Duke Ellington on Choosing the Right Music to Play

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

“The wise musicians are those who play what they can master.”

Duke Ellington

Most architects don’t set out to build backyard sheds and chicken roosts. Getting started, they imagine grand structures that blend form and function. They dream of high-rises and high-end homes.

And if they did by chance get the big contract, what then? Do they have the skills to do the job well? Many things can go wrong on such a large scale.

As guitarists, we often shoot too high in the music we choose to play. We pick a concert classic or modern marvel, refusing to believe it’s over our head.

We may not know what we don’t know.

Over a lifetime, we learn more and sound better when we choose music we can actually play. New pieces should challenge us, but be within reach.

When we select pieces we can master, we allow ourselves the chance to raise the level of our artistry. Instead of struggling with the notes, we can breathe life and emotion into the music. We can tell a convincing story.

We can still aim to play the big pieces. We can still work on larger projects. But we can keep them at an appropriate and attainable level.

As we master piece after piece, our abilities grow and the level will rise. This is the natural progression of learning and competence.

So how do we know whether a piece of music is appropriate? To start, we can put our current music to the test. We can press the record button. Then we can objectively hear how our current piece sounds.

We can list what works and what doesn’t. If we’re not sure, we can use vague terms or general impressions. We can identify which fundamental skills are still lacking. Do the notes connect? Are the voices balanced? Is the rhythm compelling and obvious?

Then, as we choose our next piece, we can remain mindful of our current strengths and weaknesses. We can stretch, but not too far.

As we repeat this process over years and decades, we become more aware of what it is to master a piece of music. We know how much work it takes, and the time needed.

And the result is better music. We play more beautifully. We set ourselves up to succeed.

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.

I practiced your system for three days, and it solved the I-M alternation problem I had been struggling with since I undertook classical guitar three years ago.  Many thanks!


~ Johnny Geudel

-Johnny Geudel

Hi Allen, I am a Dutch guy who plays classical guitar (solo and together with a flute player). Unfortunately I have been suffering from focal dystonia since begin 2016. Of course I tried physical therapy which didn't help… But I tried some of your [technique] lessons (I had teachers before but I was never taught your techniques) and to my big surprise the nasty feeling in the back of my right hand which pulls my index finger upward was gone! So now I practice your lessons. Anyway, I am very happy to have found you on the internet. Thanks very much!


~ Arnoud Reinders

-Arnoud Reinders

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