Don’t Waste Time Practicing Piano Music That Is Too Difficult

Don’t Waste Time Practicing Piano Music That Is Too Difficult

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Before reading this article it is helpful to have an understanding of the way students’ progress in their musical studies by reading the below articles.

A common misconception amongst some parents and students is that students will make progress on their instrument by pushing themselves to play music that is too far beyond their current skill level. In fact some students believe that the bigger difference there is in the standard of their current piece of music and the one they would like to play next the faster they will become better players because it would mean pushing themselves more. ' This is often expressed by students saying something similar to one of the below statements.

  • “Surely if I try and play a piece of music that is really hard and work at it for long enough I will get better, right?”
  • “If I try and play something that is way beyond my current level of ability surely I will get better even if I don’t quite manage to play it properly, right?”
  • "If I always try the most difficult music possible it must mean I will get better quicker, right?"

The answer to all the above questions is “No”. As counter intuitive as it may seem students overall progress will be much faster by following a course of study where each piece of music becomes only gradually more challenging than the last, rather than taking large leaps in the standard of each piece of music they study. When working in this way the student will be able to study a much larger number of pieces within a given time-frame than by spending endless weeks and months struggling with one piece of music.

While it is occasionally useful to attempt to play pieces of music that are slightly “beyond our current skill level” spending too much time doing this on a regular basis will be wasted. Time that could have been used productively practicing a piece of music more appropriate for the student’s skill level will be lost. Some students believe the more they “struggle” during their practice the more they are developing their skills. This is not the case. It is not the amount of “struggle” you have in your practice that makes you a better player but rather what you achieve during your practice that counts.

More short term goals will be successfully achieved by mastering a large number of pieces that increase gradually in complexity within a given time-frame than unsuccessfully trying to achieve a smaller number of unrealistic larger goals in a piece of music that is too complex for your level of ability. The fastest progress will be achieved by routinely mastering a number of successive pieces of music. It is the achievement of mastering a piece of music that will help you grow as a musician in the most effective way. Unless you master a piece of music i.e. play it to a high enough standard ensuring the correct level of “automation” is taking place you will not grow in your musical abilities. Little benefit is to be gained from playing a difficult piece of music no matter how hard you work on it, especially if the music is not studied to a high enough standard.

<strong>How do traditional courses of piano study work?</strong>

Piano tutor books by different publishers sell millions of copies every year worldwide. There is a reason for their success. Piano tutor books introduce students to new skills and techniques gradually and allow the student to fully master each concept introduced before moving on to more advanced concepts. One of the main benefits to using this type of course is that the progression from beginner pieces to advanced playing has been very carefully graded. There could be over a hundred pieces of music contained at each level and each piece gets gradually more challenging at the same time as introducing new concepts in a way that is designed to build the students skills in a logical and organized way. The development of many musical skills relies on an understanding of previously studied skills.

Concepts may be difficult for the student to comprehend if they are introduced in the wrong order or before the student is ready to take on board a particular musical idea. Using a pedagogically correct course of study, as provided by a good piano tutor book, offers the greatest chance of success for all students who begin to learn the piano. There are no large jumps between the standard of the pieces of music contained in any piano tutor book. There is a good reason for this. Each piece of music gets gradually just a little bit more complex as the students works through their tutor books and when they get to the end of a particular level they will have advanced as a musician.

After completing several levels of their chosen method students will be well on their way to becoming advanced musicians if the material covered in the books is studied in the correct way. The expert guidance of a good teacher is required to make sure this happens. It is not just “what you study” but how you study it that is important. There are no popular piano tutor books or courses that ever require the student to make large leaps in ability from one piece of music to the next. If working in this way was a good idea not only would there be plenty of books published that encourage type of approach but they would be best sellers! This approach does not work, which is why no such course exists. Students and parents who believe that it is a good idea to study pieces of music that are far more difficult than their current ability permits are failing to take into consideration the bigger picture including ensuring that correct levels of automation are developed by using the subconscious part of the brain, discussed in previous blog posts. They believe progress in this way is possible in the face of a mountain of information that suggests it is not.

There is nothing “old fashioned” about studying piano in this way. Modern piano tutor books have updated designs and may include material that is more suited to today’s students but the underlying philosophy behind this approach to playing remains the same. These books are built on the experience of hundreds of years of constantly refining and building on ideas for helping students learn the fundamental skills required by all musicians and have been consistently improved over the years by some of the world’s leading music educators. Studying in this way as a beginner lays a solid foundation on which all other styles may be studied, including Jazz, Popular and Classical music. By understanding the way musical development is most effectively achieved it is my hope that students who approach their practice by setting themselves unrealistic goals will reevaluate their approach to practice and therefore give themselves the best possible chance of achieving their full musical potential in the shortest possible time.

After reading this some students may be asking themselves the question “But won’t that mean I have to play lots more pieces of music? If I play just a few pieces of music, with a big difference in standard between each piece, then I wouldn’t I get to level 5 quicker? Won’t playing more pieces of music mean that it will take longer to get there?” The short answer is no. You will actually get to level 5 faster if you practice more pieces of music to a high standard with each piece of music just slightly more advanced than the previous piece of music than you will by practicing pieces of music that are too far beyond your current level of ability. This article offers an explanation as to why this is the case. Even after reading this advice some students may still be tempted to pick a piece of music to study “for a competition in 12 months’ time” that is far too difficult for them to play believing that if they “practice it enough” they will be able to do a good job of it. For most students this approach is highly inadvisable. Spend the time working on pieces of music that you are able to master within a reasonable time-frame and gradually push yourself to a slightly higher level with each piece. Ensure that each piece studied can be mastered to a high level. In 12 months’ time you will have grown as a musician and there is a good chance that you will be able to learn that difficult piece of music in just a few weeks instead of struggling with it all year long. By working in this way you will also be able to quickly study other pieces of music at the same level in a short amount of time. If you don’t approach your studies in the correct way and build your musical skills you will never get to the stage where you can learn complex pieces of music within shorter time frames. A sensible progression in the standard of the pieces of music a student studies is crucial to the overall success of the student. When the standard of the music increases by just the right amount students will have the opportunity to grow in their musical abilities. When the standard of music is left to chance, as it would be if the student were to select their own music, progress will slow down.

It is very difficult if not impossible for students to make an accurate assessment of the difficulty of a piece of music in their first few years of studying. Talk to the experts who set the musical standards for ABRSM examination music and they will tell you that even master musicians sometimes find it difficult to assess if a piece of music is at a grade 5 standard or a grade 6 standard. The correct selection of repertoire for a student should be the responsibility of the teacher not the student. Even the most talented teacher will fail to produce noticeable results in the progress of their students if they allow students to dictate the repertoire to be studied. By requiring teachers to “teach them” specific pieces of music, that they choose to study, students are unknowingly impeding their teacher’s ability to help them. I recently read a forum post where a relatively new piano teacher was asking for advice about how to “motivate” an adult student who was not making progress. In this example the student insisted on studying a piece of music that was way beyond his skill level. The teacher feared that by telling the student it was inadvisable to study this particular piece of music she would lose a student and therefore lose a portion of her income. The student had picked a piece that was way beyond his skill level and was becoming “demotivated” because he was not making progress. This is exactly what I would expect to happen under these circumstances. In a moment we will take a look at why this is the case. I do believe that students should be encouraged to play an active role in making suggestions for music they would like to study during the course of their lessons however it should always be up to the teacher to make the final decision about whether each suggestion the student makes should be included in lessons or tabled for a later date once the student has had chance to build up the level of musical skills and abilities demanded by that particular piece of music. In some cases a piece of music may require particular skills or knowledge to be in place before the student would be in a position to fully master the music. In this case it is helpful for both the teacher and the student to know that this is a piece of music the student would eventually like to be able to play as it can help the teacher to make sure all the required prerequisite learning for this piece has been covered before starting work on it. Working in this way may offer an incentive for the student to know that if they work hard at covering all the groundwork required before attempting this music they will soon be in a better position to successfully reach this goal. In this article we will explore some of the reasons why it is necessary to be very careful in the selection of repertoire to be studied if the student is to progress quickly. We will take a look at some of the reasons that the incorrect selection of music to be studied will most likely cause any progress to grind to a complete halt.

A common problem is that some students want to select the music that they would like to study themselves. They have a particular piece of music that they would like to be able to play and believe that by spending a long time on it they will eventually become an advanced player. This could be their favorite piece of classical music or a top 10 hit in the popular music charts. They believe that by studying one level 5 piece of music for a long time they will become a level 5 player. This is not the case and students that attempt to practice in this way will waste a lot of time making no progress. Eventually they may manage to struggle through this piece of music after 6 months, but it would take them another 6 months to learn another level 5 piece of music. When a student has worked on the skills and has truly reached level 5 then all level 5 pieces of music will be able to be mastered in a short amount of time. Eventually as the student progresses on to level 6 he will find that he has the ability to learn level 5 pieces of music with very little effort and may soon be able to sight read level 5 pieces of music without having to practice them at all. You are not a level 5 piano player if it takes you 6 months to learn a level 5 piece of music and the music contains multiple errors, omissions and inaccuracies. Once you have gained the musical skills to fully master a level 5 piece within a few weeks, then you are a level 5 piano player.

The “piece” based approach vs. the “skills” based approach to learning the piano

There are two approaches we can take to studying the piano. We can follow a “piece of music” based approach or we can follow a “skills” based route.

The “piece” based approach

A piece based approach means that the curriculum the student follows is heavily dictated by “what they want to play”. With this approach it is more important for the student to study something that they “want to play” all the time. This requirement is so important to the student that it becomes impossible for the teacher to follow a pedagogically correct approach to learning. All the sensible advice the teacher would normally give to the student about progressing through a course of carefully graded music goes out of the window and the teacher finds themselves dealing with issues in the students playing and progress that would not exist if a sensible course of study had been followed. The problem with the “piece” based approach is that it is very unlikely that you will be able to continuously find enough pieces of music that are appropriate for your current skill level and that will offer you just the right balance between being challenging and encouraging you to push your abilities just the right amount to help you progress to the next level.

The “skills” based approach

With a “skills” based approach the main focus of lessons is to develop the skills and abilities of the student. While the teacher will select repertoire to be studied that is as fun and interesting as possible, this is not the primary goal of lessons at this point. The primary goal is to develop the student’s skills and abilities as a musician. When the teacher is free to select repertoire for the student they have the control they need to make sure that the student is working on the skills that he needs to. Another reason it is advisable for the teacher to be in the “driving seat” regarding the selection of repertoire is that this puts them in a position to introduce the student to a wider range of musical styles and genres than would be possible with the student in the driving seat. By studying a wider range of styles the student will be a better more rounded musician at the end of the day. Even if the student is very specific in the type of music he would like to eventually be able to play the abilities he develops through a course of study that includes other styles of music will lead him to be a better musician in general and therefore more able to perform the music he does like to play at a more advanced level. It is often true that student’s musical tastes will evolve during their course of lessons. Many students will say that they don’t particularly enjoy a specific style of music until they start to play it. Once they do start to play a wider variety of music in different styles they often decide that they love the music that they have just “discovered”. The great Quincy Jones once said that “There are only 12 notes. To be a great musician is to know what everybody else has done with those notes”. Students who are happy to follow their teachers advice about what to study are likely to develop their skills and abilities much faster than those who do not and they will be then in a position to be able to play the music they like with much less effort for the rest of their lives. Students - don’t be in too much of a hurry to play specific pieces of music right away. Teachers - let your students know that the best way for them to achieve their goals, whatever they are, is to listen to your advice.

Your current ability

The below chart represents the skill level required to play your current piece of music.

The correct way to study – Student “A”

The standard of the next piece of music you study should be just slightly higher than your current level of ability. This pushes you just the right amount on to the next level. This amount of growth is possible within the next few weeks.

This piece of music is “attainable” and will be confidently mastered by the student if practice is approached in the correct way allowing the student to grow to the next level. By increasing the standard of each successive piece of music you practice by the right amount the student will be able to play each piece of music to a high standard and achieve considerable progress over a specific timeframe. The green area shows the musical growth achieved with each piece of music studied.

A - This represents the student’s current ability.

B - This represents the amount of musical growth the student is likely to achieve when studying their next piece of music. By pushing yourself “just the right amount” with several successive pieces of music your ability will gradually grow.

The incorrect way to study – Student “B”

In the above chart we can see that the second piece of music the student tried to study is almost four times more difficult to play than the first piece of music studied.

A - The brown area represents the student’s current ability.

B - The green area represents the amount of musical growth the student is likely to achieve when studying their next piece of music.

C - The red area represents the shortfall. These parts of the music are too difficult. It is too much of a stretch to play this – all attempts to play this level of music will fail. Students will not benefit from studying this level of music unless the prerequisite learning has been completed. Because this piece of music is so difficult for this student to play he is likely to practice this music for an extended period of time. Unfortunately, no matter how long the student studies this piece of music the musical growth he achieves by playing this music will be limited. The green area shows how much progress the student is likely to make studying this piece of music, even after practicing it for many months.

Comparing the progress of Student “A” and Student “B” over a 6 month period

The below chart shows the difference between how much progress Student “A” will make in a 6 month period compared with how much progress Student “B” will make.

The secret to maintaining good consistent progress on the piano is to study your current piece until you know if really well and then choose a piece of music that will push you just the right amount up to the next skill level. Progress will be negatively impacted if the pieces of music you choose to study next are either too easy or too hard. An important part of the piano teacher’s job is to know the correct level for the next piece of music to be studied. The skillful teacher will be able to select repertoire that is appropriate for each student based on their knowledge of the student and their previous record of achievement. During a 6 month period Student “A” has confidently progressed from level 1 to level 2. He is fully prepared to move forward with his studies. During the same time period Student “B” has made very little progress and continues to struggle trying to play the same piece he has been studying for the last 6 months. It does not seem to matter how hard he tries. The music still keeps going wrong and those technically difficult passages still lack any control. Even though student “B” jumped straight into playing level 2 music from level 1, with no pieces in between to assist with the musical growth necessary between the two levels, he has spent the 6 months struggling and is still unable to successfully play a level 2 piece of music to a high standard. If he continues to work in this way he may never successfully reach level 2.

Not all piano teachers offer sensible advice to their students

There is one more point that I must mention for this article to be complete. I have often found with transfer students that their previous teachers did not do a particularly good job of providing music for the student that allows them to grow their musical abilities in the correct way.

It is unfortunately the case that some teachers do, in fact, give their students music that is not appropriate for their level of ability. This often happens when teachers approach lessons without any structured path of progression in place. Some teachers believe that the way to “prove” that they are a great teacher is to avoid using “tutor books”.

While I do believe it is possible to successfully teach students without using tutor books, I also believe that a good number of teachers that approach lessons in this way do not do a very good job of ensuring that progression through the musical grades is managed carefully enough. These teachers often “look down” on teachers that use tutor books, believing that their own methods are superior, when in actual fact the approach they take does not work for a large number of students.

Unfortunately for the student, while the teacher may believe they are doing a good job they often fail to structure the student’s progression through the grades in a satisfactory way. This often leads to students struggling with practice and spending countless months unsuccessfully being able to play a single piece of music.

In this situation students often believe that it is their own ability that is not strong enough to be able to successfully deal with the “challenges” of playing the piano. This is very unfortunate.

When working with transfer students who have had this experience I always find that the progress they make and the enjoyment they get from learning the piano increases way beyond their expectations once they are given a structured and sensible course of study to follow. A good tutor book provides the basic “core curriculum” that is necessary to ensure success for most students. When a teacher decides to use a tutor book to provide the overall framework in which lessons take place this does not need to restrict their teaching in any way. Extension activities may be offered for the student to study along the way which will be appropriate for the differing needs of each student. These extension activities may offer a significantly different experience for every student and would be a topic for another blog post.

It seems very strange to me when I first work with a transfer student and they show me the music their previous teacher has asked them to study and I see that they have been given pieces of music to study that contain no evidence of progression at all and the music pieces of music they are studying are all at wildly different standards. I notice this the most when a student arrives for a trial lesson and pulls out a folder of “photocopied pieces of music” that their previous teacher asked them to play. Most of the time when I take a look at the music the student has been previously assigned I see very little evidence of any kind of “progression” in the music the student has been asked to study. At this point I prepare to explain to the student (who has often played for a couple of years at this point without making much progress) the reasons they have been struggling to play without any measurable degree of success for so long.

If you are experiencing difficulties in your piano playing and are not making the kind of progress you would expect contact The Legends Piano Studio and we will be delighted to help point you in the right direction. Piano lessons are available to students anywhere in the world online.

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