It’s seductive to just practice pieces. And it’s easy to push scales and other technique work to the back burner and “forget” about them.
So how do we create balance between the fun, exciting work of learning pieces and building all the other skills that go into playing classical guitar beautifully?
The Beauty of Long-Term, Big Musical Projects
One of the great joys of learning guitar is playing music that stretches our abilities. These big pieces of music are often what attracted us to start learning guitar in the first place.
And indeed, big projects, such as learning large pieces (“large” being relative to where we are when we start them) are a wonderful and necessary part of moving forward on guitar.
Also called “stretch pieces”, these bigger pieces allow us to confront issues we may not encounter otherwise. It takes extra work to combine all the small parts of a big piece so that we can play it from the first note to the last.
Big projects challenge our resolve and commitment. They let us see progress over time. The create large landmarks by which we can measure progress.
But big projects are not all sunshine and rainbows. They also have a shadow side.
The Problems with Big Musical Projects
When we spend all our time working on big pieces, we often step into one or more common traps.
Details Fall Through the Cracks
One of the main problems with working on large pieces is that small details often get ignored. With so many notes to deal with, who has time to nit-pick over how one note connects to the next?
The end result is that we play the piece, but it’s sloppy and messy. We can struggle through it, but it doesn’t sound good.
Massively Delayed Gratification
It’s extremely rewarding to be able to play big pieces. They take a lot of work, and it feels good to accomplish that.
But in the meantime, it’s a long, hard road.
What often happens is this:
- We start a big piece, excited and motivated.
- After a while, the glow wears of and it becomes “work”.
- So we decide to start another piece that seems more exciting.
So no piece ever really gets to performance level. Years later, we have a binder full of pieces we’ve worked on, but we can’t play any of them.
Years later, we have a binder full of pieces we’ve worked on, but we can’t play any of them.
Another downside of playing big pieces involves our egos and how we perceive ourselves.
If we identify with playing pieces at a particular level, we may resist working on pieces at a lower level.
In effect, we create limitations and weaknesses in our playing because we aren’t willing to take a step back and play anything “easy”. (“…but I’m an intermediate player……”)
This slows our overall growth, and locks in bad habits and insecurities.
Enter the Short-Term Project
Luckily, we can also work on short-term projects. Not every project has to be an enormous piece of music.
Just as we can have many small adventures along the way of a longer trip, we can work on several smaller goals while we work on our larger pieces.
Short-term projects could be:
- Small or easier pieces
- Studies and Etudes
- Specific technique practice goals (such as scale speed)
- Learning new techniques (such as slurs, harmonics or rest strokes)
Short-term projects are by definition smaller in scope. They usually have specific goals and endpoints.
Benefits of Small Pieces and Short-Term Guitar Projects
Small pieces and shorter-term projects allow us to narrow our focus and pinpoint specific issues or skills.
As classical guitarists, there are myriad skills and techniques we ultimately want to master.
We can’t focus on everything at once. And we learn more easily and enjoyably by choosing just a few key elements and focusing on them.
Short-term projects allow us to:
Work Beyond the Notes
Easy pieces are easy. We can learn the notes quickly.
This might be boring if all there was to it was learning notes. But there is more to music than just notes.
Once we know the notes, we can then focus on HOW we play each note. We can turn our attention to:
This type of work is where high-level players spend their time. And it’s here that noticeable improvement happens.
Focus on Specific Skills and Abilities
Short-term projects let us pinpoint individual skills. These could be right hand techniques, slurs, musical elements, bar chords, or any number of things.
The larger pieces will have a different issue in each bar. And if we haven’t addressed that issue separately, we’ll likely bugger that bar every time.
But if we consistently work on small details in isolation, we’ll be prepared for them in our bigger pieces.
A Little Gratification is Nice!
It also just feels good to master something quickly. There’s a satisfaction with setting a goal and reaching it.
Short-term and small projects allow us to reach more of our goals. This helps to keep us motivated and excited. It strokes the ego and brings us pleasure.
Sign me up!
Create a Balanced Guitar Practice
Over the course of our study, we benefit most from a healthy combination of both short- and long-term projects.
However, depending on where you are in the learning process, you may have more of one than the other.
If you’re just starting out, you’ll naturally focus on smaller projects.
If you’re planning on performing soon (such as at a family event or open mic), you’ll benefit most from directing your energies into polishing your performance pieces. Short-term projects can wait.
But over the long term, we do best with a bit of each.
Big pieces and long-term projects challenge us and test our endurance. And they identify the holes in our skillsets. They point to weaknesses we can improve upon.
Smaller pieces, exercises, technique work, and etudes develop the individual skills that work together to make our music more flowing and beautiful. They build our muscles and refine our sense of touch and nuance.
Both work together to create a fulfilling and rewarding musical life. One small (or big) step at a time.