Oud learning diary VII

29/11/2015 § Leave a comment

My repertoire of oud pieces is gradually increasing. On entering Ehsan’s place for the lesson last Saturday he immediately sat me down and got me to attempt to sight read a new piece, the Mahur Saz Semai by Refik Alpman, another Turkish piece. My sight reading needs to improve a great deal and it was a useful way to get me started, so over the last week I have been attempting to get the piece learned without listening to a professionally recorded version.

Aside: I have only just discovered this recorded version by Necati Celik, the piece begins at about 5.50

The piece is interesting since it spans at least three different maqamat – starting off in Mahur, then moving on to Nahawand, then Hijaz Kar. There is a fourth section but I am yet to attempt that, it should be complete by my lesson next week. It is certainly an easier piece than the Huzzam Semai or Flying Bird, of which I am thankful, though so far I am very much at the cognitive stage of learning with it. So thus far I am learning a combination of Iraqi and Turkish pieces, and over the coming months I should develop an awareness of how the two relate to each other.

In addition to this piece I am still learning the maqams ajam and nahawand [not hijaz at present since Ehsan didn’t mention it last week] from each semitone starting from the lower Sol. As each day progresses I feel I develop more of an innate and natural feel of the maqams – not so much counting intervallic structures but just knowing where the maqams are on the fingerboard naturally to the point where I don’t have to think about them as much as I was. I dare say there is a long distance to go with this, but it’s a promising and interesting point to note at this stage.

One other point to note is that I found an interesting post on Mikes Oud forum about thumb positions. All this time I have been playing with my left thumb bend, though it seems that one is supposed to play with it relatively straight. I tried it for the first time today and it actually sounded different, the oud tone sounded slightly clearer and sharper. Getting used to this mode of playing [if I am to adopt it and I probably should] will take  some time before it feels natural but I think it’s something worth doing, and it’s a lot easier to adopt than the issue I had in 2014 of having to incorporate upstrokes into my playing which I had never done before. That took a few months to correct.

Two more final points – I am still in the laboratory stage with regard to finding out the best way to learn hard sections. At the moment I know it’s definitely to do with fingering, but I am thinking that thumb positions will come into it a lot as well. I noticed that Flying Birds sounded a lot better with the thumb more relaxed. This seems to be because the fingers are able to put more pressure on the strings, whereas some unnecessary effort is put into bending the thumb – effort that could be put into better use elsewhere in the left hand.

Finally with regard to the Al Atrash piece – I asked Ehsan if he thought it were possible for me to play and all he said was “yes”. So I will concentrate on that when I have some time. Fortunately I can across some videos on Oud For Guitarists that guide the player through the piece – a great stroke of luck:

Farid Al Atrash Taqsim Al Rabeea Part 4 – Finale!

For the remainder of this week I will concentrate on the Alpman, natural thumb positions and getting the ajam and nahawand smoother in from sol to sol.

PS: Interesting point from Navid from the above link:

I was listening to this Album by the Classical Arabic Orchestra of Aleppo, Ottoman Arabic Classical Music. The first track is Samai Bayati starting with a Oud taqsim. At about 0:53 seconds, the Oud player plays the exact same riff that Farid Al Atrash played from his taqsim Al Rabeea… it’s not exactly the same, but it’s quite obvious where the inspiration for this comes from.

In Middle Eastern culture, it’s common to make reference to famous poetry, famous musical melodies, or other people’s work without mentioning the source, and without fear of plagiarism or copyright.  

Now I can’t comment on Arab culture, but this is what I’ve seen in Persian culture. I’ve been present at Persian concerts where the musicians spend a whole segment of their performance improvising on an old traditional melody or spontaneously do a cover from another musician’s repertoire.

The whole reason for doing this is not necessarily to steal some else’s work and profit off it. Rather, it is to pay homage to that artist’s work. It is also a proof of erudition and learning. It is also a way of gaining the listener’s interest.

Whoever the Oud player was from that clip, he was giving Farid Al Atrash some credit. But perhaps only a select few would really know where that riff was from and appreciate it.

I notice I do this a bit when playing parts of the Ahmed Al Khatib video [and mixing it in with the Kurd maqam from Bashir]:

Oud learning diary VI

18/11/2015 § Leave a comment

It’s been a couple of weeks since I’ve made a diary entry. There are a few reasons for this, the main one being that I was unsure just how often I was supposed to be making entries. Fortunately I have the answer to that question now – it is supposed to be once a week! I had a very interesting meeting with Ilana yesterday and was able to get all of my questions answered thus far about the Performance unit.

The notes I made from the meeting ceded the following points:

  • By end of term I should be taking lessons, taking notes, getting a good sense of the instrument and the tradition. Lessons are already underway, though I could be notetaking more than I am. As for getting a good sense of the instrument, I suppose I do, as for the tradition, I wouldn’t say I had a good sense of the Iraqi tradition yet. Moreso a good idea of the Turkish [but this is only to be expected].
  • Once a week diary entries, working on problems, culture, what types of practise you are doing to overcome problems. This has been more or less the case, once again, I need to work more on the cultural aspect.
  • One hour’s practise a day is expected. This is really only a guideline though Ilana seemed to think that my doing 2-3 hours a day was too much. However, it’s important that I do what’s necessary to get to where I want to get to, and after all Ehsan said that it was really 3-4 hours a day that should be done. Of course, if I take diary entries into consideration, listening to oud music, watching videos and playing the instrument then we do get more towards 4 hours and possibly more.
  • If you are having problems with money talk to the faculty, two instalments of 250 and 250 are possible, they may give some up front. Something to bear in mind. I will have spent £90 this month on lessons, fortunately it will be £60 next month and £60 in January so I may not have to ask just yet.
  • Essay for submission: this will be 3000 words and comprise diary entries put together in essay format. It should be a coherent piece of writing with a narrative, incorporating material from the diary into broader essay. What has studying oud taught me about Arab culture – important question. Secondary lit. musical analysis. Personal journey should support your argument rather than be the basis of the doc. Ilana did point out not to stress out about diary at all [and that I would get more marks for turning up at the soundcheck for the performance]. She added that the diary as an essay would likely get 65, but with the points above closer to 80. Even though this only forms 20% of the unit every little helps. I should consider at what point I start planning at writing the thing. Moodle has got an AS1 which has appeared for 26th April. I presume this is the deadline. There should be 2-3 pieces of literature/sources to support the argument too, Ilana said. The question then remains – how big should the bibliography be? I would consider starting to plan the diary essay for writing at the beginning of April.
  • The performance itself will be in May/June [most likely June]. A public performance in the Brunei Gallery. I will have to choose the pieces, then there will be an oral. Either rigdhoose these pieces?”. Also might be worth considering getting another musician there for tempo [Faruk?].

I should also continue my last entry with regard to the points I was making in improving my pieces.

4. Test the potential solutions to select the most effective one (what tweaks seem to work best?) It turns out that my idea of not looking at the fingerboard really wasn’t right at all. However, there are two things which have helps – improved fingering and visualising/knowing the next note or two notes just before they are about to be played. So this is very much a form of control that relies on looking ahead and knowing where one is going rather than deciding it as it happens. Implementing these [point 5] will take a little bit more time but that’s something I can probably follow up on in the next 2 weeks or so.

The final point is with regard to the lesson with Ehsan on the 7th November. In this lesson he stressed the importance of listening to pieces but also of watching masters play. I must have spent a good ten minutes watching him. This is something that I have already factored into my own learning [will come back to this shortly]. Secondly he emphasised the importance of transposing of scales and that I will have to learn various maqamat in semitones from sol-sol. At the moment I am concentrating on Nahawand, Hijaz and Ajam. WHat I am finding out about transposing these is that it’s better to get a real feel for the maqam to be successful in each semitonic transposition rather than just remembering the pattern on the fingerboard. For this reason I will sketch out the intervallic structures:

Nahawand: 4-2-4-4-2-6-2 / 4-4-2-4-4-2-4

Hijaz: 2-6-2-4-2-4-4

Ajam: 4-4-2-4-4-4-2

Finally, with regard to watching pieces, I came across this one by Farid Al Atrash:

I picked the final section of this piece correctly by the looks of things. I’ll speak to Ehsan about playing this piece and see what he recommends.

Oud learning diary V: making better use of practise time

03/11/2015 § Leave a comment

Since the last diary entry I have been practising more than I have before with this instrument. I have been dedicating about 2-3 hours a night to music [I work full time during the week] and more on the weekends. Last Sunday I practised for about 5-6 hours. I wish that it were possible for me to practise for this long on every day of the week, but at the moment it’s not possible. Practising for this length of time felt like gaining a far greater, natural attuning to the instrument.

In my current situation of being able to practise not as often as I would like to, I feel that it’s important to focus not just on how long to practise but on how to practise per se. I came across this excellent article regarding practising efficiently in Bulletproof Musician which emphasises that practising mindfully rather than playing the piece over and over can have a large impact on improvement. This paragraph sums up the article rather nicely:

So what is deliberate, or mindful practice? Deliberate practice is a systematic and highly structured activity, which is, for lack of a better word, scientific. Instead of mindless trial and error, it is an active and thoughtful process of experimentation with clear goals and hypotheses. Violinist Paul Kantor once said that the practice room should be like a laboratory, where one can freely tinker with different ideas, both musical and technical, to see what combination of ingredients produces the result you are looking for.

I am therefore adopting this mode of thinking at the moment. I have already slowed my pratice tempo right down and practised small sections repeatedly and at about 30-50bpm. Kageyama gives the following 6-step model for further improvement:

  1. Define the problem (what do I want this note/phrase to sound like?)
  2. Analyze the problem (what is causing it to sound like this?)
  3. Identify potential solutions (what can I tweak to make it sound more like I want?)
  4. Test the potential solutions to select the most effective one (what tweaks seem to work best?)
  5. Implement the best solution (make these changes permanent)
  6. Monitor implementation (do these changes continue to produce the results I’m looking for?)

I will apply this method to the passage in the Haydar piece which is giving me the greatest problems [from section 3]:


  1. Define the problem: this is probably simpler than it seems. It may be easier to say at this point what the problem is not. It is not difficult stretches between notes, it is not playing notes very quickly in succession, it is not failing to attack the notes properly and it is not getting the timing incorrect. The problem in this section is purely hitting notes in tune – and not successive notes, but just occasional ones [normally the same ones]. Here is the annotated passage again but this time with the notes highlighted which are giving me the most problems:


Here I have identified not one passage as such, but six particular notes that are giving causing the main issues. If these notes were to be played correctly, then the passage would sound fine, the other notes giving me comparatively fewer problems.

2. The chief question next is what is causing this notes to sound off pitch? The initial answer is I am concentrating too much on where I think the note should be physically placed [by sight] rather than where it should be aurally placed [by sound]. The oud – being very much an instrument one played with ones ears rather than with one’s eyes, paying attention to every subtle shift in quartones – or microtones – responds the best when the aural distance between notes [preceding and succeeding] are paid attention to, rather than where one thinks they are physically placed on the fingerboard.

3. The potential solution is to play these passages more slowly but being aware of the three main problem areas identified and playing the succeeding note based on tonal relationship rather than visual. It may be worth looking away from the instrument for these parts of the piece. I do tend to look almost constantly at the fingerboard for this part of the music, whereas I hardly look at it at all for the rest of the piece. I will test this hyothesis in the next couple of days and resume this diary entry with result for point four.

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