New Publication: Three Fernando Sor Arpeggio Etudes

I’ve just finished editing three of my favorite Fernando Sor arpeggio etudes and for this weekend Six String Journal readers receive 50% off the publication. It is available through paddle.com. For more SSJ publications check out the publications page.

Fernando Sor, Three Arpeggio Etudes

Don’t forget to use SORTUDE coupon code at checkout!

Here are the first lines of each etude for reference:

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That should keep fingers busy this weekend!

Artist Profile: Denis Azabagic

“Denis Azabagic demonstrated his unbelievable guitar playing skills, sincere love for music, professionalism and passion…” – CHICAGOTRIBUNE.COM

A GFA winner, seasoned concert artist, accomplished chamber musician and recording artist, Bosnian guitar great Denis Azabagic, needs no introduction to the classical guitar world. But, what often escapes even the most devoted afficionados may be the hidden gems among the pile of guitar videos on youtube.

I recently came across Denis’ Mastering Guitar Technique Series [scroll down a bit after linking]. Though you have to pay for each video, the lessons range from slurs to tremolo to scales and in my opinion are worth hundreds time what he is charging ($1.99!). Each video has a tremendous amount of insight and practical advice. If you’ve not heard Denis play, check out the video below of him playing brilliant renditions of standards by Sor, Bach, and Asencio, and then check out his technique series!

Leo Brouwer’s Axioms

Years ago, I came across an article on a Spanish site guitarra.artepulsado.com posted by Oscar López who had taken notes during a summer course with the great Cuban composer and guitarist, Leo Brouwer. The title of the post was Axiomas básicos de Leo Brouwer. I found the word file and thought I’d translate it for all non-Spanish speakers. It provides a wealth of advice. I’ve added a few commentaries below to expand the ideas a bit. Hope they are helpful.

Warm Up

Use chromatic octaves for the left hand and arpeggios and rasgueados for the right hand. Play close to the body in higher resonant positions upon starting your practice.

*I think this may mean to start your practice without having the left hand in an extended position. Starting in higher positions is less stressful for the left hand.

Speed and Scales

Use fixed, non-shifting positions in the left hand that are close to the body (i.e. higher positions) to play short bursts of notes. Play bursts in short crescendos (soft to loud or light to intense). Start on one string, then expand to two strings. Add one note at a time and pause between each mini-scale.

Add color and articulations to scales.

Left Hand Shifting

Left-hand notes should be played staccato (*perhaps he means before a shift). Focus on the arrival (not the departure) as you shift from 1st to 2nd, 1st to 3rd, 1st to 4th, etc., position.

Left Hand Independence

With a fixed first finger bar, play slurs and scales across all the strings with the rest of the fingers. Try all combinations possible.

Memory

To avoid embedding errors, do not start memorizing at the very beginning of learning a piece.

Fingerings

There are never definitive fingerings.

*What Brouwer most likely means to covey here is that fingerings evolve throughout the lifetime of learning a piece. Inevitably, we discover better, more efficient, more musical, more interesting ways to play passages and discard or change older fingerings as our familiarity with the piece increases.

Color

Exploit the three primary sonorous zones of the guitar: over the sound hole (resonant zone), over right part of the rosette (resonant and clarity zone), and near the bridge (clarity zone).

Harmonics

Do not pluck harmonics diagonally.

More Advice

  • The position of the guitar to your body should remain consistent.
  • Remember that the 2nd and 3rd strings tend to be the weakest so we must compensate when necessary.
  • Pluck consonant chords with no arpeggiation. Pluck rare (dissonant) chords with arpeggiation for clarity.
  • Velocity contains impulse and direction.
  • Cadential ornaments should be in time.
  • Resonance is at the heart of the guitar.
  • Vibrato is used for intensity not rest.
  • The thumb (left-hand) acts as a pivot during slurs.
  • Forte is found at the limit of a beautiful sound.
  • Breathe between phrases and project energy towards the end.
  • During rasgueados the energy is channeled towards the 1st string.
  • Anything that is repeated should be varied. Change either the color or the volume or the timbre.

Comfort and Speed in Arpeggios

I thought I would take a moment to stress how important it is to know how to apply the principles from the last post to identify and problem solve mechanical weaknesses in repertoire you are working on. Because I am working on a lot of music by Agustín Barrios Mangoré (1885-1944), I thought I would use two examples of passages you all may be familiar with. I have played the music of the great Paraguayan virtuoso for decades and I still find it fun to work on. I especially enjoy his works with perpetual motion activity. Barrios’ Estudio de concierto, Las abejas, La catedral’s allegro, Danza paraguaya, and passages from his famous waltzes are perfect pieces to spend hours on. So, for this post, we’ll focus on using rhythms to strengthen our understanding and facility of the patterns in these pieces.

Estudio de Concierto

The following example illustrates 5 rhythms in which to work the arpeggio pattern for Barrios’ Estudio de Concierto. Begin by choosing the right hand fingering that most suits your technique. Whether you know the piece or not, practicing each measure in these rhythms will help develop the comfort of playing the arpeggio faster than if you were to only play in a straight rhythm, though it is necessary to do this as well (!).

Arpeggio Fingering                                Rhythm 1                                  Rhythm 2right hand barrios rhythms.jpg

Rhythm 3                                                   Rhythm 4                                  Rhythm 5

right hand barrios rhythms 2.jpg

Vals Op. 8, Nº4

Here is the campanella passage from one of my favorite pieces. This passage deserves more writing but for now I will limit myself to rhythms.

right hand barrios rhythms 3 vals.jpg

Because I know this piece well, I use rhythms to warm up and will often play through the entire section of the piece in as many as 16 rhythms. Here are four that I like to start with:

Rhythm 1                                     Rhythm 2                      Rhythm 3                     Rhythm 4right hand barrios rhythms 4 vals.jpg

Do not feel obligated to go through the entire passage. Instead, spend some time repeating certain groupings in an attempt to make them feel natural and ultimately easy. You may find that you are better at some and that certain patterns remain sticky. Work on the sticky ones.

right hand barrios rhythms 5 vals.jpg

And, if you are not exhausted by this point, here are some additional groupings (notated in shorthand) rotating two eighth notes (represented by a space) through sixteenth notes:

pi  am  pi, pia  mp  i, pi  ampi , p  iamp  i, pi  a  mpi

Or rotating a triplet of sixteenths with 3 eighth notes:

p  i  a  mpi, p  i  ampi  , p  iamp  i  , piam  p  i

Or Using only one dotted eighth note (two spaces):

p   iampi, pia   mpi, piampi   , pi   ampi

I hope this helps. If there are any technical questions you are thinking about in your practice please leave a comment. I’m thinking about a post answering some common questions that I keep getting. And, in the future, I’m going to try to include a video to supplement the posts when I have the time. Until then!

 

 

 

Developing Arpeggio Speed

There are some basic principles that I think most guitar students should know to develop speed and flexibility when practicing right hand arpeggio patterns. These principles are applicable to other areas of technical development, so once you become familiar with them, you can try to apply them to your scales and to difficult passages in your repertoire.

Assuming you have a decent base, a clear stroke, and you’ve logged sufficient hours of basic arpeggio practice, the next step is to explore them to uncover weaknesses and discover your own limitations and strengths.

For all of the following ideas, spend time on each one as if were the only one to master, stick with them for longer than you may have the patience for because careful and consistent repetition really helps. I’ll illustrate the principles using pima across strings 4, 3, 2, and 1. This is a default position for your right hand that should used ALL the time in arpeggio practice and through ridiculous amounts of practice, it should start to feel like home. Once pima is mastered try the other combinations of four fingers across four strings: piam, pmia, pmai, paim, pami.

Accents

Simply play through each trying to accent the note indicated. You can exaggerate the follow-through of the stroke to achieve this or turn the exercise on its head by playing all unaccented notes in a more relaxed fashion.

right hand pima accents.jpg

Downbeat Rotation

Though related to accents, I swear that when I start this arpeggio on m it feels out of balance. I guess I’ll go work on that right now.

right hand pima rotate downbeat.jpg

Active Preparation

I like to think that if my finger is on the string it will pluck that there is no way José that I will miss that note. So, guess what I try to do all the time? I try to simultaneously pluck and prepare the next pluck so that I’m theoretically always prepared and waiting on the string. Practice landing on the x but do not pluck.

right hand pima prep focus.jpg

Meter

I love doing this. Take a 4-note arpeggio and play it through as a continuous triplet until the first plucked note (p) cycles back into the downbeat.

right hand pima asymmetrical 2.jpg

or try this one:

right hand pima asymmetrical.jpg

Bursts

Set the metronome to a tempo that is near your limit or beyond. Think of it like a mini-sprint. Exert hyper-control when you go slow so that the bursts remain as accurate as possible.

right hand pima bursts.jpg

Rhythm

Related to bursts but meant more to develop rhythmic flexibility, here are the basic six rhythms I use (there are MANY more) all the time when warming up.

right hand pima rhythms.jpg

Good luck!

 

Preludio Criollo

If you have not heard Venezuelan composer Rodrigo Riera’s Preludio Criollo, you have missed out on one of the most beautiful pieces written for the guitar. The play between 6/8 and 3/4, the subtle baroque-like harmonic movement, the clever way in which the tune makes its appearance, all while evoking the spirit of Venezuela, create magic as they come together.

This said, it can be a tricky piece for students because many times, students approach it as a series of chord changes, i.e. preparing the entire harmony or chord before playing. This approach makes it infinitely more difficult to play in time and to maintain the rhythmic integrity of the piece. Further, it creates a sense of panic to quickly place fingers and as a result the right hand inevitably grabs the beginning of each chord change creating unintentional accents throughout the piece.

In studying this piece, as well as other pieces with perpetual movement and arpeggios like Heitor Villa-Lobos’ Etude Nº1 or Agustin Barrios’ Estudio de concierto, the main point to get across to students is that they have to prioritize what left hand fingers need to place first in a harmonic change in order to maintain rhythmic continuity as they play. It is important to realize that all fingers of the new harmony do not  need to place before the right hand starts playing the arpeggio. Instead, prepare only what is necessary and then sequentially place the rest of the fingers as the notes are needed. It also works to understand this before arriving to a chord: certain fingers can begin to relax before the change in order to make a relaxed transition. Here are some examples from Preludio Criollo to explore these ideas.

Preludio Criollo Example 1.jpg

When making harmonic changes try the following solutions to help make the transitions musical and smooth.

  1. Practice the transition without the shift first. This gives us a clear feeling of what is required if the shift component is removed from the equation. Most harmonic changes that involve shifts are actually two technical problems lumped into one moment. It helps to know which of the technical problems is creating the challenge. It may be only the shift or it may be the left hand finger placement. It is rarely both.
  2. A slight rallentando before the shift could provide just enough time to make the shift work. This also helps relax the hands so that the placement in the new position is calm.
  3. If there is a bass note to play along with a melodic note, roll them slightly by playing the bass note first. This creates the sense that you are in time even though the rest of the beat has not yet been heard. Don’t overdo this as it can start diffusing the rhythmic momentum of the piece.
  4. Practice the transition in the air above the frets. Sometimes this helps to soften the movement and to bring awareness as to how little is happening physically in the left hand and that the relative distance between the positions is smaller than we perceive.
  5. Beware of accenting the first notes after a shift that is too hasty. Accent ONLY if the music warrants it.

Hope this helps!

 

 

Right Hand Alone

At a certain point, every aspiring guitarist tackling difficult repertoire discovers the value of practicing the right hand of a musical passage, phrase, or entire piece entirely by itself. Understanding exactly what the right hand is doing in terms of musical inflection, rhythm, and string crossing is an absolute must for mastering challenging repertoire.

The most compelling argument is that most guitarists tend to fret over the left hand and often let the right hand only play up to the left hand’s standard. Essentially, the process dumbs down the right hand, which under little practice could probably out-execute the left hand. So instead of dumbing down the right hand, enable the right hand to exceed itself by practicing its part alone and eventually the left hand will rise to the occasion of matching the right hand’s ability.

Another argument for practicing the right hand alone is that by writing out the passage as open strings, we can better see  where the string crossing happens and as a result can insure that the right hand remains efficient (crossing to higher strings with m instead of i, for example) and if there is an inefficiency, that it is a conscious decision to have it that way.

Practice writing out several difficult passages of your repertoire as open strings, investigate whether or not the right hand fingering decisions make sense to optimize string crossing, and then practice the right hand alone on open strings striving to make it musical, rhythmic, and automatic. Then, invite the left hand back into the game to assess the difference.

At some point, after having practiced enough material in this fashion, you’ll find yourself able to visualize the best choice for the right hand without writing it out and you’ll even be able to play the right hand alone by looking at your score.

Here is an example of a passage and what it looks like after writing it out on open strings. Notice the rhythm is different to account for slurs. Also, notice all of the string crossing situations are efficient except for one situation which I’ve left for consistency in the right hand.

Excerpt from J. S. Bach’s Prelude in E Major, BWV 1006a

Bach Right Hand Example 1

Passage in open strings (string crossing in boxes):

Bach Right Hand Example 2.jpg

 

Villa-Lobos Etude Nº1 Part 1

I love getting to the point when a student is ready to tackle Heitor Villa-Lobos’ Etude Nº1. There are so many angles to explore and it takes a lot of dedication to master it. There was a time when I was preparing to perform all 12 etudes that I decided the best use of my warm up time was to spend at least 30 minutes on Etude Nº1, 30 minutes on Etude Nº2, and 30 minutes on Etude Nº3. After which my hands always seemed to work well as I worked on other material.

Over the course of months I may have played those etudes at least a thousand times in many, many different ways. I tried everything I could think of to make them better.

The first step in this great journey is to develop the right hand’s ability to play the entire arpeggio comfortably. The great Andrés Segovia suggested a solution that is still used by the majority of students and the one I used for years. However, as we develop our abilities we find that our hands have an easier time with certain movements and we find ways to use those movements to harness our strengths.

So, I always suggest putting in your time with Segovia’s solution until you can perform the Etude with that pattern. I find that the weakest part of the solution is moving from to a making the 3rd quarter note beat (half note of the measure) sound articulate which helps to delineate the rhythmic structure of the Etude, so I have come to prefer substituting with i. However, it wasn’t until working on the piece for many years that I slowly came to prefer it. Explore the possibilities in the practice room by adding in a few alternate fingerings to start the exploratory process. I’ve watched my dear mentor, Eliot Fisk, play it through in hundreds of ways just as an exercise to develop string crossing – I think I remember him even doing to whole arpeggio with m and pinky!

Here are some important ways to practice it. Stay tuned for Part 2 and we’ll go deeper.

right hand villa lobos fingering 1