Wednesday, November 02, 2022

The Beaten Path

When the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem you face looks like a nail.

--Abraham Maslow

Go on the beaten path. You won't have as much company as you think.

--Stevens Hewitt

These two seemingly contradictory ideas have been dancing around in my head today, and have started resonating together after my second day of practicing scales on the piano. I have always been an iconoclast, and I have a tendency to imagine that I can get things done by following my own methods. Sometimes it works. I have never been the kind of person who applies a single fingering pattern to scales and scale passages on the violin or the viola, because I like to look for the "solution" to a particular problem that feels most practical and/or most natural.

I thought I could apply this natural approach to piano playing, but I have reached a point where the dirt and dust on the "window" between my brain and my fingers requires a serious cleaning with a tool that I haven't used in a long time. Yesterday I looked into my file cabinet, pulled out the Cramer scale book, and practiced ascending and descending two-handed scales (with their tried-and-true fingerings) for the major and minor keys with sharps. Today I did the keys with flats, which I find to be more difficult than the sharp keys.

What a difference a good tool makes! I am not an proficient scale player by any stretch of the imagination (that will take a few months of daily practice), but I am able to make it into the world of many sharps and many flats in major and minor keys without looking at my hands. It feels kind of like I have taken a bottle of windex and a scouring pad, and have removed a bunch of calcified grime from the inside of my head. I'm looking forward to the day when those pathways will be clean and clear, and will only need wiping.

If I play the piano by ear, I can find the pitches I want, but I can't do it with any kind of speed or physical confidence. If I play viola or violin by ear, I can find the pitches I want, but since I do not have absolute pitch, I often have no clue what pitches I am playing once I venture outside of first and third position and into keys that do not involve open strings.

Perhaps that's why I like reading music so much. Reading the music allows me to spend my energy on other things, like sound, expression, phrasing, and context. As much as I appreciate some aspects of the Suzuki method of musical learning, I feel that learning to play by ear and by memorizing physical motions may not be the best way of learning for everyone. It certainly isn't the best way for me. It might be a quick way to learn in the short run, but I tend to forget things that I learn quickly.

Michael and I have been listening to "Sold a Story," a new podcast from American Public Media that concerns the teaching of reading. Episodes air every Thursday, and we have listened to the first three episodes. Tomorrow we'll get to hear the fourth episode. I wonder if there is a correlation between learning to read by using phonics and learning to play music by learning to read the notes, and I wonder if there is a correlation between teaching reading without incorporating phonics and teaching kids to play without incorporating note reading.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Woah! Nice!