How to Choose Your Next Piece of Music to Play

One of the roles of a teacher is to choose music for students. But what if we don’t have a teacher? How can we choose music that’s appropriate for our current level and ability?

When choosing our own music, we may not always get it right. We may choose music that’s too hard. We may choose music we later decide to drop. That’s part of the game.

But with the questions below, you’ll be able to make a reasonable guess whether a piece is too hard for you.

Watch and Listen to Someone Else Play It

Before studying the piece, we can first watch and listen to someone else playing the piece. We can use Youtube or any other video or audio service.

This can give us valuable information. It can show us what is in store, should we decide to tackle it.

However, great players can make difficult music look easy. And lower-level players can make a beautiful piece look hard or sound terrible.

So it’s better to watch a few different people playing it, and compare what you see.

NOTE: There are drawbacks to this. We may get the piece “in our ear” according to the phrasing and musical choices of the player. And these may not be the best choices. They may slow down or speed up at weird times.

Ideally, we watch only to gauge the difficulty and technical requirements. We suspend any thoughts of expression. This way we can make our own decisions later.

Look at the Sheet Music

We can also look over the sheet music. When we do, we can ask some questions.

Do I understand what I see on the page?

Do I know all the notes and musical markings? Can I figure out the rhythms? Is there anything I don’t understand?

What is the range?

How much of the guitar neck does the piece use?
How high does it go?
Am I comfortable playing up that high?
How much of the piece is in the upper positions?

Are there barre chords?

How long do they last?
Do I have the stamina?
If we are comfortable with barre chords, great. If not, this is something to consider.

Can I play at the given speed (tempo)?

If the piece is physically beyond our abilities to play at tempo, it will never sound like we want it to. We can build speed, of course. But that is a separate project from learning and polishing the piece.

Play Through the Parts that Look Tricky

Next, we can look for parts of the music that may be difficult. We can then play through those. We can work on them in a practice or two.

The goal here is not to perfect the section. It is just to get a clear understanding of the challenges that lay ahead.

If we feel we’re up to all challenges, and we know how we’ll approach them, the piece may be appropriate. If not, we may want to consider waiting on this one until we can work with a teacher.

Or we can come back to it when we have learned some new practice methods.

What Are My Expectations for this Piece?

It is important that we are aware of our expectations. Otherwise, we may waste time and fail to meet them.

How long will it take?

Some pieces are short-term projects, and others are long-term projects. Some pieces take a year or more. Some are performance ready in a matter of weeks or months.

While we may not know exactly, we can estimate how long this piece will take us. (Then double that time, just to be safe.)

How much work will this be?

If all the challenges seem attainable, this may be a relatively straightforward project.

But if there are challenges in every bar, we can assume we’ll spend a lot of time working out the bugs.

At what level do I expect to play this piece? Am I okay with that?

This is the time for honesty. What happens when we are at the early-intermediate level, and we choose to engage with an advanced-level piece? It’s not going to work.

There is more to music than learning the notes. And even if we can learn where to put our fingers, we still may not be ready for a given piece.

It’s normal to want to play the big, famous pieces. But if we expect to sound like the greatest guitarists in the world, we may be in for some disappointment.

High-level players have practiced thousands (or tens of thousands) of hours. Just learning the notes will not bring us to play like them.

So a realistic estimate: How well can I really expect to play this?

Better to Play Easier Music More Beautifully

It is more fun and more satisfying to play lower-level music well than it is to play advanced music poorly.

It’s more enjoyable to play, work on, and memorize. And other people enjoy hearing us playing well, not struggling.

When choosing music, it is very easy to aim too high. Instead, it may be best to aim on the low side. Then bring the piece to a high level.

Playing music that is manageable allows us to spend time on the phrasing and expression. We can add subtle shadings and color. We can make it beautiful.

If we spend all our time just getting our fingers in the right place, it will end up sounding dry and unmusical. Even if the music is lovely, it doesn’t mean we’ll be able to render it such.

And choosing music that is well within our grasp allows us to move through more pieces. Each may not take as long to learn. This can help us master the art of polishing pieces to performance level.

Mistakes Happen – If So, Shrug it Off and Move On

If we do get into a piece that is too hard for us, all is not lost. We can choose to lay it aside for now.

If we want to, we can “cherry-pick” some of our favorite parts and continue to work on them. This can keep us motivated.

Meanwhile, we can learn other pieces that are more appropriate.

Playing guitar is a long game. And we may well make some wrong plays. When we do, we can forgive the error and get back on track.

We can notice what gave us trouble and find ways to build the skills needed to ace these issues next time.

Good luck, and have fun!

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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