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How to Play Classical Guitar With No Mistakes

Have you ever noticed how difficult it is to play a piece of music with absolutely no mistakes?

We practice and practice, and there always seems to be some slip of the finger, buzzed note, memory slip, or any of a million other little things that can go wrong.

So the logical question is “How can I play with no mistakes?”.

But this may be the wrong question to ask.

The Number One Reason “No Mistakes” is a Bad Goal

While we all want to play with no mistakes, to have this as the primary goal is generally a bad idea.

The main reason this is a bad idea is that one mistake renders a performance a complete failure. The point of success is nothing short of perfection.

With this goal, success means nothing short of perfection.

Also, focusing on mistakes leads to mistakes. At best, this goal leads to overly cautious playing. At worst, it fills us with despair and feelings of lack and futility.

And what constitutes a mistake, anyway?

What is a “Mistake”?

The notion of “mistake” is often very vague.

When you first learn a tune as a beginner, a mistake may be a wrong note. Or it may mean that you have to stop and start over.

As you progress, your expectations rise. You want not only right notes, but the right rhythm. And a specific tone quality for each note. Then a particular phrasing.

And as you become a more mature musician, your notions of musical communication changes. Your understanding of music theory and harmonic structure deepen. Your use of rhythmic nuance becomes more sophisticated.

And on and on and on, forever.

Note Perfect and Perfectly Boring

Many players focus all their attention on playing the written notes in metronomic rhythm, with a consistent tone quality.

And indeed, this is a great starting point. We all want to be able to do this for the music we play.

But this, in itself, leads to boring music.

After the initial impression of cleanliness wears off, the music feels flat and lifeless. We can hear that the player has great technical ability, yet we don’t feel anything. And as listeners, that’s really all that matters.

Music is Made Up of Details

In addition to the obvious broad, surface goals of “right notes, right time”, music exists in the small moments.

Music is how one note connects to the next, and how those notes fit within a larger phrase, section or entire piece.

It’s the small details, and how we handle them, that makes the difference between boring and compelling, flat and meaningful.

So if the ultimate goal is personal connection through music (instead of “no mistakes”), then the path to reach that goal is paved in small details.

Gauge Success on Specific Terms

As we progress musically, we constantly add complexity and nuance to every musical element in a piece of music.

As the saying goes, “When you know better, you do better.”

So given our current place in our own musical journey, we can gauge success based on our current aspirations. With time and experience, these evolve and layer onto each other.

It’s a recipe for failure to compare your work as a beginner or intermediate player to that of an advanced player.

Instead, create specific goals based on small details.

Notes/Memory

One of the first and most obvious goals is that of playing the notes on the page.

The next step beyond this is playing from memory, while keeping in rhythm and playing the right notes.

But even these can be broken into smaller sections, or simplified to lower the bar to success.

Execution

At first, just getting the note to sound is a glowing triumph. As time goes on, we may get more detailed with what constitutes success.

Some areas to gauge success based on execution are:

You can have success in one but not another. This still counts as a success, while simultaneously pointing to something you can improve.

You can have success in one but not another. This still counts as a success, while simultaneously pointing to something you can improve.

The important part is that we acknowledge what’s working and what isn’t. If we fail to notice the specifics, we’re not evaluating critically. We’re just fussing.

Musical Ideas

As we progress musically, we’ll demand more of each note. Instead of simply sounding, we’ll want each note to be expressive and intentional.

This creates massive grey areas. If all we aspire to is “right notes, right time”, we have a very clear win/lose line. Once we have greater musical intentions, the pass/fail line changes for each note, each voice, each phrase, and so on.

Some musical goals for any phrase or section:

Now, we could judge a particular swell or fade a failure if it didn’t swell or fade as much as we wanted. We could have better balance, more rhythmic clarity, or more connected notes.

All that said, simply trying to play more musically is it’s own success. You’re more likely to play musically, and create a rewarding experience for a listener.

Even if we miss a note or have a memory slip, we’ll still offer a deeply human experience. And listeners will forgive a lot if we deliver on what matters.

It Will Always Be Somewhere In Between

We will always make “mistakes”. Every time. Count on it. If we don’t make any mistakes, we’re playing it too safe and need to dig deeper.

We will always make “mistakes”. Every time. Count on it.

And by the same token, we’ll always have successes as well. There will always be something we did well.

The trick to constructive criticism is to first acknowledge what is working and celebrate that. Then acknowledge what isn’t, and make a plan to improve on it.

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5 Responses to How to Play Classical Guitar With No Mistakes

  1. Tommy May 27, 2017 at 10:28 am #

    Thanks for these ideas , it has helped me rethink my goals in practice because I was doing exactly what you were saying. Keep up these types of posts because I look forward to all of your thoughts and tips on fingerstyle classical guitar . Soli Deo Gloria- Tommy

  2. Martin Dillon May 27, 2017 at 9:13 am #

    Wonderfully penetrating commentary on the primary goal of perfection and the ingredients we assemble in achieving it. Or not achieving it, ever. Even more important is pursuing the true goal of playing: pleasure for ourselves and others, and the occasional achievement of an even higher goal: transcendent moments above time and the mundane. Thankfully, success in achieving these other goals is possible without perfection.

  3. Ed Herider May 27, 2017 at 7:24 am #

    I would like to thank you for your perceptive approach to creating beautiful music. But, I am also aware that the principles you elucidate so succinctly as regards music apply directly to how we can successfully lead happy lives. We far too often focus on the mistakes we have made in our lives without giving full consideration to the wonderful possibilities present in our tomorrows. Looking backward at our failures only compromises our ability to move forward and claim all the joys that the future holds for us. Thanks for your insight and valuable input. It is point-on and happily received.

  4. Reg Snider May 27, 2017 at 6:04 am #

    This is helpful, directly addressing my over-concern with avoiding mistakes, which makes for tentative, anemic performance instead of the bold, con brio playing I believe I have in me. So for now I plan to try to start pieces with the mindset that there will likely be mistakes but there won’t be fear of making them. There will be bolder playing. And no negativity or unpleasantness expressed (for another to hear or see) when something doesn’t go as I’d wish.

  5. Paulette May 27, 2017 at 4:20 am #

    Your article really resonated with me this week. I need to move beyond the idea that playing the right notes equals success in order to further develop as a musician. Returning to my habit of recording my pieces and listening to my progress will help me to judge success from where I’ve come. Finally, my practice goal this week will be on how I am connecting notes rather than increasing speed. As always, I look forward to your weekly musical gift. Your articles are informative but more importantly for me, inspirational and motivating.

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