Why Playing Music is Like Housecleaning

I made this unexpected connection in the middle of teaching a piano lesson last week, and my nine-year-old student looked at me like I was nuts.

Honestly, though, I couldn’t blame him. I was surprised to hear the comparison come out of my mouth, but as I started to explain what I meant, it made perfect sense to both him and myself.

When you learn a song on the piano, or any instrument for that matter, the first order of business is getting the notes right. But so many of my students think that once they’ve got the notes down, their work is done. Really, though, that is just the beginning. Kind of like how picking up the clutter on the floor, counters, and tables is just the beginning of cleaning a house.

Next comes tempo and dynamics. That means going through the piece and looking for markings like crescendos, diminuendos, ritardandos, and other directions (not just playing it however you feel like playing it, another common misconception among my students). The housecleaning equivalent? Looking at which major areas need attention, like the kitchen floor or the bathroom. Of course, you want your whole house to be clean, but you’ll need to spend some extra time working on these particular areas.

Now the piece is really starting to come together, and our house is starting to look presentable, too. But we’re not quite ready for the recital or Superbowl party yet. It’s time to go through with a fine-tooth comb: that measure is being played legato but need to be stacatto, the pedal should be held down one measure earlier, play those sixteenth notes more evenly, and so on. As for the house, the end tables need to be dusted, the baseboards need to be wiped down, and the mirror could use some Windex.

But once we’ve addressed all of those issues, we’re left with a beautiful piece of music and a beautiful home. Attending not just to the big picture, but also to the small details, have made both shine. Had we stopped with learning the notes and picking up the clutter, our final product wouldn’t have been nearly as impressive.

So as my students prepare to play in the Illinois Federation of Music Clubs’ Junior Festival next month, I think I’ll share this comparison with all of them. And it doesn’t hurt to hear it a few times myself…especially when I’m having guests over to my house :)