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Learning: Linear or Something Else?

The process of learning a skill takes time. The time taken to master the piano, besides the initial decade or so of learning, is invariably a lifelong pursuit. We are gifted with one of the most diverse and wonderful repertoire. Learning, playing and perfecting all that repertoire will take more than one lifetime. ​

The Success Iceberg

​When it comes to our technique the question is, when is our task of refining/shaping it sufficiently done or completed? Each new piece we learn either offers a completely novel situation or at least a variation of some technical challenge we have encountered before. This is no doubt because we are motivated to look for the next challenge. I am yet to find a pianist who, having finished a successful rendition of Beethoven’s Pathetique Sonata doesn’t then intend on learning Op 109 or Appassionata, but would rather go back to playing the sonatina repertoire.

This in itself suggests that there is a perpetual loop of learning. That even the accomplished pianist is still in a state of learning, of wonderment and of refining their skills. Think of Alfred Brendel’s several Beethoven recordings and marvel at the change in his tone and the seasoned interpretations he makes later in his life.

How many of us have gone back to old repertoire and still find something new to say about the piece? Again, this suggests that learning is not linear. And I take great heart from this.

When I first began to study the Taubman Approach, I glanced a “seed” of the information. I began by learning the tiniest kernel of the insights of Dorothy Taubman codified and ever since, that seed has sprouted, flourished and continues to flourish and grow as I continue to learn from those with more experience.

The first time I watched the 10 DVDs on the fundamentals of the Taubman Approach, I was in awe of what I was seeing. I was in awe, amongst other things, of how the examples in the repertoire were succinctly analysed and pianistic solutions found.

I rewatched them again recently and couldn’t believe just how much more information there was in them. Now that I have a much firmer grasp on the fundamental information, I was able to unpack an amazing amount of extra information than what I initially gained watching it with no prior exposure.

It’s the same for the injured students that I work with. I see them really struggle with the beginning phase of the learning. It can be really slow in those first months. Some of them have to learn the most basic movements. Maybe that is how to sit on the piano stool and then how to get their hands on the keys without something going awry: a collapse, a twist, a pain. This is before they even start playing one note.

And without much experience of what is right and how to replicate the correct movements, it can be easy to get off track when there is a week between lessons and I observe that students can feel that they are back at ground-zero. That they are totally back at the beginning and they are SO very disappointed in themselves and with the whole process.

One swallow doesn't make for a summer and one setback doesn't mean that the whole process is doomed. The fact is that we all go through setbacks as a normal part of life. It is how we respond to those challenges that determines if we are going to spiral downwards, stagnate, or grow and develop.

I love one particular American sentiment: if you haven't failed in business, then you are not going to be a successful business person. It's that kind of can-do, pick-yourself-up and learn from your mistakes attitude that breeds success.

When you have setbacks, it is important to realise that you are not starting from the beginning. Just because you were injured does not mean that your musicality, or musical knowledge has been taken away from you. You still have that, you just have a setback that can be fixed and needs your patience and determination to address the problem. Unravelling and addressing each of these setbacks is a learning experience. It makes you a better pianist. It makes you a better teacher. It gives you an insight into yourself that you wouldn’t have had otherwise.

In uncovering the roots of the piano injury, it is often true that we find that there are other things in daily life that are causing us injury: it might be how we use our computer, how we send SMS, how we chop vegetables, how we brush our teeth, even how we gesticulate when we are talking. Eradicating these movements is an essential part of the retraining process.

So the good news is that while the beginning of the learning can be slow for some, as you add layer upon layer of information on top of each other, the learning becomes much quicker. Each piece of information that you have learnt will help you learn the next piece more quickly.

As teachers of the Taubman Approach, we are focussed on engaging you in the process, that’s why we ask you so many times “how does that feel” or “what is different now than from before”. When you engage in this process and actively participate in the enquiry process, this ultimately gives you ownership of the tools to help you to solve the technical problems that you have. At this point, the learning process becomes more straightforward, quicker and maybe just a little bit more linear than it was previously.

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