A Guide to the Fine Details: How to Mine Your Music for Gold

What separates fine abstract art from the scribbling of 4-year-olds?  What makes a Mercedes better than Hyundai?  And what makes Yo Yo Ma sound so much better than 99.9995% of other cellists?

The answer is in the fine details.  Look closely, and you’ll find that just about everything good and beautiful in the world is such due to the goodness and beauty of its details.   Art, nature, situations, people, and music.

In the Beginning, there were Chunks

When we first start as guitarists, the main goal is to get our fingers to go where we tell them to go. This usually means playing chords or exercises in the left hand, and playing notes, patterns, or strums in the right hand.

Luckily, guitar is built around shapes (chords, scales), and patterns. This makes it much easier to think about. For example, it’s easier to think of a “D chord” than it is to think of the 4 individual notes that make up a D chord.

So we go from chunk to chunk to chunk of information.

At first we go from chunk to chunk of information, but music moves in lines.

The problem is that music doesn’t work in chunks. Music works in lines. And these lines move through the shapes, much like telephone poles and the wires that connect them. (In this analogy, the poles are the chords, arpeggio patterns, etc., and the wires connecting them is the melody, or musical line.)

At first, we think only of the “poles” (chunks of information), but as we progress we must also think of the “wires” that connect one pole to the next.

This means that we need to connect one note to the next so that it keeps the line or musical idea going. This is the realm of details.

Look Closer, and Find the Details

Any musical idea will be created of numerous fine details.

For example, let’s assume you want to play a beautiful melody. This melody is a string of separate notes that you need to connect (in rhythm, as well as in volume and in tone quality!). If you can connect the first note to the second, and the second to the third, and so forth, the end result will be a beautiful melody.

Details on classical guitar generally boil down to one note connecting to another.

So you can’t just “play well”. The only way to get the desired outcome (play a piece beautifully) is to play each detail beautifully.

As another analogy, you can’t “have a good day”. You can only have a series of good moments that bring you from one point in time to another. The quality of the whole is comprised and reliant on the quality of each part (each detail).

This is good, because it empowers us to focus on this one little moment, and let the rest remain in the past or future.

Details on classical guitar generally boil down to one note connecting to another. This is often where the chord or harmony changes.

How to Locate the Details

So how do you find these fine details? You look for them.

Slow down, and listen.  Listen for anything choppy, disjointed, clumsy, muted, poking out (suddenly too loud), or otherwise out of place.

How do you find the details? You look for them.

The more you can put your attention on these details, the more opportunity you’ll have to improve your playing, and the more you’ll listen critically to others’ playing.

The Forest and the Trees: How to Practice Details

Of course, the problem with noticing all these details and how each note connects to the next is that there are so many of them. How could you possibly practice them all?

“The Devil is in the details, but so is salvation.” ? Hyman G. Rickover

This is often a case of the forest and the trees. You have to know what you’re working on, and keep your focus there.

If you’re actively memorizing a phrase, it can help to notice the details, so long as you keep your focus on memorizing and not practicing the details (yet).

Especially at first, you’ll do best by focusing on just one aspect of the music at a time.  But this means you have to let other aspects wait their turn.  This becomes one of the “arts of practice”:  to selectively focus.

Batching Details

When you do sit down to hone your details, it helps to batch them together by similarities.

As an example let’s say you need to connect a series of arpeggiated chords (chords played one note at time) beautifully. Currently, you can hear a slight “hiccup” between each chord, but you want them to flow from one to the next. You also have a few awkward shifts, and short, melodic scale passages.

Instead of going from the beginning to the end, and practicing each little issue as it arises, you can instead batch the similar issues.

This way, you first practice all the chord connections, listening to the last note of each chord connect to the first note of the next. Next, you move to all the shifts, and practice just the shifts (without succumbing to the temptation of continuing to play through the piece!).

This is very effective practice, and brings you forward efficiently and effectively.

Lastly, and this may not even be in the same practice, you practice all the scale passages, one after the next.

By batching, you focus in on the specific skills you need for that issue, and practice the skill in multiple contexts. This helps you master the skill more quickly. Next time you encounter the same sorts of details, you will have already put in quality time and you’ll solve problems faster, or avoid them altogether.

This is very effective practice, and brings you forward efficiently and effectively.

Just Pick One

Besides batching, another way to practice is simply to let something catch your attention, then work on it.

Batching is more effective for getting pieces up to performance level. But just picking one and digging in is a quick and easy way to focus your attention and get you actively involved.

Follow your curiosity and enjoy yourself, much like a child getting down and looking very closely at a patch of ground. See what you discover, and play games of “what if” to see what works and what doesn’t.

Where Technique Practice and Learning Pieces Intersect

Many people wonder why we need to play scales, and do technique practice. “Why not just play music?”

The reason is details. And knowing this can guide your technique practice.

When practicing scales, what you’re actually practicing is connecting one note melodically to the next. You’re practicing consistent rhythms and clear articulations. The scale shapes themselves are just a template with which to work. (In classical guitar anyway. Improvisation etc is an entirely different thing, and not what we’re talking about here.)

In short, technique practice allows you to hone the toolkit you need to play beautiful details. This way, when you find the fine details in your music, you already have the skills to handle them.

Recap: The Main Points

The broad strokes again:

  • Details are generally the connection of one note to another, or how a certain note is played.
  • We find details by slowing down and listening.
  • We practice technique (scales, arpeggios, slurs, etc) to build the skills to play details beautifully.
  • Practice similar issues together (aka batching) as an effective way to polish and improve your music.

Stay calm and carry on. The more you practice, the more details you’ll find to nitpick! So just get used to the fact that there will always be more details to work on.  Forever.  What a gift!

Many thanks to guitar-builder and friend Gregory Miller Guitars for the guitar detail in the image above.  His guitars are consistently stunning.

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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