Notes From a Christopher Parkening Master Class
Montana State University
August 13-16, 1979
For the past few months, I have been searching among my personal papers for the notes that I wrote down during Christopher Parkening’s master class, which I attended in August, 1979. In early January, 2013, I found them at last. This is a transcription of those notes into a topical and narrative format.
Much of the content of what you read below will be found in my “Reflections of a Guitar Addict,” completed and posted earlier at this site. That fact is both gratifying and unsurprising, for it confirms, as expected, that my “reflections” on classical guitar technique are consistent with established practice. Accordingly, there will be some redundancy here with “Reflections,” which I have allowed both for emphasis of key points and for the sake of completeness of these notes.
As I worked on these notes for this posting, many thoughts came to my mind that were not found in the original notes. These will be indicated in the text below by italics. (January 30, 2013)
Proper seating position is “very critical.”
There are four “anchor points” for the guitar: right thigh, left thigh, chest and right forearm. The left hand in totally free – does not support the guitar. The right forearm holds the guitar approximately at an imaginary “extension from the line of the bridge.”
Be sure that the guitar is secure – does not move when played.
The neck of the guitar is “angled back” (close to the shoulder) and “angled up” (top of face slightly inward). That way “gravity works for you” (e.g. with barres).
Do not bend the torso back. Lean slightly forward to allow a clear view of the neck and the left hand. But lean only after the guitar is securely placed, as described above. Take care that the guitar is not too close to the body.
Be sure that the entire bout (“waist”) is on the left leg – not just the leading edge. The right leg should push the guitar firmly against the left leg.
Above all, the positioning of the guitar should be comfortable. “Almost right” may not be comfortable.
Because “a picture is worth a thousand words.,” take a look at the photos early in Parkening’s “Method” or in Vladimir Bobri’s “The Segovia Method.” Both are cited at the end of this article.
I have found these measurements to be ideal (plus or minus an inch):
Floor to chair seat: eighteen inches.
Foot stool (left): six inches.
Which means, stool to chair: one foot.
For restaurant or club work I normally perform from a bar stool (but not at the bar, of course!). So the additional height of the stool must be added to these dimensions. In other words, the left foot must rest on a stool a foot below the seat, and the right foot on a platform eighteen inches below the seat. Tucking the right foot on a bar stool structure is not recommended, for it causes tension.
At six foot three inches I am taller than most, so these dimensions will vary with each individual. Find out what is best for you, and keep a record of these dimensions.
Finally, Andrés Segovia, in Bobri’s “The Segovia Method” (page 33) recommends that the front of the left foot should rest on the stool, while the heel is unsupported past the rear edge. Similarly, the right foot should be supported by the ball and toes, not the heel. “This position,” writes Bobri, “allows a certain amount of flexibility.” While I am most reluctant to dispute the maestro, I must confess that I find this advice to be very puzzling, for this “flexibility” also introduces tension in both legs. And as most performers (including Segovia) remind us, relaxation is essential to optimum performance.
So I try to keep both feet flat and fully supported by the stool and floor respectively. When I notice that I am lifting the heel of either foot (usually the right), this is usually a sure sign that I am “tensing up” to the detriment of my performance. Unfortunately, I find in my notes no opinion on this issue by Parkening..
THE LEFT HAND
Avoid “flat finger” playing. Use the finger tips, not the pads. This rule may be relaxed a bit when playing the lower strings. Are you doing it right? Your left hand calluses will tell you.
Palm should be parallel to the neck and very close to the side. Particular circumstances (patterns and fingerings) may allow departure from this rule.
Fingers 1 and 4 slant inward. (I.e. – \ | | / ). Do not bend the thumb at the first joint.
Take care not to bend strings sideways (except for vibrato). This can be avoided by stopping strings from the top down (i.e., on the finger tips).
Left hand calluses should be filed off. Here I disagree with Parkening, This may be good advice for some individuals, whose calluses keep on growing until they are unmanageable, as mine did when I was younger. Today I am a fortunate exception, as are many others, I am sure. My calluses are thin and tough and quickly reach an optimum condition, where they remain without adding on. No need to file them off, which would only introduce unnecessary pain. As with many “pointers” (e.g. regarding fingernails, foot stool height and placement, etc)., individual differences and preferences should be accounted for.
Don’t cut the left hand nails too far back. Leave some nail for support. Very well, but my rule still applies: if the left hand nail touches a string, fingerboard, or adjacent finger, reach for the clipper – which, by the way, should never be used on RH nails. In my case, clipping the left hand nail almost to the quick leaves plenty of nail for support. Others will no doubt differ.
Vibrato: Practice vibratos at the IX position. Use a controlled beat by setting the metronome at about 60, and execute four vibrato beat with each metronome click (i.e., four per second).
There are two kinds of vibrato: (1) “pulling” the string from side to side parallel to the fret, and (b) “rocking” cello style, with motion of full forearm from the elbow. Parkening has no hard and fast rule for the application of either methods. Unlike my first teacher, Harold Morris, Parkening does not endorse assigning different methods to different positions on the fingerboard.
A slur exercise: 12421341, 2421341, etc. Strike only first note – slur the rest. Move up and/or down the fingerboard, and very strings.
THE RIGHT HAND
Begin stroke on the side of the nail, then move to center. Attack string at a slight finger angle.
This is good advice. As I have discovered, approaching the string from the center often introduces a “click” as the string leaves the flesh and strikes the nail before the release from the nail. Approaching from the side of the nail can solve this. The “click” can also be due to a nail that is too long.
The nails should move across the strings with the greatest ease and least resistance. No “snags.” On runs, the string should ride on one side only of the nails. Use the full fingers, stiff from the top joint. Full finger motion increases velocity. For the most part, use imim in runs. Don’t obsess about “all possible RH finger combinations.” The advantage is largely a fiction. However, be careful when using ima and ami in runs, for they can introduce unwanted “triplets” in the runs. OK to use them – just be careful.
Do not repeat RH fingers, either on one or adjacent strings. This is often the cause of difficulty in fast passages.
Use different parts of the nail to alter the tone colors. Augment tone quality by shifting RH up and down the string: “dolce” near sound hole, and “acido” near bridge.
Round nails are better for sound quality, and flat nails are better for speed. However, because this varies with individuals, “you re stuck with what you have.”
Parkening’s recommended nail length, 1/16" to 1/8" (Method, p. 48), seems about right for me, as I favor the shorter end of this range. (2mm for those who prefer to think metric). Again, individual preferences will vary. But the rule (in “Reflections”) still applies: Stroke with no nail on the string, too short – stroke with the nail only on the string, too long. However with fast tirando such as arpeggios and tremolos, minimal flesh contact is OK .
There is not much in my notes about fingernails, probably because I generally agreed with what Parkening had to say about nails and so was not motivated to write it down.
The top of the wrist and hand should be flat (parallel to the guitar), with the thumb extended out.
There are several recommended thumb positions, depending upon the desired effects. With “the Segovia style,” the thumb is turned back so that the side of the nail touches the string first and the contact with the string then moves forward. With “the John Williams style,” the thumb is straight forward, so that the nail first strikes at the forward edge of the nail and the string contact moves back. Parkening uses both methods for different tonal effects. But avoid a “compromise” between the two methods, for this may cause the nail to “catch.” on the string. (I use “the Williams style” almost exclusively. Unlike Parkening, I have found negligible tonal difference between the two. Maybe I’m missing something).
In addition, there is the “pizzicato” effect: the flesh of the side of the thumb is employed with no nail contact, while the side of the right hand rest very lightly on the bridge.
Most guitarists use too much apoyando (rest stroke). Use apoyando for emphasis, accents, strong runs. The position change between apoyando and tirando (free stroke) should be minimal. Tirando stroke “just misses” the next string.
Rasqueado: Use nail enamel when practicing rasqueado.
Basic stroke:” i-finger back and forth. Strive for evenness. (OK to rest p on ➅).
Then “all four” (cami). (“c” means “pinkie finger,” rarely used by classical guitarists). First one at a time. “Lock” fingers: q behind a behind m behind i.
Then: c↓- a↓-m↓- i↓- i↑.
Many (most?) classical guitarist, myself included, do not use "c", not even for rasqueado.
Above all, remember that “practice makes permanent.” Always take care not to practice your mistakes. Figure out what is wrong, and attack the error aggressively.
Practice alone, no distractions, a step at a time.
If something needs changing (e.g., fingering, a position, etc.), make that your sole concern and concentration for a few practice sessions. Never play “the old way” again, no matter what. Sounds a tad dogmatic to me. In rare cases, one might decide that the old way was better after all. And how else to find out than to try both ways, “side by side”? However, once you have made up your mind, Parkening is right: don’t go back.
Segovia advises that learning the classic guitar may be like climbing a mountain. If you find a dead end, you may have to “climb down” before ascending. In other words, “unlearning” may cause a temporary regression. Beware: familiar errors can be more “comfortable” than unfamiliar corrections. At least at first.
Now and then, listen to a recording of yourself. It is OK to listen to the recordings of others, since you can’t fully “copy” their performances. However, they can give you a “conception of the piece.”
The best students get a point of correction right away. They listen and remember. “After three reminders, I just get impatient.” (CP) “If you can’t do it seven times ‘clean” in the practice room, it won’t work on stage.”
Don’t try to memorize a piece too soon. Once you have gone over the music several times, memorization will come. On the other hand, don’t settle too soon on the fingering, Parkening admitted that he memorizes “kinesthetically” and relies primarily on “muscle memory.”
Practice slowly and cleanly, but not too slowly. Isolate the trouble spots and “key in” on them. Do not tolerate mistakes. Think! Concentrate! You are not done unless you can play seven times cleanly
If your execution is not “clean,” there are three likely reasons: (a) lack of ability (“chops”); (b) not practicing correctly (e.g., poor positions), or (c) not doable.
When practicing difficult sections, use extra strength in the left hand – more than necessary. This will give you “reserve strength” and will “bind in” those tough passages.
The Number one enemy: bad practice habits.
It us usually better to play parts of established pieces for “exercises” (e.g., runs) rather than exercises per se, though there is a place for exercises. Sometimes, exercises can be “made up” to help you through particular difficult sections. In any case, exercise should serve an identifiable purpose. On the other hand, Segovia insists that the serious student should practice scales two hours each day, which seems a bit much to me.
Reading music is difficult for guitar, because:. (a) notes are redundant – can be played in several positions; (b) fingering depends on what precedes and what follows. Students should make a deliberate effort to improve reading, but not overdo it. Sight reading is fine if you have time, or are looking for “studio work.” However, concert guitarists do not need to sight read well.
All great artists are, to a significant degree, “self-taught,” i.e., acutely self-critical.
In order to “learn to perform” – PERFORM!!! Practice “on site.”
In event of a “stumble,” be able to pick up a piece a various places. Do NOT retrace!
Learn to play “cold” (i.e., without warm-up exercises). But keep your hands warm and loose.
Phrasing is essential. Allow the piece to “breathe.”
Don’t perform with brand new strings. They should be at least two or three hours old. (Not enough, I believe. Make that two or three days old. New strings, even after a few hours, do not stay in tune – they immediately go flat). New strings have a fresh, “crisp” sound. That’s good. But the new bass strings are also more likely to squeak. Not good). When on tour, Parkening changes the bass strings every three concerts. Trebles last much longer. To clean bass strings, use acetone (nail polish remover?) with a cloth.
Use “temper tuning”. Tune to the key you are playing in. Guitars, as Parkening points out, are not “tempered” instruments (unlike Bach’s “Well Tempered Clavier”). He will occasionally us the Spanish Capo (even in concerts) to preserve the original key. With an untempered instrument, correct tuning in one key will not “transfer” to another key. Open-string tuning on the guitar is “tempered” to E-Major. Quite frankly, I’ve never found tempering to be much of a problem. Normal tuning seems to suffice for all keys. But maybe that observation betrays a “tin ear” on my part. But I rarely did formal recitals, and my usual restaurant and resort work prompted no complaints regarding tuning. This issue requires more study on my part.
Group pieces by periods and composers, and play pieces that you like.
A guitar virtuoso is like a Decathlon champion: he has a combination of talents – velocity, technique, musicianship, sound quality. If one goes “all out” to perfect one of these qualities, the others will suffer.
Most of the pieces that can be effectively transcribed, have been. If a famous piece hasn’t been transcribed, there is usually a good reason for it. At Parkening’s class, one student performed the famous second movement of Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata.” “Just doesn’t work for guitar,” Parkening remarked. Another performed Ravel’s “Pavanne for a Dead Princess.” “Almost makes it, but is very difficult to get smooth,” was Parkening’s response.
When choosing a teacher, first listen to them play!
When choosing a guitar, the treble strings (especially ➀) should be the deciding factor. Are the notes even? Check this first. You do not want excessive overtones. Also, check the octave harmonic against the "fingered" note (XII fret). If just one string is "off" it is a faulty string. If all strings are off, the fingerboard is misaligned.
About ten out of a hundred Ramirez guitars are the best. Two out of a hundred are superb. Because a luthier cannot predict the quality of a guitar when be begins construction, you should never commission a guitar. Better to make a choice from completed instruments.
THE MANAGER’S WORD
A few words from Parkening’s manager, Sam Neefeldt:
The odds against success as a touring concert performer are enormous. Local importance as a guitarists is of little importance to the world scene.
Ego is essential: you have to have it, and no career can succeed without it. But take care to keep in check.
Seventy to seventy-five minutes of music, with at least a fifteen minutes of intermission, is enough. Never devote more than two hours to a full concert.
Parkening began study of the classic guitar at age eleven. After a year and half, he was playing Albeniz’ “Leyenda,” and after three years, Bach’s “Chaconne.” He was not totally self-motivated, but was “pushed by his father,” though we often would have preferred to be outside playing football. His first phonograph album was released when he was nineteen. He confessed that becoming touring performer “came as a complete shock.
He does not perform for “glory,” but rather for “musical satisfaction.”
At the time of this master class, Christopher Parkening was 31 years old and, by his own admission, recovering from a “burn-out” phase in his career. Parkening had earned himself a break, for he had, in the preceding dozen years, released several outstanding recordings and published the first volume of his Guitar Method along with several folios of selections from his recordings. Fortunately, soon after this master class, he resumed his concert and recording career. At the master class, a guitar was at his side to aid his instruction, though he never performed for the class. But, of course, that was not his purpose. He was, throughout, a sensitive, attentive and effective teacher.
Bobri, Vladimir, The Segovia Technique, Collier, New York, 1972.
Parkening, Christopher, The Christopher Parkening Guitar Method, Vols. 1 & 2, Hal Leonard: Milwaukee, 1972, 2009.
Segovia, Andrés, Diatonic Major and Minor Scales, Columbia Music: Washington, 1953.