Finding Joy in Piano

Elissa Milne (pianist, writer, teacher and composer) has written a piano teacher’s manifesto. In the manifesto she lays out the purpose for piano lessons. It is what frames her teaching, her expectations and her composing for students.  Every item on the list is spot-on and I find myself wishing I had a copy of this years ago to hand out to parents and students and to hang on the wall as a reminder to myself.

Elissa talks about the “cool stuff” students can learn to do at the piano and then moves on to talk about the emotional benefits of piano lessons. You learn to understand yourself better, as well as other people. You begin to understand your place in history. You engage your brain in a way unlike the way you do with any other activity. Perhaps most importantly, you play for the joy you feel when you’re able to share an effortless performance with an engaged audience.

So, in the spirit of finding the joy in piano once again, maybe it’s time to resurrect this blog. Just maybe.

Improvising basics

I like to write. Tell me to sit and write anything I want to and I’m hamstrung. But give me a writing prompt and I dive right in.  I feel the same way about free piano improvisation. If I sit at the piano and play anything I want to how will I know if it’s any good? What am I supposed to be listening for? And as a teacher, how can I teach students to improvise over a chord progression if I’m not clear on exactly how to do it myself?

I came across this video by Dave Spicer from Brisbane, Australia. He is the director of the School of Music Online and has an easy to follow explanation of how to improvise a right hand melody over a chord in the left hand using resolution/tension notes and passing, circling and extended tension notes.  Several light bulbs went on all at once for me while I was watching this! Classical, jazz, rock, whatever the style…this is what melody and harmony all boils down to.

Now, instead of a writing prompt, I’ll just take a chord. Any chord.

Gosh, I can’t wait to adapt this for my students who are all learning major, minor, various seventh chords!

Matt and Kim

Some Matt and Kim for a Friday night. Why? Well yesterday I came up the sidewalk to my house and heard my daughter playing the piano. These days she doesn’t play the piano unless she’s truly motivated. Well she’d learned this piece partly by ear and partly from a YouTube tutorial. It sounded great. A catchy tune and don’t you love that the keyboard is tossed around and taken everywhere?

Piano Play

Last weekend I had the pleasure of hearing Dr. Ron Bishop, Professor of Culture and Communication at Drexel University, speak to prospective Drexel students and their parents. He spoke about his research for his new book, When Play Was Play: Why Pick-Up Games Matter. He spoke about his research and the stories he collected from people who remembered hanging out with their friends, playing ball in the streets, and inventing their own games such as “Tennocky” a tennis-hockey hybrid. He also talked about how the new generation of high school and college students have grown up with a full schedule of organized activities, leaving them no room for unorganized play or  just getting together with friends to have fun, the truly “creative” activities.

Unfortunately, there’s no going back to “the good old days” when people hung out on the front porch until it got dark and kids ran around the yard playing kick the can and gathering fireflies in glass jars. If you don’t believe me,  just take a look at the students in this documentary.

But there are some ways that we can encourage creative play in the context of structured piano lessons.

  • Teach five-finger patterns, chords and scales in all keys until it is second nature.
  • Every couple of weeks pull out the fake books for fun.
  • Match up friends to play duets together.
  • Encourage your students to sing.
  • Throw an impromptu piano party – everybody brings something to play.
  • Throw a listening party. Listen and discuss.
  • Recycle music books.  Have the students trade method books and then skip through the book and only play what works!
  • Learn a piece by watching a YouTube video.

Maybe someday (when the electricity is out, or the network is down) you and your friends will gather around the piano. Who’s going to be ready to play?

Classical Piano Today

I remember a conversation I had with Karl Ulrich Schnabel back in the late 80’s about the future of classical music. A friend and I were at his New York apartment for a coaching for our duo-piano team. As we were leaving we started talking about the state of the arts and I remember he was very optimistic. He said not to worry about the future of classical music. He was convinced that there would be a rebirth. Perhaps classical music would take on a new look and feel, but he was confident there would be a new appreciation for classical music in the early 21st century.

Turns out he was right.

One example from the classical piano world is James Rhodes new album, Bullets and Lullabies, due to be released tomorrow in the UK and on December 28th here in the U.S.

…when he starts to play, it’s an intensely classical programme with not a whiff of a crossover number. No wonder Warner Bros. Records have just snapped him up as their first ever classical musician. It’s proper classical music, but in an overwhelmingly accessible package that screams mass market youth appeal. (read more of the review here)

Another example are the recent live broadcasts of both the Van Cliburn Competition (2009) and the Chopin International Competition (2010) which generated an outpouring of blog posts, chats, and Twitter and Facebook comments from musicians and non-musicians from around the world. Whether or not you are a fan of these competitions the fact that these performances are available to everyone (with a connection to the Internet) is more evidence of a new interest in classical piano performance.

Oh, let’s not forget and we also had Chopin2010!

Recommended reading:  Greg Sandow’s “Rebirth: The Future of Classical Music” for insight on this new era in the music world. And Kyle MacMillan’s recent article, Classical Music Is Going New Places.

Halloween Piano Tutorial

I’m sure I’m not the only piano teacher who’s had students come in to their lessons unprepared but when asked to play something…anything…they’re able to play a piece they’ve learned from a YouTube tutorial.

Granted, this is not the preferred way to learn a piece of music, but if it gets those fingers moving and inspires a student to take a second look at actually picking up a piece of music and reading it, then I’m all for it.

Besides, it will do in a pinch when Halloween is only three days away and the sheet music is hard to find.



Go Play – free eBook

Go Play - Motivating The New Generation of PianistsThe generation born into the world of the Internet, cell phones, iPods, and video games has been called many names including Gen Z, Digital Natives, Millennials, and echo-boomers. They are tech savvy parallel processors. They prefer receiving information in a random (hyper-linked) manner rather than linearly and sequentially. They want to learn things quickly – to play a new game, fix an automobile, speak a new language…and yes, play the piano. They are collaborators without boundaries. Their energy is affecting all aspects of the arts world and has many asking us to rethink the educational system.

I’ve put together this short eBook outlining a few steps that piano teachers can take to keep this digital generation motivated. Please download the PDF, send me your feedback, and pass it along.

Gyorgy Sebok on Point of View

In this masterclass from 1987, Gyorgy Sebok talks about point of view for a musician.

Sometimes you speak music in first person. When you play a Chopin Nocturne, you speak “I”. In some other music the music is a quotation.


On the topic of memorizing, here are four things I always knew, but finally started implementing now that I have such limited practice time.

1.  Memorize hands separately. Tedious but it works. (If you don’t the patience for both hands, at least memorize the L.H.)

2.  Memorize the fingering, especially in fast tricky passages.

3.  Be sure you know your where your phrases begin and end.

4.  Play the music in your head often.


More on memory…

Just came across Maria Thompson Corley’s post about memory in the Broad Street Review. She writes about how she gradually learns to trust her instincts again after years of insecurity following a serious car accident at age 17.

In the end, it wasn’t a sudden, life-changing incident that freed me from my fear. Rather, it was a long, steady process. Perhaps as I was forced to cope with things far more crucial than missing a passage in a piece of music, I learned to trust my inner resources. Maybe as I prayed for clarity in other situations, some of that trickled down to my music making. Maybe it was simply my tenacity.

This was just what I needed to read today…

Byron Janis on Interpretation

Sometimes there are certain slurs or dynamic markings in piano music that just don’t feel right, no matter how you try to make them sound convincing. Here’s an article that just might put your mind at ease when you decide to tweak a piece to fit your own interpretation. According to Byron Janis

In 1960, I opened the cultural exchange between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, and brought Aaron Copland’s Piano Sonata to play. Never having performed it before, I wanted to play it for the composer first. On arriving at his home, I found him tinkering with one of its passages and said, “Mr. Copland, I notice you are playing forte and you have marked it piano in the score.” He turned to me grinning mischievously and said, “Ah, but that was 10 years ago!”

Some 200 years earlier, Chopin would have made a similar remark. Only he would have said, “but that was 10 seconds ago!” Julius Seligmann, president of the Glasgow Society of Musicians, attended a recital where the composer played his new “Mazurka in B flat, Opus 7 no. 1” as an encore. According to Seligmann, it met with such great success that Chopin decided to play it again, this time with such a radically different interpretation—tempos, colors and phrasing had all been changed—that it sounded like an entirely different piece. The audience was amazed when it finally realized he was playing the very same mazurka, and it rewarded him with a prolonged, vociferous ovation. It seems he had facetiously decided to show why he had no need to republish a score—the magic of interpretation would do it for him. He would often say, “I never play the same way twice.”

Read more here.

On memorizing Beethoven

On learning the Beethoven Sonatas , pianist Per Tengstrand has some excellent tips. Here’s one that I absolutely agree with. So much easier said than done, but I did spend the time to memorize the Waldstein Sonata (two measures at a time) before I could really play it and I never regretted it…it was the only piece that never had a memory slip in performance. Tengstrand says….

Once opening the score, start memorizing immediately. It is not fun, it’s actually very tedious, but it will force you to analyze the material, it will make you memorize it without using any muscle memory (and that possibility will not come back!) which in turn will be your real, so-called “back-up memory” when the stress in a performance might make your brain’s signals to the fingers go haywire. (read more)

Pictures Reframed

Pictures Reframed

Norwegian pianist Lief Ove Andsnes and South African artist Robin Rhode have collaborated on a multimedia performance of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. The concert is touring with 2 stage sets (Set 1 and Set 2). Set 1 comprises a large central screen above the piano showing the full video works and Set 2 includes additional still imagery by Robin Rhode on a number of other screens surrounding the piano. The artists just wrapped their London performances and are heading on to Naples, Berlin, Oslo and Paris.

Curious? Read Rhode’s explanation for his treatment of each piece of the suite from the Promenade of the Kadet whose feet never touch the ground to the final submersion and resurrection of the Drowning Piano. Watch the “making of” video and visit Pictures Reframed.

“I’m hoping that we can attract younger people; those who are maybe going to galleries and who are interested in contemporary art but who don’t think that classical music is fashionable. Maybe a project like this can open some ears in addition to eyes for that audience.” — Leif Ove Andsnes

And this is always a good thing.