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.

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.

Brief thoughts on learning and meaning

I feel like I’m fighting a bug, so tonight’s entry will be short. My colleague Cynthia D’Angelo posted today about Zelda Speed Runs, a form of “speed gaming” I had not heard of. Basically, one learns – over time and with much community support – how to efficiently traverse a game, gathering all the goodies (or similar goals) in a minimum amount of time. A single run can take 18 hours, so this is not for the faint of heart.  Edit: As Cynthia pointed out in a comment below, the speed run can take 18 minutes, while a “normal” run of the game can take 20 hours.

My first reaction may be similar to many readers’: this is what people spend time getting good at? You have to understand, it takes many many repetitions of a game run (again, these can take 20 hours-plus once you get good at it) to be competitive. People record glitches in the game code that might afford one a shortcut to a particular goal. This is a huge investment in time.

But then I thought about some of my own challenges. Among other pieces, I’m starting to work on Bach’s Chaconne transcribed for the guitar. 256 bars (actually, 64 variations on a 4-bar pattern). Professional violinists spend a lifetime mastering this one piece – once you get all the notes down (and with runs of 32nd notes, there are a lot of them) you still have to develop a feel for how the various variations string together, when to hold back, when to cut loose. It’s going to take me a very long time to master (if I ever do).

So, speed gaming and playing the Chaconne. Neither is intrinsically worth more than the other. To the individual practitioner both activities are engaging. There are audiences that derive pleasure from supporting / spectating the practitioner.

What makes both of these “challenging” – and this is the thought I want to mull over at length in a future post – is rooted in the very nature of human learning. Learning is fundamentally about training neurons to fire in new patterns. This takes time and repetition (in most cases). It’s been noted that humans have to strike a balance between complete inertia – the inability to learn anything new – and over-learning, or the ability to learn new behaviors so quickly that we never adopt habits.  (I don’t think I’m getting that contrast exactly right – I’ll try to research it in that future post I keep talking about). In short, there are good evolutionary reasons why I can’t just read through the Chaconne once and have it completely memorized. I have to train my fingers and my memory to anticipate passages, train my fingers to fly quickly enough over the strings, even work out individual fingerings for each note to make the passage more efficient. It’s a great deal of work.

Oh yes, I wish I could learn it quickly and simply start performing it. But that’s not how we’re wired. It’s both frustrating and rewarding. And with that, I bid you all good night. Really, at some point soon I want to reflect more deeply about biological origins of slow learning, but not tonight. I’m too fuzzy-headed. And as Dragon-born, I still have to locate an Elder Scroll to learn the Dragonrend shout and save the world from extinction.

Guitar tunings and adaptive technologies

To pick up on my post about (inadvertently) learning to play the classical guitar, I want to reflect on ways modern ideas in guitar music lower the bar to musical enjoyment for both beginning and advanced players. This was inspired both by Chris Proctor’s workshop and reviewing a page on the CAST website for yesterday’s post on the roles of variation in education.

Even most non-players know that guitar strings are tuned to different pitches. So, what pitches should they be tuned to? There is what is known as “standard” tuning, and on a six string guitar those pitches are E2, A2, D3, G3, B3, E4 (see this Wikipedia page for an explanation of the numbers following the pitches), running from the lowest sounding string to the highest. Adjacent pairs of strings are tuned to an interval of a perfect fourth¹ – if you hum the opening notes to “Here comes the bride” the ascension of pitch from “Here” to “comes” is a perfect fourth.

Here’s the problem: if you strum the open strings together, a bunch of stacked perfect fourths doesn’t sound very good (heck, even a single perfect fourth isn’t all that consonant). So in order to get a decent chord out of the guitar, we have to start fretting notes – pressing on a fret shortens the length of the string and raises the pitch. From there we can get more pleasant intervals of thirds, fifths, and sixths² to blend together.

So if you walk into a guitar store and pick up an instrument tuned in standard pitch and strum the strings, you get mush. You can hear the pitches on this Wikipedia page. Yuck.

How about this for an idea – what if we tune the open strings to different pitches so that when all of the open strings are strummed together, they sound harmonious. This is known as open tuning, and opens up a whole lot of possibilities for players. For starters, the rankest beginner can instantly get a pleasing sound from the instrument. Want to play a different chord? The easiest thing to do is lay the index finger completely along a fret and strum the strings. Wow! Instant chords! Playing the 2 or 3 chords that comprise most folk and rock-and-roll tunes is now fairly straightforward.

But wait, there’s more! For advanced players open tunings open up all sorts of great musical possibilities. Bear in mind we have a resource constraint of four left-hand fingers (and occasionally the thumb) for altering pitches. A lot of instrumental music has 2 or 3 “voices” playing in tandem – there may be a bass line in the music with a lyrical melody played on top, for example. In standard tuning we need to devote at least one finger to hitting the right bass notes, another for the melody, and since we’re jumping around different strings those other two fingers are going to busy, too.

But life gets a little easier with open tunings. For starters, bass lines are often alternations between the tonic and fifth note in a chord. In standard tuning one or both of these would have to be held down with a finger, but in open tuning they’re simply available on open strings, leaving all four fingers free to do something else. Even when changing keys or chords, we can lay down the index finger to shift all of the pitches in tandem, and for the price of one finger we’re in a different key with 3 fingers left to do some interesting work. It may not sound like it’s much of a change from standard tuning, but it’s a big deal.

Again, thinking of a beginner, open tunings may this act of two-voice music much more accessible. The right hand thumb can practice alternative between two open bass strings while the musician concentrates on picking out a melody. The left hand work is much easier.

This whole shift to an open tuning reminds me so much of the philosophy of Universal Design for Learning – including the idea that we should remove unnecessary impediments from the learning environment, and build in supports for those who have differing needs. Open tunings provide a much easier on-ramp for an aspiring musician, including those who may have some limitations in left hand dexterity. I wonder how many kids might stick with the struggle of starting a new instrument if the strings were already tuned to something consonant?

So why aren’t all of the guitars hanging in the music store automatically tuned to open tunings? Mainly for the same reasons we still use a QWERTY keyboard, even though QWERTY was actually designed to retard speedy typing – tradition. We have a ton of guitar music (with chord diagrams to assist the beginner) written for standard tuning, and guitarists often watch one another’s left hand to work out chord sequences. It helps if those chord shapes are consistent. There are several possible open tunings in general use, and music publishing just hasn’t caught up to the concept that the guitar can be (re)tuned into several configurations. There are a couple of other reasons that favor standard tuning, but they’re a bit more technical.³

Thinking of picking up the guitar, even just to doodle? Do you have one gathering dust in your closet? I invite you to give an open tuning a try, and just play around – you’ll be surprised at how quickly real music emerges from under your fingers.

¹ Except for the change from G3 to B3, which is a major third. So much for consistency.

² Musicians use ordinal numbers to count the spaces between pitches. It’s 1-based, so a “unison” is two identical notes. A “second” is the interval from A to B, or D to E, or E to F – two adjacent notes. A “third” is the interval from A to C, B to D, C to E, etc. Some intervals sound more pleasing to the ear than others.

³ Three footnotes in a single blog post? Okay, one reason standard tuning is preferred has to do with reading standard Western musical notation. One learns where C4 is located on the fingerboard (well, the 3 different places it can be fingered easily) and that 1:1 correspondence gets locked into our brains. If you change the string tuning, the location of all the notes changes and sight reading goes out the window. Since there are easily a dozen common open tunings, we can’t continue to use standard music notation – we have to switch to a tablature format, which has actually been around since the middle ages.

The second reason given for standard tuning is that it’s also an equal temperament tuning, meaning one can switch keys in a musical piece without some notes starting to sound out of tune. Open tunings invite a just intonation, but can limit the keys that can be played in a particular piece of music.

What is a guitar?

This is a branch off of yesterday’s post, in which I described my accidental (serendipitous?) discovery of a classical guitar method.

The other day I was at a guitar clinic held by Chris Proctor. Chris would play a tune or two and take all sorts of questions from the audience. There were no more than 20 of us in attendance, so it was sort of a salon format. Having a nationally known guitarist all to ourselves for a couple of hours was quite the treat.

There were a couple of points in the evening where Chris alluded to the relative rigidity of the classical guitar culture. There is essentially one body shape for the guitar – all classical guitars are within a few millimeters of one another on key dimensions (not counting child-size guitars). There is one standard posture – sitting, guitar balanced between the legs but leaning against the left leg, left leg raised on a stool or guitar propped up on a brace. Strings are plucked with well-shaped right-hand fingernails. The left hand thumb is planted firmly in the back of the neck. All of the sheet music is in standard Western notation, G clef raised one octave.

In contrast, Taylor Guitars advertises 8 main body shapes for their steel string guitars (5 full size, 3 “mini”), and that’s just for the 6-string models (yes, there are other configurations). Players may sit in a variety of ways – guitar on right knee, on left knee, strapped on – and of course standing with a guitar strap is popular.  Strings may be played with fingernails, fingerpicks (essentially artificial nails), or a plectrum (guitar pick). The left hand thumb may wrap around to grab a bass string, or as Chris demonstrated, the entire hand may span the fretboard to achieve a long reach. Music – when it’s written down – might be in standard notation, but that’s far less common than tablature (where the actual fret positions are marked, rather than the pitches those frets represent) and chord diagrams (short-hand for the left-hand chord positions).

I have to agree with Chris’s assessment – the steel string guitar world is like the wild west compared to the classical community. Musicians are often shopping for “that sound” – whether it’s Neil Young or the Indigo Girls or Chris Proctor they want to emulate. The gold standard sound is different for each musician and circumstance. (Yes, to a much smaller degree, classical guitarists will note the subtle differences between instruments, but the distinctions are much finer).

Do I prefer one to the other? It depends. Right now I’m both playing classical guitar music much more than steel string, and building a classical guitar as well. But when I’m with friends and someone breaks out a guitar, it’s inevitably a steel string model to accompany singing, and I’m down with that too. Some of the pieces I’m most eager to master are steel-string instrumental compositions.

As a student guitar builder, I’m excited about exploring alternatives to the standard classical guitar shape. Some builders have come out with “cross-over” models – nylon string guitars that will feel comfortable in the hands of a steel string player. I’m interested in the reverse – creating a steel string guitar that will not require a lot of adjustment to my playing technique. In a sense that’s turning back the clock – the original steel string guitars were essentially classical guitars with extra reinforcement for the steel string tension. When I pick up an instrument modeled on those early guitars I tend to like the sound and feel, though – it could be an interesting project when I get to guitar #003.

No punchy ending to this blog – I’m essentially writing down some thoughts and signing off.

Music, math, learning and immediate gratification

Have you ever wanted to play guitar? I’ve been reflecting on my own learning lately, particularly after attending a workshop last night by one of my all-time favorite guitarists, Chris Proctor.

I started off in a fairly traditional manner, learning basic chords and strumming. This was in the context of a high school music class where every student either took beginning recorder or guitar lessons.  I enjoyed it so much that I wanted to continue after the course was over. Well, I knew this teacher had private students, and I knew which instruction book he was using (having seen his students carrying it around), so I picked up a copy of Solo Guitar Playing by Frederick Noad and dove in.

I didn’t think much of it at the time, but this book took a very different approach from the one my teacher had taken. In class, we had started with left hand positions for strumming chords – you lock down your left hand at various positions on the fretboard and then strike all of the strings simultaneously to produce harmonies. Noad’s book, by contrast, began with single-voice melodies – you learn the pitches of the open strings and start playing simple 3 note exercises on each string, ultimately combing strings to have a greater range of pitches. Well into the book we encounter the two-note chord – striking a base note with the thumb while the fingers play a melody. It wasn’t until much later – after a year’s worth of study – that I encountered anything that looked like a “traditional” guitar chord. By then it was slowly dawning on me that the longer pieces with names (pieces other than short exercises) were all composed in the 18th century.

Eventually I came to realize that there were (at least) two pathways to learning the guitar. One can start with the chords and work up to adding melodic embellishment and finally full melody with harmony. This is the path of the folks/blues/rock guitarist. The classical path reverses the order – one begins with simple melodies, builds up to simple two-note harmonies, and eventually arrive at full melodies and chords.

Both learning paths can take us to the same place – being facile both melodically and harmonically. I would argue, however, that beginning with chords favors the short-term feedback and gratification needed to get through the frustrations of first learning an instrument. With a good teacher and some guidance, one can play recognizable music in the first one hour lesson. The “fun” and reward of playing is available almost immediately.

Taking up a classical method requires a tolerance of delayed gratification. It’s not very “musical” to play three note ditties over and over while memorizing standard music notation and locating fingers on the frets. Mistakes (particularly buzzing strings) sound much more acute when playing single notes. If I had not already been learning some chords and “real” music to keep me amused, I might not have had the patience to stick with the classical instruction path.

Every since my epiphany around the dual approach to learning guitar (I think I first had this insight while in college) I’ve been paying attention to other “dual paths” to learning.  Nowadays I sometimes treat my own continuing statistics education as a dual-path approach. On the one hand we have the formal theory of conditional distributions described by density functions and how they interact. On the other is a purely computational/simulation approach – let’s try doing something a gazillion times and observing the distribution of the outcome. When I’m feeling a bit shaky on my theory, I often simulate a problem computationally to confirm that the results conform to my expectations.

In formal education I’ve recently come across two initiative by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching: Quantway and Statway. These are two “developmental” math courses for community college (i.e, “remedial” courses for those who are not yet ready to cover college level mathematics). One of the key features is that they allow students to engage in real mathematics by focusing on reasoning and applied statistics, developing the formalisms (the parts students generally get stuck on) along the way. This is analogous to how people learn folk guitar – begin by making real music, however simple, and then pick up the formalisms (tonic and dominant chord theory, for example) in the context of making music. I’m paying close attention to an evaluation of these programs, and am curious whether this approach helps struggling students over the hump.