Oud diary III – performance variables?

19/10/2015 § Leave a comment

For this diary entry I am going to depart from the pursuit of how things are going with my two main pieces, sufficed to say that things are still improving. I have now set up lessons to begin [or re-begin] oud for this Autumn as of this coming Saturday, and I’ll be utilising the guidelines I set myself in part II till then. But for this part I am not concerned so much with melodic development but psychological understanding of the non-music related variables which can affect our performance.

This all started because on Saturday morning I sat down to practice the Bashir piece and noticed, after the normal warming-up procedure, that I just wasn’t hitting notes properly. This continued for a while till I had stop and analyse what was going on, what was different, why was I not playing as well, or at least as competently, as I normally would? I was in the same environment, my flat, the view was the same, no-one was in the flat who wasn’t there, the only difference was that it was morning.

Normally I am used to playing in the evening, mostly by candlelight, it’s dark outside and it’s a familiar and comfortable atmosphere. However, with daylight streaming in through the large windows I felt more exposed, the atmosphere in the room was really something quite different. It was projected outwards rather than inwards. Just as one’s vision is more heightened in daylight, I felt that my errors in playing were highlighted, more noticeable, out in the open.


This just doesn’t go for the difference between morning and evening. There are so many other variables that can affect out performance as well: being in someone else’s house, different people being in the room, different visual surroundings, different acoustics. Playing an instrument can be quite a personal display of emotion and understanding, and tiny variables can have big effects on how we play things.

It’s all a psychological battle, it seems. None of these variables really affect how we physically are playing the instrument but they do affect our perception of ourselves. The best playing is done when the player is unaffected by these outside influences and concentrate solely on the playing [or “internalisation” as it can be called], not noticing anything different outside.

The solution to this? I don’t think it’s possible for me to attempt to provide a solution so early on after making this observation, it’s enough for now, I feel, that it has been noted. But performance experience must surely be a contributing factor to changing this. If one is sitting in one’s flat all the time playing, and then brings the instrument into a different unfamiliar environment one will of course feel different, and these feelings will affect how we play. Also there are studies to show that sleeping patterns and bodyclock affect one’s performance and that it’s better to be an “early bird” than a “night owl” when it comes to performing well during the daytime. Night owls do perform as well as early birds [think of jazz musicians] but mostly at night. 

For now I am not so much interested on changing my weekend sleeping schedule as in noting the variables than contribute to performance change. It’s worth gaining a lot of experience in this area, which is why practice and ensemble performance, I feel, should be such an important part of term 2 this year – or earlier should appropriate opportunity arise.


Oud learning diary II

12/10/2015 § Leave a comment

Improving my technique on the upper part of the oud is a slow process. Nevertheless it is happening. My progress with the Flying Birds piece is somewhat surprising me with the following section, as noted in my last diary entry, really being the key to this piece:


I have been practising these few bars many times over. Placement of the fourth finger on the sol followed by the fa on the second is simple enough. Really this section’s success depends on the smooth transition between the fa and the mi by angling the second finger slightly without moving position to get the mi to sound correct. This is not a difficult passage in slow practice, but sped up it is.

Slow practice is in itself something of a challenge, and according to Graham Fitch it is apparently something that many students find tricky. Slow practice is something that does not come automatically to many, and a lot of students have a tendency to speed up gradually when slow practising a piece. Using a metronome, as Fitch says, is not a great idea when one is slow practising since one tends to focus on getting the beat correct rather than what one is actually playing. From personal experience I can certainly agree with that, so I am attempting to slow practice without the metronome at present.

The Huzzam Semai piece is the one which is currently teaching me the most about what I need to improve. In addition to working on the parts that are played higher up on the oud I need to get the samai timing correct. For instance, in the beginning section I tend not to count the three quavers at the end of the first bar properly, skipping to the next bar after two instead:


Likewise I tend to play the crotchet at the end of the second bar as if it is a dotted crotchet because it feels more natural to me. The second and third bar on the second stave also present an issue, with my playing the crotchet at the end of the second bar as a quaver and the crotchet at the start of the third bar also as a quaver. What is missing here is a basic grasp of the ‘feel’ of the samai 10/8 rhythm, so I am addressing correcting these issues by counting properly during playing.

Another point is the importance of knowing with certainly which notes are coming next before one plays them. Success of playing the piece with certainty comes to rest on the premise of thinking several [three or more] notes ahead. This section, halfway through the Haydar, is arguably the toughest part of the piece to play:

hardar 2

One needs absolute certainty of the placement of the four finger on si bemol on the first bar and then la natural and sol. Not thinking this section through properly results in playing la bemol instead of la natural. One cannot rely on the fingers to find the notes themselves at this stage.

I noted an interesting blog post over at Bulletproof Musician about the three stages of learning: cognitive, associative and autonomous. The cognitive concerns the stage of learning whereby one is still learning which notes goes after which, just learning the piece by number in order the lay the groundwork. The associative stage is that where we more or less know the pattern of the notes in a piece, and start concerning ourselves with the finer details such as which fingering to use, whether to use forte or mezzoforte etc. The final stage, autonomous, is the part in which the piece becomes engrained in our subconscious and we are able to “watch ourselves” play. This is really the goal of learning a piece, and though for the Haydar I wouldn’t saying I was near this stage yet, I can definitely say I am in the second associative stage.

A good example of autonomous playing of the Haydar piece would be this version by Zafer Ozturk [from 3:16],

whereby Oturk here is not concentrating on the transcribed notes as such, but the embellishments. This is the stage where one is so familiar with a piece and its musical skeleton so firmly embedded in the mind and fingers of the player that one can concentrate more on the ornamentations.

My conclusion for this last week is that progress has definitely been made inasmuch as I know the pieces with more certainty and am able to play the more difficult sections more smoothly. However, slow practice is very necessary without reverting to unconsciously speeding up – and consistent concentration in order to really ‘nail’ the important parts of the pieces.

Oud learning diary I

04/10/2015 § Leave a comment

I want to begin this first entry with a note I made over in another personal journal last month. This note reflects on what I feel needs to be improved at the beginning of this second year of my ethnomusicology degree:

And that’s really the crux for this second year. The purpose for this diary entry is to focus on what – at this point – I feel makes someone succeed or fail at an instrument. I suppose it’s the same that that makes a person succeed or fail at anything – self-belief and persistence. I will highlight the things I feel I need to improve before the second year begins:

Sight reading 
Improving technique of the upper oud part, i.e. positions 5 onwards [fa]
Playing in an ensemble should be forthcoming this year. Definitely from term 2 onwards in order to gain experience.
More live performances from term 2 onwards.
Practice should be between two and three hours every day. Ideally three.
Master the oud, don’t let it master you.

Of course the use of the word ‘master’ here is open to some ambiguity. It is not possible to master the instrument in one academic year and turn into Munir Bashir or Simon Shaheen – but making serious headway – yes. So these are principles which should be followed up on. This note also emphasises an important point regarding psychology and that persistence and belief in one’s abilities are vital to long-term success.

Even though this is the end of first week of term my institute have not communicated anything to me regarding the Performance element, but I am treating this as a diary entry for the first week nevertheless. The format of these diary entries I expect to develop, so this one may be slightly vague in comparison to later additions.

Since last October I have been having monthly lessons with E Emam which have highlighted the main points for improvement. These are:

Improvement for sight reading
Improving technique of the upper oud part, i.e. positions 5 onwards [fa]
Learning to play slower and practice each piece at ~50-70bpm

There has also been a focus on developing a personal repertoire. The pieces learned have been, in order:

Longa Shaharazad – Abdel Wihad Bilal
Longa Yorgo
Samai Hijaz Kar Kurd – Munir Bashir
Huzzam Samai – Haydar
Flying Birds – Munir Bashir

At the time of writing I am concentrating on the latter two pieces which are helping to develop the issues I am experiencing playing on the upper neck of the oud. At times this can be incredibly difficult and somewhat frustrating since the micromillimetric differences are harder to pin down with exactitude. In Flying Birds the cadence that is causing most difficulty is the following in bars 7 and 8:


And it seems that even experienced players have issues playing it with microtonal accurately:

To my ears, Bashir himself does not even hit the mi head on [0.49]:

There seems to be a little gap between theory and practice here. Nevertheless this transition from sol-fa-mi is causing me the most issues and needs to be consistently practised. Improvement of this section should come from using a fingering of 4-2-1 rather than 4-3-1 which is what I was originally doing.

Until my formal lessons recommence the Haydar and Bashir pieces will be practised. I will also transcribe both in an effort to improve my theoretical learning.

Resolving, or attempting to resolve, the Middle-Eastern Divide on Improv

06/04/2014 § 2 Comments

The trial of getting something to sound more orientally authentic is very difficult indeed for Western ears. At the moment I am trying to find out exactly what makes a taksim sound Middle Eastern over a Western mimicking of the same.

Monitoring my playing over the last few days there are certain things that need to be examined further to find out the distinction between M-E and Western forms of playing. I have been told that it’s difficult to pin down exactly how a Middle Easterner would improvise a taksim, and that it’s not an exact science, but there are obvious differences between the two styles which are open to inspection.

Taking a look at my own style of taksim playing over the last few days it’s clear that there are certain things I do that sound good to me – and possibly others of the same Western persuasion – but which are not authentic by Middle Eastern standards. Really they’re just lazy styles of playing. Playing without thinking, more accurately. The traits found are:

– A constant need to resolve passages every few notes on the tonic, octave or dominant
– running up and down entire scales and even above and below the octave note in several sweeps.
– constant jumping of fifths and the need to ‘ground’ every fifth note with an open string drone below it [this last point is actually quite useful for tonal orientation but it can be, and mostly is, overused as an embellishment].

These three things sound very good to Western ears, or to me certainly. But they present the following issues:

– Severely limiting the scope of the makam by forcing passages to stop on one of three notes
– containing the notes in between tonic and dominants to certain combinations which become overrepeated
– failing to make use of the idiosyncrasies of each makam’s characteristics thereby causing them to sound too similar and more like scales rather than modes.

A Western style of playing guitar, for instance, incorporates the first three points and creates certain familiar patterns. In order to get a more authentic ME sound in taksim playing, the three points directly above should be eradicated. It’s a psychological confinement that doesn’t let the makam speak as freely as it could.

The way to overcoming these issues seems to be to listen to experienced players. However, listening to the masters, though helpful in getting a general feel for what is possible with a makam, doesn’t help the amateur by giving them in-roads into how to mimick the style. It’s just way too complicated to get their head round, and it’s not possible to see the main building blocks that the master is using in order to get the taksim sounding the way it does.

Videos such as these below are useful. In the video John Veraga plays a very simple bayati taksim. From here we can easily see the different points and stages of the ascending-descending rule, and, more importantly, the fact that there are only certain “envelopes” of notes that he uses and works within. This means that a lot of the time he will improvise within the space of only four or five notes, with a D or G drone on the lower two strings, and this envelope is, much of the time, moved up the tonal register as necessary. This helps to make much more use of the makam, and much of the time the position of the envelope is not governed by tonic, dominant or octave, indeed, stopping on notes in between – or outside – of these creates an intentional feeling of suspense until a passage – eventually – resolves the sequence.

In the West we are much more used to a candied form of improvising, we like to resolve our musical passages all the time. This is often the case in popular music since passages are resolved every four bars, or, much or the time, every four beats. This has crept into our modes of thinking subconsciously, so that when we try to improvise Middle-Eastern music we end up mimicking these traits and though we are playing Middle Eastern makamlar, they actually sound like nothing authentic at all.

The spirit of the Middle Eastern makam relies far less on instant resolution and completion, and much more on the exploration and development of the makam in all its areas. Each note is taken at its own value rather than incidentally. I would argue that, contrary to initial appearance, there are few, if any, gesture or incidental notes in Middle Eastern makamlar.

The Third Temple of Zhurong

04/05/2011 § Leave a comment

What is the Third Temple of Zhurong?

The temple is the last of three; the first two were located on the OCUK Minecraft server, in alpha and beta respectively. The third temple is a square, four-tier, Chinese pagoda-style temple located on the Oxygen13 server.

Where is the temple?

The temple is located at X: -224, Y: 103, Z: -354 on the server.

More about the layout of the temple:

The temple was built periodically over the May Day bank holiday weekend of April-May 2011. Unlike the first two temples, the third is designed to have real-world applications, in that its sole purpose is to house the transcription of the Tao Te Ching on each level wall and for, over time, the tenets of the Tao to be put into practice. The temple has no other in-game application, it is purely as a means of study.

The temple’s musical connections/attributes:

During the construction of the temple I was particularly interested to look into Chinese monastic music, or Chinese Taoist music, but this is surprisingly hard to come by. From my research, Yayue or any Guqin music would fit most aptly. This is still research in progress. However, the most interesting discovery I have so far encountered is the little-known Gyuto Choir of Tibet, as recorded by Huston Smith in 1967. Their method of deep overtone chanting, producing two or more notes in one voice is highly emotive and reverential, and though it seems heterodox to say so, slightly unsettling, more so than any dark or ritual ambient I have heard recently.

“More words count less”:

As the Tao is transcribed I will make a note of its more pertinent verses, to me, at least. I will update these numbers as appropriate.

2, 10,11, 13, 20

Albums of 2010 – Bingen, Blackie… and black metal. Part III: Elements

04/02/2011 § 2 Comments

It seems a bit unusual to be writing about 2010 in February. But it’s prudent to reflect on the previous year’s musical achievements whilst having the benefit of knowing what 2011 has brought along already. There have been an immense amount of new metal albums this year already: Hollow Haze, Silver Lake, Mitochondrian and the high quality Silent Stream of Godless Elegy to name a few, whereas March’s debut release from Tesseract seems promising for the ardent Textures and SikTh fans.

The final part of my review of 2010 doesn’t reflect on any one band in particular, but more on principles. 2010 gave me the ability to define what it is that makes a metal album truly great, which elements, which concepts, and what goes far beyond the music itself. There are certain traits, some which most people would not even consciously realise, which make a metal album great for any particular listener. And it was the albums that meant the most to me through 2010, W.A.S.P, Hildegard, Agalloch and Crystal Castles, that shunted these meanings so firmly into place.

1. Songwriting: The way a song is written is actually one of the least important points when it comes to putting across great music. The method through which a song is structured, whether you’re going for traditional metal, progressive metal or black metal, is just the underlayer for what makes the overall musical package something special. This is why some of the most complex and skilfully written progressive metal songs can seem to have almost no heart and why a lot of traditional metal songs can be so bland. A great song is not about how it’s laid out on paper. A song’s main chord structure, tempo and timing acts as little more than a vessel for all the things it is possible of carrying. Delivery, guitarwork, vision and our own feelings towards all these are more important. Songwriting’s importance to me exists only because of its fundamentality.

2. Vocal delivery: The vocalist truly acts as a transmitter behind the force the song is carrying. Some of the great metal vocalists of all time have been so successful in what they do because not only did they have natural talents for singing, but they were carrying the meaning of the song with a force, power or emotion which made the whole thing genuine. Singers who I revere in metal such as Blackie Lawless, Ray Alder and Mikael Åkerfeldt are able to carry the extra weight and meaning perfectly behind every note that they sing. Nothing feels ingenuine, absolutely everything is natural. A true metal vocalist can project with power and fury, but also perfect finesse through any song’s softer sections. I have heard too many metal vocalists who have incredible power, but no ability to sing the softer material.

And the delivery of a song is so much more important than the lyrics themselves. Whilst great lyrics are important to a song, I do not feel that they are vital. Good lyrics sung terribly are all but useless since their meaning and importance gets almost entirely removed – but it’s possible for bad lyrics to be sung well. If bad lyrics are sung with enough conviction, enough natural ability and even enough ironic consciousness of their meaning – the overall effect of the song is far from ruined. There are indeed tons of metal songs with dreadfully silly lyrics, but if they’re put across well enough, the song doesn’t go anywhere towards losing its effect.

3. Solos: Guitar soloing is a hugely important part of a metal song when it comes to injection emotion into the infrastructure. A guitar solo can carry a vast amount of feeling, and since the best metal songs are written by the best guitarists, the solos form part and parcel of the edifice. A metal song which is well written and sung is almost perfected by a good guitar solo – one which is long, melodic, skilful, technical and fluid. Some of the best songs I have heard in metal – Fates Warning’s A World Apart, Savatage’s Legions, Coroner’s Serpent Moves or Sirens, W.A.S.P.’s Heaven’s Hung in Black, Opeth’s A Fair Judgement, Black Sabbath’s Warning and Conception’s In Your Multitude – all have exceptionally played solos filled with emotion which make them riveting and nourishing to listen to time and time again.

4. Artwork: Though a lot of people would hold that an album is only about the music, there are still a couple more things which, for me, make an album truly stand out. An album’s artwork can have a great effect on my overall idea of it. The artwork is the visual representation of the way the band sees itself, sees that album, how it wants it to appear to you when you haven’t even heard a bar. The artwork tells you about the band’s attitude; their seriousness or their flippancy. Being a very visual person, a lot of the time I can’t help, somewhere in my mind, picturing the album’s artwork when listening to the thing. Since I want to be able to sense an album on as many levels as possible, the artwork is one of the most obvious ways of doing this.

However, an album’s artwork does not have to be masterful. It does not have to be some expertly-crafted original hand-painting or a digital mastery of fractal proportions. It just has to suit the theme and feel of the album. If the artwork to the album really fits – and is an unpretentious and honest representation of what the band feels about its output – it lets the listener go one stage further to understanding it. It gives you hints, clues, suggestions, translations and feelings about the band’s inside thoughts towards their creation. It is a highly important factor in the completion of a great album, and these days, with the ubiquity of mp3 sharing, one which is being increasingly overlooked by fans.

5. Associations: The final slab of importance is how and where we rank the album emotionally. This is a very subconscious point, and one which gets overlooked by the large majority of people because of its subtlety, but it’s still a vital one. What can really push an album forward to making it something worthy is how we fit it in on a personal level: what it reminds us of, what point in our lives it makes us think of, when, why, who and how. Those albums which remind us of something particularly good are far more likely to appeal to us. Those albums which remind us of something bad or painful will hardly get any playtime. Indeed, there are albums which have good music – but which I relate to such negative periods in my life – that they put me back in that place, and the thing barely lasts a minute or two of spinning as a result.

These associations do not have to relate to things which we have personally experienced. We can associate an album with somewhere we have never been, or a time we have never existed in, but which we like the idea of. There are plenty of people in love with the mystery of Norwegian black metal but who never have been to Norway, there are plenty of people who love the rich Middle Eastern textures of oriental metal but who will never end up in the Middle East, or the romance of viking metal or the medieval ambiance of times gone by. The ideas, the projections of the places and how we associate them with the music can contribute greatly to how we view an album. Sometimes an association can make an album, and it’s this that we can live alongside, rather than necessarily loving every tone and cadence of the music itself.

2010 made me realise a great deal about music and my own subconscious definitions of it. For a long time I struggled with my own resolution of metal and what it truly meant for an album to be great to me, and I’m more or less satisfied with these explanations. In making an album, the musicians do their work musically and artistically, but if we can enhance the piece further with our own associations, making it something that works solely for us in a unique way, then everything is in place.

These ideas have been in gestation for many years now, but 2011 could still modify my views. A large part of music is all about progression and change after all, so if 2011 revises such ideas, I wholeheartedly welcome it.

Albums of 2010 – Bingen, Blackie… and black metal. Part II: The Past

09/01/2011 § Leave a comment

As 2011 considers getting into its stride, I should pay tribute to two artists who made a massive difference to me through 2010. This ‘review’ of the last year is actually a three-parter, the final part of which can be added to at any time in the next few weeks. For the moment though, it’s important to address a couple of things.

2010 was quite a difficult year for me, one of the reasons being that I spent six months in a job that I detested. It’s certainly quite normal for people to hate their jobs, and this may seem nothing special to whinge about, but for me the ramifications cut deeper. My place of work was in a horrific area of London, somewhere which had personally negative echoes for me and that I never wanted to go back to. I couldn’t wait to be rid of its grey towers and miserable citizens. It was, I imagine, one of the causes of my monomania.

I’ve already written quite a comprehensive journal about W.A.S.P., my feelings for them and which of their albums I consider the most important. There’s no reason for me to expand any further on my feelings with regard to their music. But what I shall concentrate on here is their importance for me as a band, which is not confined to 2010 alone. W.A.S.P.’s predominance was unsurpassed for me, they became this addictively-playable behemoth which I couldn’t tear myself away from. Indeed, I wouldn’t want to. These days, with metal being ever-more difficult to be impressive, and a lot of the time not even knowing what to do with itself, it’s very rare for me to find a band that gives so much over and over. Great music should not just be about feeding you emotionally, but giving you the same thing time and time again, tirelessly. There are so few bands that can do this, one of the last ones to do so for me being Opeth back in 2005.

When people have talked about having all-time favourite bands, I’ve always thought they were being rather immature and restrictive. I enjoy knowing a large amount of musicians but I’ve got to the point where one band really stands out for me. As much as I love artists such as Fates Warning, Death, Coroner and The Mars Volta, W.A.S.P. is just one small step above these. It’s not only the music which makes such a gilded impression but Blackie Lawless’s relentless persistence to make the band work for over 25 years, no matter what was thrown at him. And such devotion and passion is wholly inspiriting.

So much for W.A.S.P. and my obsession with them. The second artist necessary to address is somewhat of a surprise. I’m not sure that I’d be able to class her music as classical but I’m sure plenty of classical aficionados will tell me that’s exactly what it is. In spite of years of learning and singing classical music in school, I always considered anything ‘classical’ to involve works from the 16th century onwards. Bach, Mozart, Handle and Beethoven were ‘classical’ to me, whereas works of musicians like Guillaume Dufay or John Dowland inhabited a different category. The composer I’m talking about goes much further back than that, right to the end of the 12th Century.

It was a trip to the medieval Clink in SE1 which made me think about what kind of music was being written, played and sung at that same period in history, even better, with female vocals. Female vocals in music were not used an awful lot around that period, though it was the works of Hildegard von Bingen which really brought them to the fore. Hildegard’s work is generally written in plainsong, i.e. what a lot of us would call these days singing in ‘unison’. There is a large amount of polyphony sprinkled in as well, but for me it’s the use of the plainchant which makes the music something different. The meter is also fascinating to me since 900 years ago music was written in a wholly different way to how it is now. Non-existent are the simple, easily-mimickable structures of 4/4 timing, indeed at times it’s hard to pick out any rhythm at all: the music seems to be written more on particular flow and feel, relying heavily on strong leads. It is its own fluid entity, rather than being caged by the comparatively strict boundaries of the modern time signature.

I remember saying a while ago that listening to Hildegard’s music felt like being ‘cleansed’ and indeed this is the case. The more we become interested in exploring different types of music, the harder it becomes for anything to make a lasting impression on us. It was clear, after listening to a few canticles, that here was something very different indeed. Here was something woven from a woman’s own fascination, devotion and heart, and completely unaffected and uninfluenced by modern ‘values’. The values here were those of her pious devotion, but Hildegard’s understanding of her own music and faith stretched beyond that. A truly remarkable women for her own time and now, the early medieval feel of her music appears almost familiar to me, and I’m positively surprised that a classical composer has made such an impression, something which has never really happened to this extent before.

The common thread which links the two of these together [I’m sure Hildegard would be horrified at the thought of being linked to W.A.S.P.] lies in their commitment to their case. In spite of their wildly different approaches to music-writing, there is a similarity in their artistic fidelity. Many, many bands plead about how dedicated they are to their musical cause, but the proof is purely in the output – and the extent of it. Both have stayed firmly and unstrayably engaged to their cause, with a catalogue of quality works as testament, which shows that when you truly are the music you’re writing, when it really does come from inside you, it is unignorable to those listening. 2010 gave me a lot of interesting music to listen to, but none on such scope and scale as these two. This is the only similarity they share, and I’d hope that Hildegard, in her openmindedness, would on some level be able to understand that. Blackie, on the other hand… I dread to think.

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