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 keyboard musician, I have a rhythmic and tonal “vocabulary” and “syntax”. I use this musical language to express myself effortlessly in real time, without any technical working out, rehearsing or theoretical decoding. The sounds I play are exactly those I intend and hear in my imagination, whether I’m improvising spontaneously, playing by ear or memory, or sight-reading fluently from a score. I teach others to do the same.
When you are musically fluent, you can look at an unfamiliar score and hear it playing instantly in your imagination. When you listen to music, you can instantly sense the tonal and rhythmic patterns on the keyboard and imagine the score writing out in real time. This solid foundation of musicianship means that any music you can imagine, remember, or see as a notated score is instantly playable.
What fluent musicianship is NOT
Many people may have other ideas of what fluency is. For example, fluency is not merely the ability to play with musical feeling without stopping or making mistakes, nor is it the ability to instantly recall long passages from memory. Fluency in language doesn’t make us better performers who speak with passion, never making slips or hesitating, nor does it mean that we can instantly recite speeches or poems after a single hearing! Musical fluency will improve your musical memory and ability to perform effectively but these things are byproducts. Fluency itself is a very specific thing to make your goal. So check that it really is fluency that interests you!
THIS IS NOT A COURSE IN ANY CONVENTIONAL SENSE
The musicianship that current conventional music education promotes is passive not fluent. Theory, technique, show-and-play instructions and repetitive rehearsing to generate muscle memory… these typical approaches do not train fluency and can even block our natural inner musician. Learning to play pieces and scales etc. by rote leads us away from fluency. Just think about what fluency in a language really is! Someone could learn to recite a poem passively in a language they don’t grasp fluently. But passive musicianship has become the norm in today’s culture: we tend to think of music as something external that we must execute well, not as a language that we use spontaneously to express our inner feelings. So, a different approach to music training is needed.
Fluency develops through experimentation and play, freely expressing ourselves using the vocabulary and syntax of rhythm and tonality. A formulated piano course with a set specification or curriculum working towards fixed aims and objectives makes it very difficult for people to work in a playful way at their own pace. People all learn at different rates and have different needs. So whilst I have organised the winding path towards musical fluency into 15 steps, in reality there is no predetermined schedule for learning these skills. This is self-directed learning and you need to approach it as an adventure. The practice materials are available to be purchased as and when you need them.
WHO IS THE BEST CANDIDATE TO BE A GOOD STUDENT OF MUSICAL FLUENCY?
Learning to be fluent in the language of music requires clear focus and a playful, deep enquiry. The model is really very simple and requires a childlike approach. You must be prepared to learn in a practical way rather than the conventional cognitive way. You can only fully understand each step by practising it thoroughly. All subsequent steps need the earlier steps to be mastered fully first or they will be very difficult to understand. And all the steps will ultimately fit together like a puzzle. So you have to trust this process.
All this makes it very different from conventional learning, and therefore, it is not for everyone. People who are highly goal-orientated learners and prefer extrinsic rewards will need to challenge their usual approach in favour of an intrinsically rewarding, childlike exploration. People who prefer a typical top-down explanatory approach may feel frustrated by having to build simple practical skills from the ground up. To give up our old cognitive learning habits for simple focus and familiarisation and practical, playful exploration can require a leap of faith and a dose of humility for many people.
But if you love practical learning, if you enjoy challenging old paradigms, if you feel music very deeply, and if you find that conventional instruction feels unmusical or makes your playing feel stiff and awkward, then this radical approach could be perfect for you, as long as you’re willing to:-
- challenge your psychological blockages to fluency – anxiety from expressive inhibition and attachment to results
- stop playing passively or mimetically, e.g. by trial and error, following theory or show and play instructions
- find the courage to be expressively and physically free – especially by embodying rhythmic awareness
- focus clearly moment by moment on the simple model and use it to intend every sound from within
- practise for many hundreds of hours with playful discipline to master each practical 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. This is very similar to what we all did as toddlers discovering and experimenting with words when we learned 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 simple, playful, intrinsically motivated and self-directed. Perhaps ironically, many people require 121 coaching to find the courage needed for this level of expressive freedom and autonomy. But for those who are willing to challenge themselves very deeply to find this mindset, as they work in an independent and self-reliant way, 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, I keep the theoretical explanations to a minimum. My only instruction is that you focus calmly and intently, moment by moment on a simple model of rhythmic and tonal language – rhythm cells in the rhythmic matrix (groove) 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. But you must take the time to familiarise yourself deeply with the precise terminology and carefully designed diagrams, and work step by step, not thinking ahead. The model may be simple, but it takes time to understand it as a practical, internalised reality. It is not a neat trick nor some elaborate solution that will hand you the keys to fluency on a plate. You have to develop the habit of experiencing music in terms of this simple model playfully, working on your practical skills at each step. Then you will discover gradually how the complex puzzle of music works based on these radically simple principles.
You have to focus, play, freely express yourself and that means practise… lots!
BUILD ON INNATE MUSICAL SENSE – TRUST YOUR INNER MUSICIAN
We possess natural musical understanding or we wouldn’t intuitively respond to music as we do. When we hear music, its rhythm and tonality ‘speak’ to us meaningfully. And we can recall music by imagining it playing in our heads. This basic intuitive grasp of music is formed when we are very young and is founded on very deep essential rhythmic and tonal senses that we all naturally possess. So we already understand musical language with the intuitive parts of our brains. To grasp its structure fluently using the rational, thinking parts of our brains, we must practise using a model of music that matches our natural inner musical sense and that is simple enough to use in real time. Current theoretical models are just too complicated and dense for us to use fluently; they require far too much cognitive effort to be used in real time.
YOU DON’T NEED MUSICAL SUPERPOWERS
A minuscule number of people carry their intuitive sense of music all the way to the piano keys to express themselves fluently, without understanding how they do this rationally. These rare, perhaps savant individuals are clearly unusual and seem endowed with musical superpowers. But you don’t need to be one of these musical magicians to develop musical fluency. And it is very unhelpful to focus on things like perfect pitch, as if special, almost super-human gifts were necessary for musical fluency to develop. You just need a love of music, curiosity, feelings to express, patience, discipline and time for plenty of playful, independent, self-directed practice.
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.Trying to understand how to play complex music fluently before you can will only make you feel demoralised and demotivated. So, it’s OK to keep doing 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 will 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 OK with making 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 let go of designing music that your passive sense thinks of as sounding like music. When we speak, we do not design long stretches of language, we just say the next word. The tendency to design results is strong and will take some determination and courage to overcome. 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!
So, listening critically to yourself as you play, trying to design something that your passive sense of music thinks sounds good, blocks fluency. Today, we live in a karaoke culture, we think of music as certain songs or pieces that we know but this mimetic approach to music comes from the head rather than the body and soul. If music is to be used as a language, it must convey meaning. And the meaning of music is deep feelings from the body and soul. So 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. Stop listening and instead synchronise perfectly with your body and soul to “say” each musical “word” with total clarity and commitment.
You probably won’t be surprised to learn that improvising forms the basis of fluency practice. Not crazy, free improvisation but tuneful, harmonious and naturally rhythmic improvising that makes sense! 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 if expressed with sincere feeling.
Playing favourite pieces of music is therefore outside the training until you reach the final two steps. At that point, you can study any music and expect to grasp it fluently. 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.