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There is a school of thought in classical music that all progress we wish to make on our instrument can be achieved solely through exploration of pieces, should we conscientiously select our repertoire. The notion of bypassing the traditionally allocated months and years of practicing siloed technical elements is at the very least an exciting prospect. But how should we select repertoire? Where do we start? Where do we go from the pieces we already have in our repertoire?

Well we’re here to help you work that out!

Things to remember

First off, here are some things to remember as you work out where to go next:

1. Different pieces have different purposes in your process

Not all the pieces we play have to make up our concert repertoire, and that is ok. There are many reasons to play certain pieces, and not all of those reasons point to playing them in front of an audience - however small. Music exists to be enjoyed, not just by those listening, but by the player, so remember that first and foremost studying should be for you, your enjoyment and little else. 

"Always remember that the reason you started working was that there was something inside yourself that you felt that if you could manifest it in some way, you would understand more about yourself or how you coexist with the rest of society." - David Bowie

2. Simplification is power

In the study of music, simplification comes in many forms. We all have an awareness that stripping music down to its core elements, both musically and technically, is the road to success in the learning process and even beyond to the concert stage. Remember in the practice room that your priority should be delivering on the elements of a piece that you have put at the top of the musical food chain, do not be afraid of simplifying passages by omitting notes or changing subtle right hand patterns. In general being faithful to the musical fluidity of a piece is more of a priority than being 100% faithful to the manuscript. Music is an art form and being creative with ergonomic edits can save you a lot of time and grey hairs, there’s no such thing as cheating in music!

3. Difficulty is subjective 

This. How many times have I been to competitions where juries feedback that some repertoire choices weren’t advanced enough. Technical difficulty depends on myriad factors; physical stature, natural facility, strength, flexibility and that’s before we even start to look beyond physiological build and explore how the brain works or how we each interpret musical phrases independently of each other. In theory, if we listen to our bodies and study with a smart, open attitude and approach we should be able to get to the point with every piece where playing feels easy.

“There is no such thing as a difficult piece of music. A piece is either impossible or easy. The process whereby it migrates from one category to the other is known as practising.” - Yehudi Menuhin

Nitty Gritty

Some Helpful Definitions of ‘Difficulty’

‘Difficulty’ in a piece of music can be measured in a number of ways, but before we explore what difficulty means for you specifically, let’s take a look at some classic definitions and how we can use them as a framework.

Technical difficulty

Technical difficulty can be divided into two subsections for measurement

  1. Siloed technical elements - e.g slurs, hammers, shifts
  2. Allostatic load of physical elements - How many siloed technical elements are present at any one time, and how are they combined

Against this framework, “piece A”, consisting of repeated slurs, is ‘easier’ than “piece B”, which combines slurs and shifting, even if the frequency of the slur ‘technique’ is lower overall in “piece B”. 

‘Attention and Effort’ by Daniel Kahneman, a collection of studies on allostatic load, divided attention, task interference, and the role of perception, show that processing multiple different elements concurrently puts more stress on the brain than processing similar elements, even if there are more similar elements to process. 

To show this Kahneman presented those taking part in the study with a series of calculations or the memorisation of number sets to either complete or recite aloud, during this he measured their pupil dilation, using it as an index of mental effort.

Try it! 

a) Observe in the mirror your pupil dilation upon reciting numbers in an order with which you are familiar, e.g 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10…

b) Write down twenty unordered numbers, memorise them and take to the mirror again to observe how your pupils dilate.

c) Write down a collection of 5 numbers, 5 colours, 5 animals and 5 musical instruments, jumble them up, memorise them and return to the mirror to observe pupil dilation as your brain attempts to draw memory connections between these otherwise unrelated items. 

The feeling of ease when reciting a set of numbers in a pattern we are familiar with is similar to how the brain responds when we play a pattern with which we feel familiar on our instrument.

Despite facility on our instrument being manifested in physical actions, we should always remember that the brain is the control centre of every single movement we make and therefore every part of our playing, even if we are only focussing on technical elements. 

It is therefore easier for us to define what makes a piece simple than what makes a piece difficult and we can use this as a point of departure for choosing repertoire that is suited to our current facility.

Avoiding excessive allostatic load while we are developing our technique is the reason that many teachers prescribe etudes during early years of our study; most etudes focus on repetitive, homogenous aspects of technique, therefore allowing isolated elements of movements within a technique to be scrutinised and improved through our own repeated observation of the performance of each action.

Musical Difficulty

Much to the chagrin of those of us who are systems thinking logical beings, there is no clear measuring stick against which we can judge which pieces of music are more difficult to interpret than others.There are however a number of elements in physical technique that contribute to musical experience that we can localise as ‘musical technique’ in order to work out how many different elements we are piling into our concentration at any one time. 

Musical techniques can be defined as ‘anything that contributes to the audience experience of the spirit of a piece’, for instance voicing and voice balance, vibrato, tone production, volume production, techniques for legato etc. which in and of themselves require technical ability and organisation but whose needs stretch beyond playing ‘cleanly’. 

In this case even a piece made up of purely chord elements, for instance Brouwer etude 2, may at first appear a fairly easy choice, but requires the player to engage muscles in the hand needed to control voice balance, left hand independence and control to maintain legato between chord shapes and a keen control of vibrato and volume production. 

So, given that most pieces are made up of more elements than upon first look, how can we define which piece is right for us at this time?

How to Choose your Next Challenge

So, where to start?

The best way to determine your near future is to look into your recent history. If you already have a handful of pieces in your repertoire, find the scores, play them through a few times and, if you can, record yourself playing them.

Take a pencil, open your mind as much as possible and write out the following. 

Which of these pieces was your favourite to play? Which gave you the most satisfaction during playing? Which piece feels/felt the easiest? Mark this piece as ‘Piece 1’.

Now take another look at the scores in front of you and ask yourself these questions; which piece felt the hardest to play? Which piece took the longest to learn? Which piece would you least like to play in front of an audience? Mark this piece as ‘Piece 2’

Now we have two pieces in front of us, one that we enjoyed playing and that felt easy and one that felt difficult to learn and tiring to play. 

Just for this exercise, suspend any previous judgement you may have about which piece is traditionally considered more difficult, and try to localise the physical and musical elements in each piece, difficult or not. 

E.g (Here I have highlighted technical elements in red on the score and written musical elements in list form.)

Note the elements in Piece 1 and observe to what extent the present technical elements presented challenges in your study process. Given that this is the piece that you have enjoyed playing the most and have felt the most comfortable playing, look through the listed technical elements that you have overcome fairly easily. In this case Piece 1 required intricate finger independence in both hands, ease of holding a barre and a good sense of synchronisation between right and left hand and indeed these are elements that I can see are present in my technique.

Now look to Piece 2 and notice that some of the elements present in Piece 1 are also present in Piece 2, but that in Piece 2 the elements are heavily mixed. Playing Piece 2 on stage for me felt like trying to push past a bustling crowd, so many things going on at the same time and when I sit to define each technical element present, it makes sense. 

Given that the main issues for me in this piece were the widely fingered chords and intervals I can determine that where flexibility and intricate independence of the fingers are my strengths, my limitations lie in the size of my hand and in strength independence of the fingers. 

On the concert stage our goal is to lean on our strengths to minimise our weaknesses, so when we are choosing repertoire it is wise to localise your strengths and limitations before moving further. We must find pieces that fit with what we can already do, and introduce elements that we wish to improve slowly. This is a good idea even for choosing pieces that we don’t want to bring to the stage, purely so we can isolate the elements in our technique that need improvement whilst enjoying the maintenance of techniques we are already comfortable with.

Let’s take a look at the first 8 Brouwer etudes as an exercise of identifying technical elements with the first etude as our point of departure.

Etude 1 - This etude explores chunking of the hand, we see the right hand separated into two groups, the fingers grouped in pairs and the thumb which traverses the three bass strings. We also see the introduction of small barres with the left hand and synchronisation of left hand and right hand. In terms of musical elements we see right hand balance and chord voicing, thumb tirando vs apoyando and basic volume control. 

If the chunking of the hand or the introduction of small barres was something you found easy in this first etude, the next etude to choose would be Etude 4 which uses the same chunking method of the fingers and thumb; this time introducing thumb movement up to string 3 and gives you an opportunity to further develop your control of half barres, held this time for longer durations and different positions.

If chunking and barres were something you found tricky in this first etude, but you found the chord voicing and balancing of the right hand easy, then the next etude for you might be Etude 2, the beautiful chorale which introduces three note chords. Lean on your strengths of volume and voice control to further develop the independence and synchronisation of your left hand as the chords get slightly more complex.

Alternatively, leaf forward to Etude 8, here you can still lean on your strength for volume and voice control, this time applied to canon style writing. This will stretch the boundaries of your ability to voice melody and accompaniment whilst also introducing the chunking method slowly with separated finger elements in the middle section.

If the chunking was tricky for you and there was no strong affinity with any other technical element in Etude 1, then move to Etude 3, where we are introduced to a jumping thumb and separated finger pattern elements. This etude can be used to practice speed and volume control as well as the balance control of the right hand. 

If you enjoyed Etude 3 because you found that separated finger pattern elements was easy, then move to Etude 6 where you will find an even more elaborate right hand finger pattern, this time incorporating chord shape patterns and shifts. Lean on your strength of right hand finger independence, whilst concentrating on the new elements.

If you found the right hand independence figures easy in Etude 3 or 6 then the next step will be to move to Etude 5 where we see incorporation of varying right hand finger patterns with a new element, the jumping thumb. If you came via Etude 3 because you did not feel a strong affinity to Etude 1, after practising Etude 5, you may want to return to Etude 1 with your newly developed skill for the jumping thumb and your practised independent right hand fingers. 

Follow the diagram below to choose your path to playing all the first 8 etudes, in a way that allows you to lean on the technical elements that you feel an affinity with.  

How to Determine Success with a Piece - How to “Finish” a piece

As with searching for pieces that are right for us to play, we must also look to define what constitutes being done with a piece, against which measuring stick can we determine that we have succeeded in playing a piece? First we must accept that being able to play through a piece in whatever state does not constitute success; playing a piece well must be more than acquiring the stamina to get through it. 

The main features to look for in your playing of a piece for success is ease. How free do you feel at this point to take charge of the music?

Try observing your playing through two parameters of freedom: 

  1. Do the physical demands of this piece allow you to occasionally think of things outside of technical elements? 
  2. Does this piece allow you to feel free to choose musical expression? Do you have time and energy left to focus on the music while you are playing?

If you answered yes on both accounts then it is safe to say that you are well on your way to mastering this piece of music. A piece that allows you technical challenge at the same time as providing you freedom to be in control of your expression is the perfect piece to include in your repertoire. 

On the flip side, if you answered no to these questions then have a go at troubleshooting what is holding you back, are these things you feel you can master in a few months, or will these things take more time? Every hurdle is a fantastic opportunity to not only learn what is right for you at this moment, but also is a great way to develop your self awareness and planning ability.

When to Give Up on a Piece

As poker player Daniel Reed once said, “greatness lies in the hands you fold, not the hands you play”, not every piece needs to be played right now, you have a lifetime ahead of you to hone your skills, playing music should serve you and be enjoyed, not struggled through.

Discovering that a piece is not working for you can be frustrating, however, it is so important as musicians that we do not get sucked into sunk cost fallacy. Sunk cost fallacy is the belief that past investments justify future expenditure; “people demonstrate a greater tendency to continue an endeavour once an investment in money, effort of time has been made.” This is true of the time we may put into learning a piece, perhaps we have spent a month studying this piece for an hour a day, this feels like a large investment we have made, and we do not want to lose that. 

Breaking free from the sunk cost fallacy lies in realising that this thought process and the behaviours that proceed it are behavioural errors. We lose nothing by realising that a piece does not suit us, we simply give ourselves a better chance at finding a piece that does. In fact, in music there really is no such think as a sunk cost, all study we have ever done builds up our technical facility and our aptitude for our instrument. 

That being said, a few red flags for a piece that might not be right for you include, physical and mental stress over a piece, pain whilst playing, inability to play at a steady tempo and one or more missed notes out of every ten. 

Be kind, “end goals” in a musical life are tricky to define, the beauty of playing is in the process itself, so try to make the process as enjoyable as you possibly can. 

Some Useful Reminders

All May Not be as it Seems

It’s a lesson we know already, but when it comes to choosing the next piece for you, make sure that you use at least a three pronged technique; look at the score, listen to a recording, and play through once. Just looking at the score will give you little clues as to how tricky something may end up being, just take any piece of Joaquin Rodrigo and sit down with it for a day and this will be cemented in your brain for all time! On the other hand, scores that are full of ink and look incredibly difficult, may actually revolve around elements that you find easy, or repetitive elements that actually are not as tricky as they appear on the page. 

Lean on Your Strengths

I can’t say this enough, introduce technical challenges slowly and appropriately and work out what you are good at to make those judgements. A lot of pieces develop a reputation for being difficult, try not to follow the masses too much, every body and every brain is unique. Never forget that.

Beauty is in the Playing

Any piece of music can be a masterpiece if it is something you connect with on a deeply personal level. There is no rush to play pieces that are “difficult”, you can make a career out of playing the pieces that you feel belong to your style and leave the pieces you struggle with for a once a week workout. There is no set career in classical music, you don’t have to play the Jose Sonata and the toccata by Rodrigo to win competitions, Pavel Steidl played the Sarabande from Bach’s third cello suite to win the Paris Competition in 1982. 

Keep in mind that the reason you started playing is because you felt there was something in this that belongs to you on an instinctive level, defining your goals and optimising your work capacity can only make the process more streamlined and in the end more rewarding.

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