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Let's tickle the ivories
February 12, 2012 11:35 PM   Subscribe

Let's tickle the ivories There is an old proverb that goes “Play the piano daily and stay sane.” For me, the main word of this proverb is daily. Playing the piano daily means inevitable accomplishment, and, without a sense of accomplishment, life is an impoverished journey.
posted by Wolof (46 comments total) 31 users marked this as a favorite

 
This is a great little piece, and there's a lot of fun stuff in it. There was only one bit I really disagreed with -

"Playing the piano should be an act without material value. It must be a road of discovery, a trackless territory, and never a means of showing off. The piano won’t serve the ego’s craving for recognition... If you have the temerity to play publicly, you are all alone, and the way you perform and your preparation tells a great deal about who you are."

In point of fact, cutting contests are a hallowed tradition in piano playing, although this fellow's knowledge of the instrument seems to end around 1905. There is nothing wrong with competitive playing; it can be a hell of a lot of fun, going around the circle, seeing what people are capable of. You are never alone during a cutting contest, although sometimes it's painful and you wish you were. But again, jazz seems to be a brand of piano playing this author is wholly oblivious to.

That aside, this was a very enjoyable piece of writing. Thanks, Wolof.
posted by koeselitz at 1:18 AM on February 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


without a sense of accomplishment, life is an impoverished journey.

I'd disagree, but I'm a Taoist, so you know, meh.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 1:27 AM on February 13, 2012 [5 favorites]


It's nice to see that this guy enjoys his profession, but piano is certainly not the only road to sanity, nor is it the only key to really appreciating music.

I'll agree with him when he says reading through keyboard scores is good for your brain. But limiting it to piano is crazy. There's tons of cool organ music out there that is approachable for amateurs, and it's interesting as hell to read through because it's so alien to what you might be used to. The organ has a much longer history than the piano.

You don't see pianos in houses as much anymore, but you do see electronic keyboards, some of which can sound almost exactly like a piano but have loads of other keyboard (and even non-keyboard) sounds on them, and they don't need professionals to move or tune them. And you can "tickle the ivories" with headphones on in the middle of the night!

I'm glad this guy finds immense joy from playing piano music, but I also hope he'll get out more and discover the world of non-piano music out there. The piano is nice, but it's piano. You can't change the tone color very much or sustain notes, or crescendo notes, or even change the attack that much.

Beethoven didn't write 32 bassoon sonatas, but while you can learn a lot about harmony and structure from reading a piano reduction of the 9th Symphony, you can learn just as much or more about phrasing, dynamics, articulation, timbre, and expressiveness from following just the bassoon part!

To me, after sifting through all the rah-rah-piano chaff in the article, the one gem in there is the encouragement to actually involve oneself in music in a hands-on way. Don't just listen to it; pick through it. There are worlds of interesting things to learn in every substantial piece of music throughout the 1000+ year history that we have.
posted by strangeguitars at 1:57 AM on February 13, 2012 [2 favorites]


I had a friend at university who came from a home where piano playing was as normal as reading. His father ran a shop (inherited - it was the old story of energetic grandpa lifting himself out of poverty to be a considerable local businessman, dad keeping a few things ticking over on a slow downward path, son sells remaining assets) but music was his real interest. Every morning before going to the shop he would spend an hour playing the piano; when he got home he would listen to music and play some more. I stayed with them once and the atmosphere of calm musicality was amazing; like going to stay with the Music Master out of The Glass Bead Game, I thought at the time. They offered me a piano the way in other houses you would be offered a glass of water, and it was hard to convince them I was really incapable of using it.

The two sons both imbibed this atmosphere; my impression is that they never had to be told to practice, it just came naturally. Besides playing other instruments they were excellent pianists, both better than dad, but it was my friend, the younger one, perhaps out a spirit of competition, who got really good; went through all the exams with honours and came to the point where he had to decide whether to go for a professional career.

That is a tough path, of course: on balance, he decided to do history at university and has hardly ever touched a piano since, apparently without the least regret.
posted by Segundus at 3:03 AM on February 13, 2012 [4 favorites]


I'm glad this guy finds immense joy from playing piano music, but I also hope he'll get out more and discover the world of non-piano music out there. The piano is nice, but it's piano. You can't change the tone color very much or sustain notes, or crescendo notes, or even change the attack that much.

There are so many infuriating bits in your post that I don't even know where to begin. So instead of calling you a buttlord over the internet, I'm going to stay right here in my studio and write some music, on a piano, which contains shocking tonal variation, liberal usage of sustain AND sostenuto pedals, some serious-ass level 23 swelling arpeggiation, and absurd amounts of arcane Finnish hammer-lifting. You cannot imagine the immense joy I'm about to experience out of pure spite.
posted by jake at 3:52 AM on February 13, 2012 [17 favorites]


So instead of calling you a buttlord over the internet, I'm going to stay right here in my studio and write some music, on a piano, which contains shocking tonal variation, liberal usage of sustain AND sostenuto pedals, some serious-ass level 23 swelling arpeggiation, and absurd amounts of arcane Finnish hammer-lifting. You cannot imagine the immense joy I'm about to experience out of pure spite.

I'm glad you're not going to call me a buttlord over the internet, but I hope that if you record the music that you're writing, you'll send me a recording of it so I can share in your immense joy. :)
posted by strangeguitars at 4:17 AM on February 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


I mourn the shift from a world in which it was common and expected for people to actively create music for their own enjoyment and the enjoyment of others, to a world in which music is more commonly created by a group of distant strangers, and passively consumed.

Now get your i-mp3-things off my lawn.
posted by RandlePatrickMcMurphy at 6:39 AM on February 13, 2012 [4 favorites]


strangeguitars

I think there is something about the piano being a part of the furniture that gives it a quality that other instruments rarely have. The fact that its there, unmovable and part of the home makes it communal. I'm into electronic music myself (making and listening) but there is a huge difference between a home with a piano in the corner with mug stains and postcards on the top that is tinkled by everyone that walks past and a casio with headphones plugged in so that it can be practised in private. I think that's what I liked about this essay - it's not the tonal variations its about this ridiculous hulk of an instrument that is very flexible, intimate and at the same time suggests the communal.
posted by pmcp at 6:40 AM on February 13, 2012


Of all the ways I've disappointed myself over the years, not sticking with the piano as a child is one of the big ones. I was overjoyed when we moved my wife's family's rickety old player piano into the house. I could teach myself again! But then that room became my baby daughter's, and now the only time I have to teach myself is when she's asleep. And there's no other place for it in the house.

We are contemplating moving.
posted by middleclasstool at 7:13 AM on February 13, 2012


As a daily player/sight-reader, Dubal is preaching to my own personal choir regarding the mental virtues of practice, so I biased to agree with everything else he writes.
The piano is not only a severe taskmaster, it asks that you possess character. If you have the temerity to play publicly, you are all alone [...]
This however, is the most true and was proved to me over and over in the recitals of my youth. Recently, it was proved even more emphatically as a few months ago, a friend asked for a 30th birthday piano recital in her honor. She asked 4 of her professional music friends and me, a dedicated amateur to swat together a program for a refined evening of ivory tickling and cake. I thought that I, who hadn't performed in nearly a decade, would be the most nervous, flailing performer, but no! Although they were all pros, they were not, concert pianists by training. And despite all their musicality and talent the psychological challenge of solo performance was daunting even to them. So like a pack of nervous puppies we made our ways up to the console and battled with our selves and the piano and made some glorious mistakes and beautiful music.
In my case, however, the piano essentially won.
posted by Cold Lurkey at 7:19 AM on February 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


Ugh, Reading music != sight-reading
posted by thelonius at 7:35 AM on February 13, 2012


Damn.

It's a good thing Apple doesn't make pianos.
 
posted by Herodios at 7:37 AM on February 13, 2012


The sight-reading thing was another thing that bugged me. I really think people are better off learning to play either by ear or via player piano; cold dead pages of notes are not the best conduit for music. But I may be biased, since I cannot and will not learn to sight read, even though I play an hour a day and have for as long as I can remember. If nothing else, learning sight reading takes up valuable time that could be spent learning more complex music theory and the art of transposing, which are of infinitely more value.
posted by koeselitz at 7:40 AM on February 13, 2012


I may well get called a buttlord (buttlady?) but I can't help but point out that I, for only one, can't afford a piano and what's more, have no room for a piano, as much as I love pianos. I don't especially like feeling like that's a moral failing.
posted by thinkpiece at 7:50 AM on February 13, 2012


Most (not all) homes I've been in where there was a piano, said piano tended to be a knick-knack and dust-collector, played with only when small children were visiting. Kind of like the bumper-pool table in the basement.
posted by Thorzdad at 7:56 AM on February 13, 2012


koeselitz- You're right about what's really important in music making. Being able to play by ear and transpose to any key is crucial. But sight-reading (or really, just consulting sheet music) opens up completely new worlds of music, and expands your bag of tricks many sizes.

I never played "classical" music until I was 23 or so, after having played jazz and popular and by ear my whole life. I really couldn't more enthusiastically recommend learning some Chopin, especially to somebody who clearly can already improvise and transpose at a whim.
posted by phenylphenol at 7:59 AM on February 13, 2012


I agree with the furniture argument, but I have a hard time with the "communal" thing. I grew up with a piano in the living room, but I would generally only play it when no one else was home.

My two cents on the sight-reading issue is that you don't have to be one of those people who can sight-read in performance tempo with almost no mistakes. Just reading through things at any tempo you're comfortable with and repeating sections that sound interesting can be extremely rewarding.
posted by strangeguitars at 8:05 AM on February 13, 2012


I am surprised that Steve O'Keefe's fantastic essay from Piano magazine, "Why I Hate the Piano," is not online anywhere (save in a Russian translation)
posted by ricochet biscuit at 8:22 AM on February 13, 2012


I took up piano about a year and a half ago at 29, after years of wanting to but never being able to find the time or the money. My childhood was simultaneously musical and musicless, as my family was full of people who could sing or play something while I could do neither. The recorder I practiced with in third grade music class saw most of its useful life dedicated to creating deliberately obnoxious noises once my sister got a hold of it, and I was never that interested in it anyway.

My grandmother had always wanted to teach me (she played piano and church organ professionally for thirty years), but I didn't take her up on it in time. As dementia took hold I watched her forget where and when she was, then forget me, and finally cease speaking entirely before she went. After that, there was this stubborn, childish refusal to seek out the training, because if she couldn't teach me I didn't want anyone to, and because she couldn't, I wouldn't learn. But I was always dogged by this sense of emptiness, and the recognition underneath that my refusal was my own choice, and that I could reverse it if I wanted to.

Ten years after her death (to the month, I realize as I write this, though I didn’t at the time), I decided it was time to do it: I sought out a teacher and began my first nervous steps toward figuring it out. One moment in particular from my first lesson sticks out… we were going over the basics of a C scale, writing out the fingering, etc., and just running it through, eventually moving on to the basics of what a chord is and how it works. From there I went to play my first C major triad and I almost teared up: as the three voices rang out, it felt like something I had done a long time ago. Like a forgotten past life, almost. From there something just fell into place in the same way that my fingers fell onto the keys, as if drawn by the gravity of the moment and the expectations placed upon it and all the things I wished could’ve been. It felt the way it does when something missing finds its way home, when you hadn’t ever realized it was lost in the first place.

I’ve made slow but steady progress since then, and I practice daily on the Yamaha digital piano I have in my apartment. It’s useful as a practice tool but there are certain shortcomings—in terms of feel and sound, it’s nothing like my teacher’s Steinway, naturally—and while I have no interest in learning guitar, I appreciate that they are portable in a way that pianos are not. The incredible difficulty of finding a “public” piano makes it difficult to share, and it’s true that they’re both disappearing from homes and largely incompatible with apartments where people live close together. But they still have the capacity to delight people in this very unique and satisfying way when you can play for others, in a way that an iPod in a speaker dock can’t. My aunt and uncle have a piano from the days when my cousin was learning it (and has long since abandoned it); it sat in a side room by the kitchen for years, covered in photographs and papers, horrendously out of tune. Once I began studying, I started to sit there and play it every time I went over to visit. I was mostly using it as a chance to practice, nervous about annoying people with it more than anything. Instead I’ve found that they seem to think it’s really delightful, even just my little Bartók etudes, and my aunt and uncle went to the trouble—and expense—of having it tuned just for me.

I’m no virtuoso, I can’t play anything overly complicated (the most complicated piece I can play is a piano solo arrangement of the "Portuguese love theme" from Love Actually), and I have no illusions about it being much more than a hobby. I also realize it means different things to different people... where I find solace, other people find memories of mean, impatient teachers and forced practice by parents. But it makes me feel like a complete person in a way that I didn’t before, and I guess I'm a little in love with it in the way that I find it hard to understand other people's negative feelings about it, except in the abstract.

To each their own. The piano is my own, I suppose.
posted by Kosh at 8:27 AM on February 13, 2012 [11 favorites]


ricochet biscuit, you mean this?
posted by Kosh at 8:29 AM on February 13, 2012


ricochet biscuit, you mean this?


I do. I tried that link earlier when I was looking for the essay, but all I get is:

Microsoft JET Database Engine error '80004005'

Could not use ''; file already in use.

/story.asp, line 4


If others can see it, I urge them to read it; it is a beautiful meditation on the instrument.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 8:32 AM on February 13, 2012


It looks like the server is having issues this morning... it was working for me, but now I'm getting the same thing. But the Google cache is available for those who want to read it.
posted by Kosh at 8:36 AM on February 13, 2012


thinkpiece: “I may well get called a buttlord (buttlady?) but I can't help but point out that I, for only one, can't afford a piano and what's more, have no room for a piano, as much as I love pianos. I don't especially like feeling like that's a moral failing.”

You are neither a buttlord nor a buttlady nor whatever else people may want to call you – at least not to my knowledge. You're totally correct. Not having a piano is certainly not a moral failing, as much as I wish everybody had the privilege.

However, just so's people know, I'd like to point out that you probably can afford a piano – or at least, they're much more affordable than people realize. Pianos are generally very cheap owing to the fact that they were quite popular a generation ago and the fact that they are cumbersome. In any city of real size, you'll find people trying desperately to get rid of pianos every week of the year – largely families that have to move and really don't want to take it with them, people cleaning out their elderly parents' homes, etc.

So all you have to do is

(a) Hop on Craigslist and search for "piano." You'll often find lots of people trying to get rid of the things. (The listings you want will often be under "furniture" or "antiques," not "musical instruments," as people who want to get rid of pianos by any means necessary usually just seem them as hulking pieces of ancient furniture.)

(b) Call around and check a few of the pianos out, visiting and looking over the instruments if you can. You can sometimes afford to be choosy, and if you have a few weeks to take your time and look, all the better.

(c) Once you've found one you like and told them you'll take it, find some affordable moving guys (usually $50-$100, but this may vary, shop around) and set up a time to pick it up and have it delivered.

And now you have a piano!

I've used this method in several cities; in Denver, I got two different pianos this way, paying $100 for the movers each time. Here in Albuquerque, I actually paid a bit for my current piano ($140) but that's because it's a player piano; however, I was able to find a really cheap college-guy moving company that hauled it for only $50, so for less than the price of an entry-level guitar or student violin I have a piano in my living room.

Since getting a piano is relatively inexpensive, and not as hard as one might think, I encourage anyone and everyone who's ever thought they might like to have one and who has the space to give it a go. Pianos are wonderful, and as this article points out, even if you're not Rachmaninoff or something it's totally worth being able to plink away in your spare time for fun and relaxation.
posted by koeselitz at 8:46 AM on February 13, 2012 [2 favorites]


phenylphenol: “koeselitz- You're right about what's really important in music making. Being able to play by ear and transpose to any key is crucial. But sight-reading (or really, just consulting sheet music) opens up completely new worlds of music, and expands your bag of tricks many sizes. I never played "classical" music until I was 23 or so, after having played jazz and popular and by ear my whole life. I really couldn't more enthusiastically recommend learning some Chopin, especially to somebody who clearly can already improvise and transpose at a whim.”

Well, it's funny. I was in choir in high school, so I can sight-read while singing – it's just sight-reading while playing that utterly eludes me. But I can forcefully grind my way through, learning each staff one at a time, if I have to. For the past few weeks I've been learning Scott Joplin's "Maple Leaf Rag" that way, and it seems to be going pretty well.

How does one actually go about learning to sight-read while playing, anyway? I could never figure this out, and the one time someone tried to teach me they failed as well. I guess I just don't have the patience now that I can pretty much play without sight reading; I always got the impression the best time to learn is when you're first starting. As someone who learned later, maybe you can clue me in.
posted by koeselitz at 8:50 AM on February 13, 2012


I really think people are better off learning to play either by ear or via player piano; cold dead pages of notes are not the best conduit for music.

I spend a lot of time, probably too much, arguing against people who try to assert the supremacy of the written page as a means for the dissemination of music, but I still find this sentiment kind of frustrating. Learning to read music the right way is utterly an ear-based endeavor -- the translation path is, roughly:

Written Note --> Imagined Sound --> Physical Action

You'll notice that the last two steps in that process describe playing by ear; a well-developed ability to read music is just another layer on top of that process, though of course the process is more automatic and not so explicit when you've really internalized the skill. Anyway, pages of notes are a great conduit for music. I don't know how you could listen to all of the living, breathing music produced via that channel and feel otherwise. I like your general take on music, koeselitz, but it can be disheartening to see people on either side of the sheet music divide make sweeping negative claims about how music gets made by the other camp. For what it's worth, that goes for the author too; this statement:

The fact is that, today, reading music, an elementary form of musical literacy, has become rare, and many music critics do not possess this ability.

...with all of its hand-wringing undercurrents of fear for the state of youth today, essentially makes the case that everyone who is making or listening to music without being able to read it is actually only experiencing an attenuated form of true music, which is a classic piece of bullshit put forward by the type of person who is so infatuated with their knowledge as to need to declare it as primary and essential in spite of evidence to the contrary.* I'm happy that he loves his piano, but I wish he wouldn't use it as a pulpit to declare the superiority of the tradition that it belongs to.

* Ironically, this is a pretty narcissistic thing to do.
posted by invitapriore at 9:11 AM on February 13, 2012 [2 favorites]


Koeselitz, part of the mystique and difficulty of being someone who performs music that was written down is finding the ability to impart life to 'cold, dead pages.' To me, and I'm actually still pretty shitty at sight reading, a page of notes I don't know yet is a page full of potential enjoyment and satisfaction.

Being able to sight read means you are able to learn new music faster. Being able to play by ear is important, but a normal human pianist cannot learn a Chopin sonata, or Ravel's Gaspard de la Nuit, or any large complex piece by ear. There is too much polyphony and it becomes actually confusing to figure out what hand plays what notes, unless you are already an ace classical pianist.

And though such a career concert pianist at a high level could possibly do this, they never would because it is much, much easier and faster to sight read. Plus, when you sight read as opposed to play by ear, you aren't tasked with remembering the whole piece. You just have to know where you are and what's coming next.

In popular music (non-jazz, non-classical) the situation is different, largely because the music is orders of magnitude simpler. A Beatles song only goes so far as to what technique and theoretical knowledge is required.

It can be pretty difficult describing complex ideas to other musicians (even highly talented ones) if you don't have common terminology or a page of notes. It may be an idea they already understand but you have to be able to describe it well enough in terms they understand so they can recognize it. A page with notes, articulations and dynamics lays it all bare.

Sight reading is the fastest way to learn new music and it is largely irrelevant in popular music, this is true. But learning never hurt anybody, and it has probably helped somebody.

David Dubal is a lifelong pretty high level classical pianist himself, I believe. He wrote an interesting book called 'The Pianist's Problems,' which is a collection of observations on everything from actual physical piano problems (like the generally clunky nature of the human thumb) to general essays on music itself. Like the OP it is interesting but occasionally a little too woo-woo forced spiritualism kinda thing.
posted by TheRedArmy at 9:43 AM on February 13, 2012


Yes, you can get a piano for free. Or nearly free, as koeselitz points out.

Yes, you can get an electronic keyboard and headphones, or a guitar for less than $50 to give you the option of playing music.

Yes, you can give yourself the privilege of putting music back into your life.

Yes, you can make it possible for a future generation to have some musical skills just by having an instrument available in your house.

A piano you don't have to plug in, or a guitar hanging on a wall (stringswing.com), makes it trivial to spend 30 seconds while on hold or five minutes waiting for a callback.

Take lessons only if you want to. It's still fun to noodle and learn on your own.

As Warren Miller says, "If you don't do it this year, you'll be one year older when you do.”
posted by lothar at 10:22 AM on February 13, 2012


TheRedArmy: “Sight reading is the fastest way to learn new music and it is largely irrelevant in popular music, this is true. But learning never hurt anybody, and it has probably helped somebody.&rdsquo;

This is true. As I noted above, I think I'm biased, and I'll also say that this is not an uncontroversial point in the tradition I'm coming at this from: jazz. The two greatest jazz musicians are, in my mind, Sidney Bechet and Louis Armstrong, and they were of different minds about this. Louis Armstrong couldn't wait to learn to sight-read, and thought it was very important; but Sidney Bechet was always of the mind that a 'true musicianer' didn't need to sight-read, and that all that paper just got in the way of the music. Both were excellent musicians as far as that goes, so I don't know that it had an impact on their own styles or abilities.

Personally, while I can look at a sheet of music and figure out which notes are which (usually pretty laboriously) I've never been able to learn to sight-read, and since it isn't too essential to me I haven't fought to hard to figure out how. But I would be interested in knowing how one goes about it, aside from just looking at music for a long time and trying to play what's on the page. That doesn't seem to work for me.

Again, I do think that David Dubal's perspective is more than a little limited, since he almost completely disregards all the piano players of the past hundred years entirely in this piece. And that bugs me more than a little. But he's right that pianos are fantastic.
posted by koeselitz at 10:37 AM on February 13, 2012


I've been meaning to post an AskMe question, but this seems like as good a place as any.

I took classical piano lessons from age 7-11 or so, then started playing percussion/drums.

I never had fantastic technique but I was more than competent. I was about at the Grieg level. (Still one of my all-time favorites just for the showiness.)

I had no sense of theory, chord progressions or anything like that. Now I do, but I'm finding it hard to get back onto a piano (especially if that piano is a slightly undersized keyboard).

Any suggestions for re-learning piano (with a keyboard) after a ~30-year absence?

Yes, you can get a piano for free.

But where on Earth would I put it? (As others have mentioned.) It is a dream, so maybe if/when I can get a decent house.

How does one actually go about learning to sight-read while playing, anyway?

For those of us who learned how to play by sight-reading, that's kind of a weird question. You learn the notes (Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge and FACE ... that's treble clef, I forget the bass mnemonics (All Cows Eat Grass and ____)), then you learn the rhythms (half, quarter, eighth, 16th ...), then you learn the fingering, then you learn the fancy stuff (staccato/forte/crescendo/legato/etc. and the pedals) and then you start playing pieces by sight. Easy! :D

That's literally the only way I know how to play piano. I have a decent ear and can pluck out melodies, but I can't really play by ear at all. 30 years later, I can still bang out a decent, if extremely sloppy, Grieg.

But how do I do more?
posted by mrgrimm at 10:38 AM on February 13, 2012


koeselitz: Forgive me if I've misinterpreted your post, but here goes anyway.... Sight-reading isn't qualitatively different from learning to read music at all; it's just a matter of degree. You just keep practicing your reading skills, starting with simple "see Dick and Jane run"-style tunes and eventually working your way up to rattling off the musical equivalent of "Finnegan's Wake". In other words, it's still simply reading music, but done faster as you gain familiarity with the look of each note/chord/arpeggio and associate it more quickly with a particular fingering. If you read Fake Book-style chord charts, you already do something a bit like sight-reading - you see "Am7♭5" and your fingers immediately know what they need to do to play the chord. Sight-reading is just practicing and practicing and practicing and practicing as much as necessary to gain that same sort of visual cognizance with notes instead of chord symbols. Granted sight-reading a piece isn't necessarily the same as *comprehending* it, but comprehension will come quicker if one isn't struggling with the basic mechanics of reproducing the notes as written.

Fun/illustrative anecdote - Once during high school I attended a "Sight Reading" summer-school band class. All of us already knew how to play our instruments and had at least basic reading skills; we were presented with a thick folder of unfamiliar music and the director just had us dive in headfirst - he called out the title, we put it in front of us, and away we went. We never played a piece more than twice. Of course it usually sounded pretty rough, but in just the few weeks of practicing sight-reading an hour a day, there was a definite improvement. The best moment was starting into Sousa's "Liberty Bell March" the first time; about 3-4 measures in everyone broke up laughing as we suddenly recognized it as the theme music to the "Monty Python's Flying Circus" TV show!
posted by Greg_Ace at 11:32 AM on February 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


As far as I know there is only one way to learn to sight read and that is to do it. Start with very simple music and when you can comfortably and easily read that music steadily ramp up the complexity/difficulty/density of harmony. As with practicing any aspect of music that is new to you, the speed you want to use is SUPER SLOW. Go so slowly at first that it is almost boring, but play it mindfully (not "La la la this is easy what's for dinner") and as accurately as possible. Then you increase the tempo by notches, so that the increase is almost not noticeable. Millimeter by millimeter you will attain the tempo you want, and without the bad technical habits you learn by trying to play too quickly too soon.

Each minute that you stare angrily at the page counting leger lines and checking and re-checking accidentals is time well spent, because the next time you see that note or chord your recognition will come quicker. It is definitely a difficult ball to get rolling, but the principles involved are ultimately pretty simple. Or at least they never ever change, so once you know where A is you never have to learn it again, once you have seen a dotted eighth note/sixteenth note pattern (like a swinging ride cymbal) you never have to learn it again. As you continue to work on it you will be able to digest immediately bigger lumps of notes, such as being able to spot triads, or parallel octaves, etc.

mrgrimm:

First is to decide what specifically you want to do. The path to refurbishing your Grieg concerto is much different than the path to learning to play your favorite rock songs by ear.

The former would involve a lot of drilling to get your fingers back in shape and a lot of slow ironing-out type practice, plus listening to recordings of the piece and deciding how you want to interpret it.

The latter, playing (non classical) songs by ear, is all about chords. There are a relatively few kinds of chords used in most rock/folk/alt/country (POPULAR MUSIC) and also really not that many different kinds of chord progressions. Once you learn the basics they apply to nearly everything.

The first step you might want to take is to recognize I (root) chords and V (dominant) chords. C major and G7, for instance. If you play them on after the other, and back again, you will be able to recognize having heard that tonal resolution before in virtually ever song ever written. There is a certain telltale tension and release created by moving from a V chord back to the I chord and the ability to recognize it by ear is the foundation for adding other types of chords.

I have prattled on enough, and honestly I'm probably not the best person to teach ear training anyway because I haven't verbalized my own approach to myself or anyone else.

Just like on AskMe social questions "GO TO THERAPY!" is prescribed every time, and rightfully so, if you are in search of musical improvement lessons with an experienced teacher is the fastest route.

And I say that as someone who has, over the last 20 years or so, largely taught myself, too. I think I am pretty good, but I know I would be pretty shitty compared to some alternate universe me that studied under someone reputable (and practiced accordingly) for 20 years or so.

Then again, though now there are many, many people who play piano better than I do, I have yet to hear one that plays piano like I do. It remains to be seen whether that nets me anything, but I hope it does.
posted by TheRedArmy at 11:56 AM on February 13, 2012 [3 favorites]


I spent a minimum of an hour a day on rote piano for over ten years and listened almost exclusively to classical music during my adolescence. Did competitions, exams, etc. Then one day in my early twenties I suddenly found that the thing had no interest for me anymore - I could play like a pro but so what? I knew nothing about any other instruments or just about any music from the past century. An hour a day to maintain the technical level that I was at just seemed like time taken away from enjoying the rest of the undiscovered world. In fact, for a few years the instrument actually repulsed me and I wouldn't go near it. Nowadays I tinkle from time to time, and I'm glad i had the experience of taking a skill to a high level over a long period, but I doubt I'd recommend the classical piano grind for my own kids if I ever had any. Learn some keyboard, along with guitar, drums, and music software
posted by moorooka at 12:52 PM on February 13, 2012 [2 favorites]


Greg_Ace: “Sight-reading isn't qualitatively different from learning to read music at all; it's just a matter of degree. You just keep practicing your reading skills, starting with simple "see Dick and Jane run"-style tunes and eventually working your way up to rattling off the musical equivalent of "Finnegan's Wake". In other words, it's still simply reading music, but done faster as you gain familiarity with the look of each note/chord/arpeggio and associate it more quickly with a particular fingering. If you read Fake Book-style chord charts, you already do something a bit like sight-reading - you see "Am7♭5" and your fingers immediately know what they need to do to play the chord. Sight-reading is just practicing and practicing and practicing and practicing as much as necessary to gain that same sort of visual cognizance with notes instead of chord symbols. Granted sight-reading a piece isn't necessarily the same as *comprehending* it, but comprehension will come quicker if one isn't struggling with the basic mechanics of reproducing the notes as written.”

TheRedArmy: “As far as I know there is only one way to learn to sight read and that is to do it. Start with very simple music and when you can comfortably and easily read that music steadily ramp up the complexity/difficulty/density of harmony. As with practicing any aspect of music that is new to you, the speed you want to use is SUPER SLOW. Go so slowly at first that it is almost boring, but play it mindfully (not "La la la this is easy what's for dinner") and as accurately as possible. Then you increase the tempo by notches, so that the increase is almost not noticeable. Millimeter by millimeter you will attain the tempo you want, and without the bad technical habits you learn by trying to play too quickly too soon. Each minute that you stare angrily at the page counting leger lines and checking and re-checking accidentals is time well spent, because the next time you see that note or chord your recognition will come quicker. It is definitely a difficult ball to get rolling, but the principles involved are ultimately pretty simple. Or at least they never ever change, so once you know where A is you never have to learn it again, once you have seen a dotted eighth note/sixteenth note pattern (like a swinging ride cymbal) you never have to learn it again. As you continue to work on it you will be able to digest immediately bigger lumps of notes, such as being able to spot triads, or parallel octaves, etc.”

This is some very interesting and helpful advice; thanks. If I can carve out an extra ten minutes or so a day playing, I may try to incorporate learning to sight-read into my practice time.

mrgrimm: “But how do I do more?”

Well. Heh. Greg_Ace and TheRedArmy have pretty much given you (and me) fine answers.

But on the vague off-chance that you were asking about how one goes about learning to play by ear and, by extension, improvisation:

There are really two basic tasks that learning improvisation requires, and they are more practices than anything else, practices you can spend five minutes on or a whole lifetime on. They are:

1. Learn to play anything and everything you play in every key with the same facility.

and

2. Know music theory so that you can recognize all changes immediately.

These are both really two sides of the same coin, but thinking about them that way helps me a lot. I spent pretty much all of my practice time now working on these two things. By learning to play everything in every key, you transcend the basic notes and chords (c, d, e, f, etc) and start to learn harmonic steps and how they work together (I, ii, IV, V, etc). You start to recognize that different songs are actually doing the same things, and you begin to notice when a song that seems average is actually doing something very strange. And that feeds into learning theory.

The best book I've ever seen for learning jazz improvisation is Mark Levine's fantastic The Jazz Piano Book. It helped me immensely – still does, actually – and it's well-suited to people at many different levels. All it presupposes is that you know how to read music (not necessarily how to sight-read) and it's broken up nicely into chunks so you can just dip into it if you'd prefer learning little pieces. I highly recommend it for anyone who's even just interested in how jazz improvisation on a piano works.

Anyway, I've gone on long enough for someone who wasn't actually asked about this directly. Hope somebody finds this useful, anyway.
posted by koeselitz at 12:57 PM on February 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


On sight reading... the greatest jazz pianist of all time has to be Art Tatum, and he was pretty much blind. From personal experience of learning almost exclusively by reading, I would say that it is not the best way, and that the ear should come before the page
posted by moorooka at 1:00 PM on February 13, 2012


That's a good point, moorooka – and Art Tatum is often in my mind during these discussions. Interestingly enough, he (like many jazz musicians) was actually first classically trained at a school for blind black children. I'm not sure what approach schools for the blind took then toward classical training in piano playing. In any case, he was known as a prodigious virtuoso from a very young age, and able to play very complex classical pieces by his early teens. Later, when he learned jazz, he learned the way many people in that time learned: with the use of player pianos, which enable the user to follow which keys are pressed down by touch and learn to play the notes that way.

I've always thought that it's sort of sad how rare player pianos are nowadays. This method of learning – by ear and by touch – seems to me to be a superior one. Combined with sheet music, it would be very useful, I think.
posted by koeselitz at 1:49 PM on February 13, 2012


Well, it's funny. I was in choir in high school, so I can sight-read while singing – it's just sight-reading while playing that utterly eludes me. But I can forcefully grind my way through, learning each staff one at a time, if I have to. For the past few weeks I've been learning Scott Joplin's "Maple Leaf Rag" that way, and it seems to be going pretty well.

Yeah, that's just the way it is when you first learn a piece. The way I was taught was to break down the piece into smaller sections and first learn it hands separately section by section. Once your fingers know what they're doing, then hands together very very slowly. Then you bring it up to proper tempo and commit it to memory. And finally, when you're operating on muscle memory (or nearly so), you can concentrate on overall dynamics and phrasing. Trying to do it all at once is just way too hard. Really, you're only sight-reading at the very beginning of the process; by the end, the sheet music is just there in case you get lost.
posted by emeiji at 1:58 PM on February 13, 2012


I think I learned to sight-read moderately well after having spent two years teaching music theory and aural skills at university. The sheer number of musical examples in class and the daily performance of the skill really brought it all together.

But also, sight-reading is really only very appropriate for certain repertoires. One couldn't really expect to sit down and sight-read a Chopin ballade at performance tempo with any sort of success. But Mozart and Haydn? Heck yes.
posted by phenylphenol at 2:53 PM on February 13, 2012


Thanks all very much. Mostly it's all just practice, practice, practice, eh? So much muscle memory ...

The best book I've ever seen for learning jazz improvisation is Mark Levine's fantastic The Jazz Piano Book.

Excellent. That was on my list of considered learning books (based on the strong reviews on Amazon); I'll give it a read.
posted by mrgrimm at 3:02 PM on February 13, 2012


Mostly it's all just practice, practice, practice, eh?

"Excuse me, can you tell me how to get to Carnegie Hall?"
posted by Greg_Ace at 3:10 PM on February 13, 2012


I just bought the Levine book a few days ago. I played through like four pages and octupled my (not considerable, I admit) knowledge of jazz. I look forward to the rest.
posted by TheRedArmy at 7:55 PM on February 13, 2012


I haven't see Levine's piano book, but if it's anything like his Jazz Theory Book it's going to be very clear and well-presented.
posted by Greg_Ace at 8:02 PM on February 13, 2012


His Jazz Theory Book is good, but it always felt to me like a kind of appendix to the Jazz Piano Book, which is really the front-end teaching and studying book. They're both quite good, though.
posted by koeselitz at 8:08 PM on February 13, 2012


Why do people use the term "sight-reading" to refer to reading music in general? My music teacher used "sight-reading" to mean playing music you had never seen before, from sheet music, in real time, as you would do at an audition, or in a professional situation. This is obviously more difficult than what we ordinarily do when we learn a piece from written music. Do people just like how it sounds, or something? This habit effaces a very useful distinction, and it's silly as well - do you say "I sight-read that Rolling Stone article"?
posted by thelonius at 3:35 AM on February 14, 2012


I really have my doubts that a more terrible pianist for the time they've put in studying exists out there than myself. I had 12 years of lessons growing up, at least two of which were from a gifted player and teacher. On top of that, I've probably put in about three years of practice on my own.

I never got very good at all. Certainly not compared to most people who I've seen who had over a decade of lessons. Maybe that's why I eventually went to the guitar. But I still sure have a good time with the instrument, and have lately rediscovered the pleasure of playing with it.
posted by weston at 10:15 AM on February 14, 2012


Why do people use the term "sight-reading" to refer to reading music in general? My music teacher used "sight-reading" to mean playing music you had never seen before, from sheet music, in real time, as you would do at an audition, or in a professional situation. This is obviously more difficult than what we ordinarily do when we learn a piece from written music. Do people just like how it sounds, or something? This habit effaces a very useful distinction, and it's silly as well - do you say "I sight-read that Rolling Stone article"?

I think you're making a semantic distinction most people (particularly non-professional pianists) don't care about.

1) I'm presented a piece of music I've never seen or heard before and asked to play it straight through as best as I can, in "real time" as it were.

2) I'm presented a piece of music I've never seen or heard before and I learn to play it by basically doing #1 over and over. Or doing #1, but not necessary in "real time" (stopping and starting and repeating various parts)

They're still both sight reading, to me.

I might be using it wrong, but I use "sight reading" to mean playing a piece of written music that you have never heard.

do you say "I sight-read that Rolling Stone article"?

That analogy makes no sense to me, because sheet music : song :: Rolling Stone article : ???

There's no other way to read the article; there is another way (hearing it and figuring out the melody/lines yourself) of learning to play a song.

I understand with your distinction, but for me it's not significant enough.

Your "sight reading" definition though reminds me of one of my favorite music theory tests, where they'd give us a line of notes, play the first, then make us sing the rest, and you'd have to remember all your intervals and process them into a not-always-so-melodic tune.

People need to sing more too. It makes you feel good.
posted by mrgrimm at 8:40 AM on February 15, 2012


Coming in late to this thread, but just seeing this post a few weeks ago started the wheels turning. I'm embarking on the piano again after a childhood of grudge-filled practice sessions and ensuing decades of inattention. I'm starting with Czerny, Grieg, and maybe that Jazz Piano Book mentioned up-thread.

Why? I'm kind of sick to death of being a consumer and not a participant. And playing for a half hour yesterday made me feel good for hours, even though my hands are about as nimble as hams right now. Baby steps: half hour a day of noodling; no lessons yet.
posted by Currer Belfry at 10:28 AM on February 21, 2012


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