by Dave Belcher
The process of learning a musical instrument can be an arduous one. It takes time, discipline, patience, knowledge, experimentation, and weathering a lot of storms along the way. And this experience can include many peaks, but also many valleys . . . at times it can be a frustrating experience. But what can add to this frustration is feeling like we don’t know how to learn, that we don’t know whether our own process of learning is the right path to begin to make music and enjoy the instrument we all love.
In this article we’re going to take a look at what some of the masters of the classical guitar have had to say about the learning process, specifically focusing on the topic of how technique and musicality should relate to one another. Each of the audio clips in this article are pulled directly from Simon’s podcast interviews with John Williams, Marcin Dylla, and Ben Verdery, respectively. Hopefully this will give you some insight into how each of these masters of the guitar think about this question, as well as some nuanced differences between how they think about it. Let’s dive in.
Technique, then Musicality?
There is a prevalent approach to the learning process of a musical instrument that pits technique and musicality against one another, that thinks of them as competing entities. A popular, traditional pedagogical strategy teachers have used in the past (and that some still use) in music education is to first require students to master technical (and mechanical) tools before beginning to develop a musical interpretation. So, with the guitar in particular, the student is given, say, the nineteenth-century pedagogical methods (Sor, Aguado, Coste, Carulli, Carcassi, etc.) and first learns to develop technique while a focus on repertoire and musical interpretation comes later.
This is a mindset that maestro John Williams believes rather adamantly to be the wrong mindset to have:
I think the first thing to say is . . . absolutely not to think that you look at a piece from a technical point of view and you study those little problems — it is still what a lot of teachers still do; they say: “Master that first and we’ll put the interpretation in afterwards.” That is speaking like a total schizophrenic. The very idea is absolutely ridiculous. If the things aren’t expressed and don’t go hand in hand, that is, that it’s absolutely together in a person’s heart from the beginning, then take up something else.
Marcin Dylla agrees with Williams but he suggests that this mindset of putting technique before musicality has more to do with the student than the teacher, and specifically to do with the student’s maturity:
I remember very well the advice I got from my teachers, but I didn’t get the idea of it: listen to the music; sing the melody; play just the melody; think more, practice less; or move your fingers maybe less; or work in an effective way; focus on the problems you want to solve. But when you are just a young boy, you just want to play. And many great musicians they confirm the same: this technical approach, this is what is at the beginning. Young people want to play fast, they want to be able to play well, so they focus on a manual technical approach, and actually music, phrasing, understanding of the form, style, and being sensitive for sound quality — this is coming very, very late. And I think this is not just musical education, but it is just the maturity as a person, because I know many amateur players — guitarists in the age of 50, 60 — and they just play for fun. When I talk to them I immediately understand that the instrument they have they love because of sound. Even though they are struggling to produce a nice sound, they have a desire for a nice sound. The kids, they usually don’t get it: they just buy a very loud guitar that has nice sustain and “Boom!” . . . that’s what’s important to them. So, while teaching nowadays, I’m just repeating the same things but I’m trying to give clear examples of what it gives you when you just sing the melody, for example; what it means to understand the character of the melody; to find a nice beat and a groove; to make it more organic and less technical — or more musical, less technical. And usually that is my goal when I’m teaching. I know that anyway they’re going to practice for hours and move their fingers without thinking so much, but still if they dedicate a little time to think about the music, not so much about the playing, it would be just great.
Ben Verdery echoes Williams and Dylla and suggests that too early of a focus on technique rather than musicality can stifle the emotion and joy of music. He is responding to the argument that one must build up accuracy from the beginning, essentially learning to play a piece with technical perfection so that you don’t build in mistakes into the way you learn the piece:
I have heard arguments against what I just said, in other words, why would you read a piece wrongly and hit wrong notes — and once you do that, that’s going to go into your memory and, you know, you must be clean from the beginning, and I disagree. I think what you have to do is you get to know it and, when the time comes for the proper fingering then you’ll know what the phrase is and that will dictate the fingering . . . what I learned from the process of taking more time is that in the end you save more time . . . because you’re really connecting . . . music is only about emotions; it’s notes, it’s sounds that are creating emotions and if you’re not in touch with that and it takes you further, longer to get that, you know, by trying to be perfect from the first measure, I think you’re losing out.
So…Musicality, then Technique?
So what if before we learn the mechanics of how to play the scales and arpeggios — how to get the piece “under our fingers” — we instead attempt to identify phrases, separate out different voices, and imagine and begin to explore different musical devices we can utilize to communicate the music expressively: dynamics, rubato, articulation, color, and so on? Ben Verdery suggests that if you have paid close attention to the phrasing of a piece of music from the very beginning of the learning process, at least you’ll know what the phrases are; you’ll know how to give attention to voices because you have cared for them from the beginning, and this can guide you later on how to choose fingerings, how to make technical decisions. In short, instead of having to inject a piece with musicality later that is already shaped in your muscle memory from hours of technical practice (which requires a bit of relearning for your muscle memory, actually), you can save time by focusing from the start on musicality with an aim to developing technique to bring that music to life.
There is another side to this as well, though. I’ve often heard students talk about practicing scales (or other elements of technique) as “boring” or “mindless” — maybe you’ve felt that way too! Technical practice can sometimes feel like a chore, something we begrudgingly do (or perhaps avoid!) when we really would just rather “play music.” (This can lead to a tendency Simon has lovingly called “noodling.”) But I’ve also heard some of these same students express how frustrated they are that they cannot execute what they hear in their heads and what they most want to realize musically on the instrument. In that case, technique is clearly not something we can simply avoid or leave to one side: it is a part of the music-making process. So maybe the real question is, what is the proper relationship between technique and musicality for the learner of classical guitar? Do we get our technical ducks all in a row, so to speak, before we begin to add dynamics, articulation, rubato, expression . . . before we begin to interpret and make music? Williams, Dylla, and Verdery all think that is the wrong way to go. Then maybe we should start right away with musicality as Verdery suggests and worry about technique later? But, if the latter is the way to go, how do we deal with the technical obstacles that might prevent us from making the music we want to make?
As we dig in deeper we can see that the relationship between technique and music is actually a rather complex one. On the one hand, an approach that focuses exclusively or even primarily on technique can end up transforming music into something dry, mechanical, and, well, unmusical. On the other hand, we do need certain technical tools to best be able to express music as we want. Let me give two examples. If, on the one hand, we practice the scales in the first movement of the Concierto de Aranjuez with a focus only on speed and precision — that is, with a focus on technique, mechanics — the end result can be rather dull and lifeless. One of the most challenging aspects of all of those fast scales is learning to deploy the mechanics to play with speed and precision in a way that is engaging, dynamic, and full of life. On the other hand, do we not need to develop the technical tools of, say, differential right-hand weight and balance to be able to play effective dynamics (such as in the Aranjuez scales)? Or do we not need to develop the use of right-hand articulation to be able to convey rhythmic complexity (such as in Sergio Assad’s music)? Or, even more simply, do we not need to first learn to play in higher positions on the guitar before we can begin to use alternate fingerings that produce a different tone color and give a different musical result (such as Segovia’s editions of Bach or Albeniz)? Dynamics, rhythmic emphasis and articulation, tone color…these are all musical elements, but each requires a set of technical and mechanical tools to accomplish.
Why Not Both?
But, we still haven’t answered the question: Which should come first, musicality or technique? And here we must circle back to one of Ben Verdery’s comments: what is more important, Verdery says, is that you begin the learning process by making an emotional connection with the music, which is ultimately why we make music. And here’s the kicker: making an emotional connection with music from early on in the learning process is what gives us the desire to express the music technically…to search for and to find and to develop the tools necessary to bring the music alive so we can create that same emotional connection again, for ourselves as much as for our audience.
So, instead of thinking of musicality and technique as warring poles or opposites that we have to somehow fit together, we may do better to think of them as necessary components of the same reality: music. Music is something we share with one another, that connects us and moves us deeply, that can express the deepest emotions we carry with us throughout life and in society as a whole. In short, music is like a relationship, one we will develop and deepen and grow over time, but we first have to be able to connect with the other person before we know if this is really going to have a chance. I’ll give Ben the last words: