Playing Piano Without Music

Although – in the vast majority of cases – my aim is to teach pupils to read music from a score – there is a handful of occasions when I encourage them to deviate from this. If I’m honest, had I been blessed with more musicality and/or a better childhood piano teacher, I would probably do so far more often.playing piano duet

Much as I believe it is essential that pupils learn to read music with confidence, I also appreciate there is a lot to be said for picking out a melody (and possibly ‘finding’ the accompanying chords) by ear.

My own inability to do this frustrates me and – on many occasions I have been left feeling totally inadequate when a pupil has asked me to play the chords of a well known pop song or shown me that he can do so (having memorised an online demonstration).

I once had a request from a prospective pupil who asked me to teach him to play by ear. As I said to him, if you have the ability to play by ear you probably don’t really need a teacher – and even if you ever did need one, that teacher certainly wouldn’t be me!

From Memory or By Ear

If a pupil succeeds in playing a piece by ear/from memory I always praise him (whilst trying to suppress my intense envy) although I don’t let this happen too often: beginners really need to spend a lot of time looking at the notes on the stave in order to become fluent readers.

There are two pieces in John W. Schaum The Red Book where I actively encourage playing without the music. The first is Jumping Beans – a simple little one-fingered tune which pupils generally find easier and more fun to play without looking at the book. The second – which is on the following page – is Warm-ups. This involves playing a series of chords up the scale and I think it’s more helpful for the beginner to watch his hands in this piece, so he can notice how the three fingers need to go down at exactly the same time – and that by keeping them stiff when they come up, he can ensure this happens. It’s also good for him to hear when he has reached the tonic and needs to end.

Occasionally, even I attempt to play a piece from one of the beginners’ books from memory. I know I really should be playing a piece of Chopin or Rachmaninoff but having tried – and failed – to learn one of the classics by heart – I feel that by at least memorising a beginners’ piece, I am making some effort to develop my musical memory.

For those who choose to sit piano exams, scales have to be learned by heart – which is particularly useful for anyone who is generally totally dependent on the music: this forces the pianist to come away from the ‘dots on the page’. I generally introduce scales when my pupil has reached the middle of The Red Book.

Happy Birthday (To You)

At the end of this book, there is a piece called Birthday Greetings. Having taught this piece to many of my pupils (although some have never learned it as they start their grade 1 exam pieces before this point) – I have lost count of the number of times they’ve expected it to sound like the familiar Happy Birthday (to You). How disappointing (and odd!) that it doesn’t! For that reason, I decided it was time to start teaching everyone (including – shamefully at this late stage – myself) to play Happy Birthday. This really is a song which all pianists should be able to play by heart: you just never know when you might be asked to perform it and it’s so embarrassing (especially for a piano teacher) to admit that you can’t.

I teach a relatively simple version (in the key of F major with the right hand starting on middle C) – although I do insist that the (very basic) left hand accompaniment is learned at the same time. (The piano is a two-handed instrument and I have no time for pupils who are only interested in learning the right. Obviously, the exception to this is pianists who – due to some physical disability – are only able to play with one hand: I’ve never met any but have seen one or two perform on television and can only admire their extreme determination and perseverance).

Teaching beginners to play from memory is a new experience for me – and hearing Happy Birthday played with such varying degrees of success has thrown up a few surprises. For example, pupils who I know to be ‘musical’ and can sing in tune have not necessarily been able to instinctively decide between playing a higher or a lower note. I also find that some have very poor concentration/short term memories.

However, most have found that coming away from the music makes a refreshing change and they enjoy trying to remember where my fingers go and copy what I do, one phrase at a time. I then advise them to practise the piece every day for the first week and every so often from then onwards so that they will always be confident enough to play it when the occasion arises.