• Charles

The Most Important Thing I've Ever Written

I first began learning the keyboard by playing some random notes, and when two or three consecutive notes sounded like something I recognised, I tried to work out some more of the same song until I got totally stuck, usually a few seconds later. I had no other reference points, and I didn’t possess any techniques for reading music fast enough to be able to actually play anything coherent. Progress was, as you may imagine, quite gentle.

I was given lessons from the age of about eight, and I was taught mainly about the practical side of the music: how to read the dots and squiggles; how to form chords; how to play with impeccable technique. Actually, thank goodness I paid attention to the advice on technique, because things like using the right fingers and working on exercises for more precise finger movements are the hardest aspect of playing the piano. Not the hardest to actually do, but certainly the hardest to give a hoot about, or to understand why it’s even vaguely important, or to find any motivation to work on it – and, ergo, technique becomes the hardest aspect overall.

Technique is something which you can’t really learn easily by yourself, but it is an inescapable fact that how you actually play the thing – how your fingers learn to alight on the keys to play arpeggios and scales and melodies and tremolandos – either becomes an outright hindrance in the future, or it enables you to press your vaguest, spontaneous, fleeting ideas immediately into beautiful, precise and pristine sound. This is the reason most people have lessons. But there is another, bigger reason, which a lot of teachers actually don’t teach. I’ll tell you about that in a moment. There is also music theory.

Something I didn’t learn about until later (and even then quite accidentally), was music theory. By then, I had spent years plonking away at the keyboard, playing all kinds of music, writing my own songs, learning chord progressions, and I didn’t have the faintest idea how the music actually worked. When I first discovered what music theory was, it immediately made complete and utter sense. All of it. And it continues to be the one subject that, for me, remains one hundred percent flummox-free, the more I learn about it. This is very interesting for a number of reasons, because as a teacher and eternal student of music, the implications of this stretch out into dim and distant galaxies.

With the various small epiphanies – epiphanettes, I suppose – about my own ignorance and learning process and experiences stacking up, it becomes a sort of Tower of Hanoi to order a programme for how I should now teach music. I have researched other teachers’ programmes and I disagree with almost all of them: it’s extremely complicated to work out what should be taught at which stage because it’s different for everybody. Some pupils are naturally wired up to be extremely logical and can comprehend the theory perfectly well, but it is only after a few lessons that I realise they have no interest in academic side of music whatsoever (at least, not at this stage) and are happy to play anything they come across or hear on the radio. I have to play the Tower of Hanoi puzzle every time for every new pupil.

The trouble is, once one understands a little bit of music theory and can give an analysis of a piece of music, every piece of music in the world suddenly makes sense. All music makes sense if you know the different ways you can enjoy it. So, at what point do you introduce the theory?

Going back to my own experience, I questioned for several aeons whether my late introduction to theory was a hindrance or a benefit. I have now concluded that, considering its vast importance, my ignorance was unquestionably beneficial. Ah, you weren’t expecting that, were you? Well, this is my reasoning:

Music, first and foremost, is supposed to be enjoyable for what it is. The sound. The vibrations. The experience of hearing something so inherently ambiguous and yet the most meaningful of all art forms. This is why, now, I don’t even teach the notes first; I ask pupils to just play some notes together, just to see what combinations they enjoy, and for which reasons. Then, inevitably, they hear something in those sounds – something they’ve heard before, just like I did when I was four years old. So we pick up on that fragment, find out which piece of music it reminds them of, and that becomes the first piece they begin. Then, after more fossicking, they spot a few more seedlings, and in time we can pull those spuds up, too.

Repertoires expand naturally over time, and as they expand, it becomes possible to force the rhubarb along, usually with sheet music and scales and rules and technique and all those firm foundations of performance. This is a very tutorly thing to encourage. There is no question, to my mind, that theory and analysis needs to be introduced – just a little tiny bit – very early on: the home key, chords I, IV and V, relative minors and all those sorts of mathematically and sonically straightforward relationships between chords. And then, out of this you can extract the concept of transposition. Then, hopefully, a switch flicks, something goes ‘ping’, and an inquisitiveness about the theory of music tips out.

Simply the most important thing about all music – and this is the Very Important Thing that I referred to earlier – is that very thing which inspired me and a million other musicians to play: the enjoyment of the sound of fully-formed, consonant, improvised music, even if you don’t know what you’re playing. Just play chords, in all possible inversions. If you know how a D major sounds – or, more accurately, how it feels – against G minor, and you already anticipate that sound just before you play the chords, you have begun to understand the music. If you know the relationship between those two chords, and you can transpose it into another key, you are absolutelywell on the way.

Theory and understanding of all music comes out of an ability to play and hear the music; not the other way around. All it requires is to start playing some notes. Every time you sit down at the piano, begin by playing two different chords. Be surprised by the sound, either because you had no idea how it would sound, or because you were absolutely right in how you imagined it. Then add another chord. When you know how those three chords work together, you have the beginning of something remarkable. After a few weeks, of doing this with different combinations of chords you will begin to be able to predict how they will sound. And that is a feeling of capability that only appears a few times in a lifetime.

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