When Jesus Wept was origianlly composed as a canon (musical round) in 1770 by American composer William Billings. In 1956, the tune was famously set as the slow movement in William Schuman’s New England Tryptich.   The setting here,  though not canonic, is two-voice/imitative and was arranged in response to the George Floyd death on May 25, 2020.

Right-hand Organization

When a melodic passage is played with finger alternation, organize the right-hand to accommodate sympathetic movement and, if necessary, string crossing.  Consider measures 2 and 3:

In both measures, the sixteenth to quarter notes employ sympathetic motion: ma, aon a single string.   Also notice in m. 3, a string crosses from ① to ②.  These fingerings provide efficient movement as well as speedy execution.  To coordinate, first clarify the rhythm and then isolate/practice the right-hand on open strings:

Combining slurring and Right-hand movement

On the 1st beat of m. 20, p sounds “E” on ④, followed by m sounding C on ②, and then “E” slurs to the sixteenth “F.”  The rhythm combined in two hands is counted as 1-&-a.

In a right-hand alone clarification, the technique is a rhythmically steady, simple alternation of p and a finger:

Next, clarify the left hand, focussing on the slur.  As with all slurs, strive to make the 2nd note equal in volume to the 1st. Practice counting and playing (if necessary, counting and clapping  first):

Finally, combine the slur and the alternating m.  First, count and clap, then count and play, repeating each figure, until accurate.


The ending features an arpeggio-like alternation of harmonics between frets XII and VII.  Harmonics are beautiful bell-like sounds produced by touching specific frets with left-hand fingers, playing the right hand, then releasing the left hand.  If you’re unfamiliar reading harmonics, they’re generally notated where actually sounding.  For more information on where to play harmonics, click.

For best legato connection, play the VII fret with 1, and XII with 4.  This enables a steadier left-hand position.

The marking,”let harmonics ring over..” is a reminder of the campanella (bell-like) effect of harmonics played on adjacent strings.  To this end,  on the 3rd beat of m.53, the C ① should be held while playing the D harmonic VII ③.

Below is an excellent exercise to develop lleft-hand position for playing alternating VII and XII fret harmonics.  Begin by practicing while watching the left hand, until accurate.  The greater the finger extension, the steadier the left-hand position.

For more information on harmonics, sympathetic motion, and string crossing, see The Shearer Method Book I: Classic Guitar Foundations.


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