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.

How to choose a piano teacher

September 19, 2011 § 2 Comments

Phlobaphene is the red pigment present in the ...

Corn

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?

Whatever Are Piano Lessons For?

August 23, 2011 § 2 Comments

Piano Lessons

This question was posed to me by a parent many years ago and I have been trying to answer it ever since. Is it just my imagination, or does studying music actually improve your life? Do you get smarter, live longer, will you be better adjusted or happier if you play the piano?

This fall, families everywhere will be wondering whether to stretch the calendar and the budget to include piano lessons. Many parents recognize the need for arts study to counterbalance the academic emphasis in most schools. But when it is time to get in the car and write the checks, it is easy to wonder whether it is worth it all.

Don’t get me wrong, music for me is first, last and always its own reward. But I have noticed that pianists tend to be quite bright. Do they start out that way or does piano study somehow help things along?

Our friends The Scientists have recently set aside their investigations into pathology to study how we learn and how to improve it.  The next time I have to justify piano lessons, I will have some real answers instead of just  opinions.  I will be posting a whole slew of articles on the benefits of music study. Here’s one to start off the fall piano lesson season:

How Music Training Primes Nervous System and Boosts Learning    A review of many research papers on the effects of music study reveals music study improves listening, speech processing, attention, memory, vocabulary, reading. So anecdotal evidence that piano students do better in school is supported by some real data. Children with dyslexia, in particular, benefit from music study because it strengthens brain function in areas that in which they are weak.

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