Thomas Viloteau plays Fuoco

Thomas Viloteau‘s rendition of Roland Dyens’ Fuoco from Libra Sonatina is wonderful. As usual, his playing is technically precise, musically crystal clear, and from the looks of it, effortless. I hope he did videos of the other movements! For more on Thomas, check out Six String Journal’s interview with him here.

Time to practice!

Active Practice Techniques to Improve Tremolo, Part 4

Aural Refocus

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.

Exercise 1

Aural Refocus Tremolo 1.jpg

Exercise 2

Aural Refocus Tremolo 2.jpg

Exercise 3

Aural Refocus Tremolo 3.jpg

There you have it!

For more active practice techniques, check out: Mastering Tremolo.

Active Practice Techniques to Improve Tremolo, Part 2

Reduction

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:

Limosna reduction 1.jpg

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.

Limosna reduction 2.jpg

For more active practice techniques, check out: Mastering Tremolo

Active Practice Techniques to Improve Tremolo, Part 1

Deep Slow Practice

  “I wouldn’t be surprised if slow practice is the best technique to practice in.”

—Manuel Barrueco

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

Mastering Scales, Part 6: Phrasing

Mastering Scales, Part 6: Phrasing

There are infinite ways to develop more speed, accuracy, and fluidity in your scale practice. Using rhythmic manipulation, extensor training, patterns, repeated notes, fragments, and phrasing are favorite devices. They will all explained in the next several posts. Once you are familiar with the various techniques, apply them to scales (or even troublesome spots) in your repertoire to either problem solve or build a stronger foundation.

Throughout the following series of posts use the following fingerings (basic patterns in bold) focus on efficient and relaxed alternation, tone, consistency, and rhythmic pulse. More advanced students could expand them with articulations such as staccato and legato, dynamics, and tempo. Practice the material between repeats more than twice when necessary.

Rest-stroke fingerings: im, mi, ma, am, ia, ai, p, ami, ima, imam, amim, aimi

Free-stroke fingerings: im, mi, ma, am, ia, ai, pi, pm, pa, ami, ima, imam, amim, aimi, pmi, pami

Phrasing your scales using subtle accents, articulations, and dynamics to convey note groupings is one of my favorite ways to think about music while working on scales. A slight change in articulation or accent will make your phrase move forward gracefully or plod along like an elephant. Apply the basic ideas below as a start and then apply it to repertoire.

For scale sources and further study: Mastering Diatonic Scales.

Use accents or articulation to delineate a group or phrase:Scale 3 repetion 4 articulation.jpg

Scale 3 repetion 3 accents.jpg

Scale 3 repetion 5 articulation.jpg

Use dynamics:

scale dynamics.jpg

Think phrasing:

scale phrasing.jpg

Thanks for reading!

Mastering Scales, Part 5: Fragments

Mastering Scales, Part 5: Fragments

There are infinite ways to develop more speed, accuracy, and fluidity in your scale practice. Using rhythmic manipulation, extensor training, patterns, repeated notes, fragments, and phrasing are favorite devices. They will all explained in the next several posts. Once you are familiar with the various techniques, apply them to scales (or even troublesome spots) in your repertoire to either problem solve or build a stronger foundation.

Throughout the following series of posts use the following fingerings (basic patterns in bold) focus on efficient and relaxed alternation, tone, consistency, and rhythmic pulse. More advanced students could expand them with articulations such as staccato and legato, dynamics, and tempo. Practice the material between repeats more than twice when necessary.

Rest-stroke fingerings: im, mi, ma, am, ia, ai, p, ami, ima, imam, amim, aimi

Free-stroke fingerings: im, mi, ma, am, ia, ai, pi, pm, pa, ami, ima, imam, amim, aimi, pmi, pami

Practicing and developing the ability to play fast or expressive fragments is arguably as important as practicing long scale forms primarily because most repertoire contains small melodic fragments consisting of groups of three to seven notes. Spanish repertoire, in particular the music of Joaquín Rodrigo, is an example of where long scale practice pays off but among the music by every other composer, from Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco to Heitor Villa-Lobos, it is difficult to find many instances of scale runs beyond two octaves.

Using  familiar scale forms, work on small extracts of 3-7 notes in various ways to discover which right-hand fingerings feel most comfortable and which present challenges to overcome.

For scale sources and further study: Mastering Diatonic Scales.

Short Fragments

Step 1

Extract a group of notes from a familiar scale form

Scale Fragment 1.jpgStep 2

Develop all possibilities with incremental addition of notes.

Three notes: 134, 341, 413, 431, 314, 143.

Four notes: 1341, 3413, 4134, 1343, 3431, 4313, 1434, 4341, 3414, 4143, 4314, 3143, 1431

Five Notes* (my favorite):  13431, 34313, 43134, 31343, 14341, 43413, 34143, etc…

* not all possibilities listed

 Longer Fragments

 Step 1

Box off a larger group of notes and play in various combinations.

Fragment 2.png

Step 2

Fiddle with the order of notes to yield and practice melodic fragments:

Fragments 3.png

Further Development

To both the shorter and longer fragments, add slurs, articulations, accents, and character to experiment with expressivity.

Mastering Scales, Part 3: Scale Patterns

Mastering Scales, Part 3: Scale Patterns

There are infinite ways to develop more speed, accuracy, and fluidity in your scale practice. Using rhythmic manipulation, extensor training, patterns, repeated notes, fragments, and phrasing are favorite devices. They will all explained in the next several posts. Once you are familiar with the various techniques, apply them to scales (or even troublesome spots) in your repertoire to either problem solve or build a stronger foundation.

Throughout the following series of posts use the following fingerings (basic patterns in bold) focus on efficient and relaxed alternation, tone, consistency, and rhythmic pulse. More advanced students could expand them with articulations such as staccato and legato, dynamics, and tempo. Practice the material between repeats more than twice when necessary.

Rest-stroke fingerings: im, mi, ma, am, ia, ai, p, ami, ima, imam, amim, aimi

Free-stroke fingerings: im, mi, ma, am, ia, ai, pi, pm, pa, ami, ima, imam, amim, aimi, pmi, pami

Though by no means extensive, use the following three and four-note scale patterns to develop coordination and to combat awkward string-crossing moments. Combining alternating right-hand fingerings with triplets or three finger patterns with sixteenths will further develop fluidity in your right-hand technique.

For scale sources and further study: Mastering Diatonic Scales.

Three Note Patterns

Step 1im, mi, ma, am, ia, ai, pi, pm, pa

Pattern 1

Scale 3 pattern 2.jpg

Pattern 2

Scale 3 pattern 3.jpg

 Step 2ami, ima, pmi

 Pattern 1

Scale 3 pattern 2.jpg

Pattern 2

Scale 3 pattern 3.jpg

 

Four Note Paterrns

Step 1im, mi, ma, am, ia, ai, pi, pm, pa

Pattern 1Scale 3 pattern 4.jpg

Pattern 2Scale 3 pattern 5.jpg

Step 2ami, ima, pmi

Pattern 1Scale 3 pattern 4.jpg

Pattern 2Scale 3 pattern 5.jpg

 

 

Mastering Scales, Part 1 – Rhythmic Manipulation

Mastering Scales, Part 1: Rhythmic Manipulation

There are infinite ways to develop more speed, accuracy, and fluidity in your scale practice. Using rhythmic manipulation, extensor training, patterns, repeated notes, fragments, and phrasing are favorite devices. They will all explained in the next several posts. Once you are familiar with the various techniques, apply them to scales (or even troublesome spots) in your repertoire to either problem solve or build a stronger foundation.

Throughout the following series of posts use the following fingerings (basic patterns in bold) focus on efficient and relaxed alternation, tone, consistency, and rhythmic pulse. More advanced students could expand them with articulations such as staccato and legato, dynamics, and tempo. Practice the material between repeats more than twice when necessary.

Rest-stroke fingerings: im, mi, ma, am, ia, ai, p, ami, ima, imam, amim, aimi

Free-stroke fingerings: im, mi, ma, am, ia, ai, pi, pm, pa, ami, ima, imam, amim, aimi, pmi, pami

Applying rhythms to scales is an essential tool for developing speed, reflexes, mental agility, and rhythmic flexibility. Though there are many rhythms, here are the most useful ones to develop.

For scale sources and further study: Mastering Diatonic Scales.

Two-Note Rhythms

Two-Note Rhythms.jpgExample of the application of rhythm 1.

Scale 3 rhythm 1.jpg

Example of the application of rhythm 2.

Scale 3 rhythm 1b.jpg

Three-Note RhythmsThree=Note Rhythms.jpg

Example of the application of rhythm 1.Scale 3 rhtyhm 2.jpg

Example of the application of rhythm 2.

Scale 3 rhythm 2b.jpg

Four-Note Rhythms

Four-Note Rhythms.jpg

Example of the application of rhythm 1

Scale 3 rhtyhm 3.jpg

Example of the application of rhythm 5Scale 3 rhythm 3c.jpg

Example of the application of rhythm 6.Scale 3 rhtyhm 3b.jpg

 Stay tuned for Part 2!

5 STEPS TO MORE SECURE PLAYING

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.

Tango 1.jpg

 

STEP 1 – PLAY RIGHT HAND ALONE SLOWLY

Tango RH.jpgThis 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

Tango dynamics.jpg

 

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!

Dyens plant.jpg

 

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!

Nine Tips for Better Playing

I love the early stages of learning new repertoire because my ears, eyes, and fingers are most alert to discovery. My process of learning has evolved dramatically from when I first became afflicted with the classical guitar bug. For many beginners, the goal is simply to find a way to get the fingers to the right places and enjoy the results. As beginners approach basic fluency, the process of learning involves more and more layers of thought and reflection, of crafting and re-crafting, of listening and sculpting. As intermediate players reach a more advanced level, the amount of thought about what is going to occur on both a musical and physical level during the very early stages sets the stage for clean, efficient, and musical playing that seems seamless to the less experienced player.

Incorporating the following tips and principles will yield the best and most reliable results if they are incorporated in the early stages of the learning process. Exploring the ideas on repertoire that is already baked into your brain will take some careful and deliberate work to incorporate. Think of it like cooking a complicated dish, if all is measured carefully and timed precisely, the end result is wonderful. On the other hand, if you have forgotten to include ingredients in the baking process and attempt to salvage it by throwing in missing ingredients after the dish is done, the end result may not be as wonderful.

When learning a new piece, there is information absent from the score that if written in reminds you to weave them into your hand choreography when you practice. Below is a list that will help make both the left and right hands more efficient and two shots of a Scarlatti Sonata I just learned to illustrate how I label these items in a score. Assuming your basic fingerings are decided upon, incorporate the following ideas into your slow practice (and label them) to build a strong and reliable visual memory and choreography:

Right Hand

  1. Know when the fingers can plant or are laid out as an arpeggio (even though it may be the beginning of a scale passage).
  2. Know where your stability points are at all times. There should always be a right hand anchor in contact with the strings (usually p or a but possibly a combination).
  3. Insure string crossing is optimized and know when there are exceptions. See this early article for reference.

img_4902-1.jpg

Left Hand

  1. Know when two fingers can place at once (usually in descending melodic fragments).
  2. Know when a finger can remain in place as an anchor and for how long.
  3. Know exactly what and why you are barring. Is it a hinge, partial, tip, cross, full, etc… (maybe there’s content for another post here!)?
  4. Know when a finger must lift from active duty to align or migrate to a new fret or to relieve tension. This sometimes means that theoretically a note may not last it’s full value.
  5. Know when you are shifting and/or expanding or contracting out of a standard relaxed position and for how long.
  6. Know your guide fingers (never shift without a guide or ghost guide finger).

img_4901.jpg

Hope that helps you get to your musical goals sooner!

If you liked this article and would like more technique tips, check out Six String Journal’s publications! Please share, like, and comment!