5 Mistakes to Avoid in Classical Guitar Practice
In our regular guitar practice, it’s very easy to slip into “auto-pilot”. Before we know it, we can burn all our available time and not have much to show for it.
Practicing is a study in itself. In fact, learning to play guitar could more accurately be called “learning to practice guitar”. How well we practice determines how well we play.
Below are five common practice foibles. These are easy to overlook, but cost us dearly in lost opportunities for improvement.
Mistake #1: Playing Too Fast
Speed creates the illusion of perfection.
Again, speed creates the illusion of perfection.
To hear the fine details in our technique and in our pieces, we need to slow down. When we do, we become more aware of the various elements that make up our music. These include tone quality, rhythm, movements, smooth connected notes, dynamics, and more.
Mistake #2: Spending Too Long on Any One Thing
When we first dive into a new piece of music or skill, it’s tempting to give it all our time. It’s new and novel and fun.
But our minds and bodies learn best in small chunks of time. When learning, beginnings and endings are more impactful than middles. So it’s better to practice each item on our list for a smaller amount of time. If we have enough time, we can come back to the same material more than once in a practice.
We can still spend the same amount of time on the shiny new piece. But we can use many sprints instead of a single marathon.
Which brings us to…
Mistake #3: Ignoring Key Practice Areas
The key practice areas are:
- Technique (how we use our hands and bodies)
- Learning new pieces (new notes, perhaps memorizing)
- Polishing recently learned pieces (or sections of pieces, working out the tricky spots)
- Maintaining pieces we already know (repertoire)
- We could also add in “other skills”, such as sight-reading or music theory.
Ideally, we give time to each of these in practice. This may not always happen, but it’s a worthy goal.
The most commonly ignored area is technique. We can become so enthralled with pieces that we “forget” to practice our core skills. Over time, this leaves gaping holes in our abilities. These holes often lead to frustration and possible injury.
Knowing what and how to practice in advance will let us hop from one area to the next in practice. Preparation is key to a well-rounded practice.
Mistake #4: Mind-Wandering
We learn through the investment of both time and attention. Time alone is not enough. We need to give our attention as well.
With practice (which is what we do), we can more quickly recognize when our mind wanders. Then, we can gently bring it back to the task at hand.
Having clear details on which to focus helps us maintain attention. When we practice at the point of “hard but not too hard”, we enter a state of “flow” (also called “the zone”). This is where we learn the fastest.
For each repetition in practice, we can have specific goals. These could be cleanliness, beautiful tone, graceful movements, or any of a million other things.
Focus is a muscle, and it strengthens with daily effort. It’s normal to experience mind-wandering when we’re out of practice. But our time on guitar is a wonderful opportunity to build the focus muscle.
Mistake #5: Setting the Bar Too High
Lofty goals can be motivating. It’s healthy to want to play Asturias, Capricho Arabe, or any other high-level piece.
However, our short-term goals work better when they feel more realistic. If our bar to success is too far out of reach, we become dismayed. But if we lower the bar for the short term, we get to succeed. This creates the momentum and excitement to show up again tomorrow.
Over years, this virtuous cycle gets us to our larger goals, step by step.
One of the main goals for any practice session can and should be to feel good about it. This makes a low bar to success a viable strategy. If we define a win for the day as “pick up the guitar and play one chord”, it’s easy to win. Even if this is all we do, we can feel good knowing we’ve kept our promise to ourselves.
But if a win means we follow a three-hour routine down to the minute, we’ll likely feel bad about our practice. Most days anyway. Especially when life gets busy and practice becomes less convenient.
The main goal is to stay on the path. Defining today as a win helps us show up tomorrow. Day by day, we steadily grow and improve. And that’s the real win.
Hi, I’m Allen Mathews.
I started as a folk guitarist, then fell in love with classical guitar in my 20’s. Despite a lot of practice and schooling, I still couldn’t get my music to flow well. I struggled with excess tension. My music sounded forced. And my hands and body were often sore. I got frustrated, and couldn’t see the way forward. Then, over the next decade, I studied with two other stellar teachers – one focused on the technical movements, and one on the musical (he was a concert pianist). In time, I came to discover a new set of formulas and movements. These brought new life and vitality to my practice. Now I help guitarists find more comfort and flow in their music, so they play more beautifully.
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