Don’t Play the Music , Let the Music Play You

photo(2)The Grateful Dead said something along those lines some years back. “Don’t dance to the music. Let the music dance you.”

I make music when I sit at my piano.  I call myself an improvisational keyboard player, if there is such a category.  I never know what I’m going to play. I have no preconceived idea beyond how I feel at the moment. I never play the same thing twice and have no idea how it’s going to sound unless I record it, which I do sometimes. Sometimes I wish I had recorded something because at the end it feels so complete, and I can’t play it again.  But it doesn’t really matter because I’ll just play something else next time. I had brought to life something from inside that is completely mine and no one else. It’s not contrived. There was no plan. I didn’t practice it.  If there was a way to open my soul for people understand, they would know everything they needed to know about who I was – if they listened.

Lost Inside of Me


I think a dancer, who was in control of her body, who knew all the moves she was capable of making and just danced, would understand what I’m saying. Without thinking about how she looked, she just felt the music and danced.  Not dancing for an audience.  Not rehearsed so it looked flawless.  Not caring if mistakes were made.  Just the act of stretching her body in ways that felt good and feeling the music flow through her muscles would be enough to bring a tear to the eye of anyone who happened to witness her making love to her dance.

I remember, as a child, being taught how to read the notes, how long I was to hold it down and on what piano key that note was to be played. There was to be no deviation. Play it exactly the way it was written.  There are all kinds of symbols that tell you how hard to hit the key and the effect it was to have. Like a note with a dot under it, or over it, depending on whether it was on the bass clef or the treble clef, and if you saw that dot you were to hit the key as if you were touching a hot iron and not get burned. There were symbols that told you hold the key a little longer – a fermata, or bird’s eye depending on if you used the correct name. Symbols like ‘f’ or ‘ff’ or ‘mf’ and others that told you to play it loud or very loud or medium loud. Lots of symbols.

I knew I was going to teach when I was ten. When I was in my mid teens my teacher told me to not come back. I frustrated him because I practiced what I wanted, not what he wanted.  The point is, I played.  I returned to him when I was 16 and gave it one last year before I went to college to major in music. If I put all my lessons into one period of time it wouldn’t amount to more than about 2 years, starting at age 7.  But out of all the students he ever taught I was his show piece and the only one who played pro.  He really was a good player and played pro.  He really did understand me.  I learned a lot from him.

During most music lessons all you could do when you practiced was play the same passages over and over and over until you memorized them. All the symbols telling you how to play the piece were supposed to give it emotion.  Emotion had to be written in, not felt.  Very mechanical and contrived. IF your goal was to learn how to play classical music then this was the way to learn. Many talented pianists who all play the same piece in the exact same way.  It takes many many years of practice to reach this kind of proficiency.

How many students taking piano lessons ever reach this degree of talent and  play on the concert stage. Very few ever reach above the level of barely mediocre.  Here is what happens to the rest of the would be pianists.

This may have happened to you. You take years of lessons and then your life goes on and you don’t hardly ever play again. When you do have an opportunity, you try to remember the pieces you used to play and you fumble around trying to remember.  Or you get out an old piece of music you used to know but there is no way you can play it now. You would turn down any suggestions to play because you don’t want to embarrass yourself.  Maybe you have children now and want them to take piano lessons, too.

You see, your old piano teacher only taught you to play “at” the piano.  You were never taught about the music, how to create.  Last year I talked to an 81 year old piano teacher who lives down the street from me.  She still has students.  She taught their parents, too.   She probably plays very well.

“Can you just play,” I asked her. “off the top of your head?”

“Oh no, I can’t do that.” She responded.  “I only play what’s on the music.”

She asked me, “What kind of music do you like to play.”

“My own.  I just make it up as I go.”  She just sat and thought about that.  Many teachers took lessons when they were young and at some point thought they could teach what they knew and they teach those students exactly the way they were taught.  She never thought, in all those years to make her own music. To tell her own story.

This is my granddaughter Moya. Loves her guitar.
photo-17This is a video of my grandson, Bo.  My son, a phenomenal keyboard player is teaching him to improvise.  His body is twitching, he’s so into the music.

A teacher can teach the creativity right out of you and soon you fear you’ll make a mistake and you don’t know what to do.  If you ever want to learn how to do anything in the arts, never learn from someone who has never gone pro, never performed their art.  They never discovered why they wanted to learn play.  Now it’s just a way to have an income.  Stay away from a teacher who is stuck on method books that take you from A to Z.

This evening when I sat down to play a student of mine was just leaving.  A 16 year old boy I’ve been teaching for 10 months. He is able to play things no teacher could have taught him using method books. I’ve taught for 42 years  and spent a number of them playing pro.  I create more satisfying music today than I ever have.

So the moral of the story is: I don’t know.  You tell me what the moral of the story is.  What did you get out of all this?