Learning by doing

A few weeks ago I gave a recital in Lewes. Afterwards, an interesting man came up to me, and he asked me how I started learning music.

I couldn’t really give him a straight answer. How does one start learning piano? You could go through method books, but in my case I was sort of thrown in front of a piano, and I remembered the joy of making sounds, of being able to play by ear, and of trying to figure out how to play stuff on my own. My first serious teacher, Carole Kriewaldt, was the one who gave me a balanced regimen of scales, studies, and some serious repertoire, but she did not really give physical cues (use arm, round your fingers, etc.). The thing I remembered most was practicing with her in lesson - mostly our lessons were essentially extended practice sessions. It wasn’t rocket science, either: break it apart into small chunks, play it slowly, and speed it up. Eventually you’ll get it.

It’s a simple method, not very sexy, but it works, and it works for everyone. I remember having a lesson with Yevgeny Sudbin, who told me: “Sometimes I think the way I’ve practiced hasn’t changed since I was a child.” It seems that repetition and natural curiosity is all it takes to be able to learn any skill - and for many of us, self-learning is catalyzed through the procedure of mindful repetition. (Mindful being the key word: through repetition, you explore the passage, and you learn things about yourself, your body, your ears…)

From The Ignorant Schoolmaster by Jacques Rancière: ‘It says that there is an inferior intelligence and a superior one. The former registers perception by chance, retains them, interprets and repeats them empirically, within the closed circle of habit and need. This is the intelligence of young child and the common man. The superior intelligence knows things by reason, proceeds by method, from the simple to the complex, from the part to the whole. It is the intelligence that allows the master to transmit his knowledge by adapting it to the intellectual capacities of the student and allows him to verify that the student has satisfactorily understood what he learned. Such is the principle of explication.’

How much instruction does a newcomer to piano need? At our core, we’re pattern-seeking creatures, so probably not much. In my experience as a teacher, seeing a student discover something for themselves, and the pleasure associated with this newfound gift… that is what it’s all about.