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Simplicity: The Holy Grail

03 Feb

“Everything should be as simple as it is, but not simpler.” – Albert Einstein


Courtesy of WikiMedia Commons



Music has a reputation for being a difficult thing to learn and to master. Although there are those who seem to have a natural talent for all things musical, most of us need to work long and hard to master an instrument or to be able to sing well.

Many times, when demonstrating a piece of music I am about to teach a student I will say something like: “watch, I’ll show you how – it’s easy.”

After I have played it for them, the student will respond “Yeah – easy for you maybe.” They probably think I was born with the ability to play. They have no idea how hard it was for me to get to the place where it looked so easy.

It was probably a mistake for me to use the word “easy” when talking with a student who is just getting started, even though I know that what I am showing them honestly won’t be too hard for them. They will inevitably see everything new as an enormous challenge – and they are both right and wrong about that.

The Einstein quote “Everything should be as simple as it is, but not simpler.” is fascinating for several reasons. There is a huge amount of meaning and insight in those eleven words. No surprise right? It is Einstein after all.

In the first part of the statement he is saying that things should be inherently simple – that nature “is what it is” and it reveals itself to us naturally. In the second part, in the very same breath, he recognizes that even so, we have much work to do if we are to realize that simplicity.

In other words simplicity turns out to be not as simple as it seems. It is the very complexity of the universe that creates the illusion of simplicity. Einstein believed that it is the scientists job to distill complexity down to it’s core and most elementary concepts. He once said that “if you cannot explain a theory to a six year old, you don’t understand it yourself.” And this was a guy in search of a theory of everything that could be written on half a line on a chalkboard.

I have learned this lesson myself many times. For example, in my early days of teaching guitar, I would find that I had a really hard time explaining the concept of the seven modes and modal scales to my students. I would catch myself going on and on for minutes at a time and talking in circles – completely bewildering them. I had thought I understood modes very well because I used them all the time in my solos and improvisations, but in a very restricted sort of way. One day it dawned on me that there was a whole new way of thinking about modes that I had completely overlooked. As soon as I finally understood the concepts myself, I had far less trouble explaining them to my students.

How many times have you seen a great performer and said to yourself “How do they make it look so easy!” That musician making it look so easy is doing just what Einstein thought a scientist should do. By making something complex appear very easy, the performer inspires those that would follow to dive headlong into the complexity. Deep down, any good student feels that “if my teacher can do it, I can do it” or they would not be taking lessons. The facade of simplicity lures them (maybe even tricks them) into thinking that they can do it. The task ends up becoming a sticky trap of complexity, but it is one a good student eventually overcomes. Learning is nothing more than overcoming complexity by discovering its hidden chain of simplicity.

Music then, like science is a continual game of leap frog, where territory explored by one person is used as base camp for new adventurers. A somewhat twisted way of looking at this is to consider that a teachers job is to make things look easy for the students in order to trick them into thinking they can do it without too much effort. The student soon discovers the mind numbing complexity, but knows it can eventually become simple because he has seen the teacher do it.

Frederick Chopin, perhaps the world’s greatest piano player once said:


“Simplicity is the final achievement, it emerges as the crowning reward of art.


Courtesy of WikiMedia Commons

When we consider this quote as it relates to playing guitar (or any instrument for that matter) we begin to see that simplicity is not the starting point but the finish line. Just as Einstein and Chopin each recognized simplicity as their ultimate goal, they also knew that the path to getting there could be anything but easy. To achieve simplicity we must slog through the mud and muck of complexity. This quest is the essence of all inspiration, growth and achievement in both the arts and sciences.

But all this talk of complexity doesn’t mean that working to overcome it has to be torture. We can enjoy the task of learning challenging music if we open up to the fact that complicated things are really just a long chain of very simple things strung together sequentially. Music, after all, is nothing more than playing one simple note (or groups of notes)after another. Or is it? I wonder if Einstein thinks that’s any comfort to an eight year old trying to play a Chopin piano piece.

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4 responses to “Simplicity: The Holy Grail

  1. Andy

    February 5, 2012 at 6:57 am

    Good article, Mike! On a slightly different note (pun intended), I remember Neil Peart talking about the difference between a master and a beginner playing the same simple drum piece, note-for-note, with the same timing, etc. Because of the simplicity, you wouldn’t think there’d be much in the result, but you’d be wrong of course.

     
    • M.J. Murphy

      February 5, 2012 at 11:38 am

      Thanks Andy. The great ones like Peart would surely tell us how hard they worked to learn what (and how) NOT to play in order to sound that way :-)

       
  2. Ellis Mellinger

    April 10, 2012 at 8:30 pm

    I am a beginner and you inspire me. Thanks

     
    • M.J. Murphy

      April 10, 2012 at 11:27 pm

      Hi Ellis. Thanks so much for your kind comment. It’s appreciated more than you could know :-)

       

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