A Fellow Traveler

Recently I was visiting with a fellow traveler in the piano world. He is one of the few people I have met in my life who has traveled a nearly parallel road as mine. He is a piano tuner and rebuilder, teacher, and has a similar education as my own. What a treat! In the course of our conversation I shared with him my experience as a church musician. His reaction showed me some of the unique advantages I had gained from my time behind the keyboards.

A little over 11 years ago I took a job at the New Life Lutheran Church of Bolingbrook as their organist. Now I had a semester’s worth of organ lessons in college and had “played” the organ for a couple of years at another church but I was no organist. But, as someone always willing to do something new and challenging I jumped in.

As time went on I quickly learned the liturgy and ran through the limited amount of music for both the piano and organ I had for the preludes and postludes. After repeating myself a few times I began to get bored with the whole process. I knew I wasn’t giving or getting everything out of the opportunity. So I decided to use the opportunity of needing a steady supply of new piano music to create a need and motivation for me to greatly expand my repertory. Rather than doing a scatter shot approach to learning new music, I decided to play through more systematically the repertory of the piano.

I started very simply with the Clementi Sonatinas and much of Anna Magdalena Bach book. I moved on to other literature of Chopin, Mednter, Debussy, Beethoven, and Bach. A funny thing happens when you set out to learn 5 – 10 minutes of new music every week; after few years, you have really learned a lot of music.

I am not sharing this to brag, but to encourage those of you with a similar opportunity and need to take full advantage of the discipline such a situation can place you under. I have become a big advocate of learning complete cycles of music. I cannot begin to explain everything I learned about music, Beethoven, the sonata, or myself after playing the complete cycle of Beethoven’s sonatas or Bach’s 48. Even if the cycle is as small as Bach’s 2 Part Inventions, learning and playing them all will give you a unique perspective quite different from knowing only a few.

Andrew Remillard
President
ANRPiano.com



Rule #3 Different Perspecitves

Ask anybody whose job involves a significant amount of problem solving and one of their most important techniques is to look at the problem from as many different perspectives as possible. Sometimes it is only after taking a fresh and different perspective can we find an answer.

In music learning this can take the form of studying melodic development or harmonic patterns, especially if this material had been neglected up until now. It could also mean memorizing a passage backwards, ie, the last measure, then the next to last measure and so on until the passage is learned. This is great for Bach Fugues.

Andrew Remillard
President
ANRPiano.com



Commandment #4 Thou Shalt Use Both Hands at all Times

As a young piano student my piano teacher insisted I learn each hand individually before I put them together. I found this very frustrating because I never felt the work I did with my hands individually did anything to prepare me for playing with both hands simultaneously.

Learning to play one hand at a time, with the other completely uninvolved, does not prepare you to play both hands simultaneously. All that is accomplished is the illusion that the music has been learned. However the two-handed co-ordination needed to actually play doesn’t develop without two handed work.
Now some single hand study can be useful for working out specific technical problems or developing an understanding of a complex figuration. However the time should be limited and the opposite hand introduced immediately.

Andrew Remillard
President
ANRPiano.com



Myth: A Crack in the Soundboard Means my Piano is Ruined.

Fact: While a crack in the soundboard can be a problem such as when the panel comes unglued from the ribs. Most soundboards have cracks within a few years after manufacture… you just don’t see them yet.

A single crack or gap is usually nothing to worry about, even several can pretty meaningless. If however you start getting more than 5 or 6 your soundboard is probably also losing its crown which will adversely affect the sustain and volume your piano will have.

The only pianos which don’t develop cracks in their soundboards are those with very flimsy frames which allow the soundboard to expand and contract without cracking and laminate soundboard (plywood).

A crack in the pin block is a much more serious matter. Now the piano will not stay in tune. Can you tell if there is a potential problem in the pin block?

Andrew Remillard
President
ANRPiano.com



Myth #1: Moving a Piano Causes it to Go Out of Tune

Fact: If moving caused your piano to go out of tune, you have some very serious problems. Climate change is the primary cause for a piano to need tuning. If you moved your piano from the shadows of a room to the southern window, your piano will promptly go out of tune. It wasn’t because you moved it per se, but because you moved it into the sun! The sun is rumored to have some impact on temperature and humidity.

Back in the days when I did a lot of event rentals it was our common practice to tune a piano before it is sent out. This gave us a chance to make sure the pitch was still close to where it belonged and since the pianos were often tuned weekly this was rarely a concern. After the piano was delivered and set up, myself or one of my staff tuners would tune the piano again after the piano was given a chance to warm up or cool off depending on the temperature of the truck. We rarely did more than touch up a few strings, we did this on site tuning more for the sake of the customer than the needs of the piano.

More later on why a piano goes out of tune and why you can still need to tune it every day.

Andrew Remillard
President
ANRPiano.com



Commandment #3 Thou Shalt Not Look at Thy Hands

Cognitive scientists will tell us that interrupting the visual flow if information is a significant determent to learning. Looking from the score to your hands and back to the score breaks up the information flow into your memory, creating a garbled mess. It is critical for the mastery of playing, that the fingers and arms learn to judge distances without the aid of the eyes. Make the mistakes and learn from them, but do not let the eyes become the crutch of the hands.

Andrew Remillard
President
ANRPiano.com



Practice Rule #2 Limited Material

As someone whose eyes have always been larger than my ability or time available, I have had to learn the value of limiting the amount of material I work on at a time. I also discovered through my cognitive psychological research that there are some pretty strong scientific reasons for limiting the amount of material one studies at a time.

There are no hard rules as to how much material can be handled but there are a number of principles which impact this. To start with there is the size of our short term memory (STM), when the STM is full (usually 5 – 7 “chunks” of material it will begin to dump information and unless it is immediately rehearsed it will be lost. The amount of material, or number of notes which can be put into a chunk (the technical term BTW) is influenced by our ability to recognize patterns and group notes by these patterns. Theoretically you could hundreds of notes into a chunk. I would imagine the stories of prodigies such as Mozart reflect his ability to quickly recognize note patterns and identify and store them quickly and efficiently.

I have toyed with writing a book about this whole process, but seem to need to limit my material at this time. This is a long and complex subject, but the key point would be to try working on shorter segments at a time and see if your learning rate doesn’t improve.

Andrew Remillard
President
ANRPiano.com



Commandment #2 Thou Shalt Know and Love They Beat

The most important thing in music is rhythm, the most important thing to rhythm is the beat, and the most important thing to the beat is its steadiness.

I can play a familiar melody such as “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” and make it completely unrecognizable by radically changing the rhythm. However, it is still easily recognizable if it is played in a serial tone row, (maintaining the melodic shape while using large leaps and wild chromaticism) but keep the original rhythmic patterns.

There are two components to a secure sense of rhythm. First you must KNOW where in the score the beat falls. The beat can be any note value assigned the primary rhythmic motive function. You must understand where in the score these beats occur.

The next part is the “Loving”. You must have a physical sense of the beat. There is no guessing allowed in the beat. Clap your hands, stomp your feet, jump up and down, tap a foot, tap a toe, count out loud; do something to physically feel the presence of the beat or pulse.

Now put these together. Know where you belong in the score as these beats you feel come by. No matter what, you must be where you belong! If your playing is controlled by a steady, known beat, with a thorough understanding as to where you belong in the score with the beat, you will have a secure rhythm. Failure will make your playing rhythmically unintelligible.

Andrew Remillard
President
ANRPiano.com



Rule #1 Limited Time Frame

We have all heard the axiom “A job expands to fill the time allowed.” This can be expressed differently: “Limit the time to do the work and the work may still get done.” One of the inherent flaws in the weekly lesson template we all use and grew up with is the lack of tight time limitation. If something is not mastered this week, there is always next week, or next month or even next year. This can be mitigated with recitals, festivals, and competitions. However, even with these, we still can put off our work until most of the available time is gone.

In my own playing, once I took my first church job which required me to have hymns, preludes, postludes, etc. ready every week without fail, I found my ability to learn a significant amount of music quickly an absolute necessity for survival. At first, I was not terribly successful and relied upon the art of “fake” more than I should have. But through the years there has been more “play” and less “fake”.

Andrew Remillard
President
ANRPiano.com



The 10 Commandments, OK, my 10 Commandments #1

1) THOU SHALT NOT KID THY SELF.

In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Polonius gives his son Laertes the advice to above all else to be true to himself. Honesty with one’s self is a lifelong process. In the world of music practice it can begin with the simple step of writing down how much you practice. Even if you never total the time or even give it a second look, you have established a measure from which to judge your efforts.

Goal setting is critical for any endeavor. If the requirement is to have a piece up to tempo by a certain date, you can break down the steps necessary for the accomplishment. If these intermediary steps are not met, you must be honest with yourself that the larger goal is in danger and likely not to be met unless additional effort is made. If a secure memory is the goal and little has been committed to memory a week before the deadline, don’t kid yourself, a secure memory is not likely to be the outcome.

We will bear the complete responsibility for our success or failure for the vast majority of our life. While as a student, it is easy to be dependent upon your teachers to order and plan your work and goals. However, you are a student for only a short time and will have to order and plan your work for decades after your student years.

Andrew Remillard
President
ANRPiano.com