Reasonable Words: Getting past the “Love of Difficulty”

Reading a lot about playing the piano, in particular, how to practice effectively, something I’ve never mastered despite decades of playing. I got “The Musician’s Way” for Christmas, and successful practicing is a main theme. Early on in the book author Gerald Klickstein lights on this quote from Duke Ellington,

“The wise musicians are those who play what they can master.”

This hit me sort of like a zen koan–effective practicing starts by selecting pieces you have a chance of gaining some mastery of, or at least competence at. It’s a theme that is echoed in another book I’m thumbing through,”The Well-Tempered Keyboard Teacher,” which provides advice on ways to respond to students who bring in music that is just too hard for them, either at the time, or perhaps ever; the author’s advice: tactful refocusing the student on music that is pedagogically useful, musically rewarding, and not a challenge merely for a challenge’s sake.

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First page of the Goldberg Variations. Not in this lifetime for me (and not in this ridiculously Romanticized Czerny edition for anybody probably!)

Such good advice, so why is it so hard to follow? (and not just in matters musical.) What is the love of difficulty about–why do the “hard” pieces count, and the easy ones seem trivial? And whose yard stick applies? (particularly in an activity like playing the piano for pleasure for no audience)? Bach’s Goldberg Variations are beyond me (now and forever), but the 2- and 3-part Inventions are within my reach. For me, they have tricky bits–something I doubt they present to Peter Serkin, but that these tricky bits are surmountable is part of the fun.

So corollary to “play what you can master” is “choose profitable difficulties.” I remember years ago reading in a biography of Paul Erdős that he told a mathematician he was mentoring to “forget that problem, it’s too hard for you, do this one instead.” (Or something to that effect.) On the face of it pretty demoralizing, but if you put aside the ego and the worry about status, how wonderful to have a mentor who could keep you from burning up in pursuit of something he could see would not get you anywhere, but help you choose a “Goldilocks” problem–neither too easy or too hard, instead. The take away being that “hard” “easy” isn’t the important spectrum, and maybe not even a linear spectrum after all, but at least in part personal response depending on where are you are starting from. Different people could get different things out of the same experience based on who they are and what they were going for.

A nice idea, and perhaps one that will lead me to be happy with my “3-Part Invention” level of piano playing and get better in a feasible way…

No doubt not to the level of Andras Schiff. And I’m okay with that.

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