Interlude 4: First Master Class

On a spring day in 1977 I saw a flyer announcing a master class to be given by classical guitarist Demetrio Ballesteros at Moorhead State University. I didn’t know what a “master class” was, but since it was free and open to the public, I decided to go. I was entirely self-taught at that point and thought I might pick up some technical tips. As it turned out, I was more right than I could have known.

I’d been in Moorhead a couple of years, but this was the first time I went across town to the MSU campus. I arrived at the music building’s recital hall, guitar case in hand, well before the master class was supposed to start to guarantee myself a place in the front row. As the audience gradually filled the seats, it struck me as strange that no one else brought a guitar. Perhaps all of the students would arrive together? Maybe they were back stage? Or would the whole thing be more of a demonstration than a class?

A few minutes after 4 PM a man walked onto the stage and introduced himself as the chairman of the music department. He explained that Ballesteros’s visit to the school had been arranged by a member of the Spanish department and, since MSU had no guitar program, this was an exciting opportunity. Further, given Ballesteros’s limited English, he would speak through an interpreter. With that, he welcomed the guitarist to the stage.

Ballesteros was an imposing figure, with thick dark hair and a regal bearing. He sat with his guitar, adjusted his footstool, and played something that surely impressed me but I have since forgotten. After the applause a student brought out two additional chairs, and the translator joined Ballesteros on stage. He made a few welcoming remarks, duly translated, and then, peering into the audience, asked a question.

The translator said, “Very well. Who would like to play for maestro Ballesteros?”

There I sat in the front row, with a guitar case standing by my seat, my head swiveling back and forth, wondering who would step forward! But Ballesteros had already noticed me and, with a nod in my direction, said something to the translator.

“You, young man,” he said. “Would you come up and play?”

There is a wonderful kind of fearlessness that comes with ignorance. I didn’t really understand what I was doing, but this wasn’t my first time with an audience. I’d spoken at debate tournaments, acted in plays, and even played the guitar in front of people before, so I didn’t hesitate. I opened my case, took out my guitar, grabbed my folding footstool, and took my place on stage in the empty chair. Both Ballesteros and the translator smiled, and the translator asked me to introduce myself and tell the audience what I would play. Easy enough, since I knew my name and had a total of one piece in my classical repertoire.

“My name is Chris Freitag, and I will play Romanza.” I took a deep breath and played.

After the applause died down, Ballesteros made a brief remark.

“Very nice,” said the translator.

Then Ballesteros made a much lengthier comment. The translator, who was not a guitarist, looked a little puzzled and asked Ballesteros a question. Ballesteros looked puzzled in turn. The translator turned to me and said, “Maestro Ballesteros wonders why you do not play the melody ah-poi-YAHN-doh?” (Only later did I learn the proper spelling: apuyando.)

Now it was my turn to look puzzled. “What is apuyando?” I asked.

More consultation with the translator, then Ballesteros held up his left hand in my direction, palm downward and fingers splayed out. He placed his right hand above it, and with his ring finger he stroked the middle finger of his left hand, allowing the tip of the ring finger to come to rest on the adjacent left-hand finger. He looked at me and raised his eyebrows as if to say, “Understand?”

Ah. So, he wanted me to play the melody notes on the top string with my ring finger (which I was already doing), but to play “through” the string with the fingertip coming to rest on the second string. As I was to learn later, this “rest stroke” is a basic technique in classical guitar. It gives more weight and emphasis to a note than the “free stroke,” where the tip of the fingertip arcs above the adjacent string.

Here is the opening of Romanza played with a free stroke:

And here it is played with a rest stroke:

Rest stroke is not hard to do. Unless you are doing it for the first time, on a stage, in front of an audience.

A few uncomfortable moments followed for all of us. But finally, I found the flow of the thing and he asked me to play the piece again. It didn’t quite have the ease of my first version, but the melody now sang out much more distinctly over the accompaniment.

“Bravo,” said Ballesteros quietly after I finished, and the applause this second time was a little more heartfelt in recognition of my struggle. I nodded to the audience, thanked Ballesteros and the translator, and returned to my seat. Since I was the only player, that was the end of the class.

I played in many other master classes over the years, but never again would I enjoy the happy ignorance that got me through this first one. In future classes I would be an aspiring professional, with much more at stake. And now I fully understood just how exposed I could feel.

Some 40 years later I still play this little piece from time to time. Here is how it sounds today. I wonder what Ballesteros would say?

On the other other hand

In “On the other hand” we looked at some of the general principles of choosing fingerings for the right hand. In this post we’ll consider a specific example: a single measure from the Chaconne that requires thoughtful planning for the right hand.

Let’s begin by looking at the measure in question—60— from the violin score.

Measure 60 from the violin version of the Chaconne. The slurs are also found in the autograph manuscript.

Here, for the first time in the piece, Bach’s writing for the solo violin implies a four-voice, polyphonic texture. If this were a passage from one of Bach’s chorales for soprano, alto, tenor, and bass, it might look like this:

An SATB choral setting of measure 60 from the Chaconne

It’s the independence of the moving parts that makes this measure tricky for the right hand (and the left, for that matter).

Another thing to notice about the violin original is the placement of the slurs—the little curved lines that join pairs of notes. In music for violin, such a notation indicates that the slurred notes are taken in the same upward or downward stroke of the bow. The effect of this is to create a softer articulation of the second note: not dahdah but dahah.

Here is how this particular measure is handled by two of the eminent editions of the Chaconne for guitar: the versions by Andrès Segovia and Abel Carlevaro.

Segovia’s version of measure 60

One of the first things to notice about Segovia’s version is that he adds an extra note; the low A on the first beat. Next, notice that Segovia also uses slurs in the same places that the violin version does (except for the final pair). And finally, notice how few RH fingerings Segovia provides for this complicated measure! However, what he does provide gives hints to what he likely intended the player to do:

m60_segovia_implied fingering
Segovia’s version with the implied fingerings written in.

This appears to violate one of the principles established in the previous post: note the repetition of fingers, for example. But the intervening slurs give enough time for each finger to get ready for the next pitch.

Abel Carlevaro’s version of measure 60 from “Guitar Master Class – Chaconne by J. S. Bach

Carlevaro’s edition provides a lot more information to the guitarist than Segovia’s; in fact, his edition is called a “master class” and includes extensive commentary on performance and the technical aspects. Carlevaro does not add the extra bass note on the first beat; nor does he carry over the slurs from the violin version.. But the clever p-i-p-i alternation can make the sixteenth-notes sound smooth, and articulating all of the notes can help to bring out the counterpoint.

My version of measure 60. Note the similarities and differences with the Carlevaro version above.

The version I arrived at owes a lot to Carlevaro, as you can see. The primary difference is how I treat the final 4 notes in the top voice, preferring a-m-a-m to his a-i-m-i. However, as with all of these editorial decisions about finger, this could change as I spend more and more time working on this section of the piece.

This is the last post that I will write about technical matters for some time. I’ve been doing more reading on the Chaconne itself and have found a few really interesting articles that have opened up some new insights into the music itself. I look forward to sharing those with you.

The Fickle Fate of Flying Fingers (Pt. 2)

In The Fickle Fate of Flying Fingers, Part 1 I described some of the basic parameters of deciding on left-hand fingerings for the guitar: the possibility of playing pitches in more than one place on the neck, the different voices of the individual strings, the potential pitfalls of shifting from one position on the neck to another.

All of these factors come into play when developing the fingerings for a passage. For consistency of tone and voice, keeping a single melodic phrase or line on one string (or even two adjacent strings) is preferable. But if that phrase spans more than a small interval it’s going to require one or more shifts to play it, increasing the technical challenge.  On the other hand, it might be possible to avoid or ease a shift by incorporating a pitch on an open string—allowing the left hand to move freely while the right hand plays the open string—or to skip across strings to play a wide leap. But that introduces the challenge of keeping the voice of the line consistent. Let’s look at a specific example. [Remember the Classical Guitar Primer if you need a refresher on notation.]Read More »

The Fickle Fate of Flying Fingers (Pt. 1)*

When I  walk someplace in Manhattan I play a little game with myself. Say that I am starting out at my old workplace at 7th Avenue and 33rd Street and walking to my current workplace at 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue. That’s nine blocks up and three blocks across. There is a traffic light at every intersection in midtown Manhattan. So here is the game: can I do the walk without ever having to stop for a light, so that I can be walking the entire time? It means making a choice at every corner. For example, I can cross from the northwest corner of 33rd and 7th to the northeast corner. At that point, I can go north up the east side of 7th Ave. or continue across 33rd to 6th Ave, turn left, and walk up the west side of the street. When I get to the next intersection I’ll have another choice to make.

You might reasonably ask “what does this have to do the Chaconne?” Well, nothing, really. But it is a good way to think about the challenges of deciding the fingering of music on the guitar.Read More »