Playing the 
Concierto de Aranjuez

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On April 28, 2007, I performed Joaquin Rodrigo's "Concierto de Aranjuez" with the Ohio Valley Symphony.  This essay was originally written the Monday after the performance for, a newsgroup devoted (maniacally) to the classical guitar.  

Well, I did it -- played Rodrigo's "Concierto de Aranjuez" with the Ohio Valley Symphony on Saturday night.  It went well.

Learning this piece was an amazing adventure. When the call came 2 years ago asking me if I could take the booking for performing the Aranjuez, I just said yes, even though at that time, I didn't know the piece near well enough to perform it. I knew it would mean quite a bit of practicing, but it's always good to have a reason to practice. For me, fear of public humiliation is powerful motivation for practicing.

I knew when I took the gig that I did not have the i-m scale speed necessary to play the piece. For years, I have been using p-m to play fast scalar passages, and at the time I accepted the booking, I figured that I would use p-m or even a pick (!) for the fast scalar passages.

In January of this year, I invented a little pick holder that attaches to the sound hole and allowed me to quickly grab a pick, then put it back just as fast, so I could switch back and forth between pick and fingers. As I practiced with it, and also using p-m for scales, both just felt awkward to me, and were not giving me the sound I wanted. 

About the middle of January, I decided to see if it would be possible to develop the i-m scale technique necessary to play the piece. With only 3 months to go before the concert, it didn't seem likely. 

OK, you RMCG regulars, lots of you will hate this next statement, and I type it grudgingly myself, but here goes: it was Lutemann's writings about i-m speed that finally got under my skin enough to want to try to develop the i-m speed necessary for the Aranjuez. 

I have had good speed using a pick for years -- sixteenth notes at quarter note=160 are no problem, and I can squeak out sixteenths at quarter note = 190 with a pick. A simple insight occurred to me in January: if I can play this fast with a pick, there is no reason why I shouldn't be able to play this fast using i-m. If my left hand can handle that speed, my right hand should also be able to.

I decided to try to revamp my i-m technique to develop the speed I would need to play the Aranjuez. And it would have to happen in 3 months.

I began reading and researching right hand technique -- everything I could get my hands on. And it came down to (God, I hate typing this!) Lutemann's writings about the coordination of joints that led to my breakthrough. 

As I sat analyzing my technique, I realized that I had an inefficient motion in the recovery of my m finger. I was not using the joints of my m finger to recover for the next stroke, but was rather allowing my wrist to bob up and down slightly. This inefficiency created no problems at slower tempos, but at anything faster than sixteenths at quarter note = 104, it bogged down, placing an absolute speed limit on my i-m playing.

I made the tiniest change in my m finger motion and BANG! it took off. Just like that. In just about a week, I broke through the former speed limit, and was able to play sixteenths at about 120. So, I decided to play chicken with the calendar and go for developing the technique. It got faster, cleaner and easier each week.

Over the next couple of months, I spent about an hour a day working exclusively on this new technique, and the other 4 hours of my daily practice were spent on other technique and mastering the Aranjuez (and the Vivaldi Concerto, which was also on the concert).

After about a month of practicing (toward the end of February) I decided to commit to this new technique and dropped my practicing with the pick and with p-m. You just got to love that i-m rest stroke sound for fast scalar passages.

Along with revamping my i-m technique, I had to master the intricacies of the Aranjuez. This piece is a monster that must be tamed before it can be made your own. It is difficult on many different levels: finger wiggling, ensemble with the orchestra, capturing its flamenco influence, and bringing to life its tremendous emotional power. It was by far the most difficult piece of music I have ever played, which adds yet another level of difficulty: simple fear of being able to draw it all together to perform it well in front of a hall full of expectant people who paid good money to listen to you.

Learning the finger wiggling was well under way when I realized just how difficult it would be to navigate through the orchestra ensemble. As I considered my options -- buying a music minus one CD, working with an accompanist, listening to recordings over and over -- I settled on the most time consuming option of all. I bought the score, and then entered the entire 90 page orchestra score into Sibelius (a score writing program). I spent a couple hours per day for a couple of months on this project.

Copying the score, and creating a synthesized orchestral performance allowed me to learn this magnificent piece much more deeply than simply learning the guitar part could have. It gave me a perspective that broadened my guitar-solo-centered view of the piece.

It also gave me the ultimate practice device: an orchestra that I could start and stop whenever I wanted, that would play at slower tempos for practicing, and that never complained about needing a break. I practiced with it daily for several weeks and learned the orchestra parts well -- I learned what to listen for to cue my entrances. I learned which instruments the guitar part was to be played together with. I learned when my part was to stand out, and when it was subordinate to the orchestra. I learned the overall flow of the piece. I knew where to start in the guitar part from anywhere in the piece just by hearing the orchestra. 

If anybody reading this is going to attempt to perform this piece, or any other concerto for that matter, I highly recommend this method to learn the piece.

On the Wednesday night before the concert, I performed the Concierto in a jazz club here in Dayton, along with the Vivaldi Concerto. I created a CD with the orchestra parts burned to different tracks on the CD, and enlisted a musician friend of mine to start and stop the CD at the right times. This performance helped me to iron out some of the wrinkles, but I didn't play particularly well. My troubles performing that night scared the hell out of me. I went home Wednesday night upset, and awoke in the middle of the night in a panic. I couldn't get back to sleep, so I popped open a beer. I was still drinking beer and worrying at 6:00 AM Thursday morning when the sun came up. (Don't try this at home, kids).

Calm returned Thursday evening when a good practice session let me realize that I did know the piece and that it was time to focus on what I did well, rather than obsess over the few problem areas I encountered in the performance Wednesday night.

Friday, I arrived at the Ariel Theater in Gallipolis, Ohio for the first of 2 rehearsals. The Ariel Theater is a magnificent hall, built in 1895 as a venue for Vaudeville acts. The acoustics are spectacular. To my great shock and delight, I realized that I would not need amplification to play the Aranjuez or the Vivaldi. I arrived with a rather elaborate sound system for amplification and was delighted to leave it in my car.

(Some RMCG regulars should avert their eyes for this next sentence.) Matanya Ophee was right: in the right hall, with the right orchestra, the Aranjuez can be performed without amplification. There was a discussion here in RMCG many years ago about this exact thing. I, having played hundreds of concerts with the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra, applied all of my knowledge to this discussion and came up with the wrong answer, insisting it couldn't be done. Matanya insisted it could be. He was right.

The first rehearsal went well, as did the second (and final) rehearsal. I only got to spend about 45 minutes over both days rehearsing this piece with the orchestra. 

At the point in time when you are standing in front of a group of highly skilled orchestral musicians, all of whom have that same look on their face ("show me that you deserve to stand in front of us"), there is no amount of practicing and preparation that will feel like too much practicing and preparation. The musicians of the orchestra made me much more nervous than the audience. I was glad for every second that I put in to learn the piece.

And yes, I did say "standing", because I used a guitar strap and stood for the performance. Standing is much more visually appealing to the audience, and it feels better to me as a performer to have the freedom to move. Standing makes you literally stand out from the orchestra and helps you connect with the audience.

The performance was Saturday night. The conductor, Maestro Ray Fowler, asked me to begin the concert with about 10 minutes of something unique. I chose to play 3 jazz tunes, "Gentle Rain", "I Remember You" and "I Got Rhythm". I enlisted the help of one of the bassists, a percussionist and their English hornist. It felt good to start the concert playing music that I have played hundreds of times in clubs -- it allowed me to relax and the audience loved it. My guess is that this was the favorite part of the concert for some.

From there we performed the Vivaldi Concerto. I created my own edition of the Vivaldi for this performance. We played it with 4 violins on each of the 2 violin parts, and 2 cellos, 1 bass and a harpsichord for the basso continuo. It went well.

The Aranjuez opened the second half of the concert. The first movement was going well until I started thinking about this -- this post you are reading right now. For some stupid reason, in the middle of performing the hardest piece I have ever performed, I began thinking "I should write about this for RMCG" (it's amazing the crazy stuff that goes through your brain as you perform). As I thought about writing this post, I buzzed a note. And then I started thinking "you idiot -- don't think about RMCG -- focus on playing" Then I started thinking "don't yell at yourself about not focusing on playing"....and then my mind got back to that flow, that hummmmmm, that bzzzzzzzz I get when I'm in the moment performing.

The first movement proceeded well until my fingers got tangled up in one passage -- the ascending scale that occurs right at rehearsal number 14 -- so I let the last several notes of that scale go by and picked it up in the next bar. There were a couple of buzzed notes in this movement, but overall the performance was as good as I had hoped it would be.

The second movement went very well. After playing the anguished scream that ends the cadenza, I experienced one of the most powerfully emotional moments of my life as the orchestra keened the mournful theme then glided gently toward the resolution to B major. 

The third movement started well, but something happened differently in the orchestra than my ears were expecting right after rehearsal number 10, and it threw me off. I hacked my way through the bars leading up to rehearsal number 11. It seemed like it took an hour to play those few bars. My wife, who attended the concert and knows the piece well, insists that it was not noticeable by the audience, but I sure noticed. The rest of the movement went well after that.

I came off stage after the applause and went downstairs to await the end of the concert, spending the next half hour beating myself up for missing that one section. After the concert, the well wishers were generous in their well wishings, and I realized how insignificant one small mistake is in a concert that moved the audience. By the time I made that mistake, the listeners had already made up their minds about the concert, and they simply didn't hear it.

I woke up the following morning mentally and physically exhausted and slept much of the day away after I got back home. I sat down to write this post to tip my hat to both Lutemann and Matanya, and to share the amazing good fortune I had to get the opportunity to play one of the great pieces in the classical repertoire in a magnificent hall with a wonderful orchestra.

It was an amazing adventure to learn and perform the Concierto de Aranjuez. I hope that someday I can do it again.


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