Tips & Techniques

This section is mainly for students of the classical guitar. Following are sections dealing with technical aspects of guitar playing, ideas about music and learning, and advice for players trying to make a living playing music.

Technique

1. An important idea I learned from my guitar playing roommate in Grad school was the idea of mid-range (Thanks to Steve Walter!).  The idea is simple: with any joint in the body (take the wrist, for example), one can either flex or extend that part.  So where does one want to play? Somewhere in the middle between the extremes of flexion and extension. This is where the body part is strongest, and most relaxed. It is not a point, but rather a window of acceptable positioning. You can expand this idea to the knuckle joint, the middle joint, and even the tip joint of the right hand. In mid-range the hand and fingers will be the most relaxed, and the strongest.  This applies to the left and as well, and includes the torso, neck, shoulders, and all parts of the body.

2. It’s important to learn prepared stokes (sometimes called “planting”). This has many benefits (tone, accuracy, articulation, etc.).  Aaron Shearer explains it beautifully in Vol. 2 of  “Learning the Classic guitar”, and Scott Tenant’s wonderful “Pumping Nylon” has a simple explanation of it as well. Study this idea and apply it to your practice.

3. Practice every day: scales, slurs, and arpeggios.

4. When learning new repertoire, try very hard to learn things correctly the first time. Every time you play, your are acquiring habits. Make sure they’re good ones. Otherwise, you waste a lot of time “undoing” what you and your fingers thought was  correct.

5. Take breaks! If I practice for an hour, I’ll take 5 minutes after 30 to take a short break and refresh my brain and fingers.

6. Warm up properly, especially before playing technically demanding music.

7. Exercise. Very important! Every day. I find a gentle stretching exercise like tai chi works well for me, but find out what works for you.

Musical ideas and expression

1. I’m always amazed that classical guitarists often don’t listen to classical music. This is not true of other musical genres: Rock players listen to rock, jazz players know every Duke and Miles and Coltrane recording by heart, but classical guitarists don’t know important works by Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Brahms, Stravinsky, etc. How can you play a Carulli or Diabelli Waltz if you don’t listen to 100 classical waltzes?

2. It’s helpful to listen to, and be coached by, musicians who don’t play guitar. Two reasons for this: other instrumentalists and singers do not have the limitations of the guitar (lack of sustain, volume) and we can learn a lot about phrasing from listening to them. Also, when being coached by a non guitarist, things that are awkward or difficult on a guitar don’t matter to them. They don’t care that a perfect tremolo is difficult- they’ll  only hear that it’s not even. They won’t care that a long line is difficult to sustain on the guitar, they’ll just hear the line going nowhere.  I was recording a Bach piece and the producer and I had a short exchange: Producer: “Can that be more legato?” Oren: “Well, it’s a really hard stretch there.” Producer: “I don’t care!” Get it?

3. Listen to and play contemporary music. Why? First and foremost, because (some of) it is truly great music! Why limit yourself to the 1600-1920’s? Second, it’s the music of our time. As Elliott Carter has said, we don’t live in a world of horse drawn carriages and gas lamps. We live in the modern world, with all it’s wonder and craziness. It’s good to hear music that reflects the here and now. Last, playing new music is a good way to distinguish yourself from every other player performing the usual Tarrega and Albeniz. Does the world really need another recording of the Giuliani Sonatas? And, will they pay you to play or record them? Ok, if you’re David Russell or Manuel Barrueco, they might, but you get the point.

4. This is for students in conservatories, including the many talented students  I’ve been introduced to, teaching at the Manhattan School of Music for almost 20 years: Chamber music is an important key to musical development and employment. Let’s take the musical part first. Guitarists are still notoriously bad sight readers. It’s not completely our fault; we don’t play in orchestras or school bands, and a lot of the famous rep is solo. But we can learn so much from playing with other musicians, particularly non guitarists. Playing with singers or wind players we learn how to breathe, Playing with percussionists we learn about having great rhythm. The possibilities for learning are endless. As far as careers in music, VERY few will end up as soloists, performing recitals or concertos. The vast bulk of students, if they are talented and lucky enough to make a living in music, will end up playing chamber music. This is the reality of performance situations. So, be a good colleague! Be the guy who is a good reader, a good musician, easy to get along with, and the work and opportunities will come.

5. Watch and listen to great guitarists. We are lucky to be living in a time where with a key stroke we can watch Segovia, or the Romeros, or David Russell, or a host of other great players. Watch their hands and fingers, and listen to them make great music.

Tips!

1. In NYC, it gets VERY dry in winter. Humidify your instrument. I’ve seen so many cracks in guitars in the winter. Humidify the guitar and the house.

2. Keep your nails in good shape. Make sure they’re like glass, with no rough edges anywhere. I use generic files, which i rub together to create different degrees of roughness, then finish with 500 sandpaper.

3. If you want to work in a city, make sure you go to concerts where people are performing the music you want to perform. This takes a while, but you’ll learn a lot of music, and people will notice you.

4. Make sure all your social media (Website, Facebook, Twitter, etc) are up to date and professional. I remember going to a seminar about web design and content, and the speaker said, “you are a content provider. Make it very easy for someone to see you, hear you, and understand what you do.” In addition, maintain an email list of people who are fans. These are the people who will come to your shows, and support you.

More to come! I hope some of the material is helpful.

Many thanks to my teachers David Starobin and Bruce Holzman, and to my (Juilliard trained) folks for listening and helping me with everything from Bach to Babbitt.

Comments are always appreciated; please just Contact Me