A renewed Scarlatti obsession, hearing French harpsichordist Jean Rondeau, and a recent David Russell workshop posted by the Bolton Guitar Series have me thinking about ornamentation on the guitar more than usual.
It’s been about 25 years since I took several masterclasses with David Russell in a tiny Andean village in Venezuela. Besides being a tremendously talented guitarist, David is a wonderful teacher: clear, patient, and able to make you sound better almost instantly. I learned a lot from him there and fortunately have continued to learn from him over the years thanks to videos of him working with students throughout the world. In the video (linked below), David explains his approach to ornamentation very clearly and demonstrates every example with his guitar. If you have lots of time, watch it and extract as much as you can! Here I’ll summarize the points I took away after watching it this morning.
Here is a summary of the basic cross-stringed ornaments and the common (and maybe not so common) ways to execute them (the repeated right hand finger is a sweep):
And here are some of the points David mentions in the workshop:
- Most baroque trills begin on the upper neighbor.
- A brighter sound is better for ornaments. This can be achieved by attacking the string with less of a right-hand angle or by angling the right hand to a more perpendicular angle to the strings.
- Cadential trills are important but ornaments within the piece are more personal as to their inclusion, length, etc…
- Practice the entrances and exits of ornaments with turns.
- Mute the dissonance after the trill. This is usually done with a right-hand finger.
- Dynamics are important within the ornament and the musical line.
- A shorter trill is better than a longer out of rhythm trill unless it is cadential (where time is suspended to a greater degree)
- Cross-string ornaments allow baroque interpretations to vary stylistically from other periods of music.
- Have a higher wrist for trills.
Here are a few additional points that I cannot remember whether they are in the workshop but that I think about:
- The ornamented note should be in time. In order to achieve this a slight acceleration into the ornament or starting the ornament before the beat helps to achieve the correct feel.
- Play ornaments slower in slower melodic lines.
Check out the post I did a while ago: Cross-Stringed Ornaments, Part 1
Bolton Guitar Series: Ornament Workshop with David Russell
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Spanish virtuoso Rafael Aguirre just shared five useful tips for improving your tremolo technique.
Rafael discusses and demonstrates these five key points:
- Study tremolo as if it were not tremolo.
- Work on retaining consistent tone and color from each note.
- Make your tremolo sing.
- Make sure each finger maintains equal proximity to the strings after plucking.
- Don’t let the thumb stroke displace your hand position.
Check out Rafael’s Six String Journal Interview for more brilliant insight from one of Spain’s finest guitarists.
Six String Journal just seconds ago launched the online video course Complete Technique for Classical Guitar! To celebrate the launch I’ve discounted the course for Six String Journal readers by 25% discount for the next 30 days. If you are looking for a way to up your guitar game, want a massive project for the summer (seriously, what else are you going to do?!), and want to support our site, this is for you.
About the course:
Six String Journal’s Complete Technique for Classical Guitar Course was developed for the advancing beginner with some experience, the advancing intermediate guitarist, and will even benefit those with lots of playing experience. Though music theory isn’t necessary, a rudimentary understanding of rhythm is helpful.
The course consists of primary movement videos where I will teach the foundational movements that you’ll need in order to master classical guitar. These videos cover topics such as free-stroke, rest-stroke, arpeggios, alternation, scales, hand coordination, slurs, and shifts. These are followed by several series of secondary videos where I’ll apply the techniques and movements in various ways to help you engrain them into your own practice. Stringing the secondary videos into a sequence will teach you how to form an effective practice routine that will maximize your results and get you closer to your musical goals.
- Hours of focused technique lessons with an award-winning classical guitarist, the founder of Six String Journal, and sought-after educator.
- Over 50 extensively detailed but digestible videos demonstrating essential foundational movements, technique tips, exercises, routines, and how to implement them into your practice, carefully edited in small bite size videos for easy assimilation and viewing.
- Printable PDF summarizing the entire course with a condensed visual of the material presented.
- Loads of bonus content from Six String Journal’s Mastering Diatonic Scales.
This is an interesting technique that I have found truly helpful for developing speed and the correct rhythmic feel across whatever pattern you are practicing, and since I have not found any reference to it in the literature, I refer to it as aural refocus. Its purpose is to refocus your hearing on the larger beats within a pattern or movement, and then “feed in” the rest of the notes while retaining attention on the larger concept and rhythmic feel.
In theory, we want to perform the larger movements in time—but in practice we rarely do so because we feel limited by all the minutiae that a particular movement demands. With a lot of work, patterns that undergo the aural refocus treatment will get a boost in speed while retaining their rhythmic integrity and stability.
Here are three exercises for applying aural refocus to tremolo. Before you begin, set the metronome to an ambitious tempo (72–88+ bpm per half note) and keep it constant through each exercise. Play only the fingers indicated, do not play the small notes in the following exercises and feel the larger beat in the right hand. Play through each line for at least a minute. Then alternate freely between the lines, coming back to the first line often to reestablish the longer sense of pulse and technical ease.
There you have it!
For more active practice techniques, check out: Mastering Tremolo.
Playing through the “skeleton” of a tremolo piece helps reduce it in your mind’s ear to the essentials of what is happening on the musical front. Because we spend so much time developing the fluidity, clarity, speed, and all that goes into a beautiful tremolo technique, often our attention is so myopically focused on the minutiae of technique that we ignore the larger question of what a tremolo piece is trying to achieve musically.
There are various ways to mentally condense the way you perceive your pieces to make them seem less daunting. The most tried and true method is to play through them well hundreds of times. But because it takes time to develop the endurance and speed to perform a tremolo piece at tempo comfortably, play through them instead in an abbreviated way, as illustrated below, at faster tempos:
Another method, which I have grown to like despite the substandard sonic quality, was recommended by guitarist Philip Hii in his insightful book, Art of Virtuosity. In this method, shown below, ami act as one and pluck at the same time. Think of plucking a chord, but on one string. It won’t sound pretty, but in addition to focusing your attention on the bigger picture, by putting all of your fingers down at once you discover what position will give you access to all the strings in the most efficient way.
For more active practice techniques, check out: Mastering Tremolo
Deep Slow Practice
“I wouldn’t be surprised if slow practice is the best technique to practice in.”
The effectiveness of slow practice has been confirmed repeatedly by great musician after great musician, and the principle holds true for tremolo as well. Despite the fact that performing tremolo requires great speed, practicing passages or even entire pieces at very slow tempos has numerous benefits for both technique and musicality. As Barrueco says, “It allows one to look at technique very closely.”
Besides providing the opportunity to observe technique with a magnifying glass, ultra slow practice gives the brain and fingers a chance to coordinate movements with an awareness that cannot exist at concert tempo. Slow practice allows us to hear everything that is happening on the musical front as well—harmonies, counterpoint, melodic lines, articulations, and other components that may escape our awareness at faster tempos.
But practicing tremolo in a slow and deep state of study is not as straightforward as it sounds, and what you get out of it can vary widely depending on how you focus your efforts. To begin with, you’ll need to first accustom your fingers, ears, and mind to slow practice. Play through just a small passage of a tremolo piece you are working on, and slowly build up to the entire piece. The metronome should be set to one 32nd note (a single note of the tremolo) to 42–60 beats per minute (bpm). Once this becomes comfortable and you’ve reached a meditative state of mind, try focusing on the following approaches, one at a time, as you play.
1) Fluid Movement or Gesture Focus – Despite the very slow pace, imagine the movements of the fingers in the context of the whole gesture.
2) Planting Awareness – Regulate the amount each finger rests on the string before pulling through. Awareness of the space between notes is important. If the space between notes is not even, or if some fingers plant early or late, tremolo will sound erratic even though the notes are articulated in time.
3) Deliberate Dynamic Control – Even though you would not play the piece with no dynamic variation, the ability to scrutinize and equalize the volume of each note is a skill that leads to greater control. Observe the tendency for most thumb strokes to dominate, or for notes plucked with m to lose clarity in our focus to complete the gesture.
4) Deliberate Musicality – The other side of the coin would be to include dynamics and musicality. This is harder than it sounds at such dramatically slow tempos, but focusing on maintaining musicality during slow practice clarifies musical intention.
5) Banish the Gnome – Turn off the metronome and focus your attention on the space between the notes.
Listen acutely and concentrate intensely to reap the numerous benefits of this powerful technique.
For more active practice techniques, check out: Mastering Tremolo
During a lesson last night, a musically talented young student played Roland Dyens’ Tango en Skai. He had played it a few years ago when he was 9 (!) and had been reworking it for fun. Like most young players excited about guitar, the desire to play is overwhelming to the point that it crowds out actual practice and more importantly, the crucial aspect of practice: reflection. A piece will get to a “pretty good” level and, while it may be pretty well played, it is not mastered or excellent. So, we addressed this by using the first run in Dyens’ Tango as an example of how to actually practice for marked improvement.
STEP 1 – PLAY RIGHT HAND ALONE SLOWLY
This step is easy to spend the most time on because it will make you question right hand choices if you have not thought about them in this context. Actually seeing the open strings is different than seeing the original score and imagining the right hand. New patterns are optically sought out and if you are a visual learner, seeing a map is easier than imagining it. We chose to stick with the student’s right hand choice but it was interesting to watch such a talented player struggle to play it very slowly (sixteenth = 60 bpm). We lingered luxuriously in this stage playing at different tempi until we were convinced the right hand’s sense of rhythm and pulse had tightened up.
STEP 2 – PLAY RIGHT HAND ALONE WITH DYNAMICS
STEP 3 – SEARCH FOR STABILITY POINTS
We answered some key questions. Where is thumb? Working out when and where thumb plants on the strings between strokes or in anticipation of strokes greatly increases right hand stability for the rest of the fingers. Where can I plant other fingers? Because the right hand movement is continuously ascending towards string 1, planting helps control dynamics and insures that the fingers are in place before their turn is up. Then, of course, we spent time practicing the incorporation of planting into the right hand choreography. After a few minutes, the right hand was behaving like a true champ: strong, secure, comfortable, happy!
STEP 4 – ADD LEFT HAND BACK IN
This is where most students who are hyper-focused on left hand and playing are astonished by what they sound like. The playing sounds crisp, exact, musical, and free. Hopefully, at this stage, the aural and physical reward is strong enough to convince the student to start truly practicing and instill the desire to play everything at a level approaching mastery.
*We can go further here by applying rhythms, pushing the tempo to build a reserve, practicing left hand alone, but for now, this is where we left it.
STEP 5 – Take a new passage, and go to step 1!
Hope this helps!
To continue with our video series on Heitor Villa-Lobos’ Etude N°1, I’ll explore how to use various rhythms to develop rhythmic precision, right-hand preparation, control, and clarity.
Hope this helps!
Need something new to add to your slur studies? Try this series of advanced exercises for the left hand that combine compound slurs and accents. Use them to build endurance, control, and precision. For each of the three levels illustrated keep the following points in mind:
- Practice on various strings in various positions.
- Practice slowly with great rhythmic intent.
- Keep movements efficient and clean.
- Play accents clearly.
- Keep left hand wrist and fingers as relaxed as possible.
- If at any point your hand and fingers feel like they are going to fall off, consider stopping.
For these exercises use the following left hand finger patterns: 12, 23, 34, 13, 24, 14. The example below uses 12.
For these exercises use the following left hand finger patterns: 123, 321, 134, 431, 124, 421, 234, 432. The example below uses 124.
For these exercises use the following left hand finger patterns: 1234, 4321, 1324, 4231, 1423, 4132. The example below uses 1234.
If your left hand has not been challenged or you’d like to expand the exercises a bit or you DO want your hand and fingers to fall off, use a bar or fix a left hand finger that is not in use to another string and nearby fret.
I came across this wonderful video of Steinway Artist and Professor of Piano, Dr. John Mortensen. Watch his video if you want his reasoning behind the list below. And, while I don’t think it’s possible to all of these ten things every day, he really makes a good point about composing and improvising. This is something I rarely do. : (
- Listen and study scores.
- Sight read every day. Shoot for 20 minutes a day.
- Read about music. Biographies, histories, etc…
- Go to concerts.
- Record yourself and critique.
- Guard your practice time.
- Practice scales and arpeggios in all keys.
- Improvise and compose all the time.
- Attack your weaknesses.
- Discuss music with other musicians.