How to live happily as a concert player
by Flavio Cucchi
I wrote this essay, published in Guitart magazine, about 20 years ago, but I believe that it is still relevant today, particularly in its, let's say, more philosophical aspects.
In the last few years the technical skill of the concert player has improved a great deal and while touring the world, I have met many talented young guitarists with much better technique than the guitarists of, 30 years ago.
This phenomenon holds true, also, far players of other instruments. Listening to the recordings of the 40's and the 50's one would be astonished by the many imperfections as compared to today's standard…and yet , what poetry!
Listening to the recordings of the masters of the past, I have noticed that their imperfections did not affect their emotional power nor their bravura. Thus, their ability to communicate the sense of drama, pathos, joy, etc., rather than sheer mechanical proficiency is self evident.
Of course a good instrumental technique is necessary to realize any idea, but the ultimate end of a performer must not be a perfect performance alone. Even though today the technical standard has improved, I do not think that Man has changed his way of feeling, of perceiving the "Shining" that some performers have, the "third track" in a recording. I believe that character, personality, communicativeness and sincerity are still today the most important element to achieving true success This is proven by the fact that, among the many guitarists of today, only those who have the aforementioned qualities, are able to emerge and sustain a satisfying and long lived career. Every successful guitarist has a peculiarity; his sound, his phrasing, something that you can recognize and lets you say "it is him!" (or "her!").
For this reason students must deeply explore within themselves, their own personal taste and to nurture and develop this most necessary and personal quality which makes the difference between a good guitarist and a true interpreter.
In my teaching and concert playing experience I have noticed that not only many of my students, but also some colleagues, have considerable trouble in studying and preparing for a concert. These problems can be caused by the confusion over ideas about studying and playing. Sometimes I discovered, with surprise, that some of them did not know the true purpose of concert playing. Since I find great pleasure in preparing and playing concerts, I would like to suggest my points of view and my principles, hoping that they could help removing the insecurity and the fear which dishearten many musicians.
Art is communication
Sometimes the long years spent in a conservatory, a discouraging background or a competitive atmosphere could make us forget the purpose for which we began to study and devote our time and energy to the guitar.
Can you remember when you began? The first melodies and arpeggios you played? It was magic to produce those sounds and arrange them together, wasn't it? What was the spring which made you devote yourself to music?
Like every other art, music is communication
Art itself, however, cannot communicate ideas or concepts (even though vocal pieces have texts): music communicates emotions, or rather it creates emotions in the listener through the musical worlds of form, rhythm, melody, harmonic structure… all things that the listener "discovers" in the performed piece. So we play to create these worlds, atmospheres able to produce emotions within ourselves, who are the first to enjoy our own creations, and then for our audiences.
Even though classical music has created complex languages, like polyphonic or dodecaphonic music, it is important to remember that the main element in playing and listening to music is the emotion, something intangible (on the aesthetical level) which fills the listener with wonder, which "moves" and changes him/her, even if only for a moment.
Obviously there are also the technical, styIistic and philosophical explanations surrounding a concert, but these are only rationalizations and are less important in comparison to the actual creation of art. By saying that, I do not want to promote ignorance: an interpreter should know the "whys and wherefores" but he should never forget that he has to create and communicate emotions and he must train to do so.
How to prepare far a concert
Often I hear such statements: "I have to study six hours every day to be able to play a concert," or: "I need six months to prepare this piece." Obviously the time needed to prepare a piece varies according to the level and the ability of the musician, but it is a mistake to base one's preparation on the time element alone.
Many years ago I shared my flat, far a short period of time, with a German guitarist who used to practice far six hours each day. He continuously repeated the same piece from the beginning to the end, ad nauseum, with no apparent improvement. Each evening he was, of course, dejected (along with me) but, at least he could say that "he had practiced for six hours."
Time is a variable
The young German was dejected because his attempts were misguided. In reality he did not know what he was trying to achieve: his achievement was "six hours of work."
A good principle concerning study is to always know well what you are trying to achieve in a day. It could be the reading of a piece, his fingering, to learn a single passage, memorization, tone coloring, scale facility, etc. The important factor is knowing what it is that you desire from your efforts for that particular session of work.
Moreover, in this way you have the advantage of knowing when you are finished.
Arranging your work
I do not like to study in a relentless way. If I have no scheduled concerts I devote myself to my other interests and play for my pleasure. But when I have some scheduled concerts I arrange my work.
If I have to study a new piece, I divide my work in two phases: The first one (A) is the PREPARATION OF THE PIECE, divided in four parts:
1) the first is the reading. I read the piece many times to get a general impression and to plan the strategy of study, specific to the work.
I finger it only when I have a precise idea of its structure. I then analyze and read it with and without my instrument. When I make myself familiar with the piece and the direction to follow (tone colors, generaI emotions, a "road which has a heart", like Ghiglia taught, quoting Castaneda), I pass to the second phase.
2) Fingering. It is made according to the desired timbric, agogic and dynamic effects. I pencil in the fingerings, knowing that later it will be changed and I make myself familiar with the most difficult passages.
3) I now begin to study the piece from a technical point of view, that is I try to learn it by heart, "I put it in my fingers ". During this phase I sometimes discover that I have to change some fingerings because I have changed my mind about certain aspects of interpretation.
4) There are not all difficult pieces, but of course there are always some difficult passages. It is very important to identify them: sometimes a strange position, a jump, can endanger a whole section of the piece. Often when encountering one recurring error during the same passage it is a good idea to devote a phase of one's study to identify and solve the difficult passages.
Sometimes it happens that I suspect the problem is with the left hand passage until I discover that the actual problem is in the right hand!
Occasionally, analyzing the movements of a "difficult" passage, I realize that the actual problem was immediately BEFORE that passage!
At this point the piece has been approached from a technical perspective: it has been fingered, I have memorized the piece to my satisfaction, I am comfortable with its structure, etc. It is now time for the performance phase to begin.
In my opinion, this is an important phase specifically because it is often neglected.
It is necessary to exercise one's capacity to create the right condition to perform a piece in a convincing way.
A suggestion: do not confuse these two phases of the study: in the first you are a student and are preparing the piece, you create your own opinions about it, you analyze it and you become acquainted with it, you practice.
In the second, you are a concert player and you work in order to produce an emotionaI impact with your performance.
In the first phase your attention is inside the piece, in its technical and formaI detaiIs, in the second, you have to improve your capacity to "speak" the music in a involving way not unlike an actor playing a part. (You are an interpreter, never forget it).
If during the first phase you have interrupted your playing at every problem point and attempted to solve it, now you play the piece from the beginning to the end: you work to build the continuity of the performance. If now you discover that you have problems in some passages, take note of them, you will solve them in another moment.
It is good not to mix the two phases. It is very important to be in the same state of mind as when you play in pubIic and to play with the same intensity and passion as you would in the actual performance.
Some more considerations: the people who have bought the tickets for your concert want to feel some emotions: play for them, not for the "experts". Also the critics and your colleagues want to be touched by your music. Those who sit in the first row and count your mistakes are in a very bad state: they have no capacity to enjoy the music and you must pity them. Don't keep yourself from phrasing for fear of a mistake: it is your poetry that counts when you play, and the hell with the mistakes!
Two more observations: notwithstanding the best intentions, sometimes a concert does not go well: do not be discouraged, it has happened to everyone and it did not ruin anyone's career! Use this "incident" to learn something more, to avoid it in the future: he who wants to change and improve himself must accept some "fall" every now and then (but, please, not too many…).
The last suggestion to "live happy": do not criticize your colleagues. Even if you do not share their choices and tastes, do not be destructive. If you find yourself overtly critical and condescending towards another colleague, it is probably YOU with the problem. Leave the hysterical hatred for the critics and devote yourself to creating something that is meaningful to you and ultimately to your audience.
I hope this has been of some use to you.
Playing is a pleasure, it is one of the highest human activities. Even if you are a student and are currently having some difficulties, you have decided to give yourself to music and very few do it
Never forget that you are an artist.
The decline of iinspiration
by Flavio Cucchi
Some time ago, taking part in the jury of an international competition I have been stroke by an inexplicable fact : the contestant who then won, despite being technically flawless, brilliant and musically correct, while also having a nice sound ... I did not like him.
I listened to him admired but at the same time I observed that for some mysterious reason he could not involve me.
For a long time I asked myself the reasons for this phenomenon until ' I took some clues from an American student a Chinese and a French.
Recently in a tour in Asia I met an impeccable Chinese guitarists who prepared the pieces making a massive use of the metronome and on another occasion also an American student who did the same thing.
For massive use I mean that they would not put the metronome to the measure, in order to control the general rhythmical flow, but leaving some room for a momentum or a shy rubato, nothing at all: the click was falling relentlessly on the quaver or even the semiquaver, forcing the student to place all the notes in their box and zeroing any inspiration or every possible temptation to give shape and direction to the quadruplets in order to create a personal phrasing .
The student in this way systematically discouraged his imagination and I would say, it became a kind of factory worker job rather than an artistic activity.
Have you ever seen professional dancers dance? They rarely touch the ground with their feet exactly on the beat of the time, (the dancing bears do that) , they sail anticipating or delaying but always giving the impression of knowing exactly where the beat is.
It is just this series of subtle variations that make the style of an interpreter: the good interpreter knows exactly where is the time grid , but he uses it and plays with it, sometimes stretches it a bit and so on but he is never the effect of it.
This concept applies to all kinds of music: even to the percussionists .
I remember that in the '80s , when it become fashionable the use of electronic percussion (much cheaper then ' real ' drummers ) , they had to solve the problem of mechanical effect and coldness of the computer.
They had made a study of the great drummers to imitate their style.
The style consisted of personal imperfections: the great drummer so and so anticipated few milliseconds the hi-hat on the snare drum , he delayed the bass drum etc .
To conclude: playing perfectly in tempo is not very artistic, in fact any machine can do it, while only an artist can create a phrase .
The interpretation of a piece is not only agogic but also colors, dynamics, staccato - legato and in short the whole set of tricks that convey the vision of the piece by the interpreter.
The second clue as to why the flawless execution of the good guitar player I'm talking did not convince me, I caught talking to students of a French school.
These guys were studying the interpretations details and repeated them thousands of times.
For example : crescendo, respiro, piano subito.
Nice, but repeating it ad nauseam it became perfect but lifeless.
It was a pre-cooked and heated food, not something cooked for the occasion .
The concert player was doing his job but without the slightest room for a momentary inspiration, intuition, a moment of grace ... the piece flowed relentless on its predeterminate tracks, clean and cold.
Life exists only in the present.
The memorable performances that create a real emotion are created in the present , they are not the automatic repetition of a creation of the past.
The good interpreter studies very well the piece formally and technically in order to be able to run freely in concert and the only in this way ,while respecting the general idea of the piece, will be able to " say " the piece every time in a new and engaging way.