Old concert video

April 2nd, 2018

As an artist on the Texas Commission on the Arts in the 90’s, I played all over the state, from Eagle Pass to Jasper, from McAllen to Abilene.

I recently found some old footage from those days. This is a track from a program I played in Abilene, Texas in 1993.

Invocation and Dance by Joaquin Rodrigo

The engine

March 27th, 2018

First, a short explanation.

The engine is the mechanism in the fingers that enables you to produce speed effortlessly, without having to force it.

What do I mean by forcing?

It means trying to move the fingers as fast as possible individually.

Forcing may work to a point, but it takes too much effort and the inherent tension will cause you to choke eventually.

By tapping into the engine, it is relatively easy to get all the speed you need with effortless ease, which means there’s minimal tension.

So what is this engine?

It’s making the fingers work together so that they work as a unit.

First, consider the actions involved in plucking one note.

  1. You bring the finger to the string.
  2. You pluck the string.
  3. Your finger follows through.
  4. You bring the finger back to the string for the next stroke.

That’s just one note.

To play a series of notes, you’ll have to repeat the sequence for each note, which means we’re looking at performing up to 40 actions if we have to play ten notes.

Now, instead of thinking 40 actions, think one action.

When you do this, there’s a continuous flow of energy from one action to the next.

And here’s an important point—each action becomes a springboard to the next.

As you perform action 1, your finger is already moving to action 2, and as you perform action 2, your finger is already moving to action 3 etc.

Within the actions, there’s a sensation of constant forward motion, each action driving to the next

This forward driving energy is crucial. Not only do you have to perform the actions as one, you must also fill your actions with an energy that’s constantly propelling itself forward.

To use the idea of the springboard—each action becomes a springboard to the next.

Because all this occurring at the local level, at the points of actions, it automatically produces very small economical movements at the fingertips.

This technique not only works for the right hand (plucking hand), it also works for the left hand especially in playing hammer-ons and pull-offs.

Let’s say you have to play four slurred notes—f g f g on the first string.

Here, there’re three left hand actions after the right hand has plucked the first f.

  1. LH third finger hammers down on g.
  2. LH third finger pulls off to f.
  3. LH third finger hammers on g again.

Now, instead of thinking three separate actions, think of one action.

This one action goes from hammer onto g, pulls off to f, and then hammer down on g again.

All done in one continuous flow of action,

Now here’s the critical part, as the finger pulls off to f, feel it physically moving back to hammer down on g.

In other words, within the pull-off is the energy to bring it back to the next hammer-on.

To summarize, the engine comes down to one thing.

Constant and continuous flow of energy.

Supported by an aggressive and forward driving flow of energy.

From one action to the next, you’re constantly moving to the next and the next.

When you’re able to create this flow of energy, your fingers feel as if they’re self powered, like an engine working effortlessly.

All this is working beneath the surface, all hidden from view. Only the player knows what’s going on.

To the observer, it would appear as if the player is possessed of a magical source of energy.

But there’s nothing magical about it. It’s the result of years of practice. Practice that enables one to understand the body completely and make it work with maximum efficiency.

The secret ingredient

March 25th, 2018

In life, it’s easy to make wrong assumptions based on what we see, rather than the reality which is usually far more complex.

For example, if we look at a car, and see the wheels spinning as it runs, it’s easy to conclude that the reason why cars run is because of the wheels.

But we know that in reality, there’re a whole host of things working under the hood which make a car run, chief of them, the engine, without which the car is just a piece of scrap metal.

I’ve found that the same thing is often true in trying to explain guitar technique.

For example, I’ve always known that the sensation in the fingers plays a crucial role in technique.

This is something that is not perceptible visually, and is usually left out of the equation when people try to explain technique.

(The present obsession with hand positions and strict prescriptions on how the fingers should move are all based on how things look rather than how they operate internally.)

Then, there’s the internal mechanism within the body which provides the energy.

All these are experiential things which can only be gleaned through direct experience. Any attempt to explain them are just “fingers pointing at the moon,” to use the old cliché.

Lately, I’ve been trying to write the final chapter to the AOV.

It came to me a while back that my original preoccupation with the physical elements of virtuosity, which while still valid, misses one important component—that of energy itself.

Energy is what drives our actions. It’s the engine that drives the car of virtuosity.

And the key to virtuosity, more than anything else, is finding that source of effortless energy within us.

I’ve tried to explain this source of energy as momentum.

But I now realize it’s not momentum, just a feeling of momentum in the fingers as they propel each other forward.

I’ve tried to explain it as consolidation but consolidation is just a strategy to produce the engine. It’s not the engine itself.

So what’s this engine?

That’s for my next article.

The pure interpretation/2

March 16th, 2018

I mentioned in the previous post that the ‘pure interpretation’ is one that is free from distortions caused by technical considerations or instrumental limitations.

But there is one additional factor that could get in its way and that is convention.

Convention is just another word for pack mentality. You do what everyone else is doing.

But what is wrong doing what everyone is doing?

First, it’s boring. Surely there’re more than one side to everything including musical interpretation. Why not highlight the other side or sides?

Convention is also an excuse not to think. Let someone else do the thinking for you. It’s safer too. You won’t get critiqued quite so much.

Sometimes convention is drawn from tradition. Which is perhaps the best reason for it. But only if the tradition is deep and real.

When it comes to the pure interpretation, mine is heavily influenced by the keyboard.

I’ve always found keyboard players musically more mature and expressive. There’re two reasons for this, I think.

The first is that the keyboard is easier to play. (I know piano players will disagree with me here.)

But think about it. To play the guitar, we need two hands to produce one note (most of the time). On top of that, if we have more than one part, we only have one hand to fret all the notes in those parts. In other words, one hand to play two or more parts.

And the crazy thing is, at high speeds; let’s say four notes to 150 on the metronome, we have to coordinate the two hands to play precisely together 10 times per second.

Pianists don’t have those problems so they can concentrate on musicality.

The second reason is the unbroken keyboard tradition. A tradition that goes all the way to J S Bach and even earlier.

For instance, consider the great early 20th century pianists (who include Paderewski and Schnabel) who studied with Leschetitzky, who was a student of Czerny, who was a student of Beethoven, who was a student of Haydn, who himself was a contemporary of CPE Bach.

In contrast, on the guitar, the closest thing we have as a tradition is Segovia who claimed to be self taught.

There’s of course the Tarrega tradition with Llobet as its main proponent, but there’s nothing that quite matches the long unbroken line on the piano.

So when it comes to convention, I’m all for it but I tend to look for conventions that are more about the spirit of the piece rather than the ego of a particular artist.

This is the main difference between keyboard and guitar conventions.

The conventions of many pianistic devices are directly tied to the meaning of the music whereas the conventions of the guitar tend to be tied to personalities. (For instance, the classic Segovia ‘rubato’ which has less to do with the context of the piece than to his idiosyncrasies.)

(I understand there’s been a reaction to the Segovia tradition among some players these days, but that’s for another article.)

Pure interpretation to me means capturing the spirit of the music and interpreting it without any affectations or distortions due to technical or instrumental limitations and without any blind adherence to ‘convention.’

This means doing whatever it takes to stay true to the music.

The pure interpretation

March 15th, 2018

In my teaching, I like to refer to the concept of the ‘pure interpretation.’

This is that interpretation that is uninfluenced by technical considerations and instrumental limitations.

It is how you hear the piece in your mind in its full glory and expression.

And then you try to reproduce it with your fingers, without uncompromising that vision in any way.

This means not doing any pseudo rubato stuff (or any other guitar ‘tricks’) to hide any technical inadequacies or instrumental limitations.

A few years ago, I began to hear Recuerdos in an entirely new way, in its ‘pure interpretation’ state.

In my mind, I heard it played with a soaring melodic line and a sympathetic accompaniment that would speed up and slow down to support the melody.

This interpretation is as pure as it gets because I knew it would be hard to achieve.

To backtrack, up to that point, I had always seen the tremolo as having three stages of development.

The first stage is the stage of unevenness.

You have the speed in your fingers but you can’t control them yet, so the notes come out uneven.

The second stage is the stage of thumb dominance.

Here the thumb dominates. The notes have become even, but because the thumb dominates, it produces a strong accompaniment with the melody notes trailing after each thumb note. (Much like the wake from a boat.)

The third stage is the stage of finger dominance.

You’ve been able to transfer the focus of your strokes from the thumb to the fingers and now the thumb is no longer playing so strongly. Because the fingers dominate, you can focus on them individually and produce a smooth tremolo that is based on producing the same tactile feeling in each finger.

One thing common to all three stages is a metrical and unvarying accompaniment. This strict accompaniment is required because of the evenness factor.

To keep the four 32nd notes perfectly even, the accompaniment has to be spaced apart evenly.

Which means that the melody is kept in a straitjacket of sorts because the melodic line is determined in large part by the accompaniment. This is a limitation imposed by the technique itself.

With this new vision of Recuerdos, I realized that I needed a fourth stage, a stage that would allow me to vary the accompaniment and still keep the melody even.

It took me a while to work it out but I found that this stage would require both thumb dominance to produce the speed, and finger dominance to produce the evenness.

Because of the extreme speed between some of the accompaniment notes, I found I would have to forgo the mechanical evenness of the third stage.

This turns out to be a blessing in disguise, because the resulting small variations in evenness actually add many subtle nuances to the line making it more alive.

And of course, ultimately, it all comes down to that pure interpretation. Everything else is secondary.

Energy—the inner dimension of virtuosity

March 4th, 2018

My journey into virtuosity started with a preoccupation with its physical aspects, or what we might call the outer layer of virtuosity.

Looseness, lightness, fluidity—all these describe the physical dimensions of virtuosity.

But like many things in life, my journey soon took me into the inner layer.

When I realized that there’s something that’s more, something behind the physical attributes.

An energy, or the life force of virtuosity.

And I realized that the element of energy is at the heart of virtuosity.

It is what produces the speed, the life, the power of virtuosity.

And because this energy is so alive, it is what fills your actions and playing with movement and nuances and shadings.

And then I wondered why the realization had not come sooner.

Because I’ve always been more drawn to the inner aspect of technique than the outer.

I’ve always been more preoccupied with how to produce energy in my playing than in making pretty sounds.

It’s why I’ve never been impressed or drawn to pretty players. And why I’d been so influenced by players who exude energy and power and life.

Players like John Williams, Paco de Lucia, Yamashita.

Because energy is what makes the playing come alive.

It has taken me a number of years to collect my thoughts and write the new chapter for the AOV, the missing chapter which is actually the most integral to the book.

You can read the new chapter here.


Sample repertoire: Beginner

October 26th, 2017

Four years is not a lot of time, which means you have to be very focused in your approach.

It means your repertoire must be very targeted too, especially in these beginning stages.

Every piece you give to the students must have a pedagogical reason.

The following sample pieces are not meant to be a prescription, you can come up with your own pieces. But they will give you a general idea of how I approach these crucial first steps.

I usually start off with single line melodies employing the first five notes of the C major scale.

An ideal piece that fits these criteria is that well-known German children song “Hänschen Klein” also known as “Lightly Row.”

To view the music, click on the picture. These are high quality printable scans.


There’re other songs that fit these criteria too. “Mary had a Little Lamb” is one. The first part of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” is another one.

The next week, I would add a simple ‘g’ pedal to the melody. The purpose is to get students to practice their free-stroke arpeggios.


For slower students, I don’t give them the music to read. I simply ask them to add an open ‘g’ pedal on the third string after every note, and three after every half note.

At this point, music reading is not the primary objective. Training the fingers is.

After they have mastered this arpeggio version of “Lightly Row,” I apply the same finger pattern to a simple excerpt from a Carulli study simply titled “Prelude.”


This piece expands on the open  ‘g’ pedal idea but now incorporates bass notes. The idea is still to get students to practice finger alternation on different strings.

After the student has mastered “Prelude,” I further expand the ‘g’ pedal concept to double notes played with thumb and fingers.

For this, I teach them this well-known study from Carcassi.


So within the span of about a month, students are able to go from beginner to playing a simple Carcassi study.

Additional thoughts

October 23rd, 2017

An important part of this strategy is to focus on developing the engine of good technique.

This means developing an energy-based technique as opposed to a tone-based technique.

What is the difference between the two?

An energy-based technique focuses on producing energy, the kind of energy you hear in the great virtuosos like John Williams or Paco de Lucia.

When they play, it’s the energy in their playing that makes them so forceful, so compelling.

Tone is the facade that you put on this energy.

But without the energy, all that pretty tone is just so much blandness. Like a pretty face without much depth.

Why is this important to establish?

Because unlike tone, energy-based technique is not easy to develop.

It requires so many things to be perfectly in place.

First, you’ll have to find that sweet spot that will give your hands and fingers optimal positioning.

Then your finger movements have to be finely tuned to follow the natural flows of energy in your body.

And finally you’ll have to internalize all the little tricks that will enable you to produce speed and power effortlessly.

All this can be very hard to achieve if you were to try to micromanage every detail of your technique.

But it’s relatively easy to achieve if you were to simply allow your body to teach itself.

Which is why an essential part of this strategy is not to interfere too much with the inner workings of your hands and fingers.

Don’t try to dictate to your fingers how they can move or not move.

Don’t try to force your hands into any preconceived positions.

Let your body find what works best for it.

And you’ll be amazed at what it can do.

Once you’ve discovered your body’s natural virtuosity and developed that energy-based technique, adding the tone facade is relatively easy.

All you have to do is hear the tone you want in your head and your fingers will be able to produce it.

Maybe not immediately, but when you have that control in your fingers, you will find that they will be able to produce any sound you want with a little practice.