Should You Play Guitar Pieces Beyond Your Ability?

We often feel drawn to pieces that are harder than we can manage. We may have some skill, but not enough to play a top-level concert piece.

But should we jump into it anyway? Should we “damn the torpedos” and go full-steam ahead? Perhaps. It depends.


The Problem: Tackling Pieces Beyond the Current Level

One issue non-advanced classical guitarists have is estimating musical difficulty. We don’t know what we don’t know.

Not understanding the challenges ahead, we may feel eager to get started on a big new piece.

This is natural and normal. In any field, beginners often go too deep too fast. Especially if not working with a good teacher.

But we may know the piece is beyond our current ability, and want to dive in anyway. We may not feel we have the time or patience to build real skills.

In the moment, we may not care about good technique or musical issues. We just want to play the piece. And we convince ourselves that if we play it enough times, it will sound great. (Fact: it won’t.)

So there’s a conflict. But maybe we can create a win-win. Maybe we can learn well and still get our current desire met.

The Ideal Solution: Study Well, Form a Great Foundation

In a perfect world, we learn guitar from the ground up. We master the core movements and concepts. We build on success and avoid the common traps and frustrations.

This takes time and intention. And a teacher. Without a teacher or proven program, we follow what feels “natural.”

And this leads us down dead-ends. This is because many aspects of classical guitar technique are non-intuitive. They don’t feel natural at first for any of us.

Still, it’s worth the effort. And mastering the fundamentals shaves thousands of hours off the learning curve. Over time, it is much faster. We go further in less time. It just feels slower at the very beginning.

Is it Bad to Play Above One’s Level?

So what damage should we expect when we play pieces above our level? Is there anything wrong with it?

While there is no real “damage,” there are costs.

It takes time away from work that could be pulling us forward faster and more beneficially. And we will like encounter loads of frustration and challenge.

Neither of these is fatal. Just not ideal. We’ll encounter frustration in any music we play. And as long as we’re having fun and playing, life is grand.

While there are these downsides, we also get the upside of enthusiasm and inspiration.

Manage Expectations and Do What You Will

As long as we have a clear picture of what to expect, we can each decide for ourselves what to play and when to play it.

We can choose to start aspirational pieces and still maintain realistic expectations.

The music will not sound like it does when the professional guitarists play it. We may not be able to reach the speed or clarity the music calls for.

We may not even finish learning the whole piece. And this brings us to another option…

Another Alternative: Excerpts (“Cherry-Picking”)

If a certain section of a piece has captured our heart, we can “cherry-pick” it. We can learn selected excerpts from a larger piece. And we can do this without intending to learn the entire piece.

This can be very motivating and fun. We can jump directly to the parts we love most, and spend time with them.

It can be a joy to hear the notes flowing from our fingers, even if it’s only a small fraction of the whole piece.

And we can do this alongside our more intentional and structured practice.

Best of Both Worlds

To get the best of both worlds, we can spend most of our practice time working at our current level. We can drill the fundamentals and build our skills for the long term.

And for some extra fun, we can explore snippets of larger pieces. We can finish a practice session by taking the “scenic route” through music we hope to play someday in its entirety.

We can learn new lessons from these pieces and have loads of good times working on them. And we can simultaneously build the foundation that will lead us to play them in earnest.

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.
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