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The Psychology of Simple Music

In the interview with Petar Jankovich, he said, “don’t go on stage displaying your abilities… it’s not about showing off.” Petar went on to say that if you do that, you’re doomed to a, “non-expressive, flat — maybe virtuosic — but pretty flat and boring performance.”

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. I think we do this almost automatically: we want to display how good we are. We want others to be impressed. This is especially true if the performance is for peers or other guitarists.

Lately I’ve been playing some very simple pieces by Fernando Sor. I love these pieces. They’re fun to play, and easy to do well on.

But playing simple music is different. When there’s no virtuosic passages, there’s no place built into the piece to show off. There’s only musical issues to sort out — there’s only musicality to save these simple pieces from being boring.

The lack of virtuosity in these pieces changes the mindset to performing them. They just become fun. It’s not about, “look how good I am,” it’s about, “I love these simple pieces, and I want to share them with you.” That’s a totally new world!

There’s a lot of reasons for performing simple music: gives you something to start with and warm up on or they give you extra time for not much effort.

Maybe playing simple music can help improve performance by helping adjust the psychological aspects of performance.

Thoughts?

11 Responses leave one →
  1. 2009 October 20

    Yes, I think there’s something very profound and significant in this thought. Since I picked up my guitar again a couple of years ago, I am focused on simple beginning or intermediate difficulty pieces. And for most of the people I play for, just being able to play with confidence and fun is very entertaining and they enjoy listening.

    I heard Robert Guthrie once say to work on all levels of pieces. Ones that you can learn quickly and ones that you might never learn. They all have their place. Thanks for pointing this out again Chris, it’s helpful.

  2. 2009 October 20

    Someone asked me why I added some Sor etudes to my repertoire…They thought they were too simple… I asked “Do you like the Beatles at all”?? Of course they repsonded with “Yes!”.. I asked them why…They only used a few basic chords in each song and the arrangements were simple…Needless to say, they got it.

  3. 2009 October 20
    Pete M permalink

    I have been thinking about that comment as well after listening to the interview, and I agree with you. Playing less complicated pieces would allow you to focus more on the musical side of things. Then you could apply this mindset back to the more technical pieces. That is the most difficult part though! 🙂

  4. 2009 October 20

    I’ll admit this, although I like to think of myself as a classical guitar student, I find myself enjoying a lot of Hawaiian slack-key pieces played on the classical guitar.

    They’re relatively simple (at least the ones I play are). Some are whimsical. Some are wonderfully relaxing. Your interpretation quickly puts the ‘aloha’ into the piece or takes it out. People seem to prefer hearing these pieces when I use them to test out guitars at the boutique shops.

  5. 2009 October 20

    I think a simple piece can be played with virtuosity. Virtuosity shouldn’t refer only to technical ability, but overall ability as a player, which encompasses the ability to interpret a piece in a way that makes it sound more like magic.

  6. 2009 October 20

    Watch Down From The Mountain, the video of the folks who did the O Brother soundtrack. Specifically, watch John Hartford. I think “Man of Constant Sorrow”, a solo arrangement, just John and the fiddle. Very simple, very slow, and very powerful. It’s a master musician wanting to show the great melody, not how good he is. Perfect illustration of your point, I think.

  7. 2009 October 21

    “This is especially true if the performance is for peers or other guitarists.”

    I think that’s one of the key sentences to understand this mindset trap. Most non musician’s don’t give a damn about virtuosity. They don’t care if there’s a hard to execute move required for a certain chord change or if it’s the simplest G to D chord change in an easy strumming rhythm.

    If it sounds good, it is good.

    It’s a reminder that’s needed to be heard often before it really sinks in.

    P.S.: Nice playing on the Sor, Christopher. 🙂

  8. 2009 October 21

    Many listeners won’t appreciate the differences in how demanding or difficult individual pieces of music are to play and I think the complexity and technicle elegance of a piece is often lost on the average listener. A lot of the worlds most popular songs are literally made up of three chords. Sometimes it is better to just to keep it simple and be appreciated more.

  9. 2009 December 10
    Marc Purchon permalink

    Hi – just enjoying your glog/website. I’m somewhat self teaching myself guitar being ex violin player and use any tips or techniques I can find for classical to pseudo-classical styles.

    Recently can’t get villa-lobos’s choros no1 out of my head so am starting to tackle the score.
    Anybody recommend downloadable guitar lessons?

    Just loving to play some of the videos on you site.

    thanks

    Marc

  10. 2013 March 3
    Chas permalink

    I have it good authority that “simplicity is key.”

    Now to just remember it…

  11. 2013 August 10

    I’m doing my first recital next May and I’ve got a couple of easy yet beautiful Sor studies in there. As its my first one and there will be a lot of important people there I’m keeping it easy, beautiful and not too flashy.

    I saw one of my colleagues try to do pieces that were at the top of his ability, and as you might expect, it was a disaster! So embarrassing and of course damaging to his reputation!

    I remember from a competition when I was a kid, the adjudicator said “no one enjoys an uncomfortable performance” which is soooo true!!

    I strongly believe there is a fine art to picking pieces to play in a recital. On a whole they need to be hard enough so no one thinks you’ve chickened out but they need to be easy enough so you yourself don’t freak out and lose it. Tricky stuff! Careful thought is definitely required!

    Great article!

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