a figure playing classical guitar

On the method- Influences of the School of Tárrega

The following blog post was written by Susana Frade Machado, and is cross-posted from her PEN & Inc project site Cuban Classical Guitar Method. Read more about her project here.

The most known and influential Cuban method for classical guitar that Isaac Nicola (1916-1997) developed—along with some other colleagues and students—was influenced by the Spanish Classical guitar tradition, particularly the teachings of his mentor Emilio Pujol (1886-1980). Pujol, who was a great pedagogue, in turn, based his work on Francisco Tárrega’s teachings (1852- 1909). 

Tárrega was the most influential figure in the Classical guitar context in Europe at the end of the 19th-century and beginning of the 20th-century. He left a legacy regarding pedagogical teachings and compositions that are currently part  of the repertoire of professional and guitar students around the world. In an interview given to Cuban magazine Guitarra, Pujol explains the merits of Tárrega’s school as follows:

Even though Sor and Aguado’s techniques in the 19th-century were superior to their predecessors, it was still far from the new concert level expectations regarding musicianship and well-rounded technique. Tárrega started to follow his own criteria to solve technical issues that the specific expressiveness and musical complexity required. From the tone to the subtleties of the interpretation, he studied every aspect of the playing and continuously improved his theories on performance throughout his life. 

Emilio Pujol

His approach consisted of resolving any problems that might appear during the execution, related to the instrument, hands, and spirit. Considering the nature of the instrument and the human body he put the fingers to the service of intelligence and sensitivity. He would analyze and resolve progressively any problem that the music could present at the time of the performance. 

Every combination of scales, arpeggios, slurs, shifts, and effects were considered so that the fingers worked methodically, with the utmost independence, strength, and confidence possible. Any piece would be easily figured out in advance. Every procedure was fundamentally solved before learning the specific piece. 

The interpretative side was taught through the example, modeling for the student. Tárrega also recommended listening to good music and avoiding less refined music. Unfortunately, he passed away before he was able to write books or methods with his visions. Only a couple of exercises and studies remained among friends and disciples.

According to Clara Romero, Isaac Nicola’s mother,whose pedagogical approach also served as inspiration for Nicola’s method, teaching Tarrega’s method gave Nicola a certain professional dignity and increased his respectability as a professor. It was so famous during the 1930s that even those who were learning to play the guitar by ear used Tárrega’s school as a reference. 

The high standard in teaching and learning music was essential in Tárrega’s philosophy and an important part of what made it so successful. Nicola, from his side, would carry on with this philosophy of excellence, always aiming for the best quality of instruction and professionalism.

Isaac Nicola followed the standard Western musical education in high-level conservatories mainly from socialist countries whose professionals collaborated with Cubans during the 1970s due to the close ties between the two nations. The commitment to excellence also came from the strong influences of the Spanish school with Tárrega, which Nicola adapted to the Cuban context.

In regards with another aspect of Tárrega’s teachings, Nicola would say in interviews that successful guitar learning does not come from a specific method, or the exercises and pieces included on it. It is more about how the professor can get the student to play the guitar successfully. For Nicola the approximation to the instrument through Tárrega’s teachings was the shortest way to achieve it.

Nicola explained how the guitar is an instrument where the performer must build the sound almost from scratch. At such a fundamental aspect, the sound production relies on the direct touch from a very fragile and variable device like the nails. Considering these challenges, the aspiring performer must have a clear idea in his head of how good tone and high-quality music should sound before he attempts to play the guitar. 

What this means is that a good instruction requires much more than a simple method with exercises and pieces to improve the technique. The pre-existing musical reference points of the student and the mindset while approaching the technical issues will be as important to achieve excellence in performance. 

Nicola added to the importance of musicianship on his interview to Mirta Armas: “If something has always interested me, and I think this is what every instrument professor should do, is to form something more than an instrumentalist, is to form a musician that can use the instrument, in this case the guitar, as a means to make music”.

According to Nicola, when he refers to Tárrega’s school, he is not trying to impose a certain positioning of the instrument or specific way to pluck the strings. The most important element is not where you put exactly the right hand or how you move the left-hand fingers. In fact, Tárrega himself played with his nails and without them.

But why does Nicola so fiercely recommend Tárrega’s school? In accord with Nicola’s thoughts, the way to get to play the guitar transmitted by his Spanish idol through his disciples, is more broken down. I would add that it is not about having hundreds of exercises on the same technique, but on breaking down the learning process so that students go from one technical challenge to the next with incremental steps that make sense and put more value on the overall musicianship and high-spirited performance. 

In his last interview given to Azucena Plasencia, Nicola reflects on how he tried to share the teachings Tárrega learned through his mentor Emilio Pujol, but with his own perspective. His students in turn shared that knowledge with his own personal characteristics, idiosyncrasy, and culture. Each person incorporates their own creativity. According to Nicola, Cuban guitar school is creative in that sense, always working, asking questions, finding problems where others find satisfactory answers.