Projects (and learning/playing a piece of music is a project) often go through a predictable pattern.
At first, you’re excited and motivated. Big fun. Then, it all turns to work and the excitement wanes.
At this point, many people just “forget” about the project and start a new one. Voila! The excitement is back. This is all fine, except that nothing ever gets truly done.
So the trick to completing projects is to make it through the “dip”, that period where the puppy-love wears off and it all feels like work.
Novelty: The Essential Ingredient
One of the best ways to get into the flow is to introduce some sort of novelty. Novelty perks up our sense of curiosity and gets us engaged.
So how do we add novelty to keep music exciting? Here are a few options.
Option One: Just Be Done With It
First off, you don’t have to finish every tune you start. If you love the piece, but are simply a bit worn out with it, the options below will help. But if you’re lukewarm at best, or it has come to get on your nerves, you can just throw it away.
Of course, you should be completely honest with yourself before choosing this option, but if it’s time to go, let it go. If you’ve come up against some technical weakness and your ego is bruised….. well, that’s a different situation.
Also, beware of the “Sunk Cost Fallacy”. The sunk cost fallacy convinces us that the time (or money, or whatever) that we’ve already invested will be wasted if we cut the loss and move on. The net effect is akin to throwing good money after bad.
(I worked on a suite of very difficult music for a year longer than I should have, just because I had already done so much work on it. I finally had to admit that I didn’t much like the music, and listeners didn’t either. So it literally went into the trash and I never looked back.)
Option Two: Take a Break
Instead of abandoning the piece altogether, you can also take an intentional break.
If you choose to do this, set a specific time period for the break. Set a reminder on your calendar, and return when it’s time.
Often, just a few days to a couple of weeks is enough to let us rest and return with enthusiasm.
Warning: If you wait too long, you risk forgetting the notes or your musical intentions. When this happens, it’s easy to feel frustrated or dismayed.
If you think it will help, play through the music once every few days just to keep it in your hands. You don’t have to work on it. Just keep it front of mind.
Option Three: Look Closer
A piece of music has many levels of detail. On the surface, you have the notes and rhythm. Most people stop here. And indeed, the novelty of these can wear thin in short order.
But beyond the notes and rhythm is the actual music, and the technical challenges that accompany it.
Here we have:
- Dynamics (swells and fades).
- Legato (connecting each note beautifully to the next, in the context of the musical line).
- Articulations (the attitude of each note, i.e. accented, short, vibrato, etc.).
- and more.
When you put the microscope on a phrase or section, you’ll usually find all sorts of little details with room for improvement.
This realm is where massive improvement in your playing takes place. Focus on specific little challenges, and you can entertain yourself for hours.
You can find many explorations of this sort in the repertoire courses here on CGS.
Note: This one is missing from the video, though it’s perhaps the best option of the bunch.
Option Four: Change the Rhythm
Assuming that you want to stay on it, but need to add some novelty, one tweak you can make is to the rhythm.
Here we step into the realm of true “play”. We set little obstacles for ourselves that give us something new to strive towards.
Here are a couple of fun changes that are also great for both your general musicality and your technique and abilities.
Change the Feel
If the tune is written in a straight rhythm, you can switch the feel to jazz swing. See the video above at 2:47 for a demonstration.
Likewise, you can change the expressive feel (mood) and play it more:
*Regal, Starchy, Aristocratic
*Campy, Silly, Goofy
Instead of playing straight eighths or quarters, play dotted rhythms. To do this, change 2 eighths to a dotted eighth and a 16th. Likewise you could also play first a 16th then the dotted 8th. Again, see the video for a demonstration.
As long as you’re keeping the notes, you can play in infinite ways to alter the expression and basic “statement” of the piece.
BIG NOTE: This is a practice technique. As a general rule, anything goes in practice. But when you perform the piece, you perform the actual piece, more or less how the composer intended it. (Then again, the music Gestapo won’t bash in your door if you do cross this line. Use taste and play however you think best.)
Option Five: Change the Purpose
If you’re stumped or frustrated on some aspect of the piece, you can also change the goal of practicing.
For instance, if you are having a hard time with the expression in a section (smoothly connecting melody, louds and softs, etc.), you can switch your focus to a technical issue (such as speed). Or vice versa.
The paradox here is that switching the purpose between the musical and the technical often (though not always) improve both elements. Bonus!
Option Six: Create a Story
Another way to add interest and novelty is to change the story behind the music.
If you know that the piece was written in prison, or during a war, or to celebrate the birth of the composer’s first child, etc, it automatically gives insight into the mood of the piece.
Likewise, we can create our own stories that make the music more meaningful.
We can treat the music as a soundtrack for a movie, and create the storyline and plot, protagonists and antagonists. Moments in the music can relate to specific turns of events that we create and bring to life.
You can also think of movies or scenes that were especially meaningful to you and pretend that your piece is the soundtrack.
There is no limit to how creative you can be. This is pure play, and it adds life and joy to your practice. Highly recommended!
Note: Keep this story to yourself. It rarely adds to a listener’s experience (unless it’s an actual story or situation surrounding the piece) and often detracts. It’s best to let people come up with their own stories, and connect with the music with their own life experiences and emotions.
Do What You Will, But Be Intentional
Whether you decide to abandon, take some time away, or get creative and add some novelty to your pieces, be intentional in your choices.
If you take time off without a definite intention to return, you’ll likely let the piece slip away. Likewise, it can be liberating to decide to completely abandon a piece you don’t like. (i.e. “I don’t love you any less, but I can’t love you anymore.”)
Ultimately, learning to play classical guitar is actually learning how to practice classical guitar. And using play, rhythm, and story are valuable practice methods.
Over to You
Have you intentionally taken time off from a piece and returned to it? Have you played with the rhythms or feel of a piece you know? Or have you ever created a story or narrative surrounding a piece?
We’d love to hear your experience or questions in the comments below!