Christopher Parkening Master Class Notes
February 24, 1996

Jeff Kenyon (jkenyon_at_indra.com)


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DISCLAIMER: I wrote this off of notes I took during class, and off of memory. I take FULL responsibility for any and all mistakes in this account; if something is obviously wrong, I probably misheard, or misinterpreted what I heard.


On Saturday, February 24, 1996, I was able to audit a master class given by Christopher Parkening at the Metropolitan State College of Denver. The previous evening, Mr. Parkening performed a solo recital at Boettcher Hall.

My prose here is somewhat clipped and terse, but I should point out that Christopher Parkening was very enjoyable and engaging as a teacher. We were in the room for four solid hours, with no breaks (probably a real challenge for those who had opted for the second cup of coffee at breakfast); despite having had only five hours of sleep the night before, not once did I find myself bored, or my attention wandering. I'd definitely recommend attending one of his master classes, should you have the opportunity.

There were nine performers. Each one played their piece, followed by approximately fifteen minutes of commentary by Mr. Parkening. I've added no criticism of individual performers (and in fact, I've ommitted the names of the performers).

Recuerdos de la Alhambra (Tarrega)

Parkening (hereafter referred to as CP) began by stating that Segovia did not like tremelo, feeling that it was too gimicky, and that (in Segovia's opinion) this was the only good tremelo piece. It should be played very warmly, especially on the first string. CP commented on hearing nail clicking, and examined the student's nails (which turned out to be fake; ping pong balls). CP felt that fake nails could not achieve the proper result. He suggested that in nail emergencies, one might try a "silk wrap" from a manicurist, but that you must (obviously) shape and finish the last 1/16th of an inch yourself. Two coats would be best.

Let the left elbow "fall" from the instrument, rather than letting it stick out. To cure that particular problem, CP's father attached a weight to his elbow!

Tremelo technique: Pepe Romero hung the fingers directly over the tremelo string (knuckles directly over the tremelo string). Thumb plays; "a" finger goes down; there is always a finger that is secure. If you watch John William (who CP referred to as probably the greatest technician), he always has a finger down. As a practice device, from flamenco technique: try p-i-a-m-i. Slightly angle wrist, to bias to "a" finger.

In slow noteplaying, he could hear nail click. Solution is that the finger touches the string at an angle. Use fingertip as a "shock absorber," traverses to the nail without clicking.

CP described a few of the sounds that could be obtained. For a ponticello sound, one would (1) play with all nails (risking buzzing), (2) play by the bridge, (3) pluck strings up, and (4) finger instrument in first position. For a more dolce sound, one would (1) play more toward the soundhole, (2) with a combination of nail and flesh, (3) "pluck" the strings laterally, back, "like unscrewing a jar", and (4) play in the upper positions. The standard right hand position would have the index finger over the lower part of the rosette. It's important to use a variety of sounds and tonal colors in a piece.

Missionera (Bustamente)

CP pointed out that this is a very rhythmic piece, and that it is important to keep the rhythm, syncopation. Make sure rasgueado is very clear, and not muffled. Watch for nail clicks.

The student's guitar had a thigh brace attached (using suction cups), and he used this brace in lieu of the traditional footstool. CP asked why, voicing a rather negative opinion of them. This opinion was based on aesthetic grounds, and, more importantly, on the grounds that it doesn't secure the guitar as well. He went over the points at which the guitar is secured in place: (1) against the left thigh, (2) right forearm resting on the top of the arc of the upper bout, (3) the right leg keeps it from moving from side to side, and (4) the top back edge of the instrument anchored against the chest, the instrument tilted slightly up (imagine a right triangle, with the guitar back being the hypotenuse).

This was another student with ping-pong balls on the nails, and CP again said that these will never sound right.

His final comments were that every time you touch the string, make sure you attack at an angle; record yourself, listen to the tape; add dynamics and color changes where appropriate.

Verano Porteño (Piazzolla)

There was a lack of dynamic changes in the piece (performer ignoring the dynamics in the score). A lot of buzzing on the bass strings, which he felt could be addressed either by higher tension strings, raising the action, or playing more laterally. Make sure the 16th note sections are very even.

CP commented on various strum types, which he referred to as "pad of thumb" (gives an intimate sound, e.g., opening of Adagio of "Aranjuez"). John Williams comes off of right side of thumb, Segovia off the left side; it's important to be able to play off of both sides (I confess I'm having a difficult time visualizing how one would come off the right side of the thumb, in a natural manner -Ed.). The other type of strum he referred to as "callused" thumb; a little coarser, more raspy.

Again, record yourself, listen to get the tempo down, to get the feel of the piece. CP thought the ending came as a surprise (not because of the composition, but because of the lack of foreshadowing or "building" in the performance). Vary the pizzicato, the technique offers a wide variety of sounds; CP used Couperin's "Les Barricades mysterieuses" as an example (in the opening, the technique is soft, more note than effect).

Ojos Brujos (Brouwer)

CP didn't get a sense of where the piece was going, and felt it meandered about; needed to clear up rhythmic problems, bring out melody more. The guitar position seemed awkward, with the top in the crook of the elbow (rather flamenco-ish), and the hand directly over the soundhole. The vibrato seemed too fast, uncontrolled.

There are two ways of generating vibrato; back/forth, or up/down (which he jokingly referred to as the "Jimi Hendrix" method. Practice at the 9th fret; use metronome; four "waves" per beat. The general rule is frets 1-5, use up/down, frets 6-up, use back/forth, but this rule doesn't always apply. Vibrato should be varied for the piece. Many guitarists only have one vibrato speed.

He pointed out that the up/down vibrato can only be used to take the note sharp, while the back/forth could take the note sharp or flat. This latter style of bending a note can be used to compensate for sharp or flat notes

Etude No. 11 (Villa-Lobos)

CP mentioned that certain things were being left out, and that the timing was not quite correct; he cautioned against memorizing too soon, although with Villa-Lobos, this is easy to do. He also commented on the lack of color changes in the playing; he said that the piece needs to build, culminating with the arpeggio section (helps to plant in this section). This is a good piece to work on vibrato (all the 4th string work), however, he would use less vibrato if he re-recorded it now.

The playing was somewhat soft, which led CP to the topic that the #1 criticism of the classical guitar is that it is too soft, and that we must work to overcome its deficits. We need to learn to play the guitar loudly; he recommended that the student play the etude twice as loudly as he had been, go back to the score, and play in time. He told an antecdote about his father being made to play the clarinet twice as loudly as he usually did for a week.

Regarding slides; if you don't do the slides right, you hear every half-step (during his days at USC, CP was criticized by Piatagorsky and other cellists for not being fluid enough). Use moderate tension at the start of the slide, then let up. Sliding on the basses causes squeaks.

Play the rasgueados on high section with all thumb.

Don't get off the two-finger chords too soon.

CP went into some general information about sound quality as a function of construction. He cited the experience of Paul Jacobson (a Kansas City luthier), who was testing some of his own guitars which were identical except in length; Jacobson noted that the 650mm was much warmer than the 640mm. The primary disadvantage of the greater length is in reaches. When you capo up, you lose tone; he mentioned an amusing story recording the "Ave Maria" with Kathleen Battle, where he'd play it and she'd want to try it in a higher key, so he'd capo up...and she'd want to try it again, higher...and finally he wound up with the capo on the 5th fret! Parkening prefers the long string length and cedar (he feels that spruce has a "dryer" sound).

Interlude: The Music Critic

CP had, in advance, asked the music critic for the Rocky Mountain News (the name Mark Shergold sticks in my mind, but I'm not sure that's correct) to say a few words about what he as a critic looks for in a performance. The gist of his talk was that for him, the best performances came from performers who were able to use their knowledge and life experience to transcend the notes on the page. For example, CP had been on a fox hunt (in the foothills west of Denver); the critic felt that that came through in his performance the previous evening of Bull's "The King's Hunt."

Prelude, from Prelude, Fugue and Allegro BMV 998 (Bach)

This piece is actually more like a fantasia (according to a Baroque specialist at USC). He prefers (not surprisingly) Segovia's fingerings ("well-nigh faultless"). He alluded to a set of John Williams fingerings as well (can't remember what opinion was expressed). On fingerings, he told a story of playing the Chaconne for Segovia at a master class when CP was 15, in which he was using fingerings given to him by his teacher at the time (who was nameless in the story)...as he was playing, he was unaware of Segovia becoming more and more angry, until Segovia finally exploded, thundering "Why have you changed the fingering? You change it back for tomorrow!" CP did a nice Segovia impression.

Bach altered pieces for specific instruments; this was used as justification for Segovia adding chords, slurs, etc. Great musicians are more flexible than we might think they'll be in making their music sound better on the guitar.

Performance had no slurs; CP felt that slurs give fluidness to a piece, keeps it from being choppy. Performance just sort of plodded along, didn't give the sense of going anywhere. He made a general comment that while most master classes played too much rest stroke; this one was playing too much free stroke!

He again suggested that more dynamics be used, and that the student tape record their own performance.

Usher Waltz (Koshkin)

CP commented about all the effects in the piece, and mentioned that it was an exception to his advice on slides earlier; in this piece, you do want to hear every half step. Mentioned that the fast sections needed to be faster (although he said the student had chosen a good tempo for playing cold!). String snap volume should be in proportion to the rest of the piece; not too loud.

He mentioned that the guitar needs to be temper tuned, which involves compromised. Octave tuning means that the guitar will be out of tune. As an example, he used "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring"; it has a C in three places, so his tuning on that piece is primarily comparing the C's. Tune quickly and quietly if you're on stage. Learn to correct tuning during a piece (reaching up quickly to change tune), or pull string sharp if you can't. Tempo may suffer a bit, but he feels that it's worth it.

Piece needs to be rhythmic, fast. Make sure enough of the rasgueado chord sounds before letting off.

Saudade and Allegro Solemne, from La Catedral (Barrios Mangore)

A tough piece, especially the Allegro. In the prelude, the high note has to be just gorgeous. Performance just sort of plodded along. Sound gets brighter as you go up the fingerboard; need to compensate with right-hand technique to keep it warm. The piece needs to "sing", to transcend the physical difficulty. How would a non-guitarist, say a harpist, hear it?

CP had never heard anyone play this piece where he liked it.

The performer's hands were quite cold; he mentioned that one of the Romeros keeps a hand warmer in his pocket.

In the Allegro, don't "gallop." The piece sounded a bit mechanical, like a study; needed more dynamic interest and variation. The piece needs swells, needs to go someplace. Practice the piece slower, gradually increasing the speed, till you are practicing it faster than necessary (so that when you perform, you can pull back a bit).

He suggested a slur study, up the fingerboard on each string. The pattern was 3-1-3-1-4-2-4-1, up a half-step on the last note. Do with rest stroke on the left hand. Also suggested the pattern 1-2-4-2-1-3-4-1-1, up a half-step on the last note. Strive for making the time and sound even, and as loud as possible. It's tempting to pull off louder than one hammers on.

He mentioned that playing a piece for recording is different from playing it live; in a live situation, you need to play louder, need to project, and need to keep the piece going (for example, his opinion is that if you play the Villa Lobos Prelude #4 as written, you lose the audience, letting the notes die).

Tarantella (Castelnuovo-Tedesco)

Piece needs a fast pace. Performer should revisit Segovia's fingerings, and not do rasgueado quite so much. This piece is in David Brandon's repetoire, and CP asked for his comments (Brandon had come with Parkening to the class); they were (a) more life in the piece, (b) more rhythmic variety, and (c) bring out sections more. CP suggested that the performer go back to the score, and compare to recordings.

He briefly returned to nail dynamics, saying that if you start out with all flesh, then go to nail, you get a click.

He suggested keeping the left hand close to the fingerboard, basically parallel; when going up the fingerboard, the neck rides on the palm of the left hand, the fingerboard acting as a handrail. Can't really do it playing on the 1st string, hard on the 2nd string, but works quite well for all others; gives tremendous accuracy.

Q&A

I didn't take great notes in this area...just jotted things down as they struck me.

One question was on whether Segovia was truly self-taught. CP said that he believed Segovia had taken a bit of cello when very young (there's always room for cello! -Ed.), but was essentially self-taught. A Segovia quote: "Teacher and student got into many arguments."

Another question was on having the music in front of you during the performance (the previous evening, CP had the music in front of him during the concert). CP explained that he had it in front of him primarily as a safety net; he had it more or less memorized, but had played four different programs during the month, and some of the duets he played with David Brandon were pretty tricky in places. But, he cautioned, if having the music in front of you takes the musicality away (makes it difficult to play musically), then don't.

He concluded (either off of a question, or just as a concluding remark) by saying that you must pursue a committment to excellence (rather than success), that you must practice, do the homework, and be disciplined ("You can't presume upon God's grace" he said, rather wryly). Excellence should not be measured in relation to others; only to one's self.

He wrapped up, and was deluged by autograph seekers and well-wishers, despite the local sponsor's trying to get him out and to the airport.

All in all, a very intense four hours.

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