I get a lot of emails asking for advice on how to proceed in learning classical guitar with limited resources.
Whether you are extremely rural with unreliable Internet connection, or simply do not have the money available to study with a teacher, either in person or by webcam, there are still options available.
To start with, let’s imagine the ideal scenario.
In a perfect world, with unlimited resources, we could have some great tools at our disposal.
We could find a great teacher. Be it in person, or via Skype, FaceTime, Google chat or some other WebCam service, there are undeniable benefits to be able to ask any question as it arises, and get an immediate answer.
It’s also nice to have another set of eyes and ears on what we are doing. It takes such focus to do the things we do, we practically always miss something.
“Ideally, we would work with a teacher in every single practice.”
This is why the highest level performers in any industry, art, or anything else work with coaches and/or peers to get objective feedback.
In a perfect world, with unlimited resources, we would work with a teacher or coach in every single practice. This would enable us to imitate masterful movements, and learn more quickly by “mirroring” masterful playing.
Also ideally, we would work on music that we love, and are excited to be playing. This is motivating, and just makes everything more fun.
Ideally, we would structure our time so that we develop multiple skill sets over time, incrementally. This means working in a number of different ways and different things each day. (To learn more about the basic ingredients of great practice, go here ).
But life ain’t like that.
Most of us, for one reason or another, are not working in the absolutely perfect ideal situation.
Many of us have to compromise on one or more of these.
So what are some things you can do compensate for these non-perfect scenarios, and have a rich and rewarding experience learning classical guitar?
Choosing What Music to Play
If you don’t have a teacher, you will probably choose repertoire that is not entirely fitting for your level of abilities. This is easy to mess up when you teach yourself classical guitar, simply because you may not have a clear perspective on your present level, or the ability to judge the difficulty of pieces.
Using a method book to progress through a predefined course is one way to approach this problem. More on this later.
If you are choosing your own repertoire blindly then my recommendation would be to simply choose something you love and dive into it headfirst.
Of course you will likely make decisions that an experienced teacher would disagree with, but ultimately, no one gets hurt. (conversely, learning advanced surgical techniques in this way could perhaps be a bad idea, but classical guitar? Just jump in!)
All that said, I am a fan of the RCM Bridges Repertoire Series. I think they have compiled some really nice pieces that are graded by level of difficulty. You can also listen tunes from the first couple of books: Download Bridges mp3s
Learning from Books
There are many fine method books out there. While books have their limitations (potentially dry and boring, no video or feedback), they are certainly better than nothing.
They can also add some great background education and expose you to concepts, repertoire and ways of working but you might not otherwise get when you teach yourself classical guitar.
Some potentials for your library are:
The Art of Classical Guitar Playing (Charles Duncan) Not really a method book, but a great reference (especially the chapter on nails).
Pumping Nylon (Scott Tennant)
Solo Guitar Playing (Frederick Noad)
Classical Guitar Technique (Aaron Shearer)
There are tons more, but these are a few common ones. (note: These are not affiliate links.)
Other books on music, practicing, etc. that are not specifically guitar methods, but are great for any musician:
The Musicians Way (Gerald Klickstein) – if you can only have one, this one’s pretty good.
The Practice Revolution (Philip Johnson) – written for teachers, but great practice ideas, games, and general philosophy of music practice
Zen Guitar (Philip Toshio Sudo) – The name says it all.
The Art of Practicing (Madeline Bruser) – On playing from the heart. A lovely book with a 10 step approach to daily practice.
The High-Performance Mind (Anna Wise) – On mastering the ability to control your brainwave frequencies for optimal performance. While not music-based, I find this kind of work incredibly helpful for focusing and performing.
The Inner Game of Music (Barry Green) – On getting past our silly minds and just making great music.
Daily Rituals (Mason Currey) – Short descriptions of the daily rituals and routines of 161 top artists, musicians, thinkers, and creatives. One of my all-time favorites.
There is some fine teaching available on DVDs. Depending on your level and your specific needs, these could be more or less useful at any given time.
I personally have not worked extensively with DVDs, and my knowledge of them is limited.
That said, I can enthusiastically recommend William Kanengiser’s Effortless Classical Guitar, and Classical Guitar Method for guitarists of any level, as an educational resource.
Get a Library Card
The beauty of books and DVDs is that you can check them out from your local library, so cost is not an issue.
Some of these may not be in your local system, but through inter-library loan (just ask your favorite librarian), you can get just about anything ever made.
If you are on a budget and are serious about learning and exposing yourself to new books, DVDs and recordings, getting well-acquainted with your local library resources is time well spent.
You can also use your library to preview many different resources designed to help teach yourself classical guitar, then purchase the ones that you connect with the most.
(If you are out to teach yourself classical guitar, this is the most important section of this whole article. Do this, and you will move forward in your playing. Seriously.)
Even if you have no books, DVDs, private teacher, computer, or trustworthy internet connection, this is something you can do that will provide noticeable results and give you some structure to your classical guitar practice.
Even if you do live in a fairy-tale world and have it all, this is still great practice. I have spoken with several high-level professional performers who use this as a main form of preparation for performances. Why? Because it just works.
Here’s the routine:
1.) At the end of each practice, record yourself (either audio or video). Use any recorder you have. You can record to wax cylinder if that’s all you have available. Quality is not imperative.
You can record snippets of songs that you are working on, or entire pieces. If you are playing scales, exercises, arpeggios, or anything else, you can record those as well. Anything you like.
Give yourself just a single pass or two at anything that you are recording. Play as well as you can, but the point is not studio quality recordings that you will share with the world. Only you will hear them, so they don’t need to be precious.
2.) At the beginning of each practice, listen to your previous days recording. Find something specific that you could do better or improve on. This could be:
- a more clearly defined rhythm
- better tone quality
- cleaner placement of the fretted notes
- smooth and connected notes
- compelling dynamics (fades and swells, louds and softs)
- consistent tempo (staying the same speed throughout)
- or anything else that you notice.
3.) Spend your time and practice working to improve those specific points. Work on them in any way that you can. Be creative in your practice and try to find new ways to approach your work. Stay focused on the specific areas for improvement that you chose for that one practice.
Lather, rinse, repeat.
This simple exercise will provide a basic structure for your practice, and give you concrete goals. You may be amazed at how effective this is.
When beginning a new piece, try these steps to learn classical guitar music.
(note: If you’re insecure about hearing yourself, (please forgive me, but) get over it. Do it anyway. It will get easier with time, guaranteed. More on perfectionism later).
The point of listening isn’t to judge (“I suck!” is not constructive.), but to simply identify some small, specific improvement that you can work on. Ask great questions, and you will find worlds upon worlds to explore.
Teach Yourself Classical Guitar
In this method, you are becoming your own teacher. You are letting your ears determine what can be improved on, and then spending your time working to improve those things.
Of course, you may still be using terrible technique. You may be making terrible musical choices. You may be doing everything wrong and not know it.
That’s perfectly fine. We’ve already established that is not the ideal situation. If everything were perfect, you probably wouldn’t want to teach yourself classical guitar in the first place. You’d get help.
In a different example, you may want to learn how to become a gourmet cook, and not have any resources for that either. There is no harm in simply going to the kitchen and experimenting.
Sure, you may not be paving the way to get your own show on the food network, but if you are enjoying yourself and enriching your life with the experience of trying new things and witnessing yourself progress, then who cares?
As time goes on, and you continue to follow this routine, your learning will unfold like the layers of an onion. As you learn to listen more closely, you will hear new things to work on within your music.
Accepting the Future
“Suckin’ at something is the first step to being sorta good at something.”
You are highly likely to ingrain all sorts of bad habits working in non-ideal circumstances. It’s just the nature of the game.
If your situation changes, and you are able to work with a great teacher, or gain access to better resources, you’re bound to find all sorts of things that you will have to relearn.
That’s perfectly alright. If and when this happens, you can then embrace the new challenges as they come. Chances are, you will have also built many strengths during this time as well. You can grow from those successes, and further refine your skills over time.
As the cartoon Adventure Time famously said, “Suckin’ at something is the first step to being sorta good at something,” and it’s true, struggle is the evidence of progress. The rewards of becoming great at something far outweigh the short-term discomfort that is caused earning your stripes. (I found this quote on 99u )
Just Go For It
The moral of the story here is to not be defined by your limitations, but to instead work with what you have and embrace the opportunity to spend time with the instrument and focus on solving small problems.
Even if you had the most ideal situation, you would still be spending your time identifying and solving small problems in your classical guitar playing. From this perspective, you can teach yourself classical guitar even if you do have a great teacher or coach.
Theoretically, if you make it your overarching goal to become more aware of the details and to put your attention and energy into them, you will certainly:
- improve quickly – working on specific small goals is good practice
- enjoy your practices more – more small victories = feel good
- play more beautifully – beautiful playing is made up of small details.
Perfectionism is the Road to Nowhere
As classical guitarists we are oftentimes very detail-oriented people, or we enjoy the process of building something intricate and beautiful.
It’s very easy to want everything to be just perfect.
But even in the most ideal circumstances, this just probably isn’t going to happen.
Instead of letting the lack of perfection paralyze you, or discourage you, instead, accept and embrace the imperfections.
By releasing the need to be perfect, we can enjoy the process of simply working on small details much more.
“Balance on the razor’s edge between striving for perfection and releasing the need for it.”
If we can:
- accept that anything that we do can ultimately be improved on,
- simply enjoy and embrace the process of doing our best,
- release our need and expectation of sounding like Roland Dyens,
then we can allow ourselves to be present and show up to the small specific challenges we have set for ourselves for that one practice session.
Of course, for any artist, one of the best practices is to balance on the razors edge between striving for perfection and releasing the need for it. (as a recovering perfectionists, I know as well as any that this isn’t always easy!)
Continually working to live and work within this balance is the path to mastery, regardless of the external situations and circumstances.
Over to You, Classical Guitarist
Have you had to learn on your own, or in non-ideal circumstances? What’s working and what isn’t? If you have any resources or materials that have been game-changers for you, please share them with us. Leave a comment below!