Ace the Tricky Spots and Polish to Perfection (pt 3: Talk it Out)

Tricky spots, thorny patches, problem spots, trouble-zones, hard parts. Whatever you call them, most classical guitar pieces have them.

After you learn all the notes and get the piece to 85%, there are still the spots that just don’t seem to gel at tempo.

This article is part two of a series on working through these tricky spots and polishing guitar music.
Also see Part One: First Things First, and Part Two: The One Thing.

This tactic involves zooming in on the action, choosing the best route, and narrating a way through the fog.

Move Move by Move

As the brilliant musicians we are (yes, you too!) we create the illusion of flowing, effortless movement on the guitar. We float from one note to the next with ease and poise.

But in fact, if you look more closely, each note or chord we play is made up of one or more separate moves, done one after the next.

One way to ensure that we play with grace and flow is to become more conscious of these smaller moves. If you understand and get intentional about the “choreography” of moving from one note to the next, you can plan the best way to play, and practice implementing that plan.

Planck Time

Max Planck was a Nobel Prize-winning physicist. “Planck Time” splits each little fraction of time into even smaller bits of time. This way, you can look at an event frame by frame.

We can think of the connection of one note to another in exactly the same way: frame by frame, move by move.

“It is not the possession of truth, but the success which attends the seeking after it, that enriches the seeker and brings happiness to him.” Max Planck

Slow Down

Of course, to observe, plan and practice moves at this “frame by frame” level, you have to slow down. You have to temporarily set the piece aside, and be satisfied and captivated by one note leading to the next, and all the steps involved.
It helps if you isolate specific tricky spots for this type of work at first, so it seems manageable.

However, going through an entire piece from memory at this excruciatingly slow pace is a marvelous test of your non-muscle memory (ie. how well you actually know the music).

Even Slower

If you’re like me, and most everyone else, you’ll be tempted to hurry through this type of work and get to something else.

The best players are almost always the slowest practicers (this is true). There is an old Buddhist saying that if you don’t feel that you have time to meditate for 20 minutes, you should meditate for 2 hours.

The same holds true for slow practice. If you have trouble playing slowly, you should practice twice as slowly.

Programming the Robot

The goal, of course, is to play through the tricky spots with ease and fluidity.

Once you’ve slowed down and planned the full choreography (body, arms, hands, fingers), all that’s left is to program your muscles and neurology to do it that way every time, automatically. We can call this “programming the robot”.

Practice at this stage involves going repeatedly through the planned actions, with absolute precision and consistency in every detail.

The goal, of course, is to play through the tricky spots with ease and fluidity.

After a few days, the movements become ingrained, and will “overwrite” any prior muscle habits that may have been goofing up the section.

At that point, you can speed up while thinking the same thoughts and executing the same movements as you did at the slow tempo.

Narrate the Action

One of the most helpful elements you can add to this process is your voice.

Just as you learn best when teaching, articulating (with real words) each movement speeds up the learning process massively.

As you slow down and plan the choreography, narrate each frame of the action.

It may sound something like this:

  1. “When I come to the sixth string G in the bass with my 2nd finger, my elbow moves slightly towards my body.
  2. My hand pivots on the 2nd finger while keeping the string pressed.
  3. My first finger contracts in preparation to move to the second string C.
  4. As my elbow reaches my body, I hover my left hand 1st finger over the second string C.
  5. As my right hand A finger plays through the second string and P plays the fifth string, my left hand 1st finger presses the second string C while my 2nd finger simultaneously lifts from the sixth string.”

No move is too small to articulate. The more detail, the better.

Use Your Words

If you’re like most people, you’ll try to convince yourself that you’re “speaking internally”, or “saying the words to yourself”.

If this is you, I’m afraid I have bad news: You’re probably deceiving yourself.

Most likely you’re including phrases such as “then this”, or “over there”. These vague instructions that really say nothing defeat the point of the exercise.  And you may not even realize you’re using them.

If you force yourself to actually speak the words aloud, you’ll find that you notice a greater level of detail, and organize the information more logically. You put the choreography in chronological order, and separate complex movements into distinct components.  All good things.

Just as when counting rhythms, there is amazing power in speaking aloud.

Of course, this may not be easy at first.  In fact, it may be downright difficult.  So much the better.  If you have trouble narrating the action, the problem may be that you don’t know what’s happening.  Going through this exercise will be most wonderful and beneficial for you if you have the urge to resist it, or when you find it difficult.

Become Your Own Teacher

Another benefit of verbally articulating the choreography is that you can effectively become your own teacher.

As you speak the movements, you take an outside and observational perspective. You “float above” the action, and narrate it.

This gives you a puppet-master-like power to guide and direct your movements. You may notice mistakes or inefficiencies you would otherwise miss. And from this dispassionate vantage, you can avoid many of the emotional responses (like frustration) that might arise when working through problem spots from “in the trenches”.

Taking this position of overseer and teacher can help bring what you know consciously into your subconscious habits. The end result is that you get better faster.

Recap: Plan Your Choreography and Talk Through the Problem Spots

To review, when dealing with tricky spots, one possible approach is to:

  1. Slow down. Even slower.
  2. Notice and intentionally direct every little movement (from head to toe, shoulder to fingertip) from before the problem spot to just after.
  3. Narrate the action aloud, move by move, using your speech and voice. Note every little action that has to take place, and speak it aloud as if describing it to someone who can’t see (and is very interested!).

Once you’ve had a chance to give this a try, come back and leave a comment below sharing your experience!  We’d love to hear it.

Other articles in this series:
Part One: First Things First
Part Two: The One Thing

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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