Prokofiev in a Train Station

August 20, 2016 Comments Off on Prokofiev in a Train Station

Prokofiev has been dead for some time now, and, unlike Elvis, has stayed away from public appearances since then. But here’s the lovely second movement of the 7th Sonata, alive and well and appearing in a train station in Delft.

Another reason to learn to play the piano: you can bring the dead to life.

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.

You CAN improve without practicing much.

August 18, 2011 § 2 Comments

piano practice

Burning the midnight oil.

I have a number of students who don’t practice. Yet they continue to improve at the piano.

Yeah, right, you say. It’s a semantic problem: no practice must mean putting in several hours a week.

Wrong. Their idea of no practice is NO PRACTICE. I know they are reporting the truth, because they are often out of the country when the no practice occurs. Hard to practice when you are working in a hospital around the clock in Africa.

They come to their lessons religiously and work hard when they are here. And they continue to improve. Some are rank beginners, some are playing the Chopin Ballades.

I’ve never had a rational explanation for this phenomenon, but my teacher shocked me when he told me about it.  When I began teaching, he said, “Don’t worry too much about practice. If they come to their lessons every week, they will get better”. I didn’t really believe him until I  heard it with my own ears. But it is hard to convince anyone else that this happens. It seems at least self-serving, or maybe delusional.

But  science is coming to my rescue.  Here is a little article that describes a similar phenomenon in auditory perception.

I think the best summary of the findings was by one of the authors, Beverly Wright: “Our work suggests that you can have the same gain in learning with substantially less pain”. Less pain and more gain is what all musicians are looking for.

Which group do you think did best on the sound discrimination task in the study? You have a choice between 1 group who practiced listening for 20 minutes every day and then spent 20 minutes just passively listening to the sounds while they did something else. The other group spent twice as long but only practiced every day.

After a week, it was test time. The winners were not the heavy practicers but the ones who spent just 20 minutes “working” and another 20 minutes fooling around with puzzles with the relevant sounds piped into their ears.

This is like my students who leave for Africa after their lesson and come back in two weeks playing noticeably improved.

“It’s as though once you get your system revved up by practicing a particular skill, the brain acts as though you are still engaged in the task when you are not, and learning still takes place,” according to Wright.

Now, if you read the  research article you will find some ifs, ands and buts, especially if you are trying to extrapolate to Chopin. For example, the researchers found no difference in the heavy practicers and the light ones when they delayed fooling around with puzzles phase more than a few minutes. This doesn’t exactly correlate with the trip to Africa.

Still, science is taking some steps to clarify what exactly improves  learning. Does more work always mean more progress?  My students’ improvements are not just a  fantasy. They really do get better. The lessons keep the connections going, their brains keep learning something about piano playing even away from the piano and my teacher was right: I don’t have to worry too much about students’ practicing.

Sustainable Piano Lessons?

July 23, 2011 § 4 Comments

The other day I caught up with a mom I hadn’t seen in years. Last I heard, her oldest daughter was playing the cello in the local youth orchestra, taking part in competitions, having 2-hour lessons each week and practicing 4 hours a day.

Impressive? You bet. Parents and teachers  talk about this kind of kid with awe. Even other kids are impressed. There is magic in hard-working adolescents making music. We all wonder about the future-will she be the new Yo-Yo Ma?

The answer in this case is no. Her mom reports that, 10 years later, she won’t  touch the cello. She doesn’t even keep it with her-it is in a closet at her parents’ house. She and the cello have broken up, a common ending to the high-pressure music program she went through.

But, she does play the piano. Playing the piano was just a handy skill. It could pad her resume, help her learn her cello parts more thoroughly.  No one took it seriously: there were no competitions, no pressure to perform, no high-stakes lessons. She just learned to play some music that interested her, learned some skills she could use forever, learned how she and the piano could get along. Learned how music could belong to her and her alone.

This is what I mean by sustainable piano lessons. Piano study need not distort your life. It can fit into it, enhance it, comment on it, make it endurable, give it weight, give you a home to come back to. It doesn’t have to be all about making teachers look good  and preparing you for a career as a performer. It can be just about you and the piano. That’s enough.

You can sustain the study of the piano  for a lifetime. It can sustain you for a lifetime. I try to make my lessons sustainable for all the people out there who need the piano but don’t need the other stuff.

What sustains you? Leave a comment below.

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