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  • Mark Brafield

Is it difficult ?

As a musician, I spend a lot of time talking to other musicians and a question that often arises is 'whether a piece is difficult'. Only last week, a friend of mine sent me a text; he was thinking of learning a new piece and wondered whether it was too difficult for him.

It's a good question, and the answer is not as simple as you might think.

To begin with, there are different types of difficulty in music. I am a keyboard player, and the hurricane of notes in a piece like, for example, Rachmaninoff's Third Piano Concerto is terrifying; far too difficult for me ever to consider playing. There is the sheer difficulty of getting around the keyboard, playing so many notes one after the other, often with fistfuls at the same time.

But there are subtler difficulties. A piece might be 'difficult' to learn, in the sense that it takes many, many hours to hammer the notes into the memory and the fingers (particularly if it is a modern piece without a clear tonal structure) and yet once learned, it stays in place for, perhaps, years afterwards. Another piece might come together after a couple of hours practice in the evening, only to find that it has vanished with the morning dew when you return to it the next day.

Then again, a piece might be very simple in terms of the modest number of actual notes, but extremely 'difficult' to project as a piece, requiring deep reserves of musicianship and artistry.

One of my teachers suggested that 'a piece is either impossible or it is easy (and the difference is practice)'. Recently I repeatedly stumbled over a passage that never quite seemed to come out smoothly. As is often the case, this was a sign that I needed to re-consider my fingering. Once I had explored a number of options - some of them quite unorthodox - I found a new fingering in which everything fell into place. The difficulty lay not in the notes, but in the understanding of how to break them down so as to conform to the geography of my hand.

Then there is the perception of difficulty. A piece like Peter Maxwell Davies's 'Green Whirls of Melted Ice' (see above) might look impenetrable at first glance, but the remarkable thing is that once it has been learned, it actually changes its appearance and looks easier on the page. Obviously, the page has not changed, instead, the brain in its neuroplasticity has recruited billions of new neurons and opened new neural pathways in order to find a way through the thickets of notes. What seemed impossible has now crossed the threshold into performability.

In his excellent new book 'Rough Ideas', (Faber, 2019), Stephen Hough (always a thoughtful and perceptive writer) offers the following observations on difficulty -

'Few pieces (except certain etudes) are 'difficult' - they merely have difficult passages in them. And even these tricky passages are not tricky in themselves. Rather they contain tricky parts, or the combination of one part with another is tricky. To keep this in mind in the practice room is an important way of ensuring the performance onstage is safe and secure'.

And finally, there is the expectation of difficulty; with my therapist's hat on, I ask myself what is the secondary gain to be obtained from regarding a piece as difficult. Does the performer become a hero - even if only in his own mind - if he successfully overcomes a piece he has put on this particular pedestal ? This would, perhaps, be understandable were it not for the obvious corollary; if you approach a piece regarding it as inherently 'difficult', that - surprise, surprise - is exactly how you are likely to experience it as you come to learn it.

If you look at a piece of music and only think 'this is difficult', then that is a thought which has come to you without your consideration or engagement, and which is, in practical terms, a waste of thinking. Allowing that thought to persist will simply create obstacles. Instead, how much better to direct your thinking to the outcome you want; using the techniques, experience and resources available to me, how can I best learn this piece ?

It's not difficult !

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