Let the left hand know what the right hand is doing
(Part One of this post is here.)
Guitarists sometimes complain about the chords in Giuliani’s 120 right-hand exercises from his Op. 1. The complaints usually revolve around the movement from C to G7 and back tiring the left hand (to say nothing of the aural monotony). There are three possible causes for this: too much left-hand finger pressure, which causes the thumb to press harder against the back of the guitar neck; a left-hand position that is too “first-finger centric,” which causes the fingers to lose mechanical advantage; or, the way in which the hand moves from chord to chord has not been thought through. These three things are sometimes connected to each other and problems in one area can often prevent another area from developing. The pernicious thing about this is that students often waste time trying to solve a symptom instead of the real problem. The only way they’ll improve is by accident.
Each of the three things mentioned above is worthy of discussion, but today I’ll be focusing on what I—and I’m sure many others—refer to as “left-hand finger choreography.” Simply put, it is finger independence, which I define as the ability to move one finger (or fingers) while another finger (or fingers) is holding down a note. Any well-trained intermediate-to-advanced guitarist recognizes the necessity for this in contrapuntal playing, but it’s often not considered in chordal playing, arpeggios or not.
There could be several reasons for this. A student’s background in other guitar styles might encourage thinking of chords as discrete entities, as opposed to the confluence of several lines or voices. The inability to separate one’s conception or mental image of a chord from its execution can result in a student assuming he or she needs to grab all the notes simultaneously. But, most significantly, the classical guitar’s pedagogical heritage may lead one astray. Let’s have a look at the latter.
What Guitar Methods Say
Many are silent on the topic, but let’s look at a few excerpts from influential guitar methods:
Carcassi, in his Méthode complète from 1836 writes:
Pour bien exécuter les arpèges, if faut avant de pincer les corded, que les doigts de la main gauche soient posés simultanément sur les notes formant l’accord sur lequel on arpège: et lorsque la dernière note de l’arpège a été frappée, on lève les doigts pour passer à un autre accord. Cette règle est de riqeuer…
This translates roughly as:
In order to perform arpeggios well, it is necessary that the fingers of the left hand be placed simultaneously on the notes of the chord before striking the strings: and when the last note has been played, the fingers are raised in order to move to the next chord. This is a fundamental rule… [Translation mine.]
Carcassi’s method went through many editions and has been widely copied and plagiarized. His advice has been passed down throughout generations with uncritical acceptance. What young student is going to have the critical thinking skills to argue with the received wisdom of a “fundamental rule?”
In his Nuevo Método Pour la Guitarra from 1843, Aguado writes in the section on “Arpeggio Studies,” that these studies “require special care in that the fingers should not move from one position to form another until the last note of each chord has been heard.”
Emilio Pujol, whose Escuelo Razonada De La Guitarra was influenced heavily by Aguado (and by the putative “principles of Tárrega”), and has, in turn, been widely influential, writes in his Lesson 9: “All the fingers which are used in any given position should be placed at the same time, at exactly the same moment that the right hand plucks.” Pujol’s context makes clear that by “position,” he means “chord shape,” like Aguado before him. Pujol seems to obviate the possibility of any type of left-hand anticipation or preparation by having written earlier: “The string must be stopped by the left hand at exactly the instant in which it is struck by the right hand….”
If there is any doubt about Pujol’s instructions, he writes in his Lesson 11 about a chord change in an arpeggio exercise: “the change of position at the third bar must be carried out by a simultaneous movement of all four fingers.”
Finally, Pascaul Roch, in Volume One of his A Modern Method for the Guitar, (with the subtitle, School of Tárrega), describes what the left hand must do when playing a stopped bass note followed by a dyad of two stopped notes: “The fingers which stop the bass notes, and those which stop the chord-notes, should fall simultaneously on these notes.” [Italics mine.]
There may be sound pedagogical reasons for instructing students this way, but the requirements of pedagogy are often different from the requirements of art. This means that at some point the “rules” (read: instructions) need to change, but I’ve yet to see a method book or technical treatise that says something like, “Okay, remember when we talked about doing this [insert the technical/musical concept of your choice]? Well, you’re at different level now and you need to think differently about it.” What usually happens is that one’s early instruction becomes a farrago of unquestioned default assumptions. Received wisdom is very often not wisdom at all.
The quick grabbing of chords has some unmusical consequences. Harmonic changes usually occur on the beat and a quick grabbing of a chord creates extra left-hand tension, which is then transferred to the right-hand fingers in the form of an involuntary accent. And, even though this accent may occur on a strong beat, it is not a metric accent: it is an uncontrolled percussive accent.
That’s the best case. The most harmful result is that one simply does not get all the fingers placed on the notes of the new chord comfortably and “resets” the chord after the first note or two have been played. This results in a hesitation, but it also causes a break in mental continuity and will never solve the problem of making a smooth movement from one chord to another. Not only does one acquire a habit of hesitation in that particular spot, one also acquires a habit of hesitation in general, which compromises one’s concentration, and by extension, one’s performances.
Both of these results are inherently unmusical. No amount of lecturing a student on the value of legato will magically cause the student’s fingers to acquire the skills needed for a smooth transition. It’s a canard to think that moving faster will engender smoother connections. What will help create smoother connections is to consider the way one leaves whatever one is doing before a chord change or shift from one position to another. (We’ll leave the discussion of legato playing in other textures or contexts for another time.)
Let’s move on to a basic example: Exercise 2 from Giuliani’s original exercises, which appears as Exercise 1 in my Giuliani Revisited:
Rather than grab the first inversion dominant chord all at once when moving into the second measure, place the fingers sequentially in the order the right hand fingers play, i.e., place 2, followed by 4, and then 1. The change can be enhanced further by realizing when the second finger can release the e' of the C major chord so that it can anticipate its movement to the fifth string (sometime during beat 4). Returning to the C chord is made easier by letting the third finger—which is unused in the dominant chord—hover above the third fret of the fifth string. If one is repeating the arpeggio, the left hand fingers can be placed in the order 3-1-2 for the return to the tonic. But if one is going to the cadential C major chord, one can still stagger the fingering while playing the notes of the chord simultaneously. For the cadence as written, the fingers would go down in the order 3–1, which eliminates the first finger having to jump too quickly from ① to ②. The movement is subtle and does not reveal itself to observation. Instead, what one thinks one sees is a left hand that moves easily and gracefully. This is worth exploring more fully in the future. (Of course, one could also simply drop the first finger to create a bar across two strings for the dominant chord, and lift it again without losing contact with the second string for the return to tonic.)
Now, this is a rather prosaic example. But, good teachers ensure that when students do the simple version of a thing, they meet as many of the criteria as possible of the advanced version of the thing. It’s better that students learn to apply this technical refinement early on in their training, rather than face the unavoidable consequences of not having developed it, which usually is when they get to measures 11–12 of Villa-Lobos Etude No. 1:
Here, the third finger should release from the f♯' when the last note of the B7 chord is played; the left hand then moves smoothly to the ninth position while the sixth string is played and the third finger stops the d'' on ④, followed in succession by the second finger, the first finger, and the fourth. The fourth finger has plenty of time to get to the b''. How long? Almost a beat and a half, so why rush? A finger can do a lot in the time of a sixteenth note; with the time a bunch of them grants, movements can be quite leisurely.
Giuliani Revisited Practice Sheet
All of the above is prelude to a brief discussion of a practice sheet I made years ago for use with Giuliani Revisited.
My original conception of the book was to have a foldout sheet with cadences in all major and minor keys. As one was going through the patterns, one could play them in different keys, advancing one’s knowledge of harmony while also working on the arpeggios. Including the foldout sheet wasn’t possible when the book was published, but it is now available on my free downloads page.
In addition to gaining experience playing cadences in all the keys in the lower positions, one has the opportunity to study inumerable applications of what I have referred to as “left-hand finger choreography.” Let’s look at one instance. Here’s an excerpt of a line from the study sheet:
And here’s the cadence in A♭ Major with the p-i-m arpeggio pattern applied to it:
Based on what I wrote above, you can see that the left-hand fingers will be placed on the second chord in the order 3-4-2 if the right-hand arpeggio pattern is p-i-m, but if the right-hand pattern is reversed, the left hand fingers will need to be placed in the order 3-2-4:
If this skill is not yet integrated into your technique, start practicing arpeggio exercises from either Giuliani Revisited or Giuliani’s original 120 exercises with these cadences. Play slowly until your left-hand fingers can move independently while moving from chord to chord. Then add some arpeggio etudes to your practice regimen. You’ll soon find that any choppiness between chord changes you may have experienced previously will have either disappeared, or will be more noticeable to you, which will make the problem easier to solve.
This is more than I had intended to write about this, but as I quoted the Scottish-American naturalist John Muir on my teaching page, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.”
Matteo Carcassi, Méthode Complète Pour La Guitare, Op. 59. Facsimile of the Paris edition of 1836 (Genève: Editions Minkoff, 1988), 13. ↩
Dionisio Aguado, Aguado: New Guitar Method, (London: Tecla Editions, 1992), 116. ↩
Emilio Pujol, Guitar School: A Theoretical-Practical Method for the Guitar : Based on the Principles of Francisco Tárrega, Books One & Two. Translated by Brian Jeffery; edited by Matanya Ophee. (Boston: Editions Orphée, 1983), 89. ↩
Ibid., 54 ↩
Ibid., 93 ↩
Pascual Roch, A Modern Method for the Guitar: (School of Tárrega), (New York: G. Schirmer, 1921), 109. ↩
See my article, “The Virtuoso Teacher”: p. 15 in the version available through Gumroad and p. 19 in the version available through Leanpub. ↩
The methods chosen here were based on my memory and what I had on my library shelves. It is not intended to be an exhaustive survey. This is, after all, just a blog. But I should note that Hector Quine, in his Introduction to the Guitar (Oxford University Press, 1971), does write: “When the left hand reaches the new position, place the fingers in the order in which the strings are to be sounded.” [Italics mine.] And in Volume Two of the Christopher Parkening Guitar Method (Hal Leonard Corporation, 1997), Parkening writes: “To facilitate left-hand changes, it is often more expedient to add the fingers as you need them rather than setting the whole chord down at once.” [Italics mine.] It’s curious, though, that both of these remarks are buried among instructions for individual pieces: Carcassi, Op. 60, No. 2 for Quine, and an arpeggio study by Fortea for Parkening. One would expect a more prominent and pointed treatment of an idea that contradicted such a “fundamental rule” of left-hand technique. ↩
Christopher Berg, Mastering Guitar Technique, (Mel Bay Publications, 1997), 108. ↩