Classical Guitar Instruction with Douglas Niedt
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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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Classical Guitar Technique

CHASING RAINBOWS, Part 1 of 2
The Left Hand



By Douglas Niedt

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


If you are not familiar with the phrase "Chasing Rainbows", it means to constantly pursue things that are unrealistic or unlikely to happen. Have you ever practiced a passage in a piece for weeks, months, or years? And you still can't play it? Well, you may be chasing rainbows. It may even fall into the category of "insanity is doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results".

If you still can't play a passage reliably after months and months of practice, something is terribly wrong. Of course, your method of practicing may be at fault. You may be guilty of mindless practice or practicing mistakes. I have addressed those topics in other technique tips.

The good news is that if your practice methods are solid, two simple solutions will usually stop rainbow chasing dead in its tracks:

1. Change the fingering.

2. Change the notes.

My dear readers, life is short. Sure, you can keep hacking away at a difficult passage month after month. You can tell yourself, "I almost have it." Or, "It's getting better" (after 3 years). Be my guest. Personally, I would rather change the notes or the fingering or both, finally master it, move on, and learn some new pieces before the grim reaper wrests the guitar from my hands.

In addition to the wasted time element, repetitive over-practice of a difficult passage can lead to hand injuries.

CHANGE THE FINGERING

The concept is simple: If the fingering you are using for a passage does not work after 3-4 weeks of conscientious practice, change it.

Let's look at Study No. 2 (as numbered by Segovia) Op.35, No. 13 by Fernando Sor. As fingered by Segovia, the bar chords in measures 27-29 are stumbling blocks for many guitarists. Example #1:

Sor Study No. 2 Op. 35 No. 13 Segovia fingering

What to do? Practice the bar chord changes unsuccessfully month after month? Year after year? How about trying a different fingering? Here is a fingering that does not require any bar chords and contains some very helpful guide fingers for security and stability. Example #2:

Sor Study No. 2 Op. 35 No. 13 revised alternative easier fingering

Here is an annotated score with the details of execution. Example #3:

Sor Study No. 2 Op. 35 No. 13 annotated revised alternative easier fingering

I should point out that many teachers would insist that the student work on these measures with the standard bar chord fingering until they get it, come hell or high water. I get that. It is important to master bar chords. But the fact is, some guitarists will never be able to play that passage reliably with the bar chord fingerings. And others may be able to play the bar chord fingerings most of the time at home, only to have them fail miserably in a lesson or in a public performance.

Rather than struggling forever with measures 27-29 of Sor Study No. 2 to learn the bar chords, a better strategy would be to learn to play bar chords on other pieces first. Then perhaps, return someday to the Sor Study and try it with the bar chord fingerings. Interestingly, I have found that most players (myself included) prefer the non-bar chord fingerings anyway.

Watch me demonstrate the problem in Fernando Sor's Study No. 2 and the solution. Video #1.

★ Be sure to watch on full screen. In the lower right corner, click on the 4-arrows icon to the left of the word Vimeo:

Video #1: Alternative fingerings for Study No. 2 by Fernando Sor

Don't fall into the trap

It is so easy to fall into the trap of using a certain fingering because that's how everyone does it. Or that's the way it has always been done.

Look at this passage from Leyenda by Isaac Albéniz. This is a standard fingering found in most editions that most guitarists use. Example #4:

Leyenda or Asturias standard fingering measure 15-17

I used and taught that fingering forever. That is the way it was always done. For many it is a great fingering. But over the years I found it is not a reliable fingering for everyone. I heard over and over, "I can do it most of the time—I guess I have to keep practicing it" (they had been using the fingering for three years). No. If after three years (or three months) it can't be played correctly 99% of the time, something is wrong. CHANGE THE FINGERING!

Here is one of my favorite fingerings that results in 99% accuracy for many players Example #5:

Leyenda or Asturias alternative revised easier fingering measure 15-17

Watch me demonstrate the difficulty of the standard fingering of this passage from Leyenda and the relative ease and stability of the revised fingering. Video 2.

★ Be sure to watch on full screen. In the lower right corner, click on the 4-arrows icon to the left of the word Vimeo:

Video #2: Alternative fingerings for Leyenda by Isaac Albéniz

Let's look at one more example. In ¡Marieta! by Francisco Tárrega, we have this passage. The first two beats of both measures present a configuration of notes and fingerings that is difficult for many guitarists to play. Example #6:

Marieta by Francisco Tarrega original fingerings measure 17-18

The great Andrés Segovia is one of the few guitarists who recorded the piece using Tárrega's fingerings. Not only does he use Tárrega's fingerings, but he plays all the note values as written.

But nevertheless, for many guitarists, these fingerings can be very difficult or impossible to play cleanly. Fortunately, several alternative fingerings may be used instead.

Most contemporary guitarists use the next fingering. Note that the bass notes are not held. The bar is lifted on the 2nd beat. The 3rd finger is used on the 3rd-string D so the 2nd finger does not have to be scrunched behind the 4th finger. It is much easier to play. Example #7:

Marieta by Francisco Tarrega modern alternative revised easier fingerings measure 17-18

Or, we could play open E's and eliminate a few bars. Once again, the bass notes are not held. Example #8:

Marieta by Francisco Tarrega modern alternative revised easier fingerings with open E's no bars measure 17-18

On the other hand, if you don't like the sound of the bass notes getting cut off prematurely and want to hold them their full value as Tárrega and Segovia do, we could use the 4th finger to bar the D and F#. For some players, this is much easier to do than scrunching the 2nd finger behind the 4th finger. Example #9:

Marieta by Francisco Tarrega modern alternative revised easier fingerings with little finger bar measure 17-18

Watch me demonstrate these fingering possibilities for Tárrega's ¡Marieta! and the pros and cons of each. Video #3.

★ Be sure to watch on full screen. In the lower right corner, click on the 4-arrows icon to the left of the word Vimeo:

Video #3: Alternative fingerings for Marieta by Francisco Tárrega

THE TAKEAWAY

Just because the composer or some famous guitarist fingers a passage a certain way does not mean it is the best fingering for YOU. Just because everyone plays the passage a certain way or that it has always been played that way does not mean it is the way YOU should play it. After several weeks of practice, if a fingering does not work for you, CHANGE IT. Don't chase rainbows!


I DON'T HAVE DOUGLAS NIEDT ON SPEED DIAL. HOW WOULD I FIGURE OUT THESE FINGERINGS BY MYSELF?

"Fishing for Fingerings"

Finding alternative fingerings is mostly a matter of slogging through all the permutations.

Sometimes, if you know the ideal fingering you would like to use for a particular spot in a passage, you can start there and work backwards through the possibilities. I demonstrate that process here in my technique tip The Many Amazing Things We Can Learn from Mauro Giuliani, Part 2.

Otherwise, methodically go through the possibilities. The decision making goes something like this:

To Bar or Not to Bar

If a bar is indicated, do I really need a bar? Is there another fingering that does not require a bar? If a bar is required, how many strings MUST I bar? Is it easier to bar more strings? How many?

Finding fingerings

What are all the possible fingerings for chord X? Are there other areas of the fretboard where I can play the chord? What are all the possible fingerings I can use to get to each of the possible chord X fingerings and locations?

What are all the possible fingerings at point X? Can point X be played in other areas of the fretboard? Working backwards, what are all the possible fingerings I can use to arrive at each of the possible fingerings and locations for point X?

Sometimes the possibilities are limited, and it will only take 10-20 minutes to test them all out. But other passages may have many fingering options and it may take 30-60 minutes a day over several days to thoroughly test all the options. As a rule, unless the best choice is obvious, it is best to test fingerings and make final decisions about fingerings over a period of several days. It takes patience!

CHANGE THE NOTES

If you have tried all the fingerings for a difficult passage that you can think of, and none of them work, change the notes.

In the Prelude in D minor (originally C minor) BWV 999 by J.S. Bach, we have a nasty chord in measure #15. Example #10:

Bach Prelude in D minor standard fingering measure 12-17
*By the way, in measure #16 the small staff is called an "Ossia" staff. An ossia is an alternative passage which may be played instead of the original passage. The word comes from the Italian for "alternatively" and was originally spelled o sia, meaning "or be it". Ossias are usually used to indicate alternative notes, fingerings, or rhythms. They may be easier, more difficult, or the same difficulty as the original version.

The F major 7 chord in measure #15 is very difficult or impossible for many guitarists to play. Some players play the low F very short (as a 16th note) and then jump to play the next notes with various fingerings. Personally, I don't think lifting the F early sounds good at all.

Instead, for players who cannot do the "this is the way it has always been done" fingering, I recommend playing the low F up an octave. Several very playable fingering options suddenly appear. My favorite is this. Example #11:

Bach Prelude in D minor alternative easier revised fingering measure 12-17

It can be further refined (and perhaps made more dependable) by playing the preceding Am chord on different strings (which will take a little getting used to for the right hand) but makes the transition to the F major 7th chord very easy and dependable. Example #12:

Bach Prelude in D minor another alternative easier revised fingering measure 12-17

Or, the F major 7th chord can be played with the F bass shifted up an octave but played on the 4th string instead of the 5th string. Example #13:

Bach Prelude in D minor alternative easier revised fingering bass on 4th string measure 12-17

Or, we can play the F up an octave on the 4th string but play the notes that follow with a 3rd or 4th-finger bar. Example #14:

Bach Prelude in D minor alternative easier revised fingering bass on 4th string 4th finger bar measure 12-17

Watch me demonstrate the problem and these great solutions for Bach's Prelude in D minor. Video #4.

★ Be sure to watch on full screen. In the lower right corner, click on the 4-arrows icon to the left of the word Vimeo:

Video #4: Alternative fingerings for Prelude in D minor by J.S. Bach

Another favorite piece among classical guitarists is Leo Brouwer's Un Dia de Noviembre. It is a very playable piece for most intermediate-level guitarists. Unfortunately, they are hit with a roadblock at measure #28 which has a nasty stretch with a full bar that many guitarists cannot play with clarity. Example #15:

Un Dia de Noviembre measure 28-31 standard fingering

Once again, rather than engaging in a never-ending struggle with the chord and never getting it quite right, change the notes. Here are several possible rewrites. You may not like them as well as the original. And, the high E melody note gets cut early. But at least you will be able to play the notes clearly, so you don't ruin the piece. Who knows, maybe you will prefer one of these to the original. That's a win-win. Example #16:

Un Dia de Noviembre measure 28 six alternative voicings and fingerings

We could even alter measure #29 if need be. This version eliminates the bar. Example #17:

Un Dia de Noviembre measure 29 alternative fingering and voicing

Watch me demonstrate these alternative revoicings of the chords in Un Dia de Noviembre. Video #5.

★ Be sure to watch on full screen. In the lower right corner, click on the 4-arrows icon to the left of the word Vimeo:

Video #5: Alternative fingerings for Un Dia de Noviembre by Leo Brouwer

Another example of an instance where changing the notes can reap wonderful benefits is the difficult bar chord in measure #37 of Leyenda. I explain the solutions here.

How Do I Learn How to Change the Notes or Revoice Chords?

Learning how to rewrite passages and revoice chords is not something you can learn entirely by reading books. Some knowledge of harmony is helpful. A good ear is a must. But mostly, it takes practice and experience. Ideally, the altered version should be easier to play, sound musical, fit the musical context, and fit the composer's original intentions.

Just like searching for fingerings, changing the notes often requires a lot of experimentation and testing. It is usually not a good idea to immediately adopt the first solution that occurs to you. The process requires time and patience.

Sacrilege?

Some musicians might object to the idea of changing the composer's notes to make something easier to play.

  1. If the piece is a transcription, I say no problem. Many notes have probably already been changed to make the transcription.
  2. If the piece was written for the guitar, keep in mind that Sor, Giuliani, and other guitarist-composers often produced multiple versions of their compositions with different passagework and chord voicings.
  3. Composers who don't play the guitar but write for the instrument often welcome suggestions by the guitarist to make their pieces more idiomatic and effective for the instrument. Although admittedly, some composers will bristle at any suggested changes.

Improvisation is a close cousin of changing the notes of a written piece. Bach was a marvelous improvisor and wrote different versions of some pieces for different instruments. Elaboration and alteration of passages of a piece was the order of the day in the Baroque period. In fact, improvisation was an important skill throughout most of the history of classical music until the 20th century. The idea of musical notes being sacred, that they should never be changed, is a misguided, modern idea.

FINAL THOUGHTS

Don't chase rainbows. Time is short. Don't sentence yourself to practicing a difficult passage for months or years thinking that eventually you will master it. That is probably not going to happen. Change the fingering or change the notes so you can play it and move on. Learn something new. Playing the guitar should be fun and rewarding, not an exercise in endless frustration.

Download

This is a download from Dropbox. NOTE: You do NOT need a Dropbox account and don't have to sign up for Dropbox to access the file.

1. Download a PDF of the article with links to the videos.

Download a PDF of Chasing Rainbows, Part 1 of 2 (with links to the videos).


3. Download the individual videos. Click on the video you wish to download. After the Vimeo video review page opens, click on the down arrow in the upper right corner. You will be given a choice of five different resolutions/qualities/file sizes to download.

Download Video 1 Study No. 2 by Fernando Sor.

Download Video 2 Leyenda by Isaac Albéniz.

Download Video 3 Marieta by Francisco Tárrega.

Download Video 4 Prelude in D minor by J.S. Bach.

Download Video 5 Un Dia de Noviembre by Leo Brouwer.