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Can one go straight to practicing one's favorite pieces? (Read 1141 times)

Offline dontcheeseme

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Can one go straight to practicing one's favorite pieces?
« on: September 22, 2019, 08:57:04 PM »
I aim to be a slightly adequate piano player asap, and that means possibly skipping the grades 4-8 materials and just diving into my favorite pieces but that means playing with mistakes and imperfection. Is this possible/feasible, or is it more rewarding to take the long haul and go through each of the grades and master it thoroughly, and how soon can I tackle difficult pieces such as rachmaninoff op 23 no 5 or the chopin etudes? I don't feel like having to wait for 3 years before tackling those pieces as practicing the lower grade pieces leaves me drained and demotivated, knowing that I have to plough through those for years before I can tackle the pieces that inspired me to play the piano in the first place?

What are your advice on this? THanks.

Offline dontcheeseme

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Re: Can one go straight to practicing one's favorite pieces?
«Reply #1 on: September 22, 2019, 08:58:19 PM »
As additional information, I'm currently starting Grade 4.

Offline dogperson

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Re: Can one go straight to practicing one's favorite pieces?
«Reply #2 on: September 22, 2019, 09:12:04 PM »
You control how you want to learn; it is your decision whether to skip four grades (or not)

When you skip levels, you are skipping skills and the time to develop the needed technique... so the Grade 10 piece you attempt will take you much longer and every time you work on it will be a struggle.  You will tackle fewer pieces per year.

It does not work for me to skip so many levels that I cannot play the music well; my ears tell me how flawed it is, and I am quite discouraged about how hard I have worked to have the end result not be worthwhile. I want the repertoire I have worked on to be good enough to play for a friend.

I never understand how Grade 4 through 8 is unappealing because I have heard beautiful music at every level

Your money (so to speak), your choice. Go listen to really good and really awful recordings on YouTube and decide what your personal goal is. If you take the slow route, no one can predict how long it will take you to get ‘there’. 

Offline brogers70

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Re: Can one go straight to practicing one's favorite pieces?
«Reply #3 on: September 22, 2019, 10:35:36 PM »
Sure, you can go straight to practicing your favorite pieces. If you want to play them well, though, you'll get there faster in the long run by not skipping the lower grades. If you never practice music you can play fluently and musically you'll never build up the skills of playing musically and fluently. If you practice the difficult pieces you love right away, you'll practice them for years and in the end you may be able to hit all the notes, sometimes, playing for yourself, but it will likely be tense and unmusical and will all fall apart when you try to play for anyone else.

As you can probably guess, I speak from my own experience. Taking a year to play pieces that I could play easily, fluently, and musically dramatically improved my playing. So, personally, I'd advise against skipping all those grades. Find music in those grades you like and play it well; there's plenty of very beautiful, non-virtuoso music to play. And you'll get to playing your Chopin Etudes or Late Beethoven or whatever faster in the long run.

Offline ted

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Re: Can one go straight to practicing one's favorite pieces?
«Reply #4 on: September 22, 2019, 11:56:35 PM »
These very numerous "am I ready" or "ought I to play" threads on piano forums have always puzzled me because the answers are so personal and elementary. Thirty minutes to an hour, perhaps much less, trying bits of a piece is amply sufficient to find one's capability in regard to playing it. Above these considerations, art is completely free and the piano police are not going to arrive on the doorstep because of what you play and how you play it. There is some fundamental lack of confidence in these questions which I have never been able to fathom.
"We're all bums when the wagon comes." - Waller

Offline j_tour

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Re: Can one go straight to practicing one's favorite pieces?
«Reply #5 on: September 23, 2019, 12:17:36 AM »
There is some fundamental lack of confidence in these questions which I have never been able to fathom.

I agree with your incomprehension:  it's difficult for me to understand children or teenagers, which is not a criticism of them, but rather of my own limitations as a pedagogue.

However, the question is still a pretty good one.

It's really been answered pretty well above, but I'll just give my own anecdote of one example.

Sure.  When I'd begun studying seriously with a serious teacher, she decided that it would be acceptable for me to jump into grade 7/8 stuff after I'd demonstrated some acumen at interpreting simpler pieces of, say, Scriabin, Chopin, and Beethoven, in addition to my blues/ragtime background from a much younger age. 

So, I was playing, and pretty well, 7/8-grade pieces, including for graded stage settings.  We had to break down technical problems as they arose, which was simple things like the octave runs in the Op. 79 B minor rhapsody.  And I played the Bach I wanted to as well. 

It wasn't that I had no technique that I couldn't acquire at that modest level, as well as learning to work on pieces on my own, unsupervised, which I did constantly, it was that more abstract techniques like playing in double thirds or even single thirds in one hand were not part of the diet.

Mixed bag, really. 

"Pearly" scales in all configurations, playing in thirds in the RH, things like that didn't get covered, except when they needed to for a few bars here and there.  Not that easy to reinvent one's technique as one becomes accomplished in other areas of music, and as one's interests change over time.

However, the enthusiasm and dedication would surely not have happened in some kind of State-Sponsored Syllabus Academic style.  I probably would have just switched to electric guitar and have been done with it altogether.

Yeah, it really is something that needs some consideration, and, most importantly, a complete decision about and committment to what one's priorities are.

Offline dontcheeseme

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Re: Can one go straight to practicing one's favorite pieces?
«Reply #6 on: September 23, 2019, 01:57:59 AM »
Thanks for all the replies. Yes I have decided to go through each of the grades and work on my technique as thoroughly as possible. Instead of complaining about the time it takes, I'll use it as an opportunity to work on my discipline and patience. Hopefully I make it through, but I expect delays, since I have never fully committed to something non-occupational.

Offline j_tour

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Re: Can one go straight to practicing one's favorite pieces?
«Reply #7 on: September 23, 2019, 03:31:53 AM »
Thanks for all the replies. Yes I have decided to go through each of the grades and work on my technique as thoroughly as possible. Instead of complaining about the time it takes, I'll use it as an opportunity to work on my discipline and patience. Hopefully I make it through, but I expect delays, since I have never fully committed to something non-occupational.

I think that's a really wise decision:  do it right, and not only have a more complete technique, but a personal, and abstract, sense of achievement. 

You might find a standard syllabus like ABRSM can be accelerated for you in some areas, and maybe not in some others.

And, you can still hack around reading through the super-ballistic material for fun, maybe even get some of them down pretty good, depending on your job/life situation.

FWIW, I think it's really rewarding to hear from people with a positive attitude and a strength of purpose, so thanks for sharing something I don't often get to see in my own day-to-day life.

Offline lostinidlewonder

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Re: Can one go straight to practicing one's favorite pieces?
«Reply #8 on: September 23, 2019, 04:40:05 AM »
.... is it more rewarding to take the long haul and go through each of the grades..., and how soon can I tackle difficult pieces...? I don't feel like having to wait for 3 years before tackling those pieces as practicing the lower grade pieces leaves me drained and demotivated...
From my teaching experiences students who don't do exams are generally more well rounded musicans (broader range of styles and pieces, better reading/learning skills etc) than those who solely go the exam route. This is because if you go the exam route exclusively you are limited to a smaller set of pieces. If you study outside of examinations you can literally go through hundreds of pieces a month (given they are at a level easy enough for you to complete). This all improve learning craft and playing skills with great efficiency from my experience.

I think exams are good as a test of your skill level rather than acquisition of them. Exams should be able to be prepared and completed in a few months not over a year which is often a trend I see with those who study only with the exam syllabus. Sure the first few exams might be fast but eventually you will hit a plateau and then it is really a good idea to develop your skills outside of examination preparation.

When you study outside of the exam syllabus you can actually start exploring what music out there that excites you. Pieces which are out of your reach should not be the only pieces out there that encourage you to learn there are plenty of works out there that should be within your ability level which you can efficiently master and build your skills with. This will help you avoid just doing pieces which demotivate you but of course it is a good lesson in itself being able to work through pieces you don't like though of course no one wants to be subjected to this constantly! Exploring and discovering music which excites you should play a large part of everyones musical journey something unfortunately which is strangled somewhat with examinations.

It is not a bad idea to study pieces which are difficult for you alongside works which you are efficiently learning. Sometimes in doing this you will actually accelerate your skills but it is very much a double edged sword and far too many underestimate the downsides. The temptation to make your difficult work a major focus in your study program needs to be avoided, it should remain as something you do after you have completed your main body of work for the day. This is a difficult temptation to control but if you can there is really no problems at all.

When studying difficult works you can identify passages that are overly difficult for you and this can help you question how you build your skills up to a point were you could be able to solve the issues. If you play with mistakes, incorrect technique and actively not try to solve how to improve this then it may take you several years for your technical capabilities and learning tools to catch up and inspire you to start to notice ways in which to make improvements, or of course this may never happen. It should become a curiosity as to how to overcome the technical challenge though if the fingering is wrong then you are fighting a losing battle and also if tension and strain is not actively worked against you may think that it is ok to play in such a manner where of course if you see any master play difficult technical passages their hands always look quite effortless and controlled.


These very numerous "am I ready" or "ought I to play" threads on piano forums have always puzzled me because the answers are so personal and elementary....There is some fundamental lack of confidence in these questions which I have never been able to fathom.
I think that pathways one can take with "the arts" is quite numerous and confusing. With videos of exceptional pianists all over the internet people are exposed to musical journeys which are at quite an exclusive level that a small % go through. A very young pianist shredding through some technical monsters for example doesn't help paint a realistic picture of what a "normal" musical journey for most should be like. This effects some people to such an extent that they start working on pieces which are far too difficult for them but feel the need to prove that they can play at that level.

Musicians who have gone through decades of our musical journey understand the paths that have been well trodden but also know the unique ways in which we can go on these paths. It is not just a single line our musical journey but a direction with branches which spread out as we move along like a beautiful bonsai tree. We learn about what music excites us and were we would like to explore, this grows our overall musical experience in a unique way which I think often is strangled by the constraints of examinations or thinking of works in terms of grade level.

Instead of complaining about the time it takes, I'll use it as an opportunity to work on my discipline and patience.
Though this is difficult to work on if you feel you need to simply restrict yourself to the examination process. To often I see otherwise inspired musicians quit and give up music because they have been forced into the exam regieme and nothing else. We need to feel inspired while we learn, it acts as a huge catalyst for our progress, accepting this lack of inspiration and forcing one to jump through hoops they are not excited about really paints a grey journey for me.
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Offline ranjit

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Re: Can one go straight to practicing one's favorite pieces?
«Reply #9 on: September 23, 2019, 05:15:16 AM »
I find this question pretty relevant to my own situation, so I'll pitch in.

When you skip levels, you are skipping skills and the time to develop the needed technique... so the Grade 10 piece you attempt will take you much longer and every time you work on it will be a struggle.  You will tackle fewer pieces per year.

It does not work for me to skip so many levels that I cannot play the music well; my ears tell me how flawed it is, and I am quite discouraged about how hard I have worked to have the end result not be worthwhile. I want the repertoire I have worked on to be good enough to play for a friend. 
Why is there an implicit assumption that the OP would be fine with not playing the music well? Wouldn't it be a better idea to work on a piece for a couple months to actually figure out if it's beyond one's reach or not?

As you can probably guess, I speak from my own experience. Taking a year to play pieces that I could play easily, fluently, and musically dramatically improved my playing. So, personally, I'd advise against skipping all those grades. Find music in those grades you like and play it well; there's plenty of very beautiful, non-virtuoso music to play. And you'll get to playing your Chopin Etudes or Late Beethoven or whatever faster in the long run.
In your case, you already had an idea of what you needed to improve in order to play more difficult pieces. You would have had a much clearer idea of the skills you actually needed to learn. Often, the point of exercises is lost on students. For instance, a good reason to learn scales might be to train finger coordination for scale-like passages. However, a person with decent coordination may only have problems with such passages beyond, say, a grade 5 level. Then, wouldn't it feel pointless for them to practice scales regularly for five years(!), and have nothing to show for it?

I would say the same thing holds for many things such as slow practice, or practice with a metronome. Slow practice helps consolidate things deeply into memory. But you really need to try to play something fast, and struggle, in order to understand why slow practice is essential. You shouldn't simply play passages slowly; you should play passages slowly in a way nearly identical to how you would play them fast. Akin to watching a slow-motion video of your playing. You then fine-tune your movements which would have passed by too fast if you had been playing them fast.

A very good teacher might explain all of this in a way that the student understands. Sadly, that is not most teachers out there, so a beginning student will have to exercise their own judgement.

These very numerous "am I ready" or "ought I to play" threads on piano forums have always puzzled me because the answers are so personal and elementary. Thirty minutes to an hour, perhaps much less, trying bits of a piece is amply sufficient to find one's capability in regard to playing it. Above these considerations, art is completely free and the piano police are not going to arrive on the doorstep because of what you play and how you play it. There is some fundamental lack of confidence in these questions which I have never been able to fathom.
I think a part of the reason for this is the majority of teachers who insist on learning step-by-step and want the student to trust them that it will all fall into place ten years down the line. Suppose you feel that playing a piece is within your reach after trying it for an hour. But you are a "grade 4" student and the piece is "grade 8". Everyone is telling you not to rush ahead. Most people would be hesitant to proceed, and attributing that to a fundamental lack of confidence seems a tad short-sighted. Indeed, you would be perfectly justified in wondering whether there is some interpretive aspect which you would be bound to mess up if you attempt the piece right now.

I agree with your incomprehension:  it's difficult for me to understand children or teenagers, which is not a criticism of them, but rather of my own limitations as a pedagogue.
I agree with the rest of what you said, but what do you have against children and teenagers? ;D What Ted said isn't specific to teenagers lol.


Offline dogperson

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Re: Can one go straight to practicing one's favorite pieces?
«Reply #10 on: September 23, 2019, 10:52:22 AM »
Ranjit
Two comments:

Why did I assume the OPs final product would not be good if he chose to skip from Grade 4 yo 9+?  Because he said it would not be if he chose to skip these grades and jump into what he wanted to play.  In fact, I don’t see how anyone could expect jumping 5 or more grade levels would have a musical outcome. 

Why wouldn’t you work on a piece 2 months in order to find out it is too difficult ?  Because two months of really working on a score is far too long to come to this conclusion. You should be able to take the most difficult section and work on it with a decision about the overall piece based on that.  If every measure is a huge struggle, you are over your head and will work much longer than 2 months with a final product that cannot be finished and is, generally, unmusical.  There is nothing wrong with knowing a piece is ‘not yet’ and waiting until the predicted output is good to start it. 

Offline ranjit

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Re: Can one go straight to practicing one's favorite pieces?
«Reply #11 on: September 23, 2019, 12:27:48 PM »
Why did I assume the OPs final product would not be good if he chose to skip from Grade 4 yo 9+?  Because he said it would not be if he chose to skip these grades and jump into what he wanted to play.  In fact, I don’t see how anyone could expect jumping 5 or more grade levels would have a musical outcome.
Fair enough. What I was thinking was that it's possible to have a few isolated skills which are considerably advanced, which make it possible to play a particular advanced piece. I don't mean that someone would be able to jump 5 grade levels out of the blue.

Why wouldn’t you work on a piece 2 months in order to find out it is too difficult ? 
I wasn't thinking about a piece where every measure was a challenge tbh. I was thinking more of a "reach" piece, which you have some idea of how to attain, and can reasonably expect to play some sections. Sometimes, you think a piece is too difficult, but then realize that by figuring out a few techniques, you might be able to learn it. Things might start falling into place after a few weeks. Of course, if you've never played an arpeggio before, attempting Chopin Op 10 no 1 would be stupid.

When studying difficult works you can identify passages that are overly difficult for you and this can help you question how you build your skills up to a point were you could be able to solve the issues. If you play with mistakes, incorrect technique and actively not try to solve how to improve this then it may take you several years for your technical capabilities and learning tools to catch up and inspire you to start to notice ways in which to make improvements, or of course this may never happen. It should become a curiosity as to how to overcome the technical challenge though if the fingering is wrong then you are fighting a losing battle and also if tension and strain is not actively worked against you may think that it is ok to play in such a manner where of course if you see any master play difficult technical passages their hands always look quite effortless and controlled.

Actually, this was basically what I was driving at. LiW put it much better than I ever could. :)

Offline dogperson

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Re: Can one go straight to practicing one's favorite pieces?
«Reply #12 on: September 23, 2019, 04:20:10 PM »
Hi Ranjit
I would still contend that two months to determine if a piece is manageable is excessive.  You might need this time to really scrub the tough parts but the assessment and conclusion of ‘I can do this’ should not take two months, should it?   

Offline ranjit

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Re: Can one go straight to practicing one's favorite pieces?
«Reply #13 on: September 23, 2019, 05:02:12 PM »
Hi Ranjit
I would still contend that two months to determine if a piece is manageable is excessive.  You might need this time to really scrub the tough parts but the assessment and conclusion of ‘I can do this’ should not take two months, should it?   
Think of there as being three types of pieces. The first type consists of those pieces which you can confidently proceed with. The second type of pieces are those you wouldn't touch with a ten-foot pole. ;) And the third are those which are somewhere in the middle.

I think of technique as a series of plateaus and cliffs. If you are at a plateau, you don't quite know what your ability will be once you climb the next cliff; you can only guess. If you hold a reasonable suspicion that you might be able to play a piece after a few months, try and give it some time. If you still aren't able to make headway after a month or two, it's a good idea to leave it and come back to it later.

I also don't mean that you should focus exclusively on learning the piece. You can learn several pieces in parallel.

So what I mean is something like this: Spend a few hours trying to figure out if you can conceivably manage the piece -> lay out a plan to learn whatever techniques etc. are required over the next few months -> If you succeed in playing it, then it's great. Otherwise, you have learned a great deal, and you can come back to it later.

For example, the Rachmaninoff Prelude in G minor is probably beyond my level right now. But, I have some familiarity with a "stride-like" pattern in the left hand, and I think that I could "extend" that technique to play the Rach prelude. (This is just conjecture.) But, I've never had to jump around at that kind of speed before in a piece, so it's completely possible that I fail to learn the piece. If so, I could still come back to it later.

It's a case of "you don't know what you don't know", I suppose. There were certain pieces I thought were impossibly difficult when I started, and which fell into place over a few months. I haven't done it much recently, as I've grown rather lazy nowadays, but an example in my case is Schubert Impromptu op 90 no 4. I had only been learning to play the piano for two years, and I saw Zimerman's playing and was amazed. When I first heard it, it sounded impossibly difficult to play, and I didn't think I would be able to play it. I had never played a similar arpeggio pattern before. But, I persevered and eventually managed to figure out the technique to play it over a month or so. I bring this up as an example because I honestly didn't think I would be able to do it. The realization came around three weeks in that I was making significant progress. (I don't claim to play the piece to a professional standard, by any means. I just tried learning it because I was fascinated.)