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What Does It Mean To Be ‘Musically Fluent’?

A hundred years ago or so, practical music training – and keyboard musicianship education in particular – appears to have undergone a dramatic shift. During the eighteenth and nineteenth century, pianists were taught to master the skill of improvising rhythm, melody, harmony and counterpoint spontaneously and they read music by hearing the score inwardly first and simply playing what their inner musician demanded.

Back in the Baroque period, keyboard players were fluent at improvising over figured bass and they had the ability to extemporise music spontaneously. The complex counterpoint of Baroque keyboard music has its roots in fluent improvisation.

It is a naive error to assume that it was academic or theoretical knowledge that gave Bach his ability to compose amazing Fugues. And the suggestion that Bach’s music has some mathematical essence is absurd. Theoretical and practical music are not mutually dependent. It is possible for a very capable pianist to have an extensive theoretical knowledge of harmony without being able to harmonise a melody fluently at the keyboard. Equally, from my own experience I know it is possible to play rich and complex chords completely intentionally without actually giving their theoretical construction a second thought.

The improvising classical musician is now a rare creature and this lies in the strange way in which classical piano is now taught. It is normal for students to be taught to decode the dots of musical scores onto the keyboard before they have developed any aptitude for the spontaneous creation of musically intelligible sounds using the keyboard. This is a little like trying to teach a child to read who has not yet mastered speech. This decoding – not reading – dominates the modern approach.

Students learn to recite complex classical pieces whose inherent musical syntax – the patterns from which it is constructed – frequently remains utterly obscure to them. Just as it is possible to recite a poem in a language one cannot speak fluently, so it is possible to “sound” like a fluent musician.

Teachers often teach the notes first and then expression is added subsequently. If the student adopts the appropriate manner of playing effectively, eloquent results can appear. And there are many classically trained pianists today who play beautifully but who cannot improvise very much at all. This is of course fine as long as it is the music student’s genuine goal but I believe fluent musicianship is something that can be trained and if such training were widely available, it would be sought by many.

People frequently give up their piano studies, frustrated that all they can do is slowly and painstakingly decode scores and recite them passively. They crave the natural fluency that they see in the talented few and become discouraged.

So why then are there some musicians who can improvise well? Admittedly, Jazz piano methods do teach improvisation, and often quite effectively, although in this field too there is still usually a pronounced emphasis on theory which can result in a rather rigid and mechanical form of improvising that falls short of genuine fluency. The reality is that most fluent musicians have not been taught at all. Some simply have a talent for it – a matter of luck perhaps. My own fluency arrived very early.

At the age of four or five I could play back melodies I heard and liked and harmonise them too. There are also musicians who do not manifest such gifts early on but who as a result of self-tuition or playful experimentation, can pick out melodies and chords and play rhythmically and with good phrasing. Such musicians often write their own songs and can play music they know by ear in their own way. There may be gaping holes in terms of the range of musical “vocabulary” they can handle but what they do possess, they use to express themselves directly and freely.

So I refute the claim that musical fluency is a rare gift. I have even heard it said that a “good ear” cannot be taught or that there might be a “perfect pitch” gene. Such notions fuel the disempowering belief that music is something that only the talented few can do well. Talent in music is much like talent in language. A fluent command of language will not turn someone into a great writer or actor. I believe fluent musicianship is something all people can achieve given the right kind of training.

I first became interested in this subject when I was a student at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester. I had a job as a piano teacher on a Saturday in a music shop in Chorley, Lancashire. I was probably quite a bad teacher back then and was fortunately very cheap. My weakness as a teacher was because of my own natural, untutored fluency as a practical musician. I was frustrated.

I could not understand why my pupils seemed to be playing lists of notes. The lists they played were seldom all reproduced correctly but even if they were they would have no musical shape or expression – they would mean nothing. So I adapted and in time I learned to do what I know most piano teachers do and instruct my students with clarity and precision on how to play each note with the “right” expression. I call it eloquence by numbers. Frankly, the results never sounded very naturally musical to my ears but my students would pass their examination; some even did very well.

Over time, my enquiry deepened into what it was that made a musical person and after twenty years of searching, I have come to understand that natural, musical expressiveness occurs when the components of the musical “language” are internalised; when the rhythm and tonality – melody and harmony – are mapped into the musician’s body. Reciting set pieces or scales and exercises actually blocks the process of acquiring fluency when this occurs without first internalising – or deeply familiarising oneself with – the components of “language” from which the music is constructed. So I needed a new system of training.

“Musically Fluent” – as I call it – is the system of keyboard training that I have now developed. It feeds the components of the musical language to students in an incremental order so that fluency is possible at every stage and musicianship builds upon a firm foundation without dangerous holes appearing.

This order is very different to the one currently used by most traditional methods and it stands in direct opposition to the methods that promise short cuts and often teach a few set chords and patterns. Such approaches are like learning a few phrases in a language – a very far cry from the development of real fluency.

The pieces, exercises and games that I compose are musically rewarding – people usually want to play music which is strong and memorable – but the language components are internalised first so that the musician never plays “by numbers” or passive imitation. I place enormous emphasis on rhythmic awareness, in particular the awareness of pulsation and structure in music.

We can tell from the way that musical notation is written that an awareness of underlying rhythmic structure was something which used to be considered very important. Today in musical training it is often woefully neglected or simply taught in a damaging way.

Counting aloud is sometimes taught but this can create a serious block to natural rhythmic flow. Making students play with a metronome to try to force rhythmic stability is usually extremely destructive. Rhythm is natural. It exists in the body and needs to be drawn out with awareness. Clapping exercises and word games are a great way to get it going and I have also developed visual resources which I use prior to teaching musical notation; they are designed specifically to help people to see – and more importantly to feel – the matrix of pulsation and structure of music.

Different rhythmic patterns are introduced in a specific order as are the tonal components – keys, intervals and chords – so that the musical “vocabulary” builds steadily. In many ways, I sense that I am returning to the values of music training once championed in the past. And much of what I teach is simple musical common sense. But I recognise that my approach and the teaching pieces that I compose need to be fresh and smart to address the needs of a twenty-first century music student.

I have been teaching now in this new and radical way for a year or so and am thrilled by the results it produces in students who are committed. Many of my students were musically stiff and frustrated when they first came to me and it is so good to see them begin to find expressive freedom and real command. Still in its infancy, Musically Fluent is my hope for generating some new approaches to learning keyboard musicianship. The keyboard is an extraordinarily powerful musical tool.

New technology opens up limitless possibilities as we live at the beginning of a new chapter in its long history. I am looking to spread and develop the principles of Musically Fluent far and wide and to begin a revolution.

About The Author

My name is Phil Best. I have launched a website, and am currently writing a book on the subject. People do not realise what they are capable of musically and I want music educators everywhere to join me in changing this and opening up a new path of empowering people to become fluent musicians.

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