After some 40 years of playing music very poorly, I've come to realize that I'm playing the notes, but not playing music. I have played the trumpet, tenor sax, piano, classical guitar and tenor recorder for several years each, and it all comes out sounding blah, blah, blah. Until after several years my wife tells me that I'm "just not very good." I can read the sheet music and play a song a hundred times, on any of those instruments, but it all sounds the same. And because I am playing the notes, I invariably make many mistakes and I can never get up to proper speed. I have tried to memorize the song, but then I'm just visualizing the notes in my mind so there is no improvement. I recognize that it's something in my brain that's not connecting. Is there a way that I can stop playing notes and start playing music?
There's lots of good advice here. I think the diversity of suggestions bespeaks a lack of clarity about the source of your problem. From what you say about yourself, there is some lack of musical "sense," but it's hard to say where this comes from. Maybe it's in your head, but maybe it's tied to the physiological/neurological process of learning the physical skill. Maybe an inability to play fluently prevented you from learning to think in musical phrases. Maybe an inability to think in musical phrases prevented you from learning to play fluently.
The key thing is usually phrases. I've heard instrumental musicians tell their students, when they're playing a piece that isn't a vocal accompaniment, that they should make up words to help them with the phrasing.
A lot of the answers posted so far come from this perspective, but they're taking a top-down approach. From the details in your question, I suspect that you've already tried top-down approaches. Perhaps a bottom-up approach would be more fruitful.
That is, because your problem is playing individual notes and being unable to think of anything other than individual notes, perhaps you should try to learn how to connect individual notes into coherent phrases. Before you can do that, you need to be able to connect two notes into a single coherent gesture. You're old enough to have the patience for this -- most children would not.
Take the example of "Mary had a little lamb." Concentrate on the first two notes. Say the word "Mary" by itself. Sing it by itself, just those two notes. Play it on your instrument by itself. Two notes. Does it sound like it did when you spoke it? Is the first note accented? Is there a smooth legato connection from the first note to the second?
Then try "Patrick had a little lamb." Notice how "Patrick" sounds different from "Mary." Most notably, the transition from the first note to the second isn't legato.
You mentioned the Beatles. Take Yesterday. Practice playing the first word -- the first three notes -- so they sound good. Take 5 or 10 minutes and just concentrate on those three notes. Make the second note less important than the first and third. This is hard to do well and requires practice. Even if you understand the concept, it requires physical skill, and you have to teach your body how to do it.
Once you're satisfied with the first three notes, take the next phrase, but start at the end, with "game to play." Spend a couple of minutes on it. Then spend some time on "easy game to play," then "such an easy game to play," and so on. Alternate singing and playing. Mix in some speaking. Speak both with a natural rhythm of speech and with the rhythm of the melody. How close can you get to the notated rhythm and sound like you're speaking naturally? How closely can you match that feeling when you sing or play?
You mentioned not being able to think of chords as chords but just as collections of notes. Here too, detailed practice may be the solution. Take a well known piece with a simple chord progression. In my own youth, these were Heart and Soul and Chopsticks. I used to play the latter as a piano duet where the second piano part just played chords: G7-C-G7-C-G7-C, ad infinitum. At first, you might think of this as GBDF-CEG but after a couple of minutes of playing just those two chords, you should be able to start thinking of them as units. Then try the same exercise with the three chords of the 12-bar blues or the four chords of Heart and Soul.
Notice that chords tend to have a limited number of shapes. D major, E major, and A major have the same shape, for example. If you play A major (with the right hand playing EAC♯) followed by D major (with the right hand playing F♯AD), your hands will do the same thing as when you play E major (rh: BEG♯) followed by A major (rh: C♯EA). Just play A-D-A-D repeatedly, maybe 10 or 20 times, then play E-A-E-A, then go back, and so on.
With all of these exercises, the idea is to focus first on connecting two notes or two chords into a single pair, a poetic "foot," if you will. You're not only interested in making each note sound good, or natural, or whatever, but in making the connections between notes sound good, and making the two notes sound like a single coherent "word" or phrase. Once you can play two of these things together, you can start combining them to create longer phrases.
This should have the effect of training both your mental sense of the music and your physical apparatus -- your hands, mouth, lungs, and so on. One user suggested that one should avoid relying on muscle memory. I doubt many world-class musicians would agree. The trick is to train the muscle memory well. Even when a professional pianist is sight reading a new piece of music, muscle memory is involved. It may be that nobody ever played some specific sequence of chords before, but if that sequence includes A major followed by A major, the pianist will have muscle memory for the particular voicing of D major and the particular voicing of A major and for how to move from one to the other.
And what would your wife say, when you did sing?
Because my answer is: Sing! Sing! Sing!
Sing the Songs that you're going to play: Blues, Jazz standards, Gospelsongs, Spirituals, Popsongs, Classical Songs, Opera Arias ...
Sing them with your voice, but also "sing" them through your instrument: phrasing, rubato, crescendo, etc. Learn the lyrics and mind the words when singing.
"Remember to let it into your heart and you will start to make better!"
Here some ideas:
- Nobody knows the trouble I've seen
- swing low, sweet chariot
- deep river
- I don't know how to love him.
- Blue moon
- Green sleeves
- my way
- Yesterday, Something, Hey Jude, Mother, Let it be, With a little help from my friends
- I will always love you
I use to underlay any songtext (e.g. Ave Maria) when playing a classical or Baroque piece. Every prelude by Bach can become an Ave Maria.
I have learnt it when I tried this song:
I have the opposite problem! I've spent so many years 'glancing and paraphrasing' while sight-reading piano parts that I have to pull myself up with 'Hey! What the guy WROTE is actually rather good! Perhaps I should try playing THAT!'
But back to you. You've spent 40 years playing all those instruments? Perhaps you're just jaded. You can't be THAT bad - you weren't thrown out of all the groups you played with, were you? (You don't play with other people? Well, no wonder you're bored! Get out there!) Climb out of that morass of self-analysis and just keep playing! (That is, if you enjoy it. If not, go fishing instead. No-one's forcing you.)
I don't understand 'because I am playing the notes, I invariably make many mistakes'. Why does reading the music cause mistakes?
'Feeling' is the last 1% added to 99% of 'playing the right notes'.
Lots of people can't busk. (Lots more can't/won't read. They have a MUCH bigger problem.) But you can develop that skill. Record a blues sequence on piano or guitar, pick up your trumpet or sax and do something with it. Start off playing one note per bar. Then two... Then pick a tune that you DON'T have music for. Play it. Yes you can. It goes up, then down, then a long note... Work it out.
Or, like I said, if after 40 years you're just bored with the whole music thing, do something else instead. That's OK. I've been at it for nearly 60 years, and I know exactly what you mean!
Good question. But it seems like the answers are all very technical, like play the dynamics, slurs etc with more emphasis. Let me give another approach.
I have exactly the same problem and had a discussion with my teacher about this. It turned out I was playing the notes out of "muscle memory", but I should play them "from your head". There are a couple of ways to know if you play from muscle memory (but usually you already know this): (1) take a piece you haven't played for a few days and play it again. If you make errors you didn't usually make it is muscle memory loss - that happens surprisingly quickly (2) take a few bars of what you play well, and change a few things as rhythm or pitch. If that is hard, then you are playing from muscle memory.
Now that is the easy part. But recognition of the problem is always a good start. The difficult part is to "play from the head". What you can do is to "read" or "sing" the notes when you play (not easy for the piano, but there must be a way) and hear them inside you. This also means that you must repeatedly read the score and sing it, without playing your instrument. Not only should you know the melody, but all the individual notes, chords, intervals etc..
In short: Make music with, and for, other people.
From what you've revealed here, it sounds like you're mainly practicing in your own home, with no teacher, and no audiences except your wife. This is a musical activity, but it's not the way most peoples across history and cultures experience music. It's not unlike an actor practicing monologues and one-man shows, at home, without any coaching and without ever performing in public, but especially without taking part in plays with other people, and then wondering why they don't grow more as an actor.
The answer to most "how can I get better" questions is always "get a teacher." A good teacher will not only focus on "getting the notes right," but on expressivity and musicality, and maybe can reveal the "why" behind certain passages, why the notes do what they do, that's eluding you.
Even if you can't consider taking lessons, try making music in an ensemble with others. Whether it's trumpet in a community orchestra, guitar in a jam band, or recorder in an informal folk session, being able to fit your music-making into others' is a completely different skill set from "playing the notes," and should pretty effectively take your mind off them. And a sense of "the why of music" might be constructed when you hear it coming at you, not only the music that you're making while your cognitive faculties are distracted by the practicality of making it.
@Нетвойне I certainly can not play anything by ear. I think this is indicative of the problem that I don't any natural way to recognize how notes go together in a piece. So let's say that you gave me the first note of the song Mary Had a Little Lamb. A musician who knows the tune would be able to immediately know the second, third, fourth, notes and on and on. But I have no feel for that. I would check out each of the 3 or 4 possible notes for each next note, and then pick the right one. Because I don't have that feel for how notes go together, nothing in my playing flows. – foolishmuse
Also from comments I understand the OP's handle is getting mixed up by SE. It's both @AndrewEvans and @foolishmuse
From that comment it seems you could use...
- A strong music theory foundation to help you learn the elements and patterns of music. That's the "how notes go together" aspect. (Watch out for theory sources that focus exclusively on harmony, you also want theory on melody, phrase structure, and rhythm.)
- Ear training to go simultaneously with theory and sight reading work. That will help you get past the "guessing from 3 or 4 possible notes" method, and let you "hear in your mind" the sound of various progressions of tones.
You really want the various musical skills - theory, technical performance, ear training - developed and linked together.
Getting back to Mary Had a Little Lamb, "playing the music" should mean things like you recognize the periodic structure of the melody, how it embellishes the tonic chord except for pitch
RE where the implied harmony is dominant, and how the very common melodic pattern of
MI RE DO is utilized in the song.
When you have that understanding you move beyond merely "playing the notes." You will have a deeper, structural understanding of the music. Then you can focus on "playing the music" and bring some expression to your playing. You can make artistic performance choices that support the structural functioning of the music. It should also make learning and memorizing music easier.
Don't be put off by a simple example like Mary Had a Little Lamb. Maybe there isn't a lot to do artistically with that particular tune, but you would take the same approach to understanding "how the notes go together" in more sophisticated music. In the Sailor's Hornpipe, which you also mentioned in comment, you would similarly look for patterns, but probably take a more melodic approach. Motif development would probably be a main concern.
If my suspicion is on the mark, give it time for these skills to develop, time for yourself to replace your old thinking with a new approach. It isn't quick and easy to combine theory, technique, and ear skills into one unified sense of musicianship.
You didn't indicate the types of music you have been playing. Classical style (using the word loosely) music often has indications as to interpretation, slurs, staccato, dynamics, rhythm variation, etc. You might try playing some classical piano pieces to get an idea of what types articulations are used with various melodic ideas. I'm mentioning classicl because most popular pieces do not include such markings. The idea is to figure out how to shape phrases (and even smaller note patterns) in order to breathe life into the music.
Trivial example, take a pattern of 4 eighth notes followed by a half note; one common one would be C-B-C-D-E. Its basically a melody of C followed by E that is decorated by C's upper and lower neighbors. (Other names for the patter are possible.) Try playing this straight; da-da-da-da-daa; there's not much there. One simple articulation would be a slur over the 4 eighth notes yielding; da_da_da_da, daa. The four-note pattern would sound like a single object followed by the half note. Another patterh would be to have slurs over the first two eighths and the third and fourth eights marked staccato. Sort of da-da, dah-dah, daa. All three have a different musical feeling.
If a piece has no such markings, one must add the phrasing. It can be done by knowing the style (swing in jazz or double-dotting in military marches and French baroque pices.) Or it can be done by making the articulations match the lyrics (if the piece has lyrics.) This is very useful in most pop, Latin, rock, or country or similar styles. (As a side note, the same piece in different languages may require different phrasing, "¿Quién Será?" vs Sway" comes to mind.
I have a simple procedure that will hopefully move you in the right direction.
- Choose a piece that you like and would like to be able to play. Don't choose something too difficult for yourself. Be realistic about your technical abilities.
- Listen to several recordings of your chosen piece played by different professional performers. As you listen, compare and contrast the performances.
- First pay attention to the emotion. How does each performance make you feel? Likely, they will all share the same overriding emotion. Name that emotion and write it down. However, they might present different shades of that emotion or hint at other emotions at certain moments. Note how and when they differ.
- Next, pay attention to the more technical differences in their performances, especially at those moments where there is a difference in feeling. Things to pay attention to are tempo, dynamics, phrasing, tone colour, and so on. The goal here is to identify what they are actually doing to achieve the diffence in feeling. Don't feel bad if this step is really hard. This sort of active listening is a skill that must be developed over time.
- From the various recordings, choose your favourite performance. Choose the way you'd like to hear yourself perform the piece.
- Listen to your chosen version over and over.
- Try to anticipate what's going to happen next. What you're doing here is memorizing the piece in broad strokes, without really trying to memorize.
- Then start to sing along with the melody. Yes, I mean sing, even if you're not a singer. This is especially important for polyphonic instruments like piano and guitar because sometimes the notation can obscure which notes are actually part of the melody. Use your ear to identify the melody and sing along with it.
- This is really an extension of step 4, but it's so important it deserves to be its own step. I think this step will address the crux of your issue. While singing along to your chosen recording, try to ape the performer's emotion. In other words, don't just mechanically sing the notes, sing it with all the expression, all the dynanics, all the drama, all the whatever of the professional performer. You're more likely to under-do it than over-do it, so don't be afraid to exagerate the expression. As you get more comfortable with the piece, you'll naturally settle into the "right" amount.
- Now look at the score and start learning to play it. By this point you should already be able to sing the entire melody from memory so it's just a matter of transfering that knowledge to your hands. Once you're comfortable playing it, add in all the expression that you absorbed from step 5. If you can, try to sing along as you play. Let your voice teach your hands all the expression. Remember any technical aspects you identified in step 2b and try to put those to work.
- For best results, practice it VERY slowly at first. Seriously, there's no such thing as practicing too slow. Don't increase the tempo until you can consistently play it perfectly at your current tempo. (For example, set a metronome to 60bpm and treat those as sixteen notes.)
I have also had to learn to play more than notes, and I've coached others through it. Here is a process I've used — and continue to use — successfully both for myself and with others.
This post is written with piano in mind, but the core ideas apply to any instrument.
Get the absolute easiest, most brain-dead simple music you can. I recommend music that uses both hands, but a single finger on each hand is the ideal starting place. I like The Music Tree: Time to Begin as a starting point, but there are many, many similar books.
Play it once, twice, a few times if necessary, to get the "lay of the land" — that is, a general feel for the music and how to play it. One advantage to children's method books is that the titles are near always evocative and directly linked to the music, which is a big help is finding a workable interpretation.
The kind of simple "songs" I have in mind will be dull to anyone with a modicum of sophistication, but imagine you're playing for a room full of three-year olds. Your goal is to get them to walk, move, dance to your playing in a way that shows they can "hear" your interpretation without being told. To accomplish this, you have to throw yourself wholeheartedly into the fortes, the pianos, the staccatos, the accents, the etcetera, etcetera.
This is far more difficult than it might sound. It's far easier to be expressive when playing big Rachmaninoff chords or Schubert melodies than when playing a song with only four measure and two different notes.
If you can be expressive with such inherently "dull" material — if your imaginary three-year-olds respond and have fun — then you've taken an immense step. Everything contained in the simplest of materials is found in the most complex, but in a much more easily digested context. A smooth legato is much easier to work on and master in a five-finger-position song of eight measure than in a Mozart Sonata of eight minutes.
If you find yourself bored during this process, then you're not emotionally engaged in what you're playing. That's the sign that you're just playing notes / following instructions.
This answer a variation on a similar answer to Any tips or breakthrough moments on getting your piano playing to really take off?.
I guess it's the emotion that's lacking.
Someone could be talking about an extremely interesting subject, but in a monotonous voice, and that would soon become boring. Music is way more than merely playing the right notes in the right order - although I find that always helps - but without the addition of emotion, it becomes somewhat like a child barking at print.
Take a favourite piece, and make sure you can play it note perfect - a simple one will suffice. Now try to play it as if you are trying to seduce a beautiful woman (nothing sexist intended here!! A conductor said it to me a few weeks ago, about how I was to play an intro.). Make it a serenade, push and stretch the timing, make certain notes louder, others quieter - there will probably be a dozen different ways you play it, but all will be more musical due to some emotion being injected. Try to find as many different emotive ways to play any piece.
It will help if you consider how an actor gets into the role. It's a mental state, think tender, or perhaps think bombastic, bad tempered, sad, ecstatic, whistful - there's an awful lot of emotions one could (and should) use. Get into the mindset before playing. You may even get someone else to help that happen. Have an argument with someone, then go play a fiery piece. I bet you couldn't play a peaceful piece straight after. But when you can switch emotions, your playing will become musical, the aim of these exercises.
Excellent question. There are several elements to a piece that contribute to its musicality: specifically, dynamics, articulation, tempo, and phrasing.
Dynamics are, obviously, the varieties and shades of volume used in a piece. Tasteful changes in dynamics when called for can make your piece more expressive. When you are playing piano, make sure to emphasize the melody notes by playing them differently, whether that be with a different touch or a louder volume. Make them stand out--they are the most important part of the piece.
Articulation is very similar to dynamics. Even when it's not written in the music (when the style is appropriate, of course), add a variety of articulation. For this, I would do some study (books, etc.), but make sure you add variety.
Tempo can be helpful as well. When your piece is slow and expressive especially, play with rubato (slowly speeding up and slowing down after that), but don't overdo it or overplay it. Also, before implementing rubato, make sure the piece is a piece that needs rubato, and not a quick marchlike tempo or other.
Finally, phrasing. This is probably the most neglected of all these elements. Phrases are not legato/slurs--don't make that mistake of assuming they are the same. A phrase is a slice of the piece that is relatively short and can stand alone. I would highly suggest you research 'phrase identification in music'. There are several things that can be done about phrasing. Firstly, a variety of touches and articulations. Dynamics can also prevent your repetitive phrase from being too dull. Basically just weave all these elements in and it should begin to sound more musical.
I am by no means a music teacher, nor is this list exhaustive by any means. But this should be a good place to start. I would suggest research on playing expressively. If you're able to play the notes with ease, then that makes your job even easier because you don't have to worry about the notes--instead, devote your attention to these elements and try to find new ways of making each passage unique.
In short: play something simpler, so simple that you feel that you said it, you know what you said and you meant it. You didn't read it from paper.
Music = stories and emotions
In order to play music instead of just notes, it has to become your music. Your message, your story, your emotion. Playing music is like acting - you don't go to a theater to see actors reading text from paper word-for-word accurately and precisely without mistakes. That's not what acting and theater is about, and it shouldn't be what music is about.
If you have to read all individual notes all the time, and can't even do that without mistakes, you're not much of a story teller. Whatever you say musically, it has to be (musical) words and phrases you know and understand yourself, and can say without reading individual letters. Can you say, say, the word "princess", if there happens to be a princess in the story? Or do you have to have a paper where the word is spelled out for you? Then again, in English, words aren't even pronounced the way they're written, so maybe that's a bad analogy.
Melody = story
Throw away the papers. Just say something on the instrument, no sheet music. "Mary Had a Little Lamb", "London Bridge Is Falling Down" etc. can you tell those simple stories i.e. melodies, on the piano, without having it all spelled out note-for-note? If not, start practicing how to tell simple stories. If you cannot tell even the simplest possible story (=melody), you absolutely have to learn to do that. You have no hope of performing as an actor, if you cannot say even simple expressions like "the sun is shining today" without having it written out for you.
All other notes = texture, coloring, supporting the melody
Often in written sheet music, stories (melodies) have been written in a very complicated way, with lots of difficult words (notes) that are not necessary to tell the main idea. If you have trouble telling the stories (melodies) convincingly using the fancy and complicated language that the sheet music has, then do something simpler. First just one finger, one note, the top note, which is usually the lead melody. Then maybe add the bottom note.
Add more notes only if:
- you need them for telling the story (melody) the way you want
- you understand what you're saying on some level, so that you feel that they're your words, your notes
If you can't reach a level of understanding, then choose a simpler story (melody) to tell.
Sheet music is there just to help you remember, and for an arranger/orchestrator to describe very detailed ideas about some very specific way to tell the story.
Do you ever write music? I wrote a song about my mother's dementia over the course of about two weeks. I'd play around with lyrics and melody, and I spent most of the time in tears. I knew the melody was right when it was the one that made me cry.
Playing with earnest feeling can be hard when you don't connect with the music. I couldn't sing Adele's "Easy on Me" because I had never really felt those emotions, and didn't connect.
Start with the emotion. A past trauma, and unresolved wound. Try to write to that. When it feels right to you, it will almost definitely sound like music, and not just notes, to others.