Saturday, December 24, 2011

Avoiding Injury and Strain

Much has been written and taught about proper and effective technique at the piano, and, like politics and religion, passions run hot on the subject.

My approach to technique differs substantially from most traditional methods in that it focuses more on the power of the larger muscles, primarily the upper arm, and coordinated movements of arm, hand, and fingers, rather than on finger strength and "independence" of the the fingers. Much of the early development of philosophy of piano technique, as well as the exercises such as Hanon, Czerny, and the like, took place in the age of Mozart and Haydn, when pieces were less technically demanding, and the pianos of the day had a lighter action and required less strength. (Much of it even predated the piano and was based on technique for the harpsichord.) Those methods had few, if any, exercises to address the sweeping arpeggios of Chopin, the sustained passages of thundering chords and octaves of late Beethoven or Brahms, or the shimmery sounds of Ravel and Debussy. Furthermore, little was known in those days about injuries and disorders caused by repetitive muscle contractions.

The composer and pianist Robert Schumann thought his fourth finger was too weak and he developed and used his own set of exercises to strengthen it; he ended up injuring it permanently and had to stop playing. If he had known that is isn't about the strength of the fingers, but about the arm (which has plenty of power) he could have saved himself that pain and heartache.

If this were not true, how could we explain the fact that young children -- child prodigies for example -- play many of the demanding pieces that adults do, with small hands and without large muscles? Could their fingers alone have become so strong? Not likely. It is that they have discovered how to use and coordinate the power of their entire mechanism.

Watch a video of any great pianist, such as Martha Argerich, and you will see how active the arms are. Many people mistakenly believe it's "just for show." This is far from the case. The arms are what provide the power, as well as the continuity. The arm blends the smaller movements of the hand and fingers into an over-arching movement, which is how you get great phrasing, and what is known as "a long line."

Problems that befall pianists from overuse and improper use of the small muscles (i.e. the fingers) are tendinitis, carpal tunnel syndrome, and, perhaps worst of all, focal dystonia. Dystonia is "a neurological movement disorder, in which sustained muscle contractions cause twisting and repetitive movements or abnormal postures. Treatment is difficult and has been limited to minimizing the symptoms of the disorder, since there is no cure available." (Wikipedia) Dystonia of the hand is even called "musician's dystonia." Several well-known pianists developed it, and had to curtail their playing or even stop playing completely.

To avoid these problems, you must find a teacher who can show you how to develop a solid technique based on real principles of anatomy and physics, not the out-dated ideas of 300 years ago. If you already have pain or strain in your hands, forearms, or back when playing, you are on the road to having more problems in the future. Because it is such a "hands-on" experience and method, it is impossible for me to describe every aspect of my approach to technique in this blog. But there are a few things you can do right away:

1. Make sure you sit properly at the piano. Most people sit too low. The bench that came with your piano may not be the right height for you (it can't be one size fits all). Use a pillow to sit higher, or invest in an adjustable bench. Sit so that there is a continuous downward slope from your shoulder to your hand and the line is not "broken" anywhere. Neither your elbow nor your wrist should be below your hand or the keys. If your wrist is below your hand, it creates a great deal of strain on the wrist, which is a delicate area, prone to problems such as carpal tunnel. If you cut off the power from your arm by sinking your wrist, you will have to rely mostly on finger strength, which will also cause strain (not to mention not giving you a big and beautiful sound).

2. Don't do repetitive finger exercises and scales (see my earlier blog post on this subject). There are more intelligent, effective, and musical ways to work on technique. But again, you will need the guidance of a great teacher.

3. Do not ever play through pain. If you feel pain in your hands or arms, stop immediately, shake out the tension and relax for a while. Analyze what type of playing caused the pain and don't keep doing that particular piece. If you think the pain will go away if you become "stronger" you are mistaken.

4. Some teachers will tell you to depress the keys all the way to the bottom (the "key bed') in order to get a rich sound. This is wrong -- it's an old idea and the physics just don't support it. There is a point where the hammer is tripped and hits the string (you can feel where that is by depressing the key slowly and feeling the point of resistance), and pressing past that is wasted energy and can't effect the sound, since the hammer has already been tripped. You can learn to have precise delivery of your power and get a great sound without the excess strain of pushing too far and too hard. If you are feeling strain, just play with a lighter touch for a while until you hopefully cure the habit of aiming too deep in the keys.

5. Read the book "Indispensables of Piano Playing" by Abby Whiteside. Abby was one of the pioneers in debunking the old ideas on playing the piano and showing her students a brilliant new approach. Although I believe it's difficult to learn something so physical from a book, at least it will give you an idea what to look for. She was my teacher's teacher, and he, Joseph Prostakoff, saved my life. Had it not been for him I would not still be playing today. When I went to him I had constant pain in my arms. Now I have none, no matter how many hours I play (and I do play the "big" pieces of Brahms, Beethoven, Chopin, etc), even though I am petite (5'2") and have no real muscle strength.

6. Go to the Abby Whiteside Foundation website, www.abbywhiteside.org, and go to the page titled Teachers. If you are lucky, you may find a teacher in your area that can help you. There are certainly other teachers besides those who studied with Abby or her students who know about these methods, but you may have to do some digging to find them.

I can only imagine the heartbreak of having to stop playing the piano due to injuries, especially if they were caused by playing, and could have been avoided. I hope this never happens to you. Please take the necessary steps now to avoid strain and injury.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Memorizing

After I've given a concert, the question my audience members ask most often is "How to do memorize all of that?" Luckily, I've always had a good memory. But I don't rest on my laurels; I work at it every day. More importantly, I want to help my students with memory issues, so I've made an in-depth study of the subject of memorization as it applies to piano.

Some musicians, or people learning to play an instrument, memorize easily, some do so with a good deal of effort, and some find they can't memorize at all. The fear of memory slips, and the embarrassment of having them when playing for others, takes a lot of the pleasure out of playing in public. People who memorize easily often can't explain how they do it. For those who memorize with effort, it takes a good deal of time, and still causes anxiety and fear of memory slips.

In playing an instrument, there is not just one kind of memory, there are several: these are: "muscle" or kinesthetic memory, auditory memory, visual memory, and what I might call "intellectual" memory.

Muscle memory is what happens when you perform a physical action, or series of physical actions, repetitively. One almost cannot help developing muscle memory, but it is stronger in some people than in others. It certainly is an important tool. For my students who are beginners, I help them develop muscle memory by urging them play the music with the same "fingerings" (I prefer the concept of hand positions) consistently, so the body is not confused by doing something several different ways. Muscle memory requires a certain amount of repetition of course; this is why musicians assume they must practice hours and hours with hundred or thousands of repetitions. However, if you practice smarter, you may not need so many repetitions as you think. Instead of playing a passage over and over, play it a few times but focusing intently on how it feels to your hand, arm and torso to play it. Muscle memory will grow faster with that kind of attention. Muscle memory alone, however, is not enough. It may be somewhat quick to acquire, but it is also quick to lose. Lay off practicing the piece for weeks or months and you may find the muscle memory weak, if not gone altogether.

Auditory, or "ear" memory, could be described as the internal image of how the music sounds. You may think that you have a clear auditory memory of your pieces just from listening to them. Again, some people will pick up auditory memory quickly and others struggle. It is directly related to how strong, how well-developed, your ear is in general. A good test to see how strong your auditory image is, is to transpose the piece. After all, if you really know how the music sounds, it shouldn't matter what key you play it in, right? (A simple example of this is singing; you may not know in what key you start singing "Happy Birthday,"  but you don't forget how to sing the tune.) Can't transpose the whole piece? Try just the melody to start. It may be harder than you thought. If you can't do it easily, you don't yet have a clear auditory image of the music. Keep transposing, however difficult, and it will strengthen the ear memory. When this becomes easy, transpose with eyes closed and you will be amazed at the results!
You can further strengthen the ear by eliminating muscle memory temporarily: for example, play the melody by alternating hands on each note (one note in left, the next in right, and so on). This way there is no muscle memory working for you and you are relying totally on your ear. Or play the passage in question with the opposite hand than normally plays it (you will probably need to go slowly). These methods may seem odd at first and you may be wondering why you would purposely make the playing more difficult than it already is. I can tell you, however, that I have never had a student who didn't become a believer in these methods after trying them and noticing an almost immediate difference.
I find that when the auditory memory is strong, I can still play the piece after months, sometimes even years, of not practicing it.
The other advantage of ear memory is this: if in performance you have a momentary slip, muscle memory alone may not be able to save you, but with auditory memory you can always find your way and get back on track.

Visual memory comes in two forms: picturing the written page in your mind, and/or picturing the notes on the keyboard. I think both of these will hold you back and prevent you from playing your best. People who are strong visual learners (and often good sight-readers) depend on the cues from the written page and may picture it in their minds when playing from memory. People who have photographic-type memories may not be able to prevent themselves from seeing the page in their minds. But remember, the written notation is only a vehicle for learning the music, it is not the music itself. If the visual cortex and visual processing parts of your brain are most active, your auditory cortex will have to take a back seat, and that means you can't be listening as intently as if the auditory is pre-eminent.

If you have memorized the piece to the extent that you are no longer looking at the page, nor picturing it in your mind, but you are looking at the keys themselves and needing that to give you visual cues as to what notes to play next, you will never memorize with ease or assurance. And this method is simply too slow for any fast piece. It is also not always possible to watch both hands at once, if they are spread out over the keyboard. If you need to look at your hands, the muscle memory is weak. The cure for this is, once you no longer need the page, practice with eyes closed. If you miss notes, don't immediately open your eyes and look; instead, use your ear to find your way back on track. Make it a goal to play the entire piece with eyes closed, even if a bit slower than normal. It is well-known that if you want to strengthen one sense, take away the others temporarily. Thus, to strengthen muscle and ear memory, take away the visual. Then when you do have your eyes open, it will just give you a last bit of security for things such as large leaps.

The last kind of memory, intellectual memory, is where you would be able to describe what is happening in the piece, for example, harmonically and structurally. This method, even more so than the visual, is too slow for any "real time" playing. You simply cannot think and process this information as fast as your hands and arms need to go! And again, if this area of the brain is too active, and there is a lot of "chatter" going on in the brain about the music, you can't really be listening and responding to what you hear. However, this type of memory is useful, and in fact necessary, for situations such as when a part of a piece is repeated, one time leading to one section but another time leading to a different section. Both muscle memory and ear memory know both versions, so intellectual memory is needed to remind yourself which of the two repetitions you are on, and where you are headed. Many a musician has suddenly found themselves in the wrong place in the piece because they were on auto-pilot, so to speak, and lost track of which part of the piece they were in, by depending only on muscle memory.

The danger with intellectual memory, however, is that it can get it the way. The last thing you want, especially in performance, is to start "thinking" about the notes, about what note comes next. If you do, you almost surely will have a memory slip. This is because thinking interrupts the muscle and ear memory, which, hopefully, at this point are secure. You must learn to trust your body and your ear, and stay out of the way with your "controlling mind" except for a high level awareness of where you are in the piece and where you are going. Then you are free to really listen, play from your heart, respond to what you hear, and enjoy the process!

The final reason that people have trouble memorizing a piece is that they wait too long to do it. They play the piece for too long still using the written page, and then leave memorizing all for the end. You need to be memorizing as you go. I often ask people to play 4 measures of a new piece, maybe two or three times, and then memorize it right then and there. Quite often, they can do it, much to their surprise. Now, I'm not saying you should memorize a piece 4 measures at a time -- that would chop it up too much and give you an un-musical result. But you can be memorizing elements such as the melody plus the bass line, or a simplified rendering of the basic harmonic progression, very early on in the process. Get the music "into your ear" with the methods outlined above, and you may find you know the piece by memory much sooner that you thought.

Being able to sit down and play a variety of music, for yourself and for others, by memory, is a joy and a wonderful feeling of freedom. To my mind, playing with the written sheet music in front of you can never be quite the same experience. If you've been concerned or fearful about memory up until now, I hope you will try my suggestions.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Music Theory: Is it Important?

I'm a theory geek. I love talking about, reading about, and teaching music theory. It's endlessly fascinating. And I believe it also has very important application to our playing and understanding of music.

Sadly, I find that most adults who come to me after having studied piano as a child (or children who come from other teachers) know next to nothing about theory. They may play a Chopin Nocturne, even quite well, but if I ask them what key it is in, or why it ends a certain way, they have no idea. One could therefore make the argument that it isn't necessary to understand theory to play well. But if you love music, listen to it, play it, maybe even devote a large portion of your life to it, wouldn't you want to understand what makes it work, in fact, what makes it possible?

Music theory is like gravity: it's not just a good idea, it's the law! (Borrowed from a t-shirt I once saw....) Theory isn't some system dreamed up by Pythagoras and imposed on us; it describes the inner laws that govern our (Western) music. Everything our music is built on, from scales and chords, to the forms such as Sonata form, follow laws based on mathematical relationships. How the composer uses those laws create the beauty and power (or lack thereof) of the piece. But he does not invent new laws with every composition; if he did, no one would understand it.


Take for example the Circle of Fifths (if you are not familiar with this concept, you can find a basic, though possibly confusing, explanation on Wikipedia, or refer to a book on music theory). Many people think the Circle of Fifths is just a convenient way to learn or memorize the key signatures of all 12 major and minor keys. But it is much more than that; the fifth is an important interval vibrationally. The closest vibrational relationship between any two tones is an octave, where the relationship of vibrations is 2 to 1 (higher to lower tone). That is why two tones an octave apart sound so similar (not to mention why our whole musical system is based on scales that span an octave). The next closest relationship is between 2 tones a fifth apart, where the ratio of vibrations is 3 to 2. The Greeks called this ratio (3:2) the Golden Mean and considered it the "perfect" relationship. You can find reference to it in the fields of art and architecture; it was said to be the basis of  works as diverse as the Ancient Pyramids and the Mona Lisa. In classical music, jazz, and pop, we see the use of the fifth in the progression of chords from one to another and in the modulation from one key to another within a piece. (Note: jazz players call it the Circle of Fourths, which is the same thing as the Circle of Fifths,  because a fifth up is the same thing as a fourth down; to me, this always seemed to miss the point, because the relationship of the fifth is more central to music than the fourth. You can get the jazz "Circle of Fourths" by simply going counter-clockwise around the Circle of Fifths.)

My point here is that when one understands the real importance of these aspects of theory, such as the Circle of Fifths, it makes so much of what happens in our music more understandable. Music, like nature, follows certain laws, but within those laws there are infinite possibilities and tremendous variety. But without these laws it would all be chaos and cacophony.

One can learn about theory from text books or dull lecture classes. But if you can't apply it, what use is it? I find the best, and most fun, way to learn a great deal of theory (though certainly not everything) is to learn chords and play songs from fake books. To play from a fake book, you must understand scales and keys, then how chords are constructed (if you really learn how they are constructed  -- see my previous post on chords -- not just memorize them from a chord chart), and how the chords progress from one to another. I find it much more fun to actually use your knowledge of harmony by playing it than just to "analyze" a piece of music. I make learning chords and playing from fake books a part of the curriculum of all my students.

Understanding, and more importantly, hearing, how our music obeys certain laws and how each composer uses those laws to create his masterpieces, can be one of those most satisfying aspects of listening to music. Far from making it dry and analytical, it makes you marvel even more at the miracle that is music.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Practicing by Playing Slowly -- Is it Always Best?

In just about anything you read on practicing the piano -- any book, any blog, any DVD -- and also with most teachers, you will find that the idea of playing very slowly is the way to learn a piece and to master its difficulties.
The general idea is to play extremely slowly and gradually increase the tempo until you are playing at the desired tempo of the piece. This may sound logical at first, but does it really work? More to the point, would it produce the desired musical effect, a performance with passion and dazzling brilliance?

If you wanted to run very fast, would you start by walking very slowly and gradually increasing the speed until you were running? Not really: walking and running are quite different from one another and require different coordination. Walking does not necessarily prepare you for running. Slow playing does not necessarily prepare you for fast playing.

Here are a few of the inherent pitfalls of very slow playing:

1. It can be very un-musical. Notice I say can be. Very slow playing encourages very note-wise playing. What I mean by note-wise is that familiar sound of a total beginner playing, for example, Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. Each note is emphasized equally, giving a very stiff, stodgy, boring effect. There is no feeling of movement or destination. In fact, the destination is always the very next note, which is not really a destination at all. There is no sense of a phrase, or what musicians call a "long line." If you speak a sentence this way, or a line of poetry, you will hear the effect -- it's very robotic. Yet this is often how people play. In fact, playing this way is encouraged by many teachers for the playing of "finger exercises." When you play a piece of music slowly, note by note, you are often playing it as if it were some kind of exercise. This will simply not translate to gorgeous, exciting playing at some later time.

2. It encourages inefficiency. If you have a piece with very challenging technical aspects, whether it be rapid scale passages, arpeggios, octaves, or whatever, you will only achieve speed and power by being physically efficient, that is, having no wasted motions. Playing each finger with a lot of articulation will not give you a dazzlingly fast arpeggio. Instead, there must be the feeling of a grand sweep with the arm with the fingers precisely in the right place at the right time, but not with each finger making a separate and distinct action. Yet when you play very slowly, you are likely to do just that -- make a separate movement with each finger, for it is difficult to get a "sweep" with the arm at a slow tempo. If you want to master the technique of playing fast, you have to play fast. You will have some stumbles and plenty of "wrong notes" at first. But you will gradually train your body (hands, arms and fingers) to be efficient. Playing the piano is very athletic, and learning to play it is very similar to athletic training. You must learn to increase your reaction time, the ability of your body to respond very quickly. You can't do that by always playing slowly. I've found that most people who try playing slowly and gradually increasing their speed never succeed at playing fast and demanding pieces. They haven't trained their bodies to respond at those speeds.

3. The sound is distorted. Imagine listening to your favorite song on a recording played at a very slow speed. It sounds warped and distorted. When you play very slowly, your ear loses the connection between tones, and can't hear the whole phrase as it should sound. You are essentially giving a false or distorted auditory image to the ear. Since I believe the ear is of the utmost importance, and is really "running the show," I don't believe it is desirable to give it a distorted image so much of the time.

How, then, do we learn a new piece, if not by playing it slowly? The first answer is outlining. For a full description, see my previous post on this wonderful, life-altering method of learning. You play a "sketch" of the piece, hands together, seeking to play the most important, structural elements, and omitting the small details. You play at the the desired tempo, or as close to it as you can, but since you are omitting notes it does not feel terribly fast or demanding at the early stages. You gradually fill in more details. Some will come easily -- more easily than you might have expected. Others may not and you will need to do some "spot work" on those passages. Spot work may involve some very slow playing, so you can observe exactly what your hands are doing and make corrections to the problems you find. But the spot work would be in small doses, only as much as is really necessary.

It is impossible to describe here how I work on every type of technical issue. But to summarize, I am making sure that the arm, hand and fingers are all working together for maximum power and speed, as well as for a focused, precise touch for slow and delicate passages. I give specifically-designed "set-ups" for the student to practice the specific technical challenge. But if the passage being worked on is a fast one, the practice will necessitate playing fast -- even faster than you may ultimately play it -- to increase efficiency and reaction times.

Ear work, through transposing, also helps you to learn the piece. When you are new to transposing you will probably find you need to go quite slowly. But here it is "worth the price." The benefits you are getting by transposing outweigh the problems with slow playing. And you need to give your ear time to really hear the relationships.

It's pretty simple, really: you become what you practice. If you want to play hands together, don't practice hands separately. If you want to play musically, don't practice mechanically. If you want to play boldly, don't practice timidly. If you want to play fast, don't practice everything slowly!

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Fear

It's a sad fact that fear dominates the lives and determines the actions of many people to one degree or another. Luckily, you who are reading this probably do not live in fear of war, famine, or other severe hardships. But we do live in fear of what others think of us, fear of speaking our minds, fear of following our hearts or our true calling, fear of making mistakes -- the list goes on and on. These fears often prevent us from achieving our full potential or full happiness in life.

I always feel that playing the piano and studying the piano is a microcosm for life itself. Many of the challenges or triumphs I have, or have had, in life, I have at the piano as well. Fear comes into play when we play the piano and when we practice. It prevents us from playing our best, our most expressively, because it makes us cautious, and cautious playing lacks the passion, the immediacy and spontaneity that inspiring playing must have. It also makes us physically tense, and that contributes to lack of physical prowess and expression.

Fear shows itself at the piano in several ways. The most common fear by far is the fear of "wrong notes." For most people learning to play the piano, even many advanced or professional pianists, playing a wrong note causes them to cringe, and usually to go back and "correct" the missed notes as quickly as possible. I say "correct," but in fact it does not change the fact that the incorrect notes were sounded, and it compounds the problem with another, and worse, problem, in that the rhythm is now incorrect as well. Sometimes the first attempt to correct the note fails and an additional attempt is necessary; after a few of these, the whole passage begins to unravel and there is no alternative but to stop completely and start the piece, or the section, over. Sound familiar?

The attempt to correct a note is usually done in a panicky way; the body is tense and the sounds created can be harsh, out of balance with the rest of the surrounding phrase, and obviously, unattractive and unmusical. If the body is tense you certainly won't have the freest or most fluid technique. If you have a fear about a large jump, for example, you will fall short of your target, because you are tense. Even if you eventually manage to get the right notes in that part, the sound will be strained and will lack excitement. To make matters worse, when we repeatedly have wrong note(s) in a particular place, we tense up when we even start to approach that point in the music. Our bodies say "Uh-oh, here comes that place I usually screw up....." and we tighten up in anticipation. What most people don't realize is that when we have anxiety about a certain place in the piece, our ear also "cuts out," or stops listening. We are so focused on what we perceive as the problem that we just don't keep listening in an open and relaxed way. This is the last thing we want, because we need the ear to be absorbing the music and guiding us. When we stop listening, we lose the most important tool we have, the auditory image of how the music sounds. Without the auditory image, we will continue having problems in that part of the piece, regardless of how much "technical" work we do. That one little "wrong" note has now caused an avalanche of problems, most of which we aren't even aware of. To many students of the piano, the whole matter of "wrong notes" and how to "fix" them becomes an ongoing and frustrating issue.

How do I address this fear? First of all, you must have a change in your attitude. You must expect that in the course of learning so complex an instrument, with the hundreds of thousands of processes in your brain and corresponding actions in your muscles at every moment, you will play MANY MANY wrong notes! Just get used to that fact! Instead of regarding them as mistakes which must be "corrected" before anyone notices, see if you can hear the beauty of the music beyond the notes. The beauty of the music is more than the sum of its parts. (My friends often tease me about the fact that I sometimes will listen to a piece of music on the car radio, for example, even with static or bad reception. "How can you listen to this?" they ask. The funny thing is that I don't hear the static, I just hear the music.) The trick here is that you also must be playing with full commitment, full emotional involvement, as I have talked about in previous posts. When you do that, you will be enjoying the experience of playing so much that you would not even THINK of spoiling it to stop and correct a note. To play beautifully, you must love the wrong notes as much as you love the right ones.

Now at this point, everyone will be asking, how do you prevent the wrong notes from becoming ingrained and permanent? I am not suggesting that note-inaccuracies be ignored. First we need to know the cause of the problem. It is probably a combination of our physical coordination and lack of clear auditory image. The physical issues are difficult to address here, because it IS PHYSICAL. Your hand position could be off, you could be using your body inefficiently (e.g. too much finger action, not enough arm) or thousands of other possibilities, which a perceptive teacher who really understands technique can help you address. The lack of auditory image can be addressed, as I have talked about in previous posts, through transposing and other forms of ear work. If you do the right kinds of practice on the piece, you will gradually see the note errors decrease, without having sacrificed your enjoyment or musicality. You need to be patient; don't expect "perfection." Even a note-perfect performance may not be "perfect" in other aspects. Maybe we could just give up the idea of being perfect altogether. People who expect themselves to be perfect are, in my experience, usually not very happy people. Instead of striving for a perfect performance, strive for one that feels authentic for you. In other words, be the "author" of your experience.

The next most common fear is that of fully expressing oneself. I find that most people are usually "holding back" when they play. It's almost as if they are conserving their "musicality" for some future performance, like conserving energy. But the reverse is true. The more you "conserve," the more conservative your playing will be. I suppose there are exceptions, but I believe very few people want to hear someone play "conservatively."

You may be holding back because you fear people will not like, or approve of, what you have to say. The more you practice "saying what you have to say," the easier it becomes. Some people will love what you have to say, others will not, in life and at the piano. If you hold back your full expression in practice, you will only know how to hold back. It's as simple as that.

You can see how these two fears -- fear of making mistakes and fear of expressing yourself -- are common in our lives today. The brilliant thing is, when you work on these fears at the piano, your life will change too! Some of my students have really taken this to heart. They regard their lessons with me, and their practice at home, as a kind of life-therapy, but more fun, and cheaper too!

I remember hearing about a man who had his hand-writing analyzed; he was told he was rigid and insensitive. He studied what kind of handwriting a flexible and sensitive person would have, and went to work changing his handwriting to be that of the kind of person he wanted to be. It took him years, but over the course of putting his heart, mind and body into the effort, he did change and become the person his handwriting now reflected. Think about the fearless and passionate person you want to be. Become that person when you play the piano and you will become that way in life too.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Getting the Most From Practice Time

Frequently students, or their parents, ask me how much time they should spend practicing each day. My answer is usually this: until you see improvement. But I really wish they would ask about the quality of practice rather than the quantity.

At my lessons I put a great deal of emphasis on showing the students how to practice. I view the lesson as a sort of supervised practice session. The methods and techniques that I show them at the lesson are to be done at home. Too often people view the lesson as a sort of "test" and the time at home as "homework." I don't view it that way at all.

Here are a few of the most important elements of practice:

1. Focus and energy: If you aren't focusing your full attention on what you are doing, you may as well go do something else. If you are playing through your pieces while thinking about work or what you will make for dinner, you would be better off just going and doing those things instead of playing the piano. It is absolutely a myth that you are still getting something from it if you are just going through the motions, running your fingers through the music, so to speak. You must be listening with laser-like focus, to really hear your playing in the most clear and objective way possible. You must also give attention to your body, to know what your hands, fingers, arms and torso are doing, and to sense unnecessary tension, so that you can correct any problems you find rather than reinforcing the problems by continuing to play them over and over. Try to clear your mind, become aware of your body, and center yourself before you begin practicing. This type of focus is not easy to sustain for hours on end, so it is better to do smaller amounts, or take more frequent breaks and re-center yourself, than to do a long stretch of practice without focus and energy.

2. Playing with full emotional involvement:  I know it is a commonly held belief that it is fine, even desirable, to "learn the notes" of a piece before adding "expression." If you've read my previous posts, you know that I emphatically disagree with this idea. Everything that comprises that elusive quality we call expression, or musicality, is channeled into something you do physically. Every tiny nuance in your physical touch of the keys affects the dynamics, the phrasing, the timing, and many other subtleties. My point here is that if you are practicing without emotional involvement or "expression," you are practicing in a way that will have to change later. You are using a different physical coordination than you will ultimately need, and therefore you are practicing something that you will have to discard and replace with a different physical coordination. The expression is not something you can add at the end, like a coat of paint. Or perhaps to put it in its simplest way, you become what you practice: if you practice playing mechanically, without expression, you will become good at playing that way. When students play for me at the lesson without full emotional involvement, I often ask them, "What are you saving it for?" Aim to play with the full force of your being 100% of the time.

3. Ear work: Most students mistakenly believe that when we practice we are just practicing the physical -- the movements of the fingers, hands and arms. But you need to be working on developing your ear, as much, if not more, than the physical mechanisms. The ear will be guiding your hands in everything you play, and if your ear does not really know, at a very deep level, how the music sounds, you will never achieve mastery. Ear work such as transposing or figuring out new music by ear should be done at every practice session.

4. Hands together: Practicing hands separately has been a mainstay for pianists for centuries, but I believe it is a big mistake. The ultimate challenge of the piano is the two-hand coordination, so you may as well jump in and practice that as much as you possibly can. No amount of playing hands separately truly prepares you for playing hands together, because it doesn't develop the corpus callosum, the part of the brain that enables you to play hands together. My motto is: "Practice time is too precious to spend it with one hand in your lap." Read my previous post on outlining to see how it is possible to play hands together right from the beginning.

5. Eyes closed: Once you know a piece by memory, or if you are playing by ear and/or improvising, you should spend as much time as possible playing with eyes closed. This develops your kinesthetic awareness and advances your technical mastery. It is a well-established fact that taking away one sense strengthens the others, and we've all seen the technical prowess that many blind pianists have. I tell my students that if they want to double the rate of their progress, play everything with eyes closed. (If you did the ear work described above, you'll memorize more quickly and be able to play with eyes closed sooner.) Playing with eyes closed is "practicing on steroids."

6. Play real music: Don't spend your precious practice time doing mechanical exercises like Hanon or Czerny. I give my students what I call "set-ups," specifically designed technical work, often derived from the pieces they are playing, which help develop mastery of specific techniques. These are meant to be done in small enough doses that they don't become drudgery but are still effective. Most traditional exercises aren't conducive to playing with expression, and  spending too much time on them will cause you to play mechanically.

If you put these principles into practice, you'll find you achieve more in less time, and enjoy your practice time more. What could be better than that?

Monday, June 27, 2011

Seventh Chords

In my previous posts I showed how I teach basic chords (triads). Here I would like to explain how I teach seventh chords (4-note chords).

I find that many people who have come from other teachers, or who have self-taught, have a cumbersome and confusing way of trying to remember seventh chords. Many have learned a method that involves playing one type (e.g. Major 7th chord) and then altering it, note by note (e.g. lower the 7th, lower the 3rd, lower the 5th, etc.) to get the chord they want. This multi-step process is simply too slow for real-time playing. Others have used a chart which shows all the chords, triads and seventh chords, written out in notation, and have tried to memorize the notes of every chord. This would mean memorizing over 100 distinct chords, a very long process for a beginner.

Why not just learn how each type of chord is constructed? Once you know the "system," you can use it to build any chord starting on any note. It involves far less rote memorization, yet you can become quick enough at forming the chords to do it in "real-time" playing.

Before seeing how seventh chords are constructed, we have to understand intervals, specifically the meaning of "major" and "minor" as they pertain to intervals. The word "major" means big, and the word "minor" means small. They do not refer to the associations we have with them, major being the happy, bright sound, and minor being the somber, dark sound. A major 7th interval is the larger of the two possible 7ths; a minor 7th interval is the smaller of the two possible 7ths. (If the preceding description of intervals is completely new and confusing to you, you will need to get a book on theory that explains intervals.)

Every seventh chord has a triad as its base, and adds a 7th, measured from the root of the chord. If you know the construction of the major, minor, and diminished triads, and understand major vs. minor 7ths (intervals), you can build the five basic types of seventh chords.

 Below you'll see the name of the chord, followed by how it is constructed, followed by an example of the symbol used in "fake books," which are books used for learning pop and jazz music, where the chords are written using symbols, not standard notation. (I'm using G as the root for our examples).

1.) Dominant 7th chord
                                    major triad + minor 7th                                       G7

2.) Major 7th chord
                                     major triad + major 7th                                      Gmaj7

3.) Minor 7th chord
                                     minor triad + minor 7th                                      Gm7

4.) Half-diminished 7th chord
                                    diminished triad + minor 7th                             Gm7b5

5.) Diminished 7th chord
                                    diminished triad + diminished 7th                   Gdim7

The last two require a bit of explanation.

For a half-diminished 7th, the symbol used most often (again using G as our example) is Gm7b5. This is because if you form a minor 7th chord, as shown above, and flat, or lower, the 5th of the chord, you get what I have shown, that is, a diminished triad with the addition of a minor 7th.
The diminished 7th chord uses a diminished 7th interval, which is a minor 7th interval made smaller by a half-step, which means it is really a major 6th! You might wonder why is isn't called a "6th chord." Although the outer interval is "enharmonically" (sounds like) a 6th, it is still functioning as a 7th, because the chord is still built of thirds, and therefore has a root, a 3rd, a 5th, and a 7th.

I recommend to my students to keep the above chart handy, and practice building all five kinds of seventh chords on all keys, at first going around the Circle of Fifths, and later just randomly. You will find that if you understand and internalize the system, you can get proficient and playing these chords, which are, of course, essential for all jazz and most pop music.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Chords, Part II

In my March 2011 post I described how I teach the major and minor triads, by their physical "shape." By doing this, the student is able to play many simple songs in any key, with melody in right hand and chords in the left. They have learned these chords without needing to know a great deal of "theory" or even how to read music notation. They are still playing melodies by ear. I want them to have the ability and satisfaction of playing a lot of material early on in their lessons.

Next I show them inversions, which are the triads with the order of the notes re-arranged. It is essential the student learn these with good hand position/fingering, using the same ones for that inversion on any triad, regardless of whether it is on black or white keys. Doing this with eyes closed will ensure that the hand really knows the shape of the inversions, rather than depending on eye to find them, which is just too slow for real-life playing. With the feel of the inversions well in hand, I show what I call "close position," where you are playing the I chord (e.g. the C major chord if you are in the key of C) in root position, and the IV and V chords (e.g. the F and G major chords, respectively) in the closest inversions. You now have an easier way to harmonize songs using these three chords, as you are not jumping back and forth between root positions.

Next we need to learn the two other types of triads, diminished and augmented. Before doing this, we have a session on understanding intervals, and how we define or "measure" them in our musical system. Now we get into a bit of the "theory" that we skipped earlier.

One of the big stumbling blocks to people's understanding of chords, harmony, and musical theory in general, is the misconception about the terms "major" and "minor." Most people who are even a bit familiar with music (classical, pop, jazz, or whatever) have come to associate the word "major" with a brighter, happier kind of sound or mood, and "minor" with a darker, more somber, sad or mysterious sound. This association is pretty universal and no one can really explain why these particular relationships of frequencies affect our emotions the way they do -- one of the wonderful mysteries of music! But the terms themselves do not mean happy or sad, bright or dark. MAJOR means big, and MINOR means small, simple as that. A MAJOR triad is so named because its first interval is a MAJOR (larger) third. A MINOR triad is so named because its first interval is a MINOR (smaller) third. If the student doesn't understand this distinction, it will be devilishly hard to really understand 7th chords (4-note chords) and other complex chords (9ths, 11ths, 13ths).

Here's how we construct all four kinds of triads:
(The first interval is from the first note to the second, and the second interval is from the 2nd note to the 3rd, building from bottom to top, as we do in everything in music.)

MAJOR = major 3rd + minor 3rd
MINOR = minor 3rd + major 3rd
DIMINISHED = minor 3rd + minor 3rd
AUGMENTED = major 3rd + major 3rd

Notice again that the first two are named for their first intervals. Diminished is so named because it is the smallest triad, augmented because it is the largest.

Many people learn diminished as "take a minor triad and lower the fifth" and augmented as "take a major triad and raise the fifth," which of course gives you the same result, but it is a bad system, because it forces you to find chords as a two-step process, rather than just know how each one is built and find it in one step.

The student will practice finding and playing all four kinds of triads on all 12 keys. I absolutely do not use any written out chord charts or books which show the actual notes, nor would I let the students write the notes out themselves. This would be like giving you a fish but not teaching you to fish. If you simply refer to a chart which shows you exactly which notes to play, you don't necessarily understand the system. Without this understanding, you will have far too many things to remember. (There will be 48 unique triads, and over 60 unique 7th chords to remember, as opposed to just knowing a few basic formulas.) Learning about chords and playing them from symbols in actual music is the best way to learn the basics of theory, in my opinion.

The student can now play songs from fake books, where the melody is written out in standard musical notation, which I have been teaching them along with the chords and playing by ear if they didn't already know it, and the chords are written in symbols. This is a fun way to learn and play, and gives them the ability to play music that might be beyond their reading ability at this point. They can play any song which uses all the kinds of triads listed above, in any key. They have not yet learned 7th chords; that will be the topic of my next post.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Finding a Teacher

Many of my students have come to me after having studied with other piano teachers. Some have recently left the other teacher because they are seeking something different. Many of my adult students had lessons many years previously with other teachers. It's sad to say that most do not remember their experiences of their lessons as a child in a positive light. I'm always amazed and impressed that these students are willing to take the chance to try again, even though they have unhappy memories of their early lessons. I've heard countless stories of students being rapped on the hands for hitting wrong notes. I've heard of teachers yelling at students, of teachers telling students they were worthless, untalented, and so on. I've heard of teachers picking up the students music books and ripping them up, even throwing them out the window! I've heard of teachers telling the student to "come back when you can play fewer wrong notes."

Thank goodness that times have changed and most people would not tolerate a teacher who uses physical violence or punishment, or who yells at or harshly criticizes the student. But there are still a great deal of very poor and destructive teaching methods that are accepted as normal. Here are some of the ones I find most common:

1.) Over-emphasis on scales, finger exercises, and mechanical repetition. A woman came to see me recently, and told me her current teacher spent 45 minutes of her 60-minute lesson having her play scales. The last few minutes of the lesson were for her pieces, and when she asked to be able to play more music, the teacher replied that there wasn't enough time and she would have to take a two-hour lesson for that! Even if the scales were necessary, the teacher should just make sure the student is doing them correctly, then let them do them at home, so the lesson could be spent more productively. I suspect this teacher did not really know how to teach actual music, so he let her just practice her scales while he earned $60 per hour for it! Many teachers seem to give hefty doses of scales and finger exercises, which students usually hate, and by the time they have completed these they have little enthusiasm left for practicing. But more important, scales comprise a very small portion of what one might call "technique." Practicing scales and finger exercises in a mechanical way teaches you to play mechanically. There is little likelihood that if you spend hours playing that way, that you will be able to miraculously flip a switch and play your pieces beautifully and expressively. I believe that heavy reliance on scales and so-called finger exercises is the refuge of an unimaginative and burned-out teacher. If this is how the teacher learned to play the piano, this may be the only way they know how to teach, and they have probably not even questioned whether this is a desirable way to learn. But YOU, the student, should question it.

2.) Teachers who cannot really play. Your teacher does not have to be a concert pianist, but should certainly be able to play pieces of moderate level of difficulty with some ease and fluency. Parents of a new student of mine told me that a previous teacher struggled to play the pieces their child was about to learn. No teacher can possibly teach technique or any other aspect of playing the piano if he/she does not have a fairly high level of mastery of that aspect himself. The teacher needs to be able to recognize what the student is doing that prevents mastery of the technique, and to show the student what needs to be changed, and to demonstrate the technique. It simply won't work for the teacher to "explain" the way to achieve some aspect of playing, without being able to show it. The old saying "Those who can't do, teach" does not apply to every teacher, thank goodness, but, sadly, it still applies to many.

3.) Teachers who can only play and teach one style. If your teacher plays only classical music, and insists that you play only classical music, you might want to re-think taking from that teacher, even if classical is your main interest. The teacher should also be able to help you play by ear, harmonize a simple song, play songs from charts or fake books, in case you should decide one day you want to do that. If the teacher says, "Just do those things on your own," it means they don't know how to do it themselves. It is simply good musicianship for a teacher to have familiarity with various genres of music. Unless you, the student, are quite advanced and you know you are concentrating on one genre, you might want to have your options open by having a teacher who can help you broaden, not limit, your horizons.

Here are some things to consider when interviewing a prospective teacher:

First, will the teacher make the learning enjoyable? Even someone who is “serious” about music has chosen this field, hopefully, because of a love of music and an enjoyment in creating music. Unfortunately, many teachers have squelched this love and enjoyment through rigid methods, excessive repetition, mechanical and non-musical exercises, harsh criticisms, and so on.

Second, will the teacher help bring out the individual’s natural abilities and inclinations? No two people will play alike, and the teacher must not direct the student in how to express himself, but rather to give the tools to enable the student to express his authentic self.

Third, can the teacher teach more than one style? A true musician should have many tools in his toolbox, so to speak. This includes playing be ear, harmonizing songs, perhaps improvising, in addition to the traditional reading of printed scores. Many people are not aware that the great composers, from Bach and Beethoven to Liszt, were master improvisers, and they did so often in public recitals. This is an art we should all try to cultivate to the best of our abilities.

Fourth, ask the teacher to play for you and ask yourself if you enjoyed the playing. If the teacher tells you she cannot play because she is too busy teaching to have time to “practice,” beware! Anyone who has played for a number of years should always be able to play something, even if it is not the highly difficult pieces. And how can the teacher expect the student to do what he/she does not do himself?

Fifth, the teacher should have an excellent piano, a baby grand or grand in good condition and of fine quality. A small spinet or otherwise deficient piano indicates either the teacher is not serious about his/her profession, or is not successful enough to afford a quality instrument. The studio should be neat, clean, and free from distractions such as background noise. The studio should not have the teacher's personal effects or children's toys lying about, and should be pleasant to be in. The teacher should be dressed in a professional manner as a sign of respect and that they view themselves as a professional.


Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Chords, Part I

Anyone who wants to play jazz and pop needs to have a thorough understanding of chords. Of course, you can find pop or jazz tunes in arrangements where all the notes are written out for you in standard notation, but this is not the real way to play these genres, and these arrangements are often not particularly good. The essence of jazz, especially, is to play from a "chart" or "fake book," where you are given the melody and chord symbols. This gives you the freedom to make your own arrangement. But of course to do that, you must understand the symbols and understand chords and how they are constructed.

Students coming to me from other teachers usually fall into two groups as far as chords are concerned: they know nothing or almost nothing (if they have learned only classical from standard books and have never had to harmonize anything themselves); or, they have learned a bit but have gaping holes in their knowledge and have odd and laborious ways of figuring out chords when they encounter the symbols.

I'd like to show you how I introduce chords (which I do at the very first lesson).

We start by learning the C, F and G major chords, which are the three major chords that fall all on white keys. The student will use these three chords to harmonize their first several songs, such as Twinkle Twinkle, Happy Birthday, and many others, even the first part of Hey Jude (all of which they have figured out by ear). I also introduce the concept of I, IV and V, that these chords are built on the 1st, 4th, and 5th degrees of the C Major scale respectively. (They have already been shown the major scale and how it is constructed.)

After a few lessons I write out a page for them titled "Chords by Group." Without my having to explain every technical detail about how a chord is built, it gives them the ability to learn all the major and minor triads (3-note chords) fairly quickly. Here's how it looks:

Majors

C, F, G W-W-W
A, D, E W-B-W
B W-B-B
F#/Gb B-B-B
Db, Ab, Eb B-W-B
Bb B-W-W

The W stand for white key, and the B stand for black key. While this is not very technical and does not tell them exactly which keys to play, they know enough about how the major triad sounds and is built, from having played the C, F and G chords, to know if they are playing each chord correctly. You'll see a pattern emerges. The A,D,E group (W-B-W) and the Ab,Db,Eb group (B-W-B) are like the positive/negative of each other, as are the B (W-B-B) and Bb (B-W-W) groups. The chords are essentially grouped by their physical "shape." Everyone who has tried this finds it easier to remember six groups and their patterns than they do to try to remember 12 chords with no apparent relationships. I absolutely do NOT want them to use a chart which spells out the actual notes in each chord (such as can be found in books, music stores, online, etc.), as this requires no real understanding on the part of the student and the student has no chance to observe or understand the patterns inherent in the chord structures.

With these 12 major chords, the student can now harmonize a great number of songs. Moreover, they can now start moving the simple songs they initially learned in the key of C to other keys. They simply have to play the scale in the new key (which, as mentioned, they have also learned in the early lessons), find the notes that would be I, IV and V, and play the chords. I regard this step of moving to other keys as extremely important. Otherwise, students spend far too long playing only in the key of C and develop almost a fear of other keys which use the black keys. This "white key mentality," as I call it, is very pervasive, and really holds the student back. (Most of the traditional piano books for the early students stay in the key of C far too long, so unless the teacher gives them pieces to play by ear in other keys, as I do, they get so used to playing only on white keys that they develop the fear of other keys.)

Then we learn the minors the same way.

Minors

A, D, E W-W-W
C, F, G W-B-W
B W-W-B
Eb/D# B-B-B
C#, F#, G# B-W-B
Bb B-B-W

You can see there are similar patterns.

With all the major and minor triads solidly in hand, the student can harmonize a great number of songs, as well as improvise their own music, with very satisfying results. At this point they can be playing more advanced music by ear than they would be able to read from notation. This keeps the enjoyment high when the music they are learning to read is still very simple.

In the next post I'll cover inversions of the triads, as well as the other two types of triads, diminished and augmented, and the symbols for each. Then I'll cover 7th chords (4-note-chords).

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Bridging the Great Divide

I was brought up on classical music. My parents loved music and my dad was an amateur opera singer. My piano teachers were all traditional teachers who had me play exclusively from the written page (even though I had a great ear and could play almost anything I heard by ear). By the time I was in high school, however, I was listening to Dylan, the Beatles, Joni Mitchell, and other great songwriters of the 60s, and all but lost interest in classical music. I took up the guitar and sang and played the pop music I loved on guitar, much to the despair of my parents. But after high school my love of classical music returned and I went to a conservatory and went back to playing mostly classical music.

After graduating, in order to make a living, I began playing for theatre, including doing some improvising. It was tremendous fun. It was then I began to regret that I hadn't devoted more time to learning and becoming adept at playing pop and jazz on the piano; I would have been able to make a better living by playing for events, playing in restaurants, cafes and other such venues. I knew barely a handful of pianists who could play both classical and popular music. Most of us felt we had to choose one or the other.

To a large degree, the classical world looked down its nose at pop music as inferior, and the pop and jazz world thought classical musicians were straight-laced and inflexible. Forty years later, I find this attitude still prevails. And the majority of the piano teachers that are to be found still teach only classical; they don't encourage their students to try other genres, and wouldn't know how to teach those styles if the students were interested.

Although I have played pop and Broadway for over 30 years, I began playing jazz only about ten years ago, and have found this style of playing to be wonderfully fun and satisfying. I love the songs of Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, and many others. I love the music of Broadway, from Rogers and Hammerstein to Steven Sondheim. I love a great deal of pop music. Equally important, OTHER people love this music, and being able to play it enables me to play for a wide variety of events such as parties and weddings and provide pleasure to a great number of people. It also enables me to teach these styles.

Most of my students have come to me largely because of my ability to teach a variety of styles. Many of them, from kids to adults, came from other teachers who taught only classical. Not only did their previous teachers give them only classical pieces, but it was all from books, nothing by ear, and their methods and approach were rigid and not very fun. I have many students who come to their first lesson and play a Chopin Nocturne for me, but can't play Happy Birthday by ear and harmonize it with three simple chords.

I encourage all my students to play music from both worlds, and most of them want to. The skills one aquires from playing jazz and pop are many:
1. Learning to play from pop and jazz from fake books (where you are reading chord symbols rather than actual notation) means you have to have a thorough understanding of chords. Chords and harmony are essential to really understanding Western music, whether classical or non-classical. I find that people coming from traditional classical teachers know very little about chords, if anything. Others have taken theory courses and can name chords but have no idea how to apply that knowledge to actual playing.
2. Jazz and pop have rhythmic complexities that much classical music does not have, at least in the early years of study, such as syncopation.
3. Playing songs help you learn about good phrasing. When you sing, or play a piece of music which was originally written to be sung, you can hear more easily how it should be phrased, because the phrasing mirrors the words. When you sing, you breathe at places that make sense musically; when you play it on the piano, you should also "breathe" in those places. I often tell students to play a piece of music as they would sing it.
4. Jazz and pop do not have such a rigid line between "wrong" notes and "right" notes. Including improvisation in your playing frees you from the fear and anxiety over wrong notes. It helps you to learn to manage "unintended" notes and continue playing. If you play with other people you must learn this skill.

Learning to play classical music can help the jazz or pop pianist as well. There is a greater variety of technical challenges in classical music, so working on these will improve your overall technique. Of course, some non-classical musicians don't read music, and this is a valuable skill to have, even if you play primarily by ear. Playing classical music and hearing how the great geniuses of that genre used harmony and counterpoint can give you new ideas for material to use in your arrangements of jazz or pop tunes.

It is my goal to continue to help my students and my listeners bridge the great divide between classical and non-classical music. They are both wonderful and enjoyable to hear and to play. Even if we live primarily in one world, we still need to have an appreciation for the other worlds. Let's drop the snobbery and embrace the unifying power of music.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Wrong Notes

There is probably no other area of playing the piano (or any instrument) that causes as much consternation, angst, and self-criticism than that of "wrong notes." How we view this, and how we deal with it in our daily practice, will, I believe, either make us or break us as a musician, and, perhaps more important, determine whether we find joy or frustration in our music-making.

A student of mine told me a story about her childhood teacher. The student was playing a piece, and was struggling to manage it, which resulted in, naturally, a fair number of wrong notes. The teacher stopped her, closed the music, and said, indignantly, "This is a waste of my time. Come back when you can play it with fewer wrong notes." Incredible, isn't it? If only the child had said, "Isn't that what you are supposed to be helping me with??" And we've all heard the stories of children who were rapped on the hand every time they played a wrong note. Note errors were, and still are, for many people, sadly, viewed as a personal failing.

The typical approach to wrong notes is simply to "correct" them each time one is played, that is, to stop, play the intended note, and then move on. You probably will have noticed that if you play an incorrect note, it probably happens most of the time, even every time, you play that passage. Stopping to play the "correct" note, in fact, doesn't actually correct the problem. It just reinforces the habit of playing the incorrect note, quickly followed by the correct one. You may have the illusion that you are correcting the problem, but in fact you are making it worse. When you correct a note, you have now altered the rhythm, which is equally a problem, in fact more so than a wrong note or two. I find with many of my students that if they stop to try to fix a note, it invariable leads to another problem right afterwards, and another, and sometimes the whole passage starts to unravel.

When we perform in public, it is universally understood that it is verboten to stop to correct, yet somehow people cling to the belief that they can stop and correct in their daily practice, but when they get on stage they will be able to continue without stopping should a mishap occur. Obviously this isn't the case.

There are many reasons for playing wrong notes. We could have mis-read the note initially and learned it incorrectly, possibly without even realizing it. If so, it may or not be easy to correct, because now we have heard it incorrectly so many times. We could have incorrect or insufficient technique to find and play the note(s) accurately. We could have a weak or incorrect auditory image of how the music is supposed to sound. The auditory image, knowing with absolute inner certainty, how the music should sound, is the single most important factor, in my belief. Without it, your technique, however good, will still not lead you to the correct notes with any real reliability.

How do we strengthen the auditory image? The simplest answer is by REALLY listening. However, when we learn a piece we are often too distracted and even overwhelmed by the number of notes and all the various other aspects, and we are not in fact really hearing the music. That is why I recommend outlining (see previous post) so that we can have fewer notes to manage and have more "space" for listening.

However, the absolute BEST tool for getting the music "into your ear," as I call it, is transposing. If you can transpose a passage, or even better still, the entire piece, you will find out if you really hear the piece. If you can't do this, you just keep at the transposing until it becomes easy. When you transpose to a new key, you are in essence hearing the relationship of all tones to each other. I transpose all my pieces to all other eleven keys, many times over. At first you will need to go slowly, and where your ear fails you, you will use calculation (looking at the music and figuring out the interval distance). Gradually you will do it more and more by ear. For pieces I have studied in depth, I can play the entire piece (including full sonatas of Beethoven, for example) in every key, by memory, slower than the piece is intended, perhaps, but still at a reasonable tempo. Most people find this pretty incredible when I tell them this, but it is absolutely true. In the 35 years I have been doing this, it has transformed my playing in areas such as accuracy and memory. It vastly reduces the pure number of hours it takes to learn a piece. I always find when I am having difficulty with the technical aspect of a piece, strengthening the auditory image of that passage through transposing either helps with the technical accuracy, or often even solves the problem completely. It gives me greater confidence in performing, knowing that I know the piece so well I can overcome any small mishap.

If you are consistently missing a note or a number of notes, your hand is simply not in the right place at the right time to play the correct one. Here, with the help of a perceptive teacher, you need to analyze what you are doing that causes your hand (fingers, arm, even your torso) to be in the wrong place, so to speak. If the teacher points out the incorrect notes but does nothing to help you achieve playing the correct ones, you have the wrong teacher! There can be so many things that can cause your physical mechanism (your body) to be unable to play the correct notes with reliability -- far too many to address here. But when the ear has a rock-solid auditory image and the body is trained to respond to the ear, you can't go wrong.

Lastly, a major cause of wrong notes is the fear of wrong notes! When we are fearful, or demand unreasonable perfection of ourselves, we tighten up physically, which hampers the ability of the body to move smoothly and respond to the music. And the constant fear of or anxiety about wrong notes certainly spoils the enjoyment of playing.

So what to do? When you play a piece of music, PLAY WITHOUT STOPPING! You will not learn wrong notes this way, as people mistakenly believe. Instead, you will keep the rhythm intact (which is extremely important), and you will keep the integrity of the composition rather than chopping it up. Play with all the beauty, expression and creativity you are capable of! Afterwards, you must go back through the places you had errors and try to analyze why you had them. First and foremost, strengthen your auditory image of that passage through transposing. Try transposing with your eyes closed! Play the passage in the original key with eyes closed to see how well your body alone leads you to the correct notes. Investigate whether your hand is twisted or otherwise out of position to play the intended notes. Find a teacher who can really help you with these areas. (In future posts I will try to address more aspects of technique.)

My teacher, Joseph Prostakoff, often said: "If you want to play beautifully, you must learn to love the wrong notes as much as you love the right ones." This is the most profound statement I ever heard about learning to play the piano. I certainly endeavor to play with note-accuracy. I work at it diligently using every tool I have. But I don't let a few wrong notes spoil my experience or joy of playing. I don't play with the fear of having wrong notes. When you experience the freedom of playing without this fear, you will never go back to the old ways.