Classical Guitar Instruction with Douglas Niedt
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HOW TO LEARN A PIECE (SONG)
ON THE CLASSICAL GUITAR, Part 6

Douglas Niedt, guitarist

"Douglas who?"

Douglas Niedt is a successful concert and recording artist and highly respected master classical guitar teacher with 50 years of teaching experience. He is Associate Professor of Music (retired), at the Conservatory of Music and Dance, University of Missouri-Kansas City and a Fellow of the Henry W. Bloch School of Management—Regnier Institute for Entrepreneurship and Innovation.

Doug studied with such diverse masters as Andrés Segovia, Pepe Romero, Christopher Parkening, Narciso Yepes, Oscar Ghiglia, and Jorge Morel. Therefore, Doug provides solutions for you from a variety of perspectives and schools of thought.

He gives accurate, reliable advice that has been tested in performance on the concert stage that will work for you at home.

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HOW TO LEARN A PIECE (SONG)
ON THE CLASSICAL GUITAR, Part 6

By Douglas Niedt

Copyright Douglas Niedt. All Rights Reserved.
This article may be reprinted, but please be considerate and give credit to Douglas Niedt.


*Estimated minimum time to read this article and watch the videos: 35 minutes.

*Estimated minimum time to read the article, watch the videos, and play/understand the musical examples: 1-2 hours.

NOTE: You can click the navigation links on the left (not visible on phones) to review specific topics or videos.


In Part 1, we laid the groundwork for learning a new song:

  1. We set up our practice space.
  2. We learned to choose reliable editions of the piece we are going to learn.
  3. We learned that it is essential to listen to dozens of recordings and watch dozens of videos to hear the big picture as we learn a new piece.
  4. We learned that it is important to study and analyze our score(s).

In Part 2:

  1. We learned how to make a game plan for practicing our new piece.
  2. We learned why it is so vital NEVER to practice mistakes and the neuroscience behind it.
  3. We learned practice strategies to master small elements, including "The 10 Levels of Misery," which ensures we don't practice mistakes.

In Part 3:

  1. We learned where to start practicing in a new piece.
  2. We learned that it is vital to master small elements first.
  3. We learned the two most fundamental practice tools—The Feedback Loop and S-L-O-W Practice.

In Part 4, we learned how to use the "Slam on the Brakes" and "STOP—Then Go" practice strategies to:

  1. Correct errors
  2. Improve technical control
  3. Reduce tension
  4. Improve memorization

In Part 5, we learned how to practice with the right hand alone to:

  1. Apply planting or double-check the precision of your planting technique
  2. Correct or improve the balance between the melody, bass, and accompaniment
  3. Apply or improve string damping
  4. Master passages with difficult string crossings

In Parts 6 and 7, I will continue my discussion of practicing with the hands separately, this time focusing on practicing with the left hand alone.

PRACTICING WITH THE LEFT HAND ALONE, Part 1

In the guitar world, I rarely come across the mention of practicing the hands separately, especially the left hand alone. I can only say that as a performer, I use the tool several times a week. As a teacher, I use it with every student. It is easier to fix many left-hand problems or learn new left-hand techniques if we can focus 100% on just the left hand and not be distracted by the right hand.

Practicing the left hand alone on the guitar is often not helpful because you don't hear any sound when you do it! Even if you are placing the fingers on the right notes, you often can't tell if they would buzz or be damped by another finger if you actually played them.

But still, left-hand-alone practice is incredibly useful to learn, improve, and master:

  1. The "lag behind" technique
  2. How to lift fingers to avoid string squeaks
  3. Left-hand finger preparation
  4. Synchronization of left-hand finger movements
  5. Shifts
  6. Pre-planting the left-hand fingers
  7. Collapsing (hyperextending) the tip of the first finger to go into and out of a bar chord
  8. Difficult chord changes without tiring, injuring, or "locking up" the left hand by practicing with light finger pressure.

In this article, we will look at topics 1-4. Then, in Part 2, we will examine topics 5-8.

1. Practice the Left Hand Alone to Master the "Lag Behind" Technique

I explain this technique here. In a nutshell, it works like this:

In a chord change, any finger (or fingers) used to play the first chord but not the second chord "lag behind" as the other fingers prepare to fret the second chord.

When a player applies the technique to a choppy chord change, it will connect the notes, transforming an initially choppy change into a smooth, legato, musical chord change. When one of the notes that "lags behind" is a melody note, that is an extra bonus.

It is easiest to learn the technique and apply it to a chord change by practicing the left hand alone. For instance, let's look at the cadence at the end of the first section of Lágrima by Francisco Tárrega. If we play the bar chord at the end of m7, lift, and then play the first chord of m8, we will chop the D# melody note short, producing a pronounced dead space between the two chords. Example #84:

Lágrima by Francisco Tárrega measures 5-8

If you want to produce a staccato effect, that is an excellent way to do it! But if you want to connect the chord change so that the melody is legato, apply the "lag behind" technique. Example #85:

Lágrima by Francisco Tárrega lag behind technique explained

Here are the steps the player should use to apply the "lag behind" technique in this passage. Example #86:

Lágrima by Francisco Tárrega lag behind technique explained

If a player is new to the technique or if the situation is challenging, practicing with the left hand alone makes it much easier to master. Example #87:

Lágrima by Francisco Tárrega applying lag behind technique

Once the left hand understands the steps, playing very slowly, the player can add the right hand.

Watch me demonstrate the process to learn the lag-behind technique in Video #27.

★ BE SURE TO WATCH ON FULL SCREEN. Click on the icon at the bottom on the right:

Video #27: Lágrima (Francisco Tárrega), m7-8, Practice Left Hand Alone to Master the "Lag-Behind" Technique

In some cases, such as multiple chord changes in a row, there will be several opportunities for fingers to "lag behind." Fingers that "lag behind" will not always be melody notes. Sometimes they will be bass notes or even notes in the inner voices.

In these more complex passages, practicing with the left hand alone makes it much easier for the guitarist to understand the mechanics of each change and master the technique. For example, here is an excerpt from the Christopher Parkening Guitar Method Volume 1 of a chordal arrangement of the theme from Beethoven's Symphony No. 9. Example 88:

Theme from Beethoven Symphony No. 9 notes that lag behind

In this case, it is advisable to first practice each chord change (highlighted) with the left hand alone to understand the mechanics of the circled notes lagging behind. Then play each chord change with both hands together. Finally, string together two or more measures until you can play the entire phrase. With the "lag behind" technique, the passage will sound beautifully legato with no sense of choppiness.

2. Practice the Left Hand Alone to Learn How to Lift Fingers to Avoid String Squeaks

Correctly lifting a finger from a wound string during a shift (rather than sliding) eliminates the string squeak every time. The keyword is “correctly.” The downside of the technique is that you will have dead space between the notes during the shift. It will not sound obviously choppy when done well, but as guitarist John Williams once commented to me, this kind of movement is never as smooth as keeping the finger tightly on the string and sliding. But if the squeak is loud, you have no choice. You must lift off the string.

Abel Carlevaro, the great Uruguayan guitarist, composer, and pedagogue, was opposed to the principle of using guide fingers. Instead, he recommended that the guitarist always lift the finger from the string before the shift. He wrote that before the shift, the fingers must "abandon" the strings. They withdraw their pressure from the string, allowing themselves to be lifted perpendicularly off the strings. After being lifted, they enter into a momentary state of relaxation. Then they are transported by the arm to their new fret. Carlevaro strongly emphasizes that the vertical lift off the string is nearly invisible to the eye.

In order to achieve stability and accuracy, most guitarists do not recommend totally "abandoning" the string when making a shift. But an attractive side benefit of Carlevaro's shifting technique is that it eliminates string squeaks and other shifting noise, especially on the wound bass strings. We eliminate friction when we lift the fingers perpendicularly off the strings. Therefore, we produce no noise.

Others describe the movement as a helicopter movement:

  1. Vertical takeoff: Lift the finger absolutely vertically off the string.
  2. Fly horizontally or in a slight arc to shift to the new fret destination.
  3. Vertical landing: Place the finger absolutely vertically back onto the string.

But there is a tricky nuance to the technique. The finger must be lifted off and placed on the string at a 90-degree angle. Otherwise, the finger will scrape a coil or winding of the string (which causes the squeak). In a Google guitar-group discussion, Thomas, a guitar teacher in Tampa, describes it very well:

"I call it 'fake left, go right.' Basically, you are overcompensating in the opposite direction and before the fact. For example, if you are shifting up the neck (to the right), begin the shift by coming off the string to the left (when shifting down the neck, come off the string to the right). By experimenting with varying degrees of exaggeration, you will be able to find a point where you can eliminate the squeak without compromising the notes on either end of the shift. It may take some time and experimentation, but it really does work."

Watch me demonstrate the technique in Video #28.

Learn more about getting rid of string noise here.

★ BE SURE TO WATCH ON FULL SCREEN. Click on the icon at the bottom on the right:

Video #28: Practice Left Hand Alone to Master "Helicopter Shifts" and "Fake-Right-Move-Left"

String squeaks are always a problem on measure #1 of Francisco Tárrega's Lágrima. No matter what left-hand fingering you use, there are three potential spots string squeaks may occur. The melody is very exposed and beautiful, and string squeaks can ruin the overall sound. Example #89:

Potential string squeaks in Lágrima

We can eliminate those squeaks but keep the melody legato by using helicopter lifts off the wound 4th string. However, it is complicated, so it is easier to learn by practicing the left hand alone. Here are the steps in detail. Example #90:

How to practice Lágrima to avoid squeaks

Watch me demonstrate in Video #29.

★ BE SURE TO WATCH ON FULL SCREEN. Click on the icon at the bottom on the right:

Video #29: Lágrima (Francisco Tárrega), Practice Left Hand Alone to Learn to Eliminate String Squeaks

3. Practice the Left Hand Alone to Understand and Rehearse Left-Hand Finger Preparation

We can improve a seemingly easy chord change with good finger preparation. For instance, in this arrangement of Greensleeves from the Christopher Parkening Guitar Method Volume 1, we have what looks to be a fundamental chord change from a simple Am chord to a C chord. Example #91:

Greensleeves measures 1-2

But playing the chord change absolutely legato requires a few exacting finger movements. Here is a detailed analysis. Example #92:

Greensleeves measures 1-2 analysis of finger movements

Since there is so much going on, we will practice with the left hand alone. The critical element is to lift the 3rd finger a little early to prepare it above the 5th string C at the 3rd fret. If we master that, the chord change is not a formidable process at all. Here is Step #1. Example #93:

Greensleeves measures 1-2, preparation step 1

Practice Step #1 over and over. Then, once that is easy, all you have to do to make the chord change is add one finger—place that 3rd finger you taught to prepare above the bass strings in Step #1 on the 5th-string C. Example #94:

Greensleeves measures 1-2, preparation step 2

In step #3, practice the left hand alone as you did in step #2, but in rhythm. But practice very s-l-o-w-l-y. Example #94a:

Greensleeves measures 1-2, left hand alone in rhythm

Playing with both hands together will be easy once you master the sequence with the left hand alone.

Learn more about left-hand finger preparation here.

In Video #30, watch me demonstrate how to master the chord change by practicing the left hand alone.

★ BE SURE TO WATCH ON FULL SCREEN. Click on the icon at the bottom on the right:

Video #30: Greensleeves, Practice Left Hand Alone to Learn Left-Hand Finger Preparation

4. Practice the Left Hand Alone to Improve the Synchronization of Your Finger Movements

The guitarist must synchronize the movements of the left-hand fingers to produce a smooth, legato, and musical sound. One of the primary causes of a choppy sound is the lack of synchronization between the left-hand fingers.

Many beginning and even some intermediate players can improve the synchronization of their left-hand fingers by practicing with the left hand alone. For example, this passage from Andantino by Mauro Giuliani contains several finger switches where students tend to lift the first interval slightly before playing the second interval. Example #95:

Andantino by Mauro Giuliani m17-20

The piece is in three parts, and the melody and the bass line should be absolutely legato, like this. Example #96:

Andantino by Mauro Giuliani m17-20, melody and bass legato

But if the player's left-hand finger movements are not synchronized, it will sound like this. Example #97:

Andantino by Mauro Giuliani m17-20, fingers out of sync

The most effective way to fix the problem of poor synchronization is to practice the changes with the left hand alone. The player must pay close attention and FEEL the fingers lift and place simultaneously. It is beneficial to practice these types of exercises with your eyes closed. Doing so will heighten your awareness and sense of touch. Example #98:

Andantino by Mauro Giuliani m17-20, individual changes

If the player finds that the synchronization is still a little off, break the change down into its component parts. For example, the guitarist can break down chord change #1 like this. Again, closing the eyes will heighten the player's awareness and sense of touch. Example #99:

Andantino by Mauro Giuliani m17-20, break down chord change

Then, be sure to reverse the process. Example #100:

Andantino by Mauro Giuliani m17-20, break down chord change in reverse

After mastering these two examples, the guitarist would return to example #98, playing with the left hand alone. They will suddenly find they can synchronize the finger movements perfectly. Finally, the guitarist will add the right hand. A new problem of left-hand/right-hand synchronization may pop up, and the player will need to deal with that using other tools.

Watch me demonstrate how to improve your finger synchronization in Video #31.

★ BE SURE TO WATCH ON FULL SCREEN. Click on the icon at the bottom on the right:

Video #31: Andantino (Mauro Giuliani), Left-Hand Finger Synchronization

If you want to test your left-hand synchronization in general, a chromatic octave scale will do the trick. First, play the scale with the left hand alone. Example #101:

Chromatic scale in triplets

Some of the changes will be easy and some rather difficult. Focus on the problematic changes. For instance, the C#-C-C# change is challenging for many players. Example #102:

Challenging change in the chromatic scale

Once again, first, we would try practicing with the left hand alone. That alone could solve any problems with finger synchronization and eliminate any dead space between octaves. The player must pay close attention and FEEL the fingers lift and place simultaneously. It is beneficial to practice these types of exercises with your eyes closed. Doing so will heighten your awareness and sense of touch. Example #103:

Challenging change in the chromatic scale, practice left hand alone

But if the fingers won't cooperate—if the pairs of fingers don't land simultaneously or one pair wants to lift before the other one lands, break the change down into its elemental parts. Again, closing the eyes will heighten the player's awareness and sense of touch. Example #104:

Challenging change in the chromatic scale, break down the change and practice left hand alone

Then, be sure to reverse the process. Example #105:

Challenging change in the chromatic scale, break down the change and practice left hand alone but reverse the process

After mastering this change, the guitarist would return to example #103, playing with the left hand alone. They will suddenly find they can synchronize the finger movements perfectly. Finally, the guitarist will add the right hand. A new problem of left-hand/right-hand synchronization may pop up, and the player will need to deal with that using other tools.

Use this same process on any other changes in the chromatic octave scale that are not perfectly legato.

Learn more about left-hand finger synchronization here.

Watch me demonstrate how to improve your finger synchronization by practicing a chromatic scale with the left hand alone in Video #32.

★ BE SURE TO WATCH ON FULL SCREEN. Click on the icon at the bottom on the right:

Video #32: Practice Chromatic Octave Scale with Left Hand Alone to Improve Left-Hand Finger Synchronization

NEXT MONTH: MORE on Practicing With the Left Hand Alone.

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Download the PDF: HOW TO LEARN A PIECE (SONG) ON THE CLASSICAL GUITAR Part 6 (with links to the videos)

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Video 27: Lágrima (Francisco Tárrega), m7-8, Practice Left Hand Alone to Master the "Lag-Behind" Technique

Video 28: Practice Left Hand Alone to Master "Helicopter Shifts" and "Fake-Right-Move-Left"

Video 29: Lágrima (Francisco Tárrega), Practice Left Hand Alone to Learn to Eliminate String Squeaks

Video 30: Greensleeves, Practice Left Hand Alone to Learn Left-Hand Finger Preparation

Video 31: Andantino (Mauro Giuliani), Left-Hand Finger Synchronization

Video 32: Practice Chromatic Octave Scale with Left Hand Alone to Improve Left-Hand Finger Synchronization