When we sing, we use our lungs to activate our vocal chords, and when we play a trumpet we also blow air out from our lungs. If there is no air, there is no sound. This is not the case with the guitar. The guitar makes a sound with the initial stroke of the finger and continues to make that sound until it decays away. The fact that we do not need to sustain effort to sustain sound means that we can get a bit lazy when it comes to note duration.
One of the more common tendencies that I try and correct with beginners is to sustain notes for as long as they are written. It sounds easy enough, but students will often play a note, and forget about it. Its almost like they think that by playing the note at the right moment, they have followed the score well enough. But rhythm is all about duration, and simply striking the note in time is not good enough it also needs the correct duration.
Now, I am not pointing the finger and saying that guitarists are lazy in this regard, rather it comes down to developing good finger independence in the left hand. If we always just played one note at a time, we would be on easy street and this may not be such a problem, however, with much of the guitar repertoire being polyphonic and having several parts moving at the same time, sustaining each voice can be easily overlooked.
Let’s look at a simple polyphonic exercise (polyphonic means “many voices”, just think of a choir with four different sung parts and you’ve got the idea). Here you have a simple ascending line in the lower voice, and a simple descending line in the upper voice. The notes are not struck together, so you will have to make sure that each note rings over the other and be sure not to cut any notes short just because it might be difficult in the left hand. Play this exercise as slowly as you need to do it correctly.
If you noticed any moments in this passage where you cut a not short, then you are probably doing it in your repertoire too, because repertoire can get a lot more complicated than this!
Finger independence can be easily developed if you put some solid practice time into it. Most importantly, you have to be strict on yourself to play durations as they are written. I can correct a student till I am blue in the face but until they start correcting themselves it won’t matter.
If you want to improve your finger independence right now, have a look at this fixed finger exercise.
What a great piece this is. Work on your voice independence and really try and sustain those long notes for their full duration. Measures 10 and 11 have some tricky finger work to do so that the voices ring over each other but the effect is magnificent and worth the effort. The technical aspect that will help you sustain the voices is finger independence in the left hand. This means you have to hold one finger down while the other fingers move around. It is a very important technique to master, so take your time and do it right.