During a lesson last night, a musically talented young student played Roland Dyens’ Tango en Skai. He had played it a few years ago when he was 9 (!) and had been reworking it for fun. Like most young players excited about guitar, the desire to play is overwhelming to the point that it crowds out actual practice and more importantly, the crucial aspect of practice: reflection. A piece will get to a “pretty good” level and, while it may be pretty well played, it is not mastered or excellent. So, we addressed this by using the first run in Dyens’ Tango as an example of how to actually practice for marked improvement.
STEP 1 – PLAY RIGHT HAND ALONE SLOWLY
This step is easy to spend the most time on because it will make you question right hand choices if you have not thought about them in this context. Actually seeing the open strings is different than seeing the original score and imagining the right hand. New patterns are optically sought out and if you are a visual learner, seeing a map is easier than imagining it. We chose to stick with the student’s right hand choice but it was interesting to watch such a talented player struggle to play it very slowly (sixteenth = 60 bpm). We lingered luxuriously in this stage playing at different tempi until we were convinced the right hand’s sense of rhythm and pulse had tightened up.
STEP 2 – PLAY RIGHT HAND ALONE WITH DYNAMICS
STEP 3 – SEARCH FOR STABILITY POINTS
We answered some key questions. Where is thumb? Working out when and where thumb plants on the strings between strokes or in anticipation of strokes greatly increases right hand stability for the rest of the fingers. Where can I plant other fingers? Because the right hand movement is continuously ascending towards string 1, planting helps control dynamics and insures that the fingers are in place before their turn is up. Then, of course, we spent time practicing the incorporation of planting into the right hand choreography. After a few minutes, the right hand was behaving like a true champ: strong, secure, comfortable, happy!
STEP 4 – ADD LEFT HAND BACK IN
This is where most students who are hyper-focused on left hand and playing are astonished by what they sound like. The playing sounds crisp, exact, musical, and free. Hopefully, at this stage, the aural and physical reward is strong enough to convince the student to start truly practicing and instill the desire to play everything at a level approaching mastery.
*We can go further here by applying rhythms, pushing the tempo to build a reserve, practicing left hand alone, but for now, this is where we left it.
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:
Know when the fingers can plant or are laid out as an arpeggio (even though it may be the beginning of a scale passage).
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).
Insure string crossing is optimized and know when there are exceptions. See this early article for reference.
Know when two fingers can place at once (usually in descending melodic fragments).
Know when a finger can remain in place as an anchor and for how long.
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!)?
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.
Know when you are shifting and/or expanding or contracting out of a standard relaxed position and for how long.
Know your guide fingers (never shift without a guide or ghost guide finger).
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!
To conclude our video series covering right-hand technique development in Heitor Villa-Lobos’ Etude N°1, I’ll explore how to use the concept of bursts (another rhythmic manipulation) to develop speed and further strengthen right-hand rhythmic precision, right-hand preparation, control, and clarity.
After repeated requests for more videos, I’m eager to share this post and upcoming video series on Heitor Villa-Lobos’ Etude Nº1. In this first part I’ll explore the advantages and disadvantages of the standard fingering that Andrés Segovia wrote in the published edition. I’ll then offer some options for practicing the Etude. In Part 2, I’ll go through some options to overcome the disadvantages and finally arrive at my preferred fingering.
You may enjoy playing scales as much as I do. The organizational aspect of it, the ear training, the mechanical and athletic component, and the results scale practice produces keeps them on the top of my technique practice log. All musicians know how important scale work is for their musical and technical development. So if you are in the habit of running through scales as part of your routine, one simple adjustment can help: giving your scales direction.
We augment results when musical intent is paired with technical practice. To this end, start adding simple phrasing to your scales:
Know your scales!
Add simple pair phrasings or groupings. Give a certain hierarchy to the groupings like tension to resolution or strong to weak. Establish that the two (or three or four…) notes are related in some way.
Finding the right nail shape to express yourself on the guitar is an elusive science. To make the puzzle more complicated are the facts that nails are organic, are continuously growing, and are affected by variables like weather and diet. Because everyone attacks the strings with variable angles and tensions in the fingertips and because we all have an ideal sound we are after one shape may not be as effective as another. Some guitarists have a “sound” with little sonic variance while some use color and gradations of timbre to interpret their music. So, whether you are a beginner starting to experiment or an advanced player looking to expand your knowledge, the following videos are the best I’ve found so far to see exactly what the pros do and how they approach nail shape.
In french with subtitles, Six String Journal favorite Thomas Viloteau shows an ingenious method for adapting the shape of the nail to your stroke.
Here is a screen shot from a video of Spanish guitarist Ricardo Gallén checking his nails before his recording of the Bach lute works.
Last but not least, Cuban virtuoso Marco Tamayo details the steps he uses to shape his nails.
Years ago, when Marco was visiting he drew this diagram out when I asked about nails.
If there ever was an argument for practicing rest stroke scales, I think Marco Tamayo would settle it. Though the video below is casually shot by a student asking about fingering solutions to Joaquín Rodrigo’s Aranjuez and Joaquín Turina’s Soleares, there is gold in it. Just observing the complete ease and extreme mastery of Marco’s approach reveals how much care and thought has gone into every single action.
Here is another valuable video where Marco gives us details on nail shaping and filing. Again, probably one of a handful of videos that are worth watching on the subject.
I have to admit that I may be enjoying Fernando Sor’s etudes too much these days. Many of them conjure a nice summer walk in the countryside with the occasional mildly adventurous detour. A set of favorites that I’m editing will be published soon but I thought I’d post a lesson on one of them and how I have been using it to warm up and build technique. His etudes are ideal in many ways to integrate musicality into technique because listening to the subtleties and manipulations of Sor’s familiar but often charming harmonies is so pleasurable.
Once you master his etudes, there are many possibilities for expansion but I’m going to use Etude Op. 35, Nº9 to illustrate how I like to use it to develop right hand technique. Here is a read-through for those of you not familiar with it.
Try to build flexibility into your right hand by playing the etude as written with the following right hand patterns:
piai, pimi, piâi
Once these are reliably developed, you’re ready for some fun. Use the following pattern to help develop the weaker alternation with these patterns:
piaiaiai, piamamam, pimimimi
Or, another option could be to explore moving out of a right hand arpeggio position into a more right hand scalar position with:
piaiamim, piaiaimi, piaiamia, piaiamam
Or, if you are feeling musically creative, explore adding a note to complement the melody within the key:
Change it up a bit to get in your triplets:
Or, if you prefer:
pimamiamiami, piamipamiami, etc…
There are so many places to go with these little gems. Fun!