Practice Makes Perfect on Classical Guitar. Or Does It?

classical guitar on stand

Acquiring mastery of a musical instrument (or even partial mastery) is dependent on many factors. But the bedrock of competence is invariably the quality and quantity of the daily practice that the player must apply.

This leads on to a whole nest of vipers, posing questions which have to be perpetually answered at various stages of life. A child’s guitar practice, for example, may be somewhat different from that of a student at university or conservatoire. The average youngster might have to be persuaded or directed toward daily practice, helped as much as possible by a parent or devoted teacher. The music student in advanced education is presumed to be more seriously self-motivated and ambitious, aware of the necessity for intense study and maximum effort.

So far, so good. But move the student along a few years into the task of earning a living. For the professional teacher of guitar, it is not always possible to keep up the volume of practice that one became accustomed to while in college. Teaching all day every day in whatever context, whether privately or in an educational establishment, can be exhausting.

Add to the mix the responsibilities, pleasures, commitments, and complexities of wives or partners, offspring, providing for a household, etc., and the result can be a massive dose of frustration. To feel one’s playing standard slipping away after the golden days of full-time studying is extremely disheartening.

Tensions also arise when the classical guitar teacher is invited to offer concert performances here and there. Then it is time to burn the candle at both ends, braving marital discontent or crying children, to bang on regardless, absorbing repertoire and practicing the necessary technical exercises. (From such moments the seeds for divorce can be effortlessly dispersed into fertile ground!)

Strangely enough, even amateur guitar enthusiasts can feel the strain. I was the director of an annual summer school for 20 years, and the wife of one of our regular participants used to confront me with the words “I hate you!” The reason was that her husband had caught the guitar bug well and truly, and insisted on three hours practice every night after a long day’s work. The poor woman had become a guitar widow.


Professional performers are not necessarily immune from such problems. Fortunately, quite a few marry fellow musicians who understand the addictive, obsessive, and solitary nature of daily practice, or join up with a saintly martyr willing to withstand the pressures of the artist’s life. (All the same, the marital track records of many soloists, orchestral players, and band members, leave much to be desired.)

Various flamenco players I have known over the years hardly ever “practiced” at all—they just played all day and most of the night! One in particular, Pepe Martínez, from the hot Spanish city of Seville, preferred to play all night (when it was relatively cool) and sleep during the morning. He liked food, but when he wasn’t eating he was playing guitar—a wonderfully vibrant existence and, moreover, Pepe was surrounded by a large and loving family who embraced his idiosyncratic artistry.

The point is that practice is a bottomless pit of endeavor, patience, and endurance. The workload is infinite. The great violinist Yehudi Menuhin defined the multiple components of practice as follows: “The image of a particular work is projected in various aspects. There is the physiological, physical sensation associated with playing; the digital memory; the visualization of the page where the note occurs in the score; the intellectual knowledge of the structure of a piece or of a movement; the emotional guide to the effective sequence.” (Yehudi Menuhin Music Guides, Violin and Viola, 1976)

The practice activities of many leading players are something of a mystery, which the players do not necessarily share with the rest of the world. And why should they? However, Segovia explained many times that he preferred to practice in four periods of an hour and a quarter, just five hours a day, with relaxation between the periods of activity. This provides a useful hint to all of us about how long a specific practice time might be and how many such daily sessions could be appropriate.

Segovia’s manifesto of practicing was set out in a letter from New York on December 20, 1954, to the pianist, composer, and critic Bernard Gavoty: “Few people suspect what the study of an instrument demands. The public watch the music-miracle in comfort, never dreaming of the asceticism and sacrifices which the musician must perform in order to make himself capable of accomplishing it… But as for us pianists, violinists, cellists, and guitarists—how many hours of pain and self-abnegation, how many weeks, months, and years do we spend polishing a single passage, burnishing it and bringing out its sparkle?

“And when we consider it ‘done to a turn,’ we spend the rest of our life persevering so that our fingers shall not forget the lesson or get entangled again in a brambly thicket of arpeggios, scales, trills, chords, accents, and grace notes! And if we climb from that region of technique to the more spiritual sphere of interpretation, what anguish we experience in trying to find the soul of a composition behind the inert notation, and how many scruples and repentings we have before we dare to discover what does not lie hidden in the paper!” (Bernard Gavoty, Segovia,1955)

I have always found these words encouraging and stimulating. With our daily practice we may not always be certain where we are going. But we can still be determined to get there. 

Watch ace guitarist Jason Vieaux teach “Segovia scales” below. It might help your warm-up routine!