Madness, Sanity, Greed

…and the Art of Piano Playing

by Rod Hough, concert pianist

This article is for home educating folk, particularly those who may not have a strong background in piano but would welcome some discussion. Any discussion must be prefaced by one’s position. The reader can and should assume that any vision of music and music learning is only an attempt at providing a perspective that has, as its core, an intention to offer some support. Thoughts and ideas are a vision, like a landscape; there are always changes and variety. The only constant is the knowledge that we all perceive the image differently. We all focus and reflect in a unique way, and nothing is the same. As soon as one thinks, ‘Wow, that’s a great view!’ then we can think again, ‘Gosh, the view has changed’.

I have some thoughts and views; others, no doubt, have different approaches. In music it is not about being correct or wrong, or even about attainment of skill. In my opinion, music is an art form of participation and sharing. It is a language of feeling carried by humanity. Just as a garden is nourishing and exists in many patterns of action, benefits, links and function, music is nourishing but can also be enriching. It can function at a simple level or as radiating circles that pulse as one connects further with wider experience and more complex involvement.

Instrument choices

PIANO: A real instrument. Has a personality, can become a friend. Sound is real, as there are vibrating strings. Most pianos can sing. There is more variety in terms of the potential sound that can be produced. Playing a piano is different to playing an electric instrument. Heavy, takes up a lot of room, tuning issues, expensive to move, etc. Can be noisy and cause conflict in households.

ELECTRIC PIANOS – CLAVINOVAS: No tuning issues, portable, extra options include recording using different sounds and instruments. Smaller and lighter, can use headphones.

I always prefer a real piano. The speaker sound is not the same, although the better electric pianos and clavinovas have improved greatly over the last few years. The action is more piano-like, and the piano sound in many instances is good.

Of the upright pianos, I prefer Yamaha and Kawai, new or second-hand. For older pianos or pianolas, look for even sound and even action – play all notes. Some Beales and Wertheims play quite well.


No doubt there are many fine piano teachers; however, the role of teacher and the idea of lessons are somewhat problematic.

What about a change in context? Move away from the traditional, rather fixed and rigid approaches.

I believe home education is a wonderful environment for families to be involved with each other, music-making generally, and around a piano. Learning in music and piano should develop from exploring and engaging. Traditional learning with its focus on mastering pieces, being involved in exams and paying out a lot of money is a system that does not make a lot of sense – it’s madness!

Usually there is little value for money, and lessons are constructed according to a set result that gives a fixed return. This fixed return provides feedback that is really about proving the value and monetary worth of the teacher. If a learner accomplishes mastery of pieces or learns to play piece after piece out of a tutor’s book, this is often equated with success, good teaching and value for money. Sometimes the return comes with a mark from an exam format. Here lies the mad machine. Learning piece after piece out of books and being involved in rigid and narrow structures in terms of format are really poor excuses for teaching. It is not healthy, and although many students no doubt learn and can also enjoy the learning approaches it is a narrow path and limiting.

Real artistry comes from the learner learning. A good teacher may be involved for periods or patches or even years as a guide to travel the road together and share the language. Playing the piano is about exploring the vast wealth of the musician’s inner being, exploring and going on adventures with one’s imagination, travelling and seeing in the mind’s eye new places and finding new feelings. It’s a partner, a friend, a companion and instructor all in one. The pendulum exists in balance with the opportunity to engage with many others; firstly, with the composers who have shared their place and lot in life, and also with friends and family.

This is a great option for home educating folk. You don’t really require lessons. If you have a piano it can be a family activity. Don’t believe for one moment it exists only for the person who is learning. Re-evaluate your involvement. If parents muck around and try ideas and have a go, then naturally young children will imitate and join in.

In every instance I’ve experienced, in a family situation either with children or with parents, if there is a very young child they will always come and play – often pushing in or just ‘being a nuisance’. But the youngster just plays – exploring and playing in a natural way, usually swinging from end to end trying all manner of sounds and, importantly, having a great time. The younger child is the model for the whole family.

Piano is the easiest instrument. Make your own fun, find some guidance from friends and other children or seek out some information. Get involved and cultivate a ‘can do’ attitude. Share the fun and enjoy what you can do irrespective of the type of music you play or the degree of difficulty – and you will be offering a participatory role, inspiring your children and inviting them to explore and be involved as well. Be content with where you are at and promote the self-esteem and confidence that comes from being happy with what you can do.

Whether you’re playing simple pieces or complex works, the emphasis should not be on a linear learning path where people generally, and even members of the same family, often fall into the trap of thinking someone else plays better. This is a terrible negative that really blocks a lot of people from finding their own musical selves. It’s a fair thing that some people can play some pieces that others find a struggle. This is great – it’s how we are. But consideration of skill, talent and ability often causes discomfort and dislocation and takes away from the simple joy that should be the core focus.

Reflect on the opportunity to be involved. Think of how many people move through life and have – or have had – limited options. This is reason enough to disengage oneself from mindsets and thought patterns that act as barriers.

Talent or ‘being musical’ is not a prerequisite for engagement and participation. So many people say, ‘I can’t play because I’m not musical’ or ‘I don’t have any talent’. This is a terrible indication of the status quo of music activity, music education and exam systems. Being the best or ‘as good as’ or religiously following a path of improvement; promoting ranking, such as in exams or competitions; and the idea that a certain level has to be attained to become a pianist or musician – all of these approaches are just plain wrong and develop from a competitive, comparative system.

I much prefer a world that supports connection and interaction, in which I value the other person as much as I am content with the person that I am. This is a good platform for playing the piano. It opens possibilities and potential.

If you are stuck and can’t find an approach, don’t fret. Try just enjoying playing the keys and making up ideas. It’s really easy to come up with little tunes. Make up patterns involving jumps and going by step – little progressions and patterns. Think of stories; ask your children to make a tune that goes with the latest bedtime story character. Don’t think of the piano as some mysterious thing that requires special knowledge and understanding. I am constantly amazed that so many people pay so much money in the belief they are paying for some special learning skill.

Sanity comes when one realises that most of the education system is based on knowledge instilled. But how much richer is knowledge discovered? Musical art, therefore, involves a responsibility to find oneself. Regardless of age, this works well in application.

The trick is to have a variety of resources – not only music to listen to, look at, play and move to, but people resources and different activity resources. In home education, music should only be a variation on the day’s activity, not separate.

Being involved with a piano is not a compartment in a travel bag. Don’t be fooled. We don’t go exploring on a seven-day cycle. Some days it’s nice to play, some days it’s nice to do other things. Some weeks go by or even months and then, hey, there is the piano, ready and waiting for further play. Let it be part of the framework rather than an expectation in terms of ‘do your practice’. Practice is really a poor approach, and yet we are instilled with the idea that we must practise, especially if money is going out for regular lessons. Far better to save your money, buy something useful like an orange tree and allow the piano learner to learn at their own rate and in their own time.

Many individuals of all ages have informed me of the horrors of the piano patch they experienced. Stories and comments are mostly about bad memories, having no talent, being made to practise and play scales, and teacher traumas of one kind or another. Usually, external factors influenced the core objective, usually expressed as, ‘I would like to be able to play, but…’ or ‘I used to play, but…’

Can one alleviate the complications? Some suggestions: keep it simple, focus on enjoyment, have flexible time, flexible involvement and flexible meandering practice, and have no conditions, no conforming way of playing and no set goals. In other words, get rid of all the issues of madness, of society’s constructs of greed, and focus on the sanity of art.

The truly great historical pianists all play with unique, individual sounds. They play with their own nature. They play their way. They reach so far through their instrument it’s like they travel the universe and – lo and behold – find themselves back on earth with an even simpler grasp and awareness of the fact that the more complex the music, the more simplicity it requires in forging partnerships.

Imagine a large number of home educating people allowing and trusting their own natures to fashion out their own musical pianistic paths. What a collective, rich tapestry. These individuals may be unlikely to play at the level of the master pianists, but they would certainly have something in common with the naturalness of the artistic involvement and capacity to move through life. They would have the ability to make a positive imprint within themselves and add musical enrichment to the wider world.

Skill and playing ability are not the core attributes in pianistic endeavour.

About exams

A word of caution: doing an exam, such as an Australian Music Examinations Board (AMEB) exam, each year is really about keeping society constrained and stuck in its own paradigm.

Firstly, I have issues with grading a piano performance. That performance has little to do with spontaneity and energy from within, as pieces are usually manicured and cultivated over such a long period of time that the idea of music is usually all but lost. These exams generally require a very fixed format for playing. The reward of a good grade is a poor return for money and has no bearing on the musicality of the playing riches of the individual doing the exam.

Often exams are a very negative experience and destroy confidence. As an example, a lot of teachers and exam requirements stress the importance of good scale technique and technical work, or maybe set hand shape. Scales have nothing to do with inspiration and musical substance. Playing a few scales according to the AMEB manual will not assist the musical soul to develop, grow and take shape.

Far better to spend time playing a piece that really lives inside your heart, that captivates and speaks to you. A lot of what the AMEB does is about making money. Expensive books? Better for children to make up their own books. Hand shapes? All one has to do is realise that we are not all identical in our looks, so a good hand position depends on the relaxation of the individual, the type of musical passage being played, and the interpretation and musical effect required.

Even in the initial scales, it seems that students should learn to tuck the thumb under to promote even legato playing. Nothing is worse – it tightens the wrist and develops an unnatural sense of thinking and musical decision-making. It is really quite scary how the exam system can destroy the natural ability that we all possess.

If there has to be a musical exam system, it should cultivate the uniqueness of each learner and their playing style. However, the opposite takes place, as individuals must submit to a system or set approach. Scales are a good indication of how little changes over time. Most legato scales are actually achieved through a process of detached playing.

Imagine a piano being dropped by a stork in the middle of nowhere. A ‘nowhere’ villager on a long walk has no idea of what a piano is but comes across the stork’s gift. This villager has an enquiring mind and examines the piano, discovers the sounds and begins to make connections with the instrument. The villager plays.

Compare that with an Australian piano student who started young and has progressed through several years of lessons to reach Grade 7 AMEB and become an A- to A+ student.

I would be curious to hear the villager; it would be a unique experience. But I wouldn’t care to hear a few Grade 7 pieces fitting into an A result box.

Some exams suit some learners some of the time. But beware – having achieved a high grade at a reasonably high exam level really has no meaning or importance. It is far better to learn lots of fun pieces, muck around, try things and be your own musical person.

 An ideal home education pianist

The family is engaged at different times with a variety of music, musical instruments, different people and musical events. The piano is fun. All family members have a go at the piano. Playing is not seen as practice. Creative musical beings are fostered in a confidence-building environment. They experience a mixture of styles, a mixture also of formats, some writing, some composing, some improvisation such as storytelling, some hard pieces and some easy pieces – no rigid learning approaches.

The ear comes first, and visual page gazing is only a part of the piano approach. Wrong notes are good, as the ear hears and learns how to be more functional. Rhythm and melody come from the nature of children. Thus, all natural learning can be linked with and extended to include the piano. Especially good is integrating various home education activities to include a musical pianistic component.

No piece is too hard if it lives inside you, even for young beginners. Avoid routine and doctrine and set lesson formats.

To play, you just have to move. To move, you have to be loose or relaxed through the entire arm. Fingers just make contact with the keys. One does not press the notes with the fingers. The fingers make contact to allow arm weight to fall or lift on or off the keys.

Piano is simple.

From Otherways 132


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