Current conventional approaches compared to the MusicallyFluent model
Sadly, conventional training methods – including show-and-play procedures which are now so common, thanks to YouTube – do not develop true musical fluency and for most people, these approaches actually block it! Some people may be entirely happy to spend a long time learning only a few pieces of music passively, in which case, these approaches are fine.
However, in most cases, learning to play music on the keys in a linear, step-by-step way, gives very stiff and precarious results that are musically unsatisfying, to say the least. The amount of work needed to learn just one piece is enormous. And you will need to keep rehearsing or your fingers may well forget how to play it.
The higher goal, of actually knowing your way around the rhythmic and tonal landscape of music, is seen as only possible with special gifts or after digesting enormous amounts of musical theory. There is a great deal of intimidating mythology constructed around being a fluent, literate musician on the keys that puts so many people off learning.
The MusicallyFluent approach is different because it is practical rather than theoretical. Like learning to ride a bike, juggle or swim, you simply have to do it with clear focus on the underlying principles. And these truly useful and versatile fluent skills do not erode or weaken without repetitious practice. You will have these practical skills for life!
Traditional approaches to learning piano require that you learn pieces slowly through repetitious rehearsal practice. This usually results in automatic playing, using muscle memory. Piano playing which has been developed using this method is usually awkward and stiff, expressively and technically. At worst, the student ends up playing by rote or parrot-fashion and their playing may feel clumsy and uncontrolled. Musical confidence therefore suffers. Only a tiny handful of students succeed – those with an uncanny talent for playing expressively with fearlessness and flair despite their lack of understanding about how they actually do this.
The MusicallyFluent approach teaches you to understand how music unfolds logically within a solid underlying rhythmic and tonal structure. Then you can learn music far more quickly, deeply and play with complete musical sense and natural unforced expressiveness, from the outset. There is no need to enforce set fingerings, learn hands separately, play with the metronome to maintain the pulse or “add” contrived expression to try to make it sound musical. You simply communicate musical meanings instantly through clear understanding of the patterns you are playing on the keyboard. This spontaneous expressiveness is produced in the same natural way that you do when speaking in your native language as you converse: fluently!
Traditional approaches teach us to decode the musical notes on the score. We are taught to see the score as a list of notes carrying pitch and time values. Because the sound of the music is only revealed after you play the list of notes on the keys, reading this way is a meaningless and terrifying stab in the dark and almost always, the results are terrible. This approach to reading is like playing by numbers and sight-reading confidence in most piano students is near to zero. In a way, it is not reading at all.
Conventional reading is only tackled after a basic level of practical fluency has been acquired. The MusicallyFluent approach to sight-reading teaches you to see intelligible musical patterns in the score. This immediate understanding of musical shapes means that you can hear them clearly in your imagination – instantly! And this, in turn, enables you to play real, meaningful music straight away, without having to hear it first or limp slowly through the score many times until it begins to make sense. With fluent sight-reading skills, you can relate to new music with fearless curiosity and excitement, and so explore a whole universe of printed music that is out there waiting for you!
Patterns, exercises, scales and arpeggios, etc.
In traditional approaches, you practise scales, broken chords, arpeggios and linear patterns and exercises repetitively. This mechanical approach can help to give you technical facility across the keyboard but excessive practice in this way can produce too much tension or even injury. The kind of facility it generates, however, is not to be confused with true fluency which is a far more effective basis for natural, relaxed physical technique. Also, linear structures are pretty boring musically. The scalic and arpeggiated figuration we hear in some jazz and classical music actually weaves around the keys with amazing subtlety and intricate patterning. If a musician relies on flat, linear scales and arpeggios, the results sound crude and dull; and adding loads of complex twists and turns, or contrived expression tends to sound forced, strange or even unintelligible.
The MusicallyFluent approach teaches you patterns which encourage you explore the myriad musical shapes and permutations that we make from just a few tonal and rhythmic building blocks. A seemingly infinite amount of musical shapes are possible. We discover the freedom of exploring music with clear understanding by practising musically-interesting patterns and exercises that are designed to generate a clear awareness of the underlying structure of tonality and rhythm. This kind of training develops tonal awareness through navigating the symmetry and structure of the keyboard and rhythmic awareness through experiencing the cellular matrix that underpins rhythm in music. This way, your fingers become increasingly adept at navigating the keyboard with effortless coordination, ease and musical power. Practising these patterns naturally forms the basis of a relaxed and free technique supported by the whole body and mind. It is a truly satisfying way to practise because of the musical logic that you experience.
Conventional jazz piano training is based on knowledge and repetitious drilling of theoretical elements such as chords and scales, whilst rhythm training relies on counting the beat. Traditional classical piano training rarely involves much improvisation at all. When based on theory, improvisation is not truly fluent as there is a mental gap between our musical expression and the theoretical choices. Although theory-based improvisation and composing can be highly proficient in some very talented individuals, it tends to sound contrived and clever which might be what some people want but it lacks the true spontaneity and natural, unfolding sense that are the hallmarks of fluent improvising.
Improvising is truly fluent when you play music just as you imagine it, precisely and without thinking. There is no gap between musical expression and the choices you make on the keys. Musical patterns flow out of your fingers into the keyboard with clear and direct intention. This is one of the most important aspects of fluency. We must intend the sounds we play from the inside out. Improvisation is an excellent way to practise forging this direct connection to your natural rhythmic and tonal sense. The feeling of power and autonomy that this skill brings is incredibly exciting, and it is the basis for composing and songwriting from a truly spontaneous, inspired place.