Given the universal appeal the guitar holds, it is hardly surprising that it has so many avatars, with a vast range of amplitude and repertoire to match. Having gained the status of symbol (of youth, freedom, la dolce vita, what have you..), as much as instrument, the quietest member of the family, the so-called classical guitar, is sadly not given its due in mainstream awareness, as an instrument of surpassing beauty and complexity. The international examination boards of music have done sterling work in redressing the balance, through their repertoire arrangements for the instrument. The Associated Boards of the Royal Schools of Music (ABRSM) is one such, and their new guitar syllabus for grades 1 to 5, is thoughtfully chosen, sensitive to both the timbre of the guitar and the tastes of the player.
Acknowledging the lute as an ancestor, pieces like Robert de Visee’s Gigue, Dowland’s Mr Dowland’s Midnight, Molinaro’s Saltarello, and Robinson’s Twenty Ways Upon the Bells, are delightful arrangements of the originals, capturing the brightness and clarity of the lute. Beginner learners can develop a sound technique through such pieces, and gain an understanding of musical structure and style like the ground bass and early dance rhythms. By giving duet options in these early grades, the player is introduced to both ensemble playing and the rich texture of music, as realised on this instrument, right from the beginning.
The dominance of the ‘Spanish’ style in the instrument is likewise given due recognition, from folk music (Ines in Grade 2), to the heavyweights like Tarrega and Sor (the latter in Grade 1, since it is never too early to get acquainted with the idiom of this great virtuoso, albeit in simplified form!). ABRSM has retained its format of dividing pieces into three categories, so that players get to become familiar with a variety of styles and playing techniques, and broaden their musical understanding and tastes.
In the third category, the Board has done ample justice to jazz and modern music. Iconic standards like Take Five, Fly me To The Moon and Anything Goes have been arranged with skill and a deep understanding of the mood to be conveyed. Well known pop numbers (Somethin’ Stupid), and songs from film (Over the Rainbow) do feature, but, as well, there are pieces by contemporary guitarists and composers like Gary Ryan, Manus Noble and Panteleimon Michaeloudis marvellous mood pieces which explore the instrument’s sonorities. The instrument’s versatility is evident in these ‘List C’ works.
An invaluable aid to both teachers and students are the notes on the composer and the piece given at the end of each piece. Such contextual information is vital to understanding the work, and ABRSM in this, as well as in its repertoire range, has indeed served the classical guitar well. The published pieces apart, in every grade, each list contains seven alternate choices. It is no exaggeration to say that the guitarist will be spoilt for choice!