“What have you been working on? Play me something,” Owen said, as I sat in his studio again.
English Dance and Shaking Hands
I was excited to show him how I could play the English Dance, a piece from page 69 of Shearer “Classic Guitar Technique”, Volume 1, that he had assigned me last week. It’s a wonderful miniature in four sections, each only eight measures long. The bass and treble parts move separately, and there’s a middle voice as well, though it doesn’t do much. I’ve been working it really hard this week, and it’s a piece I plan to record soon, just because I like it. It’s fun to play, and yet it’s easy enough I can concentrate on watching my hands and maintaining correct form.
I launched into the song, and played fine for the first two sections, but I could hear Voice 1, the critical voice, (Ref: “Inner Game of Music” by Barry Green) saying, “There you go, show him how you can play it.” And my hands started to shake and I got stalled beginning the third section. After three tries getting started again, I just stopped and tried to relax a moment, and Owen went to open my book. I complained that I didn’t need the music, that I knew the piece. He just said, “I know you do, but sometimes it’s helpful to use the page to get you going again.” He asked me to slow it down. I’m stubborn, and I finished the piece, but I got stuck a few more times and just couldn’t calm my nerves. Though the ending was fine, the piece was terribly damaged.
“What you need to do now is to focus on the more important line and bring out that part,” he said, and we went over the piece again, much as we had last week. In the beginning section, two notes are played with thumb and finger, but they’re not equal. The finger should play louder than the thumb, the opposite of what the hand wants to do, in order to bring out the melody. That’s hard, especially at faster tempos. Later in the second part of the second section, the emphasis shifts to the bass. We talked about where to accent the treble, and where the bass, and how the strong and weak parts of the 2/4 time bring the piece alive. We played again, together, at a much more reasonable tempo, and we emphasized the parts and focused on sound. It did sound much better, and by the time we were finished, my hands were mine again.
I told him the first part of the song is easier for me to play with good hand form, and he said that’s because it’s simpler, all the same interval, and the hand stays in one place. Later in the piece, the lines have more detail, and the hand has to shift to play. “You can fix that by just slowing it down.” See the excerpt below.
In 3/4 time, the accent is on the first note: ONE two three ONE two three. In 4/4, it’s often STRONG and weak and Not So Strong and weak. Of course, it needs to be subtle.
Introducing the Rest Stroke
He asked to hear Carulli’s Allegro from page 56, so I played it. This one went quite well, and he was pleased with it. He played along with me softly, and sang the melody notes.
“I’d like to use this piece to work on the rest stroke,” he said, and asked me if I had used that stroke before. I said I knew what it was, and had tried it but never really studied it. In this piece, he wants me to use the rest stroke for the second note, the high note, of each three-note figure. The caret above the note indicates a rest stroke, and the letter indicates which finger of the right hand plays it.
Emphasizing the notes with a rest stroke gives the illusion of another part. It brings out the melody. You keep the same curvature of your finger and let the finger go into the next string behind it. If your nail is shaped right and isn’t too long, you won’t have any trouble getting over it. If you turn your finger straight on, you’re going to get caught, and you’ll hear a click. That click is your fingernail crashing into the string. It’s a harsh sound. You place the finger so the string lands in the flesh and nail interface on the thumb side of the fingernail. It starts right on that point, where there’s plenty of flesh to grab the string, and as you move the finger through the string, the curvature of the nail launches it. You get a different kind of sound. Your fingers should be kept in a curved shape and not allowed to flatten out, as the flamenco players do. They can play very fast with an open, flat hand, but their hand is out of position to do anything else. That’s okay for flamenco music, which requires either strumming or rapid single note runs, but a classical player has to be able to throw a rest stroke in there any old time. The hand position should look the same as when doing a free stroke, but it has a different sound. You force the string down a bit, and so it vibrates more toward and away from the guitar, instead of parallel to the top. It has a different color.
I played Allegro again with this new stroke, and I could do it, but found it to be very slow going. He advised me to let the finger rest on the next string after playing until the next note comes along to take its place. He also noticed that my thumb was playing rest stroke as it had a few weeks ago. He told me to play free strokes with the thumb and rest stroke only on the second note of each group. I seem to play rest strokes with my thumb automatically when I’m unsure of what I’m doing, and I need to break that habit, because it distorts my hand.
I’m to do the same thing with Carulli’s Waltz on page 66. This song is in 3/4 time, with groupings of six eighth notes, and the 3rd and 5th notes should be played rest stroke. You can play these pieces without rest strokes and make them sound perfectly fine. He made sure I understood that we’re using these as exercises. Whether I choose to play them this way later will be completely up to me and my interpretation of the piece. This is another piece I had been working on this week. Again, he’s giving me a new assignment with a piece I already know. This helps because I have already learned the notes and can concentrate on the new information. He doesn’t try to make everything new at once. This is an excellent teaching technique.
“Play these slow enough that your hand is still responsible,” he told me. “Don’t distort your hand.” If your hand is rocking back and forth, you’re doing something wrong. Keep the curvature of your hand. The most common problem is trying to do the rest stroke with the middle finger, because it’s longer. Your hand has to move a little bit, because of the extra length. The fingertip should be flexible, almost like a paintbrush, but don’t let the tip flex too much.
“There are some people who say the opposite, who say the finger should be rigid like a hammer or a harpsichord jack. When they play,” he laughed, “you can hear that in their sound. They should just play the harpsichord or the organ, where it doesn’t make any difference how hard you hit it.”
He told me about a man who came to him for lessons who had been playing country music with heavy strings, and he had monster calluses on his hands. He was so proud of them. “All that tells me is he’d played the guitar a lot, and wrong. He’d been wrestling his guitar for 20 years, and he thought he’d been developing these badges of honor.” Eventually, he improved his playing because he realized he was killing his hands.
He asked me about my experience with chord playing. He says it’s beneficial to practice chord changes, because there are lessons to be learned in fingering. In going from one chord to another, you can choose how you finger the chords so they flow from one to another and conserve motion. He showed me how he fingered an A chord like the open position D7 with the first finger on the 3rd string second fret, the second finger on the 4th string second fret, and the third finger on the 2nd string, second fret. See the figure to the right. Then, when moving from A to D, the first finger stays put as a guide finger and the rest of the hand just kind of opens up. You will figure some of these things out with experience, but you can also learn this way from the beginning. You choose the fingering you will use depending on the key you’re playing in, or on what you’re going to do next. He showed me four or five ways to play the same A chord, and it just depends on what comes next, to put your hand in the most advantageous position.
I was reminded of the chord sequence my friend Donna showed me in Portland this spring. Donna is a guitar teacher in the Los Angeles area, and one of the songs she shows her students has a very graceful flow of efficient fingerings. Every chord leads to the next using a guide finger or pivot finger. Here is the fingering from the piece called They Call the Wind Mariah. Notice how the the chords have been fingered to leave one finger in place for each chord change. When changing from G to Em, from Em to C, and from C to D7, the support finger is called a pivot finger because it stays in place and the other fingers pivot around it. When changing from D7 back to G, the third finger stays on the first string and slides from the second fret to the third fret. This is a guide finger. These two kinds of support make chord changes much easier, as they help minimize the motion.
Sight-reading with Pre-fingered Music
When you look at music that has been fingered by an expert, or even by yourself, you need to train yourself to read the finger first, and then the note. That tells you what position your hand needs to be in. The finger to use will be written on the staff immediately to the left of the note, where 1 means left hand index, 2 is middle, 3 is ring, and 4 is pinky. See measures 2 and 4 from Carulli’s English Dance, shown in the figure. You read the number first, then the note. This will facilitate sight-reading by establishing your hand position ahead of time. When you number your own music, make sure to put the number to the left of the note (not to the right, or even above the note). Owen said he occasionally has problems with some publishers putting the fingerings behind the notes, and that’s too late. You’ve already played the note by the time you see the fingering.
He told me that by sitting down with a new piece of music and carefully writing in all the fingerings of both hands, you will have much of it memorized before you even begin, because you have put so much effort into it already. Then, you can sit down and just play it.
Hear It Before You Play It
You need to develop the skill of hearing the music before you play it. If you can imagine a note first, then play it, your hands will find the right notes by reflex. What you imagine is probably what’s going to come out. You will have infinitely more control over how the music sounds. After the note plays, there’s nothing you can do.
I said that in coming back to reading after having played for years, I often know what the music will sound like first, and my fingers just know where to go. I can sight read in keys I’ve never studied, because my fingers know the patterns. Once you’ve imagined the notes, the reflexes are put into motion. Scientists have done research on musicians imagining themselves playing a piece, and though the fingers don’t move, the signals can be detected in the fingertips. When you imagine playing a piece, you are actually playing that piece. You are reinforcing those reflexes by thinking about your music.
I told him that I had broken a string this week, the D string. I had opened the case and found it broken right at the bridge. “Yeah, that’s the one. Either that or the A string. The D has the highest tension on it for its size.” I told him I had just tried to buy an extra D-string there in the shop, but they were completely out of them. He laughed, and said again that’s the string everyone breaks. He also told me that if that happens again, I could just take it off the guitar, turn it around, and reinstall it. In fact, you could do that to freshen up an entire set, because you have a lot of unused string wound on the tuners. He said he has students who even remove their strings, wash them, and put them back on to save money. That works because it gets all the grime off them.