For whatever reason we always want things we can’t have. The classical guitar excels in producing soft, dulcet tones. So, therefore what do players want to do? Play loud and fast!
I have dealt with the topic of playing loud on the classical guitar in another post, so in this post we will discuss the topic of right hand speed.
Playing fast on the classical guitar is relative. The very fastest players will be overtaken with ease by electric guitar players using a pick, and in turn our electrified colleagues will get overtaken by violinists, pianists, and flautists. Even still, it is hard not to be thrilled by a player that exhibits speed coupled with fluidity and volume.
Let’s leave out for the moment the musical vs. mechanical argument that is likely to crop up and just deal with speed as part of our toolkit that we can use to make music.
Physical gifts, innovation, and the musical olympics
It is important to acknowledge from the get go that we all have our physical gifts and limitations. Like it or not, there are just some guitarists who have a greater physiological capacity to synchronize their fingers with velocity. If we don’t accept this, then we are going to risk repetitive injury and certain frustration when trying to compete with those who have a natural proclivity for speed.
Accompanying physical gifts are limitations and a constant state of change in the body. Not everyone has a fully functioning set of digits. Perhaps life has thrown physical roadblocks or challenges in the way. In this case we simply have to make the best of our resources and forge ahead. Even if a guitarist exhibits virtuosic speed at some point, she might inevitably see a decline with age.
I am very grateful, however, for those many guitarists who have pushed the boundaries of speed over the years. They continually raise the bar as classical guitar technique gets refined over the decades. This allows for a more expanded musical toolkit along with all of the other advances we have observed. In general it is a great time to be a classical guitarist!
Here is an example of a guitarist, Matt Palmer, who refined his own right hand technique to incorporate AMI fingerings to great effect. In this video we can see the guitar rising to speeds that were perhaps thought impossible a few decades ago:
Flamenco guitarists regularly exhibit speed that is coveted by classical guitarists. With a closer relationship to dance and rhythm, flamenco players prioritize percussive like rhythm over tone and rubato (generally speraking). In this very rhythmic style the rasgueado technique plays a large role and constantly requires the use of extensor muscles.
Extensors are used to open up the finger joint, and flexors are used to close. As classical guitarists we are almost always dominating our movement with the flexors. Yes, our finger re-sets to its initial resting position but this is done by letting go of tension rather than activating the flexors with force.
The rasgueado technique can be very beneficial to classical players as it balances out the extensor muscles. By building up the extensors each finger can return to its neutral position faster. This results in an overall speed increase in right hand technique. Simply incorporate rasgueado flicks into your daily technical routine, and be mindful of building up stamina over time if this is a new technique for your body. CGC guitarists will find these in the Level 4 Technical Routines
I first came across “speed bursts” in Scott Tennant’s technical tome Pumping Nylon, which will forever stand as the best cover to a classical guitar technique book.
For me, high speeds and long scales have something in similar in that they are rarely sustained for long periods of time in the classical guitar repertoire. Rather they appear in small chunks and then disappear again. There are notable exceptions to this, but for the large majority of pieces, speed will occur in small bursts.
The exercise is wonderful at building up stamina, and also teaching us to relax after each burst. Holding on to tension will hold back your speed and also tire your hands out, so it is important to incorporate active relaxation into these exercises.
The premise is simple: play straight eighth notes (quavers) and gradually introduce longer and longer strings of sixteenth notes (semiquavers). This can be done on an open string using i,m alternation (or any other combination). If you want to add in complexity you can add in left hand notes and work on synchronizing the two hands.
In the previous point, I referred to this term “active relaxation”. It is a made up term but to me it does a good job of describing what we need to do to allow the body to function at high speed.
Adults have a lot of learned behavior that doesn’t always make sense in a musical setting. Tension is a big one that we need to deal with. Perhaps it is an instruction from the amygdala (primitive brain), but whenever we try to do something challenging we tend to tense up in anticipation and hold our breath. For fighting lions, tigers, and bears it may be useful, but not so much for playing the classical guitar.
To counter this naturally occurring habit, we need to actively relax. That is to say we need to make a conscious effort not to tense up and hold our breath. By doing this we are allowing our fingers to flow freely and speedily.
Breathing out while playing a fast passage with serve this purpose, and upon first try you will see just how much your body doesn’t want to do it! I suggest working on a passage with a tricky passage and choreograph a slow intake followed by a controlled outward breath just where the difficulty kicks in.
It can be a challenging request initially as it is adding more complexity into the mix, but I find that it yields good results for my students and myself.
Similarly to the choreographed breath we can be aware of opening up our body to expand our chest area. In another call to the amygdala, we tend to curl inwards with difficulty, but expanding outwards will free up our muscles. So try bringing your shoulders back and opening up your posture when passages get difficult.
After working on active relaxation in your practice session, you can refine it down to less overt actions and simply be aware of not tensing up when a faster passage arrives.
Although we are focusing on right hand speed, it is not just the right hand that comes into play in this discussion. The left hand has to be synchronized with the right otherwise we will hear “choppy” and unclear notes. The choppiness is a result of dead notes which are not correctly held down at the right time to match the very precise and rather unforgiving right hand pluck.
To work on synchronization you can add in chromatic notes to the speed burst exercise above, or you can do the following type of slow practice:
To do something “slowly” does not always mean the movements are slow. In this exercise, I want you to play the notes far apart, so the beat will seem slow, but I want you to move your fingers very quickly and efficiently.
Simply take a scale, any scale, and play the notes one at a time, with four or more beats between each one. I want you to focus on your left hand fingers as you do this. As you play a note, keep the finger down and only put down the next finger at the very, very last moment. At the same time, release the previous finger by relaxing it. There is no rush whatsoever to play many notes, rather take time to watch and listen to each note as it passes and evaluate it.
- Did my left hand finger move quickly?
- Was it efficient movement?
- Did I release and relax the previous finger?
- Was the note clear and synchronized with the right hand stroke?
By honing in on this very precise synchronization you can develop an efficiency and speed that will help you play faster in your repertoire.
Two Steps forward, one step back
There is no way that you will be able to play faster if you never push your limits.
Let’s say you are working on a passage or scale and you can comfortably play it at 80 MM (that mean’s 80 beats per minute on the metronome). A realistic goal for you to find a faster “comfort” tempo might be 88 MM.
Instead of increasing the tempo notch by notch, I like to push the tempo far beyond my goal. So in this scenario, I would push the tempo in chunks past 88, perhaps up to 110. I want to reach a point where the playing really breaks down and the fingers just cannot handle the tempo cleanly. At this point start to reel the tempo back in and return to your goal tempo of 88.
Rather like parachute training for runners, I have found this process works well and results in consistent incremental gains. Furthermore, you might want to take note of where your general limit is for a piece of repertoire so that when you perform, you can start at a tempo that is slightly under what you are capable of. This will leave room for the inevitable stage fright and adrenaline to do their thing.
One final concept is that speed is only truly effective if it is accompanied with a solid sense of rhythm. If the fingers are moving fast, but there is no sense of rhythmic stability then, in my opinion, the speed is wasted.
Musically, it is much more exhilarating to have a strong and steady rhythmic drive than to have sloppy but fast notes. So, as with the last point, perhaps find your physical limit and then reign in the tempo a bit for performance so that you can stay in control of your rhythm.
These are some of the approaches that I have seen work over the years, but I know there are many more. Please contribute your practice techniques in the comments below to help other readers and members of Classical Guitar Corner.