Confessions of a Piano Quitter

by Mark Almond

I still remember exactly what it was like to go to piano lessons at the age of five. I remember the precise color of the lighting in the basement at the home of my first piano teacher, and an unusual number of details about the various experiences with all four of the piano teachers from whom I took lessons between the ages of five and seven. My attempt to learn how to play the piano at an early age was not a failure, it was an unbroken string of failures. The most prominent memory I have of going to a lesson was the feeling of both dread and guilt because I was not ready with the assignment. I did learn that each of the four teachers I had over the two year period had to be handled differently. The same excuse (delivered with the same passionate intensity) that seemed to work with one may not work with the other. My communication skills, not my piano skills, were honed and elevated to a new level. Watch out for people who have had multiple piano teachers as a child, some of them may misuse their powers!

On two occasions I quit taking lessons and changed teachers because of the same song — “The Caisson Song.” Until a few years ago, I didn’t even know what the word “Caisson” meant. I did know as a child, however, that this particular song required the left hand to play an independent pattern while the right hand played the melody. There was absolutely no question in my mind at the time that I simply did not have the talent for this kind of thing. Today, as a piano teacher, I could never count the number of times I have talked to individuals that came to the same exact conclusion about their own talent. They even use the same wording I used as a child while explaining why they too cannot learn to play the piano.

Students of all ages, including adults, believe they have this same limiting affliction. I can imagine some of them telling their sad story while driving a car — talking to the passenger, operating the gas pedal, controlling the steering wheel, adjusting the mirror as they check the traffic behind them, and of course chewing gum all at the same time! Actually, learning the left hand pattern in the “Caisson Song,” when we consider how the human brain functions, is no different than learning any aspect of driving a car. I simply did not have a teacher that would take the time to break the problem down to simple parts and demonstrate how to absorb the pattern in stages. When a pattern is learned by going through the right process, you do not have to break it down when you run into it again – you have it for life.

I have had the great privilege of a number of unusual experiences over the course of my life in music. A group of rather unique influences have allowed me to continue to grow as a pianist and teacher. The person that brought me back to the piano at the age of seventeen was a friend in high school. He had the ability to play practically anything without reading music. He could often learn a new song and play it almost instantly with full accompaniment – and without any awkward pauses or hesitation in the rhythm. I watched him play by the hour and came to a conclusion that is ultimately the reason I am a pianist today. He was talented no question, but I decided that what he was doing wasn’t just a matter of unusual talent, but that there had to be some kind of system. There had to be an explanation. Both my friend and my newly acquired piano teacher, who also could play without reading music, could not explain what they had been doing from a very young age, but they were able to help me start learning “chords” one at a time. I made the discouraging assumption that there were thousands of chords and that there was very little they had in common with each other. The first chord book I checked out of the library was gigantic. With small print and tiny graphics it looked like over one hundred chords on a single page! Flipping through the pages of that book came very close to putting an end to my music career. Without help later on, from the writings of the great musicians in the past, I would have never made it out of this maze of confused thinking.

Today my emphasis in both practicing and teaching concentrates on practical ways to make the standard materials of music clear. The mysterious ability the mind has, in terms of seeing the whole picture, not only helps us remember details but also helps us develop concrete skills. In a discipline that requires mind body co-ordination, I have learned that it is mandatory that material new to the student must first be understood — then truly absorbed. I have come to the belief that it is not necessary or wise to try and fundamentally change the system of music education we have inherited, but it is absolutely necessary to understand it, to know how it developed, and know where it’s strong and where it’s weak.

For a more complete answer to the question of how to make efficient progress at the piano, I would have to go back to a life-changing book I read in college. After my piano lessons as a child, I spent ten years in sports — as far away from the piano as I could get. After the ten years as a dedicated piano quitter, many people were surprised when I went to college as a music major.

When I arrived, I was way behind everyone who was majoring in music. If I were ever to catch up, I would have to work hard and smart. I could be found almost every Friday and Saturday night, alone in the music building. Hard work, however, is not the only reason I made progress. I made progress because of a very old book I found in the college library.

The book was published in 1913, Great Pianists on Piano Playing by James Francis Cooke. The author was very proud of the fact that he had interviewed all of the top pianists in the world. In relation to the pianists at the very top, seven in particular, he was absolutely correct. Each of his chapters in the book contained one of the interviews. I was, for many months, very disappointed in the book that was to change my life forever! It didn’t seem to answer any of my practical questions at all.

I didn’t have any idea, at the time, that many among this particular group of pianists, were known as some of the greatest thinkers in all of music history. I didn’t have enough traditional piano instruction to realize they were putting me on an entirely different foundation — far away from many of the trends that had been dominating in recent decades.

I had no idea that advances in modern science had led whole generations into an attitude of arrogance that caused most educators and many of the world famous musicians to assume everything from the past was primitive and inferior. It would be many years before I would be able to evaluate the level of insight contained in these single chapter interviews. Perhaps without the interviews conducted by Cooke, I would not have developed a love for what historians call source documents. I have learned much more, for example, from sources like an autobiography by Paderewski, where the entire book is directly from the person who lived through the experiences. History books are great for overviews, but they do not make the impact on the reader, or carry reliable information to the degree that source materials do.

To probe deeper into the most important insights from the past will take us back a little over 500 years. Around 1490, a Spanish musician, Bartolomeo Pareja, declared the triad (the three note chord) to be a phenomenon of nature. He emphasized the importance of his discovery and even described some of the mathematical properties involved. He may have had some influence over certain individual musicians, but his insight did not change an ominous and destructive trend in music education.

A system was evolving designed to describe and teach the principles of harmony. The laws of harmony, properly understood, should explain how music is structured and how various tones relate to one another. The system evolving, however, was a real patchwork, with contributions, made over time, from various countries and various schools of thought. False assumptions were made, and institutionalized, that continue to cause confusion and anguish to this very day.

There was another chance in 1722 to make needed corrections in relation to how harmony was being understood and taught, when a French musician, Jean Philippe Rameau, clarified some key concepts in relation to understanding how music is actually structured and organized. His discoveries went beyond Pareja’s, and he had a tremendous influence on musicians. He is often called the father of the principles of modern harmony. But again, his insights failed to impact how chords were being depicted by an entrenched tradition that was still being expanded on a false foundation. A system that was destined, by its complexity, to hide much more than it revealed.

It would of course take time to explain what was wrong with this foundation, but basically there were two main problems. First, simple triads were tied to and hidden behind complex scale patterns. A scale is supposed to be the main tones that occur during an entire piece of music. Right there you have a problem! This “backdrop to the whole song” idea makes the very nature of a scale both complicated and non-musical! Triads, on the other hand are both simple in structure and musical by their very nature, especially when put with other triads in natural sequences. Scales have value in their proper place, but triads have immediate practical value that make it possible for even beginners to play impressive musical sounds.

The second main problem was a futile attempt to use numerous chord symbols to describe the various positions of what is really the same chord. This made classical chord symbols more complicated than the written notation system. This was pretty hard to do since the musical staff pictured every single note played! But the fact that these chord symbols were more complicated than the written notes, wasn’t the bad news. These symbols designed to represent patterns in harmony, were literally over one hundred times as complicated as the chords they were attempting to represent. It’s almost like a teacher trying to learn the names of the students in a class, after finding out each student has 100 nicknames. Everyone who has had college music theory knows this is no exaggeration. My college music theory textbook could be used by dictators as an intrument of torture to extract information out of anyone, after physical torture fails!

These two major errors in judgment, briefly described here, are still with us today. They are largely responsible for the fact that the vast majority of piano teachers, for the last few generations, have made only a halfhearted attempt to teach harmony, if they tried to teach it at all. The shockingly simple laws of harmony, which were understood in about 1490, and explained again more fully in 1722, are the heart and soul of music. It is true that some musicians have been able, through sheer effort, to reach the top of the mountain using only their bare hands, but it is less painful, quicker, and easier to use a few tools! Not to mention the ninety percent or higher who never make it to the top, due to frustration and exhaustion.

There is a gigantic difference between a single piece of information and a basic principle. An academic machine that makes no attempt whatsoever to distinguish between mere facts and basic principles is manufacturing its own special brand of cruelty. This kind of cruelty, once it is institutionalized, translates directly into human suffering whether you are trying to understand music, practice medicine, or analyze human nature. When secondary issues, or peripheral issues, are elevated to the status of primary issues, nothing works, nothing makes sense. In the history of music, there is overwhelming evidence of a time when valid distinctions were being made, at least by a few.

Harmony is in fact, based on a simple mathematical foundation. This information is intensely practical. Once the laws of harmony are understood, it is possible for anyone to “play by ear.” All of the pianists, young and old, in the 1700s and 1800s were able to play both with and without music notation! Teachers at that time obviously had a better understanding of the powers of the “right brain” than do the scientifically enlightened, modern day educators.

Another practical benefit of knowing the rules of harmony, is the ability to play fluently and without hesitation. Unnatural pauses are caused by trying to play music while attempting to control thousands of tiny bits of information. All music is made up of a very limited number of chord patterns. An entire song, or piece, may only have four or five chords — yet thousands of notes. Knowing the chords mentally and physically beforehand, organizes all of the details into manageable units. This is how the brain operates. We have all heard that the various regions of the brain have different functions. To be able to function, each “region” must be given something definite to work with. The “right side” needs to be able to see meaningful units and patterns that enable us to see the whole picture.

Understanding harmony also makes it very easy to understand the details of modern chord symbols, which are very straight forward, direct, and to the point. The rejection of modern chord symbols, based on a blind loyalty to the classical tradition, cannot be defended intellectually. If you ever hear of anyone trying to do so, please let me know. Wouldn’t you know, the only quirks and irritating features in the modern chord symbols, are carry-overs from the classical tradition! Understanding the core of how harmony works will also help you understand the far less practical, unnecessarily complex classical system — if you are a glutton for that kind of punishment.

Am I defending the music theory of hundreds of years ago, while at the same time advocating the use of modern day chord symbols? Of course I am! Modern chord symbols incorporate, utilize, and reflect the very insights that can come to us only through the people who truly understand harmony. Modern chord symbols were created out of sheer necessity. Musicians were forced by their circumstances, to get right to the point. The chord symbols of today are linked, by their very nature, to the insights of Pareja, Rameau, and what was being described by around 1850 as functional harmony.

The amount of time it takes to understand how harmony works will surprise you. One of the interesting reactions I have witnessed many times over the years is anger. I wish I could give some specific examples. OK, here’s one. I was sitting at the piano flying through the basics for a lady who was about 65 years old. After a few minutes she stood up. She had been sitting next to the bench in the teacher’s chair. I kept going full speed because I knew she previously had lessons off and on throughout her whole life.

The next time I looked up at her, her face was beet-red. She was deeply angry. She said, “This is what I wanted when I was a teenager! I’ve had six different teachers, and you’re telling me this is all there is to it?” She sat down at the piano right then and started playing runs with both hands, up and down the piano, using her first chord progression, playing without music, for the first time in her life. This lesson was really not a pleasant experience at the time. She wasn’t happy to have the information; she was deeply upset. “Why isn’t it taught this way!” “I needed this when I was younger!” “It can’t possibly be this simple!” At Piano for Life, Inc. we hear all of these phrases continually. I have omitted a few of the more “colorful” phrases used by some.

The simplicity of the laws of harmony will surprise you more than you can now imagine. The foundation is mathematical, but it is kindergarten math! If you can count to three, you will quickly understand the two building blocks for all of the chords. When we make the claim, which we do, that two simple building blocks give us the tools that will help us understand even the advanced chords, no one believes it. That’s why we demonstrate it. Music is organized. Music has structure. The substructure, the foundation to harmony, was explained in 1490. Like all other fields of knowledge, understanding basic principles first, opens all of the doors.

Skip to content