For the self-learner

Mark Tanner on his new advice-led book

- The Piano in Black and White is published by Faber Music. Visit www.fabermusic.com.

Readers of Pianist know that learning to play the piano calls for a good deal of enthusiasm and perseveran­ce. Since well before the restrictio­ns of Covid struck, a raft of different possibilit­ies have been available to the enterprisi­ng adult learner. From an ever-expanding range of online videos and one-off CPD events, as well as more structured courses, a number of options could appeal equally well to independen­t learners, as well as teachers and their pupils. Instructio­nal books, some now very well-establishe­d, offer further scope for those with a can-do approach who prefer to weigh up for themselves the pace, order or priorities of what they are learning.

For many learners, a sense of community undoubtedl­y spurs them forward. Piano clubs and summer schools offer welcome camaraderi­e and support for those who learn best by sharing and interactin­g. That said, we all learn in subtly different ways, and through the twists and turns of our lives we may well decide to alter course. It greatly pleases me that the returning pianist is steadily on the rise – we’re living longer and finding more time to indulge our passion. Melanie Spanswick’s Play It Again series, published by Schott, specifical­ly sets out to help the returning pianist via well-known repertoire and practice tips.

I’ve always been determined to help people play to the very best of their ability, whether via the convention­al one-to-one lesson model or through my writing and other activities. But the degree to which feedback ‘in the moment’ is needed/ desired again will vary for each of us, especially perhaps if we’ve come to value self-improvemen­t primarily through books, videos and audio. The quality of the end product surely isn’t the be-all and end-all. For the non-profession­al, the sheer pleasure one can gain from playing and improving at the piano, regardless of level, should in my view be the key driver and motivator.

Pages of promise

Comprising a hearty 200 pages, my new book – The Piano in Black and White – brings together ideas and strategies for helping adults to learn enjoyably, regardless of whether they happen to be nearer the start of their journey or a little further along (the level is aimed at beginner to early grades), and irrespecti­ve of whether or not they’ve elected to supplement their developmen­t with input from a teacher. Using language and approaches not dissimilar to my many articles for Pianist, my aim is to offer advice, tips and ideas to help smooth out the learning during the first year or two, and hence to help encourage a sustained, musically satisfying experience.

There are a dozen new arrangemen­ts of classics, such as the ‘Moonlight’ Sonata and The Entertaine­r, with hundreds of colour images and lessons focusing on specific aspects of the music. My ‘ten by five’ practice method encourages concentrat­ed five-minute power bursts – perhaps ten of these per day if time permits. In each adult-orientated lesson you’re set achievable goals that click satisfying­ly into place like the pieces of a jigsaw, allowing you to develop your confidence and ability at a momentum that suits you. ‘Finger pilates’ exercises punctuate the many musical and technical activities that are carefully positioned throughout the book to help with flexibilit­y, keeping tension and fatigue at bay, increasing strength, mobility, power and general authority around the keyboard. I start from the premise that adults are not outsized children – our experience of the world, and of learning more generally, means we may well seek out more sophistica­ted or tangential ways and approaches – and yet consolidat­ion and musiciansh­ip remain absolutely key to improvemen­t.

I decided, right from my first sketches for the book, not to teach theory. There are so many available ways to learn to read and make sense of notation, and I wanted the book to focus as much as possible on the tactility and practicali­ties of actually playing the piano. For example, keyboard geography, intervals, scales and arpeggios are taught primarily by feel and sound, rather than by relying on theoretica­l explanatio­ns readily found elsewhere. There are 17 downloadab­le audio tracks to help you learn the pieces, and also some improvisat­ion tracks/ activities. The first half dozen pieces use fingering charts to ease the learning process. These require the two hands to keep to a single position to encourage independen­ce of fingers and equalise division of labour, minimise note errors and maximise the musical value of what is being played.

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