April 03, 2010

Dr. Chuan C. Chang on Fundamentals of Piano Practice

In interview with Dr. Chuan C. Chang, the author of "Fundamentals of Piano Practice" we touch on a complex subject of learning. Passionate about piano, Dr. Chang, a physicist, puts on a hat of analytical research scientist to explain a more efficient approach to learning to play piano. The book offers a clear path to improving learning skills.

What was the impetus for your book?

The invaluable teachings of Yvonne Combe, probably one of the greatest piano teachers of all time. Without this book, her teachings would have been lost forever. However, my book, after over 15 years of further research, goes even beyond Combe's teachings because of advances in knowledge not available to Combe and because of the application of scientific methods of project management.

I further made this book freely downloadable in order to accelerate the adoption of good practice methods because you can't put a price on musicianship, and piano students have suffered long enough from a lack of properly trained piano teachers and teaching materials.

Principles of Learning: Talk about the missing link between traditional teaching practices and teaching how to learn.

My entire book is about this topic! Here, I talk only about teaching piano (and probably most musical instruments and music in general), because teachings in schools and universities for science, math, etc., are not missing significant links and do excellent jobs; in fact my book is an attempt to pattern music teaching to those proven practices. The differences are far-reaching, but amazingly simple in practice. I list some major ones:

(1) Documentation. No one has any knowledge of how Liszt acquired technique (including Liszt, apparently). Great pianists were unable to analyze their technique acquisition methods or were unable to document them. One motivation may have been to enhance the myth of a genius who can do things others can't -- a very convenient excuse for not teaching every trick and aggrandizing their stature. With the exception of a few fragmentary attempts, no teacher or pianist has documented these methods until my book was written. Thus piano learning was one of few fields with no standard text book, which meant that the wrong intuitive methods were re-invented and taught ad infinitum (see my book for definition of "intuitive methods"). Note that an important aspect of documentation is providing accurate definitions of everything that is discussed in the book, something that has been sorely lacking in practically every book written on learning piano.

(2) Research. This is most clearly demonstrated by reading any book on piano; the majority have no references to other books. This means that the writer simply wrote down her/is ideas without checking them with those of others or researching what was previously investigated, or comparing his methods with those of others to see which ones are right and which are wrong. True, teachers such as Whiteside had experimented with different teaching methods and recorded the results. But research by one teacher doesn't get you very far; it is when all available research is assembled, analyzed and written up, do you really benefit. In addition, even when written, most writings of pianists are not sufficiently organized in terms of theory, correctness, and completeness, to be useful because of their lack of formal training in pedagogy. Scientists like me must learn and teach practically every day of our lives; otherwise we fall hopelessly behind very quickly; by contrast, piano teachers rarely interact with each other to improve their teaching methods.

(3) The Power of the Intuitive Magnet. Because the intuitive methods and their pitfalls were never identified, they became the standard teaching methods. For the first time, my book defines the intuitive method and discusses its pitfalls.

(4) Knowledge vs Art. Artists are understandably wary about reducing art to a science, because that can put them out of business, and every student becomes a talented musician or even a genius. Their lack of understanding of science makes them utter statements such as "Art is not Science" or "Music is not math", and thus they tend to separate the two while in reality, science provides possibly the greatest help that artists can get. Under the intuitive methods, artists did not have time to acquire other knowledge because it required a lifetime to learn art. The floodgates are opened when science is finally added to art because learning is accelerated and there is plenty of time for artists to learn everything else. This is one reason why many piano teachers cannot teach from my book, because they can't speak the same language and make too many mistakes when they try. Thus one requisite for raising the level of piano teaching is better education of the piano teachers.

(5) Misconceptions about inborn talent. Talent has never been clearly defined and has been overvalued as a requisite to becoming a successful pianist. The truth is that talent is more created than inborn. If you give the same set of students to a poor teacher and a good teacher, the good teacher will produce many more talented pianists than the poor one. "Lack of talent" has been the most convenient scapegoat when a teacher fails to teach. Of course, there are differences in the abilities of every student. But we must more carefully differentiate between inborn talent, the educational opportunities, and age effects, etc., because any of these factors can dominate the effective talent level of a specific person.

(6) I can go on and on. I may have sounded facetious or derogatory in some of the descriptions of piano teachers above because I did not have space to discuss the justifiable reasons for their shortcomings, and I made statements that are clearly one-sided in order to make a clearer point.

Learning Rate Calculation: Excluding mathematical formulas, in broader terms, how do methods in your book reduce learning curve vs. intuitive methods?

(1) Hands Separate practice, (2) Shortening difficult passages, (3) Memorizing before practicing, (4) making music, (5) avoiding exercises of the Hanon type and "practice music" such as Czerny, (5) a large class of "learning tricks" such as parallel sets and outlining, (6) Mental Play (allows practice without a piano, helps memorization, etc), and (7) details of technical acquisition such as the Thumb Over method, glissando motion, cartwheel motion, etc.

Photographic Memory: Is it truth or fiction?

Truth; it is easy once you start practicing it; but it is more acquired than inborn. In many students, it appears inborn because the differences are so huge between good photographic memorizers and poor ones. And the good ones seem to have acquired it "in no time". But the good ones learned to do it at an early age, which makes all the difference. For example, absolute pitch is totally learned, but a 2-yr old can learn it in minutes while a 50 year old may not learn it well in 3 years. Photographic memory is Mental Play, and is learned by practicing Mental Play. Thus the statement "photographic memory is inborn" is fiction.

Mental Play: As we have seen in recent Olympics, athletes do a mental exercise, visualizing the routine before they start. Talk about the benefits of mental play in music.

Very well put, because it is huge; for a pianist, it is just as important as finger technical skills, yet most teachers don't even teach it. Without it, you can lose your absolute pitch in a matter of years. Your recitals will be full of errors. You have no way of controlling nervousness before a performance. But most importantly, Mental Play (MP) is a measure of your musical IQ. Memorization is the skill most closely associated with MP, and good memory will raise your effective IQ just as adding memory to a slow computer will speed it up. As you pointed out, every one of those giant slalom skiers would either not win, become injured, or worse without MP. All accomplished pianists eventually compose music, and without MP, composition is impossible, so they eventually learn; however, they progress much faster if taught correctly from the beginning, instead of "random invention by necessity". This is similar to the situation whereby a school student will learn to add, subtract, and multiply much faster if taught in class than if left alone to figure out how to do it.

Practice Routine: Talk about the right and wrong procedures.

That's basically the difference between intuitive and correct methods. In the correct methods, you are either taught exactly what to do (e.g., practice relaxation, Thumb Over method), or given a set of tools to solve problems (hands separate, parallel sets). The human hands/brain are incredible instruments in the infinity of motions they can execute, most of which are totally unfamiliar to most, and must be taught. In the intuitive method, you are asked to try to play something you can't by repeating it. Again, the incredible ability of the brain/hand appears here in that eventually, the hands will accidentally discover the right motions, and in most cases, the pianist is unaware of the accident -- s/he just feels that s/he can play it all of a sudden. It is easy to understand that a good teacher can explain the necessary motions in a lesson or two, while it may take longer -- sometimes a lifetime, for a student to accidentally discover it. Liszt took 2 yrs to discover Thumb Over, AFTER he had already become a recognized pianist. Today, a teacher can teach it to an eight-year old in a few lessons. The wrong methods are discussed in great detail in my book, because so many of them seem so intuitively correct -- the reason why I named them "intuitive methods", although obviously, not all intuitive methods are wrong. To be strictly correct, they should be called "wrong intuitive methods".

Technique: You suggest that finger dexterity of advanced pianists and regular folks is not much different, and that technique is a function of brain/nerve development. Please elaborate.

Some of that was covered in 6. above. What I meant by my statement is that with proper training, the majority of humans can acquire finger dexterity of concert pianists, just as the majority of humans can grow muscles by weight lifting. Note that even concert pianists must practice every day in order to have sufficient finger control for performances. Thus finger dexterity is definitely more training and conditioning than inborn. As several famous musicians have repeated said, ‘If I don’t practice for a day, I notice. If I don’t practice for two days, my friends notice. And if I don’t practice for three days, the whole audience notices.’

Slow Practice: Sergei Rachmaninoff was known to practice extremely slowly. What developments happen during slow practice? What are the negatives, if any?

This is controversial, as I have no concrete research evidence to show that it helps; however, it is entirely consistent with the ideas in my book. With very slow play, you can practice the Basic Keystroke (BK) concepts in my book. BK consists of an accelerating keydrop (gravity drop) followed by rapid relaxation, followed by a relaxed hold and finally a quick lift at a very precise time. You can't practice these components while playing a Chopin Etude at full speed. Playing at about 1 note/second will allow you to practice them. The idea is to practice them sufficiently so that they become automatic components of every note you play. The negative is that it requires an inordinate amount of time -- but that may not be an issue, if learning it is a NECESSITY.

Transferable Skills: You liken learning a musical composition to project management. Please explain.

Technique acquisition and composing are all project management issues, and any expert in project management will agree with that, and when they read my book, they will recognize the basic elements of project management everywhere in my book. That is why my book (and learning piano) can be so useful for success in school and in life in general. Some basic principles are: (1) work only on segments of the project that you can manage and hopefully you can choose segments that are easy to manage, (2) once finished, have a way of maintaining that segment so you don't lose it, (3) define a hierarchy of segments with different difficulties and attack each in the most logical way -- for piano, you should start with the most difficult because it takes the longest time to learn; for warfare, you may want to start with the easiest so as to disrupt your enemy and not have to fight their strength until absolutely necessary, (4) all segments must be contiguous; isolated units are vulnerable to deterioration from all sides and are harder to maintain. Etc. You must know how to begin, continue, and finish a project, and have some way of knowing how long it will take. You must have a basic theory as well as the knowledge base to carry the project through. That is, theory is only the beginning; every project is knowledge based.

Your book is quite thorough, yet you state it is just the beginning. What other research on this subject do you see in the future?

The best way to illustrate this is to say that the invention of the transistor was a great breakthrough because it replaced the vacuum tube which was large and expensive to make and operate, and it totally changed how we communicate. This might represent the first appearance of my book. But it was only the beginning; then came integrated circuits which essentially put most of the electronics of an entire radio or TV on a chip, etc., and now 50 yrs or so later, we have the internet and Google. Thus the addition of science to any discipline usually causes that discipline to advance to levels not initially predictable. This has been repeated in medicine, biology, chemistry, psychology (neurology), architecture, etc., except in piano until my book was written. Some possible research topics are the role of momentum in rapid passages, brain studies of musical response, especially as a function of age (especially the very young), quantitative measurements of genetic and other factors that affect the musical brain, the physiology of fast and slow muscles, the different roles played by nerves vs muscles, -- there is basically an infinity of them because each advance will engender new questions. Music conservatories must now embark on these endeavors instead of trying to maintain the status quo which has led nowhere for hundreds of years. Make no mistake; change WILL come. Look how the electronic pianos are cheaper, always in tune (the modeled [vs sampled] pianos now allow you to play Chopin's Pleyel or Mozart's harpsichord all in one instrument), sound much better than practically any upright piano, and can do many things that mechanical pianos can't. But obviously, the most important questions center around technique development and the human brain.


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