Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Tip Three: What's Important?

Time for Tip Number Three in our series of 22 not-so-obvious, outside-the-box ways to improve ones musicianship other than practicing ones butt off. One of the biggest drawbacks to this crazy Information Age in which we currently live is that there is simply too much damn information. The problem is not that we have a hard time finding information. It's that we have a terrible time trying to manage it.

The key to information management is to know what information is important and what isn't. It's to prioritize. And this is very true when it comes to learning the piano or any other instrument. There is so much one can do. Where do you start? Do you learn scales? If so, which ones? Do you try technic exercises? What songs should you learn? What helps, and what is just a waste of time?

You can easily obtain a catalog of over 12,000 chords. But you can't learn them all at once. Which ones do you learn first? Which are the most important?

But with so much information now at our disposal how do you sort the wheat from the chaff?

Making this decision is one of the primary roles of the piano teacher. A teacher (or anyone who has already traveled the road that you want to travel) can be qualified to make those decisions. One could argue that music teachers might be superfluous. It's true that many great musicians are self taught.

But a teacher (or some authority) can be very valuable in helping you sort out the "important" pile from the "not-so-much."

Of course employing a teacher to help you sort things out, in and of itself, leads to an opinion too: the opinion of the teacher. That's why it's so important to choose a teacher very carefully, if you choose to use one.

So now the question would be, how do you find the right teacher? Here's what I think is important.

1. the teacher knows the information you want to learn

2. the teacher is able to perform the music you want to learn

3. the teacher has excellent two-way communication skills

And this last one is the kicker. Two way communication skills. Yes, the teacher must be able to transmit information to you. But he must also be able to listen to you, to find what you want to know, to discover what you already know, to know what gaps you have and how to fill them.

In other words, the teacher needs to know what it is you don't know, and then remedy that by providing the information that's important and only the information that's important. We just don't have enough years in our lives to fill in all those gaps with random, unstructured information.

My own piano education is kind of unusual, I guess. When I was 23 I found a pro piano player (age 18) with whom I studied for a year. Then he moved. Since that time I've had lessons with dozens of different players. With a few I studied for several months. But with the overwhelming majority of them I just had one lesson. Maybe two at the most.

And one super positive benefit I got from taking just one lesson from so many people is that I uncovered a few choice beliefs that they all shared. A consensus. And those beliefs constitute what I consider to be the "important" things in music.

And these beliefs form the central core of what has come to be known as my teaching system: the workshops and the coursewhere. I haven't got the time to learn everything there is to know. And I certainly don't have the time to teach everything there is to know.

Some things musically just don't matter as much as others.

And knowing which is which is half the battle.


  1. I kind of felt like you were going to share a little more with us some of the things that really are important; I felt left hanging....

  2. This may not be the place for this. I agree with "too much information" but maybe its just that I dont know the next step. I study and memorize chords then I dont know the best way to practice them. I have some of your materials and I like them but I still dont know how to practice getting better at chords?? Put a Fake Book up there and start pounding? When I do, I find I dont know ALL the chords and it brings me to a quick halt. just not sure of the next step.
    I site read but thats what I want to get away from. Oh well, just bantering. Thanks for your blog.

  3. What's important about learning music, and what isn't? OK. I was kind of vague about that. You want some concrete examples? Fair enough.

    Is technic important? Yes. For that I always recommend using Hanon (The Virtuoso Pianist in Three Volumes). Available at practically any music store for practically nothing. Why do I like it? It's the only method book that I could handle myself.

    Extra hint. Hanon Volume One is the best. But get the whole set because Volume Two has some very valuable stuff that may come in handy later. But you have to wade through it.

    What are the best chords for a beginner to learn? As a group, the most important types of chords to learn, hands down, are the majors, minors, and sevenths.

    Typical question: But can't I just play a major chord instead of a seventh? They sound almost identical.

    My answer: Yes they do. But no you can't. Learn the seventh, and really get it under your epidermis how it sounds. Trust me on this.

    Follow Up Question: This is beginning to read like a typical Q and A format.

    My answer: All right. Then let's switch to that format.

    Q: So all the major chords are of equal value?

    A. No. They are all equally important. But some are much more useful than others.

    Q: ?

    A: OK. According to a book I wrote (How to Play Piano by Ear), here are the most important chords in the key of C, in order of their importance:

    C, G7, F, Am, D7, Dm, A7. E7, Em, C7, Bm, Fm

    Q: So I should learn these chords?

    A: Yes.

    Q: All of them?

    A: Yes

    Q: Really?

    A: Yes.

    Q: And that's all?

    A: No.

    Q: Why not?

    A: Because these twelve chords are only valid for the key of C.

    Q: And this is all in your book?

    A: Yes.

    Q: And can I buy it?

    A: Well sure, but if I tell you how, I'll be accused of using this forum for my own greedy self serving purposes.

    Q: But isn't this how you make your living?

    A: Well yeah, but it still upsets some people. Lets move on.

    Q: Any other hints as to what's important?

    A: Yes.

    Q: What?

    A: The Circle of Fifths.

    Q: I've heard of that. But I never understood it. What's the big deal?

    A: It's too complicated to be included here. Beside, I'm tired of typing. It's almost midnight.

    Q: OK. Thanks for what you've provided so far.

    A: You're welcome.

    Q: One more question.

    A: Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

  4. Wondering if it would be a good idea to master the key of C first---to have all of the most important C relevant chords down cold and be able to play a large number of C chord songs well. Then I would do the same for the key of F followed by the key of G and onward one way or another around the circle of fifths until all of the chords were mastered. Of course there would be much more to learn along the way such as ways to break up chords to add some variation to the music. What do you think of this plan ?

  5. Good Morning Robert,

    I was going to send this as an email to you but here goes.

    I read all the posts and your response to them. I especially like your final comment in your response.

    The interesting thing is that if one buys the course, it comes with a Study Guide that has in it all the tips you gave in your blog response. Of course, the Study Guide does you no good if you either a) didn't buy it or b) have it but don't read it and follow it to the letter. As a former teacher, I know that sometimes students are guilty of the latter.

    How am I doing? I have the entire course. I have not made all the progress I want to but that's my fault. At 78, I have many interests that keep me going and motivated. My rendition of "Georgia On My Mind" is starting to sound good as is "Here's That Rainy Day" from a fake book. I had to learn a bunch of new chords for this last one, but it's coming.

    I have read that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become a master. I have a long way to go but if I want to do one of the items on my "bucket list", I'd better get busy.

    A Nobel Prize winning physicist, Richard Feynman once told his sister that she could master Physics by going back over material again and again and each time she would get farther before she got stumped and her understanding would deepen.

    So, for me, after I finish an exciting event for me this June, I'm starting over and this time I won't forget to do Hanon on a regular basis.

    Sorry I rambled on so long. Keep the tips coming. I'm looking forward to them.

    Hayden Smith
    Muskegon, MI

  6. May 28th at 8:16
    Could Robert respond to this comment? I find it quite interesting and would like some path to follow myself...

  7. I enjoy all your newsletters and posts and I am ever grateful I took your One Day Workshop here in Toronto.
    Keep those tips coming.