The mind is a wondrous muscle that does incredible things if you train it. Now, the situation is that you, as a unique individual, are not your mind since you will be training it. Same with your fingers or the rest of your body. The only way I can define ‘you’ is simply, ‘you’, you that does all the decision making. So, if you decide to sit at the piano and practice scales, and memorize pieces, go ahead and be a parrot!
Practicing without understanding is the lowest common denominator of the term ‘practice’. And memorizing without understanding is a total waste of time. It takes effort to think. It takes effort to understand. Unfortunately, thinking is something most decide not to do. It’s not a conscience decision, but a decision brought about by habit. And the job is in the breaking of that habit. I know it’s a tough call, but it has to be done if it is expected to play what is called, ‘music’. And, playing notes, playing scales, memorizing pieces is not music.
Music is made up of chords that have identities. Scales and intervals also have identities. Like the spoken language, music is put together in logical order called syntax that creates structure that communicates. Without this sense of structure and identity, music is nothing more than a series of notes that are meaningless, no matter how much ‘expression’ is brought to bear. The legendary pianist, Josef Lhevinne of the Juilliard School in New York, had this to say regarding study of this kind…
“…I have repeatedly had students come for instruction who have after great effort prepared one, two, or at the most three show pieces, even pieces as far advanced as the Tchaikovsky or the Liszt Concerto, who barely knew what key they were playing in. … Study of this kind is not only a great waste of the pupil’s time but also a disgusting waste of the time of the advanced teacher, who realizes that he is not training a real musician but a kind of musical parrot whose playing must always be meaningless.” …From his ‘Basic Principles in Pianoforte Playing’
Music theory is an area that is required of music students in all universities, conservatories, and piano studios. That’s traditional and supposed to be good. But if it is so, how does one account for the Lhevinne quote above? And, if it is supposed to be good why isn’t it required that the pianist know what is in a piece of music that is being ‘studied’? When advanced students ‘barely know what key they are playing in’, it gives music theory a bad name. Yet the language of music is not to be found in the music theory text book. Concepts of voice leading, figured bass, types of cadences, etc. are academic areas for the theorist, not the musician.
Music is a language that communicates feelings and moods that are inherent in the works of composers. Composers do not think of ‘correct’ voice leading, or what inversion is being used. Those are part of the vocabulary of the composer. A writer does not think of sentence structure or ‘correct’ syntax. These are a ‘given’. Yet the piano student hasn’t a clue of what there is in a piece of music other than the notes. Mood, chord identity, and musical syntax are, unfortunately, not a ‘given’. Ninety-nine percent of piano students do not hear, yet playing by ear should be as normal as driving a car by sight.
It’s time for a change!
Ralph Carroll Hedges, B.Ed., B.Mus., M.M.