How To Play The Piano This Year

December 26, 2011 § 4 Comments

Sergei Rachmaninoff at a Steinway grand piano.


The trouble with music is if it’s good I get itchy fingers and want to play something just like it and if it’s bad I want to play something to rinse the residue out of my ears and if it is just so-so it leaves me room to dream of my own playing and I want to get over to the piano and get some music going. All music seems to lead to piano playing for me so sometimes I have to avoid it to get some rest.

I’m not sure what people do with their lives if they don’t play the piano or make some other kind of music. I fear they have great gaping holes on the inside. What will happen if they are in an accident and are rushed to the hospital and the doctors open them up and find big cavities of emptiness? My HMO is pretty stingy but I would  be afraid, if it happened to me, that they would try to fill me up  with some peer-reviewed styrofoam or some TV wellness ads or something no better than placebo. Making music is way better than placebo, in fact is better than just about anything legal or illegal for whatever is missing in your life and it will fill you up. Ask yourself is music is right for you and listen to the answer before it is too late. Stop putting it off.

It is almost a new year and time to make plans. If this is the year that you’re going to learn how to play the piano, or get re-acquainted with it after years spent wandering in the desert without it, you’re in luck: I’m going to give away all the secrets of piano playing in the next paragraph. I’ve written this all down so that I can study it myself. I feel like I need a refresher.

So here it is, the secret of piano playing, the universe and everything: All you have to do, all that making music at the piano requires of you, all that stands between you and Beethoven’s Fourth Concerto right now, is nothing more than getting your hands on the right note at the right time and making it sound good.

If you can get that one note played at the right time and exactly the way you want it so that it leads into the next note and the one after that, and then some more, the job is done. Just make those notes tell that story you want to tell.

Let’s say you are working on Liszt’s transcription of Schubert’s Gretchen am Spinnrade. Start by getting those notes to conjure Gretchen sitting at her spinning wheel in front of her house,  jilted by Faust and singing, “My heart is heavy, I will never have peace”. You will want to make her song as troubled as her heart. But keep the notes of the spinning wheel agitated, restless. Don’t let them swamp the song, and give them no peace. Do this all with your right hand, while the left hand weighs in with ominous low notes.

Heartbreak? If heartbreak weren’t as old as men and women, this would be the music that invented it. The whole tale is one long heartbroken melody with a gasp, right there, at the G natural, where Gretchen is overcome with the memory of Faust. It’s the song not just of Gretchen’s but of everyone’s heartbreak, the entire last 10 centuries of heartbreak, and the next 10 centuries as well, every heartbreak that came before and all that will come after. It is all there in the notes and if you get it right you will make it happen with your own two hands. Just do it. It is all that is required. Get those notes to behave. And then do it again. And again.

But what if, try as you can, those heartbreak notes don’t get played right or get played at the wrong time or you can’t possibly get them to sing and keen and break? What if what you are playing and hearing is not what you are imagining, not even a little bit?

Then you will have to study and try things out and go down lots of dead ends and back up and get frustrated and repeat yourself a lot. You will spend a lot of time at the piano, working over those notes. Sometimes you will despair and sometimes you will be thrilled and sometimes you will just do the job and sometimes you will love every note and sometimes you will hate them all. It will be pretty much like the rest of life. There will be no sure answers, no simple solutions, no steady, predictable results. But you will do it, chasing that elusive sound. This is what we call practice.

They say practice makes perfect. I don’t know who they are; they clearly are not hanging around a piano trying to get things under control. I’ve practiced a lot in my life, probably a lot more than you have, and I can say without hesitation, (and offer references if you need them), that I am not yet perfect, not at the piano and not as far as anyone can tell at anything else. So if practicing makes perfect I’d like to know when I might take delivery on the perfection, because it has been a long time waiting.

Nothing will ever be perfect that involves pianists trying to get sounds right because no matter how good we all get, the goalpost keeps moving off ahead of us and tomorrow we have to get up and chase it down again. Tomorrow we will feel differently about what that goal really is and maybe we will have a headache or be thinking about lunch. It is a slippery thing, musical achievement is, well within our grasp today and gone tomorrow. But like any good drug, once we have it we want it again so we keep at it, trying to hit that sweet success.

Some people think they can get the same results by buying CD’s or going to concerts or downloading all the works of Schubert onto their iPods and listening while they run 3 miles in the morning. I’m here to tell you that this won’t work. Those are all fine experiences but they don’t fill those holes inside the way playing the notes yourself will. You have to get your hands into the music and mess with it and then mess with it again. Call it practice or call it playing or just call it music, there is no substitute.

But here I go, yammering on about practicing. I promised to tell you all the secrets about how to play the piano and got side-tracked on the practicing angle, what we call the P-word, a hobbyhorse we pianists all ride and ride and ride. Should you play scales? Should you work through all of Czerny? Do you do stretching exercises or start with Bach? That stuff is irrelevant. It is like asking a carpenter whether he uses nails or screws. You do what you need to do to get that music made.

The real thing you have to do to get that music made, is to play the piano every day. Every day means Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Every day as in 7 days a week. This isn’t some soul-destroying job we’re talking about here, where you need to take holidays just to keep from crying all the time. This is like eating and sleeping and petting puppies and walking around making up jokes and stories. You’re going to do it every day because it is that important and because otherwise your life will be full of holes.

If you’re old enough to find this blog and read it, you’re old enough to have plenty of things to do every day. You may have a job that eats your brain 5 days a week, a passel of little ones underfoot who need you right now, homework to do so you won’t flunk math and be an embarrassment to your family, a leaking roof or a problem with the IRS that only lawyers and a name change will solve.

I don’t know what you’re going to do about these things. But if you are going to play the piano you must find time to do it every day. People in far worse situations have played the piano as if their lives depended on it. Chopin played the piano while dying of TB, Clara Schumann played the piano while raising 8 children whose father was in the mental hospital, people play the piano while their marriages unravel and the wolf paws at the door. You can, too. If this is your year to get better at the piano, you will have to figure out a way to make it happen.

Many people can’t get started on a project like this because they worry about quality. They are afraid their piano playing will be like other people’s babies: wrinkly and smelly and loud and hateful.

There is no reason to worry about whether your playing will be good or not. It isn’t as if everything we humans do has to be great or we else we just skip it until inspiration arrives. Unless you are reading this while sitting in the Sistine Chapel, all you have to do is glance around you and see how much dedication to quality the average human enterprise has. In my own neighborhood, for example, you can drive the main drag for miles without seeing any more compelling architecture than a World War II Quonset hut converted to a defunct carpet store. And you’re worrying about your piano playing? Come on now, get a grip.

People have no fears about cooking a 7-course Chinese New Year’s dinner from recipes they got off the internet and serving it up to their friends. Yet they will not even get started on playing the piano in the privacy of their own homes for fear of not doing it well. They will tolerate the musical equivalent of fast food rather than risk piano playing that might be imperfect. What are they afraid of? Ptomaine? Handmade music is as delicious as handmade food any day and just as nourishing.

All you first-timers out there are probably feeling like I’m not talking to you. You can’t tell your hands apart much less use them to make music. No way can you play Schubert or Liszt or anything else. You can’t play note one, right or wrong, and forget about notes 2 and 3. Well, I’ve got news for you and also for you more accomplished people who are feeling slightly superior to all those beginners: it is the same job whether you are playing note one or note one million. The music is in the notes and it starts with one good one. You beginners actually have a kind of advantage, in that you haven’t been over-practicing a million notes all your life, hoping that maybe, sometime in the future, they will magically turn into music, and meanwhile you have to get these parts learned and that tempo up. Beginners can start now and get it right today.

The hard work needs to be done upfront, and it is getting that one right note played right and at the right time and connected to the next right note so that the result is music. Then tomorrow you do it again. If this is your first note at the piano, welcome to the territory and get to work. Your first note is waiting for you. For the rest of you, your first note is also waiting.

This is going to be our year.

Beethoven Speaks To Me

December 2, 2011 Comments Off on Beethoven Speaks To Me

Lots of musicians lead full and productive lives without ever learning to read music. Whole musical civilizations rise and fall without leaving a written record. YouTube, iPods, Pandora, iTunes, Amazon and all the other cosmo-industrial recorded music machines can deliver sound to your ears from anywhere in the world and you never need to read (or play) a note.

Learning to read music is hard work for most people. As Stephen Pinker of Harvard said about learning to read words, the music-reading module isn’t part of the basic package of human skills. It has to be bolted on in every generation. We piano teachers are some of the people down in the shop, making that after-market addition to every year’s model. It is hard work for us and hard work for our students. Yet we happily do it year after year.

Why go to all this work? Why can’t we just learn by listening and copying, using  our great technology to beam the music into our brains?

For one thing, the music that is written down comes out of a written music tradition. That kind of music developed along with the tools to write it. Musics that didn’t develop with a written tradition work differently. They have to be absorbable by the human ear and memory, which means certain types of complexity have to be left out.

If you’ve heard pop music described as being “only 3 chords”, you’ve heard a description of a type of music that can be learned without written notes. It is, for the most part, an aural music. The same is true of jazz. All those wondrous and elaborate inventions are hung on a  harmonic structure that can be learned without recourse to written notes. Or at least that was true in its beginnings. It has become far more complex now and jazz musicians are increasingly sophisticated about music writing.

Even if you have a phenomenal ear and memory and can learn Beethoven easily from listening to recordings, as one of my friends can, you still need to grapple with the score. There is no other way to get  inside the way Beethoven thought and played. The things he had to say he said on paper with pen and ink and the lines of the staff. If you want to get as close as you can to Beethoven or Chopin or Liszt and see and hear them play, you have to get your hands into their music, starting from the notes they left.

The illustration of this post is a page from Beethoven’s piano sonata “Quasi una fantasia”, the Moonlight Sonata. I’ve played and taught this piece a million times. Why did seeing this page stop me in my tracks?

What is astonishing is what is left out. All the familiar notes are there, the  restrained melody, the ominous bass line, the worried triplets-but no helpful directions for the pianist on how to play it. No fingering, no attempt to line up simultaneous notes, nothing that really even looks like piano music. It is just pure music, ideas written down at speed, every shortcut taken but nothing essential left out. There it is, the real stuff. Direct from Beethoven to me.

Here’s the melody. Here’s the bass. Here’s the middle voice in triplets. The pen is confident, decisive. It is the work of a person who knows his music and knows how to get it down on paper.

There is also a message. It sings out, clear as a trumpet, across the 210 years since Beethoven put these notes on paper. It is a message you will never get from an iPod: you’re a musician, figure out how to play this. These are my ideas, now make them into music.

If my teachers hadn’t bolted the music-reading module onto me years ago, I wouldn’t be getting this message from Beethoven today. And that is why this afternoon I will be deep into the mysteries of notation with some school kids, so they can communicate with Beethoven and Chopin and Brahms and Scarlatti and all the rest, getting messages they would never get from their iPods. They are musicians, and we need to make some music.

Music Training Enhances Children’s Verbal Intelligence

October 14, 2011 Comments Off on Music Training Enhances Children’s Verbal Intelligence

An illustrated sutra from the Nara period, 8th...

I don't know what this is all about but it looks like what is going on in our local school.

My local elementary school has music class for 40 minutes every 2 weeks, and for that whole 40 minutes the students get to watch the teacher do something. They don’t have time  for that messy, complicated, glorious stuff like actually learning to play and sing and dance. The Powers running the school feel that there is barely enough time in the school day to work on passing the state tests in reading and writing and arithmetic and so it can’t be frittered away on music.

Here’s yet another piece of research showing why this is a dumb way to try to make kids smart. After only 20 days of exposure to an interactive music training program preschoolers showed improvements in verbal intelligence .”Our findings demonstrate a causal relationship between music training and improvements in language and executive function”.

I’m a practicing musician and I have developed a high level of verbal intelligence, so I’m not fooled by the academic language in this quote. I know it says studying music makes kids smarter. And smart is as smart does, so the bit about  executive function is also important. If you’re not familiar with the term “executive function”,  it has to do with carrying out  your ideas and plans. Executing your intentions. It has nothing to do with the Fortune 500 per se, but I bet those CEO’s have it in spades.

Want to exercise your verbal intelligence? Here’s some nice clichés to use when you are talking about schools eliminating music so they can concentrate on their “core subjects”:

Throw the baby out with the bath water.

Cut off your nose to spite your face.

Rob Peter to pay Paul.

Dig yourself into a hole.

A few sandwiches short of a picnic.

I’m sure you can think of some more. Send ’em in.

Benjamin Zander: Classical music with shining eyes – YouTube

October 10, 2011 § 1 Comment














Benjamin Zander: Classical music with shining eyes – YouTube.

How does classical music work? And what does it do? And why do we play it, learn it, teach it? Many have asked these questions and many words have been spilled in answer. When I have to wrestle with them I mumble and stutter and look off into the distance and wish I had some prepared remarks and a better way to translate music and feeling into words. But now I have this video.



“Let living room pianos invite unwashed hands”

September 30, 2011 § 1 Comment

The new poetry post (with extra box for music)

My new poetry post in front of the house has been standing empty for about a month while I considered what would be the right poem to inaugurate the little box with a glass front and a hinged lid. Should it be a poem about poetry? Should it be about music? Should it be something silly or something deep? Should I look to  old favorites like Shelley and Keats or get one of my poet-friends to contribute?

Today I finally took the plunge and printed up the first poem, by Sarah LindsayZucchini Shofar

I wish I could figure out how to make the poem display on this page, but if you click on the link you’ll get it.

I have loved this poem for several years and every time I read it, including just now, during the Days of Awe,  standing in front of my house and reading it through the glass of the poetry box, I am smitten with the feeling that I wrote it myself, or could have, or would have, had I been a poet and been at that wedding and heard the sounding zucchini and all those nieces and nephews playing their instruments or if I had ever  thought of making the plumbing in a half-built house resound with a trumpeting raspberry or ever realized that the ephemeral art I practice has everything in common with butter that melts into homemade cornbread.

L’Shanah Tova!


How to play the piano

September 21, 2011 § 3 Comments

Here is a video of  the one, the only, the superlative pianist, Artur Rubenstein,  captured on Soviet TV.

The best thing about Soviet videos of pianists is the Soviets  only had one camera and couldn’t indulge in the nose shots and audience shots that usually wreck piano videos. The one camera just sits there, focused on the real action at the keyboard.

The worst thing about Soviet video is the sound. You can’t hear Rubenstein’s rich, direct tone. You can’t hear the miracle of this etude,  a melody created  by  the right hand’s little finger jabbing at separate notes but borne aloft by an undercurrent in the other 9 fingers, like a long ribbon unspooling on a breeze.

But you can watch this video and see exactly how to play the piano. It is a perfect visual record of how Rubenstein played. I don’t know how I lived so long without seeing this wonderful video. You can see EXACTLY how he did things. Notice the extreme economy of movement. Notice the elegant posture. Notice the restraint, the lack of wiggling, waving, grimacing, jerking, straining and other excesses all too common on today’s stages. Notice, too, that his fingers and hands are only peripherally involved, the real work being done with his arms, shoulders, back and brain.

I’m often told, “You make it look so easy”. The truth is, as you can see by watching this video, it IS easy. The hard part is getting from where you are to where it is this easy. The hard part is unlearning the junk that most of us are taught about trying extra hard, stretching, exercising the hands, keeping our fingers curved, etc., etc., etc.

If you want to know how to play the piano, just watch this video.

How to choose a piano teacher

September 19, 2011 § 2 Comments

Phlobaphene is the red pigment present in the ...


A couple years ago my friend Cydney called to ask me a difficult question. It was a question about piano teaching and kids, the sort of thing I can talk about until my tongue falls out of my head, but this question stumped me.

You see, Cydney is a scientist. She’s a very logical and rational person who thinks there is straight path from here to anywhere. So, when her kids got to grade school, she figured it would be easy to find them a piano teacher. She’s used to reading resumes of PhD’s and post docs, so many years at this lab, so many publications authored, so many patents received, etc.

But how was she to evaluate a piano teacher? Piano teachers don’t do research, we usually don’t publish, we usually don’t have advanced degrees, we aren’t part of a network  that a scientist can tap into.

When Cydney started looking at  piano teachers, she was overwhelmed. It was all so murky and indirect. There was no agreed-upon criteria for rating piano teachers. Did you rate them highly because their students win contests? Do you rate them on the basis of where their (usually undergraduate) degrees are from? Who they studied with? What grades they got in Counterpoint 310? What kind of piano they had? Where they lived? How old they were? Some used only one method with every student. Some had stringent practice requirements. Some demanded recitals and group lessons. Some struck her as wishy-washy and vague.

She called me from Washington, D.C. in a panic: How ever could  she pick a piano teacher for her kids?

Unfortunately Washington is several time-zones and a few thousand miles away from here, or we could have cut the conversation short and put her terribly cute kids on my schedule every Tuesday afternoon. End of problem. I know I could teach her kids, even though one of them is a little autistic and the other has a big problem sitting still for more than a nano-second.

I know how to teach kids like that and I know what Cydney is after: a good musical experience,  basic skills, a sound foundation that won’t hold them back, someone who can take them as far and as fast as they want to go, lots of success, happy kids going into the lesson and happy kids coming out.

But how could she find someone like me in Washington D.C.?

I really didn’t have a decent answer for her at first. How do you pick a piano teacher? How do you tell your friend how to pick a piano teacher?  I know how I picked a drum teacher for my kids, but I have lots of experience with music teachers.  I knew my kids, I knew lots of teachers, I picked the one that I figured had the best shot at getting them playing and keeping them playing. But how did I make that choice?

In biology there is a phrase: a feeling for the organism. Barbara McClintock, whose work on corn genetics and gene regulation brought her a Nobel prize, used it as the title for her autobiography. It was her feeling for corn in its wonderful variety and her deep study of its genetic behavior that convinced her  that genes were being turned off and on and modified even though  such ideas were against current genetic dogma. She was reviled  and ignored for 30 years but persevered anyway.

A person who has a feeling for the organism has an intuitive grasp of how that organism behaves, what makes it tick, how it will respond. If you are looking for someone to work  on root rot fungi or orangutans or corn, you look for the person who has a feeling for that particular organism and a fascination with all its mysteries.

If you want to hire someone to work on corn genetics, you look for a person who eats, breathes, sleeps, dreams and talks corn genetics. You don’t hire the lima bean guy with the 3-mile long resume and impeccable credentials,  unless he admits to a life-long yearning to get out of beans and into corn.

But you also don’t hire the corn lady with the long resume if she thinks she already understands everything about corn and genetics. If Barbara McClintock had thought that way, she would have ignored her data that showed corn  was violating the genetic rules. She would have ignored what seemed to be  wrong results rather than being intrigued by wonderful, unexplained behavior.  Instead of making profound discoveries about genetics she would have been a hack scientist with a nice CV and a retirement fund.

Cydney knows about these people. She knows the difference between the bean guy whose eyes light up when you mention corn to him and the corn lady who can’t wait to get out of the office and get on with her real life. And, like me, she is a life-long fan of Barbara McClintock.

So she got it when I called back a few days later and said, “You need someone who has a feeling for the organism. Look for someone who is just nuts about teaching music to kids. Not someone who is looking for contest winners or perfect behavior or moms with 20 hours a week to spend supervising practice, although those people can be just fine. What you need first of all is someone with a feeling for those organisms which are your kids. Go for the person who looks even more interested when you tell them about the autism and ADHD. Pick the person who is curious and loves a challenge. And pick the one who thinks teaching music to your kids sounds like a blast”.

I was pretty proud of myself for making the connection between corn genetics and Barbara McClintock and piano teachers. It was a great moment when I taught a biologist how to navigate the murky world of humans and education. After all, we are the most interesting and complex organism on the planet.

Cydney picked  a dynamite teacher for her kids. It took some work to find the right person. But the kids  are playing up a storm and everyone is pleased. Only trouble is, I’m not real sure how to answer this question if someone who isn’t a biologist asks it. Any ideas out there?

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