How to Maintain Classical Guitar Repertoire
Does this scenario sound familiar:
- You work really, really hard on learning a new piece.
- You spend tons of time getting everything as polished as you can.
- You start the next piece.
- A month later you remember the first piece, go to play it, and realize that it’s not there anymore.
This is unfortunately very common. Most classical guitarists, even if they have been playing for many years or decades, have only a few songs (at best) prepared and ready to share at any given time. They have learned many, but can only currently play a couple.
Ideally, we learn a piece, and we add it to our repertoire. We can play it from memory at any time, and with each new piece we learn, our existing repertoire gets even better.
So How Do You Maintain Your Classical Guitar Repertoire?
Always up or down
Our playing of any piece in our classical guitar repertoire will either get better or worse with each day and each practice. There is no such thing as true “maintaining”. I wish this were different, but it’s just the way it is.
Our abilities, notions, ideas, concepts, and focus levels are ever-changing. We are constantly moving either forward or backward. It’s our job in our practice to make sure that we are moving forward.
Learn it right the first time
First things first, maintaining music is infinitely easier if you first learn it efficiently. By following the 7-step process, you can ensure that you are learning and memorizing your music effectively.
Note: You don’t have to memorize everything, but you’d be a whole lot cooler if you did. Even just having the intention to remember what you learn and play from memory encourages your brain to pay more attention and learn more quickly than if you don’t. Even if you still play with the music in front of you, memorizing just temporarily as you go will help you ingrain the music more effectively.
So, let’s assume that you have practiced well and learned the piece correctly. So we just need to maintain it and get it ever better.
Keep it front-of-mind
It’s so exciting to start in on a new piece of music, that it’s easy to ignore everything else.
After we have just learned a new piece and it moves into the “maintaining” zone of our practice, we really need to revisit it often (especially at first) to make sure the details stay correct.
For the first couple of weeks, it’s ideal to review it daily (or as close as possible). With time, we can wait longer between each review.
Just like anything that we learn, it starts off in our short-term memory, and only with frequent reinforcement it eventually enters our long-term memory. Of course this long-term memory is where we want our repertoire to live.
Periodically Practice it with the Music
Even if you maintain your classical guitar repertoire primarily from memory, it’s good to practice occasionally with the score (sheet music) in front of you, just to make sure you are remembering everything correctly, and not omitting anything.
This will also reinforce your visual memory of what the music looks like (which is an important part of a complete memorization of your music). As you follow some of the upcoming suggestions, it may even be necessary to have the notes in front of you!
Using Repertoire to Build Skills
One of my favorite ways to practice is to use music that I have memorized to focus in on specific skills or musical devices.
Because you already know the notes, you are more able to put your attention on other aspects of your playing and other practice techniques.
If you have many pieces in your repertoire, which you will if you maintain every piece you learn, you can alternate. This way you are both reviewing your pieces regularly, and getting a good assortment of practice techniques in every practice.
Decide beforehand what you’ll do with each piece, then rotate the practice methods every week or two. With time, you will have brought several different approaches to each piece, and each will be stronger for it. And you’ll be stronger as a player!
These practice techniques don’t have to take very long. Each could just be one or two run-throughs of a piece in your classical guitar repertoire before moving to the next.
What follows is a sampling of methods you can use in your practice that will help to develop your abilities as a guitarist and help you to maintain your classical guitar repertoire.
Classical Guitar Repertoire Practice Methods
In this practice technique, practice as slowly as you have to in order to execute every single note as cleanly and solidly as possible.
If you are just playing through the piece and making your typical mistakes, you’re not doing this right. The focus here is on playing cleanly and clearly.
With this practice method (as with most of these) some things may slide as you focus on one specific element of the music. For instance, you may slow down for certain sections of the music in order to keep the “stainless steel” quality of precision in the fingers. This is acceptable, provided that you next work with a practice technique that ensures steady tempo and rhythmic precision. (Sometimes we have to prioritize, and make sacrifices in the moment for the sake of the long-term evolution of the piece.)
This is a funny word. One of my students came up with it as I was having him practice at what I call a “frustrating moderato”.
The Frustrato is playing steadily with a metronome at a speed that is just under where your muscle memory covers for you. At this tempo, you must actually know the music and be thinking ahead.
Many people (myself included) find playing slowly like this is more challenging than playing at faster tempos. Be sure to execute all your music intentions with exaggeration. Swell and fade intentionally and dramatically.
The Frustrato ensures that you have the piece memorized in ways other than just muscle (kinesthetic) memory. If you plan to perform in public, this is one of the best ways to prepare.
If you are driving on a highway, it’s really nice to have some “top-end” available should you want to pass another car.
Top-end is a reserve of ability that we know is there, but that we don’t plan on actually using. (My car has well over 100 miles per hour on the speedometer, but I seriously doubt I will ever approach anywhere near that.)
In a perfect world, we have 10-20% top-end reserve on the pieces that we play. This means that if the piece sounds good at 100 bpm, we are able to cleanly and comfortably play it at 110-120 bpm.
So the focus of this practice technique is building speed. Like before, we may sacrifice some of our phrasing choices and dynamics, or some other musical element in order to reach this. However, the rhythm has to be there. Don’t sacrifice rhythmic precision in your quest for speed.
Crank up the metronome and let ‘er rip! (It may be most beneficial to alternate this one with a practice method more precision-based.)
In this one, we focus on heavy vibrato. Each and every note has the absolute most vibrato that we can muster.
You may have to slow down a bit to make it work, and that’s alright. Hold each note as long as you can (without changing the rhythm) and shift quickly and accurately to the next note. This is not only great for the hands, but also brings your attention to the connection of notes in your piece.
Here, put down your guitar. Stand up, raise your music stand, and get the music out. Sing and conduct your piece.
(Before you shut down and skip ahead, just hear me out!)
Without the physical challenges of actually playing the notes, we are more able to visualize and hear the actual music of the piece.
We can move the rhythm along easily and precisely. We can put more “bounce” into it than we ever could on the guitar.
We can create longer, more singing lines. We can vastly increase the overall drama of the music. We can try new expressive ideas that would never have occurred to us while facing the obstacles of playing guitar. When we come back to the guitar, we will have stronger concepts and clearer musical intentions. We will know what exactly we want our fingers to do (and that increases the chance of it actually happening!).
At first, this may be a bit awkward. You might feel silly or not know what to do. That’s normal, and you’ll get over it.
For master musicians, this is where the best work is done. This is the playground where ideas crystallize and the music really starts to take shape.
The Front Man
Most music in the classical guitar repertoire has at least three parts:
- interior voices
When using The Front Man practice method, pick a part, and make that part the clear front man (meaning you play it loudest).
You may like to start with the melody (in general, it should be the loudest voice anyway). Bring the other voices down quieter, and play the melody much louder than usual.
This is not the place for subtlety. Exaggerate like crazy, even if it sounds garish and crass. It’s only practice, after all, not a real performance.
Then move to the bass. Bring down the melody and interior voices, and play the bass much louder. You may have to get the music out to remind yourself which notes you are supposed to be playing.
On certain sections, it may help to sight-read the bassline alone once or twice so you can get it in your ear. Then play through with the bassline balanced highest.
Then do the same with the interior voices. Bass and melody are as quiet as possible.
This is wonderful practice for balance, and also messes with your aural memory (what the piece sounds like to you). If you do this from memory, you will be much more secure in your music when playing it normally.
You may also find beautiful new lines or harmonies that you never noticed before!
But don’t stop there!
There are countless other methods of practicing repertoire that lead to greater abilities and help to solidify your memory of the music.
You may like to just choose one or two of these to start, and add in another every few days.
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.
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