Learning to Learn Vs. Learning a Piece

What’s the difference between learning to play the guitar and learning a single piece of music?

After all, we learn guitar by playing pieces, don’t we? Of course, we do exercises to warm up and improve our technical skills. But it’s the pieces we can’t wait to get into.

And that’s how it should be. Making music is a joy.

But looking at the big picture, each piece can be simple entertainment, or better, it can pull us forward and grow our skills.

Stage One of Learning a New Piece: Puppy Love

Learning a new piece of music is often thrilling.

It can feel like the “puppy love” of a new relationship. It may be fresh and intoxicating. We may feel alive and enthusiastic. As such, we may be compelled to work on it.

… but then temptation taps us on the shoulder.

The voice creeps in. ‘Oh, let’s take a minute to try out this other piece–the new one we heard the other day. Just for fun? It’ll sound great. And it might be easier than this one…

And before we know it, we’ve moved on.

So it goes. We move from one piece to the next. Sometimes we manage to bring the first piece up to performance standard before we go, and sometimes we don’t.

Some people find this becomes monotonous after a while. Trying out one piece after the other – with varying degrees of success – can feel a bit stagnant. Like we’re not progressing (perhaps for good reason).

How Do You Like Your Eggs?

It’s like having a scrambled egg for breakfast each day.

It’s nice, but it’s another scrambled egg. We made it the same way as the day before.

We haven’t progressed. We haven’t learned anything. We’re no better a cook today than we were yesterday. We haven’t discovered the joy of a new recipe. We haven’t experimented with seasoning or spices. Or learned that we could poach it, or turn it into an omelet or eggs Benedict.

This may come to feel stale or like we are not moving forward. And one of the best parts of a regular guitar practice is the feeling we get from progressing and improving.

How To Make Each Piece Count

So before we reach this stage, we can reflect on how we approach these individual pieces.

It can be helpful to remember that the piece of music we’re working on does not exist in isolation.

One piece is not the top of the mountain. In fact, it is a stepping stone on a longer path. Each piece is a single step in the long process of learning to play guitar.

We want to make each one count as progress along the way. And we need to find ways of joining these steps together to make a pathway.

In a perfect world, we gain skills and maturity with each new piece. Each piece serves to elevate everything else we play.

Look for Opportunities Learning New Pieces

Buried in each piece of music is a nugget of gold. It’s something in the piece that we can learn from, and use in future pieces. This is how we’ll find the most reward in our practice.

It could be a tricky spot. It may be a shift or a big stretch. It could be a technique we find challenging. Or it could be something fresh and new, that we haven’t come across before.

Instead of thinking of this as an obstacle, see it as an opportunity.

We can ask ourselves, how can we get the most from this obstacle? How can I use it for the benefit of a future piece?

And we can find new pieces to play based on the challenges that seem most suitable at the time.

A Focus on the Underlying Principles Involved

If we want to improve a difficult shift or chord, measure, or phrase, a reliable strategy is to focus on the principles.

Think about different ways of approaching the problem. Identify as many formulae, patterns, methods, or techniques as possible. Explore how to practice that passage from every conceivable angle.

And then practicing becomes the practice.

Practicing Becomes the Practice

Learning to play guitar is actually learning how to practice guitar.

The better we become at identifying and solving problems, the more able we become to learn and play our pieces.

When we change the question to, ‘How can I practice practicing?’ we’re no longer learning a single piece in isolation.

And here is where we compound our progress from piece to piece.

But how do we practice practicing? For one, we can ask one of the most important and powerful questions in music…

Ask, “What is going on here?”

So often in these pieces, we’ll find tricky spots that resist our attempts to polish them. So we need to practice in a different way.

This means looking for different ways of approaching the problem. And the first step is to identify exactly what the issues are. We can articulate these clearly, and be well on our way to finding the solution.

We can then explore different practice methods to tackle the issue. We can try first one practice method, then the next. We can cycle through several practice methods, spending a short time on each.

Often, after performing this sequence, the problem has disappeared.

And as we move to the next piece, we have gained more experience with our practice methods. We’ve seen new contexts and solved new problems.

An Example of Musical Problem-Solving

For example, when we identify a trouble spot, we may…

  • Play it right hand only.
  • Play it left hand only.
  • Exaggerate the rhythm.
  • Play in dotted rhythms.
  • Exaggerate the dynamics.
  • Exaggerate the balance of voices (musical parts – melody, bass, etc.)

We can bounce from one experience to the next. In doing so, we examine the music from many angles in a short time.

Sometimes it’s clear which method has worked to smooth the rough patches. Sometimes it’s not. Often, the act of moving through various approaches constellates a solution beyond our understanding.

It teaches us how to learn.

Practice Methods are Arrows in the Quiver

Practice methods are the arrows in our quiver. The more we can develop these exercises, formulae, and principles, the better we will play.

Discovery is a big part of learning. So if we’re choosing a piece of music, we need to look for things in it that are different for us. Things we’ve not encountered before.

It could be the range of the fretboard. It could be the chords we need to find. It could be the complexity of the music or the simplicity of it. The style or musical period. The key, or the feel.

To keep moving forward, we can look for new avenues to explore in each new piece of music.

One after another, taking the lessons from one piece with us to the next.

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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