Oud learning diary XIII

24/01/2016 § Leave a comment

The lesson yesterday with Ehsan concentrated mostly on the Farafaza samai. As usual I seem to be having problems with getting the rhythm correct in some parts and this is something I should really concentrate more on improving. One of the most interesting parts of the lesson was the fact that I have been fingering the fourth hana of the piece incorrectly, playing it higher up the neck than necessary. Ehsan said that I should concentrate on playing it lower down round the centre of the fingerboard, which I find easier. He seemed to be quite pleased with my progress with the piece overall.

With regard to the tradition, I asked him why we were concentrating on samais. He said that there were many different types of pieces [longa, sirto etc] but that samai was the most commonly recognisable and it had the most variety in technique, presumably with regard to the fact that it changes time signature and maqam throughout, mostly normally – it may be worth reading up on some supporting literature of the samai.

He also stressed the importance of Haydar on the tradition, just with regard to how he advanced the discipline and that before he came along ‘Arabic people were asleep’, doing things with the oud which were beforehand unthinkable. It’s clear to me that I should concentrate on a Haydar piece if I am going to examine a samai, and preferably one which I should play in performance.

He also provided me with a new piece to play, a Bayat Samai by Al Aryran. I am, at present, completely unfamiliar with the piece but it’s nice to have one on Bayat. From what I can tell there is no high playing on the neck, the highest note being the Fa. I am curious to see where the difficulties will lie in the piece, I presume they will be rhythmic. Ehsan told me to copy the piece and hand him back the sheet music in a fortnight. I am unclear whether he was referring to photocopying though ideally I should copy it out. The piece is about fourteen staves so it would only take about one stave a day to do.


Ehsan also empahsised the importance of getting acquainted with intervallic structure and that these were the key to transposition. I should get to know the intervallic structures of all the major maqams – which was something I used to know well and I need to get back to. Particularly rast, nahawand, hijaz, saba, segah, bayat, kurd and possibly huzzam.


Oud learning diary XII

19/01/2016 § Leave a comment

This is really just a placeholder entry, so to speak, to elaborate on things since the last entry. Ehsan cancelled the last lesson which was supposed to be on the 9th Jan, for reasons which were not made known, and what with my being in Leicester the weekend just gone, the next lesson is to be this Saturday 23rd, which will have made just over a month since the last lesson.

I have been working on the Mahur and the Farahfaza since the last lesson. The former is going very well, and the latter has been committed to memory. To be honest there is only one problem with the piece, the expected issue which is the beginning of the fourth hanna. It is definitely possible for me to progress successfully on this section, but really success here lies in knowing how to transition well between the third and sixth notes of the second half of the bar:

bar 1

Prior to this piece I imagine that the difficulty would come in playing the high notes, but in fact playing them per se is not an issue, but moving between notes which mean using the fourth finger and then moving to a higher string on the first.

One thing which is also important at this point is the setting of goals per practice session as noted in this post. It would be worthwhile to set goals for each session and only finish the session once completed. I think these do not have to be large goals, but small, incremental ones which work towards playing a piece well. For instance, for tomorrow I could try working on how to transition well between the third and fourth note of the bar above. Not more than that, and in the next session between the fifth and sixth.

It has come to my realisation that it’s going to be pretty hard to work in some ensemble playing. I wrote to Ed Emery about this last week but am yet to receive any reply. I know that playing stylistically was a recent concern, but the natural working in of some tremolo in certain pieces, especially in the Huzzam Samai, appears to be quite successful so I should build on this. But working in ensemble time with working five days a week [and learning the pieces] seems very difficult with the current work I have to do for Ehsan. I will be in SOAS at the beginning of Feb and discuss my concerns.

Something I should really do the next time I see Ehsan is discuss the importance of the samai. Why am I always learning samais and why are they important to the tradition? I already know about their traditional structure, but it would be good to know more about their cultural significance and how they fit into the tradition. I imagine when I flesh out the diary proper I should also mention the impact of Targan which doubtless posts like this would be very useful for.

Suggested reading:

The Culture and History of Tarab

The origins of the Iraqi Oud generation 

Oud learning diary XI

04/01/2016 § Leave a comment

It’s been an important couple of weeks over the Xmas period, which accounts for the reason of this late diary entry. Also there was no lesson with Ehsan this Saturday because of the time of year, but I will be going there again this weekend.

Two important things to note – first is the inclusion of the model learning diary. This is vital in showing how the diary at the end of April should be structured and what kinds of things need to be addressed. I should really go through it once more in detail with regard to the kinds of topics covered, but on first reading a couple of points become clear:

1 – the importance of playing in an ensemble as being potentially more useful that one to one tuition

2 – playing stylistically

The first point is something which I should write to SOAS this week about and it was part of the plan. Exactly how I’m going to fit it into my schedule is another matter. I find that two hours of practice on a week night [which is about the current average] is really the minimum that is necessary so how would it be possible to practice more pieces for  an ensemble? This is really quite a concern and one which I should speak to them about also. On the other hand this is really the term to make use of this opportunity and a very good skill going forward, as well as one for making connections. The problem with one to one tuition is that it gives no context, and that’s really something that’s missing.

The lack of context really does not help one to play stylistically. In the model diary the following related the importance of integrating one’s own influence:


The author seems to share exactly the same issues as I – needing to integrate more stylistic playing and not being able to learn to read music until the start of the unit.

The second part of the diary analyses a piece, of which I should choose one myself. On first consideration, the piece chosen would have to be typical of the Iraqi/Turkish style [I am thinking it should be Turkish because my impression is that the Turkish influenced the Iraqi style], should be typical of a samai [10/8 to 6/4 and high technique on the 3rd and 4th hanna] and should switch between maqam. Currently two pieces that spring to mind are the Huzzam and Mahur samai. It might be early to say but I feel one of these pieces could be chosen for the performance.

There is a third possibility which is the Farahfaza which I am currently learning. Another Haydar piece, I was initially quite concerned as to its difficulty. However, the 1st and 2nd hanna are pretty easy, as is the 3rd, to be honest, even the high fa is not that challenging after a few goes. The 4th is where the piece really comes into its own and the first couple of bars are way out of the park in comparison to anything I have played. In spite of this I still don’t think it’s as hard as the Huzzam which took me hours and hours to get to grips with the 3rd hanna and it’s still not really complete. In foresight, I imagine even attempting the first couple of bars of the Farahfaza fourth hanna would get one points in a performance! I am really enjoying the Haydar pieces though, and can see their importance in the development of the oud player. The farahfaza piece has really shown me some important context in how they develop the skill [mentality] of the player.

One thing that need to be done soon is to go through the model diary again and look at the finer elements which could guide my own version. I will continue to work on the Mahur and Farahfaza samais. Videos of the latter on the web are thin on the ground, but here is one which gives a nice rendition:

And the kanun in this version really helps to articulate the melody:

This second video helps me to consider how I may develop stylistics for this piece and others using tremolo. But also the speed of the piece is one which I really enjoy. Ehsan said slow was as much as a technique as fast.

Oud learning diary X

23/12/2015 § Leave a comment

After my practising the maqam scales fervently, Ehsan only tested me on Nahawand, and he seemed happy with that. Nevertheless, the three maqamat should be practised every day, especially since they are likely going to test me on them.

One of the most important things that happened in the lesson last Saturday was the fact that Ehsan changed the tuning of the oud from CGADGC to CFADGC, so now it is in traditional Arabic tuning. This makes things slightly more tricky when trying to play familiar pieces, but the psychological adjustments will come over time, I know this by now.

The mahur samai is improving, though the first section really needs practising more thoroughly, especially the fifth and sixth notes. It’s quite hard to go from fa dez to sol correctly, but this will have to be practised. The feel of the piece – like Haydar’s Huzzam Samai – is coming quite naturally to me. I am noticing more and more of a difference between the Turkish and Iraqi styles and should soon start developing my own interpretations of them.

I imagine the next diary entry will be more thorough – at the lesson on Saturday Ehsan gave me what looks like the hardest piece yet, a Farafaza Samai by Haydar. From memory the first and second section are quite easy, the third and fourth, on the other hard, look very tough. This is the trend with samais, so I am told, that the third and fourth section can demand a high technique from the player. I have practised nothing as much as the third section from the Haydar Huzzam Samai [which is improving more and more] but the Farafaza may take more effort.

Because of the time of year I may push the next lesson to 9th Jan. That would give me some time to progress a little with the Farafaza. Ehsan seems to think that I will have a good handle on the piece within three months, and the Mahur should definitely be a lot better by then.

Oud learning diary IX – maqamat

13/12/2015 § Leave a comment

When I was younger I never understood why musicians always had to practice scales. I’ll be honest about it, it is the least interesting aspect of learning the instrument so far. But the more I do it, the more I realise that it is a fundamental skill. Not only does it help me memorise, quite quickly, the different note names on the fingerboard but it also is very useful for transposition and getting to know the feel of the maqams.

At the moment I am concentrating on Nahawand, Ajam and Hijaz. These on their own are quite hard to learn in semitones from sol to sol – going up in one maqam is one thing, but them going down in another is quite hard. I don’t think that there is any magic way of learning how to do it, no mnemonics or formula, it may be just a case of putting the necessary times in.

There is one kind of formula that will help though. I have noticed that it is definitely helpful if I split the maqamat into ajnas in my head. Knowing the intervals of the first jins on the way up helps with getting confused – so when we are going down I must remember the second jins. So the ajnas go like this:

Nahawand: 4-2-4

Ajam: 4-4-2


These can be very useful for remembering on the way up. The second jins are:

Nahawand: 4-2-4-4

Ajam: 4-4-4-2

Hijaz: 4-2-4-4

So overall the maqamat go:

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

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

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

[Addition 15/12 – counting only the semitones is very useful in remembering the order. So notes 2 to 3 and 5 to 6 for Nahawand, 3 to 4 and 7 to 8 for Ajam and 5 to 6 for Hijaz.]

Now of course on the way down, these ajnas will be reversed.

The second point to note is that certain patterns are repeated. If I am going to remember things by patterns are well, it’s important to note that there are not twelve patterns to remember but six [technically five and a half since patterns on sol/do/fa are not identical but very similar. The repetitions on the patterns are thus:


As I say I don’t think there is any other magic way of expediting the process. It is purely time spent that will cede the results. However, the intervals and the ajnas must be remembers also. At this point I have a good knowledge of nahawand and ajam, hijaz needs more work. I will persevere over the next week till I am ‘tested’ by Ehsan next Saturday.

Final point to note for this entry about thumb positions – I spoke to Ehsan about this, we agreed that what was natural was best. I don’t think changing positions at this point is that beneficial purely because I noticed it was causing me to think too much rather and divert my concentrating from fingering and the progressions of the pieces I am learning. As long as pressure is not being exerted on the thumb, and it is just resting on the neck of the oud, it seems to be acceptable.

Oud learning diary VIII

06/12/2015 § Leave a comment

I am going to start this entry with a list of all the pieces I have learned since starting oud.

Nikriz Longa – Tanburi Cemil Bey
Nihavent Longa – Kevsir Hanim
Nikriz Longa #2 – Cemil Bey – [unfinished at present]
Nihavent Mini Mini Pesrev – [unfinished at present]
Longa Shaharazad – Abdel Wihad Bilal
Longa Yorgo
Samai Hijaz Kar Kurd – Munir Bashir
Huzzam Saz Samai – Haydar
Flying Birds – Munir Bashir
Mahur Saz Semai – Refik Alpman

The first four of these were done off my own back before I had a teacher, the last six since I have been with Ehsan. Curiously enough, Turkish forms the majority of the styles and composers. Only three of these ten pieces are by Iraqis. There must be a pertinent point here with regard to the Turkish influence on Iraqi music. Something to bring up with Ehsan next time.

At the lesson yesterday we focused on a couple of things, firstly improving the Mahur Saz Samai which is not yet finished, and talking about scales and improving those. Ehsan’s memory of exactly what we discuss doesn’t seem to be that great from lesson to lesson, so by next lesson I will have finished the ajam, hijaz and nahawand scaled from sol to sol in semitones quite confidently. I also should really pay attention to the timings and rhythm of the Mahur piece. A piece I really quite enjoy. Something which is quite interesting is the fact that if I visualise something to do with the piece I get the feel of it much more naturally. By which I mean this video gave me the idea to visualise Istanbul during the day and going into the evening for the piece, it made so much sense. The first section of the piece if very much a bright daylight piece, celebrating the day and Summer etc in the Ottoman city and as the final 3/4 rhythm change comes for the nahawand section, evening draws in as we switch again to a minor key. It may be worth interpreting the other pieces in similar ways because this vision and association really helps.

Bonus – edition with notes:

Ehsan and I also talked about the importance of playing what he called ‘folklore’ pieces at gig with Iraqi people. This is to say pieces that Iraqi people know and will be happy to hear. There are two pieces which spring to mind: the Rast piece we played at the Ealing concert and also the Bayat piece [I forget the name] which I hear time and time again in a lot of the oud albums I hear. I am very interested in the definition folklore here, as in music that is in peoples’ heritages, in their homelands, in their blood. Something that connects them very much to their homes and geographical region. In England this folkloric music is something hardly every done in gigs. When one goes to a gig one goes to see that band’s music, not a session so much of music. This is a very interesting distinction, it might be worth talking to Tom about this because he knows quite a lot about English folk music: i.e. where do these folk gigs happen, what kinds of people do etc, because it’s certainly not mainstream knowledge.

So for the next fortnight I will be practising the three maqamat and the Alpman, really enjoyable piece and the first which I have got a real ‘feel’ for, must be to do with the associations. Now if this is something I can feel personally, that must tell me something about what other Turks or Iraqi people feel when listening to the music of their homelands.


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]: