Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Too Difficult?

Here's a quandry I thought I'd express to you, interwebs: when it comes to music for student orchestras, how difficult is too difficult?

In the past I've written music with rhythms that makes students' eyes cross.  Despite taking it slow, counting it out, teaching by rote, and being very methodical, I find that these rhythms are completely un-performable. And yet, the same students have no problem singing the exact same rhythms when they appear in pop songs.  It must be something about the written music. Needless to say that I'll either simplify it before submitting it to my publisher or just abandon it altogether.

On the other hand, when I write a purposely challenging piece (like Agincourt in 7/8 time) I hear kids say "Pffft.  That's totally easy.  We could play that in sixth grade."  (Though how well remains to be seen.)

Shifting is challenging, part independence can be challenging, and so can triplets against duplets, fast technical passages, key changes, and good old-fashioned expressive musicianship.  I've thrown all of those things into various pieces and kids blow it off like it's nothing and my publisher rates the difficulty 2.5 out of 4. These are all things that students should be able to do at some point as they advance at their instrument.

Question #1: Where's the line?  Does it depend on the individual player or group? Or am I being lied to when it comes to how challenging to make a piece of music?

Question #2: Are students being pushed too far too soon? Are teachers pushing advanced music and techniques too soon at the expense of fundamentals and basic technique? 

This also brings up the controversy of "teaching to the music," to which I am opposed.  My philosophy is to use music to reinforce the lessons, but many teachers choose the music first and then teach students the techniques they need in order to play it.  In my mind, when you teach to the music it sets up a very specific context for the technique and students find it harder to apply that technique to another piece of music.  Teaching the lesson first and then applying it to a piece ensures that students understand the fundamentals first - the whys and hows - before trying it out.

The reason I ask is because I'm working on a challenging piece that I intend for high school groups.  I'm including all the challenging techniques listed above and if I've done my job right, the orchestra, director, and audience should be completely exhausted by the end of the piece.  But is is too hard?  Am I writing myself out of an audience?  What say you, interwebs?

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