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As I learn a new piece of music that is at or just slightly above my skill level, I'll find myself basically just struggling through it the very first time I pick it up. I'll be unfamiliar with the chords, dynamics, etc. My major focus is to hit the correct notes, and attempt to hit the correct timing. As I become more familiar with the piece, I start to smooth it out, add in my own interpretation and so forth, so that eventually it sounds the way I want.

However, when I attempt a new piece that is just below my skill level, it goes a lot more smoothly, and I can get the piece to sound approximately how I want, maybe a bit slower than written, or perhaps with fewer dynamics, but it tends to go much faster and it starts to sound like music as soon as I get going.

My question is this: as I've progressed through learning the piano, the pieces that are at my level or just slightly above have never gotten any easier. I feel the exact same way I did when I first started playing years ago. The pieces themselves have become more challenging, but the mental effort I need to put into a new piece has never really relented. Is this similar for an accomplished, perhaps professional pianist as well? Or does there come a point where a master pianist is just so familiar with the instrument that playing the notes is no longer the problem, but playing the music and interpreting it is?

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    It seems like it's almost by definition that "the pieces that are at my level or just slightly above have never gotten any easier". In fact, if you ever (hypothetically) end up playing really difficult material like Liszt's Transcendental Etudes like they have gotten easier than the difficulty level of "pieces at your level", I'd say that your level has gone high and above those pieces' difficulty. – Dekkadeci Apr 25 '17 at 12:21
  • Well, yes, I'll give you that :-P What I meant was that I don't feel as though I'm gaining general skills that enable me to play more broadly. Instead, it feels like every new piece is completely isolated from all the others. I suppose intuitively this can't be true (otherwise I'd be having the same difficulty with lower level pieces), but that's the feeling I get. I was wondering if the same is true no matter how advanced I get – Michael Stachowsky Apr 25 '17 at 12:30
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    Whether "playing the notes is no longer the problem" depends on the notes. I know instances where professional keyboard players have spent several years working on a piece to prepare it for its first public performance. But one difference is that for familiar styles of music, a pro will be able to decide how to play the piece and what he/she wants it to sound like just by reading the score, before playing any notes at all. – user19146 Apr 25 '17 at 12:39
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    The idea of "above/below your [technical] level" is more of a "student" concept than a "professional" one. If a piece of music is worth playing at all, you can always find some way to play it "better." It has been said that professionals you should plan to record the standard repertoire three times in their lives: at age 25 when they think they know it perfectly, at age 50 when they are at the peak of their career, and again at age 75 when then are finally starting to discover how the music should really go! – user19146 Apr 25 '17 at 13:21
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    From his profile, I guess the OP might describe himself as a "professional engineering instructor." It might help to answer the question if he compares, for example, "how long would it take him to create some new training material for a topic" which is either (1) quite familiar, or (2) needs some background reading or research, with how fast he progresses "learning new music" - and assume a professional musician works at a similar speed (and for the same number of hours per week!) as he does as a professional engineer. – user19146 Apr 25 '17 at 14:43
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Not sure about concert pianists, who, after all don't need to sight-read things - only learn them, but it's easily possible for good players to sightread new pieces, whilst at the same time interpreting them so they sound really good. When we have deps in, they are expected to do just that, and certainly session musicians will do that.

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As a workhorse musician with no pretensions to the concert platform, I can sight-read 99% of what's put in front of me. Which is lucky really, otherwise I wouldn't get asked back to that job!

Which is really the difference between amateur and professional in any field. The amateur can very likely deliver the same result, eventually. The professional just does it. Don't worry about it. I'm sure you're completely fluent at YOUR job.

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Yes, professional pianists can sight-read things that astonish amateurs. Human pattern recognition ability is an amazing thing, and translating graphical notation into finger movements to produce sounds seems to be well suited to it.

However, even the most experienced pianist cannot play everything just like that. Composers have always delighted in writing the most difficult pieces imaginable, and the most difficult ones are very, very difficult to execute indeed, no matter how well you know them. There are compositions e.g. by Ligeti or Alkan that only a handful of musicians in the entire world have bothered to learn, and even they miss lots and lots of notes whenever they play them, no matter whether live or in the studio. "Reading comprehension" is not everything.

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Expanding on what @alephzero said in his comments. Its like any other skill, driving racing cars, designing wallpaper patterns or whatever. There is a range of skill levels for sight reading.

At the top end there are the real monsters of the art - John Ogden for example. My cello teacher played in a fairly well-known string quartet and they once played the Shostakovich piano quintet with Ogden who, after taking the cellophane wrapper off the music, sight read the entire piece at full speed without any apparent effort.

Then there is the rest of us, each at a different level of ability, and for each of us there are many pieces we can handle because we have the technique and many pieces that we cannot manage because we either cannot interpret the orthography fast enough or we cannot get our fingers to do what we can see is needed. For pretty much everyone, there will be things that they cannot do at sight.

But don't worry about it. If you could play everything without effort then where's the challenge? The fact that you are constantly having to work to play your music might just mean that you are continually improving and moving on to more complex repertoire. Good for you. Keep it up.

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