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!

Miracle Right Hand Warm Up Sequence

Here is a warm up sequence that I used to do every morning. It is useful for building right hand endurance, finger alternation, speed, pulse, rhythm, and legato. The idea behind it is simple. Set the metronome to a very slow beat, somewhere (50-70). Throughout the whole sequence, the beat remains constant but with very slight and precise increments we increase the number of notes between the beats.

I would go through all 13 steps (using free stroke) and then go through the whole thing two more times using different right hand fingerings am and ai. So, that’s 39 steps. I actually would go all the way up to fret 12 (3 cycles) and often would use a diminished 7th chord or some left hand variation to keep it interesting. Vary what you need. As you will notice, I’ve been more detailed in the first 3 steps and little by little have resorted to short hand as the basic sequence becomes evident.

Give it a whirl and let me know what you think.

Step 1

Right Hand Warm Up Sequence 1.jpg

Step 2

Right Hand Warm Up Sequence 2.jpg

Step 3

Right Hand Warm Up Sequence 3.jpg

Step 4

Right Hand Warm Up Sequence 4.jpg

Step 5

Right Hand Warm Up Sequence 5.jpg

Step 6

Right Hand Warm Up Sequence 6.jpg

Step 7

Right Hand Warm Up Sequence 7.jpg

Step 8

Right Hand Warm Up Sequence 8.jpg

Step 9

Right Hand Warm Up Sequence 9.jpg

Step 10

Right Hand Warm Up Sequence 10.jpg

Step 11

Right Hand Warm Up Sequence 11.jpg

Step 12

Right Hand Warm Up Sequence 12.jpg

Step 13

Right Hand Warm Up Sequence 13.jpg

Phew! Go back for more. You know it’s good for you.

Left Hand Speed Development, Part 1

I’m working on A Technical Workout for Classical Guitar, Speed and Flexibility, and I thought I would share a portion relating to extensor development in the left hand. I will try to post a video to support this but here is something to keep everyone busy.

Excerpt from up and coming book:

Speed in the left hand is determined by several factors but two of the most important ones are the time it takes the finger to achieve precise placement on the fret and the time it takes the finger to release and reload for the next placement. The former movement depends on the flexor muscles of the fingers which are constantly worked in an active fashion (we typically focus our attention on placement) and the latter movement depends on the extensor muscles of the finger (we typically do not focus on this aspect of the movement). In a way, descending slurs work the extensors but we can be a bit more specific and pro-active about developing extensors in our left hand.

In order to develop the extensor muscles, simply place the finger and then actively release the finger back as quickly as possible achieving a slightly sloppy staccato effect with the left hand. This work does not involve the right hand at all. This movement is more strenuous than it sounds. When done correctly it almost sounds like light slurring. Keep the left hand finger placement accurate and keep the left hand contained so that it’s not the hand that is moving away from the fretboard but the fingers.

Complete Exercise 1 below with all the following left hand finger combinations:

Single Pair Finger Movements: 12, 21, 23, 32, 34, 43, 13, 31, 24, 42, 14, 41

Exercise 1 – Focus on the instantaneous release and post relaxation after the placement of each finger (example below using 12 and 21)

slur 12 p4 extensor.jpg

Good luck!

Artist Spotlight and Interview: Zaira Meneses

Known as Mexico’s “First Lady of the classical guitar”,  Zaira Meneses, has been praised by the New York Times as “an arresting performer full of colorful touches” and has built a stellar reputation for her dark sound, powerful technique, and superb musicality. As a performer, she has graced the greatest stages of the world including New York City’s Carnegie Hall, Alice Tully Hall, Boston’s Jordan Hall, Salzburg’s Wiener Saal, and the Great Hall of the Shanghai Conservatory. As a recording artist, she has released the CD Latina and is releasing three new CDs on the Centaur label. Zaira is also active in the contemporary music scene and has had works dedicated to her by the great American composer, Robert Beaser, and by award-winning composer Stephanie Ann Boyd. Besides her collaborations with prominent musicians, like her husband Eliot Fisk, the flamenco virtuoso Grisha Goryachev, flutist Viviana Guzman, among others, Zaira is active  as educator at the New England Conservatory’s Preparatory Division and as an outreach coordinator for the Boston Guitar Festival.

Here she is performing a beautiful voice and guitar piece followed by a stunning 3rd movement from Leo Brouwer’s Sonata.

When I mentioned featuring Zaira on Six String Journal, we thought it might be nice to add some personal details in a short magazine style interview so here it is:

What’s the most recent news in your guitar activities?  I’ve become a baroque guitar soloist. I’ve also created a new guitar performance art approach with Latin American Collages where I combine guitar, poetry, acting, and singing. Another thing I’ve been enjoying lately is improvising with my requinto and jarana “jarocha” instruments from native Veracruz Son Jarocho music. I’ve also performed in some great venues this year: Carnegie Hall, Jordan Hall in Boston, and at the Mozarteum.

When did you start playing? At age of 7 years old.

What repertoire do you enjoy playing the most? Music that is rich in counterpoint, and that has interesting harmony, rhythms, and phrasing, such as Bach , Santiago de Murcia, Gaspar Sanz, and latin american music especially from Mexico and Cuba.

How much do you practice? It depends, if I have a performance coming up I don’t notice the time. On regular days I practice two to three hours.

Do you structure your practice? Yes. For concerts I prioritize memory reinforcement, sound projection, and how to connect with my audience.

Do you have a system or favorite drills you use to warm up? I start by playing the song I can’t wait to play because it will bring the best out of me. Then I practice the passages that I need to be improve.

Do you have any pre-concert rituals? I always meditate but before a concert I meditate to specific passages of the concert.   I also do mind/rehearse [visualize] the music in the sauna and steam room a week before concert. Sometimes I run with the music I will be performing. I fall asleep reading the music. It really depends what performance I’m presenting but more or less I breath music as much as I can.  

What is the last book that you read? Or the greatest book you’ve read this last year… Oh my gosh! I love the Austrian novelist Stefan Zweig. He’s a great writer and his books are full of imagination and detail. My favorite book is his short stories of “Forgotten Dreams”.

Any advice about practicing to younger players? Practice only if you want to practice. Practicing should come from your gut. Practicing is not a labor, it’s a need. It has to become your need otherwise its not worth doing it.

What guitar or guitars do you perform on? I use a guitar built by Stephan Connor and a Spanish baroque guitar.

Which guitarists have had the most influence on you? Oscar Ghiglia, Eliot Fisk, Joaquin Clerch.

Are there any recordings of guitar music that you think every young guitarist should be familiar with? Alirio Diaz’s Venezuelan Waltzes, Andres Segovia playing Spanish composers, any of Oscar Ghiglia’s Manuel Ponce recordings, Eliot Fisk’s playing Bach, Latin American guitar music, and his recordings of music by Robert Beaser.

Do you exercise? Do you think it helps your playing? YES absolutely! I run outdoors when it’s super cold and when it’s super hot. This helps me adjust my body to any hall circumstances.

What do you eat before a concert? If I can, my daughter Raquel’s best shake for performances:   banana, almond milk, oatmeal, and chia seeds. If I’m in a hotel, I eat turkey or white meat and avocados. If I’m in hotels I also like to order Chinese steam ed vegetarian dumplings.

A Technical Workout for Classical Guitar

Thought I’d let you all know that I’ve published the first of a series of technique workouts for classical guitarists. This first book, A Technical Workout for Classical Guitar, Level 1 – Base Building, is all about developing a strong foundation with a focus on the most common movements necessary for technique development in both hands. It is suitable for all levels – beginners trying to develop their own routine or advanced players looking for a systematic way to approach technique development. I wish I had had this when I was a young guitarist! It is available on kindle for now with more options soon. Stay tuned for videos going through some of the movements, supplemental publications, and more advanced workouts!

Guitar Talk with Yuri Liberzon

Here is the transcript of our guitar chat. Lot’s of great advice in here.

Leo: So we were going to talk about common mistakes that guitarists make. Do you have any that you could offer us as tips?

Yuri: Maybe we should break it down into young guitarists, beginning guitarists… Actually, among all ages and especially beginners, if they do not have a great teacher or are self-taught, a most common mistake I see in the left hand is flat or inverted wrists.

Leo: Hyperextended?

Yuri: Yeah, they don’t have the correct arch. So the way I think about wrists, the right and left hand should have similar arches. I also personally prefer a little bit of arch in the right hand wrist. It gives me more power and gives me more control rather than the straight wrists. But I think it also varies with the ratios and proportions of someone’s hands. In general I do think I can get more sound. It also changes the angle with which you attack the string. So another issue related to the left-hand is that many students keep the inside the knuckle or the inner side of the palm too close to the curled first finger and to the bottom of the fingerboard. That shortens your potential reach and it actually puts a lot of strain on your pinky because then you end up using the [the tip] joint.

Leo: The furthest joint instead of the near one?

Yuri: Yes, the knuckle joint, and that can lead to injury. Or what I often see is people bend right at the tip joint. So I see a lot of calcium buildup right here [points to left hand pinky tip joint], I’ve seen guitarists that have that, and that has to do with a not ideal position of the left hand. I view each finger as an equal, so they all should kind of follow each other’s shape. So when you see something out of balance then it deserves attention. Another issue is the inability to play on the tip of the finger. Instead, beginners tend to use the pad. So what I usually recommend for my students is starting with a very simple exercise where you don’t even have to play. So you just start with one, you add two, and try to keep exactly the same shape, and then the same thing backwards. So just one, two, three ,four but what’s important is when you release your fingers you don’t do this [fingers splay away from neck]. You stay controlled and that really helps you learn to control the movement. [Exercise is simply placing finger 1 on a fret, then 2 in the adjacent fret, then 3 in the next, and then 4 in the next. The hand stays still.]

Leo: So that’s a good one for just general left-hand hygiene, right?

Yuri: Yeah, and I like to start it around 5th position or 7th, and the reason is because right here there is no[right arm pronation] like when you play in the lower positions. You are not coming at an angle like this, your forearm is actually more perpendicular to the fingerboard. And actually the 7th fret is probably … 7th or 8th, where you can really have arm at 90 degrees [to the neck].

Leo: And also there’s much less extension, too.

Yuri: Right, so it requires less work from your left hand. And you can just do it on one string, or you can do it on all strings. Also, another exercise is something as basic as putting one finger down and taking it off, and putting another finger and taking it off, that’s not as easy as it may seem. Having that isolated movement is also important, to kind of analyze how the finger moves. Because it has three joints, and I like to think of it as distributing the energy over all the joints, rather than overusing one of them. Like you don’t want just one joint and keeping the other one like this … it’s kind of all of them working together.

Leo: Would divide the energy evenly through all three joints? Or would the proportion shift to primarily come from a certain joint depending on what you were doing, like slurs?

Yuri: I do think the knuckle is the primary joint, and the power should come from … well actually that’s a whole other topic, where a lot of people press with the thumb and they don’t use a lot of the knuckle muscle. Because you pretty much don’t need your thumb to play. It’s just there to …

Leo: It’s like a balance or pivot somehow.

Yuri: Right. But you don’t hold the guitar. I’ve had students say, “Well if I don’t press here I feel the guitar is going to fall off.” Sometimes it’s psychological. From playing power chords and not doing them the right way. Usually what I do when I warm up, I combine left hand and right hand. So for example … maybe we should talk a little bit about right-hand exercise [see first video in previous post]. So actually that’s the last step of that exercise. So the parts of it are using one finger [see 2nd video] and then doing the same with a [see 2nd video] and then the same exercise except using m and a.

Leo: Do you do ia as well?

Yuri: No, I find that i and a have really good separation.

Leo: Just by doing the two other pairs [im and ma] they seem to …?

Yuri: Well, in general I find that I don’t have to work much on ia. I think i and a are separate joints anyway. But I do find that making even pinky stronger is helpful. It really helps me actually when I start playing with one finger. And then eventually when I get to the end of my warm up I start doing im. So I start with the hardest thing possible. One finger, m and a, sometimes pinky. And then eventually I get to im and it feels so easy.

Leo: Natural.

Yuri: Yeah. Like I started working on [Villa-Lobos’] Etude No. 7. And I would just play the scale with i and then I’ll play it with m and only at the very end will I play it with im. So that feels much easier at the end. Oh, and also, I work on extensors [see 3rd video]. That helps, too. Like you can do the same exercise. [playing] Or maybe not that on the 6th string…

Leo: Yeah, it’ll destroy your nails.

Yuri: This really does help too. [see 3rd video] Also I like to do ami scales. So, for example, any scale, always going ami.

Leo: So a does all the crossing? Or does it just depend on the …?

Yuri: No it’s just always that pattern: ami. And you can start with whatever finger you start. And in the beginning once you start developing this technique it’s difficult to keep track of which finger is next, but over time it becomes so automatic.

Leo: Great. What great advice.

Yuri: Well, you know, I know pretty much all of us—all guitarists—want to develop better scales, have more accuracy, play faster. How do you push that? How do you consistently get better at that? I think these exercises are pretty much it, not the secret, but the way, to get better at it.

Leo: And do you do this using a metronome?

Yuri: Yeah, sure. I mean, the more you do it the better, of course. The more precise you are the better it is. I mean, there’s a danger of course of doing too much of it. You don’t want to injure yourself. So you’ve got to build it up over time. And you’ve got to be very disciplined about doing it every day, a little bit, and seeing how you feel. Because if you overdo it … that’s the major mistake I find by many teachers, who are just like, “ Oh, just do these exercises and you magically will start playing better.” Or, “The more you do the better you play.” I don’t believe in that, I think there is a sweet spot of how much you have to do before you start feeling fatigue in your hand. And when you do start feeling tired you do have to take rests. Stretching is very important. I mean I have some experience from getting injuries, but now I know, basically, that’s red zone, don’t cross over there.

Leo: They say the same thing with running mileage. That you can’t go out and run a marathon, right? You have to slowly build it up, and never increase mileage by more than 5 or 10% a week or 2 weeks.

Yuri: Well, I’ll give you a perfect example. I have a trainer, I work out with him for an hour a week. And I’ve worked out before, but it wasn’t with a trainer, it was all by myself. And I would find myself getting frustrated. I would work really, really hard one day, and my whole body would ache for another week, and then I’d be like, “Well, I can’t do anything because my body hurts.” And then you come back and you’re just not motivated. And so, with the trainer, he would give me just enough so that I would feel some fatigue, but not to the point where I didn’t want to come back. But over time he started increasing and increasing …

Leo: the physical demand…

Yuri: the intensity, yeah. And I think that playing should be exactly the same way. Taught the same way.

Leo: But it’s difficult, because you’re often training yourself. And so, if you don’t have a teacher or you’re a professional, you have to have this fine understanding of what you’re doing.

Yuri: Yeah, and often if you don’t have a good teacher it’s very difficult I think, to gauge. Because we all think the more the better. But not always. There has to be the right amount.

Leo: And intellectually, too. Not just physically, right? You only have … or at least I know I have limitations in terms of how much I can focus. I can go strong for an hour or two and then I need a break, and another hour or so. But if I hit 4 hours, I think that’s about the limit of the psychic energy that I have available for intense practice.

Yuri: Yeah. And sometimes you will be practicing and you’re not really accomplishing anything, you’re just simply playing the piece. Which in itself, yes, it’s beneficial, but I think if you compare it to concentrated and focused practice, it’s much, much better to do that rather than just noodle on the guitar.

Leo: Right, I feel the same way. You’re better off going to do something completely different.

Yuri: Yeah. Because sometimes in half an hour you can accomplish more than in two hours, if your head is not in it, your mind. Yeah, it’s like, the secret is just consistency and regularity in practice.

Leo: Do you take days off?

Yuri: I do, when I’m overloaded with teaching (laughs). I still try to at least play somewhat. I try not to skip days.

Leo: If you have a limited amount of time, like just one hour, say, what do you tend to focus on?

Yuri: What I would sometimes do, I would pick a small passage or I would pick a small scale, or even just do one of those exercises I was doing, reconnecting with myself, with my hands, with the guitar, with the feeling. It’s very, very important I find, to connect with the mechanics of playing, and if you have that connection you can pretty much play anything. So I try to maintain that. Not necessarily a specific piece.

Leo: But just the feel of what it’s like to be mechanically on…

Yuri: Yeah, at the end of my practice I want to feel that, yes, I can play anything right now, my hands are capable. Well, it’s also interesting if you don’t play for a while, and I don’t know, it happens to me, I start thinking, “I just don’t know how to play anything. I forgot how to do this.” It’s like when you lay in bed for a day, and you start wondering, “Can I still walk?” But the fact is, yes, we, I mean certainly professional guitarists or musicians, we’ve been playing for so many years, for so many hours, the chances of us completely forgetting something are very, very low. But I think there’s something psychological about the daily practice that makes us feel that we can do this. Yes, better or worse, but if you don’t do it for a few days you start really thinking, maybe I just …

Leo: I lost it, right?

Yuri: I think there’s an element of magic to playing. It’s not all completely clear to us what is … how it’s happening. That’s what I think. When you sit with the guitar it’s like “Oh, wow, this is incredible.”

Leo: It’s a box of wood and some … it’s like a drum in some ways. What about, you know, common mistakes, just to come back to that. You were mentioning a couple of things for beginners. What about for conservatory students, or students that you’ve taught master classes to?

Yuri: Oh, sure. You know, one of the most often mistakes that I see … or, not mistakes, just underdeveloped ability to be able to play evenly. And that evenness could be developed. I like to think of it as a clean slate. So being able to play on the beat. So playing in time. The other part is having control of volume, and having the control of tone, having consistent tone. Being able to change your tone when you want to, as much control as possible. That’s why fingerings are extremely important. I often think of fingerings as … each finger has a different position on the string. Of course you can move your hand as a whole, but i will always be more towards the left, m will be towards the middle, a will be more towards the right. So ideally people’s i finger should have the warmest tone. Because it always happens to play near the soundhole unless there’s some problem with the nail of course. But generally, i should always be the one that you should look for to get a nice tone. m for me is the power finger. It’s longer, it’s also a little brighter. And a is like the third wheel [laughter]. It’s like it’s there to help you reverse the fingering, or it’s there to play the arpeggio or play tremolo. So it has a very different function. And I know some players actually never use a, or try to minimize the use of a. I don’t know if I completely agree with that. I think a is a good finger, and it definitely has to …

Leo: It deserves to be part of the game [laughter].

Yuri: Right, right. [laughter] But it has its own function.

Leo: So overall you would say that controlling your volume and balance and rhythm, that should be something that students should focus on?

Yuri: Right, well I can give you a little example [see 4th video]. Let’s say Etude 1, Villa Lobos, right? So obviously the pattern is this. [playing] Now what I often hear is unevenness, let’s say [playing]. It’s a little chaotic. Now what I would like to start with is having all notes even. [playing] Then we can start talking about shaping the phrase. The way I see it is, it’s going up, it’s going down. There are also little accents on every other note, where you hear this … actually, the fingering that is chosen, pi in the beginning automatically adds a little weight to the first, third note, every other note [playing] right? So not a lot is needed to be added to make it sound …

Leo: Musical and controlled.

 

Yuri: Right. So we can use whatever is already in the pattern. If I don’t do anything, if I simply play notes evenly, it will still be there. [playing] So that’s the beginning step, where you try to make everything even rhythmically, even in terms of accents and having control, and then you decide on the interpretation. The other problem with this piece is really interesting. When you play it, the higher you play, the further down you press the strings. So what ends up happening for the right hand is the strings get displaced. And on top of it there is another issue of pressing hard with the left hand, so having tension in the left hand transfers to the right hand, and that’s when the right hand gets confused and starts making errors. So, keeping left hand in check, tension in check, also practicing right hand alone, making sure it will be able to sustain the changes of the left hand, the misplacements … not misplacements, but being able to adjust to the …

Leo: The slight adjustments of the strings. The depressed strings.

Yuri: Right, right. Keeping in mind that the higher you play, the more careful you have to be. Of course when you play here [lower positions], the changes over here are not very significant. Yeah, I discover all these things actually from teaching.

Leo: Yeah, you notice it, and you try to solve it for a student, and then you’re like, oh, good to put that into practice.

Yuri: Actually another issue … well it’s not an issue, but it’s a quality of guitar. The higher you play, the more on the sharp side the note will be. That’s what the compensation is for in the saddle and the nut. But yeah, the higher you play the more out of tune you’re probably going to be.

Leo: Do you use etudes as warm-ups? Or do you tend to focus on very basic but perfect movements, and then you move on to your repertoire?

Yuri: I usually take elements out of etudes. I don’t think I get much out of just playing them but it depends on the etude, of course, but generally I try to save time by playing just shorter passages.

Leo: So you wouldn’t, say, play through an entire piece to gauge your mechanics? You know, to sort of touch base with where you are physically, or …

Yuri: I think if I’m really practicing a lot, I would do that, because I want to also feel my stamina, how am I feeling, because if yesterday I was able to play a whole piece, I should be able to do it today as well.

Leo: That’s a lot of very, very good advice. Just to shift gears a bit, one of the questions that I imagine most guitarists would be interested in knowing is what steps you take or that are very clear to you when decide to learn a new piece?

Yuri: Steps in learning them?

Leo: Yeah, in absorbing a new piece.

Yuri: Well let’s say if … it also depends on the piece. If it’s a piece that has been played before, if I’ve heard it before, or if it’s a new piece that nobody else has played, I think the approach is a little bit different. If it’s a more traditional piece, I will usually try to listen to the original. Say it’s written for a different instrument, if it’s a transcription or an arrangement I will usually listen to the original. And more than one performance. If it’s a piece by Bach, like a violin sonata I will listen to it on violin. If it’s a new piece I can’t do that, so you have to live with a piece for a while. You have to perform it, you have to see what works, what doesn’t work. But at some point you do have to take it on stage, and take the risk, and see how it goes. But generally the process for me is always … my fingerings have to be defined. So I never leave a single fingering up to chance.

Leo: Right. You have to know exactly what each hand is doing at all times.

Yuri: Right, and I have to also know, why is that fingering there, what’s the purpose of that fingering and not the other finger on that note. So there are many, many decisions that have to be made before I can even play the piece. Now, the decisions about making those fingerings, they’re very … they’re not an easy thing to explain, and every guitarist has their own way of thinking about fingerings, different experience, different hands, different nails, different experience with discovering what works for them, different repertoire … so of course everyone has different preferences. But there are some things that are not up for discussion for me. So that has to do with posture. There is not that much variation in regards to posture, or how the fingers should move in a way to minimize chance of injury and to optimize efficiency. So there’s really not that much room. And there used to be, you know, the Segovia right hand, today nobody really plays that way. So that went away, and I think many other things eventually will also fade out, because they will prove that they’re not efficient. But with the guitar being a new instrument, it will take some time to get to that place. Unlike piano or violin, where it’s not up for discussion. The teacher will basically not work with you, and say, well, study with somebody else …

Leo: You can’t develop your own technique on piano.

Yuri: Right, right. This is a hundreds-years-old tradition, and there is a reason why things are the way they are. The chances of you coming up with something really new related to how we use human body on these instruments is very low.

Leo: Exactly. Unless you don’t have the usual human body.

[laughter]

Yuri: Unless you are an alien…

Leo: And so once you have fingerings and you’ve gone through that process, what’s the next …

Yuri: Well the fingerings process is also …

Leo: That almost makes you learn it, right?

Yuri: Yeah, but at the same time, fingerings and interpretation are so connected. So that when I make decisions about fingerings I also think about, what is this music about? What is this phrase, what am I trying to do with this phrase? Should it be rest strokes or should it be free strokes? It’s not only the ease of playing, it’s also, what is the gesture I’m going after? Is this intense gesture, or is it a light gesture? Should the phrase end with a rest stroke, is the last note important of a scale or of a passage? How fast does it need to go? Is this arpeggio pattern going to allow me the easiest way to play it fast, that passage, at the tempo that’s required? And sometimes you say, I will give this a try, I’ll play it for a while, see if it works, or eventually you may replace it with a different fingering. Many, many masters will change fingerings as they get more experience.

Leo: I almost feel like fingerings are really never set in stone, except at the beginning, when you first learn the piece, and then as it evolves you perhaps will adjust, or if you re-learn a piece you’ll come back to it and choose to do different things.

Yuri: You know, that’s a really interesting topic, talking about when we get a piece of music, it already has some fingerings, right? Now, the publisher doesn’t know the player’s experience. And the player, if it’s an advanced player, most likely they will take some good things out of the fingerings that are on the page and they will maybe change them as needed, or not … but then, if the player is not advanced, what happens then? Should the music have all the fingerings or not? And I’ve had … well when I do my arrangements, I finger every single note, every single finger. And the reason why I do that is because for a not advanced player, this is a way that works. This is one suggestion that has been given thought, that’s been tried. For an advanced player, they can erase whatever doesn’t work, they can change it, but at least they have hours and hours of thought already on the page. I also understand that a lot of publishers don’t want to spend time putting the fingerings on the page, but …

Leo: Well, there are also plenty editions out there that have horrible fingerings, that aren’t well thought out. There was a time where I was watching a master class by David Russell a long time ago in a tiny little town in a little village in the Andes, and this great player played Bach’s Prelude, Fugue, and Allegro, played it very well, but was playing mistakes because of the edition. So David Russell told the player, “I could have helped you more, but we have to fix the mistakes of the editor instead of yours.”

Yuri: Well the other interesting story is Segovia’s masterclass, have you heard that? Of course. Where, “Oh, you’re not playing my fingerings? Just, that’s not going to work, come back later.” [laughter] So I don’t know.

Leo: It’s a different era.

Yuri: Well it’s a controversial topic. Especially when the ego gets involved.

Leo: Then there’s no hope. [laughter]

Yuri Liberzon – Technique

 

Yuri and I recently got together in my studio to play guitars, talk shop, and brainstorm advice to share with Six String Journal readers. Originally, we were going to post a list of tips and common mistakes guitarists of all levels should watch out for but there is so much valuable insight in what I recorded – from the warm up exercises below, to learning new repertoire, and more – that I’m simply going to post it as an interview next time. Perhaps a formal podcast is up next but in the meantime this will certainly keep everyone’s fingers busy.

Here is Yuri demonstrating one of his favorite warm up exercises (and the music) with videos of him playing it in various ways.

Yuri's Warm Up Scale Pattern.jpg

This next video, he demonstrates what he likes to do before building up to the exercise above. Notice that he plays through the scale with i, m, a, and c, before moving onto im and am. 

Here is true gold, Yuri works on extensors and ami, too.

And, finally, here is Yuri commenting on balance and tone.

Hope that inspires everyone!

Manuel Barrueco on Slow Practice

While listening to Manuel Barrueco’s podcast, he was asked about whether slow practice was a good method. Here was his response:

“[Slow practice] is a very good method, perhaps it’s the best, I’m not sure if it’s the best, but it’s one of. I think slow practice is extremely helpful in a lot of ways. It helps with memory because it breaks down muscle memory. It also allows one to look at the technique very closely. And look at any excess motion, bad movements, and tension in the technique. Also, it gives the hand and the fingers time to learn how to do their job. Also, their is another aspect that is often underrated which is that it is good musically. By practicing slowly, it allows you to slowly hear the harmonies and the lines and everything that is going on in a piece of music. So I wouldn’t be surprised if it is the best technique to practice in.”

With that in mind, try practicing a piece like the Allegro from Agustín Barrios’ La catedral at 60bpm per sixteenth note.

Villa Lobos Etude Nº2, Part 2

I was going to write about a warm up sequence that builds right hand endurance, speed, pulse, and legato. It was going to be a good one. But, I walked past my music stand and Heitor Villa-Lobos’s Etude Nº2 was taunting me.

FullSizeRender.jpg

So here are a few more thoughts and approaches I’ve found helpful while working on this over the last few weeks.

Right Hand Alone

We all know the value in practicing the right hand alone. It allows us to focus on what might be a potential lack of understanding as to where the trouble in a passage lies. Focusing on the right hand also allows us to feel the rhythm correctly without the hindrance of a faulty left hand or a left hand that cannot keep up. In this particular etude, there are two movements that recur often. Practice these movements or if necessary, build them up to comfortably play them at your target tempo (120+ bpm).                .

Sweeping with p:

villa lobos 2 open string 1b.jpgvilla lobos 2 open string 1a.jpg

Cross-string arpeggio with various fingerings:

villa lobos 2 open string 1c.jpg

Slow and progressive warm up on these two movements helps develop a more ‘in the pocket’ feel and if you can retain the feel when incorporating the left hand, forces the left hand to behave more reliably. Remind yourself that if you cannot play those movements well at your target tempo, you will simply not be able to play the piece at that speed. So, set that metronome and get to work.

Left Hand Without Shifts

Though shifting in this piece does not present too many challenges, there are a few. Practicing a passage without a shift allows us to deconstruct a movement with two potential problems: the change in hand position and the shift. Try playing the first measure with no shift and focus on how it feels. Then, once that feels fluid, incorporate the shift while retaining the fluidity.

Resting the Right Hand Thumb

Do you know when and on what strings your thumb rests when not using it? Instead of randomly placing it for stability, find spots to rest it that coincide with the next note it will play. Not always possible but it certainly helps when you can get away with it.

Hope that helps. Stay tuned for the super warm up exercise and another Artist Spotlight…