W. Mark Akin

Guitarist: Instructor, Performer

LISTEN!

How often do you listen to music? How long do you listen? How intently do you listen? From my conversations with other classical guitarists, it turns out we are awful at listening to music, specifically classical music. It seems like the only thing we listen to, if we’re listening at all, are guitar pieces. How limiting! Now this isn’t to say that listening to other guitarists is not important. Indeed, we can learn plenty from listening to and watching others in the way of fingerings, interpretation, and even new repertoire. But we can’t stop there. If you’re playing William Walton’s Bagatelles, can you name any other pieces by Walton? Which is your favorite? What about Benjamin Britten? Alberto Ginastera? What about the non-guitar pieces by Rodrigo or Villa Lobos? Whatever piece you’re working on right now, listen to as much music as you can by that particular composer. Not only will you get a better sense of that composer’s harmonic language, you’ll learn how to better interpret the music from those non-guitarist musicians. How does a pianist voice this chord or that chord? How does a cellist tackle a certain phrase? By listening to a composer’s music that aren’t the guitar pieces, you’ll not only be able to perform a piece with more clarity and assuredness, you’ll simply become a better musician.

But why stop with just the composers you’re playing? What are your favorite pieces of classical music that have nothing to do with guitar? Do you have any that you can’t live without? Are there any that you just like? I’m going to be honest - if you can’t name 5 classical (non-guitar) pieces off the top of your head that you love, then you are impoverishing yourself. Not only are you missing out on so much great music, you’re missing your chance to be a better musician over all. It’s time to start elevating our playing and musicianship, and it starts with listening. It’s time to stop being simply classical guitarists, and to start becoming classical musicians who happen to be guitarists.

Need help? Start with the major composers if you need and work your way from there. Bach’s B Minor Mass, Renaissance motets, the Beethoven symphonies, late Romanticism, French Impressionism, Minimalism. There’s just so much great stuff out there! If there’s a classical radio station near where you live, turn it on and let it play! You might even hear something you never would have imagined. Turn on YouTube when you’re doing the dishes or laundry. Check out a cd from the library and listen when you’re driving. Just listen!

Now you’re probably thinking, “Ok, fine, but what about you? What are YOUR favorite pieces of music?” Well, I’m glad you asked! Here are 5 of the pieces of music that really make me tick as a musician. These are the pieces that have solidified a place in my heart…

The Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis by Ralph Vaughan Williams

RVW looks to the Renaissance for inspiration and finds a motet by composer Thomas Tallis entitled “Why Fum’th in Fight". His use and treatment of the main theme is spellbinding, as is his orchestration of the piece. The harmonic language here is quintessential Vaughan Williams. The score for double string orchestra and string quartet is simply astounding, and from my first listen had me entranced. It’s definitely one of the pieces that I always come back to no matter what. Make sure you’re able to devote all 18 minutes to the piece when you listen. You won’t be disappointed.

Souvenir de Florence by Tchaikovsky

Another strings-only piece, however this one is a string sextet (2 violins, 2 violas, 2 cellos). As far as chamber music goes, this is probably my favorite. Generally Tchaikovsky doesn’t make much of an impression on me (heresy, I know), but this is simply a masterpiece. It’s a wonderfully appealing work that has so much depth to it. From the very first note, it hooks the listener and doesn’t let go. Below is the final movement, but of course you have to listen to all four movements to understand the full depth and scope of the piece. And for the record, the Emerson Quartet’s recording simply kills.

Vespers (All Night Vigil), Op 37 by Sergei Rachmaninoff

I love Rachmaninoff so much. I only wanted to do one piece per composer, so this was a tough decision. His piano Preludes, Symphonies, and Piano Concertos are incredible, but this is the piece that speaks most to me.

I was introduced to this behemoth of acapella music in college when my choral ensemble performed a few movements for a concert. Again, this was a piece that had hooked me from the beginning and I knew I was listening (and learning) something incredibly special. Rachmaninoff takes sacred text and somehow is able to create a piece that is simultaneously earthly and heavenly. There are rich, dark, earthy textures in the bass and tenor voices as well as stratospheric, angelic notes in the altos and sopranos. Luckily I was able to hear this piece live in concert back in Arizona. The Kansas City Chorale joined the Phoenix Chorale for what was one of the greatest concerts in my life (their subsequent recording of the Vespers went on to win a Grammy). Here is just one of fifteen movements, but obviously the whole thing is worth exploring.

Scherzo No. 3 in C# Minor by Frederic Chopin

I really debated between the Scherzo, the Fantaisie Impromptu, Etude no. 3 Op. 10, and Etude no. 12 Op.25. Chopin, in my opinion, is the embodiment of Romanticism. You can’t just pick one piece! However, I ultimately went with this Scherzo. It was the first real piece by Chopin that I encountered, and it revealed to me a world that I, more or less, didn’t know existed.

I went to high school with an astounding classical pianist and when he played this piece for me my heart started to flutter. The A section is loud and obnoxious and energetic, but Chopin really hooks you once the B section comes in. Those flowing cascades of arpeggios can make one weep. Whenever I hear this piece I’m immediately transported back to that practice room where I heard it the first time, along with the emotions. I was spellbound then, and I still am today at this magnificent composition.

Finlandia by Jean Sibelius

Finlandia is simply a feel-good piece of music. It’s loud, it’s lyrical, it’s triumphant, it’s haunting, it has anything and everything you need from a 10 minute work. And it’s a quick 10 minutes too. The different sections are short enough to pique your curiosity, and interesting enough to hold your attention. It’s also the source of one of my favorite hymns, “Be Still My Soul.” Did Sibelius write bigger, more substantial works? Sure he did. I love his second symphony. But Finlandia is just enjoyable, and at the end of the day, isn’t that what music is supposed to be about? Finding a piece that sticks with you, that makes you start humming subconsciously? I’d say so.

Let's Talk About Tone, Pt. 1

It's no mystery that we as classical guitarists should have great tone - the sound that we produce from the guitar with our right hand fingers.  It needs to be deep, round, full, and clear.  However many times it sounds thin, scratchy, "tinny," and overall unpleasant.  Therefore, we need to ask ourselves, why should we have good tone?  Why make great sounds?  Yes, there is the simple aural aesthetic, meaning it just sounds nice to listen to.  But one of the reasons that other people don't tend to mention is that, with great tone, you get the full range of sounds from your instrument.  Or to put it in the negative, you do the guitar and its luthier a DISSERVICE by having bad tone.  Your tone should be so good that after a concert, your audience members should come up to you and ask, "Who made your guitar?" 

So how do we make great tone?  Over my years of playing and teaching I've noticed 3 main points that help create good tone.  Today I'm discussing the first point:  THE ANGLE AT WHICH THE FINGER RELEASES THE STRING.

Look at Segovia's right hand wrist.  It was always so curved that the finger stroke was essentially perpendicular to the strings.  Think of his stroke like this: if the the string is a flat line at 180°, then his fingers would come up at a straight line at 90°.  DO NOT DO THIS!  For one thing, it's pedagogically dangerous (a topic for another day), but it also creates a super thin sound.  Producing a deep, warm, and rich quality from the guitar this way is almost impossible, and instead creates a tone that is shallow and "surface-y."  Like a shallow pool versus the ocean. 

So how do we correct this? 

1. TURN YOUR WRIST. Turn it to where it seems like the right side of the hand (the pinky side) is facing the floor.  It will seem like your fingers are stacked upon one another with the thumb on top.  Imagine a hitchhiker or "thumbs up."  Take that feeling and plant p on String 6 as an anchor and i on String 3.

2.  THE STROKE.  I like to think of plucking the string as going "with" the string.  Almost gliding the finger along the string before releasing it.  If Segovia's stroke was perpendicular to the string, then think more parallel.  Start with i on String 3 and play some rest strokes.  Make sure the finger momentum is coming from the big knuckle.  When a good, round sound is produced, take note of where the string was released from the finger and try to replicate it exactly.  Once you feel confident in making the i finger sound good, do the same with m on String 3.  After m sounds good, alternate i and m using rest stroke on String 3.  When you can get a consistent sound, move to String 2.  Then to String 1. 

 

Turning your wrist and plucking parallel to the string are the best "quick fixes" to make your tone better.  However, there are 2 other factors that can sway one's tone... stay tuned. 

 

Nervous Wreck

We've all been there.  We walk out on stage and begin to play.  Then the nerves kick in.  All of a sudden our hands are shaking, our heart rate is elevated, and all we want to do is just get to the end of the piece without falling off the rails.  Sometimes we make it.  Sometimes we don't.  And we walk off stage feeling smaller than speck of dust because, quite frankly, that performance sucked.  These moments are defeating and the more they happen, the harder it is to get back on the horse, so to speak.  So what is there to do?  How can we conquer these nerves whose only purpose is, seemingly, to beat us down?  Well, here are 2 solutions that I've found to be the most helpful to getting used to (not totally eliminating) nerves:

  1. Practice more

  2. Perform more

These may seem obvious, but let's really dissect what I mean by these techniques.  

1. Practice more.  Rather, practice SMARTER.  You want to go on to the stage feeling that you've done EVERYTHING in your power to prepare for this performance.  Have you practiced the piece with 8th notes/16th notes = 60 bpm?  Did you swing the rhythms?  Did you do the opposite swung rhythms?  Have you prepared each right hand finger on the string before you play the note?  Are all the left hand buzzes gone?  Did you practice by starting at a random point in the middle of the piece instead of the beginning each time?  Did you practice starting at the very last measure, then adding the penultimate measure, then adding the measure before that, the measure before that, etc? When we practice intentionally, rather than just playing through the piece over and over again, we build CONFIDENCE.  We can walk out on stage confident, knowing that we've practiced every conceivable technique that we can think of.    Confidence eases the nerves because when we arrive at a difficult point in the music, we can think to ourselves, "This section is going to be great because I practiced it so many ways that I can play it in my sleep."  Rather than, "Oh geez, here it comes.  Let's hope for the best.."  

2.  Perform more.  Like anything else in life, the more we do it, the better we get at it.  Therefore we need to practice performing.  When we perform, we (or at least, I) tend to go to a bizarre state of mind of hyper-awareness and zoning out.  It's not the most comfortable state of mind, to say the least.  So the more we throw ourselves in to that state of being, the more we begin to get used to it, then the more we can overcome it.  My grad professor Tom Patterson called performing a "smelting process."  Smelting is when you take raw iron, put it into fire to get super-heated, hammer it out, cool the iron, then repeat.  After a while the iron becomes hardened steel.  So my advice here?  BECOME STEEL.  Indestructible and razor-sharp.  Perform for as many people as you can. Get some guitar buddies and have a performance group a few times a week.  Play for your family during the holidays.  Go downtown and play on the street for random strangers.  Make like Nike and just do it.  

The famous contemporary composer Eric Whitacre recently said, "The terror of performing never goes away.  Instead, you get very, very comfortable being terrified."  Indeed this quote has merit.  So the smarter you practice, and the more people you perform for, the more you will become steel and be comfortable with being a nervous wreck.  

The Mark Akin School of Guitar Excellence

Ok, so I stole this title from my grad professor at Arizona.  It was originally the Tom Patterson School of Guitar Excellence, but the point remains the same: it's the "5 time thing."

It's a simple enough concept; when you're practicing and you come across a difficult passage or play a mistake, play that passage 5 times perfectly.  If you mess up one of those times, you have to start over again.  Now, two important things to remember about this is to 1. Take it SLOW!  Don't play the passage a tempo.  Just take it easy on yourself and slow it down.  2. Breathe and relax between practices.  Play the passage, then breathe.  Play the passage then breathe.  If you don't relax in between, you ingrain a tenseness and anxiousness into performing.  Tenseness and anxiousness are not part of the Mark Akin School of Guitar Excellence.  

What I love about the "5 time thing" is that it allows just a hint of nerves to come in to play.  Once you get to time 3 or time 4 nerves start to creep up and you think to yourself "oh man I hope I don't mess this up because I really want to go to the next part of my piece."  Practicing with nerves help us get used to performing with nerves.  And getting used to nerves allow for better performances.  

A good way to visualize this would be to take 5 small items (coins, beans, guitar picks, bugs, Lego bricks, etc) and put them on one side of your music stand.  After every successful and perfect practice of the passage (say that a few time fast - perfect practice passage perfect practice passage...) slide an item to the other side of the music stand.  If you make a mistake slide them back to the original side and start again. 

So take away the basics of this way to practice:

  1. 5 times perfectly (and slowly!)

  2. Breathe!

  3. Don't mess up!

  4. Start over if you do mess up!

If you use this simple practicing tool, you might just be a student of the Mark Akin School of Guitar Excellence.  

Manuel Lopez Ramos Coordination Exercises

I love these exercises plain and simple.  If you want an excellent warm up that will improve technique and facility, this is what you want.  I've even heard that Paco de Lucia would play the whole page before each concert.  If it's good enough for Paco, it's good enough for anyone. 

The purpose of these exercises is to develop finger independence.  By setting your metronome at 60bpm (playing 16th notes) and going straight into each combination, the whole thing should take exactly 18 minutes.  I also have a pdf available so shoot me an email if you'd like it.  Have fun! 

Demonstration video here:          

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5SC3zhitJuo

 

Play IMAM strings 1 to 5 then back to 1  using rest stroke

Slur 2 notes, then 4

1. 1234 0234 1034 1204 1230           
2. 1243 0243 1043 1240 1203         
3. 1324 0324 1304 1024 1320          
4. 1342 0342 1340 1042 1302
5. 1423 0423 1403 1420 1023
6. 1432 0432 1430 1402 1032
7. 2134 2034 0134 2104 2130
8. 2143 2043 0143 2140 2103
9. 3124 3024 3104 0124 3120
10. 3142 3042 3140 0142 3102
11. 4123 4023 4103 4120 0123
12. 4132 4032 4130 4102 0132
13. 2314 2304 0314 2014 2310
14. 2341 2340 0341 2041 2301
15. 2413 2403 0413 2410 2013
16. 2431 2430 0431 2401 2031
17. 3214 3204 3014 0214 3210
18. 3241 3240 3041 0241 3201
19. 3412 3402 3410 0412 3012
20. 3421 3420 3401 0421 3021
21. 4231 4230 4031 4201 0231
22. 4213 4203 4013 4210 0213
23. 4312 4302 4310 4012 0312
24. 4321 4320 4301 4021 0321