Expressive Guitar Playing
Tapping Your Student's Inner Artist, Part 1
by Daniel Roest
Introducing a new series of columns designed to unlock the expressive potential in your students' playing, as well as your own - get ready to bring new energy to your lessons with these ideas on transforming playing from ordinary to moving.
At the recent 4th Annual South Bay Guitar Society Solo and Ensemble Festival, solo classical guitarists and ensemble players filled the stage for the clinic I presented called "Expressive Playing." The handouts provided there are essentially reproduced here. The following parameters of musical expression were introduced:
- Stage Presence
Think of these parameters of musical expression as virtual dials on the guitar - and consider how you can help your students gain control of them. All of these elements have real emotional impact. The last term in the list, "Heart," captures in a word what we're really after here: a soulful, moving performance that ingratiates player to audience and leaves the performer feeling fulfilled in the role of "artist."
Nobody wants to attend a boring and uninspired performance - in any style. You know you need to step it way up if you wish to avoid that - and that includes all student performances - but the big question is how? I want you to grab a firm hold on the virtual dials on your guitar, and with your hands and heart, bring out the soul and emotion inherent in the great music you and your students perform. I invite you to take a few minutes to explore the first topic now - Dynamics, and get ready to share these in your lessons. Use an unamplified acoustic guitar for these exercises.
The first exercise presented at the clinic was in dynamics, or volume. With "Big Red," my '76 Josť Ramirez 1A concert guitar, I went right up to full volume - ffff - "quadruple forte," with a string-rattling strum across open strings. I explained that relative to other instruments, such as a trumpet or grand piano, that wasn't even forte. But for this instrument, that was the top of its dynamic range. Then as a group we went to the other extreme - as soft (piano) as possible. Not just very soft, but very, very, very soft - pppp - quadruple piano. This may in fact be indicated in a score, and in a concert setting you must be ready to execute it.
Take your instrument and lightly brush the open strings - so lightly that it can't be heard several feet away, but only by you and someone right next to you. That is the end of your dynamics continuum, "as softly as possible." Note: To protect your nails as we go up and up in volume, flatten your hand and use the side of your thumb, avoiding the thumbnail. To bump up to the next of ten volume settings, ppp, simply repeat the brush with slightly more force, just enough to be heard six to nine feet away. That is triple piano - still very, very soft.
Now we come to pp - pianissimo - very soft - the third in ten volume levels. In a concert hall, this should be hard to hear in the back but still audible. Remember, we're going up toward loud, and it's getting closer. So try to play softly, but projecting more, and just think of being just barely audible thirty or forty feet away. Which brings us to p - piano, soft. This is a subtle and subdued place to dwell musically, which, along with a change in tone, provides contrast to normal playing volume.
Consider the previous settings on your volume dial, pppp, ppp, pp and p (1 - 4 on a scale of 10) to be the range of peace and quiet, mysterious, subdued, mournful, sorrowful, tender, innocent, far away, disappearing, and nearly endless permutations of these. Some Italian musical directions for soft playing you may encounter include calmo- very tranquil; da lontano- from a distance; estremamente piano- extremely soft; lusingando- in a soft, tender manner; molto piu tranquillo- very calm, much more calmly; morbidezza- with tenderness, softly; morendo- dying away; mormorando- murmuring; movendo pochissimo- moving very little; perdendose- losing itself in the distance; quasi niente- almost nothing; sussurando- whispering; and tranquillo e comodo- calm and easy.
Turn it up!
Now we come to the range of normal playing: mezzo piano, mezzo forte and forte. As a reminder, mezzo means "medium," or "half," in this case. So as we leave the soft settings on our volume dial - 1, 2, 3 and 4 - we're now going through 5, 6 and 7 - room above us and below us for contrast and expression. Mezzo piano is not soft; it is "half-soft," and that is just adjacent to mezzo forte, "half-loud," which is immediately adjacent to forte, or "loud." Mezzo piano suits classical guitar very well in intimate settings, just you and one to several people enjoying the special tonal and emotive qualities of the classical guitar in a quiet setting. At mezzo forte, you can be heard well, your playing is assertive, confident, appealing - an excellent default setting, and no longer conveying such intimacy and tenderness. Forte is still bolder, stronger, not half loud, but just plain loud. Everybody in the house or hall you're playing in can hear you. At forte, through closed doors on another floor they may still hear you. Play the same brush across the open strings a few times with settings 1 - 7 before taking on the very loud and "This is Spinal Tap" loud.
Turn that thing down!
Okay, time to put in the ear plugs, or at least warn those around you! We're tackling 8, 9 and 10. When someone raises their voice quite a bit or shouts, there is a clear emotional expression happening. The same is true when you go into fortissimo, or very loud, so you had better do it with conviction and appropriateness. This setting will be stronger and louder than forte, but two settings below quadruple forte - as loud as your instrument can possibly sound. In fortissimo, strum your open strings forcefully, but not to the point of rattling. This is where you are projecting throughout your performing space and getting strong reflections from the far walls. Dig into the strings, but don't drop into the face of the guitar as you pass the first string.
Next comes triple forte - very, very loud. This setting is just like overkill on the previous one - it's 9 on a 10 scale. You do it as a big, bold lion's roar that say's BAM!!! - as your strings rattle and your instrument strains to deliver what you require. Used with other expression devices like sudden silence, you might get the crowd to jump to their feet. And that brings us to the final level, one I only access to test just how loud the instrument can go, quadruple forte. Strings are rattling like crazy and the instrument is on the verge of flying apart - but it won't. Because of the force required for this setting, you lose control, and only as an effect of loss of control, chaos, anarchy, a July 4th fireworks finale, etc., would you go here.
A few Italian dynamic markings and expressive musical directions to not only know, but to give your students, include: agitato- agitated, excited; anima- animated; appassionato- passionately; appenato- distressed; barbaro savage; brioso- with vigor and spirit; bravura- music of unusual brilliance and power; con brio- with fire and dash; con durezza- sternly, harshly; con intusiasmo- with enthusiasm; con forza: with force; frizzante- biting, sharp; giocoso- joyfully, playfully; legato- smoothly, connected; sforzando- suddenly loud, forced; and finally, spiritoso- in a spirited manner.
Remember that the point of this column is to learn about and gain control over the emotional impact of these settings. This is what will set your playing apart; when you can spontaneously access any setting, it will have more emotional expression.
The next article in this series will continue to explore the virtual dials on your expression machine, this most expressive of all instruments, the guitar.
Copyright © 2008 Daniel Roest
www.danielguitar.com - All Rights Reserved
About the Author
Daniel Roest (pronounced "roost") started playing the guitar at the age of seven and never stopped. Today he has performed in countless solo and ensemble events in nearly every kind of venue. His Great Guitars! 2004 CD has received 5-star reviews. His concerts are praised for being entertaining and informative. For ten years he served as President and Artistic Director of the South Bay Guitar Society based in San Jose, CA. He prepared many successful grant applications for SBGS. He is recognized for supporting such gifted guitarists as Laurence Juber, Peppino D'Agostino, Muriel Anderson, Jeff Linsky, Franco Morone, Michael Chapdelaine, Richard Gilewitz, Chris Proctor, Sharon Isbin, Lily Afshar, Carlos Barbosa-Lima and many others.
Roest earned three degrees in music performance and has participated in dozens of masterclasses, including many he produced. He taught guitar and music fundamentals at California State University Stanislaus and De Anza, Foothill and San Jose City Colleges and now maintains a full-time teaching studio in Folsom, CA. He has adjudicated several multi-instrument competitions, presented music clinics and introduced many new audiences to the art of the classical guitar. Previous columns for Guitar Sessions include: "So You Want to Make a Living with the Guitar, Parts 1, 2 and 3," July-September 2007.