The Arpeggio II: Preparing (Planting)
In my earlier article about the arpeggio (
), I focussed on how arpeggios offer a great platform for practicing an array of performance techniques, including balance (simultaneous foreground and background levels), dynamics and timbral changes. In this post, I'll address another aspect of arpeggio practice, one that also applies to nearly everything we do: the preparation of the right hand fingers.
Described by many teachers as "planting," preparation is the pre-placement of the fingertip on the string. There are a few useful things to keep in mind when preparing. First, it is critical that the preparation take place exactly on the spot from which the sound is produced, at that perfect juncture of flesh and nail that permits a direct and noise-free tone with no delay. (It's important to avoid preparing deep on the fleshy tip, then sliding up to the nail to play the note).
The other important component of the technique is that the preparation needs to be quick. I like to train the fingers to prepare the INSTANT after the previous note is played. When done correctly, the performance of one note and the preparation of the next feels like a single movement, a single activity. This is so regardless of the speed of the material. (It goes without saying that if the string the "next note" is on is already ringing, then preparing a new note on it will stop the current note, a musical effect you may wish to avoid. In this case, the preparation is used for rehearsal only, and abandoned in performance to permit the appropriate ringing or legato.)
When done correctly, instantly preparing every note feels completely different than playing without preparation. I like to think of it as "sticky" playing. Your fingers are stuck to the strings such that you never feel the absence of contact. Every single note or combination of notes is played from a position of prior contact and 100% security. You never miss the string when you train your hand like this. As noted above, in many cases, the preparation will be for training only and be minimized or abandoned in performance to allow for the correct legato. This fact, however, does not reduce the importance and power of universal preparation.
The series of arpeggio patterns recommended in this post were first suggested by Abel Carlevaro in his remarkable
Serie Didáctica, Cuaderno No. 2- Técnica de la mano derecho
. In this book from Carlevaro's four-volume pedagogical publication, the author gives a series of arpeggio patterns, each to be repeated with a fixed chord/open string combination, on each fret, up and down the neck. Carlevaro writes out the entire exercise, filling the book. I have reduced the process into a shorthand and simply recommend repeating each pattern as time permits, and in doing so, can present (more or less) the entire book on one page.
The most interesting thing about these arpeggio patterns is that they feature simultaneous articulations with the fingers and thumb, rendering the preparations necessary a bit more complicated than in simple, linear patterns. The series of patterns follows. The fingers will always play four sixteenth notes per beat; the thumb will simultaneously play each of a variety of rhythms. Using one of the twelve finger patterns as an example, and notated on open strings for clarity, here is the series of eight thumb rhythms written out:
The fixed left hand chord recommended by Carlevaro is illustrated below. The symmetricality of a fully diminished seventh chord makes for a pleasing effect. Note that it is written in first position, then again in second position. The exercise will repeat on each fret, at least up to the 7th, and again back down the neck, before the next rhythmic formula is applied.
Other fixed chords for the left hand are equally effective. It is sensible to rotate chords from day-to-day, keeping the aural experience fresh.
As this exercise is played, focus attention on the immediate preparation of the succeeding finger or fingers. What I like about it is that, with each new rhythmic pattern, the unique preparation patterns offer fresh and complex challenges to the right hand. Look at the second example, above. The thumb is playing simple eight notes. Start with p and a prepared. When the p and a play, prepare m. When m plays, prepare p and i. When p and i play, prepare m. When m plays, prepare p and a, with p now on the fifth string. And so on. Repeat this procedure all the way up and down the neck, then move on to the next rhythm. Always do all eight rhythms before introducing a new pattern.
The fingers will eventually cycle through twelve different patterns. Play each pattern repeatedly, with EACH thumb rhythm before moving to a new pattern and starting the rhythms over.
a m i m
a m a i
a i m i
a i a m
m i m a
m i a i
m a m i
m a i a
i m a m
i m i a
i a m a
i a i m
As this process takes some time, my advice is to use one pattern per day, and repeat it every day for a week before introducing a new pattern. This way, your confidence and security with each preparation combination will be superb. As each new pattern is introduced, it will take a few tries to get the preparation timing to be quick and uniform. Then, as that one is repeated each day, it will become fully internalized and eventually mastered.
The power of this workout, after the full three months and all patterns have been mastered, is hard to overstate. The right hand will feel enormous confidence and flexibility. And the precision that comes from consistent and universal finger preparation will more easily permeate your general technique.