What about pieces that are "too hard"?

greenspun.com : LUSENET : To Hear Ourselves As Others Hear Us : One Thread

April 10, 1998

The other day in "Alive with Music!" at Caltech, someone raised the question, "What do you do when the piano student has a technical difficulty?" I said that this had come up just an hour previously, when one of my students had asked about his playing of the quick parallel-3rd triplets in the last movement of Mozart's "Kegelstatt" trio (the E-flat trio for clarinet, viola & piano). In his case, the solution was easy: I reassured him that he was playing them just fine.

Someone said, "Maybe you said this to make him feel good, even though he wasn't playing them well?" But no, I never do that, as confirmed by Mike Vanier and Robert Bao, private students of mine who were present. To do so would be to undermine the student's perceptions, which is the central thing I'm trying to train.

What, I was asked, would I have done if the student hadn't been doing a good job of the triplets? Well, what I *don't* do is to ask to hear how the student cannot play them. I never put a student in a position of trying to prove that he or she has difficulty with something! One thing the student can do is to "outline" the passage, as described in Part III of To Hear Ourselves As Others Hear Us. The outlining will not solve the technical problem, but it will assure that any problem does not disturb the basic rhythm you build into the piece. As for the technical problem itself, I could go on at great length about it, but this was outside the scope of our discussion. (Alive with Music! is a session of live music & talk attended mostly by music lovers who do not themselves play.)

At this point, Mike raised the question, "What about a student working on a piece that's just too hard for him? How do you tell him it's too hard?" The words "too hard"never pass my lips. In using them, a teacher may be teaching that something is difficult when---you never know---that particular thing might not be difficult for that particular student. And apart from this, I believe that anyone can learn anything, at any time; it's just a matter of whether working on that piece will be fruitful for this student at this time. And even that can be hard to predict: When I was nine years old, I had a huge crush on my 3rd-grade teacher, who was a good amateur violinist; and I kept pestering her to play something with me. She gave me the score of the Bach violin/piano sonata in G and said, OK, learn this & I'll play it with you. A year later, I appeared in her classroom and said, OK, I'm ready to play it. Of course she had forgotten all about it; it had been simply a way of getting rid of me. But I had spent a year learning one movement of the darned piece. It became a ladder by which I climbed much higher.

Here's a more extreme story: When I was an undergrad, I knew a guy who loved the Bach D Minor Concerto so much that he learned the piano in order to be able to play it. He also learned everything about music notation. He got the score, got a book on basic music theory, looked at the score, said, "What's this curlycue thing? [Look in book.] Ah, it's a treble clef. And what's this dark oval with a line sticking up. [Look in book.] Oh, it's a note --- a 16th-note, in fact. What does 16th-note' mean? [Look in book.] Oh, OK. And just what note is it? [Look in book.] It's D. And where is D on the piano keyboard. [Look in book.] It's ----- here. OK, now I'll play D." And so he played the first note. I am not making this story up!

But --- to come back to the "too hard" issue, no one would say that the way this guy or I learned our Bach pieces was normal, or could be expected to work with others. So what I will say to a student is, "I don't think that you can work fruitfully on this piece at this point." I mean that the work would probably go so slowly that the student would lose the motivation, lose track of what was being accomplished. I do not mean----I never mean---- "You are unable to learn this piece."

The one time this caused a crisis was with a man who started lessons with me on his retirement. He had played in a dance band during college, but hadn't touched the instrument for 40 years. And he had arthritis in his fingers. And he wanted to play some of the difficult Chopin Preludes right away. I acquiesced with the Chopin, so long as he was also doing systematic work on more basic things; but even though his progress amazed the teacher he had studied with for a few months before coming to me (and who had given up because of the arthritis), it wasn't good enough for him. All I could say was, "Your taste in wanting to play these Chopin pieces does you credit, but please remember that I studied for many years before doing any one of them, and you've studied only for a year. At that, you've made real progress on a couple of them, but you're not there yet." He was so frustrated that he stopped lessons entirely. An unsatisfactory situation for both of us.

Copyright ) (C) 1998 J. Boyk

-- James Boyk (boyk@caltech.edu), April 13, 1998


I can certainly empathise with both the viewpoints demonstrated above. As I see it, there are two forces at work in learning to play/perform:

1. the need to feel the musical pulse and continuity of a piece, to view it as a whole and generally strive to perform it *musically* rather than technically (which, I expect James' book is trying to address with recording and outlining techniques)

2. the equally important need to advance one's technical and motor skills as well as comprehension of theory, harmony, and notation (obviously necessary to continue growing).

These two needs often clash on a sacred battle ground: music that we happen to love, and do not want to see sullied.

I'm personally going through a difficult phase of trying to balance the two. Presently I'm studying a Mozart sonata (K283) with my teacher, whose an established concert pianist, and a guy who believes in tackling tough things and just slogging it out for your own good. This sonata is common fodder for talented adolescents who are well on their way to performing careers, and I assume it was a natural choice for my teacher who probably tackled it as a learning piece when *he* was a kid.

But it's *still* a work of genius and a lovely and interesting piece!

I made great progress with the Allegro and Andante and they sound very musical, but now I've really hit a technical wall with the Presto, which like much of Mozart's music, looks very innocent on paper but is (for me) fiendish to perform musically.

I'm generally very resiliant in the face of difficulty, but after a tiring day at work, reading through this Presto is like hacking through the jungle with a machete. I hear the beauty of the composition in my mind, but my reading spead and technical skills cannot match what I hear and feel inside.

This poses a philosophical question: Should I continue to molest this sublime piece of music for the sake of technical progress? My teacher thinks yes, that it will eventually pay dividends and make future pieces more accessible by strengthening my musicianship.

But there have been times during the past week when I have felt defeated, musically and spiritually, and the self-esteem level is low. After ten years of off and on study, I've learned to recognize this feeling as the beginning of one of those "off" periods, when I get out the golf clubs and tennis racquets, and I'm presently struggling not to give in to it, because this time lost cannot be regained.

"Outlining" would seem to offer another option, but in this particular piece, vertical harmony is so essential to the genius of the music, and also establishing good fingering in the muscle memory seems key to performing it at tempo. Not only does Mozart's music seems to strongly resist being "stripped down," but also, when I attempted to "outline" the first phrase (a collection of descending runs based on intervals from accompanying diminished 7th chords in the left hand), I could feel myself gravitating toward fingering that bore no resemblance to what I would have to use to play all the notes.

Well, these are just some thoughts. Maybe I'll paste the above paragraph into the "outlining" thread on this forum.


P.S. The TCD-5M came yesterday! Still anxiously awaiting the arrival of my Bayer M-260. . . can't bear the walkman anymore. Makes my grind my teeth. . .

-- George Gilliland (lgd@epix.net), March 05, 1999.

Mr. George is lucky indeed to have an instructor that will take him seriously enough to work on challenging pieces. As a very motivated adult student I find that teachers are more interested in dumbing down the things one wants to work on, with excuses ranging from "that's really a hard piece" to "there are a lot of really beautiful pieces that are lots easier". Neither of these weak positions is likely to ever allow one to progress. I'd love to find someone who could both teach advanced material and let me worry about whether or not I'm going to get discouraged. I find James Boyk's position as stated in the penulmate paragraph of the original question to be exactly the right attitude and sadly lacking in most teachers.

As to specific suggestions for the Mozart, you could consider playing the piece very slowly on a midi instrument and then playing along with that at proper speed on the piano during the outlining phase - this will allow you to hear the harmony you so much miss otherwise. (midi is suggested here because you can then get the pitch/speed right).

ta ta d

-- Dick Norton (dln@jump.net), March 06, 1999.

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