How to Polish Classical Guitar Pieces to Performance Level

It’s difficult to polish a piece to performance level.

We practice and work and eventually learn all the notes. We focus and learn the moves. But then…

Something’s still missing.

There may be random mistakes and stumbles. Or we do everything “right”, but it still doesn’t sound as good as we know it could.

This last 5 or 10 percent takes the most work. But it’s also where we gain the most growth.

What got us here won’t get us there

We learn music in different stages.

We learn the notes. We master the moves. We memorize. We commit to musical choices and phrasing.

And as we progress as players, we may rearrange or combine these steps as we go.

But most players, especially those who are not yet advanced, go one step at a time.

One important lesson is that the practice that gets us to 90% on a piece of music will usually NOT take us that last 10%.

We need different goals and practice methods to tackle the polishing stage.

Honest Listening

To get over the hump, we can start with honest listening.

It’s easy to become distracted in practice and switch over to “autopilot”. We can burn hours of practice time in blind repetitions.

To play to a high level, we must hear every single note. Even in tremolo pieces and fast music, we need to be able to hear each little note.

Without honest listening, we miss many of the mistakes and fumbles. Then, when we perform, we hear honestly for the first time (which can be surprising).

Practice = Solving Problems

In high-level practice, we aim to identify and solve problems.

If there is a problem, we want to know about it and solve it. And we want it to stay solved.

A problem could be a buzzed note, a memory slip, a tricky bar chord, or anything else that trips us up.

It’s tempting to play through problem-spots over and over, hoping they will disappear. But this only entrenches the problems deeper.

Instead, we can seek to root out the tricky spots, and find solutions we can use each time we play the piece.

Musical Intention: “What’s going on here?”

Playing the notes without expressing the music behind them is not really music at all. This is like reciting a poem in a foreign language without understanding the words. It’s hollow and lifeless, and misses the point.

Instead, we can make musical decisions and practice them. We can know our music inside and out, and demonstrate the role of each note so listeners understand them.

Know the role of each note

Each note has a role. While some notes do double duty, most have one role and purpose.

  • Which Voice? – to begin with, is the note in the melody, bass, or accompaniment?
  • Is the note an arrival? – These are usually long notes following a string of shorter notes. It could be a major arrival point in the music, or the end of a smaller phrase.
  • Does the note lead to an arrival? – Most notes are parts of lines that lead to arrivals.
  • Is the note filling in the harmony? – These are usually notes within chords that give special emphasis or color to the music. They may also be accompanimental.
  • How does this note fit into the rhythmic and harmonic structure of the piece?

When we know and communicate the role of each note (using volume, tone, and rhythmic placement), the music comes alive and sounds more polished (even if we still have small stumbles).

The Medusa Problem

Medusa was a mythical creature with hair of snakes. If you looked directly at her, you would turn to stone. So to beat her, you had to come in from different angles instead tackling her head-on.

To solve problems in our pieces, we need more than one tool (so we can come at it from different angles). Indeed, we’re best armed with a large arsenal of different practice techniques. We can use these to find solutions to specific problems.

Create a Repertoire of Practice Techniques

Part of advancing as a guitarist and musician is learning and creating practice techniques (and using them).

A few examples of practice techniques are:

Don’t Practice the Piece – Practice the Issues

As said above, blind repetition doesn’t work. Instead of playing through the entire piece over and over, we can instead practice the issues.

This means that we first seek to understand each issue. Once we know exactly what the issue is, we can isolate that issue and practice it.

The root of most problems is almost always one note connecting to another. We can extract the few problem notes and take them “to the workbench”.

We can create exercises or drills that focus on the specific technical or musical issues. We can give focused attention to each, without the distraction of the rest of the piece.

We can use several of our practice techniques on each issue, and thereby “conquer the Medusa”.

Ask Expansive Questions

Many times, we “miss the forest for the trees”. We become so close to the notes that we fail to gain wider perspectives. And often a change in perspective can give new insights into the music and whatever issues we may be facing.

One way to “zoom out” and gain new perspectives is by asking expansive questions.

Some example questions are:

  • What is this piece about?
  • If this music was a soundtrack to a movie or play, would would the scene be?
  • How would _____ play this? (insert anyone alive, dead or imaginary)
  • What would it feel like to play this fluidly, with style and precision?
  • What am I missing?
  • How can I make this easy?

Read more about expansive questions here.

This is pure play, and is one of the ways we can bring our own unique creativity to our classical guitar practice.

To Polish, Experiment Freely

When practicing at the upper levels of a piece of music, we can experiment freely. (We can experiment at any stage, but especially here.)

We can try any variation or alteration that comes to mind.

When we actually perform, we should play the music as the composer wrote it. But in practice, anything goes.

  • We can alter the rhythm, such as playing in swing time or dotted rhythms.
  • We can alter the speed (it’s very helpful to play slow pieces fast and fast pieces slow).
  • We can change the harmony or texture (such as playing arpeggios instead of block chords).
  • We can bring out other voices besides the melody, and play the melody in the background (balance).

Any new experience of the music will create a richer representation of it in our minds. And when we return to the piece as written, we’ll have a deeper understanding and awareness of it.

Why does this work? Who knows, but it does.

Record, Listen, Repeat

One of the best tools for polishing music is a recording device. It could be as simple as a phone camera or voice memo. It need not be fancy.

When we play, we immerse ourselves in the music. This means we may miss things we wouldn’t otherwise.

When we record and review our playing, we can often find obvious next-steps for upcoming practices.

Read more about recording for practice here.

Mastery is a Process

Author Tim Ferriss once made the joke that another author asked him how he was coming with his current book. He replied, “I’m 90% finished.” To which the other author quipped, “Great, so you’re halfway there!”

Mastering a piece of music to a high level is not a trivial task. It takes time and work. It takes creativity in practice, and a keen eye for trouble.

While most of us would prefer to have it all and have it now, mastery is a process.

Our role in the musical game is to take small, intentional steps in our daily practices. We embrace the process, and trust that if we focus on the means, then the ends will come.

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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