How to Enjoy Constant Improvement on Classical Guitar

Playing classical guitar is no easy task. It takes a skill-set that’s only acquired through practice, study and attention.

And it can seem overwhelming sometimes to think of how far we have to go to play the music we want to play.

But instead of getting disheartened at the path ahead and our rate of progress, we can adjust our perspectives. We can think of practice and learning differently so that we’re inspired and motivated.

The key to a life of enjoyable guitar practice is an attitude of constant improvement.

Eye On the Prize: The Big Goals

Most of us got into classical guitar because we heard something we liked. We heard a top-notch player performing a top-notch tune and fell in love with it.

So naturally, we want to sound like that.

The key to a life of enjoyable guitar practice is an attitude of constant improvement.

We want to play the masterpieces of the repertoire. We want to express those musical ideas. We want to feel what it feels like to have that music flowing out of our hands and instruments.

But those pieces are hard.

It takes a long time to get to the point where we can play at such a high level. There are many levels between here and there.

Focus on the Means vs. the Ends

We have our ultimate goals (i.e. the “big piece”), and western cultural trends would have us set our sights directly on them and blast full steam ahead.

However, going directly for the end result without attention on the means whereby we get there prohibits us from getting what we want.

We can only play the big pieces well if we can play one note well, then connect that note well with the next.

Over time, if we constantly focus on the quality of small details, we arrive at the big pieces. And when there, we then see those pieces also as steps in a longer path.

This notion of constant improvement, known in Japan as “kaizen”, both

  1. makes the present more productive and enjoyable, and
  2. ensures that we create even more beautiful music later.

“Striving for excellence motivates you; striving for perfection is demoralizing.” ~Harriet Braiker

Case Study: The “End-Gainer”

I once sat in on a masterclass (public lesson) with a very well-respected guitarist, Denis Azabagic.

One of the players walked up on stage and played a Bach piece.

He had obviously learned it rote, and didn’t understand the different parts of the music.

He sat like a folk player, and his technique was careless and haphazard at best.

He played the notes (more or less), and quickly. But it sounded like a jalopy speeding down a potholed dirt road. It sounded as if it might shake apart or explode at any second.

After he played, Denis paused for a long moment. Then he said, somewhat bewildered, “You’re asking me what color to paint your walls, but you don’t even have your house built.”

He said, “You’re asking me what color to paint your walls, but you don’t even have your house built.”

His advice: Get a teacher. Study. Slow down and focus on the fundamentals.

There was really nothing else to say.

Keep the Long-Term in Mind for Constant Improvement

We need to keep those big pieces in sight and on the horizon. It gives purpose and direction to our daily practice. It also provides motivation and excitement.

If the piece we’re currently working on seems like a beginner piece, that’s fine. The skills we build here will directly help the bigger pieces later. (And if we can’t play the easy piece beautifully, we certainly won’t play a harder one any more beautifully.)

Quality Now Equals Quality Later

The quality of the big pieces depends on how well we’ve mastered the basics. Rhythm, balance, legato, tone quality, phrasing. All these and more we learn most easily when we can isolate the issues and work on them in easier pieces.

The quality of attention we bring to our moment-by-moment practice determines how quickly we progress, and how well we play.

The quality of attention we bring to our moment-by-moment practice determines how quickly we progress, and how well we play.

When we focus on quality in our daily practices, we create the conditions to hear more quality later.

The Opposite is Also True

And the converse holds true as well: Lack of quality in your daily practice will ensure a lack of quality down the road.

Even at the most beginning levels, we can still bring our full attention. We can actively listen to the sounds we make. We can go slow and seek to understand the fine details.

The Payoff, Now and Later

The big advantage to focusing on quality in our daily practices is that we feel better.

When we practice well, with attention and a positive agenda, we are more likely to lose track of time and enter a “flow” state. This feels good makes life better.

Base Your Success Looking Back, Not Forward

It’s easy to swoon at the sheer distance between where we are now and where we want to be. And if our only basis for success is the end goal, we set ourselves up for years of failure before we get that one, short-lived success.

Instead of judging success based on the ideal of where we want to be, we can appreciate how far we’ve come.

We can celebrate the small successes that come with slowing down and playing in rhythm. Or working methodically through a tricky spot.

If success is measured forward, we always fail. This is because the ideal we shoot for is a moving target. When we get close, it moves away from us. Like the horizon, it’s always just out of reach.

Like the horizon, our biggest goals are always just out of reach.

Enjoy the daily successes of intentional practice and incremental improvements. This will allow you to constantly improve, and consistently feel great about your musical study.

Especially If You’re Feeling Stuck

And this is all doubly true if you’re feeling stuck or that you’re not progressing.

If you do feel stuck it could be that
(1) you’re trying too much to reach the ends without due attention to the means. Or…
(2) that you’re judging your progress based on where you want to go, instead of from where you’ve come from.

Either way, focusing on quality of attention and details in your moment-by-moment practice is the way to move ahead more quickly and feel better about your daily guitar time.

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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