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Hi,

Some background:
I'm approaching 5 years of playing the piano, (~3.5y of of lessons).
Recently I've been working on Tchaikovsky's Barcarolle (June) which my current teacher suggested to me. I jumped on the opportunity since it's beautiful. It's been two months and and it still sounds terrible (and I'm not being modest), and I'm a bit overwhelmed by it. It sounds very clunky under my fingers and the progress is unusually slow. It is much harder than I thought it would be.
I think it's partly due to lack of experience with this style and partly because it's simply beyond my level. My teacher still thinks I can do it.

Last time I encountered such feeling was with Mozart's k332 first Movement (with my previous teacher). I was struggling with it for 6 months before I finally gave up (and my previous teacher also thought I should keep trying). Now I'm more aware of this feeling and consider cutting this earlier.

What would you say are the signs for a piece being too difficult for me? And how can I differentiate between a challenge which I can overcome and grow from, and a challenge which is wasting my time?

Thanks


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To me, it’s always tough to know, but the criteria I use is ‘do I see any progress’, ‘Do I feel like I’m struggling’? ‘Do I feel the urge to rip the score in half’?

If I feel like I’m struggling and want to shred the score, then I decide that is enough for now and put it aside. Most pieces will have difficult measures, but it shouldn’t feel like head bashing— just as a new skill/measure to learn.

Save it fir later and it feel like a joy to learn

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There's no precise dividing line for a piece that's at least close to doable. For the two months you've worked on the Barcarolle, about how much time per day or per week did you spend on it? Does much of the piece seem extremely hard or only a few measures or a section? Perhaps more discussion with your teacher about your difficulties with the piece and why (s)he thinks it's suitable for you now would help. Also, discuss the specific technical problems you have and any suggestions to solve them.

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Great pointers, here is my add from my own experience:
1. I always ask my teacher what is his expectation of rough timeline to get it in decent shape [nothing is set in stone as life stuff gets in the way]
2. Discuss where the challenging measures/bars are for me

At this point, I have a base line expectation for myself.

3. As you practice the piece..use the lesson feedback on what is still sticky for you. Isolation of bars are critical in practicing. Avoid starting at bar 1 all the time.

4. I have tackled pieces that I didn’t finish because there were a huge chunk of challenging bars that I couldn’t handle, and this wore on my confidence and I couldn’t hold the interest. When a piece is moving at too slow a pace..it means I took on more than I was ready for.

And it is okay to tell your teacher that..nothing is worst than making a wonderful journey painful. My teacher has been okay to let drop it.


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If a piece is too difficult il probably get fed up quite quickly. Il try pieces nearer my level (I’ve been playing just over 5 years similar to you)

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It depends on the student, their level, and what they are going for. I have seen students who could play stuff like a Chopin ballade, who said the piece was too hard for them and kept it aside, because there was no way they could progress with the piece beyond a point.

It's hard to say. I find that I'm able to sort of manage most things at 80% ish tempo off the bat. When I discuss it with my teacher, he points out all the small things I am missing, and that the piece, say a Chopin etude is too hard for me. Even though I can play it at tempo, there is no way I can play it with all the required articulations and control at tempo in the near future. So we work on easier pieces instead.

I usually think I'm terms of weeks, not months. At least for me, I find that if I understand what needs to be improved, progress happens in a matter of days (before the next lesson), not months.

I usually ask my teacher to work on the specific bars. If he gives good advice, I usually make enough progress during the lesson to know whether or not the new ideas are effective. It's cumbersome to explain everything over text. Basically, at least I do it, as my teacher suggests, by breaking down each measure and each movement of the hand, analyzing everything that needs to be done, and slowly piecing it together.

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I would also add that while you may be working on it for months doesn't always mean it's been that much time. I once was getting frustrated with a piece that felt like it was taking forever as I had worked on it for months. I then decided to total my minutes and turned out it I had only spent something like 20 hours on it, then instead of feeling slow I was actually really happy and proud of my progress. Im no expert but I'd say if you're enjoying it keep at it, maybe take a break from it for a day two?

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I work on at least several different pieces. So I may have one difficult piece, some medium and some easier to keep me motivated. If I put everything into learning one difficult piece I’d get fed up.

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If a work is getting nowhere, even though I've been meaning to learn it and actually working on it, for two or three weeks, and I find myself really not wanting to work on it, because there is other stuff that I would rather do. Then the piece is probably too difficult for me at that point.

I work on my own without a teacher, so bear that in mind.


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Don’t want to generalize since we’re all different and every situation is not the same.

Now that music recordings is very accessible online, very few including myself would dive into an unfamiliar piece without hearing at least 1 recording of it. Making recordings & comparing them to other recordings have become a routine for me. Some of the time there may be a misprint in the score I’d let a recording determine the right notes.

Some pieces I may not be technically ready like ones with several voices or big jumps. I’d leave these piece out for a few months and focus on lower level pieces until I’m ready. Once you mastered a piece at a certain level, other pieces at the same level becomes manageable.

Besides making recordings, I also analyze a score beforehand. Just read the score without playing and identify the nuances. A difficult piece can be overwhelming. I’d break a piece down into section and work on each individually. Never attempt to play the entire piece from top to bottom until each section is rock solid. Sometimes I’d isolate specific spots to work on such as getting the notes of a trill to sound even, places that are too slow or fast, hands off sync, foot pedal, etc.

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I have very similar situation.. 4 years -my teacher would assign a song that was way above my pay grade.
I have a small stack of maybe 5 or 6 of those tunes—I call them study songs and yes it is not unusual for piano players to work on one song for years .
Study songs I include w all the other exercises, etc. once I start to make real gains and I feel confident, the song becomes part of my repertoire and is removed from my study song stack.

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I think you can screen pieces based on grade and on your teachers opinion. If the composer style is new often you need to start lower. It's difficult to know and often you get half way into something and feeling you gettin nowhere. It's why it's a good idea to think carefully about pieces. I think you still learn even from a piece too difficult so sometimes you can play it very well but much slower, for example.

I know October from the seasons was a grade 8 piece exam in uk and it's similar difficulty to june. It may therefore have been an expected stretch piece to begin with if you have only 3.5 years of lessons.

But to answer your question simply the sign a piece is truly too difficult is if you practice something and you really can't do it. Most difficulties can be sorted in practice and lessons but when it really cant I have to be honest I had a clean break and didn't practice the piece since. But mostly after this I picked much easier pieces. I have noticed that I can learn a lot longer pieces if I pick easier pieces . I dont do this tactic so often now. You also don't need to pick pieces harder to progress so sometimes better to find similar pieces at a level your feel comfortable. Once you have a background from a composer or style you may want to stretch your limits again

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I have to say I've read all the comments and they are super helpful. I appreciate your help.

My main challenges in the piece are pedal usage, and the big chords (especially chords which involve fingers 3 and 4 RH in a small interval, where you need to keep a melodic line between fingers 4 and 5). The harder bars for me are located in the faster part with all the jumps (they are not big jumps but they occur in both hands and they mess me up). My pedal work there is chaotic.
My upper body gets locked up and my movements are not free enough to make this piece flow. I consider restarting the piece from scratch, which is something I've never done before. I must change something in the way I currently play it.
I'll communicate it to my teacher and we'll see how it goes.

Thanks again (more comments are welcome of course).


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Originally Posted by Ido
What would you say are the signs for a piece being too difficult for me?

This:
Originally Posted by Ido
It's been two months [...] and I'm a bit overwhelmed by it.

And this:
Originally Posted by Ido
I was struggling with it for 6 months before I finally gave up

You are a not a professional, but you play the piano for your enjoyment, for your love of it. There is such a vast amount of repertoire that is appropriate for your level and that will help you progress. There is simply no need at all to struggle with a piece that is above your level.

Originally Posted by Ido
how can I differentiate between a challenge which I can overcome and grow from, and a challenge which is wasting my time?

Actually, I think that a challenge that is too big is probably a waste of your time. Because you spend a lot of time practising something that is too difficult, over and over and over again, instead of practising smaller steps and acquiring competence and confidence. So when you notice you are struggling too much, when you don't make progress in spite of hard work, when you feel overwhelmed, you know that the challenge is too big. One thing you can do at that point, if you feel like it, is instead of giving up the whole piece, you chose a section, or a couple of phrases that you feel are within your reach, and you practise just those. So you still get some satisfaction out of your hard work. But maybe you are just so fed up that you want to ditch the whole piece, and that is fine as well.


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It's probably easier to understand in terms of goals, which for many people are fornalized in terms of yearly exams. If a piece takes up too much time such that one can't have it ready by the next exam, then it's too challenging.

That said, if you don't have time constraints, I'd say it could count as a long term goal. Music is for a lifetime, after all.


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I've been playing a lot longer than you but got caught out with June too! Specifically the middle chordal section, and I'm normally good at judging the difficulty level (for me.) And I had read through that bit thinking, hmm, tricky but they are only diminished whatsit chords and I should be able to do this if I go about it right. So when I got to that section I had worked out what was going on with the chords, tried out possible fingerings etc and put my usual practice methods to work. I have small hands and at the next lesson my teacher suggested how to possibly reorganise the chords. She knows me well and was confident it was within my scope. Another week or so of diligent focussed effort went by .. etc etc. Result, mounting frustration, tension and disappointment, particularly as I was able to play the rest of the piece really quite nicely, just up my street! I'm pretty patient and know not to expect instant or even quick results, but when the joy goes out the window ... basta!

It is a bewitching piece and what I'll probably do in the near future is root it out, copy and cut out just that section and make little exercises out of the chords and moving from just one to another. Then I'm not tempted to play the delicious first couple of pages and then hit a brick wall.

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I don't understand and I reject that kind of practice. Why to play a piece in a clunky manner with chaotic pedaling so that you say it sounds terrible? What is the purpose of this? It's useless. You only learn bad habits by doing this.

A piece must never sound terrible. It must always be played reasonably well and sound pleasantly. The only variable in your practice must be a tempo. You need to choose the lowest tempo at which a piece can be played decently, no matter how slow it would be, play it in this tempo for some time to build up some aural and muscle memory, and then start to increase tempo very slowly and gradually, so that with each increase some identifiable flaws appear in the piece, but the piece never starts to sound plain badly.

And if you practice this way you will see very clearly and quickly your current maximum tempo behind which you can't progress effectively, and there will be no need to waste many weeks playing terribly, learning bad habits and wondering if the piece is within your reach or not.


BTW you are not alone. From the practice videos that I sometimes receive for discussion I see that on most of them the tempo is much higher than it should be. It concerns both adult beginners studying with a teacher and without a teacher.

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"How to decide whether a piece is too challenging?"

I stand 12 feet from the sheet music and if I see more black ink than white, I don't touch it.



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If my teacher suggested it, I'd keep plugging away at it and work on following his instructions. To counter the hard piece, I'd bring in some extra easy pieces so I could make quick progress and feel a bit less like a dunce.


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This Barcarole has been graded 8 in the UK, the same as the piece for October, although in my opinion it is much harder than October. If difficulties are encountered at measure 32 onwards (poco piu mosso) you could consider reducing the number of jumps being performed by the left hand by not doubling the top D. This would also reduce the need to use the pedal. In these measures of my edition some of the phrases are not marked particularly strongly but they need to be carefully observed and executed.
My first piano teacher when I was an adult learner introduced me to grade 8 pieces far too early and they would take months to learn. I can't remember ever failing to finish any of these but I guess they were played pretty poorly.

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