Happy April! Today I have arranged April Showers as a slow jazz ballad, because it seems to encompass the wistful sentiment of the day, and as actor Timothée Chalamet says in the film A Rainy Day in New York, “I love a cocktail lounge piano, outside it drizzles, gray….” My favorite April Showers recordings are by Judy Garland, and Frank Sinatra!
The April Showers jazz ballad is a late-intermediate arrangement, and it will only be on the website for a year, so print today!
I hope that you are doing well and feeling hopeful today. I am receiving my second Covid vaccine tomorrow, and feel so excited about the new freedom and peace of mind it will bring me in two weeks. I am imagining seeing students in person again, going to the movies, LA Philharmonic concerts at Disney Hall, and eating at restaurants with friends. What are you most looking forward to doing again? Will you go back to in-person piano lessons, or will you opt to continue with online lessons? Leave us a comment and let us know how you are doing! Have you April-fooled anyone yet today?
I am still working on my new books: I can’t wait to share them with you. They are being reviewed by publishers this month. Meanwhile, below you can find my Upper Hands Piano books for adults over 50. Take care and be well!
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
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!
Some of my students who have been working through the ledger line worksheets are having trouble figuring out which octave in which to play the low bass ledger line notes. To help you get a handle on which bass note is where, I have created another set of worksheets 😆
The first page starts with a chart to show you that A3, which is two white keys below middle C, is written on the top line of the bass clef, A2 is an octave below A3 and is written on the bottom space of the bass staff, and A1 is an octave below A2 and is written three ledger lines below the bass staff. If you can learn the octaves for those three As, you can use them as touchstones to find the octaves for all of the notes in between. I have color coded the notes by octaves, so that you can refer back to the chart on page 1.
If locating the correct octave is an issue for you with bass notes, start by playing line 1 forwards and backwards for at least a week, until you feel confident that you know where each note is on the keyboard. Then slowly go through the first few lines on page 2, referring back to page 1 to make sure you are in the right place. As always, play the lines forwards and backwards to double your practice, and challenge your brain. Another great way to practice is to say either “A2,” “A3” or “A4” when you come across each A.
I hope you find these worksheets helpful! I’m always looking for ways to help students overcome their musical obstacles, so leave a comment if you have another issue you would like me to highlight.
If you are new to this blog, thanks for joining me! I have written a series of piano instruction books called Upper Hands Piano: A Method for Adults 50+ to Spark the Mind, Heart and Soul. My mission is to make learning how to play the piano easier and more fun for older adults by applying the latest innovations in learning science, along with using larger notes and fonts, brain games, videos and lots of encouragement. You can check out the books on my website, or on Amazon.com.
With love and music, Gaili
P.S. I just noticed that Amazon has put Upper Hands Piano, BOOK 2 on sale for about 25% off at $16.63 (regular $21.95). I have no idea how long it will be on sale, but if you’re nearing the end of BOOK 1, now might be a good time to purchase BOOK 2!
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.
(Remember, free sheet music is only available for 1 year on my website’s Free Sheet Music page. If you do not see the sheet music there, please request it in a comment below and I will email it to you ASAP)
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?
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 aPiano and Poetry Partythree 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 🙂
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!
My dear student Joan requested the beautiful and melodic Pavane by the French composer Gabriel Fauré so I wrote a couple of arrangements for our piano community 🙂 One is exactly like the original, only a bit shorter, and the other I simplified to an early intermediate level. It has been used in many films and television shows so it will probably sound familiar to you. The Pavane is one of those pieces that appeal to both the young and old, so please feel free to share it with your friends, students or other teachers. *** Update! My student pointed out that the Pavane is played in the hiphop hit Paparazzi by Xzibit! Keeping it current 🙂
Happy May Day! In Europe and Scandinavia May Day was traditionally celebrated with a maypole dance in which neighbors circle around the maypole weaving their ribbons in and out. What might you like to weave into your life this spring? Think about an intention you might set for your practice, and begin each practice session by setting a small goal for a small section of your music, in support of that intention.
I want to remind you to think about your posture when playing the piano. When you want to bend forward, be sure to bend with a straight back. Check-in with your body now and then to make sure you are not curving your back or extending your neck. We tend to hunch over and extend our neck as we age, (and as we text!) and that can cause “forward head posture”, with its attendant neck and back pain.
I hope you enjoy a lovely May filled with flowers and a few showers, wherever you are! With love and music, Gaili
I just finished reading an interesting book called Practice Like This: 35 Effective Ways To Get Better Faster by Jonathan Harnum, PhD. It’s a book about practicing in general– sports, games, painting, music, cooking, etc.– but the author is a trumpet player, so his practice strategies are all applicable to the musician. In the coming weeks I will share what I think are the most valuable practice tips for us piano players.
As a passionate foodie, I was immediately attracted to Harnum’s use of the chef’s term, Mise en place. Mise en place is a French culinary phrase which means “everything in its place.” It refers to the set up required before preparing a meal as well as the organizing of a kitchen.
My daughter runs an amazingly delicious Mediterranean restaurant in the Hamptons area of New York called Calissathat features an open kitchen (above left and center) and its fast food sister restaurant near Grand Central Station called Amali Mou (above right). I find it fascinating to watch the chefs as they create their gorgeous meals. Though they are feeding as many as 250 people at any given time, everything they need seems to be at their fingertips. As Harnum writes: “When things get hot and heavy in a busy kitchen, there’s no time to hunt for your cracked pepper or your sharpened paring knife.”
A good chef, baker or cook knows that in order to be efficient and focused, they must assemble all of the tools and ingredients they need before preparing a tasty dish.
A kitchen must be clean, and well organized
so that the chef knows where everything is and feels inspired to work her culinary magic.
Likewise, says Harnum, for a musician: “If you adopt the mise-en-place approach in your practice, you can toss off a quick practice session with no setup time.”
As pianists, we don’t always have a lot of choice as to where we can put our pianos, but they should ideally be kept in a place where we can readily sit down and play for 5 or 10 minutes. It’s best to keep your instrument in an area where you will constantly see it; people whose pianos or keyboards are in basements or converted garages tend to practice less, because they simply forget about it! On the other hand, if a piano is in the same room as a television or another popular family entertainment feature, our playing might be prevented or interrupted, and the practice opportunity is lost. If your piano is in a living room or den, you might want to consider purchasing a small keyboard with headphones that you can keep in your bedroom and play anytime.
Most importantly, we must put our mobile phones away.
We can’t focus when we are hearing the bells of incoming messages and seeing the flash of our latest instagram LIKES. A good strategy is to put the phone in another room with the sound off. If you know that you only have a certain amount of time to practice, set the timer to ring in 20 or 30 minutes and forget about it, just as you might do while meditating.
Using natural light or a piano lamp with a full spectrum or soft light bulb instead of harsh
LED light also creates a more inviting learning environment. A vase of flowers or herbs (mint is easy to grow and makes a refreshingly fragrant bouquet), and candles (beeswax aren’t smoky) make your playing space feel special. I love playing the piano at night by candle-light. Music-themed or other pleasing artwork on the walls can also be inspiring.
One important element in creating the feeling of a sanctuary or sacred space is to clear our piano area of clutter; when I moved music books and sheet music to a file box next to the piano instead on top of it, the piano area looked much more appealing. Clearing clutter from our pianos, helps to de-clutter our minds.
Before you start playing, you might consider keeping a pitcher of fragrant cucumber water near (not on!) the piano to stay hydrated in between pieces. And if you might get hungry, put a small bowl of raw almonds, walnuts or pecans close by so that you can have a quick snack without needing to wash your hands.
Likewise, we piano teachers need to take stock of our studio space, with the goal of providing a clutter-free, quiet, and calming environment, conducive to the joyful expression and creation of music.
Let me begin with a painful confession: I abused my ears in my youth. I played keyboards in a rock band that performed on crowded stages with stacks of Marshall guitar amps screaming behind me and stage monitors blasting me from the front. The fact that my acupuncturist could take away the persistent ringing in my ears gave me false confidence that my hearing loss and tinnitus were temporary and curable. When I outgrew the touring life I began scoring films (along with teaching piano) and had to compose late at night using headphones so as not to wake my family and neighbors. But another confession: I like it loud. Listening to my mock orchestral scores in headphones at high volume was a euphoric pleasure I indulged in far too often. After scoring my second movie I took my ringing ears to my acupuncturist and was horrified to discover that his treatments no longer worked. I launched into desperate experimentation with Chinese herbs, nutritional supplements, body work and foods that were rumored to improve auditory function. But nothing cured the ringing or hearing loss. I would lose big chunks of conversation if I was not staring at the speaker’s lips. There was nothing else for me to do but invest in a good pair of hearing aids; hearing aids are extremely helpful, but not a fix by any means. Listening to music will never be the same, and I still have a lot of trouble understanding women’s and children’s words.
More than ever, hearing loss and tinnitus (ringing in the ears) is a huge problem in America for musicians and non musicians alike. According to the National Institute On Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD) one in eight Americans 12 years and older have hearing loss in both ears. The New York Times reports that though hearing problems can be age-related or due to genetic factors, medications, ear wax and illnesses, most hearing problems are noise-induced. Noise-induced hearing loss can result from one loud noise such as a gun shot or explosion near your ear. Or it can be from prolonged exposure to noise such as street traffic, subway trains, sirens, jets, motorcycles, or unfortunately, loud music.
We love listening to loud music with ear buds or headphones, but music above 85 decibels can cause damage in just 15 minutes according to Dr. Michael D. Seidman, author of the book, Save Your Hearing Now. I tell my students to set a comfortable volume for headphones, ear buds, or speakers, then turn it a few notches down. Always listen at levels softer than you would like. And give your ears a rest after 30 minutes of listening, even at lower levels.
If you listen to music with headphones on flights, at the gym, or while walking in the city, it would be worth your while to invest in a pair of good noise-canceling headphones such as the Bose Quiet Comfort series (I have the QC15 over-the-ear). Noise-canceling headphones reduce background noise so that you can listen to your music at lower volumes. If you are listening with noise canceling headphones on quiet streets or hikes but find that you can’t hear your music when you move to a busy street, instead of turning up the volume, pause the music until you’re in a quieter place again.
I hate to say it, but concerts can be hazardous to your hearing health! Hear Forever reports that symphonic concerts can range upwards from 90 decibels advising that musicians should wear ear plugs while performing. And listeners should wear ear plugs, too, especially if they are sitting near the brass section, or in front of speakers. I never leave home without ear plugs. Rock concerts in stadiums or small clubs are even louder.
Responsible musicians wear ear plugs while they play, and so should their fans. Yes, ear plugs muffle the sound, but they protect your ears, so get over it and wear them! And make sure your kids wear them too! Ask yourself if listening to loud music is really worth a lifetime of ringing in your ears, and having to say, “WHAT?” whenever anyone speaks to you. Not being able to be part of a conversation makes you feel isolated and embarrassed. Believe me, I know.
You can buy inexpensive but effective ear plugs at any drug store, or google “custom molded ear plugs” or “musicians ear plugs” if you want to try something more comfortable or less muting than the over-the-counter offerings.
Vacuum, hair dryer 70dB (but many blow dryers are louder than that!)
Normal conversation 60dB
More suggestions for avoiding noise-induced hearing loss:
Don’t be embarrassed about putting your hands over your ears as a subway train or siren passes you by.
Remember to turn on your device before putting on your headphones, in case the music is too loud.
If you use a blow dryer frequently or for more than a few minutes, wear ear plugs.
Wear ear plugs when in an elementary school cafeteria or auditorium.
Wear ear plugs when operating loud equipment such as lawn mowers, blowers, chain saws, and even vacuum cleaners.
Keep ear plugs with you at all times.
It’s too late for me- I can’t undue the damage I did to my ears in my ignorance. But I hope that my post will encourage you take action to protect your own ears. Hearing aids are EXPENSIVE (they cost thousands); they make speech sound tinny (even the best ones), and music sound out-of-tune (even with good music settings); though they are extremely helpful, I wouldn’t suggest thinking of hearing aids as a back-up plan when deciding whether or not to wear ear plugs in a loud situation.
Protecting your hearing is a vital part of living a healthy, happy life.
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.
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.”
What brings you to the bench? Of all the activities you have to choose from, why do you choose the piano?
I am often asked for tips on how to practice effectively. In my recent post entitledThe Best Ways To Practice using the latest brain research, I showed that practice is most effective when we leave time in between our practice sessions for some forgetting to set in. After we forget something or forget parts of something, it feels more difficult to relearn it. And that difficulty makes us learn it better! But does the time of day that we practice matter? Yes it does!
I have just finished listening to The Great Courses Lecture Series called Memory and the Human Lifespanby Professor Steve Joordens. Professor Joordens asserts:
Our circadian rhythms shift as we age–in adolescence and teen years we are more likely to be night owls, and as we age, we become morning people. We are alert earlier in the day and we get drowsy sooner in the day. Young people don’t start to feel really alert until lunchtime, then school ends just as they are starting to feel cognitively strong.
Dr. Joordens cites research by psychologist Lynn Hasher who studied memory retention in both younger and older people, both early and late in the day. When you compare young to old on memory tasks late in the day, the younger people scored much better. But when you compare young to old on memory tasks earlier in the day, the older people scored higher than the young!
Older adults will retain more information and skills if they practice earlier in the day! It would be great if they could fit in another short practice session just before going to bed, because sleep helps to embed new skills and concepts into long-term memory.
Children will remember more if they practice later in the day, preferably after having a healthy drink and snack (and washing their hands!) If they have the time, they too would benefit from another short practice session right before bed to let the magic powers of sleep do its mighty memory consolidation.
Sleep actually triggers changes in the brain that solidify memories—strengthening connections between brain cells and transferring information from one brain region to another.
We tend to focus on WHAT to practice – but as interested music teachers and students we also need to take into account HOW and WHEN to practice most effectively according to the processes of the brain. Have you found these parameters to be true for your practice?