of things?
- Emphasis: When you want to emphasize a certain note, do you try it many different ways until you find the perfect amount of emphasis?
- Inflection: Are you vividly communicating the music's emotion through inflecting the tone color? Do you perfectly choreograph your right hand movements to reflect this?
- Pauses: When you pause between phrases and sections, do you try it many times and vary the amount of space to find the perfect amount? A fraction of a second longer or shorter can make a huge difference.
- Accentuation: Do you carefully consider the accentuation of the time signature and how that would affect the rhythm? Is that rhythm and accentuation being perfected at all times?
- Rubato: Is your rubato dictated by your technique, or do you try out different musically based options to find the perfect rubato for you?
- Dynamics: Are your dynamics really coming out? Have you played the same phrase multiple times to perfect your dynamics?
- Balance: Do you understand the counterpoint? Do you hear the conversation of the different parts and perfect how you bring those out?
- Body Language: Is your body language perfectly communicating your musical gestures, or are you just sitting there like a rock? Video yourself to find out!
Obviously, the notes need to be correct. You need to take time to work out the best fingerings and solve those tough spots. But what about all the rest?
You should devote at least the same amount of time to perfecting things like those above as you do to perfecting the notes.
Here's a bit of a catch 22. When you start aiming to perfect these other details, you risk sacrificing the perfection of the notes. That's because it takes more effort and energy to perfect many different aspects, often resulting in some sacrificed notes.
But what would you rather hear:
- A perfect sequence of notes with no story?
- An engaging, captivating and vivid story that sacrifices the perfection of some notes?
This process might seem overwhelming, so here are a couple things to help:
1) Work on your pieces in tiny bits and pieces (1 measure or 1 phrase at a time) and perfect at least two or three things before moving on.
2) Download and print the chart I made for you (click below). You can add some of your own points to each category.
What are some things you want to perfect that you've never tried perfecting before?
This evening I was practicing with my wife, who is a flutist. We have been playing the same repertoire for a couple of years now and have performed it a lot. We performed the same program over twenty times in mid 2016, and we're about to perform it again five times next week in Beijing. So how do we keep playing and practicing this repertoire without getting totally sick and tired of it?!
It's all about your mindset, and a simple change of wording can sometimes have a powerful effect on your mindset.
Practicing vs. Enhancing: the dictionary definitions
Read the definitions carefully and note the different connotations that the words produce.
* The customary, habitual, or expected procedure of something.
* Repeated exercise in or performance of an activity or skill so as to acquire or maintain proficiency in it.
* A period of time spent doing something.
* Intensify, increase, or further improve the quality, value, or extent of.
So my question to you is, what is it that you want to enhance in your playing? Now that you've got an idea of the definitions, let's give some examples and compare the effect of using 'practicing' with 'enhancing'.
I am practicing my scales this morning
I am enhancing my scales this morning
I am practicing the mood of Recuerdos de la Alhambra
I am enhancing the mood of Recuerdos de la Alhambra
I am practicing the phrasing in Bach's prelude
I am enhancing the phrasing in Bach's prelude
When you are enhancing then there is no end result, only infinite progress.
When you hear a great musician perform, or see a great athlete in action, you are witnessing many many hours of enhancing, not just mere practicing.
I am constantly enhancing my warm up/technical work material. I've been playing the same exercises for a long time now (scales, chords, arpeggios, etc.), yet I still strive to enhance even the most simple of things, such as playing an open string or playing a C major scale.
Below is a video of a warm up that I filmed in real time (live on Facebook). It's unscripted and unrehearsed, and I let my intuition guide me through a bit - just as I normally do when there's no camera on (I filmed it on an Ipad, so apologies for the flipped image!).
Enhancing can be short term or long term or a combination of the two. I will probably use a similar warm up tomorrow and enhance many of the things that I thought needed enhancing today. Sometimes I might spend a lot of time enhancing one thing in the moment.
Let me know what you would like to enhance in your playing. Try and be specific.
Swap the word practicing for the word enhancing and see what it does for your mindset!
The mind is a truly powerful instrument; in addition to the soul and the heart, it is one of the places in which music is created.
The mind has a profound ability to visualize. This tool can apply to many different things in life including sports, writing, painting, reading, and of course music.
Chess players can play a game purely in their minds, without a board. Guided imagery, visualization, mental rehearsal, or other similar techniques are used by athletes to maximize the efficiency and effectiveness of their training. The great German composer Johannes Brahms reportedly composed his symphonic music from his mind’s ear. A photo of his home workspace is below.
Now if you think you’re not good at visualization, I want to prove you wrong. You visualize all the time, and here are just some examples -
*If you like reading, especially fiction novels, you are very good if not masterful at visualization.
*If you’ve ever written anything – a paper, an essay, a Facebook post, a book – then you have practiced visualization.
*If you’ve ever planned out your day, which I’m assuming you have, then you are already very good at visualizing.
*If you’ve ever played sports, then you will have used visualization to plan the game, improve the swing, and so forth.
Visualizing can be a somewhat vague word when it comes to practicing, so I want to define it a little and give you two different methods; one a very quick and relatively easy one, and the other a more elaborate one that will take more time and energy.
The dictionary definition of visualization is to “form a mental image of; imagine, or to “make (something) visible to the eye.
How can this apply to music making? Here are some ways -
1. Form a mental image of the guitar’s fretboard in your mind. See and feel your fingers play through the piece on this mental fretboard.
2. Hear the music in your mind, and try to hear it at the correct pitch - I recommend checking as this can help your pitch memory and memorization accuracy.
3. Combine the above – see the fretboard and hear the correct pitch in your mind. Once you can do this, you can practice anywhere, anytime! If you’re having a boring day at work, or waiting for public transport to arrive, and so on, you can practice on your imaginary guitar.
4. Using only the score, practice with your brand new mental guitar.
Mental practice is limitless; you no longer have the constraints and limitations of your physical body to hinder your imagination. You can imagine the most ideal, supreme, and flawless rendition of your music. You can imagine several different ideal, supreme, and flawless renditions.
Mental practice doesn’t have to be limited to full renditions of your pieces; you can practice any method you desire in your imagination. I recommend visualizing and employing some of the methods that have been covered in this series, such as practicing small bits, orchestrating the parts, and improving your balance. While this can be done away from the instrument and/or score, you can also practice visualization in small doses during your time with the guitar.
Visualizing in small doses during practice
All that is required of you is to hold your instrument and not play it! It’s so easy when the instrument is in our hands to switch off the mind and become finger moving machines. Break this habit by visualizing what you’re about to practice on the guitar before you play it. Play it in your mind - musical, flawless, and beautiful. Then do your best to transfer that onto the guitar. Do this for small bits of material, like phrases and short sections for example. Perhaps later on you can try and visualize an entire piece once in full, and then play it on the guitar. If you can do that, then you can be pretty confident that the music is deeply internalized and memorized.
The most powerful method for visualization
I’m now going to show you the method I’ve used and found to be very powerful for visualization. It actually relates to a practice that was common in the 19th century and prior. Composers often copied out scores by hand in order to learn about good composition. This was done by composers such as Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven, and it is now a forgotten practice. If they did it, why aren’t we doing it!
Luigi Cherubini was the director of the Paris Conservatoire from 1822, and was a highly regarded composer in his day – Beethoven thought Cherubini to be one of his greatest contemporaries! In 1835 Cherubini published a treatise on counterpoint and fugue, and in it he wrote
“I would induce the pupil who aims at becoming a composer, to read, and even to copy out, with attention, and with reflection, as much as he can of the works of the classical composers particularly, and occasionally those of inferior composers, with the view of learning from the former what mode he is to pursue for composing well, and from the latter, in what way he may avoid the contrary. By such a proceeding, frequently repeated, the pupil, in learning to exercise his ear through his sight, will gradually form his style, his feeling, and his taste.”
My belief is that musicians prior to the 20th century were incredibly well trained and equipped to be great all-round musicians – composers, improvisers, performers, pedagogues, theorists, etc. Please don’t ever underestimate pedagogy from previous centuries. Just because we are living in the present day doesn’t mean our ways of learning are superior or more advanced than those of the past. In fact, after studying this myself for some time now, it seems that our musical education has gone downhill since the early to mid 20th century. I hope that some of the tools that I’ve shared in this series, including the following one, might be a small way of alleviating this in the guitar’s pedagogy.
***The method is as follows***
1. Grab some blank manuscript paper. If you don’t have any, download a page here and print it out.
2. Choose either a short piece, or a section of a longer piece (you don’t have to start at the beginning). I would recommend no more than one page worth of music. This should be something you are already relatively familiar with.
3. Write out the music on the manuscript without the aid of your instrument or the score. You will be surprised how long it takes you to write down one measure.
4. If you do get stuck, try as hard as possible to keep going before you give up. If you can’t go any further, then go to your guitar first and try playing from the place you got stuck. If that doesn’t work, then use the score to refresh your memory.
5. For an extra challenge, write out all markings as well. This includes fingerings, dynamics, tempo indications, repeat signs, etc.
From my experience doing this, you really do exercise your ear through your sight, as Cherubini put it. In some ways you feel like you’re composing the piece, seeing all of its intricacies and structures that would usually go unnoticed from just playing through. By this process you are deconstructing and then reconstructing the piece, all from your mind. Putting it on paper ensures that what's in your head is actually correct, and it also allows you to reflect on the music you just wrote down.
This is not just a useful tool for memorizing, but it can help with many other areas of your playing. You can make your phrases more singing, make your shifts smoother, be more authoritative and affirmative with your dynamics, and use rubato super effectively. This is because you now have thought and intention behind your music making, not just finger movements!
Some old examples of mine that I dug up are below. It doesn’t have to be neat (mine certainly isn’t!). You can see that I attempted to write in some dynamics here and there, and I also wrote in some places where I struggled to remember what came next. I couldn’t find any examples where I had written in fingerings, but they're around somewhere.
I hope this method helps you with your memorization and music making!
One subscriber asked the question of how to avoid boredom during practice. This seems to be a pretty hot topic amongst players, and is something that I constantly battled myself for years. I remember the days when I used to practice scales in front of the TV, because I found them that boring!
I eventually found ways to trick my brain into being alert, aware, and engaged, no matter what the material is that I'm working on. For example, now I love practicing open strings, and can sometimes practice them for a whole 15 minutes straight (no TV involved!).
Outlining and summarising many of the topics already covered in this series can be a great place to start finding ways of tricking your brain out of boredom land. Why do I use the word trick? This word has two meanings that I like. One is "a clever or particular way of doing something", and the other is "a peculiar or characteristic habit or mannerism." I'll now break this down into two things; mindset, and tools.
I think the way that we've generally been taught (in school, college, and culture in general) is to just seek the "correct" answer so that we can pass a test, exam, or something similar. This sort of mindset can translate into practicing an instrument, whereby our aim is merely to find one "correct" way of doing something (whatever that might mean?!).
What if instead you asked yourself during practice "what are all the possibilities available to me at this moment?". Instead of finding one correct way of playing something, you discovered multiple - you created new possibilities that you might not have ever imagined of before.
Try it next time your practice - why not even apply this mindset to other areas of your life too! Find three, four, five, maybe ten different ways of playing one passage of music. Taste test and see which ones you like the best. I love cooking, and I have to say if there was no taste testing involved, then the food would probably not turn out very edible!
1. Practice System
45 Minutes total
Use a timer - no distractions once it chimes
First 15 Minutes = Fundamentals
Next 30 Minutes = Pieces
Finish as soon as the timer chimes
Take a 5 minute break and enjoy yourself
Don't forget this, because setting that timer can trick your brain into becoming super focused and not wasting time!
2. Divide and Conquer
I. Form and structure: Practice small bits and make those passages sparkle
II. Orchestrate the parts: Separate the voices as if each one were your part in an ensemble, then put them back together.
III. Separate the hands: Practice left hand only. Practice right hand only. Simple!
IV. Harmony: Reduce the passage to its most fundamental harmonic progression (knowing the triads found in Fundamental Harmony can help). Play your passage or piece as a simple chord progression, like a singer-songwriter!
V. Rhythm: I haven't talked about this yet, but I'll keep it brief. Isolate the rhythm and practice it, even if the rhythm is very simple. You can simply clap the rhythm, or play it on an open string, or conduct and speak the rhythms (remember ta & ti ti?). Do this with and without the metronome.
Dividing and conquering helps trick your brain because you are essentially simplifying things and practicing small bits in different, varying ways. This means that you can make something better much faster than if you were working on a piece of music as a whole. You can also rapidly practice different skills in a short amount of time. For example, spend 5 minutes just on orchestrating the parts, then spend 5 minutes on separating the hands, etc. etc. This constant shifting of focus is one of the keys to avoiding boredom, and inviting creativity.
3. Record yourself
This is really one of the most valuable things you can do when practicing. It instantly reveals what you actually sound like, not how you think you sound. It forces you to stop and reevaluate what you're doing. It forces you to stop and actually listen to your playing, and if you're bored then it will come across in your playing!
A word that from the 20th century until recently has been treated with undue contempt in the classical music world. Before the 20th century, improvisation was a very normal and basic part of a classical musician's practice and training. The Rule of the Octave (the harmonised scale found in Fundamental Harmony) is just one tool that you can use for improvising with. If that doesn't float your boat, then you can use your pieces as models for improvising.
It can be as simple as adding small and subtle ornaments, or as complex as adding ornate variations.
Here are some basic starting points to work with:
If the piece is in major, try playing it in minor and vice versa.
If the piece is fast, play it slow and vice versa.
If you find a chord shape that you like, shift that chord (hand shape) up and down the fretboard.
Put a capo on the first or second fret and play, experiencing the change in resonance and mood created.
Divide your passage/piece up into two, three, or more parts. Find two, three, or more people to jam with using those parts as material.
All of the above can help you memorize a piece, however simply having it as your end goal can sometimes stimulate you enough to swat away any of those boring bugs that might come your way! If something is new, never try and memorize it as a whole. Break it down into bite sized pieces that allow you to memorize easily and effectively. Think of it as a challenge, with the reward simply being that you can now play something without the aid of the score - it's now part of your memory!
I hope that you find your own ways and habits for keeping boredom out of your practice. I'd love to hear of any habits or methods you know of already, or any that you might discover.
Below is an email I received personally from legendary Australian guitarist/composer Phillip Houghton while I was researching him and his music. Phillip has an idiosyncratic way of writing with regards to spacing and layout, so I’ve kept it basically unedited. I’ll just let it speak for itself, hope you enjoy!
“In simplistic terms , regarding phrasing on the guitar , and how it influences interpretation and style , i like to think of "the big three" :
* RHYTHM : time , tempo , momentum , rubato , rit & accel , etc
* COLOUR : texture , timbre , tone quality , thin/thick , grains , etc
* DYNAMIC : volume , loudness , cresc/decresc , accents , etc
There are hundreds of other things , but for me , they're the big three. The guitar is very good at these things ; very responsive .
Regarding rhythm and especially rubato : i am aware of this when i write my music notation . I write rubato into the actual note values and rests , etc . Also , with this in mind , i'm really into what i call micro-rubato ( small-scale , between notes , almost imperceptible to the ear , more about "in the moment" ) and macro-rubato ( large-scale , between long sections , almost imperceptible to the ear , more about design and "destination" ) .
Neither interrupt the momentum of the music , but work to enhance the over-all design , architecture , style and emotion of the music ... by the crushing/releasing or the pushing/withholding of the "gravity" of momentum . Elastic . Morphing . Sculpted .
These qualities can also apply to colour and dynamic : the way we use gradations or shocks , so as to phrase , choreograph and design the character and style of what's in the score , as we get to know it , feel it , and explore possibilities . It's all about timing and to what degree we want to take things . Of course , things can also be made very perceptible to the ear ! , like a pie in the face !
But how far we can take things depends on our technique , which is us ( ourselves ) and how we can adapt to the hundreds of techniques that are possible on the guitar , and to those we have yet to find , incorporate , and make music with .”
Dr. Daniel Nistico is a passionate performer, author and educator who specializes in the performance practice of 18th and 19th century guitar music. Daniel's teaching and research aims to revitalize the concept of being a well-rounded musician, with emphasis on topics like harmony that can lead to deeper musical understanding and provide tools for composing and improvising.