Completed guitar #017: Hamilton

It seems like a while since I actually wrote an update post on what I have been doing in my workshop. The last time I updated you on the current guitar’s progress was at the beginning of May when I talked about the rosette inlays for the two in-progress guitars. Since then, I have focussed on finishing the guitar for the Hamilton festival as I had a hard deadline for completing that guitar. I will be getting back to the lunar phase cedar and rosewood guitar very soon, so you will see more on that guitar in July. The Hamilton guitar is now complete, so it is time for a summary blog post!

Bracing

Although I did not take many pictures during the building of this guitar (I broke my camera lens halfway through and had to purchase a replacement), I did manage to get a couple shots of the bracing, which is a bit different than in my past guitars. I based this pattern on a Bouchet guitar plan that is available from Luthier’s Mercantile. This is a fan braced guitar with a harmonic bar directly under the saddle. Although I did not copy the plan exactly, I did take inspiration from the graded brace sizing on the plans, which had heavier bracing on the treble side and thinner, lighter braces on the bass. I also used Bouchet’s open harmonic bar right below the soundhole which allows two of the fan braces to pass under the brace and end close to the soundhole.

In the next photo, you can see the asymmetrically tapered brace located underneath the saddle of the guitar. The tapering is supposed to help to balance the tone of the basses and trebles, and while I can’t say whether this is the reason, it is a good sounding guitar with pretty nice basses and trebles with a decent sustain.

Stages of Completion

I have had the strings on and off of this guitar several times in the last few weeks. The first time this guitar was played was at the end of May when a few friends came over to try the guitar out. The guitar was playable but unfinished – I had rushed to get the frets in and the strings on for the occasion, and had only had enough time to wipe a bit of shellac on the soundboard. I was immediately impressed with the unique sound of this guitar – it seemed to have a certain clarity of tone and a beautiful sustain almost from the first sound it made.

After that first test, I took the guitar back to my workshop to fiddle with things and apply some finish before stringing again for a couple of recording sessions for my upcoming CD. As soon as I had completed those recordings, the strings came off again for a bit more varnish and a couple sessions of polishing.

Design features

Overall, I am quite happy with how this guitar turned out. The woods are beautiful and work quite well together – the warmth of the rosewood complements the pink tones in the spalted maple. I used a bit of red veneer here and there to accent the pink as well, but kept the overall design simple with clean lines and mostly uncomplicated inlays. The talking point is of course the rosewood rosette, which turned out even better than I had hoped when I first dreamt it up.

Of course, people don’t immediately recognize it as Hamilton’s skyline (I am not sure that anyone would really recognize Hamilton’s skyline at a glance), but it is clearly a city scape when viewed from up close. From afar people have wondered if it was eye-lashes or a paint splatter on different occasions, and I’m not entirely sure what to make of that, but regardless of what people think it looks like, the rosette’s reception has been largely very positive.

I continued the use of rosewood for the bridge and the fingerboard on this guitar, preferring the softer brown of rosewood to the striking black of ebony for this design. Rosewood is also lighter, and from what I have heard, lighter bridges are generally a good thing in guitar construction.

The bridge is a bit unique in that I used a piece of flamed maple to cap the central section, and edged the tie block with red veneer lines and ebony for a bit of protection against string wear.

Along with the rosewood, I used a decent amount of quilted maple in the design of this guitar. The back of the headstock features a stunning veneer of quilted maple, as does the heel cap.

I also used quilted maple for the binding of this guitar, separating it from the light coloured body body woods with dark brown veneer lines to match the rosette.

And that’s it really. It is a comfortable guitar to play, with a standard scale length of 650mm and a slightly small (to modern standards) body. Although I was originally planning to French polish this guitar, I ended up deciding to use EnduroVar water-based varnish just because I am more comfortable with this product and I was pressed for time. The results are pretty good (if I do say so myself).

As I mentioned earlier in this post, I did manage to get a couple of recordings done with this guitar. However, I won’t be releasing those until my CD is complete in about a year, so I thought that I would do a quick home recording of a different piece to hold your interest in the meantime. Here is a little tune by Madame Sidney Pratten (don’t mind my serious expression – I’m still working on my stage face)

As always, thanks for reading and following along with this blog – your comments and interest really mean a lot to me!

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Miscellany

The past few weeks have been filled with all sorts of random exciting things, so I thought that today I would run through a few of them in a newsletter post of sorts.

CD Recording update

Many of you will already know this, but I was successful in my recording grant application, so I will be starting the process of recording a full length album of my favourite classical guitar pieces very soon! The plan is to finish all of the recording work for the project over the course of this year, and then release the album sometime in the middle of 2019. Craig is busy writing a piece for the album, which I am very excited about. The piece is called Vespers, and will be the title track for the CD. Other pieces that I will be recording include John Gordon Armstrong’s monster of a piece The Last Waltz in Boston, an etude by Ida Presti, a few of the preludes by Emilia Giuliani-Guglielmi, a couple of nocturnes, Bach’s most famous Chaconne, and Anne Lauber’s Arabesque.

Concert in the USA

Very soon I will no longer be able to say that I have not been to the United States. I was asked to play a concert as part of the Charlottesville Guitar Festival this coming September, so I will soon be planning my first trip south of the border! This was my first invitation to play at a guitar festival, so it is both exciting and nerve wracking! The Charlottesville Guitar Festival is a small (one day), young (started in 2017) festival organized by Rafael Scarfullery. This year’s festival is dedicated to the women of the classical guitar world, which is why I was asked to play.

Zither repair

A couple of months ago, I had a call from a woman who was looking for someone to repair her Vietnamese Zither. She had been referred to me by a violin maker in Ottawa from whom I had purchased pegs for a Baroque guitar a couple of years ago. I did not know what a Vietnamese Zither was (read a little about it here – although the one I worked on had 17 strings), but I said that I was willing to take a look. It turned out that it was really just wood-work that needed doing – crack repairs and a couple of broken feet. I did have to remove all of the strings and various other bits, so I labelled everything very carefully and took some photos. After the repair, this allowed me to put it all back together! I am sure that I did not tune it properly, but that was not an issue for the customer.

The majority of the work that needed to be done was definitely damage caused by changes in humidity. Instruments that come from more humid areas of the world need to be extra carefully humidified during the harsh Ottawa winters (earlier this year I had a crack to fix in a Flamenco guitar that had moved here from Vancouver – same problem!)

I started by repairing the crack in the centre of the photo above by shaping a small piece of wood to fit in the crack. I did not have any of the same species of wood (Wootung wood, from what I had read), but basswood seemed to match the colour and density of the wood quite well- the finished repair is almost invisible. I used hide glue for all of the repairs so that they can be reversed if necessary in the future. I filled the crack with the basswood and sanded it flush. I also glued a piece of softwood to the inside of the instrument in order to bridge the crack and prevent further damage.

Both of the feet (picture above) needed some work – one was a simple reattachment job, but the other was broken in half and needed to be replaced. I made a replica of the foot in mahogany and stained it with to match the rest of the instrument. I am proud to say that, unless you knew the instrument intimately before the repair, you would likely not be able to tell which foot is original and which is made by an unqualified Canadian.

At the other end of the zither, the soundboard needed to be reattached to the frame and a gap needed to be filled where the wood had shrunk. For this, I made use of my spool clamps, my kitchen, some hide glue, and a few pieces of basswood.

Unfortunately, I don’t have any pictures of the finished repair, but it was just about as invisible as the first crack fill and foot repairs.

It is always fun for me to work on different instruments when the repairs are manageable. This one turned out particularly well if I do say so myself 🙂

Guitar Delivered

The classical guitar that I was building from January to early April was finally delivered! It arrived safe and is being thoroughly enjoyed by the new owner :). This was the first guitar that I had to ship overseas, so I was incredibly nervous about the packing and delivery. I packed the guitar with lots of brown paper and bubble wrap in a guitar shipping box that was very kindly given to me by Danielle at Metro Music in Ottawa. The guitar was nestled in a Visesnut case (highly recommended) with even more bubble wrap, so really, if anything had happened to it, I would have been quite perplexed. Here is the box all fixed up and ready for shipping:

I actually ended up with a cold after all of the stress surrounding the finishing of a guitar, the shipping, and waiting for a reaction from the customer. I love building guitars, but I really hate parting with them and I really need to learn to deal with the stress that comes along with all of this!

New Building Projects

So many other things have been happening of course, but I will not babble on for too much longer and will finish this blog with just a quick note on the next guitar builds. I will be working on two guitars over the next couple of months – one that is already in progress, and another new commission. I started the commission this week. It will be a rosewood and cedar classical guitar featuring a maple fingerboard and a rosette displaying the phases of the moon. The next blog post will go into more detail on this guitar – possibly with some detail on the rosette if things go well in the next week. The other “in progress” guitar is the guitar that I will be donating to the Hamilton Guitar Festival as a prize for the competition. More on that in the next blog as well!

As always, thanks for following along with this blog of mine! I can’t believe how many exciting things are happening at the moment – better get back to work so that I don’t fall behind!

Barry Green’s Inner Game of Music

Last week, I read a tiny book by Alan Bennett called The Uncommon Reader. This is a quick, humorous read (I read it in 3 short sessions) about the Queen of England discovering her love of literature. Although it is an unassuming, easy to read novella, it really struck a chord in me. For the last several months, I have spent a great deal of time thinking about the amount the amount of time that I waste consuming low quality entertainment. Not that there is anything wrong with a few YouTube videos, a simple pop song, or a formulaic romantic comedy. But there is something wrong with the overconsumption of such undemanding entertainment and there is something wrong with the constant drone of mind numbing background trash. I know that I feel physically ill after falling into the YouTube spiral for too long, and I definitely feel ashamed of the amount of time I have wasted over the past few years on the internet.

So, as I read The Uncommon Reader, I was thinking about how I currently spend my free time, and how I used to spend my free time when I was growing up largely without a computer. I used to love to read, and although I can’t say that I have forgotten that I loved reading, I have become lazy. It is so much “easier” to waste an hour (or more) in the YouTube/social media/Google vortex than it is to pick up a book, listen intentionally to music, or simply be alone with one’s thoughts. I am sure that nothing in these ramblings has come as a surprise to you; I have, of course, been aware of the time I have been wasting all along. The trouble is, while it is easy to recognize this as a problem in my life, I have a really hard time getting out of the bad habit and into the good one!

Alan Bennett’s novella has made me determined to read more and really do more than just think about how I am spending my free time.

And so, I come to the real purpose of today’s blog post. Since finishing The Uncommon Reader, I have started another novel (Divisadero by Michael Ondaatje), and I finally got around to reading the second half of Barry Green’s The Inner Game of Music.

The Inner Game of Music – Barry Green

I started reading this book last year (I mentioned it in a blog post almost a year ago), and over the course of a few months, I half-heartedly picked away at the first half of the book. Not that it is a poorly written or boring read – far from it! Barry Green’s writing is easy to digest, relatable, and well thought out. His confidence in Tim Gallwey’s Inner Game theory comes across, but Green does not assume to have all of the answers; Green invites the reader to explore the possibilities of the Inner Game theory while acknowledging that each performer and each performing situation will demand a different solution, some which are not necessarily outlined in the book.

After such a slow start on the book, it seemed as though I would never get through the whole thing. But, after reading the Alan Bennett book and deciding to get back to the business of reading, I decided to pick it up and get it finished. So I read the second half of the book in two days, proving that it really is not such an arduous read.

This will not be a proper book review. I do plan on eventually working towards some proper book review blogs in the future, but for now, this will just be a few thoughts that I had while reading the book, and an encouragement for you to pick it up and read it yourself if it seems of interest.

The book would be incredibly beneficial to any musician, but I found that it would be of particular use to adult amateur musicians, music teachers, parents of young students, and professional musicians or those aspiring to become professional musicians.

The “Inner Game” can be boiled down to learning to silence the “self 1” (interferes with your potential), in order to make room for your “self 2” (the part of you that is able to express your full creative potential). It should be noted that this is not the same as left and right brain (analytical and global) thinking – these are addressed in a separate chapter, and Green shows how to use the Inner Game theory to balance these ways of thinking. The first half of the book describes the basic skills that are required to accomplish this (awareness, will, and trust) and how a student can use these skills to let go and surrender to the musical experience. The second half of the book shows how to use the Inner Game in different situations (dealing with interference during performances, teaching, listening to music, being a parent, practising, playing in ensembles, and improvising). Green includes exercises throughout the book to practise the skills. I have to say, I did not have time to try all of the exercises out as I was reading through the book, so I will go back and use this book as a practise aid over the next year.

This is not a book about becoming a virtuoso from scratch. Although practise is addressed, this is not a book about practising exactly. This is a book about an approach to performing, that, when taken in combination with technical development and good practise habits, will lead to a more enjoyable and fulfilling musical experience.

Much of this book was reassuring – without knowing about this book, I had already put many of the concepts into practise while working to overcome my own nervousness in performance. I am no longer a nervous performer (I don’t believe that I have been particularly nervous for the past couple of years), but there are many other things that I need to work on, and this book hit many of them on the head. My biggest struggle is with focus, and most of the Inner Game skills will help me with that.

I particularly enjoyed the chapters on teaching with the Inner Game principles, and I will definitely be revisiting these parts of the book to more fully understand the concepts. Teaching is something that I thoroughly enjoy, and I know that it is, and will continue to be, an integral part of my career. I think that music teachers can play a really important role in a child’s development, so our approach in teaching young children must be carefully considered. I have a lot to learn in this area, and the thoughts presented in this book made a lot of sense to me. Adult students face a whole other set of challenges, and this book does a good job of addressing these struggles. I would highly recommend that adult music students read this book.

Parts of the book are slightly dated – the tape decks and other technologies that are recommended have been replaced a few times since the book came out in 1986, and there has been a lot more research in the fields of music education, performance anxiety, and effective practice strategies in the last several years, but the core concepts of the book have not been affected as far as I can tell.

I will leave this blog with a short quote from the book that seems to tie today’s thoughts together:

“So much depends on the degree to which you value the moments, the minutes, and hours, of your life. If your life is precious to you, you will want your practice time to be both enjoyable and musically rewarding.” (page 129)

(for a non-musical, but equally inspiring remark, remove the works “practice” and “musically”)

New recordings

I keep saying that a building post is coming up soon, and then something else crops up, so here I am delaying that once more! I promise that the next blog will be on the soundboard of the guitar that I am building – the rosette is inlayed, and I will be bracing the top this week, so I will have enough for a building blog post early on next week. I hope that, in the meantime, this is exciting enough to fill the gap. It certainly is for me!

I finally completed my first professional demo recordings! In September, I recorded two pieces (Etude No 3 by Ida Presti and Arabesque by Anne Lauber) with Andrew Brittain of Mudshark Audio, and they are finally done and ready to be shared! I am fairly happy with the results, although, as always, I have a few things that I would like to tweak about my playing, so I will be re-recording these when it comes time to do my full length CD in the next year or so.

Of course, I should have done these recordings earlier than I did – I think I pushed the date back about three times in my mind before I finally committed to going through with the process. I rarely feel completely prepared for something (I’m working on that – more on that later), but sometimes it is best to just book a date,  prepare as much as possible before the deadline, and then reflect on the process afterwards as a learning opportunity.

As a so-called professional musician, I need demo recordings for showcasing my ability for potential work opportunities and grant proposals. What finally “lit the fire under my backside” to get this done was the looming deadline for 2017 recording grant proposals. As I keep mentioning, I am planning a CD recording project. I have been thinking about this project since graduation, and I finally have a list of repertoire that I feel will make an excellent first CD. In order to get started on the project and meet my own deadlines, I really had to apply for recording grants this fall, so I needed to get the demos done.

I have known of Andrew for a few years now, and have heard his recordings a few times. Craig recorded a couple of his compositions with Andrew just over a year ago and was very happy with the results, and as local recording engineers with classical guitar experience are somewhat hard to come by, I thought that Andrew would be a great choice. I think that I was right – Andrew was easy to work with, picky about the sound quality, and had some excellent musical ideas.

I decided that I would prefer to do my recordings in a church rather than in a studio because I knew that I would be more comfortable and familiar with the acoustics of a church. I would also like to record my CD in a church, so I thought that this would be a great opportunity to test out a venue. I chose St. Bartholomew’s Anglican Church in Ottawa for its quiet location, clear acoustic, and easy to work with office staff (seriously, this was the most straightforward and efficient church booking that I have ever encountered). The acoustic of the church is great for recording because of its clarity, however, this also means that it is not very forgiving when it comes to mistakes! I hope that I will be able to use this venue when it comes time to record the full CD.

The recording process left me with a long list of things that I want to get better at in my playing. First off, I realized that I really should be recording myself and listening back a lot more regularly. My experience of my performance is incredibly different from what an audience would hear. Mostly this is in the fine details of contouring phrases and in the choice of character and tempo.

For instance, when performing Ida Presti’s Etude, I have always taken a rather fast  tempo, which I thought suited the piece just fine. While recording the piece, Andrew suggested that I sit back on the tempo just a little bit as it sounded like I was rushing. Of course, he was right – after listening back to the recording, I have quite a different concept of the piece. I still want the piece to move with a fairly fast tempo, but I want the piece to flow naturally and gracefully with a relaxed (rather than forced) atmosphere.

I also realized something that I knew before: preparation is key. I need to work on my practising so that I am more prepared and feel more confident in my playing. Part of this is overcoming mental barriers and dealing with tension, but a lot of it is simply practising in a smarter way so that I leave less room for error. I will be making a few changes to my routines over the next while so that I am much more confident when I go into my next recording situation.

With all of that said, I would welcome you to listen to my recordings. I will have to send you over to my website for this, as with my current blog set up, I am not able to upload recordings to this post! I did put the two recordings on my website for your listening pleasure, and you can check them out here.

Thanks for reading (and listening)!

Upcoming concerts, projects, and plans

And just like that, summer seems to have disappeared into fall. This morning as I type this, I am drinking tea and sitting bundled up on my sofa with a sweater against the chilly 5 degree weather (I still have a window open because it’s only September 1st!!)

This also made me realize that I have been rather absent from my blog for two whole months. I suppose that I was going through a phase of not really knowing what to write about as my summer projects were rather more scattered and messy (see bench below for proof…), so this will be a bit of a newsletter before I get back into proper blogs this fall.

real life bench photo at the end of a refinishing project (I’ll tidy it up – I promise, Dad!)

Summer Projects

In the shop I have had a couple of repair projects to do (reattaching a headpiece on a student classical guitar, refinishing one of my own builds, and lowering the action on a student’s steel string). The weather has been way too humid for me to do any serious building, so I decided to hold off on some of those projects until the fall when things dry up a bit. Also, my goal is to build 4-5 guitars a year, and I have already completed 4 this year, so I am well ahead of schedule.

Although it might seem a little strange, this summer I refinished the classical guitar, ‘Madimi,’ that I had built last fall. I had used Lee Valley’s French Polish on the guitar originally, and while the finish was OK, it really did not add anything to the grain of the wood. The guitar is built of flamed maple and bearclaw Engelmann with birdseye maple embellishments, so it is pretty much entirely covered in figure. The Lee Valley French Polish did nothing to enhance the grain, and it was actually hard to even tell that the soundboard was figured at all. The guitar was built for one of my students, so he comes to my house every week and sees most of the projects that I have going on. He saw the finished Torres guitars at the beginning of the summer and loved how the General Finishes EnduroVar looked on the figured maple, so we decided to give Madimi a new look. I think that the varnish has really enhanced the figure on this guitar, and I love the amber tone that the EnduroVar adds to maple.

While I love the look of this EnduroVar, it is quite a bit of a pain to use. I am still working at getting the perfect even glossy rubbed finish, but it is quite challenging with EnduroVar because the coats of varnish are incredibly thin, and the coats do not melt together in the way that shellac does.

Fall Concerts and Recordings

Craig and I have a few concerts lined up this fall starting tomorrow! We are playing in Woodstock as part of the Labour day weekend Canada 150 celebrations. The event organizers booked Pavlo to play a concert in the evening, and asked us to be one of the afternoon opening acts. As this is an outdoor concert, the experience should be interesting – hopefully the mics all work so that we can be heard! We’ll be playing at 3pm in the park, so if you are in or around Woodstock, we’d love to see you there!

We are also playing a concert in Hanover, Ontario next Friday at Grace United Church. This concert will be another fundraiser for the local women’s shelters, following up on our tour last fall. On Sunday, September 10th, we’ll be in Toronto, and the following Saturday, we’ll be playing back here in Ottawa. We also are excited to be part of the Wednesday noon concert series at Southminster United Church in Ottawa on November 1st. Check out all of our upcoming concert details on my website, here.

Along with preparing for these performances, I have been getting ready for my first professional recording sessions. As I have mentioned before, I am getting ready to put together my first CD, so I will be recording a few pieces this September for grant applications and possibly for inclusion on the final CD. The only recording that I have done in the past has been on my own with incredibly limited knowledge and relatively mediocre standards. Now that I am two weeks away from my first proper recording, I have to say that I am rather nervous. I will be practising a lot over the next two weeks, and hopefully this, along with the concerts leading up to the first recording will have me well prepared. If anyone has tips for first time recording sessions, please share them in the comments!

Building Projects

When I get back from all of my running around, I’ll be back in the shop and will be working on quite a few projects. I have three partially completed guitars that I would like to finish, as well as wood for two other classical guitars that I would like to start. One of those is a commission, and the other is because I purchased some very pretty wood.

Engelmann, Cedar, Spalted Maple, Rosewood, and Ovangkol

The commissioned classical guitar will be a very traditional Rosewood and Engelmann Spruce classical guitar with asymmetrical fan bracing and a sound port. The three partially completed guitars include the experimental late 18th century guitar, a zebra wood steel-string, and the spalted maple classical guitar. These guitars are at all sorts of stages of completion, and it should be a bit of a relief to get them done and hear them for the first time.

The second classical that I would like to build is because of the wood that is second from the left in this picture:

Spalted Maple, Ovangkol, Yellow Cedar, and Rosewood

I saw the Ovangkol on Bow River’s website when I was ordering wood for the Rosewood classical commission, and I couldn’t pass it up. Apparently it sounds rather like rosewood, so I am thinking that I will pair this with a red cedar top and a few modern embellishments. I am not sure whether I will have time to work on this during this fall, but this guitar will be built at some point in the next year.

As you can see, I also picked up a bit more spalted maple. I am not quite sure what I will use this for, so for the moment it will just sit in my wood pile.

More to come to the blog soon!