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Mastering the Art of Classical Guitar

If sincerity was all it took to learn how to play classical guitar, the world would be crammed with Mozarts. If talent were the only requirement, proteges would become masters instantly. It is said that it takes 10,000 hours to reach the apex of your discipline, yet if hours were the sole determinants, Bach’s cello suite would sound as magical when played by Andreas Brantelid as by Yo-yo Ma. When a musical genius wields an instrument, the ingredients that turn his musical powers into magic are equal parts talent, practice and technical perfection.

Secreted behind all these traits lurks that enchanted X factor that allows a musician to abracadabra notes into universally understood feelings; to conjure up emotion in an audience; in essence, to magically morph musicianship into a human experience shared between the player, the instrument and the listener. Classical guitar captivates the contemporary fascination with all things stringed with the pedigree of extreme technical capacity. Mastering the instrument demands a multi-tiered approach in which conscious crafting, music interpretation and methodical competence are confronted equally.

Students taught well will morph those thousands of hours of effortful study into effortless performance. Acoustic guitar can be learned in a matter of weeks, and as Nirvana demonstrated, you don’t need complex chords to achieve legendary results. However, even Kurt Cobain’s skills would have skyrocketed if he’d devoted the necessary years to learning how to play classical guitar. The instrument is often played using complex fingerpicking techniques.

Its traditional nylon strings produce a clean, distinctive tone and its wide neck allows for stark chords and arpeggios that other instruments can only envy. Whilst they give players a classic and Spanish backdrop of genres, the intricacy they allow acts as an excellent springboard for other genres. Christopher Parkening was the first classical guitarist to win celebrity status.

He plays both Spanish and classical genres, and is known for his vast tonal alterations, which he achieves by shifting hand positions. John Williams was a predecessor who shied away from emotiveness to achieve a chilly, mechanical precision. The instrument needn’t straightjacket composers into stiff genres. Avant-garde styles have emerged in ground breaking albums by the likes of Brian Ferneyhough and Sven-David Sandstrom.

Classical guitars pose a challenge to all who confront them: they demand that their players strike an almost impossible balance between technical discipline and relaxation. The latter lets the musician achieve an intuitive, evocative interpretation without allowing the gaping holes of undisciplined technique to break through. Lack of intelligent study reduces the boldness of a performance, and pilfers away the instrument’s emotive powers.

When learning how to play classical guitar, it is in the cycles of tension and repose that a musician finds his interpretation of the piece. It is only when a student masters his tool technically that he earns the right to freely manipulate tension. Those who run ahead of their technique when learning how to play classical guitar will lack the control needed to voluntarily manage tension without anxiety’s influence. When physical posturing is perfected, many mistakes can be avoided.

Hunching over the instrument, arching the wrist excessively or exerting too much thumb pressure will bring uncontrolled movements that mar technique. All uncontrolled tension in the body, even that which seems disconnected from the guitar itself, will have its negative impacts.

Students can learn to concentrate on their stance, but a certain level of psychological repose will have a more potent impact on posture. Most performers suffer from stage fright. Professionals generally claim that this is the core of their success. The aspect that separates the pros from the amateurs is the ability to channel the fear response into cultivated control.

Disciplined practice is the powerhouse that allows this process to be successfully achieved. Teachers will spend much time teaching students to differentiate between every hand and arm muscle so that they can find the ideal leverage needed to make the strings sing like angels. The importance of finding the balance between uncontrolled and controlled tension often converts learning exercises into zen-like meditations with philosophies that verge on spiritual. Finding upper body relaxation is the ultimate skill to learn to turn classical guitar playing into an uninhibited art form.

Playing, or simply sitting with your instrument, whilst focusing your awareness on tension, its elimination and transference to other muscles is one of the greatest gifts you can give to your instrument. By becoming aware of where your body carries its tension when you play descending passages, you will learn how to release tension onto your chosen notes. Classical guitars ask their musicians to become physically, psychologically and technically aware.

The techniques involved are highly complex, so instruction from a teacher is paramount. With the appropriate mentorship, you will tease sounds out of the strings that would not otherwise be possible.