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A Holiday List

Every person is different, but there are always a few things I like to accomplish during the holidays if I can:

1. Take a break. Usually at this point, the most stressful part of school semesters have just ended. I often try to take a couple of days off from playing the guitar (if I have no gigs etc) to unwind and calm down again. This is more for summer vacations, but a few days off during the winter is ok too.

2. For non-music majors, perhaps your semester of studies has culminated from studying too much of another subject. In this case, use the guitar as a way to do something fun for awhile.

3. Work on technical exercises. Since classes are finished, and you have more free time, and do not necessarily have specific pieces you need to learn, take this time to work on technique. It will work wonders for you later on down the road. (Of course this is something that should be worked on everyday, but let’s be honest, sometimes there’s not enough time in the day to give it the time that it needs.)

4. Choose pieces. Take this time to choose a few pieces to work on for the coming semester. If you already have some in mind, start trying to read through them.

5. Discover pieces. Use your free time to discover new works (could also be old works you just have never heard before). This could help you out with #4 on this list. Also, don’t just limit yourself to solo pieces. Find chamber pieces as well.

6. But the most important thing is to always make time for your family and friends.

Musical Diversity Part II

In one of my first posts, I discussed the idea of having a life outside of music as well as listening to other instruments for inspiration and ideas (symphonies, quartets, solo cello, etc.). But as guitarists it is also important for us to be able to PLAY different genres other than just classical. I think for most guitarists this is not an issue. Most people begin playing guitar because they want to learn their favorite songs. I first began playing electric guitar as I attempted to imitate the sounds of Metallica. I then began learning more classic rock (Led Zeppelin, The Who, etc.) and then explored jam bands (Phish, String Cheese Incident, Umphrey’s McGee, etc.). While I continued my studies of classical guitar, my knowledge of these other genres led to other performance opportunities: school productions of musicals (The Who’s Tommy, Bye Bye Birdie, etc.), playing in a jazz combo accompanying a jazz choir, and other band performances. Without my previous knowledge or exploration of these other genres, I probably would have had to pass on these gigs.

At the same time, most guitarists will need to earn a living teaching lessons. And as I mentioned earlier, most people begin taking guitar lessons to be able to play their favorite songs and are not necessarily interested in playing classical music (that’s not to say they won’t change their minds further down the road). If a student is doing something they don’t want to do, they won’t have fun. And if they aren’t having fun, they aren’t going to continue taking lessons. As I found out from colleagues in Spain, this is not necessarily the case in Europe where there seem to be droves of people wanting to play classical guitar. But as Alex Ross discusses in his fantastic book The Rest is Noise, classical musicians in America will always struggle attracting audiences because of the lack of tradition classical music has in this country. And so even from a teaching perspective, being well versed in the guitar outside of the classical realm is important. I recently had a new student come to me with songs he needs to learn for his middle school jazz band that he plays in. I didn’t have to panic about what I was looking at (chord charts) because I had seen it before, I had done it before. And I didn’t have to turn away a new student. The opportunities are endless with a well balanced, diverse knowledge of many styles of playing guitar even if your main focus is classical. You never know where it could lead.

Artists’ Passion, Rejection, and Advice from Wayne Gretzky

The life of a musician, of any artist really, is a tough and arduous road. For most, things will not always end the way you want them to, but it’s how you deal with those moments that will determine the rest of your career. For those that know me and/or have read my blog, you know I just returned home from the best 7 months of my life as I studied with some of the best guitarists and lutenists in the world in Alicante, Spain. Within a week of moving back, I got a job with the Vivaldi Music Academy (http://vivaldimusicacademy.com) and have been making connections for possible chamber music projects in the future.

This past Saturday, I auditioned for the Young Artists Program that is apart of the Houston Da Camera organization. Overall, I felt very good about my audition. I thought I played well (and for me to say that is something!), I thought the interview went well, and I walked out feeling very proud and good about the preceding events. Today, I found out I did not get into the program. Though a little bit disappointed, and a little bit not surprised (it’s very tough for the guitar to compete with more “traditional” classical instruments, and at the same time even more difficult with the competition is at such a high level with very limited space), the experience has not deterred me at all. As an artist, one must deal with rejection almost constantly, and every single artist I know has stories about it.

And those heartbreaks are a huge part of what it’s all about. It’s the only way to get those special experiences of performing, of being apart of projects. And when you land them, there is nothing like it. So there are essentially three options. 1. You learn your art for yourself as a hobby, and nothing more. 2. You give it a shot, and if it doesn’t work out, feel the rejection, and give up. 3. You give it a shot, and no matter what happens, use it as motivation to push you forward. The life of an artist is certainly not for everyone, and there is no shame in not wanting to go down that path. But for those who have the passion and love for what they do, for those that really CHOOSE and PURSUE it, there is a quote I would like to share. I’m not a big hockey fan, but my first guitar teacher Adam Flint is. He shared with me a quote from the great Wayne Gretzky, “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” I think this statement is very pertinent to life in general. Unless you try, you never know what could be, and you know never know where it could lead you. But keep in mind, there is no winning formula, and unfortunately there’s really no guarantee it will work. So for all those who are just embarking on their journeys like I am, and for those that have already begun, keep your heads up high, and always push forward.

Bach, The End, and a Week with Nigel North

Before I begin, as I sit here writing this article from Houston, TX, I would just like to say how bittersweet this is. My time in Spain was phenomenal. I couldn’t ask for the program and my experiences and adventures to have gone any better. It’s still hard to believe it’s over, but I couldn’t be happier. Even though the program has finished, I still plan on continuing this blog and hoping to share knowledge and advice I accumulate well into the future.

The last week of the program was with the incredible lutenist and musician Nigel North. This week was geared towards the music of Bach.

The style of these pieces is what’s really important. The connection between music and speech was a central idea in this period. Playing music was like telling a story, and though this idea still exists today, it was specifically talked about in this manner in treatises. Use the harmonies to build phrases that tell the story properly, as well as emphasizing the important beats. You can do this by leaning in on dissonances and enjoying them, and backing off of their resolutions. Also, using words and phrases to hear where strong and weak accents are can help. And since playing this music is directly linked to speech, this will reinforce that idea.

Other important concepts: guitarists always tend to fall into a trap of thinking we need to add ornaments to Bach’s music because it was typical of the time. But Bach often writes out the ornaments in his pieces, and so adding ornaments can be done, but isn’t really necessary (with the exception of cadences at the end of sections. It is of course standard to trill here. And remember, trills begin with the top note in this period!).

Also, the tempo of these pieces. One does not need to play these pieces at blistering speeds. In fact most of the time, it sounds so much better when it’s not racing. All of the nuances, phrases, and counterpoint come out much clearer when taken at comfortable tempi.

Bach is of course extremely difficult music, but Maestro North had an interesting take on difficulty that I would like to share. He said, “I don’t think there’s anything difficult. Just things that you don’t know well enough yet.” It’s rather profound in it’s simplicity. But essentially if you put the hard work in, (whether it’s Bach, other tough pieces, or things in life), nothing is impossible. So don’t give up.

As an added bonus, if you are interested, here is a list of books suggested by Nigel:

The Performance of 16th-Century Music by Anne Smith

A Performer’s Guide to Renaissance Music by and A Performer’s Guide to 17th-Century Music by J. Kite-Powell

The Story of A by Bruce Haynes

The Weapons of Rhetoric by Judy Tarling

New Bach Reader edited by David & Mendell

Unaccompanied Bach: Performing the Solo Works by David Ledbetter

On Playing the Flute by J. Quantz

L’Art de Toucher by Francis Couperin

Ornamentation in Baroque and Post Baroque Music: with Emphasis on J.S. Bach by Frederick Neumann



Singing with the Guitar and a Week with Manuel Barrueco

A common theme throughout these months here at the Master of Guitar Interpretation of Alicante has been finding ways to sing through the guitar. We enjoyed a fantastic week with Maestro Manuel Barrueco who constantly pushed us to do just that. We are often taught this through the use of vibrato and changes in timbre. Here are some other things to think about when interpreting and getting the guitar to sing:

Technique – It’s always important, but it can also affect our interpretation. For example having the ability to play rest stroke scales can dramatically affect the sound of the piece. Also the more relaxed your hands are while playing, the more expressive they can be. Essentially, the more things we are able to do, the more options we have to successfully play the piece.

Fingerings – Most think of the art of choosing a good fingering as making passages easier or achieving a color. Though both of these things are true and should be utilized for these means, fingerings can make or break phrases. Always choose a fingering that caters to the melody first.

Follow the Directions – As artists, we try to reenact pieces in our voice and style of playing, but at the same time we must try achieve this within the confines of what the composer has asked us to do. Knowing when to interject your own voice sometimes comes from experience, and sometimes it comes from a knowledge of performance practices of the time period.

Actually Sing – Probably the best way to find out how to sing through the guitar is by actually singing the melodies. Note: Don’t worry about the quality of your voice! The purpose of this is to give us a good sense of what the piece should sound like and how to phrase it. Then, when you have an idea of what you want the piece to sound like, find the technique that will properly reenact that sound and phrasing.



The Thumb and a Week with Roberto Aussel

Many helpful tips from the teachers, including Roberto Aussel, here in the program have revolved around the the thumb. It has become quite apparent to me just how much we neglect the thumb as guitarists. We get a good consistent sound and keep it, never changing the way we pluck just where we pluck on the string. Even I have been guilty of not exploring all of the possible colors the thumb can produce. Though it is common practice today to play only with nails on all fingers, the timbre and color created by plucking the bass strings with only the flesh of the thumb is very effective and, to me, too underused. I don’t blame today’s guitarists so much as it is not a concept much emphasized of even taught by many of today’s teachers. Fernando Sor, who in the beginning played guitar without nails, eventually converted to plucking the strings of the guitar with the nails of his fingers, but he always preferred the sound of the bass and his thumb without nails. Part of my experience in this program has opened my eyes as to why that is. Thinking about the timbre and color produced by the thumb should be just as thoughtful and planned as the melodies of the pieces we play. That is to say, we shouldn’t give up on the thumb nail entirely, but rather it is a suggestion to incorporate new sounds to the thumb.

Technique for the thumb is very important as well. With Roberto Aussel lessons, we covered the music of Latin America. The rhythm of this music is often the most important thing, and it is often driven by the bass, and hence the thumb. Developing the independence of the thumb can help make the dance rhythms clearer with accents and also by stopping the ringing open string bass notes. It is quite difficult to do, but it can make a huge difference in your interpretation as well as your overall technique in general.

Though not about the thumb, tere is a helpful exercise for playing legato with the left hand while shifting positions on the same string. Maestro Aussel showed it to us. It is an exercise from Abel Carlevaro’s method, which I highly recommend guitarists check out. There are many great exercises for building technique in both hands. Practice the movements of the shifts slowly at first and as legato as possible. Then, slowly speed up the movements while maintaining the same result.

Left Hand Shift Exercise



A week with David Russell

Well, the Master’s Program here in Alicante has begun. It has been one month so far and this experience is already more than one could ask for. It has been wonderful to meet other guitarists from around the world as we share our cultures, ideas and music.

Our first week in the program was spent taking lessons with Maestro David Russell. His abilities as a teacher matches his abilities as a performer. I wanted to use this blog as a way to share different technique exercises, but during this week with David the exercises were very basic. He also stressed the importance of creating your own studies, especially when you find something in a piece of music that you are having difficulty with. Creating exercises based on difficult passages will fix your technical deficiency, where as just practicing the passage over and over again will only fix THAT passage.

He also raised an important subject: always warm up. The exercises we practiced as a class were designed specifically just to get the fingers of both hands moving, with the two hands separately and synchronized together. It is easy to forget and think it’s not needed, but not warming up could cause problems in the hand when you get older.

Besides the many suggestions of interpretation for the pieces, one lesson I took away from the week is to never settle for less than perfection in the practice room. Don’t just settle for playing a passage correctly after one time. If say 9 out of 10 times you can play something perfectly, chances are when you get nervous and other environmental issues exist you will still be able to play it correctly. And if by chance you didn’t quite play that passage perfectly, that was the fluke. Basically, in the concert, you can’t change anything, but at home you should fix EVERYTHING.

Here are the basic warm up exercises:

Basic Exercises with David Russell

with David Russell




Before I get started, I would just like to say that I will be leaving for Spain in two weeks to study with some unbelievable players. This trip is what has inspired this blog as I hope to get some time to write about some of the lessons I pick up while there. Having said that, this will be my last blog before the program starts up. If there are any subjects you would like covered feel free to write to me or leave comments. And thanks for reading!

Unlike many other classical instruments, it is common practice for guitarists to memorize their repertoire. When I was first learning classical guitar, I wasn’t very good at sight-reading, and so I tried to memorize music as quickly as possible. As my sight-reading skills have improved, I still like memorizing music because I feel I don’t have to concentrate on reading the notes and can focus most of my attention on making music.

Lots and lots of repetition is obviously key in memorizing music. But here are some other tips that might help.

  1. Lots of slow practice. As stated in an earlier blog post, slow practice is great for getting the notes, movements, shifts, etc, into both the left and right hands. Eventually muscle memory kicks in and the hands just know what to do.
  2. Memorization is often easier once you are able to read through a piece completely and at tempo. Once you can run the piece from beginning to end and play through it a few times, you will notice when you start work on memorizing it you will find it comes a bit easier. Much of the reason for this is because of Tip 1 above.
  3. Look for repetitions, repeated patterns, transpositions, and chord progressions. Phrases and “licks” that are repeated or are the same movements just moved a few frets make memorizing things much easier. A complete chordal analysis might be unnecessary, but knowing what key you are in and what chord you are currently playing (or arpeggiating or inferring) could give you a good idea of where you are going.
  4. Related to tip 3, follow melodic lines when applicable. Obviously this will not work with all music, but it can also help you remember where you are going musically if you can follow melodic lines, patterns, etc.
  5. Often, I have found that some of these tips are helpful but don’t solve problems when learning baroque music, specifically Bach. He often doesn’t repeat anything. Following chord progressions do help, but in the case of Bach, I work slowly memorizing a phrase and then constantly review from the beginning what I have worked through. For example say the phrases are four measures each. I will memorized measure 1-4 and make sure I have it down. Then I will memorize measure 5-8. Once I feel somewhat confident in those measures, I will start from measure 1 and try make it to measure 8 without looking at the music. Constantly going back will make sure you haven’t forgotten previous measures and will give you lots of repetition as well. It can be quite a painful process, but it is very effective and helpful.

I hope these tips help. If you have any other helpful hints feel free to live them in the comment box!

The Beginning

Thank you for visiting my blog. Recently, I found out that I have been accepted into the Master in Classical Guitar Performance program at the University of Alicante in Spain. The program starts in January 2013 and will allow me to study with some of the best guitarists in the world for about 6 months. It is quite an honor and one that has prompted me to start this blog. Not everyone has the means or gets the opportunity to study with the likes of David Russell, Manuel Barrueco, and others, and so this will be my outlet to share any knowledge, playing tips, life lessons, anything at all that I learn during my experience there that I feel others could benefit from as well. Not to mention this is a great way for me to document feedback and lessons for myself. I won’t wait until January to start posting, so check back every now and then to see updates. Thanks again for visiting the blog, and I hope I am able to take you along my journey as best as I can.


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