Cross the Bar Line for Better Phrasing, Better Classical Guitar Practice

Is your practice actually preparing you to play beautifully? Or could it be creating little problems that you don’t even recognize?

In a perfect world, every minute of practice leads us closer to playing music with precision and beauty, or builds a useable skill that helps in that endeavor.

You move in this direction when you cross the bar line in your music practice.  More on this below, but first…..

How You Practice is How You Play

If you’re distracted, tense, and inconsistent in your practice, chances are these traits will dominate your performances as well.

Likewise, if you you’re focused and intentional in your practice, you’ll bring these qualities to your playing for others.

“How you practice is how you play.”

When, in daily practice, you focus on the details of connecting one to another, phrasing with intention and forethought, and playing with rhythmic accuracy, these habits of focus become your “autopilot”. After the initial adrenaline spike, you’ll naturally gravitate to focusing on these in performance.

This means that if you want to play musically, practice musically. If you want to play with precision, practice with precision.

Practice as Preparation for Performance

Instead of mentally separating practice and performance, think of them as two sides of the same coin.

Even if your performance is only for your cat, or your family, it’s still valid, and the rules still apply. One of the great joys of playing guitar is sharing a tune with someone. It’s an honest gift, and a personal offering.

Performance is also the best test of our abilities. It “ups the ante”, and adds pressure. Just as martial artists spar to test their skills, we can perform.

Ideally, all practice moves us towards better performance. We don’t play scales only because they’re fun, but because scale practice allows us to train the vital elements of playing with flow and grace.

Such is true with each element of practice. It all serves the one main goal: to share a beautiful musical moment with someone. (Even if we envision that moment far in the future, or never.)

Keep performance as the goal, and you keep practice useful and intentional.

Always Moving: The Natural Inclinations of Music

To play beautifully, we need the physical skills to execute the music, and the musical understanding to render it beautifully.

Just as it’s nearly impossible to read aloud convincingly in a language we don’t understand, music doesn’t flow as it could unless we understand how it moves.

The natural inclination of music is to move forward. Like a good story, it draws us in and keeps us interested. It unfolds while simultaneously exposing the next mystery. Music shows us what’s in one hand while pointing forward with the other. Some call this “the long line”.

One of our jobs as players is to demonstrate the music to listeners. The music can’t speak without the player actively breathing life into it. The most interesting music in the world will come out bland if played blandly (even if every note is played “perfectly”).

So the question is: How do we move music forward? The answer: intentionally. We train ourselves to hear and play music in phrases and lines. And we stop practicing in ways that break the natural flow of the musical line.

One of the easiest ways to begin this “musical practice” is to cross the bar line.

Barlines are Un-Musical

Bar lines (or measure lines) organize music on the page, but are inherently un-musical when heard. Just as the line-break in a paragraph of text organizes the words on a page (creating tidy margins), bar lines keep the music tidy on the page. And most of time, sound just as unnatural when used as a stopping lines sound unmusical

Generally, all the notes after the first note of a measure lead to the first note of the next measure. This moves music forward.

Most often, all the notes after the first note of a measure lead to the first note of the next measure.  So practice that way.

Related: Strong Beats and Weak Beats in Music

Cross the Bar Line in Your Practice

If you want to play musically, with direction, momentum, and flow, start today to form the habit of always crossing the bar line in your practice.

Groups of notes tend to phrase to the first note in the next bar.

Groups of notes tend to phrase to the first note in the next bar.

Think of each bar as a “bar plus one beat”.

Listen for logical phrases in your music, and practice them. This makes your practice more enjoyable, and your phrasing more convincing.

The End of the Line is No Exception

One common tendency is to stop at the line break. While understandable, the line break is not chosen for any musical reason. Just as the line break on a page of text has nothing to do with the sentence, the line break in music has nothing to do with the music.In music, don't stop at the end of a line.

Form the habit of always going to the next downbeat, even if it means going to the next line, or the next page. Your music will make better sense this way, which is more enjoyable to practice and hear.

Exceptions to the Rule

As with any rule, there are notable exceptions. There are places in music where the bar line does mark a full stop.

Examples include the ends of sections, the high point (climax) of a piece, and other special occasions. They are most often marked with a long note.

These exceptions form a small percentage of the measures in most pieces.

Another instance where you would use “un-natural” stopping places would be if you were intentionally solving technical problems using practice techniques that divided a larger section into smaller ones (such as speed bursts).


— How you practice is how you play. Make your practice as useful to the ultimate goal of performance as possible.

— Music needs to constantly move forward. Every little stopping point undermines this and sucks energy out of your playing.

— Barlines are unnatural stopping points, and should be seen, not heard.

— Form the habit of crossing the bar line and playing through the downbeat (first beat) of the next bar.

Related: Strong Beats and Weak Beats in Music

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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