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Conquering Classical Guitar Stereotypes

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It has become increasingly clear to me that the classical guitar has an image problem. One needs only to ride the bus carrying a guitar to get a glimpse of the situation. Inevitably, after five or ten minutes of sitting and studiously avoiding eye contact with everyone, someone leans over and asks the dreaded question “So what kinda guitar you got?” This presents a bit of a dilemna. Do I describe in great detail my luthier made, double-topped, marvel of guitar construction? For matters of personal safety this usually seems inadvisable on public transit. I generally settle with “It’s a classical guitar.” This almost always ends the conversation; the eyes of my new friend glaze over as he realizes that I am not as cool as I initially appeared. On rare occasions they continue to inquire, my favourite follow up question being “Oh, so you play like, Led Zeppelin and stuff?”

Perhaps more dissatisfying than total ignorance of the instrument is the post-recital compliment. Yes, I know, it is in bad taste to get upset about intended compliments, but I’m going to do it anyways. Because every classical guitarist who has reached a certain level of proficiency has come out of an emotional, dynamic, soul baring performance and been confronted with “That was so pretty I almost fell asleep.” A damning judgment of the instrument if I’ve ever heard one. I haven’t been practicing six hours a day to be the sonic equivalent of white noise, I’ll have you know. I’ve also encountered “Wow, that was great. But have you ever thought about singing too?”, though I’m not sure that can even qualify as a compliment.

The broader classical music world has no respect for our instrument either. I recently attended a fascinating lecture at the Guitar Foundation of America convention, in which I discovered a guitarist has not played the main stage of Carnegie Hall as part of their concert series since 1983. I also learned that the top classical musicians in the world (think Yo-Yo Ma) command up to $150,000 per appearance. The top guitarists? $15,000. If you have ever seen a guitarist play with a symphony orchestra, I am willing to bet my life savings (don’t get excited, I’m a classical guitarist) that they were playing Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez. Believe it or not, that’s not the only guitar concerto in existence.

But surely guitarists themselves regard the instrument highly? Here things get a bit interesting. Guitarists have become quite worried about this image problem. We are desperately trying to avoid the stereotypical, Spanish guitar, lower art form stigma and be accepted as true classical musicians. To accomplish this we have decided to alienate our entire listening audience. We groan when a guitarist plays Recuerdos de l’Alhambra as an encore. We snicker in the audience when Albeniz’s Asturias is listed on the program. We even roll our eyes at Bach, unless it is a completely new arrangement of a recently unearthed harpsichord score, that requires a never before used way of tuning the guitar to perform. Guitarists want to hear virtuosic pieces that stretch the limits of the instrument. If Segovia ever glanced at the score, we had best avoid that piece entirely. Maw’s Music of Memory, Yamashita’s transcription of Pictures at an Exhibition, Brouwer (the more atonal, the better), faster scales and indiscernible melodies are the way to ensure our audiences stay awake. Or don’t show up in the first place. Classical guitar for classical guitarists is the way things are trending. If the general public and classical music world doesn’t want us, we don’t need them!

So how do we bring the classical guitar into more mainstream acceptance, creating performance opportunities for ourselves and broadening our audience base? If you were hoping I had the answer, I’m sorry to say I haven’t quite figured that out. I suspect it has something to do with creative programming. (Maybe that all Brouwer concert could use a moment of Tarrega after all, to lighten the mood?) I suspect also that it has to do with expanding our performance venues. Carnegie Hall may not be an option, but house concerts, coffee shops and small intimate venues are everywhere. Perhaps it also has to do with personality. It’s hard to stay awake if the performer does not engage the audience and maybe even tell a story or two up on stage. Fewer bow ties and polite applause, and more relationships being built between the performer and audience could only further our cause. Finally, I suspect that we as classical guitarists need to let go of the fear of being disrespected and stop being so stuck up. We need to bring the music that we love to whoever we can convince to listen. If that means playing Recuerdos de l’Alhambra at every concert, are we really selling out? For my part, I think I’ll start by describing my guitar to people who ask on the bus. If they ask about Led Zeppelin I’ll smile and say “No, but I can do a wicked version of Asturias, if you’re interested.”

With that in mind, here is a video of Milos Karadaglic playing some of the most famous music in the guitar repertoire. Anyone who knows me has likely heard me complain about this man, the most wildly successful classical guitarist currently performing. Perhaps I’ve been a bit mistaken about what’s important.