Pulling Those Strings at the Guitar Day
Luthier Vicente Carrillo during the class. Photo by Tato Baeza
Understanding the country’s musical traditions is part of the professional and cultural experience for students at Berklee’s campus in Valencia, Spain—so where better to learn more about a stringed instrument of considerable renown. “The guitar is one of the most popular instruments played around the world, and the origins of its modern form are in Spain,” said Casey Driessen, director of the Master of Music in Contemporary Performance (Production Concentration) program.
To commemorate Guitar Day, celebrated in Spain on November 8, Driessen invited three of Spain’s—and the world’s—finest professionals in the field; luthier Vicente Carrillo, classical guitarist José María Gallardo del Rey, and bandurria master Pedro Chamorro.
Carrillo, who belongs to the seventh generation of a family of luthiers, explained that chance played a role in his visit. After meeting Gael Hedding, former production manager at the Valencia campus, at the 2016 edition of Musikmesse in Frankfurt, Germany, a conversation ensued.
“I invited Casey and Gael to my workshop in Casasimarro to discuss the possibility of organizing a master class in Valencia,” Carrillo recalled. There, he suggested that, to provide students a more rounded experience, it would be interesting to invite world-renowned plectrum instrumentalists such as Chamorro and Gallardo del Rey.
Although Chamorro has received several awards as a performer of the bandurria and the bandolin, he is, essentially, a master of the plectrum. On campus, he showed students techniques that need to be applied with either hand. To do so, he noted, requires “discipline, practice, and perseverance,” but when combined with enthusiasm, allows apprentices to achieve “surprising results.”
“The key is to have a good master who knows, controls, and loves what he or she is teaching,” said Chamorro. But in addition to learning the techniques needed to become a great performer, it’s equally important to study the history of plectrum instruments. “There are around 25 technical variations which had their peak in the 18th century, mainly for mandolins,” he said, “but if we apply them nowadays in genres like jazz or bluegrass, they transform into very surprising harmonies.”
In his master class, Gallardo del Rey focused on listening to the instrument’s capabilities while personalizing his teaching. “I wanted them to learn the importance of acquiring a solid technique so they can comfortably face all the styles they will be confronted with in their careers,” said Gallardo del Rey. He added that students, although familiar with the Spanish guitar, were less aware of its capabilities as a concert instrument. “I think it would be great if Berklee were to introduce a Spanish guitar class,” he added.
Asked what he thought students learned from Chamorro and Gallardo del Rey’s master classes, Driessen said, “For guitarists, players of other plectrum instruments, and, in general, acoustic string musicians, I would expect they could take some new techniques that can be applied directly to their instruments.”
In a master class that was the icing on the cake, Carrillo detailed the intricacies of building a Spanish guitar. “Equally important as to learn how is built is to learn how to preserve it,” he said Temperature and humidity are enemies of wood, so it is critical that these are constant and neither too high nor too low, he added.
The quality of its construction distinguishes the Spanish guitar from its peers. “There are two ways of building a guitar—one is the dovetail mounting technique and the second is the traditional Spanish system,” Carrillo said. “Most manufacturers follow the latter.” Because the manner in which an instrument is built can affect quality and sound, Carrillo stressed that it is paramount for musicians to learn how their guitar is assembled so “they can solve any minor issues which could happen on stage.”
For Driessen, understanding how an instrument is built can deepen the connection between player and instrument. “A musician can gain new ideas for producing sounds and expanding techniques from learning why their instrument makes the sounds it does and how far it can be pushed,” he said.
The master classes weren’t only beneficial to students; they also ignited a creative spark for the instructors. According to Carrillo, Chamorro and Gallardo del Rey hatched plans to record a Spanish guitar and bandurria album in the near future.