Non-perishable skills, like language, walking, riding a bike are valuable. So many people learn set pieces and scales but without constant practice, their memory begins to fade. Aural and muscle memory do not survive the brain drain which afflicts us all. But playing the piano fluently relies on non perishable skills.
Finding a new way of learning
My ideas about musical fluency have existed for quite a while in various forms and I have shared materials via www.playpianofluently.com. I now have a solid scheme of work and am developing coherent materials that effectively create a complete course. I’m very excited to share my approach to learning piano in a way that has real clarity and structure.
I am very proud of the course and incredibly grateful to all my students, especially Dave, Paul, Thomas, Jemima and Steve for their extraordinary patience. It is really down to them that the materials exist in their current form. They demanded clear explanation and illustration of the ideas and have experimented tirelessly in their tireless quest for musical fluency on the piano.The principles behind PlayPianoFluently are simple. But to describe something which seems quite obvious to me, in a structured course, using words and pictures has been a big task.
The courage to let go – focus on the matrix and keyboard map
I love the “learning to ride a bike” analogy. Non perishable skills are a foundation for lifelong learning. Most people, when they learn to play the keys, focus on the notes – decoding the dots on the music seen as a list of pitch and time data. Alternatively they focus on the musical result and play in a “karaoke” way, relying on muscle and aural memory. Decoding is rather like examining the components of the bicycle as you ride it: the gears, the pedals, the brakes etc. Karaoke playing is like looking around you at the scenery passing by. Clearly, neither of these is the right focus to use when cycling. And they are dangerous too!
The right focus is, of course, the road. Just keep pedalling, keep your hands on the handlebars and brakes and look at the road! All the various things you do – steer, brake, pedal at different rates etc. – happen as a natural response from the body that comes with practice. All you need to do is know where you are as you focus on the path ahead. And this conscious focus on the road – although effortless to do after practice – must always be maintained.
The symmetrical structure of the matrix and the keyboard map are what forms the road in this analogy. You must focus entirely on their deep structures. This is the focus that you need, not thinking about notes. And mindless repetition or rehearsal of the exact same movements is equally corrosive to those all important non perishable skills. Too much repetitious practice can cause awful problems in even the most amazing musicians.
Explore the musical landscape
The truth is, making this shift of focus is not so difficult really. The blockages to acquiring these non perishable skills are entirely the result of the persistent mental distraction of decoding the notes and doing karaoke (the mechanics of the bike and the beautiful scenery!) If you want to analyse the score as data, then go ahead and study musical theory and analysis! If you want to passively watch the musical scenery without having to actually ride a path safely through it, then just go to a concert or put a record on! Playing fluently needs different attention.
You need to see the wholeness and symmetry that underpins the musical landscape as a constant, unchanging, familiar, beautiful and crystal clear underlying framework. Then you will be able to navigate any path you like through it, effortlessly and coherently. And because your skills are non perishable, you will enjoy exploring music for your whole life.
So when people ask “Does the PlayPianoFluently course really work?”, I give answers like, “It does if you actually do it!” or “It works for me!” I used to say that the last thing the world needed was another piano method! I felt that musical fluency as I experience it is built on a model or solid principles and that the course a student takes should be their own journey of discovery.
A tool box
It is the understanding and application of those principles with clear focus and consistent practice that is the key to success. But I realise that a well designed course is a vital tool for the student. However, It is only a tool box: or maybe a toy box. It is up to you to grasp the model, focus on it and practise maintaining that focus as you play with the materials. What you play is less important; it is what you focus on as you play that really matters. So go exploring!