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Sharon Bill Music Tutor & Author

The Never Ending Journey


"How long does it take to learn to play the piano?" It's a question that I'm often asked but it's an impossible question. It's like asking, "How long is a piece of string?" The most important thing when you are learning to play music is that you have to decide to enjoy the journey, because it's a journey that never ends.

Just like the local Council strap line "Education and Life Long Learning" the vital thing to remember is that, no matter what point in the journey you're at, there is always something new to learn. "When will I get there?" (which is another question I often hear) is a nonsensical question really because there is no "there". Any preconceived concept of destination doesn't really exist. What matters is that you enjoy the process of working towards ever changing goals.

I suppose that there is the concept of particular chosen milestones along the way. This may be exam passes or you may feel that a milestone has been reached when you can play a particular piece of music that you've had in mind. The danger here is that, if you don't appreciate the repetitive routine of scales, arpeggios and working note by note though progressive pieces then you'll never get to your perceived goal - you'll just give up, It also encourages a blinkered approach to playing and you'll miss out on enjoying a wide repertoire of styles and you'll miss out on the simple joy of just playing.

I find myself appreciating this simple truth in more depth as I play more and more. I'm learning to love just sitting at the piano, purely touching the keys even - I just love the instrument. Working up and down a simple scale is sufficient for pleasure; listening to the tone of the piano and enjoying working on the precise fingering required.

I suppose that it's easy to say this when you've got the basic techniques under your belt. Note bashing a brand new piece (the actual complexity of the music is relative to the player) for the first few times, especially when you have to work bar by bar almost, can feel like your fingers are struggling through sticky toffee. Here maybe the only joy in this initial stage is knowing that it is necessary and won't last long if you keep at it. However, it doesn't have to be quite so grim. If you change your mental approach a gear or two you can take some delight in the tactile qualities of the instrument and the reassurance that slow and sure is always best. Just knowing your'e sitting at your instrument and partaking in an age-old process, knowing that sowing these seeds of discipline will later yield skills and beautiful music give an extra glow to the work. This is the part of the process that you've chosen to undertake. This is learning to play and abstract sounds will soon become form and melody. This is playing the piano and isn't just a means to and end.

I'm currently engrossed in learning to play a Haydn piano sonata in E flat major. It's about twelve pages long and some parts are quite difficult and much of it is very fast - I'm not at that point yet. However, I am really enjoying the learning part. I feel like I'm gradually getting a peep inside the composer's head and the better I become at playing the music the more I see of Haydn's composition process. I can also rest in the sure knowledge that I'll eventually be able to play it quite well (if I keep on enjoying practising). The learning part is the bottom of the iceberg, the accumulated performance ability is the tip that shows above the sea line. If you can't appreciate the background of effort and application it's a certainty that you'll become discouraged and give up - and never get to this given value of "there". If you continually sit to practise through gritted teeth with an eye on the clock, ready to shut the lid the second your allotted twenty minutes/two hours is up then you're missing out on enjoying the process and you're unlikely to ever enjoy any reward.

It's all about the correct mental approach - as is everything we attempt. I've noticed some of the things that flit across my mind when I'm practising this current piece:

"I like this passage, it feels good under my fingers."
"Ooh, this was a bit avant-garde for Haydn's day."
"The fingering is really tricky for this passage of chromatic chords but the effect is really clever."
"I love playing in the key of E flat major."
"That's a clever twist there, we've subtly shifted to minor here - clever Mr Haydn."
"I'm so glad I've got this piano, I love this mellow tone."
"That bottom B flat squeaks a bit - I wonder if Haydn will mind a bit of extra percussion here?"

I know that when I'm competent with this piece I'll also know that there will be aspects I will still wish to improve. I will also be certain that there are others who can play it much better than I. There is also the certainty that I will have new music to learn - you either go backwards or forwards, you can never stand still. The day that you think you've got it utterly sorted is the day that you need to close the lid forever and sit and watch TV. Luminary performers continue to practise for hours each day, even into their old age, because they understand this simple truth. They do so because they love music and the process of music making not because of an inherited sense of duty or burden. Even though posterity states that they have "made it" they continue to enjoy the never ending journey.