Don’t complain until you’ve tried it

Joe: Hey Michael, I’m having trouble playing the piano.

Michael: Oh yeah? What’s wrong?

J: All sorts of things. I can’t play fast. I can’t stay in tempo. My fingers keep getting tangled up. I just don’t feel good about it.

M: Yeah, that’s normal.

J: What should I do?

M: Well, you know JS Bach said something about how “all one has to do is hit the right keys at the right time and the instrument plays itself.”

J: That’s pretty vague.

M: No, it’s extremely specific.

J: Huh?

M: I’m serious. He’s telling you exactly what you need to do.

J: I don’t get it. First of all, my problem is that I can’t play the right keys at the right time. Second of all, that can’t be ALL you need to do. What about expression and dynamics and all that?

M: One thing at a time. What are you having trouble with?

J: I can’t play the right keys at the right time. I mean, I basically can. But I can’t do it fast.

M: Right, that’s because your nervous system isn’t conditioned in the exact right way to make that happen.

J: Yeah, that’s an understatement. So, what do I do? Practice slowly?

M: No, that’s just a folk remedy you heard from a piano teacher. You have to train your nervous system to comprehend the exact causes and conditions of everything involved here.

J: I don’t understand.

M: What don’t you understand?

J: What should I practice?

M: I just told you.

J: Your advice is incredibly vague and non-specific. You’re not telling me, step-by-step, what to do.

M: Oh, I didn’t realize you wanted step-by-step instructions. You came to me with a vague problem, after all. I was giving you a general solution.

J: Fine. But, I don’t know how to be precise with the formulation of my problem.

M: Neither do I.

J: So, what do I do?

M: It sounds to me like you’re having trouble playing a specific piece of music. If that’s the case, you would need to dig into that particular piece of music and figure out what’s going on.

J: Hm, OK. I’ve been practicing it forever, and I can’t get it right.

M: Have you tried the waterfall technique?

J: No, what’s that?

M: It’s a practice technique I invented that will help you train yourself to play absolutely anything.

J: Oh yeah, I think I remember you posted that on a piano teacher Facebook group a couple years ago. Wow, they really tore you apart. I’m not sure I want to be associated with someone like you…

M: Don’t be silly. You know as well as I do that none of them even considered trying it.

J: True. So, how do I do it?

M: I’ll tell you, but first you must promise that you will try it, and that you will only raise objections and concerns which are based on your experiences trying it, and not on your theoretical or conceptual prejudices or ego-driven, a priori, assumptions about what constitutes proper piano practice.

J: I don’t know if I can promise that. When I joined the world of classical music, I did swear an oath to keep the open-minded part of my mind firmly closed.

M: Yes, but you can break that oath.

J: That’s morally wrong, though.

M: Yes, it is.

J: So, I can’t learn from you.

M: Fair enough.

J: Then, what do I do?

M: Sounds like you’re stuck.

J: You’re not helping.

M: What would you like help with?

J: I want you to teach me the waterfall technique.

M: Do you promise that you will try it? And not complain until you’ve tried it? And only complain about stuff that came up while trying it?

J: That sounds extremely unreasonable.

M: Take it or leave it.

J: Fine, I promise.

M: Great. Here’s how it works: (1) Choose a piece, and decide how many beats there are per measure. (2) Set your metronome to the maximum tempo. (3) Play the piece by dropping your arms on the keyboard, once per beat. (4) Ask yourself, “is this how I want this piece to sound at this tempo?” If the answer is yes, go back to step 2. If the answer is no, decrease the metronome by 1 click and go back to step 3.

J: That can’t possibly do anything.

M: You promised you wouldn’t complain yet.

J: But, it’s obviously ridiculous.

M: Ridiculously powerful, you mean.

J: No, I mean ridiculously ridiculous. What is this supposed to do for me?

M: I don’t know. You’ll have to try it and see.

J: I won’t try it until I know what it’s supposed to do.

M: OK.

J: What do you mean, “OK”? You said this would help me.

M: I said you must try it before complaining about it. And, you promised to do that. So, what will it be?

J: Fine, I’ll try it.

M: Wow, you’re a special person. NOBODY tries it.

(later that week)

J: Michael, you’re right. This has totally changed my life.


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