Our Task is to Educate Musicians Not Just Guitar Players
By Isolde Schaupp
Technical and musical education must take place simultaneously if a musician is to emerge from the training. This seems to be only common sense. But the opinion that technique must be built up first before one can make music is still fairly widespread among guitarists.
As a result of this way of thinking, hours are spent in practising numerous exercises, covering all sorts of fingerpatterns (frequently irrelevant ones) players become obsessed with developing high speeds. Studies and pieces are more or less worked out from a mechanical point of view without paying much attention to the interpretation to the music which they contain. In striving for “technical improvement” no time remains for the music. As soon as such players feel equipped to play the standard repertoire pieces, they listen to recordings of famous guitarists and try to copy them, regarding their interpretation as the “right” one. Often the difficulty of the pieces is underestimated and it is also not realised that parroting another’s performance can hardly lead to musically convincing playing.
The picture drawn might look somewhat negative but it only reflects tendencies which can be found far more frequently than one would wish. The described attitude is mainly based on the error that technique exists completely separately from making music. In fact, both are to a great extent indivisibly connected to each other. Technical skills can only partially be developed separately from music making.
Imagination and Aural Awareness
Imagination and aural awareness are the most important skills which need to be trained in order to develop a refined musical image and technical control. To anticipate mentally (aurally and physically) what one wants to play and to listen critically to the result of the attempt, requires a great deal of concentration besides the actual playing, particularly as it all has to happen simultaneously. These skills need long deliberate training (from the very beginning) as they do not necessarily develop automatically.
As music is a “time-art,” strict rhythmic discipline is essential and should be introduced from the very first attempts on the guitar. The first step towards rhythmic progress begins when the student simply learns to play even beats with accuracy.
Wrong timing makes any piece fall apart, no matter how much effort is put into playing it well in other respects.
But frequently extensive rubato playing is used before basic rhythmic control has been established and this will almost inevitably end in disaster. To avoid this happening, emphasis should always be placed on correct rhythmic execution whatever is played. Even purely mechanical exercises should be played with rhythmical accuracy making them a musical exercise as well as a more efficient technical one.
It should be one of the first priorities in educating young players to develop systematically their sense of rhythm and timing.
The guitar is an instrument with a relatively small dynamic range. Therefor it is important to exploit the possibilities in this area to the limit. The foundation for this again should be laid in the very beginning by aiming to develop a strong, but unforced overall tone and the ability to play tones of equal strength. As soon as this is achieved to a reasonable degree, dynamic differences should be practised regularly within musical contexts (terraced dynamics, crescendo, decrescendo etc.) The dynamic range should be gradually extended in both directions as far as the improvement in tone production allows. If this is not done, a weak tone and flat, boring playing is usually the result.
The tone someone is able to produce is mainly dependent on 1) the mental image of the tone the player wishes to produce and 2) the natural fingernail condition, individual and angle of attack.
If there is no desire for a good tone there is usually no motivation to work on it. On the other hand it is surprising what kind of problems regarding fingernails can be overcome if the desire is strong enough. The imagination comes first. Therefore, it is important that the desire for a good tone is stimulated alongside the teaching of principles of tone production.
The tone should at no stage be disregarded. Despite the compromises we sometimes have to make on the way to a good tone (e.g. due to age, fingernail condition, pattern of talent, quality of the instrument, student’s working attitude etc.) students should at least be encouraged to make reasonable efforts to achieve the best tone possible at the time. They should also make use of different tone colours according to their level of progress, e.g. by using different registers, special fingerings or by changing the angle of the attack in certain musical contexts. If the fingernail condition is so problematic that a reasonable tone is unachievable, fingertip playing or the use of false nails can be the better compromise than being forced to put up with a bad tone. Children who are too young to care for their fingernails should in my opinion begin with fingertip playing rather than become accustomed to a poor nail tone. I found no problems converting them to nail playing at a later stage (ca 11-13 years, depending on the individual.
Phrasing – Formal Shape
The phrase is the smallest complete musical unit. Consequently, if Phrasing is neglected, the music is in danger of becoming simply a sequence of notes. The phrase becomes alive by means of its rhythmic and dynamic shaping, appropriate articulation and choice of tone colour according to context, style and individual taste.
Phrasing can and should be taught as soon as a beginner is able to play a simple melody. Melodies which can be sung are most suitable, as phrasing comes naturally in singing. Even at an advanced level, it still can be very helpful to sing the phrases before playing them.
As phrases are just the building blocks, of a larger musical context, students should also be made aware of the overall formal structures, and this can already be done at a very basic level. Gradually students should be guided towards a more refined interpretation by shaping each phrase in relation to the next and finally by giving each piece its overall form.
In shaping music, all the skills described above must function in addition to the positioning of fingers into the correct places.
The ability to bring the formal shape and stylistic character of a piece across to an audience and the ability to transform spontaneous emotional responses into expression on the instrument, without developing distracting muscular tension, can only be gained by continuous and systematic training on the music itself.
The interpretation of music should therefore be at the center of our concern from the start, with pieces and studies being the main working material and with quality coming before quantity. These must, of course, be carefully chosen to ensure step-by-step musical-technical development for the individual student. Mechanical exercises do still have their place in the achievement of dexterity and coordination. However, they should only represent a logical supplement to the work on pieces. Many exercises will emerge from the music itself. A musical approach to development of technique, as described, will ensure that the technique serves the music and not just itself. It is the responsibility of the teacher to guide the beginner in the right direction to avoid later frustrations. True virtuosity can only be developed on the basis of musicianship.