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Why do most piano teachers dislike the idea of students playing by ear and arranging songs on their own? Is there a good reason or are they just bad at it themselves? Why is creativity not usually accepted at a piano lesson?

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    Are you taking issue more with the lack of by-ear playing (i.e. reliance on sheet music), or arranging songs in one's spare time? I don't see how a piano teacher could restrict the latter, if the student is interested in arranging.
    – awe lotta
    Dec 21, 2019 at 13:43
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    Maybe you should be taking some other kind of lessons? Why go to ”piano lessons” if that’s not the thing you want to do. Dec 21, 2019 at 14:45
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    @piiperiReinstateMonica - it seems a general question, rather than one affecting OP. My lessons on piano were marred the same way - but I'll never know whether having to play from the music slowed my progress. Nowadays I use both skills, 50:50, but could have probably done more without being impeded by teachers who only believed in using printed music. Both sides have their plusses (and minusses..!)
    – Tim
    Dec 21, 2019 at 15:50
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    It's not like they dislike it, a teacher will only teach what they themselves are comfortable with and the majority are comfortable with just reading. but if you're into playing by ear get another teacher, find one that likes to jam by ear and improvise.
    – user34288
    Dec 21, 2019 at 18:58
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    @Mazura - not true at all. A good experienced teacher will be quite capable of grading a player's creative ability. It's actually part of some exams, so must be tangible objective and gradable. Good teachers don't work 'by numbers'!
    – Tim
    Dec 22, 2019 at 9:51

4 Answers 4

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We dislike them improvising when they should be reading! Prove that you CAN play the piece accurately as written - that you have that much control over your eyes, brain and fingers - then I'll be delighted to hear your original extemporisation or composition. But I'm not going to be impressed by your reluctance to read or inability to play what's on the page! And you shouldn't try to twist it into being a virtue.

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  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Dom
    Dec 22, 2019 at 15:22
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A good piano teacher should recognize both. A good piano teacher should realize that students who are not engaged will generally quit lessons early on, after a few months or a year or two (and thus deprive the teacher of the income the student generates for them). Different students have different proclivities and talents, and a teacher would do well to cultivate ones that keep a student interested.

That said, there are very good reasons for being able to play a piece well as-written. Developing good technique, control, etc. is the first stage, and only when you've learned the notes can you then move on to introducing layers of expressivity within those specific notes.

On the other hand, being able to play pieces by ear, being able to improvise, etc. are incredibly valuable skills. I agree that many piano teachers do not emphasize these qualities in lessons, particularly early on, and mostly to their students' detriment. I have met many pianists over the years who took 10-15 years of piano lessons, had flawless technique, etc., and could play several high-level pieces perfectly, but could barely sight-read even the simplest music, knew nothing of chords or basic composition, and certainly could never improvise. In my own opinion, those students were done a horrible disservice.

Not all teachers are like this. If you find your teacher is not amenable to the style of piano you're interested in playing, perhaps consider finding a different teacher. On the other hand, don't underestimate the critical skills learned in actually reading music fluently, applying good technique to the execution of specific notes, and being able to play the precise notes both accurately and expressively. And exposure to other compositions is usually the basis for a better repertoire of material and ideas for future creativity and improvisations.

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    What, those 10-15 years of piano lessons never introduced sight reading? I would have thought every single exam board would require sight reading, for starters...the Royal Conservatory of Music one sure does.
    – Dekkadeci
    Dec 22, 2019 at 11:39
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    @Dekkadeci: I'm not talking about the Royal Conservatory of Music. I'm talking about random folks I've met who took 10-15 years of private lessons. I doubt most of these people ever took a formal exam. I first encountered them when I was an undergraduate and was a music director for several productions, and they'd volunteer to be "accompanists." They couldn't read music to save their lives, and I questioned several of them about their background after being disappointed a number of times. (I frequently ended up just dismissing them and playing the piano myself for rehearsals.)
    – Athanasius
    Dec 22, 2019 at 15:18
  • Rather than "both", I'd say a good teacher should recognize many related, but somewhat independent skills: the ability to perform difficult passages using muscle memory, the ability to convert a musical sense of a piece into finger motions, the ability to form a musical sense given sheet music, the ability to translate sheet music into finger motions, etc. I've seen some people who could sight read piano music, or could sing music which they'd heard, but had no ability to sight read vocal music without playing it on an instrument, or otherwise hearing it, first.
    – supercat
    Dec 23, 2019 at 1:02
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An important task in learning any instrument is learning the physical technique of playing it.

Put an intelligent, "naturally musical" student in front of a keyboard, with no instruction, and they will figure out some way to press the keys down. But even if they watch some videos of talented players, most of them will never discover how to play anything that is not technically elementary.

Improvising, playing by ear, etc are challenging enough activities on their own, without trying to push your technical skills to the limit at the same time. So the end result is that you can only imagine things that you an actually play.

The "Bwv anh 114" example in the comments is a good illustration of this. Basically, you are throwing away the technical challenge of playing two independent parts, by letting your left hand just prod one note on the first beat of each bar. If you never want to progress further than playing one note (or chord) on the first beat of each bar with your left hand, that's fine, but maybe learning to play the piece as written (which is more challenging, but still only at an elementary level) will be more benefit in the long run.

(And I''ll bet the "one bass note per bar" version threw out all the ornaments in the right hand part as well, to make it even easier. In Bach's day, beginners were expected to play trills and mordents starting from day one, and not think they are something "difficult" to leave till years later!)

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It took me years before I arranged my first piano piece. Years! It will be easier just to learn to read music and play some tunes.

Adapting and composing is way harder than just playing. There way more people just trying to play Chopins music then there are people trying to compose on his level.

Playing a bit of music to a reasonable level with whatever instrument you have available is worthwhile piece of expression that anyone is capable of.

Your teacher may just want to temper your high ambitions as to keep you around long term.

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  • I believe the OP thinks that composing or arranging something is better than not composing at all because it's not at Chopin's level.
    – ojs
    Aug 25, 2022 at 11:33
  • “Adapting and composing is way harder than just playing.” — That's not my experience; nor, I suspect, that of many others. I'm told that for some people, what comes more naturally is playing from music, while for others it's playing by ear and/or improvising. Both types of people can learn the other skill, of course, but it takes more effort and practice.
    – gidds
    Aug 26, 2022 at 22:19

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