The Hardest Lesson Of All

I was having a conversation with a student recently about what really is the hardest thing in learning music. It’s not technique or being able to play lots of fast flashy notes. You see YouTube videos of very young people doing that all the time. But that’s not it.

The hardest thing is to be able to listen to yourself and actually know what you want to hear. Let me give you a comparison. If an artist wants to paint something like a portrait or a landscape, they have to have a pretty good idea of what they want the finished result to look like. If they don’t, not much is going to happen on the canvas - or at least not much of interest.

It’s similar for a musician - if you don’t know what sound you want to come out of the piano, you’re not going to be able to make that sound.

Have a listen to one of these five year old kids playing ridiculously hard pieces of music - they usually don’t have the faintest idea about the actual music they are making. It’s just a mechanical exercise in most cases. Technically impressive, yes. But musical?

So how do you learn this? Well, it’s something that takes time. The more repertoire you play, the more you will get it. But most of all, you just have to reach a point of musical maturity where you move away from having to have a teacher tell you: “play this bit softly, then crescendo here blah blah blah”. If a teacher has told you how and when to play everything, it’s not really you playing. It’s certainly not your heart and soul being poured into the piece. You are technically reproducing a series of events that you have learned. Well, that’s what computers do - we as humans have the ability to decide for ourselves what really sounds good. The only good use of a very good technique is in enabling you to achieve the sound you want. If you only want to be impressed by the technique itself, then music is perhaps not what you are really interested in.

Try to really listen to yourself when you are playing. Always ask yourself: If I bought a CD of this piece and that is what I heard, would I be satisfied? Most of the time, the answer should be “no”. Getting the answer to be a “yes” is a process that is much more far-reaching than simply playing the notes.