March 11, 2012 Comments Off on Another Video In Our Continuing Series On “How To Play The Piano” : Just Play It!
Here is little Frank “Sugar Chile” Robinson (often mistakenly thought to be Little Richard) playing up a storm with his fists and elbows at the age of about 7. That kid could clearly have gotten music out of a sofa cushion. I’ll bet the piano teachers are horrified.
Little Frank was a child prodigy and played with Lionel Hampton, appeared in movies, toured with Count Basie and played for President Harry Truman. Then, rather become an adolescent has-been, which happens to most prodigies, he dropped out of the music business to get an education. He got a degree in history and one in psychology.
Thanks to my brother Joe for this video. Growing up with me, he knows good piano playing when he sees and hears it.
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 26, 2011 § 4 Comments
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.
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.