7 Mistakes Guitarists Make Learning New Pieces

Oh, the joy of learning a new piece! It’s like entering the fertile valley of opportunity. New discoveries, new challenges, new sounds.

We’re filled with a sense of promise. We feel alive and vibrant. Enthusiasm abounds.

Soon, we’ll the glow will wear off and the “puppy love” will transition to the reality of work and effort.

But it feels fresh and new at the beginning. And this may be why some guitarists tend to rush in willy-nilly.

In our eagerness to learn the notes, we risk falling into predictable traps. Below, you’ll find seven such traps to avoid when you’re learning new pieces.

What is Your Process for Learning New Pieces on Classical Guitar?

There are many ways to learn new pieces. We can…

Whichever way we choose, the goal is the same. And that is to input the new notes into our brains in a way that allows us to reliably play the piece later.

If we learn the piece poorly, we’ll be plagued with bad habits and mistakes. These will take time and effort to unlearn and retrain. The whole process will take much longer (if we even complete it).

Ideally, we use an intentional process to learn new pieces. And we avoid the seven mistakes below. This way, we’ll learn faster and enjoy seeing (and hearing) the piece come together with less toil.

Mistake #1: Playing it all the way through repeatedly

One of the most common and least effective ways to learn a new piece is to play it through repeatedly.

This classic rookie mistake is understandable. In the moment, it feels like practice. It seems like it would work. But it doesn’t.

Looping the full piece (or even large sections) reinforces everything we do. And if mistakes are included, then mistakes are reinforced.

This mistake often disguises itself as “Just getting used to hearing what the piece sounds like.” or “Just getting a feel for it.”

At the very beginning (day one), it may be helpful to play through the piece once. This lets us identify possible challenges.

We can take a single run-through to get the lay of the land. Beyond that, we’re training ourselves to make mistakes and ignore problems.

Mistake #2: Working on Too Large of Sections

Much like number one above, it can be counterproductive to work on sections that are too large.

Working on small sections is beneficial because it allows us to focus on the specific issues and demands of the section.

We can more easily identify specific challenges. We can address problems (see #3 below) and work out solutions.

If we tackle large sections, we tend to pass over mistakes, assuming we’ll get to them later.

This “later” either comes too late or not at all. The mistakes stick and become more difficult to overcome as time passes.

Lesson: Work on small sections in practice. And we don’t have to master one before moving to the next. We can rotate between small sections, so long as we’re engaged in real practice (as opposed to playing).

Mistake #3: Not Identifying and Solving the Problems

What keeps us from playing our pieces at performance level? Usually, it is the tricky spots.

“Tricky spots” are small bits of music that give us trouble. Playing through, we stumble or miss notes. Whatever the flavor, tricky spots interrupt the flow and momentum for us.

So overcoming tricky spots is one of the best ways to get our pieces up to our best level.

This does not happen on its own. We have to first identify, then solve the problems.

If ignored, they only persist.

Working in small sections, we can find these individual issues and their solutions. There are many practice methods we can use to overcome them.

The important part is that we pause and do the work when we find the hard bits, instead of getting to them “later.”

Mistake #4: Inconsistent Fingerings (In Both Hands)

This mistake is especially dangerous in fast pieces.

Imagine your job is to make a path through a field of high grass. What is the best way to ensure a good trail?

If you walk a different route through the field each time, the grass will spring back up. It will take a long time and the path may not follow the most direct route.

But if you choose a route, then walk back and forth on that same route? You’ll have a solid trail. It will last longer, take less time to lay, and you’ll know it’s the best route.

Same with our fingerings.

At the beginning of the learning process, it’s useful to decide which fingers we’ll use for each note. This includes both right and left hands.

Beginning guitarists often focus on the left hand and forget to choose fingerings for the right hand. Advanced players almost always choose and abide by right-hand fingerings (especially in fast pieces).

Consistent fingerings are one of the hallmarks of “knowing what you’re doing.”

Mistake #5: Not Going In with the Intention to Memorize the Music

When we intend to memorize music, we learn it faster. Our brains encode it more efficiently.

This is even more true if we pretend that we’ll teach the piece (or section) to a group in the near future.

Even if we don’t care to memorize, we can pretend. When we pretend, we still get the benefit.

The brain likes to conserve energy. If something doesn’t matter, the brain won’t make the effort to put the information into long-term memory. It will not build the synapses and connect the dots.

If we intend to memorize the music, it makes the new information more important. The brain perks up and gets to work organizing and filing it for recall.

Pretending that we’ll need to teach it gives a sense of urgency. Our self-protection resources come online to avoid embarrassment. Our mental “construction crews” put on their hard hats and start building the roads the new notes will travel down.

Mistake #6: Playing Too Fast Too Soon

This is a fact: Speed creates the illusion of perfection.

In the learning process, the immediate goal is not to play the piece. The goal is instead to learn the piece well so that we can play it later.

Playing too fast too soon introduces mistakes. It undermines the good work we may have already done.

While the temptation is great, it’s best to keep the speed down until we can manage it. It will come.

Instead of racing through, correct repetitions with consistent fingerings is the best aim.

Mistake #7: Abandoning Previous Pieces When Starting a New One

While this mistake does not directly involve the new piece, it does affect our general practice and musical enjoyment.

We put loads of work into each new piece. We lovingly craft each note and phrase.

So it’s a shame to jettison each piece when a new one arrives.

In a perfect world, each new piece contributes to a growing repertoire (or set) of music. We continue to play and refine pieces for years and decades.

A piece can become an old friend. We can find new angles from which to view it. We can deepen our understanding of the harmony, the time period in which it was written, and the musical gestures.

To keep older pieces alive, we can keep an ongoing list. And we can play our pieces regularly. This can be fun on non-practice days, or at a different time of day than our practice.

Balancing old and new is a worthy challenge. The payoff is that our work lasts. We get to benefit from work done months and years ago. And we get to play at a much higher level than we likely will on new pieces.

Allen Mathews

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.
Click here for a sample formula.

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