“How Do I Know When a Tune is 'Too Difficult'?”

If you've been piping for a while, you may have heard a tune whose melody or groove just stuck with you, and that you absolutely loved, but thought (or perhaps you were 'helpfully' told by someone else), "Such a cool tune, but it's way above your paygrade".

But is there such a thing as a tune that's 'too difficult' for any piper, at any level?

The answer may surprise you.

Often, you'll hear players say things like "oh that's a grade 2 level tune" or "that's a good beginner set". Usually this refers to the perceived level of technical difficulty a tune has, with expected speed of performance, level of complexity in the embellishments or rhythm, and how many potential catches like hand changes there may be.

However, terms “difficult” or “easy” are obviously very subjective ways of categorizing tunes. Often, if we hear a great tune played with complex embellishments, executed flawlessly (to our ears, anyway) and at a breakneck speed that sounds easy because of the piper's skill, it can actually be tempting to think it's easier than it is because the piper's skill makes it sound that way. That's the beauty of unconscious competence - it makes something very hard seem like it's very easy to the uneducated viewer or listener.

Even so, though, many of us would hear a great performance like that and think, "There's no way I could ever play like that!"

But that's not true. Or rather, like in most walks of life, it's about adjusting the tune to fit the piper, at least initially, rather than assuming that you need a certain level of skill before you can even attempt supposedly 'difficult' repertoire.

But things are only difficult until they’re not. Every new tune is difficult in the beginning. Even those top grade players you hear cracking out a fun hornpipe were complete beginners, once.

Tunes become 'easy' when we scale them to our skill level (or rather, they become appropriately difficult).

Here at the Dojo, we build our skill at tunes through layers of fundamental mastery. The first is to master the rhythm, slowly at first and building in intensity (i.e. going faster) as we become more proficient at playing the rhythm accurately at a given speed, without 'losing form'.

Next, we simplify the tune, stripping out all embellishments other than a few essential grace notes, and again, playing through slowly and building speed as you build accuracy and familiarity with the tune. This allows you to focus on mastering your fingerwork fundamentals - clean scale navigation with no crossing noises, and still maintaining excellent rhythm.

Then, finally, you can add in the more complicated and 'difficult' embellishments, if you feel like you can execute them cleanly and accurately, and start building up speed.

Now - would a simplified version of that tune be any less musical?

In my opinion, absolutely not. Any tune can sound musical if it's played with great rhythm and clean, accurate fingerwork fundamentals (not to mention the instrument fundamentals you'd want to execute well when you transition to playing it on the pipes, too).

Remember, pushing yourself to work on repertoire that feels beyond your current limits is vital for your development as a player - in fact, it's often what motivates and drives us to want to do better and push ourselves further!

What's important, though, is that you adjust any tunes you perceive as 'difficult' so that they are playable at your current level of fundamental skill - and from there, you can use them as a tool to push yourself to the next level.

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