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How Anyone Can Learn To Play The Piano: Part 1

clair de luneI believe that anybody can learn to play the piano. Let me tell you why. Back in 2009, I created a series of piano lessons for YouTube called “Clair de lune From Scratch.” In the introduction, I stated that anyone – absolutely anyone – could learn to play this incredibly difficult piano masterpiece by Claude Debussy, even if they never had any music lessons or prior piano playing experience.

Almost immediately, teachers at a prominent piano forum attacked this claim. Some stated that a piano student needed a minimum of five years before they could even begin to attempt a piece like “Clair de lune.” Others pointed out the intrinsic difficulties of working on a piece with so many black keys, or the complex rhythmic, chord, and arpeggiated patterns that were way beyond the levels of even some of the most advanced pianists. As the objections piled on, one week after my first YouTube piano lesson was uploaded, a 17-year old teenager from Sweden who had never played the piano before posted a video – “Hey, Mr. Sung! Look what I can do!” he chirped, oblivious of the pedagogical firestorm swirling on the Internet. And the young man proceeded to play the entire first phrase of “Clair de lune” beautifully.

In the ensuing weeks, months, and years since that piano lesson series was posted, I’ve received hundreds of emails from folks of all ages, thanking me for giving them the gift of playing the piano. Several of them shared poignant stories of how “Clair de lune” was a favorite piece of a departed loved one, and how being able to play the piece themselves brought back precious memories and a deeper connection to the people they missed so dearly. Others shared stories of how they had been unable to afford piano lessons as kids and had almost lost hope of ever being able to play the piano in their advanced ages. Discovering my YouTube piano lessons helped them to achieve lifelong dreams that had once seemed impossible.

Throughout all of these heartfelt messages, one thing was very clear: music takes on a transformative power when you stop being a passive listener and discover the magic of playing for yourself.

So how was I able to get so many people to play something so difficult in just a fraction of the time it would’ve taken with traditional teaching methods? What’s the secret to my unconventional teaching technique? I believe there are three key ingredients:

  1. Hooks
  2. Pointes
  3. and Bytes
Hooks

hookMusically speaking, a “hook” is a melody specifically designed to “stick” in your mind, through simplicity and – in most cases – heavy repetition.  For now, though, I want to apply the example of the hook in a more emotional sense: a strong attachment to a piece of music. We all have musical hooks of that sort – special songs that evoke powerful memories of special moments or beloved people, themes from our favorite movies or TV shows, even melodies that come from video games – all of these can be powerful “hooks.” And when you have a strong hook, you have an incredible tool for motivation. When you start with a song that you love, you will go to extraordinary lengths to learn to play it because of its emotional resonance in your life.

I once worked with a young student at a music camp who was struggling through some obscure classical piece, and clearly having a miserable time of it. I posed a simple question to him:

“If you could play any piece in the world, what would it be?”

He immediately perked up and mentioned the name of a popular video game. When I researched it, the theme from this game featured some pretty complex Latin rhythms and sophisticated harmonic progressions, techniques far beyond the level of this student. No matter – he loved the game and the music associated with it so much that he made astonishing progress in no time at all. His musical “hook” motivated him to practice far more hours and surmount formidable technical difficulties, but none of that felt like work to him. In his mind, it felt just like playing his favorite game over and over, and the sheer joy at finally mastering this piece was evident in his beaming smile.

Pointes

pointe shoesIn ballet, dancers wear special shoes called “pointe shoes” to enable them to take the smallest steps with the utmost precision. This serves as an excellent illustration for what’s needed to break the learning process down to its smallest elements, as every teacher knows.  Mastery is simply the sum of these smaller bits of learning. But what’s surprising is that most teachers are unwilling to get down to the very smallest elements, oftentimes beginning with just a single note.  Most likely it’s due to a lack of patience combined with a lack of an adequate hook.  But oftentimes it is also due to a misconception of the inherent precision of these “pointes.” Let me explain what I mean.

When I first started teaching private piano lessons as a teenager, I was quickly frustrated at my students’ progress. Week after week they would return, playing the same mistakes and making no progress whatsoever. It took several years before the light bulb went on in my head – rather than get upset at the students over my perception of their lack of talent or effort, I started studying the mistakes that they were making, and what I found was absolutely astonishing.  When little Johnny missed a jump from note A to note B, he didn’t just miss the jump – he missed it with uncanny accuracy. In other words, he was leaping to exactly the same wrong note, each and every time. From a different perspective, his accuracy was incredibly precise. It just had been programmed from the start the wrong way. And this wasn’t a freak occurrence with one or two exceptional students – every student made their mistakes with the same incredible precision. This led me to the astonishing conclusion that the human brain is the most phenomenal recording device in existence, and that this precision is simply part of how our brains work. Practicing, it turns out, more often tends to be an ingraining of the initial few moments that we’re exposed to a new piece of music, and if one isn’t careful at the smallest level, then those initial mistakes made in the first or second reading will be cemented in memory for every subsequent rendition.

Anything can be learned when you break it down to its smallest components. The key here is to recognize at the same time the inherent precision that comes with these “pointes”.

Stay Tuned for Part 2 where I talk about the third secret for learning piano: Bytes.

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