Let Your Fingers Do the Thinking

Tom Valeo

Chicago Reader


““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.””

“Sudnow’s “secret” is deceptively simple–teach yourself. Go after the information you need as you need it, and put it to use”

“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”

“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.””

“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”

“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.””

“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”

“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 tries to get people to grasp music with their hands as well as their heads”

““Just keep learning songs,” he implores his students. “Just build a repertoire. When you know a dozen songs, you’ll know 10,000.””

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

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