The Art of Piano

Posted: January 5, 2013 in Piano

Stand next to the piano as I play it.

Early Accounts

These fifty-two white keys and thirty-six black keys have been my friends for forty-five years. I have no memory of not being able to play a piano. I can only say that I sat down at the piano and started playing it. I was a young teen. I did not take piano lessons prior to the first day I started to play. I do not remember what day that was. I do have one memory of the early days. I can still see the first page of the beginner book that I opened in order to learn to read bass clef. I already knew how to read treble clef (from cornet lessons in school since 4th grade). I remember that bass clef posed a challenge; and that I was a little irritated by being limited in my knowledge. On that day, whenever it was, I sat down to learn bass clef.  I turned the pages and learned each subsequent lesson. I moved on to the next book, and the next. I cannot remember how many books there were. Not too many though.  Then I tested my new knowledge and played a simple arrangement of Melody in F by Anton Rubinstein.  After that, I turned the page and played something else. For the next 3 years I turned a lot of pages. At sixteen years of age I was playing Beethoven’s Pathetique.  (Not at tempo, mind you. @ ~ 100BPM)

Present Day

Now it is many years later and I can generalize about my musical talents. I am aware that I am considered to be very talented by non-musicians. I appreciate the praises I receive, but I am always humbled by my own awareness of what I cannot accomplish as a pianist and musician. Among better players, I am only an average player.  I have never been motivated to perform for notoriety. That is not part of my temperament.  I play piano in order to express ideas that I devise in my imagination. For this reason, I feel I am more of a music creator than a music performer.  Elsewhere in this blog, I differentiated between the two understandings; creator vs. performer. I create music. I do not have a strong talent in arranging my compositions, but I enjoy trying.

Piano as Typewriter

If you can type, then you understand how I play piano. You use a typewriter (or keyboard) to write a sentence. I use the piano the same way. I type out paragraphs of music with as much ease as you might have typing an essay. I editorialize at the piano. When I write a song, or simply play whatever comes to mind, I am merely writing sentences that express an idea. As I continue to combine sentences, a central thought may emerge. I edit the sentences and then rewrite the paragraph. Once that idea is expressed, maybe it leads to another idea.

That seems to be an arduous process. Not really. It is most often the case that the entire essay is understood to me in my mind. I use prescribed methods of organizing ideas; adopt a certain style, and the outline of the song is present. Writing the sentences of music are the specifics that express the greater idea.  In sum, I just sit down and type the keys to produce a song, the same way you would write an essay. It is an art form, just as is writing.  The idea tells you what to play (or type). Music theory teaches you how to play it well, based on a time-tested ordering of preferential treatments. Theory is to music the way grammar is to language.

Piano as Expressive Instrument

A typewriter isn’t very expressive (although its monotonous sound has probably put many authors to sleep).  My piano keys permit me to be expressive in the design of my paragraphs of music.  A typewriter uses one color of a palette. A piano uses every hue of color. Music can be opaque or transparent. It can be layered (like watercolors) or applied with a force that is thick and brutal.  The application of color to express a musical idea is dependent on learning various techniques.  Learning technique requires a disciplined approach in order to develop the necessary motor skills.   So we now have three components to the art of piano: the idea tells you what to play, theory tells you how to construct the idea, and last, technique permits you to play the idea expressively, correctly and consistently.

Piano as Card Catalog

I believe music composition is primarily, and dominantly, mimicking. As I have played for many, many years, I have acquired a large vocabulary of musical expression. I remember ideas I have played in the past. This knowledge can be sorted into categories. There are patterns, scales, chords, hand positions, styles and other generalizations that help me manage musical ideas. All of the notes on a piano have a relationship to all the other notes.  The type of experience you acquire, which is recorded in your personal card catalog, is your musical culture. If you build a library of classical music, your vocabulary will reflect what you retained from those experiences. If your first instrument was harmonica, followed by a few years on gut bucket and ukelele, then your card catalog of ideas, theories and techniques is going to reflect your past experiences.

Cultural bias occurs when a member of one culture has little or no shared experiences with members of another culture.  For instance, wind instrument players are ignorant of the culture of playing drums, primarily because there is nothing inherent in playing a wind instrument which includes hitting anything with a stick. However, the same bias is not evident when references are made to percussion instruments.  The latter (that have a scale of tones) create a similarity of experience with wind instrument players. The same could be said about any two differing instruments, or groups of instruments. Where experiences are similar, understanding is promoted.  Where experiences are dissimilar, ignorance is present and thus a bias is formed. Understanding must then be cultivated.

Piano as the Prime Instrument

Piano is rather unique as an instrument. It is a percussive instrument and a tonal instrument. It has a vast range, unlike other instruments, and can mimic the style and sound of other instruments. It can be played like a violin or a trumpet, like a bass drum or a snare, as a thunder storm or a gentle rain.  The piano permits its player to gain a boarder understanding of music and other instruments.  Piano players can therefore become the least ignorant and biased among any member of a family of musicians.  Such a statement only invites an objection from other members of the family, so let me add that piano players seek to use their knowledge to create understanding among musicians, and this is evident in the empathy that is present in the music that is created at the piano.

Piano is not the first instrument but it is the prime instrument which accounts for all other instruments.  For every musician who masters an instrument other than piano, there is always a deep pride held by those musicians who are able to add, “I also play piano”. This proclamation promises to elevate a musician to a higher standing. However, when a piano player says of another instrument, “I also play _____,” it is most often offered as an after-thought; no claim for higher status is sought because for the piano player, none is ever needed. To say less of this entitlement inherent in the Prime Instrument would be an expression of false modesty.

Piano as Friend

The art of piano retells the adventures of a journey which has no beginning or end. The art is a state of being which offers realization. It is an attitude, true enough, but it is also the expression of the real. The journey is not linear, although it can be: pedagogy offers the student a path to discovery, but the journey itself is very forgiving of any path chosen. We seek to experience what others have discovered, but primarily we seek to express the ideas within us that have yet to be discovered. Some prefer to read the speeches of great men and women. Others prefer to create great speeches.

The art of piano is a palette.  It is theoretical. It is learned. It is innate.  It is technical. It is free from constraints.  It is simply piano; and piano is my friend. It is the conduit through which my ideas are given life.  Music is the language; the piano is the voice. The process is the art; the artist is the translator.

I once wrote a wonderful melody. It has since slipped away from my memory.  It was in the air briefly.

Now sit down and I will compose a piece of music for you. Then you can see if what I have told you is true.

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