web analytics

The Stephen Hawking Piano Method

May 21st, 2013

Study Music in Spinning Class

My musical studies are as exciting as ever.

The more I learn about the importance of timing (or “rhythm,” depending on your favored term), the more I realize conventional music teachers are blind. In fact, the musical world, generally, is blind. They’re obsessed with pitch and harmony. They have it all backward. Timing and dynamics, for most musicians, are more important, and a failure to master them is the main reason musicians fail to progress. I’m sure of it.

If you read about famous pianists, you’ll see a lot of bragging about absolute pitch, which is the correct term for what people refer to as “perfect pitch.” A person with absolute pitch will be able to listen to a chord on the piano and tell you every note. In fact, if someone drops a tray of dishes, a person with absolute pitch may be able to tell you the note every dish sounded when it hit the floor. Musicians get very excited about this ability, because they think pitch is what it’s all about. But very often, you will also run into statements by musicians, saying absolute pitch was of no value to them, or that it actually caused problems. And many great musicians don’t have it. Schumann didn’t.

Oddly, there seem to be no accounts in which famous musicians brag about their rhythmic talent. I suppose you would run into stories like that if you read about drummers, but I’ve never seen a biographer brag about a pianist’s ability to handle difficult rhythms. Sometimes they compliment a pianist’s rubato, but that’s not really the same thing. In fact, “rubato” can actually be a fancy way of excusing a musician who can’t keep regular time. Classical pianists are often overrated as technicians. Some of the best played sloppily.

There are some instruments that require good relative pitch. This is the ability to compare notes. If you play a horn or a fretless string instrument, you’ll need to be able to identify and produce accurate pitches, the way a singer does. But this is not a rare gift. In fact, just about everyone has it. And if you play the piano or a fretted instrument, it means almost nothing. You can’t play a sour note on a piano. The pitches are predetermined at regular tunings. And you can use a machine to tune a guitar, and after that, any note you fret will be in tune.

If you want to write or play music with real skill and understanding, you will have to be able to read, hear, and feel complex timings. That’s just how it is. If you can’t do these things, you will always be confined to the shallow end of the pool.

I’ve managed to get to the point where I can reliably tap out any rhythm I read, from 2/4 to 12/8, syncopated or not. On my teacher’s advice, I haven’t fooled with rhythms that contain 32nd notes. But everything up to that point, I can read. I hear the rhythms in my head before I tap them out. And I can write rhythms that I hear. This is a tremendous advance. If I head music in my head, and I want to write it down, the rhythm is the hard part. The pitches, I can figure out later. A monkey could do that.

The other day I went to church, and I ran into a friend who teaches piano. We talk about music a lot. He had a rhythm assignment he had written for a student who hadn’t shown up. He said I could have it. I took a look at it, and I could read it instantly. I leaned back and tapped the whole page out on the wall. No problem. It was a one-handed exercise, which made it easy, but it still shows how much I’ve improved.

I don’t care about absolute pitch, and there is precious little hope of developing it at my age, but now that I have rhythm under control, I realize I need to program intervals and harmony into my brain. I can identify any interval between unison and an octave (my fridge’s icemaker plays a major 6th), but I still have trouble identifying fast intervals in songs, and I can only identify about 60% of the harmonic intervals I hear. A harmonic interval is two notes played simultaneously. I haven’t been taught much about them, but it seems evident that if you can identify harmonic intervals, you are well on your way to hearing chords in your head, and that will be helpful with composing. I have always had the ability to write one staff of music and then automatically come up with harmony in the other staff, but I need to go beyond that.

More and more, I am realizing that music is a thing of the mind, or maybe of the mind and spirit. It is not a thing of the body. Glenn Gould said we play the piano with our minds, not our fingers, and that was just the tip of the iceberg. The truth is, you don’t need an instrument to be a musician, and in fact, it may slow you down at first, because it will distract you from the process of getting music into your head.

I’m not using the piano as much as I was a few weeks back. I’ve realized I do my best work away from it. When I develop the mind of a musician, THEN I’ll be ready to work on the hands. I can now practice music while driving or showering; I don’t have to be anywhere near an instrument. I simply do mental exercises, like a physicist doing a gedankenexperiment.

Arthur Rubinstein said that he could perform pieces he had never practiced. He would get the score for a piece and read it over and over without an instrument handy, and by the time he got to the piano, he was able to play it. I think that says it all. He got inside the music, to the point where playing it was almost an afterthought.

It has always bothered me that my parents made no effort to get me musical instruction. People commonly believe that you can’t become a really good musician unless you learn early, and I have bought into it. But now I think that’s not quite true. It may be that an older student will have a hard time mastering an instrument, but the progress I’ve made lately shows that we can learn the other stuff very quickly. I’ve learned rhythm in a few months. I beat intervals in a few weeks. I’m sure I’ll beat harmonic intervals in a short time. My age is not slowing me down. I don’t see myself becoming the next Horowitz. There are some things you can’t fix. But if I can write music as well as someone who started young, I still have something very valuable, and it’s what I was after in the first place.

If you’re old, and you want to become a musician, my advice is to learn to tap out rhythms at sight, then worry about sight-reading pitches, and then concern yourself with pitch and harmony. THEN think about buying an instrument. You should be able to do these things in six months, and then when you hire a teacher, you should be able to zip past a lot of the truly tedious stuff. In fact, these are good things to do even if you have no desire to play or compose, because they’ll enable you to understand the music other people make. And EVERY kid should have to do these things. I can understand choosing not to force a kid to spend years playing an instrument, but if the little goofs can sit through math and history, they can sit through music class and train their ears and learn theory. It won’t kill them.

God really does restore. More things are possible than you think.

Stumble it!  Save This Page

One Response to “The Stephen Hawking Piano Method”

  1. Titan Mk6B Says:

    Your comments about relative pitch are spot on I think. I have a 3/4 stand up bass and it is relatively easy to get the notes right. So when you say it is not a rare gift I think you are correct.

    With the folks I play with there are no drums so, in effect, the bass becomes the rythm section. Sometimes it is fun to play with the tempo just a little to speed everyone else up or down.

    It is funny though to watch professional musicians who play the electric bass run shrieking from my stand up when I suggest that they play it.