The benefits of sometimes performing simple music

I’m spending a few days in rural Vermont, and last night a friend who lives here took me to visit her brother, who plays classical guitar. After a while, this friend asked her brother to play some music for me and this is the rare and amazing part: He said that he’d be happy to play something because he “needs more experience performing for an audience,” and then he proceeded to beautifully play a piece that was very simple for him.

In my experience, this almost never happens, and this is what makes it all the more extraordinary.

When faced with an audience, formal or informal, the vast majority of musicians put a lot of unnecessary pressure on themselves by choosing a difficult piece. Or a piece they’re still learning.

I’m not sure why they always do this, but it seems to be related to how we’re taught (or teach ourselves). In this system, each piece is consciously or subconsciously viewed as a stepping-stone to another, more challenging piece. And this messes us up, emotionally. I know pianists who feel, “If I can play a piece well, it must not be hard enough.” This is crazy, and it’s just one of the ways in which many musicians torment themselves.

So it was refreshing to see this fine guitarist take a healthier approach.

As he explained to me afterwards, he knows that he gets a little nervous playing for listeners, so he decided to intentionally play a simple piece of music for me. For starters, it took a lot of pressure off himself to play with lots of technique. And secondly, this choice allowed him a little leeway; he didn’t have to be at his very best in order to play the piece well.

Perhaps most importantly, we need to keep in mind that our listeners don’t care how hard the music is for us as musicians. They simply want to listen to nice music. All the other stuff is in our own heads. It’s emotional baggage.

Isn’t it time for us to cast all this emotional baggage aside? One way is to do what this smart, dedicated guitarist did last night: play something simple that sounds great.

Enjoy the journey, and “let the music flow!”

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