Concert Preparation 101

Greater confidence leads to stronger performances. There is a great difference in the confidence of a runner who approaches the start of a marathon having done the bare minimum training and that of the runner who has trained with variety, intensity, creativity, and persistence (and supplemented that training with a healthy diet, careful recovery, and mental preparation).

As a concert approaches, vary your study approach, take notes, and explore as much as possible to gain a better understanding of what yields the best results on stage and what makes you perform at your best. Depending on how well I know the music, I may start preparing months ahead of time or a few weeks from the date. Here is a checklist of actions that start to occur during the preparatory stage that are true confidence builders:

  1. Warm-up with a focus on relaxation.
  2. Befriend your metronome. Play all your pieces at a very slow tempo (for example, the Allegro from Barrios’ La Catedral at 1 sixteenth note/second, or a tremolo piece 1 note/second). I pick a quarter of the program and make sure that by the end of 2-3 days, I’ve practiced everything at a VERY slow tempo. Manuel Barrueco thinks slow-practice may be the best way to practice.
  3. Build a list of troublesome passages or excerpts that do not feel effortless. Practice right hand and left hand alone going from very slow to as far beyond concert tempo for repetitions, practice in rhythms, analyze the space between notes, watch youtube videos of someone wonderful playing them to glean possible modifications, exhaust your resources to make the passages in question effortless. Before increasing tempo, try to nail 5 repetitions in a row. Keep a record of tempo and tally how many repetitions you’ve successfully done.  When focus fades, move on to a different excerpt or take a little brake.
  4. Record yourself. I’m not a fan of this but sometimes you have to do what you have to do to improve. If you truly want to assess what you sound like, it is necessary.
  5. Exit practice mode and enter performance mode by performing run-throughs. Play a run-through of each half of the concert at least once every two days over the course of the month preceding the actual concert. Two weeks from the performance, videotape the entire concert or perform it for a friend, a student, or colleague. Several full-length run-throughs always help to improve concentration. If you have time, experiment with performing run-throughs when you are tired, not warmed-up, or cranky. Perform it while the radio is on, perform it in the dark, etc… Learn to turn on your performance mode.
  6. Break up your practice into several sessions a day. For example, instead of one large chunk of time (9AM – 1PM), try 9-11, another session 1-3, and then another 9-10. Don’t go more than 12-14 hours without touching that guitar.
  7. Visualize the performance before falling asleep. Imagine the stage, imagine yourself on it, imagine every piece from the first note to the last. If you can’t ‘see’ what your fingers are doing, you probably do not know the piece as well as you think you do. If you have trouble visualizing, create a playlist of your favorite guitarist/s or of your best performance of the pieces and listen to it while you play along in your head. The music will serve as a bit of an anchor for your mind’s inner ear while you try to visualize along. Another technique is to watch someone play it and play along in your head.
  8. Meditate often. A simple focus on your breathing for 5-10 minute periods throughout the day is a good start. I’ll write more on this in the future, but as a long time practitioner of yoga, pranayama, and other modes of meditation, meditation is one of a few things that always improves my day and centers my mind.

Good luck!


Manuel Barrueco on Slow Practice

While listening to Manuel Barrueco’s podcast, he was asked about whether slow practice was a good method. Here was his response:

“[Slow practice] is a very good method, perhaps it’s the best, I’m not sure if it’s the best, but it’s one of. I think slow practice is extremely helpful in a lot of ways. It helps with memory because it breaks down muscle memory. It also allows one to look at the technique very closely. And look at any excess motion, bad movements, and tension in the technique. Also, it gives the hand and the fingers time to learn how to do their job. Also, their is another aspect that is often underrated which is that it is good musically. By practicing slowly, it allows you to slowly hear the harmonies and the lines and everything that is going on in a piece of music. So I wouldn’t be surprised if it is the best technique to practice in.”

With that in mind, try practicing a piece like the Allegro from Agustín Barrios’ La catedral at 60bpm per sixteenth note.

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!