The lift people….?

The first time I visited Italy I travelled around a few cities in the north, stopping at youth hostels, looking around and basically wondering what I was searching for. Art galleries, museums, culture etc. What I usually ended up doing, there and on other holidays, was staying in at the hostels, talking to other tourists, and drinking wine.

At one time, I think it was in Verona, I was sitting by the edge of a river alone, almost certainly with those same questions in my head (why am I here? What am I looking for? What do other people do?), a man came down the steps to join me. He spoke English, with an Italian accent.

He did most of the talking, and explained that I looked so obviously English. Most Europeans understand this, I think. We have a look. (Badly dressed? I speak for myself, of course.)

He had lived in England, and Germany, and he was Italian. But he had really good memories of his time in England, and he spoke English very well.

Then he told me his theory. That English people were lift people. Italian’s were definitely on the ground floor. Close to the earth, simple, straightforward. German’s were on the second floor. No connection to the ground. Head in the air, filled with ideas, but fashion? Healthy food?… Not their strong point. But English (British?) people didn’t belong on any particular floor. They travelled between them. They could be like Italians, or Germans, or whatever. They were able to adapt.

Of course whenever I tell this story it’s pointed out to me that I like the theory because it makes us sound cool. And this Italian guy obviously meant it as a compliment. But it could mean that we just mimic others. That we’re not stable. That we avoid ourselves. That we are, in fact, adrift.

From the point of view of Flamenco guitar, it is true that I avoid having a ‘style’, or set of fixed techniques. That I like the idea to be able to change, and be anything I want at any fixed moment. Of course, it means whatever I do never sounds quite right, but I’ll come back to that.

So 2 videos of the same piece. An intro to a soleares by Sabicas, called Aires De Puerto Real. One, as I usually play, and the other in a more traditional position. I’m searching for the right sound, and wondering if I change position, can I find that sound easier. And if I play a lot in the traditional position, as many have done in the past, will it affect the position I normally play in. Of course there are so many options to try….

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Right brain, left brain…

I used to live next to a library. I discovered many things that still interest me there. I would wander around and pick books that grabbed me. Introductions to quantum physics, macrobiotics, 9 star ki, Zen Buddhism, vegetarian cooking, etc. Lots of fiction too, of course. I guess there are certain moments of your life where seeds get planted.

One of the books was a how to draw book, using the right hand side of your brain. I always remember it is the right side (and I’m someone who still confuses right and left!), because in the book it talked about a solid, straight L, and a flowing, italic, creative R. Anyway, the idea is that you must spend more time in the right side of your brain, because not only is this the creative side, but also the healthy side. It’s where your body heals itself, or so the theory goes.

To give an example of one of the techniques, you had draw something. Firstly, you have to turn the image, which was a line drawing, upside down. This was so that your brain couldn’t try to create something meaningful. It was best if it was just a series of lines. Then you start somewhere and very, very slowly draw lines. I remember the book explaining that eventually the aggressive, domineering, seeker of logic and meaning Left side of your brain would get bored and let the Right side take over. And this was a really good place to spend time in.

I think my main focus in learning flamenco guitar has been influenced by this. When you slow the music down to very slow, and look at a series of notes, whether classical notation, or TAB (which is numbers), in a book, there is no music, no meaning. It is just a line to follow. And I concentrated on that for a long time. For years, and for pages, and books of pieces, most of which were flamenco. After a while, I could speed it up until it was recognisably a piece of music, and then I would move on. I liked the learning, more than the playing. 

The problem lies in what to do with them after. I’ve never learned to play anything properly. I’ve just got from a to b, beginning of piece to end, and then moved on to another piece. They were vague replicas of the originals, but I think the process kept me sane (or saner), and that was really the point. When I stopped doing this, when I let all the plates drop, just over 4 years ago, I missed that. I did replace it (iPad music), but here I am, coming back to these vague replicas I had/have. What do I do with them? And do I keep doing that? More pieces, more books. It’s tempting. Or do I need a new therapy?

To be continued….

Searching for that Crossroads moment…

Not sure if anyone remembers, or has even seen this film from 1986, but besides being obviously a vehicle for the Karate Kid actor, I liked it.

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crossroads_(1986_film)

It was the search for Robert Johnson’s lost song, had a score by Ry Cooder, was directed by Walter Hill, who also made ‘The Warriors’, and had Steve Vai playing the devil’s guitarist. What’s not to like.

Anyway, I’m fascinated by the idea of a before and after transformation. You are at a certain level in your art, something happens, and then you reach a much higher level. Of course I’m not too sure about selling my soul (?), and believe in the power of effort, so I’m always searching for doing something that would dramatically improve my playing.

Therefore, this week’s video, La Barrosa. It’s another Alegria, so the same counting as in the post of that title – 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12. But this time it’s by Paco de Lucia, and it’s very difficult to play. I’ve always admired this piece. It is pure drama for me. With a little bit of every possible plate needing to be sent spinning in all kinds of directions. 

I’ve been told that I’m brave attempting it, and questioned if it’s way out of my reach, but I’m wondering what would happen if I played this until it becomes easier. I usually play something like this for a while, get it to a certain level, then move on. So this is a kind of scientific research. I’ll keep at it, and see what happens. Or I’ll sit waiting at the crossroads. Just not sure which one would work around where I live…

Music and language…

I’ve always thought of music as a language, although I realise it’s more complicated than that. It seems that music doesn’t convey meaning in the same way as a language, such as English, does. It is not ‘significative’ in the same way. I guess you can’t, for example, order a cup of coffee using music very easily. But as a means of expressing emotion, or conveying something I feel necessary to ‘get out’, music sometimes seems to do a better job than trying to put it into words.

When I started to study flamenco guitar, I also started studying languages at university. Italian, to be precise. There is something about having to make the extra effort in putting together a ‘sentence’ that is attractive – in both Italian and flamenco. Samuel Beckett wrote in French for this reason, apparently. Another giant.

I learned Italian mainly at university, and largely through an intensive course learning the rules of grammar. When I got to Italy it was one of the most painful experiences of my life. Eventually I could speak, and reasonably well, but the process was not fun!

Since then the Italian has gone, pretty much, and due to my partner being French, and living in Aix en Provence for over 2 years, French is my main second language. This time I’m avoiding grammar. It’s true that I don’t understand French in the same way as I did Italian, but I’d much rather learn this way, as babies do. It does take longer though. And learning only happens on an ‘as needed’ basis.

And flamenco guitar is like this. I’m aware, especially when I meet other, more accomplished, guitarists, that they have often built their ability on solid foundations of musical ‘grammar’. And I haven’t. And they often look confused. Like, how on earth did I get to this point. 

This week’s video starts with a Taranta tremolo by Paco de Lucia, which I have been studying for a while. It’s been suggested that I play more simple tremolo pieces before trying to play something like this, and I do, but this is what I want to play, so…

http://www.studioflamenco.com/About_Cantes_de_Levante.html#tararntas

And the tremolo is followed by something I wrote. I’m not sure if I have an ‘accent’. I hope so. 

Alegrias

Besides the technical plate-spinning, the many techniques that have to be practiced and perfected, there is also the rhythm – the compás.

http://theflamencoguide.com/flamenco-compas/

So, not only have you got to master all the individual elements of flamenco guitar, but you’ve also got to play them in time. And the timing is very complex. I’ll use this week’s video example of Alegrias as an example.

It is in 12! Not 4, or 3, or even 6, but 12. This is shared with a few other palos in flamenco, so it’s pretty important.

There is a strong beat on 3. Not 1, as you may be used to. Although sometimes the whole thing starts on 12, and that feels like 1. Confused?

The whole thing is traditionally counted 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12

So the accents are on the 3, 6 8, 10 and 12! Fun huh?

You do get used to it, just expect to give it quite a few years.

So, as a practical demonstration, on the video there is the Dr. Compás app. It is doing the counting for you. It actually starts on 12, which I supposed doesn’t help, and also the 6 accent has moved to 7!

So here’s the count again 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12

But don’t forget, the guitarist doesn’t just count, but plays hopefully meaningful phrases along with the rhythm.

Have fun!

Precision…

Almost 30 years ago I became a community musician. I hadn’t considered this as a possibility before, but a local arts officer convinced me that it was something people did and gave me many opportunities to give it a go. One of the opportunities was learning from a Jamaican master drummer called Karly. He was performing with Irie Dance Theatre, and was convinced to stay with me, and teach us a few authentic rhythms for a local carnival band. At one point he turned around to me and said that he had given me many years work. And it was true.

I remember driving somewhere with Karly and a friend. My friend was into electronic dance music, and shared something in the car journey. Together with my new ‘understanding’ of roots music I was convinced Karly would hate the music. I was wrong. I think he liked the accuracy of the rhythms.

He asked me and another friend to perform with him at a Womad festival. My friend, who could really play the drums, was late. Karly checked my rhythm out shortly before the performance and decided against it. I think I had the intention, energy etc, but something missing in the accuracy department.

Later I was asked to accompany an Irie dancer in several weeks of dance workshops. Prince wasn’t just a dancer – he could really drum as well. He told me the basic pattern, and asked me to stick to it. Anytime I tried to do any variations he would scowl at me, and shake his head. I’m not sure if he needed this for his teaching, or just thought I wasn’t ready. After several weeks of repeating the same pattern over and over again I was so much better at drumming. It was a hard, but important lesson.

When me and my family moved to Huelva for 6 months a few years ago I had flamenco guitar lessons from a few different people. They were all useful. In between 2 teachers I had a lesson with a woman who, after listening to me play, gave me a relatively easy exercise and told me to play it a lot. She also told me not to worry about the complex rhythms too much, I needed to learn to keep the basic beat first.

I have many things to be grateful for.

This week’s video is a Tangos, by Moraito. Tangos is (in theory) a straightforward palo*, as it’s in 4/4 time, and quite repetitive. In reality, of course, it is one of the hardest to get right. (This reminds me of the time that Karly tried to teach a few of us authentic reggae. Oh how he laughed.)

I’m also using Dr. Compás, an iPhone/iPad app that plays good flamenco cajon and palmas to play over.

* https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Palo_(flamenco)

The good teacher meets the bad student.

I’ve tended to think that if I have any skill at all it would be in teaching. It’s been the greater part of my work, so fingers crossed. I have taught, and continue to teach, many different people many different things. I think good teaching is mainly about being able to see what the next step for a person might be, if they were to improve in a certain way. And finding the right way to pass that information on. And not letting ego get in the way of that information sharing. And … well, probably quite a few other things too.

In relation to my guitar I think all of the good things that have come out of my study have come from that skill. I taught myself most of what I play, for good or bad. The problem comes with the fact that I think that I’m also a terrible student.
The dynamic of knowing what I should do while at the same time refusing to do exactly that is a funny one, and it’s something I’m only just becoming aware of. It means, among other things, that it’s all a bit of an experiment. I’ve confounded a few people, I think.

Some of the most obvious areas for practicing flamenco guitar, are accuracy, repetition and patience. Getting something right, over and over again, seems pretty obvious you might think. If only. 

Imagine the child beginning to learn how to walk, and who then suddenly makes a run for it. Of course they quickly fall over. And so they return to basics. You may then think that they have learned their lesson. Until after a few simple steps they suddenly try to make a dash for it again, and this pattern is repeated over and over again. You may despair at this point.

Of course becoming aware of something is the first step to change, so I fully intend to listen to people, and myself, and put many of the necessary basic steps in to practice. 

And so to this week’s video. The tremolo high melody (0.23 – 0.46 seconds) is all on the top string, which is easier. I’ve also tried to slow it down, and to keep to a straight beat. Sometimes I can play (and hear) all the notes in the picado (1.10 – 1.20), and if I can’t, I slow it down and build it up again. It comes and goes, but at least it’s there some times.

Here’s to learning how to walk before I run!

Why flamenco?

I think this is a good question, but not very easy to answer. I’ve said before – I like playing the guitar, like playing with rhythm, like playing on my own on occasion. What else would I play? And I also really respect the people who can do it properly. 
I did have a flamenco guitar lesson many years ago, when I worked at a local arts centre in my home town. But I didn’t know anything about it, and it looked like really hard work. Maybe it planted a seed. 

But I played mainly electric guitar, and occasionally acoustic guitar, both of which relied to some extent on me singing. I like singing, but I don’t love doing it. Again, it seemed like hard work. 

Later, when I moved to Kendal, and was asked to work with an artist on a community project about the Mexican Day of the Dead, I was lent some video tutorials of Juan Martin, a flamenco guitarist. I remember watching and thinking ‘if only I could do that’. I’d also given up on the electric guitar at that point.

Next stop was University. I bought Juan Martin’s instruction book El Arte Flamenco De La Guitarra, and sat trying to learn it. It helped me to survive my first year of university anyway. I’d taught myself a year of classical guitar when I was a disturbed 13 year old, and I just love the calmness this learning process gives. 

So I think the why question can be answered primarily in my liking/needing this kind of immersion in learning. And flamenco suited me. And still does. And it’s really hard work.

This week’s video is mainly something from those early days, and from Juan’s books and videos. It’s a Granaina. There are a few forms in flamenco that have no rigid rhythm, except on occasions. This one is apparently something to do with Granada. I played this, and variations, including Romance, at my dad’s funeral. Enough said.

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grana%C3%ADna

(Apologies for not researching the internet better, and only providing Wikipedia links. I think they serve a purpose.)

I’ve added a tremolo section from Vicente Amigo at the beginning. There is something about Vicente Amigo’s playing that I’m obsessed with. My most recent, and seemingly never ending ‘If only I could do that’. Also, I’m trying to get the tremolo plate spinning, and this has helped a little. One day. Close your ears flamenco guitarist giants.

This thing called flamenco…

Over 10 years ago, when we were leaving our idyll in the South of France, and wondering where to live, we thought about moving further north in France, to the Loire valley. We lived there for a month or so, and there were some interesting experiences. One of these was meeting a flamenco singer. 

I was warned about him before we met. He was famously rude. In fact I found him to be a really nice guy. He was strongly opinionated, but he kind of had a point. He was of a certain age, from a certain part of Spain, from a certain heritage. To him, people coming from outside of this world, and professing to be flamenco guitarists, or dancers, or singers, was just too much. He seemed to think that flamenco belonged to him, and people like him.

But he didn’t seem too rude to me. He invited me to his house, where I met his son, who played really good flamenco guitar, but actually wanted to play football! And if we’d have decided to live there, I’m sure I could of learned a lot from him.

We seemed to get on ok, I think, because my starting point was that I just wanted to immerse myself in flamenco, in his world. But I didn’t really want to be him, or pretend to be him. My take on it all would, by necessity, come from my experiences, culture, etc. Would that still be flamenco? Probably not, but maybe a topic for another time.

He was, of course, a traditionalist, and I don’t think he really liked modern flamenco music very much. At one point, when I asked about Paco de Lucia, he said something along the lines of – well of course Paco could do it, but he was unique. There is something about Paco de Lucia that bridged the traditional and modern flamenco world, but in a way that no one else was allowed to do, at least for some.

Of course I’m in awe of the man, and if you are at all interested in flamenco, you should get to know him.

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paco_de_Luc%C3%ADa

This week’s video is a quickly recorded edit of a PDL piece, Aires Choqueros, concentrating on picado. This is the technique where you play very fast single notes by alternating the index and middle fingers. It’s tough. And I’ve never really concentrated on it before. I just tend to dive in and hope for the best. But I’m fascinated, even more so when I listen to those in the know talk about the mechanics of it. Ok, that’s just me then.

Anyway, my video is a hopefully ‘before and after’ recording, as I’m going to spend some time, and try to get the speed, tone and precision sorted. Of course, this could take some time. Wish me luck.

Plate-spinning…

Flamenco guitar is very technical. Technique serves the music, but the music needs the correct technique I believe, otherwise it’s different, not flamenco. I don’t think that’s a massive problem. The world is full of different music, and flamenco will survive my, and other people’s, stumbling attempts. I tend to say I play flamenco inspired music, because the real flamenco is somewhere else. The giants play that. And I would have to, at the very least, be closer to them than I am.

In any given piece of flamenco guitar music there are a number of techniques. To play a piece very well, you need to play each technique very well. I often think of this as plate-spinning. That circus act is all about setting various plates spinning, and then as you add more you need to keep the others spinning too. In flamenco guitar this is a big undertaking. Each technique could take a long time, and there are quite a few. Also, there are variations. Many flamenco guitarists have their own way. Of course the ideal would be to have your own technique, but that is beyond me. 

So I learn pieces, hoping to get close to the original as possible. I enjoy this process, and I also think it’s good for me.

Getting all the plates spinning is hard enough, but 4 years ago I let them all fall. Sounds dramatic, but I hadn’t managed to get them spinning that well anyway. So, after that, I just played occasionally, wrote some music, and did other things. I actually feel that I got better as a musician, but not, of course, in flamenco guitar. Those plates were smashed and all over the floor.

I wasn’t too sure if I would get back to that study, but last year I did. With renewed vigour. I’m curious to see what could happen with effort. Who knows. And therefore, this blog.

I’m playing pieces that I haven’t played for quite a while and concentrating on techniques that I haven’t done for a while, if ever. Picado, for example, which is the really fast notes that seem so effortless in the right hands, has always eluded me. But now I’m giving it a go. Brave? Or stupid?

So what I’m doing this week, in my not quite sure what is the best use of my practice time, is to take out a section of a piece, concentrate on it, slow it down, use a metronome etc, then put it back. And the video is the record. Of course the giants would shake their heads in despair. So many badly spinning plates. But that’s ok, my desire is to improve. Plus, you’ve got to start somewhere.

This video is a Farruca that I’ve been playing, on rare occasions, for many years. I never practice it, just pull it out sometimes as a piece that I’m fairly certain I can get to the end of. It’s also got lots of techniques.