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A Piano Teacher’s Guide To Fooling Around At The Piano

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.

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