Blog entry

The Olympics Of Musicianship

Song of the day: Accidntally Like A Martyr / Warren Zevon
Word of the day: Decoct / 1, Prepare by boiling 2, Mature by heat 3, Boil in water so as to extract the essence of 4, Digest in the stomach

I would have put an Ottmar Liebert song in the Song of The category a long time ago, cuz that's pretty much all we listen to in the house, but I don't know the names to any of his songs. We just leave the discs in the player and put them on repeat. I don't know any titles. I love his stuff, which I had never really listened to until this year, and my wife is bonkers for him (so is Ara), so much so that she bought me a classical guitar for christmas, hoping I would emit something sounding as mellifluous as a Liebert Leidermacher (german word for songwriter, I think), and it may have worked to a degree. Last week I wrote a song called Murder Suicide on the new guitar that was definitely inspired purely by the sound of a classical guitar. Back in college I was a music composition major with a classical guitar performance double, which was a fucking bitch and a half. I spent four years literally practicing five to six hours a day, that was not the bitch part -I totally loved playing the music and working up the pieces- but the performances were a drag, as were the juries. The performances were a bitch because they would gather a couple hundred music majors in the concert hall, and then you got up on stage and played your pieces for row after row of scowling, dismissive peers. Not all of them, but about half of them, had that unmistakable "I could do THAT" look, the other half had that "I'm far away, I'm very far away..." expression. The concert hall performances were easy compared to juries, where once or twice a quarter the faculty would gather, and you would go in and play for them, like music was meant to be played and heard -with the audience all lined up in like a firing squad with their clip boards at the ready, critical eyeballs peering out at you over crooked glasses slid halfway down their wrinkled noses, perched like vultures waiting for the slightest sign of weakness. It's double hilarious when you understand a bit about classical guitar -or any classical music performance for that matter.

The classical guitar is a seriously difficult instrument. People think it looks fun and easy, or pretty and sweet, but it is a mother fucker of a Kosmic order. You begin with body posture, there is a prescribed physical arrangement that must be observed to optimize your relation to the guitar, and make it easier for your hands and fingers to execute the impossible tasks they're about to be assigned. Once you're properly assembled over your instrument, spinal column straight, arms relaxed and alert, foot propped up on your little stool, music stand placed slightly below eye level, take a deep breath. Breathing is crucial. My classical guitar professor used to make breath markings on my music, reminding me when to breath, because improper respiration would result in the wrong flow in the performance of the piece. Thanks, I can finally regard breathing as an assigment. Fingernails are grown out on the right hand, manicured perfectly to produce five plectrums at the end of your digits, which you will fucking obsess over from morning to night, because one broken fingernail and you are fucked. It takes forever to grow a fingernail and get it manicured to an ideal contour, so you will protect them with your life, and when your classical guitar studies assume a dominant role in your life, the right hand rises to the top of the pyramid of priorities, and you will no longer wash dishes with it, you will not open doors, pick up trash, reach into unknown containers, play any sports, do any gardening, nor any task which might remotely jeaporadize its privileged position as the primary equipment in your life's work. It takes the right body posture, the right breathing technique, the right fingernails, and that's just to get you to the first note. When you actually start reading classical guitar music, you will wish you had opted for something less abstruse, like differential calculus or deciphering heiroglyphs. Classical guitar music is like doing four algebra problems at once, like it was invented by the bastard child of a sadistic engineer who fucked some masochistic virtuoso. These two satanic horn-dogs took one look at each other's genitals and said

"Hey, what if we took all the confounding properties of a rubick's cube and all the stupefying hurdles of classical music performance and MERGED them into one system of music notation that would grind both hemispheres of the human brain into a heap of inert gunk? WEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!"

Here's what's so hard about it: To begin with, one note on the written page of classical guitar music can have up to FOUR possible placements on the instrument. That means when you see a "B" note written there, there are four different places you can play it on the fret board of the guitar. This is not the case with a piano, or an oboe, or a human voice -one note has ONE possible location, that's the way God intended it. But on a guitar, every note has multiple locations, and the first thing your brain has to do when it sees a note is determine where the fuck to play it. You see a "B" notated, and your brain instantaneeously goes:
B=possible locations:
1, open 2nd string
2, fourth fret, third string
3, ninth freth, fourth string
4, fourteenth fret, fifth string

That's just the notation for you LEFT hand. To make things really fun, you have pluck that note with a right hand finger, and the right hand choices for each note are:
1, thumb
2, pointer finger
3, middle finger
4, ring finger

That's 16 possible variations for that one note. That wouldn't be so bad if you were always playing one note, but you're not. You're playing something like Bach's Prelude to the 4th Lute Suite with a billiong gajillion notes every two seconds. Then you add in dynamics (loud, soft), articulation guidelines (where to play the notes on the string -toward the bridge or the sound hole, etc), and any extras the composer wants you to know about, and you are contending with a constellation of points on the printed page that start to look like a dot to dot drawing of someone laughing at you. Classical guitar is very, very challenging. And unless you play it, you can't really appreciate what these great musicians are acheiving when the play. Like any field of specialist, to some degree it takes one to know one, and I knew, even for how much I loved it, I didn't want to make a living as a classical guitarist. Cuz you can't. There are like 100 people making a living playing classical guitar in North America, unless you count teachers. If you want to make a living as a classical guitarist you have to teach classical guitar. Same with so much stuff in the University system, it's a museum. There's not much interest in the "real World" for the craft, and it's acutely painful to those who devote their lives to producing some of the greatest artistry humans are capable of. I just didn't have a love for the craft that could keep me playing 5 or 6 hours a day for the rest of my life when no one but musicians gave a shit about it. Plus I really felt I was a better songwriter than I was a classical guitarist or composer. Now that my wife got me this classical guitar, I'm enjoying going back to it and having a rush of memories, somatic storage bins are being popped open. It's fun, but I made the right decision. Now I want to play classical again so I can entertain my wife and duaghter in the kitchen while we make dinner. Plus it helps my guitar skills over all, nothing improves your over all musicianship like working on classical. Nothing. It's the olympics of musicianship.

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We were blown away by Stuart’s pure genius. Finally a songwriter with something to say. We booked him on the show, calls started coming in “Who was that? Who was that you had on World Cafe?”

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