In a previous post I talked about the Florida Guitar Foundation and their monthly Classical Guitar Open-Mic Nights. The performances are held at the Miami Conservatory of Music in Coconut Grove. Last week was my first opportunity to go and perform. Well, I did it!!
While the night was very casual and informal, it was still a stage with a mic and an audience, so it was a lot like a real performance. I wouldn’t say that I was nervous, but I sure was rusty.
I always forget how hard it is to START playing. I mean, you walk up, introduce yourself, maybe make a joke or comment and then there is a second or two of absolute silence. Ugh! I hate that silence. The audience is just staring at you and you have to just GO… Start!
With rock music you can usually unleash a KRRRRANNNGGGG chord to shatter the nerves and then dive right in. No such luck with classical guitar. You are supposed to be 100% beautiful sounding from the first note. Oh, brother.
I’d say my performance at the open mic was a solid 70% beautiful. I played two short pieces: “Andantino” Op.241 by Ferdinand Carulli, and “Classical Gas” by Mason Williams. These were two of the very first pieces I learned on the classical guitar and I have been playing them for a long time. At Gables Guitar Studio I can make these pieces sound great. I mean I have worked on them to the point where I can really dig in. I can manipulate tempo and dynamics, and make artistic choices as far as phrasing and direction… I can do all that when I play AT HOME. Being out there in front of people, even in this informal setting, is very different.
Right before I started the Carulli piece I had a moment to center myself and I could feel it. About 30% of my brain was just unavailable. I have performed in front of people enough to kill most of the actual fear that I used to feel. My heart rate and breathing were normal, and my hands were steady. But that part of the brain still always kind of shuts off when it’s go time. Maybe that part of the brain still feels all that fear and I’ve just gotten really good at blocking it out when I need to.
Either way, the mental block prevented me from being present on stage this time. Without presence any hope for a true performance was squashed. Whatever part of my brain is needed for interpretation, and nuance was all walled-up. Instead I merely recited my two pieces essentially from muscle memory. While this kind of performance squarely placed me in the chump category, this is about as good as I could have hoped for this time around. This was, after all, my first time on a real stage playing solo classical repertoire. I consider it a success having made it through without crashing and burning (which was a very real possibly here). Still, If I am ever going to become comfortable enough to become a truly present classical performer, I have to get more time in front of audiences. I will keep swinging hammers at that mental wall in the hope that it will break.
So its back to the rehearsal room to prepare to do it again next month. I have been going over my repertoire book during my practice time trying to decide what I might play at the next classical guitar open mic. Right now it looks like I’ll probably try to play “Lagrima” and “Romanza de Amor”.
Who knows though? Things are also progressing really fast for me lately, especially in terms of technique. Maybe I could have a complete flamenco falsetta by then. That would be awesome. Time will tell.
If you are interested in performing at the next open mic, it will most likely be held at the Miami Conservatory of Music:
Miami Conservatory of Music
2911 grand avenue
suite 400 A
miami, fl 33133
They haven’t announced the date yet, but when they do I’m sure it will be posted on the Florida Guitar Foundation website.
First I should say that this blog post is NOT going to be a basic tutorial on guitar tuning. There are hundreds of websites out there that can show you how to tune your guitar strings to EADGBE. What I want to do today is address some of the finer points involved in tuning the guitar.
Nearly all of my students, somewhere between a year to year-and-half into their guitar lessons, start to report having a certain difficulty with tuning their guitar. It isn’t that their guitars are suddenly not staying in tune or that their electronic tuners need calibration. What is happening is that after about a year of playing, their ears begin to really notice (and are bothered by) slightly out of tune harmonies.
The complaint is always that the student is fingering something very simple, usually an open C or open E chord, and the chord just sounds sour or “off”. And when they play it for me, it certainly is. I used to try and get students to correct this problem much earlier in the learning process. But there is just so much to grasp in the first year of lessons, and let’s face it you are going to sound bad in the beginning for a variety of reasons. Fine tuning your guitar isn’t going to make a difference until your ears are capable of understanding what you are hearing; which is precisely when you will begin to notice this problem.
I first encountered this problem years ago. I found it particularly baffling that I could tune my guitar’s open strings using an electronic tuner, play and open E chord that sounded perfect, but then my open C sounded way out. Specifically the problem with the C chord was beats in the perfect fourth interval between the 3rd string G and 2nd string C. I tried tuning the 3rd string upward to eliminate the beats (which make the C chord sound perfect) only to find that the problem of beats had now shifted to the open E chord: between the 3rd string G# and second string B (what should be a minor third harmony).
I found out much later on that this problem has to do with the difference between the something called “just intonation” and the system of “equal temperament” which western music has adopted in order to make fixed pitch instruments (including the fretted guitar) equally playable in all 12 keys.
The issues arising from equal tempered tuning and its effect on intervals and key centers is fascinating but a bit to DEEP for me to get into right now. If you really want to understand how equal tempered tuning effects the intervals of the guitar you should start reading up on the overtone series and the history of equal tempered tuning. Be patient as this subject is very hard to understand. It took me a few years even to begin to wrap my brain around it. If you have specific questions on this subject, send them to me in an email and I’ll do my best to explain. Or, if you’re already one of my students, just bring it up in your next guitar class.
Assuming that most of you are NOT interested in going deep into equal temperament, and would just like to fix the problem and have your chords sounding nice an pretty. You are in luck. There is a very practical solution to this problem. There are actually several, but I’ll just tell you the one that I use most often.
I just explain to you how I tune my guitar and then you can try it and see if it helps you.
1.) Tune all open strings by one of the normal methods. Tuning the open strings to EADGBE using an electronic tuner is the fastest. You can also tune the open strings by ear to their corresponding piano keys, or use a pitch fork or whatever.
2.) Strings 6, 5, and 4 (E-A-D) are fine so long as you really tune them right using the traditional methods. So these do not need any additional adjustment.
2.) We will make fine adjustments to strings 3, 2, and 1 (if needed) using by fretting an open D5 chord. The open D5 is made by playing the 4th string D (open), 3rd String A (2nd fret), 2nd string D (3rd fret) and 1st string A (5th fret). Low to high the notes of this chord are D-A-D-A. Check the first D against the first A (a 5th interval) then the first A against the second D (a fourth) then the A against the second A (an octave). Basically I check all the intervals against each other and balance out any beat frequencies or inconsistencies. Usually this only requires a slight adjustment of the 3rd string to get all 4 stings resonating with perfect clarity. Whatever you do don’t adjust the open 4th string. That should be the the reference for the other 3 fretted strings.
After you’ve do this fine tuning carefully, go back and try the open E and open C chords. You should find that both sound great. In truth their upper intervals are slightly degraded and if you listen real close you might here a very slow *wow* in the C chord, but it is certainly not enough to sour the harmony.
I also use this method to check my guitar in between songs during a performance if I think the 3rd or 2nd strings may have slipped out of tune due to bending, temperature change or some other fluke. In truth it is probably impossible to keep your guitar in tune 100% of the time. But if you master little tuning tricks like these you can identify tuning problems and resolve them immediately; and as a result you guitar will always sound great!
One really important part of becoming a good musician is listening to music. While this may seem very obvious, what many musicians don’t realize is that not all kinds of listening are equal. The better you develop your listening skills the more you will appreciate, understand and ultimately absorb musical ideas which can further your own playing ability as well as your musical creativity.
I think my listening skills were at their best when I was a teenager. I used to just sit in a room for hours, staring at the ceiling, listening to CDs or records or (gasp) FM radio. I wasn’t also browsing the internet (there was no such thing). I wasn’t looking at my phone (it was attached to the wall in my parent’s kitchen). I’m not trying to come off like some old grouch who thinks “those were the days”. But I am saying that I recognize how easy it is to become accustomed to browsing several different kinds of media simultaneously. It takes a little extra focus and commitment now to say, “OK. I’m just going to sit here and really listen to this album.”
What I used to do as a teenager (really getting deep into a song or album) is what I now have seen others refer to as ACTIVE LISTENING. Basically when you are actively listening, you devote your full attention to what you are hearing. Since you aren’t looking at any visual stimuli, you may naturally visualize what the lyrics are about, or maybe you visualize the artists playing their instruments. Particularly with instrumental music the music may evoke all sorts of day dreams straight from your own imagination.
The main thing is that when you are actively listening your mind remains actively engaged in the music 100%. You don’t start thinking about your bills, or that you need to reply to some email, or anything like that. I think this maybe the reason why I can never get back to height of my teenage listening skills. Adults simply face so many more mental distractions. I got worries now, man!
When I think about all the ways in which listening to music has changed over the last few decades, I wonder if today’s teenagers are having a more passive listening experience. For one thing there is more music. So much more music, and it is everywhere. When I was young good music was scarce. So much so that we referred to it as “underground” music. You had to dig it up. Then, even if you found it, you also had to buy it. So even when I was lucky enough to find a store that carried cool albums I could only afford maybe one new album every month. In those days it was you and 12 tracks for like 30 days. So even if they weren’t that good you’d actively listen to ALL of them many times over.
Contrast this with today’s listening environment. It is ceaseless avalanche of digitized musical masterpieces. In one way this is everything music lovers always wanted. But while the musical abundance is suddenly infinite, our time to listen and enjoy it is more scarce than ever. Naturally this results in a situation where we spend maybe 30 seconds skimming and browsing through an artists ENTIRE LIFE’s WORK, passively waiting for something to jump out and grab our attention. If nothing does, we declare this artist a dud. We then take 1 more second to form a lasting opinion about how we don’t like that artist and proceed to click on the next one. At this rate you can form such superficial opinions about the entire genres of music is a single afternoon. This is passive listening at its worst.
Even when it’s not quite that superficial, I have made it a point to try to spend time with albums or artists’ catalogues the way I used to when I was younger. There is no substitute for listening to a track dozens of times. It is very surprising what you might hear the 12th time that you didn’t hear the first 11 times.
Last thing I’ll say on this topic right now is that NONE of my all-time-favorite records jumped out and grabbed me when I first heard them. In fact the experience was quite the opposite. Almost all my favorite records were ones that I initially found to be confusing, disappointing, obnoxious, boring, or scary. Then as I got to know those records, I was forced to grow and understand them. It is very important to remember that some of there very best music out there is meant not to please you, but to change you. So either chose to go deep, or browse at your own risk.
2. Practice With A Metronome or a Drum Machine:
Rhythm is perhaps the most fundamental aspect of music. How well you keep time certainly matters when you are playing by yourself, but it takes on a whole new level of importance when you are playing in an ensemble. Much more than anything else RHYTHM is what brings and keeps the ensemble together.
In Tip #1 we talked about polishing up some popular songs and creating a small set list of songs you play confidently. How do you know when this repertoire is ready to rock? One of the best ways to test yourself is to make sure you can play all the parts in time with a metronome, drum Machine or some other external timing source.
A big part of being able to play with other musicians is being able to raise your awareness beyond what you are playing. You must learn to divide your focus and listen, not only to the part you are playing, but also parts played by other members of the group and the sound of the group as a whole. One of the first steps to developing this heightened awareness is to learn to play with the simple click of a metronome or simple drum loop.
Many students dread playing with the metronome. This is because playing in perfect synchronization with the metronome is not automatic. It is a skill that takes a good deal of focus initially. I recommend that you first introduce the metronome into your practice routine with only the most basic exercises. Play only one open string using all downstrokes so that you can concentrate fully on the task of listening to both your guitar and the metronome’s click.
You will have to learn to anticipate the click in order to produce a note at the exact instant the click occurs. Try holding the pick against the string with a little bit of downward pressure, similar to the way an archer draws back a bow. Then, at the exact instant you believe the click is about to occur, allow the string to escape and slide past the pick, releasing the note. Listen to hear that the note and the click are perfectly synchronized. Then quickly reset the pick by re-applying pressure to the string so that you can release the next note in time with the next click. It is very important to develop this sensation that the note occurring when the string is RELEASED. This is both more physically accurate and more musical than the very common misconception that the note is produced when the string is ATTACKED. The pick is not a hammer. Remember to think of the guitar string as a bow and note is released like an arrow.
Once you have spent a few weeks synchronizing your most basic technical exercises with a simple quarter note click, you can try playing musical material in time with the metronome. Figure out the BPM of all the popular tunes in your repertoire and record this information next to each one on your set list. See if you can play all the parts at the proper tempi. If you find any part difficult, slow the tempo down until you find a speed at which you can play comfortably perform with complete accuracy.
If you can find a drum machine with an appropriate setting for a particular song, it can be more musical to play along with that since your time keeping device will more closely resemble the actual song. If you can play all the parts to a song perfectly at the proper tempo, you may want to just play along with the actual MP3 of the song. One good idea is to make a playlist with MP3s of all the songs in your repertoire and see if you can play through the entire list from one song to the next without stopping. This is a very good way to make sure that you hit all the songs in your repertoire one time during your daily practice. It’s also super fun because it feels like you are playing with a full band.
Of course, if you can reliably play along to the actual studio recordings, I’d say you are certainly ready to try it with real live musicians… at least on a technical level. However, there is a little more to good ensemble playing. I’ve got 3 more tips I want to share with you before you go running off to the musicians board on Craig’s List. So please stick around for the next tip!!
Seems like most beginning guitarists can’t wait to join a band. For many, that is the whole reason they took up the guitar in the first place. Making music with other people can be one of the most fun and rewarding things we musicians do. It can also quickly become a frustrating experience if you aren’t prepared.
Here are 5 tips to help you better prepare yourself to play with other musicians:
TIP# 1: Learn one really POPULAR COVER.
Most of the time when musicians meet up the situation resembles a rehearsal much more than practice. Don’t expect to figure out any new material while you are there. You should know by now the kind of solitary focus and sheer repetition needed to play anything confidently on guitar. You simply have to put that work in on your own ahead of time. Start by preparing ONE cover song to the point where you can play all the guitar parts with confidence, up to speed, from start to finish.
I actually think you should learn as many popular songs as you can. But if I tell you to learn 2 or 3 songs right now, chances are you’ll get distracted and won’t complete any of them. So I say start with ONE and don’t add any more until you’ve got your first cover song completely polished and ready for the stage. I like to think of it this way: There are songs I sort-of remember how to play, and then there are songs I keep in my back-pocket. The back-pocket songs are ready-to-roll, ready to throw down at a moments notice. The songs I kind-of remember how to play are USELESS in a band situation. Only back-pocket level songs are truly ready for the full band experience.
Keep a list of your songs as they reach this back-pocket level and play them once every day so they stay super sharp.
It is important that you set your own tastes aside when choosing your first few covers. The more popular or “classic” a song is, the more likely you are to find a drummer or bassist who is prepared to play that song with you – not to mention an audience that might want to hear your performance. Often times ensembles of professional musicians will just call out one hit song after another and then just play them really well – even if they’ve never played together before! This works because each musician has prepared their parts ahead of time.
Realize that ALL musicians tend to favor music from very obscure sub-genres. But, if you only learn the music of your sub-genre, you will be a very shallow and boring musician to play with. Do your future self a favor and start learning a few hits so that you can be ready to play with the vast majority of the musicians in your town.
There is sort of an informal list of standard hits that work well with the standard rock setup : guitar / bass / drums / vocals. Generally, these songs tend to come from the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s. The following songs are a few examples:
AC/DC “You Shook Me All Night Long”
Weezer “Hash Pipe”
The Clash “Should I Stay Or Should I Go”
Green Day “American Idiot”
The Cars “Just What I Needed”
The Beatles “Day Tripper”
Blur “Song 2”
The Ramones “I Wanna Be Sedated”
The Beastie Boys “Fight For Your Right”
There are literally hundreds of songs that are considered “standard” by today’s working cover bands. The ones I listed above are good ones to start with because they are short and don’t have any overly elaborate solos. In other words they are SIMPLE. I’ll have more to say on this point in future posts.
So, in closing, this tip has 2 components. #1: DO YOUR HOMEWORK. Show up prepared and ready to rock. #2: Don’t shy away from the hits. We know you are cool. (Duh, you play guitar!) You don’t have to prove anything by only playing obscure songs. Other musicians will not respect you for that. On the contrary you run the risk of being tragically too cool for school. And don’t just suffer through the hits because that’s what people want to hear. EMBRACE this as our musical common ground. Use these hits to get the party started with musicians whom you will be playing with for the first time. In time you will learn to make them your own. You will bond with other musicians over these songs and maybe one day you’ll write something that will be good enough to add to this list of classics… OK, now I’m clearly just spilling out my own aspirational thoughts, so I guess that means that is all for this tip!
Hope to see you back here for the next one!
The great teacher Frederick M. Noad once wrote in his book (Solo Guitar Playing Vol. 1): “technique seldom stands still – it either advances or retreats.” This is true also for pieces of music. We guitarists work hard to memorize and polish each piece, but if we don’t establish good practice habits to ensure that we return regularly to each piece we learn, our hard work will certainly erode. Even allowing so much as a two week lapse can be enough for a player to lose the ability to play a piece fluently.
The good news is that this gradual rustiness with any given piece is easily corrected after a brief review of the sheet music. But because performance opportunities can often present themselves unexpectedly, experienced musicians know the tremendous value of creating and meticulously maintaining their own personal REPERTOIRE. Over the years I have observed that a good musician performs what is in their repertoire, and seldom engages in ‘attempts’ to play things outside their repertoire. Good musicians judge accurately what they know and what they don’t know before attempting to play in front of an audience.
One piece of music played though with expression and confidence makes a better impression on an audience than 100 stop-and-go fragments, played with lots of mistakes.
What I have also observed over the years is many guitarists struggling to maintain performance abilities without a firm concept of repertoire. The French origin of the word “repertoire” makes it seem refined, but the concept can manifest itself as a short list of titles. Rock music has a term for the same thing: “set list”.
It doesn’t matter if you are a day-one beginner or an advanced player. You should have a page in a notebook where it is written down a list of musical selections you know how to play beginning to end, from memory. You should look at this list and play several songs from it daily. That’s all you have to do to keep all your songs sharp and ready to be performed at a moment’s notice.
Well, the second chapter in this ongoing video series is complete. I recorded demonstrations of every etude and exercise in LESSON 2 (pages 15 – 22) of William Leavitt’s “A Modern Method For Guitar, Volume 1“. And all of the videos can be see over at the Gables Guitar YouTube channel. Once again I invite all guitar students to use these videos as play-along tracks during your practice time.
Since these are a lot of short videos, be sure to click on the video playlist for LESSON 2 so that you can easily find the play-along demo for the page you are currently working on.
If you happened to stumble on this blog post and are thinking about jumping into this method book, I strongly suggest you do NOT start with LESSON 2! Start with LESSON 1. Bill Leavitt’s Modern Method series is extremely challenging and it is very easy to under estimate these early chapters. Intermediate guitarists are notorious for hastily trying to skip steps only to quickly become frustrated by their lack of progress. The ghosts of Page 1 will haunt you for… well, for as long as it takes you to go back to page 1 and sort out whatever it is you missed! The “Modern Method” series is not for guitarists who are looking for short cuts. Unless you believe, as i do, that the SHORTEST way to great guitar playing is to stop running around looking for short cuts (there aren’t any) and simply do the necessary work to build and strengthen your fundamental skills as a musician.
Also, you will certainly progress faster if you using this material in regular weekly guitar lessons with a qualified instructor. As I revisit this material to make these recordings, I am reminded of how many hundreds of little tricks I’ve had to learn just to manage these initial chapters. The advantage you will gain by working through this material with someone who has already done it is so important. I would argue that it is simply the only way to get through this book in a reasonable amount of time.
Good Luck and I’ll let you know when LESSON 3 is ready!
Today’s practice tip is something I’m sure every guitarist knows is important, but it bears repeating because so few of us consistently do it. I’m talking about allocating an adequate amount of time to REVIEW.
Some of the most basic mechanics of guitar technique (open chords, rudimentary rhythm patterns and song forms) can be called up years later without regular practice, but any bit of technique or piece of music above beginner level guitar playing requires regular review or you will lose it. Given the incredible amount of focus and work it takes to build technique and repertoire, it would be a shame to lose what you’ve worked so hard to develop. Further, I believe that the “plateau” effect that many guitar students struggle with – the apparent loss of forward progress in their musical development – could be the result of poor practice habits when it comes to regular review of past lesson materials. It becomes very hard to progress if you wind up spending the majority of your practice time having to haphazardly relearn and redevelop skills and materials that have gone stale for lack of regular review. Worse, many students misconstrue the source of this problem. They mistake their inability to retain intermediate-level material (without review) for a “lack of talent” or “poor memory”. They then blame and doubt themselves, and sometimes become frustrated. Really all this fuss has nothing to do with talent or memory or anything. It’s really just a matter of adjusting your practice habits.
This problem is easily fixed so long as you are able to take control of the way you practice and willfully change specific practice habits. That is the first step. I would suggest spending anywhere from 25% to 50% of your total practice time on review. Exactly how much time you need depends on what you have been doing. If you’ve had poor practice habits for a prolonged period of time, it might be a good idea to dedicate 100% of your time to review for several weeks until your technique gets back in shape. Then you can gradually dedicate more and more of your time to new songs/techniques. But always leave about 25% of your time to review so that you don’t wind up back where you started.
Ultimately, the more organized, systematic, and consistent you are with your review process, the LESS time you will need to spend on review. Full musical literacy can play a HUGE role here. The ability to FLUENTLY READ musical concepts, exercises, etudes, solos, and complete songs from written notation is an ESSENTIAL skill. Even a novice guitar player has hundreds of things that need to be reviewed regularly. For most of us it is simply impossible to remember everything we need to review. But, if you develop full MUSICAL LITERACY, you don’t have to pull all that stuff from memory. You can simply open a book of old material and simply play through old lessons in real time. Then after 20 to 30 minutes of simply reading and playing, you’re done with review! It goes from an impossible chore to something so simple, but again, the key is having developed the ability to READ MUSIC fluently.
I’m excited to announce the debut of a new video series on the Gables Guitar YouTube channel. This new video series is going to feature guitar exercises and etudes from the classic guitar method book: “A Modern Method For Guitar, Volume 1” by William Leavitt. I will record a short video for each (and EVERY) exercise in Volume 1.
If you haven’t already purchased this classic book, you can pick up a copy at Amazon.
I am recording these videos to help all of you students who are studying from “A Modern Method For Guitar, Volume 1”. My recommendation is that you try and play along with these videos during your practice time. Hopefully playing along with these videos will be a lot like practicing with me. It should be a really excellent and fun way to ensure that you do these exercises so you can continue to progress in your guitar playing.
I’m working on the videos from subsequent lessons and I will be releasing the LESSON 2 playlist very soon!
What’s great about having the videos on YouTube is that you can access them from anywhere on your smartphone, so hopefully this makes it easy for you to use these videos during your practice time.
There will be a LOT of videos in this series (about 20 per Lesson)! I’ll post some updates here on the blog as each chapter is released. You can also subscribe to the Gables Guitar YouTube Channel to stay up-to-date on this and other video series I’m working on.
To get the most out of the LESSON 1 videos, try to keep in mind the following:
You MUST allow your technique all the time it needs to develop. What this book calls “Lesson 1” can require 1 – 2 MONTHS for experienced guitar students to get a handle on. I don’t even introduce this book to students unless they’ve been playing for over a year. You will progress FAR more quickly if you limit yourself to 3 or 4 videos per week. Just repeat those 3 or 4 until you can consistently play along with all the videos comfortably and perfectly. There is no way to cram these skills. There is no substitute for putting in 15 – 30 min a day (EVERY DAY) for many consecutive weeks. This is precisely the challenge that separates skilled guitarists from the dreamers.
Good luck and I hope playing along with these videos encourages you to practice these exercises! And I’m looking forward to seeing all of you at our next lesson!
When I was learning to play electric guitar my instructor taught me a lot about guitar picks. He explained the various shapes and thicknesses and how to chose the right kind of pick for particular styles of playing. But perhaps the most important advice he gave me, which I am now going to pass on to you, is that picks don’t last forever.