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….


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…


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

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!

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.


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.

Repetition, repetition, repetition…

I’m a big fan of learning new pieces of music. There seems a comfort in opening the fresh pages, listening closely to the music for every nuance, disappearing into a new world. I’m such a big fan that once I’ve got the piece, I move on. I thought this was a focus, unfocus, refocus technique, and to some extent it is. But I think I’m also not big on repetition. I’m ok if it’s new, but something I know quite well, less so. If I have to perform something I do practice, but I’m just as likely to practice another 5 or more pieces that are in some way related at the same time. I also like the feeling of being on the edge, of maybe it will all fall apart any minute. It’s a thrill, but not great when you want some consistency.

And so, I rarely play something I know well. If I get close to knowing something I move on. If someone asks me to play something I tend to randomly pick something I haven’t played for a while. I may play a Farruca that I feel I can’t fail with, only to find my fingers don’t go where I think they will. That might be something to do with not have played it for 6 months!

But I’d like to get better, and be consistent so I thought I’d try repetition. This week I’ve picked a piece that has many techniques in it. And I’m trying to play it often. That can be really hard. To play the same thing again and again! But today I actually felt really good about it. I felt like I started to know the piece in a different way. Much more closely, almost note by note. There was also an (occasional, and brief) sense of calm. Zen?

I do have a Pena coming up with a local dance class and thought some traditional flamenco pieces, with maybe palmas might be good, and I think this one is a fairly traditional Alegria by El Serranito (with palmas to follow). And I feel I’ve got so far, and maybe if I do the same with a couple of others, not too many of course …

We shall see. Update to follow.

Focus on sound

Ok, I’m a bit late on doing this. As a musician, you would think this would be a priority, however…

My actual focus so far was not to put myself off doing these videos, especially by making the process so time consuming. However…

Listening back at the various videos/posts so far, I felt that I really needed to do something.

A few months back I was fortunate to meet an amazing Spanish guitarist called Eduardo Niebla.


I took part in a guitar retreat at the house of Eduardo Niebla, and found the whole experience incredibly rewarding. I was really beginning to concentrate on improving my playing at this time, and this retreat happenened at a perfect time. Not only is Eduardo an incredible musician, but he is also very warm, friendly and generous. The retreat itself, taking place inside their Yorkshire house, was very valuable in many ways, not the least of which was seeing inside the studio. 

On listening to Eduardo’s music I was struck by many things. I am particularly impressed by his understanding of rhythm, and how he manages to create beautiful music that seems closely linked to the rhythms he plays with, whether they are flamenco inspired, or Indian, or some other style. But I am also struck by the attention to detail inside the music. This is true of the music played, as well as the sonic qualities of the recordings.

The visit to the studio confirmed this attention to detail. If anyone has seen Eduardo’s guitar recording rig, it is a thing of beauty. I’m not sure of how much it would cost to create something like this, both in money and time to get all the elements working in just that way – the whole scale is beyond me. I love studios anyway, and am in awe of the magic done by engineers and producers when it comes to shaping sound, but to be inside the studio, and to be aware of how much work has gone into it’s creation felt very fortunate.

So, the point of this – to focus on sound. Most fingerstyle guitarists are obsessed by nails. Strings are also such an important factor. But now microphones … and placement … and preparing the recording space …

Hopefully this video’s experiment in sound will be worth the extra effort. It’s not great – I have a lot to learn, but as long as it’s getting better. I’ve decided that instead of making quick videos, I would make many of them until the process becomes quicker, while still getting the sound right. And then maybe the video quality … and then … Don’t worry I won’t post them all!

This week’s piece is another catch up. It’s a piece from Paco Pena’s student book Toques, and I think it’s a good place to learn some ‘pieces’, however contentious that idea may be for some flamenco enthusiasts. But more on that another time.