This is an article written by Ilinca Vartig as appears in her block, she is a pianist and piano teacher resides in Russia.
Can I become good at jazz/pop/rock if I also learn classical piano?
I love classical music, but it seems so complicated – is it really worth my time to become good at it?
I get such questions quite often.
In our modern times, classical music* is slowly starting to transform into a ‘legend of old’. It is shrouded in mystery and myths. Embarking on a ‘classical journey’ can feel overwhelming for many music lovers: I’m too busy for something so difficult! I can already play by ear, so why should I bother with learning musical notation? Yes, my technique is very bad, but I can still play a few songs – what’s wrong with that? Wait, what is a ‘showpen’?
The fact that serious classical studies are usually ‘hidden’ behind closed Conservatory doors (being only available to a select few) doesn’t help the situation either.
As a classically-trained professional pianist with more than 30 years of experience, I’m literally on a ‘mission’ to dispel myths, unlock doors and make you fall in LOVE… not just with classical music, but also with the EXCITING and LIFE-CHANGING process of studying it, and discovering its extraordinary treasures.
So how will classical piano benefit you? Is it worth the time, effort and discipline? Will you need to play boring exercises for ages before you can play a beautiful ‘song’? Is the technical training as tedious as you have heard? Isn’t it all about talent, anyway?
As a child, you probably played with Lego blocks.
Yes, you read that right. If you wanted to build a Lego house, you would first take some bigger blocks, and make a foundation. If the foundation was solid, you could fit ANY block on top of it!
The same can be said about classical music: it is the best foundation, period.
The piano, in its turn, is by far the most versatile instrument.
Therefore, if you combine ‘classical’ with ‘piano’ – you get THE magical key that opens all musical doors: jazz, pop, rock, improvisation, playing by ear or by chords… they all fit with ease on a classical foundation – just like Lego blocks.
On the other hand, if your foundation is made of random pop songs, or ‘playing by ear’… all the other doors will sadly remain closed (not to mention the usual resulting problems: bad technique and injuries, expressive deficiencies, big gaps in your knowledge… and this list has only just begun).
WHY is classical music so special and powerful?
Well, where should I begin? The benefits of classical music (and the classical piano repertoire) are too numerous to fit into one article. I will still try to ‘scratch the surface’:
- Incredible value (artistic, intellectual, philosophical, and even spiritual).
Have you heard of the ‘test of time’? It means that only the most valuable art survives the passage of time and remains relevant hundreds of years after being created. A certain song might be a ‘hit’ today – but if it doesn’t have real artistic value, it will be completely forgotten 5 or 10 years down the road.
Only the most remarkable musical works written in the past are still here today. The ‘test of time’ has separated the wheat from the chaff. The result? The masterpieces of the great classical repertoire are AMAZING. They make us think and feel, they inspire us to grow, and they have a powerful message that goes beyond the reality of their times.
The good news is that you don’t even have to fully understand this message in order to be touched (and transformed) by your contact with classical music.
Classical pieces have lots of ‘layers’ – and you will keep uncovering their secrets for as long as you live. It is a never-ending adventure that will help you to become wiser and kinder. After only a couple of years of classical studies, you will see the world with new eyes – and this will only be the beginning!
Classical music will open and sharpen your mind, deepen your knowledge, widen your horizons, nourish your spirit, and make your entire life richer, more alive, more colorful and fulfilling.
From here results the next mega-benefit:
- Practicing classical music is the ultimate ‘gym’ for your brain.
Chopin once said: Simplicity is the final achievement. Just like Mona Lisa’s smile, or a sculpture by Michelangelo, many classical ‘musical jewels’ seem very simple at first glance. This simplicity can be compared to the surface of a big lake. Its calmness is a result of its depth.
Classical masterpieces are full of hidden treasures. They are complex, deep and intellectually demanding – and they challenge (and train) your entire being: mind, body, emotions and spirit. Music is art, math, physics, literature, and yoga. It requires the finesse of a jeweler and the endurance of a marathon runner. It teaches you more about yourself than most other human activities combined.
The brain of a classical musician is a force of nature. Working on a Fugue by Bach, a Sonata by Beethoven or an Etude by Chopin will improve your:
- imagination and visualization skills,
- mental and physical coordination,
- motor functions,
- attention to detail,
- discipline and patience,
- emotional intelligence…
… and this list can go on and on.
Have you ever wondered why so many great musicians live long, active and harmonious lives? (just think Rubinstein, Horowitz, Richter, Argerich, Ashkenazi, Barenboim etc.) It’s because our art keeps the mind, body and spirit young, flexible and full of life!
- Masterful and effortless technique.
Good technique is like salt in a tasty dish: if it’s there, you don’t even notice it, and simply enjoy the meal. If it’s not there, the food has no taste, and it’s very difficult to eat.
Good technique is that ‘magic place’ where the natural functionality of our body meets the piano mechanism. It is based on smart ergonomics, and makes good use of gravity and leverage. Good technique is effortless and brilliant. It is extremely efficient: creating a powerful sound, playing an impressive fast passage or a series of difficult chords – they all require minimum muscular effort if done correctly (and there’s no harmful fatigue involved).
Good technique is fluid, tension-free and healthy. It protects you from injuries and gives you full expressive freedom.
It’s not possible to play classical pieces WELL with bad technique. That’s why all serious professional piano methods (especially the Russian piano school) include rigorous and progressive technical training.
Of course, it takes a bit of time and practice to learn whole-arm action, weighted playing or wrist navigation. It does take patience to acquire freedom and learn how to ‘fly’. In the long run, however, this little investment will yield massive results!
And no, it’s not as hard and tedious as you think. Good technique is NOT trained separately, by doing endless finger drills – this is just another myth. In the Russian piano school, technique is developed as a harmonious part of the whole – while practicing beautiful music.
After mastering a piece by Bach, Liszt or Rachmaninoff (even an easier one!), modern music will very rarely challenge you. Playing a pop song, a rock ballad (or even a more difficult jazz piece) will feel as effortless as breathing.
Remember the Lego metaphor? Professional piano technique has that power too.
- Develop REAL expressive skills.
Without classical training, musical expression works like this: one person in a million ‘gets it’ naturally (because of their talent). The rest simply press the right notes with the right fingers, in a mechanical manner. They envy the ‘talented’ ones, thinking that musicality is a question of destiny.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Musical expression is more than 95% science, and less than 5% talent or inspiration. With a bit of patience (and the help of a good teacher) anyone can learn this science!
Classical music is your best ‘expressive dojo’. A lyrical piece by Schumann or Tchaikovsky, a witty Dance by Shostakovitch, a melodious Waltz by Chopin or a delicate ‘sound painting’ by Debussy – these masterpieces will help you to understand and develop good sound quality, phrasing, dynamics, sound balance and voicing, articulation, intonation, pulsation and rubato…
Yes, expressive playing doesn’t just ‘happen’ on its own, and we DO have names for all the ‘puzzle pieces’ that make your playing come alive and shine. And yes, you can learn all of them!
- Best theory teacher.
Let’s face it: music theory can get a bit boring after a while. Some people get a kick out of it – while others pull their hair out while trying to understand chord inversions, modulations, or the intricacies of resolving the Dominant 7th chord to the Tonic or the Submediant.
Is your head spinning by now? It doesn’t have to be!
If you follow a good classical piano method, all these theoretical elements will be introduced gradually, in a fun practical manner! Instead of trying (and failing) to memorize what a Dominant 7th chord is – you will simply find it in your piece, play it, listen to it, enjoy its sonority, understand it, practice it… and one day you will happily discover that it has already been assimilated, naturally and effortlessly.
Add some scales & arpeggios to the mix – and you will also be able to improvise, build chord progressions, and ultimately write your own music.
- Become a musical ‘Sherlock Holmes’.
By learning how to understand classical music, you will develop phenomenal analytical skills.
Mastering a classical work is not just about reading the notes, and pressing them with the right fingers. It’s also not just about adding some ‘expressive effects’ into the mix and playing with good technique. Yes, all these things are important – but only if we understand WHY we do them.
A music score is the ultimate puzzle. Musical notation is probably the most complex language ever invented by humankind. Plus, a good musician doesn’t simply read and play the symbols from the page. He also learns how to ‘read between the lines’ and decode the subtlest messages that were cleverly hidden by the composer behind ‘innocent-looking’ notes, stems, slurs and rests.
As I always tell my students – analysis is golden. By learning how to analyze a piece, your practice becomes clear, targeted and very efficient. The result: meaningful, expressive, beautiful playing!
There’s also a cherry on top of this cake: if you learn how to analyze a classical piece, a modern song will look like an easy verse written by a 3-year old. I’m not joking! You’ll take a look at the sheet music, understand it instantly, and play it as if you wrote it yourself.
Is classical music ‘too hard’?
All right, I get it! – you might say at this point. Classical music is good for me – but it’s still HARD! Who has time for it these days? I just want to have fun!
So why would we have a different attitude when it comes to ourselves, and our skills? Why only accept an awesome phone, but settle for mediocre piano skills? Why have a home made of stone, and a ‘piano house’ made of straw?
Classical music is the ultimate ‘high-quality’ experience. It is the best foundation for your musicianship. It will help you to become the best version of yourself. It is the journey of a lifetime.