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Why are Classical Guitarists so OBSESSED with their Left Hand

This is really a post about chasing windmills….and conquering the universe.

I want to start of this post with a disclaimer. I have a theory about why classical guitarists are always watching their left hand, and it’s just a theory. It may be true, it may be conjecture. It’s probably a little of both. Even if you’re not a classical guitarist, I hope you do at least find it entertaining.

 

I also have begun to develop a fresh and effective way to help guitarists (not just classical guitarists) understand, develop and conquer the technical challenges of the left hand. While there are some interesting theories behind my approach, it’s NOT a theory: it’s a set of practices based the most effective approaches that I’ve been able to come up with for myself and for my students, ones that actually work.

Without further adieu, take a look at a few top-notch classical guitarists, and see if you can catch the one thing they’re all doing:

Andres Segovia

 

David Russell
Virginia Luque
Sharon Isbin
Eliot Fisk

 

John Williams


David Leisner
What stands out for you? For me, it’s the fact that they are all focused on their left hand, with a hint of obsession, as if it was the most important thing in all of existence.

I have had trouble finding pictures of performing classical guitarists who are not looking at their left hands. They do exist, but usually it feels like they’re posing, or like the photographer managed to capture a rare, inspired moment… or else they are looking at their right hand (the second greatest obsession of classical guitarists)….

All the greats are doing this…there must be a really great reason for this, right?

Here’s where my personal theory comes in. I’ll share it with you:

All classical guitarists have delusions of grandeur. It goes with the territory. It’s inherent in the nature of the task.

 

Classical guitar is not an easy instrument to master, and this is because it tries to do what we call, for lack of a better term: “EVERYTHING”

The bass, the chords and harmony, the rhythm section, the melody, the counter melody, the counter-counter melody, the entire tonal palette…EVERYTHING, all at one time… on an instrument which was not originally conceived for such a purpose.

 

If we just wanted to enjoy ourselves we’d get a folk guitar, learn a few chords, sing a song or two and perhaps master a cool lick, and call it a day.

If we wanted to make a splash and attract a bit of attention, we’d get an electric guitar, turn the amp up to 11, touch the strings with a pick, and show up on an earthquake meter somewhere in the vicinity.

But we choose nylon strings, pay thousands of dollars for subtly built masterpieces of instrument making, eschew amplification, spend hours filing our nails and practicing seamless shifts. What’s with this?

At the very least, being serious about making good music, you think we’d want to join a band or a group, or form one, so we could cast off some of the burden and share more of the joy of music making—with other musicians….

But beneath the modest, mellow exterior of all classical guitarists, there lies masked a huge ambition: To filter the ENTIRE MUSICAL UNIVERSE in through the strings of one tiny, delicate, unassuming, wooden guitar.

Here’s a modest looking guitarist, Kazuhito Yamashita. Study his face carefully.

An ordinary, unsuspecting citizen might walk by as he’s playing Lagrima or Bourree, and say “oh, that’s nice…very pretty!”

But no true classical guitarist is thinking “I want to sound nice and pretty,” and Yamashita is no exception to this rule.

The true classical guitarist is thinking….

Who needs a rock band or a singer or a voice, or an entire orchestra, for that matter, when I can DO IT ALL?

ON.

ONE.

SINGLE.

GUITAR.

Yes, Yamashita, the unassuming, has entire orchestras eating his dust. Even though he might be secretly playing trills with his nose when no-one is looking, he has manifested his magnificent vision with great success.

Not many classical guitarists can make that claim.

But this does not mean that ALL classical guitarists don’t harbor similar, fantastical goals.

Admit it. If you play classical guitar, if you want to play it, if you try to play it, if you wish you could play it….deep inside, you are a noble explorer, a Don Quixote, in pursuit of a remotely tangible impossibility, driven to conquer something larger than the humble capacity of your noble instrument…

Don Quixote, challenging the known musical universe:

The classical guitar is your wooden horse:

All you have at your disposal to fulfill these big ambitions are six strings and two hands. Of these two hands, the left hand is the most visible, the most athletic, the most quixotic, the workhorse, the dancer, the leaper, the grabber, the challenger….

Really, the left hand seems responsible for EVERYTHING. It had better not slip one iota, or the entire universe will crumble!!

That’s a huge responsibility. And what tends to happen, in my view is that the left hand (or any technical or musical obsession, for that matter) often becomes a windmill that we are always chasing after and never conquering:

 

We get distracted from our true purpose and continually get caught in its infernal clutches as the wheel goes round and rown…..

 

Check out these NON-classical guitarists: a jazz fusion master:

John McLaughlin

A flamenco master:

Paco de Lucia

Sure, these are promo shots—Flamenco has a lot of difficulties in common with classical guitar, and I’m sure that Paco does peek at his left hand occasionally (and could even be doing so here!)—-but there’s some honest representation here: With jazz and flamenco, and many other types of guitar playing, one’s body and one’s ears have to be tuned to all that’s going on around, and this liberates you. A great jazz guitarist and a and a great flamenco guitarist have learned to be part of a larger whole, and that the left hand is not the center of the musical universe.

How can you stop chasing windmills, get your left hand working for you so you can move on to those musical heights you originally set out to conquer?

Most people don’t have all the time in the world to practice, and when and if they do, the left hand seems to be what’s holding them back more than anything else. There’s a long way to travel on the road to mastery, but the left hand is this huge windmill, planted firmly in the center of the road, distracting the hell out you, and bottlenecking the entire thing.

It’s frustrating, because whether you focus mainly on trying to fix it, on trying to get it right, on trying get by it so you can express the music, or just enjoy what you play, you still keep running into it, and making far too many curse-worthy mistakes and…sounding less than stellar. The ambitious musical universe you are trying to create often barely gets past its first big bang (or small its first small pfizz, for that matter)

I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately, coming at it from many different angles, delving into a lot of sources. In this process I’m finally beginning to help my students (and myself) to solve this problem in what I feel is a fresh, and uniquely effective approach.

I’ve broken it down into four deceptively simple keys: Sensing, Resonating, Expressing, and Coordinating. Ignore any of these categories at your own peril.

All are equally important to having any hope at getting l—as well as one of your idols (or better than one of your idols) And most of what is taught in traditional guitar pedagogy pretty much fits into the last category….Coordinating.

The hard part, which I’m also working on, is to figure out how to make this available in a way that is accessible online and that will help you significantly, wherever you are and whoever your teacher is.

I’m in the final stages of putting together my first trial run at this, which will be focusing, you guessed it, on using these principles to develop an awesome left hand technique!

It will be free, so stay tuned!

 

All the best, Jay

 

{ 7 comments… add one }
  • Samuel

    Hi!
    I’m a Classical guitarist, but I’ve never realized this obsession with the left hand until I read your blog. It was a refreshing read and I learnt a bit of literature too (Don Quixote), which was awesome.
    I look forward to your next post!

    • Michael

      Is it done?

      • JayKauffman

        the twenty minute left hand technique revamp is a pdf lesson that you get for free when you sign up for the art of guitar mailing list

        (this is a pretty old post:)

        Jay

  • mike

    Goran Krivokapic sometimes does not look at his left hand at all. Check out some of his videos.

    Regarding technique a lot can be learned from good players. See here:
    http://www.classicalguitardelcamp.com/viewtopic.php?t=69320

  • Ranjeeth

    This is an awesome article man…

  • Dimmitrios Giannakis

    Some very good points! Really well written. As a professional classical guitarist my aim is to sound better than an orchestra. Berlioz once called the guitar “the little orchestra”and yes left and right hand practise never stops and I’ll never be as good as Julian Bream or John Williams. But by trying to be I become infinitely better than I was last year. Keep pumping nylon..for classical guitarists it’s second only to breathing. Peace n love.

    • JayKauffman

      Thanks for the wonderful comment, Dimmitrios! Happy practicing!

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