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Thursday, July 6, 2017

How to train your brain

Back when we were in 6th Grade at Pasig Catholic College (PCC), our Science teacher Ms. Lara used to lug around these loose blackboards from one classroom to another. Listed in them are the topics or pointers for our Science class that she had filtered from the reference books. We would spend most of the 45-minute period copying them in our notebooks and we were also expected to memorize them. Afterwards, she would conduct an oral exam where she would randomly call each one of us to answer her questions. If we could not provide the right answer, we were to remain standing. We were young kids and our inherent fear of not being able to answer the questions became self-fulfilling. By the end of the period, everyone was standing. 

What I just described is the typical method of instruction that Filipinos undergo while in school. It is widely assumed that this impedes creativity and prevents kids from learning because they cannot question the data and/or challenge the status quo. Whatever the arguments are, I believe that we unknowingly benefited from rote learning. I may not have learned much about Science, but I gained the necessary discipline and technique for memorization that I apply to music to this day.

When I study guitar pieces, there are times when I have to memorize all or part of the score due to two main reasons:
  • The piece is very long and it will be difficult to turn the pages of the score while playing. In this case, I may memorize the entire score or just the first and last pages.
  • Regardless of the length of the piece, I want to be able to play it at the drop of a hat and not have to rely on a written score.
Much has been written about memorization techniques, some of which include:
  • Memorize starting from the end of the score.
  • Look for patterns and memorize them then just apply the variations.
  • Burn an image of the score in your brain and visualize it as you play the piece.
  • Memorize the piece in isolated sections such as the intro, verse, chorus, coda, etc. then assemble them later.
  • Play the piece about 50 times...although I'm not sure about this one.

No one technique is better than the other. In fact, they tend to complement each other and they can collectively help you achieve your goal of memorizing a piece. This is one of those activities were you actually get better the more you do it. It also has the added benefit of keeping your brain sharp as you grow older. 

Another related topic is what many term as "muscle memory". While repeatedly playing a piece, the muscles of the fingers are trained to move reflexively according to the playing sequence. When you achieve this, it's often easier to emote or express feelings while playing the music. Muscle memory typically sets in even before you start memorizing a piece. It actually helps speed up memorization, which is a mental exercise, because the physical aspect is already taken care of.

The combination of memorization techniques and muscle memory is a strong foundation for musicianship. It enables a musician to focus more on the dynamics and phrasings which is what the audience connects with. From mere notes written on a piece of paper, one is able to create music. 

Friday, June 30, 2017

Level Up

A seasoned classical guitarist once told me that at a certain point in my guitar self-studies, I should stop referring to myself as a "classical guitar player" and start letting people know that I'm a "classical guitarist". It took me a while to comprehend it because the play on wordings are subtle and yet the implications are potentially huge. It's the difference between a DIY dad who can (read: barely knows how to) use power tools to fix a fence and a licensed contractor who can construct a house with the same power tools because he knows how it's done.

In very simple terms, a classical guitar player is someone who plays music on a classical guitar. That music can be a mix of classical music or other types of genre (jazz, alternative, rock,etc.). On the other hand, a classical guitarist specializes in the classics and uses the classical guitar as a medium for expressing the music. Still don't get it or don't agree? You're not alone.

While I don't fully subscribe to this idea, I believe that as a musician we should always strive to take our skills and music to the next level. Getting stuck playing Lagrima and Romance d'Amour for 10 years is certainly not a good sign of growth. Likewise, focusing too much on technique at the expense of exploring the vast guitar music repertoire limits ones' ability to grow as a musician. 

I do not have the facility to execute complex guitar techniques and fast scales as many thousands of guitarists can (just watch those 8 year olds on YouTube), but I can focus my energies on what I believe can satisfy my passion for music. There's so much music out there to study and perform, well within the limits of my playing abilities. If I can't dig deep, I might as well dig wide. It will hold the same amount of water anyway. I may sometimes play pop music on the classical guitar, but I still call classical music my home.

What am I? A classical guitarist.

Friday, June 9, 2017

Stages of learning and playing music

Like anything that we care for in life, music that we study should be nurtured and given the time and effort necessary to bring out its message and beauty for people to appreciate. When I choose a piece, I often try to learn as much about it and its composer as I possibly can. Any background information helps me understand the context of the music and how I should play it. This process can be quick (mostly for lack of info) or occur all throughout the time I'm studying the piece. At the same time, I go through what I call "stages" of playing which is pretty much a measure of how well I know the piece and how good I can play it. There is not a cut-and-dried criteria for judging where one stage ends and the other begins, but I tried to define what generally happens in each one. This is all from my personal experience and not based on any intense scientific study. 

1. Analytical - I slowly read the score while having a cup of coffee; no guitar in hand. At this stage, I try to understand the key signature, tempo, timing, notes and their time values. I start to figure out the fingerings and positions much like solving puzzles. I annotate the score to keep track of personal choices in fingerings and positions. In short, I work out all the technical requirements for the piece. It also helps to listen to someone else's recording, whether performed using the same score and instrument or using a totally different medium/instrument. 

2. Deliberate - I apply the results of my analysis and begin programming muscle memory by playing in a very deliberate fashion, similar to doing military drills in a bootcamp. There is no emphasis on dynamics or phrasings and tempo is often disregarded at this point. If any technical challenges arise such as complicated scales or finger stretches, I create quick and dirty lessons to overcome these challenges. 

3. Mechanical - Once muscle memory starts to set in, I attempt to play the entire piece and I start understanding the music as a whole. I then figure out and apply the phrasings, voices and dynamics as indicated by the composer. When these are not present, I decide where to apply my own dynamics and phrasings. Lastly, I begin to play at the indicated tempo.

4. Memorized - I start to program the piece in my head and visualize the score (rather than read it) as I play. Having the score in my head frees me up to observe my hands and try out varying flavors of phrasings and dynamics. At this point, I revisit the decisions I made earlier on fingerings and technique and adjust as necessary.

5. Reflexive - I usually know I'm at this stage if I can play with emotions and my fingers will just follow. At the end of the day, music is about expressing a message or an emotion. These emotions should drive the performance and the technique supports the desired expression. 

I have to say that in my haste to "conquer" a piece, I rarely get to the highest level of playing. The reason for this is by the time I'm able to play the piece end-to-end, albeit mechanically, I already feel either exhausted or bored and want to move on to the next piece. However, I often revisit a piece long after I've moved on and I find myself playing it much better the next time around. It takes a great amount of discipline to transcend mechanical/technical playing and elevate things to a purely musical level.  On the flipside, I've seen musicians who skip all these details and, in their mind, play purely by emotions but fail to get any message across because of their incoherent and oftentimes rushed style of playing. 

In conclusion, we always say we should just enjoy playing music and forget about the technicalities, which is true, but as a mere mortal, I have to climb some hills to appreciate the view.

Salamat Po!

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Nota o Tenga?

"No tabs were used in this video" ang madalas kong mabasa sa mga ibang nagpo-post ng guitar videos nila. Naalala ko tuloy yung disclaimer na "No animals were injured during the filming of this movie". Para bang gusto nilang ipangalandakan na super galing nila at hindi nila kinailangan ng tabs para tumugtog. At para bang ang tabs o sheet music ay para lang dun sa mga hindi marunong gumawa ng sarili nilang arrangements. 

 "This piece was played by ear" ang isa pang disclaimer na nakikita ko sa mga guitar videos. Nagtataka lang ako kasi akala ko kamay at daliri ang ginagamit sa pagtugtog ng gitara at hindi tenga :-) 

Ano nga ba ang tamang paraan sa pag-aaral ng isang kanta o piyesa? 
Nota o tenga? 
Para sa akin ay pareho itong kailangan. 
Samahan mo na rin ng utak, puso, atay at balunbalunan! 

Ang pagbabasa ng nota (o tabs kung hindi ka marunong magbasa ng standard notation) ay parang pagbabasa ng libro. Ang pagsusulat ng isang arrangement ay isang paraan para makipag-communicate ang composer/arranger sa ibang musikero. Hindi ito kahinaan o kasalatan sa kaalaman kung ang isang tao ay umaasa sa pagbabasa ng nakasulat na piyesa. Kung hindi sinulat nila Bach, Weiss, Sanz, Sor, Handel, Tarrega, atbp. yung mga compositions nila, wala sana tayong tutugtuging musika mula sa Baroque, Classical at Romantic periods at lalong walang puwedeng tengahin kasi wala namang mga audio recorders noon. 

Nung hindi pa ko marunong magbasa ng nota, inaabot ako ng ilang linggo para matutunan ang isang rock o pop music. Kahit na mabuo ko ito ay marami pa rin akong mali at namimintisang mga nota. Wala akong cassette player at tapes nung 1980s kaya nakikinig lang ako sa mga pinapatugtog sa jeep at tricycle habang nakasakay ako. Pag-uwi ko sa bahay ay doon ko nire-recall yung mga maliliit na details na narinig ko. Magandang training yun pero masyadong inefficient kung gusto mong umunlad ng mas mabilis. Wala rin akong mapagtanungan noon kasi kahit yung mga matatandang musikero, hindi naman nila alam kung paano ipaliwanag yung mga techniques at theory na ginamit nila. Kung meron mang mga babasahin noon, yung mga punit-punit na Jingle ang ginagamit ko pero maraming mali sa mga chords doon. 

Ngayon, sangkaterba na ang naglipanang mga guitar forums, tutorial videos, pirated mp3s, tabs at iba pa. Lima singko na rin ang mga guitar instructors na may masters o doctorate degrees pa. Maraming mga bata ang mabilis na gumagaling dahil sa dami ng available resources sa pag-aaral. Hindi na nila kailangang maghintay na patugtugin sa radyo yung gusto nilang pag-aralan. Ilang downloads lang at nandun na yung video o music at kung sinusuwerte, merong isang mabait na kaluluwa na gumawa ng tabs nito. 

Unless na masochist ka at gusto mo talagang pahirapan ang sarili mo, bakit ka magtitiyagang kapain ang isang tugtog kung meron nang mga nag-post ng resources para mas mabilis mo itong matutunan? Isang urban myth na kinakalat ng iba ay nakakasagabal daw sa creativity kung umaasa lang sa pagbabasa ng nota. Sa totoo lang, sa sobrang creative nung mga nanghuhula sa arrangements nila e parang labu-labong mga manok na nagsabong yung tunog nila. Ang creativity ay matatagpuan din sa structured music at puwede mo namang baguhin yung arrangement kung gusto mo pero at least may foundation ka na sa pag-aaral ng kanta.

Iba-iba ang tawag sa pagtugtog ng hindi gumagamit ng nota - Kapa, sipra, tinenga, oido, plakado, platito, plato, baso....ewan. Sa kalaunan, ang pinaka-importante ay kung paano ine-express ang music. Kung maganda pakinggan ang isang tugtog, hindi na importante kung ito ay binasa o tinenga.

Monday, December 16, 2013

PHILIPPINE MEDLEY - an experience in guitar ensemble music

Lately, I took the time to record Maestro Jose Valdez' composition, Philippine Medley. This work is a string of various Philippine traditional music arranged for four guitars. I considered it a pipe dream to play it the minute I saw the arrangement because not only was it long (about 20 pages), it also required advanced guitar skills. Of course there's that minor detail wherein I needed three other guitar players to play it :-) With no luck in finding others who can help, I decided to designate myself the task of playing all guitar parts. It was a herculean endeavor and I didn't know at the time if I could finish it if I started it. When I finally recorded the first medley piece, it lit up a spark in me that I could not extinguish until I've completed the entire arrangement.

The first and foremost challenge for me is that ensemble music is meant to be played WITH other people. It's a social experience that reinforces not just our ability to play, but our skills in taking cues from other players and feeling the music as the other players do. As it was, I played with imaginary guitarists and was primarily a slave to the mechanical beat of a metronome. Technically, I played ensemble music but I didn't play in an ensemble.

The second challenge was the fact that I had to learn all four parts and play them consistently and in-time. The only way I could manage this was to learn one medley piece at a time, while learning all four guitar parts. As I indicated earlier, I played using a metronome in order to achieve a consistent and common tempo. This made it very easy to assemble the guitar parts later on. However, if I needed to slow down or speed up certain parts, forget it. I could slow down or retard the last few bars of a particular piece but the metronome's set tempo was still ticking in my ears. Imagine trying to slow down a car while the engine is stuck revving at a high rate - it's possible, but very distracting.

Thirdly, there are guitar techniques in this arrangement that I have seldom or never tried before. I therefore had to learn and execute them well enough. These include not-so-often-used techniques such as tambor, snare, trombone, trumpet and pizzicato. These and the dynamics (which are absent from the written piece) are very difficult to play owing to the fact that playing a guitar part by itself sounds somewhat random and unintelligible...until of course I put all parts together. 

Lastly, I thought about the potential differences in recording quality and ambiance that would result from varied recording locations, mic placement and audio processing effects whenever I recorded each medley piece. Depending on whichever part of the house was quiet, I would record in the kitchen or upstairs in the bedroom. My audio recorder, a Tascam DR-07, suddenly quit on me in the midst of completing the last two medley pieces. I ended up using another audio recorder, a DR-40, to finish the job. These variances would have disastrous effects to a professional recording session, but in my case, the end product was all within my personal tolerance for recording quality (i.e. my bar is set quite low).

It really helped that there were already several recorded renditions of this piece. I would watch these renditions as a whole or in parts in order for me to grasp the music and how it should be played. In certain instances, in spite of the tempo being indicated in the piece, I ended up playing at a slightly faster tempo to liven up the piece and to approximate the spirit of the live version.

It took me 25 days of learning the guitar parts, recording with as much as 20 takes per guitar part and editing both audio and video in order to come up with this final version. I don't know how much time guitarists normally put into mastering each guitar part in an ensemble and how much practice time they invest in putting the parts together, but my respect goes out to those who do this. Solo guitar playing is a real challenge, but you are mostly working with or against yourself. In an ensemble, the quality of the music depends on the group playing together as one cohesive unit. The two cannot really be compared, but it is very much advisable to try both if one wants to grow musically.

Without further ado, here's my rendition of Philippine Medley:

Saturday, August 3, 2013


Nung mga binata pa kami, mahilig kaming magkita-kita pagkatapos sa trabaho at mag-inuman sa mga nakapaligid na karinderya sa Makati. Isang gabi lumabas kami nila Dyords at Ariel at
tulad ng nakagawian, nag-inuman kami. Nung paubos na yung pinupulutan naming mani (mga kuripot kasi kami), biglang um-order si Ariel ng "isang buong manok". Nagulat ako kasi mahal yun at baka hindi namin mabayaran. Sabi ni Ariel wag kaming mag-alala at sabay tinanong ako kung "saan ba galing ang manok?" Sabi ko " itlog." Saka niya nilinaw na itlog ang ino-order niya kasi isang buong manok ang laman nun...kung napisa. Yun pala ang code word ng itlog doon sa loob ng karinderya :-)

Ang pag-aaral ng isang piyesa ay parang itlog ng manok na nililim-liman at inaasahang mapisa matapos ng 21 days (alam ko ito kasi nag-alaga kami ng mga manok noon sa gilid ng bahay namin). Depende siyempre sa ating kanya-kanyang talento, puwedeng mabilis o matagal (o habambuhay) nating inaaral ang isang piyesa kahit simple o kumplikado man ito. Mahirap man sa umpisa, dumadali ang pagtugtog ng isang piyesa kung panay nating pa-praktisin at susuriin kung paano ito matutugtog ng maayos.

Paano nga ba nagiging manok ang itlog?

1. Habang nangingitlog ang isang inahen at bago niya upuan mga ito, kain ito ng kain at nagpapataba. Kumbaga sa pag-gigitara, bago tayo sumabak sa isang piyesa, busugin muna natin ang ating kaalaman tungkol dito. Gawi ko nang i-research ang background ng composer at ng mismong composition nito. Binabasa ko muna ang piyesa bago ko ito tugtugin at inaalam ko ang mga importante at mahihirap na passages.

2. Tulad ng pagpipisa ng itlog, kapag in-abandon ng inahen ang kanyang mga itlog, nabubugok ang mga ito at hindi na nagiging sisiw. Sa pag-aaral ng gitara, huwag dali-daliang bibitawan ang piyesa kung hindi pa ito natutugtog ng maayos. Madalas kahit tapos na nating basahin at tugtugin, marami pa tayong matutunan tungkol dito, tulad ng phrasing at dynamics. Kailangang dalhin lagi sa next level ang pagtugtog, mula sa pagiging mekanikal papunta sa pagiging communicative. Tandaan na ang musika ay isang uri ng language at kailangang maintindihan ng nakikinig ang mensahe nito.

3. Kapag nagsimula nang upuan ng inahen ang kanyang mga itlog, halos hindi na ito kumakain.
Paminsan-minsan, mabilis itong nanginginain tapos babalik na kaagad para upuan ang mga itlog niya. Dito makikita na ang sakripisyo ay isa sa mga sangkap sa pag-develop ng isang bagay. Kailangan din ng dedikasyon at konting sakripisyo kung nais mong gumaling sa pagtugtog ng gitara.

4. Kung sa wakas ay napisa na ang itlog, hindi pa rin ito ang katapusan ng istorya kung hindi ito pa lamang ang simula. Mula dito sa punto na ito ay ang panay na pag-aaruga at pag-protekta hanggang ang sisiw ay maging isang manok. Ang pag-aaral ng isang piyesa ay hindi nagtatapos sa pagkabisa nito. Sa paulit-ulit kong pagtugtog ng mga kabisado kong piyesa, nakakadiskubre pa rin ako ng ibang paraang ng pag-express nito.

5. Sa katapus-tapusan at nakakalungkot mang banggitin, hindi lahat ng itlog ay nagiging sisiw.
Sa aking karanasan, isang beses ko lang nakitang napisa ang lahat ng itlog na nilimliman ng inahen namin. Sa dinami-dami ng mga inaaral natin, mangilan-ngilan lang din ang tumatanim sa isip at puso natin. Marami ang nakakalimutan pero meron ding binabalik-balikan para aralin ulit. Ang mahalaga sa pag-aaral ng gitara ay meron kang mga ilang piyesa na kaya mong tugtugin sa mga biglaang sitwasyon.

Sa bandang huli, nasa sa iyo kung ang ano ang iyong turing sa piyesang inaaral mo.

Itlog ba o isa nang buong manok?

Saturday, July 27, 2013


"Magaling ka bro!"

"O talaga? Salamat."

"Oo, magaling ka kasi wala kang sakit (sabay ilag)."

Karaniwang nakaka-insulto ang ganitong biro pero may katotohanan ito kung pag-iisipang mabuti. Bakit ko nasabi ito? Para sa akin, ang pag-aaral ng gitara ay parang pag-gamot sa sari-saring sakit. Kung magagamot natin ang mga sakit na humahadlang sa paglago ng ating kakayahan, gagaling tayo at masasabing "Magaling ka!" Mahalaga din sa akin na alamin ko kung tinatamaan ako ng sakit habang nagpa-praktis ako para magamot ko ito kaagad.

Ano naman ang ilan sa mga sakit na ito? Isa-isahin natin.

1. Unang sakit na dapat gamutin ay kawalan ng oras sa pag-ensayo. Dahil sa dami ng iniisip o inaasikaso sa buhay, hindi mabigyan ng panahon ang pag-praktis o pag-aaral ng gitara. Dapat  nating isaayos ang priorities at schedule natin para makapaglaan ng kahit 30 to 45 minutes sa isang araw sa pag-aaral ng gitara. Ginagawa ko itong pampagising sa umaga o kaya ay stress relieving activity pagkagaling sa trabaho sa hapon.

2. Isa pang malalang sakit ay ang pagkumpara ng sarili sa ibang gitarista. Kanya-kanya tayo ng kakayahan at kailangan lang na pagkumparahan ay ang iyong sarili. Magandang gawing inspirasyon ang mga magagaling na gitarista. Pero ang tunay na sukatan ay kung mas magaling kang mag-gitara ngayong araw na ito kesa kahapon. Ito ay senyales na umuunlad ka nga. Sapat na yon.

3. Paminsan-minsan meron ding mga tinatamaan ng sobrang pagka-bilib sa sarili. Lalo kang hindi gagaling kung sarado ang utak mo at akala mo wala ka nang dapat matutunan. Lahat tayo ay puwedeng matuto sa isa't isa. Kahit mas magaling ka pa sa kausap mo, meron pa rin siyang alam na hindi mo alam.

4. Sa kabilang dako naman, mahirap din yung insecure o walang tiwala sa sarili. Ang confidence sa sarili ay kailangang tama lang para makatugtog ng maayos at maging open-minded sa pag-aaral ng bagong technique at piyesa. Huwag matakot na sumubok paminsan-minsan ng piyesa na medyo mahirap para masukat mo kung handa ka nang itaas ang level ng pagtugtog mo.

5. Ang madalas ko ring mapansin na sakit ay ang hindi makali at paiba-iba ang sinusubukang tugtugin. Kailangan mag-concentrate at pumirmi sa isang pinag-aaralan para makabuo ng isang tugtog na masasabing pinaghirapan mo.

6. Meron ding mga makakalimutin. Kapag natapos nang pag-aralan ang piyesa, kinakalimutan na lahat ng natutunan. Hindi ko sinasabing kabisaduhin ang lahat ng piyesang natugtog sa halip ay tandaan ang mga lessons at experiences na nasagap habang pinag-aaralan ang piyesa.

7. Isa pang sakit na dapat gamutin ay ang ugaling "puwede na yan" o "bahala na". Mapapansin mo ito sa pagtugtog ng ibang gitarista na parang kinaladkad lang sa kalye ang pagtugtog ng piyesa. Ang pagtugtog ng musika, lalo na't classical guitar, ay napaka-precise at may mga disiplinang sinusunod para makatugtog ng maayos. Kahit gaano ka-simple lang ang piyesang pinag-aaralan, dapat pag-ukulan ng sapat na atensyon at gawing opportunity para mag-advance ang skills.

8. May napapansin din akong sakit sa ibang gitarista na masyadong obsessed sa technique at nakakalimutang ang technique ay tool lamang para gumawa ng musika. Kahit ikaw pa ang pinakamabilis na mag-scales at mag-arpeggio, o kaya ikaw ang pinakamatinding mag-rest stroke o mag-tremolo, kung ginagamit mo lang ito para magpasikat imbes na magpahayag ng emotions, wala kang mararating sa larangan ng musika. 

Mahirap mang tanggapin ang mga sinabi ko, kahit ako ay tinatamaan din ng mga ito.
Sana ay may magic pill na maiinom para magamot ang mga sakit na nabanggit ko. 
Sana ay may malalapitan tayong albularyo na makakagamot sa pamamagitan ng mga dahon, kandila, langis at dasal.
Pero ang pinaka-mabisang gamot pa rin ay ang self-awareness at perseverance na ma-overcome ang mga balakid sa pag-unlad.

Kaya sa susunod na may bumati sa yo ng,

"Ang galing mo bro!"

Unahan mo na at sabihing,

"Kasi wala akong sakit."