Problem in a song. What now?

You learn a new song and there is this place that gives you so much more trouble than all the rest. First thing that usually comes to our minds is: “practise the hell out of this bugger!”. But now is not the time for mindless repetition. Actually it’s probably the most inefficient thing you could do. Instead it’s time for some mental work. Here are some guidelines:

  1. Isolate the difficult part. Find last easy (comparatively) notes and where the difficult part ends.
  2. Is the difficulty of the part in technique? Or maybe you don’t understand the rhythm?
  3. Is the problem in your right hand, left hand? Maybe both hands are difficult or rather it’s not a problem of each hand separately or synchronization between two hands?
  4. Can you play it correctly very slow? If you can, notice what happens when you speed up? What is the core of your problem? Tension, slow movement, precision, stretch?
  5. Once you have the problem pinned down you might be ready to go rest of the road with brute force approach. But if you have any doubts keep going to the next point.
  6. Try isolating just the troublesome movement. The more you narrow it down the easier it’ll be.
  7. Cut out all that is irrelevant for your problem. If problem is just in one hand, cut the other. Divide the movement into segments (for example if it’s arpeggio practise just two-three fingers at a time. If it’s a chord change, learn just the vertical movement and then horizontal separately).
  8. If you see that difficulty would be much better addressed in some kind of technical exercise that you know or can come up with, go for it.
  9. Once you know the fundamental part, “dress it up” progressively with more and more of what you cut before until you’re back where you started.

With time and experience you’ll be able to skip steps and arrive at conclusions almost intuitively. For that to develop, however: you’ll have to do those steps consciously for some time.

How to learn songs by heart

If you learn your songs from tabs or standard notation, you might be struggling with learning them by heart. I remember that when I was beginning, my sight reading was so poor that I had no other choice but to memorize the material. What I see in my students (especially playing easier pieces) is that they keep on reading from the paper no matter what. The way I try to get around that is to make them learn and practice a song bar by bar. And it’s much easier to memorize it that way.

When you take up a new song you probably play through it couple of times. Oftentimes that’s how people keep practising – just playing the whole thing in a rugged way and hoping that it gets better. Practising smaller beats is much more effective but the quickest way to learn the song and to free yourself from the tyranny of paper is to make the bit you work on as short as possible. Learn just one bar (two at the most). Practice it without looking at the notes until it flows. Than practice next bar the same way. Then join them etc… Practice that way until you complete a single phrase. Than play this phrase over and over again until you don’t have to think about correct notes or fingers.

The funny thing is you have to do this work either way. But by doing those small bits by heart you’ll end up with well practised and memorized song. If you put the memorization work in from the beginning you’ll barely notice it. The alternative is you can learn the whole thing from the notes and only than start memorizing it. But than you’ll have a lot of unpleasant work to do.

If you practice with the notes in front of you, the temptation of looking at them might be too strong. Consider putting the notes at the other side of the room so that you have to get up every time you forget what you have to play. That way you’ll have much more motivation to remember what’s next. Also whenever you struggle to remember something, when you finally do it on your own it’s written much better into your brain. On the other hand, if you just look at the paper, the brain learns that it doesn’t have to remember because the paper is available. So once you read the piece you want to practice, use the notes only as a last resort.

Is it OK to simplify?

It happens pretty often. You choose a song to learn, go through it and notice that some part of it is simply beyond your reach. Or even worse, you spend a lot of time learning first half of the song only to notice that in the second half there is a part that is impossible (or too costly to learn) for you. All this time spent and you aren’t able to finish the song. If you were a classical guitarist there would be very little room to manoeuvre. Classical discipline usually requires fidelity to the musical text. However, since we are playing fingerstyle, which is light music, our reality is more forgiving. Of course some people preach that any changes in the original are bad. But ask yourself this: would you rather play the song you like with couple simplifications or not play it at all?

I firmly believe in compromise approach. Whenever I simplify a song, it’s not because of my laziness. It’s because I know learning it 100% accurate is impossible or  it would take too much time that I could use elsewhere. Of course the ultimate goal is to learn a song in it’s entirety. But it’s not always possible or practical for me. I could do it if I spent very long time practising but at the moment I can’t afford it.

Does it mean it’s OK to simplify? No. It’s not OK. Simplifying becomes addictive and if you don’t watch yourself it can become your second nature. An easy way around things you have to work on. So I think a musician should always treat it as evil… It’s just that it’s sometimes necessary and lesser evil.

One last thing. Try to keep track of all the changes you made to the original. Once in a while, check if your abilities have grown to the level at which you can tackle the difficult part. You can also consider creating simplified version for occasions when you want to just play the piece for someone,while patiently practising the difficult original.

Voices distinction

One of the things that from the get go drew me towards fingerstyle was the way in which voices seem to be split and individualised. It’s achieved in couple of ways. For example base line can be palm muted to create an illusion of another instrument. On higher levels it’s also possible to gain such independence between two parts of a song that the player can insert changes into rhythm or melody of a song to deepen an illusion of another musician lurking in the shadows.

But all the technical tricks are of little help if they aren’t the result of our imagination and mental image of the song. There is little chance that the musician creates multidimensional panorama of voices in his arrangement if he doesn’t first hear it in his head. That’s where it should all start. To play like two (or more) musicians you should first hear those separate instruments in your head. Of course it’s not some sort of a switch that you can just flip. It’s rather a skill that should be continuously developed. Here are couple of tips on how to approach it.

  1. While listening to songs played by a whole band try to distinguish individual voices. A good place to start is early Beatles stuff for example (back when they didn’t use additional instruments as much). Bare in mind that given voice can be played by more than one instrument and instruments can switch between different voices. Try to listen to some songs you know well and concentrate only on one voice at a time (first listen – base, second – guitar riffs etc.).
  2. Listen to some polyphonic music. Polyphonic music and counterpoint has been mastered in Baroque period and Bach is an obvious place to go. Try Das Wohltemperierte Klavier or Goldberg Variations to see how one man can simultaneously play up to 4 voices on one piano. Once you start to distinguish some of those voices, you are on a good track.
  3. Listen to your favourite fingerstyle stuff and follow the same routine.  First try to distinguish melody and accompaniment. Then search for different voices in accompaniment (though maybe there is just one).
  4. Take some song that you can play well and that has clear cut voices (some boom-chick or moving base song for example). Listen to the original and repeat previous point. You can try to sing the separate voices. Also try to imagine that the song is played by two or more instruments.
  5. Then try to play it concentrating on just one of the voices. At this point try to bring each voice (one at a time) forward as much as possible. Continue working with your imagination. Really put some effort into imagining two or more instruments. While concentrating on a melody try to imagine that the base is played by another musician. Repeat for base.

Try to implement the initial points into your normal music listening. Try to de-construct the wall of sound into voices. It will influence your playing.

After you do all this there is a question of how to approach the performance of a song containing multiple voices. But it’s a topic for another article.

Two ideas on learning new songs

It seems pretty straightforward: you start at the first bar and finish at the last. I’ve learned a lot of songs that way and could keep on doing it if it was not for wanting something new. So here are two not so obvious ways of approaching new piece of music.


Start at… the end! If you always start at the beginning then the first bar is probably learnt the best and the last… you get the idea. Instead start at the last bar (last phrase or whatever) and just stick new segments on top of what you’ve learned. I used it for the first time with Tommy Emmanuel’s Bella Soave. Let me tell you: it feels very refreshing. It also gives you whole new inside into the song you’re learning. You can also mix it by starting with a bridge, or B part.


If you anticipate some difficulties in the song (for example a difficult lick, chords or whatever) start with it. If you’ve listened to the piece a lot (and you should) you can probably figure out which part will bring you the most frustrations. Instead of leaving this part for the end start with it and get it over with. That way if you simply aren’t able to learn it you won’t loose time for learning the rest of the song. Moreover it won’t be hanging over your head like an axe. Instead you’ll have comfort of knowing that the worst is over. For example when I was learning Tommy’s arrangement of I go to Rio (quite some time ago), I didn’t know if some of the licks are even within my reach. Having learnt them at he beginning, the rest of the song was pure pleasure.

Did you come up with any unusual ways of practising new songs? If so, share in comments section.


Strategies of the greatest #1 – Pepe Romero

I start a cycle of posts where I’m going to take the best guitar players and extract and analyse their approach to music, playing, learning, to show their strategies and their thought process. Right at the start I expect to find some similar points in all the greats but also a lot of individual differences and even conflicting ideas. So for the first part of our course we’ll take…

Pepe Romero

He is one of the greatest classical guitarists ever. His career spans over almost 6 decades. His technique is incomparable. But I’m not writing his biography. Here are most interesting things I got from him (bold) with a little of commentary (not bold).

Be eternal student – Absolutely. Guitarist stops learning the day he dies. You’re never a complete work. Never!

Balance of mechanics and spirit – Technique is important but it’s only a tool that helps you express yourself. If you have nothing to express your technique is just a circus trick. For me the problem is the other way around. I approach technique in periodical dashes. It probably would be better to include some technical workout on a daily basis. Watching Pepe however always makes me want to do some more work on it.

Think about what you play as easy – This one is so important. The way we perceive reality might not change it but it sure can change our performance. Worrying about difficult parts in songs makes you tense and make mistakes. We play best when we’re relaxed.

Keep balance between practising and keeping it fresh – This one is difficult for me. Playing the same song for hundreds of times sometimes makes it flat emotionally. But not playing it… The light in the tunnel is that with each new songs it takes me less and less time to master it. Taking breaks from some songs helps as well.

Piece doesn’t begin with the first sound. It’s surrounded by silence – There is nothing worse than starting to play the piece mindlessly and only then trying to get inside it emotionally. You should always do it before you start playing. Give yourself this moment of silence before starting to play to fully get your mind into it. Same goes with an ending. Let it fade (especially in slower pieces).

What do you like? Develop your taste – You have to work on your musical taste. You have to know what you like in others (guitarists, singers, cellists, whatever) and then search this sound while playing. It’s your job to tell the difference between good and bad sound. Especially in your own playing.

What it should sound like? What it should feel like? – These questions are almost equally important in playing the guitar. Take the feedback from both sources  while playing. Try to imagine the perfect relaxed movement and then try to achieve it.

Best way to bypass the nerves is to dive into the sound – Having problems with stage fright? Just start playing and loose yourself in music. Practice your concentration muscle so that it becomes more and more obedient. Then, just concentrate on playing.

Eyes should be looking at where left hand has to go – You don’t have to watch your left hand, but if you do, always look at its target before the change of position. When you try to throw a rock at something, you look at the target and not at the rock in your hand. Use the same principle when playing.

What limits you in playing fast isn’t how quickly you can move your finger but how quickly you can relax the muscle after that – This was mentioned when studying fast playing with two fingers at the same string. I use it in many other situations. The factor that usually slows me down is not speed of my finger (or hand) movement but the fact that right after playing something the muscle is still tensed. This makes the next motion more difficult. Working on impulse playing (quick movement followed by total relaxations) really helped me.

Here are some interviews and master classes that I based my post on.

Just a short motivational interview:

Pepe’s approach to Concierto de Aranjuez – best known guitar concert. Understanding piece’s emotions:

Two hours of master class. Long gut super interesting. A must-watch!


A lot about technique. Check other videos on Andrey Parfinovich’s channel. There is more there: