5 Practice Tips to Make You a Better Guitarist.

Classical Guitarist Denver on Stage

In today’s guitar lesson, I’m going tell you about 5 aspects of my daily practice that have helped me to become a better classical guitarist.

In June I completed my Master of Music degree and hit the ground running with a busy performance schedule of weddings, casual gigs, and private events. I also organized a concert showcasing music for guitar and voice by Manuel Ponce in Las Vegas, NM, which became a huge success.

With a busy performance schedule, especially one that demands new material, I found that despite my strong educational foundation, there were still many skills I needed to help keep up with demands. And so I set out on a new practice regimen that allowed me to address those issues while still working towards other longer term goals like solo recitals or auditions.


Sight Reading: the Ultimate Guitar Skill

No matter what my plans are for the day, I make a point to sight read some music. I didn’t truly start learning to read music until very recently as I spent my formative years learning by ear or from TAB. As a result I’ve had a bit of catching up to do, especially when reading classical guitar scores.  While my reading skills have certainly improved tremendously, it’s still a unique challenge to read or perform a piece of music with little to no preparation. I realized this after the first wedding I was asked to perform and the couple sent music requests two days before the event.

In March this year I began a daily practice of 15 minutes of sight reading following a series by Alfred Publishing called “Sight Reading for Classical Guitar.” I picked this book over many other options because it begins with easy, short exercises. Ultimately, by level 5 you will be reading polyphonic music in complex keys and rhythms, but it doesn’t quite get to what I’d consider an advanced level.

Once I completed this method, I picked up all of the books in the Royal Conservatory of Music Bridges series and made a goal to sight read through the whole series. This was to improve my reading skills, and also to acquire more repertoire for casual gigs.

I can’t stress enough how beneficial it has been to hone this skill, and with a little bit of daily practice I’m light years beyond where I’d been when I completed my degree. As a wedding guitarist in Denver, I’d picked up gigs where the ceremony music comprised 30 pieces I’d never played before, and so I’d need to either spend several days locked away in the practice studio or rely on my reading skills to get me through the gig. I did a bit of both because you should never be unprepared, but there’s never enough time to master 30 pieces before the big day

Sight reading practice helps you to discover new music and composers. It helps you learn music quicker. And it helps you learn to move on from mistakes when they happen in performance.

The golden rule though is to keep your sight-reading practice EASY and always well below the level of your actual performance abilities. Make sure whatever you sight read, the music sounds fluid on the first playthrough, and never go back to rehearse any parts (unless of course you decide you want to add the piece to your repertoire later).


Close Listening Warm Up

I began studying Mauro Giuliani’s 120 Studies for Right Hand Technique in June. This has been greatly beneficial for a number of reasons, but I believe the simplicity of the approach, especially of the first page of exercises, offers an excellent template for many aspects of improving your sound.

In essence the 120 Studies are variations of a I-V-I progression in the key of C, which will condition you to play many of the most common 19th century accompaniment patterns on guitar. My goal is certainly to attain a mastery of these patterns, but before I do the real technical work with the metronome, I practice a page of the patterns extremely slowly. And as I do so I listen (often recording myself with my mobile recorder).

I’m listening for elements of tone first of all. Do all my finger strikes sound balanced? How is the sound of the thumb vs the fingers? In many of the patterns you will find repeated chords in the fingers with a moving bass line below. These present a great opportunity to listen to the way you play all the notes of the chord and refine the emphasis. I might practice through the same exercise for several minutes trying to give each note a different emphasis each time.

I also listen for any handling noise. Very often when we plant our fingers on a string that has just been sounded there can be a rattle against the flesh or nail of the finger, so I work carefully to avoid this either with timing my return to the string or by improving the angle from which I touch the string (landing from above vs. landing from the side). I am also cognizant of similar handling noise with the left hand as well as how the placement of my fingers affects the overall tone.

Are the plucking techniques I’m using helping to bring out a full and rich tone?

Lastly, I experiment with expression. One thing that can be overlooked with these exercises is that they are essentially cadences in C. The endings of a piece. So a player can use them to practice tension and resolution perhaps with a crescendo on the G chord and a gentle landing on the final C chord.

But the key is to wake up your ears and make a point to be aware of how you sound. Recording is helpful because the performer’s perspective is often different than the listener’s. Remember to keep this practice light and easy so you can focus on the challenging details of your tone.


Memorization Techniques: the other ultimate guitar skill

As you build up repertoire, it can be extremely difficult to keep track of everything that you have learned, and it is even more difficult to feel confident with every new piece that you take on. This is especially difficult as a solo classical guitarist because much of our material is very technically demanding and relentless in its requirement of our mental faculties. Anyone who has learned a Bach prelude can attest to this. So it is helpful to practice the art of quick learning and memorization.

There are many strategies for this, but here are some of my recommendations. Firstly, practice these on a very easy piece. Perhaps go back to something from the lower RCM books and see if you can use it as practice material for memorization.

Break the piece up into sections. Many of the ways to do this can be arbitrary and non-musical, but still helpful. A good rule of thumb is to always use manageable chunks. Usually one line of music can work, but, for example I’m currently learning Lauro’s Suite Venezolana and the edition I have is formatted such that many of the movements contain nearly a dozen measures per line. Assess the difficulty of the music before and then divide it up.

When memorizing it can be helpful to focus on the musical details of the section. Perhaps play just the melody a few times and gain an understanding of the accompaniment and bass line separately. But don’t just mechanically muddle through them, see if you can play each part emotively. Then you can try playing them altogether. Mechanical repetition is often only as useful as your artistic engagement with the music, so if you don’t understand what is happening in a passage, repetition might not actually be helpful for memorizing.

Separating the music into complete phrases is also helpful. Often this is done for us, but many times, as in the case of the Lauro Suite I mentioned, it is not. Draw in your phrase markings where you understand the music to be beginning and completing a statement (usually 4 – 8 bars). And then practice these with the above mentioned approach.

Often I will try quickly memorizing smaller portions of the music with aural and visualization techniques. I’ll take maybe 1 – 2 measures and sight read them. If they are challenging measures I’ll work a little on choreographing the movements. Then I’ll sing the melody to myself while I play. Then I’ll look away from the score and see if I can play those measures from memory several times at a slow tempo and with ease. Once I’m confident with those, I’ll progress a little further, usually in reverse order through the piece.

Another great way to ensure your knowledge of a passage is to close your eyes while you play, and try to maintain good poise and posture while you play. Then if you can do that and play slowly with expression, work with a metronome. Alternate between a straight rhythm once, then a dotted (long-short) rhythm, then the reverse dotted rhythm (short-long), without looking at the score. This helps to ensure you’ve retained the musical idea despite these varitations to the rhythm.

It's important to remember that memorization doesn't always involve playing without the music. The score is often just a visual tool the ignites our memory of the material. But if you intend to be on stage without the score, improve your memorization to the point that you can effectively play the piece without looking at the score.


Practice performing

This is perhaps one of the most overlooked elements in our daily practice, especially as soloists. We often play until we make a mistake and then we rehearse to correct the mistake. But seldom do we practice performing a piece from start to finish. And at that practice with performing it with a performance attitude as though we were in a grand concert hall for a sold out audience.

A few tips on doing this, firstly, ground yourself. As a classical guitarist you will be playing a lot of notes and facing many musical and technical challenges throughout a piece or a whole suite of music. Take a minute to breathe and hear the music in your head. Think about the imagery it conjures and how the music makes you and others feel. When you are comfortable in the space of the music you are about to play, then begin.

As you play think of the melody and the phrasing. Aim to be expressive and imaginative in your approach without venturing too far from any diligent work you’d already done in the learning process. The more often you perform a piece the more expressive your performance will get, but always strive to be engaged with the music, and thinking about its direction.

Perform for friends or family. In preparation for our masters recitals, my colleagues and I used to have a weekly meeting where we’d go to the concert hall on Tuesday evenings and perform sets of music for each other. The only rule was that it had to be played with the conviction of a performance. This was to supplement the weekly performance classes we had for the program. I’d also have my friends and loved ones listen to me play a brief set of music whenever we had the time. Other helpful resources are open mic nights at local cafes. 

Using video can also be very helpful. Make sure you use the video firstly as a point of reference for yourself to assess your performance and stage presence. Often if we aim to create content for social media, we can devolve into the trap of over rehearsing and mechanical repetition for the sake of perfection. My advice is to take a video of a piece you can play well and then evaluate how you sound and appear on stage. It can be extra helpful if you are able to do this in the venue where your upcoming performance will be held. Place the camera in the audience if you can.


End your day with improvisation!

As a classical guitarist, there is so much music to work on that it can often seem like we don’t have time for fun. I enjoy noodling and writing music on the guitar, so much so that if I indulge myself even for a second, the time spirals out into several hours.

I recommend breaking your practice into several sessions throughout the day, with the last portion being for creativity and improvisation or composition. There’s not really many rules to this except that you need to disarm any judgmental voices in your head, and if you’re not feeling it, then maybe keep the session short.

While I’ve emphasized keeping things easy and manageable, I think improv time is generally where the more technical exploration gets to shine through and we really challenge ourselves to discover new aspects of our playing. Sometimes I’ll make an effort to try out a new technique, for example a flamenco rhumba rhythm, and see where things go. Other times I’ll just noodle. 

You can also take a jazz approach and improvise over something from your repertoire, this also comes in handy during casual gigs. For example I’ll take something like Fernando Sor’s famous study in B Minor and use it as a framework for my improvising.

Improvisation doesn’t have to imply shredding all of the time either. It can definitely be intimate and spacious. See if you’re able to improvise a chord progression based on your music theory knowledge. Or if you’ve made an in-depth study of a Bach prelude can you model his harmonic approach but in a different key or perhaps with extended chords that include sevenths and 9ths and so on.

The point is to disarm the practice mindset and enable the idea mindset, let your imagination help you to learn more about the guitar and discover where it can take you.

What practice techniques do you incorporate every day that have helped you improve? Do you have any differing approaches to the ones I listed?

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