Artist Spotlight: Ricardo Gallén

This is the first Artist Spotlight piece where I hope to share a bit of news about very high level guitarists, highlight some of their videos, and point you in the right direction to explore their musical world.

The first artist I’d like to feature is Spanish guitarist, Ricardo Gallén. I met Ricardo briefly in 1999 at a guitar festival in Granada. He was teaching masterclasses as Eliot Fisk’s assistant and while I played for Eliot in that festival, I realize now that I missed an immense learning opportunity by not having taken a class from Ricardo!

Ricardo Gallén has been praised by countless great musicians, critics, and colleagues as a supreme virtuoso with an intense and wide-ranging musical intellectuality. The great Cuban composer and conductor, Leo Brouwer, has said that Gallén possesses, “great creativity and virtuosity that is felt only by looking at his hands.” Besides performing and teaching all over the world to high acclaim, he is becoming known for his recordings and performances of music by Johann Sebastian Bach and in particular, his lute suites.

For a long time, the standard recording of the great John Williams was the required listening as an introduction to these works but I would venture to say that Ricardo Gallén’s recording holds equal footing on many levels and perhaps even surpasses it in his highly nuanced and stylistic interpretations. Another strength that Ricardo possesses is his range in interpreting music from the great classical period guitar composers, Mauro Giuliani, Fernando Sor, to premiering new contemporary works by composers like Leo Brouwer.

Here is Ricardo’s webpage and his Facebook page for more current news on his musical activities. Below are some links to his recordings and a few beautifully filmed videos. Hope this inspires you all!


Legato and Dissonance

Creating a beautiful melody on the guitar is challenging due to the fact that every note you pluck decays from that moment on. If you play two consecutive melodic notes on one string, the touch requires extreme precision to give the impression of legato. At certain times, it is easier to achieve a sense of legato by using cross string fingerings. But there is a fine timing line between achieving beautiful legato and dissonance with cross strings and it requires the use of controlled damping – sometimes with the left hand and sometimes with the right.

Here is a great example from Leo Brouwer’s beautiful piece Un dia de noviembre. For a benign light passage there is a lot to think about musically.

Dia de Noviembre Ex.1.jpg

Notice that in the example above muting occurs the moment after the new melodic note turns on. This is a great way to exploit the resonance of the guitar. Of course, there are many variations on this, including one where you would turn off the notes simultaneously with the entrance of the new note but this would achieve a less legato line.

Coming soon, I’m going to post a workout based on Leo Brouwer’s Axioms!


Leo Brouwer’s Axioms

Years ago, I came across an article on a Spanish site posted by Oscar López who had taken notes during a summer course with the great Cuban composer and guitarist, Leo Brouwer. The title of the post was Axiomas básicos de Leo Brouwer. I found the word file and thought I’d translate it for all non-Spanish speakers. It provides a wealth of advice. I’ve added a few commentaries below to expand the ideas a bit. Hope they are helpful.

Warm Up

Use chromatic octaves for the left hand and arpeggios and rasgueados for the right hand. Play close to the body in higher resonant positions upon starting your practice.

*I think this may mean to start your practice without having the left hand in an extended position. Starting in higher positions is less stressful for the left hand.

Speed and Scales

Use fixed, non-shifting positions in the left hand that are close to the body (i.e. higher positions) to play short bursts of notes. Play bursts in short crescendos (soft to loud or light to intense). Start on one string, then expand to two strings. Add one note at a time and pause between each mini-scale.

Add color and articulations to scales.

Left Hand Shifting

Left-hand notes should be played staccato (*perhaps he means before a shift). Focus on the arrival (not the departure) as you shift from 1st to 2nd, 1st to 3rd, 1st to 4th, etc., position.

Left Hand Independence

With a fixed first finger bar, play slurs and scales across all the strings with the rest of the fingers. Try all combinations possible.


To avoid embedding errors, do not start memorizing at the very beginning of learning a piece.


There are never definitive fingerings.

*What Brouwer most likely means to covey here is that fingerings evolve throughout the lifetime of learning a piece. Inevitably, we discover better, more efficient, more musical, more interesting ways to play passages and discard or change older fingerings as our familiarity with the piece increases.


Exploit the three primary sonorous zones of the guitar: over the sound hole (resonant zone), over right part of the rosette (resonant and clarity zone), and near the bridge (clarity zone).


Do not pluck harmonics diagonally.

More Advice

  • The position of the guitar to your body should remain consistent.
  • Remember that the 2nd and 3rd strings tend to be the weakest so we must compensate when necessary.
  • Pluck consonant chords with no arpeggiation. Pluck rare (dissonant) chords with arpeggiation for clarity.
  • Velocity contains impulse and direction.
  • Cadential ornaments should be in time.
  • Resonance is at the heart of the guitar.
  • Vibrato is used for intensity not rest.
  • The thumb (left-hand) acts as a pivot during slurs.
  • Forte is found at the limit of a beautiful sound.
  • Breathe between phrases and project energy towards the end.
  • During rasgueados the energy is channeled towards the 1st string.
  • Anything that is repeated should be varied. Change either the color or the volume or the timbre.

The Best of YouTube 2

Winner of many of the top guitar competitions, French guitarist Thomas Viloteau needs no introduction to all of you following the younger generation of highly gifted classical guitarists.

Here is a video where Thomas talks about the subtleties in playing a pimami in Mauro Giuliani’s Etude 5, Nº48 (sheet music link). For those of you who do not speak french, I find that speeding up the video to read the subtitles is a quick way to get a great lesson in a fraction of the time!

In the following video, he discusses various techniques for enabling and disabling resonances on the guitar.

And in this last one, he talks about SPEED!

Hope that inspires you all. Thomas has a great dvd and cd and you can visit his website and find out more about what he is up to. I’m going there right now to purchase his book on technique!

Maximize Your Practice

As many of you who have devoted many hours a day to learning and practicing your craft know, our ability to learn or absorb new information as in memorizing new repertoire effectively and efficiently and our ability to practice effectively and efficiently are two different things. I’ve always encouraged students to focus on quality practice – where all of our mental resources work together to analyze, explore, decipher, and ultimately embed new repertoire into our systems, instead of hours and hours of subpar or mindless work.

The dilemma in what we do, however, if we want to do it well is exactly the need for both: ultimate engagement and long hours. Though I wish I could say that I have intellectual resources that enable me to go for hours and hours with the ideal level of engagement, I don’t. I may have the desire and the passion to play but sometimes, often times, with running a business, raising two boys, running, cooking, yoga, and life, I lack the energy. So how do we maximize the time we have with the guitar and how can we put in hours when we are tired? When do we do our learning? When do we memorize most effectively? When can we get away with less mindful repetition?

One mistake I used to make was to confuse what I was doing – was I learning a new piece, working on technique, or practicing or maintaining existing repertoire? I would try to do a bit of each but despite the hours I didn’t feel like I had made headway into any one thing. Assimilating and problem solving new material is more intellectually demanding whereas practicing technique and repertoire maintenance requires slightly less creativity. Dividing your practice into specific goal-oriented sessions devoted to only one priority is more effective at achieving mastery in a more timely fashion.

So first, we must know ourselves. There are times in the day when our brains are rested, primed, and clear to absorb new information. For me, this time is in the morning (after coffee) and the first hour or two after meditating. These are prime times to problem solve, imagine an interpretation, embed new information, and decipher trouble spots in new and existing repertoire. There are other times of day when we are not as sharp – after a big meal, minute 60+ after pushing ourselves intellectually, and pre-second wind in the evening. These may vary from person to person but I think it wouldn’t be unreasonable to assume that many of us fall into this pattern. As I get older, I find that I’m not opposed to enhancing and extending these prime times (within reason) and have found caffeine or enhanced coffee from Mastermind Coffee or Kimera Koffee, being fit, a healthy diet, and certain reputable supplements like Alpha Brain and Ciltep to be very effective.

What about less mindful practice? You will get the most bang for your pluck when practicing in prime mind moments but when you slow practice with a metronome, play through familiar pieces, or try to get in the 10,000 repetitions of pimami, your brain can afford to relinquish some control to the metronome or the repetitive motions once they become automatic. The best time to do this would be anytime that is not prime. However, it is ok to use prime time for this activity though it may not be optimal for progress.

This post is becoming a ramble. So to wrap it up, practice involves many facets requiring different levels of engagement. On the more creative and mentally-taxing side, you have learning new repertoire, problem solving, visualizing, and developing interpretations. On the less intellectually demanding side you have repetition, technique work, and playing. Though resisting another tangent, I can’t help think that this may vary by individual. Is learning new repertoire easy for some while the repetition difficult? Regardless, know yourself first and then try to optimize your practice time to pair the activity with the right state of mind.

Comfort and Speed in Arpeggios

I thought I would take a moment to stress how important it is to know how to apply the principles from the last post to identify and problem solve mechanical weaknesses in repertoire you are working on. Because I am working on a lot of music by Agustín Barrios Mangoré (1885-1944), I thought I would use two examples of passages you all may be familiar with. I have played the music of the great Paraguayan virtuoso for decades and I still find it fun to work on. I especially enjoy his works with perpetual motion activity. Barrios’ Estudio de concierto, Las abejas, La catedral’s allegro, Danza paraguaya, and passages from his famous waltzes are perfect pieces to spend hours on. So, for this post, we’ll focus on using rhythms to strengthen our understanding and facility of the patterns in these pieces.

Estudio de Concierto

The following example illustrates 5 rhythms in which to work the arpeggio pattern for Barrios’ Estudio de Concierto. Begin by choosing the right hand fingering that most suits your technique. Whether you know the piece or not, practicing each measure in these rhythms will help develop the comfort of playing the arpeggio faster than if you were to only play in a straight rhythm, though it is necessary to do this as well (!).

Arpeggio Fingering                                Rhythm 1                                  Rhythm 2right hand barrios rhythms.jpg

Rhythm 3                                                   Rhythm 4                                  Rhythm 5

right hand barrios rhythms 2.jpg

Vals Op. 8, Nº4

Here is the campanella passage from one of my favorite pieces. This passage deserves more writing but for now I will limit myself to rhythms.

right hand barrios rhythms 3 vals.jpg

Because I know this piece well, I use rhythms to warm up and will often play through the entire section of the piece in as many as 16 rhythms. Here are four that I like to start with:

Rhythm 1                                     Rhythm 2                      Rhythm 3                     Rhythm 4right hand barrios rhythms 4 vals.jpg

Do not feel obligated to go through the entire passage. Instead, spend some time repeating certain groupings in an attempt to make them feel natural and ultimately easy. You may find that you are better at some and that certain patterns remain sticky. Work on the sticky ones.

right hand barrios rhythms 5 vals.jpg

And, if you are not exhausted by this point, here are some additional groupings (notated in shorthand) rotating two eighth notes (represented by a space) through sixteenth notes:

pi  am  pi, pia  mp  i, pi  ampi , p  iamp  i, pi  a  mpi

Or rotating a triplet of sixteenths with 3 eighth notes:

p  i  a  mpi, p  i  ampi  , p  iamp  i  , piam  p  i

Or Using only one dotted eighth note (two spaces):

p   iampi, pia   mpi, piampi   , pi   ampi

I hope this helps. If there are any technical questions you are thinking about in your practice please leave a comment. I’m thinking about a post answering some common questions that I keep getting. And, in the future, I’m going to try to include a video to supplement the posts when I have the time. Until then!