The Missing Ingredient No One Likes to Talk About

Over on the GSI Blog, Marcelo Kayath wrote an article titled Reflections on Guitar. The article is his version of guitar history, and concludes with what he sees as the problems today. It’s a great article, and worth a read.

Marcelo also presents a list of solutions. A “how to” about fixing all the problems with guitar and its popularity today:

  1. The original repertoire must continue to expand
  2. Focus on the quality of the repertoire, without concessions
  3. Transcriptions, only when they sound better on the guitar
  4. Small orchestra vs. grand piano [more Segovia like approach to tonal color, etc.]
  5. The choice of instrument is a crucial decision
  6. Let’s think more like musicians and not just like guitarists

These are all reasonable suggestions, but I’d like to address a few issues.

Who Gives a Crap About Your Guitar?

The “choice of instrument” suggestion is questionable, I’d say. Never once have I been to a concert and thought to myself, “oh wow, that guitar sounds great.” The guitar does not sound great. The player can sound great, and I don’t really care what instrument they choose to bring out that good sound.

Tonal variation and color can be accomplished on any instrument, and I think that color usage was a big point in Marcelo’s article. So why not say that, instead of talking about instruments?

The Missing Ingredient…

Most undergraduate music majors think this two step process will happen.

  1. They practice a ton, and get really good. They learn entire concert programs of interesting composition and transcriptions.
  2. They get a job, because talent alone is enough.

Marcelo’s list, to me, sounds like that of an undergraduate music major. In other words, he seems to believe all of our problems could easily be solved by upping our proverbial game.

I’m going to call bullshit on that one.

You want to know what the real problem is with classical music today? No one knows about it. You know why guitar concerts get filled with guitarists? Because they’re easier and cheaper to reach — after all, guitarists are the ones actively seeking out concerts.

Marcelo’s list is missing the key ingredient that no one likes to talk about: marketing.

The Segovia-Like Classical Guitar Messiah is Not Coming

We live in a fragmented world. There is no real mass culture. Sure there are a famous people, but most of us live our lives in little niches of our interests. We don’t have water cooler discussions any more, but we do participate in online communities where we talk about stuff we like.

The Segovia-figure, a man with huge personality and international stardom, is not coming back. Even pop musicians (aside from the super-famous ones) can’t fill a hall or sell thousands of CDs. It’s just not as easy to reach thousands of people interested in classical music because they don’t all hang out in the same place anymore.

Besides, Is There Really a Problem?

In the past week David Russell and Irina Kulikova have played concerts in Dallas/Fort Worth. Both concerts, while not completely sold out, had sizable attendance with a lot of young folks in the audience.

Down in Austin Matthew Hinsley and the Austin Classical Guitar Society sell out shows all the time. And I suspect their education and outreach programs bring a lot of young people to those audiences.

It seems to me that several extraordinarily successful arts organizations that specialize in guitar present a model for us to follow. They’re all really good at marketing and outreach, and they all bring in extremely high quality artists. Maybe the halls aren’t as big as the used to be, but who cares?

So let me ask you a serious question, Marcelo: is there really a problem? Or are you making one up and looking in all the wrong places for a solution?

An Alternative Solution

Yes, let’s do all the things are Marcelo Kayath’s list: new, quality repetoire, good transcriptions, interesting interpretations, and great sound. But let’s not stop there.

Matt Hinsley and the Austin Guitar Society’s success has nothing to do with the quality of artists they bring it. It does have to do with how good Matt and the rest of the staff is as reaching people. A local organization built a community, and that community comes out to support them when they ask.

Instead of worrying about the next Segovia, why don’t we focus on local. Matt Hinsley and the Austin Guitar Society’s success has nothing to do with the quality of artists they bring in (though they do bring in outstanding guitarists). It does have to do with how good Matt and the rest of the staff is as reaching people. A local organization built a community, and that community comes out to support them when they ask.

That’s the kind of asset anyone can build, and that’s what guitarists need to focus on: building their own local community of people who love the guitar. Such action is going to do more for our instrument than waiting for the next Segovia.

Posted on in Editorials


  • Bradford Werner

    I agree with the statement: Is There Really a Problem? I think the classical guitar world is thriving more than ever before in history. No, it’s not as big as Britney Spears but when I look at the demographic at classical music concerts I see more young faces at classical guitar concerts than any other classical events. Young faces at concerts means survival into this 21st century of ours….

    As you said, we need to look at good models such as Mathew Hinsley’s community effort.

    • Zack

      Yes, but to we want to ‘force’ … “survival into the 21st century”.

      Sometimes things have a way of sorting themselves out. It many guitarists continue to play they stale lifeless performances, then the only way to make it survive is to try and force it.

      But the reality is: why try keep something alive, if it’s no good anyway. In the end it may naturally fade away, and classical guitarists will become more and more bitter.

      So I say: if we want something worth promoting, it should NOT be the guitar. Because – guitar alone for its own sake is nothing.

      We should promote something else… Let me quote Kayath here: “People want to feel pleasure and become more sensitive when hearing artists, poets, and musicians.”

  • William Bajzek

    Of the people I’ve known, it seems like most of the ones who are into rock or jazz guitar go form bands and look for gigs, because performing makes their effort worthwhile. And I’ve almost never heard any of them mention stage fright, although I’ve known some who experienced it but got out there and did it anyway.

    VERY few of the classical guitarists I’ve known have played even a single recital, and most talk about how they only do it at home, in private, for their own enjoyment. It doesn’t help that there are a lot of people (*cough* especially on delcamp *cough*) who spread the sentiment that you shouldn’t even attempt to play in public if you’re not a conservatory graduate.

    Personally, I think there are a lot of people capable of playing a recital (or at least splitting a recital with others) that should get out and do it. Stop hiding in your bedroom or your guitar society and go play.

    If you’re worried about impressing people, consider that many people who don’t know classical guitar find the fact you can play a melody on the instrument, much less a melody and some bass notes at the same time, to be really amazing. They don’t need to hear Invocation et Danse in order to be impressed, so just play what you’re comfortable with and have fun.

    • DFP

      Yes! And I am guilty, playing mostly for myself and my wife, who has heard it all before, over and over. Music is a performance medium and performing, in the true sense, should be as much a part of it as technique!

  • DFP

    Chris, while I generally agree with your conclusions, I wouldn’t dismiss Kayath’s points so lightly. For instance, his #4 [more Segovia like approach to tonal color, etc.]. I have seen/heard enough technical displays to last me for a long time! The stand-out performances (and seldom are they the competition winners!) for me are the ones with exceptional musicality, those where the technique and the instrument fade into the background and the music is out-front and fabulous! This is always about expression, and not about level of difficulty. So, this one hit home for me – not waiting for another Segovia, but rather to strive for his level of expression and color.

    • Christopher Davis

      I was not dismissing any of his points — except the guitar one. I just feel our energies (and complaining) gets focused on the wrong aspects.

      You should check out Irina Kulikova. She’s a competition winner with exceptional musicianship.

      • DFP

        Yes, Irina Kulikova plays beautifully. Maybe too many, but certainly not all winners are technique-heavy vs. musicality.

        And as an amateur builder of some pretty nice guitars, I suppose I should quibble about your guitar point, but I have to agree! Playing a fine guitar makes it easier and more rewarding, but any guitar can be made to sound pretty nice by a good player, given that it’s playable. I have a 50 yr. old $20 Mexican guitar that I love to play!

  • Jim Doyle

    I am seeing a trend in the modern classical guitar world and I would be curious to the opinion of the masses who read this blog. I see more and more classical guitarists graduating from prestigous colleges with masters degrees and beyond, in a world of classical guitar where there are more graduates, than good paying jobs waiting for them, once they walk out of the front doors of the colleges. What I see a lot of is graduates with great chops, and great degrees, working in the back of local music stores, with tons of students loans to pay off, and some coming to the realization that they may never pay them off. I must ask, what is a “performance degree” really worth today? Not all guitarists will be able to perform to make a living. Yet this is the most popular degree obtainable and offered by guitar colleges. To really get a great paying job, most often requires a DMA level degree, for the very very few, highly competitive spots that rarely become available. It would seem to me, that if the classical guitar is to survive, then the Institutions should consider the trend of lack of jobs for a growing talent base with high hopes waiting to be hired, and considering offering degrees in pedagogy, teaching, and or operating a private studio or busines aspect of the field. Where exactly will all of these great playing, upcoming high school level players eventually get employed in the field of classical guitar? Not all classical guitarists want to go to college for 5 years, studying classical guitar to have to resort to taking a job in a public school teaching chorus or waving a baton for an orchestra that doesn’t include the guitar. But this is what is out there, unless you can find a private community school that pays enough or a public school where the administrators will allow for an after school program in thier shrinking school budgets. ( Lets not forget that most public schools wont let you teach a regular course in their school without State certification even with a DMA level guitar degree ) Most often when a school budget needs shrinking, sports, music and after school programs are the ones that are threatened to be cut, because they are seen by administration as “less important”. I would be curious what others are seeing, and if they know of any changes in the “field of guitar” relating to college preparation that offer any better outlook than what is currently available. I think for the classical guitar to survive in the modern world, will require marketing changes and the creation of new jobs to meet the growing number of new guitarists once they walk out of their graduation ceremony.

    • Steven Ulliman
      Steven Ulliman

      I agree with you observations but would like to offer a slightly different reaction to them.

      More graduates than jobs is a condition that has been true for most of the 20th century. It’s the same for classical guitarist, jazz guitarist, pianist, violinist and composers.
      There are more jobs available in 2011 but there are more graduates competing for them. The balance tends to stay about the same. I thinks it is reasonable to think it will never change.

      For a majority of people a performance degree is a doorway to teaching.

      Pedagogy, business and technology are aspects of many modern guitar programs.

      Just teaching the guitar is often not enough to get someone a job.

      I don’t know any musicians that make a living by just performing.

      Not teaching at a four year school doesn’t mean that you are a failure

      A degree is no guarantee of success.

      I don’t things are as dire as it can sometimes seem for a realistic and committed professional.

      I think the survival of the classical guitar is dependent on the survival of the classical guitarist.

      Sorry to be so rambling.

  • John Dimick

    “Never once have I been to a concert and thought to myself, ‘oh wow, that guitar sounds great.'”

    Not even in a small room?

    “The guitar does not sound great. The player can sound great, and I don’t really care what instrument they choose to bring out that good sound.”

    To me, the beauty of the sound itself is essential — which is why I never go to concerts anymore, because, like you, I never hear a guitar that sounds beautiful. Instead, I hear guitars chosen for their ability to make a noise that ticket buyers can hear from the back row. I hear the sound of some poor misguided player trying to make a living. And it’s depressing.

    So it’s no wonder concert audiences are shrinking all the time. No one wants to hear that kind of thing.

    I watched an interesting show on Netflix last week, called They Came To Play. It’s about a competition for amateur pianists. And one of the judges really nailed the essential thing. He said his main criterion was this: Would I want to hear this again?

    I think he spoke for audiences everywhere. (Except for classical guitar audiences, which consist mostly of guitarists and their family and friends, who will listen to just about anything, no matter how lacking in beauty the sound may be.)

    Most audiences aren’t satisfied with a demonstration of skills, no matter how dazzling. They won’t come back to hear it again. They want, in addition to the musicianship, a sound that is beautiful in itself. Then they want an artist to be creative and expressive with that beautiful sound.

  • Justin

    Well I finally read the article. Very interesting although I must say I was shocked when he lumped David Russel and Ana Vidovic into the Grand Piano category. I have not heard much Russel, but I have Ana’s CD of the Castles of Spain and it is anything but “Grand Piano”.

  • Jeffrey Bianchi

    One thing I have noticed, is that guitarits aren’t very creative in terms of getting themselves out there. They (in my experiences) seem to think too much “inside” the box as in regards to places they can perform or opportunities available to them. Sometimes I think it has to do with the fact that it (seems to be) drilled early on by teachers / other musicians that you can only do ” A, B or C” with your profession.. “You can only play these type of places… AND if you are not famous don’t count on playing a lot….” Everyone, this is a guitar.. It’s not a piano. You can carry this instrument with you anywhere to play. Anything is possible. That is one of the beautiful things about this age with this instrument. It is portable and there are so many possibilities if you are willing to be creative.

  • Rene Izquierdo

    The main point of the article is to have the guitar sounds its best. Although any guitar could sound good in the right hands, it is only the great instruments the one that push you into making great music. It enhances the player and viceversa.

  • David

    I am glad I stumbled across this discussion, it’s very interesting. My thought on this topic is aligned with a paraphrase of something Segovia, himself, said – ‘the world does not need another guitarist but, rather, an artist who plays guitar.’ Too many guitarists, not enough art. Nowadays, what do they call a guitarist who can play everything fast and perfectly? A master. Ugh. Perhaps much of the burden is on the guitar to community to reevaluate its own standards for what constitutes mastery in the modern era, for it seems there has been quite a shift from what it used to be. As a community we should rally around and promote those few true masters, not the 150 that we think are.

    Just my own thoughts…

  • Jeff Stanley
    Jeff Stanley

    Why does it have to be small orchestra “versus” grand piano?

    If as Kayath is right that “people always prefer the original,” then that would apply just as much to a preference for a small orchestra over a guitar as it does to a grand piano over a guitar. Either way, extending the logic like that stretches the analogy too far.

    Evidently we can stand all kinds of variations in guitar genres, but when it comes to the classical genre, we’ve got to have some overriding dogma. Bah. For me, Williams playing Bach on a Smallman is exactly right…