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At some point, we’ve all wanted to be able to play difficult piano pieces from composers like Rachmaninoff, Chopin or Liszt. But have you ever wondered what elements make those pieces so difficult to learn in the first place?
A difficult piano piece is technically demanding and musically challenging to convey the composer’s emotions. While technical challenges can be conquered with enough practice, it’s harder to play with musicality as it requires you to understand the composer’s intention with the piece.
In this article, I’ll go more in-depth on what technical challenges you may encounter in difficult pieces, as well as what “playing with musicality” really means. There’s will be a section on some tips for tackling difficult piano pieces.
By the way, the picture you see here is a real composition named “Faerie Aire and Death Waltz”. This piece was written by John Stump as a joke and is impossible to play (unless you have 2 more hands and another brain to process all of those notes).
What makes a piano piece difficult?
Difficult piano pieces are technically difficult to play. Getting your fingers to do exactly what the composer requires through music notation is a difficult undertaking that demands a lot of time and practice.
Piano keys are sensitive to how fast and how much pressure you exert on them, which determines how loud the sound produced is. This means you need excellent control of your hands, wrists and fingers to be able to play notes evenly or with the same volume, depending on what the piece demands.
For example, Liszt’s harder Etudes require not only years of playing Liszt, but also years of finger training by playing studies or doing scales before you have the sufficient finger control needed to approach these pieces.
Many difficult pieces have fast tempos that are hard to keep up, large leaps between notes, far apart octaves notes that are tricky for people with shorter fingers to reach, or passages with awkward fingerings. It could be that you need to do all of these in one hand only while the other hand is doing something else!
Take the example of La Campanella by Liszt, which is considered a fairly difficult piece because of the techniques needed. There are enormous jumps scattered throughout the piece which is made harder because of the fast tempo.
In La Campanella, there are also 32nd notes, immediately followed by jumps, as well as trills while your pinky is also playing notes.
Some pieces from composers like Bach require hand independence where both hands play melodies. This is much harder to pull off compared to the right hand playing melodies while the left-hand playing chords.
There are also tricky rhythms or polyrhythms that needed to be figured out on their own first before being incorporated into your playing of the piece.
With that said, with enough time and effort, you’ll be able to learn all the technicalities required by a piece. However, to be able to play the piece expressively and with musicality is another challenge in itself.
Even if you manage to conquer the technical hurdles of a difficult piece, that isn’t enough to be able to play a piece well. Because of the artistic side of the piece, if you were to play a piece with precise techniques only, the piece would end up sounding soulless and mechanical.
To be able to convey the composer’s emotions and vision, you need to decipher that composer’s intention in writing the piano piece. Only when you understand that intention can you truly play a piece.
This task of understanding the composer’s intention is very difficult since unlike nowadays where we have audio or video interviews, there were no such things back then.
The only way to understand the intention is by looking through written records of what was going on in the composer’s life at the time and drawing a conclusion of what the composer was feeling at the time and subsequently their intention of writing a particular piece.
This task is made even harder since there isn’t a convenient diary lying around that details the composer’s thoughts when they were writing a particular piece…
Furthermore, each composer has a vision for how their piece should be played. While different interpretations are allowed, it’s hard to keep a balance between the composer’s interpretation and your interpretation of the piece, while not deviating too much to an unacceptable level.
Take the example of the pianist Ivo Pogorelic who was in the 1980 Chopin Competition. His interpretations of Chopin were so radical yet revolutionary that they split the jury in half: half of the judges gave him the highest number of points while the other half gave the lowest. One of the judges even resigned after Pogorelich wasn’t admitted to the final round.
Some listeners view his interpretation as unacceptable as it destroyed the musical structure of the piece and sounds assaultive to them, while others considered him a genius that brought out a side of Chopin that Chopin himself didn’t know he had.
Have a listen yourself and see which interpretation you enjoy more: Pogorelich’s interpretation of Chopin’s Ballade No. 2 in F Major vs Krystian Zimmerman’s whose interpretation is how the piece is supposed to be played:
Personally, I’m more of a conservative listener but I appreciate what Pogorelich was trying to convey through his interpretation of the piece.
How to practice difficult piano pieces
Spend more time on more difficult passages
Once you are going through a difficult piece, you may notice that some passages are harder than others. Thus you should focus more on those harder passages.
When practicing, don’t go through the entire piece but jump straight to the problematic passage. Once that problematic passage is no longer a problem, piece everything together and practice the piece as a whole
Memorize the notes and clap the rhythm separately
For difficult pieces where the rhythm is challenging to figure out, clap them separately. Also, play the notes in the piece by themselves with no regard for rhythm to memorize them. Once you’ve got those two aspects figured out, combine them.
Practice at a slow tempo
You may be tempted to practice a piece at tempo but it’s more efficient to practice consistently at a slower tempo.
This is because it’ll take longer to practice different passages at varying tempos due to different difficulties, then match all passages to the piece’s required tempo. Remember that if you can play a piece slowly, you can play that same piece quickly.
Practice 2 hands separately
This is similar to practicing scales where you learn left and right hands separately before playing the scale together, if a piece is too difficult then practice 2 hands separately to make it easier first before combining them.
With that said, although learning difficult pieces can teach you important skills and techniques that will further your piano playing, sometimes a piece is too difficult for your current level and will be unproductive to learn at the moment since you’ll gain little from all the time and effort spent.
You’ll learn more by playing many pieces closer to your level in the same amount of time spent learning one difficult piece. I wrote an article that guides you in determining when a piano piece is too hard for you: How To Know if a Piano Piece is Too Hard for you?