Featured

Active Practice Techniques to Improve Tremolo, Part 2

Reduction

Playing through the “skeleton” of a tremolo piece helps reduce it in your mind’s ear to the essentials of what is happening on the musical front. Because we spend so much time developing the fluidity, clarity, speed, and all that goes into a beautiful tremolo technique, often our attention is so myopically focused on the minutiae of technique that we ignore the larger question of what a tremolo piece is trying to achieve musically.

There are various ways to mentally condense the way you perceive your pieces to make them seem less daunting. The most tried and true method is to play through them well hundreds of times. But because it takes time to develop the endurance and speed to perform a tremolo piece at tempo comfortably, play through them instead in an abbreviated way, as illustrated below, at faster tempos:

Limosna reduction 1.jpg

Another method, which I have grown to like despite the substandard sonic quality, was recommended by guitarist Philip Hii in his insightful book, Art of Virtuosity. In this method, shown below, ami act as one and pluck at the same time. Think of plucking a chord, but on one string. It won’t sound pretty, but in addition to focusing your attention on the bigger picture, by putting all of your fingers down at once you discover what position will give you access to all the strings in the most efficient way.

Limosna reduction 2.jpg

For more active practice techniques, check out: Mastering Tremolo 

 

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Featured

From the Archives: Miracle Right Hand Warm Up Sequence

Here is a warm up sequence that I used to do every morning. It is useful for building right hand endurance, finger alternation, speed, pulse, rhythm, and legato. The idea behind it is simple. Set the metronome to a very slow beat, somewhere (50-70). Throughout the whole sequence, the beat remains constant but with very slight and precise increments we increase the number of notes between the beats.

I would go through all 13 steps (using free stroke) and then go through the whole thing two more times using different right hand fingerings am and ai. So, that’s 39 steps. I actually would go all the way up to fret 12 (3 cycles) and often would use a diminished 7th chord or some left hand variation to keep it interesting. Vary what you need. As you will notice, I’ve been more detailed in the first 3 steps and little by little have resorted to short hand as the basic sequence becomes evident.

Give it a whirl and let me know what you think.

Step 1

Right Hand Warm Up Sequence 1.jpg

Step 2

Right Hand Warm Up Sequence 2.jpg

Step 3

Right Hand Warm Up Sequence 3.jpg

Step 4

Right Hand Warm Up Sequence 4.jpg

Step 5

Right Hand Warm Up Sequence 5.jpg

Step 6

Right Hand Warm Up Sequence 6.jpg

Step 7

Right Hand Warm Up Sequence 7.jpg

Step 8

Right Hand Warm Up Sequence 8.jpg

Step 9

Right Hand Warm Up Sequence 9.jpg

Step 10

Right Hand Warm Up Sequence 10.jpg

Step 11

Right Hand Warm Up Sequence 11.jpg

Step 12

Right Hand Warm Up Sequence 12.jpg

Step 13

Right Hand Warm Up Sequence 13.jpg

Phew! Go back for more. You know it’s good for you.

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Featured

How to Improve Coordination – Chromatic Octaves

If Mauro Giuliani’s works are in your repertoire, or those of 340px-Mauro_Giulianiany classical period composer, you will know that interval runs of octaves, sixths, and thirds are used to great effect. Think the fourth variation of Giuliani’s Folias Variations (Op. 45) or the grand finale to his 1st Rossiniana (Op. 119)! Interval runs are everywhere in our repertoire and it’s worth studying them either through repertoire or through scale practice.

The two chromatic octave exercises below should get you started. They are useful for warming up, coordinating the hands, independence and opposing movement in the left hand fingers, and can even serve as a vehicle for right-hand development, too. Here are a few ways to focus on them:

  1. Start very slowly and pluck both notes with simultaneously. No rolling!
  2. Keep the wrist relatively still so that the fingers of the left hand are extending and contracting vertically (i.e. often moving in opposite directions from each other).
  3. Keep the left hand fingers soft and close to the fretboard.

Use right-hand fingerings: pipmpapm pipi pm, pa pm, pm papa piand pi pa.

Chromatic Octave.jpg

Once this feels comfortable and in control, explore some variations like the one below.

Use right-hand fingerings: pipmpa, pm pipipm, papm, pmpa, papi, and pipa.

Chromatic Octave 2.jpg

Let me know if you find this helpful. Part 2 coming soon!

 

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Featured

Problem Solving in Pernambuco’s Interrogando

I was working on Joao Pernambuco’s groovy Interrogando with an extremely young and bright student yesterday. Despite his ability to absorb new material at a pace that inspires me, he was having a difficult time making this little part sound fluid.

Interrogando 1.jpg

After a bit of analysis, we agreed that it was due to the lack of clarity in the right hand. So, instead of playing it over and over, which is often default behavior for most students confronting a tricky passage, we decided to break it down and come up with a list of steps to once and for all solve the problem. Here are the steps.

Step 1 – Write out strings.

Interrogando 2.jpg

Writing out the strings as numbers also helps see patterns if you process information better that way (i.e. 5232 5423 1232 ).

Step 2 – Choose the best right hand fingering options. See this post for more about choosing the best options: Conde Claros, Scales, and String-Crossing.

Interrogando 3.jpg

We came up with two solutions. The top one was chosen by the student because his technique was more suited to it. I preferred the second solution given to my preference for aipi instead of amim.

Step 3 – Analyze where the right hand position change happens (if at all).

Interrogando 4.jpg

Step 4 – Practice the last box from Step 3 using right hand alone with a focus on rhythm.

Step 5 – Bring left hand into the game for that box only (right hand now does it correctly and proficiently and left hand has to catch up is a much better option than both hands struggling and doing it somewhat incorrectly).

Step 6 – Check in with the right hand alone again.

Step 7 – Go back to Step 4 and Step 6 with the second to last box. Add to last box.

Step 8 – Go back to Step 4 and Step 6 with the first box. Add to both boxes.

Step 9 – Do a few minutes of focus, take a mental rest, and go back for several more sets (building mental muscle!).

Step 10 – Check tempo and set tempo goals.

Not only could the student whip through the passage after doing this, his skills at identifying any confusion improved. Lots of “Oh!” and “Now that feels easy!”.

Problem solved!

Featured

Three Fingering Tips for Villa Lobos’s Etude Nº2

If you all were inspired (or recovered) from watching Ekachai Jearakul whip off Heitor Villa-Lobos’ Etude Nº2, you may find this post helpful. While I was a student at the New England Conservatory, the second half of one of my degree recitals was simply Villa-Lobos’ Twelve Etudes. While some of the etudes are manageable, others require relentless and careful practice, and they all have moments that can fill endless practice hours with frustration. To add to the matter, I was studying with the great Eliot Fisk and despite all of his valuable advice and help, watching him display what was possible on a regular basis conjured both extreme inspiration and a sense of hopelessness at achieving such a level of comfort with these pieces. Needless to say, the year preceding that recital, I was immersed in a figurative amazonian finger jungle and found my own way of surviving.

For those working on this particular etude, there are a few spots where I found less obvious fingerings less problematic. These solutions are personal but if the spots have been frustrating for any of you, give the following solutions a try.

Measure 3 (repeats not counted)

In order to increase the resonance, I like having the 3rd and 2nd strings open on this one so I shift to 5th position to enable this. There are a few alternate right hand fingerings to explore but I prefer the 1st.

villa-lobos-2-alt-fingerings

Measures 10-12

In this solution, guide fingers are highlighted in red. While the right hand solution is personal, I like switching to rest-stroke on the highest note of the run. If you prefer to play free-stroke, you might choose to switch to 1st position by playing the first note of measure 12 on the 1st string open and using that to shift. The second finger would still work as a great guide in this situation.villa lobos 2 alt fingerings 2.jpg

Measures 21-22

In this example, ending the repeat with a slight alteration makes a noticeable difference in playing measure 22. Again, I’ve included some alternate right hand fingerings for exploration but I prefer the 1st.

villa lobos 2 alt fingerings 3.jpg

Hope this helps!

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Featured

Villa-Lobos Etude Nº1 Part 1

I love getting to the point when a student is ready to tackle Heitor Villa-Lobos’ Etude Nº1. There are so many angles to explore and it takes a lot of dedication to master it. There was a time when I was preparing to perform all 12 etudes that I decided the best use of my warm up time was to spend at least 30 minutes on Etude Nº1, 30 minutes on Etude Nº2, and 30 minutes on Etude Nº3. After which my hands always seemed to work well as I worked on other material.

Over the course of months I may have played those etudes at least a thousand times in many, many different ways. I tried everything I could think of to make them better.

The first step in this great journey is to develop the right hand’s ability to play the entire arpeggio comfortably. The great Andrés Segovia suggested a solution that is still used by the majority of students and the one I used for years. However, as we develop our abilities we find that our hands have an easier time with certain movements and we find ways to use those movements to harness our strengths.

So, I always suggest putting in your time with Segovia’s solution until you can perform the Etude with that pattern. I find that the weakest part of the solution is moving from to a making the 3rd quarter note beat (half note of the measure) sound articulate which helps to delineate the rhythmic structure of the Etude, so I have come to prefer substituting with i. However, it wasn’t until working on the piece for many years that I slowly came to prefer it. Explore the possibilities in the practice room by adding in a few alternate fingerings to start the exploratory process. I’ve watched my mentor, Eliot Fisk, play it through in hundreds of ways just as an exercise to develop string crossing – I think I remember him even doing the whole arpeggio with m and pinky!

Here are some important ways to practice it. Stay tuned for Part 2 and we’ll go deeper.

right hand villa lobos fingering 1

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Kanahi Yamashita – Artist Profile and Interview

Japanese guitarist Kanahi Yamashita is an exceptionally gifted young musician. Her playing has captivated listeners across the world and she is emerging as a powerful voice on the guitar among her generation. On the tail of releasing her first solo CD of works by Carlo Domeniconi (review to follow shortly), Kanahi sat down with Six String Journal to share some of her experience with our readers. Enjoy.

Personal

When did you start playing and why? Or, what drew you to the guitar initially?

I started playing the guitar when I was four years old and it was very natural to begin with, because I was surrounded by guitars and their sound since I was born. Thanks to my parents, I also started learning the violin, the piano, and some traditional Japanese instruments over the years, and even Noh-Theater chanting and dance. It was fun to learn various instruments and their music and that experience has been very important in my musical formation. Since I was five years old, I’ve had many opportunities to be on stage with the guitar, so the sound of the guitar has been the most stimulating and inspiring. I naturally spent most of my time playing the guitar and became more and more focused on this instrument. The other instrument I study with as much passion as I do for the guitar is singing, which I currently study at the University of Arts Berlin as part of a double degree with guitar.

What is it or was it like to come from a guitar “family”, how did it impact your desire to play?

The most precious thing I received as a member of a musical family was that I was always surrounded by music since I was born. Music was always a part of our daily life and was connected to everything we did at home. So I could learn music not as a special subject, but as a very natural part of my growing up. The process of musical training by my parents was also very multifaceted, by learning several instruments at the same time. In addition, I’ve enjoyed composing, improvising, and writing poems since I was a child. I didn’t learn everything in the strict sense, but rather enjoyed it in my own way, inspired by the special environment at home. One of the important lessons I’ve learned over the years is to not only focus on my major instrument to try to learn about music and repertoire, but trying various approaches to music and recognizing music from multiple angles.

What guitar or guitars do you perform on? Strings?

Since childhood I played on a Ramirez III built in 1985 and since 2017 I’ve been playing an Italian guitar built by Rinaldo Vacca. I also met a great American guitar maker, Michael Batell in Berlin and from him I learned a lot about guitar and its construction process. I’ve played several of his guitars in concert and I also recorded the new CD “Selected Works VIII – Guitar solo Kanahi Yamashita”. The strings I really like to play on and use regularly are EJ45 Normal Tension by D’Addario.

Which recording/s are you most proud of?

Beside two CDs I took part in as a member of “Kazuhito Yamashita Family Quintet”, I just released my very first solo CD in April 2021. This is part of a series of CDs featuring the music of the famous Italian composer, Carlo Domeniconi, with whom I’ve been studying with since I moved to Berlin in 2015. On this CD I performed four solo pieces by him, two of which are dedicated to me. I especially appreciate and am honored to have experienced the collaboration process during the recording of this CD. I learned these pieces directly from the composer and it was a unique opportunity and gift to spend such an intensive time with him, and then to have recorded the project under his advice and musical production.

What are some up and coming projects (recordings, concerts) you are excited about?

Right now it is, of course, very difficult to announce exact dates of coming concerts due to the pandemic, but in coming years I am expecting to perform as a winner of the Deutscher Gitarrenpreis 2019, which I won in Darmstadt and I will be performing in several cities of Germany. Beside that I was also invited to perform in several projects in Berlin with a Tenor, an Eurythmist, and an actress. In addition, I am planning to perform solo recitals in Berlin and Darmstadt this year including CD Release Recitals, which were postponed from spring this year. This month I will be performing in Kyoto as a Scholarship student of the Rohm Music Foundation Japan.

In the past months I suffered very much from not being able to perform regularly. I spent most of my time investigating and increasing my repertoire, so I am really looking forward to being able to perform more and more on stage again.

Technique and Performance

How much do you practice? And, do you structure your practice in any particular way?

It is hard to say how much I practice each day, since it really depends on the condition I am in each day or schedules. But I do practice more without guitar the in my hands and this mental practicing time is much more than the time I really physically train on my guitar. I spend much more time reading and playing from the score than before. I started being more careful about notation, precise reading of the music, and only less than 3 weeks before the concert, I start learning by heart.

Are there aspects of guitar that you struggle with or that you find you are still working on?

The most difficult thing is to accurately read and understand the music that the score is trying to express. I think this is the biggest aspect of being an interpreter, learning and struggling. We consider vibrating the notes written in the score, and thus the musical expression, as sounds in the room, and pursue technical topics for that purpose. For example, in order to gain a deeper understanding of early music, it is necessary to have knowledge of historical performance forms, musical instruments of the time and their playing techniques, articulations, and how to place ornamental notes. The areas to be investigated are enormous. That is also the reason I will be studying these topics with the German theorbo and lute player Björn Colell at the Nuremberg University of Music from October 2021.

Have you published any editions or do you plan to publish your own editions in the future?

In 2015 one of my compositions for solo guitar, Variation & Fantasia on ‘Star of the County Down’, was published and is available from my website. Right now I do not have any plan to publish more of my works, but I am definitely interested in composing more, especially for voice and guitar, which I perform as a singer/guitarist.

Do you have any pre-concert rituals?

Not especially, but I just try to be relaxed on that day and usually I rather not play or practice too much. I do look at the scores and study them mentally without the guitar in my hands.

Advice to Younger Players

What single most important piece of advice about practicing would you offer to younger players?

I highly recommended that you develop your sight-reading skills from childhood. That way, you can learn more repertoire in less time. And beyond the stage of understanding the enumeration of notes, you can spend enough time on the more important stage of considering the style and background of the work. I think it’s far more important than the ability to memorize and play without mistakes from start to finish.

What repertoire do you consider essential for young/conservatory students to assimilate? Why?

Naturally as a daughter of Kazuhito Yamashita he taught me how to play some of his transcriptions, such as the 9th Symphony “From the New World” by Dvorák and “Pictures at an exhibition” by Mussorgsky and I can really recommend at least to take a look at those scores because they taught me thousands of different sounds on the guitar. They expanded my technique, helped me communicate with the sounds of my own instrument, and gave me insight into his way of thinking. To know the instrument and its many various types of sounds is an endless pursuit and it will accompany you as a guitarist forever.

Recordings that every young guitarist should be familiar with and why?

I was always listening to not only guitar CDs, but a lot more of other instruments, where I was exposed to so many great musicians and their different approaches to playing pieces, their musical languages beyond instrumental and technical tasks. I cannot name only one particular recording, but I encourage young players to become familiar with the recordings of different types of instruments and their music from different parts of the world.

Tangent

What is the last book that you read? Favorite author/s?

Right now I am reading the book written by Jose Ramirez III “Things about the Guitar” (SONETO Ediciones Musicales).

Do you meditate in any way?

Not particularly, but sometimes I very much like to sit in the darkness in my room with my guitar and improvise for a while forgetting about time and any other practical issues from daily life. This is one of the moments I meditate.


Follow Kanahi on her Facebook page

Tremolo Practice Tip: Reduction

Six String Journal

Reduction

Playing through the ‘skeleton’ of a tremolo piece helps to reduce it in our mind’s ear to what essentially is happening on the musical front. Spending a large amount of time on developing the fluidity, clarity, speed, and all that goes into a beautiful tremolo technique so often draws a majority of our attention into the micro-discovery world that the thought of the larger macro world of what a tremolo piece is trying to achieve musically is somewhat ignored.

There are various ways to enhance the way we psychologically perceive our pieces to make them seem less daunting. The most tried and true method is to play through them hundreds of times. For tremolo pieces, play through them in an abbreviated way, as illustrated below, at faster tempos:

Limosna reduction 1.jpg

Another method, which I have grown to like despite the substandard sonic quality, was recommended by Malaysian guitar virtuoso, Philip Hii

View original post 85 more words

Active Practice Techniques to Improve Tremolo, Part 4

Six String Journal

Aural Refocus

This is an interesting technique that I have found truly helpful for developing speed and the correct rhythmic feel across whatever pattern you are practicing, and since I have not found any reference to it in the literature, I refer to it as aural refocus. Its purpose is to refocus your hearing on the larger beats within a pattern or movement, and then “feed in” the rest of the notes while retaining attention on the larger concept and rhythmic feel.

In theory, we want to perform the larger movements in time—but in practice we rarely do so because we feel limited by all the minutiae that a particular movement demands. With a lot of work, patterns that undergo the aural refocus treatment will get a boost in speed while retaining their rhythmic integrity and stability.

Here are three exercises for applying aural refocus to tremolo. Before you…

View original post 95 more words

Kanahi Yamashita plays Rudnev and Martin

Here is a video of Kanahi Yamashita playing Sergei Rudnev’s beautiful The Old Lime Tree and Frank Martin’s Quatre Pieces Breves in the 2021 10th International Martinez Guitar Competition in Iserlohn. Kanahi’s playing evokes such a wondrous and colorful swirl of sound around her as she plays. It is impossible to not listen. Though I’ve heard the Martin played countless times, her interpretation manages to do everything. It sings, moves, and maintains its intensity from the moment of silence before it even begins. And, her interpretation of Rudnev’s The Old Lime Tree is equally convincing. Enjoy.

Two of the Best Tremolo Exercises

Though there is no shortage of ways to practice and develop tremolo, every now and then I’ll bump across another exercise that is worthwhile or ask a colleague to share insight especially if it sounds like they figured it out. So here are two great ways to practice your tremolo when you are feel like you are not progressing.

This first one helps develop both the independence of the right hand fingers and the evenness of the attack. I like to mess around a bit with a simple left hand addition once everything feels comfortable.

Exercise 1

This second exercise comes from the wonderful Vietnamese guitarist. Thu Le. It is a great way to sync up both hands once the right hand is warmed up. I’ve placed it on the fifth and second strings to develop accuracy. As you improve, work on minimizing squeaks. You can also use fingers 2 and 4 to mix it up.

Exercise 2

For a multitude of methods to work on tremolo with detailed explanations, please check out Six String Journal’s publication Mastering Tremolo. It’s available on Amazon or on Podia.

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Leonardo Garcia plays Vals sem nome by Baden Powell

I first stumbled upon Brazilian guitarist Baden Powell’s recording Estudos while scouring the listening library at my high school. It was hard to resist the immediate appeal of his Vals sem nome (Waltz Without a Name). I sat in that listening room for hours afterwards until the librarian kicked me out that night and went back the next day armed with a cassette to record it. His music has captivated me ever since.

Featured Artist Interview – Bokyung Byun

Praised by Classical Guitar Magazine as “confident and quite extraordinary,” Korean guitarist, Bokyung Byun​ enjoys a reputation as one of the most sought-after guitarists of her generation. Notably, she is the first female winner of the prestigious JoAnn Falletta International Guitar Concerto Competition. She has also taken first-prize finishes at the Frances Walton Competition, the Montreal International Classical Guitar Competition, and the Philadelphia Classical Guitar Competition. In recent seasons, Bokyung has performed as a soloist with orchestras, including the Buffalo Philharmonic, the Utah Symphony, West Los Angeles Symphony, among others. Bokyung’s debut recording has been praised as “a very beautiful disc. From the first notes of the “Gallarda” from Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s Escarraman, we are treated to extraordinary musicianship, technical assurance, and beauty of sound” (Soundboard Magazine). Fortunately for us, Bokyung recently sat down to share some of her experience with Six String Journal!

Personal

When did you start playing and why? Or, what drew you to the guitar initially? 

I started playing the guitar when I was six years old. One day I was watching tv with my mom, and a guitarist was performing on the tv. I was instantly fascinated by the instrument and loved the way it sounded. I told my mom I wanted to learn that instrument. We went to a local guitar school for lessons, and the teacher happened to be a classical guitarist so I began with the classical guitar.

What repertoire do you enjoy playing the most? 

It keeps changing depending on what I’m working on at the moment. In general, I love and enjoy playing Castelnuovo-Tedesco and Dowland’s music. I feel closely related to the way their music speaks to me. 

What guitar or guitars do you perform on? Strings?

I play the guitar made by Dieter Mueller paired with Paragon blue strings from Augustine. 

If you have recordings, which recording/s are you most proud of? If not, are you planning to record a cd?

I recently released a CD with my all-time favorites. It includes compositions by Ponce, Walton, Castelnuovo-Tedesco, and Sierra. Each piece in this album is presented with a little bit of a twist. For example, I played one of Ponce’s most beloved pieces, Theme, Variations, and Finale, but I played the urtext version of it, which includes several movements that were not part of the Segovia edition, and all of the movements are presented in a completely different order. 

What are some up and coming projects (recordings, concerts) you are excited about?

I co-founded a new music initiative called, the Sounding Board Project back in 2019. Our mission is to provide collaborative relationships between guitarists and composers to promote the creation of new music for the guitar. Each year we have produced and premiered innovative works for guitar in collaboration with a diverse group of guitarists and composers. This year we have invited guitarists, composers, and choreographers to collaborate and explore the inseparable bond between music and dance to create multidimensional works for guitar accompanied by choreographed dance. The premiere is set to be released in mid-August. I am very excited about this year’s project. If you would like to find more about the initiative, additional information and videos from the past projects can be found on our website (soundingboardfest.com).

Technique and Performance

How much do you practice? And, do you structure your practice in any particular way?

I try to concentrate on the quality of practice rather than the quantity. I believe one hour of an organized and concentrated practice session is way more helpful than three hours of unfocused practice. I generally practice for about 3-4 hours a day. I prioritize the pieces that I have just started learning or will be performing soon. Then I practice the other pieces to maintain the general level of preparedness on them.

Do you deliberately memorize music or have a technique that helps assimilate music into memory?

For me, I think it depends on how much time I have to learn a piece. For example, if I am given only a short amount of time before I have to perform the piece, I will try to intentionally memorize as I learn. On the other hand, if I have plenty of time between learning and performing the piece, I will let my muscle memory do most of the work first. Then I train to deliberately memorize the whole piece in my head as well. I sit down without the guitar and try to visualize in my head where the fingers need to go from the beginning to the end of the piece to check how much of the piece I have actually memorized. 

Do you have a favorite drill you use to warm up? 

My go-to drills for warm-ups are Villa-Lobos’ Etude No. 1 and Carcassi’s Etude No. 1. 

Do you have any pre-concert rituals?

Not in particular, but I tend to wash my hands with warm water before going on stage to prevent them from getting sticky.

Do you do anything to your nails or shape them in a particular way?

I wasn’t sure how to describe the shape of my nails clearly in words, so I’ve included photos which I hope will show the shape. Growing up I was very fortunate to have healthy, strong nails that I never had to use anything to help strengthen them. However, as time went on, and as I started practicing more vigorously for competitions and concerts, I realized my nails could no longer withstand hours and hours of strenuous practice sessions. I’ve tried different types of nail strengthening methods, but I settled on using gel nails. I find them to be soft enough that it doesn’t sound as harsh as artificial nails but strong enough to prevent the nails from breaking. 

Advice to Younger Players

What single most important piece of advice about practicing would you offer to younger players?

I would like to emphasize the importance of mindful and organized practicing. I am also guilty of having unproductive practice sessions when I was young, playing a piece from the beginning to the end over and over again in hopes that it will eventually improve. Rember that the pace at which you will progress will be much faster if you practice more mindfully and in an organized manner. What I mean by that is to try to come up with a list of things you have to practice per session, set goals for each piece/exercise, and single out the sections that are troublesome for you. 

What repertoire do you consider essential for young/conservatory students to assimilate? Why?

I would recommend learning all of the “essential guitar repertoires,” such as Brouwer, Britten, Bach, Castelnuovo-Tedesco, Tarrega, just to name a few.  They have been the favorites for a reason! They are great music that you can always program in your concerts, and through these pieces, you will become familiar with the idiomatic writing style of each composer. These pieces also have numerous masterful recordings that students can learn from by dissecting and comparing different interpretations. 

Recordings that every young guitarist should be familiar with and why?

The Julian Bream collection! I grew up listening to and being inspired by his recordings as well. His recordings are full of his unique humor and expressive interpretations that we can learn from. His repertoire includes such a variety of music that it will also help young guitarists expose themselves to all kinds of music from different eras, genres, and styles.

Tangent

Do you try to stay healthy? Exercise? Follow a particular diet? Have a favorite pre-concert food? 

I try to stay healthy. I find that I can focus better when I’m regularly working out. I love walking and yoga – it really helps relieve tension in my lower back and arms. 

What is your favorite way to spend time when not practicing?

I am a foodie! I love trying different cuisines from different countries. I also love spending time with my husband and watching comedy shows together. 


website – bokyungbyun.com

instagram – instagram.com/bokyungbyun

sounding board project – soundingboardfest.com

Leonardo García plays Piazzolla’s Milonga del Ángel

Astor Piazzolla (1921-1992) needs no introduction. His Milonga del Ángel is one of my favorite pieces. It is part of his Serie del Ángel: Milonga del Ángel, La muerte del Ángel, and Resurrección del Ángel. I remember getting lost in his recording Zero Hour when I was in music school. Haunting, sad, and nostalgic, Piazzolla transports me to Argentina every time I play this.

All three pieces in the series were beautifully arranged by Agustín Carlevaro. This version is not often played but I find it more compelling than the usual transcription by Baltazar Benítez despite liking that one as well.

Thanks for listening!

Guitar: Paco Santiago Marín XXX Aniversario

Artist Profile and Interview: Steve Cowan

The Canadian virtuoso and award-winning guitarist, Steve Cowan has graced stages throughout Canada, the United States, and Europe. Steve’s beautiful playing is highlighted by a dark sound, rich nuance, and wondrous clarity, placing him among the elite guitarists of his generation. His debut album of Canadian music, Pour guitare (McGill Records, 2016), helped to establish him as ‘one of Canada’s top contemporary classical guitarists’ (Classical Guitar Magazine). In 2018–2019, Steve made his concerto debut with Ensemble del Arte in Germany, his New York solo recital debut, and released his second solo recording Arctic Sonata (EMEC discos).

Active both as a soloist and chamber musician Steve performs regularly with Forestare, a Montréal-based string ensemble; in 2022, he will be a Chamber Music New Zealand touring artist with flutist Hannah Darroch, as well as a Prairie Debut touring artist with guitarist Adam Cicchillitti. The Cowan–Cicchillitti duo has premièred 15 new works and released an album of Canadian music titled FOCUS (Analekta, 2019); their next recording, Impressions intimes (Analekta, 2021), features original arrangements of Debussy, Ravel, Mompou and Tailleferre.

Fortunately, Steve recently sat down to share some detail about his journey with guitar. I hope it inspires everyone!

Personal

When did you start playing and why? Or, what drew you to the guitar initially? 

My music education growing up consisted of piano lessons when I was very young, and drum set lessons in my teenage years. While I was (and still am) obsessed with rhythm, which is what drew me to drums initially, I envied the beautiful chords and melodies I would hear in guitar playing. I began to self-teach myself electric guitar at around 15, and I took it very seriously, playing in progressive and experimental rock bands in my hometown for the next 7 years. At 18, I wanted to study music at my local University (Memorial University of Newfoundland), and figured whatever was described as “classical guitar” on the website was my best shot to get admitted. I had never been exposed to much classical music or to this style of guitar playing before, so I went to a performance class at the University and heard some great renditions of pieces by Brouwer and Villa-Lobos. I was incredibly inspired and went out the next day and bought a classical guitar, found a local teacher to instruct me and prepare me for the audition, and I haven’t really stopped playing since.      

What repertoire do you enjoy playing the most? 

For the past five years I have definitely been mostly a “new music” player, as many of my album projects, academic pursuits, and concert programs have been largely focused on new commissions and premieres. This is something that will always excite me, and I’m lucky to have worked with composers that understand my musical sensibilities and write pieces that feel perfect for my tastes and my hands. I do still appreciate the standard repertoire and music from different periods, and often include portions of renaissance, baroque, or 20th century repertoire in my programs as well. Lately, many solo and ensemble projects have been centered on early-mid 20th century French music (Debussy, Ravel, Mompou and others), both arrangements and original guitar works, and this is another broad stylistic period that really resonates with me. 

In recent years, I am often seeking out music that is slow in tempo, and intimate in character. I spend a large portion of practice time searching for that perfect legato, dynamic nuance, or temporal manipulation in order to create the long, beautiful phrases that I hear come so naturally to instruments such as the piano or bowed strings. It is difficult to achieve on the guitar, but so satisfying when it works. In my opinion, this can be equally as “virtuosic” as playing extremely fast, and I really enjoy searching for these magical moments in different repertoire.  

What guitar or guitars do you perform on? Strings? 

I play on two guitars by Québec luthier Bruno Boutin: a traditional spruce top and a cedar double top. I’ve played on his instruments for nearly a decade, and have never found another instrument that seemed to fit my playing as well as these instruments do. Balanced, rich, projection and clarity. I always went for carbon strings from various companies, as I found traditional nylon strings did not work as well with my plastic nails. However, I recently fell in love with Augustine Regal Blues (nylons!), and they seem to have everything I need. 

Which guitarists/musicians have had the most influence on you? 

There’s a very long answer to this question, but in short I believe that my time as a drummer and progressive rock musician largely shaped how I hear and feel music, and could explain why I’m so drawn to contemporary guitar repertoire in particular. To give a few names, my father was constantly spinning King Crimson or Pink Floyd albums during my entire childhood, and I don’t know if I would play guitar the way I do if I had been exposed to classical music from a very young age instead. 

With regards to my classical guitar playing specifically though, my biggest influences would certainly be my three principal teachers. My first teacher in my hometown of St. John’s, Newfoundland was Sylvie Proulx, and she pushed me very hard. She was rigorous with refining my technique, and introduced me to all of the great repertoire and players that I had never been exposed to. She also encouraged me to pursue graduate school in the United States, and I went on to study with David Leisner at the Manhattan School of Music. David taught me an incredible amount about musical depth and nuance of interpretation, as well as how to connect with my instrument in a more relaxed, healthy, and musical way. His well-known ergonomic techniques are an integral part of my playing and teaching. His well-known ergonomic techniques are an integral part of my playing and teaching. Jérôme Ducharme was my instructor at the doctoral level, and further deepened my relationship with the instrument itself. He knows the fretboard inside out, has an endless amount of tricks up his sleeve for both hands, and always applied them with a deep musical intelligence. As a former GFA winner himself, he doesn’t let anything slide and really took me to the next level.

To make this long answer even longer, there are also some very young players that have influenced me profoundly. I feel there is somewhat of a revolution happening in guitar technique right now, particularly with regards to the left hand, and watching players like Xavier Jara do incredible stretching and finger gymnastics in order to achieve that perfect legato has been a great source of inspiration. I also can’t get enough of Lorenzo Micheli and Matteo Mela, as soloists or as SoloDuo.   

If you have recordings, which recording/s are you most proud of? If not, are you planning to record a cd? 

I have 2 solo albums, a duo album, and another duo album to be released in March of this year. My first solo album (Pour guitare, 2016) and first duo album (FOCUS, 2019, withAdam Cicchillitti) feel particularly special, as they both consist of new Canadian music, most of which was written for either me or the duo. My second solo album, Arctic Sonata (2019), features the title track by young Icelandic composer Gulli Björnsson, as well as a lot of overlooked 20th century gems. Arctic Sonata is an incredible piece, and has been a staple of my concert programs since 2016. It’s a total crowd pleaser and I’m happy with the performance we captured on the album.  

Are there any recordings that you consider have the finest recorded sound for guitar? 

I’m lucky to have a close working relationship with the fantastic guitarist and producer Drew Henderson, and have always been immensely satisfied with the results he produced in both my videos and the duo albums. It’s no surprise to me that he is in such demand in the guitar world these days. I am pretty open with regards to these things though, and am by no means a purist; it doesn’t need to be a big reverberant church sound, though that certainly works for some repertoire. Florian Larousse’ latest Bach album sounds more like a studio recording to me (I could be wrong), and the clarity is striking. Patrick Kearney’s latest album was also done in a studio, and with his playing and the repertoire on the album, the sound really “pops” and it works better for him than if it were done in say the Naxos style, I think. 

What are some up and coming projects (recordings, concerts) you are excited about?

My next duo album with Adam Cicchillitti, Impressions intimes (Analekta, 2021), features original arrangements of Ravel, Debussy, Mompou and Tailleferre and will be released on March 26th. I will also be premiering several new works in solo and duo at this years 21st Century Guitar Conference (www.21cguitar.com – March 22-26), which was scheduled to take place in Portugal, but due to COVID-19 will occur entirely online. 

I’m very excited about a project that began last summer, when I recorded 12 separate guitar parts in an ambitious new piece by Canadian composer Jason Noble. The piece, fantaisie harmonique, is for double-guitar orchestra (6 classical guitar parts, 6 electric parts), and utilizes 6 different scordatura tunings to cover an extended microtonal range across the different guitars. It is an exploration of timbre on the guitar, relying mostly on harmonics, open strings, and percussive mutes as opposed to traditional playing techniques. This recording was engineered by Denis Martin at McGill University in Montréal, and uses new Dolby Atmos software to create a 3-dimensional listening experience. A new 360-degree video and is currently in progress and will also be premiered as part of the 21st Century Guitar Conference. There are some current versions available to listen to on the Soundboard Scholar website: https://www.guitarfoundation.org/general/custom.asp?page=SbS06-Noble-Cowan

Listening to the binaural mix of this with headphones on is a wild ride!

I also have some pre-recorded and livestreamed performances coming up for the Cambrian College concert series (solo – February 5th), Triangle Guitar Society (solo – February 20), Montreal Guitar Society (solo – March 21), Guitar Alla Grande (solo – March 27), and Prairie Debut (duo – March 28). While I miss playing for live audiences, I’m grateful to have these opportunities during this difficult period.  

If international travel can happen this summer (fingers crossed), I am currently scheduled to tour as part of the EuroStrings platform, which would take me to Finland, Estonia, Italy, Spain, and Romania… I guess we’ll see!

Technique and Performance

How much do you practice? And, do you structure your practice in any particular way? 

I was never someone who practiced a crazy amount of hours, and probably peaked during my master’s degree at about 4-5 hours a day. These days, there are so many other things to manage other than practicing, so it’s really all over the place. I practice when I can, and some days I won’t play at all, while other days I will have to overcompensate and put in more hours than I would normally feel comfortable doing. Ideally, it involves a slow morning warmup, followed by focused and analytical work on new repertoire or difficult passages, and then time away from the guitar to do some other things. Later in the day or evening I’ll have another session that involves more “playing” and full run-throughs of pieces as opposed to sectional and analytical practice. I do a lot of recording myself, listening back, and score study, so “mental practice” is a also a large part of my regular routine. 

Are there aspects of guitar that you struggle with or that you find you are still working on? 

Everything needs regular maintenance, even the things I consider myself good at. So it’s not like we can stop practicing technique after a certain point, unfortunately. I struggle with fast scales, and certain left hand slurs in particular. I practice scales regularly as they are great for synchronization of the two hands, but guitarist’s obsession with extremely rapid scale playing has always puzzled me. Perhaps it’s because I don’t play a lot of Spanish repertoire, but it never really seemed to be that important for the pieces I was learning. That said, it does still come up, and I feel like a slouch in my duo when Adam is blazing through his scale passages while I’m clunking and sweating and failing. I’ll get there one day! 

Do you deliberately memorize music or have a technique that helps assimilate music into memory?

Analyzing the music with regards to form and harmony greatly speeds up the memorization process for me. It’s not always easy, depending on the style of the music, but really studying the score without a guitar in your hands just helps you understand things on a deeper level. My practice approaches of working on very small sections (more on that later) also helps things stick a little easier, I think. 

Have you published any editions or do you plan to publish your own editions in the future?

A guitar duo arrangement of Ravel’s Sonatine that I worked on with Adam Cicchillitti will soon be published by Productions d’Oz. Hopefully, our other arrangements from the album (Debussy, Mompou, Tailleferre) will be published as well. This piano music works great for guitar duo!

Do you have a favorite drill you use to warm up? 

I have a ton of warm up drills that I vary on a regular basis, but if I’m short on time I would prioritize Brouwer’s Etude No. 6 to get my right hand going, and some of Scott Tennant’s left hand finger independence exercises from Pumping Nylon in order to get my left hand going. 

Do you have any pre-concert rituals? 

I eat 2-3 bananas in the 90 minutes before the concert, I slowly warmup, and I try to trick my brain into thinking that I’m “excited” and not “nervous” (sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t). I also like to listen to music in the 10-15 minutes before going on stage. If I’m feeling particularly anxious, I have recordings that I know will calm me down and get me in the zone. If I’m feeling fatigued or low energy, I’ll do the opposite – listen to something that will pump me up! 

Do you do anything to your nails or shape them in a particular way?

My nails are I guess what you would describe as a slightly curved ramp upwards. They are relatively short, though I like the A finger to have a slightly longer length.  

Advice to Younger Players

What single most important piece of advice about practicing would you offer to younger players?

SLOW DOWN. Time and time again, I realize that my student’s perception of practicing something “slowly” is maybe only 5-10 bpm’s slower than performance tempo. I have learned to actually enjoy playing music at 25% of the performance speed, and it not only helps solve technical problems but also speeds up the learning and memorization process. I also advise against the temptation to play through an entire piece over and over again, trusting that eventually things will fix themselves. I usually learn things a passage at a time, or a small section at a time. I might spend 45 minutes on 4 measures, but those measures are then technically and musically secure, and I don’t need to worry about them any more, David Leisner sums up this idea wonderfully in his book Playing With Ease (highly recommended), referring to this practice as working in “bite-size sections”, and the importance of varying “analytical” versus “soul” work. “Soul” work refers to understanding the “big picture”, and largely occurs at the very beginning (finding that initial inspiration, hearing how your own musical personality could work with the piece), and the very final stages of learning a piece (polishing for performance). Most of the time in between should be hyper focused and analytical, otherwise you are likely wasting time and probably building bad habits that will be hard to fix later on. 

“SLOW DOWN.”

– Steven Cowan

What repertoire do you consider essential for young/conservatory students to assimilate? Why? 

While I encourage students to find their own niche and repertoire specialization eventually, I do agree that the bachelor’s level should try to check all of the boxes. Contrapuntal music demands a different skillset in the hands, and just sounds so good on guitar when it’s done well. I don’t play a lot of 19thcentury music, but this is perhaps the best music for students to learn how to integrate phrasing, rubato, and how to decide on dynamic shape based on the melodic or harmonic content of the piece. 20th century repertoire from the Segovia or Bream era makes up the bulk of our guitar “masterpieces”, so there’s no escaping it!  

Recordings that every young guitarist should be familiar with and why? 

To follow up on the previous answer, I think it’s important for guitarists familiar with the history of our instrument, particularly the last 100 years. The big names are big names for a reason, and so listening to some of the greats in chronological order (Segovia, Bream, Williams, Parkening, Ghiglia, Barrueco, Russell, etc.) will introduce you to the important pieces of the times as well as the evolution in playing style. This can continue with the young concert artists and competition winners of today, of which there are too many great albums for me to even mention. It’s all easily accessible online these days – go out and find it!

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Support Steven Cowan’s work:

Latest solo album on Apple Music (also available on other streaming platforms):

https://music.apple.com/us/album/björnsson-morricone-others-works-for-guitar/1466291274

Latest duo album: 

https://www.analekta.com/en/albums/contemporary-music-guitar-duo/