Don’t Practice the Piano the Same Way You Studied for Exams in College (and don’t study for exams that way, either)

February 9, 2012 Comments Off on Don’t Practice the Piano the Same Way You Studied for Exams in College (and don’t study for exams that way, either)

English: A post-concert photo of the main hall...

Carnegie Hall: You can't get there just by endlessly repeating yourself.Image via Wikipedia

Here’s the original article: Everything You Thought You Knew About Learning Is Wrong | GeekDad | Wired.com.

The Cliff Notes version for pianists:

1.Don’t repeat one thing endlessly until it is perfect (it won’t be anyway, but that is another story). Fool around with one task and then shift to another, and another. Your whole skill level will rise in little bits that won’t show much right now but over time it will be more stable and extensive.

2.If you want to be able to play the piano in lots of different environments, you must practice in those environments. Thus, if your practice situation is always hushed silence, you will do poorly at your teacher’s house where there are dogs, birds, trucks, lousy light, and the chance of children. And Carnegie Hall? Better figure out how to practice in that kind of environment well ahead of time.

3.Forgetting is the mother of memory. If you want to learn something really well, let it disappear from easy recall and then re-learn it. Each time you do this, it will stick better and you will play it better.

If you have been a pianist all your life, or  any other kind of musician who has to learn tons of stuff and recall it in real time, you have learned all this the hard way. Which, according to this article, means you  have learned these lessons really, really well. Because the hard way, the long, slow, goof-up and fix-up and back-up and make-up way, is the way to real skill and lasting memory.

This is one reason this particular pianist and teacher doesn’t write much in assignment books for her students. I want them to have to remember stuff the hard way. If they don’t remember, we can always repeat and it will stick better the next time. Or the next. Forgetting isn’t a failure, it’s a gift.

Piano knowledge is slow knowledge. It is built up slowly, over time, like learning Russian well enough to read Dostoyevsky.  It has nothing in common with Google. It has nothing in common with Movies On Demand. It is not a GPS locator that tells you where you are, even if you haven’t any idea how you got there. It is not a smart phone app. It is real smarts, the kind that you can’t get for $1.99. Neither an electrical outage nor bankruptcy nor political repression nor nuclear accident can take it away from you. It is DNA, it is the calcium in your bones, it is the corpuscles in your blood. It is you.

How To Play The Piano This Year

December 26, 2011 § 4 Comments

Sergei Rachmaninoff at a Steinway grand piano.

Rachmaninoff

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.

Imagine

November 7, 2011 § 1 Comment

Imagine (John Lennon)

Image by ☺Laura☺ via Flickr

Sometimes a song knocks on the door and insists you open it. This week it was John Lennon’s “Imagine“.

Our local music store (Portland Music) has sheet music in the basement and instruments upstairs. They have an amazing bunch of digital pianos these days and usually someone is trying them all out while I’m shopping for sheet music.

I’m all for people playing the piano or the keyboard or whatever all day, every day, in public, in the music store, on street corners, in bars, hospitals, Nordstrom’s, everywhere.  But the music coming from the digitals upstairs makes it hard to concentrate on the music I have to read downstairs (when you’re looking for music for students you shuffle through it quickly by reading it and then maybe sit down and play what’s left to see if it plays like you heard it in your head. I have trouble hearing music on the page if  music is playing).

I don’t think I have ever heard real music being played upstairs. Just lots of students rattling through things, neophytes poking at the demo buttons, glissandi, “Fur Elise” by the bucketful. Either blah or annoying, depending on my mood.

But not this weekend. This time it was real music.

Someone was playing “Imagine”, beautifully. I set my sheaf of Late Elementary pieces down and just listened. And I thought how, if I  ever get around to learning any popular music of any sort, “Imagine” would be a great place to start.

Then, the next day, what should appear in my inbox but a flyer from Scott Houston, the redoubtable Teach Yourself “Piano in a Flash” star of public TV and the internet. I love Scott. He is my favorite Pied Piper of piano playing. What was he announcing but a DVD to teach you to play “Imagine” , starting easy and progressing up to the full version.

Before I had time to whip out my credit card and order it, the phone rang. It was a prospective student, an adult. He said it was time. He needed  to do something  he’s been putting off forever: play the piano.

“What would you like to play?” I asked, and he answered,

“Imagine”.

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.

 

 

Name your top 5 favorite piano pieces

October 2, 2011 Comments Off on Name your top 5 favorite piano pieces

BH 116 Vergleich

Image via Wikipedia

I’m going to have to think a bit to name my own top 5. I’d have to waffle: top 5 to play? today? or after study? top 5 to teach? top 5 to listen to? top 5 to hear my friends play? top 5 beginners’ pieces? top 5 I haven’t heard in the last month? (that leaves out Fur Elise).

So I’m going to pick just one: Chopin’s etude in thirds, op. 25 no. 6. Here’s Kissin playing it

What are your top 5 piano pieces?

 

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