Smoothing out some rough edges

The topics of my two previous posts about my master class with Petra Poláčková—the interpretation of dotted notes and the use of arpeggio—are both about performance choices and interpretation. She made two other observations that were more about choices I made in my edition of the piece, but ultimately they are about performance as well. Both relate to fingerings, a topic I discussed back in February (See The Fickle Fate of Flying Fingers, Part 1 and Part 2), and both concern potential obstacles to smooth legato playing.

Her first observation was that I am not taking enough advantage of open strings in my fingerings. As an example, here are my fingerings for measures 4-5:

Petra suggested using the open 3rd string instead:

And, indeed, after playing it a couple of times it is clear that using her suggestion makes it easier to play smoothly. That single open string gives my hand a little extra time to move, and the g rings into the next pitch.

Sometimes open strings and stopped strings can be combined in clever ways to allow several pitches in a scale passage to ring out, as they would on a piano if one held down the sostenuto pedal while playing several keys in succession. The guitarist Douglas Niedt gives an excellent explanation of it (with examples) on his website.

Petra pointed out some small examples in the part of the piece that I played for her, but the idea provides  the fingering solution to a passage that has been vexing me for some time. It happens in measure 88, just before the start of the long arpeggio section. My original version was clunky, with the shifting first finger a particular problem. Try as I might, this passage always stuttered and ruined the transition to the next measure.

But using the campanella idea makes it much easier to play. Note in the revised version that no two consecutive pitches are played on the same string (shown with the red underline), and I use three open strings (marked by arrows). Playing this little scale like an arpeggio helps me get to the actual arpeggio much more fluidly!

Petra’s final observation was that I am not using enough slurs; that is, using a right hand finger to play the first note of a pair (or trio) and sounding the subsequent pitch(es) with the left hand alone, either by pulling a finger off the string to pluck a lower pitch or hammering a fingertip down to sound a higher pitch. I have been very sparing with the use of slurs in my edition of the piece in a desire for consistency in articulation, but Petra helped me to hear that this consistency can easily become monotony. There is not one particular place I can point to as an example, but I’ll be looking for opportunities to employ slurs more liberally.

I’ll conclude this series of posts on my master class with Petra by saying that a week ago she emailed me a scan of her playing edition of the Chaconne with all of her fingerings and performance notes. It was a very generous gesture that says a great deal about her, and about the wider community of guitarists. I feel fortunate to be in such company and to have such support for my project.

Rolling your own

Another topic that came up in my master class with Petra Poláčková at the Cleveland festival was the question of how to play chords. The Chaconne, like any piece of music, demands that the performer make a lot of interpretive decisions; indeed, it is the making and executing of those decisions that is the core of performing. Some of these decisions are broad and affect large stretches of the piece. What will the tempo be? What about the basic dynamic level? Other decisions are smaller in scale, like the shaping of a phrase.  And some decisions have to be made about how to play individual notes or chords.

With chords, a basic decision has to be made about each and every one: do I play all the notes at the same time or do I “roll” the chord, playing each note in rapid succession? The latter technique is called arpeggio—literally, in the manner of the harp. Classical guitarists in general (and this one in particular) tend to overuse arpeggio and employ it in a seemingly haphazard way. Segovia, famously, never seemed to find a chord he couldn’t roll and it became one of the signatures of his style. But to change it from a stylistic tic into an expressive device requires conscious decision.

To begin with, let’s look at what exactly is involved in rolling a chord. Here is the very first thing in the Chaconne:

The opening chord of the Chaconne

It’s the most basic chord, a three-note triad in root position. Play it exactly as written, with all three notes sounded at the same time on the second beat, and you get this:


Easy enough to do on the guitar. The violin, though, is another story. A modern violin with a modern bow cannot play these three notes at the exact same time. So the violinist has to decide not whether to roll the chord, but how. Some performers, like Hilary Hahn, play the d and then hold the f and a together:

Hilary Hahn’s opening chord


while others, like Rachel Podger, play the three pitches in succession, holding only the top pitch:

Rachel Podger’s opening chord. (Notice the lower tuning favored by some early music specialists.)


If you were to notate these two different versions they might look like this:

Note that both performers aim to arrive at the top note or notes right on the second beat; in effect, they start early. It’s possible, of course, to start the arpeggio on the beat—and there are cases in music where that might be the right approach—but in general, an arpeggio tends to anticipate the beat so that the metrical integrity of the melody (assuming it is uppermost note) is preserved. Where to begin and end the arpeggio is something the performer must decide.

Another decision that has to be made is how quickly to roll the chord. In the examples above, Hahn makes it a fairly assertive gesture, moving through the d quickly and emphasizing the second pair of notes. Podger takes a more languid approach.

So, in playing the very first sonority in the Chaconne I have a number of options. I can play it like this:

Or like this:

Or even like this:

Okay, I cheated on the last one and added an additional pitch–the lower D.

Of course, I could play this first chord without thinking it through, and simply do what feels right in the moment. But then, what to do when the same chord comes up four measures later? Shouldn’t the two chords relate to each other in some way? How can I convey that if I haven’t thought about it beforehand and decided? In addition, the arpeggio can be a very important expressive device when used thoughtfully. It adds emphasis, subtly changes the rhythmic flow, and can isolate and emphasize a particular voice in the chord to help make a melody emerge more clearly.

Over the last few years, thanks to my studies with Jason Vieaux, classes and encounters at the Cleveland festival, and an expanding circle of guitar friends in the New York area, I have had the chance to talk with and learn from a number of professional guitarists of the highest artistic calibre. One thing has become clear: they all think about, and decide, everything in their interpretation of a piece. Certainly emotions and feelings play a role, particularly in the moment of performance, but the preparation for that moment is extremely detailed and deliberate. That is how guitarists at that level are able to sound the way that they do.

I’m not at that level and never have been; my playing—for better or worse—was always guided almost entirely by the combination of what my ears could hear, what my fingers could do, and how the music made me feel. But my respect for the Chaconne, and for the project, demands a more thoughtful approach.

Petra’s advice was to use arpeggios if it serves an expressive purpose or helps to highlight one pitch in the chord. At the same time, she cautioned me to be careful in two voice textures to keep both notes together. Otherwise the metrical feeling can get completely lost.

Interlude 4: First Master Class

On a spring day in 1977 I saw a flyer announcing a master class to be given by classical guitarist Demetrio Ballesteros at Moorhead State University. I didn’t know what a “master class” was, but since it was free and open to the public, I decided to go. I was entirely self-taught at that point and thought I might pick up some technical tips. As it turned out, I was more right than I could have known.

I’d been in Moorhead a couple of years, but this was the first time I went across town to the MSU campus. I arrived at the music building’s recital hall, guitar case in hand, well before the master class was supposed to start to guarantee myself a place in the front row. As the audience gradually filled the seats, it struck me as strange that no one else brought a guitar. Perhaps all of the students would arrive together? Maybe they were back stage? Or would the whole thing be more of a demonstration than a class?

A few minutes after 4 PM a man walked onto the stage and introduced himself as the chairman of the music department. He explained that Ballesteros’s visit to the school had been arranged by a member of the Spanish department and, since MSU had no guitar program, this was an exciting opportunity. Further, given Ballesteros’s limited English, he would speak through an interpreter. With that, he welcomed the guitarist to the stage.

Ballesteros was an imposing figure, with thick dark hair and a regal bearing. He sat with his guitar, adjusted his footstool, and played something that surely impressed me but I have since forgotten. After the applause a student brought out two additional chairs, and the translator joined Ballesteros on stage. He made a few welcoming remarks, duly translated, and then, peering into the audience, asked a question.

The translator said, “Very well. Who would like to play for maestro Ballesteros?”

There I sat in the front row, with a guitar case standing by my seat, my head swiveling back and forth, wondering who would step forward! But Ballesteros had already noticed me and, with a nod in my direction, said something to the translator.

“You, young man,” he said. “Would you come up and play?”

There is a wonderful kind of fearlessness that comes with ignorance. I didn’t really understand what I was doing, but this wasn’t my first time with an audience. I’d spoken at debate tournaments, acted in plays, and even played the guitar in front of people before, so I didn’t hesitate. I opened my case, took out my guitar, grabbed my folding footstool, and took my place on stage in the empty chair. Both Ballesteros and the translator smiled, and the translator asked me to introduce myself and tell the audience what I would play. Easy enough, since I knew my name and had a total of one piece in my classical repertoire.

“My name is Chris Freitag, and I will play Romanza.” I took a deep breath and played.

After the applause died down, Ballesteros made a brief remark.

“Very nice,” said the translator.

Then Ballesteros made a much lengthier comment. The translator, who was not a guitarist, looked a little puzzled and asked Ballesteros a question. Ballesteros looked puzzled in turn. The translator turned to me and said, “Maestro Ballesteros wonders why you do not play the melody ah-poi-YAHN-doh?” (Only later did I learn the proper spelling: apuyando.)

Now it was my turn to look puzzled. “What is apuyando?” I asked.

More consultation with the translator, then Ballesteros held up his left hand in my direction, palm downward and fingers splayed out. He placed his right hand above it, and with his ring finger he stroked the middle finger of his left hand, allowing the tip of the ring finger to come to rest on the adjacent left-hand finger. He looked at me and raised his eyebrows as if to say, “Understand?”

Ah. So, he wanted me to play the melody notes on the top string with my ring finger (which I was already doing), but to play “through” the string with the fingertip coming to rest on the second string. As I was to learn later, this “rest stroke” is a basic technique in classical guitar. It gives more weight and emphasis to a note than the “free stroke,” where the tip of the fingertip arcs above the adjacent string.

Here is the opening of Romanza played with a free stroke:

And here it is played with a rest stroke:

Rest stroke is not hard to do. Unless you are doing it for the first time, on a stage, in front of an audience.

A few uncomfortable moments followed for all of us. But finally, I found the flow of the thing and he asked me to play the piece again. It didn’t quite have the ease of my first version, but the melody now sang out much more distinctly over the accompaniment.

“Bravo,” said Ballesteros quietly after I finished, and the applause this second time was a little more heartfelt in recognition of my struggle. I nodded to the audience, thanked Ballesteros and the translator, and returned to my seat. Since I was the only player, that was the end of the class.

I played in many other master classes over the years, but never again would I enjoy the happy ignorance that got me through this first one. In future classes I would be an aspiring professional, with much more at stake. And now I fully understood just how exposed I could feel.

Some 40 years later I still play this little piece from time to time. Here is how it sounds today. I wonder what Ballesteros would say?

On the other other hand

In “On the other hand” we looked at some of the general principles of choosing fingerings for the right hand. In this post we’ll consider a specific example: a single measure from the Chaconne that requires thoughtful planning for the right hand.

Let’s begin by looking at the measure in question—60— from the violin score.

Measure 60 from the violin version of the Chaconne. The slurs are also found in the autograph manuscript.

Here, for the first time in the piece, Bach’s writing for the solo violin implies a four-voice, polyphonic texture. If this were a passage from one of Bach’s chorales for soprano, alto, tenor, and bass, it might look like this:

An SATB choral setting of measure 60 from the Chaconne

It’s the independence of the moving parts that makes this measure tricky for the right hand (and the left, for that matter).

Another thing to notice about the violin original is the placement of the slurs—the little curved lines that join pairs of notes. In music for violin, such a notation indicates that the slurred notes are taken in the same upward or downward stroke of the bow. The effect of this is to create a softer articulation of the second note: not dahdah but dahah.

Here is how this particular measure is handled by two of the eminent editions of the Chaconne for guitar: the versions by Andrès Segovia and Abel Carlevaro.

Segovia’s version of measure 60

One of the first things to notice about Segovia’s version is that he adds an extra note; the low A on the first beat. Next, notice that Segovia also uses slurs in the same places that the violin version does (except for the final pair). And finally, notice how few RH fingerings Segovia provides for this complicated measure! However, what he does provide gives hints to what he likely intended the player to do:

m60_segovia_implied fingering
Segovia’s version with the implied fingerings written in.

This appears to violate one of the principles established in the previous post: note the repetition of fingers, for example. But the intervening slurs give enough time for each finger to get ready for the next pitch.

Abel Carlevaro’s version of measure 60 from “Guitar Master Class – Chaconne by J. S. Bach

Carlevaro’s edition provides a lot more information to the guitarist than Segovia’s; in fact, his edition is called a “master class” and includes extensive commentary on performance and the technical aspects. Carlevaro does not add the extra bass note on the first beat; nor does he carry over the slurs from the violin version.. But the clever p-i-p-i alternation can make the sixteenth-notes sound smooth, and articulating all of the notes can help to bring out the counterpoint.

My version of measure 60. Note the similarities and differences with the Carlevaro version above.

The version I arrived at owes a lot to Carlevaro, as you can see. The primary difference is how I treat the final 4 notes in the top voice, preferring a-m-a-m to his a-i-m-i. However, as with all of these editorial decisions about finger, this could change as I spend more and more time working on this section of the piece.

This is the last post that I will write about technical matters for some time. I’ve been doing more reading on the Chaconne itself and have found a few really interesting articles that have opened up some new insights into the music itself. I look forward to sharing those with you.

The Fickle Fate of Flying Fingers (Pt. 2)

In The Fickle Fate of Flying Fingers, Part 1 I described some of the basic parameters of deciding on left-hand fingerings for the guitar: the possibility of playing pitches in more than one place on the neck, the different voices of the individual strings, the potential pitfalls of shifting from one position on the neck to another.

All of these factors come into play when developing the fingerings for a passage. For consistency of tone and voice, keeping a single melodic phrase or line on one string (or even two adjacent strings) is preferable. But if that phrase spans more than a small interval it’s going to require one or more shifts to play it, increasing the technical challenge.  On the other hand, it might be possible to avoid or ease a shift by incorporating a pitch on an open string—allowing the left hand to move freely while the right hand plays the open string—or to skip across strings to play a wide leap. But that introduces the challenge of keeping the voice of the line consistent. Let’s look at a specific example. [Remember the Classical Guitar Primer if you need a refresher on notation.]Read More »

The Fickle Fate of Flying Fingers (Pt. 1)*

When I  walk someplace in Manhattan I play a little game with myself. Say that I am starting out at my old workplace at 7th Avenue and 33rd Street and walking to my current workplace at 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue. That’s nine blocks up and three blocks across. There is a traffic light at every intersection in midtown Manhattan. So here is the game: can I do the walk without ever having to stop for a light, so that I can be walking the entire time? It means making a choice at every corner. For example, I can cross from the northwest corner of 33rd and 7th to the northeast corner. At that point, I can go north up the east side of 7th Ave. or continue across 33rd to 6th Ave, turn left, and walk up the west side of the street. When I get to the next intersection I’ll have another choice to make.

You might reasonably ask “what does this have to do the Chaconne?” Well, nothing, really. But it is a good way to think about the challenges of deciding the fingering of music on the guitar.Read More »