Approaching a new classical guitar piece for the first time

A six-part fugue from The Musical Offering, in...
JS Bach Fugue. What a dude. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This is a topic I’ve had lined up for a couple of weeks now and it has serendipitously coincided with myself starting work on a new piece this week.

So, I thought I’d share with you some thoughts on cracking into a new piece for the very first time.

What’s the score?

Be discerning with the edition of sheet music you use. I reaffirmed this to myself only this week (as my Twitter followers will know!) that just because a particular edition of a score has been published doesn’t necessarily mean it has been thoroughly proofread, well-edited or is in fact realistically and musically playable. In the example I had this week there were just some ridiculous fingerings applied, very basic editorial oversights and slightly bizarre sounding chord arrangements. So, do your homework, check around and ask others about good editions to use.

If you’re playing a piece from a graded examination list then they will usually recommend a good edition to use. It certainly does no harm, however, to explore what else is out there though.

You might be interested in how your version compares to an urtext edition (i.e. original score), especially so if the piece is a transcription from another instrument, such as violin or cello perhaps for Bach, or piano for Albeniz and Granados.

Listen up!

One of the things that I do when first adding a new piece to my repertoire is listen to a number of recordings of the same piece by different guitarists. I also think there’s excellent value in listening to the same piece in its original instrumentation if it has been transcribed for guitar, and other instrumentation too for an alternative perspective. This is super easy and cheap to do these days with legions of freely available videos on YouTube. Yay YouTube! OK, there’s some questionable material on there, but there are also a lot of great contributions from very talented amateur and professional musicians alike.

Listening to various interpretations of the same piece can first of all help you pick out certain nuances which may not be immediately clear – maybe it pricks your ears up in a “ooh I like how she plays that bit” kind of way. Secondly, it can help feed some ideas into your own eventual interpretation of the music. It’s all good fuel for the fire.

Once you’ve listened to those alternate interpretations and you’ve started on really learning the piece, I’d be wary of listening too intently to recorded versions. Well, that’s what I do anyway. I think you have to let all that visual and aural information you’ve collected just percolate through you and coalesce, helping form your own unique approach.

What else should I think about?

OK, now you’ve taken a good look at the score, listened to innumerable recordings and watched oodles of YouTube clips, some questions to ponder on when you’re approaching the piece are:

  • What is the style of the piece? Does it have a particular theme or mood in mind? Is it a kind of dance form?
  • Where is the melody? Where is the harmony? How do they relate to one another?
  • Are the bits that you think are harmony bits really harmony bits or are they also melody?
  • How do you want to play it – tone and shape?
  • What’s your end goal for the piece? How do you want it to sound?



Before I forget, I have another podcast for you:Practice and Perception – Do you hear what I hear?

I’ll stick this one over on the podcast page too.


7 thoughts on “Approaching a new classical guitar piece for the first time

  1. I think you give some very useful advice. I also think you could expand the advice into multiple posts. You have so much good information squeezed in that I want to know more specifically on each point given. I can especially relate to your point on listening to other guitarists and am grateful you mentioned to not listen “too much.” I was advised by Jason Vieaux in a lesson not to listen to anything when learning a piece and let all of my decisions be from my own understanding. But, I find this not to be the best approach for me or other guitar students. Listening is a great tool.

    Thanks again.

    1. Thanks very much for the comment and I’m so pleased to hear that you find the blog useful.
      Yes, I think a little bit of listening (not too much!) can be an invaluable tool. But of course this, and any other thoughts of mine, might not be right for everybody.

      Is there anything in particular you’d like me to expand more on? I’m always more than happy to talk more on subjects that folks are interested in or want to learn more about – it’s one of my key reasons for blogging!


      1. I was referring to the last bullet points in your post. Each of those could really be expanded upon to give insight into the learning of a new piece.

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