UST’s First Internation Guitar Festival

Complimentary Ticket to the Finale Concert

I had a generally exhilarating experience attending three days of the five-day First International Guitar Festival sponsored by the University of Sto. Tomas Conservatory of Music Guitar Department from August 23 to 27, 2010 held at the Recital Hall 2, Albertus Magnus Building.

First Day

On my first day on Tuesday, I was late for Ruey Yen’s lecture at 11 in the morning. Mr. Ruey Yen, a Taiwanese who has degrees in Physics and a Doctor of Musical Arts from the National Cheng Kung University (Taiwan) and Arizon State University respectively, talked about “World Music and the Guitar.” Because I was late, I did not hear his talk about world music. Instead, I only heard him talk about the evolution of guitar from Africa, which was the last part of his lecture.

In the afternoon, I attended the Master Class of Meng Feng Su, also a Taiwanese who earned his degree in music at the L’Ecole Normale de Musique de Paris.

Mr. Su looked very young by Filipino standards. He also looks fragile because of his white complexion and height. He is soft spoken too, and I like his diction and accent.

With Taiwanese classical guitarist Meng Feng Su

There were about 10-15 of us in the class and I was the only non-student. Mr. Su reminded the first performer to choose notes or parts of the piece to emphasize. He must be a little bit slow here, faster there, louder here, and softer there, and so on and so forth. Same with the rest of the performers.

I was so disappointed I did not have a copy of the pieces performed during the master classes. I thought if I could have a copy, I would have improved my note-reading skills tremendously with the performer and his discussion with the teacher as guide. I asked a lady performer, a UST student, whose piece I liked and I believe I could play on my guitar for a photocopy of her piece and she promised to give me the copy later. It turned out she was so busy with her responsibilities as part of the organizing committee to have her piece photocopied for me.

Second Day

On Wednesday, I was again late for the lecture of Angelito Agcaoili on “Philippine guitar music”. When I entered the lecture room, Mr. Agcaoili was persuading students to pursue research on Philippine Music. After he answered a question, he gave the floor to the Spanish composer Agustin Castilla-Avila.

Mr. Castilla-Avila talked about “Microtonal Music for the Guitar”. I know music majors will hate me for this, but for me microtonal music is an arrangement of out of tune-notes.

Spanish composer Agustin Castilla-Avila in one of his demonstrations

At the start of Mr. Castilla-Avila’s lecture, he showed pictures of guitars with frets strangely arranged. I remembered when I was in college in Iloilo, a classmate brought us to his neighbor who was a guitar maker. That man glued bamboo strips together which he later carved and transformed into fret boards and other parts of the guitar. That man showed us his special guitar. And the picture Mr. Castilla-Avila projected on the white board reminded me of that strange guitar I saw for the first time in Iloilo City.

Later, I was surprised to learn that the person in dark and striped polo shirt was Meng Feng Su, my Master Class teacher on Tuesday. I greeted him and I was again surprised when he said my name. “JP, right?” he said. I asked him if I could have a picture taken with him later, to which he said “of course.”

Mr. Castilla-Avila aired portions of his composition. He likewise demonstrated techniques to manipulate the guitar to make it sound out of tune, er, to produce microtones.

After Mr. Castilla-Avila’s lecture, I approached a student organizer of the festival and suggested they give me, at least, a copy of the piece to be performed during the master class that afternoon. The guy was not only respectful. He asked me whose class I was attending and he assured me he’ll arrange that I will have a copy I wanted. But I did not receive any copy.

That Wednesday afternoon Master Class with Mr. Castilla-Avila was a refreshing and insightful experience. I was the first student with him in the classroom. I sat in the front and center of the row. Mr. Castilla-Avila was pouring cream and sugar on his small and disposable white cup of coffee he must have bought from a McDo nearby. Later, when he dropped things during the lecture, he jokingly blamed it on the quality of his coffee. “I need more coffee,” he kept on saying.

After the first performance, he asked the lady what she knew about (Matteo) Carcassi, the author of her piece. And the lady said Carcassi is Spanish. To which Mr. Castilla-Avila said she must have been told that by a Spaniard because in fact, (Matteo) Carcassi was from Italy. We all laughed at his wit.

Mr. Castilla-Avila had the next performer identify the melody from chords and from the base. He apologized for not bringing his guitar. “It’s a pity,” he said and asked for two more guitars. He asked the performer to play the melody, while he himself played the chords, and the other guitar player the base. He asked me to be their conductor. “Just count one, two, and three, and one, two and three…” he said while waiving his hand up and down. The conduct of the exercise was delayed many times because Mr. Castilla-Avila was not playing his part. Instead, he was conducting. He apologized several times over and over again saying that he forgot he could not play the guitar and at the same time conduct.

He talked about the need for musicians to be thinking musicians. With that, he meant that musicians should try to know as much as they can about the composer and his social milieu to try to understand how and why the composition was written. Then, musicians should also analyze the pieces in terms of structure. To do the latter, he suggested an exercise which consists in observing the best choir in the world in its rehearsals. Not only that, musicians should also learn to write by memory especially the notes that they play by memory, a demanding task and one I think I’ll never be able to do for now.

He also taught us the “walking finger exercises” for the fingers of the right hand. He described it this way: “As your index finger plucks the string, prepare your middle finger”. With “prepare”, he meant that the middle finger should have touched the string ready for plucking the moment the index finger plucks its assigned string. The string should be at the tip of the finger nearest to the nail to achieve the cleanest sound possible. He likened the movements of the fingers to the movements of the legs when walking. Mr. Castilla-Avila said nobody taught us how to walk but we did learn how to walk, and the way we bend and stretch our knees when walking is the most comfortable and efficient way to get us to places. Thus, we should also model our fingers when plucking from the way we use our feet for walking.

Because those actions are instinctive, Mr. Castilla-Avila said we can perform the finger exercises even while we are talking on the phone, watching tv, or doing “anything we like”.

Further, he said our fingers have the same division (by joints) as the arms: wrist, elbow, and shoulder. And the fingers also have three divisions. He said that when we play tennis, we move the whole arm up to the shoulder joint to achieve maximum force. We should also do the same with the fingers when plucking the strings.

As to the left fingers that press the strings, the fingers should press the strings as close as possible to the fret. He demonstrated that if he pressed a string in the middle of two frets, the sound is not loud and clear. But if he pressed the same string nearest to the fret with the same amount of force, the sound is louder and clearer. Economy of movements, Mr. Castilla-Avila said. Then he tried to connect the word economy with green technology to make us laugh.

Spanish composer Agustin Castilla-Avila demonstrating the finger exercises.

Also, he explained the reason why he loves to play the guitar with the minimum effort as much as possible. It is because, according to him, he is Spanish, and therefore he is lazy.

Mr. Castilla-Avila said the guitar is a difficult instrument. Developing a playing habit that he described will make the guitar players’ life easier in the future. The more difficult pieces he can perform, the more he will enjoy playing his guitar. The secret is in the practicing habits. Ninety plus percent of a performer’s life is practice and the remaining percent is public performance. Whatever bad habit we formed during practice we will bring in our performances. He said this to correct the bad habit of a performer who stopped at the notes he can’t play well and repeat the same notes until he was able to play them right.

We should do the left finger exercise one finger at a time from our index finger to the small finger, from the largest to the smallest string, and from the fret nearest to the sound hole until the last fret at the head of the guitar. If we want to stretch our fingers further apart, we only have to skip a fret between each finger and repeat the process described.

Then, Mr. Castilla-Avila introduced another finger exercise for the index finger of the left hand. The exercise consists of the index finger pressing all the strings in a fret at the same time. But the index finger has to press the strings in a way that not all strings sound but only those you decide to produce the sound. This exercise is meant for the fingers to have the feel of and to develop total control of the strings.

Mr. Castilla-Avila said he can teach us thousands of finger exercises. He said that as we become thinking musicians, we can create our own exercises depending on our need. He said that the best teacher to make us great musicians is our own self.

The title of the piece of one performer had something about the paddle used in gondola boats in Italy. Mr. Castilla-Avila joked that Italians charge millions of pesos simply for rowing that gondola boat. He also said that the Philippines is lucky that Italian did not come here– he did not finish his sentence but we understood what he meant. And we laughed.

Mr. Castilla-Avila referred to the finger exercises as finger yoga. In another time, he referred to it as “going to the gym”. This man is so passionate, and generous about what he knows he tried to share everything he learned in decades within the span of three hours. The Master Class with Mr. Castilla-Avila was scheduled to end at 4, but we finished at around 5. And it was a forced parting. The class was conducted on the stage of Recital Hall 2. But even after the class was finished and we were all down the stage except him who was standing on the edge, we kept asking him questions and he never got tired of answering them. One of the questions was, if it was true that we can’t wet our hands after hours of guitar practice because, according to Filipino beliefs, it causes our hands to shake (the shaking is called “pasma” in Filipino). To our disbelief, Mr. Castilla-Avila said that we can wet our hands. What he advised against was practicing guitar after we have wet our hands, say right after we went swimming, because the water softens the nails that will break upon contact with the strings. To strengthen the nails, he advised us to eat lots of onions and to stab the nails against orange peel. He said he had given up swimming to play his guitar although he noted that it is never right to sacrifice something you love for something you equally love to do.

Spanish composer Agustin Castilla-Avila conducting his "Microtonal Music for the Guitar" lecture.

Third Day

When I left the house on Thursday, I had a letter addressed to Ruben F. Reyes, the Festival Director complaining that I have not received the copy of the pieces I was requesting. I said I had been requesting for copies of the pieces performed during the Master Classes and this request I brought to the attention of the student organizers. I was disappointed however, I said, that no action had been taken to respond to the request. The handouts, I said, were necessary for me, at least, to follow the lectures of the instructor during the Master Classes and I hoped that on that Thursday afternoon, I would get the materials I needed.

When I arrived at the venue, Mr. Reyes was not yet around. So, I had that letter received by Angelila, one of the student organizers, before I entered the class with Mr. Castilla-Avila on “Composing for the guitar”. A row behind me, few chairs away to my right was X, a balding man, probably in his 50’s. He said he was attending the Festival hoping to learn something more to help him in his gigs, or to perform in gigs. I did not hear him clearly.

While waiting for Mr. Castilla-Avila, Kabaitan Bautista approached me and introduced himself. Mr. Bautista is a composer and the student counsel president of the Conservatory of Music. He said he read my complaint and apologized that I could not get my request for copyright law restrictions. But then I said that the pieces that were played were hundred of years old. I forgot to add that copyright law allows reproduction of copyrighted materials for classroom purposes.

I expected Master Classes to be a writers’ workshop type proceeding. In writers’ workshops, all the participants get copies of all the works to be critiqued. Even if you are a fellow for poetry in Hiligaynon, for example, you still get a copy each of the short stories, plays, et cetera. That was my experience when I attended the 37th University of the Philippines Writers’ Workshop in 2000 where I was a fellow for poetry in Hiligaynon, and the 14th Iligan National Writers’ Workshop in 2007 where I was a fellow for Poetry in English.

Mr. Bautista however explained that Master Classes are different from writers’ workshops. In Master Classes, the audience is not given copies of the pieces performed. Even then, I still could not understand why they could not grant my request. Instead, Mr. Bautista gave me an internet site where I may get the classical pieces I want. He excused himself and went out of the classroom. When he returned, he had with him a complimentary ticket for Friday’s concert. He asked me to take the ticket because I would love the show. Our polite conversation was interrupted because Mr. Castilla-Avila arrived. He noticed however that there were only a number of us inside the hall. While we waited for composers to arrive to listen to him and present their compositions, Mr. Castilla-Avila said he was ready to answer any questions.

I asked if he could tell us more about the finger exercises he said he had thousands of. Mr. Castilla-Avila repeated the walking finger exercises, the fingers near the fret board, and many others. Then he was ready to start his talk.

He encouraged the participants to experiment with the guitar and he demonstrated the range of sound the guitar can produce.

Among the things he said during his lecture on composing for guitar were:

  • Your composition will please half of the people, and will displease half of them. So, be easy not just on criticism but also on praises.
  • Be original. You may imitate the works of the masters just as you may imitate the accent of other nationalities. But imitation must only be for fun.
  • If you reach a point in your music life where you feel you are no longer growing, worry not. The mere fact that you bother about your state is the sign of growth. We grow little by little. It cannot be that we eat 80 kilos of food today then tomorrow we suddenly become big men and women.

First picture with Taiwanese classical guitarist Meng Feng Su

  • In general, you must have a feel of the instrument you are composing music for, to know what can and cannot be done. There are beautiful pieces played on piano but do not work in the guitar. Collaborate with a guitarist if you are not good with the guitar, for example.
  • You are your best teacher.
  • We are the guys who tell the greedy people that life is not just about money.

At around 11:30, Mr. Castilla-Avila asked the composers to present their work. The notation of “Insomnia,” a composition of one of the students, was projected on the white board.

Upon seeing that the students were using the latest technology, Mr. Castilla-Avila said: “Beautiful!”

When the play button was pressed, a green line appeared on the tablature and ran from left to the right indicating the notes that were being heard on the speaker. Upon seeing this, I leaned towards the desk in front of me where Mr. Bautista was sitting and said that it is the same experience that I would like to have during Master Classes, the reason I was asking for copies of the pieces.

After lunch, I was again the first student for the Master Class of Mr. Yen, and the only non-student in the room. I sat at the center of the first row. Towards the end of the class, a man in violet collared shirt, probably in his 40’s or 50’s arrived, and asked questions to Mr. Yen if he played the pieces of this and that composer. For his finale, Mr. Yen performed a piece, probably that of the composer my classmate was asking him about. But I was not very satisfied with the sound. They seemed dull to my ears. I longed for that clear and crisp sound I heard from Mr. Su’s guitar when he “practiced” a piece he was “working on” after his Tuesday afternoon class. Mr. Yen’s fingers were fast but I noticed the index finger of his left hand covered the whole fret every time he used it to press all the strings on the same fret at the same time. This is one of the bad habits Mr. Castilla-Avila warned us to avoid when practicing.

There was only one performer for that afternoon and he arrived late together with the rest of the audience. After the performance, Mr. Yen corrected the performer’s use of his left fingers. Mr. Yen however almost spoke in monotone he seemed to lack emphasis when he delivered his message. Add to that the fact that on that same morning, I woke up very early to attend to some personal errands. I slept during the second quarter of the class. When I woke up, Mr. Yen was asking the class: If you know how to ride a bike, will you still be able to ride the same after 8 years? The answer was yes. But Mr. Yen said that without guitar practice, one may no longer be able to know how to play the guitar in a matter of few months.

This statement of his contradicts Mr. Castilla-Avila who said that with good practicing habits, you will still be able to learn to play the guitar even after years without practice. He cited himself as an example. He said he had not been playing the guitar for years but he was still able to perform during his concert the night before.

The Meeting with the Festival Director

After a while, Angelila was at my back whispering to me. The festival director wanted to talk to me, she said. I followed Angelila out the door of the classroom and she led me to the director’s office at the opposite end of the building near the men’s rest room.

Spanish composer Agustin Castilla-Avila listening to a student's performance during his Master Class.

The door had the director’s name printed on a white sheet of paper attached on the door. When it opened, I saw a student talking to someone I still could not see. When I went inside, I saw a big, tall man dressed in a long sleeved, orange polo shirt, unbuttoned at the neck.  His head had a mixture of black, grey, and white curly hair that reached his shoulders. The man who earned his Master’s Degree in Music, summa cum laude, from the Pontifical University was sitting on a chair in front of a long table right next to the wall. He instructed the student to get back after our conversation, and he pulled a chair for me. We shook hands, and I sat on the chair in front of him ready to hear him. The student left and there were only the two of us in the air conditioned room that seemed too cold for me. When I complained about it later, Prof. Reyes said it was the room’s normal temperature.

He said he wanted to talk to me because of my letter. He repeated what Mr. Bautista told me: No pieces are distributed to the audience during the Master Classes. He said the pieces that performers bring during the master classes are theirs. And besides, he asked me, how much did I pay?

I told him I paid P500 a day. And he was surprised to hear what I said because he said he gave instructions to his students to have me attend the lectures for free for the whole week. This was in response to my complaint on the first day. I called the UST College of Music after reading the news about the festival from the Philippine Daily Inquirer. I was informed through telephone that the morning lectures were for free, but P250 would be charged for each Master Class plus an additional P100 if I performed. On Tuesday morning, however, I learned not only that the morning lectures were not for free, but also, that I could not attend both the lectures and the Master Classes if I did not pay P500.

Because of the miscommunication or wrong information, I was made to choose between attending free lectures and a master class for one day, or attending a concert for free. I chose the second and I paid P500 for three days every morning as registration fee. I used my privilege to watch for free the concert of Manuel Cabrera II and Meng Feng Su on Thursday night in PhilamLife Auditorium in U.N. Avenue.

I explained to Prof. Reyes that I have no music background and I am learning classical guitar on my own, and that it could help me if I be provided with a photocopy of the pieces. I also told him what I told Mr. Bautista of my expectations: that I be provided with copies of the pieces as the practice in writers’ workshops.

Prof. Reyes reiterated that Master Classes are not run like writing workshops. What I should do, he said, is to hire my own classical guitar tutor.

I told him I can learn on my own and the reason why I was paying my daily registration fee for this guitar festival was because I wanted to learn, and I expected to learn. If only I could be given the pieces, I said, I would improve my note reading and guitar playing skills.

Prof. Reyes said he was sorry to say that it does not work the way I want it to. Besides, he said, what I was hearing in the classrooms was too advanced for me. To prove his point, he asked me this question: If you see a series of notes going up, what do you do? I said I do not know. That’s the point, he said. Later he would repeat the same question, to which I said, when I have the guitar, I would play the notes. He said that the series of notes going up means I have to do a crescendo. I told him, it’s unfair to use music jargon when speaking with me especially after I told him I have no music background. And besides, I said, the reason I was asking for the copy of the pieces was because I wanted to learn the jargon among others, and I would learn all those things through the music pieces by using the performance and the comment of the Master Class teacher as guide.

Wilson J. Codera from Centro Escular University listens to Spanish composer Agustin Castilla-Avila's comments. Mr. Codera performed the Hungarian Fantasy by Johann Kaspar Mertz.

The professor said I would not understand the piece until I played it myself before the teacher in the Master Class. Say for example Hemingway, he said. Then he retracted. Then I asked him to cite Filipino authors as example instead. He asked me if I was familiar with the old short stories written by Filipino authors like (I forgot the name) and Nick Joaquin. I said yes. He said, it’s like transitioning from ___ or Joaquin to (Jorge Luis) Borges. I told him I do not know Borges although I see his work (my wife has his selected poems edited by Alexander Coleman published by Penguin Books in 2000 in the bookshelf near our bed). He said it was precisely his point.

I told him that I was very excited and happy that UST organized this festival. I was very excited to meet and learn from the masters of classical guitar.  He reiterated his suggestion for me to get my own tutor. Because, according to him, until then, I will never understand, since what I heard in the lectures and the classes were too advanced for me.

I told him I take it as an affront for me to be told that I will not be able to understand. But he said, it was the way it is with all due respect to my feelings.

So, I said, if what he was saying was true, I should not have attended the festival at all (or I silently thought, the department should not have publicized the festival for interested parties to go out of their way to participate).

I thanked him for his time and I apologized for the wrong expectations I had of the Festival. But when I left his room, I could not help but wonder why they could not help me have a more enriching learning experience from the Master Classes. My Master Classes classmates were all students. And the only time I had a classmate who was a non-student was during Thursday’s Master Class with Mr. Yen. The copy of the pieces was not too much to ask.  Didn’t they have the list of the persons who were performing for the Master Classes and the pieces they were going to perform? They could have simply photocopied the piece and given me a copy.

Also, Prof. Reyes’ use of Filipino writers and a foreign writer as metaphor for my supposed inadequacy to understand the classes that were too advanced for me was off the mark. First, there is no point of comparison with Filipino and foreign writers. Both come from different backgrounds and have different experiences. Both have different styles. Further, he runs the risk of getting the ire of Filipino writers and literature teachers for implying that Nick Joaquin is of a less caliber than Jorge Luis Borges, and that there is no parallel inspiration between writers’ workshops and Master Classes. Both are aimed to teach.

I was so engrossed with these thoughts the whole afternoon. When I went back to Mr. Yen’s Master Class that ended an hour earlier than scheduled, I forgot to have a picture taken with him. I was in high spirits savoring the lectures of Mr. Castilla-Avila that morning, and I did not expect and I wasn’t prepared for the seemingly contradictory message from the festival director himself.

Taiwanese classical guitarist Meng Feng Su in Concert at Philamlife Auditorium on August 26, 2010.

On lunch break that day, I had another chat with the student council president, this time in the hallway of the 5th floor outside the classrooms. It was from him I first heard the suggestion that I hire my personal classical guitar tutor and he volunteered his friends. He also said he was so delighted and almost could not believe the fact that I, neither a music teacher nor a music student, was there while the music teachers and most of the music students from other prestigious universities they invited were not around.

While still inside the room with Mr. Castilla-Avila, Mr. Bautista gave me a complimentary ticket for the finale concert on Friday night. But I decided not to attend Friday’s lecture and Master Class that featured all the teachers, both foreign and local in one classroom, and the concert that featured the UST Guitar Quartet/Ensemble and the Festival Guitar Orchestra.

I should have refused the ticket but it was too late. It was already Friday when I realized I wanted to stay home. You are your best teacher, the Spanish composer’s words kept ringing in my ears.