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…

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.

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.

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.

http://www.eduardoniebla.com/

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.

Rhythm is king

As promised from the last post, here’s a go at Moraito’s Feria Del Caballo. 

When I first started messing around with (studying) flamenco I was teaching percussion and hand drums in Cumbria, UK. I’ve always thought of myself as a guitarist, but I was fortunate to be taught hand drums be a master drummer from Jamaica. So my 2 musical passions, guitar and rhythm! 

For a project I was handed a Juan Martin instruction video and after watching it for only a short time, I had one of those ‘if only I could do that I would be happy’ moments that happen often and that keep me playing.

There are a series of books (and more) published by Affedis, and one of the first I bought, and I have bought many, was a Moraito tab book. Yes, plenty of ‘if on I could do that I would be happy ‘ moments there. But I connected with Moraito in an immediate way. To this day I still think he’s one of the most sensitive guitarists I’ve ever heard.

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mora%C3%ADto_Chico_II

I learned (most of) the book. Some pieces were very hard (and still are), but I’m always happy when I connect, in my modest way, to the Moraito world.

Sevillanas are very popular in Spain. It’s a couples dance, and everyone in Spain seems to know about them. I believe they’re mainly danced with singers and a band, but they’ve been interpreted for solo guitar by many Flamencos. I like these by Moraito especially.

They seem to be in groups of 4 sevillanas, are quite short and have a very strict pattern.

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sevillanas

I’m accompanied by my ‘metronome’. It is very unfair to call the iPad app DrumPerfect a metronome, because it is so much more. But I’ve added some cajon and clapping samples I’ve found and bought, and programmed the rhythms to the best of my knowledge, given I’ve had no training in flamenco cajon or palmas. 

http://www.drumperfect.nl/

I’ve put a little demo on the screen. I did this using LumaFusion, another iPad app. Eventually I’ll even learn how to use it.

I’ve also tried recording with a microphone. It’s a Rode NT5, and I think it adds to the sound, although it does make the whole process more intricate and time consuming. I’d be interested in opinions.

I’m also trying new strings – Luthier L40’s that were recommended to me. I like them so far, although I miss the Savarez Alliance ‘fizz’. I just wish I could tone that ‘fizz’ down sometimes. Anyway, I’ll spend a little bit of time with the Luthier string family.

Catching up 2: the Magpie collection: Samba Farruca

Apologies to all magpies for adding to the (apparently unjustified) bad press.
Another catch up of something I created quite a while ago. 

I play, and have played, quite a few restaurants and situations where I am basically background. I quite like this: the occasional audience awareness, the contributing to a moment, the helping to create an environment…

A few years ago, while developing material for this I needed something to warm up, and a first piece to start playing. Something relatively easy. A groove. Besides the guitar, I’m also very interested in rhythm. And have taught percussion and hand drum skills for many years, however unfair that might seem to all drummers out there! Samba is on the very edge of flamenco (in my understanding), so I created a 2 chord groove to basically mess about with.

Then there is Farruca. When I first started studying flamenco I was obsessed by the Farruca. At one time I calculated that I could play Farruca for over 30 minutes without repeating myself.

Samba Farruca is a combination of the 2 forms, as it’s name subtly implies… Ok, I’m not great at naming. 

Also, I wanted to explore composition. So I took small pieces from various places – sometimes a straight Farruca, sometimes from other forms, sometimes changing major sections into minor sections etc. For example, the last section, from around 3:53, is an almost straight take of a Moraito Sevillana, with the rhythm changed. I’ll try and video those Sevillanas next, as a comparison.

My exploration for this post is therefore – 

Is this a valid way of composing? I’ve heard similarities between sections in ‘real’ flamenco pieces. Someone changed a Buleria falseta into a Tangos, etc, so it must be ok, no? Would this only work in flamenco?

I’ve also added my pickup to the audio mix. The first post was just an iPhone, uploaded as recorded. I don’t know if anyone notices the difference. Also I used a video editor on the iPad to mix the audio, and add a fade in and out. In this case I used LumaFusion, a fairly new app which I’m going to explore over the coming months.

Still the Savarez strings, although they’re perhaps on the edge of dying. And naked nails, as I still wonder about this allergy thing.

Catching up.

The first minute, or so, of a Sabicas Alegria – Ole Mi Cadiz. Then rumba variations of the same music that I ‘created’ quite a while ago. Therefore – Catching up.

It surprises me how much of a performance making a video is. It’s not perfectly played, but I’ve spent quite a while on the making a video side, so… And anyway – you’ve got to start somewhere.

So the experimentation is mainly in video making using an iPhone. Also, ‘performing’ for video: getting it right.

I’m still not really happy with my strings – Savarez Alliance. They seem to change everyday, so no consistency. And by the time I feel comfortable with a set, they seem to be about to die. If I changed them more often I think it would help, but they’re not cheap. I did try D’Addario Flamenco strings which I felt comfortable playing, except they sounded terrible (to me).

I’ve also tried Nail Envy, but I’m suspecting an allergic reaction to, which is a shame, as I’m quite impressed. I’m not giving up though (yet).