Please don't take Bach so seriously

August 12, 2016


"Piano playing is actually not so difficult. You just have to touch the right key at the right time."
- Johann Sebastian Bach

If at all, these words bear witness to the sense of humour of Johann Sebastian Bach. What he says, sounds sensible, albeit there is a catch.

It's not to be taken seriously.

Because who ever sat at a piano and could read a little bit of music, and maybe even knew what keys corresponded to what notes, had to realize painfully: it's not enough to know something. Implementation is a whole different story.

When is something "not difficult"?

"Piano playing is actually not so difficult." Is that true?

Yes, when.

Yes, when you can work with someone who makes piano playing easy for you. Who breaks down the complex process into digestible bites, that you're going step by step, thinking "It's all happenin'!"

Keith Johnstone, inventor of Improvisation Theatre, quotes his teacher Anthony Sitrling, in his book "Improvisation and the Theatre":

"The implication of Stirling's attitude was that the student should  never experience failure. The teacher's skill lay in presenting experiences in such a way that the student is bound to succeed."

The consequence of this is that when my student doesn't understand something, I didn't do my job properly. Because it consists in packaging the lessons in a way that she can keep growing.

That's why one of my teaching principles is "avert overwhelm" - and I teach my students and clients to learn and recognize for themselves where the healthy amount of new tasks /problems to solve lies for today.

When students play with overwhelm

Is the student always overwhelmed, or on the verge to, she will always play with this feeling. It's smarter to choose a practice tempo where she can be able to relate to what she's playing. Otherwise we end up with students who can move their fingers quickly, but don't understand what they're playing, or who can only play a piece from the start, or who say (the classic): "But I can only play it fast."

Or students who are not overwhelmed, who may even be quite skilled at the instrument, but who were trained from an early age to improve their technique, because they could, and who could progress quite fast - but never at their own pace, never relating what they were learning to their own emotion.

What did these people learn, then? They can certainly play a piece, but is music for them a means of expression?

"You just don't have any sense of rhythm!"

What is with the pupil studying under a teacher who doesn't understand how he learns? If he's really unlucky, he'll hear things like: "You just don't have any sense of rhythm!" or "With you it makes no sense anyway." or "You just have to practice more!" (Yes, but how??? How do you practice??? To teach me that is your job???)

(The student doesn't think that way because he doesn't have the experience to know that. Instead, he thinks: Oh, I don't have any sense of rhythm.)

And so, it happens that people who would love to express themselves through music, don't receive the necessary tools for that, and end up quitting.

It's never about talent. Not her talent, but how a student is lead, is critical. If this student will want to become a professional musician is not the aim. I'm talking about the learning target to express oneself through sound.

Teaching expression through sound

And how do you do that? How do you teach students to express themselves through sound? Mostly they already bring the intention to express themselves. What I do is to bring them into the sound they're hearing right now. That they perceive the sound in the acoustic space, and not the one in their imagination.

And you do that how? With the practice tempo which doesn't overwhelm them. With the tempo and the pace that's just about easy enough.

Because that in itself is also a lerning process. Students, children and adults alike, and actually we, we all: We're not used anymore to find our own pace.

And it's not even expected from us to find our own pace. Because that's just the opposite of what's required of us: that we function. That we know the new. That we finished the task yesterday. That we react immediately.

Playing music is much more than moving your fingers and playing the right notes. Music is expression with the aid of sound.

Some piano starters have more desire for expression than some professionals. Those professionals, though, they just forgot about it. Their desire for expression was overlaid by the demands of the teachers and professors to play a certain way. They were pulled from one side to the other - and ask themselves after a while: what for? What am I doing this for?

We're not here to function. We're not here to know everything. We're here to understand ourselves. To try things that might not work. To free ourselves from "perfect". And to remind others of that.

And once we've remembered, then our task is actually not so difficult.