The image I hold while playing Heitor Villa-Lobos’ Etude Nº1 is one where I am sailing above the canopy of the amazon rainforest as if it were an endless gentle green ocean. Putting this image into practice presents many challenges for the guitarist but simply having an image helps to move the fingers smoothly and with little resistance. Commanding the right-hand to execute the arpeggio to comfortably create the waves of this amazonian ocean, the crescendos and decrescendos, requires some persistence, though. And to truly master the image, it is equally important to investigate how the left hand moves from harmony to harmony, how softly we transition from chord to chord, and how the right hand waxes and wanes over the strings. Ocean waves have an inherent softness to them. To approach this quality in both hands, I’ve brainstormed a bit to list some key tips that I’ve focused on over the years:
- Release the finger responsible for the first note of the next harmony either at the fourth quarter note or last eighth note of the previous measure.
- Practice the transitions from the end of each measure into the following measure. For example, practice the last 4 sixteenth notes of a measure with the first four sixteenth notes of the following measure.
- Do not think block chords! Instead, imagine the left hand placing fingers more subtly. When possible, prioritize the left hand finger placement in the order that the notes are plucked.
- Work on avoiding finger noise in the second part of the etude by lifting slightly or shifting on the softer parts of the fingertips.
- Release pressure on inactive fingers to keep the left hand light.
- In order to build endurance for the right hand, practice it alone while visualizing the left hand. What does it feel like to play the arpeggio with rhythmic precision 48 times? This is the amount of times you would play it in the Etude before getting a break with the slurs.
- Once the right hand feels locked in, bring the left hand back. Are there pauses to adjust for the left hand?
- Think of the right hand in eighth notes, quarter notes, half-notes, and whole notes.
- Practice bringing out upbeats.
- Explore dynamic schemes to develop your own interpretation.
- Use aural refocus to think in larger gestures.
- Use rhythms to develop a thorough understanding of the patterns, transitional strengths, and transitional weaknesses.
- Practice planting a from the beginning and then a quarter note after it is played for right hand stability.
- If you use the standard right hand fingering, try planting both m and a.
- Use other right-hand fingerings to extract more insight from this wonderful etude!
Hope this helps.
Here is a moving performance of Israeli guitarist, Tal Hurwitz magnificently interpreting Agustín Barrios Mangoré’s Un Sueño en la Floresta. The elements of this video are spectacular. From Tal, who seems to invoke Barrios’ spirit effortlessly, to the hall’s acoustics, to the rich sounding guitar (Friedrich?), to the production (Sanel Redzic), all the elements of the video come together into a piece of art.
While there is no doubt of Tal’s mastery, I’ve seen very few who so effortlessly and musically perform Heitor Villa-Lobos’ Etude Nº2.
And to contrast from the south American composers, we can step back into the delightful world of Dionisio Aguado’s Rondo, Op. 2, Nº2.
Very inspiring on so many levels!
Aside from the lush harmonies and hauntingly evocative melodies of Heitor Villa-Lobos’ music, the physicality of strumming or arpeggiating through all six strings, of sinking a fat thumb rest-stroke into a deep melody, of sliding all four left-hand fingers across the fretboard through diminished 7th chords produces a visceral joy unlike any other I experience when playing the guitar.
One great example of a passage providing this physical joy is the arpeggio section of Prelude Nº2. While there are a few tricks for making the left hand slide around with more facility, I’m going to focus on some possible right hand fingering solutions that have helped my students over the years.
There are three patterns to master with the first offering most possibilities. Try to work on all patterns carefully until they all feel fluid. The thumb should play through both the 6th and 5th strings. I prefer using a light rest stroke so that I land on string 4 and am ready to proceed from there.
ppimamip – This fingering seems to be the favorite for most of my students. Thumb gets overworked a bit and when it is next to other patterns the right hand has to shift its position across the strings increasing the margin for error.
pimaiiip or pimaiiii or ppimaaaa – These options work well but require careful practice to sound precise. I prefer the first for clarity and I cannot get the last to work for me but have seen other guitarists use it successfully.
pimamami – This fingering can work well as m is the longer finger and can reach out of a stable hand position for the first string.
pimapima – This one is pretty straight forward but requires a clear movement from the thumb to move through two strings as if it were one.
mipmipmi or aipaipai or amiamiam – The favorite is the first option. While the last option (no thumb) works well to keep the hand in place, I find that involving the thumb allows faster speeds. I prefer the second pattern.
Once you’ve determined which patterns feel right to your hand, work them up and then work on mastering them back to back with the other patterns.
Pattern 1 + 2
Pattern 1 + 3
Hope this helps!
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!
Yuri and I recently got together in my studio to play guitars, talk shop, and brainstorm advice to share with Six String Journal readers. Originally, we were going to post a list of tips and common mistakes guitarists of all levels should watch out for but there is so much valuable insight in what I recorded – from the warm up exercises below, to learning new repertoire, and more – that I’m simply going to post it as an interview next time. Perhaps a formal podcast is up next but in the meantime this will certainly keep everyone’s fingers busy.
Here is Yuri demonstrating one of his favorite warm up exercises (and the music) with videos of him playing it in various ways.
This next video, he demonstrates what he likes to do before building up to the exercise above. Notice that he plays through the scale with i, m, a, and c, before moving onto im and am.
Here is true gold, Yuri works on extensors and ami, too.
And, finally, here is Yuri commenting on balance and tone.
Hope that inspires everyone!
I was going to write about a warm up sequence that builds right hand endurance, speed, pulse, and legato. It was going to be a good one. But, I walked past my music stand and Heitor Villa-Lobos’s Etude Nº2 was taunting me.
So here are a few more thoughts and approaches I’ve found helpful while working on this over the last few weeks.
Right Hand Alone
We all know the value in practicing the right hand alone. It allows us to focus on what might be a potential lack of understanding as to where the trouble in a passage lies. Focusing on the right hand also allows us to feel the rhythm correctly without the hindrance of a faulty left hand or a left hand that cannot keep up. In this particular etude, there are two movements that recur often. Practice these movements or if necessary, build them up to comfortably play them at your target tempo (120+ bpm). .
Sweeping with p:
Cross-string arpeggio with various fingerings:
Slow and progressive warm up on these two movements helps develop a more ‘in the pocket’ feel and if you can retain the feel when incorporating the left hand, forces the left hand to behave more reliably. Remind yourself that if you cannot play those movements well at your target tempo, you will simply not be able to play the piece at that speed. So, set that metronome and get to work.
Left Hand Without Shifts
Though shifting in this piece does not present too many challenges, there are a few. Practicing a passage without a shift allows us to deconstruct a movement with two potential problems: the change in hand position and the shift. Try playing the first measure with no shift and focus on how it feels. Then, once that feels fluid, incorporate the shift while retaining the fluidity.
Resting the Right Hand Thumb
Do you know when and on what strings your thumb rests when not using it? Instead of randomly placing it for stability, find spots to rest it that coincide with the next note it will play. Not always possible but it certainly helps when you can get away with it.
Hope that helps. Stay tuned for the super warm up exercise and another Artist Spotlight…
If you all were inspired (or recovered) from watching Ekachai Jearakul whip off Heitor Villa-Lobos’ Etude Nº2, you may find this post helpful. While I was a student at the New England Conservatory, the second half of one of my degree recitals was simply Villa-Lobos’ Twelve Etudes. While some of the etudes are manageable, others require relentless and careful practice, and they all have moments that can fill endless practice hours with frustration. To add to the matter, I was studying with the great Eliot Fisk and despite all of his valuable advice and help, watching him display what was possible on a regular basis conjured both extreme inspiration and a sense of hopelessness at achieving such a level of comfort with these pieces. Needless to say, the year preceding that recital, I was immersed in a figurative amazonian finger jungle and found my own way of surviving.
For those working on this particular etude, there are a few spots where I found less obvious fingerings less problematic. These solutions are personal but if the spots have been frustrating for any of you, give the following solutions a try.
Measure 3 (repeats not counted)
In order to increase the resonance, I like having the 3rd and 2nd strings open on this one so I shift to 5th position to enable this. There are a few alternate right hand fingerings to explore but I prefer the 1st.
In this solution, guide fingers are highlighted in red. While the right hand solution is personal, I like switching to rest-stroke on the highest note of the run. If yo prefer to play free-stroke, you might choose to switch to 1st position by playing the first note of measure 12 on the 1st string open and using that to shift. The second finger would still work as a great guide in this situation.
In this example, ending the repeat with a slight alteration makes a noticeable difference in playing measure 22. Again, I’ve included some alternate right hand fingerings for exploration but I prefer the 1st.
Hope this helps!
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 m 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 m 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.