Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Taking 5, the value of rest

Taking 5

In his book "On Practicing" Ricardo Iznaola prescribes a regimen of focused practicing and scheduled resting periods. Mr. Iznaola is right in his recommendation that refreshing the brain and body is just as important as cramming it with knowledge and muscular technique. His book is a very helpful one and something all guitarists should own.

The fact is that we can't absorb new information at a constant rate for an entire given period of time. When we practice, certain times of our practice period are more productive than others due our attention span. The beginning and the end of a period are the times when most information sticks. Enthusiasm when you first pick up the guitar sparks learning and anticipation of a break period can spur learning at the end of a practice session.

The appreciation of music comes from a familiarity with it. Often times music is associated with events in our lives and we keep a personal soundtrack playing in our heads. I am sure that I am not the first person to say that in order to get closer to the music you must step away from the guitar. Peering deeply into the everyday and commonplace beauty of life will inspire you to perform with more vigor. The experience of life will be the source of energy that will drive your music.
Sometimes what we need is to hear the piece again after a rest in order to have new ideas about it. Play a piece you haven't played in months or years, and I bet you will be surprised at how it comes to life. Settle down and love the sound of your guitar, then take a walk and play that love through your head the rest of the day.

Less is more
My teacher Emmett Finley had two favorite phrases, the first being "Death is my Favorite Tempo." Morbid, maybe. Reassuring, possibly. Poetic, definitely. He frequently uttered this gem in response to my enthusiastic tempos. At the core, he is saying that it is best to go slow and hit your marks than to rush through leaving notes and ideas behind. Don't be afraid to play slow. His second phrase was "Every note is a symphony," meaning that without the proper care of every note, the music will loose it's greater integrity. By taking time with each note you can ensure its beauty.
About Bach my teacher Alex Komodore said, "Every note is a diamond in the necklace," and all of them must shine equally bright.
The wonderful performer and teacher Adam Holzman said in a masterclass, "Play it slow enough that you can play it perfectly." I love that.
On stage during a masterclass the great Oscar Ghiglia said, "One time I was playing very slow, so that I could hear what was going on." Nothing is more to the point. Without going at a speed that you can control, you will not be able to analyze what you're playing. That means you won't be able to offer your music at it's highest level. What good is that? Don't settle for anything less than the best.
On the subject Fred Hand says, "If you are trying to improve a passage, you need to play it slowly in order to learn the movements and the notes. It's essential that you slow it down."

The guitar is selfish
Without a doubt, practicing is a selfish act. Revel in it! If practicing is something we do to improve ourselves, then it is a wonderful thing. It could be that "taking 5" means sitting down to the guitar and playing your favorite pieces. It's called "playing" for a reason. Don't turn it into "work".
Only by being selfish can we then offer a better version of ourselves to the world. By oscillating between periods of self improvement and public service we can continually improve our community.

Note: The "Spacing Principle" is a rule that states that the best time to review something previously learned is right before you are about to forget it. Musicians usually practice in an orderly habit and so are reviewing things daily. Because of this they always review their material at the right time, even though they don't know when that is. This reward for daily review is call the "practicing phenomenon". For an amazing program that can help you track your brain to determine when you will forget something, check out Super Memo, developed by Steve Wozniak.

Thanks for reading, happy practicing and breaking!

Daniel Hallford

Daniel Hallford is a Guitarist and Teacher in New York City
Visit him at http://www.DanielHallfordGuitar.com

Friday, September 17, 2010

David Russell and technique development

David Russell and the warm up

The man who needs no introduction, David Russell has been entertaining audiences around the world since his youth. He constantly gives masterclasses and likes to share his approach to technique development after the participants have finished playing.

His philosophy includes starting out with the most basic motions and progressing into exercises that are combinations of these motions. For example, one would not begin the day with a scale because the scale is a combination of many basic movements that must all fall into place. The scale is not only greater than the sum of its many different right and left hand motions, but something that is rendered inadequate and lame if any of those motions are below an acceptable level. And remember, if you want to achieve greatness, your bar of acceptability must be high indeed.

The right hand

To start, David plays a free stroke with his i finger. When he is happy with the tone and projection, the range of volume that he can produce and the different timbres that are possible he begins this exercise with the m finger. Next the a finger and finally the thumb. He recommends doing this exercise with rest strokes as well. This is the perfect opportunity to pay close attention to the separation of the fingers and the relaxation of the hand. You can choose certain criteria that you wish to hone and set your attention on those areas while you do these exercises.

In this way, the guitarist can systematically break down the motions of his or her right hand and pinpoint weaknesses at their most basic level. David is absolutely right when he states that a solid foundation is key to the success of a larger musical endeavor. This is a principle that holds true in developing every practice and profession.

The left hand

Now considering the left hand, David reminds us that there is one great spot (and one only!) that offers us the best tone with the least amount of effort. The area of optimum left hand fingertip placement is directly behind the fret and on the end of the finger, with the fingertip pointing perpendicular into the neck. The direction of the fingertip is important because it prevents the waste of energy when a player is pushing the string sideways (up and down the fret vertically, like a blues solo articulation). Not only does using this spot allow you to use as little pressure as possible, but it sounds the best! By simply relaxing your finger it will exit the string vertically and silently. You then move it horizontally and place it down in a new spot vertically.

When asked in a radio interview about the cleanliness of his recordings and the absence of squeaks, David responded that he just "leaves those out". Not so easy, you say? Re-read the above paragraph and do this exercise slowly like David. You will start improving your left hand accuracy and your tone quality will go up while your squeaks go down!

You're gonna like the way you sound. I guarantee it.

The right and left hand combined

After this diligent and careful work with each hand separately, David plays a note with his i finger while a left hand finger is fretting a note. then he plays two notes with his right hand with i and then m, alternating. You can imagine the possible extended exercises from here. Next he practices playing one left hand finger and moving to another one, relaxing completely the old finger and only engaging the new one enough to play the note in the perfect spot on the new fret. In this way he is preparing to play the scale.

The scale is the goal! Not the beginning. The beginning idea is to play the scale well and all the motions inside of it. (I can't resist throwing some zen in here).

Only after all of these items have been perfected will the scale also be in good running order.

More work can be done in many areas, including
-string crossing
-right hand combinations
-multiple simultaneous finger use on the left hand
-volume control
-right and left hand articulation

the list goes on!

David Russell plays effortlessly in part because he has ingrained these basic abilities in himself at the highest level. To play a note is to care about that sound and he gives personal attention to each motion he makes at the guitar. Practicing something slowly and correctly is the ONLY way to improve it. Five good repetitions will improve your technique better than 40 hastily played mediocre ones. It's a law that we as organic beings can't argue with.

For interesting information about how the brain learns to store the instructions it sends out to create motions, read "The Brain that changes itself" by Norman Doidge.

David states that all guitarists, especially those in their developing stages ought to devote a substantial time to their technique workout (at least 30 minutes!). As we can all see, it paid off for him.

Thanks Mr. Russell!

Visit David Russell at www.DavidRussellGuitar.com

Daniel Hallford is a classical guitarist in New York City. Visit him at www.DanielHallfordGuitar.com


Thanks for reading!

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Frederic Hand and improvisation

Fred Hand's improvisation techniques

This week I would like to share a technique of the legendary Frederic Hand. A longtime performer wizened by years touring and performing, Fred manages to play from the heart every time he picks up the instrument. Not an easy task!

For most of us, inspiration is a feeling that is hard to nail down and maintain. The ability to make heart-felt music every time we pick up the guitar is a rare trait.

Think about when you are most at ease. Think about singing in the shower. Nobody can hear you... (at least that's what you think!) For most of us, our voice is the first means of self-expression and we hum and sing all day long. Some people are whistlers. Others grunt, with varying degrees of success. We are singing and whistling on auto pilot all the time, without regard to how we hit the notes that we want or why we know the next part of our current song.

Jumping to the obvious question...

Why can't we play the guitar the way we sing and hum??

Take it from a professional; take it from Fred Hand: "You absolutely can!"

For starters:

Nobody questions the existence of their hands. They are here and have always been. However our guitar has not always been here. The default way of thinking is: The guitar is an outside-of-body object that we "use" our body to play music "on".

The truth is, the guitar is not something to be mastered but rather something to be incorporated into our body in order to make it easier to use. Continually fighting your hands will not make them work better for the tasks that we do every day. Similarly, fighting the guitar in order to "control" it will not produce good results. We must learn to think of the guitar as something we are playing music THROUGH.

This lesson is about getting your head out of the way, in order to get your musical ideas from your brain to the listener's ear without the guitar being a barrier. The guitar becomes an extension of your body.

Starting Now...

1) Sing a note, any note
2) Find that note on the guitar and play it once
3) Sing a new note
4) Find that note on the guitar and play it once

continue on, toward infinity!


1) Sing a note and while holding it with your voice, find that note on the guitar neck
2) Sing a new note and move your fingers to the new note on the neck while holding that note with your voice


Sing a new note and as you attack it with your voice, simultaneously play it on the guitar.

You will notice 2 things right away:
1)You are not as good at predicting the intervals on the guitar as you are in your throat
2)You are better than you thought at predicting the intervals on the guitar

Thus the learning curve begins and you begin to internalize the notes of the neck. They become syllables and root sounds for you to express yourself with. You can have a conversation with your instrument!

This learning process is one that cannot be duplicated by any other method. You must learn to judge the distances of the neck just as you learn to control your voice. Imagine talking through the guitar, without the apprehension and hesitation that lies between you and your accurately expressed creativity. You will be doing just this after practicing singing what you are playing.

Getting your head out of the way:
The revolution you will experience after doing these excercised cannot be stressed enough. The pieces you play are will be easier. You will anticipate better and get lost less often. You can work your way out of memory slips, even by playing the notes in different positions to get through the piece because you know where the "sounds" lie on the neck.

These exercises can and should be practiced in all positions, because the same note lies in multiple places on the neck.


Thank you Mr. Hand!

Visit Frederic Hand on the web, where you can see an example of his revolutionary new device, the Spider Capo.


Daniel Hallford is a classical guitarist in New York City. Visit him at www.DanielHallfordGuitar.com


Thanks for reading!

Friday, August 20, 2010

Michael Newman Teaches Breathing on the Classical Guitar

Welcome to the Master Guitarists blog.  Here you will find direct insights into the playing styles of the greatest men and women ever to play the classical guitar.  Through weekly entries I will relay the wisdom of our most eminent teachers and professionals.

Let us begin.

The inaugural address of Master Guitarists will consist of Michael Newman teaching me to breathe.  Michael (www.guitarduo.com) teaches at the Mannes College of Music (www.newschool.edu/mannes) and is a seasoned veteran of the classical guitar world.  He is as cool of a cucumber as you are going to find, no matter what stage he is performing on.

Breathing: it certainly seems easy enough!  You have been doing it this entire time, without even being aware of it.  Of course I am assuming you are like myself (always a dangerous thing to do) and just now remembered that air is constantly flowing through your nostrils and down into your lungs.  The act of breathing is so rudimentary and persistent in fact, that it is often forgotten even in moments of stress.  Only the occasional inability to take in air alerts us to the fact that we are breathing!

As many of us have seen, the act of breathing can take many forms.  One popular method among musicians is a stilted and gasping approach which involves large gulps followed by extended periods of inactivity and holding of breath, to be released in microscopic amounts throughout the performance.  Somehow the musician manages to take in more air than they are exhaling, and the result is a swelling human balloon of tension and nerves.  When the difficult passage approaches, our performer is primed and ready to flub the scale or chord change with spectacular inaccuracy.

Let’s think about that analogy.  The performer is filling up like a balloon, gathering tension as his or her surface slowly (or rapidly) expands to withstand the increasing pressure of air (and nerves!).  I will give you three breaths to figure out our solution.




Breathe out!  When we breathe out, we are expelling tension, just as the skin of the balloon is relaxing when its air is released.  What happens when we release tension?  We relax.  Why is relaxing important?  Everything seems easier when we are relaxing.  Life is great!  The scale is but a trifle in the grand scheme of music, and our fingers could never be more ready to hit that chord at the top of the fretboard.

“Daniel, take a breath!!”  says Michael Newman, somewhere in the middle of my performance of the Bach Allegro BWV 998.

OH YEA, BREATHING,  I think.  Good thing I had Michael there, because I sure wasn’t going to remember to let go of that tension.

The many benefits of breathing during playing, and a short guide to its usage:

   1. Release of tension from the body
   2. Mental relaxation
   3. Musical phrasing

What does breathing have to do with phrasing?  Let us begin again.

Music is on the page, yes, but we must create the music in our minds first before we can play it on the guitar.  The music is first created in our body and then on the guitar.  If you were deprived of your six strings and ten fingers, you would be able to sing, grunt or more than likely hum your song.  That is because your body is the primary instrument.  You are going to take a breath necessary for the entire musical phrase to be completed.  Just as you take a breath long enough for one or two sentences to be completed, you must prepare to sing aloud the entire musical idea.

Use this to play your music.  Take a breath long enough to sing the phrase.  Sing it.  Do it!  Then sing and play it on the guitar simultaneously.  You should be out of air at exactly the end of the phrase.  If you’re not, you took too much air and you have left over energy.  The music will feel stagnant.  If you had to take a breath somewhere in the middle, you underestimated the amount of energy needed for the music and rushed to finish the phrase before what you prepared ran out.  Not a winning solution.

Breathe as though you are going to sing the music.  Always.

When you breathe with the music, it can also breathe.  Music is ALIVE.  It is a manifestation of your brain’s activity and therefore is a direct expression of you, just like the thousands of words that fall out of our mouths every day.  Music that can breathe is understood by humans, because they also breathe.  We understand each other’s conversations because we are used to the requirements of breathing and pausing.  It’s a natural tempo of life that we start learning the first time we hear speech patterns as an infant.

Music is a conversation.  Let there be pauses and breaks, and you will be telling the listener a story.  Rushing through music leaves the listener feeling like you just sold them a shiny used car with an altered odometer.  Serious listeners’ remorse will result!

As Michael taught me, let the music come out of you at the pace of your breath and everyone will be the better for it.  Play with your lungs, not your brain, and SING, SING, SING!

Thanks Mr. Newman!

Daniel Hallford is a classical guitarist in New York City.  Visit him at www.DanielHallfordGuitar.com


Thanks for reading!