by Simon Cheong
If you have problems in trying to learn to play a piece of music, here is what you can do – ask yourself these questions and sort each one of them out separately.
a. Can I read the notes?
A student should ask themselves if they are able to read the notes first, especially if at that moment in learning they are totally struggling to get going! Why the struggle? The reason is simple. One struggles because one has to take in information all at once requiring various skills – namely, reading notes and finding them on the guitar; making the Right and Left hand fingers work in tandem to reading and finding the notes; listening to the sound produced and not making sense of them!; being totally frustrated with the disappointment of not being able to reproduce what the imagination had imagined! and not realising that one has to acquire these skills with patience individually. Therefore, before even trying to find the notes on the guitar – learn to read first! Learn to read the notes by saying it out loud and without the guitar in hand. Pointing out the notes and reading the name of the notes out loud whether it be solfege or letter names does not matter but having the ability to read both would definitely be an advantage! In fact with solfege – singing the notes will get you be to better acquainted with picking out the melody! And, if one can separate out the parts – melody, accompaniment and bass – whammy! it does you a whole lot of good!
b. can you find the notes on the guitar?
After being able to read and recognise the notes on the score, it is now that one needs to find these notes on the guitar. In finding the notes on the guitar, the student should remember, on which string and on which fret the note is found, and always not forgetting to listen to the sound and recognising it.
Finding notes on the guitar (understanding the fingerboard should be studied on its own as well – read my making sense of the fingerboard!) is really a very important step. Decisions has to be made, especially with advanced students, which position are the notes to be found and in how many places can the notes be found! Finding where the notes are found on which string and on which fret should be explored to give the student an understanding of the fingerboard . The reason for a certain position, string and fret chosen should be carefully considered as it involves the sound of the phrase or passage. This decision makes the music sound good.
Finally, in choosing the position, string and fret of where the notes will be played depends on the fingering chosen.
a. The Left Hand
Deciding on a set of fingers is depended on where one would find the notes.
For the beginner, finding the notes and choice of fingers would almost be the same if one follows the rule of a finger a fret. The beginner would have been taught to play in the first position* with a general rule that the first finger is in charge of the strings on the first fret, the second finger is in charge of the strings on the second fret, the third finger is in charge of the strings on the third fret and finally, the fourth finger is in charge of the string on the fourth fret. (Of course, the second position will be – the first finger on the second fret, the second finger on the third fret, the third finger on the fourth fret and the fourth finger on the fifth fret. So, the third position will be the first finger on the third fret and so on…).
For the advanced player, decisions abound aplenty and wise choices would be through common sense fingering. Decisions being based on ‘easy to play’ and ‘musically effective’. Fingering patterns should be found or musical patterns recognised.
There are basic principles that I personally use for my choice of left hand fingering, and this will always take musical considerations to be the most important – like trying to keep the melody on the same string or repetition is played in a different position if possible. Playing the melody on the same string will give unity and evenness in tone whist, playing a repetition in a different position will provide contrast. Often times students ignore note values – the note values dictates the fingering especially with long notes (sustained notes).
A common rule with left hand fingering is to have a ‘guide finger**’ or ‘guide fingers’. This would be when a finger or fingers will help in the change of chord, of course, there will also be occasions too, when there are no apparent guide finger to help out!
As one learns to plan ones fingering and through solving fingering problems; learning and recognising finger patterns becomes easier as one gets more and more patterns into ones ‘armory’ and reading becomes easier as with a language – the more vocabulary one has, that makes one proficient in ones language!
b. The Right Hand
The student would most probably be taught to place their right hand fingers in the ‘home’ position, ie. the thumb (p) on the 6th string with the index (i) on the 3rd string, middle finger (m) on the 2nd string and the ring finger (a) on the 1st string. The student would have formulated the concept of the thumb is in charge of the bass strings (string 4, 5 and 6) while the fingers are in charge of the treble strings. The fingers being in charge of the treble strings as placed respectively would have some students fixated with this notion even though the technique of alternating the index and middle fingers (i&m) was introduced!
There are various positions in the right hand placement of the fingers and these are to be learnt and recognised according to circumstances and experience. The problem for the student would usually be to ignore the right hand patterns caused by laziness due to ignorance and lack of exposure to the existence of such a concept. Most of the time, they are just too preoccupied with the left hand problems to even think about the right hand – hence, they will basically use just the thumb and index finger or any convenient finger to play everything without planning!
All the different arpeggios will have a certain pattern to it and a suitable right hand pattern would be found respectively while scale passages should usually be played with alternating index and middle fingers.
Students who find difficulty in alternating the i & m fingers will be found playing imimiiii… or imimimmm… or various combinations of playing by repeating whichever finger that was available! My explanation to a student in order to convince the student on this problem is to ask the student to stand up and walk as I say – right , left, right, left, left, left, left… I have proven my point!
Here is a concept that I will usually try to implement onto the pieces I am learning – the fingers will play the melody and the thumb will play the bass. As for the accompaniment, it will most probably be the fingers as well but sometimes a mixture with the thumb and sometimes (rarely), the thumb only.
Another concept is the usage of apoyando and tirando. Other than early music (where apoyando is not employed because its sound is too heavy for the style, I will still use it depending on circumstances), all other periods especially the Romantic period, I will use apoyando for the melody and tirando for the accompaniment.
There are players who do not use apoyando at all and that is a personal choice. As for my outlook, it will definitely be a great advantage to have the ability to have apoyando in one’s ability!
Most students hate to count (for a more elaborated discourse on problems encountered, maybe I will write on it in another essay but it will not be suitable here) but, I will state very strongly the importance of learning how to count. I have always told my students this very important definition of music – ‘Music is organising sounds in time!’
Students problems here are impatience and frustrations caused by the lack of ability to do a variety of things at the same time. Refusing to take a step at a time and work at coordination bit by bit! I will stress again on coordination – coordination is organising and planning everything that is required, slowly, bit by bit with focus and attention! You need to concentrate and remember all the details of the instructions you have given yourself from the understandingyou have read from the score***!