Learning musicality - Icing on the cake?

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Postby Stretto » Sat Jul 23, 2005 12:34 am

Dr. Bill Leland wrote:. . . Even if you never get independent of the score you memorize an awful lot of elements as you're learning a piece--otherwise it would feel like sight reading every time you sat down to play it, right? I'd like to hear some other comments about this.

Dr. Bill Leland.

Do you think just from repetition in practicing, most everyone at least "subconsciously" memorizes note patterns, fingering, expression, rhythm, tempo, etc.? From the time I started lessons I've always practiced in layers similar to Dr. Hawkins. Typically, I've always figured out the notes first, then the rhythm and counting, then the phrasing and articulation as if adding layers of a cake. Of course while figuring out the notes, I've loosely included all the other elements but without much focused thought. Finally, when I've been comfortable with the notes, rhythm, and tempo I've fined tuned the overall expression to top it all off. Being expressive through music has always been one of the main reasons I like playing the piano. I'm sure everyone feels the same way. It has always irritated me that the "fun" seems to be subtracted from playing until I add the "icing". There's no reason why I couldn't work out the expressiveness of a piece at the same time I am figuring out the notes, rhythm, and tempo. Otherwise, I end up re-working the piece every time I add another layer.

Between considering this topic Dr. Zeigler started, "Learning musicality-icing on the cake?", your question, Dr. Leland, about automatically "memorizing a lot of elements as you're learning a piece", and the article you have on the site, Practicing: Who Makes the Decisions?, I'm beginning to see that practicing in "layers" creates more work in the long run. I can see it in my own practicing and very clearly in trying to teach piano that while a student is focusing on figuring out the notes, they're still playing at some kind of volume, some kind of rhythm, etc. I can see where the more a student repeats a passage, the more they are "subconsciously" memorizing the some kind ofs. It makes sense to me now why I have so much trouble getting a student at times to add the dynamics, proper rhythm, phrasing, etc. because instead of adding layers, they're really having to "re-memorize" the piece each time they focus on a new element.

If when we're working on figuring out the notes, the rhythm, and getting the tempo up to speed, without much focused thought on the phrasing, articulation, dynamics, etc. of a piece, aren't we still "subconsciously" memorizing these elements in a non-musical way? For every time we practice this way, are we reinforcing a non-musical outcome? Has anyone ever memorized a piece leaving out a flat or sharp? It's 10 times harder to re-memorize it correctly than if we had included it from the start. Think how much "re-memorizing" we're doing when we leave out some elements of music as we practice and try to add them back in later. As re-learning is difficult and sometimes next to impossible, it's no wonder we play in the end with a non-musical outcome. I mentioned in a post earlier in this thread that I think we compartmentalize the elements of music too much. Although I typically like to be a one-tracked person, for some reason playing the piano is one of the few things I really enjoy the challenge in thinking about a lot of things all at once.

In considering the issue of learning music in layers and making the expression "the icing on the cake", the following analogy came to my mind that everyone might get a kick out of reading:

Have you ever made a cake? Mixing the batter, pouring it in the pan, baking it, getting it out of the pan in one piece. Sounds real exciting. Although the cake is necessary to hold the frosting, frosting and decorating the cake is the fun part! While frosting and decorations are the last thing that goes on the cake, when everyone eats the cake, what does everyone taste first? The frosting! We would all agree that cake alone, although good is missing something without frosting. Maybe we should not practice the piano in layers as if we are making a cake, but practice instead as though we are eating a cake - getting all the flavors and textures at once!


Does anyone practice their pieces by trying to include as many or all of the elements involved in playing from the very start? If so, do you think practicing that way enables you to have a more "musical" outcome?




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Postby Dr. Bill Leland » Sat Jul 23, 2005 1:31 pm

(Stop talking about cakes--you're making me hungry!)

Stretto, you have some astute comments here; I think you're right that piano playing is one of those things that has so many layers and possibilities that it's no wonder students get confused or have to concentrate most of their energies on the basic technical problems. But I think our learning processes change constantly, too, as we get older--nothing is ever static. As we accumulate more experience, more skill, and more memories of actual music and its various 'shapes', the different elements in learning tend to fuse together and your practicing gets more efficient, so you don't think of fingers/notes/voicings/dynamics/etc. separately so much anymore, but just the overall character of that place in the music you're trying to refine. That doesn't mean you don't dig away at small problems (you do even more), but mentally you tend to work more from the top down--I mean you start with a general aural and architectural concept (certainly not a refined one, though) and work downward and inward to prepare the elements of it--elements which you've learned better how to diagnose and solve over the years.

As for re-learning something you learned wrong: I once was teaching a girl the Forlane from Ravel's "Tombeau de Couperin", and she kept playing a wrong note. I kept making her look carefully at the music and play it again and again, and finally with great impatience went to the piano to point it out myself. It turned out she was right, and I had been playing it wrong--in public!--for years. Well, I apologized profusely and we had a good laugh over it. So in that case, at least, it was easy to relearn; in fact, I had to be careful not to accent that note every time I came to it!

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Postby minorkey » Sat Jul 23, 2005 2:59 pm

Well said, Dr. L. I think it is unrealistic to expect a beginner or even an intermediate piano pupil to be able to practice all the elements of a piece simultaneously, from the very beginning. For a more advanced pupil or an accomplished pianist, however, the "icing" becomes incorporated early on, perhaps subconciously in some cases. Just my .02.
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Postby Stretto » Sun Jul 24, 2005 9:58 pm

Dr. Bill Leland wrote:Stretto . . . I think you're right that piano playing is one of those things that has so many layers and possibilities that it's no wonder students get confused or have to concentrate most of their energies on the basic technical problems. But I think our learning processes change constantly, too, as we get older--nothing is ever static. As we accumulate more experience, more skill, and more memories of actual music and its various 'shapes', the different elements in learning tend to fuse together and your practicing gets more efficient, so you don't think of fingers/notes/voicings/dynamics/etc. separately so much anymore, but just the overall character of that place in the music you're trying to refine. That doesn't mean you don't dig away at small problems (you do even more), but mentally you tend to work more from the top down--I mean you start with a general aural and architectural concept (certainly not a refined one, though) and work downward and inward to prepare the elements of it--elements which you've learned better how to diagnose and solve over the years . . .

Dr. Bill L.

Dr. Leland and minorkey:

You both made a good point that in learning to play the piano, as one develops more skill it would become easier to incorporate more musical elements from the start and practicing would become more efficient. I guess that's where I'm at is trying to figure out more efficient ways to learn a piece of music or teach student's more efficient ways to practice. I guess in learning any skill, one figures out more efficient ways of going about it little by little.

In relation to the topic of 'musicality' or the 'lack of it' in playing the piano, I was mainly trying to throw out the question of whether the way someone practices a piece sometimes makes a difference between a 'musical' or 'non-musical' outcome.

Let's say that when I began practicing a piece of music I made a decision to only concentrate on the 'mechanics' first until I had them down and then add the expression. So first I learned the notes, rhythm, and tempo until the piece was almost or completely memorized to ensure those elements were solid. Up to that point, wouldn't the piece sound 'mechanical' when I played it?

Then when I went to add the expression to the piece, wouldn't the 'mechanics' be so engrained in my memory by then that adding the expression would take more work than if I had made more of a conscious effort to include it from the start? It would seem like I would be memorizing the piece twice - once 'mechanically' and again 'expressively'.

During a performance, when pressure and nervousness set in, do you think I might be more likely to revert back to 'mechanical' playing since I was more familiar with the 'mechanics' of the piece from practicing the notes, rhythm, and tempo more solidly than the expression.

Does any of this make any sense? I'm just trying to get to the why's of 'mechanical' or 'non-musical' playing. I think this is how a lot of us learn to practice - getting the 'mechanics' down solidly and then throwing in the expression (like icing) at the end.

To sum up (hopefully correctly) what Dr. Leland and minorkey wrote, as we develop our skill, we are able to incorporate more of the musical elements including the expression at the beginning. Perhaps over time, this is the point we should aim for in sounding more 'musical'.

In reading some of the wealth of information on this site and some of the educational links the Piano Education Page lists under Links to Music-Related Sites I kind of absorbed some of the lines of thinking in this post and the one I wrote July 22. I guess that's what I get for mixing together too much information in my head at once. :O One of the sites I read from this list in relation to more efficient ways to practice was Piano Practicing Principles and Methods by Dr. Brent Hugh, Assistant Professor of Piano, Missouri Western State College Dept. of Music. The site had some interesting information about how we memorize in practice and some great general practice tips as well.




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Postby minorkey » Mon Jul 25, 2005 1:26 pm

I agree with Stretto, in that completely ignoring the dynamics and other expressive elements of a piece until late in the process creates a risk of ingrained, mechanical playing that is hard to correct- especially when under the stress of performing. But for beginners who are still struggling with note-reading and counting/rhythm, it may be overwhelming to simultaneously add in the tempo and dynamic changes, etc., that make a piece interesting (limited as these elements may be in these pieces). My advice to teachers would be to really stress sight-reading skills in your beginners, with regular exercises in new (unknown) pieces. When the note-reading and counting become second-nature, I think you will find your pupils more able (and willing) to add in the expressive elements early on. At least, that is what I have found in myself. (When I had to count lines and spaces to identify the notes, I ignored the "crescendos"!) :)
My perspective is that of someone whose technical skills have outpaced my sight-reading skills (I am fine with rhythm and counting, but still a bit slow with ledger lines). When faced with a new piece that I'm perfectly capable of playing, I am initially rather bogged down in the sight-reading aspect of it. This is improving, thankfully, but I still find myself intensively concentrating on getting the notes correct before worrying too much about dynamics.
Another thing that helps me- but you may consider it "cheating"- is that I have recordings of many of the pieces I play (CDs, iTunes), and I play them repeatedly because I enjoy them so much. So, having heard a professional play the piece, I have a good idea of how it's supposed to sound. After I have the sight-reading part at least under control, I start adding the expressive elements as the score indicates, but I know I'm also incorporating what I remember from the recorded version (sorry, teachers, that's probably a really bad habit! But that's what happens). :O Stretto, do you ever ask your students to listen to a professionally recorded version of the pieces they are playing, or do teachers in general fear that the student will then ignore the dynamics on the printed score? I don't ignore the score by any means, even when I know the recorded version well. I just love the feeling of sounding- at times- even remotely like the version I hear on CD.

Also, my teacher sets me straight on a weekly basis if I make any egregious errors in dynamics, but she usually waits until I have learned the notes and tempo moderately well (usually only a couple of weeks or so. I am getting better at this).
So... it is a process. Sight-reading is so important, and I look forward to the day when it becomes so second-nature that I can concentrate on the dynamics almost immediately.
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Postby Dr. Bill Leland » Tue Jul 26, 2005 2:30 pm

This is the kind of creative exchange of ideas we hoped for when we first set up the Forum: every contributor has worthwhile ideas and comments; nobody's 'right' or 'wrong', but rather feeding off each other; and the points made (along with the mental stimulation) all get mixed in to the creative process of each person's own study and teaching, to be amalgamated into his/her individuality.

I personally think a truly musical person would have great difficulty suspending all musicality and practicing mechanically--little expressive devices would be creeping in all the time subconsciously, as Minorkey suggests.

But then on the other hand, a lot of people are surprised--and a little put off--to learn that expressive things like crescendos, ritards, etc. (even levels of intensity), have to be practiced. They have the vague idea that if you get all the basic mechanical stuff, then all the expression will fall down on you from heaven because of your inspiration. It's true that you can over-practice so much that even the emotional elements become mechanical (a lot of professional playing sounds like this today, unfortunately), but every part of the music must be examined and thought out before putting it back into the sub- or un-conscious to be recreated again by the spontaneous impulse. Rachmaninoff said, "We must peer into every corner."

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Postby Stretto » Wed Jul 27, 2005 10:10 am

I learned from this exchange that if my students, myself, or other people I hear don't sound as 'musical' as I expect them to that I should tell myself that they are still in the process of developing their skill (and it's a never ending process at that!).

As a piano teacher especially I think it's easy to start thinking, "how am I going to get this student to make this piece sound more 'musical'? And parents of my students wonder why their child's playing doesn't sound better because their anxious to see them get to a 'musical' point right away. Then as individuals we get frustrated with how our playing sounds. When we here others, we wonder why they can't do better.

I learned that perhaps when we hear ourselves or someone not playing 'musically' enough, we can remind ourselves that as with any skill, the point at which we want to be or 'sound' is a gradual learning process (and we all learn the process differently).

When it comes to your question, minor key, about listening to recordings to aid in more 'musical' playing, I'm personally all for it. I should be doing a lot more listening than I do and having my students listen to music a lot more. We may as well gain something from those artists who have already been through a huge chunk of the learning process.

Stretto

--Now if someone would just define 'musicality' :laugh: (what elements make up 'musicality'), we'd have it made!




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Postby Beckywy » Wed Jul 27, 2005 2:42 pm

Sometimes, when as a teacher we get to the point we are at a loss of what to do with a student, it helps to have an extra set of ears to listen to the student's playing. Group lessons of similar level playing could help, and have their peers offer criticism. or Master classes with a teacher from out of town coming in could help.
"The real purpose of studying music-to unite ourselves with our special gifts in such a way that one would add strength to the other" Seymour Bernstein
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Postby 108-1121887355 » Wed Jul 27, 2005 5:08 pm

My 11 year old student was playing a piece she learned last year and I asked her what could she do to improve it. She knew the answer - "play with all the markings". She noted, however, now that it was memorized, it was hard to do. Her new peice, today, we observed the "markings" very carefully. I will continue to follow this with all her music. Often, I feel just learning the notes is enough and leave the dynamics, and other until later. I may not wait too long now, especially as some students memorize quickly.
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Postby Stretto » Wed Jul 27, 2005 6:42 pm

To be honest, I have always learned myself and taught students to figure out the notes, rhythm, and counting first before thinking too much about expression too.

When I originally questioned this way of learning a piece, I was just questioning the "norm" or the "way it's always been done." I didn't mean to come across as "this is concrete advice". I am always questioning, "is there a better way of doing things?" as opposed to sticking with the same way continually. I'm always trying "this way" and "that way" to find a "better" way in any aspect of life. Sometimes you try something and it works, and sometimes you realize it doesn't. I've always been that way in learning to play the piano and it's one of my favorite parts of teaching (figuring out what works and what doesn't or how an individual student learns.) It never gets boring! I probably drive my student's crazy trying all these angles!

This last conversation regarding learning layer by layer vs. looking at the whole picture reminded me that we all learn differently. Some "don't see the forest for the trees and some see the whole forest." I think most of my students do need a gradual approach. I have one student who learns better looking at the whole picture and her learning plummeted when we tried breaking the music up in smaller segments. She learns better with larger sections at a time. One of her parents verified this as well. She memorizes really fast and before we have a chance to discuss dynamics the music is already stamped in her memory. At least with her, I am going to try giving her a basic list of elements to at least think about (not have to perfect) when starting a new piece.
Perhaps that would be a more balanced approach to learning, to at least look at some of the 'musical' elements in the score when starting a piece to get an idea of what's all in the music rather than totally ignoring some elements until later. (Hey, another idea! I'll have to try it to see if it works!)

I didn't mean to get back in on this conversation and be so lengthy again at that but I thought I better explain myself!
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Postby Stretto » Thu Jul 28, 2005 6:05 am

loveapiano wrote:My 11 year old student was playing a piece she learned last year and I asked her what could she do to improve it. She knew the answer - "play with all the markings". She noted, however, now that it was memorized, it was hard to do. Her new peice, today, we observed the "markings" very carefully. I will continue to follow this with all her music. Often, I feel just learning the notes is enough and leave the dynamics, and other until later. I may not wait too long now, especially as some students memorize quickly.

lovapiano,
I just got to thinking, if you or any teachers try getting students to at least think about or incorporate more of the 'musical' elements earlier on let us know how it works out - whether you are successful in any way or if it proves too difficult for some students.
Also, if anyone in their own learning tries incorporating more elements from the start from what you have been let us know how it works out.
:)

Beckywy: Thanks for the great advice. Having some informal 'master'-type classes is one thing I really want to add to my teaching. Also, I would like to have another teacher act as a "critic" on one of these classes, talk about some of the musical elements in playing, etc. and play something for the students. I ran into one of my previous college prof.s a few months ago who said he would be willing to. I am going to try starting this perhaps in Oct. after the students have adjusted to school as I am running out of time this summer. I may have some questions you can help me with when I get started so be watching for them in the Piano Teaching tips forum. Thanks. :)




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Postby Dr. Bill Leland » Sat Jul 30, 2005 11:14 am

Some time ago, in an article on practicing I wrote for PEP (still there), I suggested practicing scales and other exercise materials with varieties of dynamics, tempos, voicings, rhythms, etc. Why? Because these things are technique! Anything we do to manipulate the sound has to be done with a practiced technical skill--most people start out thinking technique is just pushing the right keys down at the right time, and all the other things will 'happen' later, but control over the other elements is really the hard part.

If this kind of varied practicing is done over a period of time, you will find that your students will begin almost unconsciously to add color from the beginning of learning a new piece--the false barrier between learning 'mechanically' and learning with variety of sound will fade, because variety has been built into his hands and his ears.

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Postby 108-1121887355 » Sun Jul 31, 2005 11:03 am

RE:"Adding dynamcs, tempo changes, etc. to scales"
Yes, I have done that but I don't do alot of scales so perhaps the techniques are not as ingrained as one would like. Thank you - I will try carrying over what is fairly 'easy' to do in a scale, into the new music. I always point out all the markings, but get into the notes and rhythm, and the technique gets put aside. I will let you know how it works.
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Postby Glissando88keys » Sat Jul 08, 2006 4:44 pm

Dr. John Zeigler - PEP Editor wrote:Should it be a necessary part of lessons? Can it be an integral part of piano training If you teach musicality, how do you work it in?

Perhaps part of the problem lies in the emphasis on competition. If teachers and judges expect flawless performances, they will get just that and nothing more. The thrust of the musical experience often becomes a race, winner take all, at the expense of emotional connection with what is being played. In our results-driven society, the end product is often stressed almost to the exclusion of the interpretation. The effort it takes to learn a piece of music can be unrewarding for the musician as well as the listener if not for the musicality, or as you point out, the emotion and individuality of interpretation.

Emotional involvement breathes life into a piece of music, and is the heart and soul of music. Without it, you have no human communication, only a pattern of sounds easily reproduced by any humanoid or programmed with digital interface. It takes flawless technique to become skilled. It takes communication of human emotion to become a musician. Music, as a whole and as intended must be more than the sum of its parts. It must live and breathe.

My teacher stressed several points to consider while learning each new phrase in a piece "What is the message or feeling behind this phrase and how does it relate to the context of the piece?" "What visual musical images need to be painted musically?" "How do I communicate the varieties of energy and emotions which need to be expressed?" These are the voices in a work, and without them, there is no meaning; the music does not sing.

I want to make the piano not a percussive instrument, but a singing instrument. The piano has to sing as much as it can. ~ Vladmir Horowitz

Keyboardists whose chief asset is mere technique.....more often than not astound us with their prowess without ever touching our sensibilities. They overwhelm our hearing without satisfying it and stun the mind without moving it. ~ C.P.E. Bach
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Postby Glissando88keys » Sat Jul 08, 2006 5:18 pm

Dr. Bill Leland wrote:I continue to contend that, just as a child learns spoken language and its meanings from growing up in an environment where it is constantly used, so he/she can best learn the language of music by hearing it on a continual basis.
Music can and does communicate forcefully--albeit on different levels--to all who are willing to listen, even those who are untrained. The infinite variety of this expression, through different styles, genres and media, will be absorbed, and the listener will learn how to use it just as he/she learns the subtleties of spoken inflections, modulations and pace from his family.



Bill L.

We must remember that children are able to convey the various vocal expressions of anger, hurt, pain, sadness, boredom, joy, pleasure, happiness, playfulness, etc. even before they learn to speak words. I suggest that we seize the opportunity to capture these basic emotional expressions, and apply it in a way that a young student can understand and relate to before even a single note is played. This can be accomplished by discussing the feeling(s) intended in each phrase of a composition or the piece as a whole, and the ways to express them through tempo, tone, dynamics, voicing, etc. When we accomplish this from the start, learning to express greater variety in more advanced compositions will follow. The training will naturally incorporate more sophisticated inflections, modulations and pace as coincides with a student's maturity, just as it does in language.
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