In an orchestra, the conductor will mould the sound of a moment by choosing what instruments are to come out loud and clear, what instruments are supporting with the harmony, and what instruments might be adding a tinge of color. On the classical guitar we are doing the same thing, although, we are not conducting orchestra members, we are conducting fingers.
To make a bit of a generalization, there are usually three main parts to a classical guitar piece. The melody, the bass and the accompaniment. Another generalization would be to say that those three parts are usually in that order of importance. So, the melody needs to be loud and clear, the bass is strong but not overpowering and the accompaniment needs to be lesser again, as it is in a supporting role. This small hierarchy has to be controlled by the fingers in your right hand (no mean feat!) and with this control comes a sense of depth and separation in the music. Depth comes from the sensation that there are multiple “voices” sounding at the same time, and separation means that each voice can be heard and identified individually, they are not just one big glob.
The first challenge that we face is to identify the different voices. In a choir there will be four separate parts for four separate voices, and it will be pretty easy to see them on the page. With the guitar, however, because of the restrictions we have with four fingers and six strings, the voices are often incomplete and can therefore be hard to spot. For any passage of music, you need to take some time to initially understand where the voices are and how they are connected. If you don’t do this then working on the balance of your hand won’t be worth very much!
The second challenge for us, is to clearly define each part with a separate dynamic, tone and articulation. We don’t always have to employ all three of these factors but we do need to make each voice distinct. The right hand has a broad palette of color that we have been using up to this point, but now we need to combine these colors and control them at the same time.
The third challenge is to be able to change our voicing as the piece moves along and the voices move around. Not all passages have the basic hierarchy of melody on top, bass on the bottom and accompaniment in the middle. They will often overlap, and many times the bass will be the melody. Just think of Villa Lobos’ first prelude.
For this free lesson I want to give you my best exercise for hand weight and balance. It is a simple exercise, but a very useful one.
Using p, i, m, & a, you are going to play repeated block chords. You can hold down a chord with the left hand or you can simply play open strings, its up to you. As you repeat these chords, you need to focus on bringing out one particular note. Start with your a finger on the highest string, then move to the thumb on the lowest string. These two voices are the easiest to manipulate. Finally move to the inner voices and bring out the m finger and the i finger.
To “bring out” a note, you can start by pushing/pressing that particular finger a little deeper into the string. This will make the string sound louder that the other as it is vibrating more. Take the exercise slowly to begin with, then see if you can change voicing a little faster.
Like all techniques it is about being able to control the sound, so you can make better music.
Out of all the music we play, I would say that the music of Fernando Sor is the most sophisticated when it comes to voicing. He wrote his music taking great care to write good voice leading. Each voice has a strong line and is carved out quite beautifully, so that means you need to take care of each one!
For a good example of Sor’s voice leading prowess, have a look at this Sor Study.
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