4 Ways to Choose Your Next Piece of Music

How do we choose the next piece to learn? How can we know it’s a good one for us right now?

If we choose wrong, we may drain our momentum and dampen our enthusiasm.

But if well-chosen, new music can pull us forward and help to make practice our favorite time of the day.

Choosing New Music: An Imperfect Science

Choosing the right music can be a difficult task. We may not know what we need as students. We may not understand many of the elements involved in learning the guitar.

Blind spots are by definition blind. If we could see them, they wouldn’t be blind spots.

Anytime we choose a piece of music ourselves, we risk making a non-perfect decision. This is fine. We can move forward so long as we realize we are only partially equipped to choose well.

We may well choose poorly. A new piece may be too hard, or it may not add anything new to our practice.

When we make an ill-informed decision, we may have to face defeat and quit the piece. This can be heartbreaking, but it’s necessary. Onward and upward.

Below are four methods you can use to choose your music.

The role of teachers in selecting repertoire

One of the main roles of a teacher is to choose a repertoire for the student. An otherwise good teacher can fail a student miserably if the music-choice is lacking (or lack-luster ).

This is where experience comes to bear. The best teachers know the repertoire at different levels. They know which challenges each piece presents. And they know how to match the needed challenge to the student. And this at the right time.

Four Methods To Choose New Guitar Music to Learn

Without a teacher, we can still increase our chances of choosing well.

Each of the methods below gives a way to sort our thinking and direct our efforts. We may still make the wrong choice. But that’s always a risk when we go it alone.

These methods are not mutually exclusive. We often find pieces that check more than one box. When we do, hurray for us.

Method #1: Follow the Juice

If we are enamored with a piece, it can motivate us to practice. So excitement is a wonderful guidepost by which to steer.

We may well choose pieces over and above our current abilities. This is a real possibility when we choose based on attraction. Our excitement can override other, more prudent considerations.

Given our limitations, we may never get the piece to where we want it to be. Ambitious projects often flop.

Still, motivation is valuable. So long as the piece isn’t too far beyond us, the work can still benefit us.

Method #2: Fill Holes – Feed the Runt

If we know of a current weakness in our playing, we can choose a piece of music that offers that challenge.

For instance, say we want to work on our scale technique. Here, we can choose a melodic piece with a variety of scale passages.

This way, we buttress our foundation while adding variety to our repertoire.

Tip #1: Look for pieces in which you understand what needs to happen. You should feel like you can most likely play the notes, if slowly. The skills needed should be close to your current skills, but still a bit of a stretch. Hard but not too hard. For instance, if you can play scales at 100, a piece at 105 or 110 is a doable stretch. It will take work, but it’s close. 130, on the other hand, is probably too far removed from your current physical skills. Be realistic.

Tip #2: Also, add just one or two new elements in the new piece. We don’t want to jump into a piece where every measure contains a new and foreign technique. We’ll get overwhelmed. The going will be arduous. And we also don’t want to spend all our time just getting the notes. We want to learn the notes so that we can add in the more musical touches, get it up to speed, and engage in other fun aspects of practice.

Method #3: Create a Well-Rounded Repertoire

Another good way to choose music is to first look at our current pieces. Then we choose new music to round out the collection.

We can group our current pieces into small sets that we play together. These can be like suites. They sound good as a group.

We may find that many of our current pieces are similar in some way. They could be the same tempo (speed), in the same key, or in the same style or genre.

Realizing this, we can ask what would complement the collection ( You might choose a piece that is recognized by audiences worldwide. Canon in D by Pachelbel for example.). What type of piece can provide contrast and variety? This can narrow our search.

A well-rounded repertoire has both slow and upbeat pieces. It has pieces in both major and minor keys. (If you don’t know the music theory, you can think in terms of mood – cheerful vs. contemplative, bright vs. dark.)

Choosing a contrasting piece can add more excitement and interest to daily practice. It can be a welcome change of pace.

Method #4: History Lessons

And we can also explore music from different time periods and cultures. This can be an anthropology study.

We may choose music written at the same time and place as a historical event (i.e. The French Revolution). We can learn about the real-life settings surrounding the music. This lets us expand our musical knowledge. And it provides a context for the stories of history.

Or we may choose music from a culture we would like to understand more deeply. As one example, South American guitar music is a joy to play and offers insight into the people and places.

Picking a new tune in this way can also fulfill the methods above.

Decide, and Get Back to It

With the sheer amount of music to choose from, we may become overwhelmed. We may question ourselves and feel unsure if we’re on the right track.

This is normal. When this happens, it’s good to remember that we can always change our minds. We can always choose a different piece and release the current one.

It is best to commit to a new piece of music so that we take our practice seriously. But we can still de-commit if we choose to.

Over time, we’ll get better at the skill of selecting pieces to play. We’ll find music that we put on the list for “one day.” And when space opens, we’ll enjoy adding the piece to the music stand.

Dive in, and good luck!

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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