Showing your talent: perform difficult pieces with errors or easy ones perfectly?

March 27, 2019, 12:29 PM · So, I was watching the other day a TV show that was about kids playing classical music at "high?" levels. One of the kids was a violinist and played a piece that was "hard" for violin (Vivaldi) but he played it with errors and intonation problems here and there. His tone and performance was barely OK.

Nevertheless, all the critics said it was amazing that a kid could play that piece, and the judge completely ignored all these errors and only repeated the same thing "it's incredible you can play/face this piece at your age". It looks that the mere act of trying to play a hard piece being a kid is enough to permit and accept all kind of errors, even by musicians that are judging your performance.

This reminds me a poster here that claimed "I'm playing it faster than most soloists", using that sentence to cover and ignore all the errors in intonation, tempo and everything.

Since when you could shield in your age or your speed to ignore and cover all the flaws and errors? Why so many musicians accept that, instead of recommending easier pieces that can be performed almost perfect?

If you play something not very good, and you tell me "yeah but it's really difficult", then I don't know if you can commit those errors in easier pieces or not.

What do you think will be better to present yourself as a good musician, playing a Paganini Caprice with noticeable errors and intonations problems or playing an easier Bach piece but with a great tone and almost no errors?

I'd think the second, hands down, but there seem to be quite a lot of musicians that would say, regardless of the quality of the performance, "yeah but the Caprice is very hard".

Replies (37)

Edited: March 27, 2019, 1:44 PM · Response eliminated - it was written for a different thread that has disappeared.
March 27, 2019, 12:36 PM · I think it's incredibly important for students to do both.

They must learn to give polished "professional" performances but also need to try things that will push them to their limits, even if imperfect, while performing for an audience.

March 27, 2019, 12:43 PM · That's out of the question, they do both, I mean, they practice both. I'm just talking about performing it in front of an audience. I, as a musician but also as audience, don't like at all when someone performs something clearly above their level to "wow the public" and if anyone has any problem with the performance quality, he will say "yeah but it's a difficult piece".

Well, if it's a difficult one, then present it to the audience once you know how to play it at a performance level, not at a practice time level.

I'm of course talking about higher level violinists, kids that want to be professional soloist or try to. I'm not saying at all that no musician should ever perform a piece if it's not at a performance level.

March 27, 2019, 12:46 PM · I can only talk from my personal experience.

I performed both Ziguenerweisen and Intro and Rondo (off the top of my head) for the first time before I was really ready to play them "professionally" and made quite a few mistakes. But my teacher at the time was very supportive, focused on what I did do well, and I feel like they dragged me up to a higher level.

March 27, 2019, 1:16 PM · It depends on what the people putting on the show and the performers intend. If it's all about cute kids playing music at whatever level, then there's no reason to hold anyone to a high standard and it's perfectly fine (more than fine, IMO) to praise the kids who've gotten up and performed. Maybe you aren't the right audience for this particular TV show?

When I was little, we had "talent nights" in school, with judges and prizes. The performances, I'm sure, left a lot to be desired but that was never really the point.

Edited: March 27, 2019, 2:04 PM · First of all I'd say that the notion of a "perfect" performance, even of a technically straightforward piece, is a chimera unless you happen to be a very fine player. Intonation, tone and elimination of errors are of course important, but by no means the whole musical package; what about phrasing, flair and emotional involvement? Secondly, as Scott implies, you should take into account the sophistication or otherwise of your audience; is it your talent they've come to admire or the music? Would they actually enjoy hearing you battle through a virtuoso work, or might they prefer something "easy" that you can perform to a more professional and musically involving standard?
March 27, 2019, 1:58 PM · There is a great difference between "accidents" and not being prepared.
Playing an easier piece beautifully can show quality, and potential.
Playing a difficult piece badly shows only hubris, even if other qualities are lurking in the background.
March 27, 2019, 2:15 PM · I think the cuteness of playing high-level stuff poorly goes away somewhere around age 13. Perfection is one thing -- no student is going to play anything perfectly. A few fumbles and missed shifts is no big deal. But "barely OK" is really not okay. My feeling is that it's probably of good educational value to work on stretch pieces, but one should perform things one can play well.

It also depends on the audience. If the audience is a bunch of amateurs who have no appreciation for intonation or tone, then you can afford to be sloppy. If you are in a competition where one or more of the judges is a professional pianist, they will be perceptive of bad intonation without having really any idea how bloody hard it is to play in tune, so intonation is paramount in that situation.

Edited: March 27, 2019, 2:24 PM · I think a certain point needs to be clearly defined here, as it seems to be somewhat ambiguous.

There's a HUGE difference between a student who is unprepared to play a difficult work and one who isn't. And I personally believe a bit of hubris isn't necessarily a bad thing for a student looking to excel in violin performance.

I would never allow a student who can't handle a particular piece to perform it in front of an audience. It's an entirely different world from one who can handle the piece but might make some mistakes along the way.

March 27, 2019, 3:22 PM · It would be helpful if we knew the TV show Tim was referring to. Otherwise we're all commenting on imaginary performances. How many and how bad were the violinist's errors? It was "barely OK" as compared to what? It's not like Tim was watching the Menuhin Competition. Who were the judges? What were the criteria?

I think it's fine if people play badly in public. What's at stake, really? Nothing. If everyone enjoys it, then it's a success. There's a farmers' market every Sunday in our neighborhood, and there are buskers every block, all churning away at different levels of ability and enthusiasm, all of them with a hat out for tips. I wouldn't dream of telling any of them that they weren't good enough to play in public, even (or maybe especially) the little kids sawing away out of tune at "Blue Peter" with fingernails-on-the-blackboard tone.

And no, like most of us here at I wouldn't normally play anything out until I had it to a performance standard, but we don't have the same relationship to music as most people. Which is fine, right?

March 27, 2019, 3:37 PM · On the whole I think everyone agrees that for an important event you need to play something easier well rather than something difficult adequately. The latter never impresses really since each error is logged by the listener as a flaw in the player, not the piece.

That said, there is also something to be said for having to perform on short notice. Its a skill all its own and experienced by just about every orchestra player - when there is a sudden change in repertoire or you stand in for another player. The studio I currently belong to actually forces you to perform before you are ready in the studio recitals - you just have to go out and do your best. Since we are all in the same boat I have found this to be enormously good training for overcoming performance anxiety - when you play, make a few mistakes and yet survive you build up your performance armour. Of course these are studio recitals so the only people in the audience are the other players and their immediate family/friends.

March 27, 2019, 3:38 PM · Tim, who is the audience? Teacher, parents, music class mates,... mistakes are ok because it shows you are striving.

Yet, even something a bland as a school assembly, it is better to play something simple well and with expression that to be tripping over mistakes (and by default grinding them in).

Perfection is not over-rated, pitch is the basis of music without it you are just an also-ran who advertises "I don't practice and I don't care!"

March 27, 2019, 3:56 PM · This is something both of my kids have struggled with over the years. I firmly believe the answer is BOTH.

Students need to learn to play easier pieces well for a variety of reasons. They learn to focus on smaller details and really refine them when they do this. In large part, this is why Suzuki students play review pieces. They are refining easier pieces and adding in more elements, such as vibrato, new bowing techniques, etc. And this needs to continue (not necessarily with review pieces) through all the student years. Full mastery at a high level is an important achievement.

But the challenge of difficult pieces, and the importance of playing them for learning skills, cannot be underestimated either. The secret is finding a piece that is just challenging enough to push them, but within range so that they can gain some sort of mastery from it.

A few reflections:

My older kid picked up Vivaldi a minor by ear just a few months after he started playing (age 5). Could he play it? Sort of. Was that too far ahead for his skill level? Yes. Neither I nor his teacher would ever have considered having him learn it officially at that point, when he was still figuring out how to hold the bow. He played it reasonably well at age 7 for real. Was it as good as a 10yo with a larger violin and lots more years experience? No, but he played the right notes, the right bowings, with decent intonation and good interpretation. That is an appropriate challenge.

He played his first Mozart concerto around age 10. He played it reasonably well -- enough to score in the 90s in a competition -- but looking back in retrospect, there was another whole layer of Mozart he did not achieve. Now he is doing another Mozart concerto, which is not at all challenging technically for him, but he is working on it at a completely different level. Now he is going for full mastery and near perfection. Both Mozart experiences were critical and equally valuable for him.

Finally, I have to reflect on a performance of Zigeunerweisen we heard by a kid from his program who was 8/9. Her version was abysmal. Notes that weren't even close in the runs, no musicality, intonation all over the place. It was literally laughable. She never should have played it at her level, and I doubt she got that much out of it. And she performed it like that all over the place -- recitals, competitions, etc. That is the kind of thing that should be avoided. She likely will be remembered by a whole lot of people as the kid who played a way too hard piece really badly.

Edited: March 27, 2019, 4:07 PM · It seemed to me, 30 and more years ago, when I was involved as CM, board member and (for a time) manager and president of corp. of the local community orchestra that auditing our aspiring youth soloists I could pretty well tell what I was going to hear just by the way they tuned their instruments; their bowing, the nuances of the sound from their open strings. If they "noodled" a bit I would pretty much know for sure.

The best quality of playing comes from playing what one can really play in a manner that satisfies the listeners musically.

Edited: March 27, 2019, 5:18 PM · I think nobody should get a free pass for their age. When I hear kids play real bad, I don't say "wow, that was so good!", because I'd be talking right out my ***. Instead, I say something like "good work! Keep it up and you'll be fantastic."

I don't think it feels good to be told you did a great job when you aren't proud of what you've done yourself. I always hate it when my mother refuses to criticize my playing, because being told that it was beautiful and perfect is not helpful to me at all. I want to know what the audience heard so I can make it better!

And the kids who think they really are hot stuff just get their ego blown up even further, which can be so much worse down the line.

To answer the question:
if the piece is too difficult for you to give the audience a satisfying *musical* experience, what's the point? You'll embarrass yourself and bore them.

March 27, 2019, 6:20 PM · Given that Vivaldi routinely played by kids (A minor concerto in Suzuki book 4, G minor concerto in Suzuki book 5, sometimes an under-tempo Spring or Summer from the Four Seasons) is not at all technically difficult, in this case I'd vote for "kid not ready" and "actually not impressive even if played well". You want to see impressive, see the 7-year-old playing Paganini 1: VIDEO

I think there are a couple of types of "not ready for performance".

The first is the performance that is underprepared. This is a player who is capable of performing this work well -- to ordinary expectations for their level, whatever that happens to be. But for whatever reason, they haven't put enough practice time into it, and so they may make errors in performance and it's probably not as polished as they wish it could be. You'll find students routinely do work-in-progress performances, and even some pros will do so -- for instance, playing something in a retirement community some time before doing it in some bigger venue.

The second is the performance that is immature. You'll find this in students who are technically ready to play a piece in an accurate fashion (notes, rhythms, articulations, dynamics, correctly present), but do not yet have the sense of style necessary to independently interpret it, or do not yet have the technical maturity (especially in the right hand) to really draw a broader range of color and nuance. Young, technically advanced students are probably going to revisit the major repertoire repeatedly, for instance, and their early efforts will not have the interpretive maturity of later efforts.

The third is the performance that is a stretch. Here you'll find players on the edge of their technical capabilities. That tends to mean that the work is unreliable despite a lot of practice. It's good for students to stretch sometimes. And teachers can find that some students given stretch works get inspired to up their game, so even if the resulting performance is problematic, the student learns a lot from the attempt.

The fourth is the performance that is out of reach. These are players who are doing something significantly beyond their technical ability. Sometimes this can occur inadvertently, when a teacher keeps moving a student along to more advanced repertoire despite insufficiently secure fundamentals -- the "advancing without improving" syndrome. When that occurs, a student may eventually run into repertoire that is effectively impossible to play well, because the foundation is too shaky to rely upon. And sometimes this can occur when teachers simply make a poor choice in repertoire, picking something far above a student's ability to execute. Often in these performances you can see core technical issues -- unstable hand position and/or shifting technique flaws that lead to persistent intonation problems, for instance.

It's really only the out-of-reach performances that are to be avoided. The rest are part of the journey.

Edited: March 27, 2019, 8:10 PM · To the OPs question, I'd say it depends on the audience. One could appreciate Twinkie Little Star played at a virtuosic level, while for others it is just a kid song, whom couldn't care less about phrasing, intonation, nuances etc. as long as the kid can play it fast...
March 27, 2019, 9:27 PM · It might depend on the context too. I tend to think orchestras give plenty of opportunities to learn and perform music that is a stretch for the player's abilities, with a little bit of safety in numbers. I relied almost entirely on orchestras to propel myself all the way from upper-beginner to advanced level. For solo rep, I feel it's more important to be able to master it.
March 27, 2019, 10:16 PM · There is a difference between making music and impressing judges.

If it comes to making music, I would say it's best to play a piece you love, you have feelings for it, and it is technically within your reach. The people who listen to you will appreciate that the most as well. I would rather hear a simple piece beautifully played, then a hard piece where I see and hear the musician struggling and stumbling!

If you are being graded on difficulty and technical aspects, that's a whole different arena. In that case, challenging yourself will be worth it.

March 28, 2019, 4:11 AM · Young children face difficulties that adults do not. Concentration problems, problems not knowing and having the capabilty to practise well aso. Therefore children have a high barrier to play well than teens and adults. And therefore I think you really cannot have the same standard for good playing than a teen (age 13 or over).

To be able to play a difficult piece reasonably well is much harder for a small child than a teen and therefore should be applauded in my opinion. To be able to play a difficult piece even with faults as a young child is an achievement very different that when aged older and shows talent.

We cannot really compare every child to the rare child prodigy playing extremely well, because if we did so, we should also compare every adult performance only to the performance of an adult prodigy and we do not actually do that.

What is reasonably well is a question without answer, it depends on the listener, but one cannot really say that only the prodigy child who is excellent is good enough to be praised. There are different levels of talent and for a young child it may be extremely difficult to polish a piece completerly to the level of the prodigy even if the piece is extremely easy. And do we really want to limit young children to playing the pieces they can do very very well? No, we want to teach them things and make used to playing in public the pieces they are studying, even if the result is not excellent.

Edited: March 28, 2019, 6:23 AM · "Young children face difficulties that adults do not. Concentration problems, problems not knowing and having the capabilty to practise well aso. Therefore children have a high barrier to play well than teens and adults."

Children compensate by having superior brains. Neuroplasticity or whatever they call it these days. All the adult learners I know are able to focus whilst practicing -- but 75% of their mental bandwidth during performance is given over to panic that they will suffer a fatal memory slip within the next 2 seconds.

At the same time, I've seen a lot because I do a lot of accompanying. You go to a lesson a week before the performance so that the teacher can hear the piece with the accompaniment and you find that the child only has it half memorized or there are still significant technical problems well beyond what anyone would consider "polishing." That's when you wonder why that piece was chosen for performance.

March 28, 2019, 10:44 AM · Context matters.

Someone performing in church is, in theory, worshipping God. If they are not embarrassed to share what they can do in front of the congregation, even if what they can do isn't very good, most churches prioritize the desire to share, not the degree of pleasantness of the result.

Someone performing in a retirement home should be a net positive contributor to the environment. Many residents may be grateful enough to hear live music that a flawed but listenable performance is perfectly fine. Kids may get away with being present and being cute, in that context.

Someone performing for free in a public venue probably has to meet the expected standard of the environment. In the places I play, this seems to vary from "amateurs giving it their best reasonable attempt" to "flaws a musician can hear are fine, as long as the general public doesn't really notice".

Someone performing in a student recital is doing it as a learning experience. There, the expectation is mostly "get through this without being traumatized for life".

March 28, 2019, 1:56 PM · Lydia - oh wow, isn't this the truth?! --Someone performing in a student recital is doing it as a learning experience. There, the expectation is mostly "get through this without being traumatized for life".-- That made me laugh out loud. I actually had a good time at my recital (flaws and all), at the end of January after much suffering prior to the event. I played a stretch piece and a comfortably within my wheelhouse piece. And I did not perform from memory, even though I could have -and did so in sessions and the dress rehearsal with the pianist!- because I did not want to spend 75% of my mental energy trying not to freak out about forgetting what to play. (Made the whole recital performance much stiffer than it otherwise would have been - the compromises we make to save ourselves from being traumatized!) Needless to say, I'm thrilled I was not traumatized nor embarrassed myself (or my teachers) sharing what I'd been working on with friends and family.

And, I too think the context/audience matters.

Before a beloved relative passed, I would bring my violin and play music that she loved (Christmas carols mostly, a couple of songs from movies, and simple folk tunes) - the other residents enjoyed it as well. Not going to be breaking out, oh I don't know, Szymanowski's Mythes at the assisted living facility.

March 28, 2019, 4:38 PM · Which is more Correct? Playing an easier thing perfectly. Which is more fun? Stretching yourself! Of course I say this as an amateur... Actual pros, or people auditioning on a path to become one, should be playing far below their stretch level technically and musically. That's how pros mostly achieve consistent strong performances.

But stretching oneself is highly motivating, and playing an unready piece to the right audience can be a valuable part of learning it. The tricky part is knowing exactly where the line between stretch and impossible is.

I do think the prevalence of heavily edited recording now has led to listeners having downright impossible expectations for perfection though. I'd rather hear performers take some risks and shake it up a bit.

March 28, 2019, 5:21 PM · I've found that the top soloists are basically perfect in their live performances, too. Indeed, a lot of excellent students seem to be consistently technically perfect, as well. Undoubtedly they have bobbles every now and then, but I don't think that their recordings give an unrealistic viewpoint of what they do every night. Indeed, look at YouTube and you'll find that perfection in the random videos, too.

March 29, 2019, 1:01 PM · I find playing simple music with sensitivity, taste, and expression to be the hardest. I imagine I'm not alone in that. Let's ignore for a moment the fact that there is an entire world of music that is so virtuosic to be beyond my grasp at this point.
March 29, 2019, 1:19 PM · According to Lydia "perfection" in violin performance is all around us. Unfortunately I think she may be right, in the sense that most of today's performers offer a standardized, homogenized, sterilized commodity in which originality, flair and emotional involvement (not to say sensitivity, taste and expression - thank you Mary!) are sacrificed to mechanical efficiency
March 29, 2019, 8:26 PM · One of my "party pieces" is Schindler's List,which I can possibly play fairly decently.
Then I listen to the original recording by Mr. Perlman, and there's no way I can ever match the sheer beauty of sound. Even just the first two notes!
April 19, 2019, 4:59 PM · I guess too, it can depend on how you handle the errors while they are happening.
Edited: April 19, 2019, 10:27 PM · I had the worst audition experience of my life in college because I still believed at the time that playing a hard piece with some noticeable errors was preferable to and/or more impressive than playing an easier piece with more mastery.

In fact, the shame of having had a bad audition was then compounded when I told people about it later, and said that I had played a "stretch" piece for this audition, and they all told me that I had made a terrible mistake.

It was a good lesson to have learned. When I had the chance to play a solo concerto with an orchestra for an audience last year, I picked something do-able and completely in my technical wheelhouse. I then was able to concentrate on other things like memorizing the piece and overcoming performance anxiety. That experience was so much better than my youthful failed audition, that it was really like night and day.

I wish I had learned the lesson sooner, though, and in a gentler way. It would have spared me a lot of grief in college. So I don't think adults are doing kids any favors by telling them that the mere act of playing a hard piece is such a huge achievement. Yes, courage and willingness to take risks should be encouraged and rewarded but a judged performance is not the time or place for that.

April 20, 2019, 1:02 AM · I don't think that mechanical efficiency is hampering the interpretive abilities of today's performers. If anything, sheer technical skill allows players to do anything they want to on the instrument. Rather, the quest for fidelity to the "composer's intent" means that lots of people end up with similar interpretations. There's the notion that you can have a right or wrong notion of intent -- and in general, you can choose only the right intent. You have to be either brave or particularly well-established to violate that. Clearly some performers manage that. And there's some room for personal expression within that framework. But nobody would play like the previous era's most-personal players.

Also, the existence of recordings may give you the artificial impression of greater variety in the past. Almost by definition, the only artists that got recorded in the past were the ones who were distinctive enough to be worth recording. You've never heard the thousands of other violinists who weren't as distinctive.

Many of my favorite old-skool violinists -- Kreisler, Campoli, etc., up to the still-living Gitlis -- would probably be run out of town by critics today, due to their definitely-not-true-to-the-composer's-intent interpretations.

April 22, 2019, 3:30 PM · Wow! Great comments everybody.
April 22, 2019, 5:34 PM · I disagree there's only one way to fulfill the composer's intentions, especially as we do not have those composers around to inform who is "playing it right" (and often living or recently departed composers change/d the score according to what their performers do/did.) Though I DO agree technical perfection is in no way an obstacle to musicianship and individuality-as aforementioned, it frees up the performer to do whatever he/she wishes with the music, be it being "individualistic" or "homogeneous".

We do live in an strict era that sets rules about what is "right" or "wrong" in music, which a majority of performers adheres to, but there's some "in style" modern performers who are still highly individual in their approach.

I feel the argument "old school performers had bad technique but were more musical/unique" is a bit annoying because it sells them short, and also is often used as a bad excuse for not polishing one's own level of proficiency. The better you are, the more musical you can be. These old masters knew how to play their instrument, even if some may prefer a modern violinist's supposedly "better" technique.

Finally, why not love at least some performers from each era, rather than being so all or nothing, old vs new?

Edited: April 22, 2019, 11:12 PM · It is unquestionable that the technical playing level of the average pre-professional student through professional violinist is hugely higher than it was 100 years ago, and for that matter, the level has significantly risen in just the last 20 years. We simply know more about how to teach the violin now, and the average young student is getting instruction from a much more technically-adept teacher than before. The typical soloist of an earlier era still had enormous technical command, though; their technique isn't flawed even by modern standards.

To some degree, how we all play is imitative. If you're a Gen X violinist, for instance, the "reference model" in your head -- the first recordings you listened to and loved of a piece -- are highly likely to have been Perlman, or maybe Heifetz. You can hear the Perlman influence in Gil Shaham and the others of his age, for instance (though note: those violinists have gotten more and more individual as they've aged, I think, from listening to their playing evolve over the years).

A young player today is going to be getting a much broader range of input in terms of recordings. They have all of YouTube to look at, plus recordings that span more than 100 years of violinistic history, although they are likely to drift towards today's artists.

A student 100+ years ago's input set would essentially have been the violinists in his local city, plus perhaps the occasional touring soloist. That led to essentially cohorts that might have been more similar to each other, but detached from the broader world. The more cohorts converged, the more we've gotten a global playing style.

You can see this effect in miniature. Zakhar Bron's original Siberia-isolated students (Vengerov, Repin, etc.), for instance, bear far more similarities to one another than the students he's taught since he's become a globe-trotting pedagogue.

April 23, 2019, 9:14 AM · Regarding the issue of the "composer's intent"... unless the composer is alive, we will never actually know their intent. Because my long-standing background is fine art, you can read, for example, fine artist essays/commentary on their own work and what they were trying to accomplish/communicate and compare that with a critic's commentary (or another person's interpretation of what the artist-in-question's work was intending). You will wind up with (sometimes radically) different takes on the same piece of artwork. This was never more apparent than in art school where studio critiques occurred - as the artist was present, received the classroom critique, and was able to give their response to the critique and offer their own interpretation if desired.

There's always going to be a mystery in communicating visually/aurally and while the goal is clear communication between the work in question and audience, there is a reasonable grey area for individuality in interpretation/performance to occur. And the path towards expressing oneself with the greatest range of subtleties is via technical command.

If we're talking about "good taste", well, that's another matter entirely. I really enjoy Kopatchinskaja's performances because she's simply being herself, even if it is a bit over-the-top cartoonish and "questionable in taste" at times.

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