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?

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Podcast

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.

Adult Students Getting Into Performance: Part 2 – Eeek, what should I play?

This is the second blog post in a series designed to give some help and guidance to the adult student, particularly those with no or limited performance experience.

So what should I play then?

If this is your very first performance (or open mic night or guitarists gathering or that sort of thing) – firstly well done for making the commitment to play for or with others. It’s an important step and a milestone to be proud of. Now comes to the seeming conundrum of picking which piece or pieces to play.

So, if this is your very first performance, my recommendation is simply to pick a piece or pieces that you feel the most comfortable and at home with. Which pieces do you often find yourself turning too when you want to just play something through, have a bit of fun with and enjoy, feel like you don’t have to think or work too much on?

This could be where your answer lies.

Why?

Chances are you will experience different feelings than you do in the practice room; having a piece that you feel really comfortable with playing in yourself will allow you to experience those different feelings of playing for people, allow you to feel what your body and your brain is doing in that situation, without having to worry too much about playing something difficult or involved or something you’re less comfortable with. It gives you a bit of room for manoeuvere, room to breathe and experience these new sensations.

But none of my pieces are like that?

Well, that’s ok too. What have you been working on most recently? What do you feel a connection with? Is there a piece that has some background personally for you? Some kind of story you could share with your audience?

One could argue that you may not feel comfortable with a piece until it is “ready” – but when might that be? Look at the performance of a piece as a way of saying “this is what I’ve been working on guys, and this is where it’s at at the moment”.

That experience of sharing a piece with an audience at a stage or different stages in its development also allows you an additional insight into the piece – how it feels, flows and how your body moves with it in the performance situation.

What if I want to play more than one piece?

If you’re playing one than one piece or a selection of pieces, try to provide some contrast – stylistic contrast, different tempos, different technical requirements.

This creates interest for the audience and also perhaps gives you a mental and physical break, depending on the types, tempos and styles of pieces you’re playing. Perhaps you could also weave some pieces together with a bit of a theme or storyline that connect them?

“Guitar throughout the ages” for a selection of pieces from different eras, “music of Spain/ Brazil/ South America/ insert your country or area of choice here”, “my favourite pieces” – there are numerous possibilities for crafting a mini programme theme.

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Following up on my previous post on performance anxiety…. A reading suggestion for you Prior to sitting for my Eighth Grade examination a few years back, in came across a book called The Inner Game of Music, from a professional double bass player by the name of Barry Green. I found the ideas and concepts described in the book helped me a lot and is well worth a read.

Watch this space!

I’ll follow up this post with another blog in the series, on preparation for performance.

Keep your eyes peeled!

Coming up, I’m planning a wee edition to the blog site over the coming weeks to help you, dear readers, and make sure you don’t miss a post.

As always, please feel free to comment below, ask questions or give me your thoughts on things you’d like to see covered in this blog.