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Bring Your Playing To the Next Level with Exaggeration

Exaggeration: Now, Not Just for the Insecure!

In this article, I would like to offer you a way of practicing that makes you a better musician, and makes your practice more fun (if maybe just a little bit more challenging).  Whether you are a beginning or advanced player, if you choose to take me up on it, watch out, because you will be blown away by the results.

My musical coach is a concert pianist.  He suggested this very early on, as his teachers had as well.  When I first started practicing this way, I quickly saw the benefit, and heard the difference in my playing.  You will too.

Mind The Gap

Let’s face it: sometimes we sound better in the practice room then when we are in front of people.

It might be just our loved ones, or the cat, or our teacher, or great big crowds of screaming fans (well maybe not so much with classical guitar).

Most of us who practice and then play in front of any other human being have experienced there being a difference between our playing alone and in front of people.

There are several reasons for this.



Why we sound better alone

One is that it’s possible that we are not listening as acutely when we are alone as when we are with other people. We oftentimes are hearing the music in our heads as we are practicing, so we are not hearing the actual instrument and our actual playing as much as we might think we are.

Another is that our fears and insecurities about being seen and heard are interfering with our abilities to play the guitar and remember our pieces.

Another, to build onto the last one, is that our physiology changes whenever our brain is producing a cocktail of anxiety producing drugs. Our muscles tighten and our breath becomes more shallow. And all that completely changes the game.

One more is that we may be practicing ineffectively and not realizing it. We may be repeatedly making the same mistakes over and over in our practice. Therefore when we set out to play a piece with continuity, our habits of making mistakes and repeating them crop up.

All of these issues, and others, are worthy of attention.

But I like to make a recommendation that can help to improve these issues, also deepening your musical maturity and increasing your technique.

And that is the habit of exaggeration in your classical guitar practice.


Exaggerating makes your practice more effective


Here’s what I recommend:

For each phrase, or bit that you’re working on, decide early in your learning exactly how you will handle dynamics, articulation and rhythm in the phrase. You can always change it later, but decide on the details “until further notice”.

It doesn’t matter at this point whether or not know what you are doing.

Just decide, “ I’ll get louder here, I’ll get quieter here. This chord will be really loud. This whatever will be exactly like this….”

Write it on the music (in pencil! always pencil on music, please.), and commit to it, at least for now.  You can always change it.

When you practice this phrase, exaggerate each element.  I mean massive exaggeration.

If it is to be quiet, then make it ridiculously quiet. If is going to crescendo, make it swell like a tidal wave. Staccato, as staccato as staccato can be.

We are not looking for good musicality here. We are looking for ridiculous, gross, gaudy exaggeration.

We want to exaggerate to the point of clownishness.

This is not how we will perform it later in front of people, or when we are playing “for real”. This is how we are practicing. It’s just an incredibly powerful practice technique.


The reason is this:

When we practice to exaggerate our decisions, it implies that we have actually made decisions. I am frequently amazed at how few conscious musical decisions people make when playing their pieces.

It is not enough to simply play the notes. Good music does not play itself. We need to make good decisions, and make them for good reasons. Forcing ourselves to exaggerate also forces us to examine our decisions.

“Good music doesn’t just play itself.”

Even if you are just starting out, make a decision and stick to it. Don’t worry if you don’t know why or whether it’s a good choice or not. Simply get into the habit of choosing a path and sticking to it.

One of the things you’ll notice is that everything you play will suddenly be much harder to play. Where you used to just play through the notes and be proud that you made it through, now you’ll have new challenges.
This is where real musical technique comes from. Musical demands force us to move in new ways and build new skills.

Pretty soon, you are able to changes volumes or tone on a dime. You have a larger number of musical options, and the ability to execute them.

And, perhaps most importantly, you begin to listen differently to yourself and other players. You start to notice little opportunities for expression that you used to miss.


Performing on Classical Guitar

When we do perform in front of people, we can assume that we’ll still have a bit of the issues described above. We’ll still have anxiety, and we’ll still be hyper present and may be hearing more than we normally do (which can be a bit distracting).

But if we have been exaggerating in our practice regularly, then we’ll be including our musical decisions into our playing.

When we ‘re performing at tempo in front of people, all of these choices of dynamics, articulation, rhythm, and others will be compressed. They will “bland out” just a little bit.

This happens anyway. Even if you don’t exaggerate, you don’t play as expressively in front of people as you do in the practice room (assuming that you practice playing expressively).   If you have been practicing subtle shades of volume changes, tone changes, or whatever, most likely your listeners won’t notice a thing.

But if you have been wildly exaggerating your ideas in practice, they will tone down a bit, but still make a statement that listeners can hear and appreciate.

If we want to hit a mark and we have any sort of resistance, the only way to hit that mark is to overshoot. It’s like golfing in the wind. Or piloting a plane (not that I do either of these, but I do like to play horseshoes, and it’s true for that, too.)  If you want to hit any target from a distance, you have to aim higher.  This is true musically speaking, too.


Some more perks

What you also may find is that you explore your music more deeply when using gross exaggeration in your practice. You may discover new emotional content. You may imagine new visual imagery.

You can also spice up your technique work using exaggeration. Play your scales with severe crescendos and decrescendos, staccatos and legatos. Play your arpeggios with exaggerated rhythms and accents.  Go hog wild!  Get crazy!

Besides making you a much better player, connecting more with your audience, and developing your musicality, practicing this way is simply a ton of fun!


Now, do this:

-So right now, go pick up your guitar, and choose a few notes of whatever you are working on.

-Decide on some dynamics (get louder or get quieter) and play it a few times exaggerating those dynamics.

-Each time you play it, make it even more exaggerated. Then even more. Now you are practicing like a pro!


If you know anyone who is learning an instrument, please forward this to them now.  And then, please share what you notice about practicing this way in the comments!

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