Brenda Dillon

Recently, recreational music making (RMM) trailblazer Brenda Dillon generously spoke with me for over two hours. In this final part of our conversation, we spoke about practicing, ear training and listening skills, styles that adult piano students should consider playing, and teaching and learning music theory. Read Part 1 and Part 2 of our conversation.

Let’s talk about practicing. What are the top one, two, or three principles, strategies or techniques that you teach adult learners about practicing?

More than anything, slow practice. In fact, Doug, I don’t think it’s just adult students, I think it’s all of us. I think we have an image of how a piece should sound in our head, and whether our fingers can keep up or not, we want to play it that way, and that’s the hardest thing that I had with students. And then another thing is to get them to do segments, to break it down, and to not always start at the beginning of the piece, but to find other places to start.

Have you emphasized avoiding mistakes in order to avoid learning and repeating those mistakes?

Yeah, but again, the best way to avoid mistakes is slow practice, because I find that so many mistakes come because the fingers just can’t keep up. I don’t know if the brain is ahead and the fingers are behind or what’s going on, or the fingers are stumbling ahead and the brain is saying, “Whoa, slow down, I can’t do this.” So, I don’t know who’s in charge, but I do know that that’s a big deal. And then also, to be patient. It’s like my brother hitting that tennis ball. He could do that for hours on end. I would have been in an asylum by the end of the day, just hearing that thump on my garage wall. But at the same time, he ended up winning tennis tournaments. It’s being willing to not play as fast as you’d like to, or maybe playing hands separately longer than you think you should. By the way, that’s another big advantage of MIDI discs, and they have a lot of the things on the market now with accompaniments, and the students can slow those down. That’s a great practice motivator.

How important is it for students to know what a piece should sound like before they learn it? And are there pros and cons to doing that?

I often did that in my classes. I would either play the piece or play a recording of a portion of it, and then we’d talk about it. What did you hear? What did you feel? So I’m a real proponent of that kind of learning. I also had my students sing. We sang finger numbers, and sometimes we’d sing letter names. On letter names, here’s what I ran into. Some students would insist on writing the alphabet letter above the notes when they were learning, and I would say, don’t do that. A dragon of fire will come down upon your head, and I will be the dragon. You don’t want to do that. Because I knew if they did that, they weren’t going to read intervallically.

This probably goes without saying, but do you feel it’s important for students, in particular adults, to do a lot of hands separate practice?

Oh yeah. Because that’s one of the first ways you get them to really go slow, and especially when you put hands together, you need to go even slower.

Right, right. So a couple of questions about beginners. What have you enjoyed or not enjoyed about teaching adult beginners?

If I couldn’t get them past the whole thing about self-confidence, if they were constantly beating up on themselves, that was hard to override. My composition teacher said something to me recently. We were working on one of my choral pieces and I said in no way did it compare to really good choral writers. He’s a great choral writer, and certainly I have studied some good choral writing. And he said, “Comparison is the thief of joy.” And that’s a biggie to me. And another thing that I read recently, Bruce Springsteen was talking to Tom Hanks’ wife, Rita Wilson, who’s now getting into songwriting, and is probably about mid-50s. Rita said, “But I’m starting so late,” and Bruce said, “Creativity is not time dependent,” or “Creativity is time independent,” meaning it doesn’t matter when you start. Creativity is at any age. And statements like that mean a lot to me.

Why should adult beginners study with a teacher vs. teaching themselves or using these various self-study online piano courses for adults?

I think the thing for me, and this is what I find for a lot of human beings, is that piano is about one of the loneliest endeavors anybody can do. And so if your lesson is lonely except for your teacher right there with you, and practicing is lonely…. But I think it’s individual. I think there are people who make great progress, probably, on those programs.

Is there a status quo or unquestioned assumption in piano teaching that you think might be worth reconsidering or turning upside down? And if so, how could it change piano teaching?

One of the things that comes to mind is what we alluded to earlier, is that piano teaching is for perfection. In other words, you can only do this if you have talent. I don’t buy that. So that’s one thing that should be turned on its head: this is for everybody. I think it goes back to that whole emphasis on performance. And I had to ask myself at one point, was I less of a teacher if I wasn’t pushing competitions? I’m for everybody, anybody. I think it should be inclusive and not exclusive.

You’re preaching to the choir again.

Yeah, I figured.

Are you familiar with the term andragogy?

Yeah, I am, the study of adult learning.

So my question is, one aspect of andragogy is that adults like to be involved in the assessment of their progress. How might adults approach this in piano lessons?

I’ve certainly found that they do like to be involved in their assessment. Now, I have to be careful, because they’re more negative about their progress than I am. We want to remember what my composition teacher said and keep the negativity from creeping in.

In terms of teaching adults, do you have any thoughts on the difference, if any, between being a teacher of adults vs. being a facilitator of learning?

When I first learned about RMM, they were using that term, “facilitator of learning.” It wasn’t that I felt so negative toward it, but it was almost like they were suggesting that you can be a worker at a rec center and do this, and I thought, I don’t think so. I mean, I do believe in facilitating learning, but my goodness, we have to go into this knowing what to do, and we have to be able to play. I struggled when they would talk about how it could almost be done by anybody, and I thought, no. I don’t buy that.

Do you have any tips for adults who may be considering studying the piano but aren’t quite ready to commit to doing so?

All I could say to that person is if their job is taking every hour of the day, or they have really young children who need them, or are taking care of senior adults who are having health issues, maybe it’s not the best time. I mean, it’s good if they can, because it can take them away from the other demands. But what you don’t want is to have piano be just another thing I feel like I have to do. I don’t want that for them at all.

Do you have any thoughts on the distinction between teaching adults how to play vs. teaching them how to learn or practice?

Teaching students how to practice is what we do!

Are there any personal qualities a teacher of adults should have?

Patience is a biggie. Lack of rigidity; flexibility. And it sure helps to have a sense of humor. Remember the financial crash back in – was it 2008? On the very day that the stock market bottomed out, I taught four different classes that day, and I’m telling you, piano was the last thing on their minds. They were scared about their 401(k)s, they were scared about what was going to happen to them. So we took time, and I talked to them about my parents going through the Great Depression and what that was like, for my dad to earn 50 cents a day, and be glad to get it, and how much those people all stood together, how much they helped each other, because they all were just in a terrible time. Eventually we got back to music and piano was okay again.

Are there any things that piano teachers might sometimes do with children that they should never do with adults?

I think with adults, you have to be careful and not talk to them in a sing-song voice. You have to just be adult, keep it on that level. And I think you can joke about more things as an adult.

That’s a good answer. Have you ever befriended an adult student, a friendship that has lasted beyond their lessons?

Uh-huh. It’s happened more with an entire class. One of my classes was always going out to lunch and they eventually invited me to join them, and I did, and that was real fun. The truth of it is though, they enjoyed each other’s company more than they did mine. I just loved that. They did like me, and I think they liked what they were getting, or they wouldn’t have kept coming and re-enrolling every eight weeks.

Do adult learners benefit from a comprehensive approach to learning? For example, not just learning to read, but also learning to play by ear, and all the rest?

They definitely do, and if I were to go back in time, I would do more of that. I would put more emphasis on ear training and harmonizing. At the time, I was just so intent that they learn how to read and that they learn how to play easier pieces and also be comfortable with the concepts that I didn’t really focus on musicianship. But personally, I don’t think I would have nearly the creativity I do if I hadn’t had the benefit of studying musicianship skills.

Let’s talk about ear training. How important for you is singing for improving one’s musical ear?

I think singing is very important. My voice is terrible. So I would say to the students, look, once you’ve heard me, you should never be embarrassed about your voice.

That reminds me of something George Gershwin said when asked about his singing abilities. He said something like, “I have a small voice.”

I relate to that. So does my choir director.

So many of my adult students appreciate the value of ear training exercises; however, many of them find them to be tedious compared to playing repertoire. Do you have any strategies you haven’t yet mentioned for helping students to consistently improve their ears in a fun and engaging way?

Before they looked at the score, we tried to do everything we could just listening. What did they hear? And it might be as simple as did it have left-hand chords? Were they blocked? Were they broken? Were they Alberti bass?

Is there a genre or era of keyboard music you consider important for most adult piano students to learn to play at some point?

All of it.

All of it.

Yeah. When I finished the basics, I’d expose them to different styles.

I think you may have the same answer to this, but other than classical music, are there any popular keyboard styles, for example ragtime or whatever, that you consider to be important for most players to learn at some point?

Again, all of it. There are students who lean toward African-American spirituals. Others loved Broadway tunes.

Do you think that adult students want to understand music theory more than teachers may give them credit for?

That may be, but what I learned to do was give them the theory that most related to the repertoire we were learning.

Do you have an opinion on whether adult learners should learn a theory concept before practical application or vice versa?

Can you give me an example of what you mean?

It could be as simple as learning to read a rhythm and understand that rhythm before they even tap it or play it. Or learn the structure of a type of chord, like learn the difference between a major and a minor chord before they actually play it on the instrument.

I just think it’s quicker to play it on the instrument. I mean, you can talk about lowering the third, but what does that mean, in the abstract? In your brain, what does that mean, lower the third? But that middle finger going down, it’s…I don’t know what the word is, it’s literal. So I think at least in my teaching, most of the theory that I introduced to them was related to what we were learning to play.

How can students learn to feel that the keyboard is like an old friend? So, for example, one of my approaches is to teach fundamental five-finger positions. Do you have any other approaches?

Like an old friend would be if there are sounds that are really appealing to them. Or maybe you teach them to play the opening of Jaws on the keyboard. It may not be comforting, but I think there’s certain music that just goes direct to your soul.

Yeah, true.

And piano has been that for me.

Just as an aside, do you know that there’s a story about that theme to Jaws. I don’t know if you’ve heard this story.

Tell me.

Steven Spielberg had hired John Williams to write the score for the movie, right?


And one day John Williams said, I think I’ve got the theme, come on over to my house. So Steven Spielberg came over and sat down next to the piano and John Williams played those two notes, bah-dum, bah-dum, bah-dum, and Steven Spielberg, at first he thought it was a joke, he said, that’s a good one, but really John, what’s the theme?

Little did he know how famous that was going to be. I love everything John Williams writes.

Yeah, me too. How is studying music as an adult beneficial and nourishing?

Well, if they haven’t been pressured and pushed and made to feel sort of miserable about the experience, I think it’s completely nourishing. I believe you can play your soul at the keyboard. You can play those deep, deep feelings that you have, even if you don’t play very well.

I remember when I first started taking lessons all those years ago. My first piano teacher was the band director, because my parents couldn’t afford to pay for lessons. So, my dad, who drove a school bus, asked the band director if he would teach me in return for eggs from our farm. Well, I just loved him. One night, my parents had a guest over who had been a prisoner of war in Germany and had escaped. Well, I was so upset because I admired him so much, and I was just learning “Papa Haydn’s Dead and Gone” from the John Thompson book. And I mean, Doug, I must have played that a million times. And I probably cried. See that’s what I think piano does.

Beautiful. As a teacher, have you consciously attempted to help students deepen their appreciation of music, and how?

Well, I didn’t do formally what I think of as music appreciation, where you listen to lots of recordings. I had my hands full with six students in a class trying to learn how to play the piano.

Sure. Related to this question, and you can totally refuse to answer because it’s kind of a challenging question. What are three or more solo keyboard compositions that you think every piano student should get to know? Not necessarily play, but know.

I used to love everything Mozart, everything Chopin, I loved Schumann. But now, I’ve expanded to playing pop music, spirituals, writing different kinds of music.

So my last question is probably similarly unreasonable. I spoke to an accountant the other day who, I was kind of surprised when she mentioned artificial intelligence and how that’s trending in her profession and wondering, in ten years, will people actually need live accountants, or will everything be done by computers? So my question is, do you think technology or artificial intelligence could ever partially or completely replace a music teacher?

Oh, that’s an interesting question. It really is, because there are scientists out there who do believe that artificial intelligence will surpass us. I guess where the jury is still out for me on all that is will it be able to go to the soul or the heart?

That reminds me, maybe 15 years ago, I was speaking to a composition teacher who told me about the latest developments in artificial intelligence in terms of composing music, and he said he had a colleague who had developed some software into which you could input the music of a composer, for example, Mozart, and then the software would compose in that composer’s style. And he said apparently this developer input a bunch of Mozart and said, “compose piano sonatas” and left it on overnight, and in the morning, the machine had composed like 700 new piano sonatas in the style of Mozart. And I asked, but were any of them anywhere nearly as brilliant as Mozart? And of course they weren’t. Brenda, thank you so much for your time today.

You’re so welcome.

I mean over two hours of your time, and that’s a lot.

No, no problem, I love talking about all this.

Okay, well I so deeply appreciate it.

Well, I’ve enjoyed this a lot.

Great, me too.

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