This is a very personal manifesto about the purpose of piano lessons. You may not agree. You may disagree vehemently. But what you (as a piano teacher or as a parent of a piano student or as a piano student) believe piano lessons are for will affect your level of satisfaction with the piano lessons you are giving, or you or your child is receiving.
This manifesto is written from the perspective of a piano teacher and former piano student, although I also suppose that these days my perspective includes that of prospective parent of a piano student (my son, Tom, is now three and a half years old).
1. Piano lessons are for learning how to do cool stuff on the piano.
Cool stuff starts with things like
- playing familiar melodies,
- creating glissandi,
- using the sustain pedal,
and moves on to more sophisticated cool stuff like
- creating a balance between the melody and accompaniment,
- voicing two parts within one hand,
- being able to control tonal variation,
- learning to recognise and perform any number of patterns (both by sight and by ear),
- knowing how to make different chords and chord sequences,
- being able to play a chromatic scale – fast,
- being able to play scales in contrary motion, or thirds apart, or sixths apart,
- creating different effects through a range of articulations
and in terms of repertoire includes
- playing pieces your friends and family enjoy
- being able to play music that is new to you, easily
- playing music with other musicians
- playing music with your friends
- playing music to accompany singers (solo, group, social, amateur, professional)
2. Piano lessons are for learning what the piano can do so you can do whatever you want on it.
This might sound like a repetition of the ‘cool stuff’ idea in point 1, but while ‘cool stuff’ teaches you what you can do on the piano, this second point has a completely different focus – it’s not about performance per se, but about the ability of the student to express themselves freely through the piano. This might manifest as a student composing new music, or as the student creating variations on the music they are learning, or as the student finding their own new music to learn, or as the student playing familiar music without requiring a score. ‘Learning what the piano can do so you can do whatever you want on it’ means a developing autonomy, an increasing sense of ownership of the instrument and its role in [your] life.
3. Piano lessons are for understanding other people better.
Playing the music composed by others allows students (and performers) to inhabit someone else’s emotional and ideational world, and learning to play the music of others is an even more intimate encounter with the way other people think and feel. Playing music with other people gives an insight into the way they approach interacting with others, how they express themselves, how patient or impatient they are(!), how curious they are, how their minds work in all kinds of ways. Each of these ways of interacting with others can result in deep connection with others, whether they are peers, mentors, or people the student has never met.
4. Piano lessons are for understanding yourself better.
This happens in many ways, but I want to highlight two.
Music connects directly through to your emotions (even if you are just wandering through a shopping centre, and certainly in a scary movie). But that emotional access is multiplied many times over when you are playing a musical instrument; the music is in your body – your body is making the experience you are hearing, your fingers are finding ways to excite, soothe, enrage or engage. When you take piano lessons you learn about what kinds of emotions you want to express, you learn about the ways you can change your emotional reality, you learn about how your choices impact on the emotional states of others.
The process of learning to perform music (especially on the piano where the performer needs no accompaniment) is a particular kind of discipline that requires a deep acceptance of imperfection while still striving for excellence: no performance is flawless, there will always be new ideas for improvements and change. No one else is to blame for less than wonderful performances, no one else can take credit for performances that shine. The student learns much about themselves in terms of how they relate to perfection/imperfection, how they face challenges in an emotional sense, how they face challenges in a practical sense, how they work toward long-term/medium-term/short-term goals, and a myriad of other truths about their natural proclivities regarding how to define success and failure. Parents sometimes think this aspect of piano lessons is so important it alone makes taking piano lessons an imperative.
5. Piano lessons are for understanding the world better.
Music is a genuinely direct way of connecting students with other times and other places. It’s quite extraordinary how effective music is in this regard. And while listening to music provides a passive, touristic understanding of the world, actually playing that music means that you are complicit in this wider world – you’ve participated in history, you are experiencing the cultures of other continents and communities.
6. Piano lessons are for exercising your body, your intellect and your emotions all at the same time.
It has been demonstrated that playing the piano will raise your IQ by around 7 points for as long as you play the instrument (you’ll lose those points if you stop playing for months/years), and the reason for this is that nothing else in this world engages so much of your brain at the same time as playing a musical instrument. We didn’t know this in the past, but advances in neuro-imaging mean that we now do know which parts of the brain are at work when a musician is playing an instrument and, while in many activities in life there is a dedicated region of the brain that processes that activity, it is evident that the whole brain is involved in music. In short, the brain is musical – all of it. And when you play an instrument you are using that whole brain.
7. Piano lessons are for changing who you are. All the points listed above add up to an experience that allows you to express yourself [increasingly] freely, learn about yourself and others as well as about both the world around you and the world beyond your horizons. This will change you. Further, with each new goal that you attain and each new challenge that you conquer, you will find yourself looking at other, non-musical goals and challenges in a different way. This goes far beyond believing in yourself, this goes to knowing that you can achieve what you set out to do.
8. And finally, piano lessons are for joy.
The joy you feel playing the piano, the joy you feel playing better and better each week/month/year, the joy others feel hearing you play, the joy you and others experience playing together. The joy of discovery, the joy of achievement, the joy of the raucous, the joy of the sublime. If your piano lessons aren’t for at least some of these joys, then what on earth are they for?