‘Tis the season. Christmas music is upon us. I do like Christmas music but it can still get too much. After recording Silent Night last year, I thought I’d do something a little different this time, more seasonal than festive: Snowflight by Andrew York (the score is under copyright, so I can’t link to it here).
I haven’t recorded in a while and I think it shows in the quality of the recording. I also filed my nails too short this morning and you can hear that I’m not quite making contact with the string at the point that the nail and the flesh meet, particularly with the thumb. On the upside, although I did start too fast, I was more relaxed recording this than I’ve been before. I think the second half is actually better played than the first, which makes for a nice change.
A month of no posts, but I’ve still been practising. In fact I’ve been practising for two years now. I started seriously in November 2015 and have practised consistently ever since. Averaging about an hour a day—two thirty-minute sessions—I’m 700 hours into the 10,000 needed to become an expert…
I celebrated this minor milestone by stringing my guitar with something other than the cheapest of the cheap strings (£1 from China). I forked out for Alice AC134N strings, which cost me £5.99. Initial impressions are good: the trebles sound warmer straight away; the basses are still slightly twangy, but I think they might settle in; and I think they produce a longer sustain.
Over the next year or so I want to experiment with different strings. I’ve heard good things about the D’Addario EJ45s, so they are on my list.
As my recent bout* of recording reminded me, I still suffer from crippling performance anxiety. I’m not even performing in front of an audience; it’s in front of a microphone with no one else in the room. Tension gradually builds throughout and by the end—hands shaking, heart rate elevated, body starting to sweat, breathing at a standstill—mistakes are all but inevitable. Silly, really, because no one else is listening and I know I can just delete the recording and start again. But that’s evidently not how the unconscious mind works.
As well as overcoming the anxiety by simply recording more often, my solution involves learning to ignore minor mistakes. Fluffed notes are OK, as long as I keep the rhythm going. As my technique improves I should make fewer and fewer of those kinds of mistakes. A major mistake would be to stop playing altogether and start again. (Or worse still, stop playing and storm off in a hissy fit!) Anyway, as long as I don’t actually stop playing, I think minor mistakes are OK. I try to keep in mind Benjamin Zander’s “How fascinating!” advice.
* Pun not intended. I wasn’t aware that “bout” was the name given to the curve in the body of a guitar or similar instrument. You learn something new every day.
While I had the microphone out a couple of days ago, I decided to record Study in B Minor by Sor again. It’s been a year since I made my first recording. I’ve recently been using this piece to warm up at the beginning of practice sessions, so it’s fresh enough in my memory.
How do the two recordings compare? Well, the sound quality is different. I’m not sure I’d say the second one is better. However, as far as the playing is concerned, I’ve fixed some of the flaws of the original: it feels less rushed, fret noise is reduced, tone is more consistent, and musicality is improved by varying the tempo and volume more—and keeping them steady when they should be. I’m still not completely satisfied with it, of course—the shifts could be smoother, for example—but all in all I think it’s a considerable improvement.
I didn’t spend a large sum of money on recording equipment. I use my old laptop computer and an external microphone I bought for about £5 on eBay. There was no set-up required. I just plugged it in and it was ready to record. Afterwards I edit the recordings with the free software Audacity.
The biggest problem I’ve encountered in recording the guitar is background noise, that annoying hiss you hear accompanying your playing. No doubt more expensive equipment could help minimize it, but there are some things you can do with a cheap microphone to improve the quality of your recordings:
Make sure no one is likely to disturb you while you’re recording. This is a big one. If someone interrupts you you’ll have to start over.
Close the windows and doors, maybe the blinds and curtains too, to reduce noise from outdoors.
Switch off other electronics in the room—it’s surprising how much hum a Hi-Fi emits!
Keep the microphone as far from the computer as possible.
Unplug cables from the computer, including the power cable, leaving just the microphone’s.
Sit the microphone on a cushioned surface to minimize vibrations.
Put the microphone inside a cardboard box, with the opening pointing towards you. Cardboard is a great insulator.
Slip a toilet paper roll or kitchen roll over the end of the microphone to further reduce background noise.
Like many classical guitarists, I prefer an authentic sound to an infusion of special effects, but there are a few enhancements in Audacity’s Effects menu that I think are beneficial. First, even after taking all the precautions above to reduce background noise, often some hiss remains. The Noise Reduction effect can eliminate some of that. Second, without any amplification between the guitar, microphone and computer, the recording can sound relatively quiet. The Amplify effect increases the volume of a quiet recording to a more suitable level without altering the tone too much. And finally, a touch of the Reverb effect, nothing too obvious, can lend a flat recording an air of naturalness and depth—bring it into relief. While not perfect, the result is close enough to the tone produced by my guitar that it allows me to put my playing “on record”.
The next “performance piece” I’ve been working on is Sons De Carrillhões by João Teixeira Guimarães, but often known as Pernambuco, a Brazilian composer of the early 20th century. This piece fits in the genre known as “choro”: complex yet often upbeat instrumental Brazilian music.
The score I worked from was the one in Delcamp’s D05 collection. You’ll need to register on the Delcamp forum to be able to download it. It’s worth doing: they’re high quality scores. Other scores are available online. I wasn’t completely faithful to it though. I changed some things such as fingering and the syncopation.
I found this piece a joy to listen to and to play. I couldn’t get enough of it when I first started it, and I’d play it over and over again, sometimes devoting my entire practice session to it. I’d say it has been my most advanced piece yet. It’s in Delcamp’s D05 collection, which suggests it’s around grade five (and I’m probably around grade two or three). Some of the damping was tricky to get right, but in general I didn’t find it technically too difficult. What I struggled with, as always, were the notes higher up the fretboard. I’m still not familiar enough with them that I can sight read, so it took longer to be able to play them. Once I’d memorised it though, there was no holding me back.
A brilliant explanation of how to shape your nails by Bill Kanengiser. He provides a visual demonstration of exactly what happens when the string is plucked and how best to shape your nails for that beautiful tone we all want to achieve. This has changed the way I approach shaping my nails—which wasn’t terribly meticulous to start with, I admit—and has made me pay more attention to it. It should make a big difference both to the range of sounds I can produce and the consistency of my tone.