Putting Pieces to Sleep

How do we get our classical guitar pieces up to performance standards? How can we feel confident and secure playing them for people?

There are several steps to learning a piece of music. And the last one can be the most challenging. Like the last mile of a marathon, we may be tired and ready to settle for less than ideal.

But there is a way we can finish strong and maintain freshness and sanity. Like the rest of us, our piece may need a nap.

The Long Journey to Done – Getting Music Performance-Ready

The first steps of learning a new piece are like puppy love.

Everything is new and shiny. We discover new characteristics and patterns daily.

We envision the myriad ways we can express truth and beauty through every detail.

And then, as in all relationships, this euphoric fascination fades. Some elements become work.

Weaknesses or inconveniences seem more obvious. We find challenges that resist our efforts to smooth them out.

Glorious perfection seems in sight, but just out of reach.

It’s here that we may be tempted to start another piece. We convince ourselves that we’ll continue to polish this one. But will this actually happen?

Limited practice time and the allure of the new can lead us to accept mediocrity. “Good enough” starts to seem good enough. We’ll do better with the next piece…

Challenge: Polish the Final 5%

But we need not dwell in the land of frustration. And we need not accept a lower standard of performance.

Instead, we can change our approach.

We can think of “finishing” in the sense of woodworking or sculpture. We can view polishing as a process completely separate and different from our earlier work.

The challenge, as we said above, is that by this point we may be tired of the piece. We may be emotionally spent and disengaged.

What we need is a way to rekindle the joy and delight of the early days.

In other words, we need a break. And we can take one.

Tip: Put Your Piece to Sleep and Come Back Fresh

If we’ve learned the piece well, we can lay it down for a time and trust that it will still be there when we return.

This works best if we have memorized the music.

We continue to practice, but we focus on other pieces and skill development. We may work on other pieces that we put to sleep before. Or we could learn a new piece.

Of course, if we have not learned the piece well (by rote, for example), returning will be a cumbersome and perhaps depressing endeavor. So better to learn pieces well from the start. More on this below.

But letting pieces rest is not a new idea.

Japanese craftsmen and Stephen King…

It is said that the best Japanese woodworkers would often leave the last few steps of a piece undone. They would then go work on other things.

Then they would return with fresh eyes and enthusiasm to put the final touches on the piece.

In this way, they could ensure that each step got their best awareness, attitude, and care.

Many authors do the same. They write a draft of a book and stick it in a drawer. Several months later, when they gain some distance from it, they return to edit.

How Long Should You Let Your Piece Germinate?

How long should we break before returning to the piece in earnest? In theory, it could be indefinitely.

In more practice terms, any period from a week to several months may be a better strategy.

We need long enough to separate from our past work. Long enough to get excited about other pieces. Long enough to grow a bit in our skills and musical knowledge.

Learn your piece well (so you don’t forget it)

So how can we be sure that we have learned the piece well enough that we can afford a break?

Practice is an art. Learning to play classical guitar is actually learning to practice classical guitar.

And we have formulas and methods for each phase of mastering a piece of music.

One of the best formulas for first learning a piece is the 7-step process. This is doubly effective when we add the intention to memorize the music.

And beyond the notes, we also explore the fine details within the piece. These are all the small moments that combine to create the emotional and expressive shape of the piece.

Within this process of learning, we will encounter rough patches that resist polish. And we have recipes to handle those as well, specific to the flavor of the problem.

If you would like to journey deeper into these skills and discover more in your music and practice, consider becoming a member of The Woodshed® Classical Guitar Program.

Members gather a toolbox of reliable techniques and tactics. And this makes for beautiful music and enjoyable practices. Click here to learn more. 

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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