Blog Archive

Thursday, February 18, 2021


Last month I shared my thoughts on memorizing music. Since then, I’ve had many fellow musicians share their opinions and methods. This month I tried memorizing new pieces based on the feedback received. The results were mixed.


I must first say that what works for one person may not work for others, but trying new methods can be a positive experience. Let’s start with my attempts at learning one composer, in particular. Next month we will talk about memorizing other styles.



It was no surprise that many of my colleagues used Bach as the ultimate tool to develop your mental memorizing muscle. If you can memorize Bach, then everything else is easy. I’m making the case that after first being able to play a Bach piece, memorization is easier than you would think. I decided to memorize a Bach lute suite I have been avoiding for years.


My “go-to” Bach piece has been Lute Suite No. 4 in E major BWV 1006, originally Violin Partita No. 3. Many purists are not supportive of my love for a piece not originally for guitar or lute. I decided this would be a great time to tackle Lute Suite No. 1 in E minor. I’ve been avoiding Lute Suite 1 for two reasons. First, many guitarists learn the “Bouree” movement and think they can play classical guitar. Second, I learned a very bad transcription of the “Allemande” when I was very young and had an embarrassing experience based on my choice of transcription. The version I used wasn’t in the correct key and the fingerings were bad. I don’t often listen to this suite, so this is the perfect opportunity to re-familiarize myself with a piece I’ve avoided for years. 


I decided to take a suggestion and try to learn the “Presto” section from the end of the movement to the beginning. I thought this was odd, but decided to try it anyway. The results were disastrous! In defense of the method, the theory is simple: the ending is usually the hardest part. Band teachers sometimes introduce a piece by going over the hardest part of a chart first to play it as tight as possible. This only works because the band teacher has the music learned already and guides the students through to success. I did not know the “Presto” in my head and learning from the end took away some of the tools I’ve been accustomed to. I couldn’t sing it in my head, and so I couldn’t hear where it was going. This experience just turned into a very bad sight-reading exercise.




Every music teacher has probably seen the “Marsalis On Music” educational videos. I love Wynton Marsalis’s line, “If you can sing it, you can play it,” from the episode “Tackling the Monster.” Wynton Marsalis’s steps to practice work for adults as well as beginners. I struggled with the “Presto” movement because I broke this rule.

(A video clip of this lecture is a little hard to find, but the text is in this link, plus a PDF for your classroom or studio: Wynton's 12 Ways to Practice)


When tackling the “Allemande” from Lute Suite 1, I could already sing the piece in my head. I learned the piece in A minor as a high school student, so recalling how the piece goes melodically was not an issue. I thought it would be hard to change the key that was ingrained in my head and I was wrong. Apparently, enough time has passed to take bad muscle memory out of the equation. I did retain the sound of the piece in my head. Now I could focus on playing the piece correctly with help from my ear rather than the notes on the page. I memorized the piece in a short period of time and used what I’ve learned to help memorize another movement.


Learning the “Presto” backward was a fun experiment, but did not pay off. I wasn’t able to hear where Bach was going with this melody and it was hard to hear the tonal center of the piece. In short, I was just playing notes on a page. With the “Allemande” I could already hear the piece in my head, so it was easy to use the “Whole-Part-Whole” method where you play through the whole piece, work on a tricky part, then play the whole piece again. 


For the “Gigue” I went with the well-tested but tried and true method of not playing measure two until measure one is well learned. I will not go to measure three until measure two is solid, and so on. I usually do not put myself through this method, I find it stressful and only useful in certain situations. I decided to learn from my “Presto” mistakes and my “Allemande” success and not attempt to memorize until I can play it perfectly and have already made my fingering changes. 


Many measures of the Gigue were memorized by default with the repetition of the harder measures. For example, a four-measure run was difficult enough that it required enough repetition that I didn’t need to look at the sheet music to practice. Thus, the harder parts get memorized first due to the time involved to perfect them.

Most of the points made here seem obvious. I would argue that strong memorization is easier said than done. It must be said that Bach’s melodies have a certain style and are very sing-able. If you really know your scales and arpeggios, memorizing Bach may be easier due to muscle memory. Also, just being inundated with his music for technical training at an early age of one’s musical journey may be a factor. 

Next month I want to explore other methods of memorization with other composers. I purposely did not get into chord analysis. I would like to tackle this when memorizing pieces that sound similar in a future column.

Monday, January 4, 2021


            Some time ago, I decided to memorize a large repertoire of instrumental guitar music. By large, I mean four hours of music. 

            I did not come to this decision lightly. Some very inspiring performances pushed me in this direction. I started memorizing in a rock band and then applied what worked with classical music. I’d like to share those stories and share methods of memorization that have worked for me in future columns. 




            I play in a band. We usually play a three-hour set; sometimes it stretches to three and a half, sometimes four. Luckily, I only sing half of the songs, and my brother takes the other half. 

            After a few years, I noticed I was pretty good at memorizing lyrics. I would push myself to learn really long songs. We have the audience try to distract me when I sing difficult songs. This pushes me to learn the lyrics out of fear of embarrassment. I could write an article on just what has been done over the years to stump my flow! (Maybe in March!) 

            If I’m not comfortable with a song yet, I have a “cheat sheet” lying on the floor for whatever song was new that night. I thought of it as a rare helper when the rest of the night was memorized.

I later noticed I spent the whole song staring at the sheet instead of trying to look at the audience to see if the song was going over well. I’ll do this to “get through” the song, especially if the other members of the band are really enthusiastic about playing the song.  Eventually, the song gets memorized and a new challenge comes along to replace the old one.

            I went to see two local cover bands, and they were using iPads and binders of music to get through the night. Let it be said, I have absolutely no problem with this at all. A binder of tunes helps for bands that take requests.  (A wedding musician should always have sheet music; nobody is looking at you anyway!) In one band, everyone spent the gig staring at their music. The singer of the other band couldn’t stop looking at his music, even during the catchy chorus parts of songs when everyone sings along. Being a self-centered musician, I thought, “Do I do this?” The answer was yes. I was using sheet music to carry me like an electric wheelchair, whereas it should be a very light cane. 

I don’t want this to be a debate about using cheat sheets, go see any symphony orchestra to see the merits of using sheet music at the highest level. I just decided that it wasn’t right for me in this particular band. I’ll admit I’m no angel; I still indulge from time to time.

Some other experiences eventually let me turn my bar band memorization skills to my classical gigs.




            I am a huge fan of Al DiMeola. 

            In 2008, I got to see the Return To Forever reunion tour. I wanted to see Al play with the band that brought him to prominence. My ticket stub said I was in the third row of the second section. 

            I was surprised to find out that the second section was right in front of Al! The show was great, but one aspect bummed me out. Drummer Lenny White was surrounded by plexiglass. This is not unusual, the glass protects hearing and also makes it easier to mix live sound and live recording. From where I was sitting, the overhead lights reflected off the glass so I could only see a drumstick when hitting the cymbals. This was nobody’s fault, but left an impression on me: people love to hear live music, but they also want to see live music! (The show was still one of the best performances I’ve ever seen!)




            This also reminded me of another great ensemble, the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet.

            If you ever get a chance to see the quartet or any of their members live, do it. When I saw them as a young college student, I wondered why their sheet music was lying in front of them on piano benches. I realized later that people paid big money to see the ensemble, and they don’t want to look at four guys behind music stands. Seeing the group interact with each other is way better than hearing the recording, and this is what people pay to see. 

            I tried the low music stand, but it just didn’t work for me. I found it hard to maintain the posture I need to play all night and was having neck issues. I couldn’t understand what I was doing wrong.

 I realized that the LAGQ really only glanced at their music and concentrated on each other when they play. I’ve seen members of the quartet play solo and either use the bench, or just play memorized. 




            I am by no means the caliber of musicians mentioned above. You’ll see me play my repertoire of classical, some originals, and pop and jazz arrangements at local restaurants, stores, and festivals. Maybe you’ll see me at a wedding playing the ceremony and the cocktail hour. Even in these situations, having a memorized set ready to go has come in handy when the phone rings, and the gig will happen soon. One year, I would say a third of my gigs were due to cancellations. I like to be the guy you can depend on to play the show and do it well! I also want people to see what I’m doing on the instrument. 

            Considering all of the above, I came to the only logical conclusion: I’m going to have to memorize my repertoire. 


            In the next few installments, I’ll talk about what works for me as far as memorizing music. What are your thoughts?

Friday, May 1, 2020



After a gig of classical guitar, I usually order some food and talk to the bartender on duty. Of course, I’m always grateful when someone wants to talk about the music selections from the evening. Every now and then I hear “I love your version of ‘Spanish Caravan!’”

Although “Spanish Caravan” is a great classic rocker from The Doors, I do not play this song in my set.

Many die-hard fans of The Doors know the riff of “Spanish Caravan” was inspired by the guitar arrangement of “Leyenda” by the composer Issac Albeniz. Many do not realize the piece was originally written on piano. 

"Leyenda" was originally conceived as a prelude, one of three pieces called “Suite Española.” The work was later extended to five pieces. Each part represents different areas of Spain. The full name of this piece is “Asturias (Leyenda).” Asturias is the region of Spain, Leyenda means “legend.”  

Here's the original piano version. 

Francisco Tarrega was not the first to transcribe “Asturias (Leyenda)” for guitar, but Tarrega's version became very popular. The most famous transcription arguably belongs to Andrés Segovia. The video below is from 1996, Segovia is 83 at the time.

When Segovia plays the piece, notice the slight pause between the large strums on the guitar. Modern guitar players eliminate this pause, like John Williams (arguably Segovia's most famous student). The clip below is from 1975. 

Robbie Krieger, future guitarist for The Doors, grew up around classical music and studied flamenco guitar in his youth.  The melody for “Leyenda” works its way onto “Spanish Caravan” on the 1968 album Waiting for the Sun. Instead sharing the studio version, this live shot shows Krieger playing with his fingers on his Gibson SG guitar.

College guitar students hoping to complete their music degree practice Leyenda for hours on end. This either adds to the pieces popularity among non-musicians, and/or the annoyance of roommates around the world.

I refer to this piece as the “All Along The Watchtower” for classical music. Millions know the Jimi Hendrix song, many know it was written by Bob Dylan, even fewer have actually heard Dylan’s original. We do not know what Albeniz thought about guitar transcriptions of his work. (There were some transcriptions performed with the composer’s blessing, but the more famous transcriptions were performed after his death.) We do know that many pianists do not perform works by Albeniz nearly as much as guitarists. Either way, many have enjoyed this piece and it's influence on technique and rock music.

Sunday, April 12, 2020


Most musicians describe touring as 2 hours of performing, 22 hours of waiting. Many band members compare playing in a band to having a second marriage or family. Given this comparison, touring musicians should adapt well to quarantine and social distancing in the year 2020.  Years from now we may be describing our time at home to friends at social gatherings, but will all members of one house recall quarantine the same? There is no better musical example of time spent together than on tour in a van. Here are just three examples of bands that had some “van years” and were forever changed.


The band with the ultimate reputation for hard tours in close quarters is unquestionably Black Flag. Lead singer Henry Rollins chronicled his time in the band with the release of “Get In The Van: On The Road With Black Flag.” The book is known for tales of hard core punk rock exploits balanced with long hours of travelling in close quarters. Endless hours of time spent in the back of a Ryder van listening to lead guitarist Gregg Ginn practice scales could drive anyone insane.

Black Flag would also tour with “labelmates.” Many record labels would send their bands out on tour together, using the same equipment to save money. Using the same equipment usually meant using the same transportation. Rollins chronicles a tour with the Minutemen, a power trio who happened to include bass legend Mike Watt. Rollins talked about wanting to punch Watt for talking too much and taking control of the tape deck.

Of course, reading Rollins’ tour diaries only gives you one side of the story. Watt has talked in interviews about how much Rollins was teased on tour. Rollins was the fourth singer for the band, and one does not simply walk into an established band without a fair share of harassment and hazing.

Years later, Rollins was interviewed for "The Watt From Pedro Show" podcast, they discuss how the van years forged their work ethic. (Skip to the two minute mark.)


Some band members get on each other’s nerves over significant others, some over their political views, the Ramones had both. Johnny and Joey Ramone were unhappily boxed into a small van for just over 20 years. The Ramones were never a “separate buses” moneymaking machine that one would assume. Joey and Johnny were the last original members left and had very little communication after the band said their farewell. Years later, Johnny didn’t want to make the drive to Joey’s funeral. "End of the Century: The Story of the Ramones" chronicles the bands history, the trailer below says it all.


The Police are an interesting case in terms of getting more than one side of the story. Any fan of The Police can read a memoir from each member of the band. (Rather than bookmarking, I’ll just provide some links below if you are looking to read up yourself. Each book is interesting and entertaining.) Guitarist Andrew Summers got into photography (also shown in the documentary “Can’t Stand Losing You”) while drummer Stewart Copeland bought a Super 8 camera (this footage went into the documentary “Everyone Stares: The Police Inside Out).

Sting categorized their ‘van years’ as playing every “fleapit club” they could book in North America. They hauled their own equipment and played to large and barely existing crowds over thousands of miles with hardly any sleep.  In the film footage mentioned earlier, Sting’s plans on leaving the group seem evident.

An interesting case is Andy Summers on this tour. Summers was 36 years old touring with two band mates ten years younger, pushing a Ford Econoline van to gigs for nobody. In the documentary “Can’t Stand Losing You” Summers attests to the zig-zagging tour schedule and the physical demands on the body.

Stewart Copeland told of these days as the three musicians in the van with his childhood best friend at the wheel.  No roadies were involved. As one may expect, Copeland gets pretty sick of lugging his drumkit in and out of every club on the continent.


Sometimes traveling with others takes it’s toll in different ways. Chuck Berry had enough trouble with his band's antics on the road.  Eventually, when booked into a city, the promoter had to find the backing band. Usually the opening band for Chuck Berry became the backup band for Chuck Berry.  On one occasion, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band backed Berry. This also kept Berry from having to pay a backing band from his performance fee.

Chances are, you may remember the time of social distancing differently than those you are living with. This could be the van years of your relationship. Hours of killing time with no show to perform. Are you the Greg Ginn practicing hours on end with someone else forced to listen? Do they have good headphones? Can you be drowned out?

Hopefully everyone will come out of this inspired and ready to “get the band back together!”

Jonathan Nolan wrote this in between practice sessions of endless scales.

Tuesday, April 7, 2020


During these days of social distancing, one wonders how the year 2020 will be looked upon in the history books. For musicians, it’s an unpredictable time as to when live music will be enjoyed, and what changes will come to the live music setting. History shows that music has flourished through pandemics and isolation can lead to inspiration.


With the onset of the Spanish Flu, a pandemic that killed 27% of the world’s population, New York City kept theaters open. Nationwide radio programming was still two years away and with no television to hear the latest discoveries, the theater was looked at as a means to spread healthy information. Regulations were enforced meticulously in schools and theaters; even anti-spitting regulations were in effect and could be punished as misdemeanors.

With all this in place, music was able to prosper. The careers of Al Jolsen (not our best example) and George Greshwin were on an upward trajectory, and E.F. Goldman formed his wind ensemble, which served the NYC area for 87 years.

If history repeats itself, as it often does, music will blossom again.. What music will be made during this time of social distancing? We can’t tell the future; we can only look at history to see what has happened before.


Beethoven would constantly seek isolation to rest his ears and to deal with his increasing loss of hearing. From October 6-10 1802, Beethoven wrote a letter to his brothers now referred to as the “Heiligenstadt Testament.“ Without transcribing the whole document here (the writing is widely available online and Beethoven fans should not hesitate to find a translation), the writing gives insight to Beethoven's mental state at the time. Those of us who feel journaling is therapeutic should listen to Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 to hear the fruits of this isolation. Beethoven started composing Symphony No. 3 at the time of the Heiligenstadt testament and eventually premiered his work in 1805. The example below is the third movement. This "Scherzo"(translated loosely as "joke") is fast and fun. Although not as popular as the first movement, this was a significant change in the symphonic form replacing the minuet that would normally occur at this time.

Igor Stravinsky worked on his opera “The Nightingale” while battling typhoid. Shortly afterward his wife gave birth and contracted tuberculosis. This was during the same time as the Spanish Flu.

In 1964, Glenn Gould gave his last public performance. This was not the end of Gould’s career and he began his “love affair with the microphone.” This isolation from the stage led him to control every aspect of his late recordings. Before his death in 1982, Gould re-recorded Bach’s “Goldberg Variations.” The original recording made him an international star at 22, the later recording strips away the flash of youth and shows how interpretations of Bach’s music changes as a musician ages with their instrument. Below is the original recording, those who wish to dive deeper should compare his later version. (Fun fact: In "The Silence of the Lambs," Hannibal Lecter listens to this recording while in captivity. Given the popularity of Gould and Lecter being a psychiatrist.)

In 1966, Bob Dylan left the public eye after a motorcycle accident. Although Dylan and The Band's “The Basement Tapes" are a stellar example of recording collaboration. Many of the songs were composed on Dylan's hiatus.  Dive into the The Bootleg Series Vol. 11: The Basement Tapes Complete and you will find cover tunes and traditional songs, but one could argue that Dylan’s isolation led him to what became the beginning of the alt-country sound.

After much research (Google-ing at home in isolation), I can still find no modern master of musical isolation than John Frusciante. Frusciante left the Red Hot Chili Peppers in 1992 in the middle of a grueling tour to support the mega-platinum Blood Sugar Sex Magik album. His first hiatus saw Frusciante descend into drug addiction and release two solo records. He rejoined the band in 1998 to release Californicaion to the masses.

Frusciante recorded many solo records in between tours, but ultimately left the band again in 2009. Frusciante’s second isolation's focus has been primarily on electronic music. In late 2019, an announcement that Frusciante is back with his bandmates has fans in high anticipation of his next moves. 

Claude Monet stated, “My work is always better when I am alone and follow my own impressions.” Though it is not always necessary to isolate, isolaton can lead to artistic breakthroughs. Here’s hoping that these breakthroughs will make their way to the live stage in the near future. 

Jonathan Nolan wrote this while trying to come up with original music during social isolation.