Sunday, February 15, 2015

Learning the Piano as Self-development

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, February 13, 2015


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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