Segovia's Contribution to Technical Studies
Published: 1993 Author: Graham Wade
SEGOVIA’S RECIPE for success in music was encapsulated in a letter to Bernard Gavoty, written from New York, 20 December, 1954:
Few people suspect what the study of an instrument demands. The public watch the music-miracle in comfort, never dreaming of the ascesis and sacrifices which the musician must perform in order to make himself capable of accomplishing it…
Don’t you agree with me that there is in the world of Art today a great crisis which threatens the love of work, and that we musicians might set an example of morality in this field? It is impossible to feign mastery unless he who undertakes that adventure supplements the generous gift of the gods by the stern disciplines of lifelong practice.
But as for us pianists, violinists, cellists and guitarists – how many hours of pain and self-abnegation, how many weeks, months and years do we spend polishing a single passage, burnishing it and bringing out its sparkle? And when we consider it ‘done to a turn’, we spend the rest of our lives persevering so that our fingers shall not forget the lesson or get entangled again in a brambly thicket of arpeggios, scales, trills, chords, accents and grace notes! And if we climb from that region of technique to the more spiritual sphere of interpretation, what anguish we experience in trying to find the soul of a composition behind the inert notation, and how many scruples and repentings we have before we dare to discover what does not lie hidden in the paper!
Segovia’s approach to technical advancement evolved over many years of study, moving from experiment and self-tuition towards a conscious, structured system. On his autobiographical LP, The Guitar and I (Decca, MCA S 30 020), he explains how in his early years his technique could be improved by making studies from newly discovered compositions:
Out of difficult passages I made a new exercise. Often I ceased to regard the motif I had chosen as part of a specific work and elevated it to a superior level of studies in which was latent the promise of victory over more general difficulties.
Early in his autobiography, Segovia comments how he came to develop his scale technique after acquaintance with Laura Monserrat, an amateur pianist:
Through Laura I came to understand the type of discipline needed to study a large and complex instrument like the piano. Carefully, I would follow her fingers to discover the degree of independence, strength and speed she developed. Back in my room I would try to apply my observations to the guitar. With indescribable joy, I found that the formulas I had worked out were helping me increase the strength, flexibility and speed of my fingers...
I would like to point out to those guitarists who might be reading this that the fingering of my few diatonic scales and exercises dates from this period...I have never had to change or modify them since; my experience, acquired through many years of practice. still relies on these early studies of mine. (Andrés Segovia, An Autobiography of the Years 1893–1920, trans. W.F. O’Brien, Macmillan, New York, 1976; Marion Boyars, London, 1977, p 14)
Though all this happened before Segovia’s debut in Granada in 1909, his book, Diatonic Major and Minor Scales (Columbus Music Co, Washington DC), was not published until 1953. Here Segovia sets out his approach to the study of scales, affirming that ‘the practice of scales enables one to solve a greater number of technical problems in a shorter time than the study of any other exercise’:
The student who wishes to acquire a firm technique on the guitar should not neglect the patient study of scales. If he practises them two hours a day, he will correct faulty hand positions, gradually increase the strength of the fingers, and prepare the joints for later speed studies. Thanks to the independence and elasticity which the fingers develop through the study of scales, the student will acquire a quality which is difficult to gain later: physical beauty of sound...
Segovia’s advice on scale practice was to ‘play them slowly and vigorously at first, more lightly and rapidly later’. In the same Preface, Segovia lamented the lack throughout guitar history of a ‘practical system of studies and exercises co-ordinated in such a way as to permit the faithful student to progress continuously from the first easy lessons to real mastery of the instrument’. In this area he cites Aguado’s Escuela de guitarra as a ‘disorganised compilation of studies without progressive logic’, and not suitable for the novice. Sor and Tárrega also failed to achieve a ‘definitely established architecture of the study of our beloved instrument’. Segovia expresses a desire to meet this need but, despite rumours at one time in the 1940s that he was preparing a tutor, he never published any advanced scheme of work. Segovia’s scale book was followed up in 1970 by Slur Exercises and Chromatic Octaves (Columbia Music Co.). The slur exercises are to be played forte and piano, with the fingers producing ‘sounds of equal intensity’.
These two texts of technical exercises are of particular historical value. The scale book predates the plethora of scale books that would be introduced once the grade examinations came into existence from the late 1960s. Segovia’s scale fingerings were taught by many teachers in the late 1950s and onwards but seem to have fallen out of favour over the years as different scale concepts were put forward. (The major scales as fingered by Segovia frequently use rapid position changes ascending while descending major scales follow a different pattern from the ascending.)
Segovia’s greatest gift to guitar pedagogy was Twenty Studies for the Guitar by Fernando Sor (Edward B. Marks Co, 1945). His preface lists the exercises contained within the studies selected, including ‘arpeggios, chords, repeated notes, legatos, thirds, sixths, melodies in the higher register and in the bass, interwoven polyphonic structures, stretching exercises of the left hand for the prolonged holding of the cejilla, and many other formulas’. Over recent years both Segovia’s editing and his recorded interpretations of Sor have come under attack. Yet his edition has stood the test of time remarkably well and remains one of the most influential books of studies published this century.
Segovia’s technique from an external and visual point of view was a model for many teachers during his lifetime. The way he held his hands and his overall posture were both considered exemplary. In effect, his hand positions were the product of his large physique and massive fingers, which made light of distances on the fingerboard. Slavish copying of his hand positions was especially misleading if not supported by the mental approaches and attitudes which informed his technique. As early as 1958 Julian Bream found it necessary to distance himself from what was considered in many guitar circles the archetypal or ideal hand position:
It is often thought that I was a pupil of Segovia. Even after hearing my playing people have remarked to the effect that they can hear that I was a Segovia pupil! I am sure that Segovia would be the first to state that I was never his pupil, for although I had several ‘sessions’ with the great Maestro between 1947 and 1950 during which he made general observations on my technique and fingering, I never actually studied with him. All he said then has been of invaluable assistance to me in my pursuit of the guitar. In fact, by and large, I have evolved my own technique. With my right hand I employ a different stroke to that of Segovia, for whereas he habitually plucks the string with the right hand fingers at right angles to the strings, I tend to use a less rigid position for reasons of tonal variety. (‘Conversation with Julian Bream’, Guitar News, July–August, 1958)
Vladimir Bobri’s book The Segovia Technique (New York: Macmillan, 1972) was the apotheosis of the concept of studying hand positions as a means of improving technique. A series of large photographs demonstrates the Maestro’s powerful hands and a small amount of text sets out the traditional concepts of right hand technique similar to that found in the Tárrega school of tuition of Roch and Pujol, with the right hand fingers ‘at almost a right angle to the strings (with the knuckles parallel to them)’.
A short but detailed analysis of Segovia’s technical method and its meshing with the interpretative processes is to be found in Charles Duncan’s The Art of Classical Guitar Playing (Summy-Birchard Music, 1980). Charles Duncan’s final assessment of Segovia is an appropriate one in this year of the Centenary:
Beyond doubt, the main influence upon classical guitar playing in this century has been the example of Andrés Segovia. There is hardly a guitarist today who does not reflect it.
This is not to suggest that Segovia’s unquestionably individual interpretations are a universal model. They do, however, show how much beauty there can be in the sound of the guitar. (p 114)
Copyright © 2004 by Graham Wade