MUSICAL FLUENCY TRAINING – A DEEPER DIVE
In this article, I explore in more detail what fluent musicianship is and how I train people to be fluent in the language of music. It reiterates and expands the points raised on the homepage.
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.
Fluent musicianship is not just the ability to play with lots of musical feeling without stopping or making mistakes, nor is it the ability to instantly recall long passages from memory. Fluency in language doesn’t automatically enable us to perform speeches with great passion, never making slips or hesitating, nor is it the ability to memorise long passages of words! Those skills are built upon fluency, which is simply the ability to understand and express ourselves with words. Similarly, musical fluency is a solid foundation which actually makes it easier to improve our musical memory and performance skills. I would even go so far as to say that most people’s difficulties with musical performance are due to a lack of fluency. But fluency in the language of music is a separate, specific skill. So it’s important to be clear 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 would make it impossible 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: approach it as an adventure! The practice materials are available to be purchased as and when you need them.
I could post loads of student experiences for you to wade through but decided against this. You need to decide for yourself using the information that I offer here, which I try to make as honest and transparent as I can! Even with an excellent overall review score, there’s no guarantee that your experience will be positive. So what do reviews really tell us? I’ll try to distil it into something useful.
First of all a reviewer must offer details about their experience or it’s pointless. Someone whose experience is extremely bad might write a review like this:
I bought the 15 Steps and read through it all. I’m a quick study and it made some sense but there was a lot missing. I think you’d need to be a musician already to understand it. I realise that it does recommend that I should just practise the skills demonstrated and explained simply at each step, but I’m the type of learner who needs to understand why I’m doing something before I do it. The first step was very simple and seemed a bit obvious really. I did it for a while but I felt like it was something anyone could do. The second step seemed too simple again and it wasn’t much fun – I wanted to get to actually playing music on the piano. Step 3 was interesting but I couldn’t see why you need this when playing music – that wasn’t fully explained. The next step had some nice little tunes to learn but I got bored of them very quickly. Step 5 was really confusing and I gave up. I looked ahead again to see if there might be something that would explain what step 5 was about. There was lots of notation and complicated stuff which I could have looked up online but that’s not my job. The videos were pretty good. They told me what to do clearly but not what it means technically or how it will work ultimately and I need that information. I don’t quit easily and I work well under pressure, so I know the problem here is not me. It kept telling me to let go and just play like a child, but that’s not how I work! Also, everything I played sounded stupid because most of the time it told me to improvise. How’s that supposed to work? I need better tunes. Maybe with more detailed instructions, it would work – I tried getting more materials but they just offered more specific prescribed practices rather than giving me the answers I wanted. No bad rating though, because I was given a refund with no quibble, even though I felt guilty because I realise I should have looked at the website material more carefully.
Here’s an example of someone whose experience was really good:
I got the 15 Steps and decided to do the practices exactly as instructed with an open mind and test the idea that practice would generate understanding. The first step seemed very easy but I soon realised that it would take lots of practice before I could maintain effortless focus on the structure whilst feeling the flow. The more I did it, the more fun I had and I realised what an important musical skill this is. The next step built on the first. Again it’s so easy really but took lots of practice to get it totally clear. I never thought I could be so creative rhythmically in such a clear way! Step 3 had me grasp and embody the keyboard structure in a fascinating new way. It was also simple enough but took me some time to internalise it fully and get my spatial sense of it really strong. Step 4 was fun: using the whole model in a basic way, I could improvise simple music fluently – and also read it, as I got the additional sight-reading material (£3.95). And again I, as I practised, I could sense how deep musical skills were developing, as long as I kept my focus completely clear – that takes time. Excitingly, my playing soon began to feel naturally musical without having to even think about it. Improvising felt easy, rewarding and creative. It’s so great to play music without just learning tunes by rote. It feels creative. I know it’s childlike but working in this completely unpressurized way was such a refreshing change. Step 5 was mind-blowing. I just followed the diagrams and took the coaching and suddenly I was experiencing the harmony within the symmetry and 3D structure of the keyboard! What a revelation – harmony! I practised it loads and I can’t really explain how my understanding and skill seemed to just explode. Each next step worked the same way – the complexity develops exponentially: with loads of playful, focused practice, my understanding and skill followed naturally. I knew I needed to let go more fully sometimes – to be a playful as instructed and to keep the pressure off. Sometimes I’d need to stop and unblock myself – the blockages resource was very helpful. Now that I’ve completed all the steps, I can study and practise ANY music that I want to with genuine fluency.
Same materials… Different experience! So which student would you be? Most people will be somewhere between the two, and will need to work on their learning style to find their trusting, playful inner 4-year old. Obviously, the first reviewer didn’t do the practice as instructed. They didn’t take the coaching that would have adjusted their learning style and unblock their expressive inhibition. But maybe this approach is just wrong for them. Perhaps in reality, musical fluency itself is not what interests them, only the impressive skills it brings. The second reviewer took on the challenge of a simple adventure, sticking to the path with discipline, maintaining and developing their sense of playful discovery. For them, fluency came naturally with practice. Unlike the first reviewer, they didn’t expect or need to understand what they were doing technically, a priori, but let the practice reveal deep knowledge organically. To find out whether you might be ready to have a go at this yourself, read the information on this website thoroughly and watch the free videos to get a deeper insight before you take the plunge!
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. It can be quite a challenge, especially in the first steps as we make the paradigm shift.
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 psychological blockages to fluency – anxiety due to 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. Whilst I encourage people to study the Concise Model, ultimately theoretical explanations have very limited relevance and are kept 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 and let go to express yourself authentically and intentionally using it. First and foremost, you must grasp this model – rhythm cells in the rhythmic matrix (groove) and tonal blocks in the keyboard map. So you start at the beginning, with the first of the 15 Steps and spend time practising simply and clearly to master each step. All these skill steps work together to build complete fluency. It takes time practising with clear focus whilst letting go and feeling the elements of musical language working expressively. The music you play is simple and streamlined but must not be approached merely as an exercise but expressively. All music lies outside the fluency training until you have completed all 15 steps. It is fine to play passively outside the confines of this fluency training but it is very important to keep your fluent and non-fluent playing clearly separate.
The principles and elements of the model are explained clearly in the materials. But you must take the time to explore and deeply familiarise yourself with the model and the precise terminology that has been devised to help you. Also, study the carefully designed diagrams. Always work practically, step by step, not thinking ahead. The model may be simple, but it takes time to internalise it as a practical reality. It is not a neat trick or 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, discarding the old theoretical/technical models, and working on your practical skills at each step. Only then you will discover gradually how the complex puzzle of music works based on these radically simple principles.
You have to focus, be disciplined, yet playfully and freely express yourself – and that means practise… lots!
BUILD ON INNATE MUSICAL SENSE – TRUST YOUR INNER MUSICIAN
We must 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. We know good music when we hear it, even if we can’t explain why. 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 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 conventional models of how music works 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 superhuman 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. Fluency is about expressing yourself, not impressing yourself or anyone else for that matter. Trying to understand how to play complex music fluently before you can will only make you feel demoralised and demotivated. 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 – rhythm cells and tonal blocks – are like musical “words”, 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.
WHY I CREATED PLAYPIANOFLUENTLY
When I first began teaching musical fluency on the keys, I didn’t intend to devise a new training course. I just wanted to give students the model of music that I use myself. My idea was that they would explore it for themselves whilst I coached them to focus and let go. The model itself is actually very simple common sense. It’s not some convoluted invention or gimmick that I arrogantly wish to peddle to others but a basic and natural truth about how music works that I discovered as a young child. It turned out that my students wanted a course. The materials organised into the current format are quite course-like but really, self-directed experimentation is necessary for success.
WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO USE A SIMPLE MODEL OF MUSICAL LANGUAGE?
The model we all use for verbal language = WORDS IN GROUPS
The model that we use consciously for fluency and literacy in verbal language is words grouped together. As we speak, this is all we need to think of. We want to convey a meaning that we sense deep inside us, almost unconsciously, and then we know what words to say. We intend all the words we say clearly and precisely, putting them together in combinations to generate the meaning we want to convey. We can explore all kinds of nuances within that model, but this incredibly simple model is where our conscious mind rests. We don’t need to focus consciously on anything more to become fluent. It just takes practice. We don’t need to think about which word is a verb, a subject or object, an adverb or adjective, we just say words in groups.
My model for music = RHYTHM CELLS IN THE GROOVE & TONAL BLOCKS IN THE KEYBOARD MAP
The model I use for music has two aspects rather than just one: we must think of rhythm cells within the structure of the rhythmic matrix or groove and tonal blocks within the structure of the keyboard map. And that’s it! Knowing this, experiencing it with the same level of clarity and expressive intention that we have saying words grouped together in syntax, is musical fluency. We feel something within us and use simple musical vocabulary and structure – rhythm cells and tonal blocks organised in a rhythmic groove and tonal map of our instrument – to “say” it.
The keyboard map can of course be exchanged for the various tonal maps of other instruments. That said, the keyboard has a beautiful layout when we map it in the correct way, that leads to the highest level of fluency. It is no coincidence that the great composers of the past were all fluent on the keyboard and many of them were virtuoso players.
THE CURRENT MODELS OF MUSIC THAT BLOCK FLUENCY
In order to practise this simple, common-sense model of music, it is necessary to give up old, established models. This can be hard, not because they are easier or more natural but rather because they are embedded through habit and are the predominant ones in our culture. This is why carefully constructed course materials are very helpful.
These predominant models for music have developed only in the last two centuries or so. I believe that they are symptomatic of living in an industrial, mechanical and technological age, culminating in the modern era of recordings and mass media. They make us believe that music exists outside us as something to execute correctly. This way of practising music is very ingrained in our consciousness now, despite the fact that most people struggle to gain genuinely useful musical skills and can feel very frustrated using these common models. Most of us struggle to be musical when we attempt to make music, thinking of it as something external to perform correctly, rather than an internalised language to practise playfully without pressure, expressing ourselves meaningfully from within, with effortless spontaneously.
The executive model – using this model, we decode lists of notes or follow show-and-play instructions: it is passive and therefore blocks fluency. It leads to mechanical music-making, especially when we play repetitive drills, like scales and finger exercises and rehearse set pieces until we play them from muscle-memory or when we execute commands, rather like a machine, based on theoretical or technique-based thinking.
The mimetic model – this model is where we “tag” whole tunes, songs or pieces of music – the musical surface – rather than the rhythm cells and tonal blocks – the musical vocabulary. I often refer to it as karaoke sense, the musical equivalent of only knowing complete sentences but not grasping separate words clearly – like this: itsthemusicalequivalentofonlyknowingcompletesentencesandnowords. Try to imagine not being able to recognise, hear, read or intend individual words… The karaoke model of music also relies on muscle memory. It is arguably more musical than the executive model but still passive and therefore it blocks fluency.
The fact that a tiny minority of people possess a rare gift of being able to sound musically free and expressive using these passive models creates the mystique of musical talent or genius. It is common to think that rare, special musical talent is necessary in order to be musical, when in fact, if you love music, you are musical! Consequently, many people feel disempowered, even shut out, by a kind of elitism around learning music. But by finding the courage, discipline and willingness to give up current established models, it is possible to learn music as a means of fluent expression – a language we can all use to express our deepest feelings. With rigorous enquiry, clear focus and playful, expressive practice, you can discover the empowerment and joy of practising using the PlayPianoFluently model!
WHAT ABOUT PERFECT PITCH? WHAT IF I’M TONE DEAF?
It is sad that many of us believe the idea that we need to train our musical ear, first before we can expect to be fluent musically, or worse that most of us have little or no musical ear and there’s nothing you can do about it. Aural training just makes you good at aural tests, it doesn’t make you fluent. Intervals, chords, scales, time signatures, note values etc. – these are all elements that the brain processes far too slowly for musical fluency. This training teaches you tonal and rhythmic elements that are instantly recognisable and which you can use to express yourself effortlessly.
The truth is, we all have perfect pitch. Yes, you read that right! Unless you are one of the tiny percentage of people who suffer from genuine tone-deafness – a rare condition that does exist, like colour-blindness – you have pretty good tonal memory. Studies prove that when we recall a favourite record, we hear it playing in our heads in the right key, not the wrong one. Absolute pitch is of little importance anyway, it is a sense of tonal relationships or a map of tonality that we must develop.
The typical karaoke approach to understanding music needs to be replaced. Instead of being deeply familiar only with certain songs or pieces, we can instead learn to tag tonal or harmonic elements that are used in all music. “Tag” means to know and love something deeply as a meaningful musical element that makes sense – not only as sounds but also as physical, spatial structures within a clear map of our instrument, in this case the keyboard. We must also learn to tag rhythmic elements.
Oddly, people seem less worried about their poor rhythmic awareness. This common negligence will block fluency. Tonal fluency is just not possible without first being equally fluent in the language of rhythm. So rhythm training forms a major part of the work you do on this training.
WE ALL HAVE A NATURAL, UNCONSCIOUS TONAL SENSE
Everyone has perfect pitch – we imagine familiar music and hear it in the right key, not the wrong one! We all grasp rhythmic and tonal patterns and relationships intuitively, otherwise when we heard new music, it would make no sense. This is a kind of unconscious fluency.
You might know one of those extraordinary people who can improvise or play by ear with varying degrees of fluency without actually grasping how they do it consciously. This extremely rare and mysterious talent is definitely not something most people can ever aspire to. Unfortunately, we tend to revere such dark talents in our culture and generate a disempowering mystique around fluent musical skills, which creates the myth that uncommon, strange and very special talents are necessary for musical fluency. However, it is much better if our musical fluency is based on principles that we understand clearly and consciously: rather than relying on intuition and blind confidence, we can have real trust in our skills, and progress along a path of lifelong learning, always refining and improving them.
It’s passive playing that makes most people’s playing stiff and inexpressive, not lack of talent
The belief that problems with playing the piano are simply due to a lack of talent is such a cop-out, pedagogically! But this unhelpful belief seems to be confirmed when we encounter another dark talent – the ability to play with musical flair, even when there is no genuine fluent expression. Performance mimicry is a knack that a few people possess to a high level. This minority can learn music in the conventional passive ways and sound good. The truth is that this simply does not work for most people, whose playing remains clumsy or musically flat no matter how hard they try to make their playing sound expressive. But with a fluent grasp of musical language, anyone who loves music can play with sensitivity, flexibility, expressiveness and natural feeling from within.
MUSICAL FLUENCY – AN ADVANCED SKILL OR BASIC EMPOWERMENT?
This training does unlock your potential musically. And when you have completed all the steps, you will have some pretty advanced skills. You might even become a virtuoso player, if you have sufficient flair and passion and put in the necessary hours. But it’s important to understand that fluency in music is like fluency in language. It’s a basic skill. Being able to speak, read and write using verbal language does not in itself make you a great poet or speaker. Whether you become a great artist depends on your inner feelings, your sensitivity and passion for what music can express from within you. But many people are not looking to become great artists, they just want to enjoy expressing themselves musically, naturally. They can feel self-expressively frozen, because they approach making music as an executive skill rather than a fluent expressive one. This training helps people find their fluent musical skills and is therefore basic musical empowerment that unlocks self-expression.
FOCUS AND LET GO! THE STATE OF FLOW
The main skill that we must work on is a combination of moment-by-moment focus on the principles and elements of the model whilst simultaneously letting go of all self-consciousness and critical thinking in order to simply feel and naturally express ourselves deeply. These two ordinary skills become almost like a superpower when we have them working together in unified tandem. Especially when practising at the edge of our skill level, we enter peak-performance or a flow state. Flow is a much misunderstood concept in popular psychology. The term is often used to advocate an approach that is lazy and mentally non-rigorous. In fact, the state of flow requires intense brain activity. The moment-by-moment focus required, as we practise at the outer edges of our skill set is about as rigorous as it gets! Similarly, letting go requires an almost aggressive act of relaxation – a courageous defiance of our tendency to be self-conscious and results-orientated. The fact that the flow state is extraordinarily pleasurable and fulfilling does not mean it’s like having a lie down. It is exhilarating and accelerates our progress exponentially.
IS AURAL TRAINING A GOOD COMPLEMENT TO FLUENCY TRAINING?
I need to repeat myself frequently that having a good musical ear is normal. If you listen to music and it makes rhythmic and tonal sense to you then you have no musical disability such as tone-deafness. In today’s culture, music occurs as something external to achieve, rather than as a language to express our own deep feelings. This disempowers most people musically and sadly, current methods of training and assessing musicianship often serve to reinforce this. Of course, some people are more skilled with musical language than others, some people will have more to say: we are all fluent in our native language but it doesn’t make us all poets. The point is that we all do have a sense of rhythm and tonality, a musical ear, and we can become musically fluent as naturally as we become fluent in language.
CONVENTIONAL AURAL TESTS CAN MAKE US FEEL SCRUTINISED AND SHAMED
You know when music sounds good or bad. You know when it is out of tune or has poor rhythm. This proves that you have the intuitive ability to apply your brain to the task of learning to recognise musical elements and structures. Conventional aural training, being subjected to tests in which we’re expected to recognise theoretical elements, is not only unnecessary but is actually a kind of torture that paralyses our natural musical sense. Such tests easily make us feel scrutinised and shamed. We can feel musically stupid when we fail to recognise things like a plagal cadence or an interval of a minor 6th.
PLAY WITH MUSICAL ELEMENTS LIKE A CHILD PLAYING WITH BLOCKS
There’s a disempowering myth that you can’t develop perfect pitch or a good musical ear as an adult: only young children can develop these kinds of skills. This myth persists because it is based on two truths. The first is that someone who had never heard any music at all as a child would indeed struggle to train their musical ear. But of course, even if you have never made music actively, you’ve been exposed to the language of music since you were a baby and you understand it intuitively. Many people might be musically mute whilst they enjoy and understand music. The second truth is that you must approach the learning playfully, like a child playing with blocks, unattached to outcomes. If an adult approaches musicianship training in a cold, pressurised way, with lots of testing, the learning will just not happen. You must play, express yourself and treat the whole process as experimentation and fun. For quite a few adult learners, this can be quite difficult. But if you’re up for the challenge, it’s very liberating.
YOU CAN ONLY RECOGNISE WHAT YOU CAN ACTUALLY HEAR
The process of learning to tag recognisable musical elements – tonal and rhythmic sounds – is the same process we all went through as children with colours, shapes and of course words in language. The problem with conventional aural training is that it works on recognition of the wrong things – thing like intervals, chords, note values, things that we can’t grasp instantly, that require theoretical working out. The elements you learn in this training can be understood or expressed instantaneously and effortlessly.
Once you’re musically fluent, impressive musicianship skills based on theoretical knowledge are easy to acquire – not the other way round. Fluent musicians seem to have perfect pitch because we understand how notes and intervals (or shapes, as I call them) work within deeply familiar and instantly recognisable tonal blocks. Tonal blocks are actually already familiar sounds to you. You just need to learn to love them, tag where they live in the map of the keyboard and also the musical staff. Then you will hear these tonal blocks and recognise them without thinking, we simply cannot recognise notes isolated from harmony. When hearing someone speak, you don’t make sense of what they’re saying by hearing and recognising individual letters then building the words up, you just hear the words themselves and recognise them instantly without thinking. But if asked to spell any word, you can! You might even get very clever at this kind of thing and be able to spell the word backwards or make up an anagram. You might play Scrabble, be a grammatical wizard or do cryptic crosswords. But you wouldn’t lie to a child telling them that they must master those clever skills first, in order to learn to speak, read or write!
It’s vital to grasp that rhythm comes first – that tonality is built on rhythm. People tend to obsess over tonal fluency when in reality you simply cannot develop it without rhythmic fluency and the storytelling feeling that the structure of groove communicates. It’s impossible that you lack a sense of rhythm. If you did, simple tasks like walking and talking would be affected adversely. Even worms must have a sense of rhythm. It’s an embodied elastic yet stable feeling of flow and pulsation that we feel inside. It is not an auditory adherence to metronomic time – i.e. clock time divided up metrically. The problems most people experience with rhythm are generated by mental and physical tension. With lots of dedicated practice, you will gain deep understanding of the structure of groove and the elements of rhythm that plug into it called rhythm cells. You must get away from the concept of note values. This will help you to relax and flow with the rhythm, expressing its inherent meaning naturally and effortlessly by tapping into your deep inner sense of rhythm.
Counting, thinking about note values, fractions and arithmetic relationships within time signatures is like trying to teach a child to talk by making them do word puzzles and tongue twisters, rather than allowing baby talk to morph naturally into real words. Metronomes, or any form of external adherence to rigid metric pulse, will just generate more of the tension which causes rhythmic problems in the first place. The PlayPianoFluently approach provides you with simple ways to master rhythm that make perfect sense and flow naturally from within you.
PIANO IMPROVISATION – THE CORE PRACTICE FOR FLUENCY TRAINING
What does improvisation on the piano mean to you? It doesn’t have to be random-sounding or avant-garde music nor the often inscrutably clever and sophisticated sounds created by the complex rhythms, scale patterns and chords of modern jazz. Improvising on the piano keys can sound natural, intelligible and musically meaningful. Musicians of the past were improvisers, including the great composers of classical music such as Beethoven, Bach, Chopin etc.
The ability to improvise with complete spontaneity is however quite rare now and it is generally considered in our culture to be very difficult or impossible for anyone who doesn’t possess special gifts. But this disempowering view is a mistake. It is not difficult once fluent skills are in place. The idea that it requires huge amounts of theoretical knowledge is false. Yet equally it doesn’t have to be formulaic or simplistic. We’ve all heard the kind of improvisation that is built on repetitive patterns using set chords or scales. Real improvising is something else altogether: it’s composing in real time in any style you like. And it is obviously an incredibly valuable and impressive skill for any keyboard player to possess.
PLAYING BY EAR – WHAT IT IS AND WHAT IT ISN’T!
Playing by ear involves no theoretical thinking. A fluent keyboard musician “tags” instantly recognisable elements of music in real time so you don’t need to stop the flow in order to work anything out. Notes, intervals and chords and other conventional theoretical elements are too dense to recognise in real time.
A common misconception about playing by ear is that someone with that skill can play a piece after just one hearing. Could you recite a 3-minute poem verbatim after listening to it just once? Of course not! Playing by ear is the ability to play any music you can remember. It’s also the ability to play something similar to what we heard, to express the gist of it, even if we can’t recall it perfectly. Of course, most of us can remember music once we’ve heard it a few times, especially if we like it. And then we can hear it playing in our heads. Is it a surprise that this imagined version we hear internally is naturally in the right key, with the right rhythms.
So, being musically fluent means that we can identify and reproduce or “understand” and “say” all elements of musical language that make up all music, in all kinds of styles and genres. It’s not about recalling whole melodies or pieces of music. It’s a skill that involves no decoding, no rehearsal leading to correct execution, and no trial and error. It is instant and spontaneous.
Sight-reading on the piano is something many people struggle with. But with musically fluent skills, you can look at a score that you’ve never seen before and hear the music it depicts instantly in your imagination, without any thinking or working out.
The kind of sight-reading that most people do involves decoding the notes onto the piano keyboard and only then do they find out how the music sounds. Imagine having to type all the letters of a book into a machine one by one, before you get to hear the words. We wouldn’t even call that reading!
Being able to sight-read fluently opens up a whole world of music to a pianist or keyboard musician. And a fluent grasp of musical notation means that you can write down any music that you can hear in your mind. This makes composing and creating scores easy.
The skill of fluent sight-reading – to look at an unfamiliar score and hear the music playing in your imagination – opens up a whole world of music!
Sight-reading musical notation is not nearly as difficult as it seems. Once you know all the tonal blocks as sounds and places within the clear structure of the keyboard map and all the rhythm cells as they unfold within the rhythmic structure of the musical groove, learning to recognise these elements in a musical score is relatively easy with practice. To sight-read effortlessly, you must stop reading separate notes. This training helps you to join the dots together so that they make complete shapes that you instantly recognise and hear internally.
Musical notation is actually a very clever shorthand. You just need to stop treating a score as a list of linear instructions telling you what keys to play and for how long. This mechanical, passive – and very unmusical – approach makes sight-reading too complex and difficult – in fact, pure drudgery. It can also make the notation system appear illogical. Instead, when you rely on a strong and clear practical grasp of principles and elements of musical language that you use naturally to express yourself musically, you find sight-reading a musical score as intuitive and easy as reading words in a book.
Fluency is built on meaning. We mean words when we speak language fluently, we don’t merely execute them correctly. So assuming you understood or felt the meaning of a three-minute speech, you could tell someone the gist of it and maybe remember a few phrases or words that really struck you, even after just one hearing. So it is with playing music by ear. As long as you understood it fully and clearly noticed and identified the tonal and rhythmic elements as they went by, and felt its message resonating deeply within you, you’ll be able to reproduce the gist of it, even though you won’t remember it note-for-note. And… you’ll remember music precisely much more quickly when you are fluent.
Improvisation is like going for a walk in nature: you discover the beauty and drama, you don’t design it! Or you could say that when fluent, you improvise music as naturally as conversing in your native language. Improvising is making up any kind of music you can imagine using the elements of the musical model that we learn in this training. Once you have internalised the principles and elements of musical language fully and practised using them, improvisation is a natural and spontaneous process.
Fluency in music is much like fluency in language. A writer creates a novel by improvising the story mentally and then writing the words down. This ability to improvise linguistically is therefore considered normal and necessary for a writer. And in fact, we are all improvising using language all the time, as we engage in conversation together. Music is similarly self-expression. It is the means by which we tell our deep inner story, expressing powerful feelings of joy, solace and catharsis that words cannot convey. Memory plays a part just as it would if you were to make up a story but as long as you follow the unfolding structure, intend or consciously mean every sound-element that you play, there’s no reason for you to wander off the plot. Obviously, being fluent in language doesn’t automatically make us all into equally great storytellers but we can all express ourselves with words coherently. This is exactly how musical improvisation works for a fluent musician.
Improvisation is the core practice of this training. It lays the foundations for reading and playing by ear which follow on naturally, just as we learn to speak as a foundation before we learn to read. Unless we can improvise, fluent reading is impossible. So improvising is the fundamental skill of a fluent musician.