How we musicians perceive ideas of “difficult” or “easy” is a fascinating example of how different each human brain can be, and how there are no absolutes. Individuals attach a wide variety of meaning to these two simple words. Yet we tend to give ultimate credence to them and allow them to affect our music-playing experience.

Sometimes we think we know where we are going musically. We may have a goal in how we want to sound or what we want to play. We may think we know what the process will be to get there. But do we? If there is a skill you don’t yet have, chances are it’s because you don’t yet know how to get there. You can’t imagine how to learn something until you have the tools, and you can’t know or accurately imagine if it will be easy or difficult.

Something that is easy might be thought of as something that comes to you with minimal effort, is learned quickly, can be played accurately and with expression, and that requires a skill set that fits your ability. Something that is difficult may be seen as needing great effort to learn, practice, and master. But are either of these definitions correct? How do we let our viewpoints affect our musicianship?

In 1997 I adjudicated a national competition in Ireland, in which harpers of all ages competed. They had been instructed to play one slow traditional piece (air, lament, or waltz) followed by one faster traditional piece (jig, reel, hornpipe, strathspey). In the intermediate and advanced categories, all but a few played their slow pieces poorly, but played their faster pieces brilliantly. I would have been puzzled by this had I not known that, at the time, the trend among Celtic harpers was toward playing fast music. They viewed the slow music as less important, so they had not practiced it well; it was considered too easy.

But slow music is not necessarily easy, and their poor performances proved that. It requires just as much skill, albeit of a different kind, to play slow music as it does to play fast music. And it requires a different mindset. And that’s what I’m getting at: our mindset is what determines our musicianship.

What we already know how to do becomes easier and easier as we continue to do it. What we have not yet learned to do will always seem more difficult until we learn it well. What is easy now was once difficult.

I’ve had a few students who would learn a few tunes/skills and then refuse to learn more. They found it easy to play what they knew, and didn’t want to put forth the effort to progress further. But effort is what creates progress. If no effort happens, no progress happens. You’ll remain at your current skill level indefinitely. 

One reason for resistance to effort is that we don’t know what we don’t know, so we can’t see what the path is or what the outcome will be. Since we have no way to experience the goal in advance of reaching it, it’s a teacher’s job to show us what we have not yet imagined and to lead us to a place we can’t foresee on our own. Conversely, it’s our responsibility as students to allow the teacher to do that! It’s sometimes a good thing when you can’t imagine where you’re going  –  that means the musical world is bigger than you thought, and full of doors yet to be opened.

Therefore, trust your teacher, keep an open mind, and remember that your belief about your capabilities will determine your reality!