February’s challenge, and music of the month

January’s 30 day challenge was a great exercise in small, enduring habit changes. I committed to touching two guitar pieces every day for 30 days. I ended up playing about 6 out of 7 days overall, and am okay with that. It got me into the habit of practicing every single day, and that made practicing more of a joy than a chore. If I’m not playing frequently, every time I pick up the instrument there is a fairly unpleasant hump to be surmounted as my fingers remember how to work properly. Daily practice ensures I can essentially pick up where I left off. My sight reading has progressed noticeably, too, something that needs daily repetition for learning.

Now, what to do for February? I’m sorely tempted to set a physical activity goal, say 30 continuous minutes of activity – even walking – every day for February (okay, it’s a 28-day challenge). This goal is more on the “it’ll be good for me” end of the spectrum. I bicycle for pleasure and fitness, and there are days when it just doesn’t work to ride. Can I get a half hour walk or (shudder) gym workout in on those off days?  I guess I’ll find out.

Meanwhile, I’m going to set musical goals for each month, under the assumption that I’ll continue to practice every day. I pretty much learned the shorter of the two Back preludes that were January’s focus, and the longer of the two is pretty close to under my fingers.  I’m picking two more preludes for February, a relatively short one by Ponce and a longer piece by JS Bach (BWV 1006a – originally for harp). I’ve played through the Ponce before, but took a lot of shortcuts with the fingering – I want to relearn it properly and fix some of the mistakes I’ve memorized along the way.

The Bach is long – 139 bars. I’ve been wanting to pick up a joyous piece, though (I’ve been gravitating to the darker regions of the emotional spectrum) and this fits the bill. I’m essentially starting from scratch on this one, so it’ll be a good test of how far I can come in a month. (I’m only learning the prelude of the video below, not the rest of the movements).

In related news, I’m seriously considering picking up a guitar teacher to keep me on track. I’ve got a little too much on my plate currently, but if I keep playing consistently I’m going to start hitting a plateau pretty soon, and will need that nudge to break through.

I missed my wood shop time this weekend – family illness took precedence, so the necks are still in the same shape they were a week ago. I’m hopeful my work commitments will be slightly more relaxed this week and I’ll be able to take an evening or so at the bench.

That’s all for now – nothing deep or profound, just an update on activities. I do have some more ideas floating around (remembering some threads I started back in November for NaBloPoMo) that I’ll want to write about, but again need to find the time and space to do so.

PS. Dang, the video below is the 1st place winner of the Guitar Foundation of America International Youth Competition, Junior Division. I believe he’s 13 years old. This piece is on my bucket list.


Physical feedback

Saturday was neck carving day – I planned on spending some quality time at a workbench with a sturdy vice and sharp chisels, carving the heel of my guitar neck (that part where the back of the neck joins the body). I’ve actually got two necks built in parallel, but one has quite a bit of tear-out from some sloppy router work on the headstock, so that’s become my “practice” neck. Free-carving the curve of the heel will take some practice.

It was a bit frustrating at first. One book I’ve been following as a guide suggests using a very wide chisel for the broad shaping. Good idea in practice, but force = pressure x area. I have to use twice as much force on a 1″ chisel as I would on a 1/2″ chisel, and that means I’m more likely to slip (there’s a clean slice on the side of my index finger from both pushing too hard with the right hand and not remembering to keep the left hand out of the path of the tool). It’s also just bad form to “force” a tool – I just don’t have as much control. My chisels are reasonably sharp (although I could probably improve in the sharpening department, too), so I was surprised at how difficult this was.

I ended up eventually shifting to a narrower chisel, and life got a lot easier. There was still a lot of trial and error – the main shaping strokes are across the grain, which is an odd direction to pare wood. I eventually broke out my cabinet maker’s rasps (and boy, can I tell the difference between a high quality rasp and a cheap Big Box store tool) and learned how they work in this particular application. I got to the point of a rough shape with the practice neck, and then stopped to take a break.

Rough carving the side profile of the neck heel.

Rough carving the side profile of the neck heel.

Reading about the carving operation ahead of time was helpful – I knew roughly the order of operations I wanted to execute. But there was a lot I had to experience first hand – literally. The curve of the heel is concave looking from the headstock to the body, but convex looking up from the back of the instrument. Carving each of these with flat chisels took some thinking and experimenting. The wood also behaves very differently when carving across vs with the grain. In one of my first (too heavy) cuts I tore a good chunk out of the top of the fingerboard – had that been my “real” neck it would have been difficult to glue back into place without a cosmetic blemish.

I know this is glaringly obvious, but this sort of knowledge and skill can only be acquired through practice. Reading is helpful to a point, but what I found surprising is that after trying this for a few hours, I could re-read the texts and better understand the logic of certain operations. The book was quite clear, for example, about never carving along the curve all the way through to the end of the workpiece – that guarantees some tearing out (which I proved). Now I see why that advice was given, and through making the gut-clenching error myself the lesson has stuck.

This week looks to be a bit busy, but I’m going to try to carve out (no pun intended) one evening to return to the wood shop this week.

Meanwhile, the 30 day challenge continues along. I’m managing to average about 6 days out of 7 of solid guitar practice, and I’ll call that a win. I’m finding it’s a lot easier to keep up when I have a basic expectation of daily practice, and allow myself an occasional “miss.”  If I’d set a goal of every other day, on the other hand, I think it would have been a lot harder to keep up as a habit.  In an ideal world I’d probably adopt the same “every day unless there’s a good reason” approach to exercise, too. Maybe that will be Feb’s challenge…

Wow, only a week in? (30 day challenge 2015.01)

In my last post I started a 30 day challenge – to get two Bach preludes under my fingers within 30 days. The basic idea is that New Year’s resolutions are really hard to keep, but shorter-term goals are much more tractable.

During tonight’s practice I played both preludes through around 70% tempo. There were lots of glitches still, but I was pleasantly surprised that only a week of sustained effort made such a difference! Yes, I’ve read that advice from countless musicians: practice every day, even if you’re not in the mood.  This is probably the first week I’ve practiced every single day since… college? It shows.  My sight reading is getting sharper, too, as I revisit other pieces I haven’t touched in a very long time.

That’s all for now!

Mini-resolutions: 30 day challenges

Around the New Year I came across this Ted Talk suggesting that instead of grandiose New Year’s resolutions (which tend not to last more than a month or so anyway), perhaps we could think of smaller experimental episodes in our lives: 30 day commitments. (It turns out, there was a reality TV show based on this same concept about ten years ago: 30 Days. No good idea is ever completely original, right?) Back in November I tried the National Blog Posting Month challenge, and I think I wrote something here on all but 2 days of the month. Clearly my writing has dropped off since then, but I have a distinct memory of what it was like to plan on writing ever single day, and know what I’m getting into if I want to keep that commitment longer.

I’m exited thinking about 12 distinct possible challenges in 2015 – and I don’t have to think them all up on January 1!  I’ve often found that if I’m not growing or learning something new or pushing myself in some way, I feel stagnant. I’m curious to see what ends up “sticking” as a lifestyle change, and what is simply an interesting experiment that doesn’t need repeating.

So what shall I do for my first challenge? I’ve been a bit frustrated with my music lately – I seem to have a lot of pieces that are about 80% learned, but I’m not putting in consistent enough practice to actually get any to the point of polished performance. So for January I’m going to try a dual commitment: 1) practice the guitar every single day, even if only for 10 minutes, and 2) learn and polish two Bach preludes (BWV 998 and 999). The first prelude is part 1 of a 3 part suite (followed by a  fugue and allegro). The fugue is just not my cup of tea (it’s feels like an interesting composition exercise, but goes on for far too long), but I’d like to eventually tackle the allegro to play as well. First things first.  BWV 999 is a popular stand-alone prelude that’s also good right hand appregio practice.

Maybe this is all the 30 day challenges will entail: clean up a piece of two to the point where it’s memorized or approaching performance-ready, and by the end of the year I’ll actually have a set list for an open mic. 🙂

Not all knowledge can be written down

Good news – the guitar top seems to be well glued to the sides, with not strange gaps or misalignments. The arch that was built into the top and sides seems to have retained its form – the lower bout tilts back from the plane of the upper bout and neck by a few millimeters at the bridge location. Pictures will appear in a future post.

Now that the top is being held within the frame of the sides, I can proceed to “voice” it by selectively removing material from both the top and the braces. In theory, there is a “sweet spot” of resonance where the sound board just feels more lively. The problem is, I’ve only read descriptions in print of what this might sound like. The few recordings I’ve come across just can’t do it justice through laptop speakers. It’s as much a felt quality as a heard quality. So I’m feeling really cautious at this stage, because if I remove too much material I’ll cross the threshold into “floppy,” where the soundboard loses its important acoustic properties altogether. (It will also likely fail catastrophically under the tension of the strings).

Right now it’s like I’m hiking in fog. I can set off in a particular direction, and I’ll have a sense of whether I’m climbing or descending, but I can’t backtrack. I’d like to climb to a local peak, but from this position I don’t even know which direction to set out in. Like I said, no backtracking if I set out in the wrong direction. And how to translate this metaphor of setting out in the fog to deciding which braces to lighten, where to sand down the top? I have no idea. I think I’ll end up just making some tentative, global changes, thinning the top overall by a few thousandths of an inch. One guidebook actually suggests making guitars in identical pairs – as you alter one soundboard you’ll still have a reference to judge against. Oh well, that’s not my case this go-around.

What I really need is to be guided by a master who can show me the sonic landscape of soundboard performance, what the boundary conditions are, and ways of getting to regions of that sweet spot (even within the region of “good resonance,” people may vary the qualities as a master of taste).  There is a builder up in Belmont I could try to hook up with for advice. (Actually, what have I got to lose for asking?) There are others who offer more formal classes and workshops in voicing the instrument.

It’s clear to me that this is one of those learning situations where patient guidance of a teacher is called for. I’ll still try to find what I can on the Internet – maybe somebody has done a really high-quality instructional video. But in the end it’s one person trying to convey a sense of things to another, and in that dialog understanding emerges.

I had a similar experience just last night – we went up to see a classical guitar concert by the Romeros (a dynastic family of musicians). They played as a quartet, and some of the members performed duets and solos as well. Celin Romero performed two Villa-Lobos preludes I’ve been working on (#1 and #3). HIs rendition of Prelude #1 in E minor was ear-opening. The manuscript notes supposedly say something to the effect that it represents two sides of Brazilian character, both a yearning melancholy as well as sense of verve and gusto. The form is A-B-A, where the opening A section (the “yearning” part) is repeated after the B (more exciting) section.

Celin took the first A section far more delicately than I play it, and more patiently than many recordings I’ve heard. He was measured with his phrasing, allowing the piece to really breathe. I have to say I was a little disappointed in his B section (but I suspect, based on some technical choices he made, his fingers may be showing their age), but overall I was glad to hear and SEE him play it first-hand. Again, all of the manuscript notes in the world would not convey what it could sound like, compared to hearing a live or recorded performance (I probably own at least 3 versions of this prelude on CD, all with a different emotional interpretation. Celin’s was the 4th I’ve heard from a professional).

So, I’m off to find some good acoustic guides to soundboard voicing, and I’m inspired to pick up the Villa-Lobos prelude again. 🙂  Til next time.

Passing the point of no return

Tonight I joined the guitar top to the sides. This is a non-reversible operation, so if I messed it up, I’d be rebuilding a new top AND a new set of sides. Fortunately, it went relatively smoothly. I triple-checked the fit and alignment, did a little last minute trimming of a couple of braces, dry-fit the clamps before gluing, then pulled the trigger. Below are the before and after pictures – tomorrow I’ll unclamp everything and see how it all looks as a unit.

I feel like I’m on a bit of a roll now – a lot of design decisions have been made and committed to. Now it’s “just” about careful execution. I’m going to try to keep up at least weekly work on this through the holidays, when I’ll have a more concentrated span of time for shop work.

Ready for gluing

Ready for gluing

Glued, clamped, weighted down

Glued, clamped, weighted down

If at first I don’t succeed…

After fixing the guitar body lining that I messed up in my last post, I went back to the shop today (fueled up on delicious Thanksgiving leftovers) determined to slow down, get in the zone, and cut the notches in the lining they way they should be. In the end I decided to try notching the braces into the lining for structural reasons, not acoustic reasons. The acoustics, as I mentioned in that post, are a matter of debate – how tightly coupled the back and sides are to the top is a matter of taste and tuning. But I’d read stories of braces coming loose over time and vibrating – supporting the brace ends by tucking them into the lining seems to help, and that explanation made sense to me.

A few careful saw cuts and chisel strokes later,

Cutting slots (in addition to the full slots already in the lining to provide flexibility) for the sides of the pocket.

Cutting slots (in addition to the full slots already in the lining to provide flexibility) for the sides of the pocket.

Chiseling out the waste of the pocket to the depth of the brace. The end of a top brace will tuck into this pocket.

Chiseling out the waste of the pocket to the depth of the brace. The end of a top brace will tuck into this pocket.

I had six pockets routed out on both the top and back sides of the lining. A preliminary fit of top and back showed I was in the ballpark – I may have to trim a smidgeon here and there before gluing, but that’s better than removing too much all at once. There will be a little but of ugliness in terms of the visual presentation (in some cases it was easier and safer to just remove two whole segments of the lining to the correct depth, rather than try to saw and leave a very thin and weak segment), but most of this work is not visible to casual inspection. Again, “just build the damn thing.”

No particularly deep lesson today, just a reminder that failure is an opportunity to learn and grow. While I lament the fact that there is no easy “undo” in woodworking, it does slow me down and focus my concentration in a particular way, and gives me real “failures” to recover from.