How to Practice Classical Guitar

How to Practice Classical Guitar Part III


More in Depth Insights & Techniques for Practicing the Classical Guitar

Before I go on to talk about some other things concerning practicing classical guitar, I would like to first comment about the importance of continually going through a piece of music, repeatedly from beginning to end using the method I covered in my previous blog (e.g. repeating things three times).  There are many cases where, after the first two or three times of going through a piece or study that is new and very difficult, there is a struggle to play it successfully at tempo and smoothly.  I have learned that you just have to have faith that the work pays off and gradually you will master what you set out to do.  But don’t get discouraged and above all don’t try to put all your focus on one piece or study to perfect it the first time through it.  This will eat up too much time and you won’t be able to get to other pieces during each practice.

What I find to be the single most important rule for learning and conquering a new piece of classical guitar music is that from the beginning you practice and play it in the most perfect rhythm that is possible.  I have learned that no matter how slowly you have to play it so that it is a continuous, unbroken rhythm, this is key to improving.  On the other hand, I can promise you that if you were to practice something and constantly vary the rhythm at your convenience whenever a difficult passage or hurdle comes up, you could spend a hundred years and never really improve.  Keeping the integrity of the rhythm and its context are the most important things about practicing classical guitar successfully.  I cannot stress this enough.

Let’s talk about demystifying playing with real speed and accuracy.  After too many years of stress and enormous pressure to perform in concert without mistakes, I learned the beauty of keeping things simple and tangible by grouping.  There are only groups of three or groups of four notes with divisions (e.g. two) or multiples (e.g. six and eight) of these. 


Let’s take a scale going up two octaves.  We’ll say the C major scale or Ionian mode.  If you were to play all the notes from middle C to high C (e.g. two octaves) without dividing it into groups, you would be struggling to play it consistently and perfectly at top speed from end to end repeatedly.  But take the same scale and divide it into groups of four.  Do this by counting out loud, slowly, 1-2-3-4, which is C-D-E-F, then 1-2-3-4, which is G-A-B-C, 1-2-3-4, which is D-E-F-G, and 1-2-3-4 which is A-B-C-B, the last note B being the beginning of the descending part of the scale. The way I keep things clean and consistent to really mark my groups of four is to accent the 1 of the 1-2-3-4.  If it is a very difficult passage, I would even go so far as to hang slightly on the 4th note of each group and then accent on the 1.  What this does is to give me a feeling of space between each group of four.  This works, of course, for groups of three and six, as well. 

Not only does this work well for scales, it works extremely well for arpeggios.  Take for instance the classical guitar piece ‘Etude No 1’ by Villa Lobos.  If you accent the 1 to mark 1-2-3-4 and then the next 1 to mark the next 1-2-3-4, etc., you get a sense of ease and tirelessness to the hand because what you are doing is telling your hand that there are only four notes to keep track of instead of a daunting, unending sequence of notes.  Most people, obviously, can play three notes in a row perfectly, or four notes in a row perfectly, but I find it much more difficult mentally and technically to play 16 notes on the guitar accurately in succession, without dividing things into groups.

Let’s take tremolo as another case in point.  It is so much easier to play tremolo smoothly and consistently, again without tiring your hand, by practicing at first slowly and counting out loud like this: P-A-M-I,  P being 1, A being 2, M being 3, I being 4.  Remember to accent the 1 or the thumb; accent it by saying “one”, or “P” forcefully and louder than the other numbers.  This marks mentally and physically the groups of four.

Let me give you another example.  Let’s take the classical guitar piece ‘La Catedral’ by Augustin Barios Mangore, the final movement, ‘Allegro Solemne’.  If you slowly practice this piece and divide it continually into groups of six, again making sure to accent the 1 of 1-2-3-4-5-6, you will see how much easier it is to play the entire piece without a mistake from beginning to end.  

There is something that I have just recently discovered.  For years I have questioned and pondered the great classical guitarist John Williams’ impeccable technique and perfection. Obviously, I can’t claim to know if he is consciously employing this approach that I am about to talk about, or if it just comes naturally to him and in incredibly effective and efficient.  What I have discovered is that if you listen closely, his group of notes when he is playing something fast is very, very subtly slowed down almost imperceptibly from the 1 to the 4 and very subtly held between the 4 and then the 1 on the net group of 4.  

What I mean is this; try playing something such as the groups of 6 notes in the final movement of ‘La Catedral’ by accenting the 1 and counting the notes in groups of six and very very subtly slowing down very slightly between 1 and 6.  1.2..3…4….5…..6.  Practice this method with subtlety and see how smooth and controlled your playing becomes.  You eliminate any sense of rushing and your sense of control and perception of grouping becomes incredible.  Again, I can’t say if John Williams does this on purpose or whether it is just an incredibly efficient natural approach that he employs.  But you can do it on purpose and make it work for you.

I hope you enjoyed this insight and technique for practicing classical guitar. In the near future, I will be offering live streams on my YouTube channel and master classes coming to StageIt, and to a city near you.

Latin-grammy award-winning artist, William Sigismondi and I will be in concert for the first time together. I cannot begin to explain to you the synergies we have and the beautiful repertoire that comes out of our sessions. 

It will be great to see you all at the concert on the 24th of March. You can buy tickets here.

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How to Practice Classical Guitar Part II


Using your time efficiently

As a teacher of classical guitar, I had an opportunity to observe a young student of mine, 12-years-old, I’ll call him Nick.  Nick is a student of immense talent; he seemed from the beginning to possess a sense of phrasing and an ability to play with a beautiful and powerful tone.  He had grown up from early childhood listening to his father’s recordings of the great classical guitarist Andres Segovia, which I believe imprinted him with an acute sense of tone and sound.  If you are accustomed to hearing only the best beautiful, round tone then you tend to want to imitate that standard in your own playing.

Unfortunately, Nick does not practice.  His classical guitar lessons average once a week, and during his lessons, I’ve had to ‘practice’ him and do the work that I hoped he would do on his own. Normally I would not put up with a student who doesn’t practice, but Nick has shown me so many things about how a young person learns and retains material that I feel he provides valuable information that I can pass on to others.  He inspires me continually to think outside of the box in conquering my own set of challenges.

I would like to share some insight into a technique of practice that I have found to be very efficient as a result of having to ‘practice’ Nick during his lessons.  Let’s start with how to best use your time to learn a piece of music that is brand new to you.  Let’s use Estudio No. 9 by Fernando Sor as an example; for reference, this is the one in chords that I recorded on my CD called ‘Homage’. During our guitar lesson, starting from the beginning of the piece, I would take Nick through a phrase, very slowly and deliberately.  In the case of the Sor piece, it would be about three measures. My original approach to practicing a section like this would be to play it 9 times.  Obviously, I could not employ this technique with Nick because we had too much material to cover in our hour-and-a-half lesson.  

To use the time most efficiently, we would start with the first three measures and only do three repetitions before continuing on to the next three bars, always being careful to back up a couple of chords so that we were not starting from a completely unfamiliar place.  For example, if the phrase that we had just practiced ended in the final chord of the third measure I would have him back up two chords or even start at the beginning of the third measure and do three measures from there. In a fifteen to twenty minute period, we would typically do 2 1/2  to 3 staves of music and then go on to another piece and take the same approach.  In about an hour and a half, we would have been able to ‘practice’ through parts of 3 to 4 pieces.  Bear in mind that I say an hour and a half but it is really 4 to 6 sets of fifteen to twenty minutes with short breaks between. 

I would see Nick again a week later and ask him “Did you practice?” and he would answer sheepishly, “No.”  In spite of this fact he would then proceed to play surprisingly well through the material that we had ‘practiced’ the previous lesson.  There were an obvious familiarity and muscle memory that had been established during the previous lesson.  This happened time after time, which made me re-think the necessity for repeating things nine times. 
I thought about it, reflecting on the fact that Nick is 12-years-old, very quick at learning things because of his youth and having no fear.  How could I begin to capture his ability to be so efficient?  These are the conclusions that I have been able to prove thus far:

  • When I sit down with my guitar and practice something with multiple repetitions, it is like telling myself that I don’t have to concentrate so hard to make each repetition count, because I could continue to repeat it until I conquered the passage.

  • When I put a limit on the amount of repetition and time I spend on each passage, my subconscious grabs on to every detail with a sense of urgency. 

  • If I tell myself that I can learn something very fast; demanding that I learn quickly challenges any sense of fear that I don’t learn as rapidly as I did when I was younger.

  • I have also found that it helps to follow this regime for the three repetitions: Play very slowly, exaggerating the left-hand pressure so that you are conscientiously memorizing the movements of the fingers on the first repetition.  After that silently read through the section you have just played – without playing it – and imagine that your fingers are going through each movement. Play it again, a tiny bit faster but still exaggerating the left-hand pressure as well as playing it loudly with a lot of power.  Stop and read the passage again, only imagining that you are playing it.  Then play the passage for the third and final time.

  • It is important to remember when starting the next section of a piece to back up a few notes or chords so that you are not starting a completely new section.  I call this ‘overlapping’.

  • I find it is best to limit the time that I practice on each piece of music.  I don’t leave it open-ended. This again makes me use my time with maximum efficiency.

  • I usually study five or six pieces at a time, averaging around 5 staves in each piece a day, unless the piece is very easy or repetitious in which case I try to cover more material. 

  • I write down my practice plan before I begin practicing, listing the pieces and how much time I plan to spend on each piece.  I have found it incredibly important not to play repeatedly at the same tempo because the same tempo tends to diminish the intensity of concentration.

  • I try to avoid being automatic.  Between each repetition I remove my left hand from the guitar, give what I have played a few seconds to sink in and then start again.  Just like when you are watering a plant it takes time for the water to soak into the soil, the information you garner from practicing needs to soak into your memory.

  • Even if I can only get through a small section of a piece because it is difficult and I can barely play it, I still limit myself to three repetitions.  I’ve discovered that your subconscious mind learns and automatically memorizes much more than we can imagine.  

  • I try to reinforce my ability to learn quickly and to memorize quickly by acting (or ‘pretending’ for lack of a better term) as if I do learn quickly when I doubt my own abilities.

This is a very successful method of practice that resulted from observing how young students learn and conquer classical guitar.  It is not ideal to have a student who does not practice, but once again, I am reminded how important it is to stay aware and observant of other players, students as well as pros. 

I have many things on the horizon, but in the meantime, check out my store, and make sure to subscribe to get the latest in news and updates. If you wish to contact me for a booking or for any other reason, you can contact me here.


How to Practice Classical Guitar

I had the honor to study under one of the world's greatest classical guitarists, Maestro Andres Segovia. In this series, I will be sharing with you how to practice classical guitar, giving you practical instruction that will improve your classical guitar playing.


How to Practice Classical Guitar

This is how I deal with practicing.  First of all, I would like to relate the words of the late Andres Segovia, the greatest classical guitarist ever, who if anyone would be the authority on the best method of practice.  This is what he taught me and told me was his method.  

Practice in sets of fifteen minutes, divided into two sets of seven to eight minutes with a short break between.  At the end of each fifteen minutes, take a 3 minute break, stand up, get a glass of water, stretch, etc. but be sure to take a moment to focus your eyes on something far away to relax your eyes from the close work of the page and the fretboard and to clear your mind. Start again and do three fifteen minute sets, totaling 45 minutes of intense practice.  This time at the end of the third set taking a real break of about fifteen minutes.  Repeat this 3-set practice routine for a total of five times.  At that point, you will have spent around five and a half hours.  

Eric Henderson pictured with Antonia Morales and Maestro Andres Segovia

Eric Henderson pictured with Antonia Morales and Maestro Andres Segovia

That is the morning session, in the afternoon you will do this entire routine again after you have had some lunch and a chance to rest.  In the years I was living in Madrid, between 1971 and 1975, the traditional schedule for the day was to start between 8 and 9 am, and have your main meal of the day around 2 pm; everything would then shut down for this meal and a siesta that followed.  At anywhere between 5 and 7 pm, everything would open back up and the evening meal would not be until 9 or even 10 pm. I would eat the midday meal, take a siesta and then practice from 5 to 10 pm, before eating dinner, the lighter meal of the day.  

This is what Segovia would do and what I was expected to do as his student.  Recently I heard somebody claim that he witnessed Segovia excusing himself after dinner, saying that he had to practice.  This was not the case in my experiences with him; he practiced in the mornings and in the late afternoons and early evenings.

The exact method as far as the content of my practice will be dealt with in a subsequent writing in the next article in this series. In the meantime, check out my store, and make sure to subscribe to get the latest in news and updates. If you wish to contact me for a booking or for any other reason, you can contact me here.