Trust and Honesty. An interesting concept. It shouldn’t be, but the sad fact remains, it is an oddity in this day and age. From back in the day, vendors have been spouting their special brand of I invented a new wheel or the better mousetrap, but the sad fact remains that the mouse likes cheese (or is it peanut butter) and his neck still snaps with alarming efficiency from the springy thing on the other side of the piney looking same old same piece of wood and don’t forget, it’s still mighty inexpensive for that boring old mousetrap. I can prove it Just go to your old hardware store and look for one.
Why do I bring this up? An interesting? question or just the need to vent the pressures of a self-righteous bladder? You decide, though I’m firmly rooted on the latter. It starts with a rant on marketing and marketing professionals, but finishes nicely, like the Nascar driver who just won Daytona 500 spinning in the winner’s circle, with the showing of some of the seamier sides of the business of classical guitar. Enjoy.
Let’s see. Oh yes, I remember (as I pull myself back into my lane without the need of a lane checker in the latest automobiles), I do a lot of SEO work here, especially late at night or early in the AM, while waiting for the java to lick at my synapses and wake my sorry ass awake. In doing so, I check on the people out there selling their wares, what’s selling, why, how they’re doing it, and so on. It turns out, I’m really good at what I do, if I don’t say so to my “don’t mind if I do slap myself on the back” self. btw, SEO is an acronym for Search Engine Optimization. A process by which you are found on the world wide web by the use of select keywords. There remain many metrics that go into this optimization, and many that were in practice back in the day. As it were, from 2002 to about 2012, I had an old fashioned, MS FrontPage web site, that worked really well for me, and in that 10 year span, I built the SEO work up to a very high level. Lots of traffic, high rankings for specific and useful keywords, and so on.
Then, I had to go and change everything, the website, the IP address, the whole shebangawanga. Ranking plummeted, my blood pressure skyrocketed, and me and my site went to the crapper without the satisfaction of any excremental release. Disgusting, I know. So, and here comes one of the many points on the top of my pointy head, I had to reconcile needing professional help. Not the psychiatric kind, though not as useless as you might imagine, but the SEO professional kind. Gods, they promise the moon, but what they really gave me was a supernova of trouble. Let me explain further.
See, my business, the business of acquiring and filtering through many classical guitars of all prices and timbre, is a highly specialized one, fraught with the danger that, if you do not know what you are talking about, it will eventually rear its ugly veneer job and bite you most unevenly in the ass. Well, part of these SEO prickjobs job is to write copy for backlinks that will never be seen? So how did I see it, you ask through the almost probable covering of your mouth through the inevitable yawn? I searched and found it rather easily. This pretty little lady, somewhere in the back deserts of Arizona, sitting in her little cubicle working for the “premier” internest (not a misspelling) and marketing firm, wrote copy that went along the lines of, “If you’re looking for the best flamenco guitar store in the world, let your search end with Savage Classical Guitar store, where you can find a capo, classical guitar strings, and repair your classical guitar with one of our knowledgeable people who really understand your guitar”, etc and so on and please god kill me right now on this gotdam spot.
Truth be told, the copy was way worse than the above. See, if I tried, I couldn’t be as bad as that poor sappy little lady who gets paid to write drivel for a living. Not to say I’m great, but hey, give me a little casino credit here, it’s all frickin’ relative. Worse yet, they wormed their way into my backend (wow, that was Freudian…do people even say that anymore), OK, the backend of my web server, my html coding, what have you, and started writing meta tags and scripts that did even worse things to my rankings on the web. I’ll spare you the techno dribble, but suffice to say, they sent me from page 1 and 2, to page 37, which is the same thing as sailing West before Columbus’ day, where without a doubt, you fell off the gotdam planet.
So, since early December 2013, where I realized the problem I was having, I’ve been working on it myself, as much as I can spare the time. Slow improvement, but let’s face it, and it’s the old adage, if you want something done right, do it yourself. The thing is, not everyone can do this. I get that. My advice is to not trust the marketers. They are expensive, self-serving, and they hurt your business in the end. If I had to do it all over again, I would have saddled myself with a poor ranking, and brought it upwards with time and patience. Not the most glamorous thing, but I wouldn’t have 4,000 wayward backlinks to my site that actually hurt my ranking, instead of helping. I didn’t do this, the marketers did, in a story starring the get rich quick kid, instead of the slow and patient investor. Truth and Honesty. They didn’t tell me the truth, and honestly, they screwed me like a screwdriver without the vodka. Talking of drinks with no punch and segues….
Alas, I buy and sell guitars. Really nice ones. I know. I picked them out of a line-up. So in my search for why my rankings were so low, and my SEO work so ineffective I see lots of ads for guitars. One like this….”Amazing quality hand-made guitars Very low prices starting at $750.00.”
Wowie, I gots to check this out. Turns out they are laminated (which is OK), but not fully disclosed. They are made in China, but not disclosed. I’ve seen and played these guitars. My personal opinion aside about how bad they are, they’ve got a lot of nerve. But it gets better, as read below….
An infuriating practice. Build a crap guitar built in China. Put a $1200 price tag on it, don’t fully disclose it has laminated back and sides, but by all means, say it’s as good as a guitar that costs $7K or $8K. !!!!!!!!! Say what?
Really? You’re honestly going to compare your $1200 laminate to a Kenny Hill Signature, a Bob Desmond, a Frederich Holtier, a Robert Vincent, a Richard Bruné, a Richard Prenkert, etc. ad nauseum ad infinitum? Seriously? I’m going to write about this in a separate article some day. Oh yeah, and I’m naming names. If you’re curious, I’m not interested in making friends. I’m far more concerned and interested in people being ethical, honest and doing business fair and square.
I see this all the time. I get Chinese manufacturers calling and writing to me all the time. Sure, I’m the big fish they want to score. In a million years, no way. When I do come out with my own brand of guitar, it will be built by people that actually know what they are doing.
The one guy I do business with who builds in China, actually goes there, to his partner facility, one week a month, every month, to oversee all processes, the woods used, construction, practices, quality assurance, and so on. He then has them delivered to his home facility in California, where they are further inspected and then distributed directly by him to his dealers. I am one of them. They are the only Chinese made product I will have here in my shop. Why? Because they are personally managed by Kenny. He vets everything and anything to do with the process of building those guitars that he puts his name on. He builds his Performance Series and Signature Series in Ben Lomond, California, if you’re curious. Again, the New World Series, built by Kenny Hill, including his Estudio Series and Player Series, are built in China. Wow, how clear is that?
He prices his laminate model Estudios w/HSC at $895 and his solid body Players at $1695 w/HSC. You’ll notice that in my listings for Kenny’s Estudio, it actually says, in clear black and white, that the Back and Sides are laminated. I believe I’m the only dealer to say this clearly in his listings for any and all guitars with laminated back and sides.
Why? Simple. No BS, no nonsense. Solid woods cost a lot of money. I’m talking quality solid woods. Have you seen a Player from Kenny Hill. They are gorgeous. The Spruces shimmer, the East Indian is straight with a ruddy color, browns and reds, the Cedars have medullar rays, etc.
I could use those woods on a guitar costing twice as much and wouldn’t blink. You’re not finding that in a $1200 guitar brand new and I apologize ahead of time, because I don’t need to do so. It’s not going to sound like an $8K classical guitar. It’s not going to play like it, resonate like it, be musical or lyrical like it. It’s not going to have world class woods on it, or even decent tuning machines.
Gods, this is surprising? It shouldn’t be. Why would a world class luthier bother putting in, I don’t know, 200 or 300 hours into a world class instrument with woods that cost more than your $1200 guitar and tuners combined, when godsmack me in my bloated and disturbed little head, they could just build a Chinese class guitar for $500, ship it, and put a nice HSC on it, and sell it to you thru themselves or a dealer for $1200? Hot diggety doggy style, why didn’t I think of that?
Get real. If you want a student level guitar, get one. Don’t expect it to be $8K worth of sound and volume. It won’t be. My title should also include the word “reality”.
The truth is that these men and women, true luthiers, masters of the craft, are horrified by any one moron who would be so simple, so blithe, so ridiculously glib to say that their $1200 guitar built in China is better than or “as good” as that of a master’s luthier made instrument of 200+ hours. To the point where they can and should laugh their asses off at such silliness of banter.
So, let’s be honest here. Let’s be truthful. Let’s be forthright, with zero games, zero nonsense. People say stupid things all the time, heck, they’ll sell ice to an eskimo, tell them they should pay for it because the water came straight from the mountain springs deep in the Alps (reads came from a water filter made by Brita in my kitchen sink), but it don’t make it true, and it certainly doesn’t make it right. You want the straight talk, call me. You want the nonsense, call our friend in Paraguay who will be happy to sell you a $5K piece of crap with no return policy or people who misrepresent $1K classical guitars as something that sounds “exactly” like a luthier built $8K guitar? (this just blows my mind).
You can also deal with the guys who think that just because they have a collection of guitars, that this makes them an expert dealer, when clearly they are incapable of handling your classical guitar, setting it up, re-polishing it, shellac work, lacquer work, buffing, repair work, etc. They truly have zero idea of how to pack and ship a guitar. These same people have no interest in truly representing a guitar accurately or honestly, with no expertise behind their commentary, regardless of any flowery talk they throw on a site or at you. They don’t understand the guitars to begin with, but “can speak with expertise”? Expertise from where? Fantasy Land? You can’t even get shipping a guitar correctly.
Basically, I am increasingly upset with what I’m hearing from luthiers and private clientele, how they are treated by the corporate mentality, to the private dealer who has no business being in “this” business. Crooks, incompetents, thieves (variation of crooks LOL), inherently deceitful. From Georgia, to the MidWest to California. They don’t know how to setup a guitar, polish one, inspect one (I mean inspect it internally and externally), not having the ability to truly assess the condition or viability of an instrument. But, they will happily up the price of a guitar given exclusives, meaning you can only go to them for the guitar, and happily wop you for an additional 30-50% more for the guitar, because, hey, they have an exclusive? WTF is that? More and more, in this business, it is becoming clear, from incompetence, to overpricing, to general bullshit, and I have to say it out loud, I’m freaking tired of it. But…
Seriously, they make my job that much easier. I’m good with that, people, keep it up. As a result, my business increases, the luthiers who wish to work with me keep arriving (defectors from other dealers), and my consignment business has never been better. So, thank you! Thank you very much, you make my life better. But then, there’s the following aspect of the business:
Even better, a lot of people are selling guitars they don’t build themselves, guys in Spain, famous luthiers that you wouldn’t believe, with their dealers in the West or Mid-West, and then whoa, there’s some real special guys, serious assholes right here in good ole America. Christe, some don’t even know what makes a great guitar, or heck, even a decent guitar. But they’ll tell you they do and sell it to you for $1200, happily taking your money to the bank. Assholes taking advantage of people who don’t know better, the American way, gone global.
You want the straight scoop. You want true expertise with a willingness to say, “hey, I don’t know the answer, but I’ll find out for you”. You want to talk with someone who totally gets you and what you’re looking for, able to listen and understand you perfectly. You want someone who knows the luthier language and can speak to them for hours about their methodology, tricks of the trade and what actually makes a guitar a guitar? Cool, then call me…talk to me. I have zero problem outting people that do bad things, in this business or any other. I’ll talk straight, about anything, because I don’t know anything else.
There, guitar world, from America to Paraguay, to England to New Zealand, I had the balls to say it out loud. A $1200 guitar from California made in China or a $3000 guitar made in Paraguay (I don’t care what wood they used or how pretty it might be) is never going to sound as good, be built as well, with meticulous attention to detail, as a fine classical guitar made by a world class luthier – a true master who truly knows their shit and costs a helluva lot more than that. Truth and Honesty with a splash of reality.
Signed – RF Sayage – and imagine what the F stands for – written at the end of the 1st month of 2014 on a Friday morning when I definitely had better things to do. OK, not better, but more important?
– updated with vim and vigor on March 2, 2017 because I can … ha!
A great article I found with the help of one of my old teachers. It is about concert pianists, but can be applied to all musical performance situations and really, most anything else, athletics included.
Credits to Stephen Hough
Stephen Hough is a concert pianist by night, but his daytime interests include theology, art, hats, puddings… and writing about them. His website is www.stephenhough.com and he is @houghhough on Twitter.
Concert pianists spend much more of their lifetimes practising than they do playing concerts. It’s not just that pieces need to be kept in the memory (muscle and mind), but the very act of playing the piano is physical and athletic. It involves reflex and endurance. It may be true that you never forget how to ride a bicycle, but if you and it are rusty there’s not much hope of winning or even completing the Tour de France.
So we need to practise. But the key is how we make our time offstage best serve our briefer time onstage. A pianist who plays many concerts has little time to spare so it’s important that those spare hours, even minutes, are used well.
My teacher, Gordon Green, used to say, “in practise a perfectionist, in performance a realist”. In other words, prepare assiduously, tirelessly at home, but when onstage accept the situation at hand without wishing the piano were more in tune, the audience were more appreciative (or larger), you hadn’t made a mess of that octave passage and so on.
But being a “realist” sounds rather prosaic when faced with bringing to poetic, passionate life the masterworks of master composers. I might put it differently from Gordon: in practice an engineer, in performance a pilot. Nuts and bolts in a plane are incomparably important, but when you sit at the cockpit of a Steinway concert grand your eyes need to look ahead not underneath.
The purpose of practising is so that we (offstage as engineers) make sure that we (onstage as pilots) are completely free to fly to the destination of our choice. That destination is one involving imagination and creativity and spirituality and danger and ecstasy of course, not merely the A to B of playing the notes, but without the nuts and bolts in place we will never be airborne. The greatest interpretative vision of the final pages of the final sonata of Beethoven will nosedive to oblivion if we can’t play an even trill.
So, moving inside the hangar, spanner at the ready, how do we practise? There are as many answers to that question as pieces in our repertoire, but maybe some signposts can help:
Relish the task, whether beginning to learn a piece or whether revising one long familiar. Examine the score like a rabbi poring over a rare parchment. Decode the message behind the notation. Map out the journey. Look for the obstacles. Know the (good) tradition of historical evidence; distrust the (bad) tradition of ‘its always done like this’. You may be Brahms’s secretary in the practice room, but on stage you are his mouthpiece. And a composer’s message is always more than words: it’s a drama in which you and Brahms are as one character.
When starting to learn a piece I always write in fingerings. It aids memory, it emphasises the act of study, it discourages a sloppy “sight-read till ready” attitude, it forestalls nerves in a performance, it personalises the score. In the early years of a career we can be asked to step in at the last moment for a colleague who has cancelled. I remember an occasion when I was in my early 20s getting a call to play Bartok’s 3rd concerto with the Chicago Symphony and Esa-Pekka Salonen. There was about a day’s notice and I hadn’t played the piece for a couple of years. I could accept the date because the nasty, twisting passage towards the end of the third movement was fingered and thus still in my motor memory. It saved me a couple of hours work when I only had 24 hours to pack my bags and fly across the Atlantic.
We need to know what might go wrong in a performance and why. There is no such thing as a difficult piece. There are merely moments in pieces which are problematic. The notorious coda of the 2nd movement of Schumann’s Fantasie op. 17 is a good example:
A is easy for the left-hand, moderately tricky for the right; B is hard for both hands; C is a little easier for both because the 5th fingers land on black notes; D is easy for both. To face this passage like a rabbit looking into the headlights of an approaching car is totally counter-productive. We do not face a steamroller. There are four wheels (or two which are parallel) and if the rabbit is not in the line of these it can scamper off into the forest unscathed.
Slow practice can be a complete waste of time if the mind is not working quickly. Simply to trawl through passages like a contented tortoise is a waste of the felt on your piano’s hammers. Good slow practice is more like a hare pausing to survey the scene – sharp in analysis, watching through the blades of grass, calculating the next sprint. My favourite kind of slow practice is the half and half variety. For example in a semiquaver passage I will play four notes at performance tempo then four notes exactly half the speed – then reverse the groups. It can sometimes be useful to do this with eight-note groups. It stops any tortoisian ambling and it focuses the mind quickly from one reflex to another. It is a hare with alert eyes.
There are two dangers to avoid in practising, firstly not to play as if you’re onstage, filling the hours crashing through pieces without improvement. This is a common occurrence in conservatories – Rachmaninov concertos pounded with adolescent passion and coarse, crude effects. But the second, more subtle danger is not to get stuck in a practising mode. This is related to mindless slow practice. All the focus when in the practice studio should be how we will play when in the concert hall. If something comes apart, don’t stop immediately. Guide the skidding wheels around the crashing corner for another meter or two, despite the sparks and screeches. A common student scenario: music flying along; train wreck; a second of silence; start at point of accident; continue. The point where things broke down is the fragile spot, the dodgy seam. It needs sufficient overlap of material to be strong. Go back before the mistake and practise beyond the mistake – then the mistake itself will be more safely repaired. Otherwise the very stopping and starting becomes a reflex – an ingrained repetition of breakdown.
As important as it is to have strong fingers – muscles, tendons, joints loose and lithe – we need a strong mind too. Strong in concentration, on and off stage; ever striving for improvement, but relaxed when none seems to take place; aiming the dart tirelessly at every bullseye, but gentle and kind when it clatters to the floor. Muscles are effective when they are able to tense and relax at will, not just when they bulge in a ripple of aggression. This is true for the physical side of playing as well as for the mental challenges. The mind’s clear vision is not a stare: it needs to be able to focus near and far with flexibility and wisdom.
There is a well-worn saying: practice makes perfect. I don’t believe this, at least in reference to playing the piano: abstract “perfection” is rarely what we seek; but good practising makes it more likely that we will give a good performance. Its attention, its concentration, its tightening of the screws enable the concert experience to take wing in freedom.