Approaching challenging repertoire

Playing outside the Comfort Zone

by Frances Wilson


I’ve recently started working with a new adult student who is keen to learn Mozart’s wonderful D minor Fantasy K 397. Her affection and admiration for this music is very evident and is the motivation for her choosing to play the piece. “My previous teacher said it was too difficult for me!” she told me at her first lesson. I suggested that she learns it in small sections.

There are clear benefits in choosing to learn music which is outside our usual comfort zone and slightly beyond our capabilities. It’s very easy to stick with the music with which we feel most comfortable or which we feel we can play well, but this can create a “plateau” in our learning which in turn can lead to a slowing of progress and even boredom or lack of motivation. Setting ourselves a challenge, such as learning more pieces, is a great learning tool and enables us to develop musically, both technically and artistically, and the more we test our limits, the more we learn about ourselves as musicians.


But starting work on a more difficult piece can be daunting and finding a route through thickets of notes may feel, initially, like an impossible task. It’s worth remembering that everything we do in our practising of one piece, even a very easy piece, can be applied to other music: we shouldn’t learn in a vacuum, and a good practising skill is the ability to apply techniques learnt from one piece of music to another.

In the case of the D minor Fantasy, I asked my student to identify and highlight recurring themes or motifs. This immediately had the effect of breaking the music into manageable sections and suddenly the task didn’t seem nearly so challenging. We also identified devices such as arpeggios and scales: in the Fantasy these cadenza-like passages can look scarily black (suggesting great speed), but look again and they really are just scales!

When you’re practising, try to focus in on things you’ve never done before, and when you achieve one milestone, ask what’s next? By continuing to push yourself into new areas of exploration, you’ll improve your skills, leading to greater confidence and independence in learning.


Frances Wilson is a pianist, piano teacher, music reviewer, writer and blogger on classical music and pianism as The Cross-Eyed Pianist

Twitter @crosseyedpiano