The Unconservatory  

On Piano Playing

By Mickie Willis

I’ve been thinking about piano playing a lot these days, because I’ve been playing a lot — practicing that is, learning pieces, sight reading, playing for my own pleasure — and practicing without giving some analytical thought to the process, of how to most effectively achieve the goal, is time not maximized if not wasted or actually counterproductive. And since I’m not getting any younger I have to make the most of every minute of playing I can manage to squeeze into each day. I bring this up because I imagine most composers play piano or keyboard of some kind and many, like me, would like to be much better at it. Since I’m no longer a student, at least not formally studying at any institution, the only teachers I have are the ones I remember from past years. And I was fortunate to have had some exceptional ones: Castro Carazo, Milton Hallman, and Madeline Trible. They were and are exceptional musicians, pianists, and teachers, and they did their very best with me during the times I studied with them. But, regrettably, I was a poor piano student. And after completing the undergraduate degree, and piano was no longer a requirement of the curriculum, I first neglected, then finally abandoned playing the usual repertoire in favor of jazz improvisation. At least, I reasoned, I could make some money to help support myself and my family while financially struggling through graduate school, punctuated by many periods of various other kinds of employment, which also disrupted systematic practice.

[For those readers who may becoming bored with this personal indulgence and are wondering what the point of this article is, feel comfortable skipping to the "list" at the end of this article; consider this a preface that so often readers ignore, and proceed directly to the text. I’ve always felt that teaching that focuses on the professor is poor teaching; the focus should be on the subject matter. But to the extent that sharing personal experiences can illustrate — good and bad things — it can be useful. So bear with me a bit, maybe some of this will sound familiar and perhaps the things I’ve recently discovered and rediscovered can be, if not new, at least reaffirming.]

In my own defense, I began playing piano just before starting college, and being a beginning piano student at the start of one’s college career as a music student is a "hard row to hoe" and progress is typically slow. I’d been a trumpet player since the age of eleven and had played in high school band, rhythm & blues bands in nightclubs, but an injury at the age of eighteen made it impossible to continue to play any instrument with a mouthpiece. So piano it was. And since then it has been a struggle, a kind of love—hate relationship, a source of endless frustration. At first I hated the instrument and only wanted to gain some ability solely as a practical matter because it’s so useful for a composer. I found the inability to smoothly blend notes, subtly bend pitches, crescendo on sustained tones… all the mellifluous features of a wind instrument, serious weaknesses of the clunky mechanical beast of a piano. You couldn’t even HOLD the instrument but had to sit away from it and reach out to it! This awkwardness combined with the difficulty of reading so many notes and melodic lines at the same time, after having learned to read in an entirely linear way so much earlier in life, combined to make practice a dreaded thing. And the results showed it. I cringe to remember what my poor teachers must have thought. How difficult a way to earn a living it must have been for them to have to sit through my lessons. But not only did they sit through them, they worked and tried; encouraged and offered their best advice — and taught! This is what gifted, committed teachers do. But here’s the interesting thing, the real point of this embarrassing little tale. They did help — not so much then — but now! Now that I’ve been playing a lot, I remember what seems like every single thing each of them told me those many years ago and now apply it. I find that rather miraculous. And equally strangely, I really ENJOY practicing and playing now, and have discovered a few tips, tricks, approaches whatever you’d like to call them on my own. Now, doubtless most experienced pianists and teachers already know these and surely many more, I don’t profess to be any great piano pedagogue. But having been a beginning pianist as an adult may help one have somewhat greater understanding of certain difficulties and recognize what approaches are most effective in overcoming them. Most really accomplished pianists began their study as small children, and by the time they became self—aware and analytical enough to evaluate different approaches, so much of the heavy lifting of beginning study is behind them and beyond their recall. This is somewhat analogous to learning to speak a language only much harder. Children are not in any way aware of how they came to learn their native tongues. All they can remember is having the basic ability. I suspect the same is true of many very accomplished pianists. Although they may see now, as teachers, what works and what doesn’t, some insights are best gained from the "inside—out," so to speak. For knowing something and accepting it are two different things. And it’s getting the student to accept and apply the principle that may be the toughest part of teaching.

Since I’m fond of concise lists (it seems we live in an age of lists, "talking points," executive summaries, etc.) I thought I’d delineate these observations in that fashion. But despite the compactness and usefulness of lists, they can seem a little cold and impersonal, which is why I prefaced the following items with perspective commentary.

Suggestions for Playing the Piano

(In no particular order of importance and with apologies to those for whom this is old news, but I expect even they will agree that many of these comments bear repeating, and may be especially meaningful coming from someone who had to learn and appreciate them the hard way.)

Of course many readers will know of items I’ve left out; good ideas on better playing and practice are far more numerous than these, and many may disagree with some of those I’ve listed. But they have helped me. At this point I’m no longer sure which of them I’ve discovered independently and which were taught, forgotten, then rediscovered, but I suppose it doesn’t matter. The main thing is that one benefit from them. I wish it hadn’t me taken so long to recognize their value and apply them.

Mickie Willis, composer and jazz pianist, received his D.M.A. in Music Composition from Louisiana State University, studying with Kenneth Klaus, James Drew, Don Freund, and Dinos Constantinides. He composes for live concert performance and has created music for films and videos using MIDI instruments. His concert works include an oratorio, three symphonies, five works for chamber orchestra, four string quartets, two sets of piano variations, one oboe sonata, compositions for various other chamber ensembles, songs, and jazz compositions. His commercial works include a one-hour suite for synthesizer, music for ten films and videos, and television commercials. His recordings include a commercial compact disc and two cassette tape releases. He has completed four commissioned works for the Louisiana Sinfonietta, and was the 1999 Louisiana recipient of the MTNA commission for composition. He is also a writer with many published articles on music and other subjects, and one book in print. He is the Director of Music and Education Programs for the Louisiana Division of the Arts.

For more information and to hear samples of his music, visit the website:

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Updated: January 26, 2006 (KB)

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