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.

Four stages: Beginner

October 18th, 2017

Over the years, I’ve devised a basic strategy to get a student from beginner to virtuoso in 4 years.

That might sound like a tall order but it is completely doable and I’ve done it with a number of students.

The secret is to free up the student and help them find their natural virtuosity.

Its success, however, hinges directly on one critical element—the student.

You need a highly motivated student, a student who will be practicing all the time.

Fortunately for me, I’ve been blessed with quite a few of these students. If you were to walk the halls of Del Mar College, you will see their faces on the walls, winners of the annual competitions.

So what is this four stage plan?

The first stage is to build the fundamentals.

This is the most critical stage—to develop a free and uninhibited natural technique in the student.

To do this, I focus on the free stroke technique and arpeggio playing.

I start students off with children songs arranged with simple accompaniment figures which get them to alternate their fingers on different strings.

From there, they soon progress to simple Carulli and Carcassi pieces.

Carulli and Carcassi studies are ideal as they are easy for the left hand and involve mostly pattern-based right-hand finger exercises.

But you can give them anything that is simple, do not require reading in the higher positions, and have plenty of finger alternation between strings.

In these early stages, the focus is on light playing.

Light playing is the basis of virtuosity and it’s important to instill it in the student at this point.

This means absolutely no concern with tone at this point.

Because working on tone usually means trying to get a full bodied sound which is not conducive to the light touch.

It usually involves trying to micromanage the student’s hand and finger movements which will interfere with the student’s natural learning instincts.

Finding your true authentic technique requires listening to your body.

If you have to make your fingers follow precise rules on how to pluck, how much follow-through to achieve, and which joint to move, you’ve effectively shut down your body’s natural self teaching mechanism.

Tone is a natural product of sophistication and it will come when the student gains in mastery and sophistication.

So minimal rules, and only very gentle guidance. (I do have one rule and that is to keep the thumb outside the fingers.)

The job of the teacher at this stage is to provide an open and free environment for the student to grow and thrive.

Here is a point by point summary of the first phase:



  • Learn basic seating and hand positions.
  • Learn basic right and left hand techniques.
  • Learn note reading in first position.
  • Develop right hand facility.


  • Learn simple right hand arpeggios.
  • Only free-strokes.
  • No finger alternation in right hand.
  • Right hand rule: ‘i’ finger plays third string, ‘m’ finger plays second string, ‘a’ finger plays first string.
  • Left hand rule: ‘1’ finger plays first fret, ‘2’ finger plays second fret, ‘3’ finger plays third fret.


Simple folk songs arranged arpeggio style and arpeggio pieces from Carcassi, Carulli, and Giuliani.

Next, the second stage.

Old article

October 12th, 2017

In 1980, I spent six months in London. During that time, I met George Clinton, the editor of Guitar magazine and after some of our discussions, he suggested I write an article about scale playing, which I did. Here is the article in full.

To read the pages, click on the images.




A weird phenomenon

October 5th, 2017

It was in 1986, when I was a teaching fellow at a rather big name school, that I first became aware of a weird phenomenon—players who play only from the knuckles and with their middle joints locked.

Now, I had studied and watched players from New Zealand to England to Germany but I had never seen this kind of playing before.

At first, I thought it was a recent innovation and I wanted to believe in it.

But the more I saw the results of this kind of playing, the more I was convinced that it was completely unnatural and went against our body’s very instincts.

And the results bore me out.

Players who played this way almost always lacked fluidity and naturalness in their finger movements. Their finger movements were stilted and almost zombie like.

And the sad part was, these students were extremely serious players.

With the amount of time they were practicing, they should’ve been super virtuosos but instead their playing lacked both speed and accuracy.

As a teaching fellow, I had a few students who played this way.

At first, I thought it was a relatively simple thing to get them to start moving their middle joints again, but I did not know how hard it would be to retrain fingers to move differently.

If someone has been taught to play only from the knuckle while keeping the middle joints locked, it literally required a super human effort for them to get the middle joints moving again.

I managed to devise a simple way to get them to wake up the middle joints and get them moving again.

The strategy was to go the opposite direction, to lock the knuckle joints and to pluck only from the middle joints.

This required a rather drastic measure; I had them tape their fingers between the middle joints and knuckle joints (I believe there’s a name for this part of the anatomy) to keep the knuckle joints from moving.

By taping the fingers this way, the students were forced to pluck only from the middle joints. After a few weeks of playing this way, the tape would be removed.

The results were amazing.

The students found that they were able to engage the whole finger again in plucking the strings. All three joints were moving again as a unit, each joint supporting one another. This led to immediate greater facility and speed.

One student in particular went from having not much speed and accuracy to playing extremely well, with great speed and accuracy.

I remember his senior recital where his fluid and clean arpeggios in Asturias and Giuliani’s La Sentinelle were especially impressive and received many compliments.

Fast forward 31 years—little did I dream at the time that I would still be talking about the middle joint in 2017.

But there’s a positive development.

Recently, I became aware of a thread on an online forum where someone has been posting slow motion videos of professionals playing.

And in every one of these videos, the evidence is all too clear to see.

Real players play mostly from the middle joints.

Yes, there’re still some unanswered questions.

For instance, how much should the middle joint move in relation to the tip-joint? And is the rebound movement a natural reflex action or is there conscious effort involved?

But these are small details which can be worked out. (Although I think even that is quite unnecessary as these are natural impulses which are best left to our body intelligence to work out.)

The big picture is that there’s a growing realization that our finger movements are incredibly complex and to try to lay down strict rules on which joint to move and which joints to lock while playing is perhaps over micromanaging the body.

Even as I write this, I’m aware that there’s still a large group of teachers who still subscribe to the knuckle playing theory.

As someone said in the thread, there’s always going to be some hostility when you get to the truth from people who are insecure with other ideas.

To which I say, yes, I do know something about hostility. I’ve been dealing with it for over thirty years.

I believe someone once also said, the truth shall prevail (and sanity too, I might add).