December 28, 2015 Comments Off on Why Learn to Play The Piano?
“What are piano lessons FOR? ” This question from a parent of a talented student once stumped me. It’s in the category of If You Have To Ask You Won’t Understand The Answer. But I’ve been looking for answers to it anyway, ever since.
Here’s an excellent one: If you are in a French train station with time on your hands, you can start improvising on the station piano. Some stranger who also knows something about the piano might show up and play along.
You can make music together. That sentence is loaded with metaphorical meanings old and new. The literal meaning is rich enough, however, to warrant learning to play the piano.
Why learn to play the piano? You can make music with a complete stranger in a French train station.
November 20, 2012 § 2 Comments
Why is it so hard to read music? One reason is that doing many things at once, like reading and interpreting symbols, listening to the sounds you’re making, operating complex machinery at a high speed (that’s the piano, folks), coordinating 2 hands and 2 feet, 2 eyes and 2 ears in real time to a beat in your head, and trying to make sense of something you really care about, is genuinely HARD.
The other reason is that music itself is hard to WRITE. To simplify the process, lots of shortcuts have been made through the centuries. That leaves us with a system that is full of fancy repeats, symbols with multiple meanings, sporadic instructions (Key signatures? Accidentals?) and the things that try students’ patience and, fortunately, keep music teachers employed.
If it sounds like a lousy bargain, speeding up the writing but slowing down the reading, you have never written music by hand. It is a fussy, demanding job. And, up until computers, preparing the plates for printing was a laborious craft. Each mark on the page had to be made by hand, on a steel plate, backwards, perfectly, for printing. Every note, every stem, every slur, every dot, every flat, every sharp, every everything had to be scribed on the steel by hand. There is no moveable type for music. Gutenberg’s revolution missed us musicians.
This video, by the music publishers G.Henle Verlag, show the process in precise detail. The camera looks over the shoulder of a craftsman as he puts in the staff, knocks in the note-heads, rules the bar lines, scrapes, etches and punches his way through a line of music. It even shows how he corrects mistakes.
I could hardly breathe while watching this the first time. I knew it was an exacting craft, but I had no idea it was as demanding as this. This is the best video ever because it shows one reason why music is so hard to read: it is really hard to write.
September 19, 2012 § 1 Comment
February 26, 2012 § 12 Comments
If you are a parent who thinks music should always be soothing and children should only play their assignments, this guide is not for you. But if you want to help your child feel so at home on the piano that he will think and feel and move and dream like the piano is part of him, read on.
What does a small child do with a pencil? Does she sit down and make a perfectly nuanced drawing of a bowl of fruit? Of course not! She spends weeks, months and years making dots and lines and scribbles and ugly stuff and beautiful stuff and confusing stuff and junk and trash and funny people and trees not found in nature. She goes through reams of paper. She uses markers, crayons, pencils, paint, mud, gravy and fruit juice. And we parents treasure each mark and can’t bear to throw it out.
I have boxes of this stuff that my kids made. There is a whole corner of the basement given over to the archives of my kids’ work with pencil and paper. My brothers and I have been going through my late parents’ stuff and they saved boxes of our works on paper, from the Eisenhower era. There is even a box from my mother’s childhood, in the 1920’s. That was during the Warren G. Harding administration. Remember him? Well, I can report that little Winifred Wilson did pretty much the same thing with a pencil and a crayon back then as every other kid has done during every presidential term of office since.
This kind of fooling around with pencil and paper is normal in human development. We all go through the same stages and do pretty much the same kind of things. If you look into the research on literacy, you find that lots of preliminary fooling around is considered essential for kids to learn to read and write. Most parents would be horrified if you suggested their kids should only use a pencil and paper when they wanted to write sentences or sketch landscapes. Even when school starts, everyone expects that kids will still be making tons of wild and creative and useless marks on paper.
Why, then, do we all insist that kids “only make nice sounds” at the piano? Or, “stop fooling around and do your lesson”? Or, “If you can’t play it right, don’t play it at all”?
The piano, my beloved piano, is in many ways the least musical of instruments. What I mean is that its action is at a remove from our bodies. A cello you embrace with both arms. A drum booms or snaps according to how you strike it with your hands. A flute plays on your breath, and the voice is nothing more than the self made into music. For better or for worse, the other instruments reveal immediately the person and the body playing them.
But our piano has a layer of machinery between us and the sounding strings. The connection between player and instrument is subtle. It is easily ignored. The connection is often never made at all. It is possible to play Beethoven or Gershwin on the piano and follow all the directions correctly and sound just like a machine and nothing like a live human. And nothing like a particular live human, right here, right now.
One of the things this piano teacher does every afternoon is try to get young pianists hooked up to their instrument so that their playing sounds like They Are Playing. Not someone else. And I try to get it to be play, real play, with the joy and concentration and seriousness that play really is.
Sometimes I have to give them permission to fool around. Often, some parent with a headache has cautioned them against making loud or ugly sounds. They are afraid that the instrument might be harmed by banging, or that meaningless repetition is a waste of time.
Then I have to speak to the parents and explain how important it is to know your instrument, know what it can do for you and what you can do with it. Usually I say, “Half of the time fooling around, half of the time doing your lesson”. But I hate saying that, because it is a lie. The fooling around is also the lesson and it is the part that makes the other part, the part that is hard work for both the student and the piano teacher, easier and worth doing. When I meet a new student who has spent hours or months or years messing around with the piano, I know I am going to have an easy time. He has already done the work of discovering what he and the piano can do together and is ready to build from there.
I want to propose The Piano Students’ Manifesto:
- We demand the right to be treated at least as indulgently as young writers and artists.
- We demand the right be loud and ugly, tedious, un-melodic, repetitious, and irritating.
- We demand the right to play outside of the book.
- We shall use the pedals, all three of them, all the time.
- We will play every note on the keyboard going up and then every note going down, many times over and we will do it again tomorrow. Then we will play each note twice, going up and back down.
- We will play glissandi, we will play forte and piano, we will play presto and adagio, and don’t bother us with the vocabulary.
- We will discover something wonderful that just happened by accident and play it until it is absorbed into the paint on the walls.
- We will play with one finger and one hand, or two hands and two elbows, while lying on the bench, while standing and while chewing, while singing, humming or making that weird clicking sound with our tongue.
- We will play one note that makes a funny buzzing noise 4,000 times.
- We will lie under the piano and operate the pedals with our hands.
- We will look into the piano any way we can and see what is going on in there while we play that one note 4,000 times.
- We will lean on the keyboard with both forearms, especially on the low notes.
- We will do all of this and much more. Much, much more.
We only ask that the grownups get out of the way.
- Posting 108 – in which a modest domestic dispute spills out into the blogosphere (jonathangovias.com)
- No trombones (johnaugust.com)
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.