Robert Estrin - piano expert

How Playing the Piano is Like Learning to Walk

Learn how playing the piano can be that easy

In this video, Robert gives you a the simplest and more natural approach to piano playing.

Released on December 9, 2020

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DISCLAIMER: The views and the opinions expressed in this video are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Virtual Sheet Music and its employees.

Video Transcription

Hi, this is Robert Estrin here at The subject today is how playing the piano is like walking. And you might think, "Boy, playing the piano is much more complicated than walking," and truly it is. But have you ever seen like a toddler taking their first steps? And each step is very careful, and deliberate, and trying not to fall down, and figure out how to walk. And yet, here I can walk, and talk, and not even thinking about the walking so much. Although if there's something in my path and I might trip, you would start thinking about your walking, but most of the time, you don't even need to think about it. And how does this relate to piano playing? When you think about playing the piano, and let's say you have a 90 minute solo recital playing music from memory, obviously, no matter how skilled you are, there are going to be moments that you're going to lose your concentration.

This is inevitable. And you kind of go on a, almost like a free wheel at those times. You see, what happens is there's a certain amount of motor memory or tactile memory that we depend upon. Now, this isn't something desirable, but it is a fact of life that you're not going to be able to concentrate fully every single moment in your performance. So, I'm going to show you back in the studio how this is true for piano playing, just like I can talk to you now while walking even through some brush here and I can still maintain a conversation. And the walking, I'm not really thinking so much about, hopefully I don't fall down here.

But I'm going to do something for you in the studio to prove how this same fact of life is present in your piano playing. And indeed, we all depend upon this automatic pilot that you've got. And I'll talk about the benefits of that and the dangers of that. Thanks so much. I hope you enjoy the rest of the show.

So, here we are back in the studio to continue this exploration of how playing the piano is similar to learning how to walk. At the beginning, if you watch a toddler, particularly the first times are unaided, and the concentration it takes each step is a milestone. Well, in the piano playing, when you learn something at first, it's very complex. It's a slow arduous process until eventually, it's automatic pilot. Your fingers just kind of go where they've gone before, because you've done this so many times. Chances are you're going to remember or at least your hands will remember where they go, because they've done it the same way hundreds of times before.

Well, something like that, you get the idea there. And so, times in a performance when you lose your concentration, maybe there's a noise in the audience, or a key trips up on the keyboard, or something happens and yet, you can manage to keep on going. Well, this is extremely dangerous, because your hands have no idea whether you've taken a repeat, whether you're in an exposition, or a recapitulation. They could take wrong turns anywhere, because they're just doing what they've done before. They're not going to have intelligence about it. So, how do you overcome that limitation? How do you get your memory so it's not just that motor memory? I've talked about this a great deal. First of all, the process of memory, rather than practice a piece over and over for months and then finally at the end go, "Okay, now I'm going to memorize it," you flip it.

And instead, the first thing you do with a piece after reading it through a couple of times is get to work memorizing it. Small chunks at a time, putting the hands together and connecting phrases as you go the way I've described so many times before. And eventually, you get to the point where you really know the score well. How can you know if you're just depending upon that tactile or motor memory and how much is intentional? Well, if you take the motor memory completely out of the equation, and the way to do that is to practice away from the piano. If you try to play the score without the benefit of your fingers moving, it's really difficult. Now, at first, when you try this, you may need to have your fingers at least move, even if it's just in your lap. Eventually you can get to the point where you're not even moving your fingers, you're just thinking it all through with every nuance of sound and touch, knowing every finger and imagining it all in great detail.

And if you can get through your music like that, it's almost impossible to have memory problems, because it's kind of like singing a song that you've sung 100 times before, or 1,000 times before, or telling a story that you know so well. It's part of you. So, that's the way to overcome this limitation of what your motor memory can do. At the same time, you've got to be thankful that you've got it to rely upon for those times that for whatever reason, you become distracted in your performance.

Thank goodness we've got that motor memory to count on, but you want to do everything you can to not have to rely upon it. So, I hope this has been interesting for you. I'd love to hear perspectives from all of you. If you've had this kind of experience, if you feel that you're playing just by feel without an intellect behind it. And you can try this idea of playing away from the piano and let me know how it works for you. Again, I'm Robert Estrin. This is living, your online piano resource. Lots of content here. Thank you all for subscribing and ringing the bell. And to you Patreon subscribers who'll get the premium content, there's a lot more coming. So, stay tuned. We'll see you next time!
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