The most basic way to play a piece

What does it mean to “play a piece”? Often, this concept is viewed as either being too obvious to discuss, or treated in near-overwhelming complexity. I might suggest, however, that we can think about this in a way that is both clear and helpful.

The concept I would like to offer is that playing a piece means dropping your arms on every beat. This means to let your arms fall freely, with gravity, onto the keys. This is the only task with which you will concern yourself. Once per beat, drop your arms.

I can hear the objections! What about dynamics? Pedalling? Fingering? Tone?

These are all important topics, and I don’t mean to brush them aside. But they are not the focus of what I would like to discuss at the moment. I ask that you suspend your judgment on this for a bit.

This may be a way of playing that is very different what you are used to. It will probably feel weird at first. New things often do. If the way you play right now is working for you, keep doing it. But if maybe there’s something that could be working better, perhaps you could try something new?

Think of it as a “sketch”. We get the basic outline first. Quickly. Then we fill in the details. But only if we have the time.

Let’s try it out

For this exercise, choose a piece that is not too difficult, but one that you are unlikely to play perfectly. You are going to try playing it while focusing on dropping your arms.

Exercise (please read completely before beginning):

  1. Set a timer for at least 10 minutes, and set your metronome. Experiment with fast, medium, and slow tempos. You need to practice all of them. Start with a medium tempo at first. As you get comfortable with the exercise, you can increase the tempo.
  2. Drop your arms in your lap for a little while, reminding yourself what it feels like to let them fall freely, the difference between hanging in the air, and resting in your lap.
  3. Now, play the piece. With each click, let your arms drop on the keyboard. After they fall, lift them again and drop on the next click. When you reach the end of the piece, start again and play until the timer runs out.
  4. It’s not important that you play the piece correctly, or that you get all the right notes and rhythms. For the purposes of this exercise, the goal is for your arms to drop on the click. What happens in between the clicks is not important.
  5. When the timer is up, write down anything you remember struggling with, or anything your mind was concerned about.

Some advice

Your mind will probably have a lot to say about this one! It is completely normal and common for you to stop thinking about dropping your arms and to try playing the piece correctly. That is your evaluating self taking control from your observing self. The point of the exercise is to learn to notice when this happens, and what that feels like.

You may lose your place in the music. That is totally fine. Whenever that happens, just pick a spot close to where you think you got off and keep going. Try not to skip a beat.

Please try to stay with the exercise until the timer runs out. It takes time to learn the skills that the exercise teaches, and to make the switch from evaluating to observing. Remember that you can write down anything your mind says, and worry about it later.

If you ever feel like this is difficult, you are either distracted or you are misunderstanding the exercise.

If you feel this is difficult because you keep getting distracted and losing track of what you’re doing, just bring your attention back to the exercise and continue. Over time, you will learn how to get distracted less and less. That is exactly what the exercise teaches.

If you think “no, this is truly difficult”, you are probably misunderstanding the exercise. Read the instructions again and do exactly as I say. Do not add anything or subtract anything from the instructions. Most students who find this difficult are imagining that I am asking them to do things which I never in fact said. Try not to bring any of your previous instruction or methods to this exercise. That can be hard to do, I know. When in doubt, just spend more time doing the exercise. See if anything at all jumps out at you. See if anything becomes clear to you, which was not clear before.

If you tried all of that and you still think this is hard, or you are skeptical of any of my rules, that is understandable. My advice is different from a lot of what you hear elsewhere, and it may be different from what you have discovered yourself. Write down your objections. Then, practice my way for a couple weeks. Review your objections. If they still remain unchanged, maybe this way is not for you. If there is a tiny possibility that I may be onto something, I hope you will continue to explore this method.

Questions? Concerns? Leave a comment and let’s talk about it!


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