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I've had this question in my head for ages. Recently I got myself to start playing piano again after about 5 years, but I'm still total beginner.

Is it better if I stick with really simple songs and try to play them perfectly and then play around with it a little bit, or should I also try to include something really hard (from beginners point of view)?

At the moment the hardest thing I can do is probably first 0:25 seconds of this Fur Elise version, which took me about two hours to learn.

Should I stick with the more challenging songs, or try to move a little back to some simple ones and try to do some fancy improvisation stuff (sorry for the terminology, my music theory is really lacking).

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You need to challenge yourself to improve. However, it's important that you don't overreach. Besides being frustrated, you'll pick up bad habits. It's impossible to play many complicated songs correctly without high levels of dexterity and strength, and attempting to do so will result in sloppy play (mostly with regards to timing) as you reduce accuracy in order to keep your speed up, and so on. It's much harder to unlearn these bad habits than to learn properly!

I would keep trying things that are harder than what you've mastered, but not greatly so. If you're playing graded songs, don't skip a grade! And don't forget the importance of practicing scales, arpeggios, et al for building that strength and accuracy you can later apply to songs.

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+1, I made the overreaching mistake early on and had a very frustrating time unlearning those bad habits. – jadarnel27 Oct 25 '11 at 13:00

As someone who has been playing piano for over 17 years as of now, I increasingly find that pieces I thought were "simple" in the beginning are actually much harder to play well, now that I actively know a lot more about the composers and more about the thought process they went through and how it should sound. So, I think there is a lot to be said about mastering a few simple pieces, but really understanding where they come from and how you interpret them because they set up really great building blocks for your future interpretation of other pieces.

Also, I would caution you from using or thinking phrases like "play them perfectly" because every performance is not without its errors or places where you think it should have gone differently. Master them to an acceptable level and move on.

So, to answer your question directly, I would stick with the simple pieces for now but not stress about playing them perfectly and gradually build up to the more challenging pieces you aspire to, rather than taking on a challenging piece right away. Especially when you're a beginner, learning a challenging piece takes much longer (in more crude terms: it wastes your time) than when you are an upper-intermediate or advanced player. Thus, often it's better to improve incrementally rather than try to take the big jump right away. Using the incremental approach, by the time you get to the challenging piece, odds are you are much better equipped technically and emotionally to deal with it.

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For easier songs, they allow you to handle the basics and gradually improve. These help when you're a beginner and still learning fingering and getting used to the piano. For harder songs, they work out better when you already are familiar with the piano. They can improve you greatly and allow you to test out different things that are uncommon in other songs. The harder songs can also assist you in easier songs. For example, if you are at the level of Fur Elise, even though Fantasie-Impromptu is ridiculously difficult for you, playing the right hand at a slow speed might help you with fingerings or fluidity. [Although the left hand won't necessarily help you as much]. Depending on which easy/hard song you play, they could compliment each other. Don't try to go too hard though! F-I is just an example. Perhaps the Turkish March could be more applicable for your level as a "very difficult song".

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Surely this is subjective, but here are my thoughts:

Do both! Simpler songs and exercises are necessary and are a useful source of benchmarks/progress evaluations.

More complicated songs are important because:
1) They often are more interesting/attractive/pleasing to you, and
2) Playing "beyond" your ability is a great way to stretch and grow.

My sister learned "Fantasie Impromptu" 10 years ago, and recently commented to me: "WOW, I can't believe I played [the polyrhythm] 4 over 3 (or whatever it is...)". So sometimes you're stretched without even knowing it :)

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Also your comment about "Für Elise" reminded me the quote:

Amateurs practice until they get it right. Professionals practice until they can't get it wrong.

As you might know, there are very different levels of playing of that innocent looking piece.

I would suggest the pieces that you know how it should be nailed down. For example that Für Elise excerpt rhythmic pattern is not so complicated and in fact, as you have experienced, is doable in a short amount of time but requires a tremendous amount of touch and control over keyboard.

My two cents of advice is to select songs that are little bit easier to attain a certain level and slightly technical instead of easy but difficult to master type of pieces. The whole idea boils down to what would make you happy. Playing good and having fun with friends or possibly going towards a professional career? They require different types of attitudes for practice. Too much perfection will bring you rigor mortis for the local performances in the short run and similarly sloppy practice will be limiting you each time you attempt to play a demanding piece.

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