A new family signed up their teenage son for lessons with me. He’s had a classical background full of of exams and evaluations. He practices an hour a day and spends twenty minutes on scales. His parents warned me that he wants to quit. At our first lesson, he plays a Bach piece. The notes are right but uninspired. I ask him what he listens to. Pop. So we learn “All of Me” by John Legend. An hour later he's playing it and sounds great. He's having a good time. The parents are totally confused. To them Bach is greater than John Legend. I ask the parents what they listen to – John Legend.
Practice is necessary, but it’s not the most important thing. You’ve got to be motivated by a love for the music. You have to hear it, you have to see it, you have to experience it. If you want your kids to play Bach but they don’t listen to Bach, it’s not gonna happen. Glenn Gould – one of the greatest pianists of all time – talks of being moved to tears as a kid by Wagner's Tristan and Isolde. I remember seeing Chick Corea play when I was 13. I'd been listening to his recordings for years. We met after the show and he said he knew I was a pianist - he saw the way I was watching his hands, trying to figure out what he was doing. That was life changing for me.
You have to learn music the way you learn language, you’ve got to be around it, you’ve got to experience it or it just won’t make sense. It’s the music itself that inspires musicians to work on scales, to practice for hours, to explore new genres and to learn new techniques.
Playing John Legend because his music moves you doesn't mean you'll abandon Bach. It means you'll be reminded of the thing that made you want to learn an instrument in the first place - the joy of it.
So while practice is necessary, that mantra is not always what students most need to hear. They need to hear some music.