A radical approach to learning piano

Practice and learning materials to develop fluent musicianship

with genuinely useful piano skills such as
improvisation, playing by ear and fluent sight-reading

What is fluent musicianship?

As a fluent and literate musician, I use a set of simple principles and elements – musical vocabulary and syntax – to express myself spontaneously and instantly without needing to rehearse or resort to theoretical decoding. Whether improvising, playing by ear or reading fluently from a score, the sounds I make using the piano keys are exactly those I hear in my imagination. So I teach others to discover the same skill of processing rhythm cells and tonal blocks, in real time, with effortless ease, much as we all use words in our native tongue. Grasping musical vocabulary in this way, allows us to “say” musical sounds exactly as we intend them.

If you are fluent in this way, when you look at an unfamiliar score, you can hear it playing instantly in your head. When you listen to music, you can grasp exactly what is going on tonally and rhythmically, and can imagine the score writing out in real time. This means that any music you can imagine or remember is playable. Fluency is not musical memory: it won’t mean you hear a piece once and remember it note-for-note. That would be extraordinary! The ability to recall long passages of words verbatim after a single hearing is rare indeed. But being fluent means that it’s easy to get the gist of the music instantly; and ultimately fluency does make memory work better, so learning new music very quickly is possible.

THIS IS NOT A COURSE IN ANY CONVENTIONAL SENSE

Fluent musicianship is not developed effectively by current conventional musical training systems. Theory, technique, repetitive rehearsing to induce muscle memory and even sets of simple show-and-play instructions… all these normal approaches to learning music block fluency. They are the current prevailing practices because of our tendency to externalise music. In other words, the attempt to find an external, academic explanation of the skill of playing music blocks our natural inner musician. Once you formulate a piano course with a set specification or curriculum, working towards fixed aims and objectives, especially rote-learned repertoire and scales etc., you veer off the path of fluency.

WHO IS THE BEST CANDIDATE TO BE A GOOD STUDENT OF MUSICAL FLUENCY?

Learning to be fluent in musical language requires a certain kind of discipline and depth of enquiry that is not for everyone. Many people are perfectly happy using conventional passive musicianship, following theory or show and play instructions with repetitive rehearsal practice. However, many people who feel music deeply when they listen to it, find that following a conventional piano course makes their playing stiff and unmusical whilst learning new pieces is a painfully slow process. So this radical approach could be perfect for you, as long as you’re willing to:-

  • challenge your psychological blockages to fluency – attachment to results causing performance anxiety
  • give up playing mimetically, by theory or following show and play instructions
  • find the courage to be physically and expressively free
  • focus clearly moment by moment and intend every sound from within
  • practise for many hundreds of hours with playful discipline to master each skill step

OVERCOMING THE FEAR OF EXPOSURE THAT COMES WITH SELF-EXPRESSION

Practising fluent musicianship requires that you experiment and uncover meaningful shapes and patterns of musical language for yourself, just as you did as a toddler when experimenting with words when learning to talk. The only way to practise fluency is to generate the innocent, adventurous mindset of a pre-5 child, to enter a state of wonder as you embark on a journey of discovery. The practice you then do in this state must be playful, intrinsically motivated and self-directed. Perhaps ironically, many people require 121 coaching to find the courage needed for this level of freedom and autonomy. But for those who can challenge themselves deeply as they work independently, these materials offer guidance and support.

WHAT DO YOU LEARN?

So, to reiterate, this is not a course and if I ever do call it a piano course, or use any related words like “path” or “method”, I do so with a very large pinch of salt. In fact the theory behind my approach is minimal. My only instruction is that you focus calmly and intently on a simple model of rhythmic and tonal musical language – rhythm cells in a rhythmic matrix and tonal blocks in the keyboard map – as you let go completely to express yourself authentically and intentionally using them. These principles and elements are explored and explained clearly in the materials using carefully designed diagrams and terminology but ultimately, whilst it is satisfying and necessary to grasp the deep simplicity of music, the model is not a neat trick or solution that will hand you the keys to fluency. You simply have to use this simple model playfully to express yourself and practise, lots!

BUILD ON INNATE MUSICAL SENSE – TRUST YOUR INNER MUSICIAN

People are not entirely lacking in musical understanding or we wouldn’t possess the intuitive sense of music that we all do. When we hear music, its rhythms, harmonies and melodies convey meaning. And we can imagine music playing in our heads. These basic musical abilities are formed when we are very young and are founded on very deep essential rhythmic and tonal senses that we all naturally possess. So in a way, we are only musically mute on the piano. To break our silence, we just need our rational minds to grasp and use a model of music that matches our natural inner sense so that we can process music in real time. Current theoretical models are just too dense, and there fore require far too much cognitive effort, to be used in real time.

YOU DON’T NEED MUSICAL SUPERPOWERS

A minuscule number of people carry this intuitive sense of music all the way to the piano keys and express themselves fluently intuitively without understanding how they do this rationally. These rare individuals are clearly unusual and seem endowed with superpowers musically. You don’t need to be one of these musical magicians to develop musical fluency. It is very unhelpful to focus on things like perfect pitch, as if these things were necessary for musical fluency to develop. What is necessary is curiosity, expressive intent and a patient, disciplined but playful approach to self-directed practice.

START SIMPLE

No matter how developed your passive musical skills might be, to start using this model of music for developing real fluency requires that you master all the skills fully, starting from the very beginning and build them gradually. The initial simple practices are so important – and you must find genuine joy in them. A need to play music that sounds impressive can cause problems in the initial stages. It’s OK to do some passive playing, as long as you build a protective wall around your fluency practice. That wall must be strong and only semi-permeable: you may well experience benefits to your passive playing, as the fluent skills leak through the wall by osmosis; but don’t deceive yourself – practising outside the walls cannot benefit your fluent skills.

PRACTISE, FAIL, PRACTISE, IMPROVE, PRACTISE MORE! LET GO OF THE RESULTS!

You must be prepared to make a mess. Rhythmic freedom in your body and expressive release from deep inside your soul are necessary. Music conveys deep feelings beyond the scope of words. So you must find that connection to your body and soul. Controlling the end results, trying to execute a performance that sounds good will destroy the playfulness necessary for good practice. Listening to the musical outcome has to stop. You must learn to listen inwardly and intently to the elements, one by one, as you play them with full intention. These elements are like musical “words” – rhythm cells and tonal blocks – and you must use them to express deep, authentic meaning.

DON’T LISTEN TO YOURSELF!

Listening critically to yourself as you play, trying to design something that your passive sense of music thinks sounds good, only blocks fluency. We live in a karaoke musical culture but this mimetic approach to music comes from the head rather than the body and soul. You need to play with a sense of fresh, original expression. You can’t be an audience member and a fluent musician at the same time. So you must stop listening and synchronise perfectly with your body and soul to “say” each musical “word” with total clarity and commitment.

IMPROVISE!

You probably won’t be surprised to learn that improvising forms the basis of fluency practice. Not crazy, free improvisation – the improvisation that you need to do must make sense and be tuneful, harmonious and naturally rhythmic. We all improvise verbally when we speak conversationally – we don’t try to come up with amazing poetry on the spot. So it is with fluent musical improvising, as long as it makes sense rhythmically and tonally, you can trust that it will sound good enough! And you may well be surprised just how beautiful your whimsical musings can be when expressed with sincere feeling.

Playing favourite pieces of music is therefore outside of the training unless those pieces ONLY use language that you know. Obviously, in time, most music will be within your fluent grasp. But until that time comes, you must develop a love of improvising and spontaneous self-expression. This is by far the quickest way to develop fluency using the principles and elements of the model.

Visit my PlayPianoFluently playlist on YouTube to gain further insights and don’t forget to subscribe to be notified when new videos are posted! If you still have any questions, you can contact me, Phil Best – the creator of the PlayPianoFluently study and practice materials.