In 1998, I picked up a book written by Wynton Marsalis entitled MARSALIS ON MUSIC. Chapter 4 of this book is entitled "Tackling the Monster: PRACTICE". In this chapter his number 1 recommendation is "Seek out private instruction".
Wynton goes on to say, "A good instructor will help you understand the purpose of the exercises you practice, and will help you learn how to control your instrument and ultimately control yourself through playing your instrument. Another reason to seek out private instruction is that other people's experience can provide you with shortcuts to get where you want to go. You could take years trying to figure out something that a good teacher could show you very quickly."
Winton warns us, "Whatever the achievement that inspires us may be, we have to realize that it takes many long hours of practicing to become good, let alone great. The large monster of practicing always comes to trample on our dreams of becoming great without sacrifice. Almost no one likes to practice. That's just the truth. We all want to be heroes, but we just don't want to fight the dragon. And that is understandable. Dragons have bad breath. Practicing is always difficult, especially if it's truly practicing. You have to spend time working on things that you can't do, which makes you feel bad about yourself. Often it's just terribly boring, the same thing repeated over and over and over again until you get it. ...."
In 2002 I decided to take Wynton's advice and I took a Class Piano course at Scottsdale Community College. For the first time, I really began reading both clefs and playing classical music. We were also given a systematic plan for playing scales and arpeggios and other exercises that are essential for proper technique. I worked very hard at that course and made good progress. I got an "A" and a sense of having made a really important advancement as a pianist. During the next semester I took an independent study course at SCC from John Vames in Jazz Improvisation. He introduced me to the book series by Alan Swain in which he teaches a good system for playing Jazz that has been used by some very successful jazz pianists, including Judy Roberts.
After these classes I continued on my own, trying to practice at least two hours a day. I did make some progress, but it was slow. I felt my Jazz piano playing was still limited by inconsistent technique, and I had trouble mastering classical pieces. I make too many mistakes, and at times I don't feel I am playing with the best expression. I decided to take Wynton's advice again and "seek out private instruction".
I went over to a nearby music store called "Music Zone" operated by a young husband-wife team to inquire about taking some piano lessons, which they give in their store. However, they happened to be closed that Thursday afternoon, so on my way home I saw a big sale sign in a piano store, called the "Piano Gallery" so I stopped in and began chatting with the proprietor. I mentioned I was looking for a piano teacher because I wasn't progressing as well as I wanted to in spite of practicing quite a bit. Before I left, a young man walked into the store and sat down at a 9' Steinway Concert Grand piano and nearly broke it in half. I was very impressed by his playing! Afterwards I asked him who his teacher is, and he told me he is studying with a PhD at ASU. I told him that was probably above my modest level, but I wanted to get some help on my playing and be sure I am practicing the correct way and working on the right material. He said, "Oh, I teach piano" and he handed me his card that identified himself as Nic Cherpelis, teaching intermediate and advanced piano. At that time, Nic was 16 years old! Nic was my teacher for just over two years. He has now graduated from Chaparral High School and has begun attending the University of Indiana School of Music, the #2 rated music school in the country.
Nic is young, but his natural abilities were noticed early and he has studied the piano since he was six years old with really impressive results. Nic is a very disciplined and focused student, but he is also a comfortable well adjusted young man too and very pleasant to be around.
With Nic's guidance I made much better progress than before. Whenever I ran into a stumbling block usually Nic had long ago encountered the same problem and knew how to approach it and to fix it. I don't mind working hard as long as I realize I am working on the right things. This is where Wynton's advice, "seek out private instruction" is critical.
For the time being, I am continuing on my own, following the many techniques I learned from Nic to sort out problems. I expect to take some more lessons from other teachers as I come to new levels where I need help.
Several months after Nic left for college, I decided to return my primary focus on jazz piano. On December 21, 2006, I took my first lesson from Rachel Eckroth. I discovered her when she sat in for Bob Ravenscroft at a concert at the Kerr Cultural center when he had the flu. I was immediately struck by Rachel's fresh harmonic and improvisational ideas. Fortunately, I was able to catch up with her at the break and set up for taking piano lessons from her. Rachel has introduced many ideas and techniques for breaking me away from old habits that constrain my musical choices. Teaching jazz piano is a lot different from teaching classical piano. Rachel tries to create tasks that separate me from my comfort zone and force me to reinvent myself. It isn't so easy, but it is actually quite exciting. I'm beginning to play in new ways that I never thought I could before.
This Page last modified on Monday, September 18, 2006