Classical Guitar Exam Preparation Part Three: Working on the Technical Elements

Today’s post is the third in ten part series on preparing for an exam on the classical guitar. If you missed parts one and two, or want to recap, here are the links:

* Classical Guitar Exam Preparation Part One – Deciding When The Time Is Right

* Classical Guitar Exam Preparation Part Two – Picking Your Repertoire

Now the technical elements of your exam should most definitely not be overlooked nor underestimated. The technical exercises, including the various scales and arpeggios, relevant to your particular grade, should not be underestimated both in terms of the weighting placed on them in the exam and also, importantly, how vital this kind of work is to your development as a guitarist overall.

So one cannot really get by just giving these elements a rudimentary look over. Firstly, talking purely from a “passing the exam” point of view, the security and confidence required to execute your technical work to the satisfaction of the examiner will most definitely require more than a quick look over or a secondary consideration to your repertoire pieces. If you flunk the technical work part of the exam, let me tell things won’t look too good for your overall score!

By looking into the technical elements a few weeks before your exam, or just by looking at them once or twice a week, it’s unlikely you’ll develop the required level of execution to satisfy the examiner. Technical exercises require time and consistent, highly regular practice. This also requires patience and perseverance on behalf of yourself as the student, as you’ll need to maintain your consistent practice over a long period of time – perhaps the space of 12 months or even 24 months from one grade to the next.

Gosh, that makes it sound so tedious doesn’t it?! Don’t forget you’re a musician and you’re doing this to help your development as a musician – so play your technical exercises in a musical way! Do you find them boring? Well, you’re the one playing them, so there’s only one way to make them less boring – play them less boringly!! Have fun with them!! The examiner will thank you too, I’m sure, for making them sound like you enjoy them in the exam room too. Remember, they’ve heard countless examples of what you’re about to play them – give them something beautiful!

Get to work ASAP

Once you know you want to sit for a particular grade exam (or even before if you have half an inkling that you might), I highly recommend you get stuck into the technical work as one of the first things you do. And work on your technical elements daily – you don’t have to drive yourself loopy with it; a little and often is what will see you progress. Depending on what grade you’re aiming to take will dictate how much time you need to spend just in terms of volume of material to get through, but 10-15mins every day is so much better time spent than 30 mins twice a week. You don’t have to do everything on the list every day either, you could write yourself a little schedule of technical work practice to ensure that you’re covering everything off in the space of a week. It’s possible then to see more clearly what may need more work more frequently, and what could be scheduled in less frequently as you progress through the weeks.

It may also be the case, depending on whether the exam you intend on taking is following on from the previous grade exam, or you’ve not taken an exam for a while, or this is your first grade exam (whatever level you’re entering in at), that you need to build up to the technical requirements of the grade you’d like to sit for by preparing with some exercises from lower grades or some supplementary material.

Secondly, and now talking from a general technical development point of view (which applies equally to those not sitting for exams), I can’t stress enough the importance of technical work. Yes, you may find yourself getting by and playing pieces of reasonable difficulty. There will come a time, however, when you will hit a brick wall in your playing and your progress will become limited.

One of the beauties of sitting for a grade exam on the classical guitar is that it forces you somewhat to address the technical work head on – there ain’t no getting around it!

The consistent and concerted study of technique on the guitar, I promise you, will make your guitar-playing life a whole lot easier. The study of scales, arpeggios, and left and right hand exercises of varying types will facilitate ease of playing on the guitar so the execution becomes less of a consideration than the music itself. Technical work is not an end in itself, it’s all there to help you make the most beautiful sound and create the most expressive music possible with the least effort (particularly when the pressure may be on in a situation such as an exam).



Top Three Tips for Buying Your First Classical Guitar

Back in January this year I published a blog post on selecting a new guitar. I thought I would update this a little, partly to complement my recent post on my top seven dos and don’ts for beginner guitarists and partly in response to a number of emails I’ve been receiving recently seeking advice about purchasing a classical guitar for the first time.

So here we are, my top three tips for the newbie would-be classical guitarist….

Allan Bull Spruce Top Classical Guitar

(1) If you want to play classical guitar you’ll need, yep you guessed it, a classical guitar. This is the quintessentially “Spanish”-type guitar (like the photo) fitted with nylon strings. Not steel strings. Well, strictly speaking a set of classical guitar strings contains three treble strings (these are the three highest pitched strings, or the three strings furthest away from you when holding the guitar) made of nylon (or carbon also these days) and three bass strings made of nylon tightly wound with a metal compound.

And it’s really not advised to go whacking nylon strings onto a guitar intended for steel strings, and definitely not vice versa. Without getting to much into it this is all to do with tension across the body of the guitar, the soundboard (the front of the guitar) and the neck.

And the classical guitar is not the same as a flamenco guitar – these guitars are built a little differently, have slightly different materials and generally produce a different kind of sound. They’re really geared to the playing of flamenco style music. So if you’re interested in playing flamenco or even other folk/ world music types you may want to do a little research into the best kind of guitar to get for the music you really want to play.

(2) Always play the guitar you have in mind, even better yet try a few different ones out. It may sound good on paper (or screen), seem like a good deal or look real pretty in the picture, but we all know that we can be disappointed by things that are not quite as good as they seem in real life compared to the picture or bought something off of the internet that turned out to be a little bit NQR (not quite right).

I would avoid, if at all possible, purchasing a guitar via the internet from either a shop or eBay or wherever, without having played the instrument in question first. If you play it first you can find out if you really like it, like the sound, like the feel of it, even the look of it in real life. This is too avoid that “ahh this is a little bit too heavy, too big/ deep a body, or too wide a neck shape for your hands” thing. Or the “I really don’t like how this sounds” thing when you now own the thing that isn’t shaped right for you or sounds like poo to your ears.

And try a few different guitars out. Classical guitars may all look the same but there can be considerable variation in how they feel to play and how they sound, even at the entry, “value for money” end of the market.

Yours Truly Playing John Price Cedar Top Concert Guitar

You could even try out the difference between the two main soundboard types. The soundboards on classical guitars are, 99.9% of the time, constructed out of either spruce (the lighter colour wood, shown in the image above) or cedar (the slightly darker colour wood, as per my own John Price guitar in the photo below). These two different tone woods, as they’re called, produce two different sound qualities. Spruce top guitars tend to sound very bright and zingy, especially in the first 12-18 months of playing them, then they start to mellow out a little. Cedar tops sound more immediately warm and more mellow. Neither is inherently better than the other, it just depends on your personal preference.

There are also of course the very cheaply made guitars which have orange or yellow painted plywood (not solid) soundboards. These are known as orange box guitars – because they sound like they’ve been made out of old orange boxes (probably have!). Avoid!!

(3) As tempting as it may be to purchase a $100 orange box guitar just to give it a bash I would avoid it if at all possible. It really is a false economy to do this because (a) you’ll end up hating the thing because it sounds bloody awful and/ or it feels awful to play, (b) you’ll be limited in your learning on this type of “instrument” (believe me, I’ve seen and heard it with my own eyes) and you’ll either give up on it or buy the guitar you perhaps should have bought in the first place. Another consideration is that these guitars don’t resell very well (if you do decide to give it away), where as the respectable entry level guitars do reasonably well in terms of resale if you did want to sell it on.

I would say, if you can afford it, you’re probably looking at starting around the $600 mark (in Australia) to get kitted up with a reasonable, solid top guitar, in your choice of either spruce or cedar. I have a student of mine, an absolute beginner to the guitar and to musical learning just a few months ago, who took my advice and did just this – she told me just this week how much she loves her guitar and how she enjoys playing it. And she sounds great playing it, really coming on leaps and bounds in her learning, ably assisted by her lovely student guitar. If you can do it, I would seriously recommend saving up the pennies to get you started out in the right direction.

Good luck and happy guitar buying!