Quiet Time

I’ve been a little quiet on the blog recently. It’s been a mix of being busy as well as messing with things a little out of my reach musically. On the first point, life is back in a fairly normal swing here, and I’m not so exhausted coming home as I was for a few weeks. Hopefully I’ll be able to keep up with my music habit more faithfully again. Despite my grumpiness, I know I’m fortunate to be able to complain about work during these times. I hope everyone is doing as well as can be expected, and that music is keeping you company, whether you’re the player or the listener.

I said I was wanting to practice guitar more before getting back to writing, but I should have known better. I’m a composer at heart. I wrote a little melodic practice today, and I think I’m slowly figuring out what I’m trying to do with my writing more and more. I got the accompaniment recorded today, but didn’t have time for the melody. Yes, this one is simple guitar behind harmonica again, because well I like that pairing, and because I just wanted to get this down and recorded quickly rather than making a nice arrangement and working that up. 

But don’t worry. I also have the beginnings of a larger work for solo Russian guitar on the drawing board as well. I’m trying to envision the dramatic narrative of the piece first, get ideas down, refine the narrative, then music. This is a different approach than I’ve tried before. I feel like I’m loosely writing a tone poem though I’m sticking to more classical forms, and I kind of like that feeling. I’m excited to see where it goes in the long term. 

Finally, about my second point, in practicing guitar, I’ve been pushing myself a bit recently. It’s good to work on things a little outside your reach. These are the pieces that push you to improve your technical skills, but unfortunately for my blog, they don’t lend themselves well to recording and sharing. The other side of that coin is working on pieces that are much more in your ability range so you can push and develop your musicality. Once I drift back to that, I’ll probably have a lot more to play with for recording, so look forward to it once it happens.

Accompaniment

Recently, I’ve been looking at what the Russian guitar can do as an accompaniment instrument rather than a solo instrument. It is a very capable instrument in this regard. It fits thinner textures being a guitar, but the tuning gives you more control of the bass notes than I feel you have with Spanish guitar. I’ve always felt a bit like you get the inversion of the chord that makes it playable, rather than being able to pick the bass note you want. Given, some of this is probably related to skill, I get a feeling that every note is accessible in a position on Russian guitar in a way they’re not on Spanish guitar. This does have a drawback of making Russian guitar more ‘jumpy’ for the left hand, but I found that I quickly got used to it. The comfort with shifting has also carried over when I play Spanish guitar, so I think for anyone who doesn’t want to leave Spanish guitar, a foray into Russian guitar would still be of benefit because you have to approach it in a different way which can help build overall skill.

The last piece I posted was from one of my favorite soundtrack composers, Joe Hiyashi, and a lot of people seemed to enjoy it. So, I figured I’d do another of his pieces while I’m in the mood. This one is Always With Me from Spirited Away. It’s a beautiful and simple song, which makes it a great piece to start with. The accompaniment is built around a straight forward um pah pah kind of waltz which is handled by the guitar. The melody is very lyric and purely diatonic which I play on my (chromatic) harmonica. I didn’t play any of the repeats, so this is the ‘short version’, but I’m quite happy with how it turned out. 

For the recording, I’m trying a little studio app, BandLab, and it worked quite nicely for what I needed it to do. Multitrack recording, easy to add a bit of reverb. So I hope you enjoy.

Campanella

I’ve rambled more about my own ideas recently, so I wanted to get back to talking about Russian guitar a bit. Campanella is a technique that is typical of the guitar family, but is most idiomatic of the reentrant tuned members, like the ukulele and baroque guitar. The close tuning of the Russian guitar also allows for some beautiful campanella playing, particularly when you have a chance to exploit an open string or two. 

So, for my practice journal this week, I’m working a bit on campanella with a piece that I really enjoy, though it’s not Russian at all. It’s Arrietty’s Song from the animation The Secret World of Arrietty. This is a song I enjoy but hadn’t started practicing much on my classical guitar. I decided to do an experiment and see how it would feel on Russian guitar. This one actually fits really well on Russian guitar, and I discovered that if you play in a high position, it’s really suited for campanella passages. 

I honestly still feel like I’m just fumbling around on Russian guitar, but at the same time I do feel I’m making progress. I have to remember that I’m an adult with a full time job and a home to take care of, so I don’t get to just play guitar all day even though I want to. I hope having a goal with a focused practice like this will help me make good use of the time that I do have for guitar. Luckily, it’s a long weekend here, so I hope to do a little more recording if I have the chance. Or perhaps I’ll just get more practicing done since I’d like this to be one of my go to songs I can play when I pick up my guitar. But for now, I hope you enjoy today’s practice journal, which is only the first section of the song. 

If you’re a fan of Studio Ghibli and Joe Hiyashi’s soundtracks, there is a wonderful book of classical guitar arrangements, and I’m slowly discovering a lot of the music I can read straight off the page for Russian guitar. Some of them the arrangements are beautifully smooth on Spanish guitar, so it’s a little counterintuitive to try and play them on Russian guitar. I might try and transpose some of the simpler pieces to a different key and see how that feels, well I say that but I was just complaining about not having enough time as I’d like for guitar, haha, such is life. I’m not totally sure if this book is available worldwide, but here is a link on Amazon and Amazon JP to get you started if you want to try and find it.

Hymns

Life has been a little hectic for everyone in the past few weeks, so I hope everyone is doing well and taking care of yourself. If you’re stuck inside, it’s the perfect time to play some music. One of the things my old teacher taught me that has stuck with me is that not only do you need to practice, but you also need to remember to take time to play music for yourself, just for the joy of it. So, try it, don’t do an etude or a study, just play a piece of music you enjoy.

I’ve been lucky that life is fairly normal here, but I still halfway took this advice. I play a lot off lead sheets at work, just doing simple children’s songs on my guilele, so I wanted to try that a bit on Russian guitar. Rather than children’s songs, I looked at some hymn lead sheets, feeling that a lot of people could use a warming hymn right now. This is my first attempt at this kind of playing on Russian guitar, and I’ve found since I haven’t recorded in a while the nerves are back a bit (though they’re much better than they were). While it needs polish, I’m happy with it for a quick reading, and I think the voicing on the Russian guitar works really well to read this style of music. I hope you enjoy it because I’d like to do a few hymns like this to get a little variety in and get away from the Sychra Journal a while.

Coming up I also want to keep writing my own music, though I think I need to be honest with myself and focus more on playing guitar rather and do more writing later on. I hope to start getting into the Morkov method, and I also want to explore Russian guitar as an accompanying instrument rather than a solo instrument. What can it do holding down the bass and chords? And more importantly, how well do I remember how to play harmonica? 

Today’s practice is Break Thou the Bread of Life. If you’re interested in hymn lead sheets you can find a ton of them on this site as well as children’s music and other resources, though those are mostly for piano.

Experiments

This past weekend was my first chance to get out to my brother in law’s workshop. I was really looking forward because it was a chance to play around with some ideas. My main issue is while I can visit a nice workshop (hopefully on a regular basis), it is a cabinetry workshop. That means it’s not geared for making a musical instrument, and I don’t have a bending iron. Regardless, I wasn’t going to let that stop me.

So, my first problem was to make a design without bent sides. Russian guitar is said to descend from the cittern family, specifically the English guitar (which no, is not a guitar but a cittern) and I like some of the old bell cittern designs. So, I figured I could get a similar enough design to that with straight sides and a thicker shoulder block that I could cut a bit of a curved shoulder into. Since this was more of a proof of concept experiment, I just grabbed cheap wood from my local home improvement store, though I did get actual, but still very cheap, spruce for the soundboard.

The body came together well enough with corner blocks and thick shoulder and tail blocks. The soundboard didn’t work out so well. Since I had a thick piece, I thought I’d see what would happen if I tried to carve bracing into it. The result was that the grain of the bracing is all the same as the soundboard, so there was only strength in one direction. Regardless, it was a fun experiment and I really enjoyed working in a woodshop again even if I objectively did a terrible job with everything. Hopefully I’ll be able to make enough regular trips to make progress on this project and see if I need to invest in a bending iron and proper wood to turn it into a real project!

Back Into It

The Lunar New Year ended and I was back to work. This ate into my motivation more than I would have liked, but I also had some adulting to take care of as the saying goes. Don’t worry though, I haven’t disappeared. I am in fact keeping plenty busy with my creative work and am getting started on my next Riverside Sketch. This has much more of a melancholy feel to it, and I’m enjoying messing around with it. 

I’m using a different pentatonic set than the ones that appeared in the first sketch, and we’ll see where I end up for a B section. I find even though I’m not a good pianist, I prefer to write at the piano. There is something about the visual organization of piano that helps me keep track of everything as I think. So, if you take a peek, the voicings on some of the support chords and such might change once I take it to guitar proper, but I think it’s shaping up nicely.

Also because I can’t keep focused on anything, I had a sudden itch to write some lyrics, so we’ll see what happens with that, though don’t worry, I’d be convincing my friends to sing. I wouldn’t subject you to my own voice if that ever gets recorded and finds its way to the blog. 

And a final note, as I’ve been going over pieces getting more practice in on my makeshift seven, I realized that somehow I completely missed a key change in a piece that was one of my favorites to play. That’s kind of embarrassing, but hey, it gives me chance to record it again in the future.

Riverside Sketches no.1

I wrote my first piece exploring pentatonic based melodies as well as my first real piece for Russian guitar. First things first, I’m quite happy with the piece and how it turned out. I’m not as happy with my playing of it, but I think I did well enough all things considered. I still need to do some tweaks to my guitar, mainly the heavier tension strings like I mentioned in my last post, but there is also the learning curve. I’m getting used to the spacing, though I still am not as comfortable with it as I’d like to be. My right hand technique though, works easily enough on steel strings, so no problem there. 

In my wife’s hometown, there is a river that runs out to the ocean, and it’s one of my favorite places to go for a walk and let my mind wander. Since it’s a place I’ve wandered many times and have sat by for hours as time flowed by, it seemed like a natural place to invoke as I’m beginning new compositional ideas and directions. I hope to do a series of these pieces and sketch my thoughts and feelings by the river as well as more literal pictures and gestures of the river. Enjoy the music, and farther below, I’ll jump into a more technical ramble about this piece. Also, I would love to hear other people’s take on this piece, so please play it and share!

This piece is in a fairly simple form, AABBA, but with an intro and some short transition phrases. In the A section, I worked with a stereotypical pentatonic scale G A B D E and kept the accompaniment mostly diatonic. I like the feel of a more limited melody while the harmony is broader. I’ve been interested in writing with pentatonics for a while, but I think it’s definitely the romantic Russian guitar music I’ve been practicing that has helped me end up with a piece like this. The transitions definitely come from what I’ve been playing, as well as a better handle on stress and release.

In the B section, I went used a more typical guitar texture to accompany a different pentatonic form, C# D E G A, for a short melody before the first and second ending, which have a bit of their own feel to them. I bring the first ending back up for the repeat, and originally, I had something different in the final measure, but I just had this itch to throw in that chord leading to the repeat. I’m not sure if I can explain it to myself much less anyone else, but I know it’s what I want. 

With these two pentatonics that I use, even though they’re constructed in a similar kind of  1 2 3 5 6 style, they’re made up of different intervals. This is what I’ve found interesting and is driving me to explore more with pentatonics. Whereas the major and minor scales are the same interval sets just shifted over, you can create five different pentonics with the 1 2 3 5 6 pattern, each with their own unique set of intervals. Two of them are here, and I hope in my Riverside Sketches to present them all as I imagine them.

Adjustments

I’ve been practicing on my classical guitar in an open G tuning for a while, and while it works to get acquainted with Russian guitar, I have of course, wanted a seven string. This weekend I finally had the time to sit down and do something about that. 

I’m not really in a position where I want, umm…  well I want to, but I shouldn’t buy a new guitar, nor do I have a workshop so building is a slow process where I have different obstacles to overcome (hopefully I’ll have some posts about what I am trying to build in the not too distant future.) I was left thinking what can I do with the guitars I have. I’ve thought about a million ways to put a seventh string on my classical, but nothing was practical. Then it occured to me, I could adjust my old twelve string guitar.

My poor twelve string hasn’t seen much love recently, so it wasn’t in the front of my mind, but once I got to it, I realized it had everything I needed. Enough pin holes in the bridge, enough tuners on the headstock that all I needed to do was saw new slots in the nut. 

Then by fiddling with the pins, I got the bridge spacing set. It’s definitely an ad lib solution, and the strings are a bit closer together than I’d like, even with the wider twelve string neck. I need heavier strings since the soundboard is super thick. Despite all that though, it’s great fun to play and my fingers are adapting. I also can’t help but love the sound of steel strings as a kid from Texas.  

For my practice journal, I want to start working on some larger pieces, so I’ll probably have fewer videos to put up as I go, but hopefully I’ll be able to make some better ones. Then of course there are my own compositions that are starting to come to life!

Composition

My other hobby that competes for creative time and energy is writing. I keep them both fairly intertwined because I write about musicians and of course, imagine the music they are playing. Since I’ve enjoyed practicing guitar and making videos, I figured why not start small and put a little composition practice here since I want to dream up music for a fantasy world. 

Right now I’m exploring pentatonics, so my first step is simple melody practice using various pentatonics. My eventual goal is to create different layers, chromatic, diatonic, and pentatonic. I’ll get into how I’m breaking things down and making a system out of it as I put more compositional stuff on the blog.

Here is my first bit of practice, different pentatonics all in a fairly straightforward style right now as I’m getting started. I wrote chords on top of some of it while I was messing around, but I didn’t put a lot of thought into it. Chords aren’t really my focus right now, but I’ll leave them there in cause anyone wants to mess around with them.

Technique

Some people have been curious about my technique since if you know anything about guitar technique, you can see mine is a bit different. I ended up with different technique for a couple different reasons. First, I don’t really have a life fit for fingernails. Every time I’ve had proper guitar nails, they gave me trouble so, when I got back into playing, I decided I was going to go at it with my fingertips. My first proper guitar teacher was actually a lute player, and he used fingertips on guitar. He had a great sound, so I knew it could be done. 

Also, I got back into playing through guilele which I use to play children’s songs at work. I want to talk about guilele and my approach to it in a later blog since it’s a wonderful and fairly new member of the guitar family. For now, I’ll just say I don’t think classical guitar technique is very suitable for it. I looked up information on lute technique and followed that. I quickly found it very comfortable. Thumb in is working great for me even though people say my fingers are going to run into each other. Once I had that technique working, I just carried it over to guitar after I picked up a proper guitar again. 

Really though, I think the biggest reason lute like technique is comfortable for me is because I’m older and wiser now. When I was first learning guitar I was a stubborn kid, so of course I believed I was doing everything right. Eventually, the burning in my tendons told me I was not doing everything right. Luckily I didn’t cause myself any real injury, but if I go back to traditional guitar technique the bad habits I developed are still there enough that I can feel the pain wanting to creep back. Going forward with a different technique means I’m able to develop it this time while listening to my body’s feedback. I wouldn’t say one technique is inherently better than another, but there is certainly one that works better for me. 

My practice journal piece today is from a little deeper into the Sychra Journal. I was looking around and found this short piece. I like its gentle quality and I feel like I should recognize the melody. Perhaps if I could read the Russian that would help… future goals haha.