Sunday, December 11, 2016

Two Left-Hand Exercises

I haven't done any posts on guitar technique for a long time. There are a couple of good exercises for the left hand that classical guitarists might find useful.

Every time I watch a pianist play, after I am impressed and astonished at their virtuosity, I secretly think to myself how much easier their job is. On keyboard instruments a lot of what is needed to produce each note is automated. Every time you strike a key, an internal mechanism goes to work with a hammer (in the case of the piano) striking a string at just the right angle and, as soon as the key is released, a damping mechanism stops the sound. How very cool!

Things are more complicated for guitarists. Instead of each hand being able to produce notes independently, both hands are needed for most notes. The left hand most commonly is needed to stop each note on a fret while the right hand plucks the string. What this means is that usually we are limited to four notes at a time as there are four available fingers on the left hand (the thumb is behind the neck for stability) and four on the right hand (the little finger is rarely used to pluck). But, you will say with surprise, we often hear a lot more notes on the guitar? Yes, there are a couple of techniques that enable all six strings to be played at once: they may be strummed, passing quickly across all six, and the left hand index finger can be laid across all six strings at once. This, along with the other fingers, enables the use of six-note chords.

But the bottom line is, in order to reproduce some of the complex textures we find on the piano, each hand has to do the job on guitar, whereas on the keyboard, the task can be split up between the two hands. This being so, there are all kinds of textures that the piano can create that the guitar cannot. Still, three, four, even rarely five, independent voices can be played on the guitar--with a lot of restrictions, of course. For one of my graduating recitals I played a piece by Valentin Bakfark, a Hungarian lutenist notorious for articulating four, five and once even a six-voice structure. I couldn't find the one I was looking for, but here is a clip of three of Bakfark's transcriptions of polyphony for multiple voices:

So, just to clarify, whereas on the piano you can play a four-voice texture by dividing it between the two hands so each hand is responsible for two voices, but on the guitar, each hand has to play all four voices.

This being the case, guitarists have to develop a lot of independence in each hand.

The first exercise is from  the "Cuadernos" of Abel Carlevaro, perhaps the most gifted modern guitar pedagogue. I attended a guitar festival in Toronto many years ago where he gave master classes and a concert. The concert, which included the Sonata by Castelnuovo-Tedesco, was an excellent demonstration of real technical command. In the master classes, after the student played, he would begin each commentary by saying: "hay dos problemas: el mano derecho y el mano izquierda!" ("There are two problems: the right hand and the left hand.")

This exercise involves "fixing" one or more fingers while moving the others. This method is one of the very best for developing finger independence. I show it on the fifth fret, but it can be done anywhere on the fingerboard. You will notice a half note at the beginning. This note is stopped by the first finger on the fifth fret of the third string. You can sound it or not, but if you don't sound it, make sure that the note is cleanly held. Then the other fingers simply play the pattern 4342 across the whole fingerboard. I only show it going up to the first string, but you should go up and back:

Click to enlarge
Then you simply go on to fix each of the fingers in succession, while playing the same pattern with the remaining fingers. With the other three fingers, you have to skip the third string. This shows the pattern with the second finger fixed:

Click to enlarge
UPDATE: oops, I indicated the wrong fingering above. With the second finger fixed, the fingering for the eighth notes is 4341!

Then you just go on and fix three and then four while playing the pattern with the remaining fingers.

Carlevaro adds a couple more difficult versions. Next you fix two fingers and play a different pattern with the other two. Here it is with one and two fixed while playing three and four:

Click to enlarge
I have put the fixed fingers in a separate measure for clarity. So you start by fixing your first and second fingers on the third string (in fifth position, as before, though you can do this any where). Then you play the fourth finger on the second string and the third finger on the fourth string simultaneously. Then the third and fourth fingers leap, trading strings and the next pair of notes have the fourth finger on the fourth string and the third finger on the second string. This repeats then you simply expand the pattern to the second and fifth strings and then the first and sixth strings--that one is quite difficult. It is very important to do this very slowly and carefully so that the fingers can find the right strings cleanly.

I'm not going to write the rest out, but you follow this by fixing the second and third fingers, while playing with the first and fourth, then fixing the third and fourth while playing the first and second. Then you fix the non-adjacent fingers: fix one and four while playing two and three, fix one and three while playing two and four and fix two and four while playing one and three. Did I miss any?

I haven't actually looked at Carlevaro's book for about twenty years (I lost a lot of my library because of an Evil Moving Company) so he may notate it differently.

Now for my left hand exercise. When I was playing a lot of Baroque music I felt the need to improve my trill technique so I invented this exercise: trills with each pair of fingers while holding a bass note.  As the exercise is for cadential trills, they all start on the upper note:

Click to enlarge
You start by fixing the first finger on the sixth string, again in fifth position. Then you do slow, measured slurs with your fourth and second fingers on the fifth string. Do a full measure in 4/4 of sixteenth notes. Then just move this pattern across the strings as indicated, going up to the first string and returning to the fifth. Then do the same pattern but this time with the third finger slurring to the second, each on their fret. Finally, repeat the pattern using the fourth and third fingers. Then do it all over again, but with the second finger fixed on the sixth string and doing the slurs with the first, third and fourth fingers. These two groups of patterns cover most of the typical situations, but if you really want a workout, do the same fixing the third and fourth fingers! Very difficult.

Those two exercises should give you a lot of independence in the left hand. There is a very appropriate study by Villa-Lobos that you might also try: the Etude No. 10. Here is a performance by Andrea Dieci:

No comments: