Category Archives: Improvisation

Loops and Glitches

Haddington-based guitarist, Malcolm MacFarlane has released an interesting, download only, album of live improvisations with effects and looping technology. It’s entitled, Loops and Glitches and you can find out more here.

Here he is in a performance of All Of Me alongside Adam Bulley from last year’s Fringe:

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… and in a filmed practice session, soloing in Herbie Hancock’s Canteloupe Island:

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… and in a 2003 performance of ICE with the Scottish Guitar Quartet (note the elegant, efficient left-hand work at 1:09):

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East Lothian Showcase Concert

Last night saw East Lothian’s Showcase Concert 2010 – featuring String Ensemble, Percussion, Jazz Band, Guitar Ensemble, Wind Ensemble. This is quite a high-pressure time of year for many pupils. In addition to SQA performances, many have their own school concert and the Showcase Concert all in close proximity. In the case of guitarists, this amounts to 4-6 minutes of solo music for Standard Grade or 10 minutes for Higher; one piece for the school’s Spring Concert; three other pieces for the Showcase Concert. Those from NBHS taking part in the performance for the Head Teachers’ Conference had another four songs to keep in shape. This is an impressive amount of plate-spinning at a time when portfolio deadlines loom.

I was delighted with the focus and the performance of the Guitar Ensemble last night. Here are recordings of our three offerings:

VivaldiLute Concerto in D (2nd movement): vivaldi-concerto

Herbie HancockChameleon: chameleon

Nat AdderleyWork Song: work-song

(To download the mp3 files, right-click the second link and choose ‘Save target as…’)

(hats off to David & Callum from Knox for their improvised solos in the last two items).

It was touching to see friendships spring up between pupils from different schools and interesting to see how different pupils spend their backstage time, which amounts to most of the evening. Some play cards, some listen to mp3 players, some chat, some flirt but guitarists tend to play their guitars:


sometimes with other instruments:


sometimes with such relentlessness that the guitar is soon whittled away to a shadow of its former self:


Harry The Piano and Gauntlet of Fire

There should always be room for a bit of fun in the school day, especially if it involves exposure to amazing musical skill. My PT today showed me this video of Harry The Piano playing the main theme from Harry Potter in a huge variety of styles – shouted out at random from (I presume) the person doing the filming. This is a great inspiration for pupils, many of whom (along with some teachers) have a dread of melodic improvisation, far less harmonic.

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I’ve said it before, but feel it’s worth repeating, that the parallels between Music and Modern Foreign Languages (MFL) are not, in my opinion, as straightforward as one would imagine. One might imagine reading, writing, listening, speaking in MFL to equate with reading, composing, listening, playing in Music. I’d contend that a more realistic parallel would be playing, composing, listening, improvising.

Compared to many generations gone by, we have made great strides in regarding musical improvisation as something ordinary mortals should be able to attempt, but there’s a long way to go

Nava Rasa Ensemble on YouTube

Guitarist and former Knox pupil, Simon Thacker, has posted three videos on YouTube featuring his recent East-West project with the Nava Rasa Ensemble. This film features: Simon explaining the origin of and ideas behind the project; rehearsal footage; interviews with members of the ensemble. Look out for waterphone at 0:16; the fantastic Brazilian/Scots accent of Maria Lima Caribé da Rocha at 0:47

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This film features extracts from Shirish Korde‘s piece Nada Ananda, concerto for guitar and chamber ensemble:

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This film features the final movement of Nigel Osborne‘s The Birth of Naciteka for guitar concertante:

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All three films feature explanatory notes to the right of the screen.

It’s interesting to note that Simon, who left school before the digital revolution, as we currently understand the term, was underway, has effortlessly harnessed technology in the service of communicating his art to as wide an audience as possible.

Joe Bonamassa

My colleague and friend, Mike McGeary, got in touch today to alert me to an opportunity for pupils to attend a workshop with legendary bluesman, Joe Bonamassa.

Date: Saturday 5th Dec

Venue: HMV Picture House, 31 Lothian Road (next to Usher Hall).

Time: doors open 2:45 – kick off at 3:00

Cost: FREE

Here’s a sample of the man in action:

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International Guitar Night

My lifelong friend and professional predecessor at Musselburgh Grammar School, Mike McGeary, dropped by there last week to see me – with an offer for East Lothian guitar pupils. In his capacity as City of Edinburgh Council’s Principal Officer for Instrumental Instruction, Mike is involved with the outreach side of the current International Guitar Night tour. In addition to the gig at our own Brunton Hall, the members of this outfit are putting on a concert/workshop for pupils in Portobello High School on Friday Oct 2 from 2:00 – 4:00. Entry price to pupils is a mere £5.

There is ample video footage on the tour diary site but, to give you a more immediate idea of the three players involved, have a look at the videos below.

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 Itamar Erez[kml_flashembed movie="" width="425" height="350" wmode="transparent" /] 

Brian Gore[kml_flashembed movie="" width="425" height="350" wmode="transparent" /] 

Search for Portobello High School on Google Maps here.

Guitarists talking guitar

Radio 4 is broadcasting a series of five short programmes this week (Mon – Fri, 15:45 – 16:00) about guitar style and technique. Each day, Joan Armatrading discusses playing ideas, tunings etc. with one of five players: Mark Knopfler, Bonnie Raitt, John Williams, Russel Lissack and Bert Jansch.


Madhouse and The Whole Thing There

The magical blend of youth and experience, normally associated with football, is to be experienced in Edinburgh’s Queens Hall this Saturday (18 July) when one of the UK’s leading jazz guitarist/composers, Mike Walker, teams up with the National Youth Jazz Orchestra of Scotland (NYJOS) to perform Walker’s debut album Madhouse and The Whole Thing There (audio samples in this link).

This unusual title comes (I’ll bet my bottom dollar) from the final line of William Empson‘s poem Let It Go. You can hear hear Empson reading two of his other poems – Missing Dates and Aubade here.



This afternoon I was proud to take part in a performance with 9 guitarists and 2 singers from Knox Academy & North Berwick High School. Organised by Health Scotland, the theme was mental well-being and the idea of the performance was to allow delegates to see the benefits conferred upon young people by engagement in positive activity. This resonates with my own view (not mine alone, of course) that involvement in something, which is both meaningful and bigger than oneself, is one of the key ingredients of good mental health. Music and sport provide many and varied opportunities for the natural occurrence of this phenomenon.

Impromptu MC, I was keen to highlight the relevance of the way in which much of the music had been put together to the themes of the day. Many of the pupils had been on exam leave for several weeks and, nevertheless, were game to take on new material for public performance at very short notice. One example of positive attitude was to be seen in two pupils who agreed to join in the accompaniment of two songs only yesterday. Another was in the willingness of the whole group to perform a blues put together in a few minutes with neither notes nor overall plan written out. Four individuals volunteered improvised solos in this blues, and I was keen that the audience enjoy the quality of living in the moment, which always adds an immediacy to performance. I decided to dedicate this blues to Carol Craig of the Centre for Confidence and Well-being who was seated quite near the group. Her talk on well-being at the 2007 Scottish Learning Festival was one of those rare events where someone appears to be articulating inchoate thoughts you’ve had for years.

Our final item, an arrangement of The Average White Band‘s Pick Up The Pieces, seemed apposite. The young people playing have most of their lives before them. Things are bound to go wrong in the remaining decades but the thing is to pick up the pieces and keep on keeping on.

Thanks to everybody involved* for representing East Lothian in general, and these two schools in particular. The audience seemed both engaged and moved and the organisers were very grateful to the pupils for providing exactly the positive effects they had envisioned.

* the day had kicked off with a performance by some hip-hop dancers from Dunbar Grammar School – unfortunately this was long before we arrived for our lunchtime slot.