Teaching and the Future of Fingerstyle Guitar

In a recent blog post, Adam Rafferty asked: “Where do you think fingerstyle guitar is heading next?”

I’ve been thinking about this a lot since Adam’s post and wanted to share some of my own thoughts about it. Because I spend a lot my time teaching, my comments are chiefly in regard to the way I’d like to see the education field evolve.

Adam is correct that until Andres Segovia came along, most music conservatories did not consider the guitar worthy of the kind of in-depth study that is offered for say, piano or violin. Even today many schools do not offer the guitar as an applied area of study. With the exception of a few schools that focus on contemporary music, most guitar programs that exist today are fairly conservative and offer guitar programs that focus primarily on traditional classical or jazz repertoire and technique.

I completely agree that students must familiarize themselves with history of the instrument and its music and that having a structured approach to the discipline in place is necessary. In addition to music fundamentals, this will include learning benchmark pieces from the classical or jazz repertoire and mastering techniques that will enable the student to execute solo guitar material in a musical way.

On the other hand, I believe that there must be room in the schedule to help students to develop their own individual approach to the instrument and a repertoire that is at least somewhat unique. One way to do this is to have students choose some music that they love and help them to create their own unique arrangements.

Let me give you an example of the type of assignment I’ve given to several students in the past:

Before getting creative, the student would be assigned a piece of music selected by me that I feel will challenge them and help them to learn certain concepts, but that they can master with some diligent practice. Since I primarily teach jazz, let’s say that I have them learn Barry Galbraith’s arrangement of “Our Love is Here to Stay” from one of my favorite books: Barry Galbraith Guitar Solos by Jim Lichens. In addition to simply learning to play the arrangement we’d analyze the arrangement in two ways. First we’d look at the technical side of the arrangement exploring the fingerings in detail to make sure that everything lends itself to giving the most musical result. If we find that a new fingering seems to make more sense than the ones indicated in the book we can try it out and decide whether or not to implement it. Then we’d analyze the musical choices made by Barry Galbraith. In this arrangement he uses a variety of techniques such as: contrary motion, block voicing, walking bass lines, and chromatic planing.

Okay, so hopefully the student enjoyed the piece, has practiced it and has learned a thing or two. Once they’ve completed a couple of pieces in this manner, I’ll challenge them to choose a piece of music from a fake book and use some of the concepts to try their own hand at arranging. If the student is fairly new to jazz, a little direction may be needed – obviously jazz tunes are likely going to make better use of walking bass lines and chromatic planing than a rock or funk tune, but who knows?

Over the past several years I have been pleasantly surprised by students who have come back with really lovely solo guitar arrangements of jazz standards. Other times I have encountered students who seemed at a complete loss as to where to begin and needed more help along the way.

I believe that it is not enough to teach students only the standard classical or jazz repertoire. We have to challenge our students to not only be guitar players but to be creative arrangers and composers. This is what is going to get them noticed and ultimately what will pay the bills. Think about it: Segovia was the first player to be taken seriously as a classical guitarist not just because he was a fantastic guitarist, but because he played works by J.S. Bach, which he had transcribed and arranged himself!

Today we have access to thousands of performances from players all over the world via the Internet. If you’ve discovered artists such as Tommy Emmanuel, Pete Huttlinger, Adam Rafferty, Ulli Boegershausen, Sungha Jung, or Andy McKee in the past few years, I’ll bet you they weren’t playing pieces by Dowland, Bach, or even Gershwin when you first heard them. These guitarists have gained a worldwide audience because not only do they play beautifully, they play material that the vast majority of the public can identify with. The arrangements they play are not taken from any book but were created by the artists themselves.

Now I’m not suggesting that it’s my goal to create the next hot YouTube guitarist, but if a young guitarist is hired to play specific material they had better be prepared to work up an arrangement or two. If they can’t then I didn’t prepare them well enough. And if that material includes songs by top 40 artists, then so be it. I know that the future of fingerstyle guitar will continue to embrace the accepted repertoire but I sincerely hope that we can start to leave behind the notion that contemporary pieces are only novelty pieces and are not worthy of serious study. Depending on the arrangement, these pieces can be just as difficult as any classical piece, and – they can actually help you make a living!

To Enjoy Music, We Need To Be Able To Escape Music

The following essay was written by Dennis E. Powell for Monday’s edition of the Athens News. I found that it really hit home with me as I’d been thinking about some of the same things. Surely the constant barrage of musical noise we experience daily is destroying our ability to really listen to and appreciate a musical performance. As someone who teaches and performs music for a living, I find that I require some daily quiet time to cleanse my palette and let the music between my ears play uninterrupted.

Oh, and as for well-known pieces that have been overused to the point of absurdity look no further than the O Fortuna movement of Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana. It’s become the default leitmotif for every embattled gladiator, evil wizard, and alien invasion that comes down the pike.

To Enjoy Music, We Need To Be Able To Escape Music
The assault on, with, and by music continues, and grows.

I love music, but I don’t know how long I can hold out, in a world in which escaping from music has become increasingly difficult.

It hit me especially hard last week when I watched what should have been a very nice video production online. A friend had sent me the link to the presentation, which combined the footage of numerous fascinating camera angles showing the latest space shuttle launch.

When the space shuttle goes up, it’s an impressive thing. It is majestically loud (though a mere bottle rocket compared to the sound of the mighty Saturn V that took astronauts to the Moon). As space is entered, the noise diminishes, because there is no air to relay the sound waves, so what the astronauts hear is transmitted entirely through the vehicle itself, in the way road noise changes when you roll up the windows of the car.

This is all really neat stuff. It needs no improvement.

But here was this very lovely set of images, and underneath it all was music. There were great thumping drums for those of us too dim to realize that yes, it was a dramatic moment. There were screeching electric guitars during some parts. There was even a kind of neo-classical music here and there.

The sort-of-classical stuff no doubt has its origins in the spectacular 1968 motion picture, “2001: A Space Odyssey,” in which director Stanley Kubrick masterfully created his vision of orbital mechanics as ballet, with space ships moving to Johann Strauss’s signature waltz. It was surprising and lovely then; it is a cliche now.

The filmmakers who put the shuttle launch piece together can scarcely be blamed, though. Nothing is considered finished unless it has a bed of musical noise.

That’s what it is, too: noise. Turn on any of the pseudo-science channels halfway up the cable or satellite dial and you’ll come away with the impression that divers swimming near sharks hear ominous music, and that birds flitting about hear playful music, and that tornadoes invariably arrive in a cloud of absurd headbanger stuff. The thing is, sharks and birds and tornadoes don’t need any help. Nor do we need assistance in learning that sharks are dangerous, birds can be amusing, and tornadoes are frightening. It might even be that the sounds of watery isolation experienced by the diver, the singing of the birds, or the roar of the tornado would in their way be even more effective in illustrating them.

But I will leave the sharks, birds and tornadoes to take care of themselves, because the saddest thing is how overuse of music has cheapened music.

It used to be fun to listen to what is sometimes called “light classical” music. Putting on a record of, say, Grieg’s “Peer Gynt” was enjoyable and evocative. It is still evocative — only now its “Morning Mood” evokes air fresheners and toilet paper, its “In the Hall of the Mountain King,” bumbling husbands and things crashing down until some product is purchased. Numerous pieces of truly beautiful music have suffered similar fates.

Even worse, the ubiquity of music in the background has, I think, harmed our ability to listen to music at all.

When was the last time you listened to music? I mean really listened, not merely have it on while you were doing something else? There was a time when people would put a record on a record player, sit down comfortably, and give themselves over to the sound. It could even be done by people in groups.

But anymore, people often don’t sit in silent appreciation even when they’re the audience for live music. Music has moved, often, from being an end unto itself to become life’s relish tray, something that is expected but that passes without much notice.

And it is expected. Some of us do not feel we can go about our day without music pumping through speakers or headphones, even though we don’t actually think about what’s playing. It is as if the endless musical beds on television — I’ve recently noticed that now it’s sometimes under news stories — have led us to believe that life is incomplete without a soundtrack.

The presence of background music is so universal that I’ve actually paused upon entering a store or shop, vaguely thinking that something is wrong, something is missing. Only after a little thought do I realize that there is no music playing. That there is silence.

Now, I know that by complaining about it I have as much chance of changing anything as I would have by suggesting that it might mix things up a bit if for a while the sun were to rise in the west. But maybe it is worth noting how the role of music has changed, to mourn how something good can in some ways die through overabundance.

Maybe it will remind me to take a little time to find and appreciate quiet.

Maybe you’ll give that a try, too.

Dennis E. Powell was an award-winning reporter in New York and elsewhere before moving to Ohio and becoming a full-time crackpot. His column appears on Mondays in the Athens News.

Rationalizations and Expectations

Most people don’t get in their car and worry about being killed on their way to the store. Even though we may be drinking coffee, fiddling with the cell phone, and singing along to the radio, none of us think it can happen to us. We’re just so good at rationalizing that our behavior is reasonable – even when it’s not.

So why do we stress out about the possibility of making a mistake in a piece of music? I can almost guarantee it will happen. It’s just a question of how well we handle ourselves when it does.

Let’s start reversing those tendencies: be a little more cautious when operating heavy machinery and a little more daring when playing music!