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Lessons In Success From A Piano Teacher

2 May 2012

Musiah_Playing_PianoI recently received an email from a parent of a particularly bright student saying that she was currently “frustrated to the point or tears” with a particular piano piece from the Musiah syllabus. Each level in Musiah contains one or two major challenges, and the particular piece this student is currently on is the main challenge for that level.


This is a classic issue facing not just all piano students around the world, but every human being around the world – how do we respond to a challenge, something we cannot master as easily as most things.


There is an old Buddhist story about a farmer whose horse ran away, about which all the neighbors said, “What bad luck!” to which the farmer replied, “Maybe”.


Next day the horse came back with several other wild horses. “What great luck!” the neighbors exclaimed. “Maybe” said the farmer.


A few days later the farmer’s son fell off one of the horses and broke his leg. As expected, all the neighbors said, “What bad luck!” to which the farmer replied, “Maybe”.


A week later the army came through the village to draft all the young men, but seeing the broken leg of the farmer’s son they left him in peace. “What great luck”, the neighors said. “Maybe,” the farmer responded. And so on.


The point here is to try not to automatically label everything as good or bad. Most of us, when faced with a challenge think negatively about both the challenge and how we see ourselves in relation to the challenge. And this is dysfunctional and disempowering. 


About the challenge we think: “What a pain! Why can’t it be easier? It’s so hard…I hate this.”


About ourselves: “I can’t do this…I’m not good enough…I’m a failure...I’m not musical enough, fit enough, beautiful enough” – or whatever is applicable to this challenge.


But here’s the thing: A challenge truly is your friend in a way that a lesser challenge can never be. If you go out for a walk or a run, do you hate that challenging steep hill that makes you puff, pant and sweat? This is a common misperception. The hill has done nothing wrong. If anything, the hill is your friend. Like a personal trainer or mentor, it is making you better, stronger, fitter. It will do more for you than several kilometres of flat road. We ought to embrace the hill, thank the hill, welcome the hill into our lives each time we approach it. And this also changes how we think and feel about ourselves as we approach the hill. We are grateful for the challenge, more respectful and less dismissive of it, and more mindful of the ways in which we need to adapt in order to master the challenge and receive the benefits it has to offer. As we alter our breathing, our pace, our psychology and the muscles we call into action as we face the hill, we are evolving and improving into a better, more beautiful version of ourselves not just physically but at a higher level.


In his excellent book, “The Power Of Now, A Guide To Spiritual Enlightenment”, author Eckhart Tolle describes stress as “being here but wanting to be there”. Frustration is a form of stress that we sometimes experience when facing a challenge, often because we are currently on this side of the challenge, but wanting to be on the other side of it.


Just because something is at first difficult, does that necessarily mean it is bad? As our Buddhist farmer would say, “maybe”. Is it also possible that the current challenge (such as a difficult song) is doing us a great service by forcing us to adapt, to acquire new skills and new ways of thinking in order to grow and evolve into a musician that can master the challenge? Of course it is.


But it is also vitally important to enjoy the journey. Imagine an artist who paints oil paintings all day long, only ever thinking of finishing the painting he is currently on. What a miserable existence. I have worked as an artist, and one of the things painting taught me was to enjoy the journey. It’s OK that your current challenge is a work in progress. It’s OK that you are growing and evolving, that you are not yet perfect. Most of your life will be like this, because as soon as you complete one project or challenge, you move on to the next.


The most exciting thing about any endeavour, if you make a point of observing it in yourself, is to note your own continual ongoing growth and evolution. When you discover that the journey truly is the best part of any challenge, the completion of the challenge will take care of itself.


So now we’ve got our head in the right space (hopefully), what practical things can we do to help us not only master our challenge (the current song), but also hopefully enjoy the journey as we do it?


My third piano teacher, Professor Anthony Glavin at the Royal Irish Academy of Music (may he RIP) wisely taught me that the slower you practice, the quicker you learn.

 

Piano Practice Tips: How To Learn Piano Pieces

Whenever you encounter a piano piece that you find challenging, I'd suggest going into the practice area (within the Musiah online piano lessons application), select that piece, and initially without any click track or backing track, play through it as slowly as you can bear to go. It's not just about learning the notes, but about learning the shape of the hand positions and finger combinations required to play the notes. Imagine you have to play the piece blind-folded. Really think about, and be aware of the shapes of the pairs of notes in each hand. When you can play it comfortably at a very slow, almost meditative tempo, then try it with a slow click track. When you can manage it comfortably with a slow click track, increase the tempo to medium (can be either click track or backing track). Only when you can do it comfortably on medium, should you then increase the tempo to fast.

At the risk of stating the obvious, no one can play something at full tempo if they are unsure of exactly what it is they are meant to be playing. And the only way to become sure, is through slow practice combined with the right psychology. Don’t be quick to judge the challenge as being either good or bad, but allow for the possibility that, like a good friend, this challenge is exactly what you need at this point in time to help you adapt, learn new techniques and ways of thinking, and ultimately grow and evolve into an improved version of yourself.


Another technique that helps is to set yourself small goals. Don’t try to “learn” the whole piano piece in one go. Instead take just one or two bars. Play through the left hand slowly as many times as you need to in order to become comfortable playing it. Then play through the right hand slowly as many times as you need to. And finally, going as slow as you can bear to go, play both hands, just in that segment, as many times as you need for that section of the piece to be absorbed into your subconscious. Once that segment or goal has been completely mastered, move onto the next segment and repeat the process.

And one final tip: When you’re trying to put the whole piano piece (all the segments) together, don’t always start at the beginning. Many students start at the beginning all the time, and so they tend to be good at playing the start of the piece but weaker at playing the end of it. A good approach is to sometimes practice the last line of the piece, then try the last two lines, then the last three lines and so on, working your way backwards towards the start.

Quite often a challenge will not take as much time to master as you might at first think.


If you devote your attention to enjoying the journey and learning what each challenge has to teach you (including self-acceptance), the completion of the challenge will take care of itself.


Thanks for reading and please feel free to comment.


Til next time,



Brendan Hogan

Musiah Inventor

 

 

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Comments

Thank you so much for your blog and your website... I am a mature aged student teacher (primary) and very familiar with challenge. I have been dreading an upcoming unit involving music education as I have just never been able to 'get it'. I have tried many times throughout my life to read music and learn instruments but always give up when it all becomes too hard... For some reason I have not been able to make musicianship part of my life and concluded that I must be musically-challenged. I don't really believe this. I think it's more likely that I haven't had the right kind of support or teaching methods to allow me to succeed. After seeing your ad on TV I was inspired to check out your website and I now feel encouraged to try Musiah. I have imagined myself in class playing the piano to my students and this brings me joy. I know it will open up my world and I look forward to the day when I feel confident with music and can successfully teach others. I am inspired by your teaching tips and will take them with me into the classroom. My only challenge now is to temper my excitement, be patient and save my $ for the keyboard so I can begin Musiah.... Thanks again...

Alison

Hey Alison, you're very kind. Sincere thanks for your positive feedback and for taking the time to post. It's teachers like you, truly passionate and involved, that will change the world.

Brendan Hogan

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