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 of recent years. It is a simple idea which invites piano players to learn a whopping 40 new piano pieces in a year.

There is 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;
  • 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 there are some cautions to consider:

  • 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.

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.

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.

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.