Classical Guitar Technique: Preparing for Examinations

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More of my students have begun to work on classical guitar technique or even a guitar exam through the Royal Conservatory of Music (RCM). It is a great way to challenge yourself to rise to the next level of guitar playing; whether you have the exam as a goal or you simply learn the material for a certain grade level, it will give you a new love for music and your instrument.

The first thing you will want to consider when you decide to begin working on RCM curriculum exams is your guitar. There are two main types of guitars – acoustic and electric. I will only be mentioning acoustic guitars here. Of the two types of acoustic guitar (nylon string or steel string), nylon string is the more appropriate choice for RCM exams. Steel string is allowed and possible, but it’s not recommended. The strings are much tighter and are spaced closer together, making finger picking more difficult.

Nylon string guitars, also called Classical or Spanish guitar, are much more available now than in the past so choosing one shouldn’t be difficult. There are usually models at 1/2, 3/4 and full size, and many levels of quality. One recommendation I would make is to avoid a nylon string guitar with a ‘truss rod’ installed; they are essentially a support system for the neck of the guitar, helping to stabilize the curvature or ‘relief’ of the neck. However, they can cause issues with the tone of the guitar which is something that can be factored into your exam mark.

The technique used in this style of playing requires a foot rest or guitar support to get into proper position. Again, this is not mandatory for the exam, you are allowed to play with a rest or support, but it is strongly recommended that you use something. Your teacher will explain the actual sitting position; it is slightly different than what is considered ‘normal’ for guitar and can take time to get used to.

A foot rest is most commonly used, the guitarist puts their left foot (or the foot opposite to the picking hand) on the rest and places the guitar between the legs. Anything will do, a box or crate at the right height, a chair with a rung between the legs, many items can be substituted for a store bought foot rest.

The other main choice is a guitar support, of which there are many types (a-frame, ergo-rest, cushions, etc). These devices are placed between the guitar and the leg, instead of under the foot, to raise the guitar to the right position; the guitar is still positioned between the legs as with the foot rest. I personally use a guitar support; one of the main advantages is that it allows you to keep your legs in a more natural position and is much more comfortable over extended practices.

Nail care is another thing to think about; for proper classical guitar technique students should grow the nails on their picking hand longer, always keeping the fret hand nails short. Everyone has different nails, most students should start with a shorter nail and work their way up if needed. To properly check your nail length you should look at your nails from the underside of the finger, in other words, hold your palm towards you to see if your nails stick up past your fingertips. If they stick up 3-4 millimetres that is plenty – any longer and they might break.

Once the nails are the correct length, file them using a ‘diamond file’. File the nail evenly and in the same shape as the fingertip –  don’t make a point at the tip. Next, file the underside of the nail keeping the underside as straight as possible. Your nails should slide easily across the strings with free and rest stroke, if there is any gripping or loud scratching/rubbing noises you may have to even the nails out further. Not all students grow their nails; until the level 4 exam it isn’t absolutely crucial, however it can bring marks down significantly as the tone will suffer without proper nail shape.

Of course nothing can substitute for practice; the daily playing of scales and arpeggios will guarantee you some success at an exam, no matter what techniques/tools you use to play. I strongly recommend playing your practice material every day – do all scales free stroke one day, rest stroke the next, mixing in tremolando and other scale patterns here and there. It is tedious but over time the improvements in your playing should be convincing enough to continue with the technical practice. My most used arpeggio patterns are Mauro Giuliani’s (1781–1829) 120 Right Hand Arpeggio Studies; they are a gold standard for many world renowned guitarists. The RCM guitar technique book also has many extra finger combinations and rhythm patterns to vary scale practice.

It is best to prepare for the day of the exam ahead of time. Gather all of your playing material, books, tuner, support, nail files and guitar together for the next day. Plan your meals as well; on the morning of the exam spend time warming up, playing scales and arpeggios to get your fingers ready to play smoothly at the test. If you don’t have time for that then prepare mentally as best you can. The examiners are very understanding people and are simply looking for people to try their best; even if you make mistakes, if you show that you have really tried to play the pieces and give it a lot of energy you will get a higher mark than if you play perfectly but have no life or vigour behind your playing.

It is very rewarding to complete an exam, I strongly recommend challenging yourself or encouraging your students to try it in the future, you won’t regret it.

John McDonnell – guitar, bass and ukulele teacher