The Musicarta Articles

Welcome to the Musicarta 'Musicarticles' page, where you'll find occasional thoughts and mini-articles too wordy for the Musicarta teaching pages but perhaps inspiring or valuable as an orientation for Musicarta.com's free online piano lessons.

You are welcome to quote the articles here providing you credit me, Musicarta webmaster Bob Chappell and mention Musicarta.com by name, with a working link to http://www.musicarta.com in any web environment.

We hope you enjoy reading ‘Adult Re-starters’ and ‘Love Those Mistakes!’

Going Back to Piano Lessons
Some Thoughts on Adult Re-starters

How many times have you heard or uttered the words “I wish I’d never given up the piano!” Youngsters stop learning musical instruments for a variety of reasons, some good and some bad, but I would guess that about half of them as adults wish they’d kept them up and could now ‘just sit down and play the piano’. And so, adults often come back to the keyboard determined to revive the momentum of their childhood lessons and continue their musical journey. The second time round, however, they are often hoping to connect more directly with the creative yearnings which first motivated them to learn an instrument - before, often enough, the exam treadmill and uninspiring repertoire put them off lessons altogether.

The special character of this renewed commitment deserves full recognition, and demands a matching response in terms of teaching material and methodology.

Firstly, in contrast with the ‘mountain to climb’ ethos of the classical piano examination route, adult re-starter material will be designed to be satisfying regardless of the level of achievement. (The mountain climber sometimes needs to be reminded to turn round and admire the view!) Limited technical achievement can be very satisfying if the ability to enjoy one’s performance is identified as a goal in itself, and consciously cultivated. For example, relatively simple technology can furnish ‘backing tracks’ which allow even the novice to be transported and ‘feel like a real musician’ – a satisfaction often deferred seemingly indefinitely in mainstream classical music teaching.

Secondly, creative keyboard teaching material needs to shift the emphasis from the composer and the piece to the player and the piece’s potential as a springboard to further creation. Except at an advanced level, simply reproducing a performance written centuries ago, must be considered a technical rather than a creative achievement. Creative keyboard teaching material is presented and taught in a way that enables the learner to create unique personal variations, or even entire new pieces, using the skills and knowledge acquired in learning the material.

Thirdly, both the material and the teaching method should take advantage of available technology, and the contemporary music teacher needs to stay up to date in this regard. MIDI files can be made using an electronic keyboard and emailed to pupils, and provide a superb teaching aid when played on free, easily downloaded desktop applications. Sheet music can be sourced and bought on the Internet, which also provides performance models of tens of thousands of attractive contemporary pieces; links to which can be emailed to pupils.

As an aside, a second keyboard in the teaching room multiplies the creative potential of lessons exponentially. Mainstream classical teachers should consider acquiring an electronic keyboard and discovering its potential – they’re fun, with nice voices and beat styles which far outstrip the metronome as a rhythmic aid, and can provide an ambient backing which greatly encourages the tentative improviser.

Fourthly, practice and theory should be seamlessly integrated. Popular music can easily be explained in terms of key, key chords and chord structure. Guitarists routinely master about half of popular music just by learning the ‘three-chord trick’, and with the right material, keyboard players can do the same thing. And a practical grasp of music theory, relating specifically to popular music, lies at the heart of improvising and ‘playing by ear’, both often (and incorrectly) considered purely innate talents which cannot be taught or learnt,

Fifthly, rhythmic skills should be consciously and methodically developed. On examination, many great pop performances turn out to be quite rudimentary harmonic (chordal) material combined with basic but ‘catchy’ rhythmic textures. Few would argue with the proposition that it is rhythm that truly animates music, and enabling the adult keyboard re-starter to participate in that magic often turns out to be indispensable to the learner’s satisfaction.

Material which satisfies all these criteria simultaneously is hard to picture; material which satisfies one or two of them is easier to find. The winning combination, though, is a teacher’s broad experience of musical styles, his or her appreciation of the factors outlined above, and a readiness to risk all in developing real creativity in the pupil.

© R A Chappell 2011. May be quoted and distributed freely if credited to R A Chappell with a link to www.musicarta.com


Love Those Mistakes!

Everybody’s a pundit these days, aren’t they? The Web is awash with well-meaning self-made experts, their reputations built on a solid foundation of little more than HTML. I mention it because I stumbled across a page of quotes the other day which included the classic “In the end, time is all we’ve got.” Classic, of course, because, in the end, time is precisely what we haven’t got, and we’ll no doubt, at the very end, wish we’d spent it more wisely.

For example; for my money, you’re unlikely, with your last gasp, to utter the words, ”I wish I’d spent more time practising the piano!” Possible, but unlikely. I would however sympathise one hundred percent if you said ”I wish I’d practised the piano more efficiently,” because, as a piano/keyboard teacher myself, knowing how much time people waste practising inefficiently pains me enormously.

Which brings me to my point.

Practicing efficiently means, in large part, eradicating mistakes which you make ‘naturally’ through faulty or inadequate understanding of what you’re supposed to be doing, or (temporary!) lack of technical ability to do it.

Now, you’d agree ‘on paper’, I’m sure, that mistakes of either sort are going to be much easier to correct if we know what they are. That is, if we know what, exactly, we do wrong.

And this is where we fall down. The average keyboard player (of any age) will, the second they make a mistake, snatch their hands off the keyboard and dash back to the beginning of the piece for ‘another go’, as if playing the piano was like a long jump where the run-up was all that mattered.

Trial-and-error has its place, of course, as does allowing yourself to be wrong (I’m thinking of improvisation here). You can, by hurling yourself at a difficult part of your performance time and again, eventually score some ‘rights’. But the trouble with these ‘rights’ is they’re likely to only be reproducible once you’ve worked up a similar frenzy the next time – never mind the danger of having ‘learnt the mistake’ right into the fabric of the music.

The more efficient way of going about things, we surely all agree, is to love and cherish your mistakes and ‘freeze-frame’ the moment you make one, so you know what it is that you’re doing wrong.

You must form the habit of ‘interrogating’ your mistakes, turning them over and over in your hands like the only actor moving in a freeze-frame shot. And the, (and this is important) describe your mistake out loud, saying, “Oh! I see now what I’ve been doing! I put my thumb on the E instead of the D! Silly me!” I vouch for it: the more ridiculous you feel, the more likely you are to banish to darned thing for good! And, at least, you then know what to practice.

The other type of error singled out above could loosely be called, ‘lacking an “aerial view” of your material’. Having an explicit understanding of the ‘form’ or structure of a piece can save hours of simply hacking through it, getting lost and grinding to a halt half the time.

The kind of understanding you should be aiming for might sound – speaking out loud again – like this: “Oh!, I see!. The first two bits are the same, then you play this different bit – in two halves, actually, second time an octave lower – then you play the first bit again, essentially, but only as far as here, then it’s different. And that’s the end.”

It’s a no-brainer, really, like having a plan of the maze.

But we’re all of us to a greater or lesser degree averse to this painstaking, nit-picking way of going about things, We’d rather ‘get on with it!’, regardless of the fact we’ve hardly bothered to find out what ‘it’ is, exactly (Think of number of times you’ve started playing music without even looking at the key signature, or noticing that both hands are in the treble clef!)

And it’s quite true that a teacher can talk a pupil to a standstill – something you’re unlikely to do if you’re learning on your own. But slowing down certainly is an integral part of practicing efficiently, as is ‘tiling’ (practicing in overlapping sections) and a whole clutch of other efficiency-oriented techniques.

But that’s another blog! For the time being, simply ‘love those mistakes’! Hold them close and cherish them before kissing them tenderly goodbye and floating them off down the stream. Yours in efficient practicing!

Bob Chappell

www.musicata.com

© R A Chappell 2011. May be quoted and distributed freely if credited to R A Chappell with a link to www.musicarta.com


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