Tag: Difficult Passage

Simplifying A Difficult Passage

A simple example of the procedure.

Irving is a late beginner. He is playing just the right hand of one of the easier Bach pieces.  He thinks it will be too hard to put the hands together.  I suggest that the next time he plays just the right hand, he lay his left hand down on the keyboard hand and let it rest there passively.  He says: I don’t see any advantage in doing this, it certainly is not going to make playing the two hands together any easier.  But he tries it.  He is immediately struck by the fact that the right hand seems harder to play when the left hand is simply present on the keyboard.  He says the right hand feels different.  I agree: what one hand does is influenced by the other hand.  Still, he said, this is easier than playing both hands together.

What we had created is an in between point between playing just with one hand and playing with both hands.  Instead of one larger ‘step’, going directly from playing with one hand to playing with both hands, we created two smaller steps: 1) right hand alone 2) right hand with left hand running interference, 3) both hands playing the written notes.   Instead of going directly from step one to step three, all that’s left for  Irving is to go from step two to step three.

However,  what if going from step two to step three turns out to be too big a jump?   We simply divide that jump into two smaller parts.  Between step two and step three we insert this: the left hand, though not yet playing its part, now is moved around while the right hand plays.  Not moving any place particular but just so he is conscious of motion occurring in the left hand while trying to concentrate of the right hand.

René Descartes:

We were following in the foot steps of one of the great thinkers in the Western tradition.  The philosopher René Descartes (1596-1650), in his “Discourse on Method” suggested that one follow a four-step plan for seeking truth in the sciences.  The second of these was, in his words “to divide up each of the difficulties which I examined into as many parts as possible, and as seemed requisite in order that it might be resolved in the best manner possible.”

We interpolate new steps as needed.  As soon as the transition from one step to the next is not easily accomplished, we interpolate another step.  The beauty of this procedure is that one can interpolate as many steps as one wants between the starting state and the final state we are aiming for.  The more intermediate steps there are, the smaller becomes the change in difficulty from one to the next.   In its ideal form, when using this process, the pianist will not be aware of  any increase in difficulty when going from one step to the next, and the final state, the one desired all along, will, when attained, seem no harder than the first step.

A careful analysis:

The trick is how to define the first state.  It must bear a direct relation to the last state.  In Irving’s case it was easily found: “I’ll start with one hand at a time before trying both hands together”.  Other technical and musical difficulties require a more penetrating analysis.  Often the starting state is found at the end of a reverse process that starts with the final state, and gradually simplifies it, step by step, each time by removing what is most difficult to execute from what is left, and/or what is least essential musically, until a simplest state is left or revealed, one that is simplest to play yet still bears a resemblance to the final state.*  During this process, each stage, while simpler than the last, should still contain the essence of the previous stage.

We operate like a grammarian who diagrams a sentence in a manner that reveals its more essential and less essential parts and clauses.  Or like a chemist who by analysis reduces a complex compound into smaller and smaller molecules until at last the atomic structure of the compound is revealed.  Or like a philosopher who seeks into an issue to find the more basic principle on which it rests.  In my case, it is a procedure I use especially when teaching ear training: taking an ear training ability that is presented as being simple and whole, but then refracting it through a prism and showing that there are other, simpler component abilities that underlying the target ability.  And even some of the simpler abilities turn out to be, themselves, complex in relation to even simpler abilities.  Start with the simplest abilities and build back up.

* By removing notes without compromising the general meaning of the passage.  By removing melodically unessential notes from a melody leaving only the salient notes.  By simplifying a complex rhythm into simpler rhythms (simpler in nature and simpler in execution).  By simplifying a complex harmonic progression to a simpler one that is easier for the ear to track, and easier for the fingers to play.

Leave Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Solving technical hurdles in difficult passages

Simplifying a Passage.

There is a general procedure for making difficult passages easier to play.  It involves altering the passage in particular ways, playing it first in that altered form, then immediately afterwards playing it in its notated form.

It is based on finding within the passage certain features that seem key to the passage, and “improving on nature” so that these features play a more central role.

This is going to be a long, long list, compiled over many years of practicing.  Email me if you would like me to send you a copy of this entry as a single Microsoft Word file.

I’ll repeat this reminder at the end of the upcoming list.

None of these procedures should be done haphazardly, there has to be a logic to how the passage is altered.  Each should be crafted to enhance, simplify, make more understandable, … the passage in question.  They should be designed to make something about the passage stand out more to the ear or the hand.

It can involve, among many other things:

Having to do with ADDING NOTES to the passage:

Simplifying by adding notes in a way that makes the physical  execution of the passage easier.

Simplifying by adding notes to a passage to create a fuller,  more architectonically complete passage

Simplifying by adding notes to a passage to create something  that sounds more naturally expressive

Simplifying by adding notes in order to complete a physical motion  that is involved

Evening out a repeating tuplet by adding one or more notes to each group of notes (often with the result of stabilizing the hand).


Simplifying physically by embedding the written notes into a more   easily executed larger group of notes.

Simplifying sonically by interpolating notes that are felt to be missing

Filling in skips with steps (or eliminating steps to create skips)

Having to do with ALTERING the pitches of some or all of the notes:

Altering notes so that the hand finds the passage easier to execute.

Simplifying physically by removing some notes and replacing them with repetitions of previous notes.

Simplifying physically by having both the hands play the same notes


Simplifying physically by altering certain notes for the sake  of symmetry between the hands

Simplifying physically and sonically by changing a scale to an arpeggio

Simplifying physically and sonically by changing an arpeggio to a scale

Simplifying physically by droning on just one (or more) notes.

Simplifying physically by changing the pitch contour of a phrase.

Having to do with CHORDS and HARMONY:

Simplifying by turning melodies into chords

Simplifying harmonically by moving the location of when one chord changes to the next chord

Simplifying physically by leaving notes out of a chord and then adding them back in

Having to do with changing the DURATION of selected notes

Uncovering salient features in a phrase by altering the duration of certain notes.

Having to do with changing the DYNAMICS of the notes

Simplifying sonically by overplaying or underplaying certain notes

Having to do with LEGATO

Leaving a thick trial of notes behind the advancing cursor of the melody by holding the most recently sounded notes into the new note

Having to do with OMITTING notes:

Simplifying physically by judiciously choosing notes to skip or omit

Simplifying physically by omitting one (or more) notes in repeating

rhythmic groups, tuplets for instance – including quadruplets

Simplifying physically by omitting all but notes on the important beats.

Simplifying physically by omitting notes so as to cause greater stability and equilibrium in and between the hands

Simplifying physically by only playing the notes that are played with a certain finger (sort of a “personal history of finger through a passage” – a sort of “Ken Burns” approach)

Simplifying physically by removing most of the notes from one of the hands.

Deconstructing the sound of the passage, uncovering deep and deeper structures, then adding back the layers one by one.

Simplifying sonically by excerpting just a few notes and molding those notes into its own independent, expressive shape

Having to do with changing the RANGE of some of the notes:

Changing the octave in which some or all of the notes sound (to make something sound clearer, more obvious, or more continuous)

Simplifying physically by transposing up or down octaves to that all the notes are in the same octave range


Getting rid of sudden octave jumps

Having to do with RE-DISTRIBUTING the notes in the hands

Simplifying by redistributing which notes are played by which hand

Having to do with RE-ORDERING the notes:

Simplifying physically by taking two or more notes that are supposed to be sounded together and playing them as a sequence of separate notes

Simplifying sonically by making direct connections between notes that don’t follow each other one right after the other in the score.

Simplifying physically by sorting notes by increasing or decreasing pitch.

Simplifying physically by altering the order within a small, figuration, groupet, of notes


Simplifying by changing the rhythm of just the notes that are indicated to be played together in both hands

Simplifying physically by ordering a local group of notes so that they fan out in two directions from a central pitch

Having to do with REPEATING notes:

Reiterating notes to give the hand a moment longer to prepare for playing a next note

Simplifying physically by playing one note over and over in the rhythm of the passage.

Simplifying physically by playing each thumb note twice.  The same regarding the pinkie.

Arriving at a note in a phrase and reiterating several times before proceeding on

By repeating certain notes to change its balance (sound wise or physically wise) in the execution of the phrase

Simplifying physically by reiterating just one (or more) note of each of a repeating group of notes.

Simplifying physically by reiterating, a number of times, the current note while holding down the previous note.


Simplifying physically by playing one group of notes over and over and then skipping directly to the next similar group

Having to do with changing the RHYTHM:

Simplifying physically by holding each note the same duration as the others.

Altering the rhythm so that the passage is easier to physically execute

Simplifying physically by holding certain notes longer and omitting others.

Emphasizing just one rhythmic motive within a larger rhythm group

Clarifying the sound or meaning by changing the meter

Simplifying physically by omitting a note and thereby changing the rhythm

Simplifying physically by holding a current note into the next note.

Simplifying physically by playing only the off-eighths (or off sixteenths, etc.) in just one of the hands while playing the other hand as written

Turning a triplet into a duplet by playing two  simultaneous notes and one single note


Simplifying physically: by turning triplets into quadruplets or duplets

Simplifying physically by coming to a stop in the middle of a phrase and then continuing

Simplifying physically by realigning the notes between the hands

Having to do with altering the TEMPO:

Speeding up and slowing down at certain well chosen places to help unveil or reveal the full shape of a phrase

Simplifying physically by gradually slowing down starting midway through a phrase so that the end of the phrase is handled as much energy and dexterity as the beginning of the phrase

Having to do with TIME:

Turn sequential notes into simultaneous notes and/or change simultaneous notes into sequential notes


Simplifying physically by setting up alternative expectations.

Repeating what I said at the top

None of these procedures should be done haphazardly, there has to be a logic to how the passage is altered.  Each should be crafted to enhance, simplify, make more understandable, … the passage in question.  They should be designed to make something about the passage stand out more to the ear or the hand.

This was a long, long list, compiled over many years of practicing.  Email me if you would like me to send you a copy of this entry as a single Microsoft Word file.


Leave Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *