Technique and Performance
One of the easiest ways to improve right-hand arpeggio studies like Heitor Villa-Lobos’s Etude Nº1, Leo Brouwer’s Etude Nº6, or Francisco Tárrega’s Estudio Brillante, or the parts of pieces where arpeggios occur for an extended time is understanding when exactly the left-hand fingers must place or release to prepare for the next note or chord formation. Often, fingers are placed too early or too late, and both situations either overexert the fingers, the nerves, or worst of all, the musical intent. Arpeggios are, after all, broken chords. It is very rare that all fingers should place at once if they come in ‘broken’.
Sequential planting of the left-hand fingers is a skill that choreographs left hand movement to a deeper and more subtle level than simply grabbing at the next chord frantically at the start of a measure.
Here is a simple but effective exercise to help develop the principle of timely left-hand finger placement. The key is to time the placement of the new finger in relation to the meter and when it is due to enter and to avoid arbitrarily placing it at the beginning of the measure.
Go through each exercise a few times plucking every single note of the arpeggio. Once this feels comfortable and the timing is starting to feel synced with both hands, slur the entering note in time to develop a sense of pulse in the left hand, too.
There are infinite ways to expand this concept but one of my favorites is to move into cross-rhythms with accents. My idea of fun!
Explore your arpeggio pieces to see if you can apply this concept and let me know if it helps!
My usual morning consists of a good warm-up (a combination of left hand movements and slurs, right hand alternation movements and arpeggios, and scales), before moving on to practicing spots in pieces, and finally playing through pieces and working on new pieces. However, there are periods of the year where I have more time to extend my technique practice and to learn new pieces. I’m approaching that period now (yeah!) so I’m experimenting with new finger gymnastics to address weaknesses in my technique and building a hearty list of new repertoire to absorb over the summer.
To this end, I was rummaging through my boxes and shelves of music and found a well-worn copy of Francisco Tárrega’s Complete Technical Studies. I pulled it out and went through it again for fun. If you’re looking to shake up your routine, I highly recommend some of his studies.
Below are two of Tárrega’s left-hand exercises that will surely make your left hand sweat. Tárrega notates using im alternation for the right hand but I prefer to simply assign i, m, and a, to strings 3, 2, and 1, and have p play all the bass strings to preserve my nails.
Try going from 1st position all the way to 9th and back. Also, try the same concept with other sets of left hand pairs: 14 and 23 or 13 and 24.
Hope that gets your left hand going!
Sometimes, one of the daunting things for many young guitarists working on Francisco Tárrega’s Recuerdos de la Alhambra is that it is perceived as long because of the sheer amount of ink and pages it takes to notate that many 32nd notes. The phrases are split over too many lines and the page turns don’t make it a friendly score. I’m not saying the piece is easy but it helps to see the piece as a whole before working on it -a bit like seeing the plans of a new house before building it. Below is a downloadable free pdf of a study score that I made a while ago to help students see the big picture.
For more on tremolo, check out my recent book Mastering Tremolo. There are tons of tips for improving your tremolo.
Also, if you feel like anything you’ve done has helped improve your tremolo, feel free to share it in the comments for other readers.
Over the years, I have never regretted working on tremolo pieces and technique. From early recordings of John Williams playing Barrios’ Una limosna por el amor de Diós and Un Sueño en la floresta to Pepe Romero playing Francisco Tárrega’s Recuerdos de la Alhambra and Sueño, these pieces are not only special but evocative in ways other instruments cannot replicate. The greatest players manage to give the illusion of an unbroken melodic line while maintaining a well-controlled accompaniment.
There are many skills that must come together to achieve a beautiful sounding tremolo. The most important ones are rhythm precision, consistent intensity from note to note, uniform tone, and speed. One of my favorite guitarists and dear friend, Marco Tamayo, once mentioned that the result of rhythmic regularity and precision created the illusion of speed. I’ll post various ways of working on some of these skills but we’ll look at rhythmic precision first.
The following set of exercises help develop rhythmic control by practicing the tremolo pattern (pami) precisely within the whole of the main beat. When going through the exercises try to remember the inherent hierarchy of the meter and aim to feel p as the main beat. Start slowly with your metronome set to the sixteenth or eighth note. One way to truly feel “in the pocket” with the rhythmic subdivisions is to say the rhythmic breakdown aloud as you play (tee-ka-tee-ka, one-ee-and-ah, etc…). Spend a lot more than one repetition on each pattern. Remember, even Steven!
After spending a lot of time on the above exercises, you can expand them by varying the string and displacing the thumb onto adjacent or distant strings.
The next set of exercises help develop uniform intensity by changing the initial finger of the tremolo so that every right hand finger within the pattern has a moment to shine in the downbeat spotlight. Think of it like shifting accents in a subtle way.
Again, vary the thumb’s string as you start to gain proficiency and spend lots of time on the weaker patterns. Good luck!