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Washington Guitar Society Newsletter No. 7, April 1993

Jad Azkoul master class

(Note that the article here was slightly edited and incorporated into my web page, Tips from Classical Guitar Master Classes.)

The main reason I audit guitar master classes is for the fun of it. I quite enjoy listening to a variety of pieces played by a bunch of guitarists who are more or less at my own level. I particularly enjoy hearing a piece shape up under the guidance of a good teacher. If I come away actually having learned anything that I can apply to my own playing, so much the better. That's just icing on the cake.

Jad Azkoul's masterclass at George Washington University (January 16-17 1993) was a winner all around. His enthusiasm, wealth of knowledge and sense of humor made it virtually impossible for anyone's attention to droop even slightly throughout the 11 hours (split over 2 days.) A nice feature of this workshop - one I've never seen before - was the "mini-recitals", wherein several guitarists in succession played their pieces, complete with bows.

As far as technical tips were concerned, the workshop was a goldmine. Jad passed on many of the ideas of his well-known teacher, Abel Carlevaro. I often found myself itchin' to get at my guitar to try out some of these ideas. Here are a few that made big impressions.

Most importantly, Jad demonstrated that it is possible to play with virtually no unwanted string noise. Fundamentally, one lifts his fingers off the string (using the arm to facilitate this). and then shifts to the new position. In case you're worried about what that does to your legato, Jad showed that it is not necessary to have unbroken sound in order to achieve legato.

Some noises call for other actions - such as using a right hand finger to damp a string that has just been unstopped - but the important thing is to LISTEN. The rule is simple: When you hear noise, wipe it out. I've made attempts in the past to reduce noise, but have usually given up. If my playing is still far from noiseless, at least now every squeak gets cursed (silently.)

Regarding sitting position, Jad explained that by moving the right foot back - about 12 inches, say - from its flat-foot position up onto its toes, the upper body is naturally forced forward to the proper playing position without using back muscles. This definitely worked for me as advertised, although at this stage my right leg tends to feel a bit cramped after a while.

I've always played with nearly straight right-hand fingers 1) because it feels perfectly natural, and 2) in order to get a full, round sound. Seeing people play with their right-hand fingers curled up in a claw always baffled me. How can they play like that? And why would they want to, what with that thin, scratchy sound? Well... that's all changed now. Jad demonstrated over and over the value of the bright, clear sound one can get from a curved finger. In fact, the idea is to use a midway, compromise curvature for the right-hand fingers, from which you can either straighten or curl them more, depending on the type of sound you want.

Jad explained that chords on three adjacent strings played with the "i", "m" and "a" fingers should be played with those fingers held together, like "one big finger." Even though held together, the player may curl them individually to get whichever sound he wants from each string. Jad's demonstrations of this were startling. Also, this "one big finger" will give a very tight arpeggio when twisted quickly down and off the strings.

There were a couple of interesting points regarding thumb strokes. For a nice evenness when playing successive bass notes with the thumb on successively higher, adjacent strings, the thumb should make a smooth, continuous forward motion through the strings involved, without pausing in between or stopping on the next higher one. Regarding quick sweeps with the thumb over 2 or more strings, Jad demonstrated how the last note can be given its own distinct sound by making a minute adjustment to the thumb angle at the last nano-second. Typically, you may want that last note to sound bright and clear to differentiate it from the lower, accompanying notes.

There were a couple of left-handy tips. To avoid those half-step "bumps" during a glissando, reduce the pressure on the string. For smooth arpeggios, "arpeggiate" the placement of the left hand fingers in sync with the right hand, when possible.

For me, Jad's most eye-popping (ear-popping?) demonstration was his muted notes - a vastly more flexible device than your basic "pizz" played with the side of the right hand settled on the strings at the bridge. Jad's muted notes involved a plucking action followed by a damping action. This allows the player to give any sound quality he wants to the muted note - clear and bright to full and round. He also has control over the onset of muting, from near-instantaneous to any desired delay. Moreover, he can undo the muting while the note is still sounding! Jad admitted that this was the only technique he mentioned that was not simple. I concur. (As to it's being not simple; not necessarily that it was the only one.)

All of Jad's suggestions regarding musical interpretation greatly improved the piece in question. The problem here is that all I could do, in general, was to sit there and think, "I would have never thought of that in a million years!" (Anybody out there want write a guaranteed best-seller, "How To Turn Any Page Of Notes Into Music"?) There were a few handy tips I'll try to hang onto, though. One was, an effect that sounds really nice for a few times can very quickly wear out its welcome. Another was to not arpeggiate harmonics, which are pretty feeble to start with. And another was to give emphasis to dissonances. "We gotta hear dissonances - they sound so good!"

Let me close on a humorous note. Tim was left-handed and played a left-handed guitar. To make a point, Jad wanted to bring Tim's attention to his plucking hand. "Play it again and look at your right hand." Tim played the chord staring intently at his fretting hand. Wondering why Tim was looking at the wrong hand, Jad repeated his instruction. The same thing happened again, except that now Jad's and Tim's respective heads are zeroed in even more closely on opposite hands. Jad gets slightly more exasperated, repeats his instruction a third time, with even greater emphasis on the word "right", only to find Tim staring even more intently at his motionless fretting hand. And finally, the penny drops: left-handed guitarists have their "right" hand on the wrong arm! We fell about laughing our heads off.


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