There is a widespread belief that classical guitar is a tough instrument to learn. It is certainly one of the toughest. So how much time should you invest in it before you see results?
Most of us have to earn a living and the time available for daily practice is limited. So the practical question for us is: How skillful can we become and in what time frame?
Most teachers and advanced players say that to become a professional level concert player, it will take 6 to 7 years while practicing 6 hours a day. It will take even longer at that rate – ten years or so – to become a world class virtuoso. On the other hand, someone starting out to learn with no concert level ambitions can play beginner level etudes in a matter of 6 months.
Most people’s experience will fall between those extremes, depending on the practice time available and what it is they want to be able to play in the end.
If you devote full-time study to the classical guitar, say, as a music student, you can get to a near-pro level in four years. That is very much possible with 6 hours or more of practice every single day under expert guidance as many conservatory students have shown.
If all you can steal for daily practice is an hour or two at the most, there are still rewards ahead. For the rest of the article, we will consider folks in this situation rather than students aiming to become concert artists.
What will you achieve in 6 months of playing classical guitar?
Like with any musical instrument, the first few months will go in learning to correctly adapt the body to it, paying attention to posture, sight reading, and the basics of getting a sound out of it using both hands. Playing music is incidental at this stage.
But with a good curriculum or under a personal tutor’s experienced instruction, a novice can learn half a dozen or so simple studies in the first 6 months. Learning fundamental techniques like finger alternation, placement accuracy of left-hand fingers, getting a good tone and learning the notes in the first position are often done through tried and tested studies. These impart some aspect of technical skill while also being rewarding to play.
While scales and arpeggios form the necessary backbone of a solid education in guitar training, it is in the playing of simple studies that a learner gets to enjoy the music and experience the motivation to learn more. It’s very possible that at the end of the first year, a good student will have under his or her belt close to a dozen etudes (studies) to play and enjoy.
Assuming you have weekly lessons and you practice about an hour a day, a diligent student with no previous guitar experience should have a small repertoire of relatively simple songs within the first six months of playing classical guitar. Nothing that will win you applause from strangers but can attract a faint nod of approval from family members.
What can 3 years of learning the classical guitar teach you?
Given the same diligence of an hour a day combined with a good tutor, you can play the next level of complex pieces from the classical guitar’s extensive repertoire. You can impress your family members with these and the odd stranger too. You will certainly be pleased with yourself, because learning a new piece – better still, playing it from memory – can be an exhilarating experience for budding musicians.
There is an excellent repertoire of easier classical songs from the Classical period especially – music composed by Aguado, Coste, Carulli and Carcassi particularly – that most guitarists learn. These are multi-part songs, which is where the classical guitar shines. The old masters have crafted quite a few compositions to please novice hands.
The tougher pieces from this period come from Giuliani and Sor, both expert composers for the guitar. You will have a piece or two from them in your repertoire, or at least, you should try to. They are not only rewarding to play but great to listen to.
You are likely to be perfecting certain staple pieces like Romanza by Anonymous and Lagrima by Tarrega in addition to the Classical period pieces. A Brouwer etude (usually the mesmeric No. 1) will be within your grasp.
Incidentally, on the Romanza (or Romance) piece, I have known non-classical guitar people, including my son who is a bass guitarist, who can play it just after a couple of weeks of practicing it. And amazingly, they play it quite well. We must put it down to the innate charm of the piece that attracts so many to it.
So starting from scratch, with a good teacher, practicing one hour a day, every day, you should be a solid player, able to entertain people for at least 40 minutes with a repertoire of simpler known pieces in 3 years. Forty minutes of repertoire is probably a stretch for that is indeed a lot of material, but many do achieve it.
This period is also the time the student tries to reach for pieces beyond their level. They want to play a Bach Allemande or even Barrios’ La Catedral. Not very successfully, I must add. Desire often outstrips ability at this stage.
On the other hand, I have known young and old players who stay within their skill level and even give local recitals for money with their early and limited repertoire. It doesn’t always take advanced pieces to do well with the classical guitar. With time, you will be adding more advanced material. The trick, according to most experts, is not to rush it.
So when do you get to master more complex pieces like Tarrega’s Capricho Arabe or Jose Luis Merlin’s Evocacion or Gary Ryan’s Birds Flew Over the Spire? The so-called intermediate repertoire is the next stage of development.
What can you play after 5+ years of classical guitar?
With 5 years of playing the classical guitar, you are very much in control of basic skills like posture, hand positions, practice habits, scale and arpeggio playing with intent and so on. Your main goal and practice time are devoted to increasing repertoire. And you typically start exploring music from the various eras.
You’re getting ambitious to learn and bring under your fingers pieces like the ones mentioned above and a whole host of others from different periods. Some folks fall under the spell of Elizabethan Renaissance lute music, especially compositions from the prolific John Dowland and others like William Byrd and Robert Johnson.
Others prefer the Baroque period when J.S.Bach ruled supreme along with other talents like Gaspar Sanz and S.L.Weiss. There are advanced pieces by Sor in the Classical period and by later composers like Tarrega, Ponce, Llobet, Albeniz (with the famous Asturias) and a whole host of others that can keep a guitarist busy for a couple of lifetimes. Not to mention contemporary composers like Gary Ryan, Andrew York, Leo Brouwer, Richard Charlton and many more.
There is a wealth of material to explore and a guitarist of over 5 years’ experience can craft his or her own musical personality by carefully cherry-picking the pieces and periods they want to represent.
This is also the stage when a committed student of the guitar (and sufficiently seduced by it) tries to win more practice time for themselves. There is a repertoire to keep in shape, new pieces to add, new pieces to learn, technical exercises to keep the chops sharp, etc. All this needs more time every day. It’s not unusual for a student to practice 2 hours a day with an increased 3+ hours during the weekend.
Some senior players say that one hour a day is for keeping up and two hours a day are for making progress.
I have heard this attributed to Segovia: The great man apparently said a player can reach their full potential in 6 years if practicing correctly 20 minutes a day. I’m unable to find this quote myself anywhere but it sure sounds like an astounding, if not impossible, claim to make. But it brings up an important point. Practicing correctly.
Is it all about putting in time? Quantity vs quality
Many seasoned players and experts do not even like questions like “How long does it take to learn the classical guitar?” because it reduces everything to merely putting in the hours. As though if you put in an hour of playing every day, excellent results are automatically guaranteed.
They have a point. The real question is how to practice, not how much to practice. You can practice for hours on end but if you are disorganized, lack concentration and know nothing about technique, you will not see much improvement. If you are focused, organized, and concentrate on correct technique (a tutor is a great help), you can definitely see steady improvement with just a couple of hours a day.
All practicing does is teach your hands to make the desired movements smoothly. Repeating them over time makes them habitual. However, if what you are practicing is not the desired movements, all practicing will do is ingrain unwanted movements. That is the danger of not having a good teacher. You are running the risk that your practice is actually teaching you bad habits.
Iznaola says in his magnificent technique manual Kitharologus that mechanical repetition is useless. You have to make a conscious effort to produce a good sound from every stroke. Without that intent, the exercises are sterile and serve no purpose. Getting or learning to get a great sound is the whole point of practicing. Check Kitharologus at Amazon.
With that said, an intermediate guitarist tries to divide the time at his or her disposal over a handful of focussed sessions. An hour of practice time, for instance, can be divided into:
- 10 minutes of stretching and warm-up exercises for left and right hands
- 10 minutes of left hand ‘spider’ exercises and right-hand arpeggios
- 10 minutes of scales
- 30 minutes of practicing songs/pieces, perhaps devoting spot practice of 10 minutes each to 3 different pieces
Again, in all sessions above, it’s the focussed intent that matters.
In the coming 6 years, you can become very good at playing the classical guitar. I once read someone in the forums say something like this: Don’t ask how long the journey will be. Ask instead how much fun you will have along the way!
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