I can't play this!

These thoughts go through my head every time I open a difficult score for the first time. How about you?


This is the slow section of Mozart’s Concerto for Violin and Orchestra #5, first movement.  In other words, the “piano” part is an orchestral reduction.

The right hand, when played by the orchestra, is divided between two string parts. Pianists, though, are required to perform gymnastic feats in the reduction, playing both parts in the same hand.

This section of the concerto is serene, slow, and quiet.  To achieve a murmuring sound on the piano is difficult, especially due to the fingers passing over one another and because the normally resulting accents must be avoided.  (It is not possible to play all the notes in the right hand while keeping the hand quiet, playing only five keys ((one for each finger)), and not moving to a different range on the keyboard several times.  In other words, don’t try this at home!)

Facebook comments

When I posted the above pic on Facebook, the following discussion ensued:

First, on 5/1:

[Photo caption]
The most recent addition to my catalog of Finger Busters.


DG:  Finger busters is right!

AE:  What she said!

HW:  Dang!

MDS:  Wowser.

CBW:  Oh my!  😦

Then, on 5/22:

[Photo caption]
Remember this? The “ack!” phase?

Aced it in today’s performance.
I feel a blog post coming on.

CH:  Looks “Greek” to me Gretchen but I’m grateful there are artists like you that let those like me enjoy the music!

CBW:  OMG!!!
TP:  Makes my head ache just looking at all those notes!!!

GS:  Exactly. My 1st thought when opening a score is often, “I can’t play this… I’ll NEVER be able to play this… NO ONE can play this!”

And then I learn it.

TP:  Some people like a challenge and some are gluttons for punishment!GS:  And some find it necessary to freak out EVERY TIME. I don’t think child prodigies do that…

TP:  In my trade we call it it SIDS…self induced disaster, the process of psyching yourself out before you even know what you’re up against! lol

GS:  I b the expert!

SN:  So how did the tempo end up?

GS:  120 and 72. Felt reasonable, thank God…

GN:  A great feeling to have worked something out in practice and then play it in performance with no “hitches” . . . .nice work!

GS:  Thank you!

KC:  cool, still growing into the job, Gretchen, that is so great.

GS:  Oh, I have the same reaction every time I open music I haven’t played that looks difficult.

Reality check 

How long did it take to reach performance level with this piece?

Although my Facebook “bookend” posts were three weeks apart, I was busy when I first looked at the score.  There was no time to practice it right away.

After consulting my practice notes, I realized that I had learned the piece at performance tempo in 8 or 10 days.

Got perspective?

This is not an idle question.  I am genuinely curious.  This is an aspect of people’s careers that is rarely talked about, as far as I know.

I am well aware that many musicians learn music faster than I do.  One of the vocal coaching fellows at Tanglewood (there were 3 of us that summer) could learn even a newly composed score still in manuscript form and perform it in 3 days.  He had the enviable ability to skip the practice stage most of us need to get the music into his hands.  Currently head of the composition department at BU, he is a conductor, composer, wonderful pianist, and vocal coach.

My teacher at Aspen was practicing Hindemith slowly with the metronome when I arrived for my lesson one day.  She had never played the piece.  Four days later, she performed it flawlessly, much faster.  So I went home and learned how to practice slowly with the metronome, increasing the tempo in increments.

On the other hand, another teacher practiced Schubert’s “Die Schöne Müllerin” for an entire year before performing it.

What was Horowitz’s time requirement for mastering the repertoire he performed? Rubinstein?  Glenn Gould?  Myra Hess?  Clara Schumann?

A pianist who was interviewed on NPR, when discussing a recent CD release, let it be known that he had practiced one piece for 15 years before ever performing it!

So it seems that preparation time is highly variable.

First take

What do child prodigies say to themselves when first opening a score?  Have you heard anyone talk about that?

I suspect that my self-talk may stem from the fact that I was not a prodigy. While there was music in my family, many musicians I know listened to recordings and attended concerts from an early age.  Several had parents who were professional musicians.  They had mentors who connected them with effective teachers.  Good instruments were acquired early.  All of that makes a difference.  I’ve been playing “catch up.”

A childhood friend recently reminded me that, when I would be invited to go somewhere, my response would always be, “I can’t.  I have to practice.”

Following my senior recital in college, a few friends came back to the recital hall from the distant reception to ensure that I was planning to attend.  They were afraid I would go back to the practice room immediately.  (I’m slow about packing up after a performance.)

B.B. King said it very well:

“It seems like I always had to work harder than other people. Those nights when everybody else is asleep, and you sit in your room trying to play scales.”

My audience!


And now I’d like to thank my audience, who listens attentively whenever I practice and never, ever complains.  And thanks also to everyone who commented on Facebook.

What do you say to yourself when you open a difficult score for the first time?  Do you have a panic response?  See it as a challenge? KNOW you’ll be fine even before you begin?  Do you have an idea about how long it will take you to learn a piece before you’ve even started?

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