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.
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!
I think I’ve now scoured most of Pavel Steidl‘s masterclasses on youtube. What a treasure trove of advice. I absolutely love him, his creativity, and his masterful ability to teach in such a fun way.
Here is a left hand technique progression that roughly matches what he demonstrates in one of his masterclasses. Pavel recommends at least 30 minutes a day of work for the fingers. Among his bits of advice and reflections, there is a moment in a masterclass where he talks about left hand choreography and how it is connected to the part of our brain that is responsible for, as he puts it, “fantasy and imagination.”
Here is the sequence to explore:
Play the top voice as a continuous slur.
Move on to the next step or repeat with the remaining patterns:
02/1343, 03/1242, 04/1232 (slur/counterpoint)
Now slur the counterpoint or fixed note as well.
Move on to the next step or repeat with the remaining patterns (see above).
Add in a coordinating movement in the right hand (try something simple first).
Move on to the next step or repeat with the remaining patterns (see above).
Explore a more challenging coordinating movement in the right hand (try pami on string 5).
Be creative and have fun just like Pavel!
Here is a sneak peak of a page from my soon to be released book on mastering tremolo.
Playing through the ‘skeleton’ of a tremolo piece helps to reduce it in our mind’s ear to what essentially is happening on the musical front. Spending a large amount of time on developing the fluidity, clarity, speed, and all that goes into a beautiful tremolo technique so often draws a majority of our attention into the micro-discovery world that the thought of the larger macro world of what a tremolo piece is trying to achieve musically is somewhat ignored.
There are various ways to enhance the way we psychologically perceive our pieces to make them seem less daunting. The most tried and true method is to play through them hundreds of times. For tremolo pieces, play through them in an abbreviated way, as illustrated below, at faster tempos:
Another method, which I have grown to like despite the substandard sonic quality, was recommended by Malaysian guitar virtuoso, Philip Hii, in his fantastic book, Art of Virtuosity. In the method below, ami act as one and pluck at the same time. Think of plucking a chord but on one string. It won’t sound pretty but in addition to focusing our attention on the bigger picture, it helps the right hand to discover the angle at which it best moves through one string for tremolo.
Hope this helps!
Thought I’d let you all know that I’ve published the first of a series of technique workouts for classical guitarists. This first book, A Technical Workout for Classical Guitar, Level 1 – Base Building, is all about developing a strong foundation with a focus on the most common movements necessary for technique development in both hands. It is suitable for all levels – beginners trying to develop their own routine or advanced players looking for a systematic way to approach technique development. I wish I had had this when I was a young guitarist! It is available on kindle for now with more options soon. Stay tuned for videos going through some of the movements, supplemental publications, and more advanced workouts!