It can feel quite strange for students of fluent musicianship to be forced to think of nothing but a simple model of how music works: I won’t allow students’ focus to drift towards anything other than intending musical shapes made from rhythm cells and tonal blocks plugged into the rhythmic matrix and keyboard map. At the slightest sign of critical thinking, ruminating or analysing, I pounce! Success is completely dependent on finding a single-minded moment-by-moment focus on the model and I realise that this approach can seem dogmatic. I make jokes about wanting blind obedience and PlayPianoFluently being a cult and when these jokes don’t raise a laugh, it’s a little unnerving for me…
PlayPianoFluently is not a cult!
So it’s very tricky for me as a teacher. Any cognitive distractions away from the model as you play are just that… distractions! So I have no choice but to coach people to stop thinking, to simply focus on the components of a basic model unfolding in real time! I have to test their learning as if they were five years old and five-year-olds would find it no more difficult than adults with all their sophisticated reasoning skills. It requires less deep investigation or nuanced understanding and more simple memorising. And it seems to go against the established current mores of education, mores that make a virtue of students thinking for themselves and finding their own path to understanding, mores which are good and right, I’d say, in most learning contexts. But as playing the keys fluently is a skill to be practised, rather than a path of intellectual discovery, the mind needs only to be focused and still. I would be lying if I didn’t teach it in this way.
Really I’m the very opposite of a dogmatist as a piano teacher. I do encourage students to explore, creatively, passionately and self-indulgently, just not cognitively. I want them to do it on the level of pure feeling rather than thinking, discover themselves more with the intelligence of the body and soul than the head. I want them to surrender and rebel against their fearful inner critic; to express themselves playfully, generating drama, poetry, unfolding story, nuance, tension and resolution.
Be self-indulgent, free and rebellious
How a fluent musician explores the way musical shapes unfold in the rhythmic matrix to create the amazing landscape of musical meaning is completely and utterly up to them as an individual. A teacher should dictate nothing. But the part of the brain that explores, experiences and generates this musical landscape feels less like the mind and more like the body and soul. It’s a visceral, sensual, emotional and ultimately very personal journey of discovery. The cognitive mind needs to be quiet, calm and clearly focused for this freedom to occur.
Most of the time in our busy civilised lives, we are consumed by constant mental striving: an endless cognitive chatter, measuring, checking, judging, evaluating and arguing about what and who is right and this keeps the body-and-soul part of our wisdom under wraps. Music is a rebellion against this current default way of relating to each other and the world. There are not very many activities that unlock our inner selves in this very free, unfettered way, where critical evaluation becomes redundant – certain sports might come close, especially extreme ones like surfing, martial arts and of course fluent performing arts like dancing and music-making. Making music is one of those rare activities that can totally free the genie and grant us our deepest wish to experience life directly and uncensored.
In the throes of unfolding musical expression, the mind must be humble and quiet – obedient even – whilst the body and soul become active and take over. However, the mind has a very important job to do in keeping a constant focus: it must stay awake and alert in order to choose or “tag” shapes made from rhythm cells and tonal blocks plugged into the matrix and the keyboard map. Of course, it must do that actively and this is a mental skill which requires practice. It must do this well… only nothing else!
When you know the language of music fluently, you love to discover new music. Whilst it is natural, up to a point, to want to play music we know and love, there can be rather a delusional element to this, if what you are playing sounds less intelligible than you might think…
Chopin’s G minor Ballade is one of those pieces that is played a great deal and often rather mangled by exaggerated rubato and mannered interpretation. I love to reveal the unvarnished truth about music, to reveal its natural patterns and structure. For me, allowing the rhythm and melodic lines to flow with natural flexibility only adds to the extraordinary cathartic beauty of Chopin’s refined yet emotional and virtuoso composition.
Playing by pinning fingers to set keys destroys natural musical fluency – you can use any fingers.
If we can only play music using the same fingers every time, it means that muscle memory has such a critical role in how we play the piano that our musicianship is stunted. On the other hand. If we can play the same passage using different fingering each time, this means that we know how patterns of the music are formed within the structure of the keyboard.
This is fluency – the ability to effortlessly understand how patterns of tonality and rhythm are formed. It is the ability to intend every sound as we make it, to know where it lives in the tonal structure of the keyboard. True improvising – or composing in real time – becomes impossible if we rely on executing muscle-memorised finger patterns. We need to see that we can learn to improvise music as naturally as we speak, then we will play with ease and flow. Playing by pinning fingers to set keys destroys this natural musical fluency.
What makes a good piano sound?
A good piano sound comes from a combination of factors. We must have a decent instrument with a good range of volume and timbre. It must have a reliable action with a wide range of velocity available so that you can control the sound. Acoustic pianos must be new or well maintained, whilst all the major makes of digital pianos, Yamaha, Kawai, Roland and Casio make pianos with excellent actions.
I prefer the sounds generated either by good acoustic pianos or by physical modelling technology not sampling. This is because physical modelling can offer the same kind of detailed expressive control that you get from acoustic pianos. I use Pianoteq for my piano sounds and it is amazingly expressive and responsive and sounds great. It’s so important to remember that expressive control plays a much bigger part in generating a great piano sound than you might think… So, for a great sound to come out of any piano, you need great technical control and musical imagination to make it really speak or sing.
Expressive control plays a much bigger part in generating a great piano sound than you might think. For a great sound to come out of any #piano, you need great technical control and musical imagination to make it really speak or sing. Click To Tweet
So let’s think about how we control piano sound in more detail.
Velocity controls volume and timbre and different velocities combine to shape melody and balance harmonies. In this way we can create many different colours
Playing notes legato, or staccato, and everything in between in various combinations creates different qualities of sound.
Precise timing of musical events occur within the rhythmic groove really affects how we hear the sound. Listen to these expressive delays and how they make the sound feel thicker and warmer.
So as the music unfolds rhythmically we vary the sound dynamically in these ways. As a general rule, we make a stronger sound by playing LOUDER, LONGER or LATER and we make a weaker sound by playing SOFTER, SHORTER or SOONER. But this simple rule belies the ambiguity, subtlety and seemingly infinite complexity that arise when we play.
You’ll notice, I’m also using the sustain pedal. Because it releases all the dampers, it doesn’t just sustain notes but also adds layers of resonance to the sound as all the strings vibrate sympathetically. Half-pedalling in particular creates many different subtleties of colour.
Reverb and FX
Room acoustics affect the way a piano sounds profoundly. Where a piano is placed within a room with ambient reflections is a very important consideration and will affect the way we play. When recording, using effects like compression and chorus can also affect the sound.
A pianist must combine all these controlling factors intentionally as the music unfolds. It’s a complex process: we must do it naturally and intuitively. So the most important controller is YOU.
We must use the muscles in our hands and arms to coordinate all the movements in an economic and relaxed way. The hand works like a claw, and the fingers must feel like they are walking rhythmically on the keys. The weight of your arms must be supported by the trapezius – never twist your hands to sit on the keys with your elbows dropped or tucked in. This arm position means we can make use of gravity and never push or force, even for the loudest sounds. We must only play the keys from a touching position – touch the key surface before dropping down to the key bed. Never slap down through the keys from above as this is uncontrolled and can cause injury. The finger drops down to the key bed hitting it at the precise moment we intend rhythmically and makes a soft landing with the characteristic upward feeling at the moment of impact that we all feel in our legs when we walk, run or jump.
A good technique feels natural but precise as it must respond perfectly to our musical intention. Stick to these basic principles of technique. Don’t over-analyse or practise technique outside of playing music expressively. Obsessively developing strength or independence of the fingers is usually counterproductive and can be really damaging. Just let your fingers walk over the keys rhythmically and then they can play with natural and effortless expression.
Your creative musical mind
Your moment-by-moment expressive choices or intentions to tell your musical story meaningfully and authentically determine what dynamics, articulation, timing and pedalling you will use to make a truly great sound. These choices are all governed by our musicianship, specifically our ability to understand how rhythmic and tonal patterns make sense. This is an intuitive skill, but we can develop conscious fluency just as we all have using language. To do this, we need to develop a clear grasp rhythmic and tonal vocabulary and structure. Theoretical elements like notes, chords, intervals, keys and note values don’t generate fluency as they require too much cognitive decoding to grasp quickly enough to be fluent. My PlayPianoFluently course teaches the real vocabulary of music that we can effortlessly hear and understand naturally in real time as the music unfolds.
So to get a great sound out of a piano, we must use skill and imagination to INTEND that sound expressively. Of course, people have different tastes and music comes in different styles so it’s great that we have pianos with different sounds. We can argue about the relative merits of different pianos for as long as we like. But as long as a piano is well made and working properly, we can approach playing it by considering what particular things it can do well. What kind of sounds can it make to bring the music to life? How can I use my skills to do this?
To get a great sound out of a piano, we must use skill and imagination to INTEND that sound expressively. Click To Tweet
People often think that I manage to get a good sound on my recordings because I’m clever at tweaking the parameters in Pianoteq to make my own presets. I’m not all that clever or experienced at doing this. I do have a go at it sometimes but the default presets are actually really great as long as you use your technique and imagination to get great sounds out of them.
This spontaneous improvisation has a wistful feeling with its modal tonality: the sun should be shining in June and on such a gloomy day, a little improvising on the piano can bring a little warmth and comfort… I will feature it on my album of 16 unplanned improvisations, which will be released in a few weeks’ time.
Three beautiful, introspective piano pieces by Brahms: smouldering with understated passion and pathos yet darkly sweet and deeply comforting. I find this music richly warm and compassionate!
The piano was traditionally the instrument of songwriting, always perceived as the perfect accompaniment to the voice. But in popular music today, that position belongs to the guitar. I have some theories about how and why this has happened.
By the turn of the 20th century, the piano had become a popular symbol of the middle class elite: there were a hundred different manufacturers residing in New York alone! Classical artists like Rubinstein and Horowitz had the status of film stars. As the heyday of iconic stars and showbiz glamour peaked, the slightly terrifying character of Liberace took to the world’s stage, championing the piano’s glitzy aspirational appeal in a way that would outdo even the most tasteless bling of certain 90s rappers.
Of course, the piano was seamlessly involved in the advent of soul, blues and rock and roll and there are always artists like Stevie Wonder or Elton John who make the piano a star in its own right… But the combination of elitist snobbery and rather base status-seeking materialism in the consumer age has had a negative effect on this glorious instrument’s ongoing role in music; whilst by contrast, the guitar, in both its acoustic and electric incarnations, has naturally been given full prominence. This is because the guitar is the instrument of the people: it is cheap, lightweight, sounds great and has never been the object of shameless elitism or material aspiration.
It’s not a real piano…
Electric pianos that appeared mid-century were certainly cheaper than a Steinway… But they were still quite expensive. And worse, people tended to look down on them as lacking the all-important status of the “real thing”. They were considered fake in a way that electric guitars never were. Of course, loads of amazing music has been made on these wonderful-sounding pianos – especially those manufactured by Rhodes, Wurlitzer and Hohner, but the popular music industry has never really put them front and centre as they did guitars. Keyboard synthesisers, on the other hand, have enjoyed both cult and popular status. This role of the keyboard has evolved effortlessly into the digital age and the keyboard features very prominently in produced music. But on stage, a synth – old analogue or new digital – is a very different animal: it is less alive, less natural or human and it feels much less connected expressively. Synths are also undergoing huge technological evolution: I have acquired a Roli Seaboard which feels extraordinarily organic and musically connected. But the piano remains my first love!
New piano technology
Of course, digital pianos are now very established and popular. But let’s be honest here… They are often thought of as something you buy for your children to practise their scales on! But in their stage format, they have become more and more popular, and even feature prominently, especially in jazz-influenced music! I love this resurgence. New physical modelling technology, that I use, especially the amazing software Pianoteq by Modartt means that I can combine a laptop with a lightweight portable digital piano and a sound system and I have a piano that sounds every bit as wonderful as acoustic and electric pianos. I hope manufacturers will start to develop exciting new designs for stage pianos, as looks are of course a very important part of the aesthetics of a musical instrument. Electric guitars often have beautiful and innovative designs; whereas stage pianos generally just look very techy.
Hoping for a resurgence of the piano in popular music
Obviously, the guitar is also the most user-friendly instrument for developing musical skills. The non-classical approach of learning chords and rhythm patterns fosters a high degree musical fluency in guitarists. This fluency that makes the instrument feel like a part of you, so you play it directly from the body and soul, means that the guitar is ideal both for inspired songwriting and performing. But I think the piano could regain its position as the ultimate songwriter’s instrument! The problem is that fluent skills on the piano keys are sadly rather rare and composers rely more and more on computers to do their musical thinking for them! But in the hands of a truly fluent pianist, as well as being able to generate very complete and complex musical textures, the piano is also capable of evoking an extraordinary level of musical expression and atmosphere. The autonomy and feeling of connection from the body and soul to the music that a pianist can have is every bit as strong as that of a guitarist, but on a bigger scale.
I have developed a teaching model that provides people with real fluent musicianship skills on the keys. I would love to think that when published, my course might help many students of the piano become empowered musically in a similar way that learning guitar does already. Perhaps this, combined with new portable instruments that sound acoustically rich and beautiful, means that in the future, the piano can stand alongside the guitar as the people’s instrument.
I feel it is important that people are challenged for looking down on stage pianos believing that their expensive acoustic counterparts are inherently better. As practising musicians, we know that this view does not really hold up to scrutiny. Whilst I’m not asking anyone to lose their love for acoustic pianos – they are beautiful machines – it would be great if people checked their true motives for denigrating digital or electric pianos and embraced the wonders of new technology as people had to do in the 18th century when the piano was a new invention.
Music is human for me, or maybe more than human, maybe divine. It is love. It comes from the same place as beauty and grace in nature. It is a communion between hearts and souls that is profoundly consoling or cleansing. It releases our darkest nightmares and illuminates our being.
A Glossy Commodity
When music is contrived to be a commodity, it can lose some of its profound essence and become merely sound. The meanings carried in the shapes and patterns, the complex and subtle messages degrade when the ego is in charge. Because of the nature of music, its truth tends to be pretty resilient and its beauty shines through even in the most tightly manufactured production.
But that’s because of our musical nature. Even a ticking clock can seem to have a rhythmic groove as it passes through the filter of our musical understanding.
More than Perfect
Human rhythmic flexibility and tonal nuance, the seeming imperfections of a living breathing musician that are more perfect than any machine can create with algorithms… these deliciously natural sounds require the kind of skills that our twenty-first century minds can tend to ignore. As we obsess over AI, we see nature less as mysterious or divine and more as a simple act of programming. And surely we might just be missing the point!
The skill of a surfer implausibly riding terrifyingly huge waves is a feat that perhaps the most advanced AI might one day reproduce robotically – I wonder… But on some level of our perception, the robotic quality might just be evident. Some aesthetic aspect, some quality of grace or exhilaration might be missing in the almost perfect imitation of the original experience. Certainly, even the most advanced CGI today still fails to look like a human face in expressive motion. Or does it?
Are We Forgetting what Natural Sounds Like?
The Turing test may not be holding water. These days, I see so many people on screens and even in the flesh, whose faces seem more and more to mimic the conformed generalisations that AI must rely on to create its effigies. If we humans are imitating machines, in our looks, our expressions and manners, perhaps even in our very thinking, then failing to tell the difference between artificial and natural intelligence is a perfectly plausible result.
The quantisation of rhythm or pitch, can make music robotic. So much music sounds robotic to me. I’m not talking about the heavy-handed, 80’s style, midi robotic sound, which is altogether more fun and less frightening, but a kind of sonic airbrushing that is far more sinister because it is so subtle and not detectable to the rational judging mind. The unease we feel is only in our souls. If we fail to engage our heart and soul in our listening, it will go completely unnoticed. Perhaps it is the reinstatement of this hidden humanity in live performances that stops them from feeling disappointing after the perfected recorded versions we hear all the time.
The Return to Natural Beauty
Musicians must fight this trend for cosmetic perfection and the soullessness it brings. To do this, we must work on our skills. We must practise our ability to engage in real, fluent musical communication and surf the waves of free, surrendered musical expression that has flesh and blood, heart and soul and natural beauty. I believe the trend against music that is sterile and ego-driven is already happening. Let’s champion it at every opportunity and make it grow!
A glorious, melodic, dark and richly virtuoso piece by Rachmaninov. With its long, tuneful lines, filigree textures and dramatic pauses, it has an epic quality, despite being quite short.