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Overcoming Technical Obstacles on Classical Guitar

Here's a common scenario: you're learning a new piece and you come across a really awkward phrase that you just can't quite get under your fingers. If you're keen on learning the piece, chances are you'll keep hammering away at the difficult phrase until it finally comes together. That's great: there's much to be said for sheer determination and tenacity!

Another tactic is to work on the piece for a while then leave off for a few weeks or months if the difficulty seems too deep-seated to overcome at present. When you return to the piece your playing has perhaps moved on a little bit in the meantime, and the previously impossible phrase now becomes manageable.

Yet another approach is to try and be more systematic about overcoming the problem you're facing. I'll try and illustrate what I mean by using a detailed example. Here are the opening bars from the first of Fernando Sor's 20 Studies:
Sheet music for Sor, Estudio no 1, first section

MP3 of Sor Estudio opening bars Listen to MP3 of Sor Estudio opening bars

This study is an exercise for developing smooth voice leading in a three-part texture, and it contains some challenging left hand shapes.

I'm going to focus on just one small left hand progression that seems to cause problems for many intermediate guitarists, and offer a suggestion for overcoming the difficulty in a systematic way. The short passage I'll be looking at starts on the last crotchet beat of bar 4 and finishes on the first crotchet of bar 5:

Fig 1
Music for Sor, Estudio no 1, bars 4-5

So, here we have just two chords with a quaver F passing note in between them.

The first chord is quite straightforward, and the fingering is as follows: 1st finger for the high F, 4th finger for the D, the G played open and then the low quaver F played with the 3rd finger. For the second chord use the 2nd finger for the top G, 4th finger for the high E and 1st finger for the low E.

The difficulty with this phrase is being able move to the second chord smoothly and play it cleanly, as it involves a stretch with a weak finger combination.

Instead of trying to play this 3 note chord all in one go, what I'd suggest is to simply build it up gradually in your practice. Work on adding one note at a time like this:

Fig 2
Sor, Estudio no 1, bars 4-5, practice pattern 1
Fig 3
Sor, Estudio no 1, bars 4-5, practice pattern 2
Fig 4
Sor, Estudio no 1, bars 4-5, practice pattern 3
Fig 5
Sor, Estudio no 1, bars 4-5, practice pattern 4

You can now focus on one left hand finger at a time, so you'll be able to work out which part of the chord is particularly difficult to play and concentrate on developing this. Most people find Figs. 2 and 3 quite easy, Fig 4 a bit trickier, and Fig 5 where the greatest difficulty lies.

If so, you can now concentrate on practicing Fig 5 most of all, doing what you can to maximise the fluency in the chord change. Pay careful attention to using your 4th finger as a guide finger, sliding it along the B string from the note D in the first chord to the note E in the second chord.

Once you have Fig 5 firmly under your fingers you can then work on adding the final component of the second chord, the low E.

The moral of the story, then, is to break down the difficult part into simple components, master each of them in turn and gradually add them back in until you build up the complete phrase.

Tony Oreshko

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