A Tip from a Teacher: Why Better is Better

It might be a subtle difference, but it can make all the difference in the world …….

And today’s topic: How things can be Better. Oh, this isn’t about World Peace or Ending Poverty in Our Time. This is a First World concern. It is about violin bows, computer speakers and pianos.

As a Christmas gift to me last year, my lovely husband purchased a gift certificate to a local violin shop. Many years ago, I had a violin bow that was quite nice. I let my daughter take it to school, because she played in the high school orchestra. She broke it. She said she just sort of bumped it on the floor, but there are rumors of mock swordfights. While I suppose I should give her the benefit of the doubt … seriously … the swordfight scenario sounds far more likely.

So I haven’t had a nice violin bow for 13 years now. They’re a little pricey. And while neither my practice schedule, skills, nor talent, warrant The Best ($25,000 plus) it would be nice to have something better than the $35.00 plastic bow I’ve been getting by with. So I took my (somewhat modest) Christmas Gift Certificate, and my husband, to the violin store, where I tried out bows of varying prices. And I realized — the differences were ohso-subtle — but oh so profound. When I was younger, I wouldn’t have been able to tell. I wouldn’t have had the confidence — I would have doubted myself so much that I wouldn’t have trusted my own perception. But now, this time, I could tell the differences immediately, and I realized how much I really, really, really needed to not be playing with the $35 plastic bow. My new bow is a joy, and now I WANT to play!

Exhibit B. Another lovely Christmas gift was a very nice blue tooth speaker that I can hook up to my computer, iPhone and iPad. I’ve been just getting by … once again… with either the internal speaker or a $19.95 Amazon thingy. And you know, I have never listened to music that much. (I know, I know …. I’m a music teacher for heavens sakes! I should be listening to LOTS of music!) Well sheesh, now I get it. With a NICE SPEAKER who wouldn’t????? This speaker makes listening to music a joy and a pleasure.

And now I’m coming around to my point. My REAL concern is the piano that you expect your child to learn to play while they are taking piano lessons.

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I’m willing to work with parents and students who are determined to get by with a digital piano; but please read this excerpt from an article by pianist David Chang that may help you further understand why it’s not my preference:

“[Make a] beautiful sound. One of the greatest misconceptions laypeople have about the piano is that it is like typing – you press the key and the sound comes out. This would be more true of the organ, which invariably sounds beautiful (assuming it is a good instrument) no matter how you depress the key. On the piano, the slightest change in the speed of the attack, the use of the pedals, the use of balance and voicing, the portion of the finger utilized, the tiniest tension in any part of the body, the way one LEAVES the keys, and many other factors will all subtly affect the beauty of the sound. This is because the way the playing mechanism of the piano – hammers striking strings – is highly sensitive to the smallest changes.”

So. You want your child to have piano lessons, or perhaps you want to learn yourself. You think you can get by with an old, out-of-tune piano, or a digital keyboard. Oh gosh, please don’t. The difference is oh-so-subtle (well not really) but oh-so-profound. It’s the difference between just getting by, and learning to love the sounds you make. Do you want your child to keep up with piano lessons? Do you want them to LOVE playing? Do you want them to actually practice – and thus to not waste your piano lesson money? Gift them the motivation of really fine sound and really responsive touch. They may very well not be able, for some years, to tell the difference. They’ll just know that playing is a sweet joy – and really, really fun.

(Originally published in January, 2015 on Cathy’s Web Page, cathybaylorpiano.org. Updated February 8, 2016.)

Miss Cathy teaches at her studio in Lynnwood, WA. Please see her website at cathybaylorpiano.org for further information!

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