How Playing the Piano is Like Learning to Walk

Piano Lessons / music theory / How Playing the Piano is Like Learning to Walk

Welcome to LivingPianos.com, I’m Robert Estrin. The subject today is about how playing the piano is like learning how to walk. Obviously playing the piano seems much more complicated than walking. But have you ever seen a toddler taking their first steps? Each step is very careful and deliberate. They are trying not to fall down as they figure out all of the mechanisations of walking. And yet, we can walk and talk, and you don’t even have to think about walking! If there’s something in your path, you could possibly trip, That’s when you become cognizant of walking. But most of the time, you don’t need to think about it. How does this relate to piano playing? Let’s say you’re playing a 90 minute solo recital from memory. Obviously, no matter how skilled you are, there are going to be moments when you’re going to lose your concentration.

There’s a certain amount of motor memory or tactile memory that we depend upon.

Now, this isn’t something desirable. But it is a fact of life that you’re not going to be able to concentrate fully every single moment in your performance. I’m going to show you how this is true for piano playing, just like you can talk while walking. You don’t really have to think much about it. But I’m going to show you something in the accompanying video which proves how this same fact of life is present in your piano playing. We all depend upon this automatic pilot that we have. I’ll talk about the benefits and the dangers of that.

Learning to play the piano is similar to learning how to walk.

If you watch a toddler learning to walk, particularly the first time they are unaided, each step is a milestone. You can see the concentration it takes. The same is true in piano playing. When you’re learning something, at first it’s very complex. It’s a slow arduous process. But eventually, it becomes automatic! Your fingers just go where they’ve gone before, because you’ve done it so many times. Chances are, you’re going to remember where your hands go. Or your hands will remember where they go, because they’ve done it the same way hundreds of times before. This is sometimes described as, muscle memory.

There will be moments during a performance where you will lose your concentration.

Maybe there’s a noise in the audience or a key trips up on the keyboard, and yet you can manage to keep on going. Well, this is extremely dangerous, because your hands have no idea whether you’ve taken a repeat, whether you’re in an exposition, or a recapitulation. You could take wrong turns anywhere, because your hands are just doing what they’ve done before. But your hands don’t have intelligence. Your hands just have motor memory. So, how do you overcome this limitation? How do you get your memory so it’s not just motor memory? Rather than practice a piece over and over for months and then memorize it, you flip it.

The first thing you should do with a piece, after reading it through a couple of times, is to begin memorizing it.

Take small chunks at a time, putting the hands together and connecting phrases as you go. I’ve described this process many times before. Eventually, you will get to the point where you really know the score well. But how can you know if you’re just depending upon tactile or motor memory? How much is intentional? To better understand, take the motor memory completely out of the equation! The way to do that is to:

Practice the score away from the piano.

If you try to play the score without the benefit of your fingers moving, it’s really difficult. At first when you try this, you may need to move your fingers, even if it’s just in your lap. Eventually, you can get to the point where you’re not moving your fingers. Then you’re just thinking it all through with every nuance of sound and touch, knowing every finger and imagining the music in great detail. If you can get through your music like that, it’s almost impossible to have memory problems. It’s like singing a song that you’ve sung countless times before, or telling a story that you know so well. It’s part of you. So, that’s the way to overcome this limitation of what your motor memory can do. At the same time, you’ve got to be thankful that you have motor memory to rely upon for those times when you become distracted in your performance. But you want to do everything you can to not have to rely upon it.

I hope this has been interesting for you. I’d love to hear perspectives from all of you. Have you had this kind of experience? If you think that you’re playing just by feel without an intellect behind it, you can try this idea of playing away from the piano and let me know how it works for you. Thanks again for joining me! I’m Robert Estrin here at LivingPianos.com, Your Online Piano Resource.

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