By Philip Hii
Many factors contribute to projection: the artist's ability to communicate, his sense of drama and declamatory skills; these are all important ingredients in a successful performance. In addition, a good responsive hall is essential; so is a good instrument. But perhaps the most important ingredient of good projection is the ability of the performer to play loud enough to reach the entire audience.
To some guitarists the word "loud" has certain negative connotations. Loud playing is frequently associated with inexperience and lack of polish. These concerns are legitimate to a certain extent. To the performer, used to hearing the guitar from close range, extraneous noises that can result from loud playing such as string buzzings and rattles can be disturbing. Loud playing can also sound forced and unnatural and it tends to make the guitar too percussive. However, these concerns assume that the audience is hearing what the performer is hearing. Most seasoned performers know this is simply not the case. Because of room ambience, distance from a sound source has a way of smoothing out the edges of a sound, of rendering negligible the presence of certain noises and sometimes even of eliminating them altogether.
To pursue the acoustical point further, certain frequencies carry better than others. A brighter and more percussive sound has a better chance of reaching the back rows of a mid-sized concert hall than a warm tone lacking in a clearly defined attack. This is especially true for fast passages where hall ambience can quite easily muddy a less focused sound than one with a strong attack. In this case the percussive sound is actually highly desirable.
Perhaps we can best define the truly ideal loud tone as one that is focused, well controlled, powerful, and possessing a tensile quality. It should have a clearly defined envelope with a strong attack and a full body. This sound ideal will vary, depending on the musical context. In soft espressivo passages, the attack should be minimized while it should be emphasized in fast bravura pieces.
Having recognized the need for projection, how do we achieve it?
There are two options. The first is to develop a powerful free-stroke, the second to incorporate more rest-strokes into the playing.
Most methods are concerned with the first option; that of developing a strong free-stroke. Although there are probably as many opinions on how to achieve this as there are players, I find that what has been called the push-stroke is the most effective in playing loudly and with minimum effort.2 This technique is not new and it is indeed quite surprising that so little has been written about it.
The push-stroke uses a combination of finger strength and wrist weight. This weight can be likened to the weight of the arm used by pianists. Pianists know that in fortissimo passages, sheer finger strength alone will not suffice. The weight of the arms has to be utilized, and in some extreme cases even the whole body has to be drawn in for additional power.3 Most guitarists recognize this and advocate playing from the knuckle as a means to increase the power of the stroke. I find that although the knuckle joint does provide an essential component in the leverage system, concentrating the action in the knuckle has certain disadvantages. The most apparent disadvantage is the loss of finger independence resulting from the arc-like motion of the finger during the execution of the stroke. Figure 1 illustrates the usual trajectory of the knuckle-stroke:
This loss of independence is easy to explain. Start by flexing the i finger, using mainly the knuckle joint. It will be observed that there is an instant tendency in the m and a fingers to follow and move with the i finger, To minimize this tendency of the fingers to move in sympathy with each other, the finger plucking the string should move in an upward circular motion (see figure 3) instead of the arc-like path in figure 1. It is obvious that after the finger has plucked the string, the remaining follow-through of the finger is unnecessary. The trick is to push the string inward just far enough so that it doesn't yield a thin and superficial sound and then to release it immediately. It should be noted that most beginners have a weak and superficial sound because the string is not displaced enough and because there is no wrist weight used.
The active participation of the wrist in the push-stroke means that the right hand has to be slightly elevated. To find this elevation, try the following exercise. Place fingers i, m ,a on the first three strings and the thumb on the fourth string. Let the fingers relax. They should now assume a natural rounded shape. Without altering this natural curvature, raise the hand slightly from the wrist so that the finger-tips are now hovering about half an inch above the strings as in figure 2. Be careful not to raise the wrist in the process.
The plucking motion in a push-stroke can be reduced to four basic parts:
1. Position the finger that is going to pluck the string either over the string or on it in preparation. To do this, straighten the finger slightly and lower the hand, using the wrist as a fulcrum. Remember, these movements are very minute and are imperceptible in fast passages.
2. With a little pressure from the wrist, push the fingertip into the string, keeping the tip-joint firm but not locked. Notice that the pressure is exerted mainly from the wrist. This active use of the wrist is crucial to the stroke. At slower tempos, some bobbing motion in the wrist can result. Do not attempt to resist this motion or try to hold the wrist stiff. The tip joint should not collapse nor be totally rigid. There should be a little amount of give in the tip-joint as the finger pushes into the string. This amount of give will determine the loudness of the sound.
3. With a quick, small movement, release the string by plucking it inward (toward the palm). Take care not to have too much follow-through.
4. Almost simultaneously, move the finger up in a circular motion, repositioning it over the string.
As can be seen in figure 3, the whole cycle should describe a circular motion at the finger-tip.
In the figure above, the upward motion of the finger in step 3 is more a result of the release and return of the finger to its position of rest rather than a conscious effort to return the finger to its playing position. It is not to be confused with a common error made by some beginners; that of hooking the finger up with the tip and second joints while keeping the knuckle extended as in figure 4:
The push-stroke has many advantages over the knuckle-stroke. First, there is great economy of movement because of the minimal follow-through in the finger-tips. Second, there is great consistency of tone because all the strokes originate from the wrist,. Many players believe that unequal strength in the three fingers is the cause of uneven tremolos and arpeggios. I feel strongly that the root cause of unevenness in playing is not due to inequality in finger strength but in trying to execute the strokes with three separate entities (the fingers). By originating all finger movements from one source (wrist weight), problems with unevenness will not arise. Third, there is great independence in the three fingers because of their upward returning motion as opposed to the arc-like motion of the knuckle stroke. This means that fast passages can be performed at loud dynamic levels and sustained for long durations with little fatigue.
Incorporating the Rest-stroke
Although the uses of the rest-stroke are more limited than the free-stroke, the rest-stroke should be used whenever possible because the push-stroke can never be an adequate substitute for the rest-stroke.
Most phrases have a natural rise and fall in inflection which can best be articulated by using a mixture of free and rest-strokes. The exclusive use of one stroke or the other too often produces a flat, two-dimensional sound. To create more depth, phrases should be performed with a combination of free-strokes and rest-strokes. Traditionally, this has meant using the occasional rest-stroke in a primarily free-stroke environment. Although effective in many situations, the strong accents caused by the isolated rest-stroke can have unmusical results. It is much more effective to switch completely from free-stroke to rest-stroke in a crescendo and to move back to free-stroke during a diminuendo.
Scales are excellent for practicing transitions between free and rest-strokes:
I should add a word of caution. The above discussion is not meant to provide a set of formulas for achieving strong projection. It does not invalidate any other system which attempts to achieve the same goal. Rather, it is a description of what I found works best for my particular situation. The guitar is unique in this sense; the great variances in technique among concert artists and the fact that they all work is a testimony to how personal the instrument really is. Perhaps the only criterion for good technique is; does it work for me? Does it create a relaxed environment in which I can express the music in any way I hear it? Most importantly, can I do it in front of two thousand people? Ultimately, the best exercise to develop projection is to constantly play in big concert halls and to big audiences. Unless the player is oblivious to the audience, it will quickly become apparent to him whether he is reaching the audience or is losing them through lack of projection. It is amazing how quickly the fingers will respond to the situation then.
Duarte, John W. The Bases of Classic Guitar Technique. London: Novello, 1975.
Duncan, Charles. The Art of Classical Guitar Playing. Princeton: Summy-Birchard Music, 1980.
Mills, John. The John Mills Classical Guitar Tutor. Shaftesbury: Musical New Services, 1981.
Romero, Pepe. Guitar Style and Technique. New York: Bradley Publications, 1982.
Shearer, Aaron. Learning the Classic Guitar, 2 pts. Pacific: Mel Bay Publications, 1990.
Taylor, John. Tone Production on the Classical Guitar. Shaftesbury: Musical New Services, 1978.