Why Do We Explore in Piano Lessons?

Why do we explore in piano lessons?

One of the things that makes Must Love Music unique is that we use every moment in lesson as an opportunity to explore. But, why do we explore in piano lessons?

Some people think lessons are about learning to read notes on a page.

And, that is part of it. But, it only covers a small portion of what lessons are really about.

How We Learn

There is a fabulous book by Benedict Carey called “How We Learn” that covers the research into learning from the last 60 years. While a book on learning research may sound incredibly boring, I assure you this one is not.

The biggest thing we can take away from this research is that having students sit at the piano learning one song after another is not the best option. Especially if students are left to figure out what the commonalities are between the pieces on their own.

I still remember a summer psychology class I took in university (which at this point is nearly 20 years ago). Why do I remember one particular class out of all the other classes the teacher taught?

She started class by telling us how much fun it had been to drive the winding road from her home to the university. The sun on her face, wind in her hair, & trees lining both sides of the road. Considering I had experienced the same thing while on the bus (no wind in my hair sadly), I absolutely could relate to her enthusiasm.

Then, my professor told us we were going to learn the parts of the brain. It was if a record came to a screeching halt. To say we were not looking forward to this “snorefest” was a bit of an understatement.

At least right up until our teacher dimmed the lights & showed us Pinkie & the Brain singing about the different parts of the brain.

I am quite sure most of us ended up using that video to study for our midterm! Not a single person forgot the brain stem. Not only was it catchy & fun to sing along with, but it was also something to bounce along with in our seats.

Think back to what you remember the most. Chances are it engaged multiple senses. Whether it was touch, smell, sight, sound or the emotions, they create a vibrant, multi-sensory memory.

In piano lessons, we work to create strong connections between what has been learnt & what is new.

And the best way to keep that from becoming a “snorefest”, is through exploration. Especially when that exploration is student-centered!

P.S. To read a synopsis of “How We Learn” with specific comparisons between learning research & piano lessons, click here.

Explore at the Piano

The biggest composers in classical music all have one thing in common, regardless of which era they lived.

They all explored & pushed the boundaries of what could be done on their instrument or available notation (how we write out music).

Almost all of those composers also taught to supplement their income. And, guess what they taught their students?

To question musical conventions & create their own interpretation of the written music.

Having students explore at the piano, both in lesson & during the week, is integral to students creating their own voice.

“But, my child is just playing Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star! You can not be telling me that there are different versions of this simple little piece.”


In fact the original is a French folk song called “Ah vous dirai-je, maman“.

But, did you know that Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (yes, that Mozart) decided to put his own voice to this incredibly simple song. And, I think we can all agree that he certainly succeeded in making it his own interpretation in these 12 variations of “Ah vous dirai-je maman”.

Notice how Mozart moved from just playing in the middle range of the piano, but also moved quite low for his left hand in some variations. Meanwhile the right hand explored as well in different ranges to create different moods.

If Mozart had not explored the full potential of what this piece could become chances are we in the western world may have never been introduced to this common childhood song!

Another famous pianist, Franz Liszt has had a lasting impact on music as well. He is the reason pianos are turned so the audience can see the pianist playing & why festivals/exams typically expect students to memorize music. Liszt was an incredible performer & showman that people flocked to see.

What you may not known is Liszt is also famous for saying he would perform a piece however he felt the audience would respond best to it. Regardless of what the composer had written or the musical norms from when the piece was written.

Liszt was all about putting his own voice & expression into every single piece he played. In order to do this, Liszt would have spent hours, if not days or weeks, exploring all the options available to him in order to figure out the absolute best way to play each piece for a concert.

Exploring Away from the Piano

We know that we all learn a little differently from one another. And, piano lessons are no different.

What makes off-the-bench activities so useful in piano lessons is they allow us to explore how different gestures & concepts feel in our bodies.

Piano playing is based on both the physical & artistry.

In order to play in a healthy manner, pianist use their whole bodies to create the exact sounds they want. Otherwise, our poor fingers overwork themselves & we run the risk of serious injuries over time.

For example, most music nowadays is written in a 4/4 time signature. It has a marching feel (left, right, left, right) & we naturally feel the correct emphasis since it is so common.

But, 3/4 time signature has a circular feel that is often best explored off the bench. Students need to feel how the body responds differently to this time signature to play it correctly at the piano.

Otherwise, you run the risk of putting the emPHASis on the wrong syLLABle. It just sounds wrong to the ear.

There are so many ways in which isolating a particular group of muscles helps students play piano.

A few examples are:

  • Tone production: the quality of the sound
  • Dynamics: the louder the notes, the more the arm & back muscles are used
  • Articulation: the physical way we change how to play the keys
  • Phrases: musical sentences vs. the Shatner school of acting approach

Exploration Each Lesson

In piano lessons, we want to “boldly go where no man (or woman) has gone before”. Or, at the very least where our student has gone musically.

Having students explore away from the piano is integral to learning what makes good music & what is just sounds.

It is integral to giving students a voice, rather than copying what others have done before them.

And, exploring at the piano is what keeps students excited to learn & making music for the long term.

For 5 ideas that can be used each & every day, click below.

5 Ways to Become More Musical


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