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Are You in Love with Difficulty?

This may be the most serious problem in the classical guitar world today: the obsession with difficulty. That is, the idea that pieces of a certain level are the goal. We want to be able to just get through them, or use the most difficult fingering, or play the hardest piece, regardless of how well we can actually pull a piece off.

Masterclasses and Fingering Arguments

Gohar Vardanyan gave a masterclasses while she was in Fort Worth. One of the students was using a lot of very difficult fingerings, so Gohar presented him with some easier alternatives.

These alternative fingerings sounded just as good. And, more importantly, were probably going to allow the student to have more successful performances of the piece.

But then afterwards, an interesting question came up: when is it better to woodshed, and make the difficult thing work versus just trying something easier.

Gohar’s answer was pretty much in line with what most professional guitarists I’ve talked to think about these things: it’s more important to have a successful performance, so do what’s easiest and most likely to work on stage. Sometimes the difficult fingering, while sounding different (or “better”) is not worth the effort.

Guitarists are Lazy

In other words, good guitarists are lazy. They take the easy way out more often than you’d think. This doesn’t just apply to fingerings. Good concert programs include some easy and difficult music. And, of course, good practicing is all about efficiency and achieving the desired results with the least amount of effort. Good guitarists edit and change things and simplify.

I don’t think amateurs and beginners think this way. Instead they’re obsessed with the next step, the harder pieces, doing things “correctly” (eg. what’s on the page) rather than finding the best solution.

That’s why there’s so many people who have only been playing guitar for a year or two trying to tackle pieces like Asturias or Recuerdos. Instead of worrying about how they can play some easier music well, people tend to focus on playing harder music not-so-well (or terribly).

Nothing is Below You

Denis Azabagic is a great guitarist. He can play whatever he wants. In fact he put up an entire set of videos of the Villa Lobos Preludes on his youtube channel.

Now the Villa Lobos preludes would be considered “undergraduate repertoire”. Do we think less of Denis Azabagic for playing them? Hell no. Probably because he can play the hell out of them.

And that’s really the line: how well can you play something. It’s not about how hard the repertoire you play is. And it’s not about proving to yourself that you can do some difficult fingering (but only nail it half the time). It’s about playing well, and reaching the lay, non-guitarist audience in such a way that you create fans.

The guitar community as a whole, in my opinion, is far to in love with the difficult, and it’s not professional players spreading this idea around.

24 Responses leave one →
  1. 2011 March 4

    I think we tend to assume that our audience will consist mostly of other guitarists, so we are concerned with impressing/interesting them.

    Maybe classical guitar would be bigger with the general public if we started considering them to be the primary audience? I can see pros and cons either way. We need to keep it interesting for ourselves, too, but I think general public just a performer that communicates well and has a good time doing it, regardless of the repertoire.

    I think my next program is going to be 2/3rds easy for me, 1/3rd a challenge. I think it will keep me interested but allow me to ease my way into a performance, and it’d probably be a good balance for the audience, as well.

  2. 2011 March 4
    Matt Callihan permalink

    I think William Bajek is onto something when he says we assume our audience will consist mainly of other guitarists.

    It’s definately my impression that classical guitarists are in love with difficulty. Many of the guitar competition videos I have watched consist of pieces that sound horible (to me) but they are obviously serious technical challenges.

    I know I hesitate to play something I think is easy for others because I worry about it “looking” lame. It feels safer making an audio recording of something that easy and sounds nice, that way nobody can actually see how it was done 🙂

    I agree with Chris, one should be playing music that sounds great, rather than looks great. It’s just hard to break the mindset sometimes.

  3. 2011 March 4
    Steve Bondy permalink

    Watch and study John Williams’ fingerings for examples of this. If one of the (if not THE) finest and most technically proficient guitarists alive can drop notes and play the easiest fingerings possible, why should we (mortals) be any different?

  4. 2011 March 5

    When I first started getting back into concertizing on the classical guitar, I wanted to have some easy pieces that I could sit back and enjoy. I chose some of the Sor etudes… Simple studies…. After more than one concert, audience members would say those were some of their favorite pieces in the program.. Go figure… After you play a certain number of times, you realize that most audiences don’t know if something is difficult or not to play. They only know if it sounds good to their ears.

    • 2011 March 5
      Robert permalink

      Ill take Bream playing the Sor study in B minor to some idiot plowing his/her way through the Variations on a The any day…

  5. 2011 March 5
    Pete permalink

    This is a great post. I like that it questions what a “successful” performance is. It should be a performance where you make a connection with the audience . Not how difficult it was to play. Do you think this is a problem unique to classical guitarists? Or could it be a common misconception with all people and performance? We wrongly assume that the audience is impressed by the same things that we are. So you structure your repertoire to impress yourself, which implies difficulty (otherwise you wouldn’t be impressed). I feel like ultimately everything you play should be an enjoyable experience for you. If you aren’t enjoying yourself, then the audience (guitarists or not) will pick up on that. Who wants to watch someone stressing out on stage?

    • 2011 March 6

      Pete, I suspect it’s something that plagues all instruments.

      “you structure your repertoire to impress yourself”

      Exactly.

  6. 2011 March 5

    You’re quite likely familiar with Per-Olov Kindgren’s YouTube channel, but in this context it’s worth a mention: http://www.youtube.com/user/AndanteLargo

    My point is, he records his own compositions as well as established classics, and a lot of his own pieces have very large viewcounts. His pieces are written for both students AND a general audience and he sells CDs as well. Other players who just stick to the classics tend to have lower viewcounts, and it’s not as though Per-Olov does clever things with tags and keywords. He does add a LOT of recordings though, and is still adding, and this brings subscribers back to his channel again and again.

    • 2011 March 6
      John Esson permalink

      Excellent post!
      Per-Olov Kindgren’s YouTube channel -superb
      🙂 jn DONT FRET FB

  7. 2011 March 5
    Justin permalink

    So, if the majority consensus is that more easy pieces should be played, what would be some suggestions of easy pieces that are recieved well by general audiences. Jeffery Bianchi mentioned Sor etudes, I have always heard those are pretty difficult. Obviously what is easy for some is challenging for others, but, any general suggestions?

  8. 2011 March 6
    Brendan Evans permalink

    Where and when was the technique-driven ‘artist’ born? Since when is it at all acceptable to be satisfied by a merely accurate rendition of a score? I recently saw Hillary Hahn receive a standing ovation for what was an almost entirely wooden performance of a violin concerto written specifically for her. She played impeccably, note perfect, with color and dynamics and beautiful tone, yet managed to give almost nothing of herself to the audience. I left having experienced all of this technical brilliance for NO PARTICULAR REASON. A musical experience can make you wish you were dead as easily as it can make you feel alive – the intent of the performer determines its success.

    • 2011 March 6
      Justin permalink

      Hilary Hahn giving a “wooden” performance. That does not seem right.

  9. 2011 March 6
    dorsin permalink

    Good post. So true.

    Unfortunately the classical guitar is well known for artists who seek the utmost extremes of difficulty.
    But perhaps even more negative, is the fact that there are actually people (mainly guitarists themselves) who are in awe of the technical sportiness.

    In terms of guitarists I look at the failings of Eliot Fisk doing Paganini, and the failings of Kazuhito Yamashita and Jorge Caballero. -> There it’s no longer on art, but a freak-show.

  10. 2011 March 6
    Justin Rutledge permalink

    I think what begins as a genuinely awe-filled love for music and desire to make it “for its own sake” gradually morphs into a besting effort as the begninner experiences more music and music performance for comparison. Instead of using those experiences as models to supplement and improve our playing, we often make idols of them that we then work to bring down. Difficulty is something we rightly or wrongly associate with greatness, and greatness with the idols we raise (then raze). One of those idols is yourself.

  11. 2011 March 7
    David permalink

    Interesting commentary. I think a missing ingredient for many guitarists is an aesthetic understanding; guitarists conflate difficulty and quality. (Probably because many of us begin by playing rather un-interesting, un-challenging popular styles, and later find that the classical repertoire is in general of a better quality as well as more challenging. We then have a hard time separating difficulty and quality.) There is a great deal of difficult music that is of a very poor aesthetic quality, but most of us are not confident enough in our aesthetic sensibilities to make decisions based on true musical merit. To some degree, guitarists use difficulty as smoke-screen to hide the fact that they often do not have a clear artistic vision or conviction.

    You are right in pointing out that many of the guitar’s greatest artists play a good deal of “intermediate” difficulty music. I would argue it is because they are more concerned with the aesthetic merit of the piece than anything else. It’s not just about how well they play it, it’s about the quality of the piece itself. It is this depth of musical understanding (which provides the basis for informed aesthetic judgments and interpretive decisions) that needs to be studied as much as technique.

  12. 2011 March 7
    Stephen permalink

    absolutely concur with the views about Per-Olov Kindgren.

    I think he is doing the more than anyone to popularize the classical guitar. And he’s doing it in such a noble, kind, friendly, sharing manner.

    No trace of the typical small-minded attitudes so frequent in classical guitar… you know the attitudes of elitist posturing on technique, rhythm, etc. all-the-while continuing in stale boring “dead” interpretations.

    Not so Kindgren. He plays from the soul; and the tone and everything is there and just fits.

    It’s funny… in an interview John Williams has said that he doesn’t go to typical classical guitar festivals, because he wants to reach a broader audience, for the classical guitar… so he seemingly prefers other venues. Pfff… As if that’s what it takes to popularize the instrument.
    Seemingly unbeknown to Williams… at this point in time Kindgren is the true prince of the classical guitar. No-one comes near him. No-one is so visible. And no one does it as much justice.

    We’re lucky to have him playing the guitar!

    • 2011 March 7

      It’s interesting you mention Williams, because he’s now clearly marketing towards guitarists with his john william’s guitar notes sight.

      I think we do need to step outside the typical guitarist audience, but I also don’t see a problem with building a core group of guitarist fans. After all, having a core group of true fans gives you a lot of freedom to do whatever. The problem is when we stop at that point.

      • 2011 March 7

        I think “colleague” is a better word than “fan”, or maybe “fellow guitarists” in a rather loose sense, e.g., via this forum. Guitarists can fall in love with difficulty because they only seek to perform to other guitarists, and that means to vie with them. On a more inclusive note and to refer to my earlier post, Per-Olov also includes Bach, 20th century repertoire, Renaissance, so also draws in enthusiasts, who explore further – perhaps in search of pieces they can play.

        We benefit from a (new) sense of community courtesy of the net, but the route to a general audience starts with “easy listening”, pop-based pieces that, in fact, the target audience can imagine learning and playing. In addition, to write and perform our own pieces allows for branding, something that emerges in the mind of an audience, and of course nice music will draw in our fellows, who may buy the sheet music.

      • 2011 March 8
        Stephen permalink

        Chris wrote: “Williams, because he’s now clearly marketing towards guitarists with his john william’s guitar notes sight.”

        Well Chris, I have a different view… That site http://www.johnwilliamsguitarnotes.com/ hasn’t changed in about two years. As far as I’m concerned it’s dead.

        In addition it’s not Williams who is “now clearly marketing towards guitarists”. It was recommended TO him by someone else and Williams just went with it. On the site we can read Williams state: “I have often BEEN ASKED for the music of my transcriptions and original pieces”.

        Williams is kind of distant and unapproachable. Also in this choices. (Even Fisk has stated this).

        This is very different from Kindgren.
        (On the other hand, perhaps Williams is not to blame… being that he’s an icon; and needs to protect his privacy in an adequate manner, otherwise he’d be robbed of his own free will – with crazy guitarists all over the world wanting to push their “requests” to him)

  13. 2011 March 8

    I was just telling a student today that I have spent a lot of my time retraining myself to stop thinking that more difficult is better. I’m very glad to have received the link to this via Twitter.

    http://twitter.com/#!/guitarlifestyle

  14. 2011 July 31
    Justin K permalink

    Man. this so applies to me…..

    I started Asturias after about one and a half years of study. Technically, I’m progressing well, but this made me realize I’m not truly ready for this level of music yet.

  15. 2011 August 3
    Bob permalink

    I enjoyed your comments on difficult pieces and related them to my high school and college days (wow, that’s way back). I competed in gymnastics and if any tricks were something that I couldn’t hit 100% of the time, they simply were not in my routines. I had a few tricks that others considered difficult but, “perfect practice” makes for a perfect routine and for a perfect interpretation of a reachable piece.

  16. 2012 March 26

    such an interesting post and comments. When i play at my best it is when i excuse myself to interpret. then i can perform, then i am doing what performance should be. Sometimes at home I play V-L preludes with some nice jazz rhythms and it feels and sounds wonderful. I feel often i would be too frightened to do this in front of an audience, like im committing some high treason. the world of the classical guitar reminds me of the British class system at times – i am british – stuffy, hierarchical, stiff, rule driven. This post and comments has reasserted that the goal is to entertain. I saw a wonderful guitarist – world famous – last year who gave an outstanding performance of various pieces but all the same you have to imagine that even at that level there will be siginificant amounts of people who find a lot of it inaccessible. She finished with The Bells by Benvenuto Perzi. No mean error of judgement. Leave them with something short and sweet (although incredibly difficult to play).

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