In the context of the The Panamericanist album, Prepárese la Novia (“Ready the Bride!”) may sound like perhaps the most the simple and straightforward tune in the collection. It has fewer parts, less ornamentations, and it conveys a lighter, less emotionally complicated sentiment than most. But from conception to execution it was actually one of the biggest challenges I faced, and it was probably the one I had the least confidence in as I began.
Despite any deficiencies along the way in my understanding of or ability to play the first three of Chacon’s tunes I learned: Grandes Maravillas, Tardy y Noche en Chiloé and Cerros de Santiago; they all immediately became part of my regular working repertoire. While there were definitely modifications on all of those during the recording process, for the most part what you are hearing is what had been honed in 7-9 years of performance.
In my guitar education with Alfonso, my time with Prepárese is emblematic of what looking back I might call the transitional “difficult middle period.” Its development the first time around was something of a casualty of larger issues I was facing as I came into being a professional solo guitarist. Preparing it for recording, I had to go back and take care of some unfinished business.
The first couple years with Alfonso was just a thrill. There was no expectation of public performance, let alone professionalism, just the pure process of practicing and trying to make progress lesson to lesson, even if just one line of music per week. I was constantly reading and playing through new short pieces as I progressed through the Carcassi Method book, with multi-week/month projects learning longer and more advanced pieces from the great guitar composers and then eventually his own arrangements.
Chacon’s guitar pedagogy was all about learning repertoire. As soon as you finish one piece, move on to the next and make it something different. If you finished a slow piece, take on a fast one, then the next with a new rhythm, then one in another new style, from a different country, and a fresh composer. The more different ways you can play, the more well rounded your playing, the more excellent everything will be played. It was music first, and always be working on something new.
When I finished the Carcassi book, he had me flip back to page 1 and do it again. Whereas the first trip through was just about playing each little etude and waltz with basic proficiency, now the goal was to play each with impression, paying more attention to dynamics and feeling.
Finishing the Carcassi the second time I knew I was heading into a new phase in my guitar education, like a PhD student completing coursework and now starting a dissertation. I had achieved a competence in both my physical capabilities as well as my music-reading skills and I would now have to make some choices about what type of music I wanted to focus on. Concurrent with Carcassi I had also spent months working through a very long Bach suite, and as I completed both I concluded that I really had little interest in European classical guitar music. Alfonso was quite pleased to oblige and the fast and furious process of building my Latin guitar repertoire kicked in.
The first goal was to have three sets of memorized solo guitar music. If you have three sets you can gig. On average, a 45-50 minute set of solo guitar music (without excessive repetition) is about 13 tunes, so to gig as a solo guitarist you need a minimum of 36-40 tunes. Of course, that’s not terribly ideal, as not every tune is going to fit every situation. As Alfonso professed, a good working repertoire is at least 75 tunes, in memory, ready to go at a moment’s notice.
By the summer of 2004 I had about reached the magical three set threshold and I was lucky enough to have a girlfriend who worked in the food industry in Chicago who helped me make initial connections in the catering world. My first official 3 set solo guitar gig was providing entertainment for an engagement party in a tony Chicago suburb (I forget which one, but someone mentioned Scottie Pippin was a neighbor). I played for 3 hours under a large backyard banquet tent, exhausting everything I knew, resisting the temptation to repeat anything. As I prepared to load out they asked if I could do a fourth hour and what would it cost. The extra money would have been great, but my hands were absolutely spent. There was just no way I could do it, so I thanked them and declined but still got a nice tip. For my first gig I was quite satisfied to leave them wanting more!
2003-2007 was my most fertile time growing my repertoire, at least a dozen new tunes each year with increasing depth and complexity. But sometime in there I also hit a kind of logjam. I could play more and more tunes, but there wasn’t anyone one that I felt I could play exceptionally well. As I started to get the occasional gig, playing this music was no longer an academic exercise, but something I was doing in public to strangers under my name. Playing solo guitar music by myself alone in my apartment was one thing, but now I had to work through issues of stage fright as well as concentrating in what could be a chaotic event situations (playing for years at the Green City Market in Lincoln Park was great experience for this) . With ambitions of being a full-time musician taking hold, there was now a pressure to what I did, expectations I had fulfill. And I knew was quite capable of sucking.
Around the time he introduced Prepárese to me I think I had reached a saturation point. I had finally lost the enthusiasm for new material. I needed to stop, take a break, and dedicate more time to try to and review and improve what I had. So as he was pushing me to make progress on the song, I started dragging my feet. The song was also very frustrating in that while it employs relatively basic chord positions, the real music is in the rhythms of the empty spaces – beats of rest between phrases that I would reflexively want to drop. His mantra on it was to practice it with a metronome, but I could never seem to reproduce his phrasings. The metronome was no help if I didn’t understand how the phrases fit. We finished it and moved on, but I don’t think he was satisfied with my effort on it and it never took hold as a regular in my solo guitar sets.
To break the logjam, to truly pursue excellence, I needed an ocean of time. Three hours of practice per day, after a full day of work, was not enough. I was never going to get to the next level as a player unless I could practice 5-6 hours per day, and I was never going to be able to promote myself to get paid gigs unless I could also give that full attention as well. So with the support of the girlfriend-now-wife I quit my sales job and entered 2008 a full time musician, which I’ve been more or less ever since (supplemented with periodic part-time work). Repertoire expansion continued and then real leap for me as a guitarist was gaining the weekly Sunday brunch residency at a restaurant called Café 28 in the late Summer of 2009 – a weekly 3-hour gig which over the next 2 years afforded the opportunity to really sink into my repertoire and experience the cumulative effect on the overall quality of my playing as Alfonso preached.
Over the years I’d bring back Prepárese la Novia once in a while to brush up on it, but it was not until the final days of our quartet Los Guitarristas in 2011 when Alfonso included a portion of it in what was to be Paisaje de Chile #2. Getting to hear it in that context against a rhythm guitar was the revelation I needed to re-visit the solo guitar version and get the rhythmic phrases closer to the pocket.
With Alfonso’s passing in late 2011, I lost not only my mentor but my gigging partner and fellow band member as well. An electric band I had been in, Más Trueno, also dissolved shortly thereafter. Suddenly I needed to find new musicians to play with and so I reached out to a couple young Chicago musicians I admired to start a new project taking an eclectic approach to music rooted in various Latin folkloric styles. This would evolve to being a group currently called Los Alquimistas, and one of our first tunes we did was a cueca from Chile, the same rhythmic style as Prepárese la Novia.
Cueca is a deeply important form in Chilean culture, and is considered the national dance. It has come in and out of fashion over the years, and I understand it has experienced a resurgence in popularity over the past decade, as many older Latin styles have as they are discovered by new generations musicians untethered by past associations. Knowing how important cueca is in Chile (and to Alfonso), along with my fear of getting it wrong, definitely also played into my resistance to playing Prepárese la Novia with much frequency
But now I had a chance to dig into cueca a bit on my terms on a new song (La Arenosa) in the context of Los Alquimistas purely as a rhythm guitarist playing against a sung melody and to the beat of a cajon. With a new sense of cueca instinct, in 2013 I found myself again coming back to Prepárese, this time with a metronome, finally finding the syncopation through the entire tune.
Knowing that I could never make The Panamericanist without all 4 of Alfonso’s originals, gaining confidence on this track was essential to the whole thing getting started. Of course, it’s easily my favorite recording of the four originals on the album. Alfonso never heard me play this song anything like what you hear on the album, I can only hope he’d be pleased.
Two years passed having him has a living example though, I still needed reinforcement on my cueca strumming technique, if nothing else than to remind myself that I what I think is a cueca strum really is a cueca strum. Towards that I have no problem admitting I turned many times to YouTube to find every guitar player I could find from Chile to play along with and try to get the feel right.
The internet is an amazing gift. This is one I found very useful: