Carcassi’s Deceptive Simplicity: Etude in Aminor, op. 60 no. 2

Called a “genius” by Classical Guitar, Jonathan Leathwood was born in England and now lives in Colorado, where he teaches at the University of Denver. He performs on both six-string and ten-string guitars. He is currently working with Julian Bream on commissioning new repertoire from leading composers. His recordings of Dodgson, Goss, Malloy, and Keeley are available on the Cadenza label, and his recordings with flutist William Bennett on the Beep label.

Carcassi’s Deceptive Simplicity: Etude in Aminor, op. 60 no. 2

by Jonathan Leathwood

I suggest to all of my students that they gradually make their way through all of Carcassi’s Études mélodiques et progressives, op. 60. We generally start with no. 2 in A minor, and here I would like to share the kinds of notes I might give to my students as they begin work.

But first, a note to myself. Before teach­ing or practicing a study, it is necessary to clarify what it is for. Because a typical study by Carcassi develops a single repeating pattern—in arpeggios, slurs, scales, and the like—the purpose of the study may seem obvious. Yet the repeating pattern may lead us to overlook the many ancillary skills that must also be mastered if the study is to sound musical: include these and the study becomes more difficult, more sophisticated.

In our nineteenth century study literature, Carcassi’s op. 60 is almost unique in the richness of its expressive indications. It is of little use to assign one of these études to a student who is capable of playing the notes but not yet ready to imbue them with meaning. To do so is to teach that attentive reading and critical listening are optional—and since they are not, to set the student up for remedial work in the future.

Remedial teaching seems to be a fact of life in the guitar world; more so, I believe, than in instruments with a longer established pedagogical tradition. How can I avoid setting up my own students for future correction? Well, what if I never assign a piece unless I believe the student can do everything the music requires—everything a concert guitarist would do? To be sure, some things only come with time, and I am not referring here to subtle details of personal artistry (unless it is one of those pieces that stand or fall by such details). But there is a simple principle: if I can define the fundamental skills that are required to play a piece, then I must be sure that my student is ready to apply every one. If not, then it would be better to work on something simpler.

Let’s look at what is required to play Carcassi’s Study no. 2.

The right-hand pattern

Of course, the idea of this study is its right-hand pattern. By learning this study (and hundreds like it) we develop our ability to play arpeggios and repeated notes. But what fingering should we use? If we play the ascending arpeggio pima, then the four repeated sixteenths on the second beat can be played with any combination of two fingers beginning with i or m: (1) imim, (2) iaia, (3) mimi, (4) mama. They can also be played with any combination of three fingers beginning with i or m: (5) imia, (6) imai, (7) imam, (8) iaim, (9) iami, (10) iama, (11) mima, (12) miam, (13) miai, (14) maim, (15) maia, (16) mami.

Playing through the study once with each fingering will take up a lot of practice time. It makes more sense to try two or three each day, or to switch fingerings every eight bars. But at least once, try all possible fingerings in one session. Which fingerings are the hardest to play fast and evenly? You can build finger inde­pendence by devoting extra practice time to those. Which are the easiest? You should know which they are and use them in public performance.


As a starting point, let’s think of plucking the string as touching it, drawing it aside and releas­ing it, as opposed to striking the string a glancing blow from a distance. As often as possible, we want the finger on the string before it plays (or very close, if touching the string early disrupts legato). If my finger is already on the string, it is impossible to strike it; I can only make a sound by drawing it aside and releasing it.

For this reason, I advocate the technique of planting. There is more than one planting method, but for this study we plant p, i, m and a on their strings on the first and third beats of each measure. At the same moment as the hand is planted, the thumb plucks the bass note. As you play the arpeggio, make sure that the a finger remains planted on the string until its turn to play arrives. As a preliminary exercise, try adding an extra beat of rest so that you can plant without playing (example 1). Use this moment to sense the weight of the hand and arm.

(Insert Example #1)

Thumb dampening

Let’s look at m. 4. The E on the downbeat and the ensuing dominant harmony will sound muddy if the open-string A and D are still ringing from the previous measure. One of the hidden challenges of this study is the need to dampen all over-ringing open-string bass notes. There is more than one technique for achieving this, and players vary in their preferences. Here I recommend the following technique:

1. With the previous open string still ringing, play the new bass note.

2. Instantly stop the previous open string with the thumb.

With this technique, there is a momentary overlap of sound, but it is not noticeable as such: rather, it gives an effect of smoothness. Pianists use the same overlapping when they change the pedal the moment the new chord has sounded (that is to say, a split second after).

Ideally, you will have already mastered this technique in simpler pieces: this study is too complex for a first instance. If you are not used to the technique, try practicing the bass line on its own first. Then play the study as block chords (example 2).

(Insert Example #2)

Left-hand finger placement

Place the left-hand fingers one by one in coordi­nation with the right-hand arpeggio, not as block chords: let both hands play arpeggios together. This advice might seem surprising, since one might suppose that it is safest to finger the entire chord at the beginning of each pattern. But placing the left-hand fingers consecutively leads to a more refined sense of coordination between the hands, and thus to a truer sense of security. You should feel as though you are making music with both hands together, rather than the right hand alone.

Fingering the notes one at a time allows the left arm to make subtle changes in alignment and distribution of effort while building up the chord. Fingering block chords, by contrast, makes it harder for the arm to avoid abrupt shift­ing motion or a buildup of static tension.

Sometimes, however, it is convenient to shift and place guide fingers together. For example, the second chord in m. 3 and the first chord in m. 4 can be fingered with 2 and 3 as guides, and these will naturally move together (see example).

(Insert Example #3)


Notice that when the pattern begins with an open-string bass, you have until the second sixteenth note to complete a shift, and so your movements can be a little easier and smoother. The first four measures offer plenty of practice in acquiring this sense of timing.

Whenever two chords are joined by one or more guide fingers, release the pressure on the string during the shift. Take m. 1 as an example: fingers 1 and 2 will slide along strings (2) and (3) to link the two chords. Let the fingers glide along the strings without pressing down. Then press them onto the strings separately, at the moment when the notes are supposed to sound (first 2 and then 1, a sixteenth note later).

In this study, as in arpeggio studies in general, one often hears pitches sounding early as they are either slid onto or hammered on early by the left hand. Although planting with the right hand will often mute those “pre-echoes,” they should not arise in the first place. If you finger each note separately and shift without pressure, you won’t have this problem.


Carcassi’s studies are treasure-troves of expressive dynamics, delicate at one moment, dramatic at another; but one very rarely hears performances of the sophistication the music deserves. Certainly, the dynamics in Study no. 2 offer plenty of extremes. Not only do they range from pianissimo to forte, they include sud­den surges—sforzando [sf] and rinforzando [rf]. Carcassi does not always distinguish consistently between sf and rf, perhaps, but for now let’s treat rf as a gentler version of sf. Try applying the ac­cent not only to the bass note but rather to the entire four-note arpeggio, so that the diminuendo begins with the repeated notes (slightly later than literally marked).

Here is a perfect opportunity to explore how variations in dynamic are achieved on the guitar. To play louder, we need to displace the string further (both parallel to the soundboard and towards the soundhole) before releasing it. Each time you see an indication to play louder, ask your hand not to react with more tension. In­stead, ask the fingers to move the strings further. A planted right hand makes this particularly easy: imagine the strings as a kind of soft, marshy ground that you are planting your fingers on. To play louder, put more weight into the ground in order to sink further into it.


Learn to play this study as a series of block chords. Respect Carcassi’s dynamics. Each time you play a chord, compare its effect to that of the previous chord. Is there an increase in ten­sion or of relaxation, or are we moving toward a future goal? Focus especially on chords paired as dissonance–resolution (as in m. 5, for instance). Then listen to larger groups of chords, hearing how they make phrases.

In this piece, it is really a mechanical task to make the reduction, but that is exactly why it is so important to do it, completely and expressive­ly. In more complex pieces it will not be so easy to train your ear to be sensitive to the weight of each chord and to listen to the movement of the parts. When a student has issues with memoriza­tion and fluency—Bach’s music offers many typi­cal cases—I always suggest making a reduction as a way to get to know the underlying structure of the piece. So often, though, the student is so un­accustomed to the task as to be overwhelmed. If you want to be able to play the underlying har­monies and voice-leadings of any piece at sight, Carcassi’s studies are a perfect place to start.