Managing expectations at the piano


Perhaps it’s obvious: Managing expectations is an important but infrequently discussed part of learning to play an instrument. Because learning can feel and seem like a series of breakthroughs that we experience one at a time. But it’s staying with something over time that leads to breakthroughs with learning.

And didn’t William Shakespeare say

Expectation is the root of all heartache.

Expectations of effortless mastery

A wonderful book about managing expectations is Effortless Mastery by the great jazz pianist Kenny Werner who’s just taken on a really interesting teaching position at the Berklee College of Music. Just a few days ago the Boston Globe reported on his new position. He’s the new artistic director of Berklee’s Performance Wellness Institute. Here’s Berklee’s announcement.

Expectations of improvisation and theory

I’ve mentioned it in a previous blog post: For a totally different approach to improvisation there’s Ran Blake’s Primacy of the Ear. As the title suggestions, Ran focuses on the importance of the ear when improvising. That might seem to be common sense if not an expectation: Doesn’t improvisation come from listening to what we’re playing?

The question is so simple as seem beyond asking. But most improvisation books describe how to do it with theoretical constructs like chords and scales. In other words know your chords and scales first. But then if improvisation is or has been mostly taught through the constructs of theory–chords and scales–that raises an interesting question. Which is what is the role of theory? What exactly is it there for?

It’s a question that comes up all the time. Some see no need for theory. Some see the need for theory as expectation in of itself: All good musicians know their theory, right?

Ran bypasses all of that by putting “listening” at the centre of the endeavour. Which makes perfect sense. Actually, doesn’t all music-making come from listening to what we play? And then theory can assist in the process–to spur listening and comprehension that comes from hearing.

More about expectation

Grrr …. There’s no clear evidence that Shakespeare said expectation is the root of all heartache. But then again the idea that EVERYTHING SHOULD BE MADE AS SIMPLE AS POSSIBLE, BUT NOT SIMPLER probably doesn’t come from Albert Einstein.