The Lute Society: Best Advice

The Best Advice My Teacher Ever Gave Me

Here are all the entries from the a recent Lute Society prize draw, gathering together ‘the most useful things my teacher ever said to me’ from a multitude of players. It therefore represents the distillation of dozens, if not hundreds of lifetimes of lute playing, into the very quintessence of lute-wisdom. Read, and be improved thereby!

Try taking up the piano instead.

I hope you’re not expecting to make a living like this, young man.

Being an amateur player shouldn’t mean you play everything badly; you should aspire to play easier pieces as beautifully as a professional would play them.

Fingers are stupid, and require to have everything repeated very slowly again and again in order to learn things correctly.

Practise perfection: play difficult passages very slowly, concentrating on getting everything exactly right, and then gradually speed up. If you do something wrongly 99 times and correctly only on the 100th time, which are your fingers more likely to remember the next time you play?

Playing a piece well is really about the very precise recollection of how it feels to play it just right.

In thumb-inside technique, if the tone from the first figure sounds scrappy compared to that of the thumb, try drawing the first finger back along the string as you pluck, to damp down some of the unwanted higher harmonics.

The bridge can only vibrate vertically, so it is the vertical component of the movement of the string which is responsible for most of the sound—learn to enjoy the sensation of ‘digging into’ the string.

Give the lute the best hour of your day; you may well make faster progress if you can practise before you go to work in the morning, rather than last thing at night when you are very tired.

It was back in 1975 and I had just started the lute two years earlier. I had a lute instructor teach me once a week in a small high school I attended and I desperately wanted to play Francesco da Milano fantasias after hearing Bream’s Woods So Wild LP. I purchased the newly-published Complete Works edition by Arthur Ness. However, my lute teacher was convinced that I would never get much out of or get very far with just reading the lute tablatures, so he covered over the tablatures and forced me to read everything from the two-staff keyboard transcriptions!! Ever since, I have always been equally at home reading both notations . . .

Slow down and relax.

You can’t play from German tablature?!

Would you mind withdrawing that note?

Whatever happens, don’t stop playing.

Always aim to make phrases long.

Go out and listen to Vince Jones, then go home and try to play like that. (Visit: *")

If it’s hard you’re doing it wrong.

Shoulders back, keep your back straight, and you’ll play for hours.

Never make any indication when you make a mistake. Don’t own up or make faces and certainly don’t stop, say sorry, or s***! It’s distracting to your audience who may not have noticed the mistake, and rude, and presumes they don’t have the musical perception to have spotted it. If they missed it—good!—and if they didn’t, feel grateful. It takes quite a bit of moral courage to continue playing without comment when you have made a mistake, but it is a good discipline and hopefully in time you’ll make fewer. Try to incorporate the mistake in your performance; turn it into an ornament or a division. If the passage repeats, try to play something close to the mistake again this time with a satisfactory resolution, people will think you intended it. If you’re playing with others and a mistake makes you lose your place, work to get back so that they don’t have to stop and start again—it wastes their time. After a mistake, one is often ahead of the others; sometimes you can jump to the beginning of the next bar and ‘busk’ until your part fits. If someone you’re playing with makes a mistake, don’t stop or point out the mistake until they have had a good chance to get back in correctly. It’s good practice for them. Only point out if they make the same error again and again.

Never tune your lute as soon as you arrive in a venue; you’ll only have to do it twice. Open the case, let the instrument get used to whatever climate you find, and then tune it.

In 1979, when I was a teenager, a beautiful girl entered the class when I was practising. Of course, being a young boy, I couldn’t help but stare at her and started losing my concentration. So my teacher began to get angry with me, and shouted: ‘Keep practising; never, never, never, ever stare at something else when you are meant to be practising!’ He left the classroom in a fury, slamming the door behind him. Of course I was very happy to be left alone in the room with a beautiful girl. Since that day I have never missed the class.

If someone compliments you after a peformance, say ‘Thank you very much, I am glad you enjoyed it’. In other words, don’t insult their judgement by disagreeing, no matter what you thought of the performance yourself. If appropriate, you should feel free to discuss the matter in more, and more brutal detail, at a later time, the following day even.

Play at your technical level, because, remember, the music is what is between the notes.

Don’t sniff whilst you are playing! Lots of players get into heavy breathing when it gets intense.

Likewise, it may be distracting to the audience if you pull faces, or rock backwards and forwards while playing. You are meant a lute player, not an Indian snake charmer.

‘I used to find that difficult!’ As a relative newcomer to the lute it sometimes seems that certain technical difficulties are impossible to overcome so it is very reassuring to find that a greatly respected player once had to overcome the same hurdles.

The best thing my teacher said to me was: ‘Where did you get my telephone number? Yes, I will teach you!’