Mix it up

When anyone asks me what I do I tell them that I play and teach classical guitar.  And yet this doesn’t really describe all of my activities.  I’ve discussed the need to diversify stylistically in order to make a living as a musician, and this is a concept that I take very seriously.  For example, this past Saturday I gave a concert with the North American Choro Ensemble, which is certainly not classical guitar.  In fact, even in the choro ensemble we have recognized the importance of mixing things up a bit, and our concert included some sambas and bossa novas.  When playing choros, I try to improvise short licks and runs when repeating verses, and on the sambas and bossas the members of the ensemble go for straight ahead jazz improvisation.  This keeps things interesting for the audience, which is vital if one wishes to perform regularly, and it also keeps it interesting for me.  There is the added benefit that all of these musical activities contribute to making me a better musician, something I strive to do every day.

On Sunday I played in a concert that was billed as “Geert D’Hollander and Friends”.  So I was one of Geert’s “friends” for the evening (and hopefully his friend for life),  This was a classical concert, with Geert playing several solo works on the piano (Chopin, Brahms, Faure, and Scriabin) and me playing solo guitar pieces by Miguel Llobet, Heitor Villa-Lobos, Augustín Barrios, and me.  The setting was a large living room at an historic mansion on the grounds of Bok Tower Gardens.

Which brings me to another subject: diversification of venue.  What is a concert space?  Easy! A concert space is any location in which you decide to give a concert.  Sunday it was a mansion, Saturday a church.  A couple of months ago I performed in what can best be described as a night club.  Downtown Lakeland, FL is home to a venue called Preservation Hall, which is a restaurant/bar/performance space, etc.  There have been rock bands there, burlesque, and now, classical guitar!  And that concert was, indeed, traditional classical guitar.  It was my release party for my new CD, “Lo Mestre, The Music of Miguel Llobet”. (Available for purchase below.)

lomestre orange_buynow

Interestingly enough, I must have driven this point home to my son quite well.  He exemplifies diverse artistic expressions as a way of both making a living and growing artistically (and he seems to be having fun, which is equally important).  Classically trained on violin, guitar, and piano (and also trained on jazz saxophone) he produced my Llobet recording.  But what really makes this surprising is that he makes a good portion of his livelihood playing lead guitar with a heavy metal band, plays slide guitar and mandolin with a bluegrass/country band, and owns a recording studio!  Now that’s what I call mixing it up!

My recovery from surgery

In my last post I wrote about my surgery.  Literally the day after that post, Christmas eve, I began to play again.  It was the best Christmas present in the world!  I began playing in increments of 15 minutes at a time, a couple of times a day.  I was amazed by several things.  First of all, I had no endurance, and no strength.  Moving the middle finger across the string was like lifting a heavy weight, and the little movements involved felt like I was really stretching my tendon.  The 15 minutes were all that I could take without being in pain, and pain is never a good thing when you are playing!  (As opposed to physical therapy, where if you aren’t in pain you aren’t doing it right!)

Over the course of the week I was able to increase the number of times I practiced to 3, then to 4 times, and felt pretty good. By New Years day I felt confident that I could increase my sessions to 20 minutes at a time.  The additional 5 minutes made a difference; I could definitely feel more fatigue in my hand, but there was no pain involved so I kept it up.

The following week I was out of town at a conference of the Florida Music Educators Association, where I had students performing, and where I presented a session geared toward helping classroom music teachers with no real guitar background, but who found themselves having to teach guitar.  Because of the exhausting nature of conferences, and because I knew that my entire schedule would be upset I didn’t attempt any changes in my practice routine.  In fact, although I stuck to my 20 minute limit, I was not able to get to it 4 times every day.  I was surprised that I had any time to practice at all!

January 13 I tried to increase my practice time to 25 minutes. At the very end of the first 25 minutes, my hand began to cramp, so I backed off to 20 minute sessions for the rest of the day – still keeping them to 4 total.  The next day I tried 25 minutes again, but made a point to pay close attention to my hand and keep it very relaxed.  I was able to do the full 25 without any pain, and repeated it 3 more times.

My plan at this point is to try for 30 minutes, which has been my normal practice session for many years now.  I’ll do it 4 times a day this week, and try increasing it to 5 the following.  If that works out well, the week after that I can try 6, which brings me to the normal amount of time that I practice while school is in session.

My goal has been to be back up to speed by February, and I’ve been particularly motivated because my new CD will be released then.  I have been planning to have a “release party” – more concert than party actually – at the end of the month.  I’m feeling pretty good because I seem to be on target so far.lomestre

And, of course, I would be remiss if I failed to mention that I’m already selling copies from my website, and I’d like to invite all my readers to consider purchasing a copy by clicking the link below:


My Surgery

I debated long and hard with myself as to whether or not to discuss this publicly, but in the end decided that I would, so here goes.

Last month I had surgery on my hand.  It began late last spring or early last summer when I developed a “trigger finger”.  The correct term for this condition is stenosing tenosynovitis.  What happens when one develops this problem is that the finger gets stuck for a fraction of a second on contraction and extension, and then snaps into position.  It is caused by a narrowing of the sheath that surrounds the tendon of the finger that gets stuck.  The number of remedies available is limited – either a cortisone shot into the sheath, or a minor surgical procedure in which the sheath is severed.

In my case, it was my right middle finger that was the problem.  The point at which it would stick in contraction was not problematic because it occurred after the string was already plucked, in other words, in the follow through.  The problem was that in re-extending it would also stick, and it was interfering with my timing because the finger wouldn’t get out quickly enough.

So in the early fall I went to a hand specialist who gave me a cortisone shot along with a warning that the effect would be temporary, and that I would be limited to 3 such shots in my life.  This, of course meant that surgery would eventually happen.  I went for a follow up a few weeks later, and the shot had not completely eliminated the problem.  Surgery was the only solution.  A few other factors impacted my decision to have it immediately.  I had a gap in my performance schedule that would allow for recovery without having to cancel any concerts.  Furthermore, I was getting ready to sign a contract with Price Rubin and Partners artist management, and did not feel that I could in good conscience sign such an agreement until I was ready to perform without any encumbrances.

On November 22 I had the surgery.  It was an out-patient procedure performed in a hospital under general anesthesia.  I was told that I would not be able to play at all for about 6 weeks, and could lift “nothing heavier than a cup of coffee” for that period.  I awakened from the surgery to find my hand bandaged very heavily, so much so that it actually looked as if I had a cast on my hand! A couple of weeks later I had the stitches removed and was given a referral for physical therapy.

I am writing this a month after the surgery, and my PT is going very well.  There was very little pain after the procedure, but the PT is a whole different story!  The main objectives of the therapy are to regain full range of motion and to prevent any internal scarring.  The exercises designed to stretch my tendons are only a little painful, but the deep massage required to break down scar tissue is pretty painful.

I have been allowed to move my fingers lightly, tapping on the strings delicately in playing patterns.  This helps my dexterity, and makes me feel like I’m practicing at least a little.  My therapist has told me that she believes I’ll be able to play by Christmas.  I won’t be able to dig in and play hard, fast, or long, so everything will be adagio and pianissimo, but at least I’ll be playing again.  This is the longest I’ve gone without playing in over 40 years!

I’ll have to admit that I’m pretty upset by the idea of having surgery on my hand.  Right before the procedure I told my wife that open heart surgery would be less scary for me!  And I’m a bit bothered by the fact that my hand stopped working the way it should.  But I suppose that at the age of 60, and with half a century of playing behind me, a certain amount of wear and tear is somewhat inevitable.  However, the main thing for me now is that I believe I have sufficient movement to be able to play anything, and that I have full sensation in my hand and fingers.  I’ll post follow-ups as I begin to regain my  playing.

Back in the Saddle Again Follow Up

In my last post I mentioned playing for church services as a viable way to perform to an attentive audience, and more specifically mentioned that I had been engaged to perform on Sunday, July 14. So I thought it might be a good idea to follow up on this.  How did it go?  What was it like?  Is playing a church service as satisfying as giving a concert?

Well, for starters, it went very well.  I thought I was taking a bit of a risk programming the Barrios “Catredral” after only a month and a half of work, particularly  coming right after a week off from playing.  This was especially risky because I had decided to open with this piece – it served as prelude music to the service.  On the other hand, it was a great way to demonstrate to myself and my readers the real power of aim directed movement.  The pay off was pretty big.  Because the piece is new I still  play it with the joy of discovery that we all experience when playing new music, even if it is already familiar to us.  My playing was close to spot-on, with only a minor slipped note in the fast movement.  But more to the point, I felt that I was able to put my interpretation across very effectively.

The remainder of my program was much less risky.  For the “offering” I played “Recuerdos de la Alhambra”.  Sure we’ve all heard it a thousand times, but audiences still love to hear it, and it evokes a mood that worked well with the setting.  And finally, I rounded it out with three short pieces for the Eucharist portion of the service, my own composition, “Agenbyte of Inwit”, Jose Luis Merlin’s “Evocacion” and Leo Brouwer’s “Un Dia de Noviembre”.

What was it like?  It’s a bit like giving a concert, but you’re not the main attraction, God is.  It was not as satisfying as a concert, of course, because, let’s face it, I, like many other players, am an applause junkie, and in a church service the congregation always seems unsure as to how much applause is appropriate.  So there was some nice warm applause, but no shouts of “bravo!” or “encore!”  On the other hand, people were listening very attentively, and a good number made a point of visiting me afterward to voice their appreciation.

One nice bonus for me was that one of the community’s most influential arts patrons was in the congregation.  She and I had had an inadvertent falling out 3 years ago (long story, partly my fault and most certainly not hers) that I had not had any success repairing.  Well, I’m pleased to report that it is now repaired.  She came straight to me after the service and was glowing with enthusiasm for my performance and acted as if nothing had ever happened.

So, I had an opportunity to try out new material, a chance to perform in a meaningful setting, made some money, and mended some fences.  All in all a very successful day.  And most importantly, I had fun!

Back in the Saddle Again

I’ve been away from my guitar for a week.  I took my Lo Prinzi Pinnacle to the builder to have some work done on the frets and decided that this was as good a time as any to take some time off from playing.  Notice, I said “playing” not “practicing”.  Anyone who knows me well, knows that a week not spent constructively is anathema to me.  And, those who read my blog with any degree of regularity will guess that I spent my time practicing without my instrument.  Lots of aim directed movement and visualization.

This is particularly important because I do have to perform next week!  It’s not by any means a high pressure setting; I’m playing for a service at a local church.  But, I am planning to play something that I’ve only learned recently.  I’ll be playing the Barrios “Catedral” (all three movements) as prelude music just prior to the service, and I only began learning it in mid June.  I’m also playing Brouwer’s “Un dia de Noviembre”, which I also have only been playing since mid June.  So with this new repertoire being programmed, I can’t really afford to take time off.

This brings me to the issue of playing church services.  And some rather delicate matters.  So many people seem to think that the only way to play classical guitar professionally is either in concerts/recitals or as background music in restaurants, cafes, and private parties.  To tell the truth, there simply aren’t enough concerts coming my way (or most guitarists’ way!) to keep me fulfilled, and the background music, while very lucrative, is most definitely NOT fulfilling.  But I find that when one plays in a church service there is a fairly attentive audience, a high level of appreciation for the art, and, although not exactly a place where one makes top dollar, there is a decent amount of money to be made.  Let’s face it, I have the opportunity to try out my new material and get paid to do so.

Musings: I Blog therefore I Am

This is the first day of my new blog.  What will this blog be about?  To anyone who already knows me the answer should be obvious: the guitar!  But one of the reasons that I’ve held off on writing a blog is that I’m acutely aware that there are many guitar blogs out there and that if this blog is to have any meaning beyond my own considerable vanity I need to fill a perceived need.

So what do I intend to do with this blog?  Some of this will simply be my musings on what I’ve been up to.  Some of it will be practical ideas that can benefit my students and perhaps my colleagues, and perhaps the many amateur or aspiring guitarists who have crossed my path over the years.  Dare I call this a “fan base?”

But another important function of this blog is my own need to “think out loud” as it were.  To formulate ideas and try them out in a public space where they can be subjected to scrutiny, critique, and hopefully approval.  Through this I hope to be able to grow artistically and professionally, to be able to brainstorm with myself and with whoever else cares to enter the conversation.

So this is my introductory entry.  It’s not quite my first foray into the world of blogging, but it is the first that is intended to be on going.  My previous experience was a blog that I used to keep my supporters abreast of the developments in my Kickstarter campaign.  I had used this campaign to raise the money that I needed to record my soon-to-be released CD, “Lo Mestre, the Music of Miguel Llobet”, which will be out on Centaur Records this summer.

So what then is this, my first entry, about?  It is, I suppose, about itself.  No, there’s more than that.  This entry is a statement of purpose.  I am considered by some to be something of a leader in my field, and this blog is one more piece of the whole picture that makes up “Robert Phillips, Classical Guitarist”.  (“Robert Phillips, Classical Guitarist” is to be distinguished from Robert Phillips, private citizen. One is what I am, the other, who.)  So I might say that this blog is part of what I am, or how I portray myself publicly.

Over the next few days I expect that this blog will find itself.  Or perhaps a better way of saying it is that I will find my blogging voice.  I intend to blog about the progress of my CD release (as updates become warranted) and in the future about the progress of other projects.  I intend to blog about my work – what music am I learning, what am I doing to learn it?  I will blog advice to students, perhaps publicly answering questions that were first posed privately.

What will be my next post?  Tomorrow I will discuss my work as a lifelong guitar student.