Back to basics: involving all of yourself in piano technique

Another lesson with Marko – fascinating as usual. A simple repeated 8th note pattern in the right, chords on the off beats in the left. Very simple you say. But sometimes that chord would come with the 2nd or 4th eighth note instead of the 3rd – he had tremendous difficulty with it.

He was playing intellectually as is his wont. No body movement. Computer-like sounds coming from his piano. I tell him to move his body more, he does – it sounds more musical but quickly degenerates and becomes more disorganized.  Finally I have him play the chord very loud. It gets better almost immediately, at least for some time…

6 muscle groups

The explanation I gave him for why this worked is perhaps oversimplified, but it made the point: “You’ve got a group of muscles in your fingers, another one in the hand, another in the wrist, another in the forearm, another in the upper arm, another in the shoulder. Six groups. The more of these groups you get involved in playing the music, the more you will learn it. Mechanical repetition using only one or two of those groups will be recorded by the brain only superficially – it won’t stick.

Don’t reduce the number of muscle groups to improve control

‘When I ask you to play forte, you instantly involve all the muscle groups, you are better coordinated and you have more control over what you’re doing. But normally we do the opposite to gain control! We reduce the number of muscle groups we’re using: it’s an instinctive strategy to reduce the complexity and make it easier to control. But that doesn’t work in the end, it only impoverishes our ability.”

‘The trick is to involve all those groups even when you don’t have to. Playing forte forces you to use them all, but in your piano playing, you’re going to have to use your mind to create the difference.”

The other thing we worked on was taking breaks. When he would finally repeat a small pattern successfully he would go at it over and over again and eventually it would always crash, some mistake would creep back in. The limit for a successful repetition was generally 3, sometimes 4.

I told him he has to learn to respect the learning process and to understand how it works. The little pauses after each repetition, or after each 3 repetitions, are crucial to allow the brain to digest information and experience. One has to become more sensitive to the components of learning, and to use them effectively. He was really locked into mechanical, mindless repetition. Finally I figured out how to get his programmer’s brain to understand: ” Clear your cache,” I told him, “take a break and give it the ten seconds needed for the old electric charge to clear out from your processor – then start afresh.” It worked like a charm!

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