Putting the PLAY back into Playing the Piano

Supporting Educators • Promoting Learning

A Radical Manifesto for Piano Education

According to Plato, “life must be lived as play”.
How might this attitude to life benefit piano education?
We teach others to play the piano, but what do we really mean by play?

In my book How to Practise Music (Hal Leonard, 2022) I mention four key properties of play identified by Stuart Brown in his excellent Play, How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul (2009).

Longstanding readers may recognise that I also discussed these properties in a much earlier blog post, The Playful Piano Teacher, published on Pianodao back in 2017. And it is a topic I have continued to ponder, yielding lessons that I have sought to apply in the intervening years.

I believe that it is more imperative than ever to unpack, understand and apply these lessons. In this article, I will therefore discuss all seven of the properties Dr. Brown lists in his seminal book, reassessing how each directly relates to teaching and playing the piano. And here they are:

  • Play is apparently purposeless
  • Play is voluntary
  • Play is inherently attractive
  • Play is free from time
  • Play diminishes our consciousness of self
  • Play has improvisational potential
  • Play creates a desire to continue

Notice firstly that Brown’s properties of play pertain to an authentic play state rather than to the gameplay that increasingly dominates education. While these are not, of course, mutually exclusive, the latter is more typically competitive, sequentially task-orientated and goal-driven.

A consideration of Brown’s seven properties will show that the gamification of learning is far removed from the authentic play state he extols. So let’s consider each of the seven carefully.

1. Play is apparently purposeless

What is the point of playing the piano?

When students appear for lessons I generally enquire why they want to learn. Occasionally they don’t know. Some, happily, want to develop and share their existing love of music through a collaborative and practical engagement with it.

Parents frequently reel off a list of targets and attainments. They cite grade exam success, getting into a better school, or collecting UCAS points as key indicators of a successful outcome to piano lessons. They aren’t altogether wrong, but from a pianist’s perspective these can seem disappointingly limited aspirations, lacking in long-term ambition.

In his Forward to Pasi Sahlberg & William Doyle’s book Let the Children Play (2019), Sir Ken Robinson writes,

“Evidently, many adults think children’s play is an enjoyable leisure activity, but unimportant compared to other priorities, especially in education. In the last 20 years or so, public policies in education have put unprecedented pressures on schools, teachers, and students to demonstrate academic achievement through endless batteries of standardised tests.”

As in mainstream schooling, so too in music education: graded exams (our very own battery of standardised tests) are for many the beginning, middle and often disappointing end of their musical journey. Adult learners can even fall into the same unfortunate trap.

As teachers (and I’ve put the word in bold for a reason that will become clear), I believe we have a basic professional and human responsibility to offer something different and fundamentally better. We need to regain our passion for extolling the value of music in its own right.

Brown tells us,

“Play activities don’t seem to have any survival value. They don’t help in getting money or food. They are not done for their practical value. Play is done for its own sake. That’s why some people think of it as a waste of time.”

Brown tells the story of Hudson, a Canadian sled dog.

He cites researcher Brian La Doone, who found himself watching intently as a twelve-hundred-pound polar bear closed in on Hudson, heading straight across the snowfield where the sled dogs were staked. Unable to reach him in time to intervene, La Doone assumed the hungry bear would swiftly dispatch and devour the defenceless dog.

What happened next astonished him:

“Hudson didn’t bark or flee. Instead, he wagged his tail and bowed, a classic play signal… the bear responded to the dog’s invitation. Bear and sled dog began a playful romp in the snow, both opening their mouths without baring their teeth, with “soft eye” contact and flattened hair instead of raised hackles, all signalling that each was not a threat.”

Brown poignantly relates how polar bear and sled dog befriend one another. He paints a picture of the bear eventually lumbering away, still hungry, only to return at the same time daily for further “play dates” with Hudson.

And it isn’t the only story Brown uses to illustrate the point that play exists throughout nature, from mammals to birds to fish to insects, and that it has its own value which can often transcend evolutionary imperatives and pack expectations.

We hear many arguments for the benefits of playing an instrument, but regardless what these might be, music is simply wonderful and life-enhancing in its own right. And human beings are no less deserving or inclined towards play for its own sake than any other species.

Teacher Take-Away
Consider what proportion of each learner’s musical activity is done purely for its own sake, rather than driven by external goals, and whether the balance needs adjustment.

2. Play is voluntary

At face value, Brown’s second property of play should be easy to understand. A person either wishes to play the piano, or they don’t.

Piano teachers may have observed that unwelcome parental pressure to learn the piano can put a child off music altogether. It seems unwise to force anyone to learn an instrument.

However, it is worth considering the point that the younger child might not know whether they are interested in playing the piano until their parents give them the opportunity to try. Engagement can be triggered by play.

As the player matures, the question of volition becomes entangled with the more knotty issue of motivation. The attraction of extrinsic rewards and certificates wanes for all but the most driven competitors, and we must be mindful of the high importance of fostering the ongoing intrinsic motivation that lies at the heart of play.

Teacher Take-Away
Consider what it is that motivates each learner, and how greater engagement and a lifelong love of music can be fostered.

3. Play is inherently attractive

According to Brown,

“Play has inherent attraction. It’s fun. It makes you feel good. It provides psychological arousal (that’s how behavioural scientists say that something is exciting). It is a cure for boredom.”

Do our students enjoy and look forward to their lessons and other musical activities? Would an onlooker want to join in?

From the moment I discovered Mozart, aged eight, I was hooked on music. But not all learners start out with this zeal, and to some extent it is the role of the teacher to impart it to them.

By tailoring lessons to the individual interests of the student, customising their curriculum to accommodate music that aligns with their preferences alongside that which expands their knowledge and curiosity, we can enhance learning and add to the attraction of piano playing,

The personality of the teacher can also make a huge difference to the learning experience. Most of us have positive memories of a knowledgeable and passionate teacher who inspired and motivated us. Their expertise, teaching style, and ability to make the lesson interesting greatly enhanced their subject’s attractiveness to us.

Creating a warm, supportive atmosphere depends on giving feedback in an encouraging manner. When lessons are approached with a friendly attitude and positive energy, rather than with strict formality and a lesson plan, there will be more scope for the learner to self-express and grow their enthusiasm.

Teacher Take-Away
Consider how to shift the atmosphere in lessons to a more positive, collaborative one.

4. Play is free from time

When we engage in play, we tend to lose track of time and enter a state of flow where, fully immersed and driven by curiosity and enjoyment, our focus is entirely on the present moment and the activity at hand.

The Hungarian-American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi coined the term flow state to describe this deep immersion. Centuries earlier, the daoist sages similarly recognised a state of apparently effortless progress which they called wu wei.

Playing the piano with expressive musicality ultimately involves this high level of engagement and concentration. In my book How to Practise Music, I write about the Deep Dive practise session, in which hours can seem like minutes or vice versa.

When we engage in piano playing for the sheer pleasure and enjoyment it brings, we can make immense discoveries and progress without so much as noticing the passage of time. The demands and pressures of everyday life dissolve, and we temporarily detach ourselves from the constraints of scheduled responsibilities and obligations.

As teachers we need to learn how to guide learners towards this special state, while remaining alert to the focus of the lesson and mindful of our own timetable. In the best lessons, I have found that the learner can be surprised to discover that their lesson time is up and that they need to leave!

Teacher Take-Away
Consider the extent to which lesson activities flow seamlessly and spontaneously, and whether learners are truly absorbed.

5. Play diminishes our consciousness of self

Not only do we lose track of time, but we suspend our usual self-conscious thoughts as our focus shifts to the object or activity of our play.

While it is important to evaluate the quality of our piano playing, we must also welcome those moments when we become so absorbed in it that we let go of self-criticism and judgment. This allows us to relax and be more spontaneous, and as learning becomes more enjoyable it also becomes more memorable.

Paul Pethick explains in his book Power of Play (2021):

“To play is to be freed from restrictions, with an unbounded sense of possibility. This is the evolutionary value of play as an attitude: it makes us flexible. In play mode we’re much more sensitively attuned to the world, filled with fresh ways of relating to people, ideas and situations.”

Importantly, play benefits from a collaborative social dimension. When we engage in play with others, we shift our attention to the shared experience, and this fosters a sense of connection, acceptance and belonging.

In piano lessons, a more collaborative approach (including but not limited to playing duets and ensemble music) leads to a stronger sense of participation, a bespoke voyage of musical discovery in which goals, progress and a sense of ownership are shared.

Teacher Take-Away
Consider the extent to which learners are taking risks, forgetting themselves and enjoying shared music-making in lessons.

6. Play has improvisational potential

A playful approach to musical learning creates the supportive and exploratory environment needed to nurture creativity and spontaneity.

In my book How to Practise Music, I write,

“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.”

Naturally, I elaborate on those benefits in the book, and they include the development of technical accomplishment, understanding, expression, communication, ownership, interpretations, aural acuity, internalisation, and musical foresight.

Okay, so that’s a big list of musical qualities that are all helped immensely by including improvisation in our practise, and by extension in our teaching. Without the playful approach that improvisation brings, developing these skills can be hard work. Have you noticed how some educators emphasise effort over enjoyment?

With a playful approach, the lesson itself can become an improvisation in which we throw out the “lesson plan”, teacher and learner effectively collaborating to find out where curiosity and creative engagement with the music will lead. By fostering an atmosphere of curiosity and exploration, students feel more comfortable taking risks and trying out new things.

Improvisation in its broadest sense, from the structure of the lesson to its content, becomes the glue that fuses learning and play as one.

Teacher Take-Away
Consider the role played by musical exploration and improvisation in lessons, and how this is connected to other areas of learning.

7. Play creates a desire to continue

Encouraging a lifelong love of music is a goal most parents and teachers nominally ascribe to, but which rather fewer pursue with an understanding of the psychology of motivation and enjoyment.

Playful learning taps into intrinsic motivation, making lessons and practice more enjoyable, meaningful, and personally rewarding. We embrace a mindset of discovery, encourage learners to express themselves authentically, and fuel their enthusiasm for discovering fresh wonderment at the piano.

In tandem with this, teachers can incorporate elements of challenge and progression, gifting learners with opportunities to set and achieve their own autonomous goals, overcome obstacles, experience a sense of accomplishment, and witness their own musical growth.

And it is at this point that we can circle back to considering the usefulness of exams, festivals, performances and other external goals, having now arrived at the playful state in which we can approach all of these as their captor, rather than as their captive.

Teacher Take-Away
Consider adapting current learning goals and musical content where needed to reduce the likelihood of learners losing interest.

The future of piano teaching

Looking to the future, Pethick (2021) suggests:

“The ideal education for the people of tomorrow will mould voracious learners, with an endless curiosity about the world and its possibilities. Children who want to understand the how and why of everything; courageous enough to think un-thinkables and take risks just to see what will happen. These are the qualities needed to keep the adults of the next decades afloat in the choppy waters of change. Explorers, investigators, tinkerers, growers. Yes, in a word, players.

Unfortunately, what it seems we tend to breed, in too many cases, is the student-as-customer. Learners who’ve been conditioned to select and obtain tick-box qualifications in the most efficient transactions possible. They sit on one side of the counter, and on the other side are the educators, handing over packages of knowledge in neat servings. All done in efficiently auditable ways.”

With the rise of artificial intelligence, machine learning, spatial computing and augmented reality, we can expect that gamified, tick-box approaches to teaching and assessment are likely to further gain ground, replicated and indeed replaced by AI. But to what extent, if at all, do these approaches foster Brown’s seven properties of authentic play?

Earlier in this article I wrote the word teacher in bold “for a reason”; and that reason is that I believe passionately we enjoy a higher calling as collaborators, rather than as routine instructors following a predetermined, regularly assessed tick-box curriculum. Let’s leverage our expertise and enthusiasm to inspire others and lead them towards more fulfilling and creative musical goals.

There will long be those who value a piano journey which ventures beyond a prescribed series of sequenced tasks, levels and achievements, who long to depart from the digital learning super-highway to explore lesser-travelled, but astonishingly beautiful and fascinating byways. They will be the “explorers, investigators, tinkerers, growers. Yes, in a word, PLAYERS“.

Play is as fundamental a characteristic of humanity as it is intrinsic to the polar bear, the sled dog, and the myriad creatures which have been observed engaging in the transcendent play that Brown’s seven properties seek to identify.

As Ian Bogost presciently writes in his book Play Anything (2016),

“With ‘thinking‘ machines and machine learning systems beginning to eat into the areas where our creative playing has never been rivalled before, we’ll need to nurture our human abilities more than ever, and playing is right up there with the very best of them.”

Let’s put the PLAY back into playing the piano!

Notifications use an automated WordPress service managed by Automattic.
You can unsubscribe at any time.

Published by

Andrew Eales

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