Want Speedy Scales?

Want to feel more accurate when playing through your pieces? Want speedy scales? Want fluid arpeggios? Want to be a guitar superhero? Work on basic movements. Hard work on the very basic movements of technique allows an inner exploration of our limits and abilities while giving us a bit of a roadmap for quantifiable and steady improvement.

Below are some very basic right hand drills that find their way back into my warm-up and finger routines often. It’s not that I need to practice them much anymore but rather they allow me to continually refine the most important movements necessary for pleasurable music making. They also allow me to set both short and long term tempo and endurance goals.

Try going through each of these three drills with the suggested fingerings. If you are more of a beginner, spend time on the bold faced fingerings, if you are more advanced, go through all fingerings in search for what does not work well, then focus your energy there. Don’t neglect the basics, though!

Follow these guidelines:

  1. Use a metronome and start slowly (quarter = 50-60).
  2. Go through each drill at least 3 times (I do 5 if I have time) with each fingering. Increase tempo slightly for each one.
  3. Do not sacrifice clarity and movement efficiency.
  4. Focus on the quality of the movements and the sound.

Fingerings

Rest-stroke fingerings: immi, amma, ai, ia, ami, ima, imam

Free-stroke fingerings: immi, ammapipm, ai, ia, ami, ima, imam, pa, pami, pmi

For patterns involving three fingers play three repeats to hit all permutations.

Exercise 1

Technique Cheat Sheet 1.jpg

Exercise 2

Technique Cheat Sheet 2.jpg

Fingerings

Play the following drills using free-stroke and by relegating each right hand finger group across the three strings (for example, with ima, place i on string 3, m on string 2, and a on string 1).

Play each of the seven movements for at least 4+ repetitions or set a timer for 30-45 seconds.

All free-stroke: ima, pim, pma, pia

Exercise 3

Technique Cheat Sheet 3.jpg

Try dedicating 60 days in a row (or with as much consistency as possible) to these movements and you will see results. Also, if you want a simple goal. Try to get each movement up to quarter = 126 over the course of the 60 days. Or, shoot higher! Why not?

David Russell Technique Talk

David Russell is a guitar hero for many reasons but one of them is for his ability to make everything he plays look effortless. Here is another masterclass snippet where he provides insightful guidance on the importance of a proper warm-up routine. He makes the analogy to sports, where warming up the muscles for practice helps to refine the motion and muscles necessary to perform efficiently. If muscles are not warmed up, larger muscles take over causing imbalance and tension.


Even if you do not speak Spanish, you can follow David’s crystal clear and carefully conceived approach to warming up. Nevertheless, I’ll summarize a few key points:

  1. Start with very simple movements in the left hand like ascending slurs with all the pairs of fingers (12, 23, 34, 13, 24, 14).
  2. Move on to the right hand and work on perfecting a single finger free-stroke with each finger (i, m, a, p)
  3. Go back to the left hand and work on descending slurs (21, 32, 43, 31, 42, 41).
  4. Back to the right hand to work on alternation between pairs of fingers (im, mi, ma, am, etc.). During this time, focus on the effort and resistance it takes each finger to pull through the string. Adjust nails as necessary to create equal resistance. Otherwise, there is imbalance and this will compromise your fluidity. Also, moving from i to m may be easier than moving from m to i. Your job is to make both directions feel as equal as possible.
  5. Move on to imimim, ama, mam, etc., then incorporate slight accents imi, imiama, ama, etc…
  6. Back to the left hand to try compound movements (121, 212, 232, 323, 343, 434, etc…)
  7. Back to right hand to work on imim, mimi, amam, mama, etc… then try doing these movements cross-string.
  8. Then bring the warm-up to a close by spending 10+ minutes coordinating both hands with scale fragments: im with 12, 23, 34, 13, 24, 14, mi with 12, 23, 34, 13, 24, 14, etc…

If you’d like a bit more detail and a program that follows this approach please check out my recent publication, A Technical Workout for Classical Guitar.

Pavel’s Left Hand Technique Fun

I think I’ve now scoured most of Pavel Steidl‘s masterclasses on youtube. What a treasure trove of advice. I absolutely love him, his creativity, and his masterful ability to teach in such a fun way.

Here is a left hand technique progression that roughly matches what he demonstrates in one of his masterclasses. Pavel recommends at least 30 minutes a day of work for the fingers. Among his bits of advice and reflections, there is a moment in a masterclass where he talks about left hand choreography and how it is connected to the part of our brain that is responsible for, as he puts it, “fantasy and imagination.”

Here is the sequence to explore:

Step 1

Play the top voice as a continuous slur.

Pavel's Fixed Finger Slurs.jpg

Move on to the next step or repeat with the remaining patterns:

02/1343, 03/1242, 04/1232 (slur/counterpoint)

Step 2

Now slur the counterpoint or fixed note as well.

Pavel's Fixed Finger Slurs 2.jpg

Move on to the next step or repeat with the remaining patterns (see above).

Step 3

Add in a coordinating movement in the right hand (try something simple first).

Pavel's Fixed Finger Slurs 3.jpg

Move on to the next step or repeat with the remaining patterns (see above).

Step 4

Explore a more challenging coordinating movement in the right hand (try pami on string 5).

Pavel's Fixed Finger Slurs 4.jpg

Be creative and have fun just like Pavel!

Left Hand Warmup: Slurs, Fixed Fingers, Open Strings, and Tunnels

Lately, when starting my practice I will start with an assortment of left hand movements. I go slowly with attention to the fluidity of the movements. While I do this, my ear starts to focus. The easy pace is ideal for adjusting tone and exploring left hand movement before moving on to arpeggios, scale fragments, and spots in pieces.

Here is a slur sequence I really enjoyed focusing on yesterday. It involves playing slurs with a pair of fingers, slurs to and from open strings, all while requiring the precise placement of the fingers to create tunnels so that adjacent strings remain unobstructed. Fun!

I immediately thought: BLOG POST!

Here’s the outline of the movement using fingers 12 but you should try all pairs (23, 34, 13, 24, 14). You’ll get more out of the exercises by repeated each slur many times and of course, play them across all strings and positions.

Method of Practice

Fixed Finger Slur Exercise 2.jpg

Exercise 1 – Ascending Slurs

Fixed Finger Slur Exercise.jpg

Exercise 2 – Ascending Slurs 2

Fixed Finger Slur Exercise 3.jpg

Exercise 3 – Ascending and Descending Slurs

Fixed Finger Slur Exercise 2a.jpg

Exercise 4 – Descending Slurs

Fixed Finger Slur Exercise 4.jpg

Exercise 5 – Descending and Ascending Slurs

Fixed Finger Slur Exercise 5.jpg

Go give that left hand a workout!

 

Right Hand String Crossing Technique Tip

One aspect of Ángel Romero‘s edition of Joaquín Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez is that every single scale is fingered optimally for string crossing so that almost always reaches towards a higher string when blazing through the scale passages (i.e. when going from string 2 to 1, it is fingered i m and not m i). And while you could employ slurs or shifts to maintain optimum string-crossing, if those solutions are not musically in the cards there is a finger standing on the sidelines waiting eagerly to help: a. Using a to switch from im alternation to mi alternation without skipping a beat is an important skill to develop for situations where you would want to maintain optimum string-crossing for the right hand. Here are a few exercises using a to develop this technique.

Keep the following points in mind when going through these.

  1. Maintain a steady metric pulse.
  2. Keep your tone consistent.
  3. Practice rest-stroke and free-stroke.

Exercise 1

Using a to switch direction.jpg

Exercise 2 and 3

Using a to switch direction 2.jpg

Exercise 4 and 5

Using a to switch direction 3.jpg

Go a!

Rafael Elizondo’s Technique Videos

Rafael Elizondo is a fabulous Mexican concert guitarist who has been making wonderful videos for his youtube channel. If you don’t speak Spanish, you may not be at too much of a disadvantage because he demonstrates everything very clearly. This instructional video below is a fine example of Rafael explaining how to use fixed fingers to establish stability and confidence in the right hand.

Here is another great one where he demonstrates 4 finger coordination patterns for the left hand:

Check out and subscribe to his channel. There are tons of great posts.

More soon…

 

Technical Workout for Classical Guitar, Level 1 – Base Building, Part 3 (video)

Here is the third of Six String Journal’s series of technique videos to accompany my recent workbook, A Technical Workout for Classical Guitar, Level 1 – Base Building. This video corresponds to Left Hand Movements, Part 3.

This workbook is designed to help late beginners and intermediate guitarists develop a daily routine of movements to strengthen their technical base so that fingers can do their job properly when assimilating new repertoire. Always go slowly with the most control possible. Think of it as writing a program for your brain with no bugs.

Technical Workout for Classical Guitar – Level 1 – Base Building, Part 1 (video)

Here is the first of Six String Journal’s series of technique videos to accompany my recent workbook, A Technical Workout for Classical Guitar, Level 1 – Base Building. This video corresponds to Left Hand Movements, Part 1.

This workbook is designed to help late beginners and intermediate guitarists develop a daily routine of movements to strengthen their technical base so that fingers can do their job properly when assimilating new repertoire (that was wordy!). Always go slowly with the most control possible. Think of it as writing a program for your brain with no bugs.

 

 

Artist Profile and Interview: Piotr Pakhomkin

Six String Journal Artist Profile and Interview

From practice and listening advice to pre-concert rituals, competition-winning guitar powerhouse Piotr Pakhomkin provides a wealth of valuable insight to both beginning and advanced guitarists. Hope you enjoy reading this one!

Hailed by Classical Guitar Magazine as “one of the bright lights of the younger generation of classical musicians, a player of tremendous skill and sensitivity,” Russian-American guitarist, Piotr Pakhomkin has extensively performed and given masterclasses in Europe, Central America, and the U.S.   Based in Washington, D.C., he was the only guitarist to be featured at Strathmore, Kennedy Center, and Phillips Collection series in the span of a single concert season in 2014.

After finishing his studies with Manuel Barrueco at Peabody, Piotr became the First Prize winner of the 2012 Mexican International Guitar Competition in Culiacan and has taken top prizes at the 2012 Boston GuitarFest International Guitar Competition, Great Lakes Guitar Competition, Montreal International Guitar Competition, and the European International Guitar Competition, “Enrico Mercatali,” in Italy. After finishing the prestigious Strathmore Artist-in-Residence program in 2014, he returned to serve as a faculty member and mentor in their Institute for Artistic Development.

As the winner of the 2016 Respighi International Soloist Competition, he will make his concerto and solo debut at Carnegie Hall in the Chamber Orchestra of New York’s “Masterwork Series” in June 2018. Piotr plays exclusively on a 2010 Ross Gutmeier Guitar using Oasis GPX strings.

Here are three links to Piotr’s website (lots of great videos, his recording, and an insightful left-hand workout routine).

Piotr’s Website

Piotr’s recording Virtuoso Guitar Collection 

Piotr’s Guitar Gymnastics: 5 Day Workout for the Left Hand

Personal

When did you start playing and why? Or, what drew you to the guitar initially? 

My high school music teacher, Matt Hartman played Bach’s Sleeper’s Awake (performed by Christopher Parkening) in a music appreciation class. The ability to play multiple voices on the guitar had me floored – a full ensemble was hiding inside this little instrument. I was about 16 at the time and I knew I had a ton of work ahead of me. My enjoyment of the challenge and the process was a deciding factor in pursuing the guitar full-time.

What repertoire do you enjoy playing the most? 

I have the most fun venturing into new territory with arranging. After hearing Jordi Savall’s playing in the French movie, “All the Mornings of the World”, I fell in love with viola da gamba repertoire. I started with Marin Marais and then graduated to Carl Friedrich Abel. When working with single-line string music, I love the creative freedom involved in filling out the implied counterpoint. 

What guitar or guitars do you perform on? Strings?

I play on a custom 2010 Cedar double-top by American luthier, Ross Gutmeier with Oasis GPX strings.

Which guitarists/musicians have had the most influence on you? 

Teachers have had more influence on me than any single recording. I wouldn’t be a guitarist if it wasn’t for my first teacher, Paul Moeller. My current students will find it hard to believe but my first few lessons as a teenage novice were very difficult. Everything was a struggle– sight-reading, right hand patterns, accuracy, memory and rhythm. Despite my lack of training, Moeller was so encouraging. He built up my confidence in my own ability, and taught me the techniques for performing consistently under pressure (slow practice, visualization, left and right-hand separation training). His coaching brought me to a professional technical level in less than two years. 

When I started studying with Manuel Barrueco, his ear and meticulous labor over the meaning of every note was a huge source inspiration for me. I was so focused on playing with my hands but he was always teaching us to play with our ears. 

Are there any recordings that you consider have the finest recorded sound for guitar?  

Manuel Barrueco’s 300 Years of Guitar Masterpieces for the Vox Label. I have those recordings in every format: CD, MP3 and vinyl. The warm sound, attention to detail in voice separation, and precision on those recordings shaped all of my values for learning, recording, and performing music. 

What are some up and coming projects you are excited about?

In March 2018 I’ll perform with the New York Chamber Orchestra in Carnegie Hall. Playing in that venue is one of those goals that I set when I began, so it’s an honor to finally see it happen.

Technique and Performance

How much do you practice? And, do you structure your practice in any particular way?

I try to put in 5 hours on average. The quantity really depends on my workload and what stages my pieces are in.

Slow practice takes longer and the hands can withstand more of it. On the other hand, playing at faster tempos is more strenuous and too much repetition without pause can cause injury. 

My focus is higher earlier in the day so the earlier portion of the practice session revolves around isolated passages, very slow tempos (roughly one quarter of the concert tempo) and exercises derived from the most difficult aspects of the pieces. I’ll go through the music phrase-by-phrase between 1 and 3 times without errors. I never repeat anything more than that in a single sitting. I think that it’s potentially harmful because it leads to indefinitely long practice sessions, fatigue, more errors, and it wastes time. 

Later in the day, I’m working more on the entire performance of each piece at concert tempo. In other words, “work” in the morning and “play” at night. If the pieces aren’t ready to be played at tempo, I’ll spend more time working slowly. 

In terms of structure, I keep a list of the goals I have for the practice session with each piece. To maintain interest, I’ll change the order of the passages I’m practicing. If I went through it more chronologically one day, then the next time I’ll start at the end. Without some routine, we can get disorganized but too much routine can numb our focus.

Are there aspects of the guitar that you struggle with or that you find you are still working on? 

One challenge is to consolidate your practice regimen to fit the needs of traveling, where you have so much less time. It’s a luxury to practice a lot so when that time isn’t available to you it’s a real test of efficiency, careful planning and time management. I usually plan my daily practice sessions on the airplane, preparing for a worse-case scenario. 

Another obstacle for many guitarists is breaking away from the bubble of your own instrument and exploring the much larger world of classical music. Intense focus is a wonderful thing but in this case it can harm you if it keeps you from being well-rounded. It’s important to attend symphonic and choral concerts, for instance. At the very least, you can hear new pieces of music and get new programming ideas from these experiences. I also get a lot of benefit from hearing young players in the Chopin or Van Cliburn competitions instead of just following guitar contests. Hearing an instrument different from the one you play at home with different repertoire allows you to be less judgmental and gives you more freedom in your listening experience.

Do you deliberately memorize music or have a technique that helps assimilate music into memory?  

Visualizing every single note of a concert program is essential for a performance free of memory slips. To maintain focus under pressure I sometimes play through my program with loud music playing in the background. If I can push through, even when I can’t hear myself, I know that my focus is strong. 

Have you published any editions or do you plan to publish your own editions in the future?

Admittedly, I haven’t had much time to do work in this direction. I’d like to expand our romantic repertoire to include transcriptions of works by Scriabin, Rubinstein, Glinka and Mussorgsky. I hope to publish these in the near future.

Do you have a favorite drill you use to warm up? 

I swap out my exercises on a weekly basis as they get easier. I like this linear chromatic scale exercise because it helps with precise shifting, which is needed in just about every piece. The aim is to make every fingering variation have the same legato quality, rather than broken groupings of four, three, two, and one. [Check out Piotr’s Guitar Gymnastics Publication for more like this. -L]

Piotr's Chromatic Linear Scale.jpg

Left hand fingerings to use:

0 1 2 3 4 1 2 3 4 etc.

0 1 2 3 1 2 3 1 2 etc.

0 2 3 4 2 3 4 2 3 etc.

0 1 2 1 2 etc.

0 2 3 2 3 etc.

0 3 4 3 4 etc.

0 1 1 1 1 etc.

0 2 2 2 2 etc.

0 3 3 3 3 etc.

0 4 4 4 4 etc.

Record them and work on making them all sound like the same fingering, ridding yourself of accents after every shift. This is a great time to work on getting rid of fret noise as well.

Do you have any pre-concert rituals?

Before the concert, I try to meditate for at least 5 minutes to clear my head. I notice a big difference when I don’t get to do this so this is a priority. I use the Neurolinguistic Programming techniques for meditation. 

Advice to Younger Players

What single most important piece of advice about practicing would you offer to younger players?

This is a simple piece of advice but it’s easier said than done. I would encourage young players to spend the most time working on their weakest qualities in the early stages of development. With a good teacher’s supervision, get out of your comfort zone and make a game out of the struggle. This is the only way to grow. 

What repertoire do you consider essential for young/conservatory students to assimilate? Why?

I think Bach’s Lute Suites (Frank Koonce edition) are a priority. Developing a singing quality with Bach’s long phrases is extremely demanding. Achieving clarity and balance in the counterpoint is an enormous technical feat. Another reason for working through this repertoire is that you can use a wide variety of non-guitar recordings to aid your interpretation. You can learn the the BWV 998 (Prelude, Fugue, and Allegro) along with Sviatoslav Richter or Gustav Leonhardt. You can approach it from opposing standpoints–the romantics as well as the period instrumentalists. 

For general technique, it’s important to go through the Villa-Lobos Etudes. They instantly reveal weaknesses and give you a concrete goal to master them when you finally perform each Etude in concert. Etude no. 1 is impossible to play smoothly with a weak m-a-m arpeggio combination. Etude no. 2 will fall apart with excessive left hand tension. 

Recordings that every young guitarist should be familiar with and why?

I recommend:

300 Years of Guitar Masterpieces (Manuel Barrueco) for the clarity, consistency, and hierarchy in voice separation. 

Vivaldi Four Seasons (Venice Baroque Orchestra) for the energy and new life they pump into this very famous music. Some of the themes have been relegated to the “wedding-music” genre but with this recording, you completely forget that. 

Handel, Bach, Scarlatti (David Russell) for the creative and lyrical cross-string ornamentation. 

Chopin Nocturnes (Arthur Rubinstein) for the ability to play note-for-note with the light feeling of improvisation on every flourish.

Tangent

What is the last book that you read? 

The Art of Practicing by Madeline Bruser

Do you try to stay healthy? Exercise? Follow a particular diet? Have a favorite pre-concert food? 

Absolutely. I think that performing music is so physical that you have to care for your body like an athlete. I get my protein from fish, vegetables and legumes. I stay away from starches and refined sugars. Healthy fats like avocados and coconut oil are fantastic for fingernail health – both topically and as part of your diet. 

Before a concert, I always eat a few bananas. They’re always safe to eat when you’re traveling because of the protective peel. Also bananas are calorie dense and rich in potassium, which I’ve always read is a natural beta-blocker. 

Musicians generally fear weigh-training but there are safe ways to approach it. I do do the eccentric portion of every lift very slowly, allowing lighter weights to feel much heavier. This puts less stress on my hands. I also jump rope to keep my heart healthy. With the jump-rope the exercise session will be much shorter and more intense than distance running. This is perfect for a musician’s busy schedule. 

What is your favorite way to spend time when not practicing?

I love hiking and the outdoors. In the cold months, you’ll find me catching up on new independent films and documentaries. 

Building Scale Speed

I was warming up this morning and thought I’d post one of my favorite ways to work on scales to both warm up and build speed. I like this sequence because you can set the metronome conservatively and build up as you play. It’s much like the the sequence in this post but applied to scales. I’ll go through this with im (mi) and am (ma) both rest and free stroke but sometimes find myself working on other patterns like pi, ami, ai, and whatever else I feel is going to help my fingers get into the zone. Depending on what’s on my agenda, I may do this for 20-30 minutes or a lot longer pushing myself to build comfort at higher tempos. I like knowing I have a bit more than necessary.

The Technical Workout for Classical Guitar, Level 2 – Speed and Flexibility workbook has a section very similar to this.

Here is the sequence:

Step 1

scale-warmup-1

Step 2

scale-warmup-2

Step 3

Scale Warmup 3.jpg

Step 4

Scale Warmup 4.jpg

Step 5

Scale Warmup 5.jpg

Step 6

Scale Warmup 6.jpg

Step 7

Scale Warmup 7.jpg

Step 8

Scale Warmup 8.jpg

Step 9

Scale Warmup 9.jpg

Step 10

Scale Warmup 10.jpg

Step 11

Scale Warmup 11.jpg

Good luck!