Removing the Pianist Ego (Part 2/3)

Playing Without Perceptions

Recently, I have been giving thought to the concept of 'structured knowledge' and how every discipline has a range of information and experiences to be acquired by the learner:  pianism, golf, knitting, etc.  This concept is everywhere; in all course books for all subjects and is more often than not relied upon and employed by all teachers of all disciplines.

In this article, I will present an alternative to this way of thinking and invite you to entertain the notion that structured learning is actually slowing down your progress by giving you obstacles and creating tension in your being; all things which restrict you from both being yourself and progressing at a natural rate while being at peace and never feeling under pressure or having a sense of 'falling behind'.

Structured learning is what society expects us to do and know.  Unstructured learning is what we believe or feel we would like to do and know, and progressing without comparing ourselves with others.

But which is better?

Structured learning automatically implies that the 'student' trusts what is being taught.  An inherent belief in the course of study exists and, usually out of a blend of politeness and societal conformity, no challenge is made.  This creates a too-comfortable situation for the 'teacher' and a dire vulnerable position for the 'student'.

Furthermore, all involved accept the course of study as trustworthy and reliable simply because it is established but, as with many experiences in life, especially in the telling of stories and tales, only the best and most positive, or those which support the established belief, make it through.  Nobody knows of how many students couldn't get to grips with the course, failed the course through no fault of their own, felt frustrated at lack of progress, and all other nasty negative ideas in a similar vein.

Courses follow the human ego's need for an illusion of progress; success and failure are food for the ego and allow us to compare ourselves very easily to others.  Unfortunately, since other egos are also learning the same way and taking part in exactly the same comparison activity, what we end up with is a big mishmash of ego nonsense and nobody actually being true to their nature; nobody simply doing what is natural.  Instead, it becomes a contest usually of speed in some form:  who can master a scale the quickest, can play it the fastest, who can play the most pieces, who knows the most chords, etc, etc.


Unstructured learning, on the other hand, removes labels of difficulty.  Because of the ego (and its result, the 'course of structured learning'), every subject has its own 'advanced' and 'fundamental' components.  Newcomers to the field are immediately expecting to learn these basics before moving on to whatever is 'next in line' along the path of 'fixed knowledge', or in other words, a syllabus.  The 'teacher' knows that the 'student' will be expecting this process, the 'student' knows the same, and off they both go blindly.

Imagine removing labels of difficulty and ease.  I also pose this question as a thought experiment: what makes a word 'difficult' when learning a language?  The answer is very simple.  A 'difficult word' is labelled by the ego (thus, most language course books and teachers) simply because it is less common.  It has nothing to do with the number of letters in it.  Consider:  cat, is an 'easy' word, but 'van' is usually never known by students until I describe a FedEx or UPS delivery man delivering a package.  As for longer words, 'information' has eleven letters, and is considered an 'easy' word, whereas 'slurp' only has five words yet is considered a complicated word just because it is less common.  Herein lies the root of the problem of structured learning.

This is very significant in learning because we prioritise learning as: more common = beginner level; less common = advanced level.  This is a purely egotistical way of looking at things and absolutely not beneficial to anybody learning any subject; only a way to get rapid progress to satisfy the ego.

Applying this to pianism, a pianist cannot deny that some keys are considered 'more difficult' since they are less common, but in the end, they are all invariably a set of seven notes following the 'whole whole half whole whole whole half' template from any one of the twelve notes of the chromatic scale.  Chopin and Horowitz were both quoted as saying that C major is the most difficult key.  See here (search for 'C major' on the page) and here (under point 1.) respectively.  How about that, then?  The most common starting point for every book and perhaps every teacher... was considered the most difficult by two of the greatest pianists of the last two centuries.  Understand, also, that this is just the tip of the philosophical iceberg.

Moving on gently, remember the title of this article:  Playing Without Perceptions.  This truly means that, by removing labels of what is traditionally 'difficult' or 'easy', one is simply confronted by a sea of knowledge, all of which simply is.  It is the ego which has a deep need to separate it all out into sections and create a course out of it, denying learners some information in the early stages and force-feeding them other information when the syllabus dictates, no matter their natural inclinations.

Imagine somebody came to me asking for piano lessons; someone who didn't even know a piano had black and white keys.  If I may digress momentarily, you would be quite amazed how many people do not know that a piano is made of only black and white keys, or who think that the black notes are somehow more special than the white ones, etc.  Anyhow, since this avid learner has absolutely no perception of piano knowledge, of what is possible, of what is generally considered hard and easy, of the concept of fingering and repeated patterns, visualisations of scales and chord types, etc, I am suddenly at liberty to tell this 'student' absolutely anything I wish and they will, thanks to their ego, accept this as 'the foundations' without question, whereas in fact, I would be telling them things which are of the highest grades in examinations or which take years for many pianists to achieve.  Since they have no reason to believe I am not giving them the expected foundations, they will accept the information as foundational.

It cannot be denied that, through this system of 'beneficial lying education', for want of a better expression, this 'student' would, after a few months of not once comparing themselves to what any other pianist knows or is capable of doing, be able to execute and perceive traditionally advanced techniques as quite within their reach and as 'foundational' simply because I did not allow them to compare themselves with others and create limits for themselves.  We can be quite sure that, after a year or so, this pianist would be quite extraordinary in the eyes of traditionalists simply because of what they would be capable of... simply because they did not start learning by looking up at a mountain from the foot of it; instead, they started by not knowing there was a mountain, so not knowing how high up or low down they were, and in turn, not knowing how far to go in which direction.  They simply played what was required, when required, and that was that.

I laugh a little to myself when I imagine such a situation, such a conversation between this student and another from the traditional method, in which they speak about how many years they have been playing.  Yet, be sure, this imaginary 'student' of mine was never deprived of any of the knowledge that the other traditionally schooled 'student' acquired; in fact, they would have an even greater knowledge because the learning process was so unstructured that what needed to be learnt was learnt when the time came naturally.  No stress, no ego, just playing.

Now seems a good time to give you a break from this article and spend a few minutes on this:  How to Increase Your Harmonious Passion.  It will help you to bridge any gaps you may have between unstructured learning being more natural, and structured language being more forced, and how you should perhaps consider a switch; a change of perception, a drift towards behaving as water.

Bringing this article to a close, I would like to provide some practical solutions for you but please be sure to wrap these up in the philosophical ideas discussed herein.

First of all, it now becomes necessary of you to begin attempting to remove labels from your piano studies in terms of what was traditionally 'advanced' and 'beginner' and starting to see playing the piano as an non-complex tool used to self-express at your will whilst treating all associated knowledge as equal.  Please read this paragraph again.

Traditionally, C, F and G (with perhaps Bb and Eb) are considered 'popular keys', thus 'easy' to learn.  You would do well to spend time with B, F#, C# and perhaps E major scales, spending however much time is necessary for you to feel completely at ease first of all with their shape, then to discover comfortable fingering for two octaves-worth of up and down movement using both hands.  Here, rather than adhering to the original school of thought whereby parallel motion is 'advanced' or scales in opposite directions is 'advanced' (right hand up, left hand down, then return, simultaneously), begin with these.  If possible, do this with your eyes closed to allow the hands to find natural shapes without your eyes distracting you.  Be as natural as water, as you well know by now from Part 1.

What you will discover is that, without your ego telling you that such an activity in such keys is for 'advanced' players, and that you're 'not there yet', you will find a surprising ease with both the key and fingering exercise, rendering the original way of learning completely redundant.  It is as if you are learning the traditionally 'easy' C major scale, but instead, you are learning B, C# and F# in opposite motion with your eyes closed.  Only your ego labels that as difficult.  Do not.  Simply play without forcing or frustration, without expectation of comparison to others.  Then it will become possible.

When you have spent some time on these new keys and positions, understanding that they are not at all 'advanced', repeat the exercise using major and minor triads (three-note chords) but now begin to become acquainted with all the twelve major scales.  There is absolutely no reason why not because each major scale is just as equal as any other major scale; C major has 7 white notes.  So what?  Eb has 3 black notes.  How nice for it, because A also has 3 black notes!  It is all one of the same, so treat it as such.

Consider:  ask a musician to play something easy and he will probably play something slow; ask him to play something difficult, and he will probably play something fast.  Why is this?  It is because the ego is trained to assume (incorrectly) that fast things or 'lots of black notes' are for advanced players and slow things or 'lots of white notes' are for beginners, for the piano, of course.

What twaddle.

What you actually find is that most of the slower, beautiful pieces (such as Chopin Nocturnes) actually require a little more je ne sais quoi than the fast, more complex pieces (such as Liszt's works) simply because slower pieces usually demand a greater expression of emotion whereas faster pieces usually demand greater dexterity (but of course, emotion is involved too).  The point here is that slow and fast are equal:  slow pieces may be 'easier' to learn since there are less notes to internalise, whereas faster pieces are just as easy to learn since once you have got the comfortable fingering down, it becomes a matter of muscle memory.  Why not begin with Chopin's Minute Waltz?  Learn as you go; a kind of jumping in the deep end.  Consider:  how does one survive in water? By splashing about and being frightened?  No, this results in sinking.  One is required to be calm, still and tranquil, just as the water, so that floating on it may be achieved.

Think about that.

By removing labels, everything becomes simply what it is.  It is the ego which labels the levels of subjects, which dictates what is difficult and not difficult and unfortunately many 'students' and 'teachers' fall for this and thus create much friction in their learning.

Do try to apply the thoughts in this article.  I strongly believe you will become a truer, more Purposeful pianist and astound yourself in the process.  Understand that this article does not say: do not study.  Quite the opposite, in fact.  It says:  study what you need when you realise that you need it.  Accept advice but consider all knowledge the same level; you're merely walking amongst the trees rather than labelling them as thinner, taller, greener, etc.  Simply be.  Simply play.  Simply be as water.

Part 1   -   Part 3

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