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 3 piano exam, I realised that making music in a natural and fluent way was getting blocked by practising using set fingerings, playing with the metronome and all the other “playing-by-numbers” set ways that my teacher was making me do. I could feel myself hitting a wall. This was a critical moment for me. Music was my favourite thing, especially piano music. I needed to do something about it.
So I went to the piano and let go completely, shaking off the straitjacket my teacher was putting me in. 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. And it feels only right now to share it as a teacher.
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 anything more to be fluent.
My model for music = RHYTHM CELLS IN THE GROOVE & TONAL BLOCKS IN THE KEYBOARD MAP
The model I use for music is only a little more complex: rhythm cells in the matrix/groove and tonal blocks in 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, 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 erroneous models of music that block fluency
Even when people are shown this simple, true model of music, they can struggle. So this is why I have had to develop a carefully constructed study and practice course. The problem is that people already have existing models for music that are false and that obscure this natural, true one.
There are 2 models for music that have come to predominate in our culture. They have appeared only in the last century or so and they are the product of living in a technological age with recordings and mass media. They are deeply embedded in our consciousness now and generate an appalling level of general incompetence, frustration and delusion about music, as they make music into something external to perform not a language we can internalise to express ourselves with spontaneously.
- The executive model – this model has us decode lists of notes or follow show and play instructions: it is totally passive and destructive to fluency as it leads to mechanical, music-making, often with repetitive drills, like scales, and lots of theoretical or technique-based thinking that is reliant on blind muscle-memory
- The karaoke model – this model is where we “tag” whole tunes, songs or pieces of music rather than the rhythm cells and tonal blocks – the musical vocabulary. It’s the musical equivalent of only knowing complete sentences and no words: itsthemusicalequivalentofonlyknowingcompletesentencesandnowords. Imagine not being able to recognise, hear, say or read separate words… The karaoke model of music ends up relying on muscle memory and technique-based thinking too. It is almost as passive as the executive model.
The tiny minority of people who demonstrate dark, intuitive skills musically – people who manage to sound good using these models (or no model at all – just blind intuition) – only add mystique, helping to maintain the horrible idea that rare, special musical talent is necessary in order to be musical. In reality, if you love music, you are musical! The disempowering culture around music is very sad. Music should be a means of fluent expression available to everyone. This common sense model makes that possible but only if people can manage to disentangle themselves from the current established models which have such a terrible hold over our minds individually and collectively. But with rigorous enquiry, clear focus and playful, expressive practice, it is possible to become a fluent keyboard musician. And that’s what this course is all about!