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troubleshooting classical guitar music

Without a Squeak: Ace the Tricky Spots and Polish to Perfection (pt 2: The One Thing)

As you learn a new song, some parts will come easily, and some won’t. It seems that every tune has its tricky spots.  Troubleshooting classical guitar tricky spots is both an art and a science.

In this article, you’ll discover…

  • How to approach tricky spots
  • How to work proactively for results
  • Tips on practicing in general

Moving past tricky spots is a big part of learning classical guitar, and this is a good thing! Solving these problems are how we develop technique, expand our repertoire of skills, and deepen into the art of practicing.

(This article is Part Two of a series on smoothing out tricky spots.  If you like, start with Part One: “First Things First”.)

First, Slow Down.

Speed (playing too fast) is one of the most common obstacles to smooth playing. It’s the fallen branch in the road and the banana peel on the wood floor.

The very first thing to do in your practice is to slow down.

Speed creates the illusion of perfection.

Speed creates the illusion of perfection. Until you slow down, it will be near impossible to move past the tricky spots. Solving problems demands awareness at a fine level, and speed obscures that.

How slow should you go? Slow enough to stay aware of every little movement involved with every little note.

But but but, you say, that makes the music not sound like the music anymore! True, but if you can’t make it through the tricky spots your music doesn’t sound good anyway. You’ll get the music back in short order, promise. And better.  But for now, just hold your horses.

Don’t Play the Piece; Practice the Details

The big temptation as you learn a new piece is to want to play it. It’s natural. We want to hear the music coming out of the guitar. That’s why we learn the piece in the first place.

But there’s a big difference between practice and playing. Playing is playing. Practice is working on specific problems, developing intentional skills, and challenging our abilities and comfort zones.

Practice is working on specific problems, developing intentional skills, and challenging our abilities and comfort zones.

The Secret of Playing Beautifully

And here’s a secret: In reality, it’s impossible to “play a piece of music”. You can only play one note, then the next, then the next.

The quality with which you move through all these “baby steps” ultimately determines how the music comes across to someone listening.

So to play beautifully, you simply (though not necessarily easily) have to connect each note to the next beautifully.

So to play beautifully, you simply connect each note to the next beautifully (easier said than done!).

Tricky spots, by definition, are places in the music that break down and don’t connect well.

The root cause of each tricky spot may be unique, and the solution will likely be unique as well.

But often, we don’t really know what’s going on in the tricky spots. We play our tune, and one part’s less smooth, or we have to slow down to get through it.  We may not know why at this point, only that something is not working.

So we have to be on the lookout for “fuzzy spots”.

Be on the Lookout for Fuzzy Spots

As you play your music, or practice a section, be on high alert for spots in the music when your attention drifts, you become confused, or you’re not quite sure of the correct fingering to use.

These fuzzy “holes” in your knowledge of the piece are goldmines for problem-solving in your practice.

Confusion is your mind alerting you to an excellent practice opportunity.

Until you get to the bottom of these areas and increase your awareness of the details of each move from one note to the next, and what each move entails, they will forever be rough and tenuous.

Memory Slips

These fuzzy spots are usually in the exact location of memory slips (when playing from memory). Luckily, if you have a memory slip, you can notice the spot in the tune and work on later using the steps below.

And if you take any time off from the piece, these are the spots that will slip from your memory first and leave you lost and confused when you return.

Ever had the experience of working hard on a piece, only to take a break and find it “gone” when you try to play it again? These fuzzy spots are the first to go.

Pinpoint the Pothole

Once you’ve identified a fuzzy spot, do this:

  1. Stop.
  2. Get out your sheet music (especially if you have it memorized).
  3. Back up to before the spot.
  4. Go slowly note by note with the music, on high alert for confusion. Don’t assume you know the notes or the music. Double check every single note.
  5. Find the exact spot that breaks down.

A tricky spot always comes down to one note connecting to another. It may seem as if the problem is a section, or a measure, or a phrase.

The root of every problem boils down to one note.

But if you look closer, the root of every problem boils down to just one note.  Hard to believe?  Maybe, but it’s true.

Isolate the Issue

Once you find the exact place that is breaking down (which will be one note connecting to another), you can put on your sleuthing hat and start to discover what’s happening or not happening to cause the problem.

The issue could be one of a number of things, but often it will be:

  • A wrong right hand (RH) fingering
  • A wrong left hand (LH) fingering
  • A wrong note
  • The LH wrist not in the best position
  • The LH thumb out of position
  • An ungraceful shift
  • Excess tension
  • Others (start your own list of issues when you find them!)

Once you identify the tricky spot and identify what’s going wrong, all there is to do is fix it.

Good news: Sometimes, (and you can’t count on this, but it’s nice when it happens) simply identifying exactly what’s needed and exactly what you’re doing wrong can be enough to solve the problem. Typically, you’ll have to practice a little as well to smooth out the wrinkles, but sometimes you get a freebie, just by getting down to specifics!

Practice for Results

At this point, having identified the issue, the goal is immediate gratification.

Once you know the exact notes and issues that are not coming together properly, practice with results in mind. Work in such a way that you can see immediate improvement.

At this point, the goal is immediate gratification.

This practice takes focus and constant awareness. It takes creativity, curiosity and a willingness to work in circuitous and perhaps counter-intuitive ways.

It may still take some time to completely eradicate the trickiness, but by breaking the issue down to its smaller components, and practicing them separately, you can see immediate improvement on that single component. And that’s progress!

For example, to isolate the components of the issue, you could:

  • Play just the melody.
  • Play just the bass.
  • Play just the rhythm.
  • Play just the right hand.
  • Play just the left hand.
  • Play all notes as quarter notes, no variation in rhythm.
  • Omit any ornaments or grace-notes.
  • Rehearse just the shift.
  • Play the left hand without pressing the strings all the way (so you just hear a “thud” for each note.
  • Play just the chords.
  • Play focusing on maintaining only the appropriate bodily tension.
  • Practice the preparation of each note.
  • Others (Be creative! How else could you simplify the music?)

By taking one small component, and practicing for results in that one area, then bouncing to another, and another, magic happens.

As in battle with Medusa, the head-on approach rarely works. It’s only by attacking from different angles that you make headway.

Expect Miracles

After working on a few different components, the issue will often miraculously evaporate. It will seem inexplicable, but undeniable. It may not “feel” productive in the moment, because it feels “too easy”.

If you feel this way, and you’re practicing separate little components of the music, one at a time, you’re on the right track.

Practicing the separate elements may feel too easy!

Likewise, if you are just repeating the section ad nauseum and hoping it will get better, you’re on the wrong track. That may feel productive, but it doesn’t work.

Again: Don’t Play the Piece; Practice the Details

To reiterate the most important points of this lesson:

We don’t play pieces, we play details.  First one, then the next, then the next.  Until the end.

If you want to master tricky spots and play beautifully, here’s your process:

  1. Slow down.
  2. Recognize confusion.
  3. Isolate the trouble-notes (it will be just one note connecting to another).
  4. Name the issue (what’s happening or not happening?).
  5. Break the music into simplified components and practice for results.
  6. Trust the process.

Eventually, working through tricky spots may become one of your favorite parts of your daily practice time. Indeed, it’s often the most creative and rewarding work we do as classical guitarists.

Have fun!

6 Responses to Without a Squeak: Ace the Tricky Spots and Polish to Perfection (pt 2: The One Thing)

  1. Andy July 11, 2016 at 5:22 pm #

    I’m constantly amazed at the level of detail I must go into to solve a problem. Precision of placement of a (left hand) finger, for example. One sequence may require string contact at a slightly different point on a fingertip than another. Then there’s the angle of the hand and wrist, through at least two planes. Then I realize I need to start moving this finger just a nick sooner, and on and on. Often I think I’ve found the key to a difficulty, only to find another one that I hadn’t seen. True slow motion, paying minute attention to the micro-steps of moving the fingers, hand, wrist and arm to get from A to B always seems to do the trick, but you have to do it over and over, and deal with the problem behind the problem behind the problem.
    But I love it! And when you finally get so that difficult sequence is easy, boy does it feel (and sound) good!

    I actually haven’t started the course yet, but I already know I’m going to love it!
    Andy

    • Allen July 11, 2016 at 7:43 pm #

      Hey Andy,
      I agree, it’s astounding at times. But I love it, too.

      Cheers,
      Allen

  2. John Kotar July 9, 2016 at 6:45 pm #

    Thank you Allen. Right on the money, as always. I am trying very hard to follow this approach and it always works. A fine teacher you are.

    Cheers

    John

  3. Greg July 9, 2016 at 5:24 am #

    HI Allen, I will play through a piece one time, and miss a note in one measure. Next time through, I will get that measure, but miss something else. Then, trying to pinpoint the pothole gets me running around in a circle. I thought it was a very good article, and I think there are specific things I can do that will help: Slow down, less tension, and both of these are difficult for me.

    Thanks,

    Greg

    • Allen July 9, 2016 at 7:48 am #

      Hi Greg,
      This is for more consistently missed spots. What you’re describing could be loss of focus or playing too fast. If you play at a tempo whereby you can maintain awareness throughout, you’ll probably see fewer random missed notes.

      Cheers,
      Allen

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