As a follow up to his tonebase lesson, How to Practice, Thomas Viloteau breaks down his 10 steps to learning a new piece on the classical guitar. Check out Thomas’ tonebase page here for more instructional videos on topics including Warming Up, Tango en Skai, and Mozart Variations.
Step 1: Find Your Fingerings
To figure out your fingerings, start by playing the piece at a speed that is as close to “a tempo” as possible. The reason for doing this is to help you find fingerings that work right away. While they should be as close to perfection musically speaking, it is important that the fingerings you choose feel natural and for the most part can be used immediately at full speed.
Step 2: Slow It Down
Once you think you’ve found the right fingerings, bring the tempo down and try not to play the piece too fast again. Chances are you found fingerings that worked but still need to be developed, so you should be very careful not to play these at a tempo where you can’t control them.
Step 3: Take Control
Every time you play, there should be no mistakes to make sure all the info getting to your brain is correct. It’s easier to get the right information into your brain from the start than to fix ‘corrupted’ data. In other words, you’ll spend less time learning something carefully right away than learning it too fast and having to go back and correct it. This will make it easier to play cleanly without making too many mistakes later on.
Step 4: “Chunk” It Up
The American psychologist George Armitage Miller proved that our brains can only process a certain amount of information at once. Knowing this, it is important to break down difficult passages into “chunks” of about 7 items. An item is anything you think about — notes, shifts, special techniques, specific movements, etc.
Step 5: Metronome Time!
Now that you have your “chunks,” you’re going to begin practicing them with your metronome.
First, choose a tempo that is slow enough to control everything you do. Then play one “chunk” perfectly 10 times in a row. If you can play the 7 selected items 10 times in a row perfectly, chances are you know the passage.
You can now gradually increase the tempo of the metronome (making sure to play it 10 times perfectly) until you reach the final tempo and perhaps even a bit beyond to have a safe ‘buffer’ space.
Step 6: Recite Your Mantra
“Repetition of perfection. Repetition of perfection. Repetition of perfection…”
Step 7: Zoom Out
This ‘microscopic’ focus on problems should only happen in complicated passages. Obviously if you have no problem playing a few bars in a row at a faster tempo, this might be a waste of time. The idea here is to not spend longer learning something than necessary.
Step 8: Make Decisions
At this point, if you think some of your fingerings are a bit too hard but are musically ideal you have two choices: 1. You can decide to spend more time practicing that fingering and see if another week or so of work will help, or 2. You can adapt the fingering and find an easier way to play that passage, whilst making sure the music doesn’t suffer from it. The choice is up to you!
Step 9: Persist
Recite your second mantra: “Nothing is impossible.” Do not get discouraged if something takes some time to incorporate. As long as you hear and know exactly how you want the music to sound, the fingers can find a way.
Step 10: Practice As Much As You Can
Practicing two hours very focused is better than practicing six hours watching TV. But practicing six hours very focused is better than practicing two hours very focused. Practice as much as you can without hurting yourself. There are unfortunately no short cuts.
For more on practicing, check out Thomas’ full lesson here and take a look at his wonderful ebook, In the Black Box, Techniques of the Classical Guitar.