Classical Guitar Instruction with Douglas Niedt

How to get rid of "random" mistakes
in the final stages of mastering a song

Douglas Niedt, guitarist

"Douglas who?"

Douglas Niedt is a successful concert and recording artist and highly respected master classical guitar teacher with 50 years of teaching experience. He is Associate Professor of Music (retired), at the Conservatory of Music and Dance, University of Missouri-Kansas City and a Fellow of the Henry W. Bloch School of Management—Regnier Institute for Entrepreneurship and Innovation.

Doug studied with such diverse masters as Andrés Segovia, Pepe Romero, Christopher Parkening, Narciso Yepes, Oscar Ghiglia, and Jorge Morel. Therefore, Doug provides solutions for you from a variety of perspectives and schools of thought.

He gives accurate, reliable advice that has been tested in performance on the concert stage that will work for you at home.

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How to get rid of "random" mistakes
in the final stages of mastering a song

By Douglas Niedt

Copyright Douglas Niedt. All Rights Reserved.
This article may be reprinted, but please be considerate and give credit to Douglas Niedt.

After seemingly mastering a piece, guitarists often tell me they still make mistakes. They found solutions to play the really difficult spots in the song so they can deal with those. But they say, "I play through the piece beginning to end and make random mistakes." Or, one of my students will play through a piece for me, make an error and exclaim, "Ugh, I've never made that mistake before." But the truth of the matter is that they did make that mistake before, forgot about it or ignored it, didn't fix it, and now are making it again.

Even after a guitarist has spent months on a piece and is playing the music better than ever, the problems they ignored and did not fix will continue to pop up. "Accidental" or "random" mistakes can be hard to notice because when you play through a piece from beginning to end without stopping, you are "in the zone," focusing on what is coming next, not on what you just played. Or, you are focused on the big, known problems.

By the time you get to the end of the piece, you might remember making some "random" errors, but you can't remember precisely what they were or where they occurred. If you don't remember them, you can't fix them. Therefore they will appear again, seemingly as "random" errors. They may not appear every time you play the piece, but you can count on them returning like a politician seeking campaign donations. But there is a way to fix the mistakes once and for all.

"Putting Out Fires" is the simple process to eliminate "random" mistakes

First, video yourself

You do not need an elaborate camera system because it does not have to be a high-quality video. Your phone will work well. If you want to use something more sophisticated, go for it. Be sure you have flexibility in positioning the camera. Sometimes you may want a closeup of the left hand, or sometimes a closeup of the right hand. In some instances, you may want an entire body shot to diagnose problems with your sitting position, the position of the left elbow, shoulders, etc.

Make a fresh, clean copy of your music

You are going to mark up the music quite a bit, so start with a clean copy.

Day #1

Step 1

On Day #1, video yourself once, playing the piece from beginning to end. Do not do multiple takes. Video only the first attempt. Why?

In a previous technique tip, The Keys to Consistent Classical Guitar Playing, Part 2 of 2, I discuss "Habit Strength." Habit Strength is the type of learning that enables you to play a passage well on the first try, day after day. Habit Strength is the muscle memory stored in your long-term memory. The way you play a piece on the first try is a measure of your real Habit Strength. It is that first take that counts.

"Momentary Mastery" happens when you play a passage repeatedly, and it sounds pretty good after twenty minutes of practice. But no one cares how you play a song after fourteen attempts! And the motor memory of Momentary Mastery is stored in your short-term memory. Therefore, when you play it tomorrow, it fails outright or feels shakey. Momentary Mastery doesn't necessarily "stick."

So, since we are in the final stages of mastering a piece, and our goal is to eliminate "random" mistakes, we need to test our mastery with Habit Strength, not Momentary Mastery. That is why we record our performance once each day. But to correct the mistakes, we use "Deliberate Practice," which uses multiple repetitions. See The Keys to Consistent Classical Guitar Playing, Part 1 of 2.

Step 2

Watch the video, and with a colored pen or marker, circle the spots on the page where you made mistakes. I call this page a "fire map." The circles are the locations of the fires (the mistakes you made) that you need to extinguish!

Here is an example (the first half of Lágrima by Francisco Tárrega) of a fire map from a student's video performance on Day #1:

Fire map of Lagrima from day 1

When you watch YOUR video, analyze what caused each mistake and find solutions to fix them. You may not be able to understand what caused an error only by watching the video. Often you will need to play the passage a few times to figure out what might have gone wrong. Write out your solutions on a separate, clean copy of the music.

Here is my student's solutions map, which details the fixes for his problems on Day #1:

Solution fire map of Lagrima from day 1

Apply the solutions for YOUR fire map and put out the fires that same day. Take special note of any error that you cannot correct in one day, and practice it every day with Deliberate Practice until you fix it.

Repeat steps 1 and 2 for several days

Repeat the process but use a different color each day to circle the mistakes. At the top of the page, make a color key showing each color/date so you can keep track of your progress or lack thereof.

Here is an example of my student's fire map after six days of practice:

Student fire map of Lagrima for the week

On YOUR fire map, after several days, you will find that some spots have multiple colored circles around them. You may end up with dozens of circles all over the music after just a few days. If it becomes unreadable or too confusing, make a new, clean copy of the music and continue. The good news is that that you will notice the number of circles steadily decreases each day. You extinguish the old fires.

After six days of practice, my student's solutions map looked like this:

Student solutions map of Lagrima for the week

The student made good progress. There was a fairly steady decline in the number of incidents:

  • 5/8/21: Red, 7 incidents
  • 5/4/21: Green, 3 incidents
  • 5/5/21: Purple, 4 incidents
  • 5/6/21: Blue, 2 incidents
  • 5/7/21: Brown, 1 incident
  • 5/8/21: Orange, 1 incident

Most of the solutions were easy to devise. The student applied them successfully in one or two days and extinguished the fires. The incident with the bar chord in measure 7 was harder to solve. Notice it has three circles around it. He has had occasional fires pop up since then, but none are new. They are the result of forgetting to apply the solutions he already found.

On YOUR fire map, as new fires pop up, put them out. Find the error, circle it in the music, and fix it. Depending on the length and complexity of the piece, it will take anywhere from a few days to several weeks to successfully extinguish all the fires. Finally, you will be able to play the song nearly flawlessly from beginning to end with no "random" mistakes.

Watch me demonstrate the fires my student encountered and how we extinguished them.

★ BE SURE TO WATCH ON FULL SCREEN so that you can read the fire maps. Click on the icon at the bottom on the right:

Video: "How to Put Out Fires"

What if this doesn't work? What then?

What if you cannot find a solution to a problem in four or five days? In that case, it will be necessary to apply "Deliberate Practice" (see The Keys to Consistent Classical Guitar Playing, Part 1 of 2). You will have to deconstruct the passage (tear it down into small chunks) and reassemble it with forward and reverse chaining. If it is a fast piece, speed bursts are also effective. I explain the process in my technique tip, How to Play Faster on the Classical Guitar: Use the "Play-Fast-Now" Practice Strategy, Part 2 of 2.


Getting rid of "random" errors is relatively easy if you use this systematic process of putting out the fires. Although it is best to use this process in the final stage of cleaning up a piece, you may also find it helpful in earlier learning stages.


1. Download a PDF of the article with a link to the video. Depending on your browser, it will download the PDF (but not open it), open it in a separate tab in your browser (you can save it from there), or open it immediately in your PDF app.

Download a PDF of "Putting Out Fires" How to get rid of "random" mistakes in the final stages of mastering a piece (with links to the videos)

2. Download the video. Click on the video link. After the Vimeo video review page opens, click on the down arrow in the upper right corner. You will be given a choice of several different resolutions/qualities/file sizes to download.

Putting Out Fires, Lágrima (Francisco Tárrega)