Sunday, October 12, 2008

How To Play Piano When You Can't

We always had a piano in our house growing up, but I never learned how to play it. It's not that my parents were ambivalent about music education for their kids; rather, I suspect it was a combination of the fact that lessons are expensive, and the fact that my parents as kids developed horrible personal memories of hours spent doing their scales when they'd rather have been outside getting some sunlight on their pale skin. So I never had lessons as a kid; I never asked why, and they didn't ever ask whether I wanted them.

And then I got all grown up, and discovered that it would have been really, really handy to know how to play the piano. I've done my share of music composition and my share of directing, and are plenty of times when it would have been so convenient just to be able to grab a sheet of music, pull up a keyboard, play it, and let everyone know that it sounds like that. Alas, I never developed that skill--and I suspect that, given my experiences trying to learn the piano as an adult, that I never will.

Well, I had lessons for a few years in college, because it was necessary to have some skill for my music minor. But aside from that, I just wasn't an instrumental kind of guy until I started learning Celtic Harp on a lark about ten years ago--well after having left college. My instrument was the voice, and I got good enough that I was able to do minor opera roles. I also got good enough that I could read most vocal music by sight. I learned my role of Alcindoro, from La Boheme, by reading the score, with no headphones, while riding a train on my way to work one day....

But we got a piano in the summer of 2007, and I've been determined to make sure my kids learn how to play (at least until they get old enough to decide whether they'd rather become expert at some other instrument instead). And not only that, but I've been trying to learn myself. (Alas, this also means that I haven't really practiced the harp in about a year. Sometimes I miss playing it, but I'm rather dreading actually trying to tune the thing again....)


What I've discovered is that unlike with vocal music, which I can sight-read very well, learning piano (or harp) music takes me a very, very long time. For me, the process of turning notes on a page into sung phrases is natural and (mostly) automatic; but turning the same notes into a sequence of key depressions or plucked strings is a strange, artificial process. By the time I know a piece well enough to feel comfortable playing it for other people, I've had to memorize every finger motion, so that the entire piece is played from muscle memory.

(It also means that if I miss a note, I often can't pick up where I lost it, and have to start from the beginning. This is especially true on the harp. Somehow, the plucking motion is more physically complicated than the simple key-presses on a piano, so a missed note or mis-positioned finger throws off everything that comes after it.)

I have, after the better part of a year of constant practice, managed to learn the first Clementi Sonatina in C major!

(I can do it a bit faster than this girl, but not as accurately.)

At this rate, I might have all six of them learned by the time I die....

So I've been figuring, this will never do. Time for a change of strategy. I'd like some day to be able to play Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata (First Movement--I'm not sure I'll ever get good enough to do the Third Movement), and Debussy's Clair de Lune, but I'm having difficulty making my way through the second Clementi Sonatina. It's in G major, dont'cha know, and that means you have just that many more black keys to deal with....


So, how do I plan to get good enough to do Moonlight Sonata?

Well, I decided to do two things.

Item One: if you're trying to get good enough to do X, here's a hint: sometimes it's a waste of time to do Y, where Y is easier than X. You spend all your time working on Y, polishing Y, making mistakes on Y, and you never get good enough on Y to feel comfortable working your way up to something more sophisticated. Sometimes, it's worth it to jump straight to X, and work your way through it. Or to put it another way: if you're trying to learn Clementi, that's great--if you want to play Clementi. If you want to play Beethoven, on the other hand, start playing Beethoven.

Black keys and all. Now, this has always been "scary" to me, especially after playing the harp (which is a diatonic instrument, like a piano would be if it only had white keys). How do you learn how to play something with four sharps (Moonlight Sonata) or five flats (Clair de Lune)? Those keys have much more complicated scales to them than plain old C, or even G or F--and I've been struggling with the Clementi pieces in G and F.

Well, for me at least, I don't think it helps to "work my way up to it". If you want to play four sharps, just do it! Yeah, it'll be tough when you start, but after you've done it a hundred times, the muscle memory kicks in....

So my courage duly braced, I went and got the sheet music to Moonlight Sonata and a collection of Debussy pieces, including Clair de Lune. I got them home, looked at all those funny little notes, and promptly thought to myself: Gaaaaak! What was I thinking?

Which brings us to Item Two: learn the piece backwards.

Here's the problem. I learn through constant repetition. The trouble, when learning a new piece of music, is that it takes me a long time to play all the notes, because my brain is having to look at the music, then consciously decipher what I'm reading, then consciously place the fingers on (hopefully) the correct keys, then look back at the music and find my place again... It can take ten minutes to go through a one-minute piece this way. And given that this Daddy doesn't have much time to practice these days, that means I don't get any repetition, and the muscle memory builds up very very slowly.

Now, obviously the solution is to take a chunk of measures--say, four or eight--and play only those measures over and over until you have them cold, then go on to the next chunk. But there are two problems with this approach. First, when you stop at the end of an eight-measure passage, you don't necessarily learn how to position your fingers for what comes next. You create an unnecessary transition point: your brain knows how to get up to that point; and your brain knows how to start at that point and go on, but it doesn't necessarily know how to pass through that point smoothly. Second, I simply don't have the discipline to stop, go back to the beginning of the passage, and start over. There's just part of me that wants to keep going, to see what's next.

Thus, I've decided to learn the piece backwards. That is, I start with the last eight measures of the piece--the ending--and play them until I can do them cold, from sheer muscle memory. Then, I back up an additional eight measures--now I'm sixteen from the end--and practice that section. Of course, the penultimate eight measures are much harder, but when I get through them, the last eight are easy, since I've already mastered them. Then when I can get through all final sixteen measures without flaw, I back up another eight... and so forth.

And it means that the farther I play through the piece, the smoother it gets. :-)


So, how's it working?

After dinking around with Moonlight Sonata for a while on Friday, I started this scheme yesterday. As of this evening, I have the last fifteen measures--about 20% of the movement--mostly memorized. That doesn't mean I have them smooth or error-free, but it does mean I can play them without having to look at the music. For me, this is a big deal: once I get to the point that my brain doesn't have to spend CPU cycles reading the music, learning the finger motions becomes much faster, and I start to internalize the music.

A few more observations:

First: After two days, I'm no longer scared of keys with lots of flats or sharps--or even double-sharps, with which Beethoven's music is packed. For one thing, when you get enough of these in the music, you just start playing everything on the black keys. It's just like playing everything on the white keys, only easier--since you can feel where the keys are. :-)

Second: my music theory education is kicking in. As I'm trying to puzzle out where my fingers go, I'm getting little glimpses of what Mr. Beethoven was thinking. For example, why it is that he kept writing those notes as B# instead of C-Natural? They may be enharmonically the same, and writing C-Natural may (in the short term) help newbie piano players know where to put their fingers. But, writing it as B# actually makes the music easier to understand. (You're in the key of C#-minor, and B# is the seventh note of the harmonic minor scale. It's the "leading tone", trying to push the harmony back to the root of the key). The more I focus on the notes, the more I start to understand the music. It gets demystified--but at the same time, I'm coming to see Beethoven more and more as a genius.

Given the progress I've made over the last two days, I'd say the strategy I hit on is-for me--a decent one for learning this difficult music. Given how long it took me to learn the much simpler Clementi music, I'm quite optimistic given how much progress I've made on Beethoven in the last two days. Continuing at this rate, and given what time I have to practice, I would have the Moonlight Sonata (first movement) learned in a month or two--which for me would be a record, given the complexity of the piece.

Am I being too optimistic? Possibly. Most likely. :-) I'll keep you posted as it goes...


Uvulapie said...

And if you actually place the piece backwards you'll be "Because" by The Beatles!

I started on this piece, forward, and have the first two "phrases" down... and haven't gone past them in ten years. Maybe it's time to finish learning that piece, eh? Let's race!

Timothy Power said...

Oh, Jeez. Just what I need. Another source of stress in my life.

"AAAaaaagh! I've got to finish learning that piece before the guy with the weirdly scanned face does!!"

Um, no thanks. The reason I'm learning Moonlight Sonata (movement 1) is so that I can have more serenity in my life, not less.


Although I do like the idea of playing it backwards to see if any satanic messages pop out....

Anyway, thanks for the comment. I've been needing a good laugh lately.

Janeen said...

In order for you to learn how to play piano, you have to buy dvd online that contains instructional videos that will truly guide you in playing musical instruments.

learn2playpianos said...

Indeed, if you don't have talent, learning to play piano, or actually trying to learn is useless.

learning piano notes said...

Well, that is something so inspiring to me. The talent is there!