My New Approach to Playing the Piano

August 5, 2016. Update: Nov. 7, 2016

My piano predicament is, in many ways, similar to many people's history of studying English or other foreign languages.

I started taking lessons at age 6 and took lessons for 10 years with very little enthusiasm. As a young adult I picked up the piano again because I had fallen in love with the music of Rachmaninoff and wanted to learn to play it.

Rachmaninoff's music is very challenging and was above my level, but I practiced and practiced and learned to play some of it sloppily. Because the difficulty of the music was too far above my actual command of the instrument, I was tense and awkward when playing it and made lots of mistakes that I failed to correct. To the untrained ear I played marvelously, but any comparison to a real master would have shown just how terrible my playing was.

As much as I loved the music I was playing, I did not have anything like a "total mastery mindset." With a total mastery mindset you are focused on playing things with perfect ease and command. I could not do this because I insisted on learning material that was hopelessly above my level.

In fact, my Circle of Command was barely growing despite playing so much. I was half-learning difficult material and, as a result, remaining at more or less the same level of command.

Furthermore, because of the difficulty of the music and the way I had been practicing, I was unprepared to play anything on the piano if asked. I had to have my sheet music, and I was scarcely able to play a single prelude all the way through.

Complex skill acquisition and frictionless learning

As a result of writing my book and thinking deeply about principles of frictionless language learning, I've gained a lot of insight into other challenges I face in life. Recently I came up with this new, vastly more frictionless strategy for the piano:

I now play for at least 15 minutes a day using my jazz "Real Book" (simplified notation for famous jazz pieces). My process for picking up each new jazz piece is as follows:

- sight-read the melody and chords at any tempo
- be able to play the melody and adequate harmony (some version of the chords denoted)
- play it up to tempo
- play it without looking at the sheet music
- start improvising with melody and/or harmony (chord substitutions, etc.)

For the first time in years, I've experienced the sensation of mastery on the piano. These tasks are easy enough that I can really get into the flow. My arms and shoulders are relaxed; if they happen to tense up, I have enough free attention to loosen them as I continue playing.

I can play the melody with full confidence and focus on phrasing. It's also up to me to decide how to play the chords. I can play them high or low, clumped or spread out.

This introduces an element of creativity that was lacking when I was just playing sheet music. (By the way, when we converse in any language, it's 100% improvisation!)

Finally, because the music is comparatively easy, I feel confident in playing it for other people if there's a piano somewhere. Learning a Rachmaninoff composition by heart and pulling it off well is just too much of an effort. I sense that I'm not really prepared to do so, and so I get quite nervous when I try.

This is much more doable, engaging, productive... I'm very excited and pleased with myself for finding this new strategy.

UPDATE: November 7, 2016. How are things going?

I'm still following what I described above, though it's far from every day that I spend 15 minutes playing the piano. At the recent Polyglot Conference I sat down and with very little nervousness played three jazz standards from memory, improvising a bit as I went. My increased fluency with chords and chord structures from using the Real Book also allowed me to accompany a couple people on the fly who wanted to sing something familiar. If I'd continued practicing Rachmaninoff only, at best I would've been able to play one prelude nervously. I think I'm on the right track!

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