Category Archives: Music Musings

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.

Paying the Price

“Do you know how much a Rolex costs? Or a Maserati?” I asked my 16-year old student. He looked at me blankly, wondering why I was talking about luxury goods in the middle of a piano lesson.

“A lot?” he ventured.

“A lot.” I said. “And if you wanted one, you would have to work for it — and at your age, you can’t really make that much an hour, so you would have to work for many many many hours to buy one. You’d have to decide if you really really wanted it, and if it was going to be worth it to you to do all that work, and then mid-way, you might realize just how much work it was and decide you wanted something else.”

“But I don’t want a Rolex,” he said.

“No, but you came in here saying that you wanted to play the last movement of the Moonlight Sonata, which is a concert pianist piece. It’s a Rolex. It’s expensive, only it doesn’t cost money. It costs PRACTICE. Just like a Rolex, if you want this expensive piece of music that not everyone can have, you have to pay the price.”

Beethoven’s “Moonlight” Sonata is the holy grail of the adult piano student. Just like kids clamor to play Beethoven’s “Fuer Elise,” adults want to create those mysterious, soul-touching sounds. And teenagers want to take on the drama and fury of the last movement with its thundering chords and unsettled emotions.

In all three cases, generally what you’ve got is a pianist with champagne tastes on a beer budget. The pieces they want to play are the champagne. The price they are willing to pay — the practice time — that’s the beer budget. And just as with champagne, watches, automobiles, or pretty much anything  else in life — you get what you pay for, and what you’re willing to pay determines what you’re going to get.

I can’t tell you the number of adult students who come to their first lesson with the Moonlight on their mind. Some drag in the first four measures.Some bring simplified versions. Some bring the sheet music. One  brought the sheet music and his own version of it written out in note names, one at a time. He can figure out notes, but can’t read fluently yet, so he figured this would shorten the process. They come looking for a magic bullet, and want to know why it sounds different when I play it. After a few lessons, they start sounding annoyed and impatient.

“It takes years,” I tell them. They don’t want to hear it — at this point in their lives, they’ve graduated from college, had careers, raised children, paid mortgages — why can’t they do THIS simple, one thing. On average — for a rank beginner with average musical ability and dexterity, I’d say it would take two to four years before they could play the first movement of the Moonlight, and that’s with diligent practice. I should probably also mention that some students will never get there: Musical ability is an ephemeral, wispy flirt, and the Moonlight Sonata, even the “easy” first movement — is over the line where you need some musical talent to put the pieces together.

And that’s not even beginning to think about the mercurial, tumultuous last movement: with its technical demands ranging from giant keyboard-spanning arpeggios to dynamic control to touches ranging from mysterious legatos to controlled staccatos, all applied with flying fingers to fistfuls of notes.

A Rolex. Lots of people want one, but not everyone can pay the price, and of those who can, even fewer want to.

“I’m going to practice six hours a day and come in here next week and play that first page better than you can,” my student told me, and I said — with all sincerity — “That is something I’d really like to see.”

Maybe one day I will.


The Little Things: Big Lessons from Little Students

I have to admit that I’m not always the world’s best teacher for the four- and five-year-old set, but having had a few great little students, I’m always willing to meet with them (and their parents) to see if they really want to learn and can sit still for long enough to do so.
As it turns out, some of these little ones have gone on to be excellent and committed teenage musicians. 
And I fall for cuteness every time.
I’ve got an adorable little guy right now — one who announces “I’m ready to learn a new song!” and “I can’t WAIT to turn the page!” and “I’m so excited I’m going to learn to read music I can’t even wait!”  
How could even the grumpiest piano teacher resist? 
Today, he told me, “Miss Karen! Did you know that if you play these notes, everything sounds good?” (Plays CDFGA) “And you can make up a song about anything you like.” 
“Really?” I said. “Show me.” 
So he played up and down and sang at top of his lungs, “Oh! I love my mommy so much!”
Cute little anecdote, but there’s more to it than meets the eye (or ear.)
First of all, this little guy discovered the notes of the pentatonic scale*: the five notes that are used to make folk songs around the world; the notes that are used in the melodies of virtually every black spiritual– “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” “Every Time I Feel the Spirit,” and a hundred others. 
And he’s right: These notes DO sound good, and you can use them to write a song about just about anything —  Watch this audience participation demonstration by Bobby McFerrin at the 2009 World Science Festival and you’ll learn that we instinctively respond to the scale my five-year old “discovered,” so much so that we seem to know it in our bones. And so do musicians from places as diverse as and musically different as China, Nigeria, Ireland, and South America.
Finally, my student is also right about what it is that music does: What the point of this whole thing is. We can use it to express our feelings about anything at all. And share them.
We can even write a love song.   
 * Nerd alert: The notes CDFGA are the notes of the F pentatonic scale, not the C pentatonic scale. I know it’s confusing, but the actual scale is FGACD. My student simply elected to rearrange the notes, starting on C.   

News Flash: Musical Achievement is Not About Talent

Musical Talent, Nature Versus Nurture, and the 10,000 Hours Rule

Meet my sister. She started piano lessons at age 7, and practiced a half an hour a day pretty much for the next 11 years, sometimes doing a little more, rarely less.  

She didn’t especially love practicing, and indeed, it was hard for her because she doesn’t have a good ear: She can’t sing on key, could never learn to tune a guitar by ear, can’t pick out a tune by matching pitches. Most of the time, she had to be told that she was playing a wrong note, which my father vociferously did, shouting out from the back of the apartment whenever she hit a clunker.

My sister was smart in school, but she wasn’t what most music teachers would identify as “talented” in music: She never sat down and tried to pluck out a favorite song; she didn’t fish out chords and harmonies; she has trouble identifying the difference between major and minor. But she practiced that half an hour a day. 11 years: Do the math: That’s a total of nearly 2000 hours. And she became skilled.

Here’s a partial list of some of the (original) repertoire she played in junior high school: Chopin’s Military Polonaise. Debussy’s  Clare de Lune. Dvorak’s Slavonic Dances (actually, we performed those together when she was still in elementary school). Janacek’s “On an Overgrown Path.” Some Haydn sonatas. A few Chopin waltzes, polonaises, and preludes. She didn’t ever get to the big concert repertoire: Chopin ballades and etudes, the big Beethoven sonatas, Liszt, Brahms, Rachmaninoff. But she got farther than 95 percent of the piano students I’ve encountered.  

I think about my sister a lot as my students come in and out the door, with their practice logs marked “10 minutes,” “7 minutes,”  “3 minutes,” and a lot of “zeros.” I think about her when I’ve had a kid for four or five years who isn’t yet fluent in note reading, who has to be coached to figure out where a method book piece even starts. Four years of lessons, and “Fur Elise” is still an impossible dream for most of my students…. I admit, I still have trouble wrapping my mind around that.

Comparing students is fruitless of course, but people do it all the time. And one of the ways they do it is by bringing in a destructive little word: “Talent.” Joey has talent. Suzie doesn’t. THAT’S why Suzie can’t find Middle C after 100 piano lessons. THAT’S why Joey is playing the Fantasie Impromptu at the age of 12.  

Talent, Shmalent

In the early 1990s, K. Anders Ericsson did a study at West Berlin’s prestigious Music Academy. He interviewed teachers, asking them to put their conservatory-aged young adult violin and piano students into categories:  Those who had the potential to become professional performing artists. Those who had the ability to play in working professional orchestras. And those who were destined to teach in elementary schools.

An interjection here: I don’t like that last designation. Many fine musicians teach in elementary (and other) schools. But to argue about the classification is to miss the point: The teachers were ranking the students based on their professional potential as performing artists.

And then, in a blind study, the researchers interviewed all those students about how much practice time they had put into their music from the very beginnings of their introduction to music. 

The results were consistent across the board, with so little variation that it challenges our very notions about “talent.” As it turned out, the “talent” it took to become what the professors considered a potential concert artist had nothing to do with anything except how many hours the student had practiced. 

  • 10,000 hours: Master of the instrument; concert artist potential.
  • 8,000 hours: Professional orchestral musicians.
  • 4,000 hours: Teachers 
  • 2,000 hours: Amateurs

Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers

In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell explores the phenomena of people who live and work outside the bell curve: the geniuses, the achievers, the exceptions. He looks at questions like “Why do Asian children seem to do so well at music?” and asks “What is going on here?” He looks at the 10,000 hour study and then he looks at the Beatles and Mozart — and he concludes that just as important as any “talent” was the fact that they had those 10,000 hours. The Beatles played day in and day out in Hamburg, racking up hundreds, then thousands of hours of performance and rehearsal time before their “overnight success.” Mozart played music all day everyday, carefully supervised, starting as a toddler; he probably had his 10,000 hours in well before he was a teenager. 

No one is saying the Beatles or Mozart didn’t have talent: But would they have achieved what they did without those hours? Ericsson’s study says “no.” 

Talent and Practice: The Chicken and the Egg

To conclude that talent has nothing to do with anything may be a little facile, and it contradicts the evidence every music teacher has of students coming in and “getting” it” or not. Some people are better at certain musical tasks than others. And indeed, talent may have been one of the factors that made people practice more to begin with. Would Leopold have sat with little Wolfgang day in and day out if Wolfie had been a distracted little kid who couldn’t remember “Middle C”?  Maybe not. But talent without practice can be nothing more than an empty, unfulfilled promise.

Where talent may factor in is that people like doing the things they are good at. There is a virtuous cycle: They practice, they get results, they enjoy the results, they practice more. A child who simply can’t wrap her mind around how to figure out that “D” is one step up from “C” may not be having as much fun as the kid who sits down, grabs some notes, and starts playings something that sounds good. Kid number 1 practices less, Kid number 2 practices more. 

The Role of Will, Drive, and Character in Musical Achievement

The type of practice also matters: Good practice is a whole lot more than butt-on-bench time.  It can be active, engaged, critical, creative, and problem-solving. It can also be frustrating and boring. It’s not just the time; it’s also about intent and energy and efficiency.

Finally, there is the issue of personal will. Some kids simply have minds that like to wrestle.  

Here’s an example of what I’m talking about: If I put a Beethoven Sonata full of 16th notes and 32nd notes on the piano music stand, most of my students will treat it as adult garbage that has nothing to do with them (and, they seem to hope, never will). Their initial reaction to it is that it looks “HARD” and “CONFUSING” and that is all they want to know about it.

But I have a couple of 9 and 10 year-olds who would IMMEDIATELY pick up that music and start trying to work it out. They would look at the threes against fours and ask how to play them, or ask how you play a chord with six notes with only five fingers, and what is that “x”  doing in front of a note where a sharp or a flat usually would go? They are curious — and they see no reason why they shouldn’t be able to try it. That’s not musical TALENT, folks: That’s character. Personality. Drive. Will. Curiosity. Interest. And I’m pretty sure it shows up on the soccer field and in school and in art projects, too.

And that, I think, is the bottom line here: Music is a great equalizer. In a world filled with technology designed to make everything we encounter as effortless as possible, music still requires, and rewards, work.

The Myth of Musical Genius

We have a myth about talent: We like to believe it exists, maybe in part because it lets us off the hook. We think of Paganini, or Robert Johnson, both supposedly possessed by the devil to play as they did. We hear about Uncle George who just sat down at the piano one day and started playing, and we shake our heads in wonder at George’s talent, and say that we wish we had it, conveniently ignoring that when George was a kid he banged away at the old clunker piano in the school lunchroom and tried to learn songs by sneaking into the local music store and looking at chord sheets to see if what he figured out by himself was right, and he listened to the radio when he was supposed to be sleeping.

I’m not sure we’ll ever figure out all the mysteries of talent and genius: The kids who can read music upside down, the prodigies who, at age six, start playing Mozart sonatas, the children with perfect pitch or an intuitive understanding of harmony. Such things certainly exist out at the far edges of the bell curve.

But professional musicians don’t all live out there in the land of freak outliers. Indeed, as the Berlin study showed, even prodigies need to practice to make good on their gifts, and the vast majority of professional musicians inhabit the more prosaic world of “practice makes perfect” and good old slogging.

The conclusion we can draw is an encouraging one: If we practice like they practice, we too may achieve remarkable things.

Just like my sister.

Beethoven, Viral Marketing, and Fur Elise

Viral marketing is supposedly the new kid on the marketing block, what with social networking and computers and Blackberries and Tweets. Only, it turns out that there’s nothing new about viral marketing.

To the contrary, consider Ludwig van Beethoven and a simple piece of classical music.

When a Song Goes Viral

For two hundred years, students have been coming into piano teachers’ studios begging to play it. They live in homes without a single recording of classical music. They think Beethoven is the name of a big cartoon dog. They can barely play three correct notes in a row. They don’t know the name of the song they want to play. Neither do their parents. They can’t remember where they heard it. They don’t even like to practice piano, but they will, they promise, if they get to play this one song.


These nine notes pass from one student to another like swine flu, the newest rumor about the principal, or a bad knock-knock joke. What is it about Fur Elise? Certainly, piano teachers don’t know the answer. There are other pieces kids love, but many of them are short and easy, like Heart and Soul or Chopsticks. Fur Elise is hard. It takes weeks to learn (sometimes months, if a student prematurely attempts the unabridged version).

“You can’t play it yet,” the teacher says. “It’s too hard.”

Usually, students recoil from the words “it’s hard” like a vampire recoils from daylight. But not this time.

“Pleeeeaze,” the student pleads. “I’ll practice every day. I promise.”

Be honest, wouldn’t every company like its products to be received with such desperate enthusiasm? And consider this: This is happening 200 years after the product was created.

Ten Things Beethoven Must Have Known About Selling His Songs

So what is it about this piece of music, or anything, really, that makes it so immediately appealing, so catchy, so viral? What did Beethoven know?

  1. It’s all about the hook. Keep it short. Keep it simple. Keep it strong. Make it memorable. Nine notes, and everyone recognizes it.
  2. Don’t be afraid of saying things twice. The main motif in Fur Elise comes back at least a dozen times. Put the message out there, then say it again.
  3. Get the kids hooked. Let a producer of kid shows do a children’s biographical film. Get it in the schools. If the kids love it, maybe they’ll love something else later on. The Moonlight Sonata, perhaps. Maybe they’ll shell out for the Symphony. Or want to learn to play the Hammerklavier.
  4. Don’t be afraid of new media, and don’t be stuffy. Sell the rights to a Peanuts cartoon. Let the theme go on a cell phone ringer program. If the audience hears it in a commercial, they’ll recognize it in a concert. Maybe they’ll check out what else this guy wrote.
  5. Bury the complicated stuff. Make the opening ring, draw them in. Then hit them with more. Not everyone will buy into the more complex ideas, but some will.
  6. Use a ringer. That most successful and talented student who is up to every challenge and can’t wait to play for a group of people? Teach it to her.
  7. Don’t underestimate word-of-mouth. Not even piano teachers can name a prominent artist who has recorded Fur Elise. It’s never played in “real” piano concerts. The big boys ignore it, but it’s all over Youtube and piano recitals.
  8. Have a mysterious love story in there somewhere. Who was this Elise anyway? After 200 years, scholars only think they know. Keep them guessing.
  9. Being temperamental, tragic, and having a dodgy personal life help sell stuff. They always did.
  10. Don’t ride on the laurels: Keep creating good work. The audience will come back for more.

Case studies are used in business schools to learn from other people’s failures and successes. Beethoven is not usually cited as a mastermind of the business world. But perhaps he should be.