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Learn New Music? Or Keep Practicing Your Current Piece?

Here’s a scenario: You’ve been learning a tune. You’re fairly far along with it. You start to get antsy and wonder, “Should I continue with this piece, or move on to another?”

The lure of the new and shiny is immense. But it would be a shame not to get that last 10% of the current piece…..

So how do you know when to hold ’em and when to fold ’em?
How do you know when to move on?

When is a Piece “Done”?

To answer the questions above, we need a way to objectively say when a piece is “done”.

And when is a piece “done”? In truth, a piece is never truly done. We just get to a point where we feel confident playing it.

In fact, pieces are either getting better, or slipping backwards. They never stay the same. So there is no “done” (outside of retiring it completely).

Pieces either get better, or slip backward. They never stay the same.

Instead of creating a false dichotomy between the current piece and the next, we can view each of our pieces as constantly at some point along an endless path.

Just because we feel confident with piece doesn’t mean we should set it aside. Quite the opposite. But we do want to practice it differently, and think of it differently in our practice.

The Three Levels of Repertoire

The pieces we learn pass through 3 main stages, described below.

Over time, pieces cycle from one stage to the next, and perhaps back again. Often these stage overlap. Or some sections of a piece will be in one stage, while other sections occupy a different stage.

New Music

The first stage is when we first learn the notes and fingerings. Memorization could also be in this stage.

In this stage, our goal is not to “play the piece”. But instead the goal is to ingrain the most effective movements. Here we gain a general mental representation of how the music is put together.

This is the realm of getting the notes, and locking in the fingerings.

Our guiding question for this stage is, “What’s going on here?”

As soon as we understand what’s needed, we may notice that some spots in the music are trickier than others.

This brings us to the next stage….

Detailing Tricky Spots

When we have any trouble playing smoothly through a section of music, we can move it into this stage.

Here, we work exclusively on solving specific problems in our music.

Be it a stretch, a shift, a barre, or a funky right hand fingering, we put the magnifying glass on that tricky spot and work deliberately on it.

Our guiding question for this stage is, “What exactly is the problem here?”

In some cases, tricky spots in a piece of music can stay in this zone perpetually. You may encounter spots that are so tricky or technically challenging that you have to regularly zero in on them or they start to fall apart. Such is life.

Maintaining Repertoire

Once we have a piece well-learned and the tricky spots ironed out, it moves into the “maintenance” bin.

These are the pieces that we’ve done the good work on. These pieces are ready to play at a moment’s notice.

Our guiding question of this stage is, “How can I make this better?”

Ideally, we play through at least one piece from this zone in each practice session. When we frequently rotate through past pieces, we more deeply ingrain them.

Then, when we just want to sit and “play” (as opposed to “practice”), we have tunes at the ready for our enjoyment.

Many players forget this area in their practice. In that case, pieces are always in process. When the time comes, we have nothing to show for all our good work.

The Well-Balanced Practice

In a perfect world, we constantly have pieces in each of the three stages above.

We’re always learning new notes, even at the rate of just a measure or two a day or week. Fresh projects keep us excited and motivated. This is how we can avoid ruts and enjoy our practices more.

Likewise, we are constantly and actively solving problems and mastering the small details that make up our pieces. This is where we encounter many of the “trip hazards” that classical guitar offers. Over time, we get familiar with myriad small problems.  And we gain a treasure chest of tools to move past them and play smoothly.

Finally, we’re always polishing and refining our music. Much of the deepest musical learning we do comes from our work with music we know well. Well-learned repertoire gives us the opportunity to move past the notes and focus on expression and phrasing, as well as speed and virtuosity.

It Won’t Always be Even

Not every practice will be an even split between these three zones. And that’s alright.

At any given time, you may be heavy on one zone and light on another.

If we’re preparing for a performance, the new music may slack off. And just after that performance, the pendulum may swing the other direction.

Some days, we may feel more like one type of work than another. Luckily, we’re all grown-ups here and we can do whatever we want.

Over time, we can strive for a well-balanced practice.

The important thing is to keep a sober “view from the balcony”. We can take an overview of where we are in all our pieces, and practice accordingly.

The Bottom Line

To answer the question, “Should I stay or should I go?”, the answer is, “YES!”

Move on to new music once you’ve learned the current piece.

But also continue working on previous pieces. This is how we build repertiore and have nice music to play for people.

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7 Responses to Learn New Music? Or Keep Practicing Your Current Piece?

  1. Jane Terry April 17, 2017 at 10:54 am #

    Hi, Allen, great and helpful article, thank you! And especially for that last part – maintaining repertoire. That is what I’ve neglected to do, so when I go back to play a piece I had previously learned, I’ve forgotten much, or even most, of it. So I will begin incorporating and rotating these pieces in my practice. I appreciate all your help!

    • Allen April 17, 2017 at 12:00 pm #

      Thanks, Jane! Glad to hear it hit home.

      Happy rotating!

      All the best,
      Allen

  2. David M Jones April 16, 2017 at 5:27 am #

    Great article, thanks so much. Clarifies a lot for me.

    • Allen April 17, 2017 at 7:47 am #

      Thanks, David. That’s great!

  3. Steve Dosh April 15, 2017 at 1:20 pm #

    Does this same approach apply to practice exercises? I am working though the studies in the level one Bridges repertoire and etudes. I am also working through the Sagreras lessons. I have discovered a couple pieces that I like enough to keep in repertoire but mostly I use these lessons for sight reading, technique exercise, and exploring the diversity of music for classical guitar. While working through your level 1b you comment that it isn’t necessary to perfect study piece 1. How long would you suggest working on exercises that won’t be incorporated in repertoire?

    • Allen April 15, 2017 at 1:41 pm #

      Hi Steve,
      Great question. Exercises start out as a new piece. But how you use them after you learn the patterns or notes is a different story. And that depends. To specifically answer your question, “How long would you suggest working on exercises that won’t be incorporated into repertoire?”: As long as you need to to gain the benefit of that exercise. Some exercises may be worth practicing for a lifetime. Others may be useful for 5 minutes while working out a specific problem in a piece, or, like you said, for sight-reading. In The Woodshed levels you’re working through, the practice log/syllabus will suggest end goals. For other exercises, make sure you stay focused on them, and understand the point of spending the time. As an example, you or I may not gain much now by singing the alphabet song. But at one time it was a very useful exercise.

      I don’t remember saying that about the Study #1, but I will tell you that you’ll continue to speed it up and hone it in future levels. So I would take that back and recommend perfecting it to the best of your ability.

      Cheers,
      Allen

  4. Bryan K. April 15, 2017 at 3:13 am #

    Could not be more well said

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