Supporting Educators • Promoting Learning
Written by ANDREW EALES
Understanding the importance of the three dimensions of musical learning, Musical Mind, Musical Body and Musical Soul, empowers us to teach, learn and practise music holistically, and make more effective and lasting progress at the piano.
Paying attention to all three dimensions in equal balance gives us a solid educational philosophy, a foundation for practice, and the insight needed to foster deeper learning. Teachers have long done exactly this, knowingly or intuitively, to deliver a well-rounded music education.
While the concept of a “three-dimensional” pianist may sound new or even exotic, it really isn’t. All successful musicians engage Musical Mind, Body and Soul in their performance. The purpose of the terminology and perspective shared here is simply to illuminate more clearly what it is that makes some more successful at the piano than others.
In this article I will consider these three dimensions of musical learning in turn, explaining how we can nurture and monitor each, and suggesting how our recognition of Musical Mind, Body, and Soul can help us develop as teachers, learners, and players.
What are the three dimensions?
The “three dimensions” relate to three domains of our core identity, all equally essential to the development of the three-dimensional pianist:
Musical MIND • literacy / analysis / understanding
Musical BODY • technique / choreography / breathing
Musical SOUL • audiation / expression / creativity
There is considerable overlap here, each dimension of learning nourished by the other two, which is why a holistic approach to musical development is so essential. Taking care not to neglect one or more dimension in our playing and teaching, we can help ourselves and our students become more effective learners, and well-rounded musicians.
As listeners we process music in these three dimensions too, each affecting our response and central to our appreciation. Not everyone can identify precisely what they admire or dislike in a performance, but most can spot when playing is “two-dimensional”, marred by poor musical understanding, technique, or a lack of expression.
And it is noteworthy that music assessment often evaluates the player’s competences in each of the same three dimensions:
Musical MIND • sight-reading / written theory / discussion
Musical BODY • scales / studies / technical precision
Musical SOUL • listening tests / interpretation / improvisation
Clearly then, it is widely (if not always explicitly) recognised that these three dimensions contribute to higher-level musical activities such as the playing of repertoire, solo or with others, memorising, performing, recording and communicating music with confidence.
The following Three-Dimensional Learning Overview offers a simple summary of these relationships, including specific suggestions for how we can develop as musicians and monitor progress as we go:
Let’s look at each of the three dimensions in a little more detail now…
People sometimes allude to the musician’s “inner ear”, talk about allowing our “creative juices to flow” and about “being in the zone”.
Beethoven’s legendary quip that “to play without passion is inexcusable” points us toward the importance of nurturing our Musical Soul, which is the expressive and creative impetus at the heart of our playing.
I believe that the most fundamental way our Musical Soul can be nurtured and developed is through attentively listening to an abundance of music. The value of our listening can be further enhanced through careful, progressive aural training.
And permission to playfully explore music can fan the creative spark into a flame. In my book How to Practise Music I explain the importance of play within learning, going on to outline the crucial importance of improvisation:
“Improvisation is perhaps the truest form of play in our practice, because it is simply about playing fresh musical ideas with freedom and intention. This has huge benefits for our overall development as musicians.”
The benefits here go far beyond simply “noodling” at the piano. The more powerful and engaged the Musical Soul, the more readily the player will be able to pick up pieces by ear, copy and assimilate musical phrasing, and develop expressivity in their interpretations.
It is not unusual to come across players who know exactly how they want their music to sound and why, but who simply cannot reproduce that music when sat at the piano. It would obviously be a mistake to underestimate the importance of developing good technique and fluent playing ability.
When I speak of our Musical Body, all the physical aspects of playing need consideration. This obviously includes finger independence, tone control, and mechanical fluency, but I mean the term more broadly to incorporate our overall and entire physical state and engagement at the piano.
From fingers to wrists, from elbows to shoulders, from the waist to our posture and to our feet, our whole corporeal body is present in our piano playing. Beyond the visible, our playing can of course be impacted by our mood, chemical balance, and general health.
For optimum performance we of course want our Musical Body to be healthy, mindful, controlled and fluid. This is why stretching exercises, breathwork and meditation are increasingly understood to be helpful for piano playing.
Having first considered our general wellbeing, the most important way that our Musical Body can be trained is through practice, through which we develop the mechanics of our movement, kinaesthetic memory, and secure our physical ability to realise our musical intentions through our instrument.
While we are nurturing our Musical Soul through listening and developing our Musical Body through practice and taking care of ourselves physically, we must also foster our Musical Mind through a commitment to learning that has both depth and breadth.
This might include learning:
- how to read and write music fluently;
- an understanding of music theory, and compositional techniques;
- a knowledge of historical, social and cultural background;
- an awareness of the background and genesis of the piece itself;
- and ultimately some insight into the mind of the composer;
- and into our own mind, engagement and motivation.
It is possible to travel a fair distance as a player simply by copying pieces by rote, for example from a YouTube video, or by imitating a teacher. But we cannot rely on the Musical Body alone; the limitations of such “learning” always become apparent sooner or later.
It can also be limiting if teachers allow students to focus almost exclusively on the music they already enjoy, rather than broadening their knowledge of musical style. A growing understanding of any music’s context and meaning can be inspiring, adding far more relevance and depth to learning.
The most important way that Musical Mind can be developed is through proper teaching. As learners, we “don’t know what we don’t know”. A good teacher will quickly spot any gaps in understanding, and can help their students develop, process and apply their knowledge.
To help players develop as three-dimensional pianists, teachers must focus from the very start of lessons on nurturing the Musical Mind, Body and Soul equally and holistically. Where one becomes more or less involved in the learning process than the rest, problems soon emerge.
By elementary level, some already struggle to learn new music without one or other of these stimuli: notation (Mind), demonstration (Body) or listening (Soul). They have come to over-depend on their strengths, and too little attention has been given to gaps in understanding, physical fluency or expressive engagement.
Our goal from the start must be to help learners become three-dimensional pianists. And we can use the Three-Dimensional Learning Overview to trace the causes of any roadblocks or problems encountered along the way, thereby identifying a medium-term developmental focus. We can equally use the Overview to realise those strengths which can be leveraged to help.
Let me give you a simple example. Jane is struggling to play the B minor scale. Perhaps she doesn’t have a functional understanding (Musical Mind) of the key signature and theory. She may be tripping up because she isn’t using consistent fingering, or due to tension (Musical Body). She may not have noticed that the scale sounds wrong the way she plays it (Musical Soul).
We can help Jane by pinpointing the root cause of her difficulty, reinforcing teaching to address the specific shortcomings that have emerged in this context (in the medium term), while also enabling her to leverage her strengths in order to fix the scale (in the short term).
To summarise the point: a good teacher will be aware, whether consciously or intuitively, of the complexity of three-dimensional piano playing. They will have short-term strategies to fix problems, and longer-term strategies to promote balanced learning in all three dimensions.
As a reflective and diagnostic model in my own teaching, I have found that remembering the importance of Musical Mind, Body and Soul in piano playing helps me to:
- teach more holistically, and with better understanding
- structure balance into my teaching practice
- more accurately identify and address roadblocks in learning
- deliver more effective, personalised learning support
- assess student progress more accurately and meaningfully
Finally, how can an understanding of the three dimensions of musical learning help the self-directed learner or adult returner working alone? As players, how can we all benefit from using this simple, holistic framework to monitor, understand and improve at the piano?
Most players know what their areas of weakness are, and will hopefully find the Three-Dimensional Learning Overview a useful reflective tool. But having seen a need to strengthen our Musical Mind, Body and Soul, how do we actually go about doing that?
My Hal Leonard publication How to Practise Music includes sections on each and every one of the areas for development covered in this article, offering an array of simple, practical suggestions that I believe answer this question and will enable you to succeed.
I don’t claim to offer any magical memory tricks or exclusive miracle hacks. The book simply delivers top tried-and-tested strategies which have been used by the world’s best musicians for years, with tips that will nourish all three dimensions of your musical learning.
The little handbook is easy to read, inexpensive, but could prove to be one of the most helpful investments you make in your musical journey.
And using this information, if you can apply yourself equally the the development of Musical Mind, Body and Soul, I can predict that you will make secure progress at the piano, and soon have an Active Repertoire of pieces which you can perform with understanding, ease and confidence.
We can all become three-dimensional pianists!
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