Towards A Theory of Piano Learning

This topic is so all-embracing as almost to defy reduction by categorical analysis; as well as equally hard to distinguish from the bigger picture of aesthetics /theory of performance piano and musicianship in general. Even if one were to succeed in defining such a theory satisfactorily, it would be as dry bones compared to the living breathing emotional reality of successful performance. Thus we may say that ultimately the goal of learning to perform music is to unify the separate aspects of performance (emotional /aesthetic /physical) into a compelling unity of expression designed to enhance its reception by listeners, and – as a bproduct – to enhance the self-awareness, self-confidence and psycho-somatic integration of the performer.

The difficulty in attempting an analysis by category is that the emotional /the aesthetic / the physical cannot be considered in isolation from each other. Nevertheless, as a shorthand we can consider issues within these topic areas:

  • Dexterity: velocity /finger control /gestural expressivity
  • Dynamic balance
  • Energy
  • Fitness (maintaining muscular health)
  • Musical sensitivity (restraint)
  • Rhythmic poise

Mental – subdividing into Ă†sthetic
  • Awareness of cultural /historical context and style
  • Conscious detachment /overview /pacing
  • Literate fluency
  • Memory development & recognition
  • Musical sensitivity
  • Rhythmic poise (ability to keep in time with others)

– and Emotional
  • Emotional depth
  • Experience /maturity
  • Conscious engagement: intention /attitude /focus

  • Memory (releasing emotional blocks)
  • Musical sensitivity & responsiveness
  • Psychological acuity
  • Rhythmic poise (there is a direct correlation between positive ego development and rhythmic self-confidence**)

The next question in relation to a theory of learning is teleological. If there  is an endpoint, what is it? How far is an individual student interested in and capable of developing?
    When people come to me I form a view fairly early on (based on my experience and intuition) about what musical style is likely to engage them as they reach ‘years if discretion’ and also how important this is likely to be to them, and then endeavour to place them on a trajectory that is scaled to these perceptions. At it’s most basic this might be the ability to play 12 bar Blues, at its most extreme to enter music college with a view to a career. The requirements for each end of the spectrum are different only in degree, yet all need to be grounded in developing a love of making music and the physical skills to do it to a level in a way that feels natural and satisfying to the individual.
    I have a saying that ‘all music needs to work for a youngster in the playground’ (in terms of earning the kudos of their peers) for that is what keeps motivation keenest. The significant factor here is that the dynamics of the playground at St Johns CofE Primary in Tisbury function very differently to those of Wells Cathedral School. Yet the principle is the same, I believe.
    It is all too tragically easy for love to be squeezed out of the picture by the demands of developing technical excellence, and the whole ’scientific education’ mindset has a disastrous bias towards assessing the quantification of musical performance (technique /accuracy) ahead of its qualification (emotional depth). Only those who have true greatness of soul overcome the mean-ness (averageness) of professional music training, by refusing to surrender their focus of love and motivation. [The same is true in medical training and almost anywherelse using the Western scientific model of education.]
    ** I saw a fascinating examples of this process at work when I taught at the Junior Royal College of Music. I would notice that by the age of 17 (our top year) some of the most highly-educated boys had become almost completely divorced from their own sense of body rhythm, under the pressure (& very possibly, inclination) to prioritise intellectual learning above emotional integration. This phenomenon was far rarer in less educated boys, and almost entirely absent in girls.
    [There are other very interesting gender differences I have observed in the 20 years I've spent piano teaching: notably the way in which emotional issues arising from instinctive engagement with dexterity & tool use in boys/men is almost entirely absent in girls/women. In simple terms: I've encountered boys crying and men becoming angry when encountering handicaps, which I've never seen in the supposedly emotional gender!]
Because of the immense complexity of the issues to be mastered and the individual’s own unique psycho-somatic (dis/)advantages there can be no single pathway to developing the desired skill level since no two individuals have exactly the same needs. Some will have difficulty reading music, but none with dexterity. Some vice versa. Some will be challenged by a range of possible physical deficits, the most common being a dyslexic reversal of left-right &/or high-low, weakness of fingers, finger address, etc, and thus be frustrated from realising the mental vision they have of the music – while others posses intuitive gestural memory, excellent auditory responses, perfect pitch, and the necessary intellectual capacity to handle a high level of complexity.

Early stage learning involves A) music-reading, B) physical coordination, & C) a sense of metre – yet it is impossible to predict the way/s in which beginners will or should acquire them, as learning has to be led by what the pupil finds easiest with the other elements receiving remedial attention to keep them in balance.

For me the virtuous circle of the learning experience is to engender 1) rapid progress, by small graduated steps, which creates 2) a sense of achievement, leading to 3) enthusiasm; which then return as 1) accelerated progress, etcetera.

Broadly speaking I see the key stages as follows
1. G1 basic musical competence
2. G5 modest amateur achievement
3. G8 high amateur attainment

4. Music degree - professional musical competence
5. Public debut recital or acceptance into recording/performance scene
6. Solo work
7. Acclaimed mastery
    Most people I teach won't get beyond KS2, a few to KS3. In my present position if I can deliver them to KS4 then I've done my work.

For further reflexions on the learning process see http://msteer.co.uk/edu/1ndexEdu.htm


Why I w/couldn't teach a friend

Dear L
    Here's a slightly more serious answer about why I find it very hard to teach adults piano.
   Their learning process is totally different to kids. Kids know they don’t know and have no issues around being told. Adults think they know (or feel inadequate if they know they don’t know) and have big issues around being told!
    If you can find a kid’s blue touch paper and set it alight s/he will go like a rocket, regardless of how much else they have on. That simply doesn’t happen with adults, and you have to smile sweetly when they tell you they haven’t been able to practise, but the reality is that they're not sufficiently engaged to prioritise the activity.
    I also think it would be a mistake to teach someone I know socially, as it might well contaminate both relationships. I recently turned down a 'Dad' I’m very friendly with recently for that reason. There are also fascinating differences in male /female learning patterns which make the former a lot harder to teach as their brains are hard-wired to tool use (seriously!) and they have tremendous ego issues around dexterity, which women simply don’t have.
    Also a teacher needs that small bit of leverage that being a stranger provides, which is lost when you’re mates and the pupil can take the piss without fear of retribution.

There’s a further thing I've discovered and that is I've not succeeded in teaching non-literate musicians. My attempts have been fascinating encounters in which I've learnt a tremendous amount about the raw structures of memory within the brain; and how, in the absence of literature, strophe is the natural form of memory storage and retrieval. But my mind doesn’t work that way, and you need a teacher who is immersed in the world of intuitive music-making, because the last thing you wants is to get hung up on trying to read dots when all you want to do is play.

Great fun with you guys on Friday night; and I don’t want to spoil a good friendship.