Disclaimer: I’m not expert in anything; certainly not the piano or the brain. I’m a lawyer now 73 years old.
By Bob Marrow
Disclaimer: I’m not expert in anything; certainly not the piano or the brain. I’m a lawyer now 73 years old. I played the piano badly between the ages of 10 and 12; three years of torture for myself, my family who had to listen to me practice, and my piano teacher who declared his efforts a failure and quit. By that time I was on John Thompson’s Second Grade Book, a red soft cover collection of classical pieces simplified for beginners. I had played about half of the pieces; these were identified by penciled notes on the pages I had studied and practiced.
Twenty-seven years passed before I sat down at the piano again. It was a different instrument, which my wife and I bought for our 3-year-old son (who never played a note). I still had my elementary lesson books, including John Thompson’s Second Grade, so I leafed through its pages and tried playing some of the pieces.
It was then that I realized how playing the piano reveals amazing things about the brain. I could play the songs I had learned at age 12, particularly my favorite, “Barcarolle from Tales of Hoffmann,” but I could not play other songs in the book that were even easier. If I had not played them before I would laboriously read the music and with frustrating hesitation find the keys that corresponded to the notes on the page; but the music that I played 27 years earlier came back with almost the same fluency I achieved then. For nearly three decades my brain had retained the circuits that were burned into it when I was 12, and those circuits constituted memory that had not disappeared. They were still there at 39 years of age, although I had done nothing to retain them from the age of 12.
The questions associated with memory and learning pieces on the piano also occurred to Alan Rusbridger, editor of The Guardian, who wrote nearly 400 pages in a book about his effort to learn a most difficult Ballade by Chopin (“Play It Again, The Amateur Against the Impossible”). He went so far as to consult a neuropsychiatrist, Ray Dolan, who made a distinction between explicit and implicit memory. Explicit memory is flexible: you remember where something is and you can use that information in various settings. Playing the piano belongs to a subcategory of implicit and largely inflexible memory — “procedural memory.” You reel off the music as a series of prepared sequences. (Perhaps this applies to learning other complicated tasks involving mind/body control such as golf where professionals develop a pre-shot routine that never varies. The swing thus becomes part of a “prepared sequence” that can be repeated reliably.)
Most encouraging for the 50-something Rusbridger, and me, is that, although the brain is most flexible at a young age, it can “learn new tricks” — in scientific terms, sprout new dendrites, whose connections can actually change the shape and density of the cerebral cortex — at any age.
About a year ago, at age 72, I was a semi-retired attorney (I stopped going to my office and refused all litigation matters). I play golf and squash racquets, I kayak, and write stories some of which have been published, I still handle real estate and business matters for clients; nevertheless, I thought that I needed more mental stimulation to keep degeneration of my brain at bay in old age. So I found a piano teacher, Mark Guttenberg, and began taking lessons. Fortunately, Mark did not continue where I had left off with the John Thompson series of elementary piano books. He brought with him to my lessons the written piano music of Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, and others. They were probably the least complex of compositions by these masters, but they were genuine classics as revealed by YouTube videos of concert pianists playing the same pieces. These were certainly hard enough for me and I had to spend hours on single lines of music, sometimes repeating a measure with my right hand, then my left hand, then playing with both hands, then adding the next measure, and doing this dozens of times until my fingers went comfortably to the right places at the right times to complete entire pieces, such as Beethoven’s Fur Elise and Mozart’s Sonata in C Major, K-545.
Once again, I marveled at the functioning of the brain when applied to the piano. Repetition created circuitry that, when receiving what my eyes were seeing and passing that vision through gray matter with electric currents to my fingers, converted printed notes into music.
Most encouraging for the 50-something Rusbridger, and me, is that, although the brain is most flexible at a young age, it can “learn new tricks”
There is also the relationship of concentration to relaxation required to play the piano well. Sometimes I will be playing a piece that I know and my mind will wander briefly to observe to myself, “Wow, I’m really playing with precision and feeling. I wish Mark could hear me now.” Then, simply by allowing my mind to wander from the task of converting page notations to keystrokes and musical sounds, I fall off the pedestal I made for myself; I lose my place on the page, I’m unable to find the right keys.
On the other hand, if my concentration is too intense, I never reach that relaxed fluency that is the hallmark of good playing. Like golf and squash, sports I know well, there is an elusive goal of relaxed concentration that, when achieved, can result in performance near perfection (defined differently, perhaps, for each individual). This rare state of grace is called being, “in the Zone.” For those who have been in the Zone, even for a short time, it is an exquisite memory.
For professionals, the Zone seems to be there on command. These rare human beings possess both unusual talent in the form of speed, timing, and coordination together with the willingness to repeat the necessary moves in practice thousands of times. Is it dedication and opportunity that allows a person to repeat a single stroke for hours, or is it behavior so compulsive that the rest of life is excluded?
My practice sessions are less intense, my concentration more limited, my talent nonexistent, and therefore my efforts less productive. I accept the undeniable fact that I will never reach my goal of creating sublime music on the piano, but the path itself is rewarding; so, I will continue…