At some point in the last few weeks, I ran across this article about the 'tragic decline of music literacy (and quality)'. I had it open in the tabs of my smart-phone's browser, one of 80 some parges or articles that I think "I should read this sometime", then forget about. I was trying to clear some of these out and finally read it, and I'm frustrated. Obviously, I think musical literacy and musical education is important. My wife is an elementary music teacher, I spend most of my working hours every week teaching. I hope to spread musical appreciation in all the performing that I do.
But I really hate the way this author made the argument. He takes cliches, unecessary generalizations, to denegrate swaths of music that is very meaningful to many people. While I do believe that classical music, and modern art music, is the ultimate aim and highest form of all music, I would not for a second look down upon someone who loves pop music, or folk music. If a deeper appreciation of this is as far as a person needs to be musically content, then their lives are better for it. That doesn't mean there isn't anything to teach these people, or that there is no way or no need to teach the appreciation of pop music.
Below i've gone through this article and left some of my commentary, Maybe sometimes I'm being picky over definitions, but I think it's important to deconstruct this elitist argument.
Throughout grade school and high school, I was fortunate to participate in quality music programs. Our high school had a top Illinois state jazz band; I also participated in symphonic band, which gave me a greater appreciation for classical music. It wasn’t enough to just read music. You would need to sight read, meaning you are given a difficult composition to play cold, without any prior practice.
Being a good sight reader, doesn't necessitate reading music that is significantly difficult. Only the prior practice part is true.
Sight reading would quickly reveal how fine-tuned playing “chops” really were.
There is no innate correlation between good sight-reading and good chops. Some excellent performers do not sightread well, but you cannot intuit that from their excellent performing abilities.
In college I continued in a jazz band and also took a music theory class. The experience gave me the ability to visualize music (If you play by ear only, you will never have that same depth of understanding music construct.)
Playing by ear in no ways assumes inability to read music. It simply refers to one's primary means of preparing the basic notes one is performing. But ignore that and take the second part. Take any blind musician, like Stevie Wonder or Nobuyuski Tsujii, and try to tell me that they do not have a depth of understanding music.
Both jazz and classical art forms require not only music literacy, but for the musician to be at the top of their game in technical proficiency, tonal quality and creativity in the case of the jazz idiom.
I don't understand how creativity cannot play a part in the performance of classical music
Two primary sources for learning to read music are school programs and at home piano lessons.
I'm a piano teacher, but I am under no illusion that the best way to gain musical literacy and understanding is by taking piano lessons. What part of the percentage decrease in piano lessons is due to students taking lessons on other musical instruments?
Stores dedicated to selling pianos are dwindling across the country as fewer people take up the instrument. In 1909, piano sales were at their peak when more than 364,500 were sold, but sales have plunged to between 30,000 and 40,000 annually in the US. Demand for youth sports competes with music studies, but also, fewer parents are requiring youngsters to take lessons as part of their upbringing.
The decrease in piano sales does not itself prove any decline in musical education. Again, more students might be taking lessons on other instruments. Moreover, pianos are not something you need to replace even every 10 or 20 years. At some point, even as the population grows, pianos can be passed down or sold privately between individuals, and these instruments can serve just as good a role in a young person's musical education as a brand new instrument. I myself practice primarily on a piano handed down from my wife's grandparents.
The results of the study (of pop songs across the 20th century) revealed that timbral variety went down over time, meaning songs are becoming more homogeneous. Translation: most pop music now sounds the same. Timbral quality peaked in the 60's and has since dropped steadily with less diversity of instruments and recording techniques. Today’s pop music is largely the same with a combination of keyboard, drum machine and computer software greatly diminishing the creativity and originality.
Seeing trends in these areas is noteworthy, but doesn't prove that understanding of music is likewise declining. Take the entire orchestral works of Mozart. They have almost entirely the same timbre, but you're not going to use that against the value of Mozart.
Pitch has also decreased, with the number of chords and different melodies declining. Pitch content has also decreased, with the number of chords and different melodies declining as musicians today are less adventurous in moving from one chord or note to another, opting for well-trod paths by their predecessors.
Again, you could make the argument that for hundreds of years, classical composers used the same chords. Sure, they used more chords pop musicians mnight today, but classical composers were not innately brilliant just for their chordal progressions. There are many other factors at play.
Loudness was found to have increased by about one decibel every eight years. Music loudness has been manipulated by the use of compression. Compression boosts the volume of the quietest parts of the song so they match the loudest parts, reducing dynamic range. With everything now loud, it gives music a muddled sound, as everything has less punch and vibrancy due to compression.
The problem of compression isn't untrue. But it is partly a matter of efficiency so that music can be shared more easily, I would think.
An astonishing amount of today’s popular music is written by two people: Lukasz Gottwald of the United States and Max Martin from Sweden, who are both responsible for dozens of songs in the top 100 charts. You can credit Max and Dr. Luke for most the hits of these stars:
Someone with better understanding of pop music can see if it's true that "You can credit Max and Dr. Luke for most (of) the hits of" those stars. It seems like quite a statement to make. But, my understanding that in pop music, the lyrics and chords and melodic flow are set by the songwriter. Arrangements, including most of the "hooks, riffs, and electric drum effects" are a result of the producer, of which there are many more than 2.
Furthermore, a very limited number of composers wrote the music that we hear in classical concert halls and opera houses. Does that mean the quality of this music is lessened?
When artists like Taylor Swift claim they write their own music, it is partially true, insofar as she writes her own lyrics about her latest boyfriend breakup, but she cannot read music and lacks the ability to compose what she plays.
But the melody, chords and rhythm of pop songs is rarely notated! It can be passed down aurally. I'm a well trained musician, and an excellent sight reader, but when playing worship songs in my church, I don't follow notated music just like anyone playing in the band who may not read a note of music.
Music electronics are another aspect of musical decline as the many untalented people we hear on the radio can’t live without autotune. Autotune artificially stretches or slurs sounds in order to get it closer to center pitch. Many of today’s pop musicians and rappers could not survive without autotune, which has become a sort of musical training wheels. But unlike a five-year-old riding a bike, they never take the training wheels off to mature into a better musician. Dare I even bring up the subject of U2s guitarist “The Edge” who has popularized rhythmic digital delays synchronized to the tempo of the music? You could easily argue he’s more an accomplished sound engineer than a talented guitarist.
I won't argue about autotune. But to be upset about the use of electronics in music generally is laughable. There are highly refined musicians doing incredible things with electronics. And so what if "The Edge" is more a sound engineer than guitarist. That's simply an ad hominem attack that says nothing about the success of the music at hand.
The worst part is knowing that cancellation (of school music programs) is almost always based on two deliberate falsehoods peddled by school administrators: 1) Cancellation is a funding issue (the big lie); 2) music and the arts are too expensive (the little lie).
Yes, standardized tests have done much to ruin education. But that still doesn't mean that it isn't expensive to run music programs!
While contact sports like football are proven brain damagers, music participation is a brain enhancer.
People have gotten life-altering physical injuries from music too. People's brains can also be enhanced incredibly, in the same way as with music, by sports, without the risk of brain injuries. This is a ridiculous correlation without causation argument.
I want to be an advocate of music education. But we can't make stupid, illogical arguments to make the case. Musical merits make the argument quite well. We are not in a society where there is widespread appreciation of those merits, but moving the goalposts or denigrating "lesser" forms of music appreciation cheapens our arguments.
I've had teachers advocate slow practice, in fact, most of my piano teachers advocate slow practicing.
But I've known a few people who advise against it: our technique works differently at slower and faster tempos. Even fingerings can work at one tempo, but not at another. One of my former teachers, Paul Barnes, used the analogy that you can't water-ski under-speed! The alternative-because these teachers don't expect fast tempos upon sight reading-is to practice small sections of a new piece at performance tempo.
I'm sympathetic to this idea. Ultimately, I often have to catch myself, and many students, in getting 'trapped' at a slow tempo. Many of my piano practice strategies are geared towards practicing in small sections, and building towards performance tempo as quickly as possible.
But I do value slow practicing for pianists, in the end. But I always try to frame it this way: Practice slow in order to think fast.
If our fingers and our brains are slow, we aren't pushing towards the goal of perfecting a piece for performance. We're not ingraining it in our minds. We aren't doing slow practice, we're doing slothful practice.
If your fingers are moving slow, but your brain is moving fast though, you're still making progress. Your brain needs the chance to make connections between new notes, to chunk information into efficient modes of memory. Practice piano so that your eyes and fingers are working at a pace that allows your brain to do that crucial work.
more active arms. You want big motions, big power, to come from bigger joints and bigger muscles. Fingers are really good at the small things: articulating. The arm, specifically the elbow joint, is really good at creating the motion needed for a big sound at the piano. The common wisdom says that you play the piano with your fingers. I try to emphasize with beginning students that the fingers are more than anything just a conduit for bigger muscles to transfer motion to the keys. Tiny muscles that they have, we want our fingers to have to work only as a last resort.
Obviously, this is complex language. When teaching beginning piano students, you don't want to overburden them with technical language. In fact, you don't want them to really know that they're learning at all. A fundamental principle in piano pedagogy is that you relate new knowledge to old knowledge.
What kids do understand naturally, by the time they're beginning piano lessons, is brushing their teeth. And unless they use an electric toothbrush, they understand that bristles on an old-fashioned toothbrush don't do any work themselves. But they're essential to brushing! Kids immediately and intuitively understand that it's our arm that's the source of motion when brushing their teeth.
So, I give them a toothbrush to play on the piano. It just so happens that the 'arm' of the toothbrush corresponds nicely to our forearm, the 'joint' of our hand holding the toothbrush corresponds to the elbow. The bristles of a toothbrush even look like our fingers hanging from our hand in a beautiful piano hand position.
I'll have my students play quite a bit with the toothbrush, then ask them to treat their fingers just like the bristles. Generally, they intuitively make the connection, they can play with quite a big sound, without pushing or forcing. Their fingers are more passive and their arm more active, and they have nice alignment as well as hand position. Throughout their early years, I can continue to refer to "toothbrush arm" as a technical tool for specific pieces.
This way I also never have to talk about their wrists. They innately understand that the "wrist" of a toothbrush isn't floppy, but it isn't a cement block either. Again, it's a conduit, a tube where motion from the arm travels to the fingers. They get that all the wrist has to do is just not get in the way.
I'm sure that psychologists have studied the age at which children become meta-cognitively aware of the differences between long term and short term memory. This is something I need to try to find out.
I came to the realization, with one of my teenaged students, that he wasn't practicing with his long term memory in mind. In The Perfect Wrong Note, William Westney writes some about ingraining the correct version of a piece in our mind. He laments the kind of practicing where a mistake is encountered, corrected and then never addressed again. What he's getting at, I think, is that there's the conscious, working, short term memory. Then there's the unconscious, storage, long term memory. Usually we practice so that our short term memory understands the right or the wrong way to play something, but we don't realize that there's no guarantee that our long term memory knows the difference.
What gets stored in our long term memory will be the version that we've practiced most, the one that can be chunked and related to some piece of information already in our long term memory.
Some day I'm going to try an experiment with a more advanced, teenaged or early twenties student:
I'll assign them the task to memorize a few paragraphs of some text, maybe something musical to distract them from the point. I'll instruct them to only memorize the text for 10 minutes a day, each day for one week. Each day they'll take notes about what they did, how they approached memorization. I assume the way they'll practice memorizing text will be more conducive to long term memory storage, than the usual way we practice piano.
I'm very passionate about practicing in efficient and effective ways. No matter how hard I try, I often feel like my ideas and tactics aren't appreciated, or even taken up at all, by my students. But I think we naturally will approach memorization of text differently.
Ultimately, the problem is that we don't think about learning a piece of music as a matter of memorization. We're not memorizing the notes from the get-go. We're memorizing the gestures, the choreography of the piece, which are necessary to play it with fluidity, without making major mistakes. This is called implicit memory. I hope that the idea of memorizing text will help students connect to a more efficient method of practicing, where long-term memory is the ultimate goal.
I often doubt or second guess the things I say in lessons. Sometimes it’s just a lack of clarity. I don’t always think ‘on my feet’ very well and use a lot of extra words that just don’t get my point across clearly.
Sometimes I say the wrong thing.
Yesterday I used an analogy with a student that I’m not sure about. She was playing a soft, romantic, broken chord pattern in both hands and encountered several problems: her soft tone was nearly inaudible, and uneven, and the small knuckle of her fingers collapsed. All of these problems were interrelated of course!
Part of the issue was the piano in my teaching studio: it has stiff keys that are hard for students to adjust to. Part of the issue was also a recurring problem with this student of inattention to hand position, and flow.
So, I wanted to give this student a kinesthetic experience to get the desired affect: I suggested curved fingers, and under each finger she was crushing brittle little bugs. I wanted something that would give her a sense of stability in the structure of her finger, that she could then transfer all the way to the key-bed.
The result was very effective: she had a consistent, singing piano tone, and she achieved a projecting soft dynamic immediately.
My fear, though, is that the idea of crushing something with her fingertips could lead to a complete isolation of the fingers. Instead of integrating her arm, the rest of her body would be cut off by a tight wrist and her fingers would try doing all the work.
In the short term this was an effective strategy. I’m curious to see how this student develops and whether it inhibits her technique later.
Have you found a better, more technically sound, analogy for this type of problem? Any thoughts about how to adapt this analogy to a good technical approach? I’d love to hear from you! Please send me an email by clicking here.
I had one epiphany when I attended a summer festival earlier that summer. An excellent program with all kinds of strong and confident performers, the faculty were even more impressive teachers and performers. I was both inspired and humbled. Ultimately, I decided that summer that my repertoire plans and performance goals for the forthcoming year were too ambitious and that I had to go back to the basics.
I needed to play a concerto recital as part of my degree requirements, so I began learning Mozart’s K 467—a work with intricate passage work requiring just the attention to detail, both technical and musical, that I needed. At the same time, I was assigned a chamber group to play Franck’s Piano Quintet, which required a great romantic virtuosity and the technical approach to make the piano sound like an organ.
As luck would have it, one of my chamber music coaches, in a chance conversation, recommended a book he had recently read and thought so highly of that he made sure the campus bookstore carried a few copies. Rather down on myself as a performer, I checked it out and my life was changed forever. The book was William Westney’s The Perfect Wrong Note.
Early in the book, Westney writes of an illuminating experience he had playing a Beethoven sonata for a master teacher. Re-working the first measure over and over again, the teacher demonstrated, sang, conducted until finally applauding Westney for playing it correctly. Even now, no longer a student, Westney recalls, “I had no idea what made that repetition different from all the others. All I knew was that he loved it, because (presumably) that’s just how he would play it himself.” (pg. 42)
Westney suggests that there are dangers in the way music is traditionally taught. Students get bored and quit. Students learn to copy rather than create. Students are passive not active. Students gloss over instead of fixing their mistakes.
Mistakes end up being the main focal point of the book. Wrong notes can be perfect because they are information. Mistakes tell us what we need to work on, and thus, direct what we do in the practice room. Practicing should proceed in such a way that we try to make mistakes.
“Let’s say you miss a note in the fourth measure. Fine. That note now becomes the last note of a practice segment. Go back a few notes, enough to create some context, and repeat enough times for your hand to teach itself the distances involved. Let your body figure it out in its own way, and that may take several repetitions to happen…The idea is to let it happen, not make it happen.” (pg. 87)
The benefits of this approach are numerous: An engaged attitude, really listening to yourself, which leads to a more engaging and original performance. A secure physical memory of the piece you’re learning. Faster learning since you don’t have to address the same mistakes over again. More awareness of how to fix mistakes which makes you a better teacher of yourself and others.
Westney suggests practicing with big energy, an intentional approach to your performance. Here the opening quote is relevant, “Stop telling your hand what it ought to do. Find out what it is doing.” This is by Eloise Ristad, an influence on Westney, in her related book A Soprano on her Head. The practicing suggested here will not sound pretty for a long time but that’s okay. We don’t practice to impress anyone, we’re alone in the practice room anyway. If we are worried about sounding good all the time in the practice room, we are more concerned with satisfying our own ego than creating an artistic product.
The Perfect Wrong Note turned out to be an extraordinary influence on my playing. I truly believe that I would not have progressed beyond my bachelor’s degree had I not read it. This book allowed my inner musicality to finally be heard. It accelerated the path to growing my technique and my artistry which made me more receptive to my teachers and coaches.
Through this book, I revolutionized my practicing. I learned how to apply all of the practice tips I’d heard over the years in such a way that they were transformative, rather than utilitarian. I learned to self-analyze small segments of my work, zoom in and address the individual problem I was having rather than ignore mistakes and hope they disappeared on the next run-through. I learned to listen to myself and consider whether I was happy with my performance or not. I learned to be confident in my playing and interpretations. I learned how to give convincing, effective performances of Mozart’s Concerto K 467 and Franck’s Piano Quintet and how to prepare myself to perform even more difficult works with greater maturity and fluency.
None of these achievements were immediate, but the book engaged me in a process which brought far more success than I had found previously. I’d be skeptical of quick fixes. We grow and change as musicians (and people) so much, constantly, that anything that creates a quick fix is likely not going to benefit you in the future, it just happened to help in that moment. Westney’s book continues to engage my work as a performer and teacher today.
I do not intend for this series to be an advertisement for my own work, but if you are intrigued by this book and would like to read further into the practical lessons I’ve learned from it, you’re in luck! Over the years I developed an in-depth document that chronicles many of the practical tips and the mental mindset I’ve developed as a result of this book. I’ve also created a series of videos, which I will always be adding to, to demonstrate my own work.
I’ve turned this document into an e-book, ”Pianist’s Guide to Practicing” which you can get for FREE, just by signing up to my e-mail list. By doing so, you can get the book and stay closer in touch with my work as a blogger, pianist and teacher. Check out this link or see the signup form in the sidebar at the top of this page.
Next in the Influential Books series I’ll be looking at…Creativity.
**This post contains affiliate links. While I may receive a small compensation if you purchase any of the products mentioned, the words used to promote them are completely genuine and offered regardless of any personal earnings**
A lot of studying the piano is learning to copy, from our youngest years through at least until completing undergraduate education. Initially, this isn’t a bad thing. We need models to learn:
But there comes a time that we want to move away from copying. Until we do, we generally only function as accidental, or perhaps unintentional, pianists. We’ve done everything by chance, regurgitating what we’ve learned instead of processing and adding value to everything we’ve been taught.
Sometimes when we think we’ve gone off on our own, we haven’t actually done so. I’ve argued that the act of performing is at least as important as the texts on which our performances are derived. I believe our ears are easily manipulated by what we hear and most of our performance decisions are not truly our own; see case studies in Beethoven and Liszt.
And so I’d like to suggest embracing what I have decided to call 'intentional pianism'. What makes a great pianist stand out? Our favorite pianists have at once a pianistic voice that is all their own, that sounds completely familiar, and simultaneously keeps us thinking and guessing. They’ve studied all the rules but have commanded the authority to break them. They have a sort of intentionality to the way they play music.
All this is not to suggest that intentional piano playing is limited to the great masters. Some of my absolute favorite musical memories are from pianists who are not famous to the general classical music population. Some of the most distinctive performances I’ve seen were by students who brought an energetic commitment rare among artists, others are from professional artists who have sought their own career path, whether to pursue unique repertoire or venues for their performances. Anyone can play with intentionality.
Nor do I want to suggest that our educational system is failing students. I’ve benefited from studying with an incredible, diverse group of piano teachers, all of whom are brilliant, and largely fall into the category of a ‘traditional’ piano teacher.
And there’s nothing wrong with role of traditional piano teacher, in fact, traditions are essential. But to step out as performers with a personal intentionality, we need to use traditions as a stepping stone, not an end in themselves. Our professors in lessons and classes only have so much time to help us reach the level of being a unique artist. My goal with this blog and other future endeavors is to supplement the great teaching that goes on in piano lessons and schools of music. I believe some of the keys to being intentional include:
With this blog, most of all, I hope to outline how one can become a truly independent, a truly intentional pianist. Over the course of this next year, I’m going to present 5 blog series along with several standalone posts. First will be Extraordinary Recordings, a series studying several of my personal favorite performances on record, focusing on what makes the performer so unique. This will be, in a sense, a series of 9 case studies on pianistic intentions. Simultaneously, I will report on my viewing of the Cliburn Piano Competition, my favorite performances as well as thoughts on the repertoire chosen, and nature of competitions in general. What better way to ruminate on the state of intentionality than by studying this competition of world-class, young talent?
Later on, with the hope of inspiring some summer reading, I will release a series of posts on Influential Books. Some of these will be explicitly musical, but several will be from outside the musical world. In the fall, I will be ruminating on the Coexistence of Contemporary and Traditional Classical Music. This will be in preparation for a project that I’m very excited about, which I will announce later in the summer. Finally to end the year, I will discuss my views on Performance Practice, especially focusing on my work studying the amazing pianist Ervin Nyiregyhazi.
I hope you’re as excited about this journey as I am. Please subscribe to my e-mail list to the right, as I would love to keep you apprised as each new series is rolled out, as well as my projects as a performer.
I go by "Dr. Jeff" with my young students. Though I don't derive any self-confidence from the title alone, I like using it: I am proud of the work I put in to earn the title, plus "Dr", being a little more formal than "Mr.", allows me to be more informal and go by "Jeff" instead of "Manchur". I like "Dr. Jeff" a lot more than "Mr. Manchur".
Perhaps I could use the title to defend their practice assignments: I'm "doctoring up" how you play the piano. A lot of my suggestions probably seem a little absurd. Isolating sections, blocking chords, playing differently than written. I'm not surprised if my students don't really 'get' what I'm after.
Well, believe it or not, I do use these same techniques myself! I've begun to collect videos of myself practicing (some annotated with in-video text, some referencing other blog posts here), as well as visual reminders of analogies I often make in teaching (the baby learning to walk perfectly demonstrates how learning is a process and making mistakes can be good), and good practice tips from other authors.
Please subscribe to my YouTube Channel, and this Playlist to get the latest videos as they're developed!
My wife and I bought a house almost a year ago, a home we absolutely love. It’s old, well maintained and full of character. We were ‘sold’ as soon as we saw it. One misgiving we had was the backyard-the garden area was very over grown with tall weeds, and piles of yard waste. So my Dad came out one weekend to help me clean it up. We forgot to take a ‘before’ picture, but here’s an ‘after’ picture of our beautification project:
I share this image because I think it is decidedly NOT beautiful! Grass has been torn up, we collected piles of wood, tomato plant cages, the garden boxes were rotting and falling apart, we found out our fence was not as steady as we’d thought, and the “garden” is still weedy and needs some good working-through before it will grow our preferred vegetation properly.
But it IS much more beautiful than it was. I think this is a great analogy for my general practicing philosophy. I’d bet many of my students don’t take to my practice suggestions easily, and I can see why. I often ask them to distort what is on the page. Whether it’s practicing in rhythms, blocking, changing dynamics or articulation, the fact remains: We have to make something ugly before it’s going to sound beautiful.
I’ve also used the analogy with my students of baking a cake. Batter is not the same thing as cake, its texture is off, the taste is not quite right; but we know that batter can become cake. We mix ingredients together but still have to bake it. We can never start with just cake.
In my practice philosophy, practicing is mixing notes, articulations, phrasing, dynamics and rubato together using different practice techniques to create something akin to batter. Our cognitive processes then bakes it to create something tasty for our ears.
Here’s a video of me learning a new piece: the Prelude in Bb major from Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 1. The first time around I utilize two techniques to reinforce the notes:
"Modern performers seem to regard their performances as texts rather than acts, and to prepare for them with the same goal as present-day textual editors: to clear away accretions. Not that this is not a laudable and necessary step; but what is an ultimate step for an editor should be only a first step for a performer, as the very temporal relationship between the functions of editing and performing already suggests." -Richard Taruskin, Text and Act