I can still remember playing one of my first outdoor gigs, and feeling super prepared with a neat binder full of sheet music with alternate repeats and endings written in, queues for the transition into dinner, etc. Everything was going so well, when Mother Nature decided that it was a good day for testing my musicianship. With one particularly robust gust of wind, my music manually “rewound” back to halfway through my first piece of music. I can remember trying so hard to mask my internal panic while working hard to stumble through the imaginary ending of my piece and remain in the same key, wrap up my melody with at least some level of interest and musicality, and to not to alert people to the fact that I was absolutely terrified of being put in a situation without sheet music in front of me.

While this is most likely not a scenario that I would ever encounter while performing recitals or concerts in a hall from memory, I couldn’t help feeling embarrassed that improvising the end of a sight readable piece of music was such a wrench in the works for me. This thought sparked a question in my mind regarding the education of classical guitarists at the collegiate level (particularly undergraduates). Why aren’t we required to take courses on jazz and improvisation? During my time at the University of South Carolina, I participated in studio class with several jazz guitarists who were required to take some level of classical guitar as a requirement for their degree program, but the same was not required of classical guitarists. To be completely honest, that was fine with me at the time, but as I’ve grown as a musician and as a performer, I’ve come to regret that taking any kind of jazz guitar or basic improvisation course was not required for me. The level of theoretical knowledge and musicianship required of jazz performers is something to be envious of, and quite frankly an extremely useful skill for any musician- not just guitarists!

I can’t speak for every undergraduate guitar program, and perhaps there are some that do incorporate style crossovers for both their jazz guitarists and their classical guitarists. The guitar is such a widely versatile and diverse instrument, so having a broad knowledge and understanding of the various performance skills such as improvisation, finger style, playing with a pick, rasgueado, playing an electric or acoustic, is essential. That being said, I’ll be the first to say that each performing style requires a completely different set of skills that a guitarist should not be expected to perfect across all genres. There is definitely a reason that jazz and classical are separate majors, but I think that this divide is often followed a little too religiously at the university level.

Just like history and theory majors tend to specialize at the graduate level and composition majors typically have a preferred writing style, guitarists have their preferred style of guitar. This means that the heavy coursework and focus should be directly related to the genre of the instrument, but perhaps adding a core requirement of at least one semester of the guitar of another genre should be required? It’s something to consider as the instrument’s presence continues to grow in the university setting.

-Kathryn Lambert