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.

The pure interpretation/2

March 16th, 2018

I mentioned in the previous post that the ‘pure interpretation’ is one that is free from distortions caused by technical considerations or instrumental limitations.

But there is one additional factor that could get in its way and that is convention.

Convention is just another word for pack mentality. You do what everyone else is doing.

But what is wrong doing what everyone is doing?

First, it’s boring. Surely there’re more than one side to everything including musical interpretation. Why not highlight the other side or sides?

Convention is also an excuse not to think. Let someone else do the thinking for you. It’s safer too. You won’t get critiqued quite so much.

Sometimes convention is drawn from tradition. Which is perhaps the best reason for it. But only if the tradition is deep and real.

When it comes to the pure interpretation, mine is heavily influenced by the keyboard.

I’ve always found keyboard players musically more mature and expressive. There’re two reasons for this, I think.

The first is that the keyboard is easier to play. (I know piano players will disagree with me here.)

But think about it. To play the guitar, we need two hands to produce one note (most of the time). On top of that, if we have more than one part, we only have one hand to fret all the notes in those parts. In other words, one hand to play two or more parts.

And the crazy thing is, at high speeds; let’s say four notes to 150 on the metronome, we have to coordinate the two hands to play precisely together 10 times per second.

Pianists don’t have those problems so they can concentrate on musicality.

The second reason is the unbroken keyboard tradition. A tradition that goes all the way to J S Bach and even earlier.

For instance, consider the great early 20th century pianists (who include Paderewski and Schnabel) who studied with Leschetitzky, who was a student of Czerny, who was a student of Beethoven, who was a student of Haydn, who himself was a contemporary of CPE Bach.

In contrast, on the guitar, the closest thing we have as a tradition is Segovia who claimed to be self taught.

There’s of course the Tarrega tradition with Llobet as its main proponent, but there’s nothing that quite matches the long unbroken line on the piano.

So when it comes to convention, I’m all for it but I tend to look for conventions that are more about the spirit of the piece rather than the ego of a particular artist.

This is the main difference between keyboard and guitar conventions.

The conventions of many pianistic devices are directly tied to the meaning of the music whereas the conventions of the guitar tend to be tied to personalities. (For instance, the classic Segovia ‘rubato’ which has less to do with the context of the piece than to his idiosyncrasies.)

(I understand there’s been a reaction to the Segovia tradition among some players these days, but that’s for another article.)

Pure interpretation to me means capturing the spirit of the music and interpreting it without any affectations or distortions due to technical or instrumental limitations and without any blind adherence to ‘convention.’

This means doing whatever it takes to stay true to the music.

The pure interpretation

March 15th, 2018

In my teaching, I like to refer to the concept of the ‘pure interpretation.’

This is that interpretation that is uninfluenced by technical considerations and instrumental limitations.

It is how you hear the piece in your mind in its full glory and expression.

And then you try to reproduce it with your fingers, without uncompromising that vision in any way.

This means not doing any pseudo rubato stuff (or any other guitar ‘tricks’) to hide any technical inadequacies or instrumental limitations.

A few years ago, I began to hear Recuerdos in an entirely new way, in its ‘pure interpretation’ state.

In my mind, I heard it played with a soaring melodic line and a sympathetic accompaniment that would speed up and slow down to support the melody.

This interpretation is as pure as it gets because I knew it would be hard to achieve.

To backtrack, up to that point, I had always seen the tremolo as having three stages of development.

The first stage is the stage of unevenness.

You have the speed in your fingers but you can’t control them yet, so the notes come out uneven.

The second stage is the stage of thumb dominance.

Here the thumb dominates. The notes have become even, but because the thumb dominates, it produces a strong accompaniment with the melody notes trailing after each thumb note. (Much like the wake from a boat.)

The third stage is the stage of finger dominance.

You’ve been able to transfer the focus of your strokes from the thumb to the fingers and now the thumb is no longer playing so strongly. Because the fingers dominate, you can focus on them individually and produce a smooth tremolo that is based on producing the same tactile feeling in each finger.

One thing common to all three stages is a metrical and unvarying accompaniment. This strict accompaniment is required because of the evenness factor.

To keep the four 32nd notes perfectly even, the accompaniment has to be spaced apart evenly.

Which means that the melody is kept in a straitjacket of sorts because the melodic line is determined in large part by the accompaniment. This is a limitation imposed by the technique itself.

With this new vision of Recuerdos, I realized that I needed a fourth stage, a stage that would allow me to vary the accompaniment and still keep the melody even.

It took me a while to work it out but I found that this stage would require both thumb dominance to produce the speed, and finger dominance to produce the evenness.

Because of the extreme speed between some of the accompaniment notes, I found I would have to forgo the mechanical evenness of the third stage.

This turns out to be a blessing in disguise, because the resulting small variations in evenness actually add many subtle nuances to the line making it more alive.

And of course, ultimately, it all comes down to that pure interpretation. Everything else is secondary.

Energy—the inner dimension of virtuosity

March 4th, 2018

My journey into virtuosity started with a preoccupation with its physical aspects, or what we might call the outer layer of virtuosity.

Looseness, lightness, fluidity—all these describe the physical dimensions of virtuosity.

But like many things in life, my journey soon took me into the inner layer.

When I realized that there’s something that’s more, something behind the physical attributes.

An energy, or the life force of virtuosity.

And I realized that the element of energy is at the heart of virtuosity.

It is what produces the speed, the life, the power of virtuosity.

And because this energy is so alive, it is what fills your actions and playing with movement and nuances and shadings.

And then I wondered why the realization had not come sooner.

Because I’ve always been more drawn to the inner aspect of technique than the outer.

I’ve always been more preoccupied with how to produce energy in my playing than in making pretty sounds.

It’s why I’ve never been impressed or drawn to pretty players. And why I’d been so influenced by players who exude energy and power and life.

Players like John Williams, Paco de Lucia, Yamashita.

Because energy is what makes the playing come alive.

It has taken me a number of years to collect my thoughts and write the new chapter for the AOV, the missing chapter which is actually the most integral to the book.

You can read the new chapter here.