What Can You Play?

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 even 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 all achieve this is to adjust the balance between working and playing during our personal piano time.

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!)

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 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?”

It’s a question which has played on my mind quite a bit in recent months, not least because it is one regularly posed by Lucinda Mackworth-Young, Course Director for the EPTA Piano Teachers’ Course and well known author of the acclaimed Tuning In: Practical Psychology for Musicians (MMM Publications) and Piano by Ear (Faber Music).

Lucinda recently pointed out in a blog comment, adopting the voice of too many pianists today:

“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!”

Lucinda Mackworth-Young

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 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.

This is one of the things that I love about Sofie Kay’s Practice Notebooks, which I have reviewed here: they include space at the back where the player can list all the pieces that they have added to their repertoire.

I give my students a choice about whether of not they wish to continue playing a piece or not. Inevitably, there are some pieces they enjoy more than others, and those ones make it onto the list. I have begun to ask them to keep at least three pieces in their “Active Repertoire”, meaning that they are willing and able to play them any time I ask.

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. It 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

This discussion of musical priorities brings me, somewhat inadvertently, to the 40 Piece Challenge, undoubtedly one of the most striking initiatives within the piano world in recent years. It is a simple idea which invites piano players to learn a whopping 40 new piano pieces in a year.

There is so much to commend about this idea:

  • It is a huge improvement on a stagnant approach focussed on a very small number of pieces per year for exam or competition use;
  • Participants may well gravitate to easier pieces rather than more advanced music, meaning that consolidation is to some extent inevitable;
  • The challenge is a great strategy for improving sight-reading skills;
  • Participants are likely to explore a wider variety of music;
  • The challenge provides a rather sporty motivation for ongoing work at the piano, which will certainly appeal to some.

But here are the cautions:

  • Attempting too many pieces in relatively quick succession can prove just as frustrating as learning too few;
  • Tackling more advanced, time-consuming repertoire is important. We need to embrace pieces which challenge us technically, musically, creatively and emotionally;
  • Playing by ear, from memory, and creating our own music have importance within the musician’s development, and must not be neglected in the pursuit of any challenge which is notation-driven;
  • Without care, learning can become routinely shallow.

The 40 Piece Challenge website includes a suggested repertoire page – but the recommendations there are all book-based (and somewhat dated in any case: for more up-to-date repertoire reviews that reflect what’s current in the UK market, click here).

My guess is that many of those who follow the challenge don’t include their own original pieces and improvisations in their tick-box tally. And with such a challenge, what time is left for consolidation or for developing creativity?

Certainly if we emphasise (and reward with a certificate) the sheer quantity of repertoire attempted rather than quality of musical engagement and learning, there’s a real danger of exacerbating the problem of book-dependency that Lucinda Mackworth-Young highlights.

Ultimately, those who decide to have a go at this challenge would be wise to ask themselves the following questions:

  • How many of the 40 pieces have I shared with others, either playing within a formal or informal setting?
  • How many of the 40 pieces could I perform today, with musical commitment, and without prior notice or further practice?
  • How many of the 40 pieces can I play from memory, without notation?
  • How many of the 40 pieces do I really cherish?
  • How many of the 40 pieces can I hear in my head, with all the details?
  • How many pieces of my own have I created this year?

This brings us, ultimately, back to our original, and most pressing, question:

What can I really play?

Getting A Balance

Playing Piano

If we want to be properly prepared for our hotel lobby moment, we surely 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.

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 join in with the Pianodao Active Repertoire Project today?

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. And I will be returning to develop this theme in a blog post very soon!

Thirdly, I recommend that we devote just half of our piano time to working, and the rest of the time 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.

Getting the right balance between work and play at the piano is a sure way to stay motivated, foster musical enjoyment, stave off frustration, and develop confidence as the true musicians that we no doubt want to be and can be.

Put simply, being able to PLAY is the whole reason most of us took up the piano in the first place!

I would like to thank Paul Harris and Lucinda Mackworth-Young here for their kind advice and support.

Published by

Andrew Eales

Andrew Eales is a pianist, writer and teacher based in Milton Keynes UK. He runs a successful independent teaching studio and music education business, Keyquest Music.

13 thoughts on “What Can You Play?”

  1. It’s so important to remember that actually playing – and enjoying it – is what we want our pupils to do.
    We are fortunate at E-MusicMaestro to have a regular contributor, piano teacher Janet Noakes, writing The Useful Pianist blog which focuses on how teachers can help students to become all-round pianists who are able to ‘just sit down and play’. You’ll find the first in the series at https://www.e-musicmaestro.com/blog/18/the-useful-pianist-1-eight-useful-skills-that-every-pianist-needs

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Elissa, many thanks for providing readers with this additional information. The website linked to is the one which appears on google, and seems to present itself as official, offering full details of the initiate, the certificates, etc. The specific page I linked to is, it would seem, actually written by you!

    I am sure you will agree that where the 40 piece challenge becomes a book-driven note-crunching exercise, this isn’t a good thing. I’m grateful that you have taken a moment to clarify that for some it is more than that!


  3. The 40 Piece Challenge website you link to isn’t *THE* 40 Piece Challenge website, Andrew, it’s just the website that was once put together by Hal Leonard Australia. It’s just one local initiative, not the summation of what a 40 Piece Challenge approach can or should be.

    I’d recommend anyone interested in this approach take a look at an article I wrote about the evolution of the 40 Piece Challenge – lots of links included. https://elissamilne.wordpress.com/2015/02/04/where-did-the-40-piece-challenge-begin/

    Your criticisms of the challenge are appropriately levelled at the specific website you’ve linked to, but that website is not representative of the whole initiative…


  4. Yes, what a sensitive topic! It is the biggest mistake of our piano journey, but really difficult to equip our pupils for such a situation. It takes so much time and they have to WANT to do it and it is a big commitment. For most, it just doesn’t ‘happen’, especially for those who don’t naturally memorise. Whilst it would be the ideal scenario – everyone can pass themselves on the hotel piano, I think there can be issues of, even if you can ‘pass yourself’, that there is little or no satisfaction in what one is ‘passing oneself’ with. It just doesn’t come close to what you know you can do. I also think part of the problem is that this sort of opportunity doesn’t present itself very often, so is the investment actually worth it? As for pianos at tube stations – lets practise on those. However, I think most people feel intimidated now due to all the wonderful performances posted on the internet. Daniel Dunn mentioned ‘becoming “one” with the piano’ as the ultimate goal. Unfortunately that doesn’t involve the hotel piano. I don’t have any answers to this. How I wish I did. Just a few thoughts . . .

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Excellent article Andrew. Thoroughly enjoyed it. It’s so very true, that many marvellous piano players just can’t pull out tunes out when they have no music. It can often make a talented musician look foolish, especially if they’re put on the spot like that. It’s amazing timing, as I just had my own “Hotel Lobby” experience while on holidays here in Malaysia.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. An excellent article Andrew, and for this student who’s still working through Grade 1, it raises some fascinating issues. Learning to play Scarborough Fair or Trumpet Tune or any of the other G1 pieces is a challenge and an exciting one, so if I can play (well and by heart) all the music within the G1 handbook (about 12 pieces), then from my point of view I’m well on the way to the next level!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Great article Andrew! I agree that often time we are so engrossed in working out the challenges in a repertoire and we do not dedicate time to just PLAY. Josef Lhevin, the one and only student of Anton Rubinstein taught that for college student should not spend more than 4 hours a day practicing. Best time to practice is in the morning, 2 hours at a time. Morning hour should be devoted to technical aspects like scales and Czerny or Etudes. Later in the after, 1 hour is to be spent for working through challenging area in a piece and leaving the next hour to just play and be creative. For non college music student, practice three quarter of the hour on technical and challenging area, leaving the last 15 mins to play and have fun. Balancing ACT!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Wonderful article! Brings to the front of my attention what has often been neglected in my teaching and in my own playing. Thank you!!! I’m off to brushing up on my old favorites!

    Liked by 1 person

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