The Modern Virtuosi & Why They’re Saving Us From Ourselves
This is a guest post by Bradford Werner of Classical Guitar Canada.
There is a long-time traditional in the classical guitar world that “our instrument is hard,” or “classical guitar is an imperfect instrument but we do our best.” None of this is true. I used to say it to cover up my own insecurities but I learned my lesson. I tried learning violin once and THAT was hard. Just go to a local violin student recital and you’ll hear whole studios struggling with intonation and bowing technique. But they work on it for years and years under good teachers and with the inﬂuence of an extremely high level of international vitsuosos. They also enjoy the experience of learning and don’t blame their instrument. I think that can now be said for classical guitar as well. The past ten years have proved that. The GFA winners, particularly the youth winners are showing us that we are simply catching up to the high performance quality of other instruments. Here are some possible reasons why:
Resources and methodologies are abundant. Even if 90% of those resources are awful, competition has led to a rise in quality level. Also, in the past three years I’m ﬁnally seeing a slowing down of “do it yourself” methods and a move toward teacher-based resources. Even the RCM school in Canada has started to ease up on the heavy editorial ﬁngering and left the upper level scales in their technique book unﬁngered completely. Also, the rise of ergonomics in connection with the modern “large” classical guitar size seems to be secure.
If you look at the repertoire being played, most of it is repertoire that works well on the instrument. As much as I love the works of Ponce or the arrangements of piano music out there I feel guitarists, particularly students, need to choose a different style of repertoire based on the new access to scores and new compositions. Students need good sounding pieces that actually work well on the instrument. This sparks their interest and when it comes to students, a high success rate in the early stages of study will ensure their continuing efforts at the instrument and the willingness to take the time to learn a difﬁcult work. These days I really prefer sending my students out with a Dyens, Brouwer, or even a silly little work I’ve written rather than a Bach lute suite movement or a Granados arrangement because I know rate of success in performance is different. Once they are hooked and have a strong foundation they can tackle everything.
The internet has made an abundant amount of chamber music works available to everyone. Finally we are seeing kids play with other instruments which immediately raises their musical level…or at least awareness of it. It has also taken off the pressure of playing solo material which is often difﬁcult and hard to perform and can actually lessen the ability to focus on musical elements like phrasing or articulation. String players at least have piano accompaniment a majority of the time leaving them with purely melodic material to enjoy. It is also a social aspect to music that can improve our lives and build lifelong friendships. Chamber music = happy musicians.
The Internet and the New High Level
YouTube has kicked everyone in the butt. Everyday I see a video that shows a high level technical proficiency and musical maturity. Those sayings like “our instrument is hard,” or “classical guitar is an imperfect instrument but we do our best,” just can’t stand up to the millions of talented, and more importantly, happy classical guitarist out there. Also, online content brings this high level to every small nowhere town and lets them learn by way of example.
What should we learn from this?
We need to learn to enjoy practicing well. Don’t be lazy with your technique and don’t give up. We now know that quality is possible for everyone, not just a talented few (I don’t believe in talent anyway). What we do know is that there are millions of happy, successful guitar students and professionals playing at the new level so shut up and join them. Down with negativity…long live the happy practicers!
Your points about repertoire and pedagogy are right on. I find myself riding on the cusp of the old and new schools. Making a transition is a little scary, especially when I see people half my age playing 10 times better. There is nothing but good that can come from raising the bar, but it is hard on my ego. This is what I distill from your post (and I agree with and hope to act on): Humility and optimism are key. There has never been a better time.