On Piano Lessons: Tricia Tunstall’s “Note By Note”

by Thomas Brett

“An instrumentalist is an athlete.” –Tricia Tunstall

For many people, taking piano lessons is an initial gateway to learning to make and understand music for themselves. Knowing that 88-key terrain of black and white tones and semitones is a giant step towards understanding the pushes and pulls of tonal music, and piano playing makes mind and hands dexterous, connecting the physical with the emotional through sound. Last but not least, taking piano lessons–probably, it’s safe to say, more so than taking guitar or drum lessons–is a marker of social class and badge of having a well-rounded education. If you’ve learned and practiced your scales, played Beethoven’s “Für Elise”, some atmospheric Debussy maybe, or even mastered a clinical Bach invention or fugue, you’ve partaken in the canon of western classical music–that grand 1000 year-old behemoth that continues to inform and influence so much other music around the world even as it risks becoming a museum piece itself.

In her book Note By Note (2009), Tricia Tunstall explores the experience of teaching piano, that “weekly session alone together, physically proximate, concentrating on the transfer of a skill that is complicated and difficult” (3). Tunstall, a veteran teacher of children and teenagers of all ages and stages, conveys well the relationships among herself, her students, the piano, and the notes on the page in this fluid, insightful, and eminently readable memoir. Every student has different needs, interests, and abilities, yet each must learn how to really listen to sound and learn how “to rescue music from its ubiquity–to pull it from the background to the forefront, free it from its uses” (7). Piano lessons, Tunstall says, are about (re)situating music as an autonomous practice–to save it from being merely a thing downloaded and listened to as a soundtrack for something else. Note By Note captures the piano lesson itself as a kind of autonomous practice. It’s a space to learn about the development and limits of skill, concentration, and the musicking body.

Young children especially seem to intuitively understand music as an object of inherent pleasure, taking delight in finding the right keys and “enjoying pure sonority” (18). But as their piano lessons progress over time and make music increasingly a process of serious study, the lessons also discipline the students in ways that will curtail that intuitive enjoyment of pure sonority. As Tunstall notes, sometimes the acquisition of a musical skill comes at the expense of a musical impulse” (18). For example, for many piano students, learning to read notes on a page entails “the death of the improvisatory impulse” (21). Tunstall admits to being uneasy about this fact of western music enculturation: on the one hand, one needs to learn how to read in order to have access to all that great music; on the other hand, as our eyes become adept at interpreting notes on the page as “music” some of the subtle connections between the ear and the “improvisatory impulse” are muted. Tunstall addresses this fact by having all her students improvise at the end of their lessons. It’s not a perfect solution, but it reinforces the idea that music is a living activity and not just an acquired skill of note-decoding.

Not surprisingly, popular music is of great interest to many of Tunstall’s students, and some of the more interesting sections in Note By Note chronicle the author’s assessing the musical qualities of rock, jazz, pop, and especially hip hop musics as she helps students figure out how to play their favorite songs on the piano. Many sample-based hip hop songs are, of course, impossible to render (for how does one render spoken word and a rhythm track on a piano?) and it’s fascinating to learn how Tunstall negotiates the terrain of rhythm-based musics while her students look at her expectantly with a please help me figure out how to play my favorite song look.

But for all her attempts to engage with popular music, Tunstall’s allegiances are firmly in the classical world, which she considers “still the most eloquent and compelling manifestation of the musical language we all know” (85). (A minor quibble here: Who is this homogenous “we” Tunstall addresses? “We” don’t all know this musical language–many of us speak in alternate tongues…) And, remarkably, as her students “use their iPods to construct their own musical neighborhoods out of the vast territory of what’s available” (117), somehow classical music finds a way into their listening lives, over and over again. Tunstall marvels at this, but doesn’t take it for granted; she’s receptive to students wanting to learn music that they once heard somewhere and were hooked. For Tunstall, this is simply evidence that the canon of classical piano music has a power “to move those spirits that are open to being moved” (82).

Which brings us to Eddie, one of the dozen or so students whose progress Tunstall carefully maps over the course of her book. Eddie is smitten by Beethoven’s “Pathétique” Sonata (Piano Sonata No.8 in C minor) and desperately wants to learn to play it. Tunstall worries that Eddie has neither “emotional experience nor aural image to guide him” (129), yet Eddie is undeterred, driven by a musically-triggered desire to make Beethoven’s music his own, to get it into his fingers and embody its notes. And so student and teacher embark on the slow process of learning the sonata together. Eddie eventually learns to play it, note by note, and play it well too. “Through playing” Tunstall observes proudly, “he was actually learning a new way to feel” (130).

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