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Progress and pragmatism at the piano

In these strange and awful days we are fast becoming accustomed to thinking in very large numbers – 1,002,159 confirmed cases as I write, according to the Johns Hopkins site https://coronavirus.jhu.edu/map.html. It will have gone up a thousand or so within the hour. We stay home, shrink into our newly confined worlds and desperately repeat the COVID-19 mantra of governments around the world: ‘Flatten the curve!’

As pianists, though, we’re always chasing an ever-rising curve. We always want to play better than we can today. We want to master pieces much harder than the ones we already play well. There’s nothing wrong with the drive to progress. It’s probably an essential character trait for the successful piano student. But it can also be our greatest stumbling block. If we put ourselves under too much pressure by taking on pieces that are technically way beyond us or aiming for zero-error performances, we risk despondent self-criticism and a sense of failure. I speak here from annoyingly frequent first-hand experience.

How do we strike a balance between healthy drive and realistic repertoire? The conventional answer is that you turn to a piano teacher, who takes on responsibility for leading you through a progressive syllabus, carefully designed and graded by Recognised Piano Authorities, such as national piano examination boards (the AMEB in Australia or the Associated Boards in the UK, for example). But adult amateurs are intelligent, highly motivated and people, always with unique piano playing biographies and often with very strong musical preferences. What we grown-ups need is not to be taken through a syllabus designed by someone else (and usually pitched at the 8 to 16 age group) but instead helped to develop the skills that will give us the independence to better match our skill level to repertoire we want to play. We need the autonomy to set our own reasonable piano goals.

Through very painful trial and error, I have developed three strategies that seem to help. First, I never commit to learning a piece just because I hear it and it sounds lovely. Instead, when I’m seduced by a piece, I immediately search for the music online and study it, looking closely at the hardest part of the piece. This is rarely the first bars or even the first page. How many times have you launched into a piece you love, which starts slowly in C major, with nicely playable triads and a single-note right-hand melody. You think, ‘wow, I can do this!’ — only to discover that on page 3 it suddenly modulates to Bb minor, with the melody suddenly expressed in double octave jumps and complex polyrhythms of three-against-two! I might be able to play pages 1 and 2 well, but if page 3 onwards is beyond my current technical skills, I activate my second strategy.

This is to estimate the time and repetitions it would take me to master the technical challenges. Life is finite (a point we’re reminded of every moment in these days of COVID-19). So ask yourself: How much of my precious, limited time in this world am I really prepared to invest in learning these two or three pages of difficult music? You don’t have to guess. Do a trial run to work it out. Take four to six of the most difficult bars in the piece and try and learn them. Give yourself four days, doing your usual practice routine in that time, building in as many repetitions of these difficult bars as you like or can tolerate. If those bars feel easy or at least reasonably attainable after four days, add up the number of difficult bars remaining in the piece and calculate the time you’d need to invest to get on top of the basic technical demands of the piece (you would of course still need considerably more time to polish it and play it with interpretation and expression). But do your basic technical calculation. Then ask: Worth it or not? Only you can decide. Deciding ‘nope, not worth it’, is not defeat but sensible pragmatism.

The decision not to learn a piece (but to enjoy listening to it played by a professional pianist) is made much easier for me because I also implement a third strategy. This is to expand my repertoire. Too often piano students become wedded to playing pieces way beyond their levels because they simply don’t know what else is out there. Don’t rely on a teacher to introduce you to repertoire – chances are they will simply introduce you to the pieces they know and love. Explore for yourself the extraordinarily wide range of piano music in different styles and genres that’s easily accessible online, often free or at low cost and often demonstrated before your eyes so you can see just what they involve. The more piano music you encounter, the higher the odds that you will find plenty of stunning pieces you can enjoy learning without signing away your life. These days of confined living offer us the perfect opportunity to broaden our piano horizons. I intend to make the most of it.


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