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.

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