Piano Lessons, Life Lessons

I spend a few hours a day fairly predictably: Reminding children with reluctant fingers that finger number 1 is their thumb, and that Middle is C is in the middle of the piano. Like many home-studio teachers in rural areas, my studio is mostly made up of beginning and intermediate players. I rarely have the need to talk abut how  Mozart intended a appoggiatura to be played, or whether a trill should begin on the main note or the upper auxiliary.

What I DO find myself talking about — day after day, week after week — is the learning process. And the more I do, the more it becomes clear to me that learning piano is only partly about learning piano. It is also about learning, period.  And while we all learn in our own unique way, some patterns DO apply to all of us. Not only that, but we can all, always, learn to learn… better.

So, in no particular order, some thoughts on learning.

1) Showing up is important. A study done by psychologist Anders Ericsson at the Berlin Academy of Music concluded that practice time, not talent, determines success as a musician.  All those myths about Cousin Bob the musical genius with perfect pitch? Perfect pitch, maybe. Talent certainly affects achievement. But in order for it to all come together takes time spent working, pure and simple. In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell posits that Mozart’s prodigial years were spent practicing for hours a day under the watchful eye of Papa Leopold. He also points out that with their non-stop Hamburg performances, the Beatles easily logged 10,000 hours before becoming an “overnight success.” Whether you believe the 10,000 figure or not is up to you…. It could be more, or less, and it undoubtedly depends on talent, the pursuit, and the quality of practice. But the bottom lie is this: Deliberate, consistent practice is a hallmark of achievement in anything, from computers to chess to piano.

2) If a job looks too big, make it smaller. Don’t try to learn 20 pages of a sonata: Learn one page. Or one line. One measure. I’ll often pull out the scariest looking piece of music by a major composer and show beginners that they can identify a note in it, and then another one. As Annie Lamott writes:”Bird by Bird.”   Or how do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.

3) If at first you don’t succeed…. try something different. Doing the same thing wrong over and over is a really powerful way to learn to do the same thing….. wrong. Having trouble with two hands? Slow down. Or do one hand at a time. Play one hand as fast as you can, really loud. Now play is as beautifully and musically as you can. Fell where your fingers are and how they have to move. Don’t just mindlessly repeat it and “try again.” Remember Einstein’s definition of insanity? Doing the same thing and expecting a different result. If it’s not working — change it up!

4) Have patience. You need to do YOUR job, which is showing up and trying to create an artistic vision of a piece by learning the notes, the rhythm, the technique.  You do your part, and in between practice sessions, the back of your brain will do the rest: Putting things together, processing information, synthesizing it all. Trust the process. It works. That doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy.

5) Be honest. Don’t look at your teacher when you made a mistake to see if she noticed. OF COURSE she noticed. But more important than that — YOU noticed. It should matter to YOU.  Care about what you’re doing. Care about your art.

And then bring that caring to the rest of your life.

It is the most important lesson of all.