Saturday, December 18, 2010

Exercises for the Piano

I don't believe in traditional exercises for the piano such as Hanon and Czerny. I believe there are several problems with them. In order of importance, these reasons are:

1. They encourage un-musical, mechanical playing. It is very unlikely that the student will play these exercises as beautiful music. Most teachers will say that does not matter, that you are only practicing "technique" and it does not have to be musical. I believe the opposite, that EVERY time you touch the piano you should be practicing playing with full emotional involvement and commitment. As one practices, one becomes. You will get good at whatever you practice. Do you want to become good at playing mechanically? The physical coordination you will use when you are playing with involvement is different than when playing without it, so you cannot practice anything, even "technique," without the full force of your emotions behind it, and then expect that will transfer over to playing your pieces.

2. They kill the enthusiasm for piano. It is very rare to find a student who loves these traditional exercises and can't wait to practice them! More often the student hates these, and for good reason. They just aren't that interesting or fun. Worse, students are often told to practice these first, at the beginning of the practice session, so they start their practice with something unpleasant and this feeling may carry over to the rest of the session.

3. They don't cover the full range of technical challenges. Many of these were written in an era when music was less technically demanding than it is now. Czerny, for example, lived and composed his studies during the time of Mozart. Nothing in his exercises prepares the pianist for the big chords and octaves of Brahms, the lush chords and arpeggios of Chopin, or the shimmering effects of Debussy.

4. Exercises which promote "independence" of the fingers are very detrimental to good playing. We want the fingers to work within the hand and within the arm, not independently. You cannot play a chord, for example, with absolute evenness or extreme softness, if three or four fingers are all trying to do their own thing. The chord must be a unit and must be played by the hand using the power of the arm. This myth that a long arpeggio or even a scale is achieved through each finger acting independently is very insidious. Watch and listen to a great pianist and you will see that a long arpeggio is played with a masterful sweep of the arm, within which the fingers play their part by simply being in the right place at the right time, so to speak.

5. Exercises given to the student may not apply to the pieces he or she is working on at the moment, so maximum efficiency is lost, practicing something that may not be used and applied for months or even years.

Instead, I create my own exercises, which I call "set ups," from the technical challenges of the piece the student is working on. They are done in small amounts and then applied directly to the piece. The set-ups themselves are varied so as to be kept interesting, so the student does them with pleasure.

Sometimes, what seems like a technical difficulty is really a different problem, most often, of not really having the passage "in one's ear." In other words, you do not have a clear auditory image of the passage. To strengthen this, I use various methods, including transposing the passage to other keys. Invariably, when the ear is strengthened, the passage always becomes easier from a technical standpoint.

The area of technique is difficult to grasp by reading about it. It needs to be shown, and then felt and experienced by the student. My lessons are very "hands-on" so the student can sense and experience a new way of doing something. When the body experiences it, and the student knows HOW he or she got to that experience, it will be more likely the student can re-create that process at home. It just cannot be done by mechanically repeating a canned exercise over and over.

When I first started my studies with Joseph Prostakoff 37 years ago, I asked him what I should do with my books of Hanon, Czerny, and many others. "Burn them!" he said. "Burn them immediately!" I give my students the same advice.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Rhythm, Part II

"In the beginning was rhythm." -- Hans von Bulow (19th century pianist and conductor)

There is much debate among musicologists and music historians as to whether we humans began our musical development with rhythm or with melody. Considering one can't really sing a melody without some kind of rhythm, but that it is possible to have rhythm without melody, my vote would go to rhythm. In any case, I believe that learning to have a great sense of rhythm is paramount, and mastering the rhythm of the pieces we are learning should be the highest priority.

I have many students who have come to me, either from other teachers, or self-taught, who try to learn a piece of music (e.g. classical) by learning "the notes" first and then trying to "add" the rhythm. To me, this idea is preposterous. The composer certainly could not have conceived the piece this way. Imagine the opening notes of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony "without the rhythm!" Of course, there is no such thing as "no rhythm." No matter how you play, you are playing in some rhythm, so shouldn't it be the correct rhythm, as the composer intended? (Here's another area where classical musicians should learn from the jazz musician: no jazz musician could possibly imagine learning a new song without the rhythm!)

The biggest problem with the idea of learning it first for just the notes is that you have now heard it incorrectly, and the ear/brain now expects to hear it this way. Once you've gotten a certain rhythm into your being, it is difficult to change how you hear it. Every time you play you are feeding information to your ear. Why feed it incorrect information which later must be changed?

Students new to the piano complain that it is too difficult to concentrate on both notes and rhythm at the first few readings of a new piece. That is where my technique of outlining comes into play (see previous post on this topic). We must give ourselves less notes to play so that we can focus on the rhythm, the structure, and full emotional engagement. When the rhythmic/harmonic structure begins to fall into place, we add more details, that is, more notes. If anything, I would say adding all the notes is the lowest priority.

In my last post I described my "top down" approach, that is, learning to hear larger units of time and sub-divide them, rather than depend on the traditional method of "counting" the beats. The ability to do this is essential to good outlining. Here are some other techniques for strengthening the mastery of the rhythm of a piece.

Clapping the rhythm of the melody is always a good idea for the less experienced student. A next step could be tapping (on the closed piano lid) the rhythm of each hand, hands together. To then make the transition to playing, I often have students play the rhythm of, say, the melody, all just on one note. Then both hands, also each just on one note. Then if necessary, keep one hand playing the rhythm of its part on just the single note while the other hand plays the actual notes of its part. If necessary, then reverse them. It may sound a bit odd, but I don't find that it is a problem -- you aren't going to learn the notes incorrectly using this method. This way you are able to gradually build up to playing the entire passage without having sacrificed the rhythm. The method of playing just on a single note, as if you were a drummer, works wonders for complicated syncopated music, and also for learning to master cross-rhythms (one hand playing in duple meter while the other plays in triple meter, for example).

(Speaking of cross rhythms: this is an example of where traditional counting, or using a metronome, is totally useless!)

Learning to interpret the rhythmic notation you see on the page, to hear and play it correctly, without use of un-musical crutches such as counting or the metronome, is only the first hurdle. Music is virtually never played absolutely metrically strictly without nuance, unless its intent is to sound very "techno" or mechanistic. So I work with the students to make rhythmic plasticity part of their playing as soon as possible in the learning of the piece. If you don't, once again you must "un-learn" the rhythm you have heard thus far and learn a new rhythm. I believe this is why amateur pianists (and, I assume, other instrumentalists as well) never really achieve the subtleties of rhythmic nuance that high-level professionals do; they spend too long playing the pieces without it and cannot make the transition.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Rhythm

From my many years of teaching piano, I'd say rhythm is the area that causes pianists just starting out -- and even many who have been playing for quite a while -- the most problems.

I believe there are two main reasons for this.

The first is that too much priority is given to "learning the notes" at the expense of the rhythm. If rhythm were given highest priority (I'll talk more about this in a future post), it would be stronger, and the "notes" would be easier to learn as they ride the momentum of the rhythm.

The second reason is that in most of our society, rhythm is taught all wrong. The tools for learning rhythm that are given by most piano teachers, in my opinion, cripple the student in developing a great sense of rhythm rather than help. Two of these tools are "counting" and the metronome.

This may seem scandalous to you. "Counting" (saying the beats and subdivision of the beats, "one-and-two-and-three-and" etc.) is such a basic premise of the study of any instrument, and has been for so many years, that almost no one questions it. Yet even with this tool, many teachers tear out their hair when they hear many a student "counting" -- well, at least they are saying the numbers -- but totally out of rhythm! Saying the numbers "one two three four" does not guarantee you are saying them in a steady, rhythmic way. So that is where the metronome comes in. The teachers will insist the student practice with the metronome, playing to the strict tick-tocking of a mechanical device, so that you keep your counting steady. (This doesn't guarantee success either; you could think you are playing your quarter notes to the metronome correctly, but your subdivisions of the quarter notes could still be wrong.)

If you've ever done this, and if you haven't you can probably imagine, it's not very fun. It doesn't sound very conducive to beautiful,poetic, artistic playing, does it? Somehow, people would have us believe that you should practice for years to the strict tyranny of the metronome, also hearing the chattering of your own voice saying "one and two and..." and then one day you flip a switch and you will play Chopin with gorgeous nuance of rhythm.

I always say, "If you can REALLY HEAR the rhythm, you don't need to count. And if you can't hear it, no amount of counting will help you." So, how do we learn to REALLY HEAR the rhythm?

If I had my way, we'd all spend lots of time playing drums and other rhythm instruments in early childhood, as they do in some cultures, before we ever start other instruments. When parents call me about lessons for a 3 or 4-year old, that is what I tell them. But if you didn't have the benefit of doing that, you can still learn to have a good sense rhythm.

Think about the following analogy:
You are given a log to chop into four even pieces (length-wise, as the log is lying on the ground), but you have no measuring tape. You "eyeball" it, and chop it in half. With a little practice, or perhaps even the first time, you will do this with a fairly high degree of accuracy. Then you would repeat the process, chopping each half into half, giving you four even quarters of the log. You wouldn't start at one end of the log, chop a piece you hope will end up being a quarter, continue on to chop the next piece and so on, would you? Yet this is precisely the concept of "counting:" you start with one, move on to two, etc., without having any sense of the size of the whole. Furthermore, when you chop the log, it's the pieces of the log you are ultimately interested in, not the cuts. But when you count as you play, you are emphasizing the equivalent of the cuts (the notes), not the log, which is the time in between the notes. If you can't really hear the time in between the notes, you can't tell if your rhythm is correct.

Here is how I use that concept to teach rhythm. Sit comfortably on a chair, preferably one without arms which will get in your way. You are going to set up a "log" in time by clapping on your left side (think of 9:00 on a clock) and another clap on your right side (3:00). Move steadily back and forth clapping at the same interval of time on your left and right. Keep doing this until you really feel you hear the unit of time that is essentially defined by your claps. The time AND space in between your left and right claps is your log. Now, going from left to right, put another clap half-way between the left and right claps. Place this clap in front of you, at 12 noon. If you don't have a teacher guiding you, you will have to really listen and try to determine if you have put your clap exactly half way in the temporal (time) dimension. You are just "ear-balling" it, as you eye-balled the log, since you have no external measuring device. I find most people do not do it correctly the first try (some do), but most get it after a few tries, without my demonstrating it to them. (If I demonstrate for them, they are able to imitate me, but that does not develop their sense of rhythm to as great a degree.)
It's important that you keep moving smoothly between claps, not rigidly, as this gives you a sense of the flow of time, and also helps you stay focused on the time in between the claps (the pieces of the log), not just the claps (the cuts).
After you've cut in half, you cut each half again, putting your new claps temporally and spatially half-way between your half-way claps, giving you quarters.

In terms of musical notation, what you have just clapped is two measures, starting with a whole note in each measure. The first measure began on your left side, the second on your right. The clap on your right side feels like the end of the first measure, but it's also the beginning of the second, because this is how music works: it is almost always "driving" to the downbeat (first beat) of the next measure. We only cut, or subdivided, the first measure; that's why you didn't clap from right to left. Your half-way clap gave you two half-notes in the first measure; the next claps divided those, giving you four quarter notes in the measure. That is why those notes have those names! Whole note means a whole unit, half note means a half and quarter note means a quarter. Brilliant!

You can see this method is a top-down approach, starting with the largest unit and breaking down into small. Traditional methods teach the small unit, the quarter note, first, apply your "counting" to the quarter notes, and then count the various other values accordingly,which leads to a very stiff, un-musical kind of playing.

The beauty of the top-down approach to rhythm is that you did it all without saying any numbers or listening to an external device. Rather, you just concentrated your attention on the pure empty space between the claps and learned to really HEAR it. This may sound very Zen, but I believe it's absolutely true, and is necessary if you want to play truly well. Being able to hear the whole measure and subdivide it into beats and divisions of beats is essentially a prerequisite to being able to effectively "outline" a composition, as I describe in my previous post about this method. And being able to outline and hear the music in larger units (not just beat to beat) will help you achieve the often-elusive "long line" or "phrasing" that musicians seek.

We would then proceed to divide into eights and so on. We'd also learn to divide the log in three even pieces -- more challenging (just as a real log would be) since you can't start by chopping in half. After that you can learn to chop into any combination of pieces. We also chop different sizes of logs, very long ones and very short ones. (Which do you think is more challenging?) I spend a lot of time with my students chopping logs. Gradually, they know it so well they can look at a rhythm on the page and just know how it sounds, as hopefully, all accomplished musicians do. But they always have the log-chopping tool to fall back on if they encounter a rhythmic pattern they don't immediately get. They all agree it's not only more effective, it's less arduous and more fun.

The process described above would be much easier to understand if you saw and heard it, rather than read about it (perhaps a video will be in a future post). But for now, I hope you will try it. If you have questions, please email me (deborah@pianobrilliance.com).

In my next post I'll give you more tools for strengthening your rhythm.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Playing Hands Together

In my last post, I introduced the idea of outlining, learning a new piece of music by playing a sketch first, and gradually adding more detail. I emphasized the importance of playing hands together so that you can hear the full structure and texture of the piece.

There are so many reasons to play hands together that I cannot stress the importance of it enough.

By now probably everyone is aware that the brain has two hemispheres, the right and left, with the left side controlling the right hand, and vice versa. In between them is the corpus callosum, a bundle of neural fibers, which allows for the communication between the two hemispheres. “It is the largest white matter structure in the brain, consisting of 200–250 million contralateral axomic projections.” (Wikipedia) It is known to be significantly larger in musicians than non-musicians, and it is somewhat larger in people who are left-handed or ambidextrous.

We’ve all heard people referred to as “right-brained” or “left-brained,” left-brained being the more logical, linear thinker, and right-brained being the more creative, non-linear thinker. While this is a vast oversimplification, there is certainly some truth to it. Presumably, if you want to be balanced and excel at both types of thinking, you’d want to develop both hemispheres of your brain, or, more to the point, to develop the part which connects them, and allows them to work together, the corpus callosum. This can be achieved by engaging in activities which use both halves of your brain, but also in activities that use both hands equally. It makes sense that the corpus callosum is larger is people who are ambidextrous, since they use left and right hands more equally, and in left-handed people, who are often somewhat ambidextrous, having had to adapt to a right-handed world.

One could make the case that if you want to be a great musician, you need to excel at both left-brain and right-brain skills, and I am convinced this is so. Musical is very logical and mathematical, or left-brain. Mathematical ratios are at the core of the vibrations and relationship between vibrations which give us tones, the musical scale, and so on. Most musical compositions have an inherent structure which is logical, often symmetrical, and it what allows the listener to follow and make sense of a piece of music as it unfolds in time. Yet music is also emotional and holistic, very right-brain. To be a great composer or performer, you must be very creative, expressive, communicative, passionate – these are right-brain strengths.

Here’s the great news: the very act of listening to music helps develop your brain, because processing music uses more parts of the brain simultaneously than any other activity. (I recommend Daniel Leviton’s book, “This is Your Brain on Music,” and Oliver Sacks’ “Musicophilia,” for more information on this.) Playing a musical instrument develops it even more. This has been well-documented; we’ve heard of “the Mozart effect” – that is, when children play an instrument, their brains grow faster and they excel at other subjects and other areas of life more than children who don’t play an instrument. (By the way, it isn’t limited to children; we now know that adults can still grow their brains at any age.) Musicians get the best of both: your brain grows by listening to and processing music, and the corpus callosum grows by using and connecting the two hemispheres (the logical and emotional) and by using both hands simultaneously.

When you play hands together, you build the corpus callosum, which will help you be a better musician. In my post about outlining, I also stressed the importance of playing with emotional engagement right from the start as well, because, of course, this also engages your right hemisphere and builds more connections.

New students coming to me often say it’s too difficult to play pieces hands together right from the start. That’s because your brain doesn’t yet have the neural connections in the corpus callosum to do so. If you’ve ever tried to rub your stomach with one hand and pat your head with the other, you may have found you couldn’t do it at first. But as you kept at it, your brain developed the connections to do that activity, and from then on you can do it easily. So it is with just about everything. Every time you play hands together, even if it’s with very few notes, you increase your ability to play hands together the next time.

I once had a student come to me from another teacher. He was a beginner but the teacher started him out on classical pieces such as Bach’s Minuet in G, but had him learn it hands separately. The student made some brief attempts to put hands together, but at the first difficulty he had gone back to playing them separately, figuring he needed more practice on each hand’s part. He spent eight months playing nothing but hands separately! No wonder it was so difficult: his poor brain never had a chance to develop the neurons it needed.

Do I ever recommend one-handed practice? Yes and no. Sometimes I want to play one hand’s part so I can hear it really clearly. For example, we often don’t hear the bass part, our left-hand’s part, as clearly as we hear the right hand (the ear gravitates towards the highest frequencies). But if I’m playing, say, the bass line, why not have the right hand play along with it, doubled at the octave? Who knows – your right hand will probably have something like this at some time in your life, so you are getting to practice it ahead of time! Now you have the benefit of hearing the bass line clearly, but you are still playing hands together. If you want to develop more neurons in the corpus callosum, cross your hands and play the line doubled and with hands crossed. Now your brain really has to work! If you try it you will see what I mean…

And yes, I admit, sometimes a passage is so challenging I work on it hands separately. But I do this only the minimum amount necessary.

Life is too short and practice time too precious to spend it with one hand sitting in your lap. Play hands together! It will make you a better musician and a more balanced person.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Outlining

In my previous post, I talked about the importance – and the fun – of playing by ear, that is, without the aid of written music. In this post, I want to suggest a way of learning from written music that may be new to most of you, and is a fantastic tool. I always use it when learning a new piece, especially classical music, and can’t imagine doing it any other way. It’s called “outlining.”

When we write an essay (or a novel, for that matter), the first thing we would do is to outline our main ideas. Then we would proceed to fill in more details, which may lead to changes in the outline, until a satisfactory structure emerges, at which point we may begin writing the actual text. When we build a house, we build the foundation and structural components first, then more infrastructure, and the small decorative details come last. The same is true for almost all projects of any size that one can think of. This is intuitively obvious. Yet when it comes to learning a piece of music, the traditional way is simply to play note-by-note (usually excruciatingly slowly), from beginning to end, without regard to structural elements versus detail. Sometimes pianists will play one hand alone, then the other, from beginning to end. The slow tempo does not always give a true sense of the piece, and certainly playing one hand alone means that a great deal of the melody or harmony, or both, are missing.

Does it really make sense to learn a piece this way? Could there be another way? You will see that “outlining” a piece of music solves many problems at once, is ultimately much more enjoyable once you get the hang of it, and will give you a much better end result.

If you are trying this for the first time, start with a piece which is not terribly challenging for you. Music that is more “structural” would be easier – perhaps Mozart or Beethoven – rather than something more free or improvisatory, such as Debussy. Later, when you are more skilled at it, you will find any piece can be approached this way.

The process for outlining a new piece of music is roughly as follows:

At a relaxed tempo, yet one that is somewhat close to the intended tempo of the piece, play what comes on the first beat of every measure. It is important to play hands together, so that you can hear the full texture of the music. (More on the importance of hands together in future posts.) Keep your tempo steady, and do not hold the notes down for the full measure, but rather allow there to be “empty space” in between the downbeats, which will later be “filled in” with more detail. It is also very important not to stop to correct notes, as this destroys the rhythm, which is an integral part of the structure you are trying to hear. This is probably the most difficult practice for musicians to embrace, the concept of allowing the playing “wrong notes.” Although I will discuss this at length in future posts, here I will just say that you should try to remember you a playing essentially a “sketch” of the piece. Just as a painter may sketch out his painting with the rough outlines of his shapes, which may later change somewhat, you are also just “sketching.” It is much more important to continue without interruption than to constantly stop, correct, re-start, which destroys the “wholeness” of the piece. In outlining, “less is more.” If you are having difficulty, play fewer notes. If you can play most of the notes and/or chords that come on the first beats, you will hear the harmonic structure of the piece emerge. You will get a sense of “where the piece is going.” Ideally you are staying very relaxed, and REALLY LISTENING. I find that when people learn the traditional way, note by note, the process of trying to read and find all the notes is so all-absorbing, that there is very little actual listening going on. It is also desirable that you play with emotional involvement, right now, right from your very first brush with the piece. My students usually look at me as if I am crazy when I suggest this, but yes, the emotional involvement (or what many would call “expression”) is not something like a coat of paint that you slap on at the end, when you know “all the notes.” It should be built in right from the very start, the first time your hands touch the music.

The first time outlining, try to get through the entire piece this way. (If the piece is in multiple movements, I am considering one movement to be the piece.) Later you can work in large sections if you find it necessary.

Once you are somewhat comfortable with just first beats, start adding more. Remember, you are listening for structural elements. Therefore, something like a trill or grace note is certainly detail, not structure. When adding in more, play what you feel is easiest to add in. Don’t try to fill in a difficult or fast arpeggio, for example. Find the elements you can play easily so you can stay relaxed, without any feeling of panic. If you need to, the mid-way point of the measure (e.g. the 3rd beat if the piece is in 4/4, or the second beat if it is in 2/4) would be easy and logical. However, it is most ideal if your sketch of the piece can be somewhat improvisatory. In other words, you have a very playful approach, very spontaneous, so that you yourself do not always know what you will play next. In fact, no two outlining sessions should ever be exactly alike. If you approach it in this way, it will feel like PLAY more than WORK, and you will have a more joyful experience, as well as a more fluid-sounding final product.

Some pieces can be learned in their entirety this way. For more challenging pieces, you will likely find it necessary to isolate certain passages for more detailed work, including, perhaps, some hands separately. But “spot work” can tend to chop the piece up, so I recommend balancing it with outlining, to keep a sense of the wholeness of the piece. Even after I know “all the notes” of a piece, I find that outlining with a sense of improvisatory playfulness keeps it fresh and interesting.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

The Importance of Playing by Ear

I begin every lesson with a new beginner, and even with many who have played before, by having them figure out “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” by ear. Everyone comes with different levels of natural ear ability; some play it right off with no struggle, others have to work at it a bit; only a very few can barely do it at all. I am still amazed when someone comes to me who can play a Chopin Nocturne, but who struggles to play the simplest tune by ear, that is, without the written music in front of them. This would be the equivalent of reading a complex novel but not being able to construct a simple paragraph of your own creation.

We all speak a language before we read it. When we are toddlers we speak in complete sentences and by the time we learn to read we speak at almost an adult level. Yet when it comes to learning an instrument, most teachers put a book in front of the student at the very first lesson. The student has not had the chance to develop the ability to “speak” at the piano but must now learn to read first. It would be like never having spoken English and starting out with “see Jane run.” A slow, and potentially frustrating, process.

Playing by ear has always been an integral part of jazz and pop player’s skill set – and many of them don’t read music at all, or very little. At one time, playing by ear was part of a classical musician’s training as well, but somewhere in the past two hundred years or so, this art was lost. Many classical music teachers treat playing by ear as if it were somehow “cheating” or not as “respectable” as learning from written notation. How bizarre! We marvel at the stories about Mozart hearing a piece of music once and playing the whole thing by ear, yet somehow we believe that if the rest of us try to do that, it is not as legitimate as learning the piece from the page. I believe the opposite: that notation is simply the best route to learn music for “the rest of us” who cannot learn it entirely by ear. But it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try!

Playing an instrument is an auditory sport. We need our ear to guide us at every step of the way, even when playing music we have learned from the page. How else do we judge whether what we are playing is pleasing, or even correct? I think it would be true to say: we cannot play what we cannot hear. Development of the ear needs to continue throughout our musical lives, just as other skills at the piano such as technique or reading. Most teachers don’t play by ear themselves and have no idea how to help the student learn to do so.

After playing Twinkle, Twinkle, I show them 3 chords in the left hand, and they harmonize the song with those 3 chords. Voila! They have played hands together at the very first lesson. This is something that would not come for many weeks if they had to read it all by notation. Next we move to other songs such as Happy Birthday, again adding chords. They continue this process for several weeks, until they have a good “repertoire” of songs, before we start reading. Even after we start reading we continue playing by ear. I also have them transpose the songs to many different keys, so they are not only working the ear, but becoming familiar with other keys. (They would have started out playing in the key of C, easiest for pianists.)

If you are a pianist, or someone just starting to learn to play, I urge you to play by ear to whatever extent possible for you. Start with simple songs, move on to more complex ones. Sing the melody out loud and listen carefully. Use your hand in the air as you sing, moving it up as you hear the notes go higher, down as you hear it go lower, or at the same level when it repeats the same note (surprising how this last one trips people up!). Move your hand a smaller amount when you think the tone is a step away from the previous one, a larger amount if it jumps farther away. Then play on the piano following the direction and distances you found as you sang. Keep at it, don’t give up if you don’t find the right notes immediately. The benefits of developing your ear are worth it. And, most important, it's fun and truly satisfying!

More on ear work in future posts….

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Welcome to the first issue

“If you want to truly learn to play beautifully, you must learn to love the wrong notes as much as you love the right ones.”
This quote changed my approach to playing the piano and changed my life as a whole as a result. This was spoken to me by my teacher, Joseph Prostakoff, many years ago.
If this statement intrigues you, puzzles you, or excites you, I hope you will come along with me on a journey of profound discovery.


Welcome to the first issue of Key2Piano


The Purpose of this Blog is to share my thoughts and insights gained over the past 35 years of helping people to learn to play the piano. I have taught children, teens, and adults. In recent years my focus has been more on the adult student. Some are beginners, who have long had a desire to play the piano and add the joy of music to their lives, and some are what I fondly call “re-beginners” – those who played the piano as children (often forced to by parents), had a bad (or at least less-than-joyous) experience, but now want to try again, but with a completely different approach. I provide that completely different approach. I help them to play whatever music appeals to them, and my approach is basically the same whether they are learning to play jazz, pop, or classical music.

If you are someone who is learning to play the piano, or who has tried to learn in the past, and is perhaps wondering why it is more arduous, less joyful, less satisfying than you hoped, or feeling that your teacher or the method being taught is too dogmatic, too repetitive, too mechanical and not creative enough, then I hope you will read on! There IS another way!

I’m not suggesting that learning to play the piano is simple. I have never, and never will, advertise “Learn to Play the Piano in a Week!” as some methods do. As I often say to my students, “If it were easy, everyone would be doing it.” I remember a story told to me by a former teacher, about a man who had been an accomplished pianist, and had become a fighter pilot in World War II. He flew many dangerous missions and was awarded a hero’s medal. When asked how he managed to perform these difficult missions, he quipped: “Once you have tried to learn to play the piano, everything else seems easy in comparison.”

Listening to, and even more so, playing, music can be a profound experience. Music accompanies our most joyous celebrations, and also our solemn ones. It makes us want to dance, to sing, tap our feet, clap our hands, laugh and cry, and to pour our hearts out to and with other human beings. So it does not seem to “compute” that the learning of playing an instrument would be an experience where daily drudgery, fear of mistakes (and too often, harsh criticisms from the teacher when they are made) are necessary or expected. Jazz and pop musicians have always known this, but “classically-trained” musicians have too-often assumed that drudgery and un-relenting struggle comes with the territory . I have adult students who remember their teacher hitting their hands with a ruler when a mistake was made. Others recall receiving regular insults regarding their abilities or rate of progress. Some are afraid to sing, having been told as children not to do so because they weren’t singing on key. Some adults had teachers who treated them like children, and demanded strict adherence to every minute detail of the teacher’s instruction, even having to play only the music selected by the teacher even if the student did not enjoy it, and any deviation from these requirements would result in expulsion from the teacher’s studio. One student told me a former teacher wanted her to burn a book which showed a different way to play a particular scale than his method. (It is really hard to believe some of these teachers are living in the 21st century!) These people have come to me for “musical healing,” and that is what they receive.

Other adults who come to me are accomplished pianists who play advanced repertoire with a high degree of skill. But they have a gnawing dissatisfaction with their playing. They tell me it feels too mechanical, they don’t feel they are really able to play from the heart, or the process of learning the music is not enjoyable. Many have learned technique which causes physical pain or fatigue in their hands and arms, or limits them from playing the way they want to play, or just plain doesn’t feel good.

My Story:
I have been a pianist all my life, over half a century! I have been a performer, composer, and teacher for over 35 years. I began my studies with local piano teachers, and later went on to study at Manhattan School of Music, a 4-year conservatory in New York City. My teachers all taught in what I might call a traditional way, using philosophies and methods passed to them from their teachers, and their teachers’ teachers, over the past 300 years or so. I never thought to question these basic assumptions. At Manhattan School of Music I studied with a famous pianist. He was a lovely gentleman and kind soul. But he was a terrible teacher. He simply did not have a clue how to help others do many things that came naturally to him. He also had no idea how to help a student develop a way of playing that would be true and authentic for the student. He could only help you play in such a way that you ended up sounding like you were imitating him, the teacher. Though in my first few years I revered this teacher, later on I began to realize I wasn’t making the kind of progress I had hoped, and I had too many difficulties which never seemed to be really addressed. The light bulb went on for me, so to speak, when at a lesson I was playing a difficult piece, and he was sitting behind me (he never sat next to us at the piano, and so couldn’t really observe our hands, arms, and body to see what was going on physically), and, while I was stumbling through a section of the piece, I became aware he was saying something. I looked around, and he had his hands over his ears(!) and was pleading, “Please, don’t play so many wrong notes!” I would never have replied to him with sarcasm, but my urge was to say “You think????” I was incredulous. Wasn’t he supposed to be helping me to not play “so many wrong notes?”

After I graduated from Manhattan, I continued playing and also began teaching. I was troubled by the pain and fatigue I would have in my hands when I played difficult pieces. I was worried about developing tendonitis, which a few of my pianist friends were already experiencing. I heard about a teacher who helped pianists learn to play in a totally different way, and went to see him. His name was Joseph Prostakoff. I began studying with him the next week. It would not be an exaggeration to say he saved my life.

Right from the start, everything Mr. Prostakoff did turned everything I knew, or thought I knew, about playing the piano, upside down. He warned us, his students, that we would be required to question and be willing to let go of most of our assumptions. His approach to every aspect of playing, from technique, ear training, interpretation and expression, to how to practice, was nothing short of revolutionary. Future issues of this blog will go into all these areas in depth. I hope you will be here for that!

And so, my fellow pianists, if you are discouraged, I want you to know there can be another way for you. I hope you will visit my blog often. If you are one of those lucky ones who has managed to maintain the love and joy of playing the piano and make progress at the same time, and would just like to have new food for thought, please join me.