Technique vs. Repertoire Pieces in Classical Guitar Practice

When we practice classical guitar, we have much to do and limited time. We also enjoy some activities more than others.

So how do we decide what to work on in practice? How much technique work (scales, exercises, etc.) do we need? How much time should we spend on learning pieces of music?

The Two Elephants in the Room: Technique and Pieces

The two main areas of classical guitar practice are technique and repertoire. We need both to move ahead and improve our playing. But how much of each?

Quick Definition: Classical Guitar Technique Practice

Technique is practice with the goal of improving a specific skill or ability. Technique practice allows us to play pieces of music. It gives us the focused time to work on the “how” of playing classical guitar.

Common areas of technique practice include, in part:

In technique practice, we focus on improving specific skills. As an analogy, it’s like lifting weights – the point is strength, balance, flexibilty, etc.

Quick Definition: Classical Guitar Pieces and Repertoire

The other part of our classical guitar practice is made up of pieces or repertoire. This includes:

To Grow, We Need Both Technique Practice and Repertoire

To move forward in our music, we need both. If we ignore either, our practice will suffer.

If we ignore technique, we will not be able to meet the challenges of the music we learn.

If we omit pieces, we will lack the musical context for our skills. Practice will likely become uninteresting.

So the important thing is that we include both in most practices. But how much of each?

It will rarely by a 50/50/ split

Depending on where we are in our musical development, the ratio will differ. If we are just getting started, focusing on technique work will jumpstart our skills. Working on basic skills will let us feel the rewards of visible progress.

If we have a performance in a few days, we may choose to focus all our energy on the pieces we’ll play.

If we use a practice log and plan our practices, we can dedicate deliberate ratios of time to each. But usually it will not be a half-and-half split. And that’s okay.

We must maintain our enthusiasm and motivation to keep showing to practice. If this means that we do the bare minimum in one or the other, so be it. The important part is that we continue to move forward.

The Difference Between Practice and Playing

There is very distinct difference between practice and playing.

When we “practice” we focus on solving problems and building specific skills. The key words are “focus” and “specific”. Practice is work.

Playing, on the other hand, is why we practice. When we “play”, our goals may be to play through an entire piece from beginning to end. Or it could be to enjoy running through already-learned pieces.

We need both practice and play for a well-rounded musical life.

Note: Scales are only practice if we focus on specific details. If we play through scales mindlessly, we’re playing (not practicing). Likewise, if we stop within a piece of music and loop small sections, we may be practicing, not playing.

We can (and should be) focused and aware while playing, but the goal of playing is to play. The goal of practice is to build or fix something.

Tip: Set Absolute Minimums, and Stick to Them

To make sure we keep a decent balance in our practice, we can use “absolute minimums”.

This is a predetermined minimum number of minutes or activities that will be included in 80% or more of practices.

For example, we could decide to spend a minimum of 3 minutes every practice on switching between common chords. Or we could decide to touch on a certain piece of music in every practice.

We can always do more than the minimum. But the minimum gives us a specific task and end-point for the days when our hearts aren’t in it.

As long as these minimums are happening in the large majority of sessions, we can rest assured knowing we are on the right track.

It’s Natural to Prefer One Over the Other

At any given time, we’ll likely be more enthusiastic about one area than another. We may be enthralled and enraptured by a new piece of music, and reluctant to practice our basics.

Other times, we’ll be in workout mode and want nothing more than to turn on the metronome and lock in some scales.

This is natural and normal. As long as both areas are in forward motion, we can relax and enjoy what brings us the most satisfaction. In time, the balance will shift and we adjust.

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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