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Thoughts about difficulty rating
#2859642 06/17/19 04:03 PM
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Very often I see threads where the discussion goes about technical difficulty of piano music. Of course I understand that it is useful to have some kind of guideline when choosing music for training or performance. But I think it is too simple to rate the difficulty of a piece just using a single number, either using a scale from 1 to 6, 1 to 10 or something different. At least when pieces above the introductory level is concerned.

My experience with difficulty is that it is almost impossible to compare pieces by different composers, and I believe that experience and background of the pianist (at least among non-professionals) strongly influences what she or he finds more or less difficult. When I was young I focused much on romantic pieces by Grieg, Chopin and other 19th century composers, and I found this music much easier than for instance Bach where even a two-part invention was out of range. I have to admit, though, that I didn,t play neither Grieg nor Chopin well, but unfortunately I got no advice by teachers or people who really could play,

Anyhow, comparing the difficulty of Bach and Chopin pieces seems to me to be like comparing apples and oranges. At some point I realised that I had to go back to basics and start working in a more diciplined way and then I started understanding and aporeciating Bach and gradually developed some technique for playing baroque music.

Starting working on music by a new composer seems to me like starting learning a new language. Going from Bach to Haydn wasn’t a very big deal, while the step from Chopin to Faure was pretty tough. There are few really simple piano pieces by Faure while Chopin has some relatively easy compositions. But even for a person mastering the more advanced pieces of Chopin will meet quite some challenges when starting with Faure. I found the step to Albeniz and de Falla to be smaller. Their music has elements quite similar to both Grieg and Chopin.

Finally I’d like to mention that the difficulty of a piece can be strongly dependent on how the piece is performed. Even a relatively simple composition of Bach can be made extremely difficult by doing things with phrasing and voicing. Similar things can be done with Mozart, Chopin or any other composer. The Chopin mazurkas, for instance, can be played at least decently by many non-professionals and they are probably rated as intermediate. But playing them on a really artistic level requires advanced skills.

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Re: Thoughts about difficulty rating
Ganddalf #2859666 06/17/19 04:33 PM
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Originally Posted by Ganddalf
Very often I see threads where the discussion goes about technical difficulty of piano music. Of course I understand that it is useful to have some kind of guideline when choosing music for training or performance. But I think it is too simple to rate the difficulty of a piece just using a single number, either using a scale from 1 to 6, 1 to 10 or something different. At least when pieces above the introductory level is concerned.

Starting working on music by a new composer seems to me like starting learning a new language.

That's why I firmly believe that for a student (of any age) interested in seriously pursuing classical music to a high standard, he/she should find a good teacher and let him/her choose all (or most of) the pieces.

That way, all the pianistic skills expected at each level - and all the keyboard styles of all eras and from all major composers - will be practiced and assimilated. Someone who can play Für Elise will find Two-Part Inventions and Mikrokosmos Bk.5 no more difficult to learn and play.

Piano exams (ABRSM etc) generally require candidates to choose their pieces from different lists precisely for this purpose, to ensure that students are able to play music in different styles and from different periods. For example, I fished out the pieces I played for my Grade 6 exam (many, many years ago): a Scarlatti sonata (Kk378), a movement from a Mozart sonata (K282 - Menuettos I & II), a Grieg 'Bridal Song' (Op.17 No.24) and a samba by a contemporary composer.

Of course, I'm not saying that adult students shouldn't be choosing their own pieces (- and teachers generally encourage adult learners to do so). But what I can say is that if I could have when I was a student (and therefore didn't do any ABRSM exams), I'd have played hardly anything but Mozart, Beethoven and Chopin. Maybe a bit of Schubert. Definitely no contrapuntal stuff, no Baroque, no 20th century, no strongly rhythmic and/or syncopated stuff, no impressionistic/chordal stuff.....


"I don't play accurately - anyone can play accurately - but I play with wonderful expression. As far as the piano is concerned, sentiment is my forte. I keep science for Life."
Re: Thoughts about difficulty rating
bennevis #2859822 06/18/19 02:22 AM
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Originally Posted by bennevis

That's why I firmly believe that for a student (of any age) interested in seriously pursuing ]classical music to a high standard, he/she should find a good teacher and let him/her choose all (or most of) the pieces.


You are right. I hardly ever had a piano teacher and have spent 50 years playing pieces selected by myself. I'm sure that I would have been a much better player if I had a good teacher, particularly during the first years. As a result my piano playing lacks a solid fundament. The concept of the piano exams (like ABRSM) makes sense to me. This seems to encourage diversity in repertoire and pianistic technique. Unfortunately I never heard about these exams until I joined this forum some years ago.

Re: Thoughts about difficulty rating
Ganddalf #2859911 06/18/19 08:41 AM
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I have a good teacher - but life's too short to spend playing someone else's choice of music.

I'm also all for diversity in repertoire and technique - but not at all in technique not required in any music that I'd want to play. Focus is needed for effective use of time.

Re: Thoughts about difficulty rating
Ganddalf #2860034 06/18/19 01:05 PM
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Your premise makes a lot of sense, and I started running with the idea in my head. What about a new classification system that would grade pieces by different elements of difficulty? Each piece would have a grade for different elements, which would still be on a 1-10 scale. For example:

- Tight fingerwork
- Arpeggios
- Scales
- Large jumps
- etc

It seems like this could be a very useful index both for teachers and students (especially if it was an on-line catalog with searching.) It could help students find music they like that they could work on outside of lessons and it could help teachers more quickly identify alternative pieces to work on specific techniques without having to pore through lots of music.

As I'm a relative newb, and my classifications might be crap, but it seems like having a more fine grained way to rate difficulty and to discover new music could be useful.


Now learning: Chopin C# minor Nocturne (posth) and C minor Prelude (big chords), Mozart Sonata in C K. 545
Instruments: Yamaha N1X, Kawai ES110, Roland GO:PIANO
Re: Thoughts about difficulty rating
Ganddalf #2860076 06/18/19 03:11 PM
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It makes perfect sense to treat different aspects of difficulty separately. But I believe having 10 levels would be overkill in that scenario, because it would generally be hopeless to assess whether something should be level 3 or 4, or 6 or 7, etc. Maybe five levels at most (or even just three)?

Off the top of my head I would consider things like:

Wide hand separation
Rapidity
Rythmic complexity
Number of notes
Dynamic variability.


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Re: Thoughts about difficulty rating
Chrispy #2860089 06/18/19 03:34 PM
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Originally Posted by Chrispy
Your premise makes a lot of sense, and I started running with the idea in my head. What about a new classification system that would grade pieces by different elements of difficulty? Each piece would have a grade for different elements, which would still be on a 1-10 scale. For example:

- Tight fingerwork
- Arpeggios
- Scales
- Large jumps
- etc

It seems like this could be a very useful index both for teachers and students (especially if it was an on-line catalog with searching.) It could help students find music they like that they could work on outside of lessons and it could help teachers more quickly identify alternative pieces to work on specific techniques without having to pore through lots of music.

As I'm a relative newb, and my classifications might be crap, but it seems like having a more fine grained way to rate difficulty and to discover new music could be useful.


I 2nd your idea.



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Re: Thoughts about difficulty rating
Ganddalf #2860090 06/18/19 03:35 PM
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The G Henle Verlag Difficulty Rating makes sense (imo).

They don't have everything but they do have most of the typical piano repertoire.

The scale goes 1 thru 9 and by the time you hit 9, you can try the hardest pieces in the repertoire. ("Try" not "Master") I like to think of it as year 1 thru year 9. Every time you finish a year you can go to Henle to see what to attempt next.


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