TEACHING CLASSICAL GUITAR AT THE COLLEGE LEVEL: A PERSPECTIVE
by Philip Hii
In writing this article, it is my hope that it will serve as a catalyst for further discussion. I particularly welcome other comments, perspectives, and articles.
Despite the considerable advances made in guitar pedagogy in recent years, most guitar students entering college programs are poorly equipped to work at that level. It is true that there is an increasing number of students who are better prepared and have received some form of classical guitar instruction either at their high schools or at their local music stores. However, even among these students, the level of technique is generally poor and they are usually unable to cope with the more complex and virtuosic pieces required of them at the college level.
Perhaps the most glaring weakness among these students is in their right hand technique; the most common problems being a lack of accuracy and speed, and poor tonal control. And yet, the right hand is the most crucial in guitar technique. It is the hand that produces the notes, and in fast pieces, it is the right hand that is performing all the intricate arpeggio patterns. Obviously, if one is to be successful in implementing a strong college program, the development of right hand technique has to be a top priority.
Ironically, the right hand is also the easiest to develop. Consider the limited number of possible permutations in right hand fingerings. In fact, it is possible to reduce them to a few basic patterns and derive all the other fingerings from them. For instance, the arpeggio pattern p,i,m,a, and its derivations, p,i,m or p,i,m,a,m,i are common patterns and can be found in music from almost any era. A student who has mastered these patterns will also have mastered all the passages in the repertoire where these patterns occur. Because of the relative simplicity of right hand guitar technique, I have found that a student who has poor right hand technique but possesses a well-developed left hand can attain a high degree of virtuosity and mastery of the instrument even if he starts working at it at the relatively late age of seventeen or eighteen. Given proper guidance, the process should not take more than four years.
It is obvious that despite the simplicity of right hand technique, the task of bringing a student from virtually beginner level to advanced and professional levels within the space of four years is formidable. To accomplish these goals, I had to clearly set the goals for the program. I did this with two basic criteria:
1. Each student should graduate after four years of undergraduate study with a solid portfolio of at least two concert programs and one concerto.
2. Each student should be fully equipped technically to perform these works.
The first step is a careful assessment of the student's strengths and weaknesses in his right hand. I take note of any potential problems such as poor hand positions, hooking the finger up with knuckle (the simultaneous extending of knuckle joint and flexing of second joint), or excessive movements in the finger strokes. Sometimes the problems are predictable. For instance, players with strong rock and roll backgrounds usually tend to hold the right hand wrist too close to the soundboard, as if they still hold a plectrum in their hands.
Once basic problems are isolated, the student is taught general principles of good hand and seating positions. I am convinced that most technical problems are due to poor positioning.. For example, the habit of hooking the finger up with the knuckle extended and the second joint flexed is a direct consequence of holding the hand too close to the soundboard.
In giving instructions, a potential danger is being over-specific in the details. It is important to realize that most students at the age of seventeen or eighteen have already lost the innate childlike ability to learn quickly and without inhibitions. In other words they have an added disadvantage compared to the student starting as a child. To give detailed descriptions of which joint and muscle to move in a right hand finger stroke can be counterproductive and further inhibit them. A good example of students misunderstanding detailed instructions concerns the "knuckle stroke." While no one will dispute the effectiveness of movement from the knuckle, oversimplifying the stroke by emphasizing the role of the knuckle can have disastrous results. The most common consequence is for students to attempt to lock their tip and second joints in a rigid entity while trying to move from the knuckle, resulting in loss of accuracy and speed. The remedy for these students is to give them precise instructions on how to get greater mobility in their fingers by emphasizing movement from the second joint. This is perhaps the only instance where detailed instructions can have a positive impact.1
The first exercise I give is what I consider the most basic of right hand patterns; the i,m,a,m pattern (Example 1).
This is the equivalent of the do re mi fa so fa mi re do scale practice that most beginning piano students start with. A real scale on the guitar is unsuitable as it involves too many variables such as that of right hand string crossings and right and left hand coordination. Like all other finger patterns, the student has to practice the i,m,a,m pattern repetitively, like a drill. After a week of practicing, a piece such as Carcassi Study No.19 (op. 60) is assigned. The study incorporates a derivation of the pattern (a,m,i,m).
Example 2. Matteo Carcassi, Study No.19, op. 60, mm. 1-2
Other basic right hand patterns are slowly introduced. They are listed below with corresponding works that utilize the fingering in a repetitive drill like fashion:
1. p,i,m,a Prelude No. 4 by Villa Lobos 2. p,i,m,a,m,i Study No. 5, op. 48 by Giuliani
or Study No. 12, op. 48 by Giuliani or Etude No. 11 by Villa Lobos
3, p,a,m,i Study No. 7, op. 60 by Carcassi or Recuerdos de la Alhambra by Tarrega 4, p,i,m Asturias by Albeniz
The above arpeggios are performed on the first three strings (a on first string, m on second string, i on third string, and p on either fourth or fifth strings). Pattern no. 3 can also be performed on one string as a tremolo.
The question of tempo is essential for the success of this approach. Every drill and piece has to be practiced up to tempo, every note has to be clearly articulated, and each note value performed precisely. Generally, I find the usual choice of tempo in the Carcassi and Sor studies to be too slow. Most students do not bother to practice them up to tempo, in the process reducing them to a series of finger exercises. Carcassi Study No. 7 (op.60) is a good example:
Example 3. Matteo Carcassi, Study No.7, op. 60, mm.1-2
If one takes it at its allegro tempo ( =126-144), the study becomes a tour de force of tremolos and arpeggios. The same is true of Carcassi study No. 2 (op.60). Written in a pseudo-tremolo style, the piece is too often taken at a leisurely =80. The loss of melodic continuity at this tempo not only renders the work ineffective but diminishes its value as a study.
Example 4. Matteo Carcassi, Study No. 2, op. 60, mm. 1-2
Another popular study which is often played too slowly is Sor-Segovia Study No. 17. Although the haunting Chopinesque melody in the study is not intended to be played fast, a slow tempo emphasizing the arpeggio pattern in the accompaniment can easily obscure the continuity of the melody.
Finally, the intended effect of each study should be fully understood. In much of Giuliani's music, fast arpeggios are frequently employed to give the effect of thick orchestral tuttis.2 The best example of this form of writing can be found in the Grande Ouverture and the Rossinianas. In order to fully prepare the student for these pieces, the two Giuliani studies above should be performed at a tempo of not less than =116.
There are obviously many other pieces in the repertoire that will serve equally well as studies. I have found the above set of pieces to work extremely well. They are excellent as studies, they are easy on the left hand, and they are also rewarding to play.
The choices facing the guitar teacher at the college are many and are sometimes difficult to make. It is particularly difficult to be objective when we assess other schools of thought. It is clear that each school has its attributes. Many manage to produce high calibre players despite drastically opposing viewpoints. Whether one is preferable to the other is a matter of personal taste.
One would do well to keep in mind that guitar pedagogy also has its trends and fashions. I still remember lessons with one of my earlier teachers about the ineffectiveness of putting your fingers on the string before playing, a habit I had apparently acquired over years of playing with no proper supervision. These days, of course, the technique is being taught as preparation.
Finally, I feel it is extremely important to consider the students in our choice of methodology. Sometimes, our sense of mission and the seriousness of our intent may make us forget that not all students have the same dedication, maturity and self-discipline to follow a rigid systematic approach. Many students need to be constantly cajoled and inspired with pieces and projects that will further encourage them. Of course the teacher should set some limits on how far he will go in this regard. I myself draw the line at playing a piece by rock guitarist Steve Howe for jury, even if it is "played with classical technique and has plenty of left hand slurs." However, no matter how carefully thought out, if a methodology results in a high drop out rate, it is simply not effective.