Strategies of the greatest #1 – Pepe Romero

I start a cycle of posts where I’m going to take the best guitar players and extract and analyse their approach to music, playing, learning, to show their strategies and their thought process. Right at the start I expect to find some similar points in all the greats but also a lot of individual differences and even conflicting ideas. So for the first part of our course we’ll take…

Pepe Romero

He is one of the greatest classical guitarists ever. His career spans over almost 6 decades. His technique is incomparable. But I’m not writing his biography. Here are most interesting things I got from him (bold) with a little of commentary (not bold).

Be eternal student – Absolutely. Guitarist stops learning the day he dies. You’re never a complete work. Never!

Balance of mechanics and spirit – Technique is important but it’s only a tool that helps you express yourself. If you have nothing to express your technique is just a circus trick. For me the problem is the other way around. I approach technique in periodical dashes. It probably would be better to include some technical workout on a daily basis. Watching Pepe however always makes me want to do some more work on it.

Think about what you play as easy – This one is so important. The way we perceive reality might not change it but it sure can change our performance. Worrying about difficult parts in songs makes you tense and make mistakes. We play best when we’re relaxed.

Keep balance between practising and keeping it fresh – This one is difficult for me. Playing the same song for hundreds of times sometimes makes it flat emotionally. But not playing it… The light in the tunnel is that with each new songs it takes me less and less time to master it. Taking breaks from some songs helps as well.

Piece doesn’t begin with the first sound. It’s surrounded by silence – There is nothing worse than starting to play the piece mindlessly and only then trying to get inside it emotionally. You should always do it before you start playing. Give yourself this moment of silence before starting to play to fully get your mind into it. Same goes with an ending. Let it fade (especially in slower pieces).

What do you like? Develop your taste – You have to work on your musical taste. You have to know what you like in others (guitarists, singers, cellists, whatever) and then search this sound while playing. It’s your job to tell the difference between good and bad sound. Especially in your own playing.

What it should sound like? What it should feel like? РThese questions are almost equally important in playing the guitar. Take the feedback from both sources  while playing. Try to imagine the perfect relaxed movement and then try to achieve it.

Best way to bypass the nerves is to dive into the sound – Having problems with stage fright? Just start playing and loose yourself in music. Practice your concentration muscle so that it becomes more and more obedient. Then, just concentrate on playing.

Eyes should be looking at where left hand has to go – You don’t have to watch your left hand, but if you do, always look at its target before the change of position. When you try to throw a rock at something, you look at the target and not at the rock in your hand. Use the same principle when playing.

What limits you in playing fast isn’t how quickly you can move your finger but how quickly you can relax the muscle after that –¬†This was mentioned when studying fast playing with two fingers at the same string. I use it in many other situations. The factor that usually slows me down is not speed of my finger (or hand) movement but the fact that right after playing something the muscle is still tensed. This makes the next motion more difficult. Working on impulse playing (quick movement followed by total relaxations) really helped me.

Here are some interviews and master classes that I based my post on.

Just a short motivational interview:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qZtNGhddzrw

Pepe’s approach to Concierto de Aranjuez – best known guitar concert. Understanding piece’s emotions:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4AYAf-tC8HI

Two hours of master class. Long gut super interesting. A must-watch!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MaBzeWQpiGI

 

A lot about technique. Check other videos on Andrey Parfinovich’s channel. There is more there:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UNQ8D51pn-8

 

 

 

How fast can I learn fingerstyle?

This is the question, so many students asked me in one way or the other. Usually it comes disguised as “How long would I have to learn to be able to play (like) this?”after I play some showstopper like Classical Gas for them.

The answer depends on so many factors (beginning with: are you going to play 0,5 hour or 5 hours a day?) that it’s literally impossible to cover half of it in one post. So leaving those factors for some other post, let’s concentrate on how the learning process looks like from my 10+ years experience perspective.


Birth pains

The road to fingerstyle mastery is long and winding. We start with clumsily plucking strings and grabbing easiest chords with force that squeezes life out of our guitar neck. This stage, depending on your hand size, your coordination, your muscle tonicity and finally your dedication can take anything from a month to a year or two. Especially young students need more time before left hand sort of springs to life and starts working decently. And you still have your right hand to work on. Nevertheless, in first year of playing you should be able to play some of the easiest fingerstyle compositions.


Careless childhood

Once you overcome initial difficulties you start to gain momentum. Each new song is like a piece of jigsaw in what you aim to be. For me, years 2 to 5 of playing were years of rapid repertoire growth. They where also years of really struggling with tension in my hands. My tone was very bad back then.


Adolescence

After couple of years you wake up with considerable amount of songs and with a lot of new found doubt about your skill. This doubt is caused by your growing musical conciousness. You simply notice more and more of your flaws. I guess that many aspiring guitarists stopped at this level as it can be devastating at times (the “I’ll never be able to play like this” mentality).


Growing up

If you overcome this bump you enter the period of polishing your skill. Your repertoire isn’t growing so fast anymore, but, what’s most important, your tone and time keep getting better and better. You simply can’t stand sounding bad anymore. That’s why you might slow down with new songs to work on what you’ve already learned.


Never grow up!

So after few more years you find yourself with nice set of songs and rather good sound. You add more and more really difficult songs (quality over quantity!) which are most rewarding. Maybe you also expand your spectrum of techniques (I started to play with plectrum at that time – so called hybrid picking). For me this stage came after about six years of some serious practice.

This stage is when you sort of regain your confidence. I could already enter a stage and give an hour long concert. I also had a nice feeling that sooner or later I would be able to play anything I wanted. But was it over? Far from it. For every thing you learn or master at this stage there are two new things looming on the horizon. There is so much work ahead of you (me).

So which of those stages is “I can play fingerstyle” moment for you? For me there is no such moment. There is just a continuum of growth which could be ended only by death or hands amputation ;). Please share your thoughts on the topic. How do you see your guitar road?