In the interest of science, I have decided to detail the result of months of ruthless and highly scientific self-observation. I present to you my eight stages of learning to play a new piece of music on the piano.
1. Stage: Pride
If I’m starting a new piece it seems to mean that my piano teacher thinks I am making enough progress with the pieces I am currently working on to start on another one. Unless I’ve chosen a new piece to learn all by myself in which case instead of Pride the first stage can also take the form of Smugness: look at me, I’m a dedicated learner. I learn things on my own. Yeah, that’s how I roll.
2. Stage: Anticipation
New music! How will it sound? How long will it take me? There are new things to discover, new shapes and new sounds, new combinations, new melodies – the possibilities are endless!
3. Stage: Discovery
The possibilities are endless. However, the possible matches from notes on paper to keys on the keyboard are finite, as are the number of my fingers. Two or more evenings are spent deciphering the notes, repeatedly. You would think that once you know which note to play, you know which note to play, right? Wrong. Turns out that my brain forgets the note-to-key match faster than a politician forgets his promises right after he’s been elected. Still, it’s fun because this is all about trying to understand the piece and figuring out what the best fingering would be for the individual passages.
4. Stage: Bargaining
After the stage of Discovery, I will have a very rough, very theoretical notion of how the piece is supposed to be played. I will also have a very clear idea of the extent I will be able to play it. Thus I enter the stage of bargaining: What tempo is this piece in – allegretto? *faints* No way. I’m sure it will sound just as well in … Largo. Largo is good. We likes us Largo. And I can’t even begin to think about minor details such as, erm, dynamics, pedalling … phrasing. You know, only the stuff that helps express the piece’s individuality, its meaning and spirit. It will have to wait until my fingers have conquered Mount Improbable and are capable of making a smooth transition from C# to D#. Till then I am pleading with the notes that, for example, a joyful, exuberant melody can be played equally well at a slow tempo with no concernable phrases or indeed any emphasis at all.
5. Stage: Fear and Humility
It slowly sinks in just how many elements I need to master to make this sound beautifully. Deciphering the notes is a laughably small part of it. Combining the notes of the right and left hand together, at the right time is a whole other part. And reading the notes fast enough so it sounds like continuous music instead of a slow… laboured… sequence of fingering exercises. And if that’s not enough, the pedal has to be coordinated too. While observing the phrase marks. And the dynamics. And thermodynamics. (Okay, I made that one up.)
6. Stage: Denial
It’s the only way. I continue to practice. I cannot face the enormity of what this piece demands of me. (This, obviously, is relative. We’re talking “Home on the Range”, not Beethoven’s piano sonatas.) Bit by beat, I mean, bar by bar. However, denial can only be maintained for so long. Once the fragile walls of self-defence break start crumbling, the crushing despair of Still.Not.Being.Able.To.Play.The.Damn.Thing. can only lead to one possible outcome:
More practice. Sensible, me? Oblivious to common sense, more like it. There is no way out. I will not give up. I will most certainly not take a break, take a deep breath, back down, or do any of the other things the
more feeble minded less stubborn more sensible among us would do.
8. Cautious Relief
Eventually, a melody or a song emerges. Or rather, is forcefully pushed and dragged and shoved and coerced into existence. Feeling scarred, battered and bruised and ever so slightly victorious I will now proceed to play the piece ad nauseam just BECAUSE I CAN. Of course, once I mastered (in a relative sense) a piece of music, a new piece will appear on the horizon, ie. the page in front of me. Luckily learning a new piece is a bit like giving birth (or so I have been told) and the rush of endorphines of being able to finally play this piece in a
not entirely atrocious nice way immediately make you forget the pain and suffering and fear and insanity … and look forward to learning the next piece. Fun and adventure awaits!
Note: In order to make it through all of the eight stages without significant loss of sanity, confidence, self-esteem or will to live, a good
enabler teacher is essential. Without lessons I would be perpetually stuck between stage 4 (Bargaining) and 5 (Fear). I’m privileged for having found the perfect piano teacher who even in my most atrocious performances always finds something to praise (I don’t know how he does it!). He always manages to pick up and then rebuild the shattered remains of my confidence for which I will be eternally grateful.