In this digital era of crafted, “perfect” performances, there is a constant motivation for guitarists to be musically and technically better. Striving to achieve ever-higher plateaus involves playing studies, lots of studies. Therefore, it is worth appraising your approach to learning studies. Are your studies played one after the other, in hopes that the mere process will help improve your technique? This article, focusing on the great Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos’ “Etude No. 1,” will introduce you to the concept of creating “micro studies” of musical material, or “educed etudes.” Hopefully, this approach will improve your technique and give you a new way to look at pieces.
It would be beneficial to have a copy of the full “Etude” on hand. Please note that for bar numbers, this lesson is based on the Max Eschig edition, 1990.
“Etude No. 1” is considered a rite of passage for classical guitarists. Its demanding perpetual-motion right-hand pattern with its colorful barre chords, is, according to Uruguayan composer/teacher Abel Carlevaro (whom Villa-Lobos admired, and vice versa), meant to create an “atmosphere of harmonic resonance.” The piece inaugurates a set of 12 studies, originally composed for the modern classical guitarist in 1928, and still highly relevant today.
On the surface, “Etude No. 1” offers only two technical challenges: a continuous right-hand pattern, and a series of static chords. However, by digging a little deeper into Villa-Lobos’ material, it is possible to bring to light methods of working on independence; sequential planting; touch; equal left-hand strength; and coordination.
The approach to these challenges will be split into three main parts: The first deals with mastering and controlling the right-hand fingers; the second, with the independence of the left-hand fingers; and the third, with coordination and fluid execution. Once all three of those objectives have been attained and no longer pose technical challenges, the work begins on making this study musical. Keep in mind that striving for note clarity while executing this pattern is not easy, so engage each micro study with slow, methodical, and mindful repetition. Ideally, this will allow the fibers in your muscles to retain the information and make it available unconsciously, like your heartbeat.
The right hand is the central driving force in this etude due to its moto perpetuo movement. In order for this to be viable over the length of the piece, your hand must be totally relaxed, with no extraneous effort or motion. Apart from having four digits playing the strings, your arm will also need to move forward and back as it descends and ascends from string 6 to string 1.
Micro study No. 1 utilizes sequential planting (pre-contact, then play) across open strings. This fosters confidence and fine-touch habits and is crucial in order for this micro study to succeed. The process of rhythmic displacement is used for cementing the finger pattern; play through bar 1 as written, then utilize the rhythms in each bar of line 2 (with the right-hand finger pattern) progressing on to line 3’s 16th notes. Begin at a slow tempo, and increase it when it becomes effortless.
Once the right-hand pattern is undisturbed and internalized, the next goal is finger independence within the sequence. This is achieved through highlighting each finger as it plays (No. 2). Highlighting does not mean accenting, thereby using more force; in fact it is the opposite—you will be subtracting force. Think of your fingers as having volume dials: Instead of turning up an individual finger—the “accent”—turn down the other three to reveal the finger. This is done in sequence, focusing on each string in turn. If primed correctly, it allows the pattern to take on a certain rhythmic swing, which will add a level of authentic sophistication to any interpretation.
The left hand in “Etude No.1” is more often than not static and only changes every two bars, apart from a slurred break in bar 25. So the first item to approach is separating chord shapes from the right-hand pattern. Beginning at bar 1, strum through each chord in the progression, while building in the guide fingers and requisite fingering. This procedure will make for quicker changes when the tempo picks up, as the fingering will no longer require as much thought. Once the chords are internalized, it is worthwhile to spend some time shifting between them. There should be minimum squeaks on the strings; focus on quick releases and on individual finger placement.
The next micro study, No. 3, aims to train left-hand finger independence, employing the legato run from fret 12 down to fret 2 in bar 25. If practiced with the specific left-hand finger combinations, it will build equal strength across the hand. There are further suggestions below the music for right-hand fingers, once the left hand is comfortable. These will help foster synchronization. One final suggestion: Use your eyes to pinpoint the required fret before shifting the left hand to it, almost like a laser beam. This micro study comes with a forewarning—it should be played slowly at first, and never more than three repetitions per finger combination, at least until stamina and strength are developed.
The focus of the final micro study (No. 4) is coordination. As “Etude No.1” must sound fluid to be successful, the chord changes need to be stepped up into the virtuoso realm. Don’t worry—this can be done by cutting down the right-hand notes incrementally, one string at a time, thus speeding up the rate of finger alteration within the chords.
Key to realizing these changes is placing the left-hand fingers sequentially as the pattern unfolds, not all at once; this cultivates excellent synchronization of both hands. The blueprint of this micro study can be employed to secure any intricate chord changes within “Etude No. 1.”
The central tenet of this lesson is not about playing the piece end to end, so much as using it to maintain and work on proficiency and technique. The bottom line is this: If segmented and played every day, this approach will enhance and strengthen your technique. From there, your first full performance of “Etude No. 1” should be relatively undemanding.