Monday, September 9, 2013

A Little on Guitar Technique

I haven't posted on guitar technique for a while. I hope you non-guitarists will forgive me but, who knows, I might say something useful even to non-guitarists.

A while ago I put up my performance of the Etude No. 1 by Heitor Villa-Lobos. Here it is again:

This is possibly the most popular etude of the twelve, not just with guitarists, but also with audiences. It poses some unique technical challenges. There is a new critical edition of the Etudes by Frédéric Zigante that takes into account some manuscript versions of the pieces and corrects some misprints. It is an excellent edition with complete scholarly apparatus about editions and sources. But, there are still some problems. I think the major problem with this etude is the right hand fingering which is found in a ms. of Villa-Lobos. He was a fine composer, but one suspects his guitar technique was less than polished. The problem with the RH fingering indicated is that you will probably never be able to achieve a truly even effect. There is a better fingering that aligns the RH with the meter more effectively. I have been using it so long myself that I honestly don't remember if I discovered it independently or if someone showed it to me. In any case, here is the first measure as a sample with Villa-Lobos' fingering and mine underneath:

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The problem this solves is the one created by following what Villa-Lobos considered to be a logical right hand fingering in terms of assigning strings to fingers. Unfortunately, this creates a problem in the third beat where a very weak finger combination, m a, falls on a strong beat metrically. What happens is that the rhythm at this point tends to limp. I'm sure there are very gifted technicians that can make the arpeggio even despite this, but I'm not one of them, nor are any of the students I have taught over thirty years. So there is a simple solution: simply adapt the fingering to the meter, which is what the lower fingering, numbered "2" does. The thumb plays on the beginning of each beat, making this fingering feel much more natural. The string-crossing requires a bit of practice, but it is easily achievable.

There are a couple of other issues with this piece. First of all, the tempo. The etude is often played at MM 120 to the quarter or even faster, at perhaps 132 or more. This may be achievable technically, but notice what Villa-Lobos writes: "Allegro non troppo". NOT too fast. Allegro is estimated at being between 109 and 132, so a not too fast allegro could easily be around 100. I think my recording, which dates back a number of years, is actually too fast! Even and controlled is better than speedy with this etude.

Now, how to practice it. Over the years I came up with an excellent practice method that will just about guarantee success. Practice the arpeggio by itself on open strings and also damp the strings with your left hand around the tenth to twelfth frets. You will get just a thumping kind of sound, which is very good for you to listen to for an even touch and rhythm. Practice this arpeggio VERY SLOWLY until it is memorized and very even. The next step is to practice it with different rhythms as below:

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Once you can play all these rhythms with complete control and evenness, then incrementally speed them up until you reach 100 on the metronome. As far as the argpeggio goes, that's it. It might take a while, but it is an extremely good discipline for the right hand. Once you have the arpeggio going well, you can try it with the actual chords. Having real pitches instead of just thumps is a real thrill, which adds to the fun of playing this etude.

UPDATE: I should probably mention that the way to practice those rhythmic patterns is to do each one by itself many times in a row before going on to the next one.

The only remaining problems with the etude are measures 23 and 24 and 31 and 32 where you have to skip around, first with slurs and then with harmonics. But just practice each passage very slowly until you have it mastered. No real tricks here.

Don't rush it and you will have an excellent addition to your repertoire.

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