Sunday, February 26, 2012

What to play when learning to play

So I'm learning to play the piano. It's a joy. It's fun. It's demanding. It's as engaging as playing video games, only better since it's a (somewhat) useful skill I'm learning. But it'a also challenging in many ways. On of the many ways is to chose what to play? I've spent a couple of months dialing in the selection of music and I think I have a mechanism that works now.

The mathematician Hardy said "There is no permanent place in the world for ugly mathematics". That is so, but it's even more so for music. I've looked in a bunch of piano schools and unfortunately a lot of the pieces in them are just boring. The sad fact is that even if I had been able to play them perfectly (which I'm not), they would not sound good, because the pieces are bad. These schools are probably written with the best intentions e.g. being pedagogical or making money for the composer, but that simply doesn't matter. If I had spent time playing this music what I had been practicing most would be to be bored playing boring music that even when perfected would be boring . There is no permanent place in this world for ugly music and in particular there is not even a temporary place for it anywhere near my piano.

So then, what do I play? The answer is: I play the good stuff. Bach, Chopin, Beethoven, Sæverud,..... whatever. But it has to be good music. I've found that for me it's better to play good music one or even several notches above my current skill level and then struggle hard with it until it's (more) within my abilities than to suffer even a minute of something that's probably within my abilities, but intrinsically boring.

Right now I'm working on the second prelude in the well tempered clavier by J.S. Bach. (BVW 847). It's hard. I'm not ready for it. However, It's also fun. I can get some of it to sound good. I can think concretely about how to improve my playing. I can listen to an abundance of recordings of this piece and be inspired by them. I'm getting better every day and all every little improvement is so incredibly rewarding because the payback of even a little progress is immediate: Get those two bars in succession without missing a note and without having to pause between the bars to read the music to figure out where to put my fingers ... and *wham*: New cool "Bachy" progression unlocked, only several hundred more to go ;-) I know that there are at least two or three full layers of mechanical skill and musical interpretation I have to get through before I'm playing this piece with anywhere near the skill it deserves but that's ok :-) I'll happily play this piece for however long it takes and enjoy every second of it, even when I don't play it very well ;)

So that's this blogpost's key insight: Don't play shitty music. It's a waste of time.