Understanding and interpreting your music

Your performance and your learning experience will be better if you do some background research on the music you’ve selected. I’ll demonstrate by example.

The leader of our guitar trio purchased a new collection of guitar trio arrangements:

Trios for Guitars, score and parts, edited by Mosóczi Miklós, from Editio Musica Budapest.

It provides a number of graded pieces, meaning that the first ones are quite easy to play, and they get progressively more challenging with each subsequent piece.

The third piece in the collection is entitled “Lied” by Daniel Friderici (1584-1638).

I was given all the music from the collection written out as a single part for Guitar 3. Here is the first phrase.

Part 3Figure One: Guitar Part 3

As a choral singer, I’m not used to this, and to me it conveys much less information than I need to perform the piece. I want to see all three parts, not just my part. I’ll go into this in detail.

With this kind of notation, I have no idea what the chords are, so I have no idea how my part functions in the harmony. Is any given note a chord tone or a passing tone? Is any given note the root of the chord, or is the chord in inversion, and I’m playing a 3rd, 5th, or 7th? So which notes should I emphasize? Which should I not? Since this is Renaissance/Baroque music, I’m expected to improvise a little. That would be hard to do if I had no idea how any given measure or phrase functions next to the other parts in the ensemble.

Even in Friderici’s day, a bass part would come with chord symbols. They used a different kind of notation back then, called figured bass, part of basso continuo, but it’s essentially the same as what we use today on lead sheets and fake books. You are given each note along with symbols that clue you in to what chord goes with that bass note.

Even more important than this is the big question: What the heck kind of music is this? Where did it come from? Obviously, it was not originally written for three guitars. Was it a song? Did it have lyrics? What sort of mood should our trio try to create when we play this piece? How can I tell what an appropriate tempo and phrasing would be? I’m the kind of guy who needs to have answers to all of these questions before I can play something that’s new to me.

Notation issues

Now, I’m used to reading choral music. In choral music, every singer is presented with a piece of music that shows every staff of music for every part: soprano, alto, tenor, and bass, and below that a piano part that might be intended to be played in performance. It might also be a reduction of the various parts involved in the orchestral arrangement, if any. There is also a third kind of piano accompaniment. If the piece is designed to be sung a capella (“without the band”), meaning the singers perform with no instruments accompanying them, then the piano part is a reduction, which shows all four vocal parts written out in such a way that a pianist could more easily play all four vocal parts simultaneously on the piano. This kind of piano part is labeled for rehearsal only. And it is just that. It is for use in rehearsals to help the choir learn their parts.

The point is that in a choir, on the sheet music, a person can see not only the notes for her part, but also all the other musical lines going on around her. If she has some musical knowledge, she can understand not only a note she’s singing at a given moment, but also the chord into which that note will fit. She can see the harmonic progression and the counterpoint, which better enables her to decide how to tailor her expression to blend in with the other parts.

Another benefit is that if there are several measures where her part is silent, while the other parts are singing and playing, she can look at the other parts on the sheet music to alert her as to her next entrance. And if she can’t find a pitch, she can figure it out by the interval of her note from notes in other parts that she can hear. This is important for singers, whose voices do not have frets.

Modern symphony orchestra and concert band musicians are used to getting just what I have displayed above: one part, with minimal or nonexistent information about any aspect of the music other than the notes that one person needs to play.

The main reason for this, I think, is that in performance it’s necessary to enable the musician to play the piece with as few page turns as possible. If the violin player had the full conductor’s score in front of him, there would be a page turn every four measures, and the score would take a great deal of pages. But with just his part, all of the notes he needs to play can be displayed on one or two pages.

When I look at the piece of music we are considering, I notice that there are two voices that are homophonic, meaning I’m playing two-note chords and not much in the way of counterpoint. But I’m already concerned, because those two voices are spaced very far apart. Intervals of a 12th (an octave and a fifth) are in there, and there’s a good deal of contrary motion. This piece of music would be awkward to play. So if I can learn more about the piece, can I modify things to make it more musical?

Learning where the music came from

So the answers to my puzzling questions about the whole piece needed some research.

Research is almost effortless these days, now that we have the World Wide Web, and lots of musicians have put up Web sites with a plethora of information about music. A lot of sheet music is available on the Web for free, and a lot of music is available as MIDI files. We can also listen to recordings of pieces on iTunes, YouTube, and the like. A little Googling, and you can find out all sorts of information about many pieces of classical music. Any time somebody gives you a piece of music, you are obligated to learn more about its background on the Web. Adopt that policy and your musical performances and recordings will improve.

First, the piece is labeled “Lied”. That’s German for “Song”. Now, the part I was sent contains not only a bass line but also a second part, and this makes me curious as to what sort of song it is.

I got the table of contents page from Trios For Guitar and learned that the title of the song is “Wir lieben sehr im Herzen”. Now even if you don’t understand German, all you have to do is to type

“wir lieben sehr im herzen” friderici

into a Google search.

Immediately I found a MIDI file of the whole arrangement at classicalarchives.com.

Then I found a live ensemble performance of the piece on YouTube.

Jackpot. It was a lousy recording (aren’t they all) but a good performance. Immediately lightbulbs went off. This piece is not a song, per se. It’s a chorale. It has parts for soprano, alto, bass and tenor singers, and it has an accompaniment, in this case provided by string and wind instruments. Watch the video and you’ll realize that this is an authentic early music group, playing the piece on instruments that would have been in use in 1600, and trying to perform the piece the way that the composer would have wanted it performed in his day. This is how the piece should feel. It’s a boisterous, celebratory song, with a moderately fast tempo. It may be a tavern or drinking song.

Even though we have three guitars and no singing or lyrics, we should try to do what we can to make our performance feel like the one in this video.

Going even further in Google, I discovered a Web site that is an absolute gold mine for any musicians who want to learn about classical music. It’s called the Choral Public Domain Library.

A link from Google took me straight to the heart of the matter.

Sheet music of the original arrangement, a capella! It’s even in the same key, G major.

Original Score

Figure Two: Original Score

Not only that, but the page has the full lyrics in German. More on that later.

It would also be useful to learn something about the composer; who he was, where he lived, and what sort of other pieces he wrote. Then there’s always the context of the times in which he lived. In this case, I came up empty on Daniel Friderici. Apparently he was not a well-known composer. I’m sure I could find out more in a library that carries the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, but I’ll leave that exercise for another day.

With many of the pieces in the Choral Public Domain Library, the original lyrics in the original language are accompanied by a good English translation. But not in this case.

When I studied singing in music school in college, we were expected to learn to sing in English, Italian, French and German, and there were usually some pieces in Latin that needed learning too. We took classes in the languages and in the pronunciation. Moreover, for any given piece you had to sing as a solo, you were expected to make a complete translation of the lyrics so that you knew the meaning of the sentences and phrases you were singing.

This was in the 1980s, before the World Wide Web, when most students didn’t even use a computer in the first place. We had to go to the library and get musical scores and poetry books to study, and we spent hours and hours picking through the Italian, French and German using translation dictionaries, and writing down what we thought the words meant.

With the Web, most of this is unneccesary for a guitarist trying to learn about a particular piece of music with lyrics. Translations of ancient poems and lyrics abound, and web sites like Google offer automated machine translation tools (which are somewhat better than nothing) for dozens of languages. There are also discussion forums that you can join where you can post questions about music and get advice from other musicians.

Now, it just so happens that I used to speak good German. (I never got very far with Italian or French.) So in this case I was able to write my own translation, with the help of an online dictionary. I tried to retain the German word order, which is strange to English speakers, in order that you can discern the meaning of individual words more easily.

Rough, non-rhyming translation (by Wheat)

We love much in our hearts, three beautiful things so fine
They overcome sorrow and pain when they together are.
Beloved music, a friendly sight, a good, fresh, cool wine
These are three fine things, with which I refresh myself!

In the first place, let us play the instrument well
which on these matters, Art is acting.
The other offers a soft, fine young girl.
These three (things) our host (innkeeper) can provide us with.

Be cheerful about this time!
Drive away sadness and sorrow, drive away sadness and sorrow.

I think you could call this the 1600’s equivalent of a college glee club drinking song. Pretty cool, huh?

Now back to the notation, and how that can directly help my trio play the piece.

It’s clear, then, that the guitar part I was given to play consists of the tenor and bass vocal parts. I guessed, and later confirmed, that Miklós’ arrangement gives the soprano line to Guitar 1 and the alto line to Guitar 2. In order to find this out, I had to contact our trio leader and ask him for the “conductor’s score” which shows all three parts together.

Full ScoreFigure Three: Full Score

Now it’s time to make some changes to that Guitar 3 part.

Looking at the reduction above, you can get an idea about how the four melodic lines weave together. This is a typical chorale. The soprano line is the melody. The alto and tenor lines follow the melody, more or less, providing chord tones below the melody line in close voicing (mostly 3rds and 4ths). But the bass line, as you can see, moves independently and often in contrary motion to the top three voices, and there are wide intervals between the bass notes an the upper three voices.

To see this more clearly, I wrote it out again with the soprano, alto and tenor parts on one staff and the bass part on a second staff. While I was at it, I figured out the chords and wrote in their names.

Picture 8Figure Four: Clarifying the relationship between the voices

Hey, guess what! The alto and tenor parts are very close together and move in similar motion.

I think it would be easier to move the tenor line out of Guitar 3’s part and merge it into Guitar 2’s part. Guitar 2 will play alto and tenor together, and Guitar 3 will play just the bass line, like this:

example

Figure Five: My new arrangement

I went to visit the other guy in our trio who was assigned to play the Guitar 2 part, and he immediately agreed with me: my arrangement made more sense and would be easier to learn.

So I re-engraved the whole piece in Sibelius with my edits, and printed it out and handed it to the two other guys in my trio.

Here’s the point. If the sheet music doesn’t suit you, re-arrange it! Using modern computer software, it’s very easy.

Finally, if you are in a guitar trio or other ensemble of instruments with the same ranges, consider learning to play all three parts, up to tempo; not just the part you are assigned. You’ll understand the piece much better and your performance will be more informed–that’s the point of this whole exercise.

Roadmap, sort of. An ambitious outlay of plans.

Being new to this blogging thing, it occurs to me that I’ve got a book brewing here. The subtitle might be “An Outsider’s Guide to All Things Guitar.”

All I can do is post stuff as I think of it and as time permits. What will probably happen is a bunch of installments presented out of order, and later on I’ll have to re-organize it into chapters and sections.

I already have tons of written material that I created in the form of emails to friends, and one or two long essays that I wrote just for myself. Then there are sections that I have been mulling over for months but not committed to the word processor or paper. I’m not going to publish this all at once, because I want you, the reader, to keep coming back for more.

[A whole ‘nother thing that I can write about is my method for playing jazz guitar with the instrument tuned in all fourths, low-to-high Eb-Ab-Db-Gb-B-E.

I don’t use this method for classical guitar; I play classical in standard tuning, at least for now.

I did not invent the 4ths-tuning method, but I came up with all of my principles myself; I “re-invented the wheel” to suit my own needs. I call this “Stanley” tuning, after Stanley Jordan, but I’m talking about using it for traditional right and left hand technique, not tapping a la Jordan or playing a Chapman Stick. I have been receiving some consulting on this from guitar educator and guitar designer and manufacturer Matt Raines, who has made it his specialty to play seven-string guitar in 4ths with the traditional technique. He doesn’t endorse my work, yet, but I think I’m on to something.]

Anyway, Becoming a Guitarist will include, but will not be limited to, the following (in no particular order). I will present my insights and opinions on:

1. How classical guitar notation is too hard to read; here’s how to change it for the better. Lots of music notation examples. This is not about “tab” or tablature. It’s about traditional music notation.

2. Using computer tools for notation and arranging for guitar, and for studying scores. Do it yourself.

3. How to use extended-range bass guitar in the classical ensemble context; available instruments and strategies. 7-string, 8-string, 10 and 11-string classical guitars, regular scale, long scale, “fanned fret”, and a section on using the five-string acoustic bass guitar in the ensemble. There are several renowned ensembles using one or more of these instruments today.

4. How to cross-over from electric and acoustic guitar to classical guitar; specific modifications to the classical guitar design that are commercially available, and how to obtain them. I did a lot of research before I bought my unusual yet quite affordable Alhambra “crossover” guitar. This will contain an extensive section on fingerboard and nut width, radiused versus flat fingerboards, fret dressing, string spacing at the nut and bridge, action, intonation, and cutaway design. Then, once you have decided to play classical, can you continue to play your old electric and steel-string acoustic guitars? Should you?

5. How to make your classical guitar sing. Most classical repertoire consists of music that was written for other instruments and ensembles, “transcribed” to fit onto a guitar or ensemble of guitars. In many cases we are talking about vocal music with lyrics (think madrigals, Bach chorales, and Schubert lieder). Now, I’m a singer and chorister who has worked with all kinds of vocal music. So I think I’m entitled to give the guitarist (any kind of guitarist) some tips on how to make your guitar playing sound more like singing. I personally interviewed Paul O’Dette, the world’s greatest lute player, and got some insights on this subject. I also draw on a published interview with Sharon Isbin that I need to dig up and quote.

6. Related to (5), how to really learn and understand the music you are going to play, before you pick up the guitar. It has to do with taking the trouble to find the sheet music and a good recording of the original arrangement as the composer intended, even if it’s a symphony with a full orchestra, before you plunge into the guitar transcription or arrangement with which you’ve been provided. This goes doubly for lyrics. You shouldn’t play an instrumental arrangement of a song unless you know the lyrics and what they mean in English (if that is your language). This goes doubly for jazz guitarists playing out of the fake book. More advice from Paul O’Dette.

7. Posture, relieving stress in your body in practicing and performing. Footstools are archaic and obsolete, and in my case, needlessly stressful and painful. Putting both feet flat on the ground and propping up your guitar into the proper playing position using a special cushion or a support bracket that attaches to the guitar are better ways to play.

8. Keys, how to approach selecting a key, and the important but usually overlooked issue of guitarists being needlessly inflexible about keys. Important side-note on how guitars and writing songs based on playing licks built around open strings in rock and pop music have ruined life for singers everywhere, and how this could be corrected. The bottom line is that if you are working with a singer, you and your ensemble should let the singer select the key of each piece he or she is singing. The singer should select the key that works best for his or her particular voice according to the melody of the piece being considered. Everybody in the band should be prepared to play the song in any key requested at any time. This is the way it has always been done in classical music, folk music, and especially jazz. Many hit rock songs make this task impossible, due to the way in which they were written, which I will explain.

I’ll think of other stuff. Well, I’ve got my work cut out for me.

If you have some comments on these points, and I hope you do, you might want to wait until I publish the section in question and explain myself fully, rather than comment on my little outline above. On the other hand, if you have specific ideas on other topics about classical guitar and musicianship that you think I ought to address, please post comments here. I’m looking mostly for conventional, traditional things that everybody does that you think should be done differently.

Introductions

Hello and welcome.

You can click on “About Wheat Williams” above and learn some more about me.

If you are learning guitar, I hope you’ll find lots of material here in the coming months that will be helpful. If you are an established classical guitarist (a member of  a clique of generally stuffy academic elitists who really know how to play music) I hope to make you think about and reconsider things that you take for granted. I have an iconoclastic bent, and lots of ideas about how things could be done better.

Basically, I’m an experienced, classically-trained singer who has never been good enough at an instrument to call himself an instrumentalist. I have determined to become a classical guitarist, late in life. I’m going to approach the whole subject of learning and playing classical guitar from a total “outsider” perspective. I hope to provide some unusual insights and try to change some attitudes and perceptions.

Although I have a Bachelor of Music degree, I have never made much income from being a musician. And I’m a singer, not an instrumentalist. I have an extensive background in traditional church choral music. I also know an awful lot about rock and jazz, having been a professional freelance music journalist for publications such as Guitar Player Magazine and Keyboard. Oh, yeah, I did freelance publicity for Sony Music Nashville in the early 90s, writing marketing materials, press releases, and industry tip sheets, artists’ press kit bios, and the like.

I haven’t made much music in the last ten years, but as part of a total life makeover I’m going through (call it the positive outcome of a serious mid-life crisis) I made a commitment to join a very good amateur traditional church choir in a small Presbyterian church in the North Druid Hill community of Atlanta, Georgia. As I’ve been called up for solos, I have taken up with a voice coach, which will be the first time I’ve seriously studied singing since about 1996, thirteen years ago.

Recently an acquaintance who is a professional guitarist called me up and asked me if I could join his new classical guitar trio. He intends this to be a gigging, money-making side project, playing weddings and casuals.

Now, let me tell you, I am an experienced singer with an extensive background in classical music, but I have never called myself an instrumentalist. I have always been a guitar fancier, and usually had several cheap guitars lying around that were frequently rotated around by selling them on eBay and getting new ones every few years.

I need more musical outlets, very much, so I decided this was it. I have to stop calling myself a singer who plays a bit of guitar, and I have to Become A Guitarist. I’ve done a great deal of research and rumination about this–and I’ve spent more time on those pursuits than I have actually practicing the guitar. I have taken copious notes, and shared a great deal of what I’ve learned with the two other members of this nascent ensemble through email. So I thought I would take this information and post it here on this new blog, kind of a “run it up the flagpole and see who salutes” maneuver.

And so the journey begins.