Sunday, December 30, 2012

Pianist, or Musician?

You may wonder about my title. If one is a pianist, isn't one automatically a musician? Not necessarily.

I've encountered many people who are pianists, that is, they play the piano with some degree of proficiency. Some even play with emotional involvement and expressiveness. But to be a musician, I believe, requires something more.

To be a musician, to me, means a broad and deep understanding of music. For instance, many people coming to me for lessons who have played and/or had lessons previously do not know the basics of how our music (Western music) is constructed. If I ask them what key a particular piece they have played is in, they don't know. They may not even know what it means to be "in a key." They may have practiced scales as an "exercise" but don't know that scales are our basic tonal material, our "alphabet," if you will. Some have told me they never knew why, for example, a given piece had to be played with all F-sharps instead of Fs; they never knew that means it is in the key of G Major (or E minor). They may have read and learned to play "the notes" of the piece, but they don't understand what is behind the notes. If I ask them to identify the basic harmonies (chords) of a section of the piece, they can't; in fact, many do not even realize that chords are the basic building blocks of most of our music. To me it is just unfathomable how one could play a composition and somehow think it is just an assortment of notes, and not realize the underlying structures which make it a unified whole.

To be a musician also means a broad range of musical skills. Again, many people have learned to read music and can play the notes as represented on the page. But if I ask them to play Happy Birthday by ear and harmonize it with three simple chords, they can't do it. How can this be? The Chopin Nocturne they just played for me is much more complex than Happy Birthday, but they could play it because the page told them exactly which notes to hit, and when, and they simply "obeyed." But if they have to play music where the knowledge must come from within them, they are unable. I cannot call this person a musician yet. For this reason, I have all my students play simple music by ear, learn about chords (simple first, then more complex, such as 7th chords) and their relationships to each other, how they "progress" from one to another. A real musician can't be comfortable playing in just the key of C and maybe one or two others; a musician must play in all keys with ease. For this reason I have my students do a lot of transposing.

Not everyone wants to be a composer. And not everyone wants to improvise. But any musician should certainly be able to sit down at his instrument and play something without the need for written music. (There is a joke among jazz musicians that goes like this: How to do you get a musician to stop playing? Put sheet music in front of him.) I make sure all my students can improvise at least some simple melodies on a simple chord progression, and have it make sense. (I show them how to choose a short motif and build upon this, rather than just randomly search for notes.) If you can only read music and can't do this, it is like being able to quote from a book but not able to construct a sentence of your own.

I consider it my mission to help create musicians, not just people who can play the piano. Music itself is an incredible mystery: how it makes sense to us, why it moves us the way it does, why it has become such an important part of life in every culture on earth. Yet, a great many aspects of music can be understood and grasped by our minds, and this knowledge does not lessen the mystery; I believe it increases the sense of wonder we have for music. The more you know, the more marvelous it is. If you play an instrument, I encourage you to strive to be a musician.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

The Cosmic Mystery of the Musical Scale

You may wonder about my title: how could the musical scale have anything cosmic, or anything mysterious, about it? You've probably all the heard the familiar do-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti-do many times, and if you are a musician, you've played it hundreds or even thousands of times. If anything, it may even seem quite mundane.

Quite to the contrary, I find the scale to be fascinating, and an endless source of wonder in respect to how it is the life force behind all our music. (I am speaking here of the Western scale and Western music, though the same concept can be applied to other music and their scales.) It is not only the tonal material which our music uses, it is also the organizing principal, that which gives the possibility of movement and architecture to our music.

Try the following experiment: play an ascending scale, for example the C major scale, on the piano or any other instrument. Do it in the following manner. Play C (do) and then D (re). Listen to what wants to happen. Does the re want to move forward or fall back to do? I think you will find it does not yet have enough momentum to move forward, but can easily fall back to (or resolve to) do. Now play C-D-E (do-re-mi). What does that want to do? It has more momentum than the previous step, but barely enough; it can also easily fall back to re and then do. Now play all the way up to F (fa). You will hear an unmistakable difference -- a feeling of starting to travel or make progress....yet.... it is still somewhat easy for it to fall back to re, at least, if not all the way back to do. Now play all the way up to G (so). If you are really listening you will hear that feeling like you have reached the crest of the hill; there is no going back, only forward. As you play the scale up through A (la) you will feel the momentum increase. When you get to B (ti) the urgency to get to the final C (do) is very strong; you simply cannot go anywhere else. The final tone, ti, is often called the "leading tone" for this reason. (I thank the great writer/musicologist Victor Zuckerkandl for introducing me to this fabulous experiment over 30 years ago in his book The Sense of Music.)

I suppose there are two camps on this matter: one that says we hear it this way because we are so used to it operating in this way in our music, and another camp which would say it is something inherent in the scale itself. I am in the latter camp. There is something about the dynamics of the scale which cause us to experience it in this way, which is why, I believe, this particular scale took hold and became the basis for our music for so many hundreds of years. It gives a dynamism, a richness to the music that you simply don't get in, for example, a pentatonic (5-tone) scale.

The example we've just used is the scale we know as the Major scale (the Greeks called it the Ionian scale). What about the others? The minor (Aeolian) scale has some of the same feeling, but lacks the drive at the end with the leading tone. For that reason, the minor scale has been altered since about the mid 1600s (the so-called "harmonic" minor) to have a ti, or leading tone, raised to be the same as the major scale. The other scales, Lydian, Phyrigian, Dorian, etc, have to a large extent fallen out of usage (some ethnic music still uses them, and pop and jazz musicians use them as a basis for improvisation but they are rarely the basis for an entire piece of music).

Coming back to the dynamics of the scale tones, you will see that the first tone of the scale (do) feels like the center, or home. The 5th tone (so) feels as far as you can get away from the center, or home, before you feel like you are returning to it. This sets up one of the most important aspects of the scale, the polar opposites of the one/do and the five/so. You will see the importance of five in our music everywhere (the Circle of Fifths). The Greeks called the one-five relationship in music the Golden Mean or the Golden Ratio and considered it to be the "perfect" relationship. (Mathematically it is the ratio of 3:2) It was used in painting and architecture as well.

It is difficult to say whether the dynamic qualities we experience in the scale are all the result of mathematics. Some have believed so, and some believe it even goes beyond mathematics to the nature or the structure of the universe. The mystic G.I Gurdjieff (1877-1949) and his student P.D. Ouspensky believed the scale had cosmic meaning. "Ouspensky devotes pages and pages to Gurdjieff's concept of "octaves" - the musical scale do-re-mi-fa-sol-la-ti-do taken as a sort of universal yardstick for determining the measurements and proportions of all of nature's parts" (

With my beginning students, and even some more advanced students coming to me from other teachers, I always have them learn to play a scale (with simple fingering, 4 notes in the left hand and 4 notes in the right) at the very first lesson so they can begin to really hear the scale and understand how it is constructed. I make sure they understand I am not giving it as a "finger exercise" to be done over and over; it should just be done a few times, just to experience it. How sad it is that thousands upon thousands of musicians have done endless hours of scale practice, and yet perhaps never really heard or understood the magic and mystery that is our simple musical scale.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Creative Problem-Solving at the Piano

This post will discuss what I call my "back-door" approach to solving problems at the piano. The problems I refer to are mostly ones related to technique.

I wish I knew how the really great pianists practice. I suspect some have extremely effective practice methods, while others simply have so much natural ability they play well despite mediocre practice habits. My experience with people who come to me for lessons who have played before is that many amateur pianists have ineffective, or even damaging, practice methods.

One problem I see a lot is what I call "practicing the difficulties." Many of us were told by teachers to practice the difficult spots in a piece over and over until they improve. It seems reasonable, at first, but one must consider how to practice them. I don't believe that repetition by itself is the answer. At any given moment in a difficult piece or passage in a piece, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of neuro-motor events taking place. If they are not well-coordinated then the passage will be awkward or have inaccuracies, or perhaps it will be correct but played with a lot of strain, and it certainly won't be beautiful. Instead, I try to take away the difficulties of the passage and find what is easy about it. For example: I was working with an advanced student on a passage in a Chopin Polonaise. It was a difficult passage with a broken chord pattern in the right hand with inside notes that made the whole thing an awkward stretch for the hand, and of course it had to be played very fast. First we played just a few notes of the passage, eliminating the stretch and the inner notes, but -- and this is important -- at the full speed it would ultimately need to go (playing it slowly would not have used the same coordination). This was easy but we played it a few times so the hand could get a good feel of the overall movement. Then we added more notes, the part with the bigger distance to cover, but in a way that the hand and arm could just make a big circular motion and reach it with ease. (I realize it may be hard to visualize this from a verbal description.)
When all of this felt easy and comfortable we added the toughest part, the inside notes. The whole point of this is to train the body to find what is easy and get a baseline of the technique well-established, then add each new level of difficulty and let the body adapt to it. If you attempt to master all the difficulties at once, the body (of course I am talking about our hands, arms, fingers) may not be able to respond without straining.
This is the essence of my "back-door" approach: find what is easy, and transfer those skills to the next level of difficulty.

The idea of "transferring" is a powerful one, and one that I use all the time. When a student is having a problem with a particular technical challenge, I often can find a similar one (in the same piece or a different one) where a similar skill is required but, for whatever reason, the student plays with relative ease. I have them play the easier one and immediately play the challenging one afterwards. It's nothing short of amazing how well this works. The body "copies" what it just did on the easier one and often the problem is solved. I often have people play something they do with ease, such as a chromatic scale, and then "transfer" to a difficult run; again, the body seems to "figure out" how to make the latter feel as easy as the former. Practicing the difficult run over and over would take far more time and doesn't achieve as good a result as this creative use of learning to use the body's own natural abilities.

One of the reasons this idea of "transferring" works is this: if you think a particular piece or passage is difficult (or easy), it will be. Science has definitively established the strong connection between body and mind. If you think you'll be sick, you're more likely to get sick. If you think your medication is helping you, it will (the well-known placebo effect). Thus, if you think you are in for a tough time of it playing a particular passage in a piece, your body responds with strain and lack of coordination. If you think of it as a breeze, the body finds a way to just sail through it. While I realize this sounds like an over-simplification, I have seen it work thousands of times. It sometimes has to be done in steps, as I describe above. I try to never say to any student (especially children) statements such as "this is a hard piece" or "this passage is difficult." I find that if they think the piece is going to be easy for them they don't end up with a lot of problems. The body responds to the mind's direction that "this is something I know how to do."

Another fantastic use of transferring is to improvise first, then play the passage. Suddenly you'll find the difficult passage has a freedom and ease you didn't have before. This only works, of course, if you feel comfortable improvising and really enjoy it. More on this in a future post!

There are so many creative and fun ways to practice, it's just such a shame to make it a dull, repetitive, lifeless process. I believe that's why so many young people want to quit their lessons after they've started. They may love the music but they hate the practice. It doesn't have to be that way.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Performance Issues

People always ask me about how to handle nerves and anxiety about performing. Specifically, they want to know how to prevent memory slips and other mishaps during performances.

My answer is in two parts: what you do before the performance (your preparation) and what you do during the performance.

Before your performance, when you are learning, polishing and perfecting your pieces, you simply must get to know the music in the very core of your being. How is this done? By really hearing it, hearing every relationship, every harmony, every contour of the melody, every architectural structure. I do this in many ways. One important step is to first learn to play an outline of the piece so you can clearly hear the basic structure or "architecture"  of the piece, without all the distracting details (see my earlier post on outlining). Another method is to play each voice separately (even non-polyphonic pieces contain as least some passages with distinct inner melodic lines), and anything that is a basically a chord in blocked form (such as an arpeggiated left hand part). However, this is not the same as hands separately. If I play one voice separately I play it with both hands (the other hand just doubling it at the octave) so that I am using both halves of my brain. I also play with eyes closed so that I become totally independent of needing the visual cues of either the page or the keys themselves. And most important, I transpose every piece to all keys, at first using the written page as necessary, but later totally by ear/memory. Transposing ensures that you hear the relationships; since you are no longer playing on the actual notes but a different set of notes, the only thing you CAN hear is the relationship. In performance, if you have a brief stumble or even memory lapse, you will be able to quickly recover and go on because you know the piece so well. It is a long process, but when you can do this, then you can truly say you "know" the piece.

What you do during performance is a tricky one. The key is to set your ego aside and just listen. Listen as openly and as intently as you would like your audience to be listening. We must train our minds to be quiet and not to chatter. You do not want to be thinking about the notes, about whether the audience is responding well, about the next piece you will play or the difficult passage coming up, or about where you will go to dinner after the performance. The mind wants to fill itself with these thoughts but when you realize you are thinking, you must keep coming back to listening. In this way it is just like meditation. Thinking about "the notes" is the most deadly. As soon as you think about what notes come next, you will miss them. This is because you have spent your hundreds or thousands of hours getting your mind and body "wired" to play the piece from some very deep part of your being. That is why when you play well you have the sensation of just watching it all happen. If you start thinking about it with your conscious mind, you get in the way of the "self" that really knows the piece, and you will stumble. (You can find plenty of references to this concept in books such as "The Inner Game of Tennis" and others, which deal with the same idea as it pertains to competitive sports.)

When you really listen, you will find yourself responding differently to what you hear each time you play. Thus, I will make slight differences in dynamics or nuances of timing each time I play, because I am free to respond to what I hear. This is what makes live performance exciting, for both the audience and the performer.

You have to try to take yourself and your ego out of it and just present the music in the most straightforward, yet beautiful, way to the audience. You don't have to "try" to make the music beautiful -- it already IS beautiful. Just get out of your own way. Even though many of us who perform do have strong egos, at the moment of performing we must set them aside so the music, not our egos, can take center stage.

If you have a stumble or small memory lapse, you rely on your preparation to get you through it without stopping, or worse yet, trying to correct or repeat the passage. It is difficult not to keep thinking about what just happened, but again, it's coming back to open listening that is the only solution.

If you practice these methods you will get better at them, naturally, and you will learn to trust yourself. When I see people who bring their written music to the performance and spend their last few minutes before going on stage pouring over their music, I know they don't trust themselves. That kind of last minute "cramming" just undermines your confidence.

When I sit down to the piano at the very beginning of a concert, my favorite thing to do is this: I look out over the beautiful 9 feet of piano stretched before me and feel gratitude that I get to play such a glorious instrument. I silently dedicate the concert I am about to play to my teacher, Joseph Prostakoff, who has been gone for almost 32 years, but who I think of daily. Had I not been lucky enough to find him I would have given up the piano. Then I just take a few breaths and calm my mind, yet at the same time I feel excited to play the music. And then, jump in. Remember, the experience can and should be fun. If you truly love the music you are playing, you can find the fun in it no matter what happens.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Common Misconceptions

I'm sure that in every field of human endeavor there are misconceptions, old-wives-tales, and out-and-out untruths that go unquestioned, are handed down through the ages, and which ultimately lead to all sorts of problems if believed and adhered to without question. Piano is no exception.

Throughout my early years of playing and studying the piano, my teachers, and many others, imparted many ideas and methods which, being young and naive, I of course accepted as fact and as being the only way to play. I later learned how many of them were simply wrong. Here are some of my "favorite" misconceptions about playing the piano:

1. We play with our fingers. Of course the fingers are the point of contact with key, but to say they do all the work would be no more correct than it would be to say you dance with your feet. The movements of the hands, arms, torso, and legs (for support and balance as well as pedaling) are all coordinated and the fingers transfer the power or energy to the keys.  I strongly discourage any aspiring pianist to do exercises that promote "independence" of the fingers. A technique based mostly on finger movements or training the fingers separately will produce mechanical-sounding playing, and in most people it will cause strain, pain and potentially injury over many years of playing that way. It's also untrue that you need "fingers of steel" or a lot of strength in the fingers. If you watch little child prodigies of age 5 or 6 play, you will realize they have very little muscle strength. Instead they have flexibility, coordination and speed, which enables them to play most of the difficult pieces adults play without having had years of building up muscle strength.

2. To get a rich or "singing" sound, you must depress the key all the way to the keybed. A very famous pianist who was my teacher for a while told me this over and over. However, the physics just don't support this theory. There is a point at which the hammer is tripped, and pressing the key past this point is pure wasted energy. You can feel that point on any given piano by pressing the key slowly, and where you feel the resistance is where the hammer will be tripped. It is a highly advanced skill to have laser-like focus and deliver your power precisely to that point and not past it, but it is a skill worth developing. You don't get loud or powerful playing by aiming deep either; you get loud playing by having greater velocity (speed) of the hammer hitting the string. To get a rich and singing tone, as many call it, is a function of many aspects of playing coming together, such as phrasing (which I might describe as blending small movements into larger ones to create a long line), nuances in timing and dynamics, having the fingers, hands and arm be supple and relaxed to transfer power to the keys, and emotional involvement which brings it all together.

3. Playing by ear is "cheating."  So many people come to me and, when they are reading a piece of music will say, "I'm not really reading, I just know this song so I'm pretty much playing it by ear." To which I say, bravo! Being able to play by ear is the ultimate show of how well-developed your ear is. It's funny, isn't it, that we idolize Mozart because he was able to hear a piece once and play it by ear, but if the rest of us do that (at least in part), it is considered cheating, and not the "real" way to learn. This is so preposterous.
I often have students learn entire pieces by ear (I play a phrase for them --they have eyes closed -- and they play it back). This is wonderful ear-training (and it simultaneously trains the memory). It is a joy to be able to just sit down and play by ear. For the pieces we simply can't learn this way, or we could but it would be too time-consuming, we have the written page. For that reason it is highly desirable to be a cracker-jack sight-reader as well, which I also teach. But playing by ear and using the ear to the greatest extent possible is to be encouraged, not disparaged.

4.To learn a piece, you should start by playing it slowly, hands separately. I believe there are far better ways to begin a new piece. Hands separately does not enable you to hear the whole texture, the complete harmonies. Educating the ear is perhaps the most important aspect of learning music, so if you are not working towards that, you are not being efficient and effective in your practice. Hands separately is just not the same coordination as hands together; it is a huge waste to spend so much practice time with one hand in your lap. Slow practice has its usefulness, but it also encourages inefficiency in technique and you may find, for example, that you use a fingering which works fine for slow playing but not necessarily for fast playing. I teach a method of learning called outlining, where you play a "sketch" of the piece. You play the essential structure of the piece, adding more and more details each time in an improvisatory way, and always hands together. You try to play it at the actual tempo of the piece, or as close to it as possible. When you become skilled at this method you can learn a great deal of the piece. Later on, you will probably need some slower practice to work on technical details that can not be mastered simply through outlining. But at least now you confine your slow practice to those passages which really require it. Going through an entire piece slowly with hands separately can be a huge time-waster. See my post on outlining for more information on this fantastic technique.

In summary, you shouldn't always believe what you were told about playing the piano (or anything else for that matter). If you feel that your practice time is not getting you the results you want, or that your playing lacks the speed, power, delicacy, subtlety, or any other aspect that you desire, question every assumption you have made. You may be operating under some major misconceptions.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Do you have a white-key mentality?

I find that many pianists who are new to the instrument, and even some more advanced players, have what I call a white-key mentality. To them, playing on the white keys is "normal" and playing in keys with sharps or flats is strange, even scary. Beginners at the piano spend far too long playing in just the key of C and develop a fear, or at least an unease, about playing in other keys. This is a detriment to mastery at the piano.

If you stay playing in C for too long, you may also develop the habit of trying to play at the edge of the keys. When you play in keys with sharps or flats you must be farther in (towards the fallboard) for your hands to be comfortable. But you must develop this habit early.

When I have a new student come to me for lessons, whether brand new to piano or an adult who played as a child, I always ask them "Why do you think we have black keys and white keys?" The absolute beginners have a good excuse not to know, but I find even players with some experience don't really know. In fact, most people have never even thought about it, nor did any previous teacher explain it. Many people will give answers such as: "they are the sharps and flats" (yes, that's what we call them but it doesn't explain why we have them), or "they are the half-steps in between the white keys" (there are white keys which are half-steps as well), or "they are the minor keys" (totally wrong, because the sound that we often associate with the word minor has to do with relationships between tones, which can be between black keys or white keys, and it not related solely to the black keys at all), or "they are dissonant" (again totally wrong because dissonance, two or more tones that clash with each other, is a function of the mathematical relationship of tones' frequencies and can occur between white or black keys). Many students will swear that the black keys, as a group, sound different than the white keys; however if they close their eyes I test them they cannot tell black keys from white. I then show them the inside of the piano, where every note is a string (or strings) struck by a hammer, and looking at the strings you could not possibly tell which belongs to a white key and which to a black. It's strange that people would hold these misconceptions, if you just think about your voice, or another instrument such as a violin or clarinet or guitar. There are no white keys or black keys on those instruments yet they play essentially the same types of music as the piano (only the melody in the case of voice, violin, etc.) People are usually quite surprised to learn that the black and white key arrangement of pianos and all keyboard instruments is purely to serve as a visual aid. Just cover up the black keys and you'll see the white keys all look alike, and you would have no idea which was which. The very ingenious arrangement of the black keys in groups of two and three enables all 12 distinct keys within the octave to each have a unique look by virtue of the other black and white keys around it. Not to mention that if there were no black keys, the keyboard would have to be quite a bit longer (or the keys narrower) to fit 88 keys within a span the arms could reach!

When beginners start out I do have them play on the white keys, in the key of C. They play simple songs by ear (see my post on the importance of playing by ear). But then as soon as possible I have them learn other scales, starting with G and F, with a very easy fingering (splitting the scale between hands), so they get familiar with these, and then play their songs in these two keys as well. That means also learning the I, IV, and V chords in each of those keys. Then we move around the Circle of Fifths until we eventually get to all keys. I cannot stress the value of this enough. Not only does it get the hands familiar with the different feel of various keys, but you are using your ear as well. When you have already played by ear in other keys, your hands just know the feel of them and it won't be difficult when you start reading in those keys.

Another tool that I stress is improvising in all keys. You must know each key so well that you just feel you are immersed in that key, that you "live" in that key. (It's just like a foreign language that you know so well you begin in "think" in that language.) Later, when you read a piece in that key it will be so natural you won't find it any effort to remember its flats or sharps. One thing that some students do is to circle all the notes that are flats or sharps. This is a terrible idea. It creates dependency on the visual cue instead of using your auditory and physical skills. And what will you do when you play in the key of F-sharp with 6 sharps, circle almost every note?

The different keys (tonalities) each have their own character (otherwise why wouldn't composers writing for piano have written everything in C?) Try to develop mastery in all keys so you don't have a white-key mentality.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Fear, Part II

In a previous post I talked about fear, especially the fear of "wrong notes," which keeps our playing from being fully expressive, fully satisfying, and which creates a host of other technical problems.

Here I'd like to discuss some of the ways fear shows itself as we play, and what we can do about it in our practice, to gradually develop a technique based on freedom rather than fear.

One of the things I see some beginners and less experienced players do is what I call "clinging to the keys." For example, the technique of substituting one finger for another on a note while holding the note: this technique is occasionally needed, but only in a slow passage where the hand has to be moved and lifting off the note would produce a disconnect that is clearly not intended in the score. However, I see inexperienced players doing this finger substitution constantly, because they are really afraid to move! It's as if their body is saying "I found this key and I'm not letting go of it until I find the next one!" It creates a kind of "crawling" around the keys. It doesn't work at all in a passage that is to be played with even moderate speed, so by over-using this technique you are truly preventing yourself from acquiring the technique needed to play rapidly. In addition, it is impossible to have good phrasing with this means of playing; just as you wouldn't sing without taking a breath at the ends of phrases, so too you must breathe when you play. The pianist needs to learn to move the hand and the arm smoothly, efficiently, and quickly with great ease, to get from place to place on the keyboard as required by the particular piece. If you watch great pianists (Martha Argerich comes to mind), you will see their hands and arms fly over the keyboard, not crawl. I teach a technique I call the "flip" which helps you learn to very rapidly move to any place on the keyboard. Continued practice of this technique produces a high degree of accuracy on any jump.

The whole matter of learning to play large jumps is one where you have to have either fantastic natural ability, or great training, to be able to do it. I didn't have the former, but I was lucky enough to get the latter from my teacher, Joseph Prostakoff. I have learned, and now teach, great methods of what I call "target practice" to enable my students to learn to play large jumps with speed and accuracy. Let's say you are working on the left hand part of a fast ragtime piece. This type of bass, sometimes called a stride bass, fills many players with fear. Because of the fear they learn to play it in a way that uses what I call "preparing;" the body (arm/hand) plays each note or chord with two distinct movements, one to find the note(s) and another to actually play them. There is a fraction of a second stop between the locating of the note (the "preparing") and the playing. If you become very sensitive to what your body is doing, you may even be able to feel yourself doing this. I teach the student how to play this type of bass with more of a "windshield-wiper" movement; in this movement there is a steady arc back and forth with the arm and no preparing, which stops the flow of the arm, if only for a nano-second, and changes the sound. Everything we do physically effects the sound we produce. Therefore you get a smoother sound when this type of passage is played with continuous movement rather than movement that has tiny "stops" in it.

One must develop a high degree of kinesthetic (body) awareness for accomplishing large jumps. If the music is slow, then of course it is easy, but if it is fast, the body must know the distance to go, and you cannot always depend on your eyes. For this reason I do a great deal of practice with eyes closed, and recommend my students do this as well. At first of course you will hit a great many wrong notes, but with continued eyes-closed practice, the body learns to judge the distances and you will have greater accuracy. Learning to depend on your body, not your eyes, is necessary for great technique. The added benefit of eyes-closed practice is that it chips away at the fear of missed notes and gives a wonderful feeling of freedom and confidence, as your hands and arms go exactly where you want them to without feeling like you are "controlling" them. This is true mastery, in my opinion.

As I observe my students' playing, I am watching their hands, arms, torso (and to a lesser extent their legs, head, eyes) to determine what is happening in the body which is producing the resulting sounds. Quite often, a problem with the sound comes from a faulty technique and quite often this problem with the technique has fear at its root. There is no point in practicing any kind of "exercise" or technique unless you first address the fear that causes you (your body) to move in that particular way. Try to become aware of the ways in which fear of wrong notes, or fear of expressing yourself, is affecting your playing, and then address that problem. It is best, of course, if you can find a teacher who can help you on that profound and wonderful journey.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Benefits of Lessons for Advanced Players

Why should a pianist who already plays the demanding and advanced piano literature, such as Chopin, Rachmaninoff, Beethoven and Brahms, still take piano lessons? And if they would benefit from lessons, what type of teacher should they be seeking?

Many advanced players would greatly benefit from lessons. We all have habits and patterns of which we are unaware. Recently I heard a pianist who has quite a bit of experience play a Chopin Nocturne. It had a repeating pattern in the base. Every time she played this pattern she had a slight delay from the first note to the second. Maybe she was totally unaware of this. Maybe she did it intentionally as a "nuance." However, when you do something meant to be an expressive nuance over and over, it is no longer a nuance; it is expected, annoying, and derails the rhythmic integrity of the piece. She also used the soft pedal for well over half the piece, even parts that weren't meant to be that soft. Was it intentional? Or did her left foot just get stuck in a pattern she has no idea she has? This pianist desperately needs a teacher who can hear and point out these things. More than that, the teacher would need to be able to do much more than say "don't do that thing you are doing." The teacher would need to guide the student into other ways of expressing herself, to a mastery of technique which would allow her a far wider range of expressive tools.

With my advanced students, my approach is simply this: as I listen to their playing, I am acutely aware of every small detail which disturbs my listening, my enjoyment, and my perception of the beauty of the piece. These "disturbances," therefore, are the problems with the playing. It doesn't mean they have to play the piece in the same way I would play it, for many different playings of the same piece can all be beautiful. But I am listening for something that undermines or unbalances the piece at a very fundamental level. At the same time I am watching everything they are doing physically, from hands to arms to torso to feet. I am not watching the written page, as I've seen almost every teacher do, to make sure they are playing the "right notes" (my ear tells me that). Through my years of experience, with my training from my earlier studies with a master teacher, and my own playing, I can see exactly what is happening physically that is causing the musical problem. It is rarely a situation that they "decided" something should sound such-and-such a way; it is almost always something that they do unconsciously. Unfortunately, we all fool ourselves into thinking we have decided on a certain interpretation of a piece, but in reality it is the limits of our physical mastery that has often decided it for us. I work with my advanced students to develop the mastery, the tools, to enable them to "say what they have to say" through their playing. I don't teach "interpretation," that is, I don't tell them to play this part softer, this part louder, this part slower or faster. If I did, they would be playing my interpretation, not their own.

When a disturbance occurs, I have many tools and methods to get them to a different physical way of playing that passage, which gives them a new experience. With a new physical experience, they begin to hear differently. I believe it is a profound truth they we play the way we hear and we hear the way we play. If you play jerkily, you will hear jerkily, so to speak, so it will sound normal, even pleasing, to you.  Think about an absolute beginner who plays Twinkle Twinkle, pounding out every note. He or she thinks it sounds fine. As they develop physically and musically, their playing changes to be more subtle. So it is as every level; the more subtle and deep your listening is, the better your playing. And vice-versa.

Apparently Tiger Woods still has a teacher, even though he is considered to be at the top of his profession. Does the teacher win more golf tournaments than his student? No. But he can see things in the student's physical movements, down to tiny details, that affect his playing of the game. Seeing them is the first step to changing and improving them. It is a wise person who knows that there is always room for improvement and does not rest on his laurels.

If you are an advanced player and feel there may be aspects to your playing that you are not entirely happy with, you may decide to seek out a teacher. If you find a teacher who can only have you play hours of technical exercises (which you could do on your own), or if they only point out the dynamic or phrase markings in the score (which you can see for yourself), or if they play the piece for you in an attempt to "show you how to play it" (you can probably find videos of greater pianists if it were only a matter of copying what you see), you are with the wrong teacher. Find out about that teacher's earlier studies: did he or she have a master teacher? Does the teacher still play the piano, at least for his or her own enjoyment? (This tells you whether he/she works at solving problems and improving their own playing in the ways they are suggesting to you, in other words, practicing what you preach.) Talk to other students of that teacher to find out if they feel their playing has improved under that teacher. Just as important, are they enjoying the process? If you aren't loving the lessons and loving the process of growing with the music, look for another teacher. If you are pouring your attention, heart and soul into your playing, you deserve a teacher who does the same when he or she sits next to you at the piano. Don't accept less.

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Adult Lessons

Most of my students are adults. It is very gratifying to work with adults. Adult students are playing the piano because they want to, and are often more motivated than kids (though I certainly have some youth students who are very motivated as well). They have more life experience to bring to their playing. They want to know the reasons for things, why I have them work in a particular way, how music "works," and so on. I enjoy the interaction and conversations I have with my adult students, many of whom have become my friends as well. Therefore I am just thrilled that, in the area I live, at least, adults are the fastest growing group of people seeking piano lessons.

My adult students range from total beginners to quite advanced, from people in their twenties to their seventies. I'm always so impressed with adults who start out as beginners, because it's not easy to be a "beginner" at something when you are already expert in other areas of life. It can be quite humbling. I'm also impressed with my advanced students. Many could just rest on their laurels and figure they play well enough, but instead they want to continue to refine and deepen their playing, which is very satisfying for me as a teacher.

Because adults have different goals and needs, they need a special kind of teacher. Quite a few of my adult students came from other teachers who really only taught kids and didn't have any idea of how to teach adults, but, I suppose, didn't want to turn the adult student away out of either kindness or monetary reasons. They did them a disservice however. Several of my adult students were given little kids' books to work from by their previous teachers, the ones with cute little pictures.... This is ridiculous, as there are many adult-oriented books available now. They often only gave 30-minute lessons, which is far too short to accomplish much, because that is what they did for kids. These previous teachers didn't address the adult students' interests in learning to play by ear, learning the basics of jazz or pop styles, or improvising. The teachers themselves just didn't have those skills so there was no way they could teach them. And, incredibly, a few of my advanced adults have told me their previous teachers had them play in the same recitals as little kids, even if they were playing Chopin and Rachmaninoff and the kids were playing Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. This is just embarrassing.

I'd like to tell you how I start adult beginners.
First, the lesson must be at least an hour. I have some who take a 90-minute lesson, because they want to move forward as quickly as possible, which is more satisfying for them.
I always start by having them play by ear. You learn to speak a language before you learn to read it. For the piano, playing simple songs by ear and harmonizing them with simple chords starts you on the path of ear-training, in a fun and meaningful way. Without the ear running the show, so to speak, you will struggle at the piano or any instrument. You also get some basic keyboard skills, just moving around the keyboard a bit and playing hands together. If you start the first lesson by reading music, you are playing things so simple it barely sounds like music. For a young child, that can be bad too, but for an adult it can be death to their enthusiasm for playing the piano. At the first lesson they are playing several songs by ear, with chords.
I also introduce improvisation at the first or second lesson. Even if they feel they know almost nothing, we "noodle around," with them playing at the top of the piano and with me at the bass. We start just on black keys, so there are less "choices" and everything sounds pretty good (they are using a pentatonic scale, which will have less possibilities for dissonance). I make sure to harmonize it in an interesting way so the whole thing sounds great. It can be sort of a new-age sound. My students, whether adults or kids, are amazed and thrilled at how good it sounds, how fun it is, and how they are able to do this with so little instruction. Improvising is the best way, at least at this stage, for them to experience "playing" the piano, as opposed to "working" the piano.
Before I introduce reading of notes, I introduce rhythm, just through clapping and listening (see my earlier blog post on rhythm), and then I show the notation for basic rhythms. Every piano teacher knows that reading and playing rhythm correctly is perhaps the biggest stumbling block for new and even intermediate players, so that is why I do this first.
Within the first month or so I introduce more chords and get them playing in keys other than C. The books keep them on the white keys for far too long, in my opinion, and create almost a phobia about playing in other keys. I get them used to it early on.
After a while I introduce note reading, using an adult book. I  have never found an adult book which does everything the way I would like but we make it work by my supplementing with additional information. (I'll have to write my own adult beginner book one day, I suppose.)
When their chord knowledge is sufficient and reading is progressing well, I introduce reading from fake books, where they play a song reading the melody from notation and chords from chord symbols. I have never had an adult student who hasn't been thrilled to be able to do this. It gives them immediate satisfaction to play songs they know and like, and to learn it much more quickly than they would reading it in 100% notation. As they progress further with this, they make their own arrangements of the chords so they have their own version of the song. Even people who want to focus on classical music enjoy doing this and it benefits them greatly to learn so much about chords and harmony.
I never give adult students books of "finger exercises," which I don't believe in for kids either. We work on technique in our pieces, in ways where the student can see the immediate application of the technique. This is more efficient use of their time.
Speaking of which, adult students, who often work, have families and other responsibilities, need a method which maximizes their precious and limited practice time. My methods do exactly that.
Lastly, when they want to get some experience playing in front of people, they have a wonderful opportunity at my adult "soirees" (we don't call them recitals). My adult students all get together, along with their spouses or guests, at the home of one of my students (also a friend) who has a large space with a concert grand. We all play for each other, even if it is a "work in progress" (an advanced student working on a large piece may play just a portion of it, for example). Then we have dinner, drinks, and socializing, and a great time is had by all. It's very supportive and gives them a chance to overcome nervousness about playing for others. Several of my students have become friends with each other through these events, and I'm so thrilled that I have helped create a community of music-lovers.

In a future post I'll describe the benefits of lessons for advanced players, and how I approach that.

If you are someone with a desire to play the piano but have dreaded the idea of lessons because of ideas you may hold about what lessons would be like, I encourage you to try to find a teacher who really knows how to teach adults.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

What About Fingering?

When pianists begin to learn a new piece, one aspect that consumes a lot of their attention is the whole matter of fingering. Many jazz pianists who play more by raw instinct perhaps do not worry about it, and simply let the the hands find their own way, so to speak, without planning it all out. But aspiring classical pianists and students of the piano, in my view, have a great deal of misunderstanding about the whole issue of fingering, which often prevents them from developing really strong technique.

You have read in my previous posts that I believe many ideas about piano technique were formed in the early days of the piano, when the piano literature was quite limited in its technical demands, the pianos themselves were quite different, and real knowledge about the physical actions of our bodies and how they produce sounds was virtually non-existent. The pieces of this era were what I would call quite "finger-y," in that they have a lot of scale passages, Alberti basses (simple broken chord patterns for the left hand), and simple melodies that span only a small section of the keyboard. Those pieces did not have the sweeping arpeggios, lush chords, and booming octaves that came later with Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt, and Brahms, to name just a few. These demand an entirely different type of technique, based more on the arm. To focus on "fingering" is to approach it backwards, in my opinion.

When I begin to learn a new piece, I do an outline (see my previous post on this topic). I don't worry about deciding on fingering at all at this stage. Doing a broad sketch of the piece gives me the lay of the land; I start to know where my hands and arms need to be from moment to moment. Where my hands need to be reflects the phrasing. A passage which is a single phrase needs to be connected by long continuous movements of the arm. When a new phrase begins, the arm moves to it as naturally as you would breathe between phrases of a song. In fact, the analogy of the song and breathing is very useful to learning to play with beautiful phrasing.
As I start to fill in more detail in the outline, more detail will also come regarding the exact placement of the hand from passage to passage, measure to measure, and that will determine the fingering.

Fingering is not a "one-size-fits-all." The size and shape of each pianist's hands will make some fingerings more comfortable and others more awkward. You must develop a keen awareness of what is comfortable for your hands. I believe it is a big mistake to blindly follow the fingerings written in the musical scores, which so many students try to do. These are just one person's opinion. You do not know if that person's hands were anything like your own. You don't even really know how successful that person was at playing the piece! In most cases, the fingerings you see are put in by an editor, and not by the composer. Even if they are put in by the composer, there is no reason to assume that there is only one way to play the piece. You must find what works for you. Therefore, I suggest buying unedited versions of the music whenever possible. If the fingering is written in, either ignore it or even white it out. If a passage in the music is particularly tricky and you need to decide in more detail how you will manage it, you can write in a few finger numbers here and there, which essentially remind you of how you will transition from place to place to accomplish the passage. The rest of the fingering will be obvious and you shouldn't need to write every finger used for every note.

There are also a number of myths and arbitrary rules about fingering, such as avoiding thumbs on black keys. This is absolutely ridiculous. Try playing Chopin's "Black Key Etude" or Debussy's "Clair du Lune" without putting your thumbs on any black keys! Again this idea took hold in the early days, and may have worked for the simple music of Clementi, or even Mozart, but certainly cannot work for most of the repertoire now. I have seen people come up with bizarre, uncomfortable positions for the hand and go through all sorts of gyrations just to avoid thumbs on black keys. If your overall use of your arms, hands and fingers is based on real, solid principles, you can use almost any fingering and make something work. For example, I can play any and all scales with the same fingering you would use for the C scale (1,2,3,1,2,3,4,5); therefore, in the scale of B-flat, my thumb will fall on both black keys, the B-flat and the E-flat. I can do this, with great speed and absolute smoothness, because I don't do the traditional crossing the thumb under. Instead I employ a very quick arm movement and can transfer from one hand position to another, anywhere on the keyboard, with speed, accuracy, and perhaps most important, no strain on the hand. Researching this topic I have found several references to the fact that Liszt used this technique and Chopin taught it as well. The whole matter of crossing the thumb under, or crossing fingers in general, is often badly taught, badly applied, and creates more problems than it solves.

With a solid understanding of technique and a teacher who can help you develop your technique, you will have many more tools in your toolbox than just the old ideas about good fingering. Again I would point you to Abby Whiteside's seminal book, The Indispensables of Piano Playing.

Monday, January 16, 2012

It's All Relative

We live in a world where many people want to convince us that there are only absolutes: absolute good and evil, absolute truths, absolute friends and enemies. They insist on their beliefs in absolutes in the areas of politics and religion, to name a few, and, true to form, they say you must follow them absolutely or be absolutely wrong and damned forever. As I write this, election season is in full swing, so the rhetoric about absolute values bombards us constantly.

One of the things I love about music is that, unlike some other areas of our lives, very few people, especially musicians themselves, insist on absolutes. After all, just about everything you can name about music is relative. Here are some examples:

Pitch: You may think that a song or piece of music is made up of pitches, tones, which can be said to have definite and measurable frequencies (vibrations per second). However, one tone or pitch by itself does not make music; it must have other tones, and it is the relationship of these tones to each other, both horizontally (the melody) and vertically (the harmony) that make the music. You can sing a song starting on any pitch and it is still the same song. You can transpose any piece of music to a different key, essentially changing all the notes of that piece, but still preserving all the relationships. It's the relationships that make it recognizable.

Rhythm: The rhythmic patterns we find in music, the tones of shorter or longer duration and all their possible combinations, are about the relationship of these tones to each other in time. A quarter note is not an absolute value; it is a unit of time which varies from piece to piece, from section to section within a piece, and even from moment to moment when the piece slows down or speeds up. The value of that quarter note changes depending on the person playing the piece, and the same performer will likely give it a slightly different value every time he or she plays that piece. Composers give us general guidelines (allegro, andante, largo, etc.) but the rest is up to our judgement and personal tastes.  It's all relative, and thank goodness for that; otherwise it would all sound robotic.

Dynamics: Composers may indicate "soft" or "loud" or "very loud" on a score, but are there any absolute values for these? Of course not. Again, it's up to the individual musician.

Musical notation: Many students of music, learning to read music for the first time, will memorize the note names on the musical staff. Various acronyms ("Every Good Boy Does Fine") are sometimes used to help students commit the notes to memory. But change the clef sign, and the notes on the staff are all different. Many musicians in the orchestra read in other clefs than pianists do, and for pianists the treble and bass clef are different from each other. So can we really say the notes have absolute values? It's a flexible, movable system, a pretty brilliant one at that.

In my teaching, I try to emphasize the relativity of the elements of music. I start students off by playing by ear and playing simple songs, with chords, in several keys, so they immediately understand that our music is based on the scale, and, since the scale can be built starting on any key, so, too, can music move to any key. This builds the ear, the knowledge of all 12 keys, and gives greater freedom and flexibility to one's playing.

I emphasize the relativity of rhythm by having my students clap units of time and then "cut" them, to hear the divisions of that unit. (See my earlier post on rhythm and my analogy of chopping logs.) No matter the size of the "unit," short or long, they can hear the relationships of the pieces to the whole. I never use a metronome or emphasize any absolute values or tell them what speed to play a piece. The choices of tempo and dynamics are up to them. I may guide them in how to make those decisions, but I don't want their choices to be my choices.

In reading music, I teach students how to read by interval and learn to "navigate" between them by how it feels in the hands (not by looking at the hands or keys) and not to even be concerned with note names as they play. It's this skill of navigation that makes for great sight-reading. The added bonus is that you can learn to transpose at sight, a valuable skill if you accompany singers or instrumentalists. It's all about seeing the relative position of the pitches, and keeping in mind what key (scale) you are in, which, again, is relative.

With every passing day and year I spend as a musician, I'm convinced that the lessons learned from playing the piano are applicable to just about every area of life. Relationships are not only important, one could almost say they are everything, in music and in life. Let's not worry about absolutes, but embrace relativity.