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#71 Think in the long term.

Posted by on June 17, 2009. 5 comments

A big mistake I see many pianists make is focusing on the wrong things and taking short term gratification over long term success. This can happen in all stages of our professional development— from student to concert pianist to teacher.

When teaching or studying, we must always resist the temptation of doing what “makes us look good” instead of what will actually help our development. It is a very common situation to have a student that is particularly good at one aspect of music and almost completely useless in another (in my particular case, when I was just starting out, I had extremely good octave and chord technique but couldn’t play a clean fast scale to save my life.) Many teachers will opt to ignore the problem— sometimes on purpose, more often through self deception— and have that particular student play repertoire that is easy for him, that shows off what he can do and hides his defects. In the short term, this will make the teacher look good since his students are playing so well, and it will make those students look good in front of their peers. In the long term, it’s disastrous.

It is well known that the earlier we can fix problems with our technique, the easier they are to fix. By constantly ignoring them, or hiding them, we are making the problem harder to solve in the long term— sometimes it becomes impossible to remove. In the same way, a teacher that constantly does this ends up having very few student who go on to become professionals, hurting him in the long run (not to mention how unethical it is to hurt your students in this way.) We are all guilty of this to some degree, but the those teachers that do it purposefully are like predators that take in students, use them up until their ability to make music is damaged beyond repair and then discard them for newer, undamaged students— usually blaming them in the process for not advancing fast enough.

Another common problem with short term thinking occurs with those musicians that are fresh out of music school. I believe that self promotion is necessary. It is absolutely essential that a musician know how to conduct himself in society and the proper channels for obtaining opportunities to play and to teach. Even so, a lot of inexperienced musicians will neglect the quality of their playing and gaining new repertoire because they are too busy playing politics, presenting projects to every single cultural institution they come across, meeting up with patrons of the arts, festivals or concert promoters. What they don’t realize is that by neglecting the quality of their playing in favor of trying to “get their foot in the door”, once that big break comes, they won’t be able to do anything about it and probably won’t get called back. I firmly believe that, if you focus on making music as well as you can, everything else will eventually more or less fall into place, as long as you aren’t going to the other extreme of acting like an isolated weirdo.

I’ve seen it too many times to count in my fellow students or in the ones I see graduating every generation. Imagine the case of a pianist that practically stopped learning new repertoire in the two years after he left music school. He spent all his time coming up with projects and trying to get concerts. When he finally got a much sought after audition, he played in a very mediocre way. They asked him what concert repertoire he had and that pianist could only list one or two concerts. He played a recital, and they never called him back again. In that same year, he got six or seven opportunities to work with other musicians and to give concerts but, they all fell through or they never amounted to anything.

In my case, I made that mistake early enough for it not to have a significant impact on my development later so, when I left school (which wasn’t that long ago,) I tried to concentrate on learning as much relevant repertoire as possible and trying to fill up all the gaps left in my education. I didn’t get so many opportunities and invitations to play in the first couple of years, but every single invitation I did get turned into a modest success which invariably led to other opportunities with the same institutions and with others, through word of mouth.

As a music student it is also very important to think of long term results. In the short term, it is easy to give up because we can’t really see the progress we make unless we have some perspective. A lot of students tend to stick to a practice regime or to a different way of playing for only a little while and then, when they don’t see quick results, they’ll stop doing it. Many things affect how you play on a given day. You probably won’t see results immediately when you practice, but as the weeks go by your average ability will always go up. Think of it like of following a diet. If you are losing weight, your weight loss won’t go like this: 100kg-99kg-98kg-97kg-96kg-95kg-94kg… in a steady straight line decrease. Many things can affect it, how much water or food you have on a particular day for example. It will look more like this: 100kg-96kg-99kg-97kg-93kg-97kg-92kg… in a jagged line, but always decreasing on average. In the same way, if you follow a good teacher’s recommendations, you won’t see a linear rise in your abilities but, on average, you will get better.

It is simple really, to get good results in the long term you must be honest with yourself and with your students. As a teacher, always do what is best for the development of your student, even if it gets you criticized by your fellow teachers because your student’s repertoire isn’t as flashy or they aren’t playing that many concerts. As a student, don’t try to hide your problems, a student’s role is to fix them with guidance from his teacher. As a professional, focus on making music as best as you can above all other considerations. I believe that by doing this, in the long term, it all works out.

#70 Winning.

Posted by on February 3, 2009. 4 comments

Music should not be a competition; the music you play, should not be some kind of monster you are trying to slay.

The piano is not meant to be won. It’s meant to be played.

#69 Rhythm and gesture.

Posted by on December 2, 2008. one comment

We naturally express rhythm and expression by a gesture, a movement with our bodies. That’s what happens when a small child spontaneously dances to music. Rhythm as a function of movement and the relation of muscular tension and relaxation is hard-wired into our system; in our breathing, in our walking, in our vital functions.

Physicalising rhythm is a vital first step into developing a good sense of time. Expressive gestures, dancing, and something as simple as clapping or tapping our feet are things that we should not stifle in young students. Ideally, by constantly reinforcing the recognition of rhythm in the timing of our movements, we help the student to reach a point where the very movements he makes when playing are inseparably linked with the rhythm and expression of what he plays.

Walking around, dancing, jumping, clapping, stomping our feet… these are all good things which we should encourage. I like to encourage parents to let their children play a simple percussion instrument, or at least to let him bang on the pots and pans in the kitchen once in a while (which my grandmother let me do to my heart’s content when I was very young).

A metronome is essential to learning precise time, but the very first step is translating rhythm into a physical gesture, not spending hours trying to follow along with the clicking, beeping or blinking light.

#68 Listen to non-piano music.

Posted by on November 30, 2008. one comment

Puccini, Vivaldi, Renaissance and Middle Ages music, ethnic music, Rossini, Verdi, Massenet, Berlioz, Bellini, Gregorian Chant, Paganini.

There are countless composers out there who wrote practically nothing for the piano. I get irritated with any pianist that doesn’t know music beyond Chopin, Liszt and Rachmaninoff. A lot of the best piano music out there is inspired on these composers that many pianists are not familiar with— Bach transcribed dozens of Vivaldi concertos and continuously imitated the Italian baroque forms in his music; Chopin idolized Bellini and his groundbreaking way of writing for the piano was an attempt to imitate the singing melodies of Italian opera; Liszt was mesmerized by Paganini’s diabolical virtuosity and set out to create that same kind of sound for the piano; practically every composer tried to imitate some kind of folk music elements from his region, and that kind of music in its raw form is easily obtainable today.

The hardest thing for pianists to do is playing a good melody, what better way to learn that than by listening to music for the voice? Even so, I’m surprised that so many “pianists” can’t name more than a couple of operas and some have never sat and listened to a single one.

Stop being a pianist, be a musician. There is a lot of music out there, don’t limit yourself to the clanking of our 88 keys all the time; don’t box yourself in. By listening to all kinds of music, your piano playing can only improve.

#67 Doing it for a living.

Posted by on November 23, 2008. one comment

When you have to choose a career, a lot of people say “Do what you love”. I think this is extremely naive; it is definitely not that easy. I love to sleep, but I can’t make a living off of that.

The ideal career path for a person has to fit three categories:

– It is something you are good at.

– It is something you love doing.

– It is something people will pay you to do.

If the answer to all of those is “yes”, then that is the perfect career choice for you. When it comes to the piano, you’ve got to ask yourself those questions when making the decision. Not only do you have to be good at it to be a pianist, you have to be very good, or people won’t pay you, and you definitely have to love doing it; especially if you are going to be a teacher.

Choosing a career in music isn’t just about “doing something you love”. There is more to it than that; there is a lot of competition.

#66 Constancy

Posted by on November 22, 2008. 2 comments

Being constant with your practicing is much more important than the total number of hours that you put into the instrument. It is also important to spread out the practice hours; a lot of the progress we make is done when we are away from the piano, processing everything we did.

A person that practices one hour a day is always going to make more progress than a person that doesn’t practice for two or three days straight and then pulls an eight hour marathon session.

“If I miss one day of practice, I notice it. If I miss two days, the critics notice it. If I miss three days, the audience notices it.”


#65 Lessons with an accompanist.

Posted by on November 18, 2008. 6 comments

Remember, specially if you are a singer, a session with an accompanist is about ensemble work. It is not like any other lesson. If you are still very insecure with your part of the music, do everyone a favor and stay home and practice. If you can’t play your music yet and keep stopping every few measures, you are wasting the accompanist’s time; more so if you are working out technical details and your accompanist is sitting in a corner waiting for you to finish.

#64 Age.

Posted by on November 17, 2008. 5 comments

I want to point out that it is never too late to start playing the piano. This entry in the Daily Piano Tips is aimed at people wanting to pursue a career in music; anyone can learn to play the piano reasonably well, but it is a very competitive field for people wanting to be professionals.

Because I started playing the piano when I was sixteen years old— not in the way most people mean it, that they started “taking it seriously”, which is pretty common, I mean that I really started, playing Clementi sonatinas and pieces from the Anna Magdalene Notebuch— I’ve gotten several e-mails asking me about the importance of starting early. It is well known among pianists that, if you want to be a professional, sixteen is an extremely late age to start. I won’t lie to you, it is very difficult. I also had previous musical experience, having played the trumpet since I was a small child. I have no idea what it is like to start completely from nothing at that age but it must be near impossible. During my time studying, I learnt one thing:

Age matters.

I studied in a very competitive environment in which most of my classmates had been playing the piano since they were four or five years old. I experienced first-hand the big difference age makes in every aspect of a musicians life, from learning and reading new repertoire to performing consistently well. People that started younger simply have an easier time with all of it. Gradually, I have tried to close the age gap and I think that, in the end, I am at a point where it has ceased to be a big issue. Getting here was a whole other matter.

If you are starting to play at an older age, expect it to be very hard. Classical music is already a fiercely competitive field without adding such a severe handicap. The only advantage you have over a six year old starting out is a (hopefully) more developed mind and maturity. To make it, you have to make as much use of it as possible; a person starting so late does not have the luxury of slacking off mentally while practicing. You will have many more problems to solve in each practice session, and you won’t have that mass of empirical knowledge other pianists have (at least not as much of it), or the instinct that many develop over years of playing; your problems, you are going to have to actively think about and solve, one at a time. It should be obvious that a lot more practice time is also necessary.

I had a really hard time studying alongside people who had a ten year head start over me and I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone; imagine how it must be to attend classes with a group of people and having to do ten times the work that everyone else does to get the same result. To be completely truthful, I’m not sure if I would do it again if I had the chance; I had no idea how hard it could get. I would probably have studied something musical but not performance-related if had known back then.

For me, the worst part of starting late was getting over the “started late clause” to any opinion, grade or review I ever received. Every time I got a positive opinion, it was along the lines of: “that was really good, considering you started so late!” or “that wasn’t bad since you started so late”. It was a big moment for me when my teachers and classmates started treating me like a normal person, and the “started late” issue was not apparent. You will be treated as having some kind of disability, and it will block your progress in some way. Learning to get over this, is a big part of closing the age gap.

If what you are aiming for is doing something “great” and being a “concert pianist” while being so old and just starting out, I think you should forget about it; you are probably doing it for all the wrong reasons and won’t be able to handle the load of work you are in for. You’ve got to have a desire, a passion, for making music that will carry you through the hours of labor that starting late entails.

I knew I had to do it when I realised that I wanted music in my life. It didn’t matter where I ended up, I knew I would be very happy even if I never left the tiny town I was living in, just teaching the ten kids in the church choir and playing along with them on a small electric keyboard; working part time at the local dancing studio playing the piano for the old ladies learning Spanish dance, and the little kids in the ballet class. Even if I ended up bagging groceries at the local food market, it would be all worth it if I could come home and play some Schubert.

In short, my answer to those e-mails I’ve received:

– Starting late is hard, expect a lot more work.

– You’ve got to use your head a lot more than the other guys.

– You’ve got to practice a lot more than the other guys.

– Make sure you’re doing it for the right reasons.

Thanks for the e-mails, I hope this helps!

#63 Success

Posted by on November 14, 2008. 2 comments

In my experience, an essential part of being successful as a professional musician— or as a professional in any field, for that matter— is constantly re-evaluating what success is.

#62 Legato beyond the fingers.

Posted by on November 13, 2008. 0 comments

Legato is as much a state of mind as it is just the mechanical connecting of one note with the other with your fingertips. The first step towards a true legato is learning to think legato; to think in long notes. Pianists tend to have the bad habit of hearing, and thinking, everything in staccato. We play the note, and then forget about it. As you try to play something legato, it is very important to make a mental connection with the sound and the transition between both notes or chords. By listening carefully to the particular way in which two things connect, we learn to reproduce it and to follow it when we play.

You can smear one note into the next all you want, and it won’t sound legato if you aren’t singing in your head; if you aren’t listening. On the other hand, you can take a pencil and play each note in the phrase with the pencil tip, but if you are listening to the way the notes should connect, it will sound legato,