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David Russell on mastering difficult music


Tuesday Quotes are short explorations of music, life, and the daily endeavor of practicing classical guitar. Find more here. Enjoy!


“Most difficult or complex things are really two or three simple things put together.”

David Russell


In any field, the masters often praise the value of the basics. We can reach higher heights when we build on solid foundations.

In guitar, we have our right- and left-hand movements, the way our hands synchronize, our practice skills, our focus and selective attention.

In addition to his concert touring schedule, David Russell records a new album of classical guitar pieces at the rate of almost one per year. This means he’s always learning and polishing new music.

And part of getting that much music up to speed is solving problems.

For masterful problem-solvers, the process involves simplifying. Break the complex problem into smaller problems, and look at them one at a time.

On guitar, this means resisting the urge to play through a passage over and over, and instead work on the smaller issues within the passage.

For any tricky spot, we may have a left-hand shift, a chord change, an awkward right-hand fingering and more. And with all these layered challenges, we also need to stay aware of the melody, rhythm and any other musical elements.

And with all this happening in less than a second, it becomes extremely complex and detailed.

So the answer is to separate the issues: the left hand alone, the right hand alone, the melody, the bass, the rhythm, one note leading to the next.

When we break a musical challenge into its elements, we can ensure that we are aware of all the details of each element. Then, when we reassemble the parts, the problem has often “magically” disappeared.

This is why one of the most powerful questions we have in our practice is, “What’s going on here?”

We can slow down and increase our levels of awareness. And with focused practice, what did seem impossible now becomes a choreography of a few simple steps, performed one after the next.








Allen Mathews

Hi, I’m Allen Mathews. 


I started as a folk guitarist, then fell in love with classical guitar in my 20’s. Despite a lot of practice and schooling, I still couldn’t get my music to flow well. I struggled with excess tension. My music sounded forced. And my hands and body were often sore. I got frustrated, and couldn’t see the way forward. Then, over the next decade, I studied with two other stellar teachers – one focused on the technical movements, and one on the musical (he was a concert pianist). In time, I came to discover a new set of formulas and movements. These brought new life and vitality to my practice. Now I help guitarists find more comfort and flow in their music, so they play more beautifully.
Click here for a sample formula.




Thanks to you (you are my only teacher) in only a few months I've gone from very basic beginner pieces to having just completed learning Bach's Gavottes 1&2 in good form and execution. As a non-classical electric guitarist who has always used a pick and never his fingers, this has been no small feat!


-Gregg Olson

Allen Mathews was recommended to me as somebody who could help me expand my guitar vocabulary.  Allen started me on a really fun cycle of lessons and practice.  He is a very good,and very enthusiastic teacher, and I feel that I'm on the road to learning.  I couldn't be more pleased with my experience.


-Peter Buck (r.e.m.)



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