Thoughts on Practising

Practice means close attention

The week that was

This week my musical efforts have gravitated towards guitar playing and learning the piece I composed. I had hoped to play some more of it for you this time, but it’s a complicated piece to learn, so I’m afraid it’ll take a little longer. The good thing is, I’m enjoying the learning process, which I’ll tell you about instead.

On the compositional side of things, I’ve also finished off the digital version of the score, which I might consider posting once I’ve learnt it and made the necessary follow-up adjustments, and I’ve been looking more at other movements, especially the third, which I’ll tell you about sometime soon.

Practice

A topic I often think about is practice, and because this week I’ve been working relatively hard on learning the piece, I’ve been getting more and more into ideas about practising musical instruments.

This stuff goes deep, so I’ll have to spread this over more than one post, and it will certainly be a theme I’ll come back to in later posts on this blog.

This time I’ll give you a general overview of some of this week’s thoughts on practice, which I’ll expand on in later posts, as well as some incidental odds and ends of interest.

Playful and experimental practice

The aspect of my practice I’ve been delighting in most this week is taking a playful and experimental approach. While this is something that I usually do anyway, there have been some concrete areas and parameters involved in my experimentation. These have fundamentally been variations on how I’ve used attentionrepetition, as well as the content of what I’ve been practising:

There are a lot of points in this list that I’d like to go into further, especially the last two, but that’s all I’ve really got time for this week.

  • The place of focus of attention:
    • Body, e.g. left or right hand/arm
      • Feeling of movement of the arm, hands or finger(s)
        • Feeling (and releasing) tension inside the hand/arm
        • Feeling of the weight of the fingers and consciously using it, moving the weight of the fingers around the guitar, rather than just moving the fingers
    • Refining positions of fingers on fretboard
    • The above with varying focus between the senses, sight, touch, and hearing
  • Intensity of focus attention
    • Intense focus to create precise movements
    • Relaxed focus to assess whether the necessary movements are able to happen naturally
  • Observing discomfort and ease
    • This discomfort is very general, and arises when there is a lack of security at any level, be it a hand movement, or how well memorised a particular passage is.
    • The ease comes once this discomfort disappears, often after repeating the passage in question several times with careful attention.
  • Repeating single motions, passages etc. and experimenting with how many repetitions, seeing if and at what point the feeling of ease develops, whether they appear to be committed to memory, or happen automatically.
  • Which passages to practice using a “spaced repetition system“.
  • Attempts at skilfully using the struggle between interest and boredom.

Calluses

A bit of a nasty topic, but I’ve also been trying to develop some all-essential calluses on my left-hand finger tips and right-hand thumb. The piece playing is pretty rough on them with all the heavy hammer-ons and pull-offs, and my thumb is taking a serious bashing in this piece from all the bass notes, so some tougher skin would be a bonus. The pain is bearable, but it’s just a question of whether blisters are counterproductive.

Blister developing?

Warm-up exercise

Other than that I’ve also started to include a little a-m-i scale exercise from Tengyue Zhang at tonebase.co to warm up and get my fingers moving before I tackle the piece. I’ve been using it to pay attention to developing more smooth legato playing, as well as good tone. The a-m-i scales also give my right thumb a rest, which it sorely needs at times.

Personal variation

To suit my purposes and keep things relevant, instead of the C major scale that TY uses on tonebase, I used my own, developed from my piece:

While this isn’t necessarily the scale used, it has the character and flavour of the interval structure used in the piece. I’m planning to learn to improvise using the styles and materials of the pieces that I write, so having something like this to practice is great.

Take care, and see you next time.

-Roni

Six-part canon for solo guitar (video)

Welcome back. This week you can hear me playing the six-part canon, the first one in the series of canons I told you about last week. You can see the score here too.

The guitar is by Brian Cohen, currently very kindly on loan from David Coffey.

Reflections

Successes

While I did indeed write this as an exercise of what I thought would be the maximum number of voices the instrument could handle, a canon has no musical value if it is just a canon for the sake of a canon. And so I’m pleased to say there are some things I like about the piece musically:

  • The sombre mood created by the melody and the harmony;
  • The harmony – although I more or less just created it from whatever notes my fingers could reach and is a bit tricky to pinpoint tonally, it doesn’t feel unnatural to me;
  • The arc of development of the piece – the way it grows and declines;
  • I liked my idea of taking advantage of the guitar’s natural tuning by making it a canon at the fourth (i.e. the melody in each new voice is at an interval of a perfect fourth above the previous voice), and limiting the range to the first four frets of each string, enabling each voice to remain on each string, and the piece to be playable;
  • I was actually able to play it;
  • It also has the climax at exactly the golden section, that is, at 0.618… of the way through (approximately). It definitely counts as on purpose, seeing as I’ve made the conscious decision to leave it like that after noticing it…

Shortcomings

The tight technical restrictions did still make it difficult to bring as much musicality to it as I might like in a few areas:

  • The melody of the canon didn’t have much in the way of characteristic motifs, other than the first bar or two, and after the third bar the notes were used almost purely for the harmony, and so that it would be a canon with six voices sounding at the same time. By the time the fifth voice entered, I was basically too limited by what my fingers could do (and by the fact it was a strict canon) to make the voices do any more than play an open string;
  • Some of the chords have stretches that are almost impossible for me, and might be too difficult for other people.
  • I might have liked the piece to be a bit longer, but this wasn’t possible because I didn’t manage to give the melody enough interest due to the restricted range of a fourth, and the lack of characteristic rhythms, thus there wasn’t much scope for development.
  • I would’ve liked it to repeat, i.e. for it to go back to the beginning and feed into itself like canons often do. I tried various ways to get it to repeat, but it ended up being either impossible to play for the left hand, or I didn’t like the harmony. I’ll try again in future canons.

Lessons learnt

Although this is only a small piece, I still found a few useful things to help me in the future when composing or playing the guitar:

  • As I mentioned, the range restriction was helpful to make it more playable. It is, however, hard to create characteristic melodies with such a small range of notes and little in the way of rhythm. I think if I’m crafty, I could use the restricted range at certain points in a piece and expand at others to balance musical interest and playability;
  • If the left hand is too full, characteristic rhythms could be created by just repeating notes (I didn’t do this in this canon);
  • There’s a lot to be said for not restricting the harmony too much and simply taking whatever notes are available. If you’re careful and understand the kind of chords, interval schemes etc. you’re using, it can be effective and coherent;
  • On the guitar playing side of things, this canon has been a great exercise for me in legato playing with chords, i.e. linking the chords together so that the changes are smooth. Since it’s important for the melodic lines to be as legato as possible, you can choose to hold particular notes that stand out more while releasing the fingers on less important notes in preparation for the next chord. In this way, there is an illusion of legato because the sound doesn’t stop completely between chord changes and the melodies are maintained better. You can also spread chords (arpeggiate them) so that you have the fraction of a second necessary to move your fingers to the higher notes.

Next

I’ve been planning to compose this canon series counting down from six to two voices repeatedly, so the next canon would be for five voices. But on the other hand, I often like to compose pieces that are opposite in character to the one I’ve just written, so I might do two. We’ll have to wait and see. Watch this space!

A New Project: The Guitar and Counterpoint – Canon for Six Voices for Solo Guitar (Score)

A stretch in bar 5 of this canon.

As part of my efforts to develop my writing for the guitar, I’ve begun a new composition project to explore a particular area. It’s nothing new on the guitar or in music, but it’s one of my favourite things, and something that I take great delight, as well as pains, in playing and composing. This is counterpoint.

In this week’s post I’ll tell you about this project. I’ll discuss counterpoint and what it is briefly, the difficulties the guitar has with it, and finally the score of the first composition.

Counterpoint indeed.

I like counterpoint. 

As well as liking it, I want to be able to write contrapuntal music that feels natural on the hands and doesn’t make the left hand look and feel like it’s playing Twister at breakneck speed.

Contrapuntal composition is already something rather complex, since the strict rules in some styles often mean you’re left with very few notes to choose from, and then with the further limitations of the guitar, you can be left with no music at all.

So I’ll begin with a short discussion on what it’s like playing and writing it on the guitar, and then show you the score of first step in this project.

What is it?

If you don’t know what counterpoint is, it means music with several different melodies played at once, often with strict rules governing how they intertwine with one another. “Contrapuntal” music is also sometimes called “polyphony”, many (i.e. at least two) voices singing together, perceptible independently and as one. As well as voices, contrapuntal music works with several instruments playing together, or with one like the piano that can play several notes at once. It’s also supposed to work on the guitar…

I won’t bore you with any more explanations or with why I like it, because it’s better if you experience it, and I very much hope you get the chance to do so.

Composing and playing

Where it gets tricky

The guitar with its six strings – you’d expect it to be quite suitable for counterpoint, wouldn’t you? Well, yes, but we do only use four fingers on each hand. Still, that should be enough, shouldn’t it? Yes, but you generally use one finger from each hand per note, and when one note follows another, you generally want to use a different finger, just like you prefer to use the other foot for your next step when you’re out for a walk, otherwise you’d be out for a hop. So four divided by two leaves us with enough fingers to more or less comfortably manage two melodic lines. Two-voice counterpoint is all well and good, but it never really gets interesting unless there are at least three voices; we’re two fingers short of a fugue. Poor guitar, poor guitarists.

But wait, there’s more to the guitar than that – guitarists can also play on open strings, use all manner of barrés, play several notes with the thumb etc. etc., so maybe there is hope?

Yes, it certainly is possible, but the composer and guitarist are practically handcuffed in the limitations we constantly work under. To illustrate it rather bluntly: the guitar, with its wonderful palette of timbres, has been described as an orchestra in miniature. This is true, but in this orchestra it’s like the entire string section gets their left arms hacked off temporarily whenever there’s a clarinet solo. 

The rules of counterpoint are severe enough already, surely any more limitations will just be suicide? Well, it seems we end up having to find a way to use just the string players’ right hands, or carefully and musically craft the amputation so audience doesn’t notice.

Apologies for the graphic analogy, but hopefully you might know what I mean. They do get their arms back in the end.

The project

Canons

One of the projects I’ve been thinking about that I mentioned last week is a series of canons. The other piece from the last few weeks will make a return at some point (along with the other movements), but once it’s more polished and I can play it all for you.

To begin with, I’ve decided to write a series of canons for the guitar that I can actually play. I’m going to write different canons for different numbers of voices. Just for some numerical fun and to force me to be creative with my solutions to problems, I’m planning to write 2 canons for 2 voices, 3 for 3 voices and so on up to 6 canons for 6 voices – the number of strings on the guitar. The 6 are probably borderline impossible, but the challenge will be interesting.

First attempt – Canon for Six Voices at the Fourth

Picture of left hand stretch in canon for 6 voices
Big stretch in bar 6 of canon for six voices

Click here for the score of the first canon.

With six voices on six strings, I jumped in at the deep end, but it was the most interesting-sounding challenge. I used a few tricks to keep things as simple as possible.

Some points about how I wrote it:

  • I’ve written it on two staves to facilitate visibility. I hope you can read bass clef.
  • To simplify the technical side a little, I designed it so that each voice occupies its own string.
  • It’s a canon at the fourth, i.e. each voice enters at an interval of a perfect fourth above the previous entry. This makes use of the guitar’s tuning – the strings are a perfect fourth apart, except the highest two. To maintain musical rigour, the six entries all begin a fourth apart, rather than simply on the first note of each string, which does make it more difficult to play.
  • The melody is sombre and very simple, and each voice remains within the range of a major third, i.e. one less than the aforementioned perfect fourth, in order to avoid crossing voices and the technical complications that this entails. The guidelines of counterpoint indicate that melodic lines should span at least a sixth for the sake of interest, so a third could end up being boring. There are, however, two semitones in the melody, which I think gives it an interesting tension.
  • The harmony is relatively free, and to my mind sounds like Gesualdo at times. There are things like suspensions, but not resolved according to the traditional rules. I pretty much just went with whatever was available on the fretboard and sounded interesting and acceptable to my ear, which I think has developed into it’s own characteristic sonority.
  • There aren’t really many jumps from one difficult chord shape to another, and voices often move by fingers just sliding up and down the strings. 
  • There are some pretty diabolical stretches in the left hand, specifically bars 5 and 6; perhaps I should warn you that my hands aren’t all that small, but my left hand is really at its limits here. There is the possibility of tuning strings 1 and 2 up a semitone to C and F respectively, but that is not without it’s complications in other places too.

There. A first short and almost simple canon. I did want and try to make it go up in fourths continually so that it goes round the circle of fifths and all twelve tones and then starts again at the first E, but that turned out a bit too tricky for me right now. Maybe next time.

Next week’s post

Next week I’ll play it for you. Watch this space!

Comments and questions

I’d be very interested to hear about any of your thoughts about composing or playing contrapuntal music on the guitar, and of course any comments or questions you might have on the subject.

Let me know if you have a go at playing the canon too!

2019 – The Road Ahead

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is DSC02179.jpg
The inspiration for the title of this post.

A very happy New Year to you, and thank you for visiting.

Since this is the first post of the year, I’d like to briefly talk about some plans for writing more guitar pieces.

2019 seems rather open and uncertain in terms of how things might develop for me, but I have some achievable ideas for solo guitar pieces, which you can of course expect to see right here on this blog.

Plans, plans, plans…

Apart from finishing off the multi-movement piece I’ve been telling you about in the previous posts, I’ve been thinking about several open-ended exploratory projects, each of which would most likely involve writing several pieces. In them I intend to develop my composition and playing in the particular area that they focus on. The first being:

Counterpoint

I really like contrapuntal music, especially with three or more voices, but playing it on the guitar can sometimes be quite taxing, and composing it even more so. And then playing what I write? Well, that can be nigh on impossible.

But it doesn’t have to be this way! So, I’m going to write a series of pieces of different kinds of counterpoint to develop a good understanding of what works well technically and musically on the guitar:

  • Canons for 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6 voices (for solo guitar)
  • Fugues
  • Something else
  • If all else fails, back to basics with species counterpoint.

Probably sometime after or in between doing some of these, I want to explore…

Rhythm

Studies in rhythm

I also really like rhythm, so I’m thinking about composing a series of pieces that look at particular aspects of rhythm and how they function. I’d like to do this in a slightly formal way, looking at things like pulse, accents, polyrhythms or tempo modulations.

Guitar percussion

Going beyond the strings, I want to write some pieces in which I hit and tap the guitar, or use other unpitched sounds. I essentially want to do this to make rhythmic music, as well as broaden my expressive palette on the instrument.

I’m also thinking about doing hommages to Gregory Coleman and Clyde Stubblefield, of “Amen” and “Funky Drummer” fame respectively, for a bit of fun.

Prepared guitar

By this I mean either with something stuck to the guitar, or played with a foreign object in some way. It’s an obvious way to do something non-traditional, which is my intention, but I’m sure it’ll be fun, and that’s the point. There’s probably a whole world that could be explored here, so we’ll see how it goes.

10-string guitar

Some months ago my uncle David bought me a 10-string guitar. It’s quite difficult for me to explain to you how astounded and grateful I was and am for his generosity, but it seems to have manifested in the form of music.

I can’t deny how just thinking about having a 10-string sparked off ideas about what I could do and compose on it, which is in turn partly responsible for me becoming more active with the guitar in general. Even before receiving it, it had got me working on a few pieces for the 6-string just to satisfy the creativity.

So far, I’ve managed find my way around the massive fretboard and get to know the instrument better, but there is still plenty of headway to be made.

Tunings

The first problem I encountered on the 10-string guitar was the tuning. People use various tunings, none of which I’ve been satisfied with personally, but all of which have given me good ideas about what to do for my own tuning. I’ll tell you about them in a blog post or two.

Transcriptions and compositions

I’m hoping to be able to play some music that isn’t possible on the 6-string, so I’m planning to look for some pieces to transcribe, probably from keyboard instruments. You might see some compositions at some point, but most likely only after a good deal of exploration.

Other

Apart from projects, there are some other things I’ve been thinking about doing on the guitar:

  • Write little pieces with anything I chance upon from my just playing around with the guitar that I like the sound of.
  • Write some far out stuff.
  • Write something really pretty.
  • Practise improvising based on the music principles of the different pieces I write.
  • Play some graphic scores.
  • Learn some Leo Brouwer pieces.
  • Develop my tone.
  • Develop my right hand speed.

That’s probably enough to keep me busy. And that’s composing just for the guitar…

Comments

Thank you very much for reading, let me know what you think and if you’re interested in any particular areas. Help yourself to the box below, or find me with one of the round icons right at the bottom of the page.