How this model of keyboard musicianship came to exist

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 with my coaching. It turned out that my students wanted a course. 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.

When I was 9 years old, after doing my grade 4 piano exam, I realised that making music in a natural way was getting blocked by practising using set fingerings, playing with the metronome and all the other fixed ways that my teacher was enforcing. I sensed that I would not go far using his approach, as it made me feel so much pressure that I couldn’t express myself freely. I could feel myself hitting a wall. This was a critical moment for me. Playing the piano, making up simple music spontaneously, was my favourite thing to do. I needed to do something to make sure I didn’t lose the simple skills I had that gave me so much pleasure.

So I sat at the piano and let go completely, shaking off the straitjacket of my teacher’s approach. As I played simple shapes and patterns by ear, I focused my mind, reflecting deeply to discover what I was really doing. I began to see the symmetry and structure of musical patterns and experienced conscious fluency for the first time. Soon I had formed a clear, conscious model which I used in my practice diligently whilst I pretended to follow my teacher’s instructions. So secretly, I rebelled – even though I thought my method was cheating at the time. But it became very clear that it worked! By the age of 12 I had passed grade 8 with distinction and played my first public concerto! It turned out that my model was enormously empowering. So it feels only right to my approach with others.

What does it mean to use a simple model?

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.

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 instrument map – 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 2 commonly-used 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 may lead 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 karaoke 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. It’s the musical equivalent of only knowing complete sentences but not grasping separate words clearly: 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 and technique-based thinking. It is more musical than the executive model but still passive and therefore it blocks fluency.

There is a tiny minority of people who demonstrate extraordinary intuitive musical skills. Their playing sounds free and expressive using these passive models. However, this 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. But if you love music, you are musical!

Many people feel disempowered, even shut out, by a kind of elitism around learning music. But by finding the courage 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. With rigorous enquiry, clear focus and playful, expressive practice, discover the empowerment and joy of practising using the PlayPianoFluently model!