“Jazz is like talking”, Ian Carr, trumpet player and jazz educator, during a jazz summer school in Hull, sometime in the ’80s.
Hearing this was a lightbulb moment for me. I thought how odd it would be if we were prevented from talking until we could read and write. Just pause for a moment, to take that in.
We learn to talk by listening, imitating, babbling, making sounds and having the sounds reflected back to us by the people around us. Our efforts are encouraged, and we intuit the structures of language, learning by doing. Quite a lot later, but still rather too early in my opinion, we learn to read and write. Why not learn to play the piano the same way we learn to talk?
Don Campbell´s work has been a huge help to me, both personally and professionally, when I was working as a music therapist. Just recently, I got hold of a copy of his “100 Ways to Improve Teaching Using your Voice and Music” and found it so marvelous – rich with suggestions – and so practical – one a page – that I wanted to beg for it to be reprinted, or made available as an e-book: it would help every teacher on the planet.
Recently I sought permission to quote from “The Mozart Effect” an “Interlude”, where you are invited to listen to Mozart´s Theme and Variations on what we know as “Twinkle twinkle little Star” and imagine different ways of approaching a routine task. It was only with the favourable response I received that I heard the news that he had died two years ago. I was very sad. We are very lucky that he left such a comprehensive body of work behind.
There´s no harm in acknowledging that trying to do something new can make us feel babyish again. It was my own inability to pick out a nursery rhyme by ear, in my 20s, capable of playing dots “like flyshit on the wall”, that set me on this path of finding a different way of learning to play. Slow down and enjoy the experience. If you think of the months it took learning to crawl, then learning to walk, it´ll help you be patient before you start running. Mozart used “Twinkle twinkle little star”, known to him as “Ah, vous dirai – je, Maman” for a set of variations, which just goes to show that there is nothing too modest, or too well-known, to be worth playing.
I´m taking a practical approach towards learning the piano in this audiobook. But it comes loaded with the hope that it will help you get past, get over, any hurts you have suffered in the past, around music. Probably any singing teacher would agree that they could retire happily if they just had – say, a pound, rather than a penny! – for every pupil who´s sworn themself to silence after being told to shut up, to mime in the concert, been criticised in private or in public. It´s probably universal, and probably in your teens.
My own setback – responsible for my not choosing music as my profession – occurred when I was 14, and my piano teacher asked me to play the first movement of Bach´s Brandenburg Concerto number 5. A past pupil at the school had given the scores for all 6 concertos to the music department, so it was to be included in a concert, with different soloists for each movement. It was technically demanding, and I felt that it was beyond my grasp as a teenager to play this major work. So I asked another piano teacher at the school for help, and his response was “You´re not playing that, are you?” I didn´t. Another girl with fewer qualms bashed her way satisfactorily through it.
The sensitivity that we bring to music is the same thing that makes us so vulnerable. It is my profound desire that this audiobook helps germinate, and nurture, and grow your musical creativity.
He takes you through the steps gently, and the trance music that´s behind the introduction entrains you into relaxing and listening (the fact that there´s nothing to look at helps). Playing by ear has a lot to do with trusting your intuition, or whatever you call those little tickly bits at the back of your neck. But for people who´ve learned the piano by reading, (the traditional teaching method), this presents the same difficulty as letting go of the side of the pool when learning to swim. I really learnt a lot from how he presented the material, which I found when I was hunting around on youtube to see what other people had put up. Thank you, Rhythm Canada!
My left hand, drawn by my right hand, and my right by my left
I´ve been away in China for nearly four weeks – and have just spent half an hour on the book after a long lay-off. I just have to work on it because I feel dreadful if I don´t!
Co-ordinating your hands when playing the piano isn´t easy: and here´s my visual depiction of it. I did a stylised scribble of hands to show how you number the fingers, and then thought I would rather have a real drawing. It hadn´t occurred to me that that meant drawing my right hand with my left! (I´m right handed.) The results are so telling: the left hand is recognisable, looks competent and capable: and the right hand looks like the claw of a dinosaur, fraught with uncertainty but also charged with unknown possibilities.
Had a lovely time this summer in my house in England, speaking Spanish with my friends from Tarragona, Spain. A peaceful invasion. (My village sent three ships against the Invincible Armada, as it´s known in Spain.) The Bechstein upright nearly plays itself, it´s so gorgeous. Here´s me and Lucia, totally delicious daughter of my friends, playing together.