Many of us like attending workshops, masterclasses, piano courses and numerous piano lessons, continuously learning. And it is a good thing! But sometimes we get so wrapped up in a learning process, that we forget to stop and ask ourselves: What Exactly Have We Learned? We may be surprised, that if we sit down and think, we would discover that we know much more. The only thing is that our knowledge is scattered all over our brain, like a mess in an untidy flat.
How often do we come to piano lessons and say: ‘I practise and practise, but I cannot get it right! It is not happening for me!’ Or, ‘it worked well at home, but when I come here it all falls into pieces?’
I see it more often than I can count. And the reason for this, I believe, is because we, our society, are gradually stopping thinking. With the current automatisation for everything which we may want, from parcel delivery, to booking an appointment, monitoring our sleep and our steps, our heart beats, our moods, all these structures are telling us what we should do and what we need to know. In return, we accept it, often without question, and therefore became slaves to all of these systems. And then, gradually, we stop thinking for ourselves.
On the plus side, everything seem to look easier, simpler and quicker.
On the downside, not only we are gradually stopping thinking for ourselves, but we are becoming ‘the slaves’ of those systems, as they constantly tell us what to do.
However these systems were originally designed by people and therefore we become the slave of someone else’s intentions and thoughts. Depending on whose brain is behind the system, it can be a good thing or a bad thing, but, most importantly, we are gradually stopping thinking for ourselves, and accepting what is given. As I said, this applies to everything which is happening in the world now (from politics to social media, advising us on every single aspect of our lives), but for the purposes of this article, here I want to refer to one topic: piano playing.
Many piano players are simply not aware as to what they know, as they are constantly looking for an advice and support from outside, without taking the time to assess what they already know, by checking out their internal knowledge.
When I designed Piano-Yoga® masterclasses 2020, which offer an holistic approach to learning and playing piano, I created them in a way which offers a structure to the learning process, one which builds it ‘brick by brick’; from how to guide our attention to how to choose the best fingering, perfect your sound-colouring, posture, memory, etc. The goal was to gather all the knowledge in systems so the participants can learn them, and later apply themselves.
But before embarking on such masterclasses, if you are someone who has already had at least two years’ of piano lessons, and has been playing the piano for at least 3 years, you may be surprised by what you discover if you asses what you already know!
Here is a little assessment which you can do, before you start learning a piece of music and even before you go and see your teacher:
1. Stage 1: Aesthetics of the piece:
Step 1: Try to sight read the new piece which you are about to learn
Step 2: Listen to a recording of the piece, the first time without the music, the second time whilst following the music in front of you.
Step 3: Sit down and think:
1) How does this piece makes me feel? What is it about? What was the composer trying to convey?
2) Can I understand the structure of the piece? For example: in Sonata form, can you identify the exposition, development and recapitulation? If you don’t know what they are, don’t worry, just think Section 1, Section 2, Section 3 etc. Mark them in the music. Then see how these sections develop through one to another: using crescendo or subito piano, or sudden stops, or ritenuto? What emotion and energy is behind the music in each section? Create a map of the development of the piece, even on a separate piece or paper or by marking it on the music itself. All this should happen before you even start working on learning the notes.
Stage 2: Bricks and Mortar
Here you can start working on each phrase, technically.
Step 1: Look at the first section. How many phrases does it have? Mark them on the music.
Step 2: Look at the texture. Is it a classical one (melody is in the right hand and the broken chord accompaniment in the left) or romantic one (it still can have a melody in the right hand and use the left hand as accompaniment however voiced differently with more texture, multiple voicing, or chords, or even re-playing the main melody) or it is a baroque composition where the hands are equal (polyphony)?
Step 3: Once you have identified the ‘language of the phrase’, here you can start applying the techniques needed to create the right sound. First, imagine the sound you want to create in your head, and then use the right technique and your ears to produce that sound on the piano.
At this stage, I accept, you may not know what techniques to use, so this is where you need professional advice, ideally from an expert! But this is the first moment where you would need someone else’s input. Until then, the whole process has been entirely in your hands.
However, are you sure that you don’t know what you know?
My advice is (and this may take a while, but once you do it, it will last you a lifetime, and you will be developing this as you progress on the piano) to write down on the piece of paper:
1. When I play baroque music (Bach, Handel, etc.). which piano touch should I use? Hand position? Finger engagement (strong verses soft, which part of the finger is more engaged)? Sound between the hands (Equal?, or if one hand is louder, then when?) Analyse what you know!
2. When I play romantic music (Chopin, Liszt, Schumann, etc) Answer the same questions. Try to pin down everything you may know to the last detail. How to I hold my body, my hands, my forearms, my wrists?
3. When I play Russian 20th century music (Prokifiev, Schostakovich) what is the pre-dominant touch I use, if there is one?
4. When I play French 20th Century Music (Debussy, Satie) What is my sound palette?
And the list can go on. Here are just starting points.
By creating these notes and cultivating an awareness, you will be surprised to discover what you know and also what you don’t know! This will be a start, and when you come to your teacher, you will have specific questions about sound, style, hand position, etc.
First a teacher will probably answer which techniques you need to use in order to create those (sounds, posture, hand position, etc). If he/she thinks that you don’t have the capacity for this at present, then he/she will probably suggest various exercises and techniques you need to develop these skills. It is that simple!
This will be your process of learning a new piece of music. Once you work through all the phrases (and this could take a while, from weeks to months, depending on how complex the composition is, unless the piece is one page, then we are talking just a few days) you can proceed to Stage 3.
Stage 3: Creativity flourished
It could be surprising, but here we are going back to the original Stage one. Meaning, remind ourselves what the composer wanted to convey with the music? What is its structure? Finally, what YOU, as the artist (as you are the one who is performing it), want to express through this piece? What emotions you want to present, what feelings, moods, which picture you would like to draw with your performance?
With that in mind, start playing the composition, where all the phrases and sections become the expression of your emotions and thoughts. And to perfect this will also take some time! From days to weeks, depending on how well you learned the piece in Stage 2.
Then you can really take the credit for performing and learning the piece of music properly. Your teacher should be your guide, but, remember, the artist is YOU. You are the one who is making the final decision on everything and taking responsibility for every single note and sound which you produce. And if later you think that you have been wrong, it is OK! You are the artist, and you are developing and learning! Sometimes we change our mind about things (think about various artists, who recorded the same pieces with different interpretations at different stages in their lives).
Following this process will make you feel more authentic, as it will be your creative process which will guide your self-development and therefore, the outcome will be far more rewarding!
If you have any questions for me, please feel free to email me, and I shall answer them on my YouTube channel (@pianoyogaeducation) to which you are welcome to subscribe if you wish to hear my thoughts on piano playing and learning. And if you would like to find out more about the Piano-Yoga® masterclasses which are taking place in London throughout 2020, here is the link. The next masterclass on 'How to be the best pianist you can be by understanding your body' will take place on the 26 February at 6:15pm at Schott Music, London.
Enjoy your practice, and your creative journey!