Next-Level Polishing: Three Areas to Elevate Your Classical Guitar Music to Advanced Levels
It takes a lot of work to get a piece of music to performance level. Often, the upper atmospheres seem to resist polish. We can almost play it to our desired standard, but not quite.
So how do we master this top 5%? How do we bring a piece from mere notes to something magical? One way is to explore the further reaches of rhythm, volume, and timbre.
The Problem: The Musical Glass Ceiling
Let’s say we learn a piece of music and have worked through all the bumpy bits. We can play the notes, but it’s not as musical and compelling as it could be.
This is a common position, especially for guitarists. Even if every note is clean and in time, music can still sound bland and lifeless. It’s fine, but not great.
This is usually because the player has not made decisions about some core elements of the music.
Different players have different levels of musicality and sophistication. And indeed, we’re all on a spectrum in these areas.
This is a lifelong study. And the suggestions below can help. They can guide an ongoing advancement in musicality and effective expression. As we gain more familiarity with each zone, our work in that area widens.
Assumption: You Know the Music
Before jumping into the three areas on which to focus, we need to make a big assumption. And that is that you know the music.
If a piece has problems, the first thing is to eliminate confusion. This means that you gain a deep understanding of the music on the page. You understand and have strategies for each of the challenges involved.
Once we have this familiarity with the piece, we can troubleshoot the following areas. These concern phrasing and expression. But they can also aid in smoothing any technical issues.
Area #1: Rhythm
One area in which we can often elevate a piece is rhythm. We already know the written rhythm, so it’s not a question of clapping and counting rhythms. (If this is not true, then this is where to start.)
Beyond the ink on the page, we can breathe life into the rhythm. This is one of the highest leverage areas to make music sound better.
We can think of rhythm as anything that has to do with time.
Thrust and Feel
Most music sounds best when it portrays a sense of forward momentum. This is one aspect of the “long line.”
We want to feel pulled forward with every note and bar of music. We want our piece to sound alive, with an energy of its own.
To make this happen, we demonstrate the role of each note. Ties and syncopations have their own treatment. Upbeats and downbeats are treated differently.
Each note either leads to an arrival or is the arrival point. (Or both.) And our rhythmic inflection, along with dynamics, etc., can clearly denote this.
Rubato is the stretching and compressing of time. So this falls into the category of rhythm.
How we slow down and speed up can make or break the intended expression. Is the rubato structured?
We can revisit fermatas. We can craft phrase and section endings. We can fine-tune any intra-phrase expressive rubato.
We can review anywhere the music slows or accelerates. We can make sure we have a solid plan and have made intentional decisions.
Area #2: Legato
The second area is Legato. We usually think of legato as smooth and connected notes. And this is so. But it’s also more than this.
We certainly do want to ensure that our melody and bass lines are connecting in beautiful, vocal ways. We want to hear the ends of notes and we want them intentional and clean.
But we also have smooth and connected lines, sections. We can craft the transition of one phrase to the next. This means that the phrases are smooth and connected, with the same care we give individual notes.
Balance is a common area for improvement. Balance is the relative volume of notes, especially when we have more than one line of music. Likewise, we want to balance the notes of our chords well.
Anything that falls into the category of volume we can think of as balance.
This means that the melody is always clear and obvious. It never gets drowned out or upstaged by the bass or accompaniment.
We have a clear hierarchy for the musical lines, and we keep them all in their relative position. For example, we can consider the ratio of one voice to another in terms of volume.
Ideally, we know the role of every note on the page and balance it to best demonstrate that role. We have clear levels of sound that keep the parts and voices separate.
Within each balanced voice and line, we have the note-to-note dynamics. We seldom want each note the same volume. Instead, each note gets subtly louder or softer.
We need a scheme for each phrase. This allows us to communicate the emotional intent of the phrase. We use volume (along with rhythm) to pull the music forward.
Dynamics is one of the most powerful tools in our expressive arsenal. And we can usually find some way to improve this area when polishing our music.
Sections and Transitions
We connect the small phrases and bits to create larger ones. And we can also connect these larger bits into full sections. Then we can connect the sections to create one unified piece of music.
In keeping forward momentum, it matters how we craft our transitions. Using volume in connection with the other areas, we can sculpt our pieces. We can keep listeners engaged and the music flowing forward.
Music can often sag or stop between major sections. So we can work to maintain drive between these large ideas. This is true even when one section is stylistically different than the next.
Area #3: Tone
The third area we can polish is that of tone quality. This pertains to the timbre of the instrument. It may include the quality or freshness of our strings, or our technique and movements.
The sound or tone quality we create on guitar involves many elements. Our classical guitar fingernails have a massive effect on the sound. As does the location on the guitar where we play.
Our right-hand movements also play a big part of our tone quality.
We can make different sounds on the guitar using different touch. This is true even with the same finger stroke and fingernails.
This pertains to the level of tonus and tension in the fingertip. And it also includes the levels of tonus and tension in other parts of the body.
Our neurophysiology affects how we sound. At a high level, we can release excess tension in, say, a leg or hip. And this can make a dramatic change in the sound of our playing.
We can work with the subtle tension patterns to improve our touch on the instrument. We can adopt physiology that will create the desired sound for a chosen piece or section of music.
Alexander Technique is useful for this. As are many types of martial arts, such as Qi Gong and Tai Chi.
Incremental Improvements Add Up
As we work on the areas above, the results may individually be small. Or one may have a massive improvement, depending on the piece at hand.
But working on the upper levels of a piece, we tend to gain less ground with each unit of work.
In the book-writing world there is a joke that also fits here: One writer says, “I’m 90% finished with my new book.” and the other writer replies, “Congratulations, you’re halfway there!”
The last bit may take as much work as all the work prior.
But this is good work. This is where our skills improve and where we find the fodder for mastery. Few players polish music to this level. But those that do find great meaning and satisfaction in the challenge.
And any small gains we make in the areas above elevate the music.
For example, even a minute improvement in rubato can have an outsized effect on the emotion of the music. Any clarity we add with better balance can keep the listener more engaged and interested.
As we fine-tune our music, we can use the areas above as a guide. We can put the microscope on each area in turn. This allows us to find details that we may have missed before. And in future pieces, we may quicker to realize the possibilities.
Hi, I’m Allen Mathews.
I started as a folk guitarist, then fell in love with classical guitar in my 20’s. Despite a lot of practice and schooling, I still couldn’t get my music to flow well. I struggled with excess tension. My music sounded forced. And my hands and body were often sore. I got frustrated, and couldn’t see the way forward. Then, over the next decade, I studied with two other stellar teachers – one focused on the technical movements, and one on the musical (he was a concert pianist). In time, I came to discover a new set of formulas and movements. These brought new life and vitality to my practice. Now I help guitarists find more comfort and flow in their music, so they play more beautifully.
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