Melody has always been an important part of my approach to playing the classical guitar, but recently, I found a new way to use melody to help with interpretation as well as the avoidance of learning mistakes.
[Note: You’ll find audio between myself and student Doug Campbell where each step of the process is demonstrated.]
Early attention to melody started for me with a concert. While attending the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, I had the opportunity to hear the Dutch soprano Elly Ameling with accompanist Donald Baldwin. Ms. Ameling’s lyricism transformed my playing: after the concert, I worked for hours trying to replicate the natural legato of her voice. I brought out melody everywhere I could, and by the wee hours of the morning, I had developed a new area of lyricism on the guitar!
My teacher Michael Lorimer was a master at the lyrical art. Through him I learned to control voices, bring out the melody through balance, connect the melody with legato, and move the melody through time, with attention to playing in rhythm. Lorimer himself was transformed by another lyrical player: his teacher, Andres Segovia. I found myself drawn to working with singers, (three tenors, two baritones , and a lyrical and coloratura soprano over my career so far). I loved the sound of the human voice, and found accompanying this perfect instrument to be most enjoyable. My interest in singers culminated in my work with American soprano Janet Chvatal and the formation of the popular Chvatal/Kritzer Duo.
But my latest concept (how to extract and re-integrate the melody) came from a recent visit with guitarist John Williams. Mr. Williams mentioned the limitation of the guitar’s ability to voice a specific line. Because solo guitarists are responsible for all the parts of a piece, we often can’t make the same choices as we would if we were a solo line instrument (such as the flute, or even, to some degree, the violin or cello). If we could, we would certainly finger many of our melodies on different strings and in different positions. Williams broke down a simple Study by Fernando Sor into parts, and played each line separately, re-voicing it for optimum musical quality.
After our meeting, I began thinking more about melodic extraction. Although a compromise must take place when playing a solo instrument, I began to wonder if there was a better approach to understanding the musicality of the melody.
One might ask Why extract the melody? Certainly the suite of voices would be helpful, but the melody contains the most direct access to the composers musical intentions with regards to phrasing. Ask yourself, what differentiates one piece from another? Is it the rhythm, the harmony, or the melody? It’s most often the melody.
When we learn a piece, we begin to develop biases. When we first start working on a piece, we encounter confusion (unless of course, you use my How to Learn Music method). Shifts are usually delayed due to technical difficulties. Such delays, and other poor habits, begin to form as we play the piece too fast and our ear begins to accept the errors as normal. After time, we may no longer hear the errors.
Conversely, if you learn to play the melody in perfect time, with thoughtful interpretation, your shifts will become cleaner from the beginning. The balance will be clearer, and you’ll have a concise interpretation of the work.
Not all pieces benefit equally from your learning them using a focus on melody. Common sense will tell you what pieces are more melodically driven than others. You can do the following exercise on a piece you are learning, or, use one that you already know.
In the following steps, we work from larger ideas to more detailed ideas,s giving our melody (and ultimately our piece) flow, sway and gesture. Each of these steps below can take 1-2 weeks to learn, so be patient.
If you haven’t already, analyze the form of the work. Mark the phrases and sections. Look for the high point of each phrase, and ultimately, of the entire work (in both cases this usually occurs around the 3/4 mark).
In preparation for the following steps, learn the melody (using the same fingerings that you’ll ultimately use in the piece). Give yourself a week or two. When you feel you can play the melody pretty much in time, move on to Step 2.
Step 1- Phrasing with Dynamics and Rhythm
Dynamics and rhythm are two of the three expressive tools we have at our disposal (timbre being the third). Experiment with increasing the dynamics and pushing the rhythm a bit at the high point of each phrase. Conversely, decrease the dynamics and slow the rhythm a bit at the end of each phrase. Be attentive to how you start each phrase. Start most phrases gently, so that you have room to build. (I find most students hit the first note or chord of a phrase with a ‘bang,’ leaving too little room to build from there).
The objective is to feel the flow of the phrase, listening for the ‘question and answer’ of each phrase, and ultimately locating the high point of the piece.
Step 2 -Applying Agogic Accents to the Stressed Beats of the Meter
Each time signature carries a primary and a secondary stress. We often overlook this, yet it can be key in understanding the composer’s intentions. The primary beat receives more weight or stress than the secondary accent, giving a nice sway to the phrase.
If you are unfamiliar with the primary and secondary stresses in meters, here is an explication:
2/4 – Primary on beat 1
3/4 – Primary on beat 1, secondary on beat 3 (Also, beat 3 wants to fall into beat 1)
4/4 – Primary beat on 1, secondary on beat 3
6/8 – Primary on beat 1, secondary on beat 4
Now, play the melody using the expressive tools learned in Step 2, but adding the stresses listed above. This may at first seem artificial, but you should be able to hear the emergence of qualities that were not there before. The phrase will acquire a nice sway—a comfortable ‘rocking’ motion.
Step 3 -Attractions in Music
Going even smaller, we explore the concept of attractions of music. The basic idea is that short notes are attracted to long notes. If you have, for example, a dotted quarter-note followed by a series of eighths and then another quarter note, hold the dotted quarter a little longer than you would normally. Then, let the subsequent eighths fall into the next long note. This gives you an ‘inter’ rhythm that really brings out the gestures of the melody.
Now, play the melody with the expressive tools learned in Step 1, the proper stressed accents learned in Step 2, and add the holding-and- letting-go approach from this step, the attractions in music.
Step 4 – Integration
Now it’s time to integrate the musical concepts you learned with the other voices. To do so, you’ll need to practice very, very, VERY, slowly (my students know this as Slow-Motion Practice). While the effect of the phrasing may be diminished, you’ll eventually learn to speed the work up, slowly over time, with all the musicianship of a seasoned player. The other benefit is that you’ll maintain a level of accuracy that you likely never had before.
While it certainly takes focus and concentration, and may challenge your memory, if you integrate phrasing in this slow manner, you can increase the tempo without encountering poor habits or errors.