Two different ways to learn music

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Because it is Christmas and no one is working on music anyway, I want to take a week off from anything too heavy and just give you some thoughts about how to practically learn music.  This is a controversial subject and I am hardly an expert, but here is the way I see it.

Imagine for a moment that when you are in the first grade, you decide you want to be a great painter when you grow up.  Your parents enroll you in art lessons and you start working.  After teaching you how to hold the brush and mix paint, the teacher shows you a painting by Botticelli and tells you to imitate it.  After you finish, you reproduce a Donatello painting and after that, a more complex da Vinci painting.

All the way through elementary and high school, you reproduce great paintings of the past as close as possible to the original.  You decide to go to college and major in art.  In college, you reproduce more masterpieces and become quite good at it.  Except for a stray class on original painting here and there, you focus on reproducing classical masterpieces.

Does this scenario sound a bit ridiculous?  Of course it does.  An artist that can only reproduce classic masterpieces is hardly an artist at all.  He or she will have almost no relevant skills as an artist except perhaps teaching.

Sadly, what I have just described is the way music has largely been taught in the Western world during the last century.  Children start early on the piano, grow up playing classics, go to college to learn to perform harder classics and come out of college with almost no practical skill except to teach other children through the same cycle.

And we wonder why some concert pianists and college music professors cannot just sit down and play “Happy Birthday” without music..

Music has continued to develop through the past century, but the development has come in genres that encourage originality and theory during the education process (rather than just having students re-learn classical music).  Suffice it to say that Christian music is not one of the genres that has developed during that time.

Are the classics important to the study of music?  Yes, students should play classical music.  But more importantly, they should be taught the theory behind different styles of music so that they can eventually create their own music.  This is where the breakdown occurs.  Even in college, music performance majors often get only a few classes on composition.  Theory is taught but the practical application of that theory is largely absent from the curriculum. Christian instrumental artists are just taught to play from books of prearranged Christian piano solos.

So, there are really two ways to approach teaching piano–the approach I have just discussed (learning to reproduce already-written music) and approach that focuses more on theory, ear training, and originality.  You can guess which one I think is superior.  I certainly know which approach is more relevant for the 21st century.

Most of you that are reading this have been trained with the first approach and you are possibly frustrated because you see the limitations of it.  You would like to be able to play church music by ear, improvise, and do other things you see pianists do flawlessly even when you know they do not have as much training as you.

Helping Christian piano players cross over to the second approach is what these lessons are about.  The good news is that I firmly believe it is possible.  The bad news is that it takes a lot of work. If I had to guess what the hardest hurdle is, I would say it is the application of theory.  It is not that classically-trained musicians do not know how to build scales and chords–they just don’t know how to practically incorporate them into their music.

When you practice, I would encourage you to spend about a third of your time on theory (playing scales, chords, etc.), a third of your time playing new music and applying the theory you are learning (pick a hymn an experiment with the concepts we are covering), and a third of your time playing whatever other music you have to learn anyway as a church pianist.

If you are a good classical pianist, it is silly to compare yourself to a good improviser.  You have two very different skills and you are making music in two very different ways.  As you work through these lessons, understand that I am trying to teach you how to play the piano in a completely different way from the classically-dominant approach.  I hope you will stick with me and start to experience the difference in your playing during the next year.