“The Guitar is Neither bad nor good but what you make of it.”
- Gaspar Sanz
Emilio Pujol, in his famous treatise The Dilemma of Timbre, bemoaned the guitar’s sonorous limitations. Fortunately, on-going developments enable us to view these limitations more positively. Advances in construction, strings, and playing technique; better-informed audiences and a greater willingness to amplify performance have all helped to overcome traditional perceptions of the instrument as being too soft.
Fewer performers go for broke, just to “project.” There is wider recognition that musicality consists of far more than simply playing “loud.” The trend towards proportionate, rather than forced, tone is a healthy one. Audiences these days have far more subtle expectations, nurtured, often as not, by the artist’s own recordings!
Taking stock of current guitar methodology
The guitar is a percussion instrument: notes when struck immediately begin to decay and hence cannot be sustained in the same sense as are those produced by breath or bow.
The piano is also a percussion instrument. However, through purposeful control over touch and pedalling, pianists are able to vary tonal properties according to comprehensive expressive demands. Methodology fundamental to expression is integral to piano pedagogy, as well as that of other traditional instruments, each having a characteristic stock-in-trade rhetorical discourse.
By contrast, even the most enlightened guitar methodology seldom transcends purely mechanical moulds. Once hardened, these moulds tend to be hard to break.
Expression: innate musicality versus studious application
So how do the best guitarists actually learn? Although technical mastery may be moulded, artistry at the highest level still leans far more heavily on nature – that mixture of culture and innate flair possessed in such abundance by those fortuitous South Americans and Europeans! That is all well and good for them, but what of students from other locales, where nature and nurture do not converge so advantageously?
My own development is a case in point. Although I was respected at Peabody for my tidy technique, my playing was perceived as wooden, lacking in inspiration, panache, etc. Apart from vague assurances that I was bound to mature eventually, little was on offer in terms of a remedy. It was all rather bewildering – a state of affairs I was determined to rectify.
Chamber music classes taught me a great deal about the melodic status of the guitar compared to that of wind and bowed string instruments. Those flautists and violinists were so impressive! Even the least inspired was secure in a well-founded expressive craft. Themes that were so deftly tongued or bowed sounded disappointingly prosaic when shared by the guitar.
Impetus towards method
Time passed. I graduated with “honours” and moved to Singapore. Yes, my musicianship did slowly improve. Yet, while plying my instructor’s trade amongst more august bowed-string colleagues, the old qualms persisted.
Gradually, I became intrigued by a possibility: could standard techniques of discourse for the violin and the piano be imported into guitar methodology? For example, although slurs have long been an integral part of expressive rhetoric on the piano and the violin, their execution remains purely mechanical on the guitar. Could guitar slurs also be executed expressively? (See “short phrase slur execution,” slide show, item 5, Intermediate Rest Stroke.)
The generally beneficial results of experiments based on such considerations now enables The Musician-Guitarist to equip pupils with expressive tools analogous to those commonly applied on other instruments.
What lies ahead?
Historically, the guitar has been in and out of fashion repeatedly. To ensure a future of continuity and universal acceptance, the instrument’s pedagogical roots should be further deepened and strengthened.
Taking a cue from Sanz, the guitar’s well-being depends utterly upon ‘what we make of it.’
Child Methodology:Youngsters, may the force be with you!
The simplest pattern incorporating loudness variation: 1-2-1-2 is FAR FROM SIMPLE for youngsters to play. Even under ideal circumstances, the difference between 1 and 2 on guitar is apt to be judged rather small – small enough for success to be assured only when certain prerequisites have been accomplished:
1. A guitar of suitable quality and proportionate dimensions has been obtained.
2. Having taken two prior lessons, the practice supervisor is on hand.
3. Worth its weight in plectrums, to start the thumb is simpler, stronger and far more flexible than when starting i-m. But here’s the rub: To play, youngsters will intuitively straighten the wrist, locking hand to arm. (See (B) below.) Stroking may be attempted with the tip of the thumb. Fine for a bit of strum & fun; but the intuitive approach fails the 1-2-1-2 test by a wide margin.
A little experiment will demonstrate that curving the wrist (as in (A) enables more and more efficient force to be brought to bear upon the strings. This is because (1) arm and thumb force are now aligned perpendicular to the string. (2) The thumb is positioned for optimal entry into the string face. (3) With a certain amount of encouragement, a thumb stroke flexed at the wrist (mid and tip joints held firm) and backed up by arm power will achieve an optimal “1,” even attempted by the tiniest “Tom Thumb.”
(A) Optimal Leverage
(B) Leverage Challenged