Expanding Fernando Sor’s Etudes

images-1.jpgI have to admit that I may be enjoying Fernando Sor’s etudes too much these days. Many of them conjure a nice summer walk in the countryside with the occasional mildly adventurous detour. A set of favorites that I’m editing will be published soon but I thought I’d post a lesson on one of them and how I have been using it to warm up and build technique. His etudes are ideal in many ways to integrate musicality into technique because listening to the subtleties and manipulations of Sor’s familiar but often charming harmonies is so pleasurable.

Once you master his etudes, there are many possibilities for expansion but I’m going to use Etude Op. 35, Nº9 to illustrate how I like to use it to develop right hand technique. Here is a read-through for those of you not familiar with it.

First Step

Try to build flexibility into your right hand by playing the etude as written with the following right hand patterns:

piai, pimi, piâi

Fernando Sor Etudes ex 1.jpg

Variation 1

Once these are reliably developed, you’re ready for some fun. Use the following pattern to help develop the weaker alternation with these patterns:

piaiaiai, piamamam, pimimimi

Fernando Sor Etudes ex 2.jpg

Variation 3

Or, another option could be to explore moving out of a right hand arpeggio position into a more right hand scalar position with:

piaiamim, piaiaimi, piaiamia, piaiamam

Fernando Sor Etudes ex 3.jpg

Variation 4

Or, if you are feeling musically creative, explore adding a note to complement the melody within the key:

Fernando Sor Etudes ex 4.jpg

Variation 5

Change it up a bit to get in your triplets:

Fernando Sor Etudes ex 6.jpg

Or, if you prefer:

pimamiamiami, piamipamiami, etc…

Fernando Sor Etudes ex 5.jpg

There are so many places to go with these little gems. Fun!

Download the edition of my score for free: Fernando Sor Etude Op. 35, Nº9

Precise Left Hand Finger Placement

The ability to place the left hand in a position to give equal opportunity for each and every finger to fret precisely is essential for playing well. Pinching a fret precisely means pinching a fret while avoiding contact with any adjacent string/s.

There are many instances where the ringing of adjacent strings is necessary.  Think of your Bach fugues!

So here are two exercises I like to show students who are struggling with placing left hand fingers precisely. Some things to keep in mind:

  1. Listen! Keep your ear on the open string to make sure it rings continuously while you play the chromatic notes around it.
  2. Play really slowly to insure absolute legato.
  3. Keep right hand fingerings simple. Try using and or m for the open string.
  4. Pay attention to your wrist placement. It should remain relatively flat. Do not push your wrist out in front of the guitar. To create a tunnel for the open string take the bend across the joints in the finger. Think of creating a semi-circle with the finger.

Exercise 1

Chromatic Linear Scale with open 1.jpg

Exercise 2

Chromatic Linear Scale with open 2.jpg

Hope this helps clean up those sloppy pinches! : )


Intervals, Part 1 – Chromatic Octaves

If Mauro Giuliani’s works are in your repertoire, or those of 340px-Mauro_Giulianiany classical period composer, you will know that interval runs of octaves, sixths, and thirds are used to great effect. Think the fourth variation of Giuliani’s Folias Variations (Op. 45) or the grand finale to his 1st Rossiniana (Op. 119)! Interval runs are everywhere in our repertoire and it’s worth studying them either through repertoire or through scale practice.

The two chromatic octave exercises below should get you started. They are useful for warming up, coordinating the hands, independence and opposing movement in the left hand fingers, and can even serve as a vehicle for right-hand development, too. Here are a few ways to focus on them:

  1. Start very slowly and pluck both notes with simultaneously. No rolling!
  2. Keep the wrist relatively still so that the fingers of the left hand are extending and contracting vertically (i.e. often moving in opposite directions from each other).
  3. Keep the left hand fingers soft and close to the fretboard.

Use right-hand fingerings: pipmpapm pipi pm, pa pm, pm papa piand pi pa.

Chromatic Octave.jpg

Once this feels comfortable and in control, explore some variations like the one below.

Use right-hand fingerings: pipmpa, pm pipipm, papm, pmpa, papi, and pipa.

Chromatic Octave 2.jpg

Let me know if you find this helpful. Part 2 coming soon!


The Science of Practicing Effectively

Annie Bosler and Don Greene’s TED-Ed talk “How to Practice Effectively” provides a great summary of how to get the most from your practice sessions.

Here are the tips given for more effective practice:

  1. Focus on the task on hand. Minimize distractions (turn off screens and phones!).
  2. Start slowly or in slow motion. Coordination is built with repetitions. If you gradually increase the speed of the quality repetitions you have a better chance of doing them correctly.
  3. Frequent repetitions with allotted breaks are common practice habits of elite performers. Many divide their time for effective practice into multiple daily practice sessions.
  4. Practice in your brain in vivid detail. Visualize everything. Once a physical motion has been established it can be reinforced just by imagining it.


Concert Preparation 101

Greater confidence leads to stronger performances. There is a great difference in the confidence of a runner who approaches the start of a marathon having done the bare minimum training and that of the runner who has trained with variety, intensity, creativity, and persistence (and supplemented that training with a healthy diet, careful recovery, and mental preparation).

As a concert approaches, vary your study approach, take notes, and explore as much as possible to gain a better understanding of what yields the best results on stage and what makes you perform at your best. Depending on how well I know the music, I may start preparing months ahead of time or a few weeks from the date. Here is a checklist of actions that start to occur during the preparatory stage that are true confidence builders:

  1. Warm-up with a focus on relaxation.
  2. Befriend your metronome. Play all your pieces at a very slow tempo (for example, the Allegro from Barrios’ La Catedral at 1 sixteenth note/second, or a tremolo piece 1 note/second). I pick a quarter of the program and make sure that by the end of 2-3 days, I’ve practiced everything at a VERY slow tempo. Manuel Barrueco thinks slow-practice may be the best way to practice.
  3. Build a list of troublesome passages or excerpts that do not feel effortless. Practice right hand and left hand alone going from very slow to as far beyond concert tempo for repetitions, practice in rhythms, analyze the space between notes, watch youtube videos of someone wonderful playing them to glean possible modifications, exhaust your resources to make the passages in question effortless. Before increasing tempo, try to nail 5 repetitions in a row. Keep a record of tempo and tally how many repetitions you’ve successfully done.  When focus fades, move on to a different excerpt or take a little brake.
  4. Record yourself. I’m not a fan of this but sometimes you have to do what you have to do to improve. If you truly want to assess what you sound like, it is necessary.
  5. Exit practice mode and enter performance mode by performing run-throughs. Play a run-through of each half of the concert at least once every two days over the course of the month preceding the actual concert. Two weeks from the performance, videotape the entire concert or perform it for a friend, a student, or colleague. Several full-length run-throughs always help to improve concentration. If you have time, experiment with performing run-throughs when you are tired, not warmed-up, or cranky. Perform it while the radio is on, perform it in the dark, etc… Learn to turn on your performance mode.
  6. Break up your practice into several sessions a day. For example, instead of one large chunk of time (9AM – 1PM), try 9-11, another session 1-3, and then another 9-10. Don’t go more than 12-14 hours without touching that guitar.
  7. Visualize the performance before falling asleep. Imagine the stage, imagine yourself on it, imagine every piece from the first note to the last. If you can’t ‘see’ what your fingers are doing, you probably do not know the piece as well as you think you do. If you have trouble visualizing, create a playlist of your favorite guitarist/s or of your best performance of the pieces and listen to it while you play along in your head. The music will serve as a bit of an anchor for your mind’s inner ear while you try to visualize along. Another technique is to watch someone play it and play along in your head.
  8. Meditate often. A simple focus on your breathing for 5-10 minute periods throughout the day is a good start. I’ll write more on this in the future, but as a long time practitioner of yoga, pranayama, and other modes of meditation, meditation is one of a few things that always improves my day and centers my mind.

Good luck!


Coordination and Right Hand Arpeggios

One of the easiest ways to improve right-hand arpeggio studies like Heitor Villa-Lobos’s Etude Nº1, Leo Brouwer’s Etude Nº6, or Francisco Tárrega’s Estudio Brillante, or the parts of pieces where arpeggios occur for an extended time is understanding when exactly the left-hand fingers must place or release to prepare for the next note or chord formation. Often, fingers are placed too early or too late, and both situations either overexert the fingers, the nerves, or worst of all, the musical intent. Arpeggios are, after all, broken chords. It is very rare that all fingers should place at once if they come in ‘broken’.

Sequential planting of the left-hand fingers is a skill that choreographs left hand movement to a deeper and more subtle level than simply grabbing at the next chord frantically at the start of a measure.

Here is a simple but effective exercise to help develop the principle of timely left-hand finger placement. The key is to time the placement of the new finger in relation to the meter and when it is due to enter and to avoid arbitrarily placing it at the beginning of the measure.

Go through each exercise a few times plucking every single note of the arpeggio. Once this feels comfortable and the timing is starting to feel synced with both hands, slur the entering note in time to develop a sense of pulse in the left hand, too.

Exercise 1

right hand ar[eggio coordination.jpg

Exercise 2

right hand ar[eggio coordination 2.jpg

Exercise 3

right hand ar[eggio coordination 3.jpg

Exercise 4

right hand ar[eggio coordination 4.jpg

There are infinite ways to expand this concept but one of my favorites is to move into cross-rhythms with accents. My idea of fun!

Exercise 5

right hand ar[eggio coordination 5.jpg

Explore your arpeggio pieces to see if you can apply this concept and let me know if it helps!

Francisco Tárrega’s Technical Studies

francisco-t-rrega-recording-artists-and-groups-photo-1My usual morning consists of a good warm-up (a combination of left hand movements and slurs, right hand alternation movements and arpeggios, and scales), before moving on to practicing spots in pieces, and finally playing through pieces and working on new pieces. However, there are periods of the year where I have more time to extend my technique practice and to learn new pieces. I’m approaching that period now (yeah!) so I’m experimenting with new finger gymnastics to address weaknesses in my technique and building a hearty list of new repertoire to absorb over the summer.

To this end, I was rummaging through my boxes and shelves of music and found a well-worn copy of Francisco Tárrega’s Complete Technical Studies. I pulled it out and went through it again for fun. If you’re looking to shake up your routine, I highly recommend some of his studies.

Below are two of Tárrega’s left-hand exercises that will surely make your left hand sweat. Tárrega notates using im alternation for the right hand but I prefer to simply assign i, m, and a, to strings 3, 2, and 1, and have p play all the bass strings to preserve my nails.

Exercise 1

Tarrega Exercise 33.jpg

Exercise 2

Tarrega exercise 34.jpg

Try going from 1st position all the way to 9th and back. Also, try the same concept with other sets of left hand pairs: 14 and 23 or 13 and 24.

Hope that gets your left hand going!