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The Line Between Difficult and Too Difficult

performing Aug 13, 2018

“Is this piece too difficult for me?”

When students ask me this question, I know it’s not because they’re lazy and don’t want to have to work hard.

On the contrary, I know they are ready and willing to put in the practice time needed to be able to play the piece. They just want to be assured that their time and effort will get them results. Why spend hours practicing if you will eventually have to give up and put the piece away?

There are many well-known quotations meant to encourage and inspire you to undertake a challenge. I’ve listed a few of my favorites below.

The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. – Lao Tzu

Everything is hard before it is easy. – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

There is nothing difficult, only new things, unaccustomed things. – Carlos Salzedo

When you come upon a difficult task ... start. - Harbhajan Singh Yogi

But most students don’t need the inspiration to get started. They want to know they won’t get stuck, that they have the right tools and skills to get the job done, so that they end up with a piece they love that they can play.

So when a student asks my advice about whether a piece is too hard for them, we work through three questions which allow them to decide if now is the time to tackle that dream piece or if it needs to wait on the shelf a little longer.

Question 1: What appears difficult about this piece?

Get specific. Where are the particular challenges that you can identify just from looking at the piece? Some of the usual suspects are tempo (especially a very fast tempo), a particular technical issue (for instance, big chords), length of the piece, unusual effects, lots of pedal or lever changes.

Question 2: Are these challenges totally new to you?

It’s one thing to “step up” your skills in a particular area: build up more speed or facility, do extra chord or lever practice, for instance. It’s another thing to face a big challenge you have never attempted before.

For example, playing fast, fluid arpeggios is a simple matter of practice, unless you have never played arpeggios before. Then it becomes a significant hurdle.

In that case, you may need to find a “stepping stone,” an intermediate point at which you know you will be ready to tackle the skill as it appears in the piece you want to learn.

Question 3: How much time do you have to devote to practicing this piece?

A challenge piece will require focused practice time, and if you have other playing commitments that will take practice time as well, you may need to defer this new piece until a later date.

Be realistic about your time and energy limitations. You don’t want to be frustrated with the piece simply because you don’t have the room in your schedule for it right now.

The Plan

Once we have answered the questions above, we make our decision whether to begin the piece. If we give the piece a green light, then we do so with these rules in place:

  1. Define a “trial period.” We set a time limit for exploratory practice on the piece. As an example, if at the end of three weeks, we don’t see enough progress to encourage us, we put the piece away for later.
  2. Reserve the student’s right to change her mind. If at any point the student would prefer to put the piece aside than to continue, that’s what we do, with no regrets.
  3. Create two possible “partial” goals. We don’t have to commit to learning the entire piece. Perhaps just learning the first page or first main part of the piece will be enough for now. Once we have accomplished that, we can decide to stop there or to go on to our next resting point. These are a little like base stations on a mountain climb. They give us a chance to stop and rest, as well as an opportunity to consider whether we continue on the climb or head back down the mountain.

That’s my usual strategy, but I need to share one more thought.

Not even the most insightful teacher can tell a student with certainty that a piece is “too difficult” for him or her. I’ve seen many students practice and play music that was well above their current skill level. Their success was due primarily to their love of the music and their determination to play it. And in most cases, their skill levels increased overall because of their hard work on that piece.

So if you want to try a piece and are wondering if it is too difficult, I would advise you to give it your best shot. What could you possibly lose?

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