How to Play the Piano

I’ve had a piano for seven years and a synthesiser for seventeen years and I’ve just learnt how to play. I’d been trying the play all that time but failed dramatically. Then as soon as I stopped ‘trying’, within a week I could suddenly play.

It came about because I wanted to retain the ‘cool dad’ tag for as long as possible with my fourteen month old son. We’ve been filling his day with music since he was born and when he expressed an interest in the large wooden piece of furniture covered in ebony and ivory keys I wanted to be able to play a tune for him. So I did. Was it as simple as that, you say? Actually yes. And I’m not saying all this to impress you, but to impress upon you a strategy for learning which can be, and should be, applied to everything you want to learn.

Let’s have a look at what is going on here.

The first thing was that suddenly the motivation was there to learn. When I was at school my parents and the teacher were concerned that I was late in reading. The reason was that they had given me a load of old boring books to read. I wanted to be able to do it to please them and get away with it and I wasn’t motivated in the actual reading of such dull stories. But when I got me hands on the Dalek and Star Wars annuals with their comic strips I suddenly ‘got it’. Then I devoured the many Doctor Who novelisations of the television series, a couple I owned and the rest from the library. Remember these were the days before video recordings. A Doctor Who story was on television once and then never repeated so books were the only way of reliving the adventures.

Comic strips, pulp science fiction, novels of tv series and fantasy ‘choose your own adventure’ books were all decried by teachers and parents in the 70s and 80s. What they failed to recognise, as the author Philip Pulman has often pointed out, is that it’s the reading that is important for children. It doesn’t really matter what they read as long as they do read. (For Pullman it was the Superman comics). Children soon consume a range of books and then look to the next thing to satisfy their reading desires. It’s often those who started on the lesser appreciated literary forms that move quicker onto more advanced works.

What was going on with my early reading was that I was getting a result straight away. I was learning as I went along, but I was getting the result which was the understanding of the particular adventure story.

I’d used the same approach to learning the guitar. I was self-taught. I learnt that I only needed the chords A and D to play ‘Mull of Kintyre’. Add in an E and I could play Buddy Holly’s entire back catalogue. My goal was to sing and play and within a week I could do that. After a month I was writing my own songs.

So it was this technique that I applied to the piano. The goal was to be able to play and sing some popular songs. I didn’t need to start at the very beginning and learn the history and meaning of dots and squiggly lines on wires. All I had to do was to make a convincing sound.

All learning begins with self learning. A good teacher shows the way and needs to surround the student with the right motivation for them. The student then pulls themselves up, by themselves. The thrill of achievement then fuels the next stage; the desire to get better. This is where the teacher is needed as mentor, to guide the student through to mastery by showing technique and information.

So many teachers get this process back to front. They bombard the student with technique and information which goes over the heads of so many students who then feel disenfranchised and lose interest. There is a certain percentage of people who can learn this way but many will get quickly bored if the information is not relevant to their current goal. It’s all about finding the right teaching strategy to match the student’s learning strategy.

Now that I can convincingly play ‘Hey Jude’ and ‘Let it Be’ I can begin to expand my repertoire as well as going back to look at the technique and information for reading printed music. I now have the motivation to be able to get there.

You’ll have your own learning strategies. They may be different to mine but they’ll be the same in the one vital way: you will always need less will power to learn something you want to learn and that you will enjoy learning. If you have to use will power then you are more than likely to just give up and do something more rewarding at the first sign of hard work. Build the reward into the learning. This will work whether you want to learn Mandarin, Chemistry, salsa dancing or piano. Ask yourself ‘why?’. If that ‘why’ is compelling enough you’ll be doing it in no time.

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