Case Studies in Music

How do you feel today? Pretty good thanks!case study


1. the act or an instance of analysing one or more particular cases or case histories with a view to making generalisations

One of my favourite ways to learn from music is through the analysis and contextualising of songs.  Rather than taking the approach of learning a song just for the sake of playing it, I find great value in picking songs apart, drilling down, getting to the bare bones of what makes them what they are.  There’s so much joy to be had in playing music – but what if we could figure out what makes it work, what makes it, well, good.  From classical composers, who would copy out entire symphonies by their predecessors just to learn from them, to modern songwriters like Lennon and McCartney, who absorbed and reconstituted decades of diverse musical styles, musicians have always listened to, learned from, and to an extent, copied others.

I’ve been working with my pupil James on developing his all-round musicianship and musical knowledge, to try and help him progress to new levels as a musician. He’s already a very good player, with a well established technique – one of those players that you know would, if they have a mind to, really connect with the notes they’re playing and make a great sound on the guitar (isn’t that what it’s all about, technique?)  He’s keen to understand the theory behind the songs and techniques, so that he can compose his own songs more confidently.

The case study I looked at with James this week is a great example.  Gabrielle Aplin’s How Do You Feel Today is steeped in the influences which formed her – folk greats like Joni Mitchell, John Martyn and Nick Drake.  While she’s channelling these through the flowing, driving, fingerpicking of her Open G-tuned song, because she is singing, she’s made it her own.  You can’t deny the beauty of her singing and playing in this song:


So, I set about pulling it apart, learning it, transcribing it (you can download my TAB of the Intro,Verse, Chorus here) and trying to tease out the key learning points to share in a lesson.  It combines most of my favourite things about playing the guitar – Travis Picking techniques, open tunings, using parallel chords up the neck to create melodic lines, and letting fretted and open notes over-ring, creating all manner of odd chords.  Playing in an open tuning is like taking a step back a couple of decades for me, unlearning all the shapes, pentatonics, scale boxes and patterns you quickly become reliant on as a guitarist.  You’re encouraged – forced – to have an ‘open’ (ta dum) mind towards the fingerboard.  “I’ll put my fingers there, it sounds nice, I’ll do that again.”  As James pointed out, as you’ve always got the chords notes of the open tuning to fall back on, you can’t really go wrong!

If you’d like to learn a song, but REALLY learn it, get in touch and make a suggestion.  As well as having a clear idea of good routes to progression, I’m also very happy to work with my pupils to choose alternative routes.  I don’t think there’s a single song or piece of music that wouldn’t have something valuable to learn.

Download the Tab for the song here: How Do You Feel Today – Gabrielle Aplin.
Technical notes about the song in tab form here: How Do You Feel Today – Tech Notes
An overview analysis of the song here: How Do you Feel today – GA – Overview

Reading: Segovia, an autobiography of the years 1893-1920

“To play guitar

You need no science,

only a strong arm

and perseverance”


Is it possible to be a concert virtuoso and still a nice, balanced, personality?  Can you reach the level of sublime perfection and total artistic commitment required if you’re just ‘quite a nice person’ or, a ‘pleasant enough type’.

2014-05-08 10.57.46Reading Segovia’s autobiography for the second time a decade on, I find myself thinking that, at least in his case, all the traits which would make him ‘a nice chap to go the pub with’ are replaced with those that made him a quietly trailblazing force in early 20th Century music.

It’s an interesting read for classical guitarists, students of the guitar, and music fans  – if only because it sheds a light on a singular and determined personality who helped make the classical guitar the serious concert instrument it is today.  Segovia presents himself as a bit of a romantic hero – a brave and gallant artist, fighting the good fight to elevate the guitar from it’s humble standing in the world as a folk and parlour instrument.

However, considering his obvious love, passion and aptitude for the guitar, he goes into scant detail on the art and craft of music and guitar, opting to tell more of his personal and social story as he struggles to gain traction in an unwelcoming classical guitar world.

I suppose it’s understandable that a man who came up against so much opposition in his early career should bear a bit of a grudge.  However, several times while reading the book, I found myself disliking Segovia, finding him often to be opinionated, self-aggrandising, snobbish, arrogant and superficial. He spends almost as much time berating the appearance of various characters who displease him, as he does describing his early journey with the guitar.  He also finds it difficult to praise other guitarists, some his friends.  Here’s a quote from the book in which he gives his verdict on Miguel Llobet – a pupil of the great Fransisco Tarrega:

Segovia damning Llobet with faint praise!
Segovia damning Llobet with faint praise!


With friends like Segovia…who needs enemies!

Here is the thing, I suppose:  great artists refuse to compromise, regardless of the consequences.  Segovia would argue, I’m sure, that to make allowances for imperfection would be a disservice to the development of the guitar.  What would those violinists and pianists think if that were considered the best of the guitar?

This is a stigma which, in my opinion, has stayed with the guitar world to this day.  We over-compensate, out of insecurity perhaps, by being excessively perfectionist and self-critical.  Guitarists hate playing to other guitarists, because we know that we have learnt that perfection is the only goal.  Every slip of the finger, every missed note and every over-ringing bass note will be picked up on.  This, I think, is more damaging than it is helpful.

The book has left me wanted more – it leaves Segovia as he sails for Argentina on his first tour overseas – as I’m sure there would be so much to learn from his subsequent career.  We miss out on his work with contemporary composers to create a modern guitar repertoire, and I would have loved to hear what he made of his various pupils (among them John Williams, who has given his thoughts on Segovia in his recent memoirs).

Listening to his recordings via Spotify as I type, I can hear his fiery Andalusian spirit season every note with a passion and intensity.  It’s as if he’s fighting the establishment with every powerful stroke of those chunky fingers!

[spotify id=”spotify:album:5MgZtPaQLAFglAiEnHOiOd” width=”300″ height=”380″ /]

Perhaps I’ll read the book in another decade, and see what my forty-something self thinks of it then.  In the meantime, I’m off to play!