By Ciaran Elster
There are some weaknesses that can be seen in many classical guitar players, such as a lack of aural awareness, a lack of expressive power, a poor sense of rhythm and an inability to do anything other than what is written on the page. Often, it is these things that separate the good classical guitarists from the mediocre ones, and the solution can actually lie in playing other genres.
None of us have the required amount of time on our hands that we can give the same dedication to every genre that we give to our main speciality. However, a certain amount of time spent practicing other styles of music will not detract from classical playing, but will enable the guitarist to make these all-important changes to his/her musicianship.
A lot of mediocre classical players lack the true aural awareness needed for great performances. Although technically accomplished and proficient in sight-reading, some classical guitarists simply play what is written, note for note, without listening critically to what they are playing. When notated scores are reproduced by an aurally unaware musician, the performance becomes dull and lifeless.
This contrasts with their electric counterparts, who are often (but not always) less accomplished in sight-reading but who tend to think more as they play. A crucial reason for this is that when one plays in a band or group it is necessary to listen to what the other musicians are doing. When you are forced to listen as you play, you become better equipped to listen to yourself and express yourself more passionately. Electric guitarists are used to playing in groups and jamming with other musicians, whereas classical guitarists often miss out on such things, spending all of their time playing solo.
A good sense of rhythm is another quality that is more easily obtained by playing in rock, blues or jazz bands than by playing classical guitar. Of course, rhythm when playing solo can have more rubato and freedom than rhythm controlled by a steady drum beat and bass riff, but such rubato often sounds uncontrolled and gives the impression that it is being implemented by someone who doesn’t know how to use it properly. Keeping to a regular beat (provided by other musicians rather than by a metronome) and improvising on top of it can be of great benefit to a guitarist’s rhythmic awareness.
Classical guitarists tend to be more proficient sight-readers than players in most other genres, but the notation-dependent training we go through can often result in players being unable to deviate from the written score. In general, we can become too preoccupied with producing exact replicas of works, causing every dynamic marking to be followed with precision and leading to an attitude that certain things can only be articulated in one particular way. Here, the nylon-string players would do well to look towards folk music, where harmonic structures for songs usually remain the same but players have more freedom in the choice of fingering patterns and articulation. Also, jazz players can improvise melodies over harmonic structures, something which a classical guitarist is unlikely to do but would benefit greatly from as a musician.
I am not suggesting that classical guitar changes from being a precisely notated, predominantly solo genre. However, I do believe that there are some attributes necessary for expressive playing that can be more easily acquired by learning other genres, if not to the same extent. The guitar has a great advantage over many other instruments in that, along with the piano, it is commonly used in a vast range of styles. This is something that the best guitarists, in any genre, will always make use of