Spanish Virtuoso Rafael Aguirre’s Tremolo Tips

Spanish virtuoso Rafael Aguirre just shared five useful tips for improving your tremolo technique.

Rafael discusses and demonstrates these five key points:

  1. Study tremolo as if it were not tremolo.
  2. Work on retaining consistent tone and color from each note.
  3. Make your tremolo sing.
  4. Make sure each finger maintains equal proximity to the strings after plucking.
  5. Don’t let the thumb stroke displace your hand position.

Check out Rafael’s Six String Journal Interview for more brilliant insight from one of Spain’s finest guitarists.

Artist Profile and Interview: Mateusz Kowalski

When the words “spectacular” and “breathtaking” pop out in a review by Classical Guitar Magazine, there is something special afoot. It so happened that the review was for Mateusz Kowalski’s brilliant performance among brilliant performers during the EuroStrings Competition in London last year. He took first place. Mateusz’s playing evokes such a wide range of emotions – joy, melancholy, nostalgia, excitement, and I am ashamed to admit it as a fellow guitarist, envy is in there, too. His interpretations are alive with imagination and intuition and it is clear that he possesses absolute control of his fingers. His videos are binge-worthy if you have the time.

Mateusz recently sat down to share some insight with Six String Journal readers about his philosophies and his journey so far. Enjoy.

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Personal

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

I started to play when I was six. My older brother and cousin played the guitar, mainly rock and metal music. I wanted to be like them and play the guitar too. In addition, my mother worked in the office of the local philharmonic, so I had a constant contact with musicians, I could hear them practicing, rehearsing and performing.

What repertoire do you enjoy playing the most?

I enjoy playing pieces which leave some space for the performer to show their personality through them. For me, it doesn’t matter which period does the piece come from. I find all the musical languages (styles of different epochs) to be interesting, effective and beautiful.

It’s also important for me to make every piece I play personal, I always try to put my feelings, my experiences into the interpretation. My aim is to never play “empty” notes.

What guitar or guitars do you perform on? Strings?

I have two guitars I use on regular basis: 2015 Karl-Heinz Roemmich Model Exquisite Spruce Top and 2017 Sakurai Masaki Model Mastro RF Spruce Top. I string them with Savarez Cantiga Premium Basses, 3rd & 2nd Alliance and 1st New Crystal. All Normal Tension.

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

Among musicians who have influenced me the most, I find my two guitar teachers to be the most important. Dariusz Schmidt taught me for 12 years and then Ryszard Bałauszko taught me for 5 years after that. They showed my the musical path I should follow and provided me with the principles which I stick to to this day when interpreting music.

When it comes to famous guitarists – I grew up listening to Assad Brothers, Julian Bream, Andres Segovia, and John Williams. Among non-guitarists the most important ones who have influenced me are: Arthur Rubinstein, Maxim Vengerov, Frans Brüggen, Giovanni Antonini (as a conductor), and Il Giardino Armonico (Ensemble).

If you have recordings, which recording/s are you most proud of? If not, are you planning to record a cd?

So far, I have recorded one CD album “Mateusz Kowalski Classical Guitarist” and, of course, this is the one I’m most proud of. It was premiered in September 2019. The album comprises a collection of pieces important to me, reimagined and interpreted anew. The track list features compositions by Bach, Giuliani, Tárrega, Barrios, Piazzolla, Ponce, Assad and Schubert. The album published by CD Accord is available via Naxos Classics Online store, on Spotify, Amazon Music and iTunes.

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

I have just finished my online social media project (FB + IG)  “A week with Guitar Salon International”. I premiered eight videos recorded with them on seven different guitars. I described every guitar from the player’s perspective and wrote a couple of thoughts about the pieces themselves.

The next big project will be recording my second CD for the National Institute of Fryderyk Chopin. It’ll happen this year, in September. The CD will contain Chopin’s Mazurkas op. 6 and 7 transcribed by J. N. Bobrowicz (first ever transcription of these mazurkas) and the most important compositions (a couple of world premiere recordings) of the greatest Polish guitar virtuosos of the nineteenth century  – Jan Nepomucen Bobrowicz, Felix Horetzky, Stanisław Szczepanowski, and Marek Sokołowski. Extremely hard but also extremely beautiful pieces.

Technique and Performance

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

The time is spend on practicing is dependent on many different factors, but it is usually somewhere between two to six hours. Let’s say it’s four hours on average. I try to spend at least an hour to 90 minutes working on my technique every day, which is about playing various exercises, drills, or speeding up fast parts of pieces I play – gradually, with metronome. It’s basically trying to exceed my limits, push my technical boundaries every day.

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

It’s making sure, that at all times, it’s the technique which serves the music and not the opposite. I believe that’s an aspect of the guitar every guitarist should be working on, all their lives.

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

The fastest way for me to memorize a piece of music is to practice it having the sheet music put somewhere else, in the other room, for example. Then you are forced to remember as many bars as possible, otherwise, you’d have to stand up and walk to the place where the scores are at.

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

I have plans to publish my edition of Franz Schubert’s Musical Moment No. 3. Many guitarists ask me to do that, so I will, very soon.

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

I love to warm up with arpeggios from Tarrega’s The Complete Technical Studies.

Do you have any pre-concert rituals?

A one light meal only, playing through all my program with scores and a lot of coffee.

Do you do anything to your nails or shape them in a particular way?

I shape them by placing a nail file over my strings, then I imitate how I hit the strings, which always gives me the same, rather round shape, with the length of the nail not exceeding the flesh of my finger (only thumb is exception from that rule).


Advice to Younger Players

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

Structure your practicing. Practice technique separately – with scales, drills, exercises, arpeggios. Sight-read a lot – that’s one of the most useful skills.

Remember that the most important thing is to make your interpretation interesting and valuable for the audience. And when I say audience – I don’t mean guitarists, competition jury members, etc., I mean regular people, who look for sincere feelings in music, who want to experience something beautiful during the concerts. Your job is to make their lives better.  Bearing that in mind, you’ll never lose motivation and you’ll always see meaning in what you’re doing.

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

I believe that young/conservatory students should play pieces from all the epochs and they do that in most of the cases. In my opinion they miss one very essential skill – being able to realize a figured bass. It takes some time to be fluent at it, but even spending some time on understanding how it works is very beneficial. It makes you understand harmony better, which is strictly connected to better understanding music in general.


Tangent

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

Homo Deus, written by Yuval Noah Harari. Favorite author – Bruno Schultz.

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

I ride a mountain bike and exercise regularly. 😊

Do you meditate in any way?

For me listening to the music is  way of meditating, contemplating.

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

Eating out with my wife – finding new places with delicious food and coffee.

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Anabel Montesinos playing Tárrega

This is a VERY recent video from the Boston Guitar Festival of Spanish guitarist, Anabel Montesinos, performing one of the most beautiful and soulful versions of Francisco Tárrega’s Fantasia sobre motivos de La Traviata I have ever heard. Anabel’s expressivity and virtuosity cover such a broad emotional palette that it is hard to pinpoint exactly what moves me most about this performance. Wonderful playing! This also looks like the first time I’ve seen her perform on what looks like a guitar by Stephen Connor and not Simon Marty!

 

 

Artist Profile and Interview – Andrea González Caballero

Spectacular Spanish guitarist, Andrea González Caballero, recently sat down to share a few personal details and thoughts on guitar. In addition to several videos showcasing her wonderfully musical and solid and sensitive interpretations of music by guitarist and composer Joaquín Clerch, Manuel Ponce, and Joaquín Malats, I’ve linked to her debut CD with Naxos. Hope this inspires all of you loyal readers!

Personal

When did you start playing and why? Or, what drew you to the guitar initially? I started playing guitar when I was 7 years old, maybe because my mother is guitar teacher and I saw her with a guitar.
What repertoire do you enjoy playing the most? I love playing Spanish music because I feel it is part of me.
What guitar or guitars do you perform on? Strings? I have a Fernando Mazza spruce guitar and D’addario strings.
Which guitarists/musicians have had the most influence on you? The biggest influence for me has been (and still is) Joaquín Clerch, who has been my teacher since I was 12 years old.
What recording/s are you most proud of? I think my last CD recorded with Naxos has been a great opportunity to show my work of the last years.
Are there any recordings that you consider have the finest recorded sound for
guitar? It is difficult to say that. I think that on the old recordings we can admire a more pure sound of the instrument and feel it closer to us.
What are some up and coming projects (recordings, concerts) you are excited about? I have concerts in different countries but one of the most exciting concerts for me will be to be back in Mexico, after 5 years and perform there!

Technique and Performance

How much do you practice? And, do you structure your practice in any particular way? It depends a lot on the time I have but I try to practice 4 hours a day. I don’t have a particular way, I just think of a goal I want to achieve each day and try to do it. In this way I think that my work is done.
Are there aspects of guitar that you struggle with or that you find you are still working on? When I start a new piece, I always find things on which I have to work harder. Difficult passages or even a simple phrase which has to be played legato and expressive can be very difficult because of the guitar limitations.
Do you deliberately memorize music or have a technique that helps assimilate music into memory? I usually don’t force myself to learn the music but sometimes, I don’t have time and have to learn pieces very fast so I try to find the similitudes in the music and patterns that are repeated or to see what the different voices are doing to have a wider perspective of the music…I think there is no one way to do that.
Have you published any editions or do you plan to publish your own editions in the future? I haven’t published anything yet, but who knows in the future…

 

Do you have a favorite drill you use to warm up? I like stretching and warming up my hand and arm muscles before taking the guitar. 
Do you have any pre-concert rituals? Nothing special..I usually arrive one hour before to the concert hall, I play in the hall and the most important point is to find a chair that I like.

Advice to Younger Players

What single most important piece of advice about practicing would you offer to younger players? I think the most important thing is to be persistent and have a regular plan of practicing. 
What repertoire do you consider essential for young/conservatory students to assimilate? Why? I love the “Estudios sencillos” by Leo Brouwer because they help to know the guitar, the positions, articulation…and Fernando Sor’s Etudes are very nice and we can practice the phrasing, legato, sound…
Recordings that every young guitarist should be familiar with and why? I remember when I was a child I listened to David Russell a lot and his recording of the complete works for Guitar by Francisco Tárrega. I loved his playing!

Tangent

What is the last book that you read? Favorite author/s? Last book I read was “Patria” by F. Aramburu.
Do you try to stay healthy? Exercise? Follow a particular diet? Have a favorite pre-concert food? When I am at home and not traveling I try to go three times a week to a fitness studio and do some exercise. I don’t follow a diet…this is difficult for me (haha).
Do you meditate in any way? No
What is your favorite way to spend time when not practicing? I love painting or going out to find nice places, restaurants, and meeting my friends and family…

Coordination and Right Hand Arpeggios

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.

Exercise 1

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Exercise 2

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Exercise 3

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Exercise 4

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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!

Exercise 5

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Explore your arpeggio pieces to see if you can apply this concept and let me know if it helps!

Francisco Tárrega’s Technical Studies

francisco-t-rrega-recording-artists-and-groups-photo-1My 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.

Exercise 1

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Exercise 2

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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!

 

 

 

Recuerdos de la Alhambra Study Score

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 pdf of a study score that I made a while ago to help students see the big picture.

Recuerdos Study Score

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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.

Tremolo, Part 1

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!

Exercise 1

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Exercise 2

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Exercise 3

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Exercise 4

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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.

Exercise 5

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Exercise 6

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Exercise 7

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Again, vary the thumb’s string as you start to gain proficiency and spend lots of time on the weaker patterns. Good luck!