You don’t have to learn everything. (Sigh of relief!)
This is true. Despite everything we’re told we need to learn, we don’t have to learn everything.
And in fact, the feeling that we do need to learn everything can be the very thing that’s preventing us from improving as pianists.
We become overwhelmed which leads to what I call “practice paralysis.”
Part of the problem is that piano instruction books, by their very nature, contain information. Much of it is useful information, but when it’s all gathered together in one place, we can feel as if we need to “learn it all,” and this all-too-often leads to us learning nothing.
Here’s a funny story about this:
A well-known jazz pianist who I know was once asked to write a series of books with scale-like technical exercises. So he sat down, invented some good exercises, and the published eagerly printed copies which sold pretty well.
Then one day, my friend was visiting Chick Corea at Chick’s home, and brought some copies with him. Chick browsed through the books and lightheartedly asked my friend, “Can you actually play everything in these books?” My friend replied, “No, of course not!” and they both laughed.
The point is that despite the fact that the technical exercises in the book as good, neither Chick Corea nor the author of the book could play everything in the books. But an aspiring pianist who buys the books may think that they need to learn it all in order to become as good as Chick Corea or my friend. The fact of the matter is that the books were only written because some publisher wanted to make some money.
This is what leads us to feel overwhelmed these days. There’s so much musical information out there that we can get “practice paralysis” and not practice anything.
Chick Corea cannot play ballads with the depth of feeling of a Keith Jarrett.
Keith Jarrett cannot play Bach as well as Glenn Gould.
Elton John cannot play jazz.
Norah Jones doesn’t have a virtuosic technique.
Keith Emerson wasn’t a great blues player.
Sara Bareilles doesn’t know every fancy chord voicing.
We don‘t either. What the above pianists have done is to learn a bit of everything, and then, once they’ve found their unique style, they’ve mined that for all its worth.
Yes, learn new things. Yes, practice hard. Yes, jam with musicians who play different ways. But most of all, dive deep into what you love the most, and at times, branch out from there. For most of us, this is what will lead to a joyous and fulfilling musical life.
Enjoy the journey, and “let the music flow!”