A philosophy

June 21st, 2017

I teach a class on guitar pedagogy at the university.

In the class, at the beginning of the semester, before anything else, we discuss philosophy—the basic question of why we want to teach.

Awareness of philosophy is important because it determines our teaching approach and methodology.

Over the years, I’ve noted different philosophies to teaching.

And it’s interesting how they say more about the teacher than the methodology itself.

For example, some teachers like to focus on small details, on minutiae.

They try to micromanage every aspect of the student’s playing, down to which joint to move and in what order.

Others focus on the big picture, on getting the students to start playing without too much emphasis on technicalities.

Some like to start the student with chords because they think reading music is too difficult for beginners.

Then again, some prefer to start with classical repertoire straight away.

There’s of course no one way to teach.

All these methodologies are valid as long as they get the students to learn.

In fact, I believe a good diversity of approaches is good.

Because every student is unique. You can’t force a one-size-fits-all method onto every student.

There’re some students who work best under strict guidance and those who work best when they’re left to their own devices. (The latter would be me.)

Not to mention the differences in physiology between students.

The only criterion in accessing the effectiveness of a method is whether students are learning.

If a student does not learn, if the method drives the student away, then we have failed as teachers.

In all the years I have taught the class, I have never tried to force any one philosophy onto my students.

I believe it’s best for them to come up with their own approaches and philosophy.

In our discussions, we would explore different philosophies and examine the strategies in different method books.

And at the end of the semester, my only requirement is that the final assignment is well thought out and systematic.

The actual details do not matter. In fact, I’ve found that most of the assignments I get back reflect a completely different viewpoint and approach from mine.

And that is good. It shows I’ve done my job.

The worst thing a teacher can do is try to make the student into a clone of him/her.

That’s not education, that’s brainwashing.

So what is my philosophy towards teaching?

To me, it’s in one simple goal.

And that is to elevate the student, uplift their life with music and enable them to find self expression through the guitar.

That to me is the only goal.

It’s not my job to try to turn every student into a great player. That would be imposing my agenda onto the student, more of an ego trip than teaching.

Of course, when a student shows promise and start to advance rapidly, I get excited and would do all I can to help the student advance even more.

There’s nothing more rewarding than to see someone who didn’t play a note before they came to you and seeing them achieve greatness in their playing.

But most of the time, I stay out of the way.

I see the role of a teacher as more of a guide.

It’s like the student is on a journey to scale a mountain and I’m there to show them the way but I can’t climb the mountain for them.

The teacher is there not to enforce some personal agenda, not to use the students to try out ideas or to experiment upon.

The worst case of self interest I’ve seen is when a teacher only gives students his own compositions to play, whether it’s in simple exercises or in repertoire.

What can the student do except to learn those pieces? They can’t say no.

To me, it’s using the student for one’s own purpose and forcing yourself onto the student.

There’s a quote I like to share with my students.

It’s from the great Japanese educator Tsunesaburo Makiguchi (paraphrased by Robyn Griggs Lawrence).

 “The essence of education is not to transfer knowledge; it is to guide the learning process, to put responsibility for study into the students’ own hands.”

—Tsunesaburo Makiguchi

Energy and speed

June 9th, 2017

One of the great advantages of living in the 21st century is YouTube. (I think I’ve mentioned that before.)

Now, you can watch your favorite player any time of the day.

You can slow his playing down, figure out fingerings, analyze the trajectories of his strokes, etc.

This is a great advantage and one which I wish I had back in those LP and cassette days, but like everything else, there’s a downside to it.

When you get so involved with the visuals, it’s easy to miss other less observable aspects.

I’m referring specifically to the unseen elements of playing, to what’s going on within the player’s body, what the player is feeling and experiencing.

For example, one of the secrets of technique is the ability to generate speed and movement, to produce energy effortlessly.

This is something you can’t see in videos.

Yet it is central to technique.

For example, you can’t produce speed by simply trying to make your fingers move faster. That’ll only create tension.

To get speed, you’ll have to tap into the flows of energy within your body and learn how to capture it and use it to propel your fingers forward.

When you’re able to access this energy, you’ll literally feel as if your fingers are on fire and playing themselves.

One of the upsides to YouTube happens to be the many video lessons available.

There’s one in particular that caught my eye the other day.

It’s Maestro Romero explaining the apoyando and how he uses his arm.

If you were to watch this video, you might miss that part altogether, it’s over so fast but it’s really a key to his playing (at least, to me anyway.)

Here’s the Maestro trying to explain it.

About 48 seconds into the video, you’ll hear him saying, “I think not only fingers but I engage a little bit… the arm.”

Now why the arm?

I believe it has to do with creating that energy in the body.

Watch how he pulls (or pushes) at the strings slightly before letting go of them in the plucking. This pull (or push) is apparent in the slight give in his fingertips before he plucks.

That give is the result of the finger encountering the resistance in the string.

When you allow the fingertip to give, that give is creating potential energy which you release in the plucking action.

You then harness this energy and use it to propel you to the next note, creating a chain reaction of actions which are self driven.

The effect is as if you have an automated engine in the fingers producing speed and power effortlessly.

Back to the point about videos.

When I was learning the guitar, we had no such visual aids.

Fortunately, even in a place as remote as Borneo, I was able to get the occasional LP and cassette of Segovia and John Williams.

And I remember spending hours listening to JW and trying to sound like him.

There’s one advantage to not having visuals because then you’re able to focus 100% of your attention on the sound.

And what I heard in his sound was energy, especially in pieces like Asturias.

I heard other things of course—his incredible consistency of sound, his fluidity, the beautiful phrasing—but above all else, what I heard was the power and energy in his playing.

And in my practice, that was what I tried to capture, the energy and fluidity.

I’ve heard it said that there’s a curse in every blessing and a blessing in every curse.

But I believe that if we’re aware of the curse in the blessing, we can make a blessing a double blessing.

In other words, don’t get too obsessed by visuals, close your eyes sometimes and listen to the sound.

But don’t get seduced by pretty sounds only. Go beyond the superficial aspects of sound to its heart which is the energy.

This is really the key to the player’s playing.

If you want to play like him, learn to capture his energy.

And in the process too, you might find that your visuals will start to match his. You might end up playing like him too.

That’s of course not important. It’s how you sound, not how you look that matters.

La Valse d’Amelie

May 19th, 2017

Two videos I recorded recently.

La Valse d’Amelie from the movie “Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulain.”

Prelude No 1 from a collection of “Useful Preludes” in a Tarrega method book.

Study in e minor

January 5th, 2017

I studied in New Zealand with Karl Herreshoff. Karl was a phenomenal musician and an extraordinary human being. His exploits with Segovia when he was seventeen was immortalized by author Gina Berriault in the short story, “Nights in the Gardens of Spain.”

As the story chronicled, the precocious teenager was not impressed with the pompous Spanish master and decided not to go to Europe to study with him, and instead opted to go to Mexico City to study with the Dutch guitarist, Frederick Mulder. Mulder was a student of Miguel Llobet, Tarrega’s star student.

Somehow, through a strange twist of fate, Karl was in New Zealand when I went there to study law. (So if I have to blame someone for my choosing the path of a poor itinerant musician, I’ll have to say Karl is the one largely to blame.)

Karl’s full name was Karl Frederick Herreshoff III. Who was K F Herreshoff I? The love child of a Captain in the court of King Frederick the Great of Prussia by the name of Herr Epshoff. Legend goes that the king loved the boy and named him himself, hence the middle name.

I won’t go into all the details of this great and unique human being but suffice it to say that it was an honor and a privilege to have known Karl and studied with him.

Study in e minor is a favorite of mine and one which I often use to teach the tremolo. The proportions of the melody are perfect and its very simplicity makes it a great vehicle to learn phrasing too.

And being a work of the great Tarrega makes it even more special. I recorded a few things on Thanksgiving Day 2016 and this was one of them.

AOV update 7.9.2016

July 9th, 2016

Latest version of the AOV is now available. The Rhythm chapter has been reworked and the Release chapter slightly expanded.

Please download it here:

Old recording

June 14th, 2016

I found some old recordings which were done back in 2002, around the time I recorded the Chopin CD. Among them is this version of Recuerdos.

Youtube do not allow audio files to be uploaded so I had to add a still photo. The photo was taken around the same time I did the recording and in the same room (my living room at the time). However it’s just a casual shot and not taken during the actual session.

A few notes about technique

June 24th, 2015

Technique to me has always been more about skill than pure ability.

What is the difference between the two, you may ask.

Let’s take the example of playing arpeggios.

Many people think that to play fast arpeggios, they’ll have to have fast fingers. So they work on increasing the speed of their fingers.

In other words, they’re working on the ability of their fingers to move fast.

To me, however, fast fingers are not that important in playing fast arpeggios.

Much more important is grouping the notes of the arpeggio so that you play them in one motion rather than in many small motions.

This is skill, skill in knowing how to group the notes and how to time their releases so that they occur at a regular even rate.

Knowing the difference between skill and ability is crucial.

I hear of players who focus on ability, they’re under the impression that to play fast, they’ll have to move their fingers fast.

So they theorize, probably inspired by athletes who have to get out of the block in an explosive motion, that they have to work on explosive (sometimes called ballistic) motions in their fingers.

But this is really barking up the wrong tree.

In many ways, the situation is analogous to using brute force and using leverage.

Skill is leveraging your ability. If you depend purely on your physical prowess, you’re using brute force, or as the case is here, brute speed.

As we all know, brute force can only get you so far.

The same is true of other techniques like the tremolo and scales.

Each one of these techniques have specific skills (or tricks) associated with them.

And the key to mastering them is to learn these tricks and internalize them.

Tricks is a good word to describe these skills. But this is not trickery of course. It’s more like special knowledge to achieve what you want to achieve.

Another word might be cheats (as in cheat sheet). You know the routine; cheats enable you to move almost miraculously from one level to another. In the same way, skills enable you to produce technical effects almost miraculously, with almost no effort.

So where do you learn these skills?

Through practice. You practice and practice and over time, these skills will reveal themselves to you. That’s where I have derived most of my techniques.

You can learn them from teachers.

This is really one of the reasons we go to teachers so that they will show us all these shortcuts to techniques.

You can learn them from books, and I have learned my share of skills from different books and magazine articles too.

Where you learn your skills is immaterial.

The important thing is that once you learn them, you’ll have to practice them until they become second nature, until they occur automatically.

The more skills you learn, the more you will realize that playing the guitar is really very simple and easy

It’s all a question of knowing ‘how’ to do it.

A brief history of the AOV

December 20th, 2014

The original idea for the AOV came from my teaching.

As I tried to explain one technique after another to my students, it became apparent to me that the same basic principles are behind all these techniques.

For instance, the tremolo and scale techniques—two seemingly dissimilar techniques and yet, one can see the same basic principles at work in both of them, principles of lightness, economy, rhythm etc.

It led me to a realization—fundamentals are everything.

And for them to work, all of them must be in place. If you miss but one piece of the puzzle, the entire structure would collapse.

For example, I see some players chasing one fancy technique after another and failing to work on their rhythm. They may develop good finger facility, but because they lack rhythm, they have no control and would rush through their playing.

Or some would obsess over how to hold the hand, at what angle etc, and they would force their hands into unnatural positions and end up with tight and tense bodies that are unable to produce the speed and fluidity they’re looking for.

Yes, fundamentals are everything.

It’s something so obvious and yet strangely enough, I could not find anything written about them.

I found many books on technique, from sports to the martial arts, and many of them actually touch on one or more of these fundamentals, but none addressed them as a group, as a set of essential principles that one have to apply to achieve virtuosity.

So I decided that if no one would do it, that I would have to do it myself.

That was 2003.

Over the years, the book went through many evolutions, from pseudo philosophical discourses to rambling essays on techniques. But none of them was satisfactory, I felt that none of them reflected what I wanted in the book.

But what did I want in the book?

I had no clue myself.

Then one day, I had a dream. It was one of those early morning waking dreams when you’re halfway between sleep and wakefulness. You know you’re in a dream but somehow you’re unable to wake up.

I dreamed I was in a bookstore and I saw a book on the shelf titled, “The Art of Virtuosity.”

How strange, I thought to myself, that’s the book I’m trying to write.

Then part of me said, take it down, take a good look, and memorize what you see.

So I took the book down from the shelf and what I saw filled me with wonder and amazement. It was a simple book with only a few chapters but each chapter was filled with powerful words of wisdom and advice.

That’s the book you need to write, I told myself. That’s the book you need to write.

And then I woke up.

I decided to rewrite the book from scratch. Over the next two years, I wrote and rewrote the book several times, all the while trying to recall and re-imagine the book I saw in my dream.

In the process, I pared it down from 120 pages to 46 pages, then to 38 pages and in its current (and I think final) form, 37 pages.

In my studio, I have several boxes of notes and scribblings—about seven years worth (and they’re but a fraction of what I really wrote, most of my early drafts ended up in the wastebasket after I had typed them into word documents.)

Three boxes of scribblings and notes and in the end, 37 pages.

I just finished fine-tuning the chapter on rhythm again, and I think with each new revision, I’m finally getting nearer to that vision I saw in my dream.

Some of my friends asked me recently, “Aren’t you tired of writing the same book over and over?”

And I tell them, “How can you get tired of a journey that hasn’t ended yet?”

So how will I know when the book is finally done?

The same way that a good chef knows when the dish is done.


Latest version of the AOV — December 17, 2014: