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Let Your Fingers Do the Thinking

David Sudnow wants everyone to learn to play the piano. That's why he refuses to teach it.

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Hey . . . This guy's not teaching us anything.

That thought seems to be spreading slowly among the two dozen adults crowded into David Sudnow's apartment. They have come to learn how to play the piano by ear, they are paying $100 for the privilege, and they are sitting with pens poised over open notebooks, ready to record the secret to a mysterious skill.

But Sudnow is sitting at the front of the room at his electric piano, leisurely fingering the keys with the same deep pleasure some people derive from stroking a cat. He talks about Fats Waller, Art Tatum, and other jazz pianists he admires. He plays passages from their work on the stereo, and encourages the students to imitate the style of their favorite pianists. "You've got to get a hero for yourselves, someone you want to emulate," says Sudnow, his hands visible on a video monitor as he plays. "Just keep listening to that music until you love it so much you'll do anything to learn how to play like that."

The aspiring pianists start to slouch in their chairs. They put their pens down and settle in like students who recognize that the professor has just launched into a long digression that won't be on the test.

Then Sudnow pulls one of his favorite stunts. "One thing that's very important to remember," he begins, "is that when you sit down at the piano, you should hold your hands above the keys like this . . ."

Suddenly the whole class snaps to attention. Pens are snatched up, glazed expressions vanish. Everyone is poised to receive the secret, and Sudnow starts to grin.

"You see?" he says, gently scolding. "You're all set to copy down whatever I say, as though details about technique are what you need to know. Those things don't matter. What matters is wanting to play. What matters is loving the music. Look, I'll give you all the information you need before you leave here. You don't have to write anything down--it's all here in the manual--but it's up to you to use it. People are their own best teachers, just believe that."

That's when it occurs to me that I've been going about this all wrong. Like a child, I've been submitting to instruction week after week, meekly obeying my piano teacher as though any digression from her carefully devised curriculum would spoil my chances of learning how to play. I didn't learn how to talk that way. I didn't learn how to read or write or ride a bike that way. But I always believed that playing the piano was some sort of mysterious skill that could only be passed on through rituals conducted each week by my teacher. Sudnow's "secret" is deceptively simple--teach yourself. Go after the information you need as you need it, and put it to use. He provides all the basic information in a single eight-hour workshop. Then he sends his students home to learn songs. No weekly lessons, no curriculum. He merely tries to cultivate the desire to make music that the students bring to the workshop with them. Sudnow is teaching people how to "play" in the most basic sense of the term. He is teaching them how to have fun making music, and that's the lesson that had always eluded me.

Thirty million Americans currently alive have tried to learn how to play the piano, and failed.

I'm one of them. When I was eight, I started piano lessons with dreams of creating those rumbling boogie-woogie bass lines that still came out of the radio in those days. I worked hard on my scales and my tempo, sweating over torturous hand exercises devised by Bartok and Czerny, but I learned nothing more scintillating than "Donkey Trail," which I dutifully memorized and performed in recital. After nearly two years, I reached the inevitable conclusion--no matter how hard I studied, I would always be a slave to sheet music. I might be able to learn a handful of songs, each memorized note by arduous note, but the only way I would be able to retain those songs would be by practicing them over and over again. Every day. For the rest of my life.

David Sudnow says that conclusion is wrong. He says if I learn the few simple rules he has provided, I soon will be able to play songs by ear, adding lush, rich chords to any melody I can pick out on the keyboard. Within a year, he says, I will even be able to pass myself off as a pianist in any cocktail lounge--if I really try.

Sure, I thought, another snake oil salesman, another charlatan trying to exploit the gullible. I would have ignored the man, but Sudnow appeared in my life just as the desire to make music was reasserting itself. My wife and I had bought a piano--just for the kids, I told myself--but I couldn't resist plunking away at it. I got a couple of books out of the library, learned how to read music again, and started hammering out a few songs. When I brought my daughter in for her first lesson, I discovered that her teacher was an accomplished jazz pianist, so I signed up for lessons too. Maybe, just maybe, I thought, things would be different this time. Maybe I could still realize that old dream of improvising at the keyboard.

Then I picked up Ways of the Hand, a deeply introspective account of one man's quest, begun at the age of 31, to learn how to play jazz piano. I had never heard of the author--some guy named David Sudnow--but one night, while carrying the book around with me, I went to see Sam Shepard's play Suicide in B Flat. The piano player improvising onstage was Sudnow, and his biography in the playbill said he "devotes most of his time to teaching adults of all ages 'piano by ear' in his Chicago studio."

I went home and finished his book. Then I called him up. Sudnow said he had just moved to Chicago, but for the past eight years he has been teaching adults, some of them in their 80s, how to play the piano by ear. In a way, his method is a sequel to Ways of the Hand, because it helps people around the obstacles Sudnow encountered while learning how to improvise. He explains chords and scales, and the way they work together--information he struggled hard to understand--and he provides keyboard diagrams for songs. And he does all this in an eight-hour workshop.

I decided to give him a try, and showed up for the first piano workshop he conducted in Chicago. During those eight hours of instruction, I concluded that Sudnow's teaching method is indeed extraordinary. It doesn't provide a shortcut to competence at the keyboard--students must practice for weeks before they can play a single song. And the information Sudnow provides is far from original. In fact, it's available in most music books.

But what is revolutionary about Sudnow's approach is the way he tries to shake the students out of their passive approach to learning. He is like a language teacher who spurns grammar textbooks and exercises. Speak! he says. Memorize a few phrases, keep building your vocabulary, and soon the rules will become obvious to you. Don't whine about talent. According to Sudnow, talent is an illusion--those who excel do so because they love what they do and apply themselves to it with more passion and concentration than others. And whatever you do, don't worry about the correct curriculum to follow. "We learn for many strange reasons," he says, "but certainly not because information was dished out to us in a particular sequence, at a certain pace."

This gospel of self-reliance and disdain for authority makes Sudnow sound like a revolutionary, and indeed, at the age of 47, he still looks like a student activist from the 1960s. He is tall, thin, and energetic, with thick black hair combed into a Beatle mop. He often wears faded blue jeans that have molded themselves to his body, and his apartment, near Belmont and Broadway, has the ascetic simplicity of a college student's. Only two things there reveal Sudnow's true passions--his books, and the various electric pianos parked throughout the apartment.

Several of the books are his own work. Sudnow is a sociologist who obtained tenure at the age of 29 after publishing a landmark study on death called Passing On. (Currently in its 24th printing, the book examines the way hospitals care for dying patients.) Some of his papers have been widely reprinted and anthologized, and his two most recent books are Talk's Body, which compares improvised piano playing to writing at the typewriter, and Pilgrim in the Micro World, an analysis of the skills used in playing a video game. This year he is a visiting sociology professor at Northwestern University.

But Sudnow's decision 16 years ago to become a jazz pianist created a parallel identity for him, one that has consumed his energies.

Actually, these two identities are not as incongruous as they may seem. Both are rooted in the two strongest influences in Sudnow's life--the Jewish neighborhood where he grew up, and the civil rights movement that accompanied him into adulthood. From the former, he derived a capacity for scholarship and a devotion to music; from the latter, an abiding distrust of institutions that subvert human freedom and creativity.

These two influences come together in the way Sudnow teaches music. He is not selling an easy way to learn the piano. "Jazz piano is probably one of the most difficult skills to learn," he admits. "I think only learning how to speak is harder." But amateur music-making is an essential ingredient of a good life, he says, and teaching people how to play allows him to pursue a utopian vision.

"I want people to play the piano and sing together," he says in an essay he is writing. "As a sociologist, I'm inclined to imagine some degree of connectedness between everything we humans do, so how we spend our evenings ultimately relates to how we run our factories, legal systems, armies, religions. How much piano playing that goes on in a society could matter far more than one would at first glance presume."

To encourage people to make music together, Sudnow conducts get-togethers for his former students, providing them with a place to play for each other, listen to recordings, and share their enthusiasm for music. "My dream is to see hundreds of these small groups throughout Chicago meeting regularly, with the members sharing their troubles and their discoveries and their enthusiasm," he said. "Seeing others play is a wonderful source of instruction and motivation."

But there's another item on Sudnow's agenda. With his streamlined method of instruction, Sudnow also is trying to break the monopoly that professional music teachers have on piano playing. They break the skill into tiny parts to ensure a steady supply of students, he says. They insist on private lessons, which are costly and inefficient. And worst of all, the instruction they provide has an enormous failure rate.

"If I have an enemy, it's the piano teachers' guild," Sudnow said. "It's just an elitist organization. It's always more efficient to learn a skill in context than to break it down into its component parts. Breaking it down is just a way of institutionalizing the knowledge, and institutionalizing knowledge does more harm than good."

Sudnow is attacking this elitism in true scholarly fashion--by writing a book. Tentatively titled The Piano Lesson, it argues that the knowledge needed to play the piano has become an economic object exploited by those who control it. Sudnow, who earned his PhD at Berkeley, the birthplace of campus unrest in the 1960s, wants to liberate that knowledge and return it to those who want to learn how to play for pleasure. He's still shouting, "Power to the people!" but the power he's talking about is the power to make music with your own two hands, and that, he contends, "is a great gift to give yourself."

Sudnow holds himself up as an example of someone who didn't learn to play the piano until adulthood, but in fact he made two earlier assaults on the keyboard, and he comes from a musical background.

Born in 1938, he grew up in a Jewish neighborhood in the Bronx. "My world consisted of the Bronx and famous Jews," he said. Grandpa Sudnow was an accomplished cellist who came to America in 1907, lugging his beloved instrument with him all the way from Russia. Sudnow's father was a jazz pianist who gave up performing when he got married. "My mother's father said to her, 'You're not marrying a musician,' so my father became a pharmacist."

There was always a piano in the house, however, and Sudnow liked to bring his friends over to watch his father play stride-style jazz, in the manner of Fats Waller and Art Tatum. At the age of eight and a half, Sudnow started taking piano lessons himself. He studied for about 18 months, "but I quit because my father was so unbearable about it," he recalled. "He would sit in the other room and shout 'Wrong note! Start again!' I can still hear his voice."

At camp one summer, young Sudnow developed a crush on a girl who played folk guitar and sang workers' songs, so to impress her he learned to strum a few chords. Although his parents were upset that he had abandoned the piano, and certainly did not consider the guitar a noble instrument, they let him play, "and one day, there appeared on my bed a brand new Gibson," Sudnow recalled. "That's the kind of commitment they had to music."

Sudnow took up the instrument with such fervor that he gained admission to New York's High School of Music and Art by playing the guitar and singing folk songs. "Everyone else showed up with Chopin and a cello or a violin, and there I was with a guitar," Sudnow recalled. "I think it was sheer chutzpah that got me in."

Before he graduated, however, the family moved to Miami, where Sudnow cultivated a ducktail haircut and learned many valuable "masculine skills," such as cruising in cars listening to Frank Sinatra on the radio. When he was a senior, he met a blind jazz piano player and began taking lessons again.

"I spent four or five months memorizing chords," Sudnow said. "He'd play, and I'd say 'hold it!' He'd hold the chord and I'd write it down, using my own notation system, and I learned a song a week that way."

The music lessons were soon interrupted by academics. Sudnow had grown to detest the Jim Crow laws that permeated the south in those days, so he vowed to attend a southern university and study race relations. He did, graduating from the University of Alabama in 1959 with a degree in sociology. He went straight into graduate school, obtaining his PhD in 1965. Two years later, on the strength of Passing On, he got tenure at the University of California at Irvine, and found himself with some free time at his disposal. "I thought, 'OK, I've made mommy happy, now what do I want to do?'"

The answer came to him one night in an Irvine nightclub. A jazz pianist had been playing, and during a break Sudnow sidled up to him and, in the hippest tone he could muster, said, "Hey man, I really dig your playing. Can I study with you?"

The piano player agreed, and Sudnow rushed out the next morning and bought a $3,000 grand piano. "I practiced six hours a day that first year," he recalled. "And I've never gone more than a few months since then without practicing a couple of hours a day."

The results of his effort to learn jazz piano are documented in Ways of the Hand. The book is not easy reading. It is filled with impenetrable passages such as this one:

"Under melodic guidance toward the essential reiteration of a prior gestural course, the hand needed to find an 'amount of space': that there was the kind of room to be moved about in to carry out a desired course; that a space being grasped was that 'sort of space' into which a thumb could be brought, so that you could get up higher by getting a thumb down 'around there'; that sort of space beyond which might be a path to fall back upon; that sort of space to be avoided were I only going slow enough to avoid it; that sort of space where somewhere therein is probably a usable note."

Still, the book is valuable for two fundamental concepts. The first is embodied in the title. Sudnow eventually discovered that authentic jazz isn't created by the mind ordering the fingers to perform like a bunch of trained monkeys. Instead, the fingers must develop an intuition of their own, finding their way to the right keys instinctively, as though they possessed all the knowledge needed to create the music. Sudnow described it to the class I attended this way: "Once you find yourself in a room, listening to music, with no awareness of making that music with your own hands, that's when you're hooked for good on the piano."

Related to this is the experience Sudnow describes of "singing with the fingers." I've never heard a better description of what people long to do when they sit down at the keyboard, but Sudnow also makes it painfully clear that it is a skill not easily transferred from one person to another. In his book he describes his own frustration when trying to decipher what his teacher was doing at the keyboard:

"I would ask, 'what was that?' He would say, 'what was what?' I said, 'that little thing you just did over the G minor chord there' . . . and he would have a hard time finding what he had 'just done.' He would at times frankly say, 'I'm not following rules so I don't really know what I just did,' and on other occasions admit, 'I just improvise, I really cannot tell you how, you have to have a feel for it.'"

In his course, Sudnow tries to get people to grasp music with their hands as well as their heads. For example, he stresses the importance of knowing the 12 scales, but he also provides a way of getting those scales into the fingers quickly. And rather than belabor the mechanics of chord progressions, he urges students to memorize two songs, using the keyboard diagrams he provides. By doing this, an understanding of chords comes automatically, Sudnow believes. "Just keep learning songs," he implores his students. "Just build a repertoire. When you know a dozen songs, you'll know 10,000."

To document the effectiveness of his method, he keeps a collection of videotapes showing dozens of former students playing their first songs with surprising fluency and feeling. Sure, there are people who fail. "Most of them give up about a month too soon," Sudnow said. "It's hard. The learning curve rises very slowly at first, but once they get that first song under control, the second is much easier, and the learning curve starts to shoot straight up."

So where am I now? Well, I'm about halfway through "Misty," the first of the two songs Sudnow provided. I have been memorizing it chord by arduous chord, and the experience is like trying to hold a pool of water in place with my hands--as soon as I get a new passage in my grasp another dribbles away. Progress is slow. Sudnow predicts it will take 12 weeks to master the first song, and I'm beginning to think that is a conservative estimate.

But something is happening to my fingers. At first, when I got stuck, I would make a stab at a chord, hoping to hit the right one. Now, I can look at the keyboard and know where to get the sound I need. I'm not always right, and I certainly don't understand why I need those particular notes, but I can feel all the tidbits of knowledge I've acquired in the past few months coming together to make music.

The most important thing Sudnow taught me, however, was to be more aggressive about learning. While taking lessons during the past few months, I would start feeling like a little boy all over again, convinced that the only way to learn was to do exactly what my teacher ordered. Now it's different. I might still take lessons, but now I'm teaching myself, and the teacher is merely the person I've hired to answer my questions and help me when I get stuck. No more fretting about technique or nuance. All that matters is learning how to play--somehow.

"Forget the details and just problem-solve at the keyboard," Sudnow tells his students. "Do anything necessary to get the skills you need."

I'm ready to do anything. I'll even practice my scales and memorize more songs, as long as I can hope that eventually I, too, will discover the ways of the hand.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jon Randolph.

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