Workshop for guitar students, July, 2013, Esteli, Nicaragua

July 8-13, 2013
Guitar workshop for kids
Escuela de Musica, Sones Segovianos
Guest Instructor, Edward Grigassy
Esteli, Nicaragua

Being introduced by the director of Escuela de Musica, Sones Segovianos, Hannah Curteis

I had the distinct pleasure to work with some excellent young guitar students at the Escuela de Musica, Sones Segovianos last July, in Esteli, Nicaragua. The school is named for a local exquisite musical art-form tradition from the northern region of the country, the so-named Segovia region. There is a long and beautiful tradition of songs and song-stylings from this area of the world. The folkloric styles of music from this region have contributed significantly to the overall musical culture and identity of Nicaragua. And from a anthropological, musicologist or ethnomusicologist viewpoint, the musical art created and fostered in the region is complex, interesting, and valuable to the broader global community as well.

We met as a guitar class for 5 class days and then I collaborated with the students and faculty of the school on their end-of-term recital, which took place at Sor Maria Romero hall, Saturday July 13, 2013.

In addition the school found out there was interest in guitar instruction from outside the enrolled students, so we had a second class meet per day of students from around the community.

In all there were 11 students, enrolled formally in Sones Segovianos, that attended the morning class, and six others who attended the afternoon class.

The morning class photo:

In the past, for many musical education workshops, it has often been a fun challenge to attempt to prepare a group of students for a recital at the end of the workshop, as a method of affirming what they learned as well as sharing the students' success with their families and the local community. However in this case, since there was already a Saturday night recital being prepared for, with a substantial list of songs already programmed, I felt it was better to focus on technical ability (on the guitar) as well as to model good practice and rehearsal skills as we all prepared the concert program.

So the form this particular workshop took was a series of technical workouts (many of which I have borrowed from the Grisha Goryachev toolkit), followed by a rehearsal of every song, where I served as coach. This way the students could get better (by physically playing exercises, learning and reinforcing the locations of the notes on the guitar), and they would be more prepared for Saturday's performance.

Students from the school are trained in solfege singing, recorder, guitar, marimba, mandolin and accordion. Here are some images of the Saturday night concert:

There wasn't time to perform our exercises on the Saturday night concert, so in order to showcase their progress in the workshop, I had each of them perform for the class on the last 2 days. They each performed the “first-string, all-fingers” exercise, and they each also had to perform a song originally learned on recorder (Spanish: flauta dulce), but instead to prepare it and perform it on their guitar.

Notice the excellent training the students already are receiving about bowing, stage presence, and proper concert etiquette (both on stage and in the audience):

[Tangent: the school which hosted the workshop is located on a facility owned by a foundation called Superemos, which partners with a local cooperative named Cooperativa "Chrisinte King".]

[At this cooperative they have a computer lab (for computer classes for the community), a solar panel building workshop, an on-site welding shop, a cafeteria, and other projects that uplift and support the local community. The locals know the property under its former name, Escuela Las Chanillas.]

Here are a series of exercises we were able to practice as a class each day.

On some days we could not get to them all (especially if there was time devoted to having students play for class or show other students their progress), but I recommend doing one or more of these technique exercises in EVERY class session. It's a great way to get kids playing the guitar, focusing on technique and it is immediately accessible for every student (they don't need to know how to read music or have extensive knowledge of the instrument). Also they are good because they foster immediate, direct interaction between teacher and class, especially the exercises which are played to a beat the instructor sets.

TEACHERS: I recommend tapping your foot to the beat so as to give a soft, visible, constant reminder of the beat. (Make sure YOU can do this without double-tapping your foot on the eighth-notes, or quadruple-tapping your foot on the sixteenth-notes!). If students have solid rhythm stability in their playing, ask them to also try to tap their foot as they play. It is a challenge for a beginner and a great skill to have as a musician, especially when playing in a ensemble. (There is a great tendency amongst students to try to accelerate in small increments as they perform a regular rhythm, like the way rhythmic clapping at a sporting event or concert, gets faster until it approaches the sound of applause! It is important to continually reinforce the idea of “a slow, even beat, not rushing, not hurrying, playing each note, being present, feeling each note, feeling the beat.” These phrase should be SAID OUT LOUD as you play the exercise to remind the student to be aware of the beat and not rushing ahead).

A. Plucked Trills (Spanish: Trinos Picados)

Start by being able to alternate in the RIGHT HAND:

Finger 1: “ i ” Finger 2: “ m ” Finger 3: “ a ” Right Hand Thumb: “ p ”

1) Place p on string 6.

This keeps the thumb out of the way of the work of the fingers and anchors the Right Hand.

2) Practice alternating i & m on string 1. Start freely then play to a pulse (quarter notes):

i m i m i m i m …. etc. (repeat)

I recommend have everybody use rest-stroke, and possibly on another occasion, free-stroke. We used rest-stroke exclusively during this workshop.

TECHNICAL ISSUE: We had to adjust seating position (ideally in the future all students would have footstools and would create a better right hand to string angle of about 45 degrees). Also the teacher needs to continuously monitor right-hand position, especially making note the right hand wrist is not touching the top of the guitar. In general, the wrist and hand should be in-line with the forearm and the fingers should move diagonally through the string, moving towards the right elbow. For free-stroke the fingertips should move diagonally through the string, this time into the palm of the hand, ideally bending every joint in the finger and actually touching the palm for proper “hand-programming” of follow-through.

TECHNICAL ISSUE: It is crucial that the teacher notice if there is ever any situation where the i finger runs into the thumb, p. Work with the students patiently to move the thumb to the left of the i finger and anchor it on another string, or simply make sure it stays “outside the lane” of the i finger's natural path. If the i finger is in the habit of running into the thumb, this creates a “traffic jam” for the fingers of the right hand. The i finger will play with less power and confidence than the other fingers since it has been trained to stop abruptly when it hits the thumb. (The fingers should move in a natural, “grab the apple” motion, except make sure the thumb p stays outside, that is, to the left of the fingers!).

3) Bring in the rhythm of the SPEED BURST (on string 1, in this case):

One measure of quarter notes, then one measure of eighth notes, repeat.

Then try one measure of eighth notes, one measure of sixteenth notes, repeat.

For fun go as fast as possible! Always return to the slower speed to re-align your playing to the beat. and to make the alternation more precise. It is called a “speed burst” because you set a base speed that is slow and easy, then jump up to a faster speed (that is more challenging) then go back to the base speed. Slow speeds help develop precision and proper technique, fast speeds develop fast playing! It is important to practice (and guide the students through) ALL SPEEDS.

This practice of all playing together to the different rhythmic values is great for comprehension of the values as well as for playing together as an ensemble. Also when you speak out, “Ok next it will be eighth-notes,” for example, it activates the brain of the student, who must imagine and actively keep track of where we are in the current measure. The transition to the new rhythm helps reinforce the student's application of the rhythmic pattern in their minds, in their fingers and to their ears.

B. Bring in the LEFT HAND (again on string 1): Finger 1: “ 1 ” Finger 2: “ 2 ” Finger 3: “ 3 ” Finger 4: “ 4 ” The number “0” represents no left-hand finger, or the open string.

Practice alternating in the RIGHT HAND as you play frets 0 and 1: 0 1 0 1 0 1 0 1 … etc.

Start freely at first, then do quarter notes/eighth notes SPEED BURSTS.

Try eighth note/sixteenth note SPEED BURSTS:

0 1 0 1 0 1 0 1 | 0 1 0 1 0 1 0 1 0 1 0 1 0 1 0 1 | repeat
i m i m i m i m | i m i m i m i m i m i m i m i m |

TEACHERS: Look for accuracy in rhythm, good right and left hand technique (no tension or awkward wrist positions – straight wrists, left hand thumb behind the neck, left hand fingertips stay close to the string/fret where they play – not zoom far away). Goals: efficiency and precision.

TECHNICAL ISSUE: Some students are not playing with perfectly curved left-hand fingers. This means they sometimes don't use their fingertips for every note, or they allow the joints of the finger to collapse, or “bend-backward.” Any time you notice this, encourage them gently to see if they can try it again with proper, curved left-hand fingers. Since very few fingers are used at any one time, these exercises are great for training good left-hand habits, when we notice poor habits.

TECHNICAL ISSUE: Many students have unfortunately learned the bad habit of keeping their left-hand pinky away from the strings (often VERY FAR away). This comes from an emphasis on learning chords which tend to turn the left-hand wrist to favor finger 1. Try to correct this when you see it, or model it and mention “Look at your left-hand pinky” as you play exercises using ANY fingers – sometimes when exercising finger 3, you will notice the same “pinky escape” habit!

Teach the students to keep their left-hand palms parallel to the fretboard, and each finger about the same distance from the strings. (You can model this to the students by putting all 4 fingertips on string one then playing the note and sliding up the fret board to the 12th fret, creating a portamento – students will have fun with the sound and they can see the curved finger relationship to the string). Remind them that ideally in all scales, melodies and chords, the fingertips should hover above the strings and maintain their position close to the strings, ready to engage rapidly and efficiently.

C. Do SPEED BURSTS with all the combinations of Left Hand fingers and the open string:

0 1, 0 2, 0 3, 0 4 – Use the same fret as finger. Very important to practice with each finger!

D. Do SPEED BURSTS with 1 finger fixed in place, adding and removing the next:

1 2, 1 3, 1 4, 2 3, 2 4, 3 4

(again look for keeping fingertips close to the string, good LH technique)

E. Practice a combination that fits in one measure and do it with SPEED BURSTS:

0 1 2 3 4 3 2 1 || repeat (note for eighth notes play the pattern once, sixteenth notes: twice)

TECHNICAL ISSUE: I also noticed many of the students want to put their left-hand thumb up above the neck of the guitar. Again this goes back to their training with chords and it is a common position error that students learn. It is fine if all they will ever play is chords, but as soon as it is time to play melodies, this left-hand thumb position will GREATLY RESTRICT their ability to move and place finger 3 and 4 in every position on the fretboard. A simple demonstration is to put finger 1 fixed on fret 1 first string. Then with the thumb behind the neck ask to what fret can they stretch to play finger 4 (keeping finger 1 in place). Then try the same exercise with the left-hand thumb up and out above the neck. It is physically impossible to reach very far with the pinky when the thumb is in this position.

F. Practice changing the Right Hand alternation pattern. Here are some more advanced patterns:

The exercises above can be done with different right hand patterns. In the Sones Segovianos workshop, we only introduced these patterns on the open strings, but later if there is time, they are EXCELLENT for developing the right- and left-hand coordination.

a m i a m i (a group of 3, which doesn't line up as nicely as 2, but if practiced it can become very fast!)
p a m i p a m i (all on one string, also can be very fast)
Change the RH technique to use REST-STROKE instead of free stroke.

PRACTICE ISSUE: It is always important with these exercises to reiterate that precision and efficiency of motion are far more important than speed without control. If ever a speed is to fast for a student or a class, slow down the tempo so the student can have some confidence in their accuracy and coordination of the two hands.

In general I noticed that the emphasis on speed and getting through the song did often create problems in the students' practice and performance. Many students were rushing through the melody of “La Mora Limpia” for example, because they had learned the speed they were taught it should go. They would often play until they made a mistake and repeat large portions of the melody again. Practicing this way is preparing the student for making errors (that is what they are practicing after all, running into errors) instead of allowing them to confidently and carefully perform every passage.

I would like to see future guitar education there include a DRAMATIC slow-down of the tempo, encouraging students to play each phrase correctly and cleanly, with good left- and right-hand technique. In my experience a good phrase to practice (and to teach the child to practice) is “one measure plus one beat,” that means a full measure of notes, plus just the first beat (or note) of the next measure. Practice a measure until there is no confusion (train the brain to remember what exact notes to play) and no error (practicing slowly and carefully so that the performance of the measure is perfect, at a slow tempo). Then move on to the next measure (or phrase). Sometimes phrases can be just one to five notes, depending on how complicated they are to memorize or physically perform.

My motto is the student should be able to play it 3 times, in a row, perfectly at a slow tempo before they are qualified to play it for the instructor or anybody else. This applies to each phrase, as well as to the whole song.

Other exercises:

G. This one was from my friend and flamenco guitar virtuoso, Grisha Goryachev. The students all seemed to like this study and they immediately could see where they needed work on their performance of it.

The “First-String, All-Fingers” Exercise:

Use this pattern in the right-hand: i m alternation using rest-stroke, p anchored on string 6. In the left-hand use this pattern: 0 1 2 3 4 3 2 1. Use same finger number as fret. Then move the left-hand to the second position (so that finger 1 plays fret 2, finger 2 plays fret 3, etc.). Play the same left-hand pattern there: 0 1 2 3 4 3 2 1 … Continue moving the left hand one fret higher each repetition until you reach the 8th fret (8th position), then with each repetition decrease the fret number by 1 until you play the last repetition back in 1st position. Don't forget there is meant to be an open string played between each grouping of notes, and the whole exercise ends on a single open string. Optionally the student can strum an E major chord at the end of the whole exercise as a way of “celebrating” their achievement!

Start at quarter-note speed. Then do the whole exercise at eighth-note speed. Then try sixteenth-note speed. Then challenge the students to practice it at home as fast as they can maintaining accuracy and precision of each finger and a good clear sound for each note. Always remind the students to go back to the slow, comfortable speed to reinforce accuracy.

H. Add Staccato Technique to Plucked Trills and First-String, All-Fingers exercises:

Now at a slow speed we can train the right-hand to go faster, not by simply rushing through the movements, but by training the next finger to get ready at almost the same time as the previous finger plays. When executed on a single-string, this creates a staccato articulation which is an important ability for any musician to have in their toolkit.

The procedure is like this: Immediately when i goes through the string, m prepares, ready to play, on the same string. Then when m goes through the string, i prepares immediately on the same string ready to play next. When played slowly (quarter-notes for example), it sounds like a series of short notes. Train the students to move efficiently, making VERY SMALL motions in the right-hand so that there is no excess time or energy wasted with big, sloppy motions.

Overall we want to train our right-hands to be quick, efficient executors of the strings, and then bring in the left-hand, to improve our two-hand coordination, to play fast and accurately with both hands moving quickly and efficiently.

So have the students play the plucked trills with staccato at the slower speeds. Remind them to look at their hands (sometimes right, sometimes left), to make sure they are keeping the fingertips close to the strings at all times. If there is a habit to move a finger FAR from the string (like the left-hand pinky, for example), have the student do the study SLOWLY, thoughtfully bringing the finger closer, in a relaxed manner.

This use of right-hand staccato, always preparing the next right-hand finger in advance, and training the hand to do it automatically, also can be applied to scales and melody passages. In scales, when the notes change string, the right-hand preparation will actually be on the NEW string, thus there will be no staccato sound.

I. Natural Notes Scale:

I wrote the natural notes of the guitar in first position on the staff and guided the students through the scale. I think it is helpful to repeat each note 4 times (also good is 2 times), using a good right-hand fingering like, i m i m, on each note, so it reinforces two-hand coordination. Then as you ascend the scale, have the students SAY OUT LOUD the name of the note, before moving on to the next one.

Since the students at Sones Segovianos all had extensive training in solfegio and recorder, this connecting the note names, to locations on the guitar – and to the note location on the staff – put together the missing link of knowledge and ability for students to read staff music on their guitars.

After we did this several days in a row, I asked them all, now that they knew where the notes were, to read or perform from memory one of their recorder pieces on the guitar. Without exception the students did a great job at this. Some students chose difficult pieces, others chose basic ones, but they all performed them for the class and it was a great success.

I think the next step for these students is to have them play ensemble pieces with groups of students playing different guitar parts (guitar trio or guitar quartet music), AND to have individual students begin to learn basic classical repertoire pieces. Some students may be ready for Carcassi, Sor or Guiliani studies, while others should be assigned short single-line excerpts.

Another good idea is to have the students practice reading new songs (or excerpts of songs), from the staff and to play them alone or as a class. (I have a collection of short reading exercises I can provide if asked.)

J. Spanish Rasgueado Technique:

The students are fabulous already at performing the traditional folkloric strumming patterns they have been carefully taught. These Nicaraguan (and for the most part Latin American-style) patterns are an important part of their musical cultural heritage and help to increase confidence in their performing with a guitar in their hands. Add a vocal line or a melody line on any instrument and you have instant music that is interesting, rhythmic and engaging to the musicians and the listeners.

In our workshop I wanted to introduce some other right-hand patterns that are common in Spain and in flamenco style in particular. I have found that young students can learn these patterns rapidly and they are fun and rewarding to play.

The basic one we used was: minique a m i (pausa), repeat. Placing the thumb, p, again as an anchor on string 6, the other fingers should be brought into the palm like a “soft fist.” The student is then trained to extend each finger from the palm in the order specified. Each finger is a separate motion, at no time should 2 fingers come out of the fist together. I also had them use the “ball” of the thumb (the bigges joint of the thumb, where it connects to the hand) as resistance so that each stroke (physically downward toward the floor), comes out strong and percussive.

We played this chord progression with the technique described above:

2/4 || Bb * | Bb * | A | A | Bb * | Bb * | A | A |
| Dm | Dm | C | C | Bb * | Bb * | A | A || Repeat from beginning...

The Bb * chord is a “Spanish” B-flat major, meaning simply the A major pattern, but all left hand fingers at the 3rd fret. Or another way to describe it is a B-flat chord with an open 1st and 5th string. Note that the 6th string does not sound in this song, simply because the right-hand thumb, p, rests on in “like an anchor” during the entire procedure. The rhythm used for the notes in each measure above would be: minique – m – a (triplet eighth-notes), and the i finger a quarter-note with an accent (striking a little louder than the other fingers).

K. Sextuplet Continuous Rasgueado

This one we only started to introduce, but it is an essential rasgueado for Spanish and other styles of music.

It is 3 motions done twice. In this case the right-hand hovers over all the strings in the soft-fist position (like a fist except the thumb, p, is outside, that is, to the left of, the i finger. p in this case is straight and relaxed, not curved under the fingers as in a tight fist position).

The first motion is a (and m which moves sympathetically along with a ) extend and sweep over the strings. The arm should not move, the wrist should not turn... yet.

The second motion is i extends and sweeps over the strings, and as it does, the wrist turns so that the back of the thumb, p, is ready to touch string 1. I liken this “wrist” turning to the motion we use when opening a door, or turning a screwdriver. Again the arm should not move down. In this rasgueado, only the fingers extending and the wrist turning does the work.

The third motion is for a quick wrist turn up, so that p drags up over all the strings. Again the arm should not move up, by extending p in towards the soundhole and turning the wrist, we make a nice, quick percussive stroke.

Return the fingers to the soft-fist position and repeat. By doing it twice you can eventually create a pattern of six strokes that, when played rapidly, and continuously, sound very effective!

A good chord progression for this pattern is (each measure would be six slow, rhythmically even strokes):

|| B7 | B7 | Em | Em | B7 | B7 | Em | Em |
| Am | Am | Em | Em | B7 | B7 | Em | Em ||

L. Regular Trills

These exercises use the exact same left-hand finger patterns as in the Plucked Trill exercises, except these trills are performed as most trills usually are, with only the left hand.

For example: let's discuss the procedure for playing the 0 3 trill.

The right-hand can start the trill by playing the first note (the open string) then immediately, finger 3 does a “hammer-on” at the third fret. This is with a curved 3rd finger, hitting the string with the fingertip, right by the 3rd fret, so that it creates a tone.

Then the left-hand finger does a “pull-off” technique, where, on the nylon-string guitar, the LEFT HAND finger actually plucks the string by pulling down towards the floor. Again the fingertip should move through the string, thus producing a tone.

The volume of the tones will be much quieter than the plucked trills, but if you ask students to repeat the exercise many, many times, everyone will soon see how directly this exercise works the finger muscles and develops accuracy of the fingertips. The more times the students practice this, the better, more accurate and louder the trills will be.

It is important to practice it to the beat, with speed bursts as well. Also these are good for playing them as rapidly as possible, without missing the string. It is a true physical challenge that makes up part of an important left-hand technique. You will see the students struggle after a few repetitions due to the strength and endurance required to make the trill sound clear and loud.

It's a good idea to show the students how the trills show up in music, especially the 1 2 1, 1 3 1, 2 3 2, 2 4 2, and 3 4 3 combinations.

I recommend going through all 10 combinations:

4 with the open string: 0 1, 0 2, 0 3, 0 4

and 6 combinations with 1 finger fixed in place, adding and removing the next:

1 2, 1 3, 1 4, 2 3, 2 4, 3 4

After you have done this on the first string a few days, try doing these on other strings. The technique of the pull-off will be affected on higher number strings. Good technique is when the fingertip does a pull-off and briefly rests against the next string (physically down). The left hand is doing something similar to the rest-stroke of the right hand!

M. Warm-up away from the guitar: Waving the fingers on both hands

Have the students hold up their hands with the palms facing you, the instructor.

Show them, and describe to them, what it looks like if the fingers are fully extended (literally pointing straight up to the sky). Then flex the fingers so that the tips touch the palm of the hand (both hands).

Now ask them to do 100 extensions and flexes without stopping. Make sure everyone is truly extending their fingertips straight up, many students only move a little bit. It needs to be a full extension and a full flexion. If students get tired, they can stop and rest. Don't REQUIRE the students to do 100, just several.

Ask the class where the exercise is felt. It's in the forearms where the finger muscles actually live.

This exercise is a great way to warm up the fingers away from the instrument. It's a good exercise to start with and end with. Two minutes of this feels like several hours of music practice!

I have been told, by Grisha who gave me this study, that the faster you can do the extension-flexion alternation, the faster you can play notes on the guitar. Please don't allow any one to overdo this one, it's just a nice warmup.

Self-evaluation of the workshop:

If the students were inspired in any way, especially if they could see how practice made a real difference in a short amount of time, then of course the workshop was a success.

The students performed in a very professional and orderly manner the day of the concert. They indeed were thoroughly prepared for the performance.

Hannah Curteis, the director, asked me to play a couple pieces for variety. I played Danza Paraguaya, by Barrios-Mangore, and Panaderos, by Esteban Sanlucar

A group of the young students perform as a children's choir! They sounded great!

The concert concluded with the faculty members Beto, Byron and Hannah joining the students on stage for a classic Son Segoviano! -- Bravo!! ... to everyone!

The best part was getting to meet and interact with all the kind students, teachers, facilitators and administrative staff that made the workshop possible. Most of all, the biggest success was not the detailed content of what notes we played and what fingers we exercised, the greatest reward for all involved was the cross-cultural connection between the enthusiastic guest and local teachers and the dedicated young music students!