8

I was wondering if there was somewhere a list of classical pieces along with the amount of "unit of time" usually needed to master it.

The "unit of time" being adjusted using where you are now and how long it took you to arrive there...

Does such a directory exists somewhere? and if not, do you think it would make some sense to build one?


Eg, in my case, I've started the piano 3 month ago, and I'm now able to play in a quite satisfactory manner Bach's Invention n°4 (BWV 775). I don't know whether I'm slow or fast, but it certainly says something about my general abilities, my dedication, etc. I'd be curious to know how many year it would take me to play a specific piece, say Bach's concerto n°1 in D minor (BWV 1052)

(I don't expect someone to be able to say "you'll be there in December 2015", but right now, honestly, I've absolutely no idea ... will it be next year? in 10 years? never ?)

8

I am sorry for what I'm sure you'll deem to be a very unhelpful answer, but the only way you can come up even with a wild guess is by doing the following:

  1. Learn the most difficult page of the piece to your satisfaction.
  2. Multiply the time taken to perfect that page by the number of pages

I will say that, for a given piece, you are likely to learn it more quickly if you're more experienced. How much more quickly? Well, here are a few things that will probably vary with it:

  • Familiarity with the composer's other pieces
  • Familiarity with other artists in the time period
  • Sight-reading ability
  • Memorization capacity
  • Exactly where you'll have gone once you've "gotten there" (are you performing it for your family? A panel of professional pianists? critics? Simon Cowell? a room of tone-deaf mimes?)
  • Practice schedule

In summary, I don't know of the existence of any such database. I'm sure that if it existed, you'd be able to draw some very interesting correlations and even come up with a fairly accurate model to answer your question. But over the internet, and especially with the information given, we can take a guess, and we might even get it right (I'm betting on 1 year if you're really really dedicated), but that guess will be nearly entirely baseless.

EDIT

In response to your comment:

You are, broadly speaking, correct in your assertion that your technical skill will improve as you learn the piece. After all, you must have some minimum amount of skill to play a passage, and that skill wasn't there before. But technical skill isn't usually the limiting factor. A large part of learning music isn't building skill, but memorizing the music (I call this phase of learning the "what the hell note is that?" phase). After all, pressing keys is easy. Remembering which keys to press for the next 5 minutes of playing is hard. That's why I've been playing the piano for over 15 years, but it still takes me a good month of solid practice before I learn the notes to a new piece.

Of course, the notes alone don't make music; if it did, we'd listen to MIDI tracks instead of musicians. We need to polish it to sound musical. This phase, which I call the "this sounds like crap!" phase, is limited by your ears. You will always, always find something to improve on. No exceptions. How long you polish the piece depends on how good you want it to sound. If it's good enough, then you can just quit and move on to the next piece. For me, before I play a solo piece for any serious musician, I take almost a year to work on it. But that's me, with my practice schedule. Some professionals know exactly what they're doing; they'll learn the piece in half a week, and spend the other half getting it ready for their peers.

The reason professionals can do this faster isn't because they've played really really hard pieces. They can learn faster because they've played more pieces. Over their schooling alone, they'll have played hundreds of pieces of music, and over their lifetime, easily thousands. The quantity of music that you play will contribute to your composite skill far more than the difficulty of the pieces.

Which brings me back to my point. Learning a difficult piece isn't a trivial task. Memorizing the notes is. So if you're just memorizing the notes to bang out, then you're limited by how fast you can memorize. If you're going to polish it afterwards, then you're done whenever you're done polishing. Either way, it's not a question that we can answer.

  • I don't understand your answer. Right now I'm a total beginner. If I was to start learning a very difficult piece, I guess the "hardest" page would take me years to learn, and then the following ones would take only days (because I've built up a lot of skill learning that hard page that I can use on the other ones) – Brann Aug 14 '11 at 8:53
  • 3
    @Brann: If you're a total beginner, you shouldn't start with a very difficult piece. – awe Aug 15 '11 at 11:23
  • well, I didn't want to start a lengthy discussion on the verb "play" in "When will I be able to play this piece". One might argue you never play anything properly, and another one that even hitting the keys in a random fashion is playing. Thousands of people are learning the piano every year. I guess there should be some "norm", and that every specific piece will usually (in a Gaussian sense) be "achievable" after x years of practice. – Brann Aug 15 '11 at 11:55
  • 1
    @Brann: Absolutely! The issue with this is that in order for that population average to be applicable to anybody in particular, you'd need to control pretty heavily for covariances (age when you started learning, time spent practicing every day, skill of your piano teacher, etc.). – Babu Aug 16 '11 at 2:59
  • 1
    @Babu: Because if you start out with a difficult piece, it is a high risk that your motivation drops because it takes too long before you master it. A simple piece does not necessarily have to mean a boring piece... – awe Aug 16 '11 at 7:27
4

Yes, but not until you've gotten a little more experience. For instance, I know that it will take me approximately 15-20 hours to learn a Chopin etude of medium difficulty (as Chopin etudes go.) I also know that it takes me about 100 hours to learn a concerto of non-obscene difficulty (Grieg, Schumann etc...)

I recommend keeping a practice journal for a while. Be specific about what you spend the most time on. It'll help you a lot when you try to "guesstimate" how long something's going to take you.

Also, the amount of time it takes you to learn pieces of a given difficulty will obviously change as you get better. Keep that in mind too.

Edit

Willard Palmer wrote a book containing a comprehensive list of piano pieces and their corresponding difficulty. I sometimes use that to figure out how long a piece will take to learn, by comparing it to pieces, of comparable difficulty, I have learned.

1

What does it mean to "master" a piece? Take one of the first pieces you ever played. Presumably you consider to have mastered it. Is your rendition indistinguishable from that of your teacher when recorded and played side by side?

You say that you are able to play in a "quite satisfactory manner" Bach invention number 4. Well, I assume you mean the two-part inventions which I cannot find at the moment, so I have to deal in generalities.

Does that mean that you can record this invention and, when listening, can follow each of the voices easily, and each voice is consistently played and articulated as if it were played by a separate player? Is your choice of articulation and attack consistent enough that the listener will not confuse the voices when they are actually crossing? Is the bass part executed with a dependable and consistent articulation (usually a nice portato with distinct notes that don't sound hacked off), carrying the piece reliably? Where the voices happen to run in or across a unison, have you figured out strategies for how to make it audible that there are still two voices? (Sounds contrived but I am actually doing the Air from the Bach orchestra suite 3 on free bass accordion right now, and when a voice played leggiero runs through a long note from the other voice I cannot interrupt the tone but cannot do nothing, so there is a subtle but audible short bellows impulse marking the pass-through voice, obviously something that calls for a different strategy on a percussive instrument like a piano).

Pieces like that have a tendency to come back and haunt you, making you feel less and less satisfied the longer you work on them. But then as your skills grow, so does your hearing and work ability, so it often makes sense to leave them behind and come back at a time where you have more focus for the details available.

How much time should you invest in any piece? I recommend recording it and seeing where you can figure out things to improve. When you are not satisfied but cannot figure out what you could be doing better, you might either ask your teacher or move on. That's when your time is less likely to be spent well on a piece than on new ones.

That's not only a function of how much you are improving on your rendition, but also of how much you are improving your hearing. So it is hard to say just how long it will take you for any given piece until it makes sense to move on, and how much progress that entails.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.