Composing – first steps (WHO ME?)

With all of the extra time you now have, it is a great time for you to stick your toe into the pool of songwriting. Ok don’t scream, shudder or declare “absolutely not!” before you hear me out. Think about this: We improvise all of the time in our daily lives; when we speak, when we prepare a meal, when we exercise, etc. We are born improvisors, putting things together as we go along. So why not play around a bit on your keyboard just for the fun of it? Or just out of curiosity? Also, improvising is REALLY GREAT for your brain. If you don’t believe me, listen to Charles Limb’s 16 minute Ted Talk and you’ll be fully convinced. Then please read or reread my blog posts about improvising: Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 to get you started playing to some chord progressions.

If I have convinced you to try improvising, here are some ideas to take you to the next step. First, de-clutter your practice space. Move sheet music you aren’t currently playing away from your field of vision. An open space supports an open, creative mind. Keep your tools (blank manuscript paper, pencils, eraser, pens) neat, clean and visible, so that you’re reminded to practice whenever you pass by. Begin your practice with small steps and low expectations. As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Every artist was first an amateur.” Start by setting an intention to just mingle with your keys for 10 minutes a day. Make it part of your healthful daily routines such as brushing your teeth, or eating breakfast. Don’t let your head hit the pillow at night until you’ve jammed on the keyboard for 10 minutes. Notice which musical phrases you liked, and which you didn’t like. Write down the phrases you liked either as notes on manuscript paper (blank sheet music lined paper) or as letters going up or down on the page. You might use the phrases you like in a song later.

If you would like to try to write a song with lyrics, scribble words—any words—on paper for 10 minutes. Write about your angst, your fear, your lethargy, your blank page—whatever the obstacle is feeling like at the moment. I have a piano student who one day realized that he wanted to become a songwriter. When I asked him what he’d like to write about first, he grimaced, “I can’t do it! I’m so uncomfortable!” “Great!” I replied. “That’s your first line.” And he wrote a great song called, Uncomfortable. Or you might write about what or who you love, about your gratitude, or about something fun (remember having fun? call upon those memories even if you aren’t having fun right now!) Just play around with your lyrics ’til you get a couple of lines down that you like. “Fake it ‘til you make it” is great advice. Forget about creating your masterpiece. Just flex the muscles of your imagination. Shake hands with it and take it out for a little spin. Taking those first tentative steps daily, saves us from the tyranny of procrastination. With time, try to become a little braver during your 10 minutes . Trust your creativity more than your fear. As author John A. Shedd said, “A ship in harbor is safe. But that’s not what ships are built for.”  What are you built for? Begin to tap into your own style, voice, and perspective. Get curious and dabble. Then find a small focus towards your creative progress and work on it. For at least 10 minutes each day. Set your phone timer for 10 minutes then forget about time and focus on your art.

In my next post I will help you get started with putting a song (with lyrics) or instrumental piece (without lyrics) together.

How is your piano practice going? Do you find it relaxing to practice? I hope you are coping as well as can be during our quarantine. With love and music, Gaili

Author, Upper Hands Piano: A Method for Adults 50+ to Spark the Mind, Heart and Soul

P.S. If you need a manuscript book for your compositions you can click on the yellow book below to purchase ours on Amazon. You can also check out our Upper Hands Piano instruction book and our Songs of the Seasons: Spring book!

Subscribe (top left) to receive new sheet music coming May 1st!

How to Play Softer With One Hand: 5 Exercises

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Dynamic Independence

As you progress in your piano studies an issue will eventually come up that we piano teachers call hand independence, particularly where dynamics (volume) are concerned (also called tone balance). What this means is that more experienced pianists are able to play more softly with one hand than the other. This is an important skill because you want to be able to bring out the melody of a song or piece while keeping the accompaniment softer. 

At first it feels impossible, like rubbing your stomach while patting your head! But after some concentrated practice over time (it takes time for the brain to grasp this skill!) you will be able to play with your hands at different volumes, naturally. 

Toward this end I’ve developed a set of five progressive exercises, each of which you play in all 12 keys (using the first 5 notes of each scale, called the pentascale). It’s important that you do practice each exercise in all 12 keys in order to fully learn the technique. If you haven’t pretty much mastered an exercise by the 12th key (not uncommon at all), play it again in all 12 keys until you’ve got it. I suggest you play the exercises in chromatic order as it is good for the brain to mix it up, with difficult keys following easier keys:

C, D-flat, D, E-flat, E, F, G-flat, G, A-flat, A, B-flat, B. 

CLICK HERE to print 5 exercises for Dynamic Independence

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As a side benefit, these exercises teach (or review) major triad inversions! Inversions are when we change the order of the notes of a chord, and are important to learn. If you’re playing classical music styles you will come upon inversions all the time, and if you are familiar with them, you will learn the music more quickly and accurately. If you are playing popular music styles you will also be playing lots of inverted chords, and it would be great to become familiar with the chord symbols if you’re playing from “fake books” or “lead sheets” (treble melodies written with chord symbols above the staff). 

You might also like trying some ideas by another teacher which involve “ghost playing” with one hand (tapping the keys without depressing them) while the other hand depresses the keys. They are more difficult to learn than my exercises, but you might like using both. Start at 2:25 here.

If you are new to my blog, welcome! Thanks so much for subscribing. Please check out my fun, supportive piano instruction books for adults over 50 on my website, (where you will also find lots of free sheet music, which I give away each month). The Upper Hands Piano books teach both classical and popular styles with larger notes and fonts, and emphasize learning chords. They use the latest scientific data on how the brain learns and retains musical information, to help you learn as quickly and enjoyably as possible. 

Speaking of free sheet music, in honor of Groundhog’s Day (Feb 2nd) I will soon be posting an easy-ish arrangement of Rachmaninoff’s Variation 18 – Rhapsody on a theme of Paganini that was played by Bill Murray in the beloved movie Groundhog Day (I must admit that I watch it every year!) I can’t include his jazz solo, but there will be a full arrangement of the theme:

I hope you are enjoying a beautiful winter wonderland, wherever you are. Here in Los Angeles it has been raining (which is wonderful for us), but I do feel envious of the snowscapes I see on Instagram and Facebook. If you are on those social media platforms, please follow @UpperHandsPiano to get updates on free sheet music and piano practice tips. 

And PLEASE feel free to ask questions or share your observations about these 5 exercises (or anything else piano related!) We love to hear from you, and everyone learns when someone asks questions or shares their experience. Stay cozy, and enjoy your piano practice!

P.S. Many people have reported that they are no longer receiving my blog posts. I am working on this issue- it’s a technical problem which is not my forte! But I am working with a support team, so hopefully the issue will be resolved soon. So sorry if you have missed some of my posts lately, or if you got this post twice! ;(

With love and music, Gaili

Author, Upper Hands Piano: A Method for Adults 50+ to SPARK the Mind, Heart and Soul.

Available on Amazon.com

January Free Sheet Music: Auld Lang Syne

Auld Lang Syne
“We’ll take a cup of kindness yet for auld lang syne”

Though you might be busy practicing your Christmas carols such as I Saw Three Ships and Silent Night, it occurred to me that you might also like to start practicing Auld Lang Syne for New Year’s Eve, too! So I have posted an arrangement of Auld Lang Syne for the late beginner piano student that you will be able to learn in the next 11 days 🙂 If you have friends who sing or play violin, oboe, flute, recorder, bass or guitar, ask them to join you! They can all read from your music as I have included chord symbols and lyrics. 

Click Here to Print AULD LANG SYNE

The song Auld Lang Syne was originally a poem written by the Scottish poet Robert Burns in 1788 and set to a traditional tune. “Auld Lang Syne” can be translated to mean “for old time’s sake,” and asks an interesting question: Should we forget about the past or cherish it? I am greatly sentimental and tend to come out on the side of cherishing the parts of my personal history that were meaningful to me, without dwelling too much on painful memories. New Year’s Eve is a great time to reflect upon the past year and set intentions for the coming year. Rather than making resolutions, intentions can help you to learn and grow without the pressure of an end point. If you are interested, read more about Goals vs. Intentions here

Another reason for me to post a Scottish song is that I have been watching the Scottish series called Shetland on DVD (from the library) lately. It is a BBC murder mystery which isn’t my usual genre, at all. But the characters and story are engaging, the scenery is gorgeous and the music is beautiful. I am a great lover of Celtic music, especially Irish, Scottish and Cape Breton songs and pieces, and Shetland features lilting traditional Scottish background music throughout its episodes. It’s so wonderful when we get to see and hear traditional music played on traditional instruments on the screen.

I hope you are enjoying these last days of 2018. Though I am a pianist, I also enjoy playing Celtic music on a small student-sized accordion. My intention is to practice my accordion a little bit each day if possible, so that I can become a better player. By the time St. Patrick’s Day rolls around, I hope to be able to play Irish songs more smoothly. What are your musical intentions for 2019? 

With love and music, Gaili Schoen

Author, Upper Hands Piano: A Method for Adults 50+ to Spark the Mind, Heart and Soul

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KEY UP: Moving hands forward on the keys

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One of the primary differences between experienced pianists and beginners is in the fluidity of the hand moving forward and backward on the keys. Experienced players instinctively move their hands forward on the keys (towards the piano) when playing black keys or encountering a succession of keys that put their hand at an awkward angle. Less experienced pianists however, tend to keep their hand at the edge of the keys (closer to our bodies) so that when they encounter an awkward succession of keys they need to twist and stretch their body. 

Check-in with your body when playing a physically challenging musical passage or playing black keys. If you feel your body contorting, try moving your hand forward on the keys instead. Though it can be a little more difficult to press down the keys as you move closer to the wood, it is far better to move your hand forward than to twist your body. Besides looking and feeling awkward, twisting your body takes more time, resulting in missed beats. 

It takes some time to develop the instinct for moving your hand forward and backward effortlessly on the keys. When you encounter a musical passage that seems to take extra time and effort for maneuvering, try moving your hand forward instead of twisting your body. Watch this YouTube video of La Campanella (you can find simplified sheet music on my former blog post here) and notice that the pianist is constantly moving her hand forward and backward on the keys, and often plays at the very top of the keys where need be. While most of us are not as advanced as this pianist, we can take her fine technique to heart and apply it to our own playing. Start by becoming more aware of how you move your hands and body at the piano. 

I hope that during your Thanksgiving preparations (if you are American!) you will take time to practice your piano, even if it’s only for 5 or 10 minutes at a time. Playing the piano is a great way to de-stress, and clearing the mind of to-do lists for 10 minutes will help you to think more clearly and increase focus. 

I’d like to take this opportunity to express my gratitude to my blog subscribers. Your support means the world to me. I so enjoy arranging songs and pieces for you each month, and sharing my practice tips with you. Writing helps me to deepen my understanding of the piano. I love that playing the piano provides us with the opportunity for lifelong learning and development. I’m grateful that you are here, and that we can learn and grow together. Always feel free to leave a comment. When you share what you have observed in your playing, we can learn from each other!

With love and gratitude, Gaili

Gaili Schoen

Author, Upper Hands Piano: A Method for Adults 50+ to Spark the Mind, Heart and Soul available on Amazon.com

Accountability

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Play music together!

 I recently heard author (of Eat, Pray, Love) Elizabeth Gilbert speak about creative work:

Everything that is interesting is 90% boring… and we are in a culture that’s addicted to the good part, the exciting part, the fun part.

I laughed out loud when I heard her say that. It’s so true! It is incredibly difficult dealing with the tedium of practicing something challenging, day after day…but the willingness to work through that tedium is exactly what separates the artists from the quitters. What can really help us become more productive is a system or structure of accountability. If you are a piano player, please read my post called Have a Plan, with lots of suggestions for getting your bottom to the bench. 

Luckily for me, piano students usually require teachers to make sure they are playing correctly. Good teachers also act as trusted mentors, helping students to stay on track with consistent practicing. An effective mentor guides without dictating; s/he offers you the wisdom of experience while also listening to and respecting your voice. Director Steven Spielberg famously said, “The delicate balance of mentoring someone is not creating them in your own image, but giving them the opportunity to create themselves.” A mentor or teacher should hold high expectations of you, and question and challenge you in a positive way. The ideal piano teacher is open to the styles of music you want to play, and helps you address your challenges. Give your piano teacher permission to level criticism when s/he sees you going astray, or not taking your piano studies seriously. Teachers should also acknowledge your progress.

Another great means to accountability is playing the piano for and with other people. My students and I hold a Piano and Poetry Party three times per year to share music, and support each other’s progress. It is wonderful for me to see my students making more time to play  before a performance. The anticipation of performing gives us that extra edge of motivation to practice. As a result, the pieces we perform are the ones we remember the best, even years later. If you don’t have recitals or performing opportunities with your piano teacher, you can seek out other ways to get social with your music. There are lots of meet-up groups and open mics for musicians that want to play for each other, and pianists can get together with other instrumentalists such as guitarists, flutists, violinists and singers to jam on a few tunes.

Ultimately, however, you must make yourself accountable to your values and your vision. Plan your practice sessions at the beginning of each week, allocating the minutes (or hours) in your calendar. Establish a structure for practice and stick with it. When you need to miss your practice session for an extended period of time, such as for a vacation, write your intention to leave for the appointed amount of time and resume your practice when you return. Take yourself seriously; keeping aligned with your creative objective even when it is incredibly difficult is an act of self-love and a sign of healthy self-worth.

How to you hold yourself accountable to your creative practice? Please leave a comment! It is great to share ideas 🙂

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Passion Practice

This post has been excerpted and edited from my upcoming book called Passion Practice: A Playbook for Overcoming Obstacles to Creativity, which will hopefully be available in the fall! I will be giving 10 copies away as soon as it is in print, through Goodreads and Amazon.com. I’ll keep you posted!

With love and music, Gaili

Author, Upper Hands Piano: A Method for Adults 50+ to Spark the Mind, Heart and Soul

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Resolve

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If you’re like me, you love making new year’s resolutions. The year ahead is a clean slate, filled with possibility, and it’s important to me that I feel that I keep growing, keep improving, keep learning.  Musicians form short-term goals to improve our skills; we practice playing a difficult musical passage smoothly, our exercises, memorizing a short piece, or learning the minor 7th chords in all 12 keys, etc. But all makers of art also need to resolve to develop an enduring plan for maintaining the good practices we cultivate while working towards our creative goals.

To maintain a music practice, we might speak in terms of intentions rather than goals. Life coach/author Jennifer Louden writes that the word intention comes from the Latin “intendere” which means “to stretch toward something.” Louden suggests that while a goal drives you toward a future outcome, an intention helps keep you in the present: 

 The goal feels positive, but closed, almost a should, and it doesn’t inspire the imagination nearly as much as the intention, which feels open-ended, expansive, encouraging….

Instead of, or in addition to setting a goal such as, “I will learn this piece in 60 days,” you might want to form an intention, such as, “I am folding piano practice into my life at least four days per week,” or, “I am exploring improvisation in my piano studies this year,” or “I am going to halt negative self-talk by celebrating my accomplishments,” etc.

Write down your intention. Then come up with a structure to support it. You can adjust your expectations and intentions as you go along, but a written intention and structure acts as a roadmap. For example, if your intention is to become a better note-reader, your structure might be to open one of your piano books and play one random line a few times each day at the beginning of your practice session, and to draw random notes on lines, spaces and ledger lines on manuscript paper, then write the letters next to the note heads, four days per week. You might also make some flash cards for the ledger line notes you consistently have trouble reading. Whatever your intention(s), find a structure that you can embrace. Setting unreasonable expectations is counter-productive.

When you have to leave town and won’t be able to practice, set an intention to put practice aside until you return, and name the date that you will resume your practice routine. That way, your travel becomes part of your intention, and not an aberration.

When days or weeks pass in which you didn’t fulfill your intention, let regrets go. Start fresh the following week doing your best to reinstate your structure. This isn’t about perfection, it’s about process. Keep it light and enjoyable. Intentions are about how you want to live your life.  Your intentions are driven by your values. A little guilt is ok if it keeps you aligned with an intention, but don’t let yourself slide into shame and self-recrimination.

Be brave enough to live creatively…. You have to leave the city of your comfort and go into the wilderness of your intuition. You…get there…by hard work, risking and by not quite knowing what you are doing. What you will discover will be wonderful: Yourself.      –Alan Alda

I hope you are enjoying new found resolve in 2018. I took a long, wonderful trip in December/January, and though I was missing playing my piano and working with my dear students, I was still learning as I listened to a lot of music with wonderful exotic flavors. I also journaled during the trip. You might consider keeping a music diary or journal, recording your thoughts and feelings about playing the piano, or writing about your successes and challenges, and especially writing about a practice technique that is working for you (i.e. playing before bed, or leaving a difficult piece and coming back to it after a walk, etc.)

If you missed my last blog post and would like to see/hear what I saw/heard in Morocco and Tunisia, click here. I hope you are enjoying a beautiful winter’s day wherever you are. 

I love your comments; please share any piano practice intentions you are forming for  2018 so we can support you!

With love and music, Gaili

Author, Upper Hands Piano: A Method for ADULTS 50+ to SPARK the Mind, Heart and Soul

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Why Do You Play the Piano?

 

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Piano Brain! UpperHandsPiano.com/blog

I am studying the effects of piano lessons on the brain at the University of Washington, and have found a host of scientific studies showing that piano instruction enhances mood, quality of life, movement, and Executive Functioning in the brain. Executive Function is kind of like the CEO of our brain and is located in the frontal lobe. Amongst other tasks, it facilitates attention, learning, memory, organization, decision-making, perceiving and estimating time, planning and executing plans, multitasking, problem-solving, analyzing, flexibility and reasoning.

You can read three of these fascinating studies here: Piano Lessons Increase Executive Function and Memory, here, and there.

Many are drawn to the piano because they have heard that it is an awesome brain workout, but I think you might agree that there has to be additional motivation in order to keep us doing the hard work of learning to play the piano. What gives you the willingness and courage to keep a piano practice?

For me it is a deep connection to music that feels like a spiritual practice. When I’m playing a piece I love I feel a sense of delving deep into my core. As I practice something challenging, I strive to become fully engaged in the notes and fingering and whatever set of skills I need to gain in order to learn the phrase. To me it’s worth all of the trouble, to get to the place where I can play and understand the music.

I haven’t always felt this way, however! As a child there were weeks (and maybe months) that I tried to quit piano lessons; it was sometimes so difficult to find the time to practice, or my teacher moved away (my beloved teacher Judy Lloyd moved to Australia to be with her boyfriend, and it broke my heart!), or I just wasn’t sure I was committed.

But I would soon begin to feel incomplete and disappointed in myself; stopping lessons left a hole in my life and I missed working on my piano skills. I missed the engagement, I missed the connection, I missed the music.

I often ask my students, “Why do you play the piano?” Here are some of the answers I have received:

“I play because I love music”

“It’s my therapy; it calms me and helps me to stay focused in general. I’ve definitely noticed that I have better concentration since starting lessons.”

” It’s a goal I set for myself to learn how to play the piano and understand music.”

“It’s fun!”

What brings you to the bench? Of all the activities you have to choose from, why do you choose the piano?

With love and music, Gaili

UpperHandsPiano.com

 

 

GOALS vs INTENTIONS

We know that goals are a great way to focus our practice time. If you have joined our 30-day Pledge to Play: 10 Minutes A Day challenge, you have been concentrating on short-term goals such as learning a difficult musical passage smoothly, or memorizing a short piece, or learning the minor 7th chords in all 12 keys, etc. But what about when the Pledge is over? Just as after a weight-loss diet, we have to create an enduring plan for maintaining the good practices we cultivate while working towards our musical goals.

Continue reading “GOALS vs INTENTIONS”

Piano Players’ Brains

I just read another fun article about how beneficial piano playing is for the brain. While studying any instrument is a great practice, this article highlights what is unique to playing the piano:

http://www.lifehack.org/517069/science-says-piano-players-brains-are-very-different-from-everybody-elses

I think it overstates a few things, such as its assertion that for an advanced pianist …the weaker hand is strengthened to the same degree as the stronger one. Even very experienced pianists would probably say they have a weaker hand, but certainly playing with two hands does hugely impact “brain balance.” PET scan research has repeatedly shown that playing the piano stimulates multiple parts of both hemispheres of the brain.

We know that the primary reason that piano playing is such an amazing brain workout is that it requires intense multitasking; we must read the notes, observe the fingering, count the rhythm, listen to the music, press the damper pedal, play with emotion, and so much more! And I have seen first-hand that the multi-tasking skills we cultivate at the piano are put to use in other parts of our lives.

I had never considered, however, the idea put forward in this article, that experienced piano players turn off the part of the brain that offers stereotypical brain responses. It makes sense that playing the piano with expression gets us into the habit of expressing ourselves more authentically, in general. Although the word “authenticity” is sometimes overused, I think that it’s an important concept worth considering. Dr. Brené Brown (author, research professor) has this to say about authenticity:

Authenticity is the daily practice of letting go of who we think we are supposed to be, and embracing who we really are…..Choosing authenticity means cultivating the courage to be imperfect, to set boundaries, and to let ourselves be vulnerable.

I love the idea that playing the piano can lead us to living a more authentic life. And it certainly makes us feel extremely vulnerable at times!

The aforementioned article also touts the virtues of improvising. As a jazz musician I improvise all the time. Sometimes my habit of improvising doesn’t turn out so great when I improvise on recipes in the kitchen…. But for the most part, I find that my willingness to improvise helps me to be more flexible and adaptable in the world. If you are interested, check out my blog posts about improvising here:

Improvising Part 1  |   Improvising Part 2  | Improvising Part 3  |

Also, scroll down to the bottom of the science article to see some links under REFERENCES to learn more about why it’s SO great to play the piano. This one is particularly interesting :

Science Shows How Piano Players’ Brains Are Actually Different From Everybody Else’s

Have you noticed any changes in the way you think or act since starting piano lessons? Does multitasking at the piano keyboard help you to multi-task in other areas of your life? Have you noticed increased attention and focus since playing (or in the hours after playing) the piano? What impact has playing the piano had on your life? By the way, how is your 10-Minutes-A-Day pledge going? I welcome your comments and observations!

With love and music, Gaili

UpperHandsPiano.com

FAKE BOOKS (Part 2)

Dear Piano People

Here is a video to expand on yesterday’s post about how to use FAKE BOOKS. I demonstrate some options for adding left hand rhythm. This is a challenging skill so take your time getting comfortable with the chords played 1-block; 2-broken in an “oom-pa” style playing the bottom note, then the top two; 3-broken playing the full chord then repeating the top two notes while holding down the bottom note; and 4-entirely broken playing left hand notes singly. Refer to the sheet music below as you watch the video (click here) (click to expand sheet music)

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Careless Love, from Upper Hands Piano BOOK 3, p.50

 

 

 

 

 

 

This is what it would look like if you notated playing the full chord first, then repeating the top two notes while holding down the bottom note:

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Careless Love w/ broken chords from Upper Hands Piano, BOOK 3, p.51

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I hope this is helpful! Fake Books are great once you learn the chords and get comfortable varying the chord rhythms.

With love and music, Gaili