Specific Technical Aspects in the Teachings of Isaac Nicola that are Linked to Some of the Great Cuban Performers

Pascual Roch in his Modern Method for the Guitar. School of Tárrega describes how to hold the guitar the way he learned it from Tárrega. Although Nicola refers to this in the methodological notes at the beginning of the first book of Método de Guitarra, the responsibility of explaining and teaching the particularities of the position relies on the professors. There is no written explanation or description of the positioning in the method. However, the similarities with the Tárrega’s school, specifically the guitar positioning, are palpable in the playing of many Cuban guitarists worldwide. 

The most evident example is the widespread use of the footstool for the left leg. Another aspect is the verticality of the guitar. Most professors recommended for years that the head of the guitar was at the same level as the shoulder, being this way more horizontal. Over time some professors would start recommending lifting the guitar head more to the sight level. Cuban professors like Martín Pedreira (co-author of the method) teach it this way. We can see Pedreira in performances in this position and other recognized Cuban figures like Marco Tamayo and Joaquín Clerch.

Roch emphasizes the importance of having the guitar’s lower bout resting on the left thigh, leaving no perceptible space between the guitar and the thigh. In this manner, the soundboard is nearly vertical. Cuban performers have evidently followed this approach. Figures like Manuel Barrueco and Leo Brouwer have shared many online videos playing with this position. 

However, over time we see in numerous players a tendency to have the guitar more tilted, resting on the chest. An example of this position is evident in a YouTube video shared by Guitar by Masters with the successful Cuban performer currently a professor at the University of Miami Rafael Padrón.[1]

Both Pujol and  Roch recommended, more or less explicitly,  the use of preparation in the left hand.[2]For each exercise or lesson, they offer guidelines on how to execute the exercises correctly, where they describe the principles of left-hand preparation.[3]Many of these guidelines coincide with Nicola’s pedagogical approach to the subject. This distinctive technical aspect would become one of the most widespread features of the turned Cuban guitar school.

This technique of planting or preparation is briefly mentioned in Isaac Nicola’s method. The book has a specific symbology so the students can quickly identify where they can use the technique. Although succinctly stated in the method, it is present throughout the exercises and pieces as an essential aspect of the performance. This way of playing has been passed to the new generations of Cuban performers, mainly through professors like Nicola and his intense work in the music schools in Cuba.

The preparation requires us placing our fingers on the corresponding notes before playing. In this case, we should keep our fingers on the string even if we will not use them afterward. The purpose is to give us stability, balance, and confidence in our playing. Even though applying this technique is more common in descending melodic lines on a single string (scales), we can also use it in ascending lines, chords, arpeggios, slurs, etc. 

The first time the symbol of left-hand preparation appears in Método de Guitarra (first book) is in Exercise no. 7. (See Example 1) The student must play the second and third fingers in a single string. The passage moves up and down, starting with the second finger, playing next with the third, and back again with the second.

Example 1 Marta Cuervo, Exercise No. 7.  

In this case, Nicola is trying to avoid the unnecessary movement of lifting the second finger after playing. Instead of having three movements (press, lifting of the string, and press back again), he proposes two actions (press, wait on the string without pressing or of it, and only lift a finger when it must move to the next). Keeping the second finger the whole time on the string during the passage gives the hand stability and the technical basis to play scalar passages faster and more accurately in the future.

This same principle of saving movements and energy applies to the slurs’ technique. Here is more evident the preparation in that we must keep the first note finger on the string to produce the sound of the second note. We should keep the finger down after playing an ascendent slur for stability. In conclusion, the fingers should contact the string before playing the slur and stay afterward if possible. 

[1] Guitar by Masters. “Rafael Padron plays Scarlatti’s Sonata in A Maj (K.322),” YouTube Video, 4:06, May 22, 2022. https://youtu.be/uMXa7TSO3Pk

[2] Pujol, 2:124

[3] Roch, 1:29.