How to Visualize Your Pieces

Very early on my guitar adventure, my teacher at the time said that he would never perform anything unless he could see it physically happen in his head. He had me read a few articles on visualizing and, because I tried to be a good student and wanted to be a good guitarist, tried his advice. It was hard work. I SO much preferred to “do”. Close my eyes and sweat mentally to “see” my fingers on the fretboard? No thank you.

But, I persisted. And, from reading enough about it, am convinced it has helped me in many ways. For one, I feel more secure if I can imagine everything. Two, it inevitably builds your ability to focus. Three, I’m not sure to what degree it helps but I like to think of it as a memory safety net, one of many safety nets (mental and physical) that come with mastering pieces and eventually performing them.

At this point in my playing, I enjoy doing it. When I close my eyes, it is nice to play and hear a piece unfold in my head. Visualizing frees my musical imagination in ways that are not confined by the physical struggles of the early stages of learning new music and cold fingers.

Here is a list of visualizing techniques that I have found helpful at some point or another, some are easier than others and can be used as training wheels until you get the hang of it. Or, you’ll find the ones that work well for you and that you enjoy doing. Like exercise, the best visualizing is the visualizing you’ll actually do. From easier to more difficult:

  1. Read through the score of your piece without the guitar in hand. Try to hear it all in your head and imagine your hands playing it as your eyes scan the music.
  2. Watch a video of your favorite player and play along in your head. This is light visualization.
  3. Listen to your favorite player or a good recording of yourself and play along in your head trying to stay with it. No backtracking. If there are spots or large chunks that are blurry, work on those carefully next time you physically practice.
  4. Close your eyes, imagine a stage and where you would sit. Perform the piece in as much detail as possible with extra attention to your left hand choreography as the piece unfolds. Try the same but with the right hand.
  5. Try doing the previous step with a metronome set to an ultra slow tempo and see the piece unfold, matrix-like. Try with an ultra fast tempo. How much can you keep up? What goes blurry?

Don’t forget to smile, breathe calmly, and to remain optimistic. Happy visualizing.

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How to Play Cross-Stringed Ornaments

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:

  1. Most baroque trills begin on the upper neighbor.
  2. 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.
  3. Cadential trills are important but ornaments within the piece are more personal as to their inclusion, length, etc…
  4. Practice the entrances and exits of ornaments with turns.
  5. Mute the dissonance after the trill. This is usually done with a right-hand finger.
  6. Dynamics are important within the ornament and the musical line.
  7. A shorter trill is better than a longer out of rhythm trill unless it is cadential (where time is suspended to a greater degree)
  8. Cross-string ornaments allow baroque interpretations to vary stylistically from other periods of music.
  9. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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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Technique Focus – Boost Left Hand Efficiency

When working out the choreography to a new interpretation there are a few aspects of left hand technique that can dramatically improve efficiency. One of those aspects involves a similar idea often referred to as ‘planting’ for the right hand. For example, when playing a rapid and repeated pim arpeggio (like in Asturias), it is common practice to place all three fingers down in a group to stabilize the right hand and to create one efficient gesture instead of three separate actions. The basic rule is that as we move away from p and towards a across string we plant fingers down so the right hand fingers are prepared. Essentially, we stabilize the right hand as we move away from the grounding of p and i.

Applying this concept to the left hand is equally important but the ‘planting’ occurs as we move from finger 4 (pinky) towards finger 1. Theoretically, if only finger 4 is down on the fingerboard, the left hand is not as stable as it would be if another supporting finger were to place somewhere nearby. For example, if we had to play a descending group of chromatic notes 4321 on a string, placing all four fingers before playing reduces the motion to a relaxed gesture of releasing fingers away. If we were to place 4321 down in a sequential fashion, it is not necessarily ‘wrong’, but it would augment the motion of the left hand into many placements and releases, rendering it less efficient. A bit of a mess.

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Six String Journal’s Complete Technique Course

NEWS! Complete Technique Video Course Launch!

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.

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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.

Course Includes
  • Hours of focused technique lessons with an award-winning classical guitarist, the founder of Six String Journal, and sought-after educator.
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  • Loads of bonus content from Six String Journal’s Mastering Diatonic Scales.

 

 

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 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!

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!

Heitor Villa-Lobos Etude Nº1 – Rhythms

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!