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Tips from Classical Guitar Master Classes

Over the years I've enjoyed auditing classical guitar master classes. You get to hear a variety of guitarists who may not so terribly far above your own level play a wide variety of pieces. You might get to hear a piece shape up in the hands of a responsive student under the guidance of a good teacher, which is an exciting experience. If you actually learn something that you can apply to your own playing - that's icing on the cake, in my view.

Below are a few tips worth passing on from several master classes I've attended. Here's a quick index of the masters and their classes:

1. Jad Azkoul, Washington DC, January, 1993.
2. David Russell, GFA Festival, Buffalo, October 1993.
3. Philip Candelaria, Washington DC, March 1997.
4. Manuel Barrueco, Washington DC, November 2001.

1. Jad Azkoul. Washington DC, January, 1993.

A very nice feature of this workshop - one I'd never seen before - was "mini-concerts", wherein several guitarists in succession played their pieces, complete with bows.

Jad demonstrated that it is possible to play with virtually no unwanted string noise. The fundamental aspect of the idea is to lift the fingers off the string (using the arm to facilitate this) and then shift to the new position. In case you're worried about what that does to your legato, Jad showed that it is not necessary to have unbroken sound in order to achieve legato.

Some noises call for other actions - such as using a right hand finger to damp a string that has just been unstopped - but the important thing is to LISTEN. When you hear noise, wipe it out.

Regarding sitting position, Jad explained that by moving the right foot back - about 12 inches, say - from its flat-foot position to its toes, the upper body is naturally forced forward to the proper playing position without using back muscles. This definitely worked for me as advertised, although my right leg seems to get a bit cramped after a while.

I've always played with nearly straight right-hand fingers 1) because it feels perfectly natural, and 2) in order to get a full (as opposed to tinkly) sound. Seeing people play with their right-hand fingers curled up in a claw always baffled me. How can they play like that? And why would they want to, what with that thin, scratchy sound?

Jad threw me for a loop by demonstrating the value of the bright, clear sound one can get from a curved finger. In fact, the idea is to use a midway, compromise curvature for the right-hand fingers, from which you can either straighten or curl them more, depending on the sound you want.

Jad explained that chords on three adjacent strings played with i, m, and a should be played with those fingers held together, like "one big finger." Even though held together, the player may curl them individually to get whichever sound he wants from each string. Jad's demonstrations of this were quite amazing. Also, this "one big finger" will give a very tight arpeggio when twisted quickly down and off the strings.

There were a couple of interesting points regarding thumb strokes. For a nice evenness when playing successive bass notes on successively higher, adjacent strings, the thumb should make a smooth, continuous forward motion through the strings involved; not pausing in between or stopping on the next higher one.

Regarding quick sweeps with the thumb over two or more strings, Jad demonstrated how the last note can be given its own distinct sound by making a minute adjustment to the thumb angle at the last nano-second. Typically, you may want that last note sounding bright and clear to differentiate it from the lower, accompanying notes.

Jad gave an impressive demonstration of his muted notes - a vastly more flexible device than your basic pizz played with the side of the right hand settled on the strings at the bridge. Jad's muted notes involve a plucking action followed by a damping action. This allows the player to give any sound quality he wants to the muted note - clear and bright to full and round. He can also control the onset of muting from near-instantaneous to any desired delay. Moreover, he can undo the muting while the note is still sounding. Jad admitted that this was the only technique presented in the class that was not simple.

Here are a couple more (left) handy tips. To avoid those half-step "bumps" during a glissando, reduce the pressure on the string. For smooth arpeggios, "arpeggiate" the placement of the left hand fingers in sync with the right hand, when possible.

Of course Jad had many suggestions regarding musical interpretation. One was, an effect that sounds really nice for a few times can very quickly wear out its welcome. Another was to not arpeggiate harmonics, which are pretty feeble to start with. And another was to give emphasis to dissonances. "We gotta hear dissonances - they sound so good!"

2. David Russell. GFA Festival, Buffalo, October 1993.

David Russell's tips on the musical interpretation of a piece seem so perfect and logical that you'll wonder why you don't think of such "obvious" things when you play. The sad truth, though, is that his performance genius is reserved for a miniscule fraction of the human race.

A couple of technical pointers rang a bell with me. He told one guy to leave out a note that was causing problems and ruining the flow of a piece. "Nobody will notice!"

Another one I liked, but which surprised me a bit coming from a world class guitarist, was his advice to adjust some fingerings to get the stronger fingers 2 and 3 in position for some ornaments rather than the indicated fingers 3 and 4. (I've been doing that for years, too!) In fact, David could play it just fine with 3 and 4, but this nod to the rest of humanity was very kind of him.

Regarding the glissando, David said to lean the finger over to avoid using the calloused part of the tip. When a student was having intonation problems with notes above the 12th fret, David suggested masking it with vibrato. "String players do it all the time!"

3. Philip Candelaria. Washington DC, March 1997.

Here's just a handful of things of interest - among many - gleaned from Philip Candelaria's masterclass for the Washington Guitar Society.

In the Baroque - as opposed to the Classical period - the preludes were "Big Stuff." Give them all you've got. The dances in the suite are actually a come-down from the prelude.

Philip used to think rest stroke was so important, but now uses 99% free stroke.

He fell in love with the A-frame guitar support, but later found it too wobbly and gave it up for the foot stool.

He makes ample use of hinge barres for the sake of relaxation. He even plays extended passages of 1st string notes with the bottom joint of the lh index finger when there's no reason to crank the tip around!

He believes (as I have been trying to tell the world) that "the work is the fingering." If something's not working well - change it! "Fingerings are a guitarist's secret weapon!"

Philip even played a piece for us - a rare treat at a master class.

4. Manuel Barrueco. Washington DC, November 2001

World-renowned guitarist Manuel Barrueco gave a master class at the Levine School of Music in November 2001. I first heard Manuel play at my college, Drexel University, in Philadelphia in 1976. I was going to brag in the guitar society newsletter about having heard him before anyone else in attendance at the master class - before many of them were born, even. (Yikes, maybe that's not something to brag about!) Then I pulled out the old program and read that he had already been active in the Washington area the previous couple of years - as guest artist with the National Symphony several times, for example. So maybe I wasn't first; so what?

I went to that 1976 concert never having heard of him, and I was completely blown away. Even with being nothing of a music critic, I knew I was hearing absolute perfection. I also remember hearing gasps from the people sitting behind me. One, a violinist who had never heard a classical guitarist before, shook her head in amazement. She said she had never heard anything like that before, ever.

For years afterwards, whenever the question of "who's the world's greatest guitarist?" came up, I had a ready answer: Manuel Barrueco. Even though I'm not at all inclined to get caught up in that question any more, darn if I can think of anyone obviously more deserving of the title.

From the masterclass, here are some things to think about:

You must place the right-hand fingers on the strings very carefully. If the string jumps from the flesh to the nail, you will lose control of the sound.

In general, the right hand is not capable of playing rest strokes in the melody and bass simultaneously. You have to decide which you want more. Of course, the melody will usually get it. Decide exactly where you want free stroke and rest stroke; winging it is a recipe for disaster. It's a good idea to start working on a piece using all free strokes, and then decide where to add color.

Since there's no 7th string you can't play a rest stroke on the 6th string with a right hand finger. However, Manuel has used his right-hand thumb as the stopper for a finger to come to rest on.

Be aware that vibrato produced by yanking the string back and forth across the fingerboard only raises the pitch. It may make your note or chord sound sharp. On the other hand, a back and forth tug in the direction of the string raises and lowers the pitch, giving a nicer vibrato centered on the correct pitch.

Whenever you make a mistake, you must consciously ask yourself what happened.

Slow practice is valuable for musical and technical reasons. It ultimately gets us where we want to go faster. Practice as slowly as necessary to allow the brain to think of everything.

Don't use movements of the left hand to poke the strings; make the fingers do that work. Manuel demonstrated a trill exercise for each of the left hand fingers in turn while the other three stayed clamped to the fingerboard.

You want to make the melody sound like a different voice - like a different instrument entirely. Think about the line - not "chord-note-chord," or "note-note-chord," for example. Manuel admits this is difficult. At one point he said, "I think the guitar is really hard to play. I think it borders on impossible, as a solo instrument." I've been thinking much the same thing lately, but then, I'm just a hack. It was a bit of a surprise, coming from one of the world's greats. I'd be very interested to hear Manuel expand on this sometime.


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