12 Notes Per Second Doesn’t Matter

Nobody cares about how difficult your piece of music is.

The+top+is+more+difficult+than+the+bottom.+
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12 Notes Per Second Doesn’t Matter

The top is more difficult than the bottom.

The top is more difficult than the bottom.

The top is more difficult than the bottom.

The top is more difficult than the bottom.

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In normal circumstances, an article about the perception of classical music (such as this one) would focus on increasing the number of people who care about it enough to actually perceive it. However, it would seem the issue isn’t how many people care for it, but rather the way people perceive it. Perhaps the problem lies in those who present the music to the public rather than in the public itself, in a mental bias and illusion for what we unveil. Many performers and consequently the general public both hold an arbitrary thing as essential and all-important to receive any satisfaction from classical music: difficulty.

First, a handful of clarifications have to be made. By difficulty, I mean the technical difficulty (muscular control) of a piece that traditionally comes to mind with the word, and the performers I’m referring to, of course, are in no way professionals, but the current majority of performers: the hordes of students and hobbyists. Professionals are already aware of everything that I’m about to say, and perhaps that would be the reason why the public often finds performances by them stuffy and unappealing while being enthralled by much less skilled performers. Meanwhile, the number of learners have proliferated, turning the students into the performers the public sees instead of professionals. This new majority of performers perpetuate their biased perception of classical music to the public, creating a rather awkward situation when the accurate perception of professionals collides with the inaccurate perception of the public.

Then, the next question would be: what inaccuracy could they be promoting? Let’s take a rather technically proficient student pianist as an exemplar. This individual has three performable pieces in their repertoire and is asked to perform one for a public audience (whether it be friends, a school, or a crowd of people surrounding a street piano). Let’s say these three pieces are the fourth of Frédéric Chopin’s Preludes, the first of Robert Schumann’s “Songs of Dawn”, and Sergei Prokofiev’s “Suggestion Diabolique”. First, a goal comes to the student’s mind, and it is to entertain and show off. Less than a second of consideration passes, and the third piece is chosen. Why? In every aspect, “Suggestion Diabolique” is far more technically difficult than the other two (the Prelude is just a single-lined melody accompanied by repeating slow chords, while the first “Song of Dawn” is made up of slow melodies and chords). In fact, at some points, the ferocity of the technique in “Suggestion Diabolique” reaches a level where the piece could be considered less music and more instrument abuse. It certainly doesn’t sound better than the other two pieces, which are particularly known for their extraordinary melodies. One of the most oft-repeated two notes in “Suggestion Diabolique” is even a tritone, the “diabolus in musica” (literally the “devil in music”). Yet, looking at the flying fingers (many times playing at a speed of over ten notes per second) and flashy glissandos of “Suggestion Diabolique”, the nice, simple melodies of the other two pieces don’t stand a chance against the goal of entertainment. This situation is reflective of the biased mentality in students and hobbyists. We seek to entertain instead of creating art, and technically difficult pieces, with their plethora of notes and apparently lightning fast speeds, are the way to do that.

This creates another question: well, what’s wrong with that? Isn’t music entertainment? The apparent answer to the latter question would be yes, but in the case of classical music, things are much more complicated. Classical music as entertainment is only the tip of the iceberg. The reason that classical music has persisted for centuries and effectively become immortal is that it’s an instrument to embody human nature. Using the already-mentioned “Songs of Dawn” by Schumann, every sound in the music conveys a vast amount of human emotion. The composer’s emotions were at the forefront of his mind when writing the piece, emphasized even more by the fact that Schumann attempted suicide days after completing the work. This embodiment of human nature is even more conspicuous in the music of Chopin, who did not compose a single composition that could not grab the soul. Whether it be the pain in his second Sonata, the defiance in his twelfth Etude, or the calm in his only Barcarolle, there is no clearer statement of classical music as an entity of humanity besides Chopin’s music. Among any artist, there exists no classical music that cannot pull out the deepest aspects of humanity. Yet the illusion of flashy music as an ultimate value trivializes the genre as a whole, robbing it of its sole uniqueness. People value the wrong thing, staring in awe of quick fingers moving at twelve notes per second and seemingly insane numbers of notes across sheet music when we should be holding the emotions that performers and composers create highest.

Many performers (students in particular) bring their illusion into the professional stage, subsequently sabotaging themselves. They hope that a hard repertoire will allow them to win competitions, thinking that the judge will be just as awestruck at their technique as the public. This firstly sabotages them by injecting them with overconfidence (believe me, I’ve been there, with an incorrect assumption that Chopin’s Polonaise Op. 53 was Chopin’s most technically difficult piece). However, most notably, this is where the insignificance of a piece’s difficulty truly shows. I was recently at a state-level competition (the level where most obsessors of difficult pieces fall into) where the winner seemingly came out of the blue. On one hand, you had one student playing a technically terrifying program that included the Finale of Chopin’s third Piano Sonata, considered by many to be one of (if not the) composer’s hardest pieces. On the other hand, you had another student playing a much odder program, with two much technically easier pieces (with even odder titles; “Staccato Beans” was one of the pieces’ names) by Tan Dun, a modern composer of multiple movie scores. Tan Dun certainly isn’t a name one would expect at a classical piano competition, much less one that would yield the following result. At the end of the day, the latter student won. Why? They were able to create human emotion better than other competitors. The stark difference in the emotion of the technical program and the simple program was evident just in videos of the two performers. Going to another example in a more recent competition, nearly all of the students had technically strong programs. Yet one of the two winners in the competition played a much more relatively easy piece: Chopin’s eighth nocturne, a piece most competitors would have played three years ago. Why did they win? They were able to create human emotion better than other competitors. This same pattern happens in the vast majority of competitions. Clearly, there’s something that professionals value far more than good technique.

A somewhat accurate guide to music competitions (at the level described here).
Infogram

So, what should be valued in classical music then? The answer is one essential thing: difficulty. Confusing? Probably. But note my obligated clarification above. Difficulty in music is much broader than technicality. There has always been a great mental aspect to any music Musical difficulty is what should be valued. Classical music isn’t hard because of lots of notes or high speed. It’s hard because the performer has to recreate human emotion with the sound of an instrument. In a sense, even seemingly easy above-mentioned Chopin Prelude could be considered more difficult than many fast and flashy pieces. In fact, many teachers hesitate to give students the most technically easy Chopin pieces even when the students have far gone past that level of technique, for fear that Chopin’s music will mentally demand too much. It’s clear that in all respects, musicality is the ultimate value in music, not how fast one’s hands move or how long one can play a piece.

If technique-obsessed students and the general public could be swayed to value musicality instead of technique, who knows? Perhaps the perpetual scoffing at any mention or the sound of classical music would falter, perhaps competitions wouldn’t be flooded with technically extraordinary pieces, and perhaps the general level of performers would rise. However, this article isn’t one to push an initiative, but rather one to circle and point out the problem. Music is 90% mental and 10% technical, but this new, rapidly expanding group of performers have created an illusion that distorts those sizes, putting technique in front of their own and the public’s eyes. Nevertheless, in the real musical world, showing off pieces of grand technical skill will get one nowhere. As the legendary pianist Artur Rubinstein once said, “They [younger students] take the music out of their pockets instead of their hearts.”

 

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