Left Hand Choreography

Developing a well-crafted, clear, and effortless left hand choreography requires a high level of experience, attention to extreme detail, and a deep understanding of your own hands. Over the years, cultivating these components through the learning process of new repertoire helps us assimilate more music in a more meaningful way and, importantly, retain it when there are limitations to our practice time.

I wrote about attention to detail in an earlier post but thought I would elaborate on one point in particular that many students overlook: when to lift a finger that has been holding down an important voice or serving as an anchor to prepare it for the next activity. I’d venture to say that most students would not know how to answer and those who did would answer, “When you need it.” I’d argue that it would be better to plan it out and take it a step further:  plan it out to align the movement with your inner pulse or at the very least, to align it with a specific beat in the music. Awareness of every detail, after all, is what we are after.

Here is a another passage from Bach’s Prelude in E Major. Notice that at beat 2, thumb silences the 5th string at which point finger 1 can relax. At anytime after that moment, we would want to lift 1 to prepare for the shift. Too early would conflict with the act of silencing the bass note, too late would cause a panic preceding the shift. So, in order to make it feel like the movement is weaved into the choreography, lift at the third beat. Now we have a specific moment that also happens to be in line with a pulse that our bodies should be naturally feeling. This translates into a movement that feels more like a natural occurrence than a movement that augments the challenge of the moment.

Bach Left Hand choreography.jpg

Though this Prelude provides countless moments to exercise this awareness, a more concise piece that I think is great for students in which to practice this concept is Bach’s Prelude BWV999. There are moments in every single measure where timing the left hand finger releases would aid the right hand in maintaining a rhythmic continuity versus introducing some of the manifestations of an erratic left hand choreography: unwanted accents, slightly uneven rhythm, etc…I’m hoping to have an edition of this to post in a few days. Stay tuned and in the meantime, start incorporating the concept of timed left hand finger releases into your repertoire.

Conde Claros, Scales, and String-Crossing

I’ve been reworking the music of the great Spanish composer Luys de Narváez. His Seis Libros del Delphín were published in the early 1500s in Granada. The six volumes contain music that is profoundly beautiful and exquisitely crafted while evoking a time that was ripe with wonder. After all, the music was published a few decades after Christopher Columbus’ great voyage to the New World. Narváez’s Diferencias are some of the earliest know sets of variations and his Canción del Emperador was possibly a favorite of King Charles V. Fortunately for guitarists, conjuring that time period is potentially within our grasp as the music translates well to the modern guitar. Because of the tuning of the vihuela, the slight adjustment of tuning the 3rd string to f-sharp makes the pieces more playable. I prefer placing a capo on the 2nd fret but placing it on the 3rd fret will transpose the piece to the original key.

This post is not a history lesson about the guitar, however. It’s another post about fingering for the right hand as this music is full of scale runs. So I thought I’d list a few rules every aspiring guitarist should use when working out right hand fingerings to perhaps help make conjuring your favorite time period easier. These rules assume you have a functioning technique. If that is not the case, they can still help, but you may want to spend extra hours in the tool shed working on developing a base for your technique (more on this coming!). This way you will get the most out of these rules when applying them.

Rule 1 

When crossing from a lower string to an adjacent higher string (i.e. string 3 to string 2):

  • im is preferable to mi
  • ia is likely preferable to ai
  • pi is preferable to ip
  • ma is preferable to am

conde claros ex. 2.jpgRule 2

When crossing from a lower string to a higher string with a string  or more between them (i.e. string 4 to string 2 or string 5 to string 1)

  • ia is preferable to ai and im
  • pm is likely preferable to pi
  • pa is likely preferable to pm

Rule 3

Try to maintain the rules 1 and 2 throughout scales and right hand cross-stringed fingerings. If you are unable to maintain efficient crossing you can use the following methods to insure rules 1 and 2 are maintained.

Method 1

When playing im scale runs, insert a (ring finger) to change the direction of the fingers. Notice the use of a in the first box to facilitate the string crossing in the next box/boxes.

conde claros ex. 1.jpg

conde claros ex. 3.jpg

Method 2

When playing im scale runs, insert a slur to change the direction of the fingers.

Rule 4

Do not use a slur if it is does not reflect your musical intent.

Preludio Criollo

If you have not heard Venezuelan composer Rodrigo Riera’s Preludio Criollo, you have missed out on one of the most beautiful pieces written for the guitar. The play between 6/8 and 3/4, the subtle baroque-like harmonic movement, the clever way in which the tune makes its appearance, all while evoking the spirit of Venezuela, create magic as they come together.

This said, it can be a tricky piece for students because many times, students approach it as a series of chord changes, i.e. preparing the entire harmony or chord before playing. This approach makes it infinitely more difficult to play in time and to maintain the rhythmic integrity of the piece. Further, it creates a sense of panic to quickly place fingers and as a result the right hand inevitably grabs the beginning of each chord change creating unintentional accents throughout the piece.

In studying this piece, as well as other pieces with perpetual movement and arpeggios like Heitor Villa-Lobos’ Etude Nº1 or Agustin Barrios’ Estudio de concierto, the main point to get across to students is that they have to prioritize what left hand fingers need to place first in a harmonic change in order to maintain rhythmic continuity as they play. It is important to realize that all fingers of the new harmony do not  need to place before the right hand starts playing the arpeggio. Instead, prepare only what is necessary and then sequentially place the rest of the fingers as the notes are needed. It also works to understand this before arriving to a chord: certain fingers can begin to relax before the change in order to make a relaxed transition. Here are some examples from Preludio Criollo to explore these ideas.

Preludio Criollo Example 1.jpg

When making harmonic changes try the following solutions to help make the transitions musical and smooth.

  1. Practice the transition without the shift first. This gives us a clear feeling of what is required if the shift component is removed from the equation. Most harmonic changes that involve shifts are actually two technical problems lumped into one moment. It helps to know which of the technical problems is creating the challenge. It may be only the shift or it may be the left hand finger placement. It is rarely both.
  2. A slight rallentando before the shift could provide just enough time to make the shift work. This also helps relax the hands so that the placement in the new position is calm.
  3. If there is a bass note to play along with a melodic note, roll them slightly by playing the bass note first. This creates the sense that you are in time even though the rest of the beat has not yet been heard. Don’t overdo this as it can start diffusing the rhythmic momentum of the piece.
  4. Practice the transition in the air above the frets. Sometimes this helps to soften the movement and to bring awareness as to how little is happening physically in the left hand and that the relative distance between the positions is smaller than we perceive.
  5. Beware of accenting the first notes after a shift that is too hasty. Accent ONLY if the music warrants it.

Hope this helps!



Left Hand Contrapuntal Exercise 2

Here is another one of my favorite left hand exercises. Practice it to develop more finger independence and to help stabilize your fixed fingers. The destabilizing element of the slur adds a challenge. Like in the first contrapuntal exercise, go slowly to insure the voices are being held their full duration. You can easily (or maybe with a lot of struggle) create a more challenging exercise by increasing the distance between the strings in use and by maintaining good form. Focus on the vertical movement of the fingers while the left hand remains stable. Use less hand tilting to get to the lower (or higher) strings.

contrapuntal 2