21. The Psychology of Piano

We are all aware that psychology plays a major role not only in music, but also in piano learning. There are numerous ways for taking advantage of our understanding of psychology and we will discuss some of these methods in this section. However, the more important immediate task is to uncover the psychological pitfalls that have created almost insurmountable obstacles to learning piano, such as “lack of talent”, or “nervousness” when performing. Another example is the phenomenon of the great artists’ inability to teach discussed in e. Why the Greatest Pianists Could Not Teach above. This phenomenon was explained in terms of the artists’ psychological approach to teaching which mirrored their approach to music. Since the psychology of music is only minimally understood, composers simply create music in their minds “out of nothing” – there is no such thing as a formula for creating music. They similarly acquired technique by imagining the musical output and letting the hands find a way to accomplish it. It is a terrific shortcut to a complex result, when it works. However, for most students, it is a most inefficient way for acquiring technique and we now know that there are much better approaches. Obviously, psychology is important in everything from learning, practicing and performing to music composition.

Psychology is mostly controlled by knowledge and it is often difficult to distinguish between psychology and knowledge. In most cases, it is knowledge that controls how we approach a subject. But it is psychology that determines how we use that knowledge. It is now time to examine some specific items.

Perhaps the most important one is how we view piano learning, or our general attitude towards the process of learning to play. The methods of this book are diametrically opposite to the “intuitive” methods. For example, when a student fails to learn, it was because of a lack of talent according to the old system, so failure was the student’s fault. In the system of this book, failure is the teacher’s fault because the teacher’s job is to provide all the information necessary for success. There is no blind faith that practicing Hanon for one hour every day will transform you into a virtuoso. In fact, nothing should be taken on faith and it is the teacher’s responsibility to explain each method so that the student understands it. This will require the teacher to be knowledgeable in a wide variety of disciplines, from art to zoology. We have come to a point in history when art teachers cannot ignore reality (education) any more. Therefore, the psychology of piano learning requires profound changes in the attitudes of both the student and the teacher.

For the students, especially those trained in the old system with rules, the transition from the old to the new ranges from “very easy” to complete confusion. Some students will instantly enjoy the new empowerment and freedom and, within a week, are enjoying the full benefits of the methods. On the other extreme are those students who realize that the old rules are not valid anymore, and so they start looking for “new rules” to follow. They are full of questions: When I cycle one hand, is 10 times enough, or do I need 10,000 times? Do I cycle as fast as I can, or at a slower, more accurate speed? Is HS practice necessary, even if I can already play HT? For simple music, HS practice can be awfully boring – why do I need it? Such questions reveal the extent to which the student has adapted to the new psychology, or failed to adapt. To illustrate, let us psycho- analyze the last question (why HS?). In order to ask such a question, that person must have been practicing blindly because s/he read that it was necessary to practice HS. In other words, s/he was blindly following a rule. That is not the method of this book. Here, we first define an objective, and then use HS practice to achieve it. This objective might be more secure memory in order to avoid blackouts during performances, or technical development so that when you play HT, you can hear that the playing is based on superior technical skills. When these objectives are achieved, the practice is not boring at all!

For the teacher, there is no question that everything in modern society is based on a broad education. There is no need to become a scientist or to study advanced concepts in psychology. Success in the real world is not tied to academic achievements; most successful business entrepreneurs don’t have MBAs. Perhaps the most important advance of modern society is that all these concepts that used to be considered specialized knowledge are becoming easier to understand, not because they have changed, but because a better understanding always simplifies and the teaching methods are always improving. Moreover, we are becoming more familiar with them because we need them more and more in our daily lives. The information is certainly becoming easier to access. Thus a teacher only needs to be curious and willing to communicate, and the results will follow automatically.

Many students need a psychological device to overcome the unfounded fear of the inability to memorize. In this book, we are not talking about memorizing Fur Elise only. We are talking about a repertoire of over 5 hours of real music, most of which you can sit down and play at a moment’s notice. The only requirement for maintaining such a repertoire is that you must play the piano every day. Some people have no difficulty memorizing, but most have preconceived notions that memorizing significant repertoires is only for the “gifted” few. The main reason for this unfounded fear is the past experience in which students are first taught to play a piece well, then taught to memorize which, as explained in 6. Memorizing, is one of the most difficult ways to memorize. For students who were tavught correctly from the beginning, memorizing is like second nature; it is an integral part of learning any new composition. Adopting this approach will automatically make you a good memorizer, although for older folks, this may take many years.

Nervousness is a particularly difficult psychological problem to overcome. In order to succeed, you must understand that nervousness is a purely psychological process. The present system of railroading young students into recitals without proper preparation is counter productive, and generally produces students that are more prone to nervousness problems than when they started their lessons. Once a student experiences intense nervousness from their piano experience, it can negatively influence anything else that they do that is similar, such as appearing in plays or any other type of public performance. Therefore, the present system is bad for psychological health in general. As discussed in section 15 above, nervousness is an eminently solvable problem for most people and a good program for overcoming nervousness will contribute to mental health because of the pride, joy, and sense of accomplishment that you will feel.

Psychology permeates everything we do in piano, from motivating students to the fundamental basis of music and music composition. The best way to motivate students is to teach practice methods that are so rewarding that the students do not want to quit. Competitions and recitals are great motivators, but they must be conducted with care and with proper understanding of psychology. Most exciting are the psychological aspects of the fundamental basis of music. Bach used the simplest thematic material, parallel sets, and showed that they can be used to compose the deepest music ever written and at the same time teach us how to practice. Mozart used a formula to mass produce music; we now understand how he wrote so much in such a short lifetime. Beethoven used group theoretical type concepts to provide a backbone for his music. He showed how you can hold the audience’s attention with a catchy melody in the RH while controlling the emotions with the LH, just as the television industry does today, by showing you an exciting video while controlling your emotions with sound effects. Chopin, known for romanticism and unique musicality like no other, used mathematical devices in his Fantaisie Impromptu to write music straddling the “sound threshold” (2. Cycling (Chopin’s Fantaisie Impromptu)), producing special effects on the brain that can mesmerize the audience. The chromatic scale was derived from chords and music follows chord progressions because these frequency relationships simplify the memory and information processing procedures in the brain. Technique cannot be separated from music, and music cannot be separated from psychology; therefore, piano practice is not building finger muscles or repeating exercises: technique is ultimately all about the human brain. Art and artists take us there, long before we can explain analytically why they work.