A Conversation with Stepan Rak
Published: 1992 Author: Graham Wade
Graham Wade: First I’d like to ask you about your teaching activities in Czechoslovakia, as I understand you have taken up a new teaching post there.
Stepán Rak: Yes, and I’m happy to announce that I’ve been awarded the honour of docent (similar to a doctorate in your country) and this has never before been given to a guitarist. This is at the Academy of Fine Arts in Prague where I founded guitar studies. Until 1983 there was no guitar at all at academy level. Before that guitar was taught at the Prague Conservatoire by Professor Modr and after him by my teacher, Stepan Urban, the founder of guitar in Czechoslovakia. Among his students were people like Milan Zelenka.
At first I was the only teacher at the Academy but after some years I gained a colleague, Martin Mysliviceck, who later became Professor of Guitar at Graz. My colleague at Prague Conservatoire now is Milan Zelenka, an excellent teacher, a legend of the guitar in our country.
GW: What sort of teaching method do you use?
SR: My teaching method is based on several things. Firstly I try to use in my work the advice given to me by Stepan Urban, who was a second father to me. He helped me not only in playing but also in stage presentation, and in psychological and philosophical aspects of music.
GW: What are the psychological aspects you are talking about?
SR: I will try to express this briefly. First of all, he always taught that you should love what you do, because without love, even if you practised hundreds of hours, you would never be good enough. If you are dreaming or walking, or whatever, you must feel love in your heart and approach the guitar like this.
Another thing he taught was that you shouldn’t play music through your guitar, but use your guitar to represent music itself. Music should be the main object, not your guitar. A lot of guitarists make a basic mistake because they overdevelop the guitar as a subject of interest, and they are overvaluing it. Stepan Urban told me all the time that the guitar is an instrument like all other instruments, and should be just the means of your expression. You should develop this expression through that particular instrument, but, as it were, forget that it is a guitar. In this way you might be able to bring something to the guitar which you feel deeply. Of course this doesn’t mean that you don’t practise – you must work very hard indeed!
But another aspect Stepan Urban always taught was that whenever you touch your guitar, not only with your actual hands but in your imagination, try to believe you are seated in a great theatre of the world, and what happens there concerns you and all of us. You should never forget this. Even if you are practising scales or elementary technique, you should be seated on that stage, and you should see and feel the audience around you.
This I felt was the best advice of all because this helped me tremendously in my stage presentation. Thus when I am practising at home you must believe strongly, you must make yourself believe, that you are playing on the stage for somebody. Even if you are playing a scale you should feel that you are playing in front of the Queen of England. That was something that I keep in my heart for the whole of my life.
Another thing was that you should not think, when you are starting your guitar career, that this is how to become famous or rich. These two things should be forgotten from the beginning. They might help in the sense of pushing you forward – for example, it would be nice to have money to buy a good instrument, but not in the sense that you might use the guitar to buy a wonderful car or make love to all the women in the world. This is not the way.
Of course, young people need motivation, and motivation is something other than a will to become famous. You should motivate your students to create something they can follow. Follow your star. It might be John Williams, or an idea of making something beautiful for the future. If you have this star to follow, and you follow it through your life, you will never be misled.
GW: How do you train your students when they first come to you, apart from the philosophy? What sort of technical exercises, what sort of regime of discipline do you subject them to?
SR: This is a difficult question, because it depends on individual students. At the Prague Academy I get students who are already well prepared – some of them professional, some of them winners of international festivals. These students are young artists, so the lessons are more like consultations. However, I am trying to pick up several basic things. First of all, I am trying to find out what their motivation is. Their motivation is usually to become a great player, and this is a very good motivation, a kind of dream. But when they play for me I try to see how they relax when they play, or whether there is something behind which is pushing them and making some stress which causes trouble.
Usually many students have a basic problem. When they play for you for the first time at an audition, and they want to get into the Music Academy, they are of course, like all of us, very nervous. Some of them are trying to present themselves as if their approach is, ‘Now I will show you what I am – look, you are nothing, I am somebody.’ Usually this is a failure because this motivation is very wrong. If they try to present themselves as a great artist, you can recognise that approach immediately.
But when I see that somebody is making mistakes, but is not happy with the performance, and behind the appearance there is good will and possibility of development, I try my best to take that person in. You must not forget that the Academy in Prague is the highest possible musical qualification in our country and we must be careful to accept only the finest players. If you start taking everybody, or only medium-level players, this would be against ourselves.
GW: So you are only training performers – you are not thinking about training teachers?
SR: Well, not so much as yet, but I think it will come in the future. It would even be my dream to do that. Imagine if you are producing several concert guitarists a year. What will they do? After about ten years there will be a horrible amount of them. Plenty of them will need to teach, and if they are not properly educated in this direction they might be wonderful players, but as teachers they might have big problems.
So I am intending for the future that all students should learn concepts of teaching methods. I am trying to include in my lessons some pedagogical aspects, and the basics of improvisation, because some of the pupils may eventually be teaching young children or students of different levels. So I am dealing with the basic aspects – how to teach little children, how to start.
For several years now I have been using five-finger techniques in the right hand, and I apply this to all of my students, and through them, with their help, to young children just starting the guitar. This is quite revolutionary, I think. If you just start in the normal way you might have a lot of problems with explanations of the correct position of the right hand.
Imagine a seven-year-old boy. You put his fingers on the strings, explaining about the triangle he should be able to see between his thumb and index finger. This is alright but after a week, when he comes again, you may be very surprised at what sort of right-hand position he produces. The pupil may be sure everything is correct, but it isn’t! The orthodox position is very moveable, and even if you are holding all the fingers on the third string, for example, you can move in any direction quite easily and so destroy the correct position.
But if you add your pinky finger and place all five fingers on the string, on G let’s say, you will find it difficult to move the hand – the hand has been fixed firmly, and after this children will remember the correct position for ever. So Children should put all five fingers on the string and will be able to see the triangle very easily, and you won’t destroy the position. Now you can replicate this situation on all of the strings gradually and you can do the thing I would suggest to everybody – put all your fingers on the third string.
After that you gradually start putting your fingers onto the different strings, so thumb goes to the fourth string, index on G, middle finger on second string, and the anular finger on the top string. Your little finger is then lifted up. So you can train this all the time – put all five fingers on the same string and then place them gradually on the other strings by lifting them up. This is a tremendous help. If you do this you will never have problems with hand positions again.
I know from experience with my students that this method is such a help, and they will remember for the rest of their lives how to keep the right-hand position firmly and perfectly. Of course, after that, I advise my students to work with children with all five of their fingers, right from the beginning, so that they will not have any problems later on with the little finger. Just training the little finger separately like the other ones.
I don’t suggest that they play arpeggios with all five fingers at first, not at all. You just start with p i / i m etc, but you train your little finger independently. You try to pluck with this finger to make it alive because the basic principle I follow is that if you neglect some part of the hand, the whole hand will be neglected in some way. Imagine a pianist using five fingers in the left hand and only four in the right. The little finger of the right hand would be lifted up all the time and doing nothing – a completely crazy idea. We do a similar thing on guitar, in that we are using practically all the five fingers of the left hand, but only four fingers in the right hand. Start working with the little finger just as with the other fingers, and you will achieve much more virtuosity very soon and a brilliant technique.
Another thing concerning my pedagogical method. With all my students at all levels I am working also with the action the right-hand fingers in the opposite way to the normal playing movement. I started this in Finland many years ago, and I continue this at the moment. I use my fingers in both directions, not only as we have become accustomed and trained in the classical guitar – in the way of plucking strings towards the palm actively and returning the fingers back without touching any strings. For this means that those muscles which are realising the sound and bringing the fingers towards the palm are overdeveloped, while the other muscles, the opposing ones, are underdeveloped.
This is bad because the main idea is to make the body well balanced, and your fingers should be well balanced. So that there is not just one direction which is perfect and the other one imperfect. You will soon notice these things because if you do not train these opposite muscles your fingers will be less efficient, especially if you are nervous and in a difficult situation, such as playing a concert. If opposite muscles are never trained enough, when you become nervous your fingers will not return to the exact position you need for plucking the string – they will go either too far or not far enough, and you will either miss the string or pluck the string wrongly, or perhaps pluck another string by mistake. Everybody knows these things on stage. You practise at home, and everything goes fantastically, and afterwards when you try to play on stage you notice you can’t even pluck the string correctly, or you miss it.
Therefore you should also practise the opposite way with the front part of the nails. You can pluck the strings like this with the front of the nails in the way of tirando and apoyando. You should, for example, be able to pluck the third string apoyando so that the front part of the nail comes to rest on the second string. In this way your technique will become more flexible, and you will diminish the finger movement to such a level that you don’t need to touch any string except the string you want to sound. This means that the movement of your finger will be very economical, that immediately you create a sound, your finger will stop and go back to the opposite direction.
GW: So you advocate practising pieces with this technique?
SR: Sometimes. I was discussing technique with Yamashita, and we discovered that we both have a very similar approach to technique. He has been using right-hand fingers in both directions in practising pieces such as Pictures at an Exhibition. Except that he did not use the thumb in this way, and I have been using the thumb both ways also. In a piece of mine called Balalaika, you will notice in one section that the thumb should be practised in both ways, and you should attempt to get exactly the same colour, volume, timbre and feeling. In this way you would be able to separate the thumb from the other fingers to make it as independent as possible. You will find it far easier after to play things such as counterpoint.
GW: So you would bring this in at an early stage for you students, and especially for advanced students?
SR: Some of these things are very difficult, so you cannot ask little children to play double thumb strokes, different rhythms with the fingers, and so on. But you can at least start some basic exercises.
GW: But you would get children using the other side of the nail in their playing?
SR: Yes, I would, but only in practising techniques, not in their pieces. I teach children normal classical technique, but with these innovations. So they have to spend some time during their practising using separate fingers in opposite directions and also using the little finger. And in both ways also, because when you practise your anular finger, your middle finger will become better. When you practise your little finger, your anular finger will be far, far better and more independent than before. The little finger and anular finger are joined with the same tendon, and if you look at an anatomical diagram you will see how these two are joined and how hard it is to make them move separately. The more you work at this, the better results you will obtain.
Another thing which belongs to this is that you should be able, at a certain advanced standard, to use all of your fingers separately and in dynamics also. So you should be able to do this: for example, when you are plucking a chord with all of five fingers, or four fingers (p i m a), such as a C major chord (C E G C). Pluck all the fingers simultaneously (you are playing quarter notes in a quarter-note rhythm, slow tempo) and now with all fingers try to make the sound sustained, with each digit producing an equal sound and volume. After that you concentrate on one particular finger, which will play a solo, and will be accented slightly. Start with the thumb: you pluck all the fingers at the same time, but now you are concentrating on the thumb, trying to produce bigger sound and volume with that particular finger. After that you can do things the opposite way, with one of the fingers being the dominant unit and perhaps the thumb is playing softly now. Then you can try changes, so that first the thumb plays the solo, then some of the other fingers. Not only this, but you should be able to use all your fingers in differing dynamics.
Imagine how big a help this kind of exercise would be in a piece such as Etude No.11 by Villa-Lobos, when the thumb plucks sforzando, while the other fingers continue independently at a lower dynamic. This of course is not the only piece – if you go back to Aguado’s studies there are lots of things like this. In the second theme of the Rondo from Sor’s Sonata Opus 22, you need to differentiate between the accompaniment (played by i and m) while the a finger produces the melodic line independently of it. A lot of players neglect these things and play all the voices at the same intensity. I work very hard with my students on these things.
GW: What about your teaching of the left hand?
SR: I am very happy you ask about this because I have been talking more about the right hand, which is the neglected hand because of not using the little finger. In the left hand it is a somewhat similar situation, but not so drastic as the right hand. Our thumb is in a similar position with the left hand to the little finger of the right hand. So now I suggest something from which my students get really great results. This is to turn your guitar in the opposite direction as if you were left-handed.
You now start training your left hand (on purpose) as if it were your right hand. You don’t need to change the strings around. You use your left thumb as if it was a thumb on the right hand playing the strings. Pluck the strings with your left thumb and try to obtain a really nice sound. After you achieve this (and I promise you that you will) you can try also with the left hand playing the same arpeggios, tremolos, or whatever, as you have been doing for years with your right hand (playing in this instance on the open strings – no need here to use your right hand to fret the notes!).
This will provide security for your left hand, especially for your thumb, which will become more independent and active. This is like a mirror image – the thumb of the left hand is in the same situation as the little finger of the right hand. Now the whole picture will be fixed and somehow logical. When you work this way, you will be amazed after a while at what big results you will get and especially when you use this left hand for the purpose of slurs. If you think about this, training your left hand in the manner of the right hand will mean your apoyando strokes will be marvellously done slurs, and your tirando will be slurs released on the middle strings, if you wish to avoid stopping the neighbouring strings.
This is the thing that will show you how your left–hand fingers are pressing down and how they are working. You have no other control about this. If you try to play now, for example, in the left hand playing patterns of fingers 4 3 2 1 (patterns of four notes, all the time ta-ta-ta-ta), you will understand by your ears whether each note is of the same quality or length or the same intensity. Your left hand will become accustomed for each finger to play at the same intensity.
One more thing. If you practise with your left hand in the opposite direction as well, you will then have much stronger fingers, just as in the right hand. You might have the same problems in the left hand of returning your fingers to the strings after they have been lifted up. If you do not practise the opposite direction, really day by day, on purpose and actively, then when you are nervous again in a performing situation the lack of practising this opposite way will always bring your fingers to the same position, and you will miss the string or pluck it wrongly or put your fingers in the wrong place. This will cause the same problems as with the fingers of the right hand.
Another thing I would like to emphasise: the training of your left hand with the so-called ‘buzzing sound’. This is a fantastic guide to the intensity of left-hand pressure. Most guitarists use far more pressure on the strings with the left hand than is really needed. But we do not have any control when we are plucking the chords, for when we are pressing either tremendously or with a little force, the final result when you pluck with the right hand won’t be that big – in fact very little.
I have three things to advise:
1) Try pressing very hard, pressing with all your force down towards the fingerboard. Now pluck single repeated notes with the right hand (for example pressing down the D string at the fifth position very hard).
2) Now make less and less pressure, playing repeated notes with the right hand, until the note starts buzzing. In the final moments, just before it starts buzzing, you will discover the right pressure you need – you don’t need more.
3) Now do the same the opposite way. In this you allow the left-hand fingertip to make contact with the string without pressing down at all. You continue plucking single repeated notes with the right-hand repeating the same pattern. You press down more and more with the left hand. At first you will obtain a harmonic type of sound, but as you press down it will become staccato-like. As you press down more you will obtain the buzzing sound, and you press still a little bit more to get the perfect sound and the correct degree of pressure.
Thus you can practise this exercise from both directions, finding the critical moment by means of the buzzing sound, by either releasing and lifting too firm a pressure or pressing down onto the string by initial light contact. When you have mastered both of these exercises, I suggest that you should on purpose train a buzzing sound all the time, for example, playing scales. Immediately you touch the string with the right hand you should be able in whatever moment to release the buzzing sound at once, without any previous preparation. So with all your fingers, at whatever speed, you should be able to produce a buzzing sound of sufficient duration (not zzz – zzz but zzzzzzzz). Next you play whatever you need, a piece of Bach perhaps, and you play the whole piece like this, with buzzes. It means that you have a perfect control of the amount of pressure you are using. This is the only way of indicating how much pressure you have been using. Your left-hand fingers will get used to the exact pressure. Don’t be afraid that you will get a buzzing sound in performance on stage. If you are nervous you may press too hard, but these exercises will help you not to press so much. In particular you would have control of your left-hand fingers.
So this is the basic advice and the basic system of my work in both the Prague Academy and in masterclasses I am giving round the world.
Copyright © 1992 by Graham Wade