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Be a better classical guitarist by harnessing the power of simplicity

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The Shakers embraced simple design with true dedication to craft and attention to detail. We can too!

I would like to propose an (evidently) radical idea. It doesn’t seem like it would be radical, but evidently it is.

And that is this:

It’s not what you play, it’s how you play it.

Some songs in the classical guitar repertoire are presumably overplayed.

But this is like painters saying that landscapes are overplayed. Or that portraits are overdone.

The beauty in any piece of art lies in the effect it has on the observer. If you want to play something original, play with originality. Connect in a new way. Give someone a new experience. (more on how to do this later in this post)

(note: You still have to follow the score.  Let’s not get go off the deep end here…)

 

It really doesn’t matter what you play. What matters is the quality of experience for the listener.

Orchestras and soloists all over the world know this, and regularly program well-known pieces. There are phenomenal works of music available to us. And many of them are popular exactly because they are so phenomenal.

Old tunes

“If you truly want to take a stand in your playing, try insisting on excellence.”

Refusing to play pieces because they’re popular is ridiculous. If you truly want to take a stand in your playing, try insisting on excellence.

Even for players very early in their study, this is still pertinent. There are primary-level pieces that are beautiful. There is no shortage of beautiful music, just a shortage of beautiful playing.

Instead of hurrying through easier pieces with the goal of getting to the harder pieces…

What if we slowed down and embraced the beauty and musical opportunity in the piece in front of us?

What if the music we are learning right now is an end unto itself?

What if there were no harder pieces to get to down the road?

What if everything we need is right in front of us?

Play Beautifully

It is common for guitarists to come to me after playing for many years. The music they are playing is upper-intermediate or advanced-level music.

But the playing is not pretty. Their music isn’t connecting emotionally with listeners. They know this, and are seeking help for it.

“The tricky thing is: hard music is hard.”

The tricky thing is: hard music is hard. There is so much to do to make hard music beautiful. Sure, we can blast through and play all the notes clearly in time. We can get up to tempo. But that doesn’t make music beautiful. It just makes it clean and fast. And that only goes so far.

Now, please don’t think I have anything against clean and fast. Clean and fast are great. But they are only part of the big picture. To connect, and to be a transformative musical experience, we need more than that.

It’s all the same

And the things that we need for the hard pieces are the exact same things that we need for the easy pieces.

The thing that’s so great about easy pieces is that they’re easy! They give us the opportunity to focus our attention on something besides playing the notes cleanly in time. They offer vast opportunity for us to actually grow as musicians, not just technicians.

Easy pieces can be hard, too

Easy pieces are often incredibly exposed. There may be a single note melody line all by itself.

“Speed gives the illusion of perfection.”

When music is stripped away to such simple elements, we cannot rely on the dazzle of speed to make it interesting. We are forced to actually play real music in a musical way. Speed gives the illusion of perfection, but only to the player (not the listener).

The Serial Beginner

Most people shy away from the challenge. Most players are quick to stop work on an easy piece in favor of the next piece, then the next piece, then the next piece.

The academic model (a new recital every term) encourages this. Sure, there are benefits, but beautiful playing is rarely one of them.  The focus is often on breadth, not depth.

A different way to practice classical guitar

What would happen if you decided to dig deeper into an easier piece?

What could you do if you allowed yourself the time and attention to really explore a piece that is technically less challenging for you?

How might that work affect the way you play harder pieces?

Practicing forward

Here are some areas to focus on to bring easier pieces up to the next level:

1. Make sure the notes connect smoothly

Ensure that there are no unintentional gaps between notes.  Go slowly and really listen to one note connecting to the next.

2. Explore different ways to shape dynamics and phrases

Try many different ways.  This can be a source of endless fun and entertainment (not to mention challenge!).

3. Play around with accents, staccatos (short, clipped notes), smooth flowing lines.

How does changing the articulation (all these ways of playing a note) change the character of the piece?  If it’s more challenging to do a certain way, you have found something worthwhile to spend time on (even if you ultimately decide on a different choice).

4. Make the rhythm even more precise.

Ensure that any 16ths or 8ths are perfectly in time. Then even more.  What if it could be twice that precise?  Make sure that any rubato (slowing down or speeding up) is organized, logical, consistent and in complete control.

5. Ask better musical questions.

The questions you ask yourself determine what you do and how you do it.  Read this to blow your mind.

Your turn

Have any experience with this?  If you like, share a specific time you delved deeper into a piece and found more than you thought you would.

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9 Responses to Be a better classical guitarist by harnessing the power of simplicity

  1. Mary Ann May 21, 2017 at 8:53 am #

    Could you please add a link to you playing the pieces from Level 1 Repertoire and Etudes?
    Thanks Allen!

  2. Steve Dosh May 20, 2017 at 4:44 am #

    Hi Allen,

    This article is a great “echo” of my guitar immersion week with you. Accepting your challenge to simplify has been both rewarding and frustrating. It is rewarding because I have been able to return to “easier” pieces and improve them. Frustrating because playing easier pieces beautifully is so much harder than I ever imagined it would be. Yet when I see improvement in the musicality of one of my “simple” pieces, it is so encouraging and exciting. One of my favorite quotes is from Michelangelo: “trifles make perfection, and perfection is no trifle”. I am learning the truth of this in music thanks to your guidance.

    Have an enjoyable and blessed road trip,
    Steve Dosh

    • Allen May 21, 2017 at 9:44 am #

      Thanks, Steve!
      That’s a great quote!

  3. Adelino May 20, 2017 at 4:10 am #

    Thank you for this phrase : ” Go slowly and really listen to one note connecting to the next.”.
    Because without silence and harmony, there is no music.

  4. David Jones February 13, 2017 at 2:46 am #

    And the things that we need for the hard pieces are the exact same things that we need for the easy pieces.

    My favorite quote

    • Buffy March 9, 2017 at 8:13 pm #

      Ah, i see. Well tht’as not too tricky at all!”

  5. David Spiegelberg February 13, 2016 at 1:53 pm #

    Hi Allen,

    I happened upon your website while searching with the keywords “classical guitar overplaying”. What I found wasn’t what I was searching for, but after reading your article and viewing your video on the power of simplicity I feel I really need to respond.

    I’ve been doing exactly what you suggest and it’s given me a much greater depth of appreciation for and understanding of some of the “easy” pieces I played many years ago.

    In particular, I’ve been working on three pieces by Fernando Sor in Aaron Shearer’s Classic Guitar Technique Volume 1 (the 1963 version) – the Andante I (Op. 31, no. 1), Andante II (Op. 35, no. 1), and the Allegretto II (Op. 60, no. 6). All of these pieces are simple in construction with no elaborate arpeggios or fast passages. But when I chose to really “dig in” and hear what I think Sor was intending in these pieces, I was amazed at what I discovered and how much is going on in the music.

    Things like working on bringing out the distinct melody in each of the pieces and how the bass and accompaniment interact with the melody, overall dynamics, and tonal changes for repeated sections. And (this one was really huge for me) working diligently on string damping to reduce “muddyness” (paying attention to rests) and allow the melody to really stand out (my guitar has fairly loud sympathetic vibrations which often require damping as well). Damping was particularly useful in the Allegretto II.

    I think working on a piece with the power of simplicity in mind is really a more “mindful” way of learning where the process is one of discovery of things you might otherwise have just glossed over and not fully explored, ultimately leading to much more expressive music.

    • Allen February 13, 2016 at 2:42 pm #

      Thanks David,
      I couldn’t have said it better myself. I’m so glad you happened upon the site.
      Best of luck in all your musical endeavors!
      Cheers,
      Allen

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