One of the very first studies in human memory applying scientific processes was published by Hermann Ebbinghaus in 1885 with the essay Uber das Dedachtniss (Memory, A Contribution to Experimental Psychology (English translation title)). Ebbinghaus used himself as the subject in his experiments in learning lists of non-sense words (from a list of 2300 words). Based upon his experiments he described three important theories which can be helpful today in understanding the learning process. They are: 1) interference theory in which earlier learning is covered over by later learning, 2) trace decay is where images or knowledge suffers changes which alter its character, 3) forgetting involves a “crumbling” of various components as opposed to a general obscuring.

Ebbinghaus used himself as the subject of his experiments because he wanted complete control of motivation factors and an awareness of any possible distractions from his experiments. After creating lists of three-letter non-sense words he would read them out loud at a steady rate of 150 per minute and consistent intonation usually emphasizing every fourth. He would continue to read the lists with periodic tests until he was able to reproduce the list without hesitation, a perfect reproduction of the material. He also controlled for external factors such as time of day and personal levels of distractedness. After doing thousands of tests, he performed statistical analysis on his results.

The ability of humans to store information is enormous, however the rate of retention, ability to accurately recall, and rate of forgetting varies greatly and is the area of greatest concern when we look at learning methods. Ebbinghaus examined the rate of rote learning he experienced with his lists. One question he sought an answer to was the effect of repetition on the rate of learning. What was the relationship between practice (repetitions) and learning; how did more practice effect the outcome? What happens when a list was learned a second time; what was the residual impact of initial work on subsequent efforts?

To find the answer to these and many other types of questions he employed lists of non-sense words and practiced them for 8, 16, 24, 32, 42, 53, or 64 repetitions. He would then relearn these lists the next day measure the results. “Learned” is defined as one successful performance of the material by memory. The use of non-sense words was to reduce or eliminate any associative characteristics with meaningful words. The purpose of the study was to look at the rote learning of non-associative and non-sense syllables.

After looking at the rates of learning 16 syllable sequences with 8, 16, 24, 32, 42, 53, and 64 reps he found an average saving of 12 seconds in the re-learning after 24 hours for each repetition. A single repetition of about 7 seconds of work saved 12 seconds of work the next day.

Ebbinghaus also looked at the rate of forgetting (his famous “forgetting curve). A 13 syllable list was re-learned after a 20 min break through 30 day interval. The forgetting metric is the difference between the numbers of reps for the first trial minus the number for the second trial expressed as a percentage of the first trial. The retention rate was found to be after 1/3 hr 60%, 1 hr 45%, 8 hr 35%, 24 hr 34%, 2 days 30%, 5 days 28%, and 30 days 25%. Most of the forgetting occurred within the first 24 hours and even after 30 days enough memory remained to reduce the time it took to relearn the list by 25%.

Ebbinghaus also looked at the position a word appeared in the list and the consequences of its serial position on retention and re-learning. There are two functions he found present. Recency is the recall of recently learned material and primacy is the recall of the first learned. First studied material benefits from the lack of conflicting material and increased rehearsal.

This is a study of purely rote learning of non-associative/nonsense information. It doesn’t show the retention of associative or meaningful material. It does however provide a baseline of learning. Rote learning is the most mechanical learning process and represents learning at its most basic level.

Ebbinghaus showed, through his careful testing of his most reliable subject, himself, a model of learning which still informs our thinking nearly 150 years later. We see the relationship between learning effort and forgetting and learning effort and retention.

In upcoming articles I will look at several aspects of his work which I found helpful in understanding some of the basics of human memory which were relevant to my study at the piano. I know that some of you may find this stuff as dry as dead bones, but I hope at least a few may share some of the AHAAA moments I had as I learned something about how I learn.

This old Yiddish proverb has rung especially loudly in my life of late. If you would have asked me a year ago if I would ever open another piano store I would have stared at you mutely for a minute and simply said: “NO!” I also didn’t plan on losing the use of my left hand and having to endure three surgeries, nearly two weeks of hospitalization, and weeks of infusion antibiotics.

As I talked over my plans to reopen my store, my wise brother-in-law, Richard Southworth, shared this Yiddish proverb with me. It struck me as also quite a summary of my life. As the inveterate goal setter and planner, I am used to most of my plans and goals coming to naught. I always keep getting tripped up by the unexpected and the mundane of life.

A number of circumstances came together to make it almost inevitable that we would reopen our store so rather than sticking to a plan which was not working we decided to go ahead and reopen.
The new showroom is located at 2749 Curtiss St. in Downers Grove, IL; just a few blocks west of our previous location. It is open by appointment only for now.

The more I thought about what Rich said to me I realized that this laughter of God is not in the context of mockery. When the three travelers told Abraham that he and Sarah would have a son, Abraham laughed out of joy and Sarah laughed in derision. However, when Isaac, (whose name means laughter), was born all the laughter came from joy.
It is easy to become discouraged when things don’t go our way and our plans are thwarted. I am sure that the lack of offspring was a source of great pain and frustration for Abraham and Sari for decades. For their entire lifetimes they watched as those around them had children, gave their children away in marriage, and bounced their grandchildren on their knees. This vital marker of a complete life, which they surely wanted as much as their next breath, had eluded them into their old age.

Yet, God brought laughter and joy to this yearning of theirs after waiting until they were very old, and out of this laughter came the salvation of the world.

When I was asked last year how I felt about closing the 8000 sq ft shop, I answered that I had mixed emotions: joy and happiness. And now that my plans have once more met with holy laughter, I must meet this new opportunity with the mixed emotions of joy and happiness.

If you know anybody who needs a good used piano give me a call… I have a few.

Andrew Remillard
2749 Curtiss St, Downers Grove, IL

“I just inherited Grandma’s grand piano. Her parents bought it for her when she was just 10. My mom also learned on it and so did I. I would love for my daughter to play it. But it is in such bad shape. The last tuner said he couldn’t tune it. Is there anything you can do?” So goes a typical phone call into our rebuilding shop. Sentimental value aside, how do we decide what is the best approach to these family heirlooms. Sometimes, money isn’t an object, but more often we need to figure out how to recreate a musical instrument inside a very dead carcass within a limited budget.

There are several hundred manufactures of pianos from the early twentieth century, some were cheaply made and it is a wonder they are still standing after a hundred years or more. And there is surprising number of completely unknown brands who were carefully manufactured; representing the great craftsmanship and abundant natural materials present in our country back then.

How can you tell if the dead piano in front of you can be rebuilt to service many more generations or should be sent to its final resting place? As a rebuilder of pianos there are certain structural elements I need to make for an effective rebuilding project especially if we are going to keep costs under control. Though it is possible to take a substandard structure and stiffen the frame, redesign a new soundboard, and redesign the action with brand new keys, the costs will add up extremely fast.

Some of the superficial elements anybody can see are such things as a substantial set of struts under the soundboard. These provide the structural support and stiffness to the frame. I have added these in some projects; this can be a costly, but important part of the rebuilding of a lesser instrument.

Another consideration is length, the longer the better. Small pianos are loaded with compromises in the scale and design. Once you cross the 6’ size these compromises become less noticeable even on lesser pianos.

The presence of agraffes through about 60% of the strings also suggests a better designed piano. Agraffes are located at the string termination closest to the player marking the near end of the speaking length of the string. Agraffes are made of brass and cost more to use than just a big piece of cast iron found on cheaper pianos. (Though some manufactures such as Chickering Bros (not Son’s) from Chicago developed a pretty sophisticated improvement in the big hunk of cast iron design.)

I really don’t care about what is covering the keys, but it is very helpful if the key stick is in good condition. If more than one or two keys have broken at some time, we really need to consider a new key set. If the wood used, the angle the keys were cut, or the angle of the grain were such that a few keys have broken, then this will be a very unreliable set of keys, prone to ever more breakage in coming years. A new key set can cost between $4,000 and $5,000. They can be well worth it, but it is an expense which is best to avoid if possible.

Every piano has a unique situation. In most cases, we are able to breathe new life into your old piano. Remember – it’s what we do! So if you’re ready to revive Grandma’s old piano or are curious about pricing out a fix-up, don’t hesitate to ask!

Andrew Remillard

I recently re-read The Art of Practicing by Madeline Bruser. While the author occasionally would swerve into a more empirical mind set, much of the time was spent in what my great late friend Ralph Bus would have called the “ooo eee”. Being a bit more analytical and empirical in my thinking, I usually do not get much out of this “new age” approach to problem solving.

When I was much younger and feeling very intimidated by my classmates at college I asked “Why can they, and I can’t?” This question propelled me for most of the next 20 years to find the answer to that question. It was actually a very difficult subject to explore and find meaningful information. The vast majority of cognitive psychology research which I was able to find focused on language as a subject matter. The cognitive processes used in the study of music and the learning of an instrument are orders of magnitude more complex than learning a list of words. Only in the past decade or so has the field of music psychology begun to take shape. Yet, despite the difficulties in finding useful research which could shed some light on the learning of music, I was able to develop a pretty complex and nuanced understanding of the mechanics of learning music.

The human mind is a very complex electro-chemical machine and while most of its functions are still unexplainable,
enough is known to create a number of working models of the how and why of the human mind and memory.

Years ago I started to outline a book on this subject which I will use throughout this series. Some of the ideas I will present may strike you as too mechanical to be used in an artistic endeavor but becoming an efficient learner is no different than developing an efficient technique. We don’t hesitate to work on scales and etudes in the hope of having a better mechanical command of our instrument. It is very difficult to play artistically if you are fumbling around mechanically. Understanding how the human mind learns, retains, and recalls information will help us learn, retain, and recall our music more efficiently and effectively.

In the same way that concert artists often make very poor teachers because they often don’t fully understand how they do what they do or how they learned to do it, they may not be aware of how their learning processes may be unique to them, giving them a great advantage in learning literature. Through the course of these articles I will explore what science can tell us about how we learn, retain, and perform our music.

Andrew Remillard

When I was a young student, my teacher insisted I first learn each hand separately and only then play both hands together. I found this more than a little frustrating. I always felt I had to start all over again when I put my hands together; all of the proceeding work with hands separate was a waste. Eventually in a pique of rebelliousness I quit playing with my hands separately, except for when I was asked to do so in a lesson.

I have often wondered about where the notion of learning each hand separately originated. I can picture a scenario like this: JS Bach tells CPE Bach he should pay extra attention to the right hand passage he continuously mis-plays. CPE tells his student he should play the right hand a couple times to fix a problem. Beethoven then tells his student Czerny that his right hand is very sloppy and he needs to fix it before the next lesson or he will use the ruler. Finally Czerny tells everybody to practice each hand separately.

So let’s break the cycle. The piano is a two handed instrument requiring a constant partnership between the hands. A good sight reader doesn’t run through each hand before playing, he just plays both hands immediately.

Now before you completely write me off as a crank, I will allow brief hands separate work but only in the interest of clarification of technical details and fingering. After that put them together!

Andrew Remillard

For the last year and some months, I’ve been giving piano lessons to a young boy who is apparently very attention deprived in his everyday life. I came to this conclusion pretty quickly; at his “trial lesson” actually. This little boy had a mind of his own! He’d find everything he could to get himself distracted, he’d make strange squealing and squawking sounds whenever he played a piano key, he’d mock me counting beats, he’d talk back to me, he’d do things he was told not to do just out of spite, when I corrected him he’d say he didn’t do it wrong, and well, that’s just a general overview of all this little boy has done.

Sometimes I sit in lessons and repeat directions for him to get his hands ready to play over and over while he sits there in outward resistance and then 5 minutes later; he finally gives in and gets his hands ready. That should take 5 seconds, not five minutes! Almost every week it is the same thing in one variation or another. I am not sure which is harder; teaching this little boy or doing a triathlon! Certainly, much endurance is needed. Well over a year later, we are still only ¾ of the way through the Faber Piano Adventures Primer Level books. I am sure I have moved him along in them more than he has deserved too! And in case you’re wondering, he is not much better if his mother or babysitter is in the room.

By now, you’re probably asking me why I don’t just give up on this little boy. I have asked myself that same question for a long time… well, since I started teaching him. Something just keeps me going though. Part of me never wants to give up on anybody. I am kind of stubborn like that and I hold a lot of hope and a lot of faith that things will always get better or at least I will learn something great through it all. Part of me says “hey, it’s income!” What teacher doesn’t want a steady student filling a half hour of their week? And yet another part of me wonders if there is some way I could make some kind of difference in his life. This is the most compelling reason I stick with teaching my little misbehaved wonder. There has got to be SOMETHING that I can do for him. Well, I haven’t quite found that something yet, but I have realized that sometimes I just need to settle for the tiny little somethings that pop up once in a blue moon.

One thing I have learned is that my little friend suddenly gets really quiet and focused when he is given theory assignments to do right there in pianos lessons. I quit assigning them to be done at home this past summer because I realized this was what he was mostly interested in and now we do all his theory together right there on the piano bench. These have ended up being the most teachable moments. He still acts a little goofy, but most of his attention gets focused on getting correct answers and following the directions on the page. Oh how I wish he would follow MY directions! We’ll get there though. Baby steps, right?

That one little breakthrough just feeds my hope that more and bigger breakthroughs will come. Until then, call me crazy, but I think I’ll keep teaching this little guy. Maybe someday I’ll be writing an article about what a great scientist or engineer he has become. Maybe I’ll be bragging about something wonderful he’s done with music! Well, I won’t get ahead of myself, but you know what I mean.

The secret to wealth is spending much less than you make.

In “The Millionaire Next Door”, Thomas Stanley and William Danko describe many of the unexpected characteristics of people with a high net worth. The starting point for a financially successful life is first learning to live within your means; spending no more than you earn. After you have mastered living within your means then you need to learn to live on much less than you earn.

We often get caught up in the trappings of conspicuous consumption, we admire the brand new $60,000 car, we are jealous of the vacations to Hawaii our friends take, and we wish we lived in a bigger, newer house. However, that new car probably represents a big hit to someone’s savings or worse, they charged the down payment on a high interest credit card and they have a $600 monthly payment for years before they fully own this depreciating asset. After 5 years their $60,000 expense and $10,000+ of interest payments is worth less than half that amount. They have lost $40,000 in a few short years. Not a very effective way to build net worth.

In today’s world it is very easy to spend tomorrow’s income on today’s life style; just put it on the plastic. Hopefully, you have paid it off by the time you throw it away. The costs of the debt can very easily double the price you pay for an item.

There are two kinds of debt. The worst kind is life style debt. Borrowing to pay for a new television or new furniture, in other words items which rapidly depreciate, will leave you forever broke. If you need a new television, first be sure this is a need and not a want. Getting a bigger set just because it is so much better than what you have, and it is so embarrassing to have anything but the latest model is not a reason to go into debt. If your television has broken and you don’t have the cash for a new one, cancel the cable, and start saving. The same could be said about cars or game counsels. Your life style should be based upon only what you are able to earn today not what you will earn tomorrow. Remember that if you are spending tomorrow’s income, you are going to have a much lower life style tomorrow than you enjoy today with tomorrow’s income.

While supporting your life style is a horrible reason for debt, there are some very powerful reasons to take on debt, even very large amounts of debt. Good debt is used to leverage savings, skills, talents, and ideas into opportunities for greater return. But even here you must start with your own saving which you have accumulated by living on less than you earned. Borrowing to begin or expand a business is the best type of debt you can have. You still need to be careful that the income generated by this debt is sufficient to service the debt and the terms are manageable within the context of your business.

As far as borrowing for a home goes, this can be almost as bad as borrowing for life style. It is very easy to purchase more home than you really need and end up with a mortgage which destroys your credit for years to come. If you do buy a house, remember it is very expensive to sell it and if you don’t plan on living there for at least 10 years don’t do it! If the real estate market turns on you, you may not be able to sell it at all (just ask your neighbors). If you need move to relocate to a better job market you would be out of luck. In addition to the risk of owning a house you also have the lost opportunities that your down payment represents. What else could you do with that money which would be a better idea than buying a house with that money?

Your mother and father have learned these lessons from personal experience and from watching the outcomes of our friend’s decisions. Life is much simpler without debt so be very careful before you take the plunge.

Andrew Remillard

Let’s first address the issue of definition. Piano tuning is a process of adjusting the relative pitch relationship of 88 different pitches. As with politics and religion – everyone has a different opinion as to what “in tune” means, even among professional piano tuners. To add to the difficulty of defining “in tune” is the inherent instability present in all pianos. Piano tuners who are honest about their work say they abandoned a tuning – not finished it. There comes a point in every tuning where further work doesn’t achieve any more noticeable improvement in the tuning. Further work at this point may actually decrease the stability of the tuning. This doesn’t mean that the piano is “in tune”. It just means that it can’t be made any more “in tune”.

Tuning is analogous to cleaning. If the room is very dirty, a preliminary cleaning is the first step to bring order and cleanliness to the room by removing clutter. A second and third cleaning may follow which may begin to clean the dirt and dust to that which is typical of a reasonably clean room. You can continue to clean away but it makes no appreciable difference to the overall cleanliness of the room. Does the dirt still present make the room “unclean”?

So what defines the “dirt” of tuning? In the simplest of terms, it is inappropriate “beats”. Beats or waves are generated by the interference between two pitches. These beats can be present at various speeds and between different notes. Tuning is a process of arriving at some optimized level of these beats.

You can sometimes hear beats within a single note. Play a note in the middle of the piano. Hold it down and listen for a wave or undulation in the pitch. If you hear any movement in the pitch, it is out of tune.

Play perfect 4ths and 5ths. Hold the notes and listen for the waves or beats. You should hear some movement between the notes. Generally, the 4ths will be ever so slightly faster than the 5ths. Their speeds though will depend upon their location on the keyboard.

How long a tuning lasts depends on the environmental stability, amount of pitch adjustment needed, condition of the instrument, and most importantly your standards. A piano can be tuned two or three times a day in a concert or recording setting. One time Sting rented one of our pianos for rehearsal purposes and I tuned it every morning for a week.

So the answer is, yes, your piano is out of tune right now, even if you had it tuned yesterday.

Andrew Remillard

I have found two meanings for this rule, one practical and one life changing.

First the practical. Left to our own devises we will start our work at the beginning and work our way to the end. Cognitive science explains some of the phenomenon we experience with this approach. The two primary challenges we encounter involve issues of interference and recency. Interference occurs when new or old material will block or interfere with recall. Sometimes the new material is similar enough to the old material as to create a conflicted memory. (This happens a lot in music!) Recency is the principle that we remember the most recent event better than older events. If we start at the beginning and play to the end we will remember the beginning well because it is the beginning and had our clearest focus; and the end almost as well because it is recent. But the middle is some kind of vague muddle of notes we know we played but have no idea what we did.

If you begin at the end and work backwards toward the beginning; first leaning the last measure and then the next to last measure, playing both; and then adding another measure and so on; each measure has a chance to be the beginning. Your retention of the middle is greatly enhanced.

A few years ago, while reviewing my repertory list I realized that I had learned about 1/3 of Beethoven’s piano sonatas. Into my silly head popped this notion that it would be a good thing to learn and play them all as preludes and postludes at my church. It took several years to complete this project of playing the entire set of sonatas sequentially. When I finally completed the project and had a chance to look back on my work and began to do it again, I had a profound sense of what the poet T. S. Elliot meant by:

“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.”

Andrew Remillard

One of the most devastating things a fellow student said to me early in my freshman year of college was: “Everybody has to start some place.” The Op. 2 #1 was my first Beethoven Sonata I ever played. It seemed though that everybody else had already learned this work and I was pretty late to the game. We all go to college as a big fish from small ponds, but coming from a town of 3000 I think I felt this even more acutely. And to hear from one of my classmates that she considered me a minnow it just added to my feelings of inadequacy.

Whether it was real or imagined, I felt my classmate’s estimation of my abilities was shared by my teachers as well. At this point I had a choice to make; I could accept what others said was my lot in life or I could set out to make a liar of them. I chose the latter.

Success always requires a significant price, I decided early in my freshman year to pay the price demanded. I believed if I worked harder than anybody else I could make up for any deficiencies I might possess. If two hours of practice was expected I did four or more. I would be there when the music building opened in the morning and would work until I was kicked out at night.

The effort certainly paid off in the end and has continued to pay dividends my entire life. While my playing still has significant weaknesses, the Beethoven Sonatas is no longer one of them.

Self image is just that. The image we have of ourselves. The best part of this image is that it is very malleable. By making a decision to do the work required for success, regardless if we achieve that ultimate outcome, we will know that we were worthy of the effort. Even in failure we learn because our focus is not on other’s opinions, but rather on accomplishing great things.

With each step in this process we grow in stature in our own eyes because we know we are making the effort. The image we hold of our self is based only upon our own choices and efforts, not someone else. All efforts to build “self esteem” are doomed to failure because they are based upon someone else telling us we are great and deserving regardless of our efforts. In our hearts we know this is a lie.

Our self image or self esteem comes from knowing we were in the arena, fighting the good fight. And even if we come out bloodied and beaten we know the value of our efforts and the honor is ours for just being in the arena. This is something no one can give us or take away from us because it has been wholly earned by us alone.

Andrew Remillard