Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Teaching Styles and Methods

At a rough approximation, I think I have studied with approximately twenty or so different instrumental teachers in my time. This includes a few amateur guitarists in the very early days, then José Tomas in Alicante, Spain, Michael Strutt in Montréal, Léo Brouwer in Montréal and Toronto, Oscar Ghiglia in Banff, Alberta and Pepe Romero in Victoria, BC and Salzburg, Austria. Plus I have sat in on several master classes given by Abel Carlevaro and the occasional one by a pianist or singer.

Everyone has a different approach. I can hardly remember a thing that Tomas said in the many private lessons I had with him, but I remember his examples very well. One day I came to class with the John Duarte arrangement of the First Cello Suite by Bach. In this version, probably the most widely performed, the original in G major is transposed up a fifth to D major. Then the sixth string of the guitar is tuned down to D and bass lines are added. After I played, just the prelude, I think, Tomas picked up his eight-string guitar, dug around amongst his scores, and sight read the prelude from the original cello music in G major. It sounded so rich in comparison with the tinny sounding version up a fifth that I immediately gave up the idea of learning the Duarte arrangement. In the original key, it certainly did not need an added bass line. I was playing a six-string, not an eight-string guitar so Tomas suggested I try it in A major instead, which, years later, I did. After transposing and learning the whole suite I decided that it needed the third string to be in F# as well as the sixth in D, so I re-learned it. I also recorded the whole suite. Here is the prelude.

With Oscar Ghiglia, on the other hand, I hardly recall him playing anything in particular, but I remember what he said, very well. He loved to teach with metaphor. I remember him comparing the slow part of the prelude to the first lute suite by Bach to an opera plot. When the harmony got to a very dramatic V4/2 chord, he uttered in a deep voice: "revenge!" It seemed to perfectly capture the drama of the moment. Another time he might teach the same passage with an entirely different metaphor. I remember the devastating critique he gave of one woman's Bach: "you played that like you were going shopping!"

But I think all teachers give little demonstrations of how a phrase might go best, or how to balance a certain harmony.

Pepe Romero seemed to take a two-pronged approach: on the one hand he really focussed on technique. Uniquely among all the master classes I have seen, he would start each session with ten or fifteen minutes of technique with everyone playing together. He has some great exercises and I use them to this day to warm up and maintain my technique. One happy result of this was that nearly every guitarist had, by the end of the course, a much higher level of technical confidence. The importance of this cannot be over-rated. The other part of his approach was perhaps psychological. He talked about things like not playing from ego and about having a spiritual base. When it came to the music, he didn't say a lot. I think he has a very instinctive approach.

Oh, one other thing about José Tomas' approach: he had a scholarly side and also was an absolute master of fingerings. His editions of Bach or Scarlatti or Weiss were always the most practically and efficiently fingered.

Frankly, I don't remember a darn thing Leo Brouwer said either of the times I played for him--oh, apart from him asking about my odd sitting position the first time. I used to sit with the guitar positively wedged into my left thigh and tilting very forward.

One very funny thing I remember from Abel Carlevaro's master classes: he would say the same thing to every player: "you have two problems, the right hand and the left hand." True enough!

One more thing about Oscar Ghiglia: he had a sardonic side and seemed to really dislike everything about Argentina. I made the mistake of playing a piece by Máximo Diego Pujol, a guitarist-composer from Buenos Aires, for him once and all he did was tell a really disgusting joke about Argentinians. This was the piece.

One final thought about teaching: hardly any style or method gets to the really nitty-gritty core of what you need to play music. I think it boils down to concentration: if you have really good focus and concentration, then you can use your musicality and technical command at its best. If not, then the performance will come apart. So however you work, you need to develop your focus and concentration. I don't recall any teachers talking much about that...

Let's end with a fine performance by a young Canadian guitarist who seems to have this concentration thing down. This is Drew Henderson playing the Allegro from the Violin Sonata No. 2 BWV 1003 by J. S. Bach.


Anonymous said...

I don't know if Mr. Henderson reads your blog, but if he does I want to congratulate him. That's mighty fine guitar playing if I may say so!

Bryan Townsend said...

You bet! One of the finest young guitarists I have heard in quite a while.

Will Wilkin said...

I enjoyed your reflections on your teachers. Teachers really do influence us, engaging us seriously when we are impressionable. Of course the lessons we take are often not the lessons intended, but that is because a real learner must construct their own meaning from all experiences, and integrate it into our own personal and therefore unique understanding.

The teachers I still reflect on were mostly in history and literature. I had a few guitar teachers but never could learn even 1 song and quit guitar twice, the last time was 22 years ago. I concluded I have zero musical ability.

Funny enough, I picked up a violin 23 months ago and have played it almost every day, and a friend (business partner) whose heard me finally said the other day "its beginning to sound like music." Of course I say "its not music yet" but I do recognize enormous progress. I love sight-reading and have many books of sheet music. My daily playing (I prefer to just call it "playing" --isn't that a lot more fun than "practicing"?) is mostly roughing out a page a few times, then turning the page...going through many pages as an adventure each time. There are only a few pieces I've focused on enough to begin playing them almost passably --a Corelli sonata, a Vivaldi concerto, etc.

I'm desperately poor right now so can't afford lessons. I've had a total of 4 violin lessons, a few weeks apart, last year, from a very accomplished violinist. Yes I took a few tips from him and certainly made a (more precise) long list of things I need to improve, but honestly I feel like a few lessons per year would be right for me, its enough to give me a learning agenda and then I can work on it privately. Maybe really I'm just too old and crusty and habitual and don't want a constant (weekly) nag telling me to correct some bad habit that's comfortable?

I do sometimes get a tinge of regret that I didn't start younger, that I don't now discipline myself more in playing (to really learn to count time, to really learn to hold the bow correctly, etc), and that I don't have a teacher through which the master-apprentice process of classical music seems to be learned. It adds up to a tinge of sadness that I'll probably never be "classical" because I won't be "good" enough.

But I also have a salve perspective on that: in my nostalgia for roots music like Appalachian bluegrass and really old country and other folk music, I came to appreciate how music was very different before recordings and mass media. Music used to be made by families, and sometimes including neighbors in the rural days of "front porch music." Even if you didn't play, you'd sing along, music was made by nearly everybody. It was the only music you had.

The music business turned ordinary people into a passive audience of consumers, intimidated by the strong skills of professional and virtuoso musicians. In many ways that was a spiritual loss that permeates our culture still. And so, in harmony with the advice you report from Pepe Romero (I love his "Flamenco" disc on Philips label --I'm listening to it now!), about not playing from ego but rather from a spiritual base, and its not very different from what you say about having focus and concentration and using your own musicality: yes, even a back-porch musician like me can do that much, and over time doing that will make me good enough for the front-porch!

Bryan Townsend said...

I think you would have liked my mother. She was an old-time fiddler and played all her life. When I was a child I was surrounded by "back-porch" music all the time! Music was something that people did in their spare time and they did it for their own enjoyment and for their friends and neighbors. And most people could play at least a little bit.

When you say: "The music business turned ordinary people into a passive audience of consumers, intimidated by the strong skills of professional and virtuoso musicians. In many ways that was a spiritual loss that permeates our culture still." I think you express very well one of the profoundest problems of music today. A passive audience of consumers simply do not appreciate music in the same way that people do who also play music at home.