What is MusicallyFluent and how did it come about?

I developed MusicallyFluent as an alternative to traditional music training. As a young child, I was naturally very gifted musically and could play complex music by ear.

But from the age of 11, this mysterious fluency was being undermind. I was obediently practising all the scales and arpeggios for my Grade 8 piano examination, learning complex theory – all the rules of harmony and counterpoint -and of course, playing the same examination pieces over and over again until my fingers played them without my heart or mind being involved. To my horror, my natural, fluent skills were disappearing. To play fluently required that I did a strange mental trick: I had to empty my mind and play only from my body and soul but this strange mindless state was becoming difficult to access.

Searching for musical logic

I was determined to keep and develop my fluent musicianship. So I started to examine what was going on inside my mind when I played fluently. Somewhere deep in the recesses of my unconscious mind, processes were going on that enabled me to generate music effortlessly and spontaneously. To go forward, I needed to find clear, conscious awareness of what I had been doing by dark intuition. I soon discovered that there was a simple process at work.

I discovered that all I needed was a model to focus on: I needed clear, constant awareness of how rhythm and tonality are organised. By noticing how rhythm is formed by a strong, flexible, nonlinear matrix of rhythm cells and how tonality – melody and harmony – functions predictably within the symmetrical layout of the keyboard map, I could maintain and grow my fluent skills.

The discovery – a simple model!

This was not rocket science! And although it was a very different approach from the one my teacher was encouraging me to use, I found that I could still do well in classical piano examinations as long as I used my own “secret” model. I must admit that I felt like a cheat because I wan’t really doing what my teacher asked, but he seemed none the wiser and enjoyed all the exam results and competition prizes that I gained.

For the past decade, I have been developing ways of teaching my approach to others. It has been quite a journey! My approach is so different from the conventional approaches. So I had to be innovative and invent brand new learning materials for explaining and practising the principles of MusicallyFluent.

I am grateful to my wonderful students whose patience and tenacity have been so valuable during the process of experimentation and searching for terminology, images and pre-notational systems that communicate the principles and elements clearly, especially at Level 1.

Sharing this model with the world

My wish is to encourage people to make an deep mental shift and therefore connect to their powerful inner musician. Musical fluency on the keys is a wonderful skill and I want as many people as possible to be empowered by practising the MusicallyFluent model.

So a short eBook offering a clear and colourful explanation of the model can be downloaded for free here but you will have to do a short quiz first to check that you have the right mindset. Finding this mindset can represent a real paradigm shift for many people. Unless you have a clear sense of what fluency is at its core, the ideas will seem very obscure, difficult or impossible to grasp. However, if you just take a little time to ponder the ideas contained in this website deeply, you can take the necessary leap of faith and grasp the wonderful musical possibilities that fluency opens up.

Passive musicianship vs. fluent musicianship

I have to put the hurdle of the quiz in place because the truth is that many people in today’s culture do not have the right attitude for musical fluency training. This is because fluent musicianship is actually not our cultural norm.

I often say that we live in a karaoke culture: music is seen not so much as a form of self-expression but as something you do passively. Music is perceived as something outside of you that you must imitate. This view can cripple you as a musician. The other paradigm of how to go about making music is to see it as theoretical code. If we execute that code perfectly, like a machine, we we get the musical results we want. This is also passive and far from musical fluency.

Fluency on the keys is a practical skill built on powerful, conscious trust of a simple model of rhythmic and tonal structure. The body and mind need training to operate and coordinate themselves using this structure. Correct execution of the music is a very poor goal. We need to let go of this passive version of music-making and take a risk – try out the principles and elements of this model for ourselves. We will be wobbly at first. We will stumble and fall. But with focus and practice, musical fluency comes readily because it is natural.

If you think about it, when you are hearing a piece of tonal, rhythmic music for the very first time, it makes sense. This is because you have already developed a natural inner musician. Your inner musician understands the patterns of rhythm and tonality perfectly, just unconsciously. MusicallyFluent training is designed to bring that intuitive musicianship into conscious awareness. 

Special gifts like perfect pitch

There is an odd belief that to be fluent on the keyboard requires special, innate gifts such as perfect pitch. This is absurd and disempowering. Trying to recognise music in terms of its notes is like trying to recognise a familiar object, such as a tree, in terms of its molecules! The leaves, branches and trunk are useful to notice but the molecules are just too small. Another, perhaps closer analogy would be the false notion that we process language in terms of the individual letters that spell words.

Processing notes is just far too slow and actually meaningless. Of course, a fluent musician can easily tell you the notes of a piece of music but only by stopping and reflecting. This is rather like spelling out the letters of words you hear when someone speaks to you. We recognise the words and phrases, not the letters. And in music, we recognise rhythmic and tonal shapes and patterns, not the notes. Of course, some degree of pitch memory will tend to accompany fluency but how perfect your pitch recall is matters very little. Perfect pitch may be a nice party trick but the overwhelming majority of people have good enough pitch memory to be fluent musicians.

And anyway, clear awareness of rhythmic structure is even more important than tonal awareness for the skill of musical fluency!

What about musical talent?

I find our cultural obsession with innate talent rather irritating. Passion and discipline are far more important than talent! Obviously, we all have different levels of aptitude or talent – we learn at different rates – but this does not lie on some kind of linear scale. We are all good at different things and unique as musicians.

Musical fluency is just the ability to process musical language and the MusicallyFluent model is an excellent basis for training this ability; it is not a trick for you to reach some imagined pinnacle of musical achievement. We are all fluent in spoken language although our aptitudes vary. Of course, we are not all poets or legal writers but these lofty skills are not really measures of fluency! Fluency simply unlocks whatever musical magic is deep within you. It frees your inner musician and lets you express yourself, musically and naturally.

Love and curiosity

My thesis is that we are as musically talented as we are interested in music. If you love music and feel it very deeply, if you find the question of how it works genuinely fascinating and are prepared to approach it as a practical skill, then you have talent that can be unlocked by training.