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Deep piano

Roberto Chignoli

I started playing piano again recently, after a 20 year hiatus. Our 6 year old Brooke started learning, and we suddenly had a keyboard in the house again, so I joined her. It’s been great! I’m playing scales and exercises, diving into Rachmaninoff and Debussy, and working up to tackling Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. (Not easy.)

Practicing is a grind though. I definitely remember it that way, no rose colored glasses here, but now I appreciate what practice actually does: build muscle memory. Entrench a series of notes and fingerings in my brain with the end goal of playing them automatically, no conscious thought needed. At that point, I can devote my attention to musicality and actually interpreting the piece.

I know a bit more about neuroscience now – that it exists, if nothing else – so the relentless tedium and rote repetition grates on me a bit. It feels like such a crude, anachronistic way to learn anything. What’s the state of the art here? Have neuroscientists found any new techniques or deeper understanding of fine motor muscle memory?

One key phrase seems to be deep practice, popularized by Daniel Coyle in The Talent Code as an expansion of Anders Ericsson‘s research on deliberate practice. It’s a bit underwhelming, both the underlying science and the practical techniques. The main physiological mechanism that shows up is building myelin, the insulating sheaths around axons. That makes sense broadly, but is mylenation really so fine grained and specialized that I grow a Clair de lune myelin pattern when I practice that piece? Or is it like exercise or eating right, growing evenly and aiding overall cognitive function?

Similarly, the science-inspired practice techniques are believable, but leave me wanting. Chunking and repetition were table stakes when I played piano in high school. Same with playing slowly and forcefully. The two new ideas I came across were interval training and distraction, eg turning the TV on (with volume low or off) while you practice.

Nice ideas, and I’ll try them, but I guess I was hoping for something more. Hey Dan Chao, am I missing anything? Should I pick up a Halo? Where’s my “I know Kung Fu” device?

Maybe we’re just not there quite yet. Back to the grind, I guess!


7 thoughts on “Deep piano

  1. It never even occurred to me that there might be new ways to teach/learn piano now, after having not taken lessons in like 20 years. But I guess it’s still the same anyway.

  2. Let’s get you a Halo headset. Unfortunately, increasing neuroplasticity in adults is really difficult. Good sleep, caffeine, optimal difficulty, optimal training paradigm all help but it’s still pushing a boulder uphill

  3. I have to say … love this one! You and I are sort of in the same boat right now; have been playing the piano since high school also, even sooner, technically, but it’s been so long now that I’ve played a classical piece. Need to get back! Rachmaninov ……

  4. Good sleep… that’s what I’m missing!

    Congratulations on getting back into the keyboard zone, Ryan. I moaned/groaned through start-up with Dohnanyi exercises about a year ago (did you ever try those?), so I may switch to Czerny if I start up again. Old school…

  5. I’m about to be fifty. I studied piano ‘seriously’ for two years (2016-18), but had to go back to real life to work two jobs, full-time. My only chance to play the piano is 5-10 minutes a day; on weekends I can go for more. My 5 cents: Be in the moment, the slower, the more intense. Find pieces below your level and master them. Create your own ways of learning. Set concrete goals with particular phrases. Balance studying a piece and playing just for fun.

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