Let me qualify the “you” of the title. I’m not trying to blame anyone or swing judgmental glances at the piano-playing populace. I’ve just been thinking lately about how certain pieces get stuck with a perceived difficulty level, and if that level overshoots the reality for the average piano student, it can lead to discouragement. Resources like Jane Magrath’s The Pianist’s Guide to Standard Piano Literature and Maurice Hinson’s A Practical Guide to Solo Piano Music can help to assess level.
Since I haven’t been a student or a teacher in a pretty long time, I guess I’m really approaching this from another angle, which is: “Every time I try to sight-read these pieces I run into trouble.” So this is really more about sightreadability than anything. But if anyone agrees with me on the following points, great.
Exhibit A. Chopin: Nocturne in E-flat major, Op. 9, No. 2
Jane Magrath’s entry on this piece actually says “This is a selection that is often assigned before a student is fully prepared for its difficulties.” I think the biggest misconception about this piece’s difficulty comes from its familiarity. You hear a couple bars of the melody and think: “Ah, yes, that famous Chopin nocturne.” But when you’re actually sitting at the piano and playing it, some new thoughts start to creep in:
“Wow, this left hand part has huge leaps. And every harmonic change is super important. Better focus and make sure I hit every chord.”
“Oh, wow, yep, this really is the left hand part for 99% of the piece.”
“Is there a line between an appropriate level of Chopinesque rubato and a legit slowdown to get all the notes?”
And then on the second page, you run into this monster:
It only takes a couple tries to get it right, but in the moment my brain gets easily flustered by the amount of content it suddenly has to process. There’s another ornamentation hurdle at the bottom of the page, and then Chopin decides to lay off for the rest of the piece.
Exhibit B. Rachmaninoff: Prelude in D major, Op. 23, No. 4
I played this piece in high school and have always loved it. While it’s one of Rachmaninoff’s most approachable piano pieces, it still requires a really sensitive ear to put across a polished performance. In the first section, the right hand melody has to sing out clearly while the left hand dances up and over it. At the same time, the awkward left hand gestures have to come in smooth waves, without poking. Going into the second page, the melody repeats, now with decoration in both hands! So you have to manage a three-voice texture with three dynamic levels, and that melody needs to shine clearly through all the other detail like a flashlight in the woods. It’s a pretty wild juggling act, and honestly this piece could have been an etude rather than a prelude. The third section, with its gradual build up to a classic Rachmaninoff climax, is ironically the most straightforward part. No worries aside from slowly increasing the dynamics. But then Rachmaninoff throws us one more challenge at the last statement of the melody: huge rolled chords alternating with little bell tolls in the upper register. It’s a sweat-inducing kind of pianistic target-practice. Whether playing this in church or at some other gig, hitting each upper note correctly feels like making my way through a videogame level.
If you’re currently teaching or playing this piece, don’t let my description of the challenges deter you. It’s beautiful, beautiful music, and it’s a great realization of the piano’s textural capabilities.
Exhibit C. Beethoven: Bagatelle in A minor, WoO 59, “Für Elise”
Much of Für Elise is pretty manageable, but I always trip on those weird skeletal transitions with the E octave leaps and the half-steps traded between hands. The disorientation of switching between hands can make me lose track of how many D-sharp-to-E things I’ve played. Then after the second repeat, those undulating 32nd notes come out of nowhere. It’s a weird shift in rhythm, even if you’re ready for it. And it leads right into another transition, of which there are two more before the end. It’s one of the reasons why I’m not a big fan of this piece. If Beethoven’s bagatelles are like chicken wings, this one is a bit skimpy on the meat (whereas the meat in Op. 126 falls off the bone and is flavored with a perfectly compelling hot sauce*).
Maybe this is only the tip of the iceberg in discussing difficulty level. I’m thinking about following this up with the flipside: pieces that are easier than you think. Stay tuned.
* I was thinking of specific wings in this description. Club Garibaldi in Milwaukee, WI. Absolutely the best wings I’ve ever had.