Sunday, April 17, 2016

Everything I know about life I learned from playing the piano

This title may be a bit of an exaggeration, and on top of that I stole the idea from a book written some years ago....but I've been thinking about writing this for years.

The longer I live and the more years I spend playing the piano, I find it to be true. Playing the piano is a microcosm for life.

Here are some of the life/piano lessons that I've learned.

Let Go of Fear: Many of the problems we have at the piano -- and in life  - are due to fear. Fear of making mistakes and playing wrong notes is the biggie. It makes us tense and changes our technique, not for the better, of course. When you see a great pianist play, you can see how free and fearless they are. I work with my students to change their technique to one that is more free and less fear-based.
See my two previous posts titled "Fear" to read some of the specific ways fear affects us at the piano.

Be in the Moment: Many philosophies and books teach us the importance of living in the present moment. In fact it is really all we have. The past and the future are really just constructs of the mind. It is only in the "now" that you can do anything. When you play the piano (or any instrument) you must be only in the moment. If you are thinking about what you'll have for dinner, or even the part of the piece coming up next, or the little mistake you just made, then you cannot be listening to what you are playing, and you cannot possibly play your best. Your hands may go through the motions and play the music, but it won't be as expressive and as authentic as it could be. Plus, what is really the point of playing, if you yourself are not even really present to enjoy it?

Be a Good Listener: We all know people who are not good listeners. You start telling them about an experience you had, and immediately they are off and running talking about something similar that happened to them, and they never really heard you or listened to you. All relationships depend on good listening to be successful. This statement is so obvious -- we all know it. Yet it is difficult to learn to be a good listener. Luckily, if you are a musician, you get lots of opportunities to practice listening. This goes along with being in the moment, above. If you can truly listen to yourself as you play, you may learn to be a good listener in other aspects of your life as well. Ear training will also help you be a more astute listener. I am always working on improving my ear through playing by ear and transposing.

Forgive mistakes: People hate to make mistakes. At the piano, most people would agree they don't like all those pesky wrong notes they keep hitting when they are learning to play. For some people it prevents them from ever relaxing and just playing for enjoyment. But not only can we learn to forgive our mistakes, but we can realize how important they are. In life, it's almost a cliche to say we learn from our mistakes, but we know it's true. Mistakes can give us information about what is not working in our technique, for example. Some mistakes seem to be just random. You suddenly miss a note that you never missed before. You just have to let it go. Forgive yourself. Learn to love the wrong notes as much as you love the right ones.

Relax: Most people in our modern society are physically quite tense. We do yoga and meditation to help us learn to relax. At the piano, we cannot be relaxed like a cat lolling in the sun, but we can be alertly relaxed, like a cat ready to pounce. It may take years to develop this but it can be done. When people comment that my playing seems very relaxed, I respond "I've worked very hard to be this relaxed." Being relaxed will help with letting go of fear, listening, and the other items mentioned above. A good teacher who really understands the body and piano technique can help you learn to be more relaxed.

Rhythm is Paramount: People who are new to the piano (and even some who are experienced) focus so much on "the notes" that they don't learn rhythm properly or have lifelong struggles with rhythm. For my students who are beginners, I teach rhythm first, and then note reading. I continue to work with them on rhythm all through their studies. So many students have said to me: "Can't I just play the notes without the rhythm?" To which I respond "There is no such thing as NO rhythm, so what you are really asking is can you play it with the wrong rhythm." You wouldn't want to practice a rhythm you'd have to un-learn afterwards. Rhythm plays a role in our lives too. If we can learn to be aware of the rhythms of life -- the ups and downs, unexpected twists -- perhaps we can accept and enjoy it more.

Express Yourself: I don't think this needs much explanation. Both life and music are much better when we express who we are and how we feel. I find that at the piano, many people don't always play as expressively as they could. I ask "What are you saving it for?" Always play with expression. And live that way too.

Set Big Goals and Have Confidence: I am a very accomplished pianist, yet even as recently as 10 years ago I believed there were many pieces I wanted to play that were too hard for me, and I accepted the fact that I would never play them, even though I wanted to. I decided to try to change my way of thinking. I wanted to play the Brahms Handel Variations (a difficult 25 minute piece) and Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition (30 minutes, very difficult). Even though I may have still had doubt about whether I could master them, I started work on them. To my surprise and joy, both did not seem as difficult as I had imagined, and I learned both and have played both in concert several times. I now don't think of ANY piece as too difficult. It may take me a longer time to learn and master, but I have confidence I can do it. I wish I had this confidence in other areas of my life. Perhaps I can learn to do that if I keep at it.

This list is by no means complete. I am constantly finding aspects playing the piano that have a parallel with some aspect of life. Perhaps you will start to notice these too.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Are you using 200-year-old ideas?

In most fields of human endeavor, more is constantly being learned. New concepts, new information, new theories replace old ones on a daily basis. This is especially evident in science and medicine.

New world records are set and old ones broken every year in sports involving speed, for example, such as running, skiing or swimming. Of course the human body is not evolving or changing fast enough to account for this; rather, it is that trainers and coaches are constantly learning and applying new techniques to trim even a thousandth of a second off an athlete's time.

In the arts we are not competing for speed or strength or distance. As musicians we do, however, need to learn and acquire technique  -- physical, even athletic, skills -- to be able to play our instruments well, especially the advanced literature. Pianists work many long hours and years to attain a level of technical ability to play such literature as Beethoven, Chopin and Brahms.

In the 1800's, there were relatively few pianists who could play the demanding works of Chopin and Liszt. (Brahms even stated that "no woman" would ever be able to play his piano concertos because of their enormous technical difficulties. Of course women play them all the time now!) There are now many thousands of pianists able to play all the difficult literature, and they seem to get younger and younger every year. Every year new amazing pianists emerge on the scene and astound their audiences with their stunning technique. Some of them also amaze us with their incredibly artistry as well.

Again, the human body isn't changing at this rate. Why are more and more people, many of them mere children, able to gain this physical mastery? It is because more is known about the body and how to use it. Good teachers, insightful teachers who have really studied piano technique, can convey this to the student, and a student with the combination of natural talent and great instruction can go far. (Some people are so naturally talented that they attain great heights despite having poor or mediocre teachers.)

But unfortunately, there may be many people who will never acquire the technique they desire because they are using 200-year-old ideas.

The "mainstream" ideas about piano technique, the ones still taught by many teachers, were developed from the 1600's to mid 1700's or so. At that time, there was no piano as we know it; the keyboard literature was for harpsichord. The harpsichord has a completely different mechanism: the strings are plucked with a quill-like mechanism, versus struck with a hammer as in our modern pianos. The harpsichord has no ability to play at different dynamic levels. Our modern grand piano "action"  has literally thousands of moving parts, exponentially more than the harpsichord. This more sophisticated action enables pianists to have a large range of touch and sound in addition to the dynamic range, such as staccato or legato and everything in between. Before the modern piano, no technique for playing loud chords or shimmering soft passages or dazzlingly fast octaves was needed and no music was written requiring these techniques. Even though early pianos were around by Mozart's time, they were small and delicate compared with our modern piano. You just need to listen to the Mozart Piano Sonatas to know what kinds of capabilities his piano had. And yet, it was around this time, that many of the ideas about development of piano technique came into being. Czerny published his volumes of technical exercises in the early 1800's. Many others such as Hanon published similar studies over the next 100 years or so. But they all contain basically the same type of exercises, that is, those that would be somewhat useful for harpsichord or very early piano music.

With the harpsichord and early piano, a finger-based technique was taught. There was no need to employ the large muscles of the arm because there was no need for volume or great sweeps of arpeggios up and down the keyboard at great speed (for two examples). The idea was to use the finger as a "lever" to trigger the quill to pluck the string. This small action of the fingers is in no way adequate for the demands of mid- to late-Beethoven, Chopin, and all the composers of the mid 1800's and beyond. Chopin wrote his own etudes, intended not only to be gorgeous music, but to prepare the pianist for virtually anything that was written for the piano up to that point (and far beyond, as it turns out). Anyone teaching the piano at conservatories or other high-level institutions knows this. But your average neighborhood piano teacher may not.

I've had hundreds of students come to me having studied as children, and most of them were told to get the books of Hanon and Czerny exercises, and spend a great number of hours on them, to develop technique. Not only will these books never give you true physical mastery, but they may do harm. (See my earlier posts on this subject.) Knowledge about our anatomy and how we accomplish physical tasks has changed a great deal, especially in the last century. And that knowledge needs to be coupled with an understanding of the piano action and how the body and the instrument interact.

Sometimes old ideas die hard. For many piano teachers, who grew up with Hanon and Czerny and old ideas about technique, it may be hard to give those ideas up and even harder to find and embrace new ideas that work better. You would not expect to go to college and be given 200-year-old textbooks to use, but somehow too many piano students don't question it when they are told to use 200-year-old books of exercises. You need a teacher who has really made a study of technique, either on his/her own, or with a teacher who did so. There are many resources for this. One teacher who was a pioneer in new technique was Abby Whiteside. You can learn about her at There is a list of teachers who teach in this way on the site. My teacher, Joseph Prostakoff, was a student of Abby Whiteside. Her ideas, and those of many others like her, have begun to be widely disseminated. If you really search, you may find teachers who are no longer using 200-year-old ideas.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Burn Your Metronome

Mainstream theory about learning to play the piano (and other instruments as well, I assume) is that it is necessary to use a metronome to learn to play correctly in rhythm. For the beginning pianist, it is taught that you should use the metronome to help you learn to keep a steady beat to and assure that your quarter notes, eighth notes, etc., are all in their proper place. For the intermediate or more advanced pianist, the metronome is used as a tool to gradually increase your speed, when attempting to play a fast piece, by moving the metronome speed up a notch at a time.

Both of these are terrible ideas. Here's why:

1. It is not necessary to use an external tool to learn to hear a steady beat. We have a beat within us (our heart and pulse) 24/7. Sometimes it is faster, sometimes slower, but always there. There is nothing more natural to humans than feeling a steady beat.

2. Regarding correct rhythm: it is necessary to train the student's ear to hear units of time, and then divisions of time, in order to be able to hear rhythmic patterns. I use an analogy of learning to chop a log without benefit of a measuring tape. If you want to cut the log in four equal pieces, you eyeball the whole log, find the midway point, chop there, and chop each of those pieces by finding the mid-way point as well, and so on, if you wanted eighths and sixteenths. If you want three equal pieces, you will notice is this appreciably more difficult, since you don't have the ability to cut in half. However, with practice it can be done. The same is true for hearing rhythm: you learn to hear a unit of time then divide it in half (or thirds). When you have this basic skill you can cut in more complex combinations of these. See my earlier posts titled Rhythm for a more complete explanation of this technique. Essentially all rhythms boil down to divisions of twos and threes; even music in 5/4 is heard as 2+3 or 3+2.

Using a metronome thinking it will help you get your rhythm correct is a tricky business. Let's say you set the metronome to the speed of your quarter note. If you are only playing quarter notes it should be easy to follow the metronome (however, for something that easy you wouldn't need the metronome, would you?). If you have a more complex rhythm with lots of eights and sixteenths and dotted rhythms, how could you be sure you have the correct divisions of the beat when you only hear the tick of the metronome on the quarter? You could be playing the eights or dotted eights or sixteenths incorrectly, but hearing the "tick" on the beat may lead you to believe you are correct. If you really wanted to be sure, you'd have to set the metronome to the speed of your eights, or even sixteenths, and in the latter case, make sure you hear 4 ticks go by when you have a quarter, or 8 ticks go by when you have a half note. As you can see, this would be terribly cumbersome, tedious, and prone to error. And the worst part is that you'd spend so much of your energy listening to the "ticks" you would never really hear the music. Of course, people who have learned this way would say that "counting" (saying "one-ee-and-uh" for sixteenth notes, for example) would guarantee that you'd have them correct. But, as I've stated in my previous posts, it is certainly possible to say these words out of rhythm as well, so there is no guarantee.

If you have a syncopated rhythm (strong or emphasized notes on the off beats) it would be really tough. And if you have cross-rhythms (two different divisions of the beat such as normal eighth notes in the right hand and triplets in the left hand) then of course you could not use the metronome to help you with that at all, since you could only set it for the beat, and it would be the two different divisions of the beat which is the challenge. My point here is that the metronome can really assure you success only with simple rhythms, where you don't really need the help, and cannot help you with complex rhythms, where you need the most help. (See my earlier post on Polyrhythms for an explanation of how I teach mastery of these.)

Using a metronome is not going to teach YOU to really hear rhythm, or to see rhythmic notation and immediately be able to play it. The metronome will always be external to you. Rhythmic understanding needs to be internalized. You will become dependent on the metronome and will most likely find it hard to wean yourself off of it. Some African and South American music has very complex rhythms, far more complex than Western Classical music, and I can assure you that the drummers in those cultures learn how to hear and play all those rhythms without ever having even heard of a metronome, much less having used one.

3. Using the metronome as a tool to play with increasing speed: Learning to play with dazzling speed and accuracy is not simply of matter of playing slowly and gradually increasing the speed. Think about it: if it were so, almost every pianist could do it, because virtually everyone starts out playing slowly. Playing a very fast arpeggio, for example, requires a different use of your arms, hands and fingers than playing it slowly. It must be more efficient, and cannot have any extraneous movements which would limit your speed. Learning how to play in that way is an advanced skill and can be taught by a talented teacher. (Whenever I teach a new technique, I teach it in such as way as to apply to both fast and slow playing.) If you aren't being trained for fast playing right from the start, you may never achieve that ability. Using the metronome will not work if you don't have the basic technique to play fast. You may keep notching the metronome up to faster speeds, but eventually you will reach the maximum speed of your ability and no amount of using the metronome will give you the ability to play faster if you haven't been practicing that skill all along.

To make matters worse, this practice would be very time-consuming, especially if it were a long piece. There are better uses of practice time than playing through the piece over and over at slightly increased speeds.

You can see that the metronome does not accomplish what people often think it does. But it also does harm. With the metronome ticking away, you surely cannot employ any nuances of timing, such as ritards (slowing down) or strettos (speeding up) and all the subtle flexibility of time that all music needs (but especially Romantic music such as Chopin, Brahms, etc.). Just like any other skill, you need to practice doing this to become good at it, and you can't when using a metronome. Playing frequently with a metronome can, and will, make you play more mechanically.

Furthermore, it is imperative that you hear the music you are playing without extraneous noises. You wouldn't want to practice with people talking in the background, so why play with the annoying "tick-tick-tick" of the metronome?

I've found that, with very few exceptions, students who were forced to play along with the metronome grow to hate it, and it is often one of the main reasons they quit the piano. There is no reason why the learning of rhythm has to be so painful. Rhythm is a natural part of our beings and our lives. It is up to the teacher to find ways to make the learning of it a joyful experience.

I don't own a metronome and haven't owned one for the last 45 years. I've taught hundreds of students to play the piano, many from the very beginning, and have never used a metronome. There are very few who didn't learn to have an excellent grasp of rhythm. (The ones that didn't were, in almost every case, the ones who had used a metronome excessively with previous teachers and couldn't, or wouldn't take the risk, to learn not rely on it, despite my help.) When a new student, who already owns a metronome, asks me what to do with it, I always have the same answer: "Burn it."

Monday, March 9, 2015

Sight Reading

Reading music well is a wonderful skill. Of course many people learn to play an instrument, such as guitar or piano, all by ear and never learn to read. Many accomplished rock and jazz musicians play only by ear. In my view there is no shame at all in that, although many classical musicians would not agree with my view. Playing well entirely by ear is a great thing and I encourage my students to do a lot of it. But reading music can open up a whole world of material that you probably couldn't learn by ear. So the skill of sight-reading is worth learning to do well.

The problem is that many people learn to read (I'm speaking of piano here) the wrong way. In their first lessons with most piano teachers (and also if they try to teach themselves) they learn the notes on the staff. They are given mnemonics to help memorize them, such as Every Good Boy Does Fine (EGBDF) for the lines on the treble clef, and All Cows Eat Grass (ACEG) for the spaces on the bass clef. Then, as you play your simple tunes by reading, you are supposed to remember these lines and spaces and play the corresponding notes on the piano. It seems pretty straightforward and logical, but it doesn't actually work very well. The main problem is that you are focusing on isolated notes and not on relationships. You may see the note D, for example, on the page, but how do you find that D on the keyboard? You usually have to look at the keyboard and your hands to find it. This method of looking at the page and then down at your hands only works if you are playing very slowly, and it can never prepare you for more advanced music. It's extremely slow when reading only one hand at a time, but becomes almost impossible when you try to read both hands together, which causes the students to spend too much time playing hands separately. (See my earlier posts on this topic.) You will be dependent on looking at your hands pretty much forever unless you change how you read. To make the problem even worse, many people who try to teach themselves think they'll just take a "short-cut" and write the letter names of the notes on the page, so they never really learn to read the musical notation. No wonder many people just give up on trying to be good sight-readers.

In Asia they do not use the note names A through G as we do in the West, but use numbers instead. In Europe they use the system of Do, Re, Mi, etc. These are just different names for the notes, but the same problems arise if you try to read by the note names or numbers and then find them on the keyboard by looking.

The better was to learn is reading by interval. You are reading by distances between notes, and teaching your hands to find these distances on their own. Yes you will still need to know the absolute note names on the staff, so you can know where to start. But after that you navigate by interval, in much the same way as you drive from one destination to another: you don't need to know all the street names on your route, you just need to know when to turn, how many blocks to travel in a given direction, etc. It is really the same for reading at the piano. The best early reading books for piano approach it in this way, giving you tunes that span a range of 5 notes, corresponding to your 5 fingers, and you learn to play by feeling the distances and not looking at your hands. (I should mention here that it is important NOT to have the finger numbers written over each note, as some books do; if you do, you will inadvertently start reading by numbers instead of intervals.) When this is easy you learn to move your hands in ways necessary to cover greater distances, and eventually even big leaps. (You can even learn to transpose at sight, since you are reading by relationships, not absolutes. This is a highly desirable skill for anyone who wants to accompany singers, who sometimes need you to transpose to a lower or higher key.) You develop a much higher level of kinesthetic awareness this way, and can learn music much more quickly. If you learn this way right from the beginning it becomes surprisingly easy. If you didn't learn this way and have to go back and re-learn, it can be somewhat frustrating.

If you are a bad reader, you will be most comfortable playing in the key of C, on all white keys, because the letter names on our staffs correspond to white keys. But when you learn to read by relationships, you learn to "think" in whatever key you are in. If you study French, for example, you will still think in English and then translate. If you spent years living in France, however, you would find yourself starting to think in French. If you play the piano by absolute note names, you will "think" in the key of C and may find it difficult to play in other keys. Reading by interval enables you to "think" and therefore play in other keys just as easily as you play in C.

Many people who have a good ear just try to memorize the music as quickly as possible. If you have a good ear you are probably an auditory learner, and learning this way may come more easily to you than reading, which is easier for visual learners. Auditory learners may read through a phrase and then memorize it, then move on to the next phrase, and so on, so as to minimize reading. This method is also not good. It chops up your learning of the piece into small bits and you don't get a feel for the large-scale movement and flow of the piece. It can take a very long time to learn a whole piece. And since you were not a good reader to begin with, you may have learned notes incorrectly, and not realized it, because you never checked back in with the page once you started playing by memory.

I've encountered many people who taught themselves to play the piano by learning the names of the notes on the staff, then picking a piece they like, which is invariably much too hard for them (although they don't realize that, since they think it is purely a matter of picking out the notes on the keyboard), and then learning it one measure at a time, painstakingly slowly. The reality is that they don't have the technique, the physical skills, to play this piece at that point. If they are very persistent and have good natural coordination, they make eventually succeed in playing the piece. But if they had learned in a better way, they could have learned dozens of pieces in that span of time, with more enjoyment and less tedium.

Another reading skill, that you can work on when you become a good basic reader, is what I call "outlining." (See my post on this topic.). When outlining, you learn to play a "sketch" of the piece. You learn to recognize which notes are essential and which are more "decorative" and can be omitted. You can learn new pieces this way, gradually adding in all the notes, without sacrificing flow and musicality. This skill is critical if you ever want to accompany singers or instrumentalists, and need to sight-read new music without stopping or stumbling. You simply play fewer notes, while still supplying the essential accompaniment. Again, you could only do this if you never, or almost never, need to look at your hands.

If you recognize yourself in the description above of ways not to sight-read, go back to basics (very easy pieces) and try to learn to read by interval without looking at your hands. Even better, try to find a teacher who can help you with this. Good sight-reading can open up whole new worlds of music to you.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Learning the Piano as Self-development

All of my students, both adults and children, come for piano lessons for a variety of reasons, but mostly because they love music, enjoy the process of learning, improving, gaining new skills and mastery, and want to have a creative outlet in their lives. My goals for them are the same as theirs, and I hope I never lose sight of the fact that the first priority is to have a fun and satisfying experience. If it isn't fun, there isn't much point to pursue it.

Often the student is not aware of it at first, but there is a deeper purpose and a deeper process that comes into play with learning to play the piano. Learning to master such a complex instrument as the piano will bring up issues one has in life and bring them into clear focus, if one cares to look and be aware of them. The lessons and the practice at home can be a workshop for working on areas on one's life that need to be addressed in order to have a more fulfilling life.

Here are some of the main issues I find and how the piano work addresses those issues.

1. Fear. This is the biggie. We all have fear -- fear of failure, of disappointing others, of making mistakes, and so on.  Fear hampers us from forging ahead bravely in our lives, in our work and our relationships. At the piano this takes the form of fear of wrong notes. I always find it so funny that in baseball, if the batter hits the ball even one time out of every three, he is a star player, but in piano (or other instruments) we are held to a 100% accuracy standard, or very close to that. (And I can assure you, playing the piano is far more complex than hitting a baseball.) Many students had the experience, as children, of their teacher pointing out every missed note and insisting the student "correct" it on the spot. Naturally, this quickly causes a fear and dread of wrong notes. However, the fear and dread, as well as the so-called correcting of them, does little to improve one's actual playing in the long run. Instead it just destroys the love of playing, in most cases. This fear can be very deep-seated and take a long time to work through. But it can be done, through a way of learning that takes some of the emphasis off "the notes." This may sound strange, because the music is comprised of "notes." But if one focuses on learning the skills, the notes begin to fall into place. In the course of learning to play, one will play many, many wrong notes, so we should take a different attitude: that wrong notes are part of the process of learning. We should love and embrace the totality of the music, wrong notes included. If you can really do this (it may take years!) you may begin to see a change in the other fears you have in life.

2. Perfectionism. This is related to fear, as mentioned. The need to be 100% correct 100% of the time is a real joy-killer. At the piano, it may make you play in a cautious way, in order for you to feel you are "in control" and won't make mistakes. But this way of playing is not very exciting for your listeners, or for you either. In our current environment, with recordings where the musician can do as many takes as necessary to get a note-perfect performance, people have, to some degree, come to expect note-perfect playing from professionals. For the most part, only those people who can consistently play without any mishaps make it to the concert stage. But in the old days, even world-renowned pianists such as Arthur Rubinstein had some note errors in concerts, but his playing was so passionate and soulful that no one cared about a few wrong notes. For the rest of us, who do not have to worry about playing on the concert stage, we can and should be happy to be free of that constraint. Just play with all your heart and don't let the idea of perfectionism ruin the joy for you.

3. Emotional commitment. Many people believe that first you learn "the notes" of a piece, and then when you know them you can add "expression," as if the expression were a coat of paint to put on at the end. However, if you've learned and practiced without the emotional involvement, you've essentially practiced something you don't intend to ultimately use. When my students play a piece for me without emotional involvement  I ask them "What are you saving it for?" So in life, people go through the motions of many activities -- work, relationships -- without really giving their full commitment. Maybe they believe they are saving it for some other time or place. But living with emotional engagement, like playing the piano with it, is a skill that must be practiced. You are either practicing being emotionally involved or you are practicing being mechanical. Making a habit of always playing fully engaged may spill over into other areas of your life.

4. Control. Many people have "control issues." They want to, and think they can, control other people and/or the events in their lives. Clearly this isn't true, but some people keep trying! In piano, we work on our skills all our lives in order to have some measure of control of the quality of sound we produce, such as softness, clarity, etc. However, in the moment of playing, you must let go of trying to control, and trust that your body will produce the effects you have so diligently worked on. If you are trying to "control" every note in every moment, your playing will have no flow, no spontaneity, no life. Beginning and intermediate students tend to want to almost stop and "think" before playing every note, and this could work theoretically work if you only wanted to play very slowly. But it cannot happen in any real-life playing of a piece. You have to throw caution to the wind and let your body and your ear and your heart take over. If you have practiced in the most beneficial ways (see other posts on this subject), it is now time to just let go of control. If you can do this at the piano, perhaps you'll also be able to be less controlling in other areas of life.

5. Over-thinking. This is related to control. Certainly there is a great deal to be learned and understood about music with our minds. I stress the importance of music theory and understanding how our music is "put together." But many pianists approach their playing in a cerebral way, and I think their playing suffers for it. As discussed in my recent post on interpretation, I do not think you can come up with a mental concept of how a piece should be played, and then try to follow that blueprint. I think the beauty of the playing will come from a much deeper part of ourselves. Sometimes when I stress the physicality of playing with my students, they think I am being anti-intellectual. But the physical is more bound up with our emotions (thus the word e-motion), than is our thinking mind. When we play, we need to quiet the thought-processing parts of our mind and just be listening. This is akin to many teachings, such as meditation, which suggest quieting the mind in order to be more present. In that sense, playing the piano is a type of meditation; your mind is still, you are present, and you are listening to the music coming through you.

6. Tension. This is related to all the above topics. If you are fearful, controlling, trying to be perfect, or over-thinking, you will probably also be quite tense in your body. You can work to change these aspects of your personality if you wish. But you can also start from the other end of the spectrum. Find a way to be less tense in your body and the personality traits may also change. Work with a teacher who can show you and help you with ways to use your body with less tension when you play, and as you find greater ease and joy in your playing, you may find other areas of life change as well.

One of my favorite stories is the following:
A man goes to a hand-writing analyst and is told that his hand-writing shows he is a rigid and unemotional person. He is shocked to hear this and wants to change. He goes about studying the hand-writing of people who are flexible, spontaneous, and loving. Day after day he works on his hand-writing until he can write in the manner that reflects the way he wants to be. And because of this diligence and focus on his goal , over time he changes into that person.

There are many other issues besides these that you may notice in your life and you may see them manifest in the way you play your instrument. Most people would agree it's hard to change life-long habits. But start with the piano and you may be amazed at what you can do. It's also more fun that way.

Friday, February 13, 2015


People who are new to or unfamiliar with classical music are often perplexed about the fact that the same pieces of music sounds differently when played by different musicians. It would seem that playing the same notes in the same rhythm should produce identical sounds, unlike jazz, where the notes themselves may be changed by the musicians' improvisation. However, most of you reading this will know that this is far from the case. Just a few factors that make the differences from one performer to another are tempo, dynamics, phrasing, and touch, as applied to the whole piece or any given section.

Tempo (speed) and dynamics (loud vs. soft and all the gradations between) are fairly self-explanatory. Phrasing and touch are not so obvious. Phrasing could be thought of as the same way you might speak: where you put commas or periods, where you breathe or pause between sentence clauses; how you inflect it (whether your voice goes up or down; which words, if any, you emphasize with an accent or stress); and nuances of timing (lingering briefly on a word or speeding up on others); in other words, how you "shape" your phrase or sentence. Touch could be described as a quality of the tones, whether sharp and crisp, smooth and connected, for two examples.

If we don't use these tools, our rendition of the piece of music will sound stiff and mechanical, which is, in fact, the very sound often associated with a beginner or someone who has no emotional connection to the music. But even a moderately experienced player will use these tools to some extent in their playing.

The question is how to decide if, when, and how to use the tools. And a deeper question is: who, or what inside us, is actually doing the "deciding...."

Many people will begin a new piece (let's just say a big piece, such as a Beethoven Sonata) and try to develop/decide their "concept" of it. What is the composer trying to say, they may ask themselves? Is there a story behind the piece, are there certain emotions the composer is trying to evoke, and other questions such as these. Once they decide their "concept," they may use that to decide on specifics as those mentioned: tempos, dynamics, etc.
Or so they THINK.....

To me, this approach completely misses the point. Victor Hugo said "Music expresses what words cannot, and what cannot remain silent."  Music reaches so deep into our souls that it goes beyond what words and ideas can express. To me, to try to decide cerebrally what a piece of music is about is as bizarre and trying to decide what a mountain is "about." We may know what geological process created the mountain, but this is not what makes the sight of it beautiful to us, or makes it fill us with awe and inspiration.

Where does that leave us? We can't just play mechanically, but perhaps we can't really "decide" on our interpretation of the piece. What I propose is that it's something quite different: our bodies (how we move) and our "ears" (how we hear) decide for us.

Here's an example: when a 5-year-old beginning piano student plays "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star," he or she most likely plays it very stiffly, with no nuance or phrasing, in other words, what we might call "unmusically." Yet to the ears of that 5-year old, it sounds perfectly normal, even great! He or she cannot tell it is unmusical. Why? Because their ears have not been trained yet to hear the difference between smooth and clunky. Equally as important, their bodies (in particular their hands and arms) cannot yet feel the difference between smooth and clunky. If they have a good teacher (!), they will gradually learn to tell the difference, and will begin to play differently, more musically. (Some never do learn that and eventually quit playing the piano.) The key point here is that both the body and ear have to be exposed to new sensations, new movements, and new subtleties of sound, so as to be able to tell the difference. (I should mention that there are those amazing prodigies, who, even at a young age, seem to "get" music to such a degree that they play musically very early on, but these are still rare exceptions in the world as a whole. We have no way to explain how they seem to be "musically mature" without a great deal of experience.)

Whether thinking about the 5-year-old or the experienced and talented professional, I believe it is our bodies and ears that decide our interpretation for us. A brilliant "concept" of a piece will not help you if you move in a jerky or clumsy way. You will not achieve the interpretation you desire if you don't have the physical tools to create it. You also cannot manifest your concept if your ears are not fine-tuned enough to hear differences and subtleties of tone, touch, and phrasing. You may think you are "the decider," but in the actual moment of playing, your body and your ear take over.

Here is the point which I want to stress and which I believe is quite revolutionary: we "hear" the way we play, and we play the way we "hear." If you hear music in a note-wise, mechanical way,you will play that way, and if you play note-wise and mechanically, your ears will be continually exposed to that sound. The body and the ear respond to each other. It can be a vicious cycle, unless there is intervention (yes, a good teacher) who helps break the cycle. In my teaching I approach it from both the physical and the ear standpoints, but I find it is easier to start with the physical. I have specially designed work on physical movements, or technique, which gives the student a different physical experience. Once they have absorbed that experience and can duplicate it on their own, they will want to play that way, because it is more pleasurable and just feels more "right." Then they notice how it also sounds better. The ears now want to hear that more pleasing sound, so the body responds by trying to produce it. And so a new much better cycle is created, and progress is made.

The body and the ear are inextricably linked for the musician. You cannot, or at least should not, develop one without the other. This is why you should never play mechanical exercises, or play without 100% emotional involvement and listening. If your technique advances past the level of your ear, you may be dazzling in that way, but the playing will sound hollow and will not move your listeners. If your ear develops but your technique does not, you will not be able to produce the sounds you may hear in your head.

If you achieve a high level of mastery in your body and your ear, you are now free to respond, emotionally, to the beauty of the music. You do not force your interpretation on the music, you allow the music to come though you. Each performance is a creative act as you respond to what you are hearing. You let the beauty of the music wash over you and through you. You let your body take over and you are just the listener.

The music is already beautiful; you don't have to "do" anything to it to make it beautiful. You just have to get out of the way.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

The Music Lesson

I just finished reading a wonderful little book entitled The Music Lesson, by Victor Wooten.

The author is a jazz bass guitarist. Although the book describes some of his experiences as they relate to playing jazz and improvising, the principles apply, I believe, to any kind of music.

He opens by saying that he had been a musician for a long time -- no, actually he had played the guitar for long time, which is different than being a musician. (See my earlier post titled Pianist or Musician?).
He goes on to describe his frustrations with playing, with "practicing," and with the struggles of earning a living playing music.

One day, out of nowhere, a mysterious character arrives at his door. Michael, the visitor, begins to "teach" the author about Music, although he often says he cannot teach anything but can only show. The style of teaching is like that of a Zen master, or of Don Juan in the Carlos Casteneda books (for those of you old enough to remember those), that is, having the student discover the lessons through experiences.

The first "lesson" is on what Michael calls "the groove." He says "You should never lose the groove in order to find a note." This idea is close to my own teaching and philosophy, in that I always try to have my students feel the music first, and not let "the notes" become too important. For many pianists, the struggle to find and play the notes actually becomes an obstacle to playing well, to playing from the heart. I believe that the musical architecture and the emotional content should be first priority, with the notes falling in place more gradually, as the piece is internalized. "If you stopped playing notes, music would still exist," to quote Michael. "Fewer notes, more music," (to quote myself).

The lessons also cover Articulation, Technique, Emotion, Dynamics, Rhythm/Tempo, Tone, Phrasing, Space/Rest, and Listening.

I loved the chapter on Space/Rest. To paraphrase, we must learn to hear the empty space from which music arises. I find it quite true that many pianists almost cannot bear to have space, or rests, in the music. It's like wanting to talk constantly and never breathe or have a silence. When I teach rhythm I try to have my students become aware of the empty space. If you stop to think about it, you will realize that what we call rhythm is actually the time/space between the notes. If this were not so, there would be no rhythm, and music would just be a jumble of notes. This spaciousness is also important in the method of learning that I call Outlining (see previous posts on this subject). The student/player needs to learn to enjoy the empty spaces into which the notes will fall, naturally, when we are ready. Without space, there can be no music.

Many of the lessons seem to have little to do with music, such as listening, where Michael takes his student into the woods to listen to the calls of the birds and frogs. This may sound trite at first, but when we do this we realize how little we really listen during most of our daily activities.

Some may find the book too "Zen," too "new age." Yet I feel it absolutely goes to the heart of what we must learn, or better put, become aware of, if we want to truly be musicians. Did you know that Music means the Mother Science? (Mu = mother, sci=science.) The book is largely about the power of music. We don't "create" music when we play it, we "channel" it.

I loved this book. It was humorous and lighthearted, yet with a profound message. I hope you will read it, and put it into practice in your daily lives.