Back To Basics with Classical Guitar Practice

About once or twice a week I like to put some “back to basics” stuff into my classical guitar practice schedule. This involves taking some technical exercises right from the most elementary or preparatory of exercises. I’m talking ridiculously simple, pre First Grade kind of stuff.

Why is this important?

It’s important as these simple movements, these simple exercises of creating some of the most basic sounds on the guitar (i.e. the open strings) are our foundations. Perhaps more than that they are the bedrock into which we need to build our foundations to construct a fantastic playing technique. Without sturdy solid bedrock, the foundations can do nothing and if you try to start building on it you’re not going to get too far before it starts to crumble!

And so we need to check out our foundations and our bedrock from time to time to ensure they remain stable and solid and fulfiling their role. Checking in regularly with our fundamental left hand movements and right hand movements and sound production can help to instill and reaffirm good playing habits, promote physical awareness of your playing technique, reduce tension and nip any pains in the bud and help to make playing with a  good sound less of a fully conscious thing all of the time.

So, what kind of exercises are we talking about here?

Here are three example exercises I like to do on a regular basis. These are:

(1) Right hand only open string alternating thumb (p)  and fingers (i, m and a) – starting with p on the bass E string (6th string), alternating that with top E (i,m,a) then the B (i,m,a), G (i,m,a) and then the D (i,m,a). I then repeat this pattern with the thumb on the A string and then again with the thumb on the D string. I also do each pattern with both rest stroke and free stroke.

This helps with finger-thumb alternation, but also allows you to really listen in to your most fundamental tone production on the open strings. You should always aim for beautiful tone production with this.

(2) Right hand only open string three and four-string chords across different string groupings with differing fingerings, using p,i,m, p,m,a and p,i,m,a. across all combinations of open strings. This makes you think about where your fingers are moving from to play the chords (i.e. the big, finger base knuckles) and eveness across each of the fingers (i.e. no one digit louder than the others). You can also focus on practicing different dynamics with this too to practice your volume control. And of course you should always be thinking about the tone being produced.

(3) Shifting three note chords focusing on left hand articulation, shifting and positioning. Building on the open string exercises this particular one adds in the left hand for left-right hand coordination, involves all the aspects above for right hand plus focus on what the left hand is doing in terms of shifting and accuracy.

With fingers 1 and 2 of the left hand on C and A of the second and third strings, start this one with thumb playing bass E string and i and m playing the A and C (so a three note chord) as a crotchet and then an open top E as a crotchet on its own following on from that. Then shift up a semitone with the left hand with fingers two and three on C# and A# and play the same pattern, then shift up another semitone with fingers three and four on D and B, again playing the same pattern.

Repeat this by shifting the whole hand position up to the fourth position, repeating that whole cycle starting with fingers 1 and 2 on D# and B# (C). You can then do this all the way up the neck and back down again. You can also practice this exercise on other strings too.

(Question here for you folks – would it be helpful if I posted up a video of me executing these exercises to help you?)

How do you go about practicing it?

I often like to come to this material after I’ve been working on something challenging for around 30-45 minutes for example. Why? Well, it acts as a kind of or refresh button for the brain and fingers after having played and worked through some previously challenging material. It also acts as a check point for you to ask some crucial questions of yourself and your playing. By playing through thoughtfully and with care and consideration I find it helpful to ask myself two key questions:

  1. How is my sound quality? Is this the sound I want to make?
  2. Am I holding any unnecessary tension anywhere in my body? How are shoulders, my arms, my hands, neck, jaw, upper back, lower back, legs?

So I don’t always start out a practice session with this material. In fact, I find it’s often good to get stuck into some of the most challenging stuff on my practice list first – the tricky spots in a piece, learning a new section of a new work – whilst my brain is freshest and most up for the challenge. Starting a session with this kind of “back to basics” material can settle you in, however, if you need a bit of a mental and/ or physical warm-up into your practice session.

And don’t forget, no one is ever too far advanced to get back to basics!

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