The Psychology of Piano

We are all aware that psychology plays a major role not only in music, but also in piano learning. There are numerous ways for taking advantage of our understanding of psychology and we will discuss some of these methods in this section. However, the more important immediate task is to uncover the psychological pitfalls that have created seemingly insurmountable obstacles to learning piano, such as “lack of talent”, or “nervousness” when performing. Another example is the phenomenon of the great artists’ inability to teach discussed in section 16.e above. This phenomenon was explained in terms of the artists’ psychological approach to teaching which mirrored their approach to composing music. Since the psychology of music is only minimally understood, composers simply create music in their minds “out of nothing” -- there is no such thing as a formula for creating music. They similarly acquired technique by imagining the musical output and letting the hands find a way to accomplish it. It is a terrific shortcut to a complex result, when it works, and is still the only way for composing music. However, for most students, it is a most inefficient way for acquiring technique and we now know that there are better approaches. Therefore, an analysis of these psychological approaches is a necessary component of piano pedagogy.

Psychology is mostly controlled by knowledge and it is often difficult to distinguish between psychology and knowledge. In most cases, it is knowledge that controls how we psychologically approach a subject. What we are discussing here is clearly psychology because knowledge is not enough -- you need to actually change the mental approach in order to accomplish the objective. Knowledge makes this change possible, or even easy. It is now time to examine some specific items.

Perhaps the most important one is how we view piano learning, or our general attitude towards the process of learning to play. The methods of this book are diametrically opposite to most other older methods. For example, when a student fails to learn, it was because of a lack of talent according to the old system, so failure was the student’s fault. In the system of this book, failure is the teacher’s fault because the teacher’s job is to provide all the information necessary for success. This new assignment of fault is possible only if there is sufficient information so that all reasonably competent students (over 90% of the human population) can succeed; but that is indeed the case with the material available here. Previously, the teacher was the master of the art, and the student had to follow strict rules provided by the teacher. In our new system, the student is the employer and master of the learning process and the teacher must provide what the student needs; in other words, the teacher supplies the necessary information and the student designs her/is own practice routines using this information. Now the responsibility for understanding the learning process falls on the student because s/he is in charge of the learning process -- there is no more blind faith that practicing Hanon for one hour every day will transform you into a virtuoso. In fact, nothing should be taken on faith and it is the teacher’s responsibility to explain each method so that the student understands it. This will require the teacher to be knowledgeable in a wide variety of disciplines, especially the sciences. We have come to a point in history when art teachers cannot ignore science any more. Therefore, the psychology of piano learning requires profound changes in the requirements for both the student and the teacher.

In short, the old system was a system of rules based on historical practices; the new one is a system of methods based on knowledge.

For the students, especially those trained in the old system with rules, the transition from the old to the new ranges from “very easy” to complete confusion. Some students will instantly enjoy the new empowerment and freedom and, within a week, are enjoying the full benefits of the methods. On the other extreme are those students who don’t immediately realize that there are no more rules and are still looking for “new rules” to follow. They are full of questions: When I cycle one hand, is 10 times enough, or do I need 10,000 times? Do I cycle as fast as I can, or at a slower, more accurate speed? Is HS practice necessary, even if I can already play HT? For simple music, HS practice can be awfully boring -- why do I need it? Such questions reveal the extent to which the student has adapted to the new psychology, or failed to adapt. To illustrate, let us psycho-analyze the last question. In order to ask such a question, that person must have been practicing blindly because s/he read that it was necessary to practice HS. In other words, s/he was blindly following a rule. That is not the method of this book. Here, we first define an objective, and then use HS practice to achieve it. This objective might be more secure memory in order to avoid blackouts during performances, or technical development so that when you play HT, you can hear that the playing is based on superior technical skills. When these objectives are achieved, the practice is not boring at all!

For the teacher, there is no question that everything in modern society is based on broad education. There is no need to become a scientist or to study advanced concepts in psychology. Success in the real world is not tied to academic achievements; most successful business entrepreneurs don’t have an MBA. Perhaps the most important advance of modern society is that all these concepts that used to be considered specialized knowledge in advanced fields are becoming easier to understand, not because they have changed, but because a better understanding always simplifies and the teaching methods are always improving. Moreover, we are becoming more familiar with them because we need them more and more in our daily lives. This information age is also making such knowledge more easily accessible. Thus a teacher simply needs to expend the necessary energy to explore, and the results will follow automatically. What will not work is the attitude that a method has been developed for 30 years and therefore should work indefinitely without modification. The teacher needs to adopt a new psychology of open communications and perpetual learning.

Many of us need a psychological device to overcome the unfounded fear of the inability to memorize. In this book, we are not talking about memorizing Fur Elise only. We are talking about a repertoire of over 5 hours of real music, most of which you can just sit down and play at a moment’s notice. Some people have no difficulty memorizing, but most have preconceived notions that memorizing significant repertoires is only for the “gifted” few. For them, accepting the idea that “memorizing large repertoires can be routine” will only come in stages. The main reason for this unfounded fear is the past experience in which students are first taught to play a piece well, then taught to memorize which, as explained in section III.6, is one of the most difficult ways to memorize. Because so many students were taught in this way, and had tremendous difficulties, there is a general perception that memorizing is difficult. For students who were taught correctly from the beginning, memorizing is like second nature; it is an integral part of learning any new composition. For those who have not learned to memorize, the first stage is to incorporate the memorizing into the learning routine, and to understand the concept that learning and memorizing at the same time is actually faster than learning alone -- this concept is often a difficult psychological barrier to overcome. The second stage is to develop a maintenance routine, such as practicing cold, and using finished pieces to warm up your hands instead of exercises, or playing finished pieces for polishing your technique and practicing musical playing. The third stage is to find ways to maintain a large repertoire without forgetting it, such as making sure that you can still play them HS, that you can play them in your head, away from the piano, or that you can play the piece from anywhere in the middle.

Note that with each stage, you will improve your psychological health. For example, the first stage tells you that there is a better way, there is hope. In the second stage, you eliminate the fear of forgetting -- after all, it is just another stage in the memorizing process. In the third stage, you will feel a pride in your achievements and enjoy the real fruits of your efforts -- making music. Thus memorizing is just one example of how knowledge contributes to the psychological health of the pianist.

Nervousness is a particularly difficult psychological barrier to overcome. In order to succeed, you must understand that nervousness is a purely mental process. The present system of railroading young students into recitals without proper psychological preparation is counter productive, and generally produces students that are more prone to nervousness problems than when they started their lessons. Once a student experiences intense nervousness from their piano experience, it can negatively influence anything else that they do that is similar, such as appearing in plays or any other type of public performance. Therefore, the present system is bad for psychological health in general. As discussed in section 15 above, nervousness is an eminently solvable problem for most people and a good program for overcoming nervousness will contribute to mental health because of the pride, joy, and sense of accomplishment that you will feel.

In summary, this new method is devoid of faith (in rules), mystique (of great masters or established schools), or even “talent” (so often fictitious or arbitrary); instead, it is based on psychological devices derived from knowledge. These psychological devices help to nurture a healthy brain. For the student, a healthy psychological approach is an important key to successfully learning to play the piano. A piano teacher must have a deep understanding of the psychology of the piano.