Anthony Glise: Pedagogy, Guitar History, and Performance Practice

Anthony Glise Pedagogy Guitar History Performance Education
From the Fall 2017 issue of Classical Guitar | BY BLAIR JACKSON

There are many guitarists more famous than Anthony Glise, but relatively few can claim the impact he has had over the course of a rich, varied, and award-winning career as a performer, composer, and educator. Beyond the many albums and dozens of compositions and music publications he’s created, Glise has also had an enormous effect on countless students of classical guitar—ones he taught directly, others who have attended his classes and lectures at universities in Italy, Germany, Austria, and the USA, and still thousands more who have benefitted from the wisdom in his book Classical Guitar Pedagogy—A Handbook for Teachers, published in 2000 by Mel Bay and still in use at many schools throughout the world.

The St. Joseph, Missouri, native traces his own music education to programs such as the Konservatoriun der Stadt in Vienna, the New England Conservatory in Boston, and the Université Catholique de Lille in France (among others), and he has been “formally based in Europe since 1983,” he says—for the last 18 years in southern Germany and northern France. He still spends part of each year in Missouri, but just as likely you’ll find him in France, perhaps helming the “Red Socks and the Guitar” music festival/program, which he directs in Chartres every summer.

Glise’s latest opus is an important new book called The Guitar—In History and Performance Practice (From 1400 to the 21st Century), put out by his own Aevia Publications, and designed to be (as it says on the cover) “a university textbook for the historical study of the classical guitar.” In a way, it could be considered a companion volume to Classical Guitar Pedagogy, though it easily stands on its own. The book’s 300 pages contain a bounty of color and black-and-white photos and illustrations—some depicting historical vihuelas, lutes, and Baroque guitars from the celebrated modern builders Steven Barber and Sandi Harris of London—and many musical examples, as it traces the history of the guitar, describes how it was taught through the centuries, discusses compositional and technique innovations over time, and spotlights significant players and composers. Glise says his book is aimed at “three specific target audiences: general education students, undergraduate guitar majors, and graduate guitar majors. It’s designed so it can be used in all three of those categories.” In fact, it does have suggested weekly writing and playing assignments for those three levels, as well as quizzes, vocabulary lists, suggested reading and listening, a helpful “Historical Timeline in Relation to the Guitar from 325 AD to Today,” an intriguing “Brief History of Historical Ornaments,” and much more.

Also newly available from Glise is a separate 60-page small-format book called Research and Writing: A Handbook for Aspiring Authors and Musicologists, which is exactly what it purports to be. In both cases his writing is lively and informative, the fine detail of his research balanced by a conversational tone and even dashes of humor. He’s the kind of engaging guy I would have loved to have had as a professor in college.

CLASSICAL GUITAR: I’ve never really gotten a sense of whether there’s any kind of “accepted” route to learning guitar—whether you start with the Sor or Carcassi “methods,” or if there are certain logical building blocks; certain pieces or composers you study first. You’ve done a guitar pedagogy book, but this one takes a more historical approach, talking about what was added to guitar knowledge and technique during each era up to the present. Can you talk a bit about this way of attacking the subject?

ANTHONY GLISE: Well, pedagogy is obviously based on technical and musical development, so there are different steps that go down in training the hands, as opposed to discussing the history. So the most logical approach with the history book was to simply take it chronologically. Pedagogy is a different beast in that it is a little more of an open book, because what we’re after there is actual motor skill development. That is not necessarily linked to historical development in our compositions.

The other problem is that guitar, as opposed to almost every other instrument on earth, nearly died out twice; we completely lost our traditions. It essentially disappeared after the Baroque and then again near the end of the 19th century, roughly after 1856 when Mertz died in Vienna. With piano, violin, and the more standardized classical instruments, you can go back and follow the entire path of how they were taught and what pieces they used. But we don’t have this same tradition of pedagogical progress with the guitar. Back in the 19th century, when we really get our instrument—the six-string guitar tuned the way it is now—most of the methods that came out were by composers and performers and they naturally predominantly included their own compositions, so it’s a bit of a messy deal to use any of the older manuals, because their methods are only going to expose the student to a very miniscule sliver of our repertoire.

Now we’ve gotten to a place where the pedagogical development has to be mixed historically, so it’s either up to the teacher to create a list of pieces that build one on the next to develop the student, or there are a few established things out there you can turn to: Like, the Royal College of Music of Canada has a graded series of repertoire that’s mixed-historical. There’s also a great book called Dix ans avec le guitar—“ten years with the guitar”—and  it’s the essential manual that’s used in France in all the conservatories and music schools. I believe that goes through six levels, and within each level there are five or six separate levels; all very rational progressions of music for solo, chamber music, concerti; there’s even some jazz and chord work in these. So there are systems out there, but they aren’t really plugged directly into repertoire development specifically.

CG: Why do you think the USA did not embrace the “grade” system prevalent in Europe and other places?

GLISE: Europe and the USA have an inherent disconnect in how we think about learning instruments. For example, your bachelor’s degree in America is traditionally four years. In Italy it’s nine. France is darn near the same, depending on how far you go. France is also a totally different beast because under the formal conservatory system you have to have studied solfège [the application of the sol-fa musical scale] for at least one year before they even allow you to pick an instrument. In the USA we’re into more immediate gratification. In Italy, the repertoire that they use in all the primary conservatories is identical. It was set up under the arts council division under Mussolini, so basically in every single school you do exactly the same pieces depending on what level you’re at. Some might call that overly structured. I don’t know. That’s not really for me to judge.


Guitar as a formal degree in the United States got shoved in late. Music in general, frankly. And the colleges in this country had already been widely established as four-year programs. So we’re a little trapped in that regard.

CG: When you work with your students, how do you see or determine what the holes are in their learning, if there isn’t a coherent system in place that determines “levels”? Is it based on pieces? On whether they can handle certain articulations?

GLISE: Actually, no. It’s quite a bit more structured than that for me. The first book I wrote that really took off was called Classical Guitar Pedagogy, which is very pragmatic. It’s about 15 years old now, but it’s still used in almost every university that has guitar. How I approached that was to break it into three sections: physiology—how the hands work; then actual pedagogy; and the third section is just pure musicianship.

As for finding holes, there are specific things I, and I think most teachers, look at. Number one, you’re concerned with anything that might be happening that can cause physical damage, which involves everything from sitting position to how we move the fingers. Problems there can cause some pretty severe physical ailments—tendonitis, focal dystonia, carpal tunnel. Then you start looking at any technical issues that may come up: Is a finger not returning as soon as it should? Is the nail shape causing the finger to snag when it releases the string? That sort of thing. Then you shift to the third stage, which is musicological, and see if there’s anything going on technically that’s negatively affecting the interpretation. A subsection of that third category is looking for anything that is simply not coming across—and that’s the coaching stage. 

Ultimately, you’re going through three stages with a piece: You’re learning it, you’re memorizing it, and then you’re polishing it. I try to keep a student with at least one, usually two pieces in each of those categories—learning, memorizing, or polishing. That also makes it a lot more interesting for the student, because they’re not sitting around for months doing technical exercises, and they’re not just sitting back, as in the third stage of playing through stuff, trying to get it stage-ready.

CG: Do you find that students have an easier time memorizing or working with something that is consistently rhythmic—a Sor  piece that has a certain “classical” logic you can follow—versus  tackling something by say, Bogdanovic, which might be more unconventional or irregular?

GLISE: A little more “out” [as in the jazz term “outside”]. That’s an interesting question, because in my opinion, in the same way we try and have a rational development for technical issues, we also really do try to have a rational development of the repertoire, and a gradual opening up of the student’s ears. You can’t take a young kid and throw him into a piece by Stockhausen or, as you say, Bogdanovic, or even Roland Dyens. We have to gradually ease into that, expose them to these things, because it’s truly a foreign language to so many young guitarists. I’m not being critical of that music at all. I love it! I’m a composer and I do some relatively avant-garde stuff—though still pretty audience-friendly. But coming from a more traditional foundation of western music, most students are more comfortable with music they can understand better, and that makes them enjoy learning more.

CG: You have quite a substantial chapter in your book about improvisation, which is slightly unusual still, even though there are obviously many great improvisers in the field today.

GLISE: Improvisation in classical music has existed since the Middle Ages. And even through the turn of the 20th century, a group like the Brahms Quartet out of Germany would, in the middle of a Brahms string quartet, improvise. Improvisation used to be considered the ultimate test of a musician’s skill. We have to remember that when Beethoven shows up in Vienna, the first couple of years he’s making his living from teaching and also from winning improvisation contests that people used to have in their homes. I imagine it could be terrifying to be in one of those contests and Beethoven walks in the door!

But improvisation has always been a part of who we are. People like Bogdanovic,
who is a very good improviser, and Roland Dyens, too, improvise within their own style and their own compositions. To improvise today is totally authentic. It’s also a little bit touchy, because the old composers have become these iconic figures, so it’s like, “You don’t mess with Beethoven.” And improvisation was totally about messing with that.

CG: You talked about the guitar disappearing, and the prominence of repertoire for piano and violin. In the short time I’ve been interviewing guitarists, I feel as though I’ve noticed a slight inferiority complex about the guitar versus those instruments.

GLISE: Well, we don’t have Mozart and Beethoven and Brahms and the big 19th-century guys that most other instruments can flaunt. But inferiority? . . . Hmmm . . .

CG: Maybe that’s the wrong word.

GLISE: It’s a good concept. I get where you’re coming from. But I really believe that much of the repertoire we have [for guitar] is on a par with some of the best repertoire that’s out there for any instrument. We just don’t have very much of it yet. It’s a more limited repertoire. Part of that “inferiority” has to do with the recognition of the instrument. The guitar has certainly been more accepted in Europe as an instrument to formally study than it has been in the States. It’s really just been since the late ‘60s and early ‘70s that guitar emerged as what Americans consider a serious classical instrument.

CG: How have students changed or progressed in the years you’ve been teaching?  I feel like a lot of the younger players, besides being so skilled, are also very open and adventurous.

GLISE: I agree. I think part of the advantage we have with guitar is we are allotted the courage to be a little bit more adventuresome in what we do because we have been considered a fringe instrument. There is a plus to this. Like I said, you don’t go in and start improvising on Beethoven; it’s too sacred. But you sure can get away with it in Diabelli and Giuliani and Sor, because they don’t have that level of . . . halo over them that would make some say, “I wouldn’t dare mess with this composition.”

One of the cool things about guitar in general is that so many of us didn’t start with classical; there’s rock, blues, jazz, world music . . . even Julian Bream is a serious jazz player. And because of that, I think there’s a little more openness in the guitar community to introducing elements of other music forms into the repertoire and adapting that, and being a little more on the cutting edge of what we call “popular” styles. For instance, Sergio Assad’s compositions are deeply rooted in Brazilian elements, but completely transformed into our [classical guitar] world. We’re loose enough and you can get away with that. The expansion of classical music that guitar offers is much more adventuresome than most traditional classical instruments dare. And that’s part of what makes it so exciting to know how guitarists played through history and try to guess what’s coming next.