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Improving Left Hand Accuracy and Strength on the Classical Guitar

Harry G. Pellegrin

Novelist and Musician






 

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Improving Comprehension and Accuracy in Converting Printed Music Into Left Hand Form and Motion

by Harry George Pellegrin

A few months back, I was watching a student guitar­ist sight—read a piece of music. He was playing the piece at a tempo appreciably slower than the composer had intended, and yet he had problems in sections that were neither harder to read, nor technically harder than the sections of the piece that had offered him no problems. This intrigued me. Later, I sight—read through the piece, taking note of the student’s trouble spots. These sec­tions tended to be either a chromatic scale passage, a melodic leap of a dissonant interval, or a chromatically altered chord. What makes example la easier to play than lb? Why is example 2b more difficult than 2a? (See examples)













These problem areas shouldn’t be difficult, but many students do find them so. Of course, a student who is unfam­iliar with the fingerboard will find chromaticisms uncomfortable, but this is an easily remedied situation. Problems not stemming from reading inadequacy are usually a result of the way the stu­dent has learned the Instrument, and in his or her practice habits.

Many of today’s students learned their first few chords from those little block diagrams included over the piano part in popular sheet music. After they have learned to read music In the traditional sense, they will search through a piece they are about to learn, looking for these familiar chords. As they learn more pieces, they recognize more chords and inversions easily. The student begins to build a “vocabulary” of chords.

When we read a magazine article or some other print­ed word source, our eyes travel across the page not letter by letter, but by phrases. Recognition is Instantaneous. We do not see the phrase “in the yard” as nine separate letters, but as a single unit. This is not how we saw words when we were first learning to read. The beginning student doesn’t see the music in phrases and chords either. The musician must learn to see music not as indiv­idual notes, but as complete units of thought (chords, phrases, etc.) that I will call contours.

A contour is the movement and shape the hand forms when playing a certain chord or melodic passage. All chords and scales have their own individual contours. These contours are useful when learning a piece only if our “vocabulary” is large enough. Many students make errors in unfamiliar pieces simply because they mistake an unusual contour with one they have learned previously. Studio musicians and those who must sight—read an unfamiliar piece at the time of performance search the music for familiar contours. At the same time, they take note of variations in the contours. Therefore, the student must work to build up his or her ability to quickly and accurately recognize as many diff­erent contours as possible, and to spot those contours that are new to him and to master them for those times in the future when they are encountered again.

I’d like to make a statement about left hand strength before I begin the exercises. Many guitarists that I know, some of them professionals, don’t play with as much reserve energy as they might. This is because they don’t realize where the strength of the left hand lies. These guitarists press the neck of the guitar into their left hand fingers with their thumbs. The thumb only has a small muscle to push with. These guitarists continually strain this poor little muscle until it can usually bulge its way through a recital, suffering an ache between the thumb and first finger if called upon to play longer or a more difficult passage than usual. The fingers of the left hand have all the long muscles of the fore—arm to press the neck back towards the thumb, plus the muscles of the upper arm to pull the hand back towards the play­er’s body. Why not use these strong muscles and the mass of the arm to do all the heavy work? I can’t stress this enough! All pressure must come from the fingers as moved by the arm. The thumb is only a backstop. To break this habit, one must first gain the exper­ience of how the fingers feel when doing their fair share of the work. Place the first finger across the neck in a barré. Release the thumb from the back of the neck. You should feel the muscles of the upper arm tense. This is the arm replacing the tension lost when the thumb was removed. Isn’t it more sensible to use the large muscles rather than the thumb? An added benefit of break­ing the strangle—hold on the sensitive instrument is ease •of posi­tion shift. Remember, the arm pulls the fingers into the guitar instead of the thumb pushing the guitar out to the fingers. The guitarist should practice playing scales with the thumb floating above the back of the neck at least once or twice daily. The fingers should be observed in motion, paying attention to the ten­sions and releases in the fore—arm and the tightening of the upper arm. After the scales have been practiced and the correct muscles seen and felt in motion, the player will incorporate this technique into his playing. The benefits are more stamina and a more relaxed feeling while playing. When the player isn’t in pain and struggling simply to maintain the technique required to play a certain passage, he then has the freedom to play musically.

It is important that the guitar student play as much music from different stylistic periods and composers as possible so that he will not become too overly familiar with one set of music­al clichés. Reading through modern music is a great way for the student to expose himself to many unusual contours.

It is also very Important for the guitarist to play as many different contours as possible since very few composers have written any really worthwhile music for the guitar that is easy to play or falls under the hand in easy contours. A notable except­ion to the rule is Heitor Villa—Lobos, who wrote beautiful music, fully utilizing the guitar’s tone palette, and falling relatively easily under the hand. Example 3 is from Villa—Lobos’ Etude I, in which over one third of the piece is played using the same left hand contour, moved down one half—step per measure, each measure repeated. (Measures 12 — 22)

The first and most Important step to attaining facility in new and unusual contours is to gain fluidity and freedom in the motion of the left hand. Each finger should be independent from the rest and none should be weaker or stronger than the others. Therefore, I have arranged these exercises into two groups. The first group deals with finger strength and independence of motion, the second group with unusual contours.

Needless to say, these exercises work best when prac­ticed slowly and with high articulation. Produce den, clear tones. Slow, sustained notes will work like isometric exercises. Notice all tensions and releases.

Exercise One: This exercise is good for finger limbering before practicing the rest of these exercises and your daily scale studies. Play the exercise until you reach the twelfth fret, then reverse the pattern and descend.











Exercise Two: This exercise deals with position shifts. Play it until you reach the thirteenth fret, first string, with your fourth finger. Slide the fourth finger down to the twelfth fret, and reverse the exercise. Try playing the exercise skipping a fin­ger in each of the four note patterns. (1,2,4.,1,3,4.,1,4.)










Exercise Three: This exercise begins to teach the fingers independence of motion. This is a silent exercise; the right hand need not even touch the instrument. The first, second, third and fourth fingers are placed on the first, second, third and fourth frets on the first string. Without moving the first and third fingers, slowly pick up the second and fourth fingers simultaneously and place them on the second and fourth frets on the second string. Without moving the second and fourth fingers Slowly raise the first and third fingers from the first string and place them on the third string, first and third frets. Repeat this procedure until your second and fourth fingers are on the sixth string, second and fourth frets. Place your first and third fingers on the sixth string, first and third frets and repeat the entire exercise back to the first string.

Exercise Four: Basically the same as exercise three, the difference being that it is played. You should only move one finger at a time, leaving the others on their last played notes. (4a)

This exercise can and should be played along the en­tire fingerboard. Another variation of the exercise simply uses a different fingering pattern. (4b)

Exercise Five: Place your first finger on the first string, first fret. Then with your first finger remaining on that note, play the following exercise. (5a) Place your second finger on the second fret, first string. Then with your finger remaining on that note, play the following exercise. (5b)



Place your third finger on the first string, third fret. Then with that finger remaining on that note, play the following exercise. (5c)





If your third finger collapses on exercise five c, it is due to the fact that your fourth finger is weak and dependent upon your third finger. Your hand wants to move both fingers togeth­er to make up for the weakness of the fourth finger.

Place your fourth finger on the first string, fourth fret. Then with your finger remaining on that note, play the following exercise. (5d)





Exercise Six: Place your first finger in a barré across the fifth fret. Now put the second finger on the first string, sixth fret, the third finger on the first string, seventh fret, and the fourth finger on the first string, eighth fret. Without removing the barré, pick up the second finger and place it on the second string, sixth fret, then the third finger from the first string to the second string, seventh fret, with all fingers In the same position, remove the fourth finger from the first string and place it on the second string, eighth fret. Repeat this until the sixth string has been completed in this manner. When this can be done with some degree of accuracy, move the exercise down to the first fret! The key to doing this exercise correctly is to play It slowly and produce clean pitches of equal volume and tone.



When these exercises are mastered, the guitarist will be able to use each finger independently and with equal strength. This next group of exercises is geared towards making the hand com­fortable with different and unusual contours.

All Classical guitar students learn the diatonic major and minor scales, using these usually exclusively as a warm—up and a speed/dexterity exercise. These scales should be memorized and practiced, but not to the exclusion of other equally useful exercises.

Play the diatonic c major scale in example four. It falls very nicely under the hand, however, if these contours are practiced over and over, the student will be uncomfortable when confronted with a whole—step between two consecutive fingers. (Example four)

The Whole tone scale is very useful as a practice tool in that it forces the guitarist to stop anticipating the two half steps encountered in the diatonic major scale. (Example five) The Whole-tone scale is the result of splitting the octave into six equal intervals. (Example Six) The Whole—tone scale eliminates three Intervals of “traditional” music, the perfect fourth (c to f), the perfect fifth (c to g), and the leading tone — tonic relationship (c to b, b to c).

The scale is played utilizing a five fret spread on each string, until the octave has been reached. Actually, the scale should be played in two octaves since the exercise would be too short in the single octave form. Watch the fingering carefully. The scale is fingered so that a stretch of a whole—tone falls bet­ween the third and fourth fingers ascending, and between the first and second finger descending. (Exercise Seven)

The student can make his own exercises by playing scales consisting of stacked intervals. Using the perfect fourth as an example, try this scale: c, f, b flat, e flat, a flat, d flat e, a, d, g, c. The student can make as many exercises as there are keys and in­tervals.

The Chromatic scale is a good exercise for shifting the left hand In seemingly contrary motion to that of the scale. Notice the way I have fingered this scale. This fingering is mov­able In ‘that this scale can be played beginning on different sixth string notes along the neck. (Exercise Eight.)

I have found these exercises useful for my stud­ents and for my own technique as well. I sincerely hope that you, the reader and student of the guitar will find them helpful towards fulfilling your goals in music. I would like to thank my class­mates at The Mannes College of Music in New York (1976—1980) who contributed exercises and helped by letting me observe their arms and hands during performances.

Sheet music download. In Acrobat format (.pdf), Harry Pellegrin's arrangement of "El Noi de la Mare" a traditional Catalan folk melody. Miguel Llobet's setting of this melody was performed by both John Williams as well as Andres Segovia, among others. A popular legend reports that when Segovia passed away, this piece of music was open upon his music stand. Some say this was probably the last piece Segovia played before his death.

Regardless of the veracity of the tale, this is a very beautiful melody, one which evokes a deeply emotional response in the listener--when it is performed correctly. Simple melody notwithstanding, there are some difficult measures in this piece. Either view with Acrobat Reader online or right mouse click 'save target as' and ENJOY!

EL NOI

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The Classic Guitar Method: Now in one volume, much of what the novice classical guitarist will need to know to lead him or her to the recital stage. From proper instrument care and maintenance to the necessary technical skills, musical mind-set, and the standard repertoire—all exposed and explored with enough detail and insight that the student will wish to keep this book handy years to come as a ready reference source.





With the aid of a good teacher, the student will rapidly progress through The Classic Guitar Method attaining technical proficiency and musical eloquence.

This method stems from the need to incorporate a number of schools into a single cohesive curriculum. Years of honing a logical approach to the guitar and the creation of music culminate in this volume. As a self-proclaimed Disciple of Valdés-Blain , much of that famed teacher's focus can be found in Mr. Pellegrin's method.

ISBN: 978-1-4116-9442-2

Published by PAB Entertainment Group, P.O. Box 2369 Scotia, New York 12302

Please go to www.lulu.com to order.

  LOW END  By Harry George Pellegrin.  The first in the Gary Morrissey series of mysteries.  Dealing with modern subject matter in the classic style of the 1940's Mystery Noire masters--think Raymond Chandler in New York in the 1980's...  LOW END is the story of a drug addict who is murdered after he believes he has found evidence of a major government conspiracy.  Is it only drug-induced paranoia?  Might be, except his paranoia could be considered justified: he was murdered, after all.  Friend Gary Morrissey takes it upon himself to find out just what happened and lands himself in the crosshairs.
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Classic Guitar Method  Composed, written, transcribed, edited and arranged by Harry G. Pellegrin: Now in one volume, much of what the novice classical guitarist will need to know to lead him or her to the recital stage. From proper instrument care and maintenance to the necessary technical skills, musical mind-set, and the standard repertoire—all exposed and explored with enough detail and insight that the student will wish to keep this book handy years to come as a ready reference source.
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DEEP END: The Wreck of the Eddie Fitz  By Harry George Pellegrin. A mystery novel. Involving a semi-professional musician and a Kreyol death cult, DEEP END takes the reader from the bottom of Long Island Sound to the steamy streets and Blues clubs of New Orleans. Alternative spirituality does battle with the common working man.  Published by PAB Entertainment Group in association with LULU.com.
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