Late Night Guitar

July 3rd, 2014

One of my favorite guitar albums of all time is Early Klugh’s “Late Night Guitar.”

I first heard the CD in a departmental store and immediately went to find out who the artist was. It took me a few years before I could find the cassette, and a few more years before the CD came out.

These days, of course, you don’t have to go to all that trouble.

Here’s part of the album, uploaded to youtube.

The first track is my favorite, “Smoke Gets in My Eyes.”

   

   

The best way to listen to this recording is to cast aside all biases and focus on Mr. Klugh’s phrasing and expression which is impeccable. He sings on the guitar like a great jazz singer.

Listen to his dynamics and how fluid they are. Listen to the highs and lows, especially to the high point at 1:19. It literally is a cry from the heart.

That’s one thing about popular players, they have to go straight for the heart, the soul. They can’t take cover under some fuzzy academic considerations to justify why they play the way they do (in that bland and academic way).

Bottom line for popular artists is, if they can’t touch your heart, they’re not going to sell any CDs.

And that should be our bottom line too.

Because if we’re not touching people’s hearts, it’s all an exercise in futility.

Making your playing come alive

June 30th, 2014

Continuing on my previous post…

First, what is this quality of aliveness?

Think of anything that’s alive.

It breathes, it moves, it’s filled with energy, there’s a sense of constant growth and change.

And this is what you have to do in your phrasing to make it come alive.

The first quality to infuse into your singing is that of change.

Your phrases should never stay the same, they should be constantly evolving and changing (unless the effect you want is that of an unvarying mechanical feel).

Listen to El Cigala again.

Notice how he starts each phrase with a burst of energy, he builds it up to a climax and then he lets it die naturally.

And if you listen closely, you’ll see that the shape of his phrasing closely resembles a breath.

And this is key.

To make your phrases come alive, shape them like a breath.

Think of the initial burst of energy as the drawing in of your breath — there’s effort involved in that drawing in — and then think of the resolution of the phrase as a release of that breath, an exhalation.

The ending, the release is especially important.

Listen to how El Cigala ends the phrase, how he just lets the phrase drop into nothingness, almost into a whisper sometimes.

Imagine letting something fall, of its own accord, no effort involved. That’s how the ending of phrases should sound like, a complete letting go, no effort involved.

Next, notice how extreme the dynamics are. The peaks are much louder than you might expect and the valleys much softer.

This is another important point; to make a phrase come alive, you must throw the contrasts into sharper relief, and accentuate the differences of dynamics to the point where it may sound like you’re exaggerating them.

(These dynamics are micro dynamics, inner dynamics in a phrase, not to be confused with the dynamics of the piece. )

But it’s not exaggeration, it only feels that way because you’re not used to giving them those extremes in dynamics.

Creating greater dynamic contrasts within the phrase will give them a 3-dimensional effect.

3-D phrases have depth. You feel as if they’re coming at you sometimes, and away from you at other times. This 3-D effect is what gives phrases the quality of aliveness, of movement.

Strong contrasts are what separate the great from the not so great.

The greats are not afraid to state their contrasts, they lay them out strongly. Whereas less experienced players are timid, they’re afraid to state those contrasts, so everything they do are just varying shades of one dynamic level.

You can see the same kind of timidity in painting.

Less experienced painters tend to paint everything in varying shades of one tonal value, and the result is a flat 2-dimensional painting, whereas if you were to look at the paintings of great painters, you can see an incredible range of tonal values.

And it’s these strong tonal values that make a painting pop out at you and make it come alive.

Finally, avoid sameness; especially avoid trying to make all the notes sound the same.

There’s nothing more boring than a phrase that is perfectly played, with perfectly shaped tones, and in perfect evenness.

Real life is vibrant, it’s constantly evolving, and growing, and dying. It never stays the same. And that’s what you have to try to do in your phrasing to make it come alive.

If you’re still not convinced, try this for an exercise.

Listen to a conversation, any conversation in any language will do.

Listen to the highs and lows of the voices, the sharp peaks and the valleys. Listen to how loud the loud words are and how soft the soft words are. Listen to how some words are so soft to the point where they’re almost inaudible.

Listen to how the speakers shape each sentence and how each sentence is in turn shaped by their breaths.

Listen to the constant interplay of dynamics, of loud and soft, of heavy and light.

And then listen to a machine voice, perhaps one of those prerecorded robotic computerized voices and you’ll begin to appreciate what’s dead and what’s alive, what’s interesting and what’s boring.

Singing and phrasing

June 27th, 2014

Watch any masterclass and you will inevitably hear the usual admonishments to ‘sing’ your lines. (This would invariably be followed by the ‘master teacher’ demonstrating this point as he ‘sings’ and plays the phrases.)

This is all well and good, because the goal of all good phrasing is to make your phrases ‘sing.’

Singing helps us externalize our natural phrasing, which makes it easier to transfer that phrasing to our fingers.

But there’s something that’s often not mentioned.

And that is – to make your playing ‘sing,’ you not only have to sing as you play, but you must sing like a great singer.

We’re talking of singing like Pavarotti or Barbra Streisand (because if you were to sing like Will Hung, it wouldn’t help you very much).

So the first step to great phrasing is to learn to sing like the greats, to learn how they phrase, to capture the subtle nuances and expression in their voices, in other words, to become a ‘great’ singer yourself. (We’re of course talking only of expression. Few of us can really aspire to singing like Pavarotti.)

And in this, the best way is through imitation, by singing along with good singers.

I would pick a singer you admire.

My personal preference is for singers outside of the classical music world, someone like El Cigala, or Frank Sinatra, or even Bruce Springsteen. (Classical singers are, in my opinion, too stilted and stylized — perhaps overly constrained by their traditions — to make good singing models, Pavarotti notwithstanding.)

If you listen to a singer like El Cigala, you will find that natural phrasing is full of dynamic inflections, it’s never square, it pulsates with energy and life.

   


 

So perhaps you’re saying you’re playing classical music and not flamenco or jazz. Well, listen to this:

   

 

And see if you can hear the same dynamic inflections and nuances. And if you can’t hear them, keep on listening. It takes time to appreciate the extremes in dynamics and inflections of natural phrasing.

I remember practicing my Bach pieces with Alfred Brendel and I was amazed at how many liberties he took with his dynamics and rhythms and how extreme they sounded – to my untrained and unsophisticated ears anyway.

Perhaps the most important quality of natural phrasing is the quality of aliveness in your notes. They’re no longer the dead and inanimate dots on a page, they’re filled with energy and life.

And this is really the key to good phrasing.

How do you make your phrasing (and thereby your playing) come alive?

That’s the subject for my next post.