Some days and some weeks are going to be difficult. Here are some suggestions that immediately come to mind you might consider to dampen down the practice room blues. These comments are aimed at beginners.
If I can help you, call me.
One of my adult students was asking tonight for some help planning his practice time. He is preparing for his Grade 8 piano exam. He is an engineer, a spreadsheet kind of guy. I'm sympathetic. Here is what we discussed.
Warmup with sight reading. Use a metronome! Get into the zone.
Now start practicing
Technique with a 2-minute timer. Switch activities every 2 minutes = 15 minutes
Practice one short section to perfection =15 minutes
Theory =10 minutes
Ear Training = 10 minutes
Review completed piece or pieces 10 minutes
BOOM! one hour of accomplishment
This may work for you.
Practice Tip: The power of exploration
Students who practice, diligently practice the “notes,” struggle with rhythm and continuity trying to get it “right.” This is all important. But I’d like to add a new idea.
A short story in which I’m the hero. I’m learning to play the jazz xylophone. I started at Christmas; I practice every day. I’ve got a 100-year-old textbook, a stack of tunes I want to learn, video recorder and oodles of desire. Here is the process I usually follow.
The video below is an unedited version. Notice it took just a brief period of time to accomplish something because I didn’t try to do everything at once.
Level 1: Fun is guaranteed. Just show up and play. Playing in a community concert band or playing at the family Christmas party would be in this camp. On the lesson front, level 1, is leisurely and steady. Ten thousand hours spread over decades.
Level 2: You are going to perspire. Lessons are intense. You audition to play in community groups. You may be preparing for an exam. Standards are assessed and maybe enforced. Lessons need an hour a day or more of preparation. Think of it as a marathon level of commitment.
Level 3 is going to hurt, tears will be shed. But you are all in. Your daily focus is piano. You dream of Carnegie Hall. You have multiple lines of attack. You put yourself out there. You are preparing to be an Olympian. Many dream, few make it. But this doesn't deter you. Large amount of time and money will be spent.
Weekend athletic parallels
1. Weekend running group
2. Marathon preparation
3. You might die.
Let me know where you stand.
In the summer 2001 I spent the summer in Santa Pola, Alicante overlooking the Mediterranean. I fondly remember the sun, heat, paella, wine, the flowers, and the nightly walk amongst the townsfolks. And the moon, I remember the moon. Every night after dark I’d watch the little fishing boats leaving the harbour. The sea was always calm. The lights of the boats bobbed into the night while the moon rose through its phases. I experienced two full moon cycles that summer. Wow !
I had had big plans to drag my piano from Toronto. The piano, in the large box I had built for its flight was promptly returned from the airport when the airline won’t let me check it as baggage. Something about being oversized and overweight. Luck would have it; I had a relative in Elche, Alicante with an unused Casio keyboard of sixty-five keys, one pedal, and a stand. Not exactly an eighty-eight key Steinway, but oh did we make music on that thing. Playing jazz on sixty-five keys was discouraging; so off I went to Alicante on a hot sunny day in search of a music store. Bach WTC 1 and a book of easy Chopin returned with me.
Every siesta that summer I played and played and played. I fell in love. Apparently so did my new neighbors who heard me practicing, but that’s another story.
Back in Canada I started asking about for a “Classical” piano teacher. Our first meeting didn’t go well. I banged through scales, thumped out some Bach. Leon was so kind. He said, “you are of course going to do your ARCT?” “I am?” So begun a four-year, 5000-hour odyssey. It changed my life.
Maybe such a journey would change yours. If so, call me.
Preparing to succeed is the first step. Here are some things you can do to prepare.
1. Understanding how to use Zoom. Setting up the camera so that I can see your hands and you can see me as well. Most students set up the laptop on a table to the left side of the piano.
2. You need to create a realistic schedule for practicing. This may take longer than you realise. But with realistic thinking it is possible.
3. Organize and dedicate a practice space for productive work.
4. Fully understand the costs involved.
5. Tell all your significant others of your plans so that they can support you.
6. You will need to lean on your strengths when the going gets tough and life gets in the way. I'm a learner too, you can ask me how I organize my learning.
Here's to learning.
I'm learning to play the xylophone in public through social media postings. Real time feedback on the information, methodologies, encouragement and teaching that I do daily with my students.
What have I learned?
Tiger Rag 1917
The internet is full of hucksters telling you that learning to play the piano is easy. It's not, but it is fun. Every day I watch my students grow; the days turn into years. And, inch by inch progress is made.
If I can help you on your journey, call me.
Dr. Hugo Norden, professor emeritus, coached me in Baroque counterpoint and harmony as a young naïve overconfident private student. He was a wise man; he knew how to handle characters like me.
Mr. Story we are who we listen to. So, pick carefully" Dr. Hugo Norden 1981 Boston
The law of association restated. I’ve spent forty plus years considering that advice. My conclusions:
Our musical environment habitualizes our expectations of how music should sound and be presented. It will raise our expectations in both ourselves and what we ask and expect of others. It will also support our auxiliary studies such as theory and history. In short, inspire us to do better.
To whom are you listening? Do your listening habits support your music studies or distract? Do you associate with other like-minded individuals such as fellow students, or concert goers?
If I can help, call me.
Here are my thoughts for acquiring jazz chops.
1. Learn and memorize tunes by ear.
2. Join a band and play as much as possible.
3. Transcribe like crazy.
4. Record everything you do.
5. Learn more tunes.
6. Technique with a metronome. Various tempi.
7. Play Bach, Debussy and Faure.
8. Keep up your lessons.
9. Join a second band that plays only original music.
10. Write some original music.
Bonus. Read and explore the history of jazz prior to school.
If I can help you call me.
How to practice the piano.
What do I practice is the perennial question? Here are some of my thoughts gleaned from decades of my personal practice and observing countless numbers of students.
If I can help, call me. I've been teaching online for over a decade.
What happens when we practice piano everyday? Obviously we improve but let’s do the math.
Consider 2 students: John and Sally. Both students practice and arrive at class prepared each week. Each has done the following during the week.
You get the picture.
John practices 30 minutes a day. Sally 75 minutes. What happens?
If I can help you, please give me a call.
The pandemic appears to be waning. We have all enjoyed the extra practice time lockdowns gave us. Extra time was an unexpected consequence during these tragic times.
How will be hold on to this extra time when things move back to more normal times? Good question.
Here is some of the things I’m considering. Perhaps it will be helpful for your situation too.
Sometimes we all need a break. Maintaining focused attention for the years it will take to master an instrument can be overwhelming.
How do I deal with it?
I take some time off to rest, contemplate and recommit to the project. My project is drumming, yours is piano. I seek out time for deep listening, exploring new perspectives, and solitary practice.
My solitary practices this summer is to master the work from the last year of lessons.
I have rediscovered the joy of piano practice with my daily “breakfast piano minute” video series posts.
I am reading some novels, reconnecting with friends in our post Covid environment, and takings walks in the woods.
Some similar activities may help you too stay on top of things.
Autumn leaves: walking in 2 with iReal pro playing the piano chords and drums. You play the bass and the melody along.
See you in September.
Tomorrow Part 2. Learn more about Gary's jazz journey.
The rankings follow the descriptions:
In my experience of teaching jazz, I would rank these traditional methods in the following order:
Jazz attracts adults of a certain type. Likely just like you. Professionally successful, academically trained, and determined to figure it out. The kind of person who sets goals, allocates resources, makes time, gathers intelligence from books and the internet, and then applies focus to solve a problem or pursue an opportunity.
Alas the kind of learning traditionally associated with professional success can lead a student off in the wrong direction when learning to play jazz. First, music is a manual skill which requires many years of practice to play at even a basic level of competence. Second, playing jazz is an aural skill. Manual skills and aural skills are not traditionally part of most people’s education. So, a mindset shift must occur. Those professional skills will come in handy though; I’ll just help enlarge them.
(Authors note I own more than 100 drum books, I’ve listened to hundreds of hours of podcasts on drumming, I’ve subscribed in the past to a Jazz education subscription service promising great masterclass from my jazz heroes, and I live on YouTube. Furthermore, I own too many drum sets, snare drums, and cymbals. So, I understand.)
What can I do for you?
In short, I will present material to you in a logical fashion based on your specific circumstances and provide weekly feedback. Old fashioned teaching in a modern 21st c. multi-modal manner.
Will I ever get there?
An adult student is working on the scherzo of Haydn’s piano sonata in F major Hob.XVI:9 A fun work from RCM level 4. It goes fast, it’s light, it’s fun under the fingers. It reminds me of joyful summer memories as a kid riding our bikes as fast as we can go, just celebrating the joy of movement and being alive.
How does one play like that?
Can I ever go as fast?
Another story. I’ve a young teenage student preparing to sit for her level 8 exam later this month. One of her pieces is Solfeggio in C minor by CPE Bach an extremely fast and demanding piece of music. She runs like the wind through it. The power of youth. Can my 61-year fingers play that fast? Nope. Period. It’s as absurd as looking on while high schoolers compete in the 100-yard dash. Yeah, I can still run fast, but not like that.
Moral of the story. Be at peace with it.
Now can we learn to play faster. Of course. Can we ever go as fast? Maybe, maybe not.
Now back to Haydn. Pianists who play well, including fast, have worked patiently in the following areas.
If I can help you on your journey, please give me a call.
Time to dream again. Covid-19 will abate this year; the vaccines are coming, spring will arrive. Time to get musically ready to share our music with the world again.
Here are 10 ideas to mull over.
I took up the violin in early summer 2018. I reckoned I would get a running start on a bucket list project. But let’s fast forward a couple of years, past the commitment of buying a violin and a sustained period of caterwauling that inspired the neighbor’s dog to howl, past the perpetual state of terror at lessons, a wretchedly inflamed shoulder, constant and unending frustration, and perpetual tweaking of violin, shoulder rest, chin rest, bow to find a position where this instrument felt even quasi-comfortable.
Let’s begin instead a few months into Covid lockdown when I reconnected with my violin teacher and we resumed lessons on Zoom. After brushing up my basic skills, I thought I might sign up for the Royal Conservatory of Music program to provide structure to my learning. We embarked on the preparatory level violin curriculum, and emboldened, I booked an exam date.
My available practice time was limited by full time work (on Zoom), which, on some days, wiped me out past even starting the depressing regimen of hit and miss scales. But motivated by a fear of making a total ass of myself in front of an examiner accustomed to 5-year old’s capable of mastering this content, I practiced. I pushed onwards, I stretched, I recorded myself and self-critiqued, I watched superstar violinists on YouTube, and listened attentively, studying how they held their violins and their bows. I practiced with my husband playing the piano or the ukulele, I played to recorded tracks, I sent video-recordings to friends and family. Mostly they were encouraging; a few were incredulous that I would undertake such a project at my age. But why not?
A month before the examination my nerves started getting the better of me, so I intensified my practice time on weekends, bearing down on my scales and arpeggios, determined to get my fingers in the right place for each note. A millimetre up or down the string produced disharmony, yet there are no guiding frets on a violin. I practiced as deliberately as I could: open string bowing, scales, arpeggios, get that fourth finger in place ahead of time! My teacher advised me to focus my attention on one piece at a time, but sometimes I drifted off to picking out tunes by ear or playing old favourites from the early days: Mary had a little lamb, Twinkle, twinkle little star... I decided to do a mock exam with my teacher during lesson time. It was humiliating.
The week before the exam, my pieces were running on a constant loop in my head. I practiced my fingering while I slept, when I slept, which was seldom and badly. I practiced maniacally. I worked out every kink in continual mock Zoom exams, doubling down on the bits I messed up.
Two days before the exam, a curious sense of calm descended. Out of nowhere, I felt that I had learned the elements of preparatory violin, and performance of these basics was up to the vicissitudes of exam performance where, of course, anything can happen. I had memorized my repertoire pieces and, though not necessary, my étude. My scales were on autopilot. I needed to credit myself with accomplishment of this basic learning and damn the torpedoes. I was ready for the exam.
The morning of the exam, I ran around in circles preparing: my violin needed to be acclimatized to the humidity of the basement. The piano and the violin had to be tuned exactly in pitch. Was there enough resin on my bow? My husband and I practiced our simultaneous piano and violin start: an audible sniff, and tally ho. I entered the zoom waiting room nervously. We were being recorded though no one was there.
And suddenly there she was: my examiner presented a friendly face. I silently thanked the heavens above that I had been spared a hangman. Decades of examining graduate theses and dissertations had taught me that best performance in a tense examination situation was facilitated by an encouraging tone and not by a repeat of the Spanish Inquisition.
All the same, my fingers trembled, my sweat glands went into overdrive, and I forgot how to breathe. I did remember to smile and to play with the conviction my teacher had taught me to show. There were to be no faces pulled, indicating disappointment or frustration, and if I made a mistake, I was to make it with pride and immediately move on. I began with my scales, and true to practice, practice, practice, they rolled off just fine. My teacher had told me to sing to my piece called (appropriately), Song: make up words, create a story and tell it in music. She told me to play what I heard in my head not what I produced with my fingers. So, I did. My étude began a little flat but it had spirit. My favourite beautiful slow song scrolled in my head, and I played as if that were me. My fast piece, the last in my program, was intended to be humorous, and it flowed with relief. It was the very final note in the exam that I blew, probably because I knew I was nearly done. I heard the ear test note perfectly but by that time, my flustered fingers just missed the spot. It was almost funny. And the exam was over as suddenly as it had begun. It had taken 7 minutes.
In the academic sphere in which I work, I am not a fan of examinations, which create a ceiling as easily as a floor and encourage parroting of known standards rather than innovative thinking. But I was surprised by the excitement I felt taking a preparatory level violin examination. Learning the violin is qualitatively different from the cognitive learning I work with. Playing the violin is deeply embodied, requiring the player to learn precise physical skills to communicate with an instrument. There is no music without mind, body and instrumental medium working in concert.
My mark—not yet received—now seems immaterial. I sensed that my performance was a pass for this level of accomplishment, and I could now pursue the next level of play. The basics I so fervently argue against in public education (which has developed over the past 200 years past the horse and buggy era) indexed something else in violin: an ability to perform skills enabling me to proceed to more complex embodied music making. I could now move into level 1 learning.
And that is where I am now: learning the D harmonic minor scale and playing 2 octaves of the G major scale. Woohoo!
I was the proud accompanist for Heather, my wife.
Restarting piano after a 4-decade hiatus? How to get started.
The hands will be slow. But they will improve. Patience is the key here. An analogy: You were at 18-year-old track star back in the day. You buy a pair of expensive running shoes, the kind that promise speed, endurance, and youth. First day out, you run 10K. It is glorious, next day you can’t move. Shoes go in the closet; you are back in front of Netflix. Oops, you’ve made a tactical mistake. Try this instead.
Have fun, if I can help, call me.
You've got to learn your instrument. Then, you practice, practice, practice. And then, when you finally get up there on the bandstand, forget all that and just wail.
I'm a professional pianist and music educator in West Toronto Ontario. I'm also a devoted percussionist and drum teacher.