One of the biggest pitfalls when learning classical guitar is to be working on a piece of repertoire that is too difficult for you. If a piece is too difficult it can cause frustration, a sense of failure, overwhelm, and more often than not you will blame yourself for not being up to the challenge rather than the difficulty of the piece.
What, then, makes a piece difficult and how can we grade these pieces into a progressive order of difficulty?
This question has been asked many times by students around the world who want to make sure that they are working on the right repertoire at the right time but unfortunately it is not a question that is easily answered. As we will discuss, there are many different facets that go into a piece that can bring challenges. Some are obvious, such as length and speed, but others are more subtle and harder to identify like left hand independence and transitions.
In the end you will likely need the guidance of an experienced educator to get the answers you are looking for but we can delve into the various aspects that make this problem so complicated.
Key centers and accidentals and Harmony
Certain key centers (i.e. C Major or B minor etc.) carry with them an inherent difficulty because of the amount of sharps and flats that are used. C Major has not sharps or flats and therefore will present the least amount of difficulty when it comes to reading the music. As we delve into the flat keys, however, we start to come across hurdles of familiarity (or rather a lack of familiarity) with mounting flats to deal with. One key is not objectively more difficult that the other to read, however, certain keys are seldom used in the classical guitar repertory and so we never build up a reading fluency.
One main reason that we don’t use too many flat keys on the classical guitar (when I say flat I am referring to keys like F Major, Bb Major, Eb Major, d minor, g minor etc.) is that they increasingly rule out the use of open strings. F major has one flat and that is Bb, so it means that as guitarists we will not be able to make good use of the open second string. As the flats increase we rule out more strings (the order is Bb, Eb, Ab, Db for the first four).
Even if the key signature is more favorable then we can get stumped by a large number of accidentals or dense harmonies in the piece. Once again this comes down to how familiar we are with reading music on the guitar.
Range of Music/Fingerboard Knowledge
Similar to key center, our fingerboard knowledge will impact how difficult a piece is to learn, comprehend, and memorize. If we had a heatmap of the fingerboard that represented how much time we spent in each position, surely the lower strings up in eighth position would be the coldest. Therefore, a piece with a substantial amount of playing and reading in this fretboard nether region would make a piece more difficult.
Rhythmic complexity will dramatically impact the difficulty of a piece of music. It can come in the form of syncopations, odd time signatures, layered rhythms, or rhythms that are simply difficult to parse. Whatever the case, the rhythmic components can fundamentally change how easy it is to read and play a piece of music.
On a musical level, having two or more distinct lines to consider will impact not only the comprehension but also memorization, and musicality. Of course having multiple musical lines to take care of brings with it technical difficulties too, but we will deal with that a little later.
One of the bigger aspects affecting difficulty will be the style in which the music is written. Composers who play guitar already will have a far greater understanding of what type of music is more approachable to play on a technical level. Certain flourishes and effects which might sounds difficult can in fact be very achievable on the instrument due to a particular idiomatic type of playing.
Composers who do not play our wonderfully complex instrument, however, often write music in a way that is far more challenging to realize albeit in a refreshingly unique musical language. Good examples of this might be Antonio Jose, Joaquin Rodrigo, Elliot Carter, or William Walton. Wonderful music, difficult to play!
Moving on from how a composer writes, we can also factor in the style and genre within which the composer lives. It is one thing to play the music of Dowland by simply reading the notation. It is an entirely different experience to play his music with a stylistically informed interpretation. This may sound academic or even elitist but to me it is as if an actor portrayed a character with the wrong accent.
I am looking at you, Sean Connery…
Technical considerations are perhaps a little more obvious when it comes to grading a piece of music, but there are still some sneaky culprits in the list.
Right hand figurations
Whether it be complex arpeggios, right hand balance to bring out voices, string crossing or string leaps, many right hand movements can contribute to the overall level of difficulty. As you progress in your classical guitar studies the right hand develops more finesse and we start to listen for not only tone quality but a variety of tones and dynamics within a single hand movement.
Left hand shifts, stretches, and transitions
Repertoire might require any number of left hand acrobatics to realize the music and they can add up to a great challenge in terms of choreography. Shifts and stretches are usually isolated challenges but transitions can really ask a lot from the player. Transition from one location to another on the fingerboard can be done in a variety of ways resulting in a variety of musical outcomes. It is one of those things that we can work on as guitarists for a long time. It is also something that advanced guitarists do with deceptive ease.
Left hand finger independence
Talking of of transitions and counterpoint, the underlying technical aspect that is required is finger independence. Being able to hold down one note while others move while staying in perfect synchronization with the right hand and maintaining good legato through proper transitions is one of the great joys/challenges of the classical guitar.
Synchronization between the hands
The aforementioned facets can all be worked on in isolation but in the end they will have to synchronize with the other hand. This synchronization is perhaps a “meta” aspect on this list but it still contributes to the overall difficulty.
Speed (tempo) Compounds the above requirements
Perhaps the most obvious element that will impact difficulty is the speed. Although, be sure not to assume that short durations (16th notes or 32nd notes) equate to fast movements as they might be within a slow tempo. Inversely a fast tempo may have long durations. Whatever the case, playing with fast movements on the guitar is tricky. This will undoubtedly raise the level of difficulty.
The true impact of speed is not the speed itself but rather how it compound the difficulty of everything else. Synchronization, shifts, transitions, they all will be made more difficult by an increased speed.
Articulation, tonal dynamic control, ornaments
Another set of element that will compound the difficulty of a piece. Play a scale, easy. Play a scale with a crescendo, more challenging. Play a scale with a crescendo, staccato and an ornament at the end? Well, you get the idea.
Extended Techniques, new/unfamiliar techniques
Any new techniques that are required by a piece are going to slow you down. In addition to learning the music you will also have to dedicate time to developing a new technique. Not a bad thing in itself but it can be troublesome if there is already a lot of new challenges presented by a piece in addition to a new technique.
Extended techniques are seldom used and therefore will take some dedicated work within your practice regime.
Length of the Piece
A longer piece will obviously mean more material to cover, however, there are some other challenges that length can bring to the fore:
1.Memorization – more to play means more to memorize
2.Practice Approach – more material to learn might require a more developed set of practice skills to manage time and focus
3.Technical Stamina – Simply focusing and playing for a longer period of time is a challenge
4. Relaxation/Tension – Longer piece, especially faster ones with lots of notes, can result in an accumulation of tension unless you take steps to monitor your relaxation
Ensemble pieces will have all of the aforementioned challenges but additionally you need to consider the challenge of playing the parts together. Rhythm will play a big factor as will balance, and synchronization.
Your Own Personal Challenges
Finally, there might be some difficulties that arise from something that is particular to your situation. Perhaps you have a missing finger, perhaps you have no experience in a style… the list is endless but one piece that is “easy” for one is not necessarily easy for you.
Phew! That’s a long list.
I think it demonstrated why it is quite a complex matter to grade music and place it in a curriculum. The CGC Academy has worked so well for so many because of the pieces that were chosen and also the order in which materials are presented (theory, technique, musicianship, repertoire, sight reading, style etc.).
An experienced educator and performer will be able to curate your own personal journey too. This can be a wonderful experience but it can take some searching to find someone who really understands the learning path, takes an interest in your journey, and has performance experience themselves.
The list above is by no means exhaustive, I welcome your own additions as to what brings difficulty to a piece and how we might grade them in order.