Training underlying principles
Awareness has become a buzz word. Mindfulness is a serious subject of scientific study. Eastern philosophy has taught its application in life. Martial Artists train observation and response. And yet in the teaching of music why do I so often hear platitudes that miss this underlying principle of good practise?
Here are a couple that drive me crazy
‘Play it slowly first and then get faster’.
Well that’s a good and neccesary thing to do but unfortunately it becomes an end in itself. Students (adults and children alike) often consider their practise successful if they have observed these instructions to the letter. But playing slowly is a RESULT of learning to see and be aware. At an early stage it is not possible for the brain to control the fingers with any accuracy above a certain speed and the mind cannot process the feedback from the fingers or the sound in a way that allows useful progression. The instruction needs to be delivered in a way that gives the student the underlying principle of seeing and hearing and allowing space for an appropriate response. Without that principle, playing slowly is an empty technique.
‘Use a slow metronome setting that is incrementally increased as work progresses’
This is related to the first instruction and misses the point in the same way. It is far more important to recognise and be aware that when music hits a certain speed the brain begins to perceive and control the action in a different way. There is a switch of cognition which moves from an awareness of each note and the transitions between to an outline, a kind of contour line that the the fingers follow. Now awareness of this fact may spring from the mere act of following the instruction to incrementally increase speed but in my experience it is more usually the case that once again the act becomes an end in itself and useful insights from the practise are masked while the student dances to the superficial tune of the metronome’s swinging arm. To really benefit, the student has to understand and be aware of what is happening at the transition point where the mind has to think differently. This is more like a switch being flipped than the traditionally taught, slow incremental steps which are so often wasted effort.
There is a line from a poem by Louis MacNeice (One of my favourite poets of all time)
We jump from picture to picture and cannot follow
The living curve that is breathlessly the same.
At the beginning of learning we too often jump from position to position, chord shape to chord shape, note to note and then as we get faster we fail to notice the living curve of the music.
Training awareness will transform your practise whether you are a beginner or a professional. And you will find your attention increasingly drawn to the moments of transition, the seemingly dead space where so much happens.
I haven’t written a blog here since 2012. Three and a half years have flown past. I have been immersed in my work and family life and my attention to technology, including my website, has been minimal.
However I have been inspired to write again after hearing an interview with Derek Sivers founder of cdbaby. He was talking about a new project called nownownow – a list of people with Now pages on their websites. It is such a simple thing a Now page and yet something about the idea unlocked my interest. Esssentialy a Now page is a place to post everything that is happening currently. Interests, ideas, new things being learned. The kind of information someone who hasn’t seen you in a while would like to have about what you are up to now.
Why not create one of your own? Something about it concentrates the mind…
My voyage to commission a new repertoire for the guitar was launched on June 9th during the opening weekend at the Aldeburgh Festival.
Read reviews of the concert here:
Having lived aboard ‘Concord’ on the River Alde for two weeks prior to the concert I had begun to feel like some figure from a George Crabbe poem. It is a fascinating river full of contrasts and the weather created challenging conditions in which to prepare for the concert.
I had planned to give the concert, step aboard and sail away, a gesture, as the Financial Times commented, that would be a step beyond taking a bow and walking into the wings. My plans were thwarted by unseasonably heavy weather and a sleepless night before the concert as conditions worsened into a severe gale, eventually forcing me to run upriver and take ‘Concord’ to safety.
The concert itself, however, was a success and two world premieres written for me by Jonathan Dove and Elspeth Brooke were added to the cargo of new music that I have taken aboard at Aldeburgh in recent months.
‘Concord’ has returned to her home waters for the moment while I make repairs, prepare her for the voyage North to Orkney and the St Magnus Festival and give a series of other concerts not connected with ‘Sea Change’.
The launch of ‘Sea Change’ marks the beginning of a new repertoire uninfluenced by the Spanish traditions that dominate so much guitar music.
I have always believed that the guitar could have a different voice. It’s a belief that inspired my first album Shapes of Sleep, recorded at Snape Maltings in 2006. Click here to listen, click here to read critical acclaim for the album and click here to buy a copy
In Toward the Sea I have brought together some of England’s finest performers and composers to begin the creation of a new repertoire for guitar and guitar with voice. New music is at the heart of this idea and it will be inspired by the sea and by my forthcoming voyage from Aldeburgh to Orkney aboard my sailing boat Concord. That voyage, called Sea Change, will begin with a concert at the Aldeburgh festival on June 9th and conclude during the Britten Centenary with a new repertoire inspired, commissioned and premiered during the journey.
Running from March 5th-8th Toward the Sea will conclude with a concert on the 8th featuring the world premiere of Joseph Phibbs’ Shore to Shore, new music by Lester Simpson, Alasdair Nicholson’s The Isle is Full of Noises and newly commissioned poems by Irene Noel-Baker.
The four days provide the chance for me to work with composersJonathan Dove, Alasdair Nicholson, Anthony Powers and Joseph Phibbs, examining the singularities of writing for the guitar and laying the foundation for new works in the future.
Lester Simpson, traditional singer and songwriter of Coope Boyes and Simpson fame, will join us on the second day. Lester and I share a mutual love of the sea and the craft that sail it. We have given concerts in the past that combine our unique sounds with poetry and story telling. Toward the Sea is an opportunity to build on those past events and try out new ideas along with the other artists.
Countertenor Michael Chance will arrive on the day before the concert and work with us in shaping the final performance. He will join me for the world premiere of Joseph’s piece, a setting of poetry by Nicholas Heineyand Sara Teasdale.
The wonderful poet Irene Noel-Baker will be there to inspire us with new writing and her knowledge of literature. Indeed all the artists taking part have a love for books and poetry and their combined perspectives will raise new resonances and echoes for the future.
James Boyd talks about Concord’s voyage and the search for financial support
The music on the film is ‘Come Heavy Sleep’ by John Dowland (featured on my album ‘Shapes of Sleep’)
The film was created and edited by Tom Hemsley
James Boyd and the students of Gresham’s bring you Stolen Years, a magical piece of music theatre telling the story of a lost world touched by the shadow of war.
The Auden Theatre, Holt
Tickets: £15.00; £12.50 Concessions; pupils free
The Auden Theatre Box Office is open Monday to Friday from 12.30 – 2pm. Please ring 01263 713444 or email firstname.lastname@example.org for tickets and information.
Click here for the Auden Theatre Arts Brochure
‘Stolen Years’ will take place at 1900 on Saturday 10th September
on the Barge in the Central Basin
at St Katherine Dock, London
Run Time approx. 60 minutes Tickets £15.
Book tickets here: http://www.thamesrevival.com/HTML/music.html
Following a successful concert held at “The Balcony”, a second fundraising recital is planned for 24th September at
for further information contact:
£10,000 has so far been raised to start the voyage and commission the first new composition. This will be a song cycle for countertenor and guitar by Joseph Phibbs, setting poetry by Nicholas Heiney (son of radio presenter Libby Purves). The premiere will be given by James Boyd and Michael Chance at Aldeburgh in early 2012.
This recital in Itteringham will raise funds for a commission from Jonathan Dove, one of the most successful and highly respected English Composers. This will be a joint fundraising evening with the Itteringham Community Shop which will also benefit from the proceeds of ticket sales.
The Balcony Theatre Stokers, Gong Lane, Burnham Overy Staithe PE31 8JG
Wednesday 22nd June 7.30pm
In 1937, East Coast journalist and artist Archie White commissioned the yacht Concord of Mersea from Harry King’s boatyard at Pin Mill in Suffolk. His lovingly kept record of Concord’s early years provides a window onto a lost world touched by the shadow of war. Concord’s present owner, the acclaimed classical guitarist James Boyd, brings this story to life in Stolen Years. Extracts from Concord’s original log books provide the framework for a concert of English music ranging from the lute fantasias of John Dowland to the haunting writing of Benjamin Britten, interwoven with poetry by Auden, MacNeice and Larkin.
In 2012, James Boyd will sail along the East Coast of Britain on a unique musical journey. His aim is to commission new music for guitar from today’s leading composers and bring that new writing to many people through the unfolding adventure of his voyage.
He will begin the journey at Snape Maltings in Aldeburgh, sailing Concord of Mersea to the St Magnus Festival in Orkney and returning to the River Alde in 2013. Along the way he will perform concerts at many venues, from quaysides to concert halls, and at the conclusion of his voyage he will have commissioned and premiered over an hour of the finest music, creating an entirely new repertoire. This will be the first time such a significant body of new English music has been created for the classical guitar in recent years. The final recital will take place at Aldeburgh on Benjamin Britten’s Centenary. The influence of the sea is present in so much of Britten’s music, and perhaps he would have approved of this inspiring journey
Boyd has so far raised £10,000, to start the voyage and commission the first new composition. This will be a song cycle for countertenor and guitar by Joseph Phibbs, setting poetry by Nicholas Heiney (son of radio presenter Libby Purves). The premiere will be given by James Boyd and Michael Chance at Aldeburgh in early 2012. This recital at The Balcony will raise funds for a commission from Jonathan Dove, one of the most successful and highly respected English Composers.