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Riley Music Academy Music Cast: Brain Ache

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Part of my musical life is teaching piano to school kids. Im usually highly impressed by their attitude to learning. They have a very accepting point of view and this leads to a style of progressive learning which has a very steady upwards curve (adults can often spike and then almost plateau). Its something that adult learners can take note of. Kids often just take in a small amount of information and process it without much analysis. Basically, they turn up to there lesson and just get on with it!

I really feel that the teacher makes a difference at this stage as balance is key. I try to ride the line between facts, technique, ear training, creativity and inspiration. It can be tricky sometimes but that keeps the teaching interesting.

The reason I’m babbling on about this is because I was a terrible student and have only really grasped learning new tricks now that I’m left to my own devices. I think quite a few readers are in a similar situation. You are on the musical path and are hungry for information.

I think you have to be careful to not only research the correct information but make sure you don’t try to process too much before your other skills are up to task.

Lets take improvisation as an example:

To create improvised music requires no real experience or technique and it can be a fun and expressive method right from day 1. However, I find that a lot of students really dig into the theory and know way more than their technique will allow them to play. Be it minor ii v i’s, tritone substitutions, modes, alterations, or extensive reharmonisation – if your brain overtakes your playing ability then it can lead to frustration.

Its an easy trap to fall into. Ive done it myself but for the past 2 years Ive really gone back to basics and Ive found that my playing has leapt forward. Sometimes, rather than making your brain ache with information overload, just take a step back and focus on the basics: good tone, proper technique, accuracy, feel, time and execution.

Many of the pros that I work with have this attitude of revisiting very basic concepts and rather than reaching out for more, they retreat inwards to study in far more depth. In this ‘information era’ its all too easy geek out on wikipedia, music forums and ask google every question you can think of. Perhaps just think about what you are truly trying to achieve.

Ill leave you with a sneaky photo. Ive taken on a new pupil and yesterday I noticed that the piece she was working on had ‘one or two’ (!) annotations by her old teacher.

I mean, come on! This girl is 11 years old and trying to read complicated enough piano notation as it is! These frantic pencil markings and annotations are far more hinderance than help in my opinion.

Overload of information leads to brain ache and decreased motivation. Choose wisely and focus.

If you wish to leave a comment then post below


2 Comments Add a Comment
  1. Keith
    October 6, 2016

    Your improvisation example certainly rings true with me. When I was starting out I used to improvise in a free-form way as I didn’t know much better. I thought that most of the resulting solos were pretty good. I then went into a phase where I’d learnt more theory, which I tried to incorporate into my improvisation, and I think that it suffered by becoming more formulaic. Through dogged practice I’m now beginning to feel much more in touch with my instrument (alto sax) and am reverting to a more basic free-form style where my fingers generally follow where my imagination goes. This has (in my humble opinion :-) produced some very good solos lately. It’s a tricky balance to find!

    • Jay
      October 6, 2016

      A tricky balance indeed. If you just stay soloing with your ear its easy to get stuck and play the same old things over and over! Some theory is good and ear training and theory go really well together to move you to the next level but its good to not forget the basics of making a good noise. Thanks for the comment Keith.

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