A musician’s perspective on music shaming

When people feel that their musical taste is superior to others’ they are obviously committing a sin of arrogance. It’s fine to be an enthusiastic champion of our beloved genres and artists and to appreciate all their amazing qualities, and equally, there is no sin in saying that certain music is just not your cup of tea, but clearly it is highly offensive to disregard or insult music that others love. Yet this bad behaviour is very common.

We musicians are keenly aware that inevitably some people will not like our music very much. We must accept that simple truth calmly. However, it is very hard to accept people disregarding or disrespecting our work – a painful and all too common experience. One might think that it is just ignorance which lies at the basis of their failure to respect or show interest in our musical endeavours but arrogance and jealousy are also likely culprits. Of course, many of my friends do ask me about how my work creating and teaching music is going. They do this in exactly the same way they would show interest in the work and career of any friend, whatever their chosen field. But often such common friendliness is not extended to musicians. Given that our careers are so much more than just a job but something that we pour our hearts and souls into, it feels like extremely unfriendly behaviour when someone shows no interest in our current projects. Even when I am bold enough to volunteer information, many people tend to respond in a perfunctory way or even just stare blankly back. Why on earth would otherwise caring people be so cruel?

Music used to be something we all did together using a very different awareness of how it functions. We all had a powerful, almost intuitive sense of how rhythmic and tonal patterns are formed and work together to create complex, extended musical structure. The loss of these skills through the tragic demise of folk music in human civilisation leaves a painful social scar. A culture in which an arbitrary selection of musicians are placed on very tall, wobbly pedestals without any clear, objective measure of their deserving generates an undercurrent of resentment and scorn. People are all forced to be nothing more than grateful audience members, listening and admiring passively. Yet they still sense their potential for active participation in music-making. Sadly, the way amateur musicians usually make music is either an act of blind karaoke or by coldly decoding the dots. These approaches are nothing more than mimicry or playing by numbers and only reinforce the unhealthy passive relationship to music. Therefore, the need to have a strong opinion about music, often to the point of offensive chauvinism, is arguably quite understandable for many people.

As unforgivably opinionated and arrogant as music shaming is, it is really just a symptom of a deep cultural deprivation which leaves individuals feeling musically disempowered. It is merely their vain attempt to claw back some of their sense of musical autonomy. My hope is that by propagating training for fluent musicianship skills on the keyboard, more people will feel empowered musically and that a myriad forms of music in all its dazzling diversity and richness may be created and enjoyed by more and more people.

Mannerism and natural expression

Music is a kind of language and just like verbal language, it inevitably has mannerism. Different periods of history and different social circumstances demand different manners. This is equally true of music. Different genres of music have different manners. Classical, jazz and pop styles all have their own mannerism. Listen to a recording from fifty years ago and you will hear different musical mannerism – many aspects of which are common to all genres.

So we cannot avoid manners as if they were something bad and they certainly have their place in helping music be accessible. But it is important to acknowledge that there is something rather objective or even superficial about mannerism in music.

Authentic expression

When a musician feels the music deeply, this is a subjective response and the expressive dynamics that stem from this deep feeling are not dictated by the requirements of the genre or the expressive conventions of the time. This means that authentic expression is a very different thing from manners. It has an inherent depth or power that transcends mannerism completely.

Expression is not an alternative to manners – we use both – but we have to acknowledge that authentic feeling carries far more truth and profundity.

Spontaneous vs. contrived interpretation

When there is no gap between the way musicians feel the music and the way they play or sing it, then we, as listeners, feel the authentic expression. The dynamics used by the musician to generate that expressive quality in the playing is not premeditated but spontaneous and natural.

Manners too can emerge naturally from a kind of social intelligence around the musical setting or use. Manners exist on a kind of spectrum from very blunt, even punk style at one end through to highly conventional, even polite at the other. Of course it is not quite as simple as this: for example, it may be entirely conventional to deliver music of a certain genre in an over-the-top, punk manner.

When expression and manners are used spontaneously rather than in a worked-out, contrived way, there is greater power and immediacy to a performance. Of course, it is perfectly possible that power and immediacy could be considered tasteless in a certain genre of very refined music.

Challenging cultural norms and championing authenticity and spontaneity

As a musician, I see my role as being one that challenges the status quo. Music has limitless depth and serves an important function in helping us deal with the human condition. Life can seem cruel, absurd and very confusing when we try to figure it out using reasoning and logic. But when we frame reality in a musical context, give it rhythm and harmony, then the ebb and flow of the story of life produces pathos, joy, melancholy, exhilaration and all kinds of deep feeling states that heal and unite us in our quest for greater things.

So music can be as nutritious and necessary for thriving as food. And I feel it is therefore very important to try and resist the pull of conventional manners and contrived interpretation in favour of authentic and spontaneous expression in order to ensure that my music contains as much unprocessed, wholesome goodness as possible! This is why I love to make spontaneous improvisation the bedrock of my musical practice.

5 Keys to overcoming practice resistance

I’ve been giving some serious thought to the subject of why we get blocked around practice. Everyone struggles with practice resistance to some degree at times. I think there are 5 key insights that can help us overcome practice resistance.

1. Curiosity – rather than results

We are conditioned to want highly measurable results and tend to see practice as a discipline full of virtue or even austerity. The benefits of seeing practice as playful, curious messing about are immeasurable. The tendency to focus on results must go! The goals of our practice must be clear and be all about the skills or processes not the results of that skill. Then the results will appear naturally as a bi-product. We know that children learn best through play, as this piece explains. But this applies equally to adults in the field of music and probably in most creative disciplines.

2. Experimentation – instead of progress

We are conditioned only to trust step by step, mechanical operations. Practice is not like this. It is all about having a go, falling down and not caring and just having another go. No pressure! Although we might make a mess using this seemingly haphazard approach, it is actually highly efficacious. We learned to walk and talk this way as small children. School generates the absurd notion of linear progress and the evil of perfectionism. Practice does not make perfect. We can’t do perfect! Perfect is boring. “Play creates skill” would be a better saying!

3 Expressive – not impressive

We are conditioned to think in a comparative or critical way. So we imagine the goals of our practice as being something other people reach more easily than we can. This has terrible consequences for our development. We imagine that what we are learning is supposed to feel alien and extraordinary. In fact, it will always feel ordinary and natural. The ego mind loves a heroic struggle. But practice is no such thing (thankfully!). In order to find the right zone, we need to focus on solid, dependable things that we can trust. Sadly, the most obviously helpful things can fall into unconsciousness whilst we try to focus on stuff that is horribly taxing. The ego mind is addicted to difficulty and stress. It also craves that feeling of being entertained by doing something that impresses us. We must strip all this struggle away and just do the simple, playful things that we know work!

4. Freedom – lose your inhibition

This might sound slightly contradictory to the last point but it really isn’t! We are too inhibited! We must welcome stepping outside our comfort zone. The constraints of our self-image can cause us to feel trapped. By letting go or even being silly, we can begin to play in a fully engaged way without fear of getting it wrong. We can’t force this process of losing our normal inhibitions  It actually can be very gentle. We can tease ourselves into being a bit more daring… more expressive… more free…

5.  Part of your day – never a chore

Practice needs to be a habit. Much has been is written about this and some of it is not helpful. Routine is not inspiring and to force yourself to practice when you don’t feel like it is pointless. The habit of practice will form as a result of removing the conditioned mind’s pressurising thoughts and feelings. Once we are free of all this mental pressure, we can practise in the spirit of faith and curiosity. Proper playful practice really is the best thing. it is addictive! It’s the ultimate head holiday and once it kicks in, everybody loves it!

Digital pianos vs acoustic pianos

Digital pianos are constantly improving but not everyone is altogether enthusiastic. Throughout history, changes in piano technology have generated dissent. Some people resisted changes in the design of the piano, such as the introduction of an iron frame. The warmer, rounder richer tone did not appeal to everyone; at least not at first. Real pianos are undeniably wonderful, beautiful things. Until the advent of physical modelling, I would have told people that practising even on an old, clapped-out acoustic piano was preferable to working on a dead, soulless sampled piano.

Digital pianos are not all equal

Sampled digital pianos still feel rather lifeless to me. The sound of a sampled piano is made from recordings of notes played on a fine acoustic instrument. They are great in terms of objective sound quality, but in the more subjective matter of their response to the expressive fingers of an imaginative, skilled pianist, I find them woefully lacking.

The program I use for my digital piano setup is Pianoteq which uses physical modelling rather than sampling. The sound is generated in real time and far more variety is possible. When combined with a good weighted keyboard, Pianoteq responds with an expressive subtlety, richness  and nuance that is altogether satisfying. Provided you have a powerful enough processor to handle the vast amount of data and a sound system that is truly excellent, then the quality of a digital setup is beyond reproach.

Do you know a good piano when you hear one?

My standards are exacting and my experience of playing very good pianos is extensive. I am also fiercely honest about musical matters. My musical aesthetics favour natural, human expressiveness and I dislike unnatural, over-processed music. I am an improviser and champion musical fluency rather than contriving interpretations that are rehearsed to perfection and the more natural and sensitive the response of my instrument, the happier I am playing it. And the last time I checked (recently), my hearing was excellent. So my confidence in the quality of my digital setup is completely secure and it is without any hint of defensiveness that I approach the question of why so many people believe that classical music should only be played on an acoustic instrument.

Their reasons are not really based on sound aesthetics at all. They can’t be, unless they have some kind of deficiency of hearing that makes their judgement inaccurate. Of course, there are other aesthetics at play. The mechanical pianoforte is a piece of extraordinary engineering, it has the inherent beauty of functional design, a rich history and we are bound to admire and love it much as we might a marvellous steam engine or a mechanical watch. We can add to this the enormous status value that an object of very high material value carries. A concert grand Steinway or Bechstein is a very expensive item. You would need a very large room to house one. A digital setup is perhaps marred by its competitive price, its convenience and its compact size. In short, a digital piano setup has no nostalgic design value, little status associated with elevated cost and an overall lack of glamour.

I don’t dispute any of this. I used to own a nice model C Yamaha piano and I miss it for all those reasons. Living in central London, in a small flat, I simply don’t have the space for a grand piano and I dislike the sluggish action of upright pianos. I admit that this rather prosaic, practical reason was how I came to consider digital pianos as valid practice instruments, let alone performance ones. I must also admit that the high quality of my mother keyboard, software and speaker systems actually means that I have spent more putting my digital piano setup together than I would need to spend on a decent acoustic instrument. So my setup has a certain different kind of glamour for me. As a musical instrument, however, my current setup surpasses my old Yamaha by miles. But I still miss having an acoustic piano as a symbol of something and will probably own one at some point in the future.

However, these extra-musical reasons would probably not be cited by those who believe my setup to be inferior. They would regard the inferiority to be purely musical. I have already refuted the validity of the superior tone argument. However, a few other reasons are often put forward.

An authentic instrument

One criticism I have heard is that Chopin’s music should be played on the instrument it was designed for. This argument is absurd. Chopin’s piano was very different from a modern instrument. Right up to the turn of the Twentieth Century, pianos had significant differences in design and sound compared to the modern machine that graces concert halls today. Ironically, I have access to remarkable physically modelled versions of historic pianos. Historic digital pianos strike me as a delightful paradox! My mother keyboard feels like a modern piano but it is still fun to play music on an instrument that sounds so different and that is more authentic.

Too easy

Another reason I have heard is the rather laughable one that suggests that digital pianos are easier to play. This is quite ridiculous. The resistance of the keys, the weight and the velocity response of my keyboard faithfully mirrors the feel of a fine grand piano. A keyboard without this kind of action is no use to me as a pianist. Interestingly, although some digital pianos have rather easy actions in terms of rattling out runs or trills, I would really struggle to make this kind of keyboard with its light, evenly weighted touch produce the dynamic range, beauty of tone and expressiveness I want. Therefore, I would regard it as being far more difficult to play than a piano with more resistance in the action.

Things like half-pedal and sympathetic resonances within the instrument are also often cited as missing but my setup generates them all. The only thing I can’t do, is shout into the piano, or thump it and hear its sympathetic resonance echo. Or at least, not without a microphone and a clever convolution reverb effect.

Listen or try them out for yourself

It’s true that I am a bit of a geek. I like computers and gadgets. But the truth is that you don’t need to be an out and out technophile to have a wonderful digital piano setup. I really do understand that some people simply have no affinity for technology in itself and that could account for their dislike of a digital piano setup. Of course they are entitled to their taste. That said, I might tend to regard their preference more as prejudice given that the musical result should be all that counts and I wonder how these nay-sayers would do in a blind comparison test… In the final analysis, it is their loss. But I am confident that more and more people will simply open their ears and hear the beauty of this exciting new technology.