There are a lot of reasons to taking piano lessons. The love of music, wanting to play like XX (insert any artist you want), etc. But piano lessons can provide so much more. Through piano lessons, we can develop self-discipline. We must learn to take time and enjoy the moment to savor each tone you make (because that is we should do when playing music), which is sorely missing in the hectic pace of everyday life. One can learn to be physically relaxed while cognitively working very hard, which is an important concept needed to be successful in any field. We can learn to be patient with ourselves because it sometimes takes step-by-step practicing for many hours before we can master a piece. And we can acquire a life-long love of great music.
So many students (or parents) begin piano lessons full of dreams and ambitions, but end up quitting after a few years. Why? I believe it is because they are not learning the mindset of real practice, how to read notes, and how to count. Music begins in one’s head. Because it is so easy to make sounds on the piano (even my dog can produce sounds on the piano!), one tends to want to go to the piano and pluck a tune. But when it involves sheet music and the piano, which is usually the case for any beginner, one must read the notes on the sheet music, hear the notes in one’s head, and only then can one play them at the piano. With most students, I have observed that this middle step in the process (i.e. hear the notes in one’s head) is missing. In other words, students see notes on the score and identify them with certain keys.
Music is a language, a language in which musical notes are used instead of words. Therefore, we must tackle the acquisition of this new language as if we are endeavoring to learn a foreign language. When you learn a foreign language, you begin slowly. First learn the alphabet. Then one slowly learns to pronounce each word. And then one begins to form rudimentary sentences. These steps are all done in one’s mind. Sometimes it is beneficial to say the words out loud. Only when you can form a sentence flawlessly in your mind, then you can verbalize it and communicate with others.
The same is true for piano playing. We must know what notes we will play before we play them!
But unfortunately many beginners equate notes on the score with keys on the piano. We need to internally hear or anticipate the next note before playing, just as one thinks what to say before opening one’s mouth. And when students don’t read and internally hear the notes before playing, playing becomes automatic, mechanical, denuded of human warmth, spirit, and individuality, and progress stalls.
And here is one secret of my method: Students are taught to name the notes from the very beginning. (I prefer solfege instead of C, D, E, etc. just because it is so much easier to say Do, Re, Mi, etc. since they use various vowels unlike C, D, E, etc. most of which end up the vowel E). This way, students identify the notes with the names (always a plus, I tell my young students that you know all your good friends’ names because you like them and you think a lot about them, so you should the names of the notes to a song you’re learning, too!). Within a few years, most of them, if they have practiced regularly by naming the notes, they are able to acquire a good ear so much so that they can identify the notes that are being played. (This is how I acquired my perfect pitch. Yes, I believe that perfect pitch can be acquired.)
And there is another benefit to this “note-naming” method of mine; students tend to play with relaxed arms/shoulders once they start thinking of what comes ahead. Most students tend to get nervous and tense when we are insecure and scared. Why do we get experience these emotions when we are sitting at the piano? These feelings are evoked when we don’t know what comes next. If one knows all the notes and can hear them clearly in one’s head, he/she is likely to be more relaxed particularly in his/her limbs. Relaxed wrists/arms/shoulders are a must in order to produce beautiful sound, and it enhances the ability to play free of stress to one’s mental and physical being. And this is true of anything that involves physical movement. Ask any performer, athlete, etc. about being in the “zone.”
Another secret of my practicing and teaching methods is the hand/finger movements on the keyboard. When I practice and when I teach my students, I strive for economy and efficiency of movement. I also practice very slowly without looking at the keyboard. When I am learning a piece, my eyes are always on the score, never on my hands. How do I know which key to play when it involves a big leap, you may ask. Your body/brain are a lot smarter than you think. When you are more physically relaxed and mentally focused, you remember how much you must move to get to the sound you want. After a few tries, you should be able to do this readily, fluidly, and without conscious effort. The goal, here, is to develop and achieve the maximum performance state of relaxed readiness.
This all sounds very difficult, but when you start from a small interval, say steps (Do-Re, Re-Mi, etc.) and skips (Do-Mi, Mi-So, etc.) in the first few months, then gradually increase the range of intervals as lessons progress, over time, it becomes less and less difficult.
The key lies in the first few years of piano lessons. The first few years of lessons are the most crucial, because they instill in students fundamentals which will be used for the rest of their piano-playing lives. In addition, these skills can enhance every aspect of their lives. If a student is not well-grounded in the fundamentals, he/she may end up quitting the piano because they may think they’re not talented. Or they may continue practicing fruitlessly in a futile search for a better way of playing. This was my own experience.
I was not born a prodigy. I struggled a lot as pianist because I simply didn’t know how to practice. I don’t want to see any piano student floundering and struggling the way I did. I have made all sorts of mistakes in terms of practicing for all these years, and that is why I can now pinpoint what problems students have and can correct them in the best manner possible. Because I have gone through the same path as you. My method is a pathway through the maze of false starts and mindless practicing.
By understanding my own process of trial and error, I can guide students to the ultimate goal of becoming the best pianist and person one can be.