Advice for Pianists: Piano Lesson Myths...

I ran across the article below about piano lesson myths by piano teacher Howard Richman. It's used here with permission. I agree with most everything here and so thought you'd enjoy it! If you like this article, don't miss my other, tips for beginning pianists and piano composition!

Piano lesson myths are so ingrained into our culture and our consciousness that it almost seems silly to counter them. But on close examination, even the most “obvious” beliefs about piano study and piano practice are not only wrong, they are damaging to the individual who is bound by their chains. This material is an attempt to help pianists of all levels be liberated from such mental constraints, attitudes and assumptions regarding piano lessons, so that they might truly reach their goals.

“My teacher will drop me if I make a lot of mistakes.”

Reality: Most teachers enjoy teaching and are inspired when they see someone who really tries and is diligent with their practice. In fact, good teachers PREFER to witness your mistakes so they can help you not only fix the problem, but learn how to avoid the problem in the future. This could be in the realms of practicing suggestions, fingering, hand position, eye movements and more. If you have latent mistakes that you somehow are able to hide for the lesson, the teacher may not be able to help you fix these hidden problems, which means that they may appear later when you are performing. Also, fear of making mistakes tends to distract you from the music and will actually CAUSE the very mistakes you were trying to avoid! So, never be afraid to make mistakes for your teacher.

“I have to study classical music before I can play pop or jazz.”

Reality: If a student’s ultimate goal is to play popular music, or even to do it with classical on an equal footing, this idea that you must study classical music first is incorrect. In fact, even if one’s goal is to focus strictly on classical literature, there is great value in studying popular chord technique and improvisation. The best way to study music theory is through POPULAR music! This is because chords are presented in a straightforward manner, as chord symbols, without even having to read music! (These are sometimes called “guitar chords” and are printed above the music staff.) Theory knowledge can make you a better performer, a better sight-reader, a better memorizer, a better interpreter and a better overall musician! And, of course, these attributes are applicable to playing classical music. The easiest way to start a path towards music theory is to study popular music, with a teacher who knows how to explain chord-reading (not notation). So, one could study classical first and then popular, but considering that these are different skills that take time to master, why not do them concurrently? To avoid popular music till classical music is mastered will make it much harder to learn music theory and in turn to derive the benefits of this knowledge.

“Children learn faster than adults.”

Realty: There is no difference. From my own personal experience of teaching both children and adults since 1975, this idea that a child’s brain is more receptive is incorrect. What may be true is that the child is less encumbered by the busy-ness of life and tends to have less mental clutter. This state results in a naturally-better focusing ability which creates the illusion that the child may be able to absorb new material faster than the adult. However, what the child often doesn’t have is desire. The adult really wants to study piano. And this great desire creates the same type of focus that is needed for quick learning. In fact, adults who have this intention, often from wanting to make up “for lost time,” often learn faster than children! The adult who is just a dabbler who doesn’t have the great desire is a typical hectic, frazzled adult. This type of adult is the adult who will tend to learn slower — not because they don’t practice enough, but because their energy is so distracted. Another cause of distraction is self-judgement and stress and impatience that is associated with learning. Adults have had their lifetimes to become familiar with music so they know how it is “supposed” to sound, whereas children usually have never heard the piece they are learning. As a result, adults do tend to become easily frustrated by comparing their current ability to play a piece with the way they know it should sound — and THIS comparison can cause enough stress and anxiety that the adult student will often lose interest or stop playing altogether. So adult students need to take caution about this unnecessary temptation to think they “should” sound like a professional pianist after only playing for three weeks. The adult student must learn to embrace his or her current ability with grace and appreciation. From this point improvement will occur.

“Since I didn’t begin studying piano as a child it I’ll never be able to play well as an adult.”

Reality: It’s never too late. Early neural stimulation as a child DOES help with musical intelligence as an adult, but it need not be from the piano. For example, kids who are great at sports or gymnastics or dance are often the best at piano, when they eventually try it. That’s not a surprise to most people. But what is a surprise is that adults show the same parallel! An adult who had been athletic as a child will find it easier to learn piano as an adult, because the advanced neurological stimulation lasts one’s whole life. It is simply a new application. If you’re had a nurturing, stimulating environment as a child, you will definitely have an advantage when you begin piano studies as an adult. If you had limited exposure to physical experiences as a child, this would tend to make it more difficult to learn the piano whether you are a child or an adult.

“I should study finger technique before playing actual music.”

Reality: Is physical technique and accuracy more important than interpretation and expression? No. Does physical technique and accuracy take more time to master than interpretation and expression? No. It’s like comparing apples and oranges, but both require a lot of time. The best way to develop interpretation and expression is through the repertoire. In some countries, it is common to have a student just do drills for 5 years before they are allowed to play any music. Then the student is allowed to play repertoire. It’s no surprise that these performers play accurately and fast, with very little expression. The best thing to do is to study music along with finger technique. Ideally, the difficulty of the technique level should always be slightly ahead of the requirements of the repertoire.

“I must practice every day.”

Reality: Taking two or three guilt-free days off from practicing each week will help you progress faster than if you practiced everyday! Think body building. People who work out or who lift weights are always told to rest the day after a workout. Why? Because the workout tears down the muscle tissue and the day off is when it is rejuvenated and built up stronger than before. Our brains are similar to this. The rest periods are when your brain assimilates your effort. Also, the reason it must be guilt-free is so that you get the complete benefit of the day of rest. If you intend to practice seven days a week and you miss a day, you will be inclined to be stressed about it during the inadvertent day off. So instead of relaxing from the piano on that day, you are more stressed. In fact, with this more typical approach, you may be inclined to practice more the next day with the hopes of “making up” for the missed day. This approach never works. You can’t cram the piano. All you will get is more and more errors and more and more frustrated because your poor brain is never given a rest it desperately needs. For best results, just practice only 4 days a week. This allows you to plan-in 3 days a week of guilt-free rest. (These days do not have to be in a row.) This is realistic and supportive because things often come up for us in our busy lives anyway. By making 4 days a week 100% of the requirement, if you do more, you feel great.

“Long sessions of practice time are best.”

Reality: Shorter times are optimal. After about 15 minutes of an activity, the average person becomes mentally fatigued. Short bursts of concentration repeated frequently are much more effective than one long session. So, even if you only have 10 minutes, DO IT. Do another 10 minutes later in the day or the next day. By the end of the week, you might have 16 micro practice sessions, yet only practiced on 4 days. This is highly efficient. Instead, if you have the goal of practicing an hour or practicing a half hour, another day goes by with ZERO practice. Why is this? Because our life gets so busy and that half hour or hour just doesn't materialize. The result is that you miss practicing ALTOGETHER. If you could sneak in five minutes here or 10 minutes there, you would miraculously accrue that half hour or hour that you had intended to practice! In fact, even if you had the luxury of sitting for six hours at the piano and didn’t have other typical competing issues that life brings, it would STILL be preferable to break up your practice into smaller segments. Also, do not practice if you are tired, angry, distracted, or in a hurry or you will “learn-in” these feelings. On a professional level, if you find yourself seated at the piano for an extended period of time, you can still observe these principles by rotating the activity while still remaining at the piano. For example, you can spend 20 minutes learning a new passage of one piece. Then switch to practicing some finger technique. This way, your mind is resting while your fingers are getting a workout. Then GO BACK to the same passage and you will be mentally refreshed. Then work on a section of a different piece. Then do a little sight-reading. Then back to the first piece. And so on. Keep it in rotation.

“If I take a break from piano practice, I’ll have to work harder to make up for lost time.”

Reality: Piano growth cannot be “crammed” like studying for a test. Piano growth occurs primarily from the cumulative time spent practicing, even if this is sporadic. So if you work for six months and then take off three months and then practice for four months and then take off two months, it is tempting to add up all those months, including the time off, and feel that you should have improved a total of 15 months’ worth of progress. But you really only have ten months of actual growth. Then the average person is tempted to feel inadequate and that they have to work extra hard to make up for the “lost” time. Instead, it’s better to think of this in the way a plant grows. You can give it sunlight, water and fertilizer, but you cannot be yelling at it “grow!” It will grow on its own time line. You cannot rush it. Your piano growth pretty much stops when you’re not practicing for two months or for two years, or for two decades. When you take it up again, you may have a short period of review but you will pretty much be back to where you had left off and then you will progress from that point. If you can remove the pressure of having some kind of deadline to “make up for the lost time,” your attitude towards the piano will be so much better and you will have so much more enjoyment!

“Reading finger numbers is just for beginners.”

Reality: Professionals incorporate the fingering into their ability to read music. They read both the PRINTED fingering, the IMPLIED fingering, and their PERSONALIZED fingering. In fact, it is FASTER to read using a RELATIVE understanding of how the notes move from one to another than merely reading the ABSOLUTE note names. In order to do this, one must be keenly aware of the fingers to be used on a passage. For example, if you see that a passage starts on an “A” and then ascends by step via line-space-line-space-line-space, then you can assume that the notes are moving directly up the scale. It is not necessary to read the actual name of each note. A professional musician will know this and not waste his or her brain power on trying to “read” every note. Simply read the first note of a sequence and then relatively move to each note from there, by using adjacent fingers. This skill is developed from honoring the fingering (printed, implied and personalized.) Beginners who assume that fingering is just for beginners will NEVER develop the very professional security and speed that professionals have because the very thing that is needed will have been skipped!

“I should never write in the sheet music.”

Reality: Professional studio musicians write in the score. They are paid to get it right the first time, because time is money. They do everything they can to make it clear for themselves, including making notes in the score. This could be adding fingering, putting note-names in, circling tricky passages, enlarging time signatures, darkening repeat bars, etc. Because we all grew up with the dictum: “Do not write in books,” we somehow have a tendency to apply this to piano music. But if you could think of your piano music more as a workbook (like a “spelling book”) then it would seem more normal to write in the book. Some people don’t want to write in the score because they fear that it would prevent them from learning how to read the notes. This is so misguided! Of course it is useful to learn how to sight-read. In fact, you should be using Super Sight Reading Secrets if you are very serious about improving your sight-reading. BUT... when you are working on a piece, the goal is to play it well. This means that you should use consistent fingering so the muscle memory has a chance to set in. The only way to do this is to WRITE THE FINGERING INTO THE SCORE! By the way, as a piano teacher since 1975, I can tell you that students who don’t write in the notes on tricky sections, RARELY end up being better at reading those notes! They simply “learn-in” a pause or a stall or a ritard when they get to this “unreadable” section. Don’t go too far, however. If you write every note in, or every finger in, it becomes too cluttered and it loses its value. Also, use pencil, never pen, in case you want to make changes to your notations.

“I should never look at my hands when I play.”

Reality: Concert pianists MEMORIZE the music and, of course, LOOK AT THEIR HANDS! It absolutely mystifies me why the average piano teacher indoctrinates students into not looking at their hands. It is so unprofessional and unnatural to strive to not look at one’s hands. The only time this is useful is LATER, when the student becomes a proficient sight-reader, it is certainly convenient to not need to look down at one’s hands so often because it allows one to look ahead, which enhances sight-reading. BUT... this is just a small aspect of the full world of piano playing. In striving for this “goal” of not looking down you are limiting EVERY OTHER aspect of piano playing! For example, it is very hard to develop the muscular memory, and therefore the ability to play fast, when your eyes are always glued to the page.

“I must always look ahead when reading music.”

Reality: You’ve heard this your whole musical life. But the reality is that only after you’ve mastered the art of tactile sensitivity — of being able to easily find any note on the piano keyboard without looking at it, from having done various keyboard orientation drills — that this would be true. Otherwise, to look ahead is virtually impossible. This is because when you look at a note on the score, you then need to look down to your hands in order to play it. When you look back up to the score, if you attempt to look ahead YOU WILL GET LOST! This will happen with each note read! This is because when you look back up to the score you don’t know what the next note is. What is more efficient is to purposely look back at the note(s) you JUST PLAYED and then quickly move your eyes to the next note. It’s easy to remember which note you just played because you just saw it and it is very familiar in your mind. By looking back to the score for THIS note, after having looked down at your hands, you will never get lost.

“Forcing a child to study piano is for their own good and they will appreciate it later.”

Reality: For the small percentage of people for whom this may be true, there is a much higher percentage of people who end up permanently pulling away from music! I can verify this as most of my students are adults and many of these are “returnees.” These are people who quit the piano for 35 years because they were traumatized as kids, being forced to play in recitals that they were not prepared for, or to take endless lessons that they hated. These are people who, as a result, overcompensated by having NO music in their life at all! These broken souls need a lot of encouragement and healing and love. They can definitely become confident musicians in the long run, but it is very hard work at that point, because the trauma often cuts so deeply into their consciousness. If I detect that a child does not like the piano, then I will inform the parents that I cannot be his or her teacher, because I do not want to perpetuate such a cycle.

“Once I can play hands together, I don’t need to continue practicing hands separately.”

Reality: The very steps that bring you to a certain level of mastery are the ones that will help to maintain that level of mastery. Most people assume that practicing hands separately is a temporary step towards the goal of playing hands together. But let’s examine what professionals do. They will continue to practice hands separately on a piece they’ve played for 25 years! This is because only when you practice hands separately can you really focus on certain nuances that would be obscured if you were spreading your focus between two hands. The better hands are mastered separately, the more reliable and proficient it will be when you then bring hands back together. So, please think of practicing hands separately not only as an initial phase of learning a passage, but also as a way to MAINTAIN and also to further improve and polish a section of a piece you’re working on.

“If something seems too easy at the piano, I must be doing it wrong.”

Reality: If something seems too easy at the piano, it means you’re doing it RIGHT! Our society places such a value on “no pain, no gain.” But in the area of piano study, if you have pain, it is an indication that you are doing something WRONG. You could be over-stressing the muscles. You could be at a wrong height, wrong distance, wrong angle, wrong pressure, etc. There are so many things to consider regarding piano technique. Experiencing pain is a warning that you must STOP immediately and find another way. Pain is your clue that you are on the way to developing carpal tunnel syndrome or tendinitis or other injuries.

“I could never be a great pianist if I don’t have long, slender fingers.”

Reality: Great pianists come in all shapes and sizes. There is no preference for long slender fingers. In fact, if there were a preference, it would be tapered fingers. These are fingers that are thick and muscular at the point where they connect to the hand, but become thinner towards the tips. This allows the fingers to have strength yet can also easily fit between the black notes, when necessary. In fact, comments I’ve often heard from people who have the fabled long, slender fingers are that they make MORE mistakes, their fingers get “tied up in knots,” and that they are more prone to carpal tunnel injury!

“Improvisation is something I will only be able to do in the future, after I understand theory better.”

Reality: Start now. Don’t be limited by what is normally thought of as “jazz improvisation.” This type of improvisation is what I call “mental improvisation.” In order to do this type of improvisation, you must use your mind to be aware of chord changes and understand various scales and notes that correspond to the current chord. But there are other types of improvisation. There is “emotional improvisation” and “spiritual improvisation.” Emotional improvisation is when you express your emotions through music. Spiritual improvisation is when you are tuning-in to something bigger than you (“channeling.”) Ironically, in order to do either of these two other types of improvisation you must turn OFF your mind. Therefore they are NOT mental. I find that it is valuable to allow yourself to develop these alternative methods of self-expression concurrently (while) you are studying theory. This is because they will create an intimacy or connection to the keyboard that you ultimately will want. For example, if you studied theory for eight years, you might STILL feel a veil between your fingers and the keyboard. Knowing theory alone will not make you a better improvisor. You also need courage, spontaneity, and freedom to express what you hear in your head instantly. How will you develop this intimacy with the piano? Playing your feelings and tuning-in to something bigger than you, without judgment, a little bit every day, is a wonderful way to develop this comfort level. Eventually, when you do know all the theory you desire, your fingers will be at liberty to execute every musical whim.

“When initially learning piano, it is good training to ‘lift the fingers high with precision.’”

Reality: This dictum from the Hanon finger exercise books and other old-fashioned technique carry-overs causes more problems than anything else. When you train the fingers to raise higher than necessary, you are training them to travel a greater distance than necessary. The key depth is approximately 3/8ths of an inch. If you could let the finger tips rest on the tops of the keys themselves, the only distance required for each finger to travel is 3/8ths of an inch! But many people are misguided into raising their fingers high with each key stroke, so they are compelled to make each finger travel up to THREE and 3/8ths of an inch! This seriously slows down your potential speed and creates much more tension in the playing than necessary.

“My practice session should always begin with finger drills to warm up the hands.”

Reality: Start your practice session with the most difficult activity, while your mind is freshest. Generally, the most mentally taxing aspect of studying piano is learning new repertiore. The assumption that we need to warm up the hands before we work on our pieces is truly misguided. When you first sit at the piano, you are the most alert. It therefore would be more efficient to do the most difficult thing (which is usually learning new notes of a new section of a piece) when you are the freshest mentally. When you become fatigued mentally, say after 20 to 30 minutes, THEN do some finger technique. Then come back and work some more on repertiore. This way, when your mind is tired, you can work your fingers. When your fingers become tired, you can work your mind. This constant alternation of activities when practicing is highly efficient, prevents boredom and enhances the “layering” effect of repetition that is needed to excel both at technique and learning repertoire at maximum speed.

“When practicing, I should never rush.”

Reality: It is PREFERABLE to play any sections of a piece you are learning FASTER than you need! Eventually, when you attach each section to one another, you will be inclined to slow down because it is harder. But you will slow down to the correct speed of the piece. Most people have a very hard time getting the piece up to the right tempo because they practice each section at the right tempo and then when they attach the sections to one another, it becomes TOO SLOW! This commonly-heard advice about not rushing is only applicable AFTER you have learned the piece when one may be tempted to sacrifice accuracy for speed. In that case ONLY would it be true that one should not rush.

“I must not work on any new pieces until I master the one I’ve already started.”

Reality: Professional pianists have 10 or 20 pieces that they are working on concurrently! There are sections within each piece that are at varying levels of mastery. This is really a good way to go about practicing, because if we become fatigued or bored, we become much less efficient with our learning. By giving yourself permission to switch your attention to different compositions or to different sections within one piece, you are actually BECOMING efficient. This happens for two reasons: 1) You are honoring your fatigue level on any one piece. 2) When you step away from working on something, you allow your subconscious to do ITS job and continue processing it without giving it your attention. This dramatically increases the results, better than if you had been exclusively working on the one piece.

“I should learn a new piece in order, from the beginning to the end.”

Reality: The most efficient way to study a composition is to learn the most difficult sections FIRST! Here’s why: The typical way that people learn is to learn the first part first. Then, each day they push forward and learn a few new measures. The problem is that it’s very tempting to stop pushing forward and to prematurely reward yourself by playing through the part you’ve already learned. This, of course, is the beginning section. As you approach the part that you don’t yet know, you hear the music getting slower and sloppier until it just stops. Then, this is so frustrating, you are tempted to repeat the part that you know again rather than work on the new section. So in essence, when you do this, you end up “practicing” the part you already know and avoiding the parts that you don’t yet know. This is so common, yet so ineffective! The worst part of it is that the part you already know is often the easiest portion of the music, as composers rarely start out with the most difficult passages. So think about it: You end up practicing and practicing and practicing the first section of the piece every time you “run through the part you already know.” Yet this is the EASIEST section and requires collectively the LEAST time. Whereas the hardest parts that require the MOST time collective are the parts you tend to avoid each day. It would be so much more efficient if you could get out of the assumption that you should learn the first part first. Instead, scan through the new composition and determine which sections appear to be the most difficult. Start on THESE sections, even if they are not connected. Eventually, each section will grow and they will overlap into each other. NOW, when you want to play through the sections you “already know,” it will be the HARDEST sections that you play through rather than the easiest. This means even if you avoid learning the new sections and you fall back on playing the parts you already have learned, you will still be doing some good, because these sections are the ones that will benefit by the continued review since they are so difficult. In the end, you will have over-practiced the hard sections and under-practiced the easy sections. The result will be that all the sections will be equally-mastered and this is what will help you reach your goal sooner than later!

“If I want to play other instruments, the piano is a good foundation and will make those other instruments easier to learn.”

Realty: This is a serious myth. Some of the best violinists and flutists and cellists and saxophonists NEVER had piano lessons. Learning any instrument will have its challenges. There ARE certain things that are clearer on the piano because the notes are laid out in a linear order, so on certain cases, when you are learning scales or chord theory, it is often easier to understand. However, it does not necessarily make you BETTER on other instruments because you have had piano training first.

Article by Howard Richman of Sound Feelings Publishing, Tarzana, California.

If you like this article, don't miss my other, tips for beginning pianists and piano composition!