William Minter is a teacher and composer living in Connecticut. He is the author of Journeys, a piano series for intermediate learners.
Here, William reflects on his piano journey, and sets out the many motivations which have kept him engaged in playing …
A closer look at engagement in piano playing
I have played the piano for over 25 years. Thinking over that period of time, I have lived in many places and changed a lot as a person, but the piano has remained a constant in my life.
If you asked me why I play piano, I would probably reply that I play because it’s fun, or because I like it.
But these answers don’t really say what exactly draws me to playing and learning the piano. So what follows is a deeper explanation. I hope that by sharing my own experience, I can shed some light on engagement in music in general.
What got me started on piano in the first place was admiration.
At age 7, I was amazed by how well my friend’s mother played the piano. I knew she was a great player because she was playing on both the white and black keys. Not only that, she was playing without looking at the keyboard! So, I signed up for lessons.
The desire to be like someone else is still a strong motivating factor for me. I recently saw a concert by the incredible Marc-André Hamelin and returned home fired up to improve my own playing. Seeing him play a piece from Schumann’s Waldszenen inspired me to get the book and learn it myself.
Often, I play for others’ approval.
I’m sure everyone else shares this to a certain degree. At some level, performing the piano is a way of showing off my skills and impressing people.
Thankfully, music is more than just showing off, but I’ll be honest and admit that it is part of my experience. I think a classic piece that has a high approval to difficulty ratio would be C.P.E. Bach’s Solfeggietto. I liked to play this blindingly fast as a teenager to attempt to impress my friends.
Ease & Difficulty
A lot of piano books have the word easy in the title. This gives us a clue about another motivation: to play because it is easy to do so.
Often, when I sit at the piano, I’m not ready to challenge myself and would prefer to play through something easy. This is why I’m a fan of Moszkowski’s music: it fits under the fingers so easily. For example, his Op. 77 Dix Pièces Mignonnes are a breeze to play.
Having said that easy was a motivating factor, oddly enough, so is difficult.
A case in point would be the masterpiece Iberia by Albéniz. I’m sure I’ll never be able to perform these pieces, but they hold such a fascination, they keep drawing me back to attempt them again and again. I think there’s something in their complexity, odd mechanics, syncopation, and clustered notes that just sets them apart from other repertoire, and all of these techniques can be called difficult.
It’s a special kind of difficulty, however – I don’t get the same buzz from picking up Hanon.
I’m horrible at meditating. Try as I might, I haven’t worked out how to concentrate on my breath and empty my mind.
Playing the piano could be the closest I get to a meditative state: I get so focused on the music that I stop thinking about my worries. Relaxation has to be a top reason why I return to the piano.
For this, Bach’s French Overture seems to work best for me. It’s what I reach for when I just want to immerse myself, and not think about anything else.
It’s hard to define, but the ability to create a beautiful sound is a motivating factor for me.
You could probably describe any music as a beautiful sound, so perhaps this isn’t a logical reason for wanting to play music. However, to my ear, some piano pieces sound more beautiful than others.
At the top of my list would be Schubert’s Piano Sonata in B-flat (D960).
Finally, playing piano connects with a larger sense of culture.
Playing the piano is not possible without the input of others: either the composer, or the traditions and songs that shape my ideas of music.
To put it another way, I think it’s virtually impossible to improvise original music – however much I would like to play music purely from my own brain, I can’t help but play what has come before.
So, whenever I play a note, I’m playing an echo of the accumulation of a long tradition. I like this connection: it makes me part of something bigger.
How can we use the knowledge of what creates engagement in music?
For one thing, it can inform an engagement-based pedagogy. If a student is not enjoying the piano, perhaps a closer look at the sources of motivation can help.
I hope these thoughts can encourage other people to look deeply at their own motivation when they sit down and play.
William Minter is a teacher, author and composer from Connecticut. Originally from the UK, he started his career in languages, studying Chinese at the University of Oxford and East Asian Studies at Yale University, where he specialized in classical Chinese literature.
After teaching for several years, in 2018 he started a music publishing company, KOA Music, to share his compositions with others. His first series is Journeys, six piano albums for early-intermediate to advanced learners.