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Ben Verdery's Master Class in Maui
by Robert McAuley

I was lucky enough to attend Ben Verdery's annual masterclass held in Kihei, Maui, Hawaii in August, 2001. Here is an account of the guitar-related activities and some of the other things you can do while you are there.

It takes quite a while to get to Hawaii from Calgary. You get a sense of how far out in the middle of the Pacific Ocean these volcanic islands really are when you are flying at 500 mph for about 6 hours over the open water. Although it was the middle of our summer here, it was far warmer and much more humid in Hawaii, and took more than a little getting used to, being a cold-blooded Canadian.

Direct flights to Maui are available and highly recommended. I arrived at Kahului airport on Friday evening and picked up a rental car. For those without vehicles, Ben and Rie picked people up at the airport if they were given advance warning. The drive from the airport to Kihei is short but scenic in the daytime, through sugar cane fields flanked by volcanic peaks in the distance. The condos where participants stayed are right on the waterfront facing west. Rates are very reasonable, and although there are newer and more luxurious accommodations inland, they lack that ocean view and sunset. Amenities are within walking distance.

There was an overabundance of things to keep me occupied during my stay there, in class and out. The class began at 3 p.m. on Sunday afternoon, Aug. 12. We got oriented and introduced, then began with a couple hours worth of classes. Most of the students were music majors or teachers/performers. A few of us were serious hobby players and one talented young man was still in high school. That evening we piled into several vehicles and drove inland to Makawao. BenVerdery and Bill Coulter played in a restaurant in town. A splendid time was had by all.

Each day of classes had a common thread: Brouwer Monday, Bach Tuesday, Spanish Wednesday, Modern Thursday and Villa-Lobos Friday. Some days included rehearsal time for the ensemble pieces that we worked on as a guitar orchestra. The ultimate purpose for all of this activity was to perform in two concerts at the end of the week. So you have to focus on that goal and hone your solo piece as well as your ensemble parts in pretty short order.

The Classes

A tentative schedule was mailed out before the class began, so I brought my own copies of the scores for pieces that were going to be played by the other students. This greatly facilitated my note-taking in class and my overall understanding of the comments and analysis.

Everyone who's been on the classical guitar scene for a while knows that Ben's enthusiasm, humour and energy are boundless. Although it is impossible to distill all of the classes down to a treatise on guitar technique and performance, these are some of the things I took away from them. Throughout the week, a number of themes kept arising regarding basic setup. The importance of proper posture and hand position can't be overemphasized. You must be seated comfortably and as close to a normal seated position as you would be without the guitar. If the guitar were to be taken away from you while you are playing, you should not be contorted into a bizarre, tense position. You should look relaxed and pretty close to the normal, comfortable stance that you would have just sitting and talking with people. Excess tension and muscle strain impede your dexterity and speed, and in extreme cases can lead to repetitive strain injuries. Right hand position requires tremendous attention to detail in order to get it right. The base knuckle of each finger should be directly above the string that it is playing, and there should be a gentle "C"-shaped curve to the fingers. The wrist should not be bent sideways. Instead, there should be a straight line along the middle of your forearm continuing along your middle finger. The wrist should be slightly flexed so that the fingertips are brought closer to the strings. Never bend the wrist so that the forearm and wrist are brought closer to the soundboard. Each finger (a,m,i) should have the same degree of weight or pressure in contact with the string. We commonly favour the "i" finger to the detriment of the "a" finger, giving us a lopsided sound. When plucking, the fingertips should move towards the wrist bone, not the palm of the hand or the base of the fingers. It all sounds very basic but you'd be surprised how few students actually get it right. This gives you a fuller tone, greater volume, increased ease of movement and more even sound between all the different fingers. Also remember to breathe regularly and keep your stance opened up to the audience. Don't hold your breath and shrink downward and inward while playing, especially during difficult passages. Ben suggests sitting back and smiling when you get to a hard passage to make it look and feel easier. Also beware of making "guitar faces". Sometimes we have so much physical tension built up that our jaws clench and facial muscles contort wildly while playing, which is distracting to the audience and detrimental to our need for maximum muscular relaxation. Our goal is to make everything look easy to the audience. When we can make it look easy to play, it IS easy and it means that we have secure technique and are moving with maximum efficiency.

In terms of performing, always remember to keep going no matter what. If you are well prepared, you should be able to go to the next bar or the next section even if you have a memory slip or there is a noisy distraction. Keep your "flow factor" moving ahead at all times, especially during a ritard: don't come to an abrupt halt. You want to gradually slow down and then pick up again. It helps to mentally subdivide your beat count during a rit so that you keep a sense of forward motion at a slower rate rather than coming to a stop and suddenly restarting at a near-random time interval. A handy way to critique yourself is to make a recording (any level of quality you can manage conveniently) and listen to it a couple of days later. pay attention to evenness of tempo, clarity and legato in the melody, consistency of rhythm, articulation of notes, voicing and dynamics. These are hard to isolate while in the midst of playing the piece. Then perhaps have a teacher or knowledgeable friend critique it and see what they suggest, too.

In terms of general musical style for the Baroque, Ben encourages using a moderate tempo and strong sense of rhythm. Even though they are highly stylized, pieces of this era are commonly based on moderately paced dances. Remember to keep ornaments and pedal notes light. These devices are intended to fill space without drawing too much attention to themselves. In polyphonic passages, bring down the volume of the existing voices just prior to a new voice entering. This makes the new voice more apparent to the audience. On repeated sections, play it more quietly and with a few more ornaments the second time around. This is a very simple but effective dynamic to use. Also remember to keep your tone colour and volume consistent until after a phrase has completely ended: don't change tone immediately before (or in the middle of) a cadence. In preparing a piece for performance, it helps greatly to have the original version for the original instrument as a reference, so you know how the guitar version differs and how the editor has accommodated the music on the guitar. You may legitimately disagree with the editor and then come up with a better solution, but you shouldn't attempt to correct Bach!

Fernando Sor is one of the all time guitar greats. performances of his compositions will be enhanced once you realize that he usually structured his sequences in sets of four. You build from the first to the third and then relax on the fourth. This works on all levels; phrase, section and movement. Octave passages in Sor are meant to be loud, in imitation of the then-new piano performances by his contemporaries (Beethoven, et al.). A characteristic rhythmic motif in Sor is the snappy short note acting as the pickup to the following downbeat. Give it the attention it needs, don't assume that it is not very important. Also bear in mind that the modern guitar has a much louder bass register than the guitar of Sor's era and we have to keep it subdued. It is tempting to really reef on the bass with the thumb, but resist it and the result will be a more tasteful performance. Long scale runs that might seem directionless at first blush can be broken into smaller subsections, as you would articulate words in a sentence. Then you'll get a direction and goal note for the passage and it will sound much more musical.

Ben kindly made himself available as much as possible outside of class time for specific questions on repertoire and general discussions.

As an aside, Hawaii has its own guitar tradition, called "slack key" or Ki Hoalu. It involves the use of several different open tunings for accompaniment of songs and playing instrumental solos. One of the class participants, Jeff Peterson, is quite involved in it and had to return to Honolulu partway through our class to participate in a slack key guitar festival on Oahu. The guitar was introduced in the early 1800's by European sailors and by cowboys from Mexico and Spain who immigrated to work on the large cattle ranches that were newly developed in Hawaii at that time. By the late 1800's the steel string known on all the major islands and it had been incorporated into the native culture. The style has continued to evolve ever since then. I was impressed by Led Kaapana, who gave a concert in Calgary in October of 2001.

The Concerts

On Thursday evening we packed up and went along the coast to Lahaina, a former whaling port. We performed our first concert there, in the Jodo Buddhist Mission, graciously hosted by Rev. Gensho Hara and his family. A few of us forgot to remove our shoes in the temple once in a while, but we were forgiven.

On Saturday evening we reprised the program at the Keawala'I Church on the south end of Kihei. Here's what we did:

Opening Chant, Rev. Kealahou Alika, Keawala'I Church
Appalachian Rain by L. Welch, ensemble
Prelude, Cello Suite #3 by Bach, Brian Mancini
Mysterious Barricades by Couperin, David Hindman
Sun in the Shades by A. Cotton, Adam Cotton and James Moore
Malaguena, Tom Morelli
Asturias by Albeniz, Marc Lipari
Study #13 by Domeniconi, Nicole Hetzer
Sakura Variations by Yocoh, Geremy Schulick
Introduction and Variations on a Theme by Mozart, by Sor, Max Zuckerman
King of Pain by Sting arr. By Au, ensemble
Aria in G by Bach, ensemble
Minuets, Cello Suite #2 by Bach, Josh Friedman
Prelude #2 by Villa-Lobos, James Moore
Gavota-Choro by Villa-Lobos, Bob McAuley
Raining with Sunbeams by Pratorius and Watson, Rob Watson
Sounds of Bells by Pernambuco, Jean Siggelkow
Sunburst by York, Michael Hulmes
The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba by Handel, ensemble
Taireva, ensemble

Here's the venue of the Saturday concert:

Here's our happy little group:

Around Maui there are tons of things to do. I took a helicopter flight around the island,

hiked some of the valley trails, drove the Hana Road,

went to the top of Haleakala volcano,

saw the production of a Hawaiian-based stage extravaganza called Ulalena and attended a Luau in Lahaina.

Hawaii has its own guitar tradition, called "slack key" or Ki Hoalu. It involves the use of several different open tunings for accompaniment of songs and playing instrumental solos. One of the class participants, Jeff Peterson, is quite involved in it and had to go back to Honolulu partway through our class to participate in a slack key guitar festival. The guitar was introduced in the early 1800's by European sailors and by cowboys from Mexico and Spain who immigrated to work on the large cattle ranches that were newly developed in Hawaii. By the late 1800's the steel string guitar was known on all the major islands and it had been incorporated into the native culture and the style has continued to evolve ever since then. I was impressed by Led Kaapana, who gave a concert in Calgary in October of 2001.

Other Non-Guitar Holiday Doings

After the week of classes was over, I flew to the island of Oahu and stayed in Honolulu for a week. I toured the Pearl Harbour area,

drove the scenic north shore (where you can find the estate upon which they filmed much of Magnum, P.I.), with its coral-sand beaches and spectacular inland cliffs,

hiked several areas, including Diamond Head, and generally hung out having a good time and a relaxing week.

I ate in a local place called Ono in Honolulu that served local dishes and got my baked goods from the famous Leonard's Bakery.

While I was there, in my spare moments I read a book entitled "Guns, Germs and Steel" by Jared Diamond. It helped to put a global framework around some of the historical and cultural aspects of the Hawaiian Islands and their subsequent occupation by European and American interests.

Overall, the class is excellent, the scenery and culture magnificent and the costs can be reasonable. With a little luck, I plan to do it again in 2003 and catch some of the things I missed this time around.

- Robert McAuley