Learning from CD

“I believe that interpretation should be like a transparent glass,  a window for the composer’s music” – Vladimir Ashkenazy – Russian conductor and virtuoso pianist

I have a new student in my studio who is extremely musical, has self-taught to play many popular songs from watching YouTube videos, but is just beginning to learn to read music. I have encountered many such students. They typically have great ears, and I always admire their efforts; the time they have spent on playing, pausing, and rewinding over and over the same video clip must have been quite significant, and it takes great patience to learn a piece of music this way. They obviously love music, and have a great desire to play. These are admirable qualities. However, as I explained to my student, although it is possible to learn to play by ear, eventually one will be faced with long and difficult pieces that are simply too complex for the ears to analyze and digest. More importantly, when learning to play a piece by watching and listening to someone else, the end result is only a copy of that someone’s interpretation of the composer’s work of art – your interpretation was through “tainted glass”. That is why even with the Suzuki method, ultimately all students need to learn to read music and understand written notation. It is possible to play by ear most popular songs, because of their repetitive nature and simplicity of left hand figuration; one may even perhaps learn to play by ear Beethoven’s “Fur Elise” or Mozart’s “Rondo Alla Turka” – due to the simple rondo structure with recurring main theme – but eventually one will be completely lost with Bach’s fugues, multi-movement sonatas, most Romantic works with complex harmonies, not to mention contemporary works that have random rhythm and no prevalent melody.

(update: Now, all of you YouTube fans will tell me what about that blind Japanese pianist who astonished the audience in the recent Van Cliburn competition? Yes, indeed, he is an exception. The rules are different if you have been blind all your life and you learn to use what you have; in his case, his ears must have been so well developed and trained. If you have his ears then you do not have to read music!)

Learning to play a piece by listening to the same CD over and over or relying on watching someone else is like going to the same restaurant and ordering the same dish day after day in order to try to make that dish at home – wouldn’t it be better just to follow the recipe and make your own? Sure it helps if you go to the restaurant once or twice so you know what it tastes like, but it should not be the main source or (even worse) only source of learning. Also, there can be many different interpretations of the same piece; once you try to make the dish, you may discover unique qualities about the ingredients that no one else has discovered. A student once told me that she spent a lot of time trying to find a piece on ITunes because she wanted to hear it before trying to learn it – I said that is like driving around town for hours trying to find a particular restaurant that sells the particular dish you are trying to make! It is simply a waste of time; if you stayed at home and followed the recipe, you would have made the dish already!

Of course, after we have spent the time and effort to learn a piece, we can learn a tremendous amount by watching and listening to others play the same piece, to see if we agree or disagree with each interpretation, and to help us form our own opinions about the composer’s intentions. Students are indeed encouraged to listen to different recordings of the same piece, as each interpretation is unique and has something to say – that is why we have live musicians and not just computers playing the same piece exactly the same every time.

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