REFLECTIONS OF A GUITAR ADDICT
A COMPENDIUM OF OBSERVATIONS AND SUGGESTIONS
FOR THOSE SIMILARLY AFFLICTED
November, 2012 -- Latest Revision: April, 2014
Each guitarist’s practice routine is a matter of personal choice and style. Even so, in fifty years, on and off, of practicing, teaching and performing with the classical guitar, I have adopted a few personal techniques and acquired some useful insights. You are welcome to take them or leave them as you see fit. Still better, feel free to comment and add your own suggestions. These “reflections” are a work in progress which will be frequently updated at this site.
To add insight and context to these comments, I will begin with a brief personal history.
THE GUITAR AND ME:
Hello, I’m Ernest, and I am an addict..
Not an alcoholic. Not a drug addict. Not even a sex addict. I am a guitar addict.
If there is twelve-step program to cure me of this affliction, I don’t want to hear about it.
My “gateway” to this addiction was the ukulele – not unusual. But the uke seemed awfully weak and high-pitched to me. I wanted something more substantial. So, sometime in early high school, I homesteaded my dad’s acoustic guitar, took out the top and bottom strings, and played it as a mega-ukulele. That experiment lasted about two months, following which I reinstalled the first and sixth strings, and I was off to the races. During my senior high school year, I played rhythm guitar in a jazz combo. Freshman year in college I joined the University show band, playing for numerous campus dances and touring throughout the state of Utah. Then at the end of my sophomore year I transferred to another university, and that was the end of that. Or so I thought at the time.
My guitar was the standard jazz instrument of the time: narrow neck, steel strings, attached electrical pick-up, played with a plectrum (pick). During all this time, I never came within a country mile of a classical guitar. It was, to me, a guitar from another planet.
Fast-forward seven years to my first teaching position at a college in New Jersey. A colleague brings in his new classical guitar. As soon as I pick it up, I decide “I gotta have one of these!” Neither of us realize it at the time, but my whole life is about to take a dramatic turn.
The onset of this addiction was gradual. At first, I thought, "I'll just learn a couple of easy classical pieces, and content myself with some fancy folk-music finger work for parties and campfires." Those "easy pieces, " I believe, were Tarrega's Lagrima, Ponce's Mexican Song, and Sor's Study No. 5. They proved to be as "sufficient" as a first dose of pure cocaine. I was hopelessly and irrevocably hooked.
A couple of years later, I am living in Greenwich Village in New York City, teaching Philosophy courses at Hunter College (CUNY) and enrolled at Columbia University. At a local coffee house, I encounter Harold Morris, a student of Andrés Segovia, who agrees to teach me classical guitar technique.
Soon thereafter I meet a Village neighbor, José Rubio (1934-2000), a master guitar builder at the dawn of his brilliant career. He builds me a guitar that has generously served me ever since and remains in use to this day. This was without a doubt the best investment of my entire life, worth today much more (in constant dollars) than I paid for it. About two years after buying my first classical guitar, I am performing at the coffee house where I met my guitar teacher.
On to Utah again, for more teaching and graduate study in Philosophy and eventually my Ph.D. In the meantime, my guitar repertory and facility prove sufficient to land me numerous gigs at local restaurants and ski resorts, along with occasional TV appearances and recitals. Also an opportunity to meet some notable celebrities, along with some much-needed supplemental income for this struggling grad student. During this time, I attend master classes held by Alice Artz and Christopher Parkening.
This contrapuntal career – academic and musical – continues in Colorado and California throughout the eighties. And then, around 1989 the musical part ends abruptly with the rude realization that my guitar addiction is incompatible with my academic responsibilities. So I quit my addiction “cold turkey,” as the Rubio guitar is reluctantly put in its case where it remains virtually untouched for the next twenty-two years.
In September, 2011, well into my retirement, the guitar ends its retirement when I pick it up again eager (better “obsessed”) to recover and expand my former repertory and facility. Practicing from four to five hours each day, I am once again accepting students and performance invitations. My repertory, once consisting of six sets (45 minutes each) in “hard memory” and performance-ready is now more than three sets and growing.
This renewal of a musical career after a two-decade hiatus gives me an insight not readily available to most classical guitar teachers and performers: I know what it feels like to begin study of this very challenging instrument – finding the right strings and notes on the fingerboard, placing and keeping the right hand in the correct position, requiring the left hand to contort in strange ways, totally alien to their ordinary usage. Of course, I am not learning these things, I am recalling them. Still, it is possible to imagine from all this what it must be like to be starting “from scratch.” And this insight enhances my effectiveness as a teacher.
Below you will find a compendium of observations and suggestions that I have acquired over three decades of practicing, teaching and performing the classical guitar. I have found them to be helpful. You might also. But practice strategy, teaching technique and performance style are ultimately personal matters. So I do not insist, only suggest. The rest is up to you. However, I don’t mean to say that “anything goes.” Always take care that your personal choices expand rather than confine your capabilities. For example, if your seating posture and your right and left hand positions stray far from the proven techniques of the masters (Segovia, Bream, Williams, Fisk, Parkening, etc.), you will severely limit your potential. Accordingly, it is essential that you begin your study of the classical guitar with a qualified teacher.
BEGINNING, INTERMEDIATE, ADVANCED
These observations and suggestions apply variously according to stage of the student’s development, as identified by the codes: B (beginner), I (intermediate), and A (advanced). Most of these comments will be directed to intermediate and advanced students.
As a teacher, I use the Parkening Method (Volumes I and II), which roughly defines these stages of development: Beginner – Parkening Volume I, Intermediate – Parkening Volume II, Advanced – beyond Parkening method books and acquiring individual pieces and achieving performance quality. Specifically:
Beginner: (Parkening, Volume I). Do you read music? If not, we will teach you. If you do read music (perhaps you have studied a different instrument) we will apply standard musical notation to the guitar. Our first task, and highest priority, is to establish correct posture and hand positions. Our attention will be confined to the first five frets (“positions”) of the fingerboard. We will introduce you to basic music theory – the relationship of the keys, chord construction, etc. We will also show you how use the classical guitar as a folk instrument – i.e., as accompaniment for songs, etc.
Intermediate: (Parkening, Volume II). You are now working with the upper positions on the fingerboard. You have been introduced to basic guitar techniques such as the barre (“cejilla”) and legado (left hand “hammers” and “pulls”). You are acquiring some daily exercises – scales, stretches, legados, arpeggios. And you are learning and memorizing some pieces that you are quite willing to perform in public.
Advanced: Congratulations! You are now beyond most “method” books You have learned and are applying the fundamental classical guitar techniques and are building a personal repertory. At this stage of one’s development, many guitarists venture “on their own,” without a teacher. That’s fine – I can’t knock it since that is what I did. Even so, it is a good idea to check in with a master guitarist-teacher now and then to make sure that you haven’t acquired some bad habits. At the advanced stage, instruction consists more of “coaching” than “teaching,” which means working more on interpretation than technique. “Hang out” with other accomplished guitarists, perhaps by joining a local classical guitar society. Also, you may be ready to enroll in a master class.
THE WORK BOOK. (B/I/A):
The student should have a loose-leaf binder, into which he will collect lesson notes and handouts.
Spoken instructions are quickly forgotten. And so the student should take notes at each lesson.
In addition, the Work Book should contain a log -- ideas that come to mind during practice.
Also recommended for the Work Book, are useful articles from the internet. For example, a glossary of musical terms and a list of metronome equivalents of standard tempo markings (e.g. "Allegro" -- 120 beats per minute). There are numerous such articles available for free. My choices are indicated by the links above.
THE REPERTORY BOOK (I/A):
Once you have learned a few pieces that you would like to keep in memory, it will be time to get a repertory book – another loose-leaf binder, this time with alphabetical tabs. This will be for everything that you have memorized, at whatever stage of preparation.
When you purchase a piece of sheet music, copy it immediately on to standard letter-size paper, then tuck the original some place for safekeeping. This way, you can mark up the copy to your heart’s desire, knowing that you can start again clean if you wish. Warning! Keep both the copy and the original. Do not give either the original or the copy even to your best friend, and never, never, never, sell the copy while keeping the original (or vice versa). That’s “pirating” or, in legalese, copyright violation, and it is against the law. Lately, with the exponential growth of the internet, publishers and lawmakers have become very hard-assed about copyrights. And as an author with a few copyrights to my name, I must say that I’m on their side. So don’t tempt your fate. Still, copying your own property for personal use is OK.
Needless to say, your repertory book should be at your side when you practice, just in case you have a memory block. In addition, once you put a piece into “hard memory” and are confident about its execution, you will want to return to the sheet music for a closer look at tempo, dynamics and other notations, and also to keep a critical eye open for inadvertent “revisions” that may have cropped up during your memorized practice and performance.
ON YOUR MUSIC STAND:
In addition to the sheet music, you will want to include some instructional and reference material on your music stand. I have found it useful to print these items on colored paper for immediate recognition. Here are some of those materials, with the color-coding that I use.
Warm-up routine (Green, I/A): Your usual array of “finger exercises” – scales, legados, trills, arpeggios, stretch, etc. – should be firmly in your memory. Even so, as you go through these, you might want to jot down some comments, suggestions and refinements.
The “Weed Sheet” (Yellow, I/A): Andrés Segovia said that in practicing we should “weed and dress the garden.” “Dressing the garden” is the final stage of preparation – adding artistic interpretation to a work that is firmly in the guitarist’s memory and control. “Weeding the garden” consists of locating, isolating and then giving concentrated attention to those parts of a piece that resist control -- a tough arpeggio, a difficult left-hand “reach” or shift, a scale passage that one cannot quite get up to tempo – that sort of thing.
These “weeds” should be listed on a separate sheet, and identified with this code: page/line/measure. Addressing the “weed sheet” should be an essential and early part of your daily practice routine.
Always start slowly, at a tempo, however slow, that allows a flawless execution. Then speed-up gradually and cautiously. By “flawless” I mean constant tempo and dynamics (volume), no missing or wrong notes, no “fret-buzzing” and no extraneous noises. Focus on your work, anticipating the problem, then playing the passage, then analyzing your result.
Avoid false starts and “stutter-starts.” The latter is a stop and repeat during a trial run. If you don’t catch these early, they might show up when you least expect and want them, namely when you think you have the problem solved in the full performance. If these problems appear in practice, slow down and play through them – several times – until they are safely eliminated. Of course, by “stutter-start” I don’t mean a tactical pause and repeat in order to work out a passage – a necessary and desirable activity as one is acquiring and improving a new piece for the repertory. (See "Practice is not Performance," below).
Play the “weed” in context. After you have worked on the “weed,” play it again but this time with a few measures before and after. Correct fingering is often a function of what comes before and after. If you practice a segment beginning or ending with a “comfortable” fingering, you might find yourself flummoxed when you drop that segment back into its home piece. Even if fingering is not a problem, if you do not put the segment in context, it will lack continuity, as you encounter difficulty “flowing” into and out of the segment. If you practice a tough segment in isolation and then put it in context, your are certain to discover what I mean. You think you have the problem “aced,” only to find that your are back on Square One when you move into it or out of it. The segment should fit seamlessly into the piece, and not stick out like a wrong-colored patch on a pair of jeans.
“Rep-Sheets” (pink I/A): To every piece of sheet music on your music stand, attach a “repertory sheet” to the front. And when you have securely memorized the piece and have put it in your Repertory Book and are working on the piece from memory, keep the “rep-sheet” on your music stand. This is a handy way to set up the sequence of your practicing. But much more important, the rep-sheet is where you jot down notes pertaining to that piece. Passing thoughts are lost unless they are immediately jotted down. Notes about warm-up exercises belong on the green sheet, and notes about specific problems go on the yellow “weed sheet.” Comments about a particular piece belongs on the rep-sheet. What? You don’t take notes while practicing? Then you aren’t taking this guitar business seriously. Either get with the program or find another hobby.
My practice routine consists of four fundamental parts: Exercises, “Weeding,” and Repertory.
Warm-up exercises. As “warm-ups” these exercises are, by nature, the first in order. They include “finger flexing,” slurs (legados), scales (chromatic, diatonic, octaves), and stretches. I will explain these in detail in a “handout” to be added soon to this website.
Of these exercises, scales are the most essential. Andrés Segovia writes that through a diligent attention to scales, the student “will correct faulty hand positions, gradually increase the strength of the fingers ... and acquire a quality which is very difficult to gain later: physical beauty of sound... The practice of scales enables one to solve a greater number of technical problems in a shorter time than the study of any other exercise.” (Diatonic Major and Minor Scales, Columbia Music, 1953) . I agree completely, with the added note that daily scale practice will prompt the student to keep his fingernails at the optimum length and shape. (More about fingernails below).
Segovia recommended two hours a day on scales, but with all due respect for the late maestro, I’d say that two hours seems a bit much. That’s more than half the practice time of most students. I spend about forty-five minutes on scales – major, minor, chromatic, octaves – and at least an hour on all the exercises. Occasionally, I will spend even more time on scales, and never feel that this is wasted effort. (More about the Segovia Scales below).
In addition to standard major and minor scales, you might want to add a few scale-like passages (“runs”) from your stock of sheet music. There are some dandy runs in the Bach Chaconne, the Rodrigo Concerti, and the Villa-Lobos Etudes. No need to learn these complete pieces just yet, if ever. The runs serve quite well as daily exercises.
If you are beginning work on the guitar or, like me, picking it up again after a long hiatus, go easy on yourself at first. Especially with the stretch and slur exercises. Allow your hands to get used to the work and to acquire the requisite strength and flexibility. The same advice applies, of course, to any strenuous physical activity or sport: ease into it. I made the mistake of ignoring this advice in September 2011 when I resumed work on the guitar, and to this day the fifth ("pinkie") finger of my left hand reminds me each day of this mistake. (Guitarist identify the "pinkie" as "4").
Weeding the Garden: This part of the practice routine involves the afore-mentioned “Weed Sheet,” and it should follow the warmup/exercise phase. After all, you may be dealing with some of these “weeds” in the third part of your routine.
Allow plenty of time to work on each “weed.” If you spend more than a hour on this phase of your practice, then you probably are being overly ambitious. If so, put a few of your “weeds” on an “on-deck” list, to be addressed later.
The Repertory.. I sub-divide repertory work into three phases of development: Acquisition, Assimilation, and Control/Retention. Like the stages of human development – childhood, adolescence, adulthood – these stages are well defined at the center, and ill-defined at the margins as one phase evolves into the next. Repertory pieces may be practiced in any order of development, with varying amounts of attention to each phase. For example, if you have a recital looming at you in the near future, then of course you will give full attention to your performance-ready program pieces. On the other hand, you might be inclined to add some new pieces to your repertory, in which case most of your practice time will be devoted to “Phase One.”
Different pieces, at various stages of acquisition, require different practice strategies – that much is elementary. So the guiding question should be, "what are your trying to accomplish with this piece today?" Acquisition? Assimilation? Retention?
Phase One: Acquisition. This phase begins the day you spread out a new piece on your music stand for a first reading, and ends (approximately) when you have the piece in insecure (“soft”) memory, and are prepared to move it to your “Repertory Book,” to which you will doubtlessly refer from time to time. As many guitarists have noted, this phase is essentially an exercise in problem-solving: how best to get your hands (primarily the left, of course) to do what that sheet of music tells you to do. Where there are no fingering notations, you may want to add them. And where there are notations, you may wish to change them. But be careful! The published fingering was doubtless done by someone who knew what he was doing. Follow the advice of the old-time rancher: “never tear down a fence unless you know why it was put up.” If you think you are smarter than, say Segovia, be prepared for a comeuppance. That said, your hands are your own, not Segovia’s, and you just might have a fingering scheme that fits your hand better. Moreover, publishers have been known to make errors. You will also be reminded that the easiest fingering within a measure is not always the best, because of the patterns that lead into and out of that measure. As I said: “problem-solving.”
Aside from "problem solving" the principle objective of the acquisition phase is to put the piece into memory. Reading through, with few pauses, on consecutive days is appropriate. As you do so, associate the notes with patterns and spatial sense (kinesthesia) so that your eventual memorization of the piece will be multi-dimensional. Don’t expect much technical improvement at this stage. When the piece is memorized, however imperfectly, it is time to move on to the next stage.
I recommend acquisition of no more than three new pieces at a time. The more attention that you give a new piece, the sooner you will be able to move it up the next phase.
Phase Two: Assimilation. Now you face basically two tasks: first, putting the piece into secure (“hard”) memory (about which, more below), and second, smoothing out the execution. Passages that resist control should be added to the “Weed Sheet,” and worked on every day. Keep in mind that practice is not performance. (A rule that we will examine at length shortly). So put aside the "read-through" strategy of Phase One, and instead adopt an analytical "piecemeal" approach. As you encounter difficulties, stop, think through, try out and then repeat, over and over, a difficult measure, then a phrase, then a page (or so). Your primary objective is to master the technicalities, all the while taking close notice of what your are doing. Improved memorization will pretty much take care of itself. Practice slowly, deliberately, and critically, directing your attention to those "rough spots" and going over them until they finally smooth out. But be careful! When you "get it right" once, don't move on. Get it right again at least three times. Putting it all together, performance-like, comes later in Phase Three. As you work on “assimilation,” don’t neglect any of your pieces (in any phase of development) for more than a week. Play through at least once or twice to keep your memory fresh.
Phase Three: Control and Retention. You now have the piece in hard memory: rarely if ever do you have to refer to the sheet music. You can go through the piece "cleanly," without strain, fully in control. Congratulations! Time now to act like an artist. Put feeling and interpretation into your piece. Vary tempo and dynamics, shape the tone with nail angle and string placement (acido or dolce), etc. Listen to recordings of the masters. (Hundred of terrific video performances are available on You-Tube). You’ve worked hard to get to this point. Now you can at last enjoy the performance-in-practice. Then, so too will your audience. I guarantee it.
Once a piece is secure in your performance-ready repertory, never take it for granted. Entropy rules the universe, and every microcosmic part thereof -- including you. Leave a piece alone for a few days, still worse are week or so, and the “weeds” will return. Memory fades, the fingers “forget.” As one wise guitarist once told me, “go one day without practice and you will notice, go two days without and your audience will notice.” (Even so, one or two days a week away from the guitar is recommended, lest you burn yourself out). So don’t let a week go by without “dressing” the entire garden. Maybe once a week will suffice to keep a piece securely in your performance repertory. If not, you will know it, and you will know what to do about it.
As I noted above, I once had about six sets (more than four continuous hours) under my fingers – in hard memory and performance-ready. That is my goal again. When you have acquired all the pieces that you feel that you can handle in your repertory, you should nonetheless continue to acquire new pieces, but as you do you must also “let go” of other pieces in the repertory – cease performing and practicing them. You can revive them later if you choose. Four sets may be more than enough for an active performer. Otherwise settle for two or three. In any case, keep in mind that an over-extended repertory will erode the quality of the collection.
When you acquire a new piece of sheet music, your first task (after you have copied it), is to read through it, guitar in hand. If, after you have read through and decided that your are up to the task and want to add it to your repertory, read through a few more times. Don’t think of memorization, just read and work through it. And guess what? You will find that you are well on your way toward memorizing it.
Because memorization skills vary from person to person, I am reluctant to set down hard and fast rules. You know better than anyone else what works for you. But if you examine a few methods books, you will find some memorization strategies appearing again and again. So these may be worthy of note. “Parts to whole” (i.e., “micro”) is one of those strategies. (Many language and drama teachers recommend this). Play a measure from the sheet, then repeat from memory. On to the next measure until you have memorized a phrase. Then play the phrase through first from a sheet, then from memory. Then repeat from memory, over and over. Then move on.
Some take the macro approach. Read the whole piece, over and over. As you do so, you find that you are looking less and less at the music and more and more at your fingers (mostly the left hand). Also, though you are least aware of it, you are acquiring “muscle-memory”. Finally, before you know it, you no longer need to look at the sheet music. Voila! It’s memorized!
Maybe a combination of both micro and macro methods – micro for “weeds”, macro for the rest – will suit you best. As I said, it’s a personal thing. Turns out that I am more of a macro guy.
Whatever scheme works best for you, put the piece in memory as soon as you conveniently can. Only then can you concentrate on mastering the execution. Don’t worry if your memorization is unreliable at first.. Just keep the repertory book nearby to bail you out, and refer back to the book every now and then to be sure that you are not introducing errors into your practicing.
Memory is a many-splendored thing. Five types of memory are especially important to the guitarist: head memory, note memory, pattern memory, kinesthetic memory, and muscle memory. (There may be more, and if so I am confident that someone, or some book, will remind me of them. As I learn more about the psychology of memory , I will report back at this space. Stay tuned). The more of these modes of memory that you keep in play, the less likely that you will find yourself “stuck” in a performance.
Head memory is the ability to recall a piece of music “in your head” – to run through it in “the CD-player of your mind.” I’m not much of a piano player, can’t even begin to play a trumpet of a saxophone. But I can clearly recall and “perform” in my mind, Chopin’s Fantasie Impromptu or Glenn Miller’s “String of Pearls.” I can even “play through” parts of some symphonies in the concert hall of my imagination. So too can most of you. (Mozart claimed that he composed completed orchestra works in his head before he wrote out a single note. I don’t doubt it). Similarly, if you are working on a Villa-Lobos Prelude or a Sor Study, you should soon be able to “play” it in your head long before you can perform it on the guitar. And herein is an huge advantage that we have over our predecessors more than a century ago: we can acquire this "head" memory from recordings. Obviously, having a piece “in your head” is essential to learning, memorizing, perfecting and performing that piece on the guitar.
Note memory. I am told that there are some fortunate albeit rare individuals who possess "photographic memory.” They can remember in detail what they have seen. If so they will be able to read in their minds what they have read in the sheet music. Alas, I am not one of these, and most likely neither are you. No matter, neither are most accomplished performing musicians. Even so, you will likely remember the musical notations of few troublesome measures and they will come to your aid. And if you have in your head a moderately good mental “map” of the fingerboard (i.e., you know where the notes are), this recollection of the notes (by name) will assist your memorization of the music.
However, the more you “get into” a piece of music, and after you have taken the sheet music off your practice stand and into your repertory book, the importance of note recognition fades as you rely ever more on pattern, kinesthetic and muscle memory.
Pattern memory. Once your attention has moved from the sheet music to the fingerboard, you will think more and more in terms of “patterns” – the positioning of your left hand and fingers. Guitarists who, like myself, have taken up the classical guitar with some prior experience with jazz or folk guitar technique have an advantage. They have learned chord patterns (e.g., major, minor, diminished, augmented, in various “inversions”), and with these they will have a valuable inventory of mnemonic devices. For example, the opening chords of the popular second movement of the Rodrigo Concierto Aranjuez is a B minor root position chord. Tell that to a jazz guitarist and he will recognize it at once. Learning the Villa-Lobos First Etude is a piece of cake as you discover that it is chock-full of familiar chord patterns. Strange to say, with pattern memory it is possible to practice the guitar without a guitar. You do so when you “run through” a piece in your head as you visualize your left hand doing its thing. I often find myself doing this when I retire at night. Better than counting sheep, and more practical.
Kinesthetic Memory. In his master class, Christopher Parkening told us that he memorized "kinesthetically." What did he mean by that? "Kinesthesia," as I understand the term, means "the muscular (non visual) sense of balance, movement and space." It is, of course, essential to ballet, gymnastics, diving, skiing, figure skating, among other sports. Applied to the guitar, I take "kinesthetic memory" to mean that the artist remembers what it "feels like," in his muscles and joints, to execute a piece of music. This would include a "sense" of the positions of the hands and fingers and the "target" areas of the guitar -- the strings and the fingerboard for the left hand and for the right hand the placement on the face of the guitar and the contact point on the finger tips (affecting tone production). Kinesthetic memory is thus similar to "muscle memory," differing essentially in the fact that the former is conscious, and the latter is unconscious. And kinesthetic memory differs from "pattern memory" in that the former is muscular-spatial, while the latter is visual. Because I rarely look at my right hand during practice and performance, I assume that it operates "kinesthetically." On the other hand (literally!) I take notice of the appearance of left hand at work, and put it into "pattern memory."
So how does one deliberately work on kinesthetic memory? Try this: play a few measures or a phrase "blindly" -- with your eyes closed, or looking away from the finger board. You will then be paying no visual notice to the positions of your left hand fingers ("the pattern"). Instead, you will be moving and placing those fingers "by feel" -- i.e., by a muscular sense of movement and space, which is to say, "kinesthetically." Don't try this all the time, least of all while performing. Watch the masters perform -- their eyes rarely leave the fingerboard. Surely you should keep your eyes on your work in order to notice and correct bad habits, such as LH fingers "flying" too far off the fingerboard. Nonetheless, occasional "blind playing" is a good method for helping add kinesthetic memory to your pattern memory.
Muscle Memory. Through repetition, pattern and kinesthetic memory can fade as muscle memory takes over. No way can your conscious mind keep track of every note. Does Itzhak Perlman think of every note as he executes a cadenza? Is a gymnast or a ballet dancer aware of every muscular movement? At first, as they are learning their maneuvers, sure enough. But not for long. As the muscles “learn” the conscious mind lets go. Just like driving a car: first you learn to move the right foot from the gas pedal to the brake as you respond to a traffic light. Then, with experience, you do it automatically, without a moment’s thought.
So too with learning a piece of music. Eventually, you learn to play on “auto pilot.” And that’s fortunate, for without muscle memory, you simply could not bring it off.
But be careful! As muscle memory takes over, hang on to your pattern and kinesthetic memory – you may need them. Relying on “auto pilot” alone is asking for trouble. Just put the right finger in the wrong place or the wrong finger in the right place, and like a runner who encounters a rock or slippery spot, you will likely stumble and then fall flat. So as you practice, keep an eye on that left hand, watch and "feel" what it is doing (on “auto pilot”) and keep it in pattern and kinesthetic memory.
Not that this will be easy. The temptation is almost irresistible to run exclusively on auto pilot. After performing “Leyenda” or “Recuerdos” for the hundredth plus time in various clubs, restaurants, and ski resorts, I confess that during yet another performance, I have found it all too easy to re-run in my mind the ski slopes that I explored earlier that day, or to plan my classes on Monday, or to cast my eyes on that gorgeous blond at the bar, while the “tape” of my sub-conscious does its thing. Usually without undue harm. But in recital, these are luxuries that I dare not indulge.
Likewise during solitary practice. Even if you can play parts, or even all, of a piece on "auto pilot," resist the temptation. Become aware of what you are doing ("pattern-wise" and "note-wise"), and anticipate what is immediately ahead. If you do this, you may find that your piece is "unraveling" -- that which was easy (qua "automatic") before, just isn't working for you now. Fine! You have discovering in practice (thus harmlessly) that you didn't really know that piece after all, and that you are vulnerable to "cold stop" memory blocks. So work back to the facility you had before, but this time with your memory much more secure. Then you will forge ahead more quickly and with confidence, I promise.
A fable: A grasshopper encounters a millipede on a forest floor. Amazed at the intricacy of the millipede’s locomotion, he remarks: “I just don’t understand how you can coordinate all those legs. How do you do it?” The millipede replies, “well it’s really quite simple. First I move this leg ... no wait, it’s this other leg ... no, that’s not right ...” Soon the poor critter finds himself on his back, totally immobilized. Moral: trust your muscle memory, but don’t rely on it. Be an attentive observer of what your sub-conscious is doing for you so that, if necessary, you can take control if your muscle memory betrays you.
So here's a test. Try playing a piece, or a part thereof, that you believe you know "pretty well" at half speed. You may be surprised to discover that it comes out much worse at half- than at full-speed, and you might even suffer a "memory block." If so, you are probably relying too much on muscle memory-- you've fallen into "the millipede's conundrum." So keep on playing at half speed until you get it right, all along playing close visual attention to the positions of your left hand (pattern memory) and the "feel" of the correct movement (kinesthetic memory). Mark that spot and return to it at a later practice session. Is it now in pattern and kinesthetic memories? Terrific! Now you've got it aced!
As a final word, I repeat: memorizing skills vary from person to person. Some individuals are very good at pattern and kinesthetic memory and others at muscle memory, and a very few fortunate individuals have photographic memory. I have described above what works for me. Adopt a memorization strategy that best utilizes your personal skills and preferences.
NOTES ON TECHNIQUE.
It is not my intention to repeat standard instructions on basic guitar technique (hands, fingernails, posture, etc.). These can be found in standard method books, and notably in Vladimir Bobri’s book The Segovia Technique. (Collier, 1972). It is essential that the beginning student get these techniques right from the start. Accordingly instruction from a qualified classical guitar teacher is indispensable.
In my remarks below, I propose to add to the what and how of such instruction, some comments as to why these standard techniques are essential.
The Left Hand. In contrast to jazz technique, the classical guitarist’s left thumb is rarely in view of the audience (occasionally the thumb tip will appear as lower strings are played). The reason for this is to obtain efficient force on the fingerboard. The left hand should act as a vice, with the thumb directly opposite the active fingers.
The left-hand should utilize the finger tips, not the sides. Take a look at a guitarist’s calluses. If at the tips, he’s doing it right – the calluses never lie. And why the fingertips? Again, maximum strength. But in addition, flat-finger playing muffles adjacent strings, and also is at a disadvantage when executing slurs (“hammers” and “pulls”) which are essential to classical technique.
The palm of the left hand should be parallel to neck of the guitar, so that a pencil placed along the base of the fingers is parallel to the strings. (I call this the “pencil test”). But this position should be a point of departure, as particular configurations may require exceptions. Why? A parallel palm puts the third and fourth fingers closer to the fingerboard, facilitating slurs which, as it happens, are disproportionately tasked by these fingers.
Beginning students will frequently be asked to execute left-hand stretches which they will insist are impossible. With patience and diligence, they will discover that the left hand is an extraordinarily adaptable device. I can personally testify to this. When I took up the guitar after two decades of neglect, I encountered several such “impossible” reaches. They are now routine and no trouble whatever.
Which brings us to the notorious “Bach Chaconne B-flat major reach.” (5/1/1 in the Segovia transcription). And therein lies a tale. Here’s the culprit (string/fret): 5/1, 4/3, 2/3, 1/6 (B♭, F, D, B♭). There is an easy work-around with a bar at the third position, but don’t you dare try it at a Segovia master class. Some forty plus years ago, I watched a PBS broadcast of the Segovia master class, wherein a young lady was working on the Bach Chaconne. When she came to that dreaded reach, she used the “work-around” whereupon she was immediately interrupted by the maestro. "You have very long fingers” said Segovia, “my wife has smaller hands than yours and she can do it.” Now the capper: as if to prove that point, you can see Emilia Segovia doing just that on page 36 of Bobri’s book, The Segovia Technique. To my amazement, a month ago I found a video clip of that very same master class encounter on You-Tube (at 4:25). In my earlier career, I could manage that reach. No longer, but with daily practice I almost have it back. If you (or I) can't quite manage that reach, don't "fret" about it. There are several performances of the Chaconne on You-Tube, and about half of the performers, including John Williams, use the "work around." It is an easy and obvious solution, and quite frankly I just don't understand why Segovia made such a fuss over it.
If you can't manage that reach but aspire to doing it, here's a helpful exercise which applies also to other tough reaches at the lower positions. Try that pattern further up the fingerboard where you can do it comfortably. Then again, but one position lower. And again, another position lower. And again, until you are stopped. Do this daily, and you just might "stretch" your LH fingers enough to bring it off. But be patient and go easy to avoid pain and injury.
The Right Hand . If there is one “prime directive” for the right hand, it is this: move the entire finger from the top joint. This applies to both the rest stroke and the free stroke. Check the videos, and I assure you that you will never see a world-class classical guitarist who violates this rule.
And yet, when I take on new students who have not had previous instruction, rarely will I find any who move their right fingers correctly. The most common mistakes: movement from the second joint, and the same movement combined with a lifting of the top joint. (I call this “banjo plucking”). I confess that when I first took formal instruction almost fifty years ago, I was one of those students.
Why the entire finger? Because moving from the top joint is both the strongest and the simplest method for striking a guitar string. Why not the “banjo pluck”? Not only because it is weaker, but also because it is a complex action – extension of the top joint combined with contraction of the second joint. Given the extraordinary complexity of action required by advanced classical guitar performance, the best method will be that which involves the simplest and strongest articulation of the fingers. In a word, the proven advantage of the standard method is control.
The difference between the hand positions for the free and rest strokes should be minimal. With the rest stroke, the top joints are slightly behind the string that is played, and the fingers are slightly straighter. With the free stroke, the top joints are directly over the “target” string and the fingers curved at the second joint. But in both cases, the power joint is the at the top knuckle.
A casual observer might insist that he sees the second joint doing the work in the free stroke. But this is an illusion. Upon release from the string, with the free stroke there is more movement at the second joint than at the top joint. However, this is a “whip action” – a “follow through” of action initiated at the top joint. With an actual whip, there is no power in the whip itself; all the action is initiated and powered by the hand that grasps the handle and the arm that moves the hand. Similarly with the free stroke. Watch Julian Bream perform Tarrega’s “Recuerdos de la Alhambra” to see what I mean.
As noted above, I assign Christopher Parkening’s method to my students. However, I have one major bone of contention with this otherwise fine book. On page 17, as he describes and illustrates the free stroke, Parkening identifies the second joint as the “active joint.” But what does he mean by “active joint?” In one interpretation – the joint with the most movement – he is correct. But one might more readily interpret this to mean the second joint is the “power joint.” Wrong! He also writes that in both the free and rest strokes, “the finger motion starts from the knuckles.” “The knuckles”? He means the top joint, of course., which is correct. I just wish he had said so.
I urge my students to put their right-hand fingers (pima) in a “check position” before they begin playing. The free stroke check position places all fingers (p i m a) on the first string. (See Bobri, pages 40-41, and Parkening page 14). For the free stroke, place the thumb on the fourth string, and the other fingers on the first string. Of course, once the student is accustomed to the correct hand position, this little exercise can be discontinued.
Those who remain unconvinced that the right hand positions described above are the best should watch the masters at work: Julian Bream, Andrés Segovia, and John Williams. I rest my case
Fingernails – the Guitarist’s Nemesis. The rule for the left-hand fingernails couldn’t be simpler: If a fingernail touches a string, the fingerboard or another finger, reach for the nail clipper. ‘Nuff said.
The nails on the right hand are a whole ‘nother story. These are the primary tools of your trade, like the trumpeter’s lips, the violinist’s bow, the saxophonist's reeds, the drummers’ sticks. Accordingly, protection and maintenance of the right-hand fingernails is of paramount importance to the classical guitarist.
Fingernails come in all shapes and sizes, so it is impossible to set down a long set of rules that will apply to all. But this one rule, at least, can apply to all cases: first touch with the flesh, then release with the nail. If you release from the flesh alone, the nail is too short. If you release with only the nail, it is too long. As any classical guitarist is fully aware, the nail sound is in all respects superior to the flesh sound: louder, fuller, sharper and more aggressive. Furthermore, unlike a bare fingertip, the nail provides a precise point of release resulting in more control of the strings and the instrument.
That said, it clearly follows that the serious guitarist must be very protective of his fingernails, which is the source of constant anxiety while they are intact, and great distress when they are damaged. Here are four ways to protect your nails. (1) Wear a glove on your right hand (Michael Jackson style) when doing any kind of work that puts your nails at risk. Some gloves are “reversible” – good for both hands – which doubles their useful life. (2) Learn to use your left hand for such routine tasks as opening doors, etc. (3) Don’t allow your nails to grow beyond their optimum playing length. (4) Apply a clear nail hardner (e.g. “Hard as Nails”) to the outer 1/8 inch of the nails. And why not the entire nail? Because the surface of the nail absorbs solvents. And nobody has ever convinced me that my bod’ needs a dose of acetone.
What to do in case of emergency, such as a loss of the nail tip all the way back to the quick? After much research, I have settled on Rico Nails: an artificial nail attached to the natural nail with a non-toxic “glue dot.” Previously, I used epoxy-like acrylic paste, but discovered that these patches produced a hard metallic sound and tended to detach at awkward times (e.g., during a performance). Also I was not enthusiastic about the exotic chemicals that they were putting into my bloodstream.
Recently I found on the internet yet another solution to the problem of a broken nail: "the coffee filter method." Briefly it involves attaching a small piece of coffee filter (approximately 1/8 inch by 1/2 inch), thoroughly saturated with clear enamel (such as "Hard as Nails"), to the tip of the nail. It has worked spectacularly well for me. However, this method only works if the nail is cracked or split, but otherwise intact. If the tip has been "sheared-off" then your only recourse is an artificial nail. More about "the coffee filter solution" in an Appendix at the end of this article.
Rico Stover, who distributes “Rico Nails,” has written an excellent if brief pamphlet (28 pages): “The Guitarist’s Guide to Fingernails.” It can be obtained along with Rico Nail kits from www.ricoguitarnails.com .
Stover’s book tells me that nails grow at about one millimeter a week, and somewhat faster with younger guitarists. Sounds about right. (You should take note of your growth rate). The surface of the nail is dead tissue (called “keratin”), so what you see is what you’ve got, for about half a year. Any damage to that nail will have to be endured until it grows out. Though I don’t know this for a fact, I suspect that constant practice results in a stronger nail and faster growth.
If you are like me, the ideal range of nail length is very precise – about a millimeter beyond the tip. This means that the nails must be filed back every second or third day. Your opening exercise routine, especially the scales, will tell you when it is time to reach for the nail file. I use the standard six-inch Revlon metal files, followed by extra-fine emory paper, wrapped around the file. Never use nail clippers on the right hand – they are blunt instruments ill-suited for the delicate task of right-hand nail care.
The Segovia Scales. I recommend the Segovia Scales. (Andrés Segovia: “Diatonic Major and Minor Scales,” Columbia Music Co.). There are twenty-four scales in all, twelve major and twelve minor.
Segovia’s routine seems overwhelming. He advises: “Practice each scale apoyando (rest stroke) seven times as indicated below.” He then lists seven different right hand sequences (imim, amam, iaia, etc.).
On closer inspection, it’s not all that bad. You will discover that these twenty-four scales involve just eight “patterns” so that for instance, the C Major scale pattern also applies (by shifting up the fingerboard) to D-flat, D, and E-flat. Three patterns (E major, F major, E minor), because they use open strings, are sui generis – not movable.
Here are the eight patterns:
C major: C, D♭, D, E♭
G major: F♯, G, A♭, A, B♭, B
A minor: Fm, F♯m, Gm, G♯m, Am
B minor: B♭, Bm.
D minor: Cm, C♯m, Dm, E♭m
Follow the maestro’s instructions (all twenty-four scales, all seven right hand sequences) and you will likely use up his recommended two hours on scales, leaving you little time or energy for anything else.. One the other hand, if you devote eight hours a day to practice and have your eyes set on a Carnegie Hall debut, then go for it. Mazel Tov! But then, I am probably not addressing these notes to you.
Personally, I am good for about five hours of daily practice. So about forty-five minutes of scales (Segovia’s plus chromatics and octaves) is about the best I can do. For the most part, I confine myself to the C major, A minor, G major, E major and E minor patterns, with occasional “shifts” to other keys.
As noted earlier, start your scales at a speed, however slowly, that allows a clean execution: -- constant tempo and volume, no missed notes, no "fret buzzes," no slurs. Then speed up, testing the limits, pulling back when the scales get sloppy. Do this daily, and you will find that your velocity and clarity will improve.
Bottom Line: don’t neglect the scales. As the maestro says: they will “enable one to solve a greater number of technical problems in a shorter time than the study of any other exercise.”
GUITAR PSYCHOLOGY -- PRACTICING REVISITED
"The number one enemy is bad practice habits." Christopher Parkening (Master Class, 1979)
From long and often painful experience, I have learned that for successful practice and performance, the head is at least equally important as the hands.
When you set out on your daily run, or session on the treadmill, your muscles, tendons and cardio-vascular system couldn’t care less if you are paying attention to your workout. So go ahead and plug those buds into your ear and turn on your i-Pod. No harm.
Guitar practicing not at all like this. It is more like studying for the SATs or for a final examination. The more you put your active conscious mind to the effort, the greater the benefit. Accordingly, as noted above, habitual "auto-piloting" (reliance solely on muscle memory) accompanied by mind-wandering is anathema to effective practice.
With all practicing, the cardinal rule applies: gain from the practice. And this means, first and foremost, do not practice your mistakes. Easier said than done. You are familiar with your mistakes, they are “old friends.” Corrections are new, awkward, challenging. "Backward steps." All of which entails that you must focus on your work, analyze it, identify the problems and address them directly, as you would identify your bad habits, and then correct them and replace them.
Here are a few essential rules of effective practicing, some gathered from the texts below and from my notes taken at the Parkening master class. Others from my own experience including, I must confess, by the painful and costly consequences of ignoring these rules.
"Practice is not Performance:"
A successful performance never stalls, never repeats, and above all, never "backtracks."
Effective practicing does all these things, as it must. Anthony Glise writes:
"When one practices, it is a matter of isolating sections, phrases, even separate notes, and obsessively working and reworking these areas over and over from a technical and musical standpoint – not simply playing through the piece. As a general rule, the key word is isolation; picking out small areas, analyzing the and practicing them outside of the piece...
However, in contrast,
"performance practicing" – "... running the piece, beginning to end, without stops ... is a relatively useless type of practice that only reinforces bad habits and solidifies mistakes in a piece." (Glise, 98, 100).
Even so, it might be a mistake to treat "performance practicing" and "acquisition practicing" (let’s call it), as totally distinct activities. As acquisition practice progresses and the memorization becomes more secure and the mechanics more under control, there will need to be be less and less "[obsessive] working and reworking" of "isolated sections," as the piece moves ever closer to the objective of a "clean run" from beginning to end at full tempo. Then interpretation and "musicianship" enters the picture, and any further work will, by definition, be "performance practice."
However, if one takes his "performance repertory" too much for granted and fails to refresh the pieces from time to time, entropy is bound to set in. The wise musician must take entropy seriously – it’s a physical law: Isolated systems tend toward disorder. Unattended gardens grow weeds. So too an unattended repertory. Physicists tell us that the only way to reverse entropy is to import energy and information. To the musician, this emphatically means practice – even (especially?) the most familiar pieces in your repertory. At least once a week, visit everything in your active repertory, and as you do be on the lookout for weed-sprouts. Put your soul into it, and as you do so imagine yourself a music critic sitting in the audience and evaluating your performance. And if you encounter "weed sprouts," then it is time again to "isolate," "work" and "rework."
By abandoning the performance mode in favor of the analytical-acquisition mode, one is trading breadth for depth in one’s practice sessions – fewer pieces addressed, with more time spent with each piece that is worked on. The result is a scrapping of a strategy leading to minimal improvements of many pieces in favor of a strategy which achieves a substantial improvement of a few pieces. In the long run, the result is a faster and more substantial acquisition of the entire repertory, as pieces which might have formerly remained on the music stand for weeks or even months, are promptly assimilated and moved on to the "performance-ready, occasional review" list.
Accordingly, when you work on a piece in your practice session, stay with it until you feel that you have made substantial improvement. If you bring a "ToDo List" of pieces to your practice session, don't feel compelled to visit all of them. Otherwise, you might find yourself rushing through a piece in "performance mode," to no great advantage. Once again: Study in depth.
With this new "analytic/acquisition regime," I propose the "three-times" tactic:" If you can’t get through a passage cleanly, slow down and try to execute it correctly three times in a row. If any of those three attempts fail, start again at "GO" and try another three in a row, perhaps slightly increasing the tempo each time. This is a "tactic," and not a hard and fast rule. If it takes up a disproportionate amount of time, set it aside and try again another day – perhaps slower the next time.
Finally, when practicing, always have a pad of paper and/or a voice recorder at hand to collect notes and random thoughts that come to mind. Ideas that pop up into your mind as you practice might, if they are not captured, be lost forever.
You must crawl before you walk, and walk before your run. Obvious and irrefutable. Similarly, to effectively and efficiently learn and memorize a piece of music, one should begin slowly.
I confess that I steadfastly resisted this rule ever since I first picked up the classical guitar, some fifty years ago. I guess that just wanted to run with it ASAP, damned the complications! And I have paid dearly for it in lost time and flawed performances.
Slow practice is very conducive to acquiring and solidifying pattern and kinesthetic memory. Thus if one encounters difficulty in securing "hard memory" this may be due, in part, to one's disinclination to practice slowly, added to an unwillingness to pause, analyze, and "iron out" difficult passages (about which, more below).
Amazingly, sometimes slow practice can sound worse than practice in fast tempo, with errors and memory blocks appearing that are somehow "skipped over" in full tempo. If so, this probably indicates undue reliance on muscle memory. When this happens, the flaws must be eliminated and the memory restored in slow tempo, all the while focusing on the patterns and kinesthetic "feeling" of the corrections. Slow-practice fumbles and blocks should be treated as an opportunity to correct in the solitary practice room what will likely prove an embarrassment in performance.
How slow? Slow enough that the errors disappear. If that turns up to be painfully slow, just suck it up and carry on. Repeat until secure, then pick up the tempo – a little bit at time. When the "weeds" reappear, focus on them and eliminate through repetitions. If you don’t "weed the garden" in slow tempo, they are bound to foul up your full tempo performances.
Effective practice (in both "acquisition mode" and "performance mode") requires persistent and undistracted attention to the tasks at hand. In a word, "focus."
A wandering mind can, in moderation, be an asset to a writer, as allusions, associations, illustrations, etc., randomly come to mind during the creative process, some of which will eventually find a place in the final composition. The same might be said for composers, arrangers and improvisers (notably jazz musicians). But even in these cases, there comes a time when concentrated attention must be given to the task of putting words or notes on paper.
That same "concentrated attention" is essential as the guitarist addresses and labors to overcome the technical challenges ("weeds"), and struggles to put a piece into multi-dimensional memory – i.e., head, note, pattern, kinesthetic and muscle memory. And that acutely focused attention is indispensable in performance.
If an exercise or passage evades your control, try "finger focusing:" direct your attention to your fingers as you consciously "feel" them execute the scales -- first the left, then the right, then both. If you miss a note or play the wrong note, identify the culprit finger and focus on it until it gets back into line. Bear in mind that "finger focusing" is a learning technique, like bicycle training wheels. When you have corrected the problem throw away the training wheels, as you adopt a broader focus. After all, as you approach "performance control," you should be comfortable with your performance and you mind should be focused on "musicianship" -- tempo, dynamics, and, in general, interpretation of the piece. You simply can't do this if your mind is obsessed with individual finger activity.
In the early days, when I first became captivated with the guitar, focus was rarely a problem, when quite often aching fingers and physical exhaustion put an end to hours-long all night sessions with a newly-acquired piece of sheet music. No longer. I admit that practice is now much more of a chore than an obsession, and I am much more inclined to play a familiar and well-controlled piece in "performance mode," than to slog through a new or tough piece in "acquisition mode." The former is "fun;" the latter is work.
But as any coach or teacher will testify, what one prefers and what one needs are two very different things. Or, putting it another way, if one wants to excel in a sport or an academic field, or a new language, or a musical instrument, one must deal with the fundamentals, with undivided attention, like it or not. There’s no way around it: "ya gotta eat your spinach!"
Sure enough, you should play that familiar piece "with feeling," now and then. Have fun. Enjoy the fruits of your accomplishment. If guitar study is a source of unremitting pain and frustration, then maybe you should seek another pastime.
But keep these pleasant diversions in check, as you apply yourself with hard work and focused attention to the task of acquiring skills and repertory that will open up the opportunity for still more such enjoyments.
Which leads to the issue of "breaks." The requisite "focus" on your practicing will be more readily obtained if you let go from time to time. Again, this is a personal matter, but speaking for myself, at first, my practice schedule roughly followed my performance schedule -- and coincidentally the customary academic schedule. Forty-five minutes on, fifteen off. However, I found that both the practice and breaks were too brief. So I have moved to another schedule: One hour or an hour and a half, followed by a half hour break. Routine exercises and "Weeds" lend themselves to ninety minute sessions. Repertory work is better in hour-long chunks.
In addition to the scheduled breaks, one should allow oneself a few "mini-breaks" within those practice sessions: ten seconds or so to no more than a minute of total relaxation and mind-wandering. But breaks have a way of going on too long. The only solution is self-discipline – nothing more or less. Also, be flexible about breaks. If after forty-five minutes or an hour or so you find yourself totally engrossed in productive work and eager to carry one, there is no need to arbitrarily cut it short, just because "it’s time." If that total absorption extends to an hour and a half without pause, then maybe you have earned a half-hour break. It’s your schedule, do what you want with it. Just keep those breaks in check.
Practice with a Critical Ear.
"All great artists are self-taught." (Andres Segovia)
Of course, Segovia didn’t mean that no great artists had teachers. Of course, they all did. Segovia is referring to the time that the aspiring artist spends away from his teacher, in solitary practice. If that practice is to be effective, it must be done with a bifurcated mind: the mind of the student engaged at the task at hand, and the mind of a critical observer assessing the success or failure of that task. Again, Anthony Glise:
The mental attitude that the student must adopt ... is one of analytic obsession. He hears everything, sees everything, feels everything, thinks through every move, every sound and constantly questions every single musical result that he gets from the instrument. It’s as if the student becomes two people: a "player" and a "listener," both sitting there at the same time. The student becomes his own hypercritical teacher. (Glise, 99)
And so, if, while in "acquisition mode" you are struggling with a tough passage, pause for a moment. Think through what you are trying to accomplish ("anticipate"). Then give it a try ("execute"), after which your should assess your success or failure ("analyze"), and if a failure then isolate the problem. In short, anticipate, execute, analyze, and then, with the needed correction firmly in mind, repeat. And repeat. And repeat. Always with that critical eye and ear focused on what you are doing, repeating the tripartite sequence: anticipate, execute, analyze,
Before your leave that passage (which could be as brief as two, three or four notes) and move on, put it in context – add a few notes and then a few measures that precede and follow it. Fingering is in part a function of context, and sometimes a shift into and out of a targeted fragment can be awkward. If you find this to be the case, then forget about "moving on." See to it that the target segment fits seamlessly into its context.
Banish forever from you mind, the old adage, "practice makes perfect." T’aint so. Practice makes permanent. And that means that, unless you are constantly on your guard, you will be practicing your mistakes, perchance to make them permanent. We can easily become comfortable with our mistakes, and their correction may feel awkward at first. Anyone who has taught beginners knows this. In fact, even if you are an accomplished guitarist, you will likely recall how strange the correct method seemed to you at first. When my friend and first teacher, Harold Morris, nagged me mercilessly about my right hand placement – "no, no, move the whole finger from the top joint!" – I thought to myself, "you gotta be kidding me." He was right, of course, and now the correct "Segovian" finger movement is second nature. So be alert and be a critical observer of your own practicing. Your teacher may be with you one hour out of the week to make corrections. The rest of the time, it is up to you.
And finally, even if you are confident that you are in full control of a piece, and that further practice will be in "performance mode," don’t get cocky. Weeds will sprout up, especially if you set the piece aside for awhile. If so, don’t hesitate to stop and attend to those weeds as they appear. Remember, you are practicing. There is no audience out there to complain if you stop to apply instant repair.
The Relaxation Paradox.
The world-class teachers and performers all agree: if you can’t relax, you are not ready for prime-time.
So here’s a typical instruction to a poor guitar student – and to myself, as auto-didact: "Focus attention on your playing, take notice of the hand positions and the kinesthetic "feeling," move the full right fingers, hide that left thumb, use your finger-tips, etc. – and above all, relax!"
Absurd, isn’t it? All this, and then "relax"? And therein lies the paradox.
OK, I’ll admit it. Under such circumstances, total relaxation is impossible. Nonetheless, relaxed performance is the goal toward which all this focus and attention is directed.
Even so, the more relaxation during practice and instruction, the better, even though full relaxation is impossible. So now and then, let your arms drop to the side (but don’t drop that guitar!), flex your fingers a couple of times and then go totally limp. Then resume position, seeing to it that only the requisite muscles are at work. Or get up and walk around a bit, then sit down, feet flat on the floor and stool, and as comfortable as possible. Take a deep breath. Students of martial arts and transcendental meditation have an advantage over the rest of us: relaxation exercises are a fundamental part of their discipline. Maybe they can teach us something. I am more than willing to listen.
Here’s another paradox: sometimes, while working on a tough passage, my attention wanders away from the task and my "auto pilot" (muscle memory) takes over, and, voila!, I run through the bugger flawlessly!
Yet another paradox: sometimes an exercise works best the first time through, then deteriorates with repetition. How to explain this? I suspect that in such cases, the first run-through is on "auto-pilot", after which self-conscious and analytic attention to detail gets in the way of muscle memory. It's that damned "millipede problem" again!
No, I am not taking back all that I said about focusing. After all, how do you suppose that passage got into "auto pilot" in the first place? Through hard, focused work, of course! Still, there is something important to be learned by these phenomena. "Playing on auto-pilot" (muscle memory) is, after all, the goal of practice, albeit an "auto-pilot" firmly associated with conscious pattern and kinesthetic awareness. The focused attention on detail and an anxiety about one’s ability to bring it off, interferes with the execution. Put all that "focused" distraction aside, and muscle memory gets through to do its thing.
The "focus" of the student is anxious and uncertain, and thus a complication. In contrast, the "focus" of the accomplished performer is intense, yet tranquil. He is totally and confidently in charge. No sweat! So his relaxed focus is nothing but an asset in his performance.
Familiarity is Comfortable; Progress is Painful.
Or as the sports coaches say more directly, "no gain without pain." Yet avoidance of the pain of progress is why so many practice their mistakes, and thus make no progress. If you are not experiencing some frustration and anxiety in your practice, you may not be pushing your limits. For example, running through the scale exercise at ease and at a respectable speed is fine. More power to you. But your should test the limits. Go faster until it gets a bit sloppy, then back off, then play as fast as you can cleanly. Do this every day. Same with arpeggios, tremolo, legados, etc. Then little by little, day by day, you will increase your velocity, as you must if you aspire to virtuosity.
Old and easy pieces are your friends. Return to them often for enjoyment and reassurance. But then look to new frontiers. Take on pieces that seem a bit too difficult for you, and prepare to be stymied and frustrated, and be ready for some hard analysis and repetitive correction. Persist until you take control, and then these too will become your friends
This is advice that I offer with some hesitation. It often works for me, but for others it might bring on a world of hurt. Often, when I am struggling with a difficult passage, I think of the few notes directly ahead – where I am hopefully heading – and am thus able to negotiate the trouble ahead. The slur-passage in the Villa-Lobos First Etude, the run in Turina’s Fandanguillo, and of course the Bach Chaconne, immediately come to mind. This requires a kind of fugal thinking, with the muscle memory doing the work at hand, and the conscious mind doing the job of anticipation. If you can pull off this multi-tasking, give it a try. You might find it helpful. But be careful!
Let it Breathe:
I have found that as I gain control over a piece, I tend to practice it at tempo that is faster than ideal for performance, and that when I perform I appropriately scale back the tempo a bit. When I do so, both in practice and performance, I gain a considerable amount of control and confidence.
In addition, when the piece is "performance-ready" – in hard memory and full technical control – it is time for musicianship to kick in: time to add rubatos, phrasings, tempo and dynamic changes, etc. Treat the piece, not as an exercise and not an obstacle, but rather – or you ready for this? – as music!. This is the achievement that you have been striving for: the moment when you can, confidently and fully relaxed, enjoy your performance. And when you do so, so too will your audience.
And speaking of audiences, keep in mind that it is a huge step from the privacy of your practice room to a recital hall or even a restaurant. The difference, of course, is performance anxiety, or “stage fright.” If you are not performing for an audience find some. even if it means playing for free. You will be much the better for it if and when the opportunity arises to work for pay.
The human brain is a strange and marvelous instrument. Often you might struggle uselessly, it seems, to master a fiendishly difficult passage, or attempt in vain to memorize a piece, and finally give up and move on, discouraged. Then, a couple of days latter, you find to your amazement, that you’ve got it aced. Seems that the brain has worked overtime, below consciousness, to figure it out. Most writers are well aware of this phenomenon, whereby a good night’s sleep often proves to be more productive than continued mind-bending attempts at composition.. Indeed, without this active and creative subconscious, many writers would have given up, early on. So don’t despair and be patient. There is likely much more working for you inside your noggin than you suspect.
(For more suggestions on practicing strategy, see Ricardo Iznaola’s excellent booklet, On Practicing, Mel Bay Publications, 2000).
A CLOSING PERSONAL NOTE:
Andres Segovia once remarked that learning the classical guitar is often like climbing a mountain. From time to time, one might find that one has reached a dead end, that that there is no feasible route to the summit. One must then retrace, back down, and find another route. "A few steps back to allow many steps forward."
Recently I found myself at such a dead end. Despite numerous repetitions over several weeks, or even months, many pieces refused to submit to "hard memory." Technical problems remained on the "weed sheet" for months on end. Clearly I had hit a wall, and progress was slowing to a crawl.
Time for some serious self-evaluation. A study of some of the texts listed below, and the fortuitous discovery of the notes that I took at Christopher Parkening's 1979 Master Class, led me to a determination to find and follow a different path "up the mountain." I then wrote out a lengthy self-analysis and put it in my personal "Practice Log." Much of that log has found its way into the final two sections of this essay.
Here, in summary are most important errors of the "dead end" and corrections of the "alternate route."
I avoided "slow practice." I tried to play pieces "full throttle," which proved to be a fruitless indulgence. Now I must strive for a "clean" practice, however slow it must be. Speed will eventually come, but it must come only after all the "weeds" are removed.
My practice time was heavy on "performance practice," and light on "acquisition practice. Thus "snags" were skipped over or given inadequate attention, on the false assumption that mere repetition would resolve them.
I falsely assumed that mere repetition would lead to hard memorization. In fact, it might do so, but only ineffectively and inefficiently. A far better approach is "acquisition practice" with close attention and working out of difficult fragments and with a careful and sustained attention to the appearance and "feel" of the execution, whereby muscle memorization is supplemented with pattern and kinesthetic memorization. Without all three, memory is vulnerable and "memory blocks" during a performance are likely.
Similarly, all this repetition led to mind-wandering, when focus was desperately needed.
Finally, despite all the warnings of the experts, and frankly of myself as well, I found myself practicing my errors. The remedy is constant, uncompromising self-analysis and, if available, the advice of a qualified teacher or coach.
Remember above all: the guitar, and to be sure, some basic "human nature," are your adversaries, unless and until, through hard work and self-discipline, you become their master. Guitar composers and arrangers will require you to contort your hands in strange ways that God or Nature never intended. You will have to get used to calluses on your left fingertips and long nails on your right fingers, which will cause you constant anxiety. As for "human nature," you must discipline yourself to abandon familiar errors and limitation, and to acquire new skills -- to replace "comfortable familiarity" with "painful progress." You must be on constant guard against practicing your mistakes. You must develop an intensity of mental discipline and focus to which your are unaccustomed.
In short, learning the classical guitar ain't a bed of roses. Like "breaking" a wild horse, you must patiently persevere until you finally gain control. The goal is to achieve those moments when, with confidence, control, and inner calm, you can take full control of your instrument and treat it as your friend.
There was a time when I could do this, at least some of the time -- when I could look forward, without a qualm, to an evening's performance at a club, resort or restaurant. Television on tape was also no sweat -- there were always re-takes. But live performances or TV or recitals, well that was another matter.
But now, a two years after resuming my guitar work, I'm not back there yet. However, I am both hopeful and determined.
I've paid a heavy price for this addiction. It delayed my doctorate by several years, and with it my academic career. Many scholarly papers were not published and books not written because of it. Eventually that academic career forced me to abandon the guitar for two decades. Would I do it again? I believe so. But that question remains unanswered, pending the results of my current "renaissance." In retirement, I now have the leisure time that my active academic career would not allow. It remains to be seen what that time and effort will accomplish.
PostScript: Fingernail Repair -- "The Coffee Filter Method."
I have three strong and durable nails in my right hand: p, i and m. Fingernail a (on the ring finger) presents a chronic problem. There is a weak point that tends to split at right angles to the nail tip and then spread back to the quick. Because of this spread, once the split appears it will not grow out with time. The split can be caused by nothing more than vigorously playing the guitar. Heretofore, the only solution was to cut the nail behind the split and then use an artificial "RicoNail" for at least three weeks until the nail grew out. After which, it might split again at any time.
What to do? The internet may have given me the answer.
There I found the suggestion that a tea bag paper saturated with clear enamel ("Hard as Nails") might do the trick. Still better, I figured, use coffee filter paper -- it's stronger. Whatever you use, be sure that it is absorbent -- like a tea bag or coffee filter.
First, cut a piece that will fit over the break. Usually approximately 1/8 inch will do the trick. Depends on the break. If the piece of filter is too wide and you might be stuck with it longer than you want. If it is too long, it will be more likely to "catch" and break off. Also, if the coffee filter is "pleated" at the side, as most are, your are in luck. Cut the pleat so that the piece is curved and falls along the curve of the nail.
(Optional step): Apply "super glue" directly to the break. Use the smallest possible amount, and confine to the break. Use a toothpick to allow the glue to penetrate the break, which will assure that the edges of the break bond together. Wait about ten minutes for the glue to dry.
Then apply the enamel generously to the front of the fingernail, and immediately put the paper patch over it. (You don't want the enamel to form an impermeable surface). Allow the enamel to saturate the paper, assisting the process by pressing down repeatedly with a toothpick. Then put another coat of enamel over the top.
Saturation is essential. If done correctly, the white of the paper will fade and the patch will become transparent and almost invisible to the casual eye. If the white remains, you may have a weak bond and you may lose the patch rather soon.
Allow a part of the paper to extend beyond the fingernail tip, then wait about an hour. Then clip the excess off at the tip. A couple of hours after that, when the enamel is thoroughly dry and hard, file back until you have a good playing edge. Be sure to file the top of the patch (with the paper) behind the natural nail. Otherwise the guitar string might catch on the paper, pulling it off the nail.
Re-apply the enamel on the tip of the nail once or twice a week. In general, confine the patch to the front of the nail. (I still have qualms about absorbing acetone and other exotic chemicals through the nails).
My first attempt (which showed a bit of white), lasted about ten days. The next patch, which was virtually invisible, stayed in place for more than two weeks, after which the split in the nail grew out and was gone, leaving the nail was in perfect guitar-playing condition.
Copyright 2013 by Ernest Partridge
Bobri, Vladimir, The Segovia Technique, Collier, New York, 1972.
Glise, Anthony, Classical Guitar Pedagogy, Mel Bay, 1997.
Iznaola, Ricardo, Kitharologus: The Path to Virtuosity, Mel Bay, 1997.
Iznaola, Ricardo, On Practicing, Mel Bay, 2000.
Papas, Sophocles, Method for the Classical Guitar, Columbia Music.
Parkening, Christopher, The Christopher Parkening Guitar Method, Vols. 1 & 2, Hal Leonard: Milwaukee, 1972, 2009.
Segovia, Andrés, Diatonic Major and Minor Scales, Columbia Music: Washington, 1953.
Segovia, Andres, Slur Exercises and Chromatic Octaves, Columbia Music, Washington, 1970
Tennant, Scott, Pumping Nylon, Alfred Publishing Co., 1995.