John Williams on Problems with Guitar Education and Being Too ‘Faithful’ to Standards

classical guitarist john williams
By Colin Cooper | From the March 1985 issue of Classical Guitar

Media people who can’t distinguish between the John Williams who plays classical guitar and the John Williams who writes film music are going to have another headache. John Williams—our John Williams—is writing the music for a film. It was something he decided to do when the opportunity arrived. This readiness to do things “as they come up” forms the subject of the opening part of this interview, though mainly in a performing context.

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John Williams: One of the things that’s quite interesting in my own case is that I really do things as they come up, and as far as I know I do them in a very unselfconscious way. Once or twice in the past it’s been mentioned—I can’t remember who, when or why—that I don’t do much contemporary music, for some reason. It’s funny, because I’ve noticed at the same time that when I have done it, it’s gone unnoticed. Not that I mind, because I’ve enjoyed doing it, but as a comment on people’s awareness it seems that unless you make a great big point of self-publicity not much notice is taken. You know what I mean? “I am doing X’s fantastic new piece because this is important for the guitar repertory and this is the future of music and I’m interested in the combined structures of Indian scales and rhythms with the traditional harmonies of X and Y”—you can go on forever, and people think it’s great. That seems to be what is taken notice of.

But if I look back at the sixties and the early seventies, I must have done every bit of contemporary chamber music, with the old Melos Ensemble, with the Sinfonietta, and a lot with the Nash Ensemble. All the standard things like the Schonberg, the Webern (the Boulez Webern is complete on CBS). I’ve done the Schonberg Serenade twice. Roberto Gerhard’s Libra—a fantastic piece—I must have played half a dozen times. But after a time you’ve done a lot of that work, and I passed it on years ago to Tim Walker, which was great because he’s good and he loves doing it—and that’s the best reason.

I did a performance and recording of Leo Brouwer’s first concerto, the aleatoric one. And lots of other modern stuff, though not necessarily modern in the avant-garde sense. I’ve done it all and I’ve enjoyed it—the Dodgson pieces, the Gowers pieces, Leo’s pieces—etcetera, etcetera.

One or two of the newer pieces I haven’t heard and haven’t had time to look at. The Sonata by Ginastera, for instance—a very interesting composer.

Do you get a lot of contemporary composers sending you music to play?

All the time. I’ve had a backlog this year of 30 to 40 tapes, everything from amateurs to professionals. And a stack of music. Once you get behind, there’s no hope of clearing it. A friend listens to all the tapes for me and sorts out the best half dozen. If there are a couple of nice things on it, then I listen to it.

It’s something that people don’t understand. When people come up after a concert and say “Can I send you a tape?” or “Can I send you the music?” I have to say “Look, I probably won’t get ‘round to it.”

We’re blessed with an instrument which is really firmly placed, both feet, in everything that’s going on in music around us today.

There’s a shortage of time in which to do the things I want to do. I don’t find any shortage of repertoire and material. There is no traditional guitar repertoire as there is on violin or piano, i.e. 18th and 19th century. And no amount of hard work is going to make up for it. As far as I’m concerned, that’s a full stop. That’s not the area of the guitar as an instrument that should concern us. We’re blessed with an instrument which is really firmly placed, both feet, in everything that’s going on in music around us today. The areas that we love, and the areas we don’t. Whether you like or don’t like South American music, oriental music, jazz, pop, country style, finger-picking, etcetera, doesn’t matter. Whatever you happen to like, the guitar is there! Internationally, it’s part of the musical culture, in a way that no other instrument is. And that really is what is important. And it’s great.

I’m not decrying ordinary classical guitarists—they’re a part of it. That’s fantastic. But there’s no desperate, panicky need for “God, what are we going to do for repertoire? The poor old guitar…!”—you know. People are still getting a bit depressed, but it’s not a problem. There are so many things, there isn’t time to do them all. And there are so many young players now compared with 15 years ago—OK, they’re varied, but the standard is really fantastic now.

Yet I’m aware of a certain conservatism in the programmes they choose. Are they playing safe in n good cause for career reasons, perhaps?

But is it any more conservative than an average pianist’s programme?

I think one’s broaching a far bigger question there, when you’re talking about the musical performance culture we’re in. Where we are performing the bulk of the music as “classical” musicians, we’re performing music written by other people. And this is really a western European concept, a practice dating from say 1770 onwards. It’s become partly a world culture simply because western European culture had or has an imperial quality; because the western European empires—France, Spain, Belgium, Germany, England—have spread their own cultural traditions, including the performing traditions, around the rest of the world. And that’s a social or an imperial question, no longer just a cultural one. It becomes an economic and social thing.

This is an important point to remember, because we tend to assume that music really is that—western European music. I know we’re all very sophisticated these days, we know there’s jazz, we know there’s Indian music, we know there’s new ethnic music, but there’s an assumption behind it that when it comes down to the concert that we’re likely to go to or the concert that we’re likely to give, we feel that the “proper” stuff is in that tradition—west European music of the last 800 or 900 years, and the performing tradition of the last 200 years.

It becomes part of the conditioning, what we expect from the programme when we go to a concert. If you’re performing the best of the music of the past as you see it, the music that you have chosen and want to play on your instrument, then it’s bound to become repetitious, isn’t it? And if you’re going to a lot of concerts—as in your case—you have to try and think of something, a way of understanding and communicating something of what’s going on at that concert through an article or whatever it is. It’s bound to be very frustrating.

I think any comment’s good, and I think it’s right. whether you say it or whether it’s in the review or not, to say that the programme seemed to be very traditional and unexciting. That’s good. Everybody needs pushes in all directions, and any comment is only going to help the whole development of it. But now that we’re, as it were, analysing it, I don’t think that’s actually a criticism.

But the audience is there, it must be catered for…

It’s communication!

It’s also economics…

Well, I’ll give you an example. A great thing in the South Bank Summer Music Festival was the Australian Youth Chamber Orchestra. They had a 20-minute standing ovation in Paris. A fantastic European tour. Then they went back to Australia. They’ve all gone back to colleges and universities and are finishing off their courses. And a couple of the violinists came to my concert in Adelaide. In fact I did two concerts, and they came to the rehearsal of the one with orchestra. They said they would be coming on the Friday night to the solo recital, and would I be playing any Villa-Lobos? That first Prelude!

You see? We’re talking about wonderful musicians in the Australian National Youth Orchestra, and they’re hearing the Viila-Lobos Preludes like hearing Chopin Preludes or Chopin Studies, or the 48 of Bach—you know, basic repertoire. Forget that we’ve only got five Villa-Lobos Preludes and you’ve got all this other repertoire by these great composers and we’re sick of hearing Villa-Lobos number one. This is not just “Joe Public,” these are fantastically good young musicians who just love to hear Villa-Lobos number one. It so happened that I was actually starting off the programme with the five Preludes and, in the interests of my guitar friends in Adelaide, feeling a little shamefaced about it. I knew that among the 2,000 people in the Festival Theatre there were going to be 150 guitarists who are sick of Villa-Lobos. But the other 1,850 aren’t. Not only that, but there are musicians there who would like to hear well-written music, which is what they are.


So there is a problem, and it’s a cultural problem. It doesn’t contradict or answer the questions that you or I ask if we go along to the Wigmore Hall and hear something on guitar, and we think “Christ, not this again!”—of course we do. But that’s our fault.

Funnily enough, I’m thinking of recording the Villa­Lobos Preludes again. Everything’s got to be on digital now, and I’m wondering if it would be worth redoing those. But I’ve got another project, which I’m absolutely itching to do—and which I’m keeping under wraps at the moment.

Your new record of Bach, Handel and Marcello created unusual interest. You played the Handel Organ Concerto at the South Bank—but in an arrangement for the “Friends”…

…But this is the proper version, with orchestra. Oh God, that was terrible, that was awful! That was every group’s nightmare: starting off a tour in London with a new programme.

I’d spent a year practising the very difficult solo part of the Handel, but with JW and Friends I only played the top line. Having to refinger everything I was familiar with was much worse than learning the whole thing from scratch. My fingers were all going in different directions.

Someone, somewhere, said that your transcription of the Bach Violin Concerto was bound to cause controversy. Do you think it will?

Why should it?—says me disingenuously!

In terms of comments, criticisms or controversy about transcriptions, the only thing is—does it work? Does it sound good? Not, “Is it faithful?”

Well, Bach transposed his own music often enough. But do you think that kind of controversy turns attention away from the music? Or does it help to concentrate the attention?

I don’t think it has any effect. I think it’s a completely wrong way of looking at and understanding music. The only sufferers from that sort of controversy are the people who have that attitude. But I don’t think it stops anyone. Sooner or later, if something works, whether it’s a transcription or not, it’s a piece of music and people will like it. They might read the next day, or beforehand, that someone is saying “Perhaps this is not right because it’s a transcription” and therefore I suppose their judgment or their reactions might be coloured a little bit. But if people are having a musical experience, then they won’t really be affected by something they’ve read. In terms of comments, criticisms or controversy about transcriptions, the only thing is—does it work? Does it sound good? Not, “Is it faithful?”

Let’s take an example: just suppose I do a transcription of Bach’s E major Violin Concerto in the following way. (At this point JW picked up his guitar). I transpose it into D major, which is perhaps better. And, because of the problem of long notes on the guitar, perhaps we should embellish it like this, although the notes are not really sustained, it doesn’t have that long sort of sweep. A lot of people would say “You can’t do that!” But of course you know what that is: that’s Bach—his own transcription for harpsichord! But people who didn’t know would say “What do you mean by doing that to Bach?”

But I don’t do that. It stays in E. The writing is like the Prelude from the Partita in E (BWV 1006a). There are no long notes in the piece, except the one at the beginning of the slow movement.

Like some other guitarists, you sometimes put a contemporary work in a fairly traditional setting. ls this intentional programming—a case of sugaring the pill, perhaps?

It’s not intentional in that way at all. It happens because it fits in with the actual programmes that I do. I know that a lot of the popular work I do creates a wider audience, like appearing on the Val Doonican show or playing Cavatina or playing in a film. I know that a lot of these people, all of them potentially but a lot of them in practice, do turn up. It could be to JW and Friends or to a solo recital. And to other guitar concerts, incidentally, not just mine. And then they listen to Petrassi, or it could be Barrios or it could be Bach or it could be Albéniz. It could be anything. I’m aware that popular spin-off from things like Cavatina has that effect. And that I think is a very good thing. The more of that, the better. But within a programme, if I’m doing Petrassi I don’t put things deliberately before it in order to sort of sweeten it and make it easier.

Apropos of that, I’d like to mention that certain sorts of opportunities I’ve had have been absolutely fantastic, like the Val Doonican shows going back to 1962 or 1963. I’ve been a guest on his programme in nearly every series, and I put that down as being—overall—perhaps the strongest thing in the popularity of the classical guitar. And I mean popularity to the wider public, not simply that there are more guitarists and more guitar compositions and more guitar concerts, but the actual awareness and appreciation of the classical guitar as a simple, lovely acoustic instrument. It’s been my luck to know Val and to have had an audience of 13 or 14 million people, live on a Saturday night. hearing a Bach gavotte, a Barrios waltz, Albéniz or whatever it is. And then a little song with Val, which if you like is the sugar coating—but of a good sort, because that communicates and brings the classical solo piece into some sort of relationship with Val. And it’s nice. Some of the songs we do are very sweet.

So that’s one thing, and I’m very aware of it. If I’d had the opportunity of planning it that way, I certainly would have planned it. It’s been a great thing for the guitar. I can say that with all modesty. It was just luck that I was in that position.

Four years ago I did the Petrassi in a tour of Australia. I punctuated the programme with Albéniz. I did one or two Albéniz pieces, then I did Richard Rodney Bennett’s Impromptus. Two more Albéniz pieces, then Brouwer’s Elogio de la Danza. Then I did the Smith Brindle pieces—and then I did the Petrassi. I just liked that as a programme. It was nice to have the Albéniz as a sort of punctuation. I’m not saying every programme should be like that, but it’s a reasonable assumption that someone’s going to like it.

Without wanting to deny or minimise the effect of exposure in the popular media, wouldn’t it be true to say that to some extent your personal followers don’t necessarily follow the classical guitar?

I don’t know. It’s very difficult to say. They don’t follow the classical guitar because it’s a classical guitar—but I don’t think that matters. Do people follow the classical piano because it’s a classical piano? That’s one of the things you’ve got to be careful of, you know. I don’t think they’re personal followers. I think they really like music. If someone else was on the Val Doonican show instead of me, playing those pieces, they’d love that too. I think it’s a mixture of things. I’m not saying there isn’t a personal following, but I certainly don’t think it’s an exclusive personal following.

(John Williams was lucky in his early guitar training. He gives full and generous credit to his father, the eminent teacher Len Williams. But wasn’t this a unique way of learning? Would it work for every child who had a guitarist for a father?)

I think my father was probably the best and greatest guitar teacher we’ve known. I don’t say that out of family loyalty or anything like that. I think it’s fairly obvious when you meet and talk to people who have known him and who were students, and you look at the effect since his time—the ex­students of his, or students of students, who are teaching in various parts of the world. Look at what they’re creating and what they’re doing.

Of course I can only talk from my own first-hand experience. All stringed instrument players have to start very young, and I was lucky to have had him as a teacher from that all-important age. It is important to have a good teacher very young. Probably having a teacher who is a parent is not necessarily the best thing, and could create a lot of problems. But certainly having music in the family surroundings generally—you can do without, but it’s a must, really. I think that’s why the Suzuki method is so successful, because of having to get one of the parents to learn as well.

Without getting into the whole area of music education, I think the problem so far with guitar teaching at a young age is that (except in some schools at a later age) the guitar still tends to be a very individually oriented activity in terms of the lessons and the music. So that beginners, whether they’re children or grown-ups, are learning how to play solo pieces predominantly, learning to play solo from the earliest lessons. And I think that’s a great pity.

It’s one of the main reasons why guitarists are deplorable sightreaders and musicians. It is connected with the genuine difficulties of the guitar, and the necessity—so far—of learning to play pieces that are too difficult too early.

In its production of a musical note, the guitar is by nature a melodic instrument. Because, like any of the bowed string instruments, like any of the wind instruments, two separately coordinated actions, whether of the mouth and hand or of two hands, have to produce one note—and the quality of its sound. That’s what happens when you learn the violin.

The problem is to make a beautiful sound. Anyone can scrape a bow across the strings, but the first few lessons—sometimes the first few years—are spent on producing a nice sound and proper vibrato. You might not start doing vibrato for a year or two. And as for double-stopping and playing more than one note at a time…!

It’s an obvious observation when you compare that to the piano, where you just bang a note, but the implications are not so very obvious to most people, who still don’t understand what it implies for teaching and learning the guitar. We are still asking guitar students from the earliest age to learn the guitar as they learn the piano. And that goes on all the way through the first few years into infinity. You end up with players who are obsessed quite inevitably with the difficulty of playing what is, in a sense, piano music, even if it is simplified where necessary. They are approaching the guitar as if it was a piano, albeit with limitations. It won’t work that way, and it can’t work that way. Of necessity, it limits that standard of playing, the standard of phrasing, the standard of sightreading and the standard of musicianship, because it’s based on being a rather bad copy of another instrument.

That leads on to the scarcity of repertoire for ensemble. Everyone is trying to play too difficult solo pieces too early. They’re obsessed with the technical problems, but they wouldn’t have those problems if they were playing much simpler single lines: early Mozart, Haydn quartets, or a lot of Renaissance consort music where your string players and your wind players are playing single lines and they’re playing them together, they’re listening to the other players. they’re sightreading at the same time and they’re trying to phrase and to make a beautiful sound with their own single­line part.

Every first or second year chamber music student at any one of the colleges will phrase an ordinary simple tune better than 99 percent of professional guitarists.

On the guitar we don’t do any of that. We don’t listen to other players in ensemble music, we don’t sightread and we spend no time in trying to phrase and make a beautiful sound in single lines. And it goes from lesson one right through up to professional playing. I turn on the BBC sometimes and I hear some really good players, playing fantastically difficult things. And then they play some Weiss, simple musically in terms of phrasing—and the phrasing is a joke! If you heard it on the violin or the piano or harpsichord, you would be amazed. In competitions, no matter how well guitarists play difficult pieces, in terms of musicianship you can put them at the bottom straightaway. Every first or second year chamber music student at any one of the colleges will phrase an ordinary simple tune better than 99 percent of professional guitarists.

We’re in a very serious position. It’s not an exaggeration. It’s easy enough to criticise, I agree. But we’ve got to go right back to 1800 and look gradually at where it’s gone wrong, and then we’ve got to look at not just the guitar and not just music, but our whole culture and the way the creation and the encouragement of ambition and success and the star system and solo playing and the necessity of people having to earn a living—when the only way is to get as many concerts playing guitar as possible. It’s unfortunate, but that’s the way it is. It’s what present-day teaching is trying to produce. Guitarists are not doing it together. They’re not playing chamber music, they’re not playing ensemble.

There’s loads of chamber music. We don’t have Mozart quartets and Haydn quartets, but you can make up chamber music with two, three, four or five guitars. It’s as easy as anything. There’s so much music over 600 years that can be arranged. You’ve got all the Renaissance consort music for different groups—the specified consorts and the unspecified consorts. Arranging that will keep you busy for 300 years! There’s early Haydn and Mozart quartets and endless traditional music which we could all work out for ourselves, just like rock and jazz groups do all the time.

It sounds awfully negative, the way I’m putting it. Quite rightly, we look at it and we react day to day. It’s right that we should, because that’s where the motivating force for action comes, isn’t it? If you feel enraged enough and push enough, after twenty years something might happen. Well, that’s fine! Twenty years can be a long time in history. It is encouraging that students are aware of this. So I’m not saying anything new, even if it sounds extreme. But I think it’s necessary to express it in as forceful and positive a way as possible—not exaggerated, just forcefully.

The situation as I’ve just described it is actually how I believe it is, objectively. It is absolutely ridiculous, and it is as important as that. Those are the facts. The musical standard is that bad.

Having said all that, I think it is changing. A lot of people in all countries are aware of ensemble music, of making music together. We’ve forgotten a bit of it in the last 20 years. John Gavall started in the West Riding of Yorkshire about 20 years ago. His peripatetic music staff went to a lot of schools and did a lot of ensemble music there. There are a lot of teachers in various parts of the world—Jochen Schubert in Melbourne, for instance, who’s very good at pushing chamber music. The trouble is, it’s very difficult to initiate change at odd steps on the ladder. Everyone’s trying to improve their position on the ladder, and that’s got to be done anyway. But there’s got to be a cooperative awareness right the way through, from the first rung on the ladder. We’ve got to go back to school music teaching. It’s a shame that it comes at such a terrible time in English political history… I’m so incensed about it, I don’t even want to talk about it. Words fail me!

As a postscript, you might like to say a few words about that perennial topic, electrical amplification. Yours is always so good…

Once or twice it’s not worked too well. But the principle first of all. The “natural” sound that you hear in a large hall is not the guitar’s real, natural sound. Because the guitar was never evolved to be played in large halls; it’s a small-room, salon instrument.

In a hall, a well-amplified guitar can sound more natural, more like a guitar than an unamplified one.

That’s the most important thing to remember, because the tone colour, the resonance and the richness of the guitar can only be fully heard and appreciated in a small space. As soon as you get into a larger space than it’s designed for, you hear only certain aspects of the guitar: the percussive, higher frequency partials that carry. You don’t hear the resonance, the richness and the tone colour.

You can play a Fleta, for example, in the Festival Hall, unamplified, and you can hear it from the back row—just so long as everyone is being so quiet that you can hear a pin drop. And that’s what it sounds like—a whole lot of pins dropping! It doesn’t sound like the guitar that I know when I’m playing it or listening to it in a room. It’s because of that that I believe in good amplification—and it can be really good. Amplification can be as good as a good guitar, in its own way.

Technology and electronics have done wonders in the last 20 years. In a hall, a well-amplified guitar can sound more natural, more like a guitar than an unamplified one. And that’s the principles that go into amplifying sound; it needs very good equipment, and it needs a lot of care and experience in doing it. You can have the odd accident or difficult hall, but in nearly all cases the result is beautiful.

I never rely on the equipment in a hall, no matter how good it is. Someone comes ‘round with me who knows how to operate all the machinery. I take a pair of very high-quality hi-fi speakers. I take a power amp, a mixing desk, a microphone—I tried several before I found the right one—and, most important of all, a very high quality 30-band graphic equaliser. I think it’s our job to know a bit about all that.

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