A week with David Russell

Well, the Master’s Program here in Alicante has begun. It has been one month so far and this experience is already more than one could ask for. It has been wonderful to meet other guitarists from around the world as we share our cultures, ideas and music.

Our first week in the program was spent taking lessons with Maestro David Russell. His abilities as a teacher matches his abilities as a performer. I wanted to use this blog as a way to share different technique exercises, but during this week with David the exercises were very basic. He also stressed the importance of creating your own studies, especially when you find something in a piece of music that you are having difficulty with. Creating exercises based on difficult passages will fix your technical deficiency, where as just practicing the passage over and over again will only fix THAT passage.

He also raised an important subject: always warm up. The exercises we practiced as a class were designed specifically just to get the fingers of both hands moving, with the two hands separately and synchronized together. It is easy to forget and think it’s not needed, but not warming up could cause problems in the hand when you get older.

Besides the many suggestions of interpretation for the pieces, one lesson I took away from the week is to never settle for less than perfection in the practice room. Don’t just settle for playing a passage correctly after one time. If say 9 out of 10 times you can play something perfectly, chances are when you get nervous and other environmental issues exist you will still be able to play it correctly. And if by chance you didn’t quite play that passage perfectly, that was the fluke. Basically, in the concert, you can’t change anything, but at home you should fix EVERYTHING.

Here are the basic warm up exercises:

Basic Exercises with David Russell

with David Russell




Before I get started, I would just like to say that I will be leaving for Spain in two weeks to study with some unbelievable players. This trip is what has inspired this blog as I hope to get some time to write about some of the lessons I pick up while there. Having said that, this will be my last blog before the program starts up. If there are any subjects you would like covered feel free to write to me or leave comments. And thanks for reading!

Unlike many other classical instruments, it is common practice for guitarists to memorize their repertoire. When I was first learning classical guitar, I wasn’t very good at sight-reading, and so I tried to memorize music as quickly as possible. As my sight-reading skills have improved, I still like memorizing music because I feel I don’t have to concentrate on reading the notes and can focus most of my attention on making music.

Lots and lots of repetition is obviously key in memorizing music. But here are some other tips that might help.

  1. Lots of slow practice. As stated in an earlier blog post, slow practice is great for getting the notes, movements, shifts, etc, into both the left and right hands. Eventually muscle memory kicks in and the hands just know what to do.
  2. Memorization is often easier once you are able to read through a piece completely and at tempo. Once you can run the piece from beginning to end and play through it a few times, you will notice when you start work on memorizing it you will find it comes a bit easier. Much of the reason for this is because of Tip 1 above.
  3. Look for repetitions, repeated patterns, transpositions, and chord progressions. Phrases and “licks” that are repeated or are the same movements just moved a few frets make memorizing things much easier. A complete chordal analysis might be unnecessary, but knowing what key you are in and what chord you are currently playing (or arpeggiating or inferring) could give you a good idea of where you are going.
  4. Related to tip 3, follow melodic lines when applicable. Obviously this will not work with all music, but it can also help you remember where you are going musically if you can follow melodic lines, patterns, etc.
  5. Often, I have found that some of these tips are helpful but don’t solve problems when learning baroque music, specifically Bach. He often doesn’t repeat anything. Following chord progressions do help, but in the case of Bach, I work slowly memorizing a phrase and then constantly review from the beginning what I have worked through. For example say the phrases are four measures each. I will memorized measure 1-4 and make sure I have it down. Then I will memorize measure 5-8. Once I feel somewhat confident in those measures, I will start from measure 1 and try make it to measure 8 without looking at the music. Constantly going back will make sure you haven’t forgotten previous measures and will give you lots of repetition as well. It can be quite a painful process, but it is very effective and helpful.

I hope these tips help. If you have any other helpful hints feel free to live them in the comment box!

Overcoming Performance Anxiety

Performance anxiety plagues everyone, including some seasoned veterans. Yesterday, I performed for the Fort Worth Guitar Guild’s Library Series and felt rather comfortable on stage (as opposed to the night before and waiting back stage in which I often let my emotions get the best of me). But for me, being comfortable performing on stage for people is a rather recent phenomenon in terms of my (albeit rather young) musical career. Part of the reason I have been able to overcome this is my improvement in my technique and playing. The more you feel you can rely on good technique coming through, even during stressful situations, the more comfortable you will feel. Being well prepared always helps. But more than anything, just like everything else, you get better at performing by essentially “practice” performing. And what I mean by that is getting out there and actually performing. The more you put yourself out there, the more you realize little mistakes will always happen (and for the most part no one cares), and the more you will be able to relax and make beautiful music for an audience that for the most part is there for support and to enjoy the wonderful sounds you create.

Tricks with Tempo

Learning new repertoire has inspired me to write this post about the different uses of tempo. Different tempi can help us work on different aspects of a piece as well as our playing. When first learning a new piece, working with a slow tempo will help get the movements and the music into our fingers. It also allows us to hear all of the nuances of all of the notes and sounds asked for by the composer. Once the piece starts to become familiar you can try to play it faster or at tempo.

Playing quick pieces at different tempi can be used for other aspects of your playing as well. Playing them slowly also works on endurance. I remember when I was learning the Prelude from BWV 1006a, I started playing it slowly to get all of the notes right, but then I would play it slowly as a good stamina workout. It essentially doubled the time of the extremely difficult piece allowing me to achieve exactly what I wanted.

But there is also a good use for pushing tempi well beyond what you plan on playing them, especially quick pieces. There are both advantages and disadvantages to playing fast pieces. They sound flashy, are often “crowd-pleasers,” and for the most part interpret themselves. But it is often daunting knowing how fast a piece is “supposed” to be played. Obviously solid, slow practice is the first step, but another good way to attack this problem is by going the other direction. Pushing the tempo to something faster than you plan on playing it has an interesting psychological effect. Playing things faster than you should, even if it’s out of control and sloppy, tricks the mind into thinking the proper tempo isn’t as fast as once believed and therefore achievable. Sometimes you may find that you can play the piece at the faster tempo and actually like the way that sounds. Either way it’s a win-win!

Warm-up Exercise 1

Here is a good warm-up exercise shown to me by Pepe Romero that can work on many technical aspects:

Figure 1

Figure 1 works on synchronizing your left and right hand, speed, and right hand finger alternation. Once you get the pattern down, move up the neck of the guitar on the same string continuing the pattern. I usually go up until my pinky hits the twelfth fret. I then move down the neck using the pattern in Figure 2.

Figure 2

Notice the slurs. I try to pick up the pace as I fall down the neck, using the slurs to help bring up the tempo.

Start these exercises slowly. Then, once you have the pattern down in your fingers, you can bring slowly bring up the tempo. For example you can start out playing quarter notes, then, during the next cycle, eighth-notes, etc. Play Figures 1 and 2 on all 6 strings of the guitar.

Slight right hand variations can work on different techniques. For example alternating between m and a in the right hand to strengthen those weaker fingers or playing them with rest stroke and then playing them with free stroke.


Diverse Lifestyle: Physically and Musically

Watching the Olympics is inspiring. Watching athletes train extremely hard to be at their best physically and perform beautifully under lots of pressure and the world’s eyes watching is a wonderful thing to see. Musicians are quite similar to this. We spend hours and hours per day trying to play our instruments the best we can and build endurance in order to perform long, difficult programs. Many people have used this “athlete/musician” analogy before. And it is absolutely true. However, I am using this post to discuss diversifying our hobbies and becoming more active outside of the practice room.

Playing music requires lots of time to master, but there is more to life than sitting in a room all day learning new pieces or perfecting old ones. Doctors spend all of their time at hospitals and studying new medicines and diagnostic techniques, etc, but even their stereotype is that they are always on a golf course. After spending a day sitting and making music (though admittedly tiring), everyone must find an activity that releases energy throughout the body. Playing tennis, or any other racquet related sport, not only makes me feel better because I like doing it, but it always helps me release tension. And we all play much better with less tension. The key really is to find something you enjoy doing. It’s too difficult to force yourself to do something rather than want to do it.

But not only should your physical activity be diverse, but you should have a plethora of “musical activity” as well. I don’t just mean work on solos and chamber music (which to me is a must as well!), but listen to various types of music and ensembles as well. Guitarists,  listen to symphonies, listen to operas, string quartets. We spend our whole day with the guitar. Listening to other pieces, instruments, and ensembles inspires and deepens our understanding of music and how it “should sound.” I remember working on Mauro Giuliani’s Grand Overture my junior year of undergrad. Once I had the piece in my fingers, my teacher gave me a homework assignment: listen to Rossini. Not listen to recordings of what others have done with the piece, or even other Giuliani works, but rather listen to other genres of music from the time period that resemble the character of the piece. Get that sound in my head so I can try figure out how to turn my guitar into a miniature Italian orchestra. I always feel as guitarists we are in our own world musically. And we are. We are very specialized, play a quiet instrument, and play an instrument many composers don’t know how to write for and stay away from. But that doesn’t mean listening to other instruments won’t help our own playing. And if you don’t want to take my word for it, earlier in July 2012, Pepe Romero gave me the same advice (as well as reading books and familiarizing myself with other art forms) in a private lesson I had with him, and he seems to be pretty good at playing and interpreting guitar music.

The world offers unlimited beauty in many forms, but you have to go outside occasionally to see it.

The Beginning

Thank you for visiting my blog. Recently, I found out that I have been accepted into the Master in Classical Guitar Performance program at the University of Alicante in Spain. The program starts in January 2013 and will allow me to study with some of the best guitarists in the world for about 6 months. It is quite an honor and one that has prompted me to start this blog. Not everyone has the means or gets the opportunity to study with the likes of David Russell, Manuel Barrueco, and others, and so this will be my outlet to share any knowledge, playing tips, life lessons, anything at all that I learn during my experience there that I feel others could benefit from as well. Not to mention this is a great way for me to document feedback and lessons for myself. I won’t wait until January to start posting, so check back every now and then to see updates. Thanks again for visiting the blog, and I hope I am able to take you along my journey as best as I can.


Thank you for visiting my site. Feel free to browse and don’t hesitate to contact me if you have any questions regarding lessons or performing opportunities.