Popular music – how about some more piano…

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.

Status symbol

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.

Challenge Prejudice

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 not machine

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!

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!

The conundrum of empathy and authenticity

Connection and candour are the cornerstones of communication and therefore of communicative performance. We must use our powers of empathy and reveal our truth if we want people to feel fully engaged. People need to know that we care about them and what they feel as much as we care about our message.

However along with empathy and authenticity comes a thorny problem: we keenly feel people’s suspicious, judging thoughts as they look at us sharing ourselves honestly and this can cause us crippling anxiety.

Could you fake it?

A narcissist or psychopath does not have this problem. They can simply feign empathy and this is of course easier; whilst a unwavering sense of personal superiority means self doubt is not an issue for them, they can also excite our desire to please, our need to win the approval of the powerful, charismatic person on stage. But their lustre is more dazzling than illuminating. They may have personal power – invincibility even – but they are not really imparting a message of empowerment. Their message is designed to make us follow and serve, not question, experiment and test their ideas for ourselves.

The problem is that culturally, we have grown habituated to this self-regarding behaviour as the only star quality there is. In this climate, many of them become gurus of self-expression, leadership and presentation excellence. And that is a real problem for most of us who find shining so brightly somewhat terrifying as we face the harsh glare of all those critical minds evaluating our performance. Not only do we not know how to make others aspire to our dizzying heights of performing excellence, we would not wish to delude ourselves with any bizarre notions of being better than our audience. We normal empathising human beings want the audience to be on our side, in our world, part of our team and not separated by admiration. We crave a sense of belonging: arrogance feels just alienating and cold to us.

We recognise the real thing

The vulnerability that accompanies making the audience our equals can actually be one of our greatest strengths, as long as we realise that there is an energy which we can tap into that is greater than us. Just consider for a moment if you have any favourite performers – musicians, comedians or dancers – who do not perform impressively as such but who instead reveal something about themselves that makes them connect with the audience, express themselves connectedly, with vulnerability and warmth rather than impress us with their brilliance. Using a disarming spontaneity and an almost unassuming manner they grant us access to their inner world without any fake posturing, manic energy, hype or grandeur. So how do they do that?

Relying on rhythm

The answer is rhythm. Whether consciously or unconsciously, they tap into the deep matrix that underpins rhythmic structure and enter the state of flow that accompanies excellence in practice and performance. Rhythm empowers us to express our authenticity and empathy without any need for bravado or swagger. Developing a clear, conscious awareness of the rhythmic matrix enables us to tap into a magic that will make our stories come to life, ignite our passion and our charisma. And it does all this with a fundamental gentleness and generosity that is far more powerful than the empty showing off that we see so often and that is routinely touted as excellent.

The principles of rhythm are simple, childlike, playful and addictively pleasurable to practice. We can surrender to the rhythmic matrix, let it cradle us, guide us and flow through us. Then our ego will no longer fear the exposure that our empathy and authenticity might otherwise generate. This is because rhythm allows us to resonate fully and shine at full brightness as it clothes us in the natural, unpretentious magnificence that all of nature so effortlessly possesses.

The Path to Mastery

There is a two-sided misconception around the practices of people who achieve excellence or mastery in their field. We tend to think that they either spent thousands of boring hours, trudging through dull details in mindless drills of repetition. Or that they are massively gifted and find it all incredibly easy as if divine inspiration were tirelessly guiding their effortless discovery of dazzling prowess.

Both these notions are a little absurd, dreamt up by the fragile ego’s fear and vanity. The problem is that when people who possess masterful skills talk about their journey, they can appear to describe it in ways that align to some degree with one of these two accounts. Sometimes the same person describes it in either way depending on who they are talking to or the time when they are asked. So which is it? Do they use aspects of both sides? I believe not! It is simply very difficult to talk about the reality of effective practice towards mastery without veering into one of these accepted paradigms. This is because this reality seems paradoxical and language handles paradox with difficulty.

The dark side

They are plausible accounts sometimes… If a student’s deep, inner force of talent is strong enough to generate instant impressive skills, a very arrogant ego may claim ownership and cross to the dark side. But such narcissistic individuals inevitably fall short of their potential and as such are not on the path to mastery.

Another equally narcissistic individual may attribute their skills purely to their ability to keep their nose to the grindstone and deny any deeper intuitive talent. But again, this inevitably lures them from the path. The true middle way of ideal practice makes use of neither boring trudge nor blind, effortless talent. To see how this is possible, we must first understand what mastery is…

Mastery is a journey not a destination

I was a child prodigy on the piano and I have honed my pianistic craft tirelessly my whole life. I admit that I have some serious skills that are very uncommon but I still feel like a beginner. I can’t call myself a master, it sounds overblown and grandiose; I’m actually an eternal student.

So mastery is a path not a destination. Of course, you can have dreams and goals that fuel your inspiration to practice with dedication but the journey itself is the key. We practise for the joy of practice and not for the results it brings.

Curiosity, Wonder and Awe

The background state of a student of mastery is awe and wonder. Such a powerful, profound curiosity that sustains itself is never bored nor does it shirk structure and discipline. Endless fascination naturally motivates detailed, iterative practice which develops skill in a fractal-like, evolutionary way. Always inspired to sift, refine and discover more means that you practice in a seemingly paradoxical state of disciplined focus whilst being plugged into something utterly free and magical.

This state is not made from two things mixed together. It is not an exotic cocktail or an unstable, explosive compound. It is a state where to be so absorbed by repetitious detail and structure IS the magic. And it is always a joy! No matter how boring and repetitious it may appear to an outsider looking in, this kind of practice is addictively pleasurable!

Dedicated and inspired, humble and disciplined, the student of mastery practices for love. And so do the best teachers, who aim to provide their  students with the tools they need in their practice. I prefer the word ‘toys’: tools are for work but toys are for play. The best practice is done like a child fully absorbed in creative play, perhaps in a sandpit or building castles with their blocks. A master teacher wishes for the student to gain autonomy and doesn’t criticise their interpretative choices but encourages them to say or create whatever they want to with greater clarity and precision by helping them become increasingly adept at handling the tools. A master teacher therefore empowers students and demands not obedience but enquiry, not correct execution but playful experimentation and not results but deep focus or a state of flow.

Is it necessary to teach humility? Perhaps we must in those rare cases where the intuitive skills are very strong and there are clear indications of arrogance. But most students only require gently checking to stop them from trying to impress. Arrogance doesn’t work for most normal human beings, anyway: the moment we start to be impressed by ourselves is the moment we crash and burn; so it is self-limiting and requires no dressing down of the student.

Discipline not criticism

Master teachers are nevertheless extremely rigorous. Discipline and structure have nothing to do with criticising, demoralising, breaking or shaming a student. Such sadly common approaches are counter-productive as they destroy confidence. Confidence in its true sense is actually faith. Developing real faith requires that the student tests, questions and tries to apply the tools and techniques provided by the teacher. Only through testing can faith arise. The student must have confidence in the teacher, in what is being taught and, most importantly of all, in themselves. Building this unshakeable trust is of the essence!

The moment when the path to mastery opens up for the student is a magical one. The student recognises their unlimited potential, is overjoyed by the deep simplicity, beauty and truth of the way and is filled with irrepressible curiosity, awe and wonder. This is the spirit of mastery.