V.com weekend vote: What was the first piece that really challenged you?

February 20, 2022, 6:04 PM · What was the first piece, on your instrument, that really challenged you?

And when I say "really challenged," I mean something that you were pretty sure was actually impossible, something that made you consider whether or not this playing-the-violin business (or viola, cello, piano, etc.) was really such a good idea, after all. But then somehow you conquered it!

frustrating piece

I've been thinking about this question ever since interviewing the highly successful violist Nokuthula Ngwenyama, whose early studies on the violin were nearly cut short by the challenge of learning Minuet No. 2 by Bach - toward the end of Suzuki Book 1. Of course, she learned it, and she went on to win the Primrose Competition, to compose a piece that was played by the LA Philharmonic and to accomplish all kinds of amazing musical achievements. Yet she told me that "I still remember the sensation of not being able to coordinate my left hand with the right hand and the string crossing. I remember that wall."

Minuet 2!

Yes. It doesn't matter the "level" of the challenge, I remind myself of that all the time, as a teacher. When you have advanced beyond something, it's easy to think that it is simply no longer a challenge - for anyone! But come on, have some empathy!

I vividly remember having a complete breakdown over the ever-popular Seitz Concerto No. 2, third movement, which is in Suzuki Book 4. I was a traditional student, so for me, this concerto was simply a piece my teacher thought I was ready to play. Certainly I was ready (and excited) to play the first page.

In fact, things were going so well in the beginning that somehow I'd agreed to play the entire movement at an assembly in the gymnasium, in front of the entire elementary school. Unfortunately, I hadn't quite grasped the difficulty of the second page! When I tried to play it, I simply couldn't figure out anything - what were these notes? How on earth do you play them? Slurs? What? Too fast! Too much!

"This is IMPOSSIBLE!" I wailed at my music stand.

Needless to say, I figured it out, with help from my teacher, and I wound up performing it pretty well. The impossible became possible. This is another thing I like to remind my students, when they proclaim something new to be "impossible."

"Do you remember six months ago, when the piece you just played was 'impossible'? And now it's easy?"

It's worth remembering this, for all of us!

So let's talk about the pieces that gave us challenges. Do you remember the first piece that gave you serious trouble? Was it toward the beginning of your studies, or well into them? Was it a "piece" or was it something like an etude, or a scale? How did you get past it? How did you feel after you "conquered" it? Please participate in the vote and then share your thoughts in the comments.


February 21, 2022 at 02:47 AM · Whenever I come across something difficult (musical or otherwise) I always think about the figure skater Scott Hamilton. His signature move was a back flip (on skates!), and when asked if it was hard to do, he replied, "it's hard to learn, but easy to do"

February 21, 2022 at 03:06 AM · I love that, David!

February 21, 2022 at 06:46 AM · I love that too, David!

To be honest, one of my catch-cries when learning the violin was "That's impossible!" - I'm ashamed to admit! An initial defensive attitude that most of the time gave way to learning the technique and getting on with it, as you did.

But one of the first pieces I remember that stands out as being particularly troublesome was Sicilienne and Rigaudon by Kreisler. To be specific, bars 7 and 8 of the Rigaudon - those string crossings! Just like Ngwenyama, I couldn't coordinate both hands!

It ended up being one of my eisteddfod pieces, although I was never supremely confident with those two bars and felt that they always had the potential to derail me. Needed much more slow and considered practice, I guess.

February 21, 2022 at 03:33 PM · The first such piece for me was the Vivaldi A Minor Concerto. My childhood teacher just gave me this piece before I was ready for it. The sad thing is that when I could not play it after working on it for a few months, he gave me the Accolay A Minor. And when that failed he gave me Mozart 3. Total disaster as I had no training with double stops aside from studies and I could not manage the cadenza at all. Also my intonation was hopeless.

February 21, 2022 at 04:58 PM · My piece de resistance (quite a good name for the thing, don't you think) was also Vivaldi a-minor*. Unlike Paul I was ready for it when my teacher decided on it. But there is the passage in the last movement that Nachez found appropriate to "improve" and I spent weeks with my metronome trying to get it up to speed. It tried the other tricks I knew, playing dotted rhythms, other pattern changes etc. Nothing got me beyond about 120 bpm., a speed at which the movement is very dull indeed. I have since discovered that Vivaldi really meant it when he wrote "presto" on top of a piece.

I gave up on it eventually (my teacher let me; she wanted to move on--I had performed the first movement satisfactorily to her in a student recital, that was good enough for her).

Much later I discovered that the passage was not Vivaldi's at all, it was Nachez. I hate that man! All that work for nothing!

* I voted "intermediate" piece, not sure if the concerto is advanced enough to count as such.

February 21, 2022 at 07:00 PM · At an early teen year, at an intermediate technical playing grade, I heard Ricci play the Prokofiev concerto #2. I liked it a lot. My father (bless his heart) checked it out from the library. I was mystified by it from page one. A couple decades later I bought my own copy. There are still multiple spots that are completely beyond my comprehension.

February 21, 2022 at 11:22 PM · I, too, loved David's comment! And I laughed out loud at Albrecht's. (Gotta hate Natchez!) All I could think of for this vote was my most vivid memory from when I first started taking violin lessons at age 7: Putting down the first finger seemed impossible... and it hurt! It truly followed Hamilton's adage that it was "hard to learn, but easy to do." My pristine, uncalloused fingers fairly quickly got with the program. And then it was on to the next three.

February 22, 2022 at 05:43 AM · Two different answers: one that was never "conquered" and one that was.

The first piece that ever looked overwhelming was also the first piece that I ever saw on my stand in an orchestra rehearsal, and it was so far above me that I didn't even know where to begin. I got to sit in the back of a not-at-all-selective university orchestra (at a school with no music department) in 2000 after just a year and a half of self-teaching. I supposed I'd done reasonably well for self-teaching because I had extensive piano background and had also played other instruments, but... I was just sort-of-comfortable with third position, and the piece on my stand was Brahms's 1st Symphony! I ended up faking at least 75% of the entire piece, if not more. Being in over my head was the norm for my orchestra experiences for a long time; I just tried to play more and fake less each year. Eventually I played in orchestras closer to my level, but still above my level, and worked my way back up to orchestras playing professional rep. By 2018 I was really proud of how I was able to get the viola part of Richard Strauss's Don Quixote under my fingers by breaking it down and working it all out in slow tempo.

The first piece that I actually succeeded in learning despite substantial difficulty was the Telemann viola concerto in 2004-05. Once it all clicked it was eminently playable; what I learned from the experience was the value of second position, which had not been obvious when I started trying to learn the concerto. (I was still self-teaching at the time, so no one had given me fingerings.)

My answer was "intermediate piece" because I'm not sure an orchestral piece that I never actually learned is what the question had in mind.

February 22, 2022 at 08:00 AM · With many people it was probably the Mendelssohn? As a child I was entranced by that piece and couldn't understand how it was playable.

February 22, 2022 at 11:29 AM · Bach Chaconne,

later, when I became a violist, for viola: Bernd Alois Zimmermann: Antiphonen.

February 22, 2022 at 01:36 PM · I don't know why nobody here likes nachos....

@Albrecht, I was only doing the first movement of the Vivaldi.

Now I am working on the Vitali Chaconne. There are a few measures that are just going to be impossible. My fingers will not turn into pretzels like that. Behold the pencil! If Natchez can edit the Vivaldi, surely I can do the same with Tartini. And it's not even entirely by Tartini. It was already edited by "Fred" (Ferd.) David.

February 22, 2022 at 09:16 PM · Curiously my daughter also hit the buffers with Minuet 2, just like Ngwenyama cited above. She seemed stuck for months from my memory as the accompanying parent.

However the teacher continued with other things, which at the time included reading music which daughter loved and made rapid progress in. One lesson the teacher had an idea, and asked her to play Minuet 2 with the music in front of her. Despite never having seen it written out before she could play the piece perfectly. Thinking it was a fluke the teacher asked for a repeat, no problem. And now she could play it without the music.

The teacher wasn't so wedded to the method (and she had trained with Suzuki himself) as not to be sensitive to the individual pupil, and after that my daughter learned every piece initially from the music and quickly committed it to memory.

My daughter still gets a huge kick from sight-reading challenging music.

February 23, 2022 at 08:33 PM · When I first came across the Vivaldi A min in the course of my Suzuki lessons I listened to a recording by a respectable Baroque ensemble (I think it was Il Giardino Armonico) while I followed it from my Suzuki score. I soon realised that in some areas the score and the recording didn't match up, because of edits by Tividar Nachez (1859-1930), so I mentioned this to my teacher and suggested we use an unedited version, which she agreed to. So I downloaded it from IMSLP.

A year later, when I was on Suzuki Book 5, I started on Vivaldi's G min concerto, a truly delightful work, sometimes called "The Philosopher", which I soon discovered had also received the Nachez treatment. I rectified this the same way as I did with the A min.

The moral of this is to be careful of edits of Baroque music that stray outside the spirit and technique of the era in which the piece was composed. The same applies I suppose to modern edits of any music from a previous era.

February 24, 2022 at 05:09 PM · I suspect my violist teacher has very good pacing for my lessons as it's only recently that I noticed that I never felt overwhelmed with the materials he assigned while I can still feel my improvement. Why I thought about this recently? I had something that he asssigned that made me felt stuck for the first time.

It's Campagnoli Caprices No. 3. For some reason I can't get the notes right for three bars in it. It starts with a note that should be natural but I play sharp in the middle of a bar and then the second half of the next bar that I always gone either a full semitone too high or too low after a shift (it's so out that it's no longer an intonation issue, I simply play the wrong note) and the mistake carries on in the next bar.

It got to the point that I spent entire practice sessions on five bars for weeks because I got obsessed with those three bars.

It feels quite crazy as I started Reger Viola Suite 1 a couple of weeks before that Campagnoli and thought the double stops were hard to get in tune but at least that converge in the right direction with practice. Whereas the caprice looked OK to me apart from some spots I could not bow smoothly when I started but as I progressed I ran into this trouble about just getting the right notes.

February 25, 2022 at 12:58 PM · Prokofiev Violin Concerto No. 1 and measures 154-155 of the Vieuxtemps Concerto No. 5, among many others, are two that come to mind.

February 25, 2022 at 08:53 PM · An orchestra piece - Richard Strauss's "Tod und Verklärung" (Death and Transfiguration). I first encountered this symphonic poem during my degree program, when I played in the CSO's training school, the Civic Orchestra of Chicago, during a summer sight-reading season before playing in the regular season.

One summer afternoon, we tackled two scores: Sibelius's Symphony 2, then the Strauss piece. I'd heard Sibelius 2 since childhood and had little trouble sight-reading it, thanks to having the higher positions already in hand. But the Strauss was more daunting. I hadn't heard it before - and it has some wicked runs.

I was by no means the only player who felt the challenge. When we reached bar 33 of the Allegro molto agitato, my desk partner took one look at the jagged downward run of 16ths, starting from high G. He said, privately to me, "Oh, forget it!"

The concluding passages of the score, I found less stressful - even the arpeggiated measures leading to the ultra-high G right before the final section.

Now these intimidating passages don't seem so scary to me. Although I don't do orchestra anymore and haven't since finishing school, I have the violin parts of a few Strauss symphonic poems - Don Quixote among them - in my collection. I have fun once in a while reviewing them.

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