Tuesday, October 27, 2009

A Passion for Classical Guitar

I recently discovered a radio interview with guitar virtuoso Eliot Fisk from NPR's On Point radio program, originally aired in June 2009:


How often does one get to hear an interview with a brilliant classical guitarist on the radio? Just about never! So this is a rare treat. We are so lucky they keep their past shows archived on their website so you can go there and listen to any past show anytime.

This is a really great interview; Eliot is a wonderful ambassador for the classical guitar. He is incredibly talented, a true virtuoso, passionate, intelligent and spiritually connected. His playing has those same qualities and he was generous enough to perform on the air during the show.

Listening to Eliot reminded me that my own passion for classical guitar has never diminished, since I was introduced to it by my first teacher, Jim Denton, way back in 1971 in Waynesboro PA. I still have the book of classical pieces he once gave to me. Most of it was way beyond me at the time, but I guess he knew it would be an inspiration to me, and it was. Now, all these years later, I still play pieces from that book.

Eliot very eloquently describes the intellectual, physical, and spiritual aspects of being a classical guitarist. That exactly matches my own experience. Classical guitar appeals to me strongly on all three of those levels and I have learned that they are all inter-connected.

The intellectual part comes from an appreciation of the awesome creativity, beauty and sophistication of the music of the great classical composers.

The physical part is how much I enjoy the technical challenges involved in learning new pieces and refining my technique to the highest possible level I can.

The spiritual part comes from discovering the way one's  performance can convey not just the composer's intent, not just the performer's  interpretation, but something that transcends all of that and communicates directly to the listener's heart.

Even though I have worked hard to "get good" at classical guitar, I still feel blessed and grateful to be able to perform it and share those moments when the boundaries between composer, performer and listener dissolve and we all feel as one.

Enjoy this video of Eliot in concert. I hope this blog inspire you to delve more deeply into classical music; I'm sure you will find it as rewarding as I have.


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Sunday, October 4, 2009

Have Classical Guitar, Will Travel

I get a special sense of satisfaction when I do a classical guitar gig, even if it's a noisy social situation and no one seems to be listening. (it is always best to go on the assumption that someone is actually listening, even if you don't see them. It is almost always true.)

A recent gig I had was to provide background music for a cocktail party at a hotel grand opening. My understanding was that, for this situation, the music needs to be sophisticated, dynamic, and diverse. It needs to blend into the background but also be enjoyable to anyone who stops to listen. To accomplish that, I play a mix of mostly upbeat classical, Spanish/Latin, and easy-listening versions of pop tunes. I also include some contemporary finger-style pieces by Steve Morse, Phil Keaggy, Earl Klugh and others.

The pieces are fun, challenging and/or just beautiful, sometimes all of the above. I have been building up my repertoire for many years, and I enjoy this music very much. I have enough pieces in a variety of styles that I can choose what feels right for the situation, and play music I love at the same time. Some current and all-time favorites of mine to play:

Bach, "Cello Suite No. 1, Prelude"
Sanz, "Canarios"
Satie, "Gymnopedie I"
Ponce, "Scherzino Mexicano"
Steve Morse, "Picture This"
Genesis, "Horizons"

So that's a little insight into the classical side of my musical life.

To wrap it up, here's a clip from one of my heroes, the great British guitarist John Williams. I hope it inspires you as much as it does me!

Monday, September 28, 2009

It Might Get Loud


I loved this movie. I was lucky enough to see it during its first run, in a new Baltimore movie house with my wife and some good friends. When it comes out on DVD, I will be buying it!
Who'd have thought we'd get to to hear Jimmy Page talk about recording "When The Levee Breaks," or listen to him demonstrate dynamics with a solo performance of "Ramble On," or that he would invite us into his home to share his huge record collection? We also get to see the Edge demonstrate how he uses his incredibly complex set-up of effects and amps to manifest the sounds he hears in his head. And just for something completely different, Jack White builds a guitar-like instrument from scratch, on camera, and in less than a minute is jamming away on it.
What it's really about is that the three of them have the same passion for the guitar as the vehicle for their self expression. They each go in radically different directions, but they all have their priorities straight as far as making music, and so all have great wisdom to pass on, and marvelous stories to tell about their influences, inspirations, and of course, their guitars.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The Beatles

Why do the Beatles keep coming up in lessons with my guitar students, over and over, year after year? They don't do guitar heroics like Zeppelin or Hendrix. They aren't deeply rooted in blues riffs like Clapton or, well, Hendrix. What's it all about?

Songs. Chords and melodies. And some great guitar riffs.

The Beatles used their guitars to create great songs. It was always about the songs first, never about showing off their playing skills (which were nevertheless considerable). Blessed with boundless creative energy, the Beatles produced album after album filled with great songs. Songs that have lasted
40 years now and show no signs of going away.

The Beatles set standards for writing great melodies, chord progressions and guitar riffs that have been emulated, copied, blatantly ripped off but never equaled. Every few years in the world of pop music, another generation of songwriters tries to pass themselves off as new and original, but their style can usually be traced directly back to you-know-who.

I will introduce my students to the Beatles if they don't discover them for themselves. Their songs are like virtual encyclopedias of chord progressions, and their guitar parts are full of very tricky bits that are not at all obvious until you start trying to learn them (that is, learn them correctly!).

I also highly recommend watching the Beatles Anthology video series. It details, but cannot fully explain, how a group of teenage boys started out struggling to learn three chord rock, then became a highly proficient and versatile cover band, and finally become the most amazing creators of great popular music ever known. And all in a matter of a few short years.

It is truly remarkable to see how they were able to not just keep going but to actually grow creatively, very quickly, throughout the course of their brief history. They continually became more creative, more adventurous, and wrote ever better songs, lots of them. This, at the same time as their ever growing success placed incredible, intense pressures on them.

It is clear that it was only the combination of these four specific individuals that could have made the Beatles possible. That in itself, should offer a testimony to what being in a band really is about.

So I hear there's a Beatles edition of RockBand now. That's cool. But remember it's all about the songs. So buy the albums, listen and learn.