Friday, November 5, 2010

Tip Seven: Play What You Love

Tip Seven: Play What You Love

This is the seventh installment in our series of articles on hidden or obscure strategies for improving musicianship. These strategies are not intended to be a substitute for (I dislike this word) "practicing." To the contrary. Spending time playing your instrument is mightily important.

But think of these 22 ideas as strategies you can use in addition to your time in the woodshed. How does one find a label for these strategies? Subconscious? Metaphysical? Whatever word you want to use, go ahead. It's just that these ideas are not often presented to you as part of a musical instrument learning regimen.

Understand that these ideas are in no particular order, either of chronology or importance. In fact this one may be among the most important of the 22. So here it is.

Actually, I'd like to start this by posing a question. Why do piano lessons fail?

I'm talking mostly about the teaching of children here. Those of us who are 50 and older were much more likely to have had childhood piano lessons than are members of the successive generation (whose parents had to think up alternative forms of child abuse).

So if you were one of those who took lessons as a child, let me ask you this. Why did you stop? What is the reason you are not performing in the major concert halls of the world today?

Here's a wild guess. It wasn't fun for you. Think about practicing. Was it something you wanted to do, or was it something you had to do? Did you look forward to giving piano recitals? I didn't. Nor did I know of anyone in my group who did.

Yeah, it wasn't fun for me. I hated to practice. And I finally wore my parents down and was able to quit. You know what happened then? Interestingly, after the obligations of piano were dismantled, I found myself spending hours at the piano just fooling around with it, playing what I wanted to play, unencumbered by the pressures of weekly judgement and the fear of recitals.

Radical concept: Playing music is supposed to be fun.

Adult learners can spend hours and hours, learning, improving, perfecting, striving do it because at some point, there is an emotional payoff. Certainly accomplishing goals musically is incentive. But I doubt most adults would put the time that it takes to accomplish those goals if doing so did not bring them *pleasure at the moment*.

We all play because it's fun to play. Even when things are challenging and frustrating, we work through those frustrations, because we enjoy the process.

So why is that? Why did I spend hours every day as a teenager teaching myself guitar, when just a few years earlier I had to whine and whine in order to get out of taking piano lessons?

Here's my theory. Music is fun to play when you are playing music that you like. And of course the more you like it, the more you want to do it; and the more you do it, the better you get. It's basic economics, the incentive principle. Being able to choose the music you play makes it fun to do.

Now think about childhood piano lessons, if you had them. Did you get to choose the songs you had to learn each week? Probably not. Your teacher assigned them to you. In fact you didn't even get to choose the genre of music you had to play, did you? Chances are it was mostly, if not entirely, classical music.

Classical music is great. I love it. Sometimes. But I don't recall any of my own kids ever voluntarily playing classical music on the radio or CD player when they were growing up. It wasn't their thing. Thus, I suppose, being limited to a steady diet of it wouldn't have been much of an incentive to learn an instrument.

Perhaps if they had teachers who could teach them to play the stuff they were into, it would have been a different story. Who knows?

But how is this relevant to us?

My piano students are all adults. They come to my seminars, not because their mothers make them do it. Nor will they "practice" because their mothers set an agenda.

My students come to the seminars because they think they have a shot at learning the piano, whether it's their first attempt or their umpteenth. Since I myself got a late start, I know that their success will be shaped by how much time they spend sitting on the piano bench. And that won't be determined by their mothers. That will be determined by their own enthusiasm.

My promise to my workshop students is that they will learn how to play "any song, in any style of music (except classical)." Seems like a tall order that completely flies in the face of conventional wisdom. But it's really not so hard.

I strive to provide students with the information it takes to understand the concepts of playing music. The reality is that the internal structure of all songs is the same. You basically have a melody and chords. A piano player plays melody with the right hand, and plays the chords with the left. Easy concept.

However, information alone is not enough to insure success at learning the piano. The concepts may be easy, but then you have to condition your hands to make the right moves.

One needs to work things out at the piano, to be sure. But you don't need a coach all the time. You mostly need the time to go over things repeatedly, and work things out. By giving you the power to choose your own songs, your own repertoire, your own direction, I think that's the best thing I can do to help insure you will spend time at your piano.

Then you've got to deal with things like key signatures, time signatures, note time values, accidentals--all mostly music notation issues. So we address that, and usually come up with some great shortcuts. Once you understand that music can be broken down into this idea that its all melody (one note at a time) and chords (one or two chords per measure) you are essentially empowered with the wherewithal to play any song you want. Of course you will be playing it at your level of accomplishment, but you get to choose the playlist.

So that leads us to this tip: Play songs you like. Play songs you love. You get to choose, so play songs that will inspire you to play more. The more you play, the better you get. Who wants to argue that one? Once you learn the basics, you are free to choose the songs you play. And nobody knows what those songs should be better than you.

So that's Tip Seven: Play music that you love.

Coming soon, Tip Eight: Play songs that you hate.



  1. nice one.
    Simple yet will be very effective.

  2. Robert, no doubt about nailed the practice problem for youngsters on the head. BUT now that I'm a senior,senior adult I hunger for more and more ways to make and enjoy music at the piano.

    My latest quest....what does one do with the circle of 4ths,5ths when we have them memorized and become proficient playing them.

    Going back 20 or more years I've had 2 or 3 teachers stress their importance but never explain what to do with them.

    Is there anything in the forseable future where you might come out with a course using these tools to arrange music by ear. I'm sure you must have many, many students asking this same question.......mucho theory in the head, now what do I do with it.

    Gil Dettlaff

  3. It turns out the Circle of Fourths is a major chapter in my book, How to Play Piano by Ear.

    I devote an entire CD to a series of exercises I devised to master it.

    It's a major part of MOST songs I play.


  4. Thank you.

    I cannot express just how much I loved this. It is an essential part of why I got into music when I did. I loved playing along with the Beatles on my old air-toy-organ at 4, just as much as I play along with Pink Floyd, Journey, and Frank Sinatra now at 40.

    It's so true - when you play what you love, you just play better.

    Thank you for this series, and thank you also for the "Facts" section! I love it that even after 35 years of playing, I can learn something new -- your section on "sus" and "slash" chords were spot-on the mark (and something I'd always been confused about).

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