On Wednesdays We Play Classical
A glimpse into the benefits of more genre crossover in the guitar world

June 19, 2019

I can still remember playing one of my first outdoor gigs, and feeling super prepared with a neat binder full of sheet music with alternate repeats and endings written in, queues for the transition into dinner, etc. Everything was going so well, when Mother Nature decided that it was a good day for testing my musicianship. With one particularly robust gust of wind, my music manually “rewound” back to halfway through my first piece of music. I can remember trying so hard to mask my internal panic while working hard to stumble through the imaginary ending of my piece and remain in the same key, wrap up my melody with at least some level of interest and musicality, and to not to alert people to the fact that I was absolutely terrified of being put in a situation without sheet music in front of me.

While this is most likely not a scenario that I would ever encounter while performing recitals or concerts in a hall from memory, I couldn’t help feeling embarrassed that improvising the end of a sight readable piece of music was such a wrench in the works for me. This thought sparked a question in my mind regarding the education of classical guitarists at the collegiate level (particularly undergraduates). Why aren’t we required to take courses on jazz and improvisation? During my time at the University of South Carolina, I participated in studio class with several jazz guitarists who were required to take some level of classical guitar as a requirement for their degree program, but the same was not required of classical guitarists. To be completely honest, that was fine with me at the time, but as I’ve grown as a musician and as a performer, I’ve come to regret that taking any kind of jazz guitar or basic improvisation course was not required for me. The level of theoretical knowledge and musicianship required of jazz performers is something to be envious of, and quite frankly an extremely useful skill for any musician- not just guitarists!

I can’t speak for every undergraduate guitar program, and perhaps there are some that do incorporate style crossovers for both their jazz guitarists and their classical guitarists. The guitar is such a widely versatile and diverse instrument, so having a broad knowledge and understanding of the various performance skills such as improvisation, finger style, playing with a pick, rasgueado, playing an electric or acoustic, is essential. That being said, I’ll be the first to say that each performing style requires a completely different set of skills that a guitarist should not be expected to perfect across all genres. There is definitely a reason that jazz and classical are separate majors, but I think that this divide is often followed a little too religiously at the university level.

Just like history and theory majors tend to specialize at the graduate level and composition majors typically have a preferred writing style, guitarists have their preferred style of guitar. This means that the heavy coursework and focus should be directly related to the genre of the instrument, but perhaps adding a core requirement of at least one semester of the guitar of another genre should be required? It’s something to consider as the instrument’s presence continues to grow in the university setting.

-Kathryn Lambert


Harry Trombley

Harry Trombley said:

I couldn’t agree more. I am basically self tought
though I took lots of classical lessons when I was younger. At about 50 years old I started trying to play jazz starting playing rhythm with a community stage band (lot of fun)
Anyway I find it very hard to learn improv. Chord melody no problem so as to your point I wish my teachers had suggested other genres then now at 75 I just play
Thanks Harry

Gerry Saulter

Gerry Saulter said:

Bravo Kathryn for having the courage to open this concern to discussion. In general, the academic instruction of our style has been somewhat dismissive of Jazz, Rock, Pop, Folk, and yes, even Flamenco. To your point, this had led to so many undergraduate performance majors who have real issues in terms of being flexible in style and genre. The result is a vastly diminished audience as well as participants in and of the concert guitar in the USA.
To work as an independent artist it is would be logical to have command of the basic mechanisms of a variety of styles and genres. This skill set is needed at the very least to aid in an artists ability in adaptation and arrangement, both of which are paramount to expand the listening audience. After all, isn’t that what undergraduate liberal arts study is all about – building a broad and solid foundation that prepares the candidate for an active career, and/or further study as he or she ascends the “Academic Pyramid?”
I’ll close with an example highlighting a legendary artist: Carlos Barbosa-Lima. Carlos has blazed his own path by homogenizing the classical and Latin Jazz worlds through innovative and exciting arrangements of material. His newest CD titled “Delicato,” has received wonderful reviews, and is already be considered for a Latin-Grammy nomination. Carlos along with his duet partner Larry Del Casale has assembled an exciting ensemble featuring Helios Alves, Dudka Da Fonseca, and others. It is his 10th CD on the Zoho Jazz label. Carlos and Larry will build a promotional tour through venues both on and off-campus. His model uses the highest standards of knowledge and technique and is aimed to attract all listeners around the world. He is an artist who comprehensively has command of both Classical and Jazz mechanisms, resulting in a broad audience of appreciation. Carlos has performed publicly as both a soloist and in ensemble in Classical, Latin, and Jazz styles for 60 years, Due to his extraordinary abilities, he has premiered works from Alberto Ginastera to Bobby Scott. Finally, every time he steps on stage he brings a diversity and optimistic energy that we all could learn from.

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