Frederic Chopin on Musical Simplicity and Practice

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

“Simplicity is the final achievement. After one has played a vast quantity of notes and more notes, it is simplicity that emerges as the crowning reward of art.”

Frederic Chopin

There is a documentary on the artist Picasso that shows him in the process of creation. In this video, he spends all day on a collage.

He tries first one thing, then another. Over and over. He moves things around. He adds and substracts, hour after hour.

Then, when he finds what he’s looking for, he starts over. He pulls out a new canvas, and recreates the piece. It takes just a few minutes, and is extremely simple.

Looking at the final work, it looks so obvious. It looks like he did it in mere moments, which he did (sort of). But it also looks “right.”

Playing our guitar pieces often takes a similar journey. We toil with details and ideas. We work to smooth the tricky bits. We (ideally) experiment with volume and rhythm and tone quality to create beautiful phrasing.

And after toying with exaggeration and characature, we arrive at something simple. It becomes simpler in our mind’s ear.

When we play it, it may well sound easy. It sounds natural and inevitable. It makes a clear musical statement.

Of course we also evolve over time. What was once musical to our ears may later become pedantic or parody. Like mature actors, we may become more adept at subtlety.

But the bulk of the process, like Picasso’s collage, is “stirring the pot.”

We need to spend the time trying new things and practicing in different ways. And the sounds created in this time do not always resemble the final version.

It’s okay to exaggerate dynamics and alter rhythms in practice. It helps. It’s how we figure out what we want. And it’s how we train our hands to do as we tell them.

Then, we can go back to basics.

We rebuild the piece as simply and elegantly as we can. Likely, this means we play in rhythm. Our volume dynamics are intentional and strategic.

We may come to infer, rather than illustrate (which is only possible after we’ve worked out the illustrations).

Our daily practice gives us the opportunity to be creative – to play. And over time, we can bring our pieces to a clean and simple performance.

This journey usually takes much longer than a day. But what we gain is a homecoming worthy of the storybooks.

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.

This is the ideal starting position for me. As a relative beginner with no teacher this is helping me enormously in developing good technique and not falling into bad habits. I no longer feel (A) That it's a struggle to learn a new piece and (B) That I am alone in my endeavors. My advice is to try The Woodshed program. It is fantastic and will not only bring up your playing but his explanations of musical concepts as you go along put things into perspective.

-John Andersson

Hi Allen, I am thoroughly enjoying your website and I find it is just what I need in my renewed passion for classical guitar. I have rediscovered a great love for this instrument and the music I can learn and play and it has changed my life for the better dramatically! Thank you facilitating this process.

-George Rogers

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