Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Which Instruments are Hard to Play?

Sometimes you get asked how hard is such-and-such an instrument to play? How hard is it to play guitar? Or how hard is it to learn piano? Such questions are, without specifying a bit, impossible to answer. I don't play the piano, except I had a few lessons forty years ago. But I haven't practiced since. But I am perfectly capable of sitting down and sight-reading through the first prelude to the Well-Tempered Clavier by Bach. Fairly slowly and with a few slips, I'm sure. And the fugue would be impossible. Why is this? Well, I know how to read music and I know where the notes are on the piano. The rest is just taking your time. I don't play the violin either, but if you asked me to play the first couple of measures of the Alban Berg violin concerto, no problem! Here they are:

UPDATE: Oops, I tried a shortcut that didn't work. Here is the opening of the violin part. All open strings:

Berg famously opens with just the open strings of the violin. I guess I should take a lesson in how to hold the bow first. If you asked me to play the rest of the concerto, though, not in a million years!

You see, it is not instruments that are hard or easy to play, it is the music written for them. There are a very few instruments that have proven to be so useful and so expressive and so capable that composers have chosen them over and over again, to use for the most challenging and expressive music. There are a zillion great violin concertos because the violin is an astonishingly capable instrument. What this means is that if you want to be a violinist, capable of playing this virtuosic repertoire, you need to start quite young (seven at the very latest), you need to have loads of musical potential, you need a wonderful teacher, you need a wonderful violin and you need to work very, very hard for a decade or two. And at the end of that time you might be able to do a good job playing the Berg violin concerto or the Tchaikovsky, or the Beethoven.

Instruments like the violin, the piano, the cello, even the guitar, are very difficult to master, not because of any characteristics of the instruments themselves, but because of the kind of music that has been written for them. Mind you, to play any orchestral instrument up to the standards of a professional orchestra is also pretty tough--just not quite as demanding as being a soloist.

Things in the pop world work a bit differently. Not to say that instrumental virtuosity isn't also part of the scene, but it does not dominate in the way it does in the classical world. A great pop vocalist is probably as much a great vocalist as is an opera singer, but the technical demands are quite different. A great guitar virtuoso like Eric Clapton is probably playing on a level of mastery that is the equal of nearly any classical musician. But you can't say the same of the rhythm guitarist in a reggae band who is destined to play pretty much the same rhythms his whole career.

Some instruments you might think are nothing to play, like the blues harp. But in the hands of a true master, you start to see that if you want to do what he can do, it will take a lot of work. But just about anyone can get some kind of tune out of a blues harp! Some instruments are easy to pick up and fool around on. I learned how to play the African thumb piano (mbira) well enough to play my part in a contemporary piece--but the part was simple.

Let's end by listening to the first movement of that violin concerto by Alban Berg:


Rickard Dahl said...

I recently "researched" (just Googled) about which instruments are percieved as hard and which as easy. Two examples of instruments that are often referred to as hard are French Horn and Oboe. In the case of the Oboe it seems to be because of the reed and French Horn, well, I don't know but in an instrumentation/orchestration book I have it says that the French Horn is "not particularly agile" as opposed to pretty much every instrument with a detailed description in the book. I understand it as that you must be very careful when writing for the french horn as something that could be performed on almost any other instrument (assuming the same range or transposed) might be very hard or even impossible for the french horn.

Either way, some examples typically referred to as easy are piano, guitar & clarinet. But like you said it depends on the material played to a high degree. For instance there is lots of piano pieces which are very hard even for virtuosos. Why it may be referred as an easy instrument could be because it has an easy to understand layout, no problems with intonation and so on. How easy or hard it is does indeed depend lots on the material played and how hard the material is percieved in turn depends on factors such as practice methods.

Bryan Townsend said...

You picked some great examples! As it happens I am pretty familiar with both the oboe and the French horn even though I haven't played a note on either one. My next door neighbor and good friend for a while was an oboist. She showed me the strange devices that oboists use to make their reeds. Every professional oboist makes their reeds from scratch and it is a complex and time-consuming job. It is a double-reed instrument meaning that you have to make two symmetrical reeds and bind them together around a small metal tube. The thickness of the reeds is crucial and it is varied in a complex and delicate way from base to tip. On top of all this is the playing technique which involves creating a lot of pressure inside your mouth. An oboist usually looks funny when they play because their cheeks are puffed out. Now, I fully expect an oboist to leave a comment correcting me on the details. But I think that you can see why the oboe is a very challenging instrument to take up.

Now the French horn is different. I have written solo, virtuoso music for French horn and consulted with a professional player while writing it. The problem with the French horn is that it is very, very hard to avoid "cacking"! That is a kind of breaking sound the horn can make when it is not perfectly controlled. Just about every horn player "cacks" from time to time. It is accepted as a small downside to an instrument that makes such an amazingly lovely sound that it is considered worth it. Playing French horn is a delicate balancing act in which you have to control your airflow and embouchure very precisely. So, again, yes, difficult instrument.

Yes, the piano, were it not for the virtuoso repertoire, would be considered an extremely easy instrument because all the complexities of making a sound have been mechanized! An idiot, or someone using a broomstick, can play a note on the piano as clearly and cleanly as a professional pianist. All you have to do is press the key. But, there are a zillion subtleties that are possible, mostly having to do with how the key can be "thrown" and how finely the dynamics can be graded. I swear that I heard Rubinstein in a recital make the whole color of the piano change from green to blue with a single chord. (Figuratively speaking.)