Guitar studies at Del Mar College

February 2nd, 2019

Del Mar College is a two year community college in Corpus Christi. I also teach upper level guitar as an adjunct professor at Texas A&M University/Corpus Christi, but Del Mar College is where I teach full time.

Del Mar College is not your typical community college. It was the first two-year school to be accredited by the National Association of Schools of Music.

The guitar is especially strong in Corpus Christi. We have six high schools and there’s a full-time guitar teacher in every one of these schools. All six, I am proud to say, are Del Mar alumni and former students of mine.

Although overseas recruitment has not been a top priority, over the years, I’ve had guitar students from Malaysia, France, Turkey, and Argentina come and study at Del Mar College.

If you’re interested in studying with me, please consider coming to Del Mar College. We’re working on online lessons but for now, there’re two main options.

Option 1. Study as a full time music student. You can either work towards an Associate degree or transfer to a four year university after completing the freshman and sophomore classes.

Option 2. Sign up only for elective guitar lessons. This option is useful if you’re not intending to pursue a degree or if you’ve already completed a degree and are looking only to enhance your skills and knowledge. These lessons are flexible and we can tailor them to your needs (for instance, if you want to work on the AOV). Each semester is about three and half months long. I don’t have the exact figures for tuition fees but they’re relatively inexpensive.

If you’re a citizen of another country, you’ll be limited to option 1 as you would have to be a full time student to get the visa.

But we do have a number of scholarships available. These scholarships are open to all students, local or foreign. If you’re a foreign student, in some cases; these scholarships could qualify you for in-state tuition. This means you’ll be paying Texas resident fees. To my knowledge, Texas is the only state offering these special fees.

To find out more about the Del Mar Music department, click on this page.

If you’re planning to come for the 2019 fall semester, please start the application process now. Applications for guitar scholarships are currently open and will close by March 31, 2019.

If you would like to apply for a scholarship or have any questions, please contact me here.

Scherzo by Tomas Damas

December 17th, 2018

A new recording of the Scherzo from Tomas Damas’ “Amor Paterno.” I had erroneously attributed the work to Francisco Tarrega earlier. Thanks to Marcos Villanueva for pointing it out to me.

Nocturne

November 22nd, 2018

I spent a few years in Boston and during that time, wrote a number of songs. Mostly improvisations that eventually coalesced into songs.

This was one of those improv. Someone posted it on youtube and created a montage to go with it.

Here’s the montage, with thanks to gapir1.

An ongoing project

June 16th, 2018

A few years ago, my good friend and colleague at the university, Dr Flores, asked me if I wanted to play the Aranjuez with his orchestra. I was reluctant at first, knowing it would be a lot of work.

But the idea intrigued me, especially as I have always loved Paco de Lucia’s recording, so I decided to say yes and use it as an opportunity to relearn the work and study Paco’s approach at the same time

That summer, I spent the whole summer reworking the concerto, trying to figure out Paco’s fingerings. This I was able to do with his video, thanks to youtube. In spring the following year, I performed it with the university orchestra.

I had put in a great deal of time on the project and was able to figure out most of Paco’s left hand fingerings—I would say at least 85% of it was Paco’s fingerings. This includes all his revisions of the part too. About 10% were from John Williams, another idol of mine, and the rest were mine.

Having figured out the left hand fingerings, I decided that I would also try to replicate Paco’s right hand fingerings, which means using traditional two-finger scales instead of the three-finger scales I had been using.

The decision was also musical. Three finger fingers may be ideal for Bach but they just do not capture the spirit of the punchy picados of flamenco players.

One thing led to another. After the performance was over, I decided that I would try to explore Paco’s picado technique more fully.

Partly it was because I found I had lost some speed in two finger scales. The years of playing three finger scales had spoiled me. As the old saying goes, ‘use it or lose it.’ Luckily the scales in the Aranjuez were not crazy fast.

And partly, because Paco’s picado technique had always fascinated me.

But with all the repertoire that I had to learn in my younger days, I was not able to pursue it as much as I would’ve liked. (I did however work my two-finger scales up to quite a respectable speed and even wrote an article for Mr. Clinton’s magazine, where I mentioned Paco as being one of my great influences.)

I put the project on hold as I was working on a few things but last summer, I finally threw myself into the new project. The objective was not to aim for Paco’s incredible speed although that would be nice. My goal was to try to discover the secret behind that special effortless picado and apply it to my classical playing.

And what I’ve discovered is truly amazing.

Paco’s picado is a combination of factors, all of which have to be present and working together.

(A disclaimer: I wouldn’t claim that I fully understand all the intricacies of Paco’s technique. What I have derived is an interpretation of what I’ve seen and heard in his recordings and videos.)

I’ll be describing what I discovered in greater detail later but suffice it to say that it involves all the major elements described in the AOV.

First, the concept of grouping. To get speed, grouping notes together is crucial. This was probably the hardest one to figure out. Grouping is easy in arpeggio playing where a few fingers are involved, but how do you do it with only two fingers? The answer turned out to be quite surprising.

Next is economy. This is easy. The trick is to focus your playing on the fingertips, just like free strokes. When you focus your strokes at the fingertips, economy happens automatically.

But how do you get that punchy sound if you’re moving with so little motion?

Through the concept of creating power from the release of energy rather than by exerting more energy. I had explained this in the chapter on rest stroke in the AOV for guitar too, where you focus on the plucking rather the resting.

And finally to focus on the preplaying rather than the plucking. In other words, to focus on getting to the strings rather than the actual playing. This too I had described in the AOV for guitar.

One of the most perplexing things about Paco’s picado technique is whether he played from the knuckle joints or the middle joints.

From the way he holds his fingers, it would appear that he’s playing from the middle joints, but my discoveries point to a complex situation where the whole finger is involved.

Perhaps another way to understand this is to ask yourself this question; when you walk, do you walk with your hips or with your knees or with your feet?

Obviously all the joints are involved. And that’s true of Paco’s picado technique. All the joints are involved.

The big knuckles have to hold the fingers in place; otherwise the finger would collapse and flatten out. They also have to push in to create that grouping effect, but the tip joints are also clearly involved in the plucking to produce that super economy of movement.

The big question is, will you be able to get Paco’s speed with this approach?

The approach is so economical and efficient that it’s conceivable that with practice, you could get to quite a good speed but speed is a side issue. More important is the extreme economy and efficiency behind the technique.

So when did I play the Aranjuez? I’ve forgotten which year it was exactly.

But the day after I performed the concerto with the orchestra, I woke up to find that my great idol had passed on the night before. In fact, fifteen minutes before I went on stage to play his version of the Aranjuez. Which made my tribute to this great master all the more poignant.

More thoughts on the engine

April 7th, 2018

Lately, I’ve been trying to write the new AOV chapter on energy and it seems the more I look into it, the more complex it looks.

I know there’s something going on at the fingertips but what exactly it is is hard to pin down.

I’ve called it an engine, I’ve referred to momentum, I’ve talked about economy, and written about focusing your movements right at the fingertips.

All these are important factors in speed, but there seems to be one component that’s still missing.

And that is what’s actually going on in the fingers and between the fingers.

As I play, I can definitely feel an interaction between the fingers to produce the effortless driving energy at the fingertips.

The best way to describe this sensation, this interaction is the ‘engine.’

As I examine it, it’s clear that there’re two basic components to this engine.

The first is circular motion.

Part of the problem with speed is sustaining it.

Yes, you can practice ballistic movements and maybe you can pluck that one note really fast but to continue to play a whole series of notes fast is something else.

This is because to sustain speed in a series of notes, you need to maintain the energy level throughout those notes.

The key is circular motion.

A circle has no beginning and no end. Once you get into a loop, you’ll be able to continue it indefinitely. This is why it’s so effective in maintaining speed and energy.

But how do you accomplish this circular motion?

You can try to do it through conscious effort, by consciously forcing the fingers to follow a circular trajectory.

But that’s ineffective because you can’t micro manage your fingers at high speeds.

The better way is to develop a finger movement that will produce the circular motion automatically and naturally.

What I’ve developed over the years is a plucking action that feels more like pulling, and in a direction that is upward rather than inwards.

(In rest-strokes, it would be more across the strings than upward.)

To perform the stroke, draw your fingers upward, almost like a stroking action.

(I’ll do a video to illustrate this soon, but for now, I’ll try to explain it as best as I could.)

When you pluck the finger upward, it will automatically produce the first half of the circle. The other half is when you bring the finger down to play the next note.

The pulling upward action is not obvious visually. It is felt only by the player. To someone watching, it would appear as if you’re plucking the string normally.

But that’s only in one finger.

What happens if you have to play multiple fingers in a quick sequence of notes?

This is where it gets interesting.

The circular trajectory occurs not only in the individual fingers, but in the entire finger cycle and pattern.

I’ll explain this with the tremolo.

The standard tremolo involves a pattern of thumb and three fingers, ‘a’, ‘m’ and ‘i’. We’ll forget the thumb for now.

When you play with the pulling action, each finger would be moving in a circular trajectory.

As soon as the finger plucks, the circular trajectory in that finger would seem to stop, and it would hover suspended in the air while the plucking/pulling pattern shifts to the next finger.

But the circular motion never actually stops; it simply gets transferred to the next finger.

When the ‘a’ finger has finished plucking, the circular trajectory is continued in the ‘m’ finger, and then the ‘i’ finger after that.

So if you look at the totality of the ‘a m i’ pattern, the circular trajectory actually continues through the fingers.

The second component is the sensation of the energy within the fingers.

This energy is dynamic. It’s very driven.

The energy is first created with the first stroke. That first stroke should produce a burst of energy. You can feel this energy being transferred to each succeeding finger, almost like a relay.

It feels like you’re playing one finger off another. There’s a strong sense of interaction between the fingers and it’s all occurring at the fingertips and tip joints.

Imagine the fingers like interlocking parts of an engine, like the pistons in an engine, going up and down, each one setting the next off. As soon as one moves, the next one is already kicking into gear, and then the next, and the next.

This is the reason why playing at the fingertips is so crucial to speed.

Yes, it produces automatic economy, but more than that, it engages the fingers as a unit and enables them to work off each other.

Old concert video

April 2nd, 2018

As an artist on the Texas Commission on the Arts in the 90’s, I played all over the state, from Eagle Pass to Jasper, from McAllen to Abilene.

I recently found some old footage from those days. This is a track from a program I played in Abilene, Texas in 1993.

Invocation and Dance by Joaquin Rodrigo

The engine

March 27th, 2018

First, a short explanation.

The engine is the mechanism in the fingers that enables you to produce speed effortlessly, without having to force it.

What do I mean by forcing?

It means trying to move the fingers as fast as possible individually.

Forcing may work to a point, but it takes too much effort and the inherent tension will cause you to choke eventually.

By tapping into the engine, it is relatively easy to get all the speed you need with effortless ease, which means there’s minimal tension.

So what is this engine?

It’s making the fingers work together so that they work as a unit.

First, consider the actions involved in plucking one note.

  1. You bring the finger to the string.
  2. You pluck the string.
  3. Your finger follows through.
  4. You bring the finger back to the string for the next stroke.

That’s just one note.

To play a series of notes, you’ll have to repeat the sequence for each note, which means we’re looking at performing up to 40 actions if we have to play ten notes.

Now, instead of thinking 40 actions, think one action.

When you do this, there’s a continuous flow of energy from one action to the next.

And here’s an important point—each action becomes a springboard to the next.

As you perform action 1, your finger is already moving to action 2, and as you perform action 2, your finger is already moving to action 3 etc.

Within the actions, there’s a sensation of constant forward motion, each action driving to the next

This forward driving energy is crucial. Not only do you have to perform the actions as one, you must also fill your actions with an energy that’s constantly propelling itself forward.

To use the idea of the springboard—each action becomes a springboard to the next.

Because all this occurring at the local level, at the points of actions, it automatically produces very small economical movements at the fingertips.

This technique not only works for the right hand (plucking hand), it also works for the left hand especially in playing hammer-ons and pull-offs.

Let’s say you have to play four slurred notes—f g f g on the first string.

Here, there’re three left hand actions after the right hand has plucked the first f.

  1. LH third finger hammers down on g.
  2. LH third finger pulls off to f.
  3. LH third finger hammers on g again.

Now, instead of thinking three separate actions, think of one action.

This one action goes from hammer onto g, pulls off to f, and then hammer down on g again.

All done in one continuous flow of action,

Now here’s the critical part, as the finger pulls off to f, feel it physically moving back to hammer down on g.

In other words, within the pull-off is the energy to bring it back to the next hammer-on.

To summarize, the engine comes down to one thing.

Constant and continuous flow of energy.

Supported by an aggressive and forward driving flow of energy.

From one action to the next, you’re constantly moving to the next and the next.

When you’re able to create this flow of energy, your fingers feel as if they’re self powered, like an engine working effortlessly.

All this is working beneath the surface, all hidden from view. Only the player knows what’s going on.

To the observer, it would appear as if the player is possessed of a magical source of energy.

But there’s nothing magical about it. It’s the result of years of practice. Practice that enables one to understand the body completely and make it work with maximum efficiency.

The secret ingredient

March 25th, 2018

In life, it’s easy to make wrong assumptions based on what we see, rather than the reality which is usually far more complex.

For example, if we look at a car, and see the wheels spinning as it runs, it’s easy to conclude that the reason why cars run is because of the wheels.

But we know that in reality, there’re a whole host of things working under the hood which make a car run, chief of them, the engine, without which the car is just a piece of scrap metal.

I’ve found that the same thing is often true in trying to explain guitar technique.

For example, I’ve always known that the sensation in the fingers plays a crucial role in technique.

This is something that is not perceptible visually, and is usually left out of the equation when people try to explain technique.

(The present obsession with hand positions and strict prescriptions on how the fingers should move are all based on how things look rather than how they operate internally.)

Then, there’s the internal mechanism within the body which provides the energy.

All these are experiential things which can only be gleaned through direct experience. Any attempt to explain them are just “fingers pointing at the moon,” to use the old cliché.

Lately, I’ve been trying to write the final chapter to the AOV.

It came to me a while back that my original preoccupation with the physical elements of virtuosity, which while still valid, misses one important component—that of energy itself.

Energy is what drives our actions. It’s the engine that drives the car of virtuosity.

And the key to virtuosity, more than anything else, is finding that source of effortless energy within us.

I’ve tried to explain this source of energy as momentum.

But I now realize it’s not momentum, just a feeling of momentum in the fingers as they propel each other forward.

I’ve tried to explain it as consolidation but consolidation is just a strategy to produce the engine. It’s not the engine itself.

So what’s this engine?

That’s for my next article.