For me, music is like breathing! And playing the piano is like flying! It is this exhilaration that I want to share with my students and everyone I meet. But it’s also about the sheer joy of making music at the piano as a way to connect to your own creativity and expressiveness. I don’t want students to play like me; I don’t want them to play like this pianist or that pianist; I want them to play like themselves.  I’ll never forget my first lesson with Robert Helps, oh so many years ago.  I learned more about piano playing in 15 minutes than I had in the previous 15 years. And the most important lesson I learned that day, was that MY ideas were as valid as HIS (or anyone else’s) and that he was there to help ME convey MY ideas more accurately and more fluidly at the piano; to express myself, to create something fresh and to captivate those listening so that they too can soar with the music.  
 
I’ve always been a sort of ‘rebel’ when it came to studying the piano. I think it may have come from being ‘blown-away’ as a young pianist by the great pianists of the ‘Golden Age’ - Rachmaninov, Freidman, Cortot, Freidheim and then Lipati, Kapell, Solomon and of course Horowitz who all had their own unique, individual (and sometimes quirky) voice at the piano.  I think that having had a number of teachers who seemed to convey that my ideas were invalid and my only option was that I had to copy them because they were the ‘maestro’ might have had something to do with it too. That didn’t sit too well for someone who relished the individuality of those GREAT pianists of bygone years and for someone who’s first word as a baby was “WHY?”  It wasn’t mama or papa, it was WHY?!  I could never understand those ‘master’ teachers who would say to a student (with a hushed voice, chin resting in hand, far-off gaze - as if to gain ‘insight’ from the cob-web-infested corner of the concert hall), “you need to make this more … hmmm … how shall I say? … more … hmmm … … … purple.” WHAT DOES THAT MEAN!?!  Or another teacher who would insist upon forcing students to “crescendo in measure 45” and when asked my favorite question - WHY? They would say, “Because Beethoven put it there!” While it is true musicians should respect a composer's score; if a student is a bundle of knots (physically), is unable to focus on the music (having a scattered torrent of ‘head-chatter’ going on), or has no concrete ideas of their own to share - it won’t make a bit of difference if he does a crescendo in measure 45 or earlier or later or not at all because the result will be the same.  The music won’t flow, it won’t communicate, it will just “get louder in measure 45 because he was told to do it.”  That’s not music making! That’s not creativity! That’s just a copy-of-a-copy. It’s monkey-miming.
 
Which brings me to what I believe a piano lesson should be and what music making is truly about. I call it E3: Explore, Experiment, Evaluate.  Of course the basics must be imparted and learned, but just as importantly, along the way, an educator should also present many options for students to explore (and encourage them to do their own exploring); that is giving students the space (and ‘permission’) to try out many, many things even if they seem crazy. Then help them experiment; that is, help them find ways to bring all those ideas, options and possibilities to life at the piano. And finally to help them evaluate; that is help them with the tools they need to self-evaluate - starting with: Do I like what I am doing and how I am doing it? Is it coming out of the piano how I imagined it? What can I do to make MY ideas come out of the piano freely without effort? Is it ‘honest’ and true and does it captivate those listening? What’s working? What’s not? There’s actually another ‘E’ in there as well - eager; that is, instill in students the eagerness and wonderment of making music at the piano to return to that cycle and keep at it over-n-over again to improve themselves; not only as pianists but as individuals.

           As Aristotle said, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”  
 
Some anecdotes, if I may, which I think help define who I am as a pianist and where I stand as an educator [where necessary, the names have been withheld to ‘protect’ the guilty].

There is a story of a ‘grand dame’ of the piano who ‘berates’ a younger pianist by saying, “Well dear! You play Bach the way YOU want and I'll play Bach the way HE wants!!”  Most people ‘side’ with the ‘grand dame’ believing that the ‘wayward’ younger pianist had no value if she didn’t follow everything in the score EXACTLY as Bach indicated.  I, on the other hand think that this statement and mindset has done more harm to the modern world of classical music than anything else.  There’s a quote in the introduction of a piano composition by Robert Helps that I think counters this belief quite aptly.  “The printed page is one possibility, approximately notated.”  Now that's more my cup-of-tea and I think more accurate! In other words, the pianist who is performing a composition brings to the re-creation of the music as much as the composer did in writing it. After all a composition is ‘dead’ as a printed score, until there is someone that can bring it to life and share it with those who do not play. This actually brings to mind another lesson with Robert Helps that will always remain etched in my psyche. After one particularly successful (at least in my mind) performance Helps just sat there for a moment in silence. Then he leaned in toward me and screamed, “PLAY IT THE WAY IT’S WRITTEN!!!”  Needless to say this shook me to the core and I was rather rattled 1) because he was such a mild-mannered person who never raised his voice and 2) because he never taught like that before; always allowing his students to ‘find-their-own-voice’. I tried to regain my composure and played it again as accurately as I could. After which he sat in silence once again (for what seemed like an eternity) and then he leaned forward and said with a twinkle in his eyes, “ Now ... play it the way you did the first time. I liked it MUCH better!”  His point I believe was ... the letter killeth, but the spirit bringith forth life ...  And I must confess, in this day of digital perfection and ‘faithfulness-to-the-score’ (for its own sake), I much prefer a performance that is true and creative than one of 'perfection' that is cold and dry.

By the way - how can that ‘grand dame’ presume to ‘know’ how Bach would play anyway? Preposterous! I’ve spoken with numerous composers who lament how poorly their music is printed and all the mistakes that the publishers can’t (or won’t) correct - and this is in the 21st Century! Who knows what mistakes were passed down through the years as ‘authoritative’ when scores were copied out by hand and so prone to human error?!
 
Again the names have been withheld here to protect the guilty.  I’ll never forget the story about how during the intermission at a concert of a famous pianist, one ‘camp’ of students had a ‘run-in’ with another ‘camp’ of students who were ‘swooning’ over how ‘wonderful’ the pianist was and how ‘inspired’ his playing was. And the leader of the former camp said, “Well, maybe, I guess … but IT’S NOT ANY FUN!”  You can probably guess which camp I belonged to.  If music isn’t fun, what’s the point? And I don’t mean ‘funny’ (though it can be) and I don’t mean ‘disrespectful’ of a somber, profound work such as the slow Funeral March movement of Chopin’s 2nd Piano Sonata for example. If a penetratingly serious work of music is performed captivatingly, fluidly, without the constipating fuss of ‘faithfulness-to-the-score’ accuracy or forcing a seriousness … then it’s FUN (in the sense of being passionate, pleasurable, enjoyable, moving, intense, with excitement and without being boring)! Shouldn’t this be the kind of pianist we all strive to be? And shouldn’t this ultimately be the kind of person we might all become through piano study? One who can be articulate, who is confident and who is creative.  

 
After all, who you are as a person - IS who you are as a pianist.
And who you are as a pianist - IS who you are as a person.
 
It all connects and MUST be individual. This is the kind of pianist I strive to be; one who has his own voice and, as a teacher, it is also what I strive to instill in students; so that they may find their own voice.
 
I like to think of it as 'Creative Excellence in Piano Study' and perhaps, it might also be summed up as ‘life skills through piano study’ …

Nishan Aghababian