How to use Easy Pieces in practice
As we progress on guitar, we naturally graduate to harder and hard pieces. We move from one repertoire book or program level to the next. And with each new level comes more difficult music.
This is as it should be. We need constant new challenge so we continue to develop new skills.
And in addition to the difficult new pieces, we can also benefit from short studies using “easy” pieces.
The Downside of Advanced Classical Guitar Pieces
Hard pieces are necessary. We need to play more and more challenging music. But for all their strengths, there are also downsides to focusing only on harder music.
Working at the edge of physical ability
With a hard piece, we usually push the edge of our physical ability. This is both beneficial and not, for different reasons.
We need to push our physical abilities. But there is more to playing beautiful music than getting all the notes.
Very often, it takes a long time (months or even years) to learn the notes and master the physical challenges. Then, once we get to this point, we move on to the next piece.
We spend all our time working on the physical and worrying about mistakes. Because of this, we dedicate little time to musical issues, such as phrasing, dynamics, etc.
Primary Focus: Notes
When learning hard music, our main focus is the notes. We learn the notes and play the notes. The notes themselves take all our attention.
This leaves no “mental bandwidth” for anything else.
The result is that we gain the ability to play many notes cleanly. This is great, but it’s incomplete. Playing the notes doesn’t create beautiful music. In the same way, saying all the lines doesn’t create good acting. It’s what we do WITH the notes that makes music “music”.
Hard pieces are hard. The technical issues are many and close together. These take time and energy to master.
Solving problems and mastering technical difficulties are big parts of mastering the classical guitar. But as with the notes mentioned above, there is more to do than just working on tricky spots.
The Benefits of “Easy” Pieces
To be clear, hard pieces are wonderful. We need to challenge ourselves. We grow by pushing existing boundaries. But hard pieces usually push certain boundaries more than others. We can use “easy” pieces to push different boundaries.
When we spend quality time with an “easy” piece, we gain many benefits. We work in ways we can’t otherwise. We use our attention and practice skills in different ways. And it all happens in a much shorter time-frame than the big pieces.
Short time frame
Big pieces take a long time to master. Easy pieces compress the process. Instead of spending months or years, we can spend weeks, days, or even one practice session.
We get the satisfaction of completing a project. We get motivated and excited moving through the learning and polishing cycles in so short a time.
Learn the notes quickly
With an easy piece, we can often learn all the notes in one or two practice sessions. This allows us to ask different questions than just, “What are the notes, and where do my fingers go?”.
When we learn the notes and work through any technical issues, we then have the opportunity to go deeper. We then have the opportunity to focus on the small details that make music compelling.
Opportunities to focus on small details
Once our fingers can find the notes, we can turn our attention to the fine details.
Mastering the notes and technical challenges are “Step One” in playing beautifully. They are a foregone conclusion. Of course we’ll get the notes. The true test of musicianship is what we DO with those notes.
This is where some of the most satisfying practice comes in. It feels good to craft our music. It’s fun to explore music more deeply and ask different questions.
And practicing small details builds a more versatile and reliable classical guitar technique. “Technique” is the ability to actually DO whatever we envision. And the more we practice and play with exquisite detail, the more able we are to perform complex technical feats.
Lastly, this practice primes us to find more opportunities to create beautiful moments. As the saying goes, “When all you have is a hammer, you see everything as a nail.” Practicing the details gives us more and varied tools. And it trains us to find more expressive solutions for each note.
How to Use Easy Pieces in Practice: Do Something Specific.
So what do we actually DO with these easy pieces? We can focus on specific musical issues. We use easy pieces to build skills and master specific phrasing devices.
Here are a few areas on which to practice using easy pieces:
Legato – Connecting notes smoothly
Balance – Playing the melody at one volume and the other parts at a lower volume.
Chord Balance – Bringing out one note of a chord louder than the others, usually to continue a melody line.
Dynamics – The swells and fades that make music interesting and take us on a musical journey
Structure – Creating unity between parts, crafting compelling transitions, sculpting mood
Analysis – Figuring out the chords and musical elements that comprise the piece, using music theory or just observation
Memory – Practicing memorization techniques and recall exercises
Use video for feedback
When using easy pieces for practice, it helps to video or audio record ourselves and listen back. We can check how successful we are at clearly demonstrating our musical ideas.
For instance, we can ask, “Is the melody clear and obvious?”, or “Do my swells and fades come out as much as I think they do?”
Working in The Top 5%
We grow most when working at the top 5%. With hard pieces, we are often at the top 5% of our technical ability. Speed, clarity, stretches, shifts – we push our physical boundaries.
Also with hard pieces, our memory and note-reading skills may be in the top 5%. This is wonderful for growing these skills.
Using easy pieces, we get to move quickly to the top 5% of polishing a piece of music. What takes months with a hard piece may take just one practice with an easy piece.
This means we can work at the top 5% of our other abilities (balance, legato, dynamics, etc.). We get to push different areas to new limits.
What gets “back-burnered” in hard pieces gets “front-burnered” in easy pieces. Using both hard and easy pieces for practice, we become more well-rounded musicians.
The Argument Against Using “Easy” Tunes for Practice
Many players don’t like the idea of playing music “beneath” them. They think they are beyond such easy tunes.
But most people who think this simply don’t know what to look for and practice with an easy piece.
If they just play the notes, then they are correct: they are beyond it and it is boring. But this is not because the music is boring, it is because they are playing it boringly.
When we look for musical opportunities and consider every note, all music is “hard” music. Or, to be more accurate, we can play any music at the absolute edge of our abilities (which is hard).
Nothing is easy or childish, unless we play it that way. All music is “serious” music, if we are serious about it. And “serious” music is good, clean fun.
Have Fun and Move Ahead Faster
Added to all the training benefits, playing easy pieces is a good time. When we bring our full and best abilities to anything, it makes for fulfilling practice. It’s loads of fun to strive for drippingly gorgeous phrasing and execution
Not only do we grow in more and different areas, we also explore more music. We master the skill of bringing a piece from zero to 100%. We stretch ourselves when we raise our standards and work to make something so simple into a musical masterpiece. We solve problems and build skills that are directly applicable to our harder pieces.
Easy pieces make everything better.
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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