Guitar Practice – Organizing Difficult Passages into Groups of Notes

by Eric Henderson

Before I go on to talk about some other things concerning practicing classical guitar, I would like to first comment about the importance of continually going through a piece of music, repeatedly from beginning to end using the method I covered in my previous blog (e.g. repeating things three times). There are many cases where, after the first two or three times of going through a piece or study that is new and very difficult, there is a struggle to play it successfully at tempo and smoothly. I have learned that you just have to have faith that the work pays off and gradually you will master what you set out to do. But don’t get discouraged and above all don’t try to put all your focus on one piece or study to perfect it the first time through. This will eat up too much time and you won’t be able to get to other pieces during each practice.
What I find to be the single most important rule for learning and conquering a new piece of classical guitar music is that from the beginning you practice and play it in the most perfect rhythm that is possible. I have learned that no matter how slowly you have to play it so that it is a continuous, unbroken rhythm, this is key to improving. On the other hand, I can promise you that if you were to practice something and constantly vary the rhythm at your convenience whenever a difficult passage or hurdle comes up, you could spend a hundred years and never really improve. Keeping the integrity of the rhythm and its’ context are the most important things about practicing classical guitar successfully. I cannot stress this enough.
Let’s talk about demystifying playing with real speed and accuracy. After too many years of stress and enormous pressure to perform in concert without mistakes, I learned the beauty of keeping things simple and tangible by grouping. There are only groups of three or groups of four notes with divisions (e.g. two) or multiples (e.g. six and eight) of these.
Let’s take a scale going up two octaves. We’ll say the C major scale, or Ionian mode. If you were to play all the notes from middle C to high C (e.g. two octaves) without dividing the notes into groups, you would be struggling to play consistently and perfectly at top speed from end to end repeatedly. But take the same scale and divide it into groups of four. Do this by counting out loud, slowly, 1-2-3-4 which is C-D-E-F, then 1-2-3-4 which is G-A-B-C, 1-2-3-4 which is D-E-F-G, and 1-2-3-4 which is A-B-C-B, the last note B being the beginning of the descending part of the scale. The way I keep things clean and consistent to really mark my groups of four is to accent the 1 of the 1-2-3-4. If it is a very difficult passage, I would even go so far as to hang slightly on the 4th note of each group and then accent on the 1st note. What this does is to give me a feeling of space between each group of four. This works, of course, for groups of three and six, as well.
Not only does this work well for scales, it works extremely well for arpeggios. Take for instance the classical guitar piece ‘Etude No 1’ by Villa Lobos. If you accent the 1 to mark 1-2-3-4 and then the next 1 to mark the next 1-2-3-4, etc., you get a sense of ease and tirelessness to the hand because what you are doing is telling your hand that there are only four notes to keep track of instead of a daunting, unending sequence of notes. Most people, obviously, can play three notes in a row perfectly, or four notes in a row perfectly, but I find it much more difficult mentally and technically to play 16 notes on the guitar accurately in succession, without dividing things into groups.
Let’s take tremolo as another case in point. It is so much easier to play tremolo smoothly and consistently, again without tiring your hand, by practicing at first slowly and counting out loud like this: P-A-M-I, P being 1, A being 2, M being 3, I being 4. Remember to accent the 1 or the thumb; accent it by saying “one”, or “P” forcefully and louder than the other numbers. This marks mentally and physically the groups of four.
Let me give you another example. Let’s take the classical guitar piece ‘La Catedral’ by Augustin Barios Mangore, the final movement, ‘Allegro Solemne’. If you slowly practice this piece and divide it continually into groups of six, again making sure to accent the 1 of 1-2-3-4-5-6, you will see how much easier it is to play the entire piece without a mistake from beginning to end.
There is something that I have just recently discovered. Try playing something such as the groups of 6 notes in the final movement of ‘La Catedral’ by accenting the 1 and counting the notes in groups of six and very, very subtly and gradually slowing down very slightly between 1 and 6. 1.2..3…4….5…..6. Practice this method and see how smooth and controlled your playing becomes. You eliminate any sense of rushing and your sense of control and perception of grouping becomes incredible.