Re-Framing the Tricky Bits

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Two vignettes from my undergraduate education:

In a piano lesson, playing through a piece I was working on, and stumbling slightly. ‘Yes, that bit is difficult,’ said my teacher, clearly wishing to reassure me that it was understandable that I wasn’t yet playing it as well as the rest. But I had a sudden, sinking feeling that now he’d said that, I was never going to be able to play it.

In a visiting lecture from organist Gillian Weir, reporting on her studies with Olivier Messaien. ‘There’s no such thing as difficult music,’ he had told her. ‘There’s only music you can’t play yet. Remember the music you were working on two years ago? You can play it now, but you used to think it too hard. But the music hasn’t changed.’

Looking back, I suspect it was the first experience that made me so ready to embrace the message of the second. And I have spent my life as an educator trying to avoid labelling things as difficult. Whenever somebody says anything to me that starts with the words ‘I can’t…’ I have a compulsion to add ‘yet’ to the end of their sentence.

But the fact is that some bits of music are easier to learn than others, so however committed you are to this principle, you need ways to handle the bits that you experience as less straightforward. I’m particularly concerned with the director or teacher here – those people who have the power to shape others’ experience of learning music – but it’s just as true for the self-talk of individual musicians, just more private.

The key here is analysis. What is going on in the music that makes it demand more time and attention as you learn it? And what role do those features play in the overall narrative impact the music will have on its listeners? In effect: why is the music written like this?

This analysis has two functions. First, it will help you learn it. Making sense of musical shapes always makes performing them easier. You develop more meaningful practice strategies, and listen to yourself with more insight.

Second, it helps you find more productive labels for the passages than ‘difficult’. It is both more satisfying in rehearsal and more directly relevant to performance to talk about ‘the surprising bit’, ‘the intricate passage’, ‘the harmonically adventurous progression’, ‘the extravagant flourish’, or ‘clever bit’.

The audience doesn’t care about ‘difficult’, they don’t want to see you struggle. They do care about the moments where the music transcends routine or the obvious, and thus takes them out of themselves. Analysing and then labelling these moments in terms of their relevance to the overall artistic impact helps you get the music to do its job.

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