Left Hand Technical Workout – Part 1


I am currently working on a comprehensive technique manual ranging from base building to many advanced practice techniques. The theme for the next few posts will center around developing a strong technique base through a daily routine. We’ll start with some basic movements most students could stand to refine.

Complete steps 1-3 with all of the following left hand finger combinations. It is crucial during base building to focus on clarity, efficiency, and accuracy of both sound and movement.

Single Finger Movements: 01, 10, 02, 20, 03, 30, 04, 40

Single Pair Finger Movements: 12, 21, 23, 32, 34, 43, 13, 31, 24, 42, 14, 41

Step 1 – Perform all movements without slurs (example below using 01 and 10)

slur 10 a no slur.jpg

Step 2 – Perform all movements with slurs (example below using 01 and 10)

slur 10.jpg

Step 3 – Build endurance by extending the time on each string (example below using 12 and 21)

slur 12 p3.jpg

Go very slowly. Listen very carefully. Do several repetitions. Explore various positions.

Try going through this every day for 2-3 weeks. Part 2 coming soon.

Sloppy Left Hand Fingers

Hopefully, as an aspiring guitarist, the principle of precisely pinching frets with your fingertips has been engrained and you now know that it is very difficult to play well without putting this principle into practice. From slurs to counterpoint, training left hand fingers to place carefully insures the likelihood that our notes will emerge clearly from the guitar. But, as any investigative and intellectually-oriented student will discover, there are many cases where sloppy, finger pad pinching would prove the exception to the rule.

One such case would be when reaching for a bass note while playing or holding voices on the higher strings. If there are a few strings between the bass note and the voices being held, flattening the finger slightly while reaching will relax the hand more so than struggling to arch the fingertip into place.

Another case builds on this idea, what if you could use the flattened finger to silence a note on a neighboring string while simultaneously playing a note to achieve the correct musical intent of the composer or to maintain the integrity of a bass line? I’ve mentioned Bach’s Prelude in D Minor BWV999 before as a great piece to study many aspects of left hand technique so I will use a two measures from it as an example.

BWV999 Sloppy Left Hand.jpg

I’m hoping to post my edition of BWV999 soon with more pointers but for now, try to find places in your repertoire where it would be advantageous to not pinch so perfectly!

Left Hand Choreography

Developing a well-crafted, clear, and effortless left hand choreography requires a high level of experience, attention to extreme detail, and a deep understanding of your own hands. Over the years, cultivating these components through the learning process of new repertoire helps us assimilate more music in a more meaningful way and, importantly, retain it when there are limitations to our practice time.

I wrote about attention to detail in an earlier post but thought I would elaborate on one point in particular that many students overlook: when to lift a finger that has been holding down an important voice or serving as an anchor to prepare it for the next activity. I’d venture to say that most students would not know how to answer and those who did would answer, “When you need it.” I’d argue that it would be better to plan it out and take it a step further:  plan it out to align the movement with your inner pulse or at the very least, to align it with a specific beat in the music. Awareness of every detail, after all, is what we are after.

Here is a another passage from Bach’s Prelude in E Major. Notice that at beat 2, thumb silences the 5th string at which point finger 1 can relax. At anytime after that moment, we would want to lift 1 to prepare for the shift. Too early would conflict with the act of silencing the bass note, too late would cause a panic preceding the shift. So, in order to make it feel like the movement is weaved into the choreography, lift at the third beat. Now we have a specific moment that also happens to be in line with a pulse that our bodies should be naturally feeling. This translates into a movement that feels more like a natural occurrence than a movement that augments the challenge of the moment.

Bach Left Hand choreography.jpg

Though this Prelude provides countless moments to exercise this awareness, a more concise piece that I think is great for students in which to practice this concept is Bach’s Prelude BWV999. There are moments in every single measure where timing the left hand finger releases would aid the right hand in maintaining a rhythmic continuity versus introducing some of the manifestations of an erratic left hand choreography: unwanted accents, slightly uneven rhythm, etc…I’m hoping to have an edition of this to post in a few days. Stay tuned and in the meantime, start incorporating the concept of timed left hand finger releases into your repertoire.

Conde Claros, Scales, and String-Crossing

I’ve been reworking the music of the great Spanish composer Luys de Narváez. His Seis Libros del Delphín were published in the early 1500s in Granada. The six volumes contain music that is profoundly beautiful and exquisitely crafted while evoking a time that was ripe with wonder. After all, the music was published a few decades after Christopher Columbus’ great voyage to the New World. Narváez’s Diferencias are some of the earliest know sets of variations and his Canción del Emperador was possibly a favorite of King Charles V. Fortunately for guitarists, conjuring that time period is potentially within our grasp as the music translates well to the modern guitar. Because of the tuning of the vihuela, the slight adjustment of tuning the 3rd string to f-sharp makes the pieces more playable. I prefer placing a capo on the 2nd fret but placing it on the 3rd fret will transpose the piece to the original key.

This post is not a history lesson about the guitar, however. It’s another post about fingering for the right hand as this music is full of scale runs. So I thought I’d list a few rules every aspiring guitarist should use when working out right hand fingerings to perhaps help make conjuring your favorite time period easier. These rules assume you have a functioning technique. If that is not the case, they can still help, but you may want to spend extra hours in the tool shed working on developing a base for your technique (more on this coming!). This way you will get the most out of these rules when applying them.

Rule 1 

When crossing from a lower string to an adjacent higher string (i.e. string 3 to string 2):

  • im is preferable to mi
  • ia is likely preferable to ai
  • pi is preferable to ip
  • ma is preferable to am

conde claros ex. 2.jpgRule 2

When crossing from a lower string to a higher string with a string  or more between them (i.e. string 4 to string 2 or string 5 to string 1)

  • ia is preferable to ai and im
  • pm is likely preferable to pi
  • pa is likely preferable to pm

Rule 3

Try to maintain the rules 1 and 2 throughout scales and right hand cross-stringed fingerings. If you are unable to maintain efficient crossing you can use the following methods to insure rules 1 and 2 are maintained.

Method 1

When playing im scale runs, insert a (ring finger) to change the direction of the fingers. Notice the use of a in the first box to facilitate the string crossing in the next box/boxes.

conde claros ex. 1.jpg

conde claros ex. 3.jpg

Method 2

When playing im scale runs, insert a slur to change the direction of the fingers.

Rule 4

Do not use a slur if it is does not reflect your musical intent.

Left Hand Contrapuntal Exercise 2

Here is another one of my favorite left hand exercises. Practice it to develop more finger independence and to help stabilize your fixed fingers. The destabilizing element of the slur adds a challenge. Like in the first contrapuntal exercise, go slowly to insure the voices are being held their full duration. You can easily (or maybe with a lot of struggle) create a more challenging exercise by increasing the distance between the strings in use and by maintaining good form. Focus on the vertical movement of the fingers while the left hand remains stable. Use less hand tilting to get to the lower (or higher) strings.

contrapuntal 2

Mini Masterclass – Natalia

Brought to public light by the great maestro Alirio Diaz decades ago, Venezuelan composer Antonio Lauro’s beloved Natalia (aka Valse Criollo and Valse Venezolano Nº3) has become one of the most widely played pieces on our instrument.

There are so many thoughts to share on this piece with students that I thought I’d do a short (which is now looking long) post about a passage in the first part of the piece that most students wrestle with as they begin to enjoy their discovery of Venezuelan guitar music.

To begin, the initial published edition by Broekmans & Van Poppel B.V. and the more recent edition published by Ediciones Caroní differ in several ways. It is important to note that both were revised by Alirio Diaz who over the decades has probably played this piece thousands of times. And, over the course of Alirio’s history with the piece, he has undoubtably made changes simply to keep the piece evolving in a creative way. Is the latest version better? Not necessarily. However, students should become intimately familiar with both and with alternate fingerings that may help them achieve their own musical goals.

It is important to mention that scores are often a very close approximation of the intent of the composer. In guitar scores, because of the fact that composers are cramming everything onto one staff, short hand helps musicians see through the clutter of notating all voices accurately. So with that caveat…

Here is the passage we’re studying from the first two editions for comparison:

Broekmans & Van Poppel B.V.

Natalia 1.jpg

Ediciones Caroní

Natalia 2.jpg

The differences are interesting to say the least. The fingering has evolved which, of course, is a natural thing to occur after years of playing the same piece. But, of note, notice the rhythmic changes with the beaming. Antonio Lauro’s music is always full of the dueling time signatures 3/4 and 6/8 which makes his and other Venezuelan music so alluring on a rhythmic front. There is a very different feel when playing the first measure of this passage.

When I initially learned Natalia decades ago, like most students, I used what was available. For the most part, I followed Alirio’s fingerings closely. However, as my hands have come into their own over the years, my version has evolved quite a bit to suit my strengths, technique, fingers, and musical ideas. Here are two ways I tend to play it these days:

Natalia 2 (Leo).jpg

Natalia 2a (Leo).jpg

The differences have evolved to help me feel more secure as I play the piece. Notice the guide fingers throughout.

As students uncover their own interpretations, I often make sure that they are aurally aware of as much as possible so that if they wanted to draw attention to a particular voice for any reason, they could do so. As much as I like the groovy and energetic way Alirio plays the piece, I often like hearing a more legato version so I try to keep my ear on the following voice:

Natalia 2a (Leo) melody.jpg

Despite the fact that they are written as eighth notes, I often try to connect the line. Did Lauro intend to break the line? Not sure. Can I play it both ways? Yes. Which do I like best? Depends on how I feel.

Another voice I like to draw attention to is this one:

Natalia 2a (Leo) inner voice.jpg

This was intended to be a MINI masterclass so I’m going to wrap this up. The bottom line is that pieces evolve in the musician’s hand. Spend time exploring the history of the pieces you are playing, and specifically with Natalia, the possibilities, fingerings, and seeing which rhythmic version feels right, and you will be on your way to crafting a meaningful interpretation that you can stand behind when sharing it with others.

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 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 the 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