When I was a kid, my best friend was a kid named Jay. He lived right next door, and we grew up together right up until around puberty, when I moved away. We were next-door neighbors from the day we came home from the hospital. So we were incredibly tight from a very early age.
(If you would rather skip right to the meat and potatoes, tutorial videos are lower down the page. You can download the PDF examples and patterns below as well.
As in many young boys lives, we eventually came to want bicycles. The Bigwheel was just no longer cutting it. The older kids made fun of the tricycles. It was time for bikes.
My parents got me a beautiful black BMX bike from the local department store. It was a Huffy or something like that. It was shiny, had big fat tires, and had pads Velcroed around all the places I might’ve fallen onto (they may include those more for shopping mothers than for the kids).
Jay, next-door, had to wait a while for his bike. His dad told him that he was putting something together. It was excruciating, but I was pleased that I was the cooler of the two of us for the time being, and he had to run alongside.
His dad had visited all sorts of bike repair shops and God only knows where else. He found the lightest, highest quality used parts he could find, and assembled them into Frankenstein-like creation. This small BMX bike that Jay’s dad had made was named “Bandit”.
As kids, we were perplexed by the look of it. It was slightly smaller than mine, and the tires were a little bit thinner. It didn’t have all the Velcro pads or the plastic reflectors, chain cover and other accessories.
In all honesty, we were not impressed. It was a bike, but it was a stripped down, just-the-bare-necessities type of bike. The paint was not shiny and new like mine. Many of the parts showed scuff-marks, as they were all used. The chrome of the handlebars was scratched and chipped.
But then came the big surprise. When we took it out for a spin, it was clearly the superior bike!
It was faster. It was lighter, it was more agile. When we made ramps, it always could jump higher. You could ride it longer without getting tired. It was unquestionably an amazing ride. In truth, I didn’t even know that my bike was heavy and unwieldy until Bandit came on the scene and offered a comparison.
In a short time, every kid in the neighborhood knew and coveted that bike. Everyone knew it was the fastest and the most fun to ride. Everyone was always trying to get their hands on it. It was simple, and it simply performed well.
Over time, he dressed it up a bit. He painted it, and got nicer grips for the handlebars. He got a better seat.
To this day, I have a clear and fond memory of Bandit. But the memories I have of my own bike are fuzzy and a bit general.
Number one mistake: what most people get wrong
When learning classical guitar, Most beginning players opt for the Huffy. Relatively cheap, fairly easy to get, and doesn’t take much real work. (Sure, it still takes time, but not the focus and attention that it takes to build a “Bandit”.)
The temptation when learning a new piece of music on the classical guitar is to have this mentality:
- “First I will learn all the notes, then I will get it up to speed.
- Then I’ll add in some dynamics or phrasing at the end.
- Any tricky spots will work themselves out in time.”
This recipe adds up to a very shoddy end product. In truth, this way of working never produces great music.
Many people spend their whole lives following this path, and never really played beautifully. Sad, really.
They go from one piece to the next, following the same blueprint. They may be playing hard pieces, with tons of notes on the page. They may even make a living playing guitar, and/or be respected teachers.
This is a shame for anyone who has to listen, but it’s even more of a shame for these players.
This is a very shallow way of working, and there are much more emotionally rich and intellectually stimulating and ways of going about learning a piece of music.
Assembling the components: building a better bike
As an alternative to this boring cycle (no pun intended) of learning music, master players realize that a piece of music can only be played one note at a time.
Sure, there are larger ideas and structures in every piece of music, but they are made up of details. The way we play the details is in service to the larger ideas (structures, emotions, all that).
But when you get down to it, how well you play any piece of music is determined by how well you play the details.
“How well you play any piece of music is determined by how well you play the details.”
Note: when I say the “details”, everything is a detail. The way to notes connect is a detail. The rhythm of any given beat is a detail, the movement of a phrase, the swell of a passage, The articulation of short notes and long notes. In short, all the little pieces of that make up the bigger piece.
Another note: You need both for true mastery. For example, the Canadian pianist Glenn Gould was amazing at details, but orchestral conductors couldn’t stand working with him because he didn’t have strong concepts of larger forms and structures. He excelled at short little pieces, because they were simpler (from a conceptual standpoint). His concertos and longer works ended up a bit shallow and disjointed.
What all this means
To bring this back to learning classical guitar, a Huffy would be a huge piece. It is a piece beyond your ability level.
To play it, you would spend all your time learning the notes, and never really get to mastering the details. So it will never really sound all that good. Certainly not as good as you would like it to sound.
It will always be a bit clunky. This can be the case whether you are just beginning, or have been playing forever. If you play, you could potentially fall into this trap.
Instead, we can choose pieces and practice so that, as we are assembling the piece, we are also ensuring that all the components are rock-solid. We focus on the details, and construct each moment with quality in mind.
“Play simpler pieces, and focus deeper on the fundamentals in every detail.”
To work this way, you need to play simpler music.
It’s a hard sell for some people, I admit. The ego wants the big flashy piece. The immediate gratification you get each day from working on a deeper level with simpler pieces takes on a new form.
At first, pieces take longer to learn in this way. But the end result is much better, and the experience is much richer (which is why we’re doing all this in the first place).
(Of course if you are an absolute beginner, you have to do what you can to learn the notes and rhythms, and for a little while, those basic issues will dominate your attention. But once you get the notes, you can start to craft some details.)
With just a little time, we end up learning pieces much quicker because of working this way. We master the art of building quality into each detail.
Then, when we assemble them (string the details together) we end up with a beautiful piece of music, played beautifully. There’s really no other way to do it.
Enter Classical Guitar Speed Bursts!
Speed is one component (of many) that we need in order to play the details.
So in our classical guitar technique practice, we are ideally learning, reinforcing, and practicing both quality fundamental movements and our ability to use them in actual music.
This means being able to play any given speed, any given volume, any given articulation.
Classical Guitar Speed Burst Definition
To play a speed burst, you play just a few notes (maybe 2-7, but it could be more) at a high tempo, then pause to release any tension that built up in the effort.
So instead of an entire 4 beats of 16th notes, you could insert pauses every few notes for practice purposes.
As you get each little group of notes up to a faster tempo, the whole line will be more secure.
Classical guitar speed bursts are just one way to pump up to speed. There are others, but speed bursts do work very well.
(Noa Kageyama also has an interesting article with some sports studies focusing on the speed vs. accuracy issue.)
Deciding the where and when
You can use classical guitar speed bursts to increase your abilities in many different situations. In your classical guitar technique practice, speed bursts are great for both scales and arpeggios, and can also be used in many exercises.
“Give yourself permission to get creative and constructively fool around in your practice!”
In your pieces of music, you can use them anywhere that is not already flowing freely. In truth, the only bottleneck to knowing where to use speed bursts is your own creativity.
The more different ways you can find to practice just about anything, the better it (and you!) will be for it.
Speed Bursts for Scales
Speed Bursts for Arpeggios
Breaking Through Your Barriers
We all have a ceiling to our playing. What I mean by this is that we have a maximum speed at which we can play. Even the best can only go so far.
The trick to progressing at learning classical guitar is to simply… progress.
“It’s encouraging and gratifying to witness ourselves getting better!”
We need to always be moving forward in our abilities and in our learning. This is not only good for our music, but also for our spirit. It’s simply encouraging and gratifying to be able to notice improvement in our playing.
We all know that classical guitar is not something you learned a day. If you are learning classical guitar, you are surely aware of the fact that it is a long term endeavor it takes incremental advancement. But that doesn’t mean we don’t need a bit of gratification!
I am a junkie for immediate gratification. I love it. Give it to me! Now!
That’s one of the reasons speed bursts are so great. You can witness immediate improvement. You can measurably improve in one sitting.
I have a student named Judy. She’s great. The other week she she told me with great confidence that she would never be able to play her scales at a particular tempo.
Of course I took this as a personal challenge, and we revved up the metronome and did a few minutes of speed bursts. Within five minutes, she was playing scales using classical guitar speed bursts at the exact tempo that she had swore she would never be able to hit just moments before. It was great fun!
Sure, she was not playing the entire two-octave scale at the new speed yet, but having her hands move at that tempo in shorter increments made the possibility feel real, where before it just seemed impossible. She was surprised, excited and eager to practice more.
And it just feels good
When we can break through our barriers like this it’s like a shot of adrenaline. We are newly inspired and motivated. Whenever we can prove one of our assumptions wrong, we are forced to confront the fact that any other assumption we have may be wrong. It’s all very liberating.
Sprints vs. Marathons
We are conditioned to think of work as a marathon. Whether it’s our career, school, hobbies, exercise, anything. We think that we should be able to maintain whatever level of power (be at mental physical emotional or whatever) for long periods of time.
When playing scales, a long time may be just four seconds. It’s relative, after all.
But there is a new trend in both mental and physical training. And this is to work in sprints instead of marathons.
I have written elsewhere about the Pomodoro technique. That’s an example of favoring sprints to marathons.
In physical workouts, many trainers are now coaching clients to exert in small bursts with great exertion, then stopping to recover. So instead of a 20 minute swim, they may recommend numerous shorter bursts of “everything you’ve got”.
One of the benefits of working this way is that you develop a quicker recovery time. With time, your body becomes skilled at recovering quickly. Muscle tension can relax and heart-rate can lower more rapidly. This makes us more agile, able to deal with stress more efficiently, and ultimately able to reach goals that we wouldn’t have been able to otherwise.
Classical guitar speed burst are a way to put these ideas into motion when learning classical guitar. When working in incremental bursts we are able to break through our previous barriers and records.
Mastery on Hyperdrive
Another thing I love about classical guitar speed burst is what they imply.
If you are working in this way, it implies that you are creating the habit of breaking larger chunks into smaller bits and working on them separately.
“God is in the details.”
This is one of the best ways to progress on your path to mastery.
There is a very old quote: “God is in the details.”
This is certainly true of learning classical guitar. It’s our ability to execute small sections that enable us to actually perform large sections and full pieces.
The path of mastery is largely made up by working on bits. Of course we also need larger concepts of our music, phrases and sections, as we talked about earlier. But when it comes down to it, it’s our ability to connect one note or chord with the next that makes up our overall sound and abilities.
Remember: it’s not the speed, but how you use it
It’s good to keep in mind why we are doing on this. Ultimately, we just want to play beautiful music that evokes an emotional response, for both us and the listener.
With that in mind, we can go to work on being able to play faster as part of a larger picture. Also in that same picture are smoothness, even tempo, beautiful phrasing, and a whole host of other things.
Playing fast is like being able to jump high. It’s cool and all, but it only goes so far. It’s impressive for about five seconds, but then the novelty, shock and awe wear off and we are left wanting something a bit deeper and richer.
So yes, we need speed to be able to learn classical guitar in such a way so that we can play any music we choose to play.
When we can play fast, with even tempo and good rhythm, we have a whole lot more options available to us in terms of repertoire. It also makes playing moderately fast music whole lot easier.
The bottom line: definitely practice to build speed, but also continue to practice slow scales as well, focusing on the connection of each note to the next, great tone quality, and all the other components with which you would like to saturate your playing.
Have fun, and Good Luck!