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.

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.

Practicing

August 7, 2011 § 1 Comment

Still from the "Piano Lessons" music...

One way to get the kids to practice

Other parents gripe about getting their kids to practice the piano. We have enough problems getting dinner on the table and homework done. Are piano lessons going to add one more struggle to our family life?

Boy, I hope not. I would hate to see music turn into misery. The point of music study is to move beyond all that.

In many families, piano lesson peace is as elusive as peace in the Middle East. Teachers insist on a certain amount of practice and demand  well-prepared lessons each week. When there are syllabus exams looming or recitals scheduled, pressure mounts. Student performance is critical to a teacher’s professional standing and self-respect.  The only way to get kids to do more work at home is to get parents more involved. Kids get harassed  about practicing at home, and again at their lessons. Parents feel caught between the teacher and the kids.

I’m a parent, too.  I never liked being the both the enforcer, cheer leader AND the auxiliary teacher with my kids.  I thought keeping them fed and rested and delivered to lessons on time and the bills paid with a smile was the end of my involvement. Mostly what I did about practicing was say, “Gee, that was great! Do it again!” Or, “WHEN you finish  practicing THEN you can play video games until your eyeballs drop out of your head”.

I wasn’t very good at teaching my own kids.  They needed to learn this stuff from someone else. And I  didn’t want some teacher’s demands adding more conflict to our family. We have had plenty of that, thank you very much. Why pay for it when you can get it for free?

As a teacher, the 3-way antagonism has never worked for me. I take a more moderate position on practicing. Home practice is good. More is better. Conflict around practicing that threatens family peace is not good. More conflict, even if it results in more piano playing, is really not good.  And quitting the piano because of practice conflicts is very bad.

Every family is different. It’s possible for parents to encourage, insist, and help with piano practice. But not all parents want or can do this. Not all children accept parental help gracefully. Parental help is the last thing many children want.

Teachers can also have a helpful, non-adversarial role in piano practice. Learning how to practice is really the whole point of piano lessons: how do you learn with the brain and body and time you have. It won’t happen well if the teacher just requires it. It needs to be carefully taught.

Peace. Music. Learning. Isn’t that enough?

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