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.
  • Over 50 extensively detailed but digestible videos demonstrating essential foundational movements, technique tips, exercises, routines, and how to implement them into your practice, carefully edited in small bite size videos for easy assimilation and viewing.
  • Printable PDF summarizing the entire course with a condensed visual of the material presented.
  • Loads of bonus content from Six String Journal’s Mastering Diatonic Scales.

 

 

Artist Spotlight and Interview: Katarzyna Smolarek

The brilliant Polish concert guitarist, Katarzyna Smolarek is becoming known for both her breathtaking virtuosity and her magnificent interpretations. In addition to studying at the Mozarteum in Austria and concertizing throughout Europe, Katarzyna has been awarded over 20 international competition prizes over a very short period of time. The silver lining to sheltering in place in Europe is that she was able to find time to sit down and share her experience, philosophies, and wise advise with Six String Journal readers. Enjoy!

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Personal

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

I started playing the guitar when I was 8 years old. My parents just signed me up for a music school and I think at the time no one was expecting that I would become a professional musician in the future. With time, I developed a love for playing music and I decided to dedicate my life to it.

What repertoire do you enjoy playing the most?

I enjoy playing all kinds of repertoire from baroque to contemporary music. I think every style has its own proper charm, and I always seek to discover the beauty in each new piece that I learn.

What guitar or guitars do you perform on? strings?

At the moment I perform on a guitar built by Jacek Łozak from 2010. My favourite strings are Savarez Alliance Premium medium tension. Since last year I’m proud to be a part of the Savarez artists family.

Which guitarists have had the most influence on you?

Definitely all of my teachers. Lidia Przyłęcka, Ryszard Bałauszko and Marco Tamayo – they have had a huge influence on my progress, for which I will always be grateful. I consider all of them amazing musicians, dedicated teachers and wonderful people. I was extremely lucky to have them along the way.

What recordings are you most proud of?

I actually haven’t done a lot of recordings in my life (but I’m working on it!). I’m certainly most proud of my recent videos made in Siccas Guitars. They are my most professionally done recordings so far.

What are some up and coming projects (recordings, concerts) you are excited about?

Unfortunately, because of the epidemic of coronavirus a lot of my events have been cancelled. If everything is back to normal soon, I will be able to go to Portugal in June to perform a concert with an orchestra as a part of the International Guitar Festival in Amarante. I am sure I will enjoy it a lot after having such a long break from traveling.

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Technique and Performance

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

The duration of my practice varies depending on many factors. I usually practice around four hours per day, but this amount increases before concerts or competitions (or now, because of the quarantine). On the other hand I practice less when I spend time with my family or when traveling. I’m also no stranger to taking days off to relax and reset. I don’t think I structure my routine in some special way.

Usually after I have finished practicing in the evening, I make a plan for the next day so that my practice sessions are balanced and I don’t neglect anything. When I have a whole day for myself I like to break it out into two sessions: morning and afternoon, 2-3 hours each, with a break for lunch and some other activity.

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

I think there is always room for progress, so in that sense I can say I’m working on every aspect of the guitar performance. I don’t imagine that I will ever have a feeling that there is nothing else to work on and I think it’s a good thing. The constant pursuit of artistic excellence is what brings innovation and life to art.

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

It depends on the piece and the situation. I usually try to learn a piece by memory as soon as possible, so that I can entirely focus on the music. Sometimes the music demands deliberate memorization, and other times the memorization comes naturally after just a few days of playing it. Nevertheless, every now and then I would revise the score, because with time some details might slip away. I also make sure that it’s not only my fingers that remember the piece, but also my brain, in other words that I remember the notes and not only the movements. In order to do that, I play it extremely slowly focusing on every note, or I go through the piece in my mind without touching the guitar at all.

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

I like to play through a couple of slur and scale exercises before I start practicing pieces. However, I’m not a fan of spending a lot of time warming-up, as for me the ultimate goal is to be ready to perform without having to go through a series of technique exercises. Sometimes we find ourselves in situations when we do not have the possibility to warm up before a concert, and I believe the quality of our performance should not be compromised in those situations.

Do you have any pre-concert rituals?

Not at all. Obviously, it’s important to have a good rest and a good meal, but I wouldn’t call it a ritual. Again, I feel like it’s dangerous to have specific pre-concert routines. In situations when we are not able to perform the routines, we might then lose our confidence on stage as a result.

Advice to Younger Players

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

Solve the problems instead of getting discouraged! I get the impression that a lot of young players don’t really know how to practice. They think that repetition is key and when a passage still doesn’t work after having played it 100 times they start thinking things like, “this piece is too difficult”, “I’m not good enough”, or “I need months/years to play it well”. There is nothing worse than having this sort of approach. Practicing should be all about constructive problem-solving. If something doesn’t work we should be able to exactly tell why and the more precise our answer, the better. We should be extremely conscious of our movements and of our choices. This way we can make progress way faster than by mindlessly repeating.

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

I wouldn’t say that there are any specific pieces that one really must play during his education, although I think that it is essential for a student to be familiar with the concepts of all the historical styles. The more repertoire we already know, the more tools we have for our next interpretations. I would also say that it is important to play the standard guitar repertoire; such as Villa-Lobos’ studies, suites by Bach, sonatas by Ponce, pieces by Barrios, Tárrega, Rodrigo, Turina and so on and so on. Nowadays we tend to look for unknown pieces, we make our own transcriptions and we commission new music. I find it wonderful, however as students we need to familiarize ourselves with traditional repertoire first. This will properly facilitate our lives as performers and teachers.

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

I think all recordings, no matter good or bad, have their value. Exactly what we listen to is not so important; the crucial part is that we are able to develop an informed opinion and discern what is of high quality and what’s not. What I find extremely useful is listening to a lot of recordings of the same piece and focusing on the differences between them. This helps me understand many possible ways of thinking about the same piece of music.

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Tangent

What is the last book that you read? Favorite author/s?

The last one would be Fahrenheit 451. I love Márquez, Llosa and Murakami for their out-of-this world storytelling.

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

I really like learning new languages. Currently I’m working on my Portuguese. Apart from that I enjoy cooking, reading, dancing salsa and just recently I got terribly hooked on the series “Breaking Bad”.

Mastering Scales, Part 6: Phrasing

Mastering Scales, Part 6: Phrasing

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

Phrasing your scales using subtle accents, articulations, and dynamics to convey note groupings is one of my favorite ways to think about music while working on scales. A slight change in articulation or accent will make your phrase move forward gracefully or plod along like an elephant. Apply the basic ideas below as a start and then apply it to repertoire.

For scale sources and further study: Mastering Diatonic Scales.

Use accents or articulation to delineate a group or phrase:Scale 3 repetion 4 articulation.jpg

Scale 3 repetion 3 accents.jpg

Scale 3 repetion 5 articulation.jpg

Use dynamics:

scale dynamics.jpg

Think phrasing:

scale phrasing.jpg

Thanks for reading!

Mastering Scales, Part 5: Fragments

Mastering Scales, Part 5: Fragments

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

Practicing and developing the ability to play fast or expressive fragments is arguably as important as practicing long scale forms primarily because most repertoire contains small melodic fragments consisting of groups of three to seven notes. Spanish repertoire, in particular the music of Joaquín Rodrigo, is an example of where long scale practice pays off but among the music by every other composer, from Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco to Heitor Villa-Lobos, it is difficult to find many instances of scale runs beyond two octaves.

Using  familiar scale forms, work on small extracts of 3-7 notes in various ways to discover which right-hand fingerings feel most comfortable and which present challenges to overcome.

For scale sources and further study: Mastering Diatonic Scales.

Short Fragments

Step 1

Extract a group of notes from a familiar scale form

Scale Fragment 1.jpgStep 2

Develop all possibilities with incremental addition of notes.

Three notes: 134, 341, 413, 431, 314, 143.

Four notes: 1341, 3413, 4134, 1343, 3431, 4313, 1434, 4341, 3414, 4143, 4314, 3143, 1431

Five Notes* (my favorite):  13431, 34313, 43134, 31343, 14341, 43413, 34143, etc…

* not all possibilities listed

 Longer Fragments

 Step 1

Box off a larger group of notes and play in various combinations.

Fragment 2.png

Step 2

Fiddle with the order of notes to yield and practice melodic fragments:

Fragments 3.png

Further Development

To both the shorter and longer fragments, add slurs, articulations, accents, and character to experiment with expressivity.

Mastering Scales, Part 3: Scale Patterns

Mastering Scales, Part 3: Scale Patterns

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

Though by no means extensive, use the following three and four-note scale patterns to develop coordination and to combat awkward string-crossing moments. Combining alternating right-hand fingerings with triplets or three finger patterns with sixteenths will further develop fluidity in your right-hand technique.

For scale sources and further study: Mastering Diatonic Scales.

Three Note Patterns

Step 1im, mi, ma, am, ia, ai, pi, pm, pa

Pattern 1

Scale 3 pattern 2.jpg

Pattern 2

Scale 3 pattern 3.jpg

 Step 2ami, ima, pmi

 Pattern 1

Scale 3 pattern 2.jpg

Pattern 2

Scale 3 pattern 3.jpg

 

Four Note Paterrns

Step 1im, mi, ma, am, ia, ai, pi, pm, pa

Pattern 1Scale 3 pattern 4.jpg

Pattern 2Scale 3 pattern 5.jpg

Step 2ami, ima, pmi

Pattern 1Scale 3 pattern 4.jpg

Pattern 2Scale 3 pattern 5.jpg

 

 

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!

Tango en Skai – 5 STEPS TO MORE SECURE PLAYING

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.

Tango 1.jpg

 

STEP 1 – PLAY RIGHT HAND ALONE SLOWLY

Tango RH.jpgThis 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

Tango dynamics.jpg

 

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!

Dyens plant.jpg

 

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.

STEP 5 – Take a new passage, and go to step 1!

Hope this helps!