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Here's what I remember from John Williams' master class, October 16, 2002, in Holsclaw Recital Hall at the University of Arizona. A slim, unpretentious fellow quite casually dressed and walking with purposeful modesty, JW followed the UA's four selected classical guitar students onto the stage from the right entrance before crossing over to left center, sitting down, and facing partly toward them, partly toward the nearly filled auditorium.

Striking a note of easygoing offhandedness at the start of the master class, JW pointedly declared Dieter Hennings, two chairs away from him, "the king"--obviously remarking on Dieter's stately bearing and almost seven-foot stature in contrast with his own rather ordinary and inconspicuous appearance. Introducing himself and the program, he disclaimed any intention or desire to pose as a Segovia-like "guru" and made it clear that he wished to dispense with the customary formality of a master class. In explanation of any fatigue he might happen to show, he spoke of a long drive he had just completed by car on a trip with his wife to see the Grand Canyon.
Dieter Hennings, Guilherme Vincens and John Williams
Onstage, carrying no guitar himself, he eschewed any detailed critiques of students' playing and disavowed the idea that his precise manner of executing measures or interpreting phrases should become their model, everyone's hands understood to be unique. Instead, he pleasantly chatted awhile with the four young guitarists in his company and had each in turn--Guilherme Vincens, Dieter Hennings, Ben McCartney, and Joseph Williams--play their chosen pieces straight through without interruption, one after another from the nearest to farthest on his right.

JW seemed clearly pleased to listen as each of the four performed while he sat cross-legged, smiling discreetly, noticeably wiggling his suspended foot to the beat, and gently rocking his head. At first, he made no comments on their renditions except to recommend that the performer always, just before or right after playing, at least identify the piece and its composer for the audience. Even in the case of a printed program, he counseled, some spoken words about the music's background help a lot to put an audience at ease, as well as the performer, facilitating good communication and successful interaction between musician and listeners.

JW then asked each of the four to say which kinds of music they especially like to know and play, how their enjoyment and study of guitar developed, and what they hope and strive for in planning a musical career. Making a career strictly as a solo guitarist is awfully hard nowadays, he warned. Having established a solo career during the great growth of classical guitar's popularity, in the middle and late twentieth century, he thought himself extraordinarily lucky.

He confessed having little regard for several of Rodrigo's compositions for guitar; but when Guilherme played "Zapateado" (from Tres Piezas Espanolas), JW found it exceptional and commendably representative of a folk tradition with its firmly established rhythmic patterns, characteristic emphases, subtle hesitations, and sensitively varied tempos. Further illustrating the absorption of folk tradition in guitar music, Dieter, in response to JW's request, at once offered a poignant medley of traditional tunes that he had learned and arranged in his hometown, Hermosillo, Mexico. Both of their examples prompted JW to advise that whoever aspires to a career in classical guitar performance should get well acquainted with a variety of cultural traditions--to broaden and deepen one's musical understanding and to break free now and then from the long-entrenched limitations that standard academic rules for melody, harmony, and rhythm impose.

Guilherme Vincens and John Williams
Dieter and Joseph both chose to play Scarlatti sonatas in D major. Dieter performed the more lyrical one, K. 490; Joseph, the livelier and much different K. 96. JW urged both to look into Scarlatti's fascinating life and into various influences, especially Spanish ones, on his style of composing. He recommended that both should aim to simplify ornaments so as not to impede the music's forward flow. Harpsichord sonatas by Scarlatti lend themselves admirably to transcription for guitar; but too often, he said, players of those sonatas and of other pieces fail to realize, and therefore miss, the impact that a relentless, persevering tempo can provide.

One particular passage, however, in the Sonata K.96, the last piece performed, seemed to him to present an intriguing problem. He crossed to the opposite side of the stage and asked Joseph to replay that short passage for him while he closely watched Joseph's right hand. Under studious scrutiny, Joseph then tried JW's tentative suggestion to repeat the same passage once more with the right hand turned farther down to allow easier stretching of fingers toward the treble strings. When the supposed solution failed to work as expected, JW regretfully shrugged. Returning to his chair, he exclaimed with a sigh, "That's difficult!"

To Ben, who performed Giuliani's "Grand Overture", JW recommended generous servings of operatic expression to reflect more of that composer's dramatic inclination. Borrowing Guilherme's guitar, he played a brief excerpt from a Giuliani piece for an example of what he meant. He stressed the value of becoming fully informed about composers' lives in relation to their music.

During the question-and-answer period in the last hour, a man in the audience voiced approval of JW's apparent "down-to-earth" quality and called it "refreshing". Asked about his occasional duos and longtime friendship with fellow Englishman Julian Bream, JW told of their delight in getting together to play duets with their very unlike ways of playing. Duets, in his opinion, appeal and succeed most when the two players don't try to blend as one but complement one another with their dissimilarities. Laughing at himself, he admitted that his old friend Julian has rightly reproached him for "going on and on." Although he amply demonstrated his talkativeness, yet throughout the 2 hours of this master class (11:00 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.) JW took special care not to swell any students' heads with excessive pride. Giving no outright compliments, he maintained a steady reserve. He openly confessed being "nonreligious" and "agnostic" but testified his belief in "the transporting power" of music that every serious musician should diligently pursue and earnestly try to convey.

--Bill Wolfe 10/30/02