What Can You Play?

Supporting Your Piano Playing Journey

One of the major stumbling blocks for players is that we too often feel that we are struggling, making little progress, and perhaps just haven’t got what it takes to become a “good player” (however we define what that is).

To enjoy playing an instrument, we need to move beyond this negative self-talk. And I suggest that one of the most easy and powerful ways we can achieve this is to adjust the balance between working and playing during our personal piano time.

Which brings us to the question,

“What can you play?”

Playing at the edge of our ability

Many of us devote all, or at least most of our “practice” time to working on pieces which are at the far edge of our present ability. This is surely a mistake.

Early in lessons, we can slip into a routine where we:

  • learn the next piece in the book
  • get it ready for the lesson
  • play/perform for our teacher
  • have the piece “signed off” as “finished”.

And then a new piece is set, full of fresh challenge!

Too quickly we become preoccupied with that new challenge, rather than taking time to enjoy the fruits of our previous effort.

We soon forget the piece that we only just mastered, or at least managed to play a single time satisfactorily in a lesson. But with nothing that we can readily play well, we begin to wonder whether we will ever get to a point of being able to play at all.

What can I really play?

Surely we should be able if we walk into a hotel lobby and see a shiny grand piano to sit down and play a few pieces without warning, without embarrassment, and without sheet music?

I know from talking to students that this is what most of them would like to be able to do. So what is our answer (and those of our students) to this simple question:

“What can you play?”

Lucinda Mackworth-Young, who is Director for The Piano Teachers’ Course UK and the well-known author of the acclaimed Tuning In: Practical Psychology for Musicians and Piano by Ear, recently pointed out,

“Even with a good result at Grade 8, we are unable to play anything – even Happy Birthday, unless the notation is put in front of us. It’s not a situation that anyone in music education should be proud of.”

Certainly I have met many pianists and taken on many students who can’t play anything from memory apart from scales and arpeggios, and nobody wants to listen to those in a hotel lobby!

So often the answer to the question “what can you play” goes something like this:

“At the moment, I’m working on [piece name], but I can’t yet play it. It’s been a while since I played my previous piece, and I’m not sure I could still play it now.”

The simplified response is thus: “I can’t play anything”.

How can we overcome the sense of crushing failure that accompanies this answer?

Towards a Solution

It seems to me that all players need to prioritise developing an ongoing Active Repertoire of pieces which we love playing, which we play well, and which build our confidence and break the cycle of frustration.

We need to rejoice in what we can do instead of perpetually wallowing in what we can’t. We need to readjust the balance between working at the piano and playing the piano, and in simple educational terms, between challenge and consolidation.

I ask my students to keep at least three pieces in their Active Repertoire, meaning that they are willing and able to play them any time I ask. Using the Active Repertoire Challenge sheet, they track their repertoire and I can help make sure that they are actually learning to play the piano.

They have the choice of whether or not they wish to continue playing a piece. Inevitably, there are some pieces they enjoy more than others, and those ones make it onto the list. Ideally, if not inevitably, these repertoire pieces are soon memorised too.

Working vs. Playing

Some students are quite surprised by how difficult learning the piano is, and specifically by the amount (and quality) of work that goes into developing their technique, reading, learning new pieces, and so on.

Playing the piano well isn’t easy, and nor would it be nearly so rewarding were it so. It’s necessary to instil a good understanding and strategy for personal practice and ongoing progress. We teachers must model these in the lesson, and be sure that the players we teach can continue making progress independently throughout the rest of the week.

But if our piano journey becomes all work and no play, then frustration, disappointment and lack of musical engagement will very quickly set in.

Here are some of the ways we can move on from working at the piano and towards actually playing the piano:

  • Go over pieces in our Active Repertoire list, keeping them performance ready at all times;
  • Look for new musical details in those pieces, discoveries which we may have missed;
  • Experiment with different interpretations of those pieces too;
  • Memorise our Active Repertoire pieces so that we can play them by heart and from the heart;
  • Improvise and compose new music of our own;
  • Seek a deeper engagement with all the music we play, and with the sound of the piano itself.

But even these strategies can have an element of work about them if our mindset is out of balance. Ultimately I would suggest that we are truly playing the piano when all reservation goes, and we can simply revel in the music we are making.

The 40 Piece Challenge

Discussion of our repertoire priorities leads us to a consideration of the so-called 40 Piece Challenge, a simple but currently popular idea which invites piano players to learn a whopping 40 new pieces a year.

Extrinsic rewards come aplenty in the form of certificates, stickers, prizes, counting down and ticking off the pieces. There are some obvious benefits here, but very significant and important cautions too.

Musicians need to understand that tackling more advanced, time-consuming repertoire is hugely important, engaging and rewarding. As we progress, we need to embrace pieces which challenge us technically, musically, creatively and emotionally. The pianist’s progress is not simply a string of “quick wins”. The most enriching music must be lived with, requiring extended practice and in-depth lesson time.

It is even more important to be mindful that the rewards-based ethos of the 40 Piece Challenge is predicated on extrinsic motivation, meaning it could result in the dreaded overjustification effect. Short-term gains thus come at the potential cost of damage to the player’s longer-term intrinsic motivation.

Ultimately, those considering adopting this challenge, whether as players or teachers, would be wise to reflect on the following questions (as indeed should all of us who believe in a repertoire-rich approach):

  • Which pieces truly stretched me as a musician?
  • Which pieces developed my artistic engagement with music?
  • What can I say about the music I play? What did it mean to me? Did I truly cherish this music?
  • How many pieces have I performed or shared with others, either in a formal or informal setting?
  • Which pieces could I still perform today, with musical commitment, and without prior notice, notation, or further practice?
  • What can I really play?

Getting A Balance

If we want to be properly prepared for our hotel lobby moment, we need to adjust our focus. We need to genuinely learn, understand and internalise pieces, rather than simply crunching through the notes of one after another.

Playing Piano

Here’s my Top Three recommendations:

1: Develop an Active Repertoire

My top recommendation for all players is to have three pieces we enjoy playing as our Active Repertoire today.

The list will change as we learn new pieces and discard older ones. But it’s great to always keep three pieces that can be played at the drop of a hat, and when friends say “play us a tune”!

Play these three pieces for pleasure, and daily if possible. Allow them to become embedded in your memory and in your heart.

Why not commit to the Active Repertoire Challenge today?

2: Develop your Core Skills

Secondly, we really have to concentrate on developing our core skills and musical language, properly understanding scales, chords, structure and harmony. 

These are the building blocks from which we can create our own music, and can properly understand, tackle, remember and enjoy the works of other composers.

As we continue our piano journey, it remains important to ensure we are growing into well-rounded musicians across the three main dimensions of musical learning: Musical Mind, Body and Soul.

3: Develop a more balanced approach

Thirdly, let’s devote no more than two thirds of our piano time to working, and at least one third to playing and enjoying music. 

I strive for that same balance in lessons too. It isn’t always easy. It certainly isn’t conventional. But it seems to me that without play, we can so quickly and easily lose motivation.

At their best, work and play can blend into one. It is undoubtedly as this happens that our intrinsic love of music and motivation for practice develop their deepest roots. Being able to PLAY is the whole reason most of us took up the piano in the first place!

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Published by

Andrew Eales

Andrew Eales is a widely respected piano educator, writer and composer based in Milton Keynes UK. His book HOW TO PRACTISE MUSIC is published by Hal Leonard.