Are you a conductor?

Music for the piano has a unique quality. Along with the organ, it is one of very few instruments that can present music that would otherwise require a whole ensemble of players. The piano can handle two part inventions, three part fugues, four part fugues, even five and six part fugues! Composers have transcribed the music of string quartets and full orchestras for the piano.

Of course it is not always physically possible, even with ten fingers (and possibly two feet for the organ) to play every independent musical line that would be played by a dozen instrumental groups in an orchestra…but the piano can convincingly create the effect of a large ensemble in a way that melodic instruments cannot even begin to dream of doing on their own.

So what does that mean about how you should think about piano music and playing the piano? Obviously, if you want to play several independent musical ideas at the same time, you have to have full control of your fingers. But even more importantly, you have to have the capacity to recognize and follow all of these musical layers as you play. Your job is rather like that of the conductor of a symphony orchestra in that respect. But it also has the added dimension that you are the one playing as well as directing!

It can be so tempting for pianists to revel in all the notes they get to play and pound them out as fast and furious as possible. It is easy to impress people this way, but if you want to make your piano playing meaningful and beautiful, think like a conductor.

Imagine what instruments are playing each of the musical textures that you find on the page. Is that melody an airy flute solo or a throaty saxophone wail? Is there a viola solo hidden in the inner voices, waiting to burst out for its moment in the limelight? Exactly how loud should those cellos be playing the bass line? And like a conductor, you must coordinate your musicians and get them to play precisely together. And help them find the architecture in the music. Then, when you have done that and are aware of all the layers that make up the music, you will have the freedom to be spontaneous and expressive as you play.

The story in your music

Music has the power to heal.  The other day I had a terrible headache and an upset stomach just before a rehearsal.  I wasn’t sure I was going to make it through the rehearsal, but as it went on and I gave my attention to the music, I soon felt perfectly well.  People have known of the healing power of music and used music in this way throughout the ages, and yet, not all music heals.  What makes the difference between music that does nothing for us, or perhaps just dazzles us for a moment by its technical brilliance, and music that truly touches and heals our hearts and bodies?

It literally may have something to do with the beating of our hearts and the rhythm of our breath.  A beloved mentor of mine often used to hear me play and told me in his kindly way that I played too fast.  “Una,” he’d ask, “have you heard of tempo ordinario?  It’s about 60 beats to the quarter note…similar to your heartbeat.”  I sensed that there was something to this, but at the time, I argued back that everyone had a different heartbeat.  Of course that is true, but then again, we all know that a fast heartbeat and a short breath can be indicative of health problems or stress!  Over the years, I’ve come to appreciate more and more how important these ideas of the pulse and the “right” tempo really are.

Music is compelling when it tells us a story, though usually it is a story that unfolds without words.  When our breath and our pulse lock in with that of the music, we follow it with our full consciousness the way we follow a well-told story or a gripping movie.  This kind of immersion involves the entire brain–the analytic left side, the intuitive right side, and also the visceral brain, the seat of your emotions.

The physician John Diamond, in his book Your Body Doesn’t Lie, cited a survey of orchestra conductors and noted how long-lived they tended to be, and how they remained active and energetic to an advanced age.  He believes this is because they involved themselves primarily with the pulse of the music, and that they thereby reaped the benefits of rejuvenation and longevity from doing so.  Whether you aspire to live into your second century or not, let your music have a pulse and a breath that is harmonious with your body’s pulse and breath….and a story that comes from within you.

What’s the best way to practice?

Your playing only improves as well as you practice, but what is the best way to practice?  Some aspects depend on your particular learning style, but here are a few general guidelines to consider:

  1. Don’t practice your mistakes!  Your brain doesn’t know which are the “right” or “wrong” notes in a given piece, it only knows what you train it to do.  So focus while you practice and practice slowly (#4 below!) so that you play things correctly much more often than incorrectly.  This will help you learn faster.  It takes a lot of extra time and effort to unlearn something, then relearn it correctly.
  2. Practice expressively from the beginning.  Make the articulation, dynamics and phrasing a part of your mental picture of a piece as soon as possible.  Try to identify important moments in a piece (an interesting change of harmony, or the return of a theme, or the arrival of a new theme) and be aware of them as you learn.
  3. Incorporate relaxation moments.  Whether the music is easy or difficult, diffuse the tension by finding places and ways to relax your hands.  Make these relaxation moments a part of how you learn a piece of music.
  4. Practice slowly.  This is a great secret we can all learn from the great pianists.  They all practice slowly.  Why?  With slow practice you can be in control of every technical and musical detail.  If you practice well slowly, you will be amazed to find how much easier it becomes to play well in any tempo.
  5. Stagger your work.  It’s good practice to work on something for awhile, turn your attention to something else, then come back.  This keeps things fresh and helps to solidify what you have learned.

All this matters not at all if you don’t practice, so make your piano practice an enjoyable part of your daily routine.  The more you improve, the more likely you are to enjoy playing the piano!

Why learn to play a musical instrument?

Is there a reason to take the years of time and effort to learn to play a musical instrument, other than the pure pleasure of enjoying music?  If you care about brain development, there definitely is!

Making music is a remarkable “whole-brain” activity that incorporates fine muscle control with visual and auditory processing, as well as analytical thinking and emotional involvement.  And if you perform, the stakes are even higher, with  memory, concentration under pressure, and communication with the audience all being important factors.

Watch the fun video below and see what happens to your brain on music!