Happy Spring to those in the Northern Hemisphere! Though it feels like our cold, wet winter will never end here in California, my garden is abloom with the vibrant colors of spring. I love the Spring and Autumn Equinoxes with their equal measures of darkness and light, because it reminds me to think about balance: to balance work with play ⚖️ intensity with calm ⚖️ solitude with social activities ⚖️
For piano players, it is also a great time to learn or review Dynamic Balance exercises – drills that can help you to play louder with one hand than the other. This is an important skill for bringing out melodies and for playing ostinato (repeating) lines more gently. (Note: Dynamic Balance exercises are for more experienced piano students – intermediate and beyond.) I have made videos of my six exercises to help you increase dynamic balance and overall finger control. Read my post HERE; play the exercises in all 12 keys at least 3-4 days per week during the spring season, and by summer you will notice that your hands can move more independently! Stronger, more agile hands will enable you to play more expressively, and that is what we’re going for. These exercises are not all that fun or creative; but as one of my favorite writers, Elizabeth Gilbert said,
“The difference between those who do and those who wish to do is often those who can bear the tedium.” 😅
So balance out these exercises by playing some or your favorite songs and pieces, while enjoying the increased agility and power they will bring to your fingers!
With love and music, Gaili
P.S. If you are ready for some new books, here are some of my favorites:
Happy September Piano Friends! Lately I have been posting a lot of classical sheet music, so today I thought I would offer something popular. I watched Sleepless in Seattle lately and was reminded of how much I like the song Bye Bye Blackbird. In the movie, the little boy Jonah’s mother used to sing it to him when he had nightmares, and the song is featured throughout the movie.
I have arranged Bye Bye Blackbird for Advanced, Intermediate and Easier-to-Play (not exactly for the earliest beginners, but will be a comfortable challenge for those who have been playing for 6 months or more.)
The Advanced arrangement is available for only a year, so print it now!
I have made a demonstration video of how an advanced player might approach my arrangement. Notice that I am keeping strict time with my left hand accompaniment, but I play the right hand melody with a rubato jazzy feel. With popular music, especially jazz, you don’t necessarily have to play the melody exactly as written, but you do want to keep a constant beat with your left hand.
For Intermediate players, both hands stay in time, and there are fewer notes and chords:
Beginners might like to try this arrangement I call “Easier to Play” because nothing is EASY when you are first learning to play the piano. There are so many notes to learn when you are a beginner! Just take it slowly, learning a few measures at a time.
I hope you or your students enjoy playing one (or all!) of these arrangements. Bye Bye Blackbird has been recorded by Joe Cocker [excerpt from Sleepless In Seattle], Frank Sinatra, Paul McCartney, Ella Fitzgerald, Peggy Lee, Miles Davis and so many other artists!
September has always been the time for new beginnings: new classes, new clothes, new school supplies, new projects, the bountiful Fall harvest, and the gradual drawing back within our homes and ourselves as the climate cools. Besides loving the stunning colors of Fall I enjoy the quiet time between the busy summer and holiday seasons because it can be an optimal time for focus and intention. If you are like me, “more piano” has always been at the top of my Autumn to-do list. Remember that cognitive science shows that short daily exposure to a challenging skill reaps better rewards than one long practice session per week. Try to play for at least 10 minutes per day, at least 5 days per week, to keep progressing.
What are you playing now? Leave us a comment below so that we can support your practice! Are there any pieces you plan to study this Fall? Hope you are staying safe and cool wherever you are. With love and Music, Gaili
P.S. If you are new to this blog, welcome! I am a veteran piano teacher of 35 years! I post free sheet music every month, arranged for beginning to intermediate piano students, plus posts to motivate and inform. I have written piano instruction books specifically for adults 50+ (UpperHandsPiano.com), younger adults and teens (PianoPowered.com), Songs of the Seasons piano sheet music books for seasonal classical and popular favorites, and my latest piano/guitar/vocals books called The Music Remedy – sheet music collections to restore and revitalize the spirit. Check out my books on the websites above, or click below to view them on Amazon.com. Thanks for your support!
Swing rhythm has to do with eighth notes 🎵: it is the long-short “lazy” feel you hear in jazz tunes, as well as country, rock, folk and other music styles. Think about the songs Heart and Soul and Happy Birthday; both have eighth notes that “swing” because they are uneven, with a long-short feel. Swing is not notated in your sheet music; the eighth notes 🎵 in a piece meant to be played with swing rhythm look the same as usual 🎵. The word “Swing” is sometimes written as a tempo marking at the beginning of a swing rhythm piece, but sometimes it isn’t 🤪. You need to train your ear👂to tell whether a song is to be played in swing rhythm. You can do this by practicing my swing rhythm exercise below, and by listening to your song on Youtube.com and discerning whether the song uses even eighth notes🎵or eighth notes that swing🎵. Try playing all 12 scales with me, using Swing Rhythm in this video:
I hope you find these videos on Swing Rhythm helpful! Swing is one of those mysterious unwritten rules of music theory that isn’t always taught. Someone must explain it to you, or you will never quite understand why Happy Birthday sounds kind of jaunty and uneven.
Leave a comment below and tell us about your experiences with Swing Rhythm! I really appreciate comments!! You help others in the community of adult piano students when you ask a question or share an anecdote, so please don’t be shy!
P.S. Amazon has put my Piano Powered, BOOK 2 on a crazy sale ($3.93 instead of $19.95!) I don’t know how long it will last, so click to order now. It is almost the same as my Upper Hands Piano BOOK 2, but altered slightly for younger Adults and Teens:
P.P.S. More free sheet music is on its way August 1st, so be sure to subscribe to this blog in the top right of this page. Thanks!
Chopin was only twenty when he composed his Nocturne Opus 9, No. 2 in 1831, and it is one of the most beloved pieces in piano literature. I originally excerpted the first page of the Nocturne in my Upper Hands Piano, BOOK 4, and decided to expand it to encompass the full piece (minus a couple cadenzas and repeated sections) for you for the summer! I transposed it to F, and arranged it for intermediate piano. If you are a beginner, just play the treble line, and the first bass note in each measure, to simplify. Learn the first two pages this month, and next month I will provide you with pages 3-4!
How is your summer going so far? Here in Southern California it has been very dry, and because of the drought we are cutting back on watering our gardens. But of course global warming has been affecting the weather everywhere; I hope you are doing ok in your part of the world.
Have you set any goals for the summer? I am going to start studying French again this month, and I am practicing my accordion a few times per week in addition to jamming each week outside with neighbors. It has been a while since I’ve composed music for films, but now I am composing BOOK themes! I’ll tell you more about that later, as soon as I have posted some in my RipeReads (book recs for adults 50+) blog, and Ripe Reads Instagram accounts. And of course I play the piano every day- classical, jazz, rock, original music… I love it all. What are you planning to do this summer? Travel? Relax more? Learn how to play Chopin’s Nocturne Op. 9, No. 2? Leave a comment below and share what your plans are! With love and music, Gaili
Today is the birthday of Johann Sebastian Bach (though there is some confusion about the date). To celebrate, I have arranged Bach’s Arioso for intermediate piano. Bach’s Arioso has a bittersweet quality that makes it the perfect piece for the season. I have posted an intermediate piano arrangement of Arioso on my website:
In Atlas of the Heart, Brown expands on the concept of effortful learning:
Comfortable learning rarely lead(s) to deep learning…. I used to have a sign in my office…that said, “If you’re comfortable, then I’m not teaching well.”There’s a zone of optimal confusion, there’s desirable difficulty. – Brené Brown, Atlas of the Heart.
Robert A. Bjork and Elizabeth L. Bjork coined the term Desirable Difficulty in 1994 when writing about how to enhance learning, and the data is even stronger today: In order to learn deeply and to remember what we have learned, we need to space out our practice so that each time we practice we have forgotten some of what we have learned, and in relearning a concept or skill, we understand and remember it more deeply. “Learners should interpret errors as opportunities for enhanced learning.” (1)
I love these terms “optimal confusion” and “desirable difficulty.” While we teachers are working with students we are constantly observing whether the student is receiving an appropriate balance of challenge with fun, confusion with understanding. Brown asserts that too much confusion can lead to frustration, which can cause the learner to disengage, feel bored, or quit an activity. But as it relates to piano lessons and home practice, if you are not feeling challenged when learning something new, you are not moving forward in your studies as much as you could be. So the next time you are feeling a bit overwhelmed at your piano, think of it as a good thing! Take some deep breaths and recite your mantra: This is desirable difficulty; This is optimal confusion. Maybe take a short exercise break, have a snack or a drink, then get back to your bench, and keep playing.
I hope your April is filled with beautiful music, and the resplendent gifts of spring.
I hope you had a lovely Valentine’s Day spent with someone you love, or doing something you love to do! (Like eating chocolate?! Playing some beautiful pieces?) Congratulations to the winners of my Giveaway for 20 of The Music Remedy books No. 1 and 2! I so appreciate your enthusiastic support and I hope you enjoy your books. Here are the winners:
Thank you all for your support! I hope you are enjoying The Music Remedy books, and are finding the music to be both beautiful and revitalizing!
||: Beginners you might want to take a look at my post on Repeat signs. It takes awhile to remember repeat protocols! :||
🤏Intermediate piano players would do well to review this finger exercise for a few weeks in 2022!🤏
🏃🏿 You also might want to review these ideas I posted years ago about Aging Well. Now that the numbers of new Covid Cases are going down (hopefully we won’t have a big Super Bowl surge here in Los Angeles) we can begin to be social again soon. Being social is one of the three main components of Aging Well. 🏃🏿
🌹 Stay warm, cozy and musical for the rest of February. If you haven’t already, be sure to print and play my free arrangement of My Love is Like a Red, Red Rose.🌹
We know that setting goals can be an effective way to focus our practice time. In the past I have held “Pledge to Play: 10 Minutes A Day” challenges, where everyone pledges to get themselves to their benches for at least 10 minutes every day for a month. During those 10 minute practice sessions we concentrated on short-term goals such as learning a difficult musical passage smoothly, memorizing a short piece, or learning the minor 7th chords in all 12 keys, etc. Challenging yourself to practice every day for 10 minutes is a great way to become a better musician, as research shows that daily exposure is the best way to improve.
Pledges can be a great motivational tool, but what about after the 30 days is over? Just as after a weight-loss program, we have to create an enduring plan for maintaining the good practices we cultivate while working towards our musical goals.
When in maintenance mode we might speak in terms of intentions rather than goals. Life coach 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. Louden writes:
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 four days per week.” Or, “I am exploring improvisation in my piano studies this year,” 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 more skilled musician, schedule 4-6 piano practice sessions per week in your phone calendar using the repeat: weekly and the alerts functions. Schedule your practice at times that you believe you can consistently follow through. Some might be 10-minute sessions, some might be 30 minutes or more. If you miss a session, reschedule it, or just let it go and look forward to your next scheduled practice. If your intention is to explore improvising, the structure might be scheduling weekly improv, just noodling around on your instrument or trying my improvising exercises, watching jazz, rock, or folk YouTube videos, and planning monthly visits to jazz and folk concerts (when it is safe to attend concerts in your town!) 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 negative self-talk.
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: You will discover yourself.
Please leave a comment below to share your goals or intentions with our piano community, and let us support you! While we are still battling Covid-19, community support is especially important for our emotional well being!
If you are new to this blog, welcome! I am a veteran piano teacher of almost 35 years! I post free sheet music every month, arranged for beginning to intermediate piano students, plus posts like this one to motivate and inform. I have written piano instruction books for adults over 50 (UpperHandsPiano.com), younger adults and teens (PianoPowered.com), Songs of the Seasons piano sheet music books for seasonal classical and popular favorites, and my latest piano/guitar/vocals books called The Music Remedy – sheet music collections to restore and revitalize the spirit. Check out my books on the websites above, or click below to view them on Amazon.com.
I hope you are enjoying a beautiful winter’s day wherever you are. With love and music, Gaili
As promised I have posted Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata (transposed to E minor) pt. 2 on my website today. Have you been playing pt. 1 during the last month? How is it going for you? Do you feel ready to move on to the second half of the piece? If not, no problem, print it today and start it whenever you feel ready. Practicing pieces in small sections is the best way to gain deep learning.
In other news, this week I am presenting as well as attending seminars at the National Conference for Keyboard Pedagogy, an online conference for piano teachers. It is inspiring and stimulating to share techniques, ideas and stories with other piano teachers! At this morning’s session one presenter shared this gorgeous poem by Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, an abolitionist, suffragist poet, born in 1825:
Let me make the songs for the people, Songs for the old and young; Songs to stir like a battle-cry Wherever they are sung.
Not for the clashing of sabres, For carnage nor for strife; But songs to thrill the hearts of men With more abundant life.
Let me make the songs for the weary, Amid life’s fever and fret, Till hearts shall relax their tension, And careworn brows forget.
Let me sing for little children, Before their footsteps stray, Sweet anthems of love and duty, To float o’er life’s highway.
I would sing for the poor and aged, When shadows dim their sight; Of the bright and restful mansions, Where there shall be no night.
Our world, so worn and weary, Needs music, pure and strong, To hush the jangle and discords Of sorrow, pain, and wrong.
Music to soothe all its sorrow, Till war and crime shall cease; And the hearts of men grown tender Girdle the world with peace.
With that I bid you a you a wonder-ful August, and enjoy tonight’s full moon! 🌝🌝🌝
With love and music, Gaili
Check out my website and my piano method and song books for adults over 50:
You may have heard of the phrase, The Circle of 5ths. It’s a useful tool for musicians to understand, and for composers and songwriters to use in their pieces. In Part 1 of this series on Composing and Songwriting, I suggested that you start by limiting your piece to just the chords which are built on the C scale (C, Dm, Em, F, G, Am, Bdim) and I provided you with a chart so that you could figure out the seven chords in any key. But perhaps you are now feeling that you want to step outside of the key. For example, if you are in the key of C and want to move to an unexpected B-flat major chord, you can use the circle of 5ths to help navigate your way back to the key of C.
I’m going to let my friend Fred Sokolow take it from here because he is the Circle of 5ths master. Start at 5:30 in the video below and continue on to the end if you would like to join him for his jam:
Fred is an crazy good multi-instrumentalist and has created a small vinyl cling decal of the circle of 5ths for $3 which you can purchase here. You can safely stick it to your piano because there’s no adhesive. (Fred also gives private online lessons in banjo, ukulele, guitar, mandolin and dobro if you are so inclined!) If you have a Paypal account would you consider “tipping” Fred to say thanks for today’s instruction here or search for Fred Sokolow on Venmo? Any amount even $1 or $2 would be appreciated! You can receive notice of Fred’s future mini lessons (there are a lot of great ones!) by joining his mailing list: email@example.com. For more jams and free lessons, follow Fred on Facebook.
In classical music there are many ways to structure a piece. Generally when you are starting out, you want to establish a primary theme, move to second theme, then come back to the first theme and end the piece. All of what I wrote about in Parts 1 (chords), 2 (melody), and 3 (melody and chords) are relevant to composing classical music, as well as the Circle of 5ths discussion above, as all melodic music is based upon chords. You can also add lyrics to your classical piece, as with an aria or operatic piece. Feel free to ask questions in our comments below, and please tell us how your songs and pieces are coming along! It would be great to emerge from the Covid quarantine with a few original songs or pieces under your belt!
I have a piano student who had always wanted to write songs, but just couldn’t seem to get started. 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. “I’m so uncomfortable. That’s your first line.” And he wrote a wonderful, poignant song called, Uncomfortable. If you want to write a song, start from where you are or what you are feeling, and just jump in.
The first step when considering lyric ideas is to get it all down – out of your head, onto paper or into your recording device or app (the Voice Memos app in iPhones is handy). Writers speak of their messy first draft, and the same applies to songwriters. Don’t censor your impulses, just let the ideas flow spontaneously. When you feel you are done, take a break, for at least a few hours. Do something else to clear the palate of your mind, heart and soul.
Then sit back down with your words, read them aloud, and see what you think. Which lines do you love? Which are not flowing well? Have you said what you need to say, or do you need to dig deeper? Or do you want to lighten up the mood a bit? Make notes on your initial impressions, and then get down to work.
If you have started with your lyrics, you will need to begin singing them into a melody. As I have said in Part 3, sometimes it helps to take a walk or drive while singing your lyrics to activate your creative juices in a less pressured environment.
If you have started with a melody, hum the melody and see if any lyric ideas arise from the rhythm of the notes. When the melody dictates the words they are likely to fit really well; but if lyrics arise with a few too many syllables, you can easily add extra notes to your melody.
When writing a popular song, you have two primary kinds of lyrics to consider. The lyrics for the verse, and the lyrics for the chorus. Generally the verse lyrics tell what the song is about. The chorus contains the hook, which is the part of the song we remember best; the chorus lyrics usually repeat, and consist of shorter phrases sung to a memorable melody. The song Every Breath You Take by The Police starts with two verses, each with 5 lyric lines, the last of which repeat in every verse (I’ll be watching you). The chorus reads:
Oh can’t you see, You belong to me.My poor heart aches, With every step you take.
Every Breath You Take has such simple words! Its chords, melodies and structure are also very simple. And yet it was the biggest hit The Police ever had. I’m not suggesting that you write a song with a view to it being huge hit (that’s never a good way to create art), but I do want you to remember that a song doesn’t have to be complicated in order to be really good.
Many songs also contain a bridge. The bridge serves to elevate the song to greater energy or excitement. Every Breath You Take has a bridge at 1:22 consisting of five lyric lines followed by a 16-bar rhythmic instrumental passage.
Some songs also have an instrumental hook such as the Gary Jules recording of Mad World. In Mad World, the piano hook comes as an introduction that repeats in the choruses. Notice also in Mad World that there are two distinct sections to the verses. When that is the case, we call the first section the A, the second section the B:
A: All around me are familiar faces, worn out places, worn out faces. Bright and early for the daily races, going nowhere, going nowhere. Their tears are filling up their glasses, no expression, no expression. Hide my head I want to drown my sorrow, no tomorrow, no tomorrow.
B: And I find it kind of funny, I find it kind of sad. The dreams in which I’m dying are the best I’ve ever had. I find it hard to tell you, I find it hard to take. When people run in circles it’s a very very…
Chorus: Mad world. Mad World.
There is no bridge in Mad World, perhaps because the verses are long, and the B-sections feel like a bridge. Notice that there are a lot of repeated lyrics, which can be a great dramatic tool.
Generally, there are two categories of songs; there are songs that tell a story, and songs that paint a picture. Sometimes you might want to write a song that tells a story about something traumatic or something wonderful that has happened to you, or as with the song Raymond by Brett Eldredge, your song can be like a short story. Other times you might just want to paint a picture for your listener such as Paul McCartney’s Junk, or create an impression about something such as what it feels like to be in love, or to be the victim of discrimination, or how to live a better life.
Some examples of songs that tell a story:
Eleanor Rigby, by The Beatles
Cats In The Cradle, by Harry Chapin
Runaway Love, by Ludacris and Mary J Blige
Whisky Lullaby, by Brad Paisley and Alison Krauss
Just My Imagination, by The Temptations
Fast Car, by Tracy Chapman
Raymond, by Brett Eldredge
American Pie, by Don McLean
Don’t Give Up, by Peter Gabriel
Jack and Diane, by John Mellencamp
Some examples of songs that paint a picture, which can include expressing an emotion, giving advice, or making a political statement :
Over The Rainbow, by Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg
Yellow, by Coldplay
Shallow, by Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper
Girl On Fire, by Alicia Keys
Thinking Out Loud, by Ed Sheeran
Unanswered Prayers, by Garth Brooks
Running On Empty, by Jackson Browne
Good Riddance, by Green Day
Complicated, by Avril Lavigne
Under The Table, by Fiona Apple
Let’s take a closer look at a song that incorporates all of the song elements I have discussed so far. I first heard Ben Fold’s song The Luckiest while watching one of the best, most positive movies ever made (in my humble opinion), About Time.
There is an introduction at the beginning of the song, with a piano hook, and for the rest of the song Folds is playing simple major and minor chords which he is constantly breaking up into single notes.
In the A-section, Folds paints a picture of a man who makes mistakes, and he also acknowledges that our mistakes are an important part of who we become:
I don’t get many things right the first time. In fact I am told that a lot. Now I know all the wrong turns, the stumbles, the falls brought me here.
In the B-section of the verse, Folds reveals that he is in a relationship. It is also in the B-sections of The Luckiest that Folds provides the only rhyming lines: day rhyming with face:
And where was I before the day that I first saw your lovely face. Now I see it everyday. And I know that…
And the second B-section rhymes eyes with recognize necessitating a few extra notes for the extra syllables in the word recognize:
In a wide sea of eyes, see one pair that I recognize. And I know that…
The choruses are simply: I am, I am, I am the luckiest.
After the chorus, Folds plays his piano hook again, then another verse and chorus. After the second chorus he provides a short bridge:
I love you more than I have ever found a way to say to you.
Up until now I would unreservedly call The Luckiest a song that paints a picture. But in his third verse Folds tells a story:
Next door there’s an old man who lived into his nineties, and one day passed away in his sleep. And his wife, she stayed for a couple of days and passed away.
In the B-section that follows, the lyrics read: I’m sorry I know that’s a strange way to tell you that I know we belong. So although the song contains a short story, the song is not about that story; Folds simply uses it to illustrate his feelings about his own loving relationship. So, The Luckiest is not a story-song.
While most of the lines in The Luckiest don’t rhyme, almost all of the lines in Every Breath You Take do rhyme. So remember that while some rhymes in your song give the song sing-ability and cohesiveness, you don’t have to rhyme all the time if you don’t want to.
Once you have finished the first draft of your song, take another break from it for at least a day or two. Enjoy your time away and trust that you will take a look with fresh eyes when the time is right. Then come back to fine-tune it. The process of editing is often where creative flow breaks down. Editing your song is a daunting task and the failure to face up to it is why many would-be songwriters never finish their songs. Ask yourself if there are any lyrics, chords or melody notes that aren’t quite there yet. Work on it everyday until you feel good about all of it. Don’t let too many days go by without completing your song, as you run the risk of having nothing but half-finished melodies in your repertoire. On the other hand, you also need to be able to intuit when to stop editing and call it done.
Even if you ultimately decide it’s not very good, finish your song. Completing things is a practice of its own, and we only get better and faster at writing, editing and completing our work though consistent practice. The willingness to edit and complete a song makes the difference between a songwriter and a wannabe.
In classical music there are many ways to structure a piece. Generally when you are starting out, you want to establish a primary theme, move to second theme, then come back to the first theme and end the piece.
In my next and final post about composing I will expand a little on chords, then will move on to the next musical topic! I hope you have enjoyed analyzing a few good examples of how to put together simple but effective songs. If you are interested in further study, look up some of the songs from the bulleted lists above on Youtube.com and ask yourself questions to deepen your understanding of the writer’s style: What is the structure of the song? Do the verses have a B-section? What are the choruses? Is there a bridge? Does the song tell a story or paint a picture? Are lines repeating? Rhyming? Do some of the verses add extra lyric syllables requiring extra notes?
But don’t analyze too much or for too long. Rather than continually asking what makes a great song, take that time to create one of your own. Remember that your song will be different from anyone else’s because no one has experienced your unique life. You can create something fun or personal that is as beautiful, important and valid as anyone else’s. So get to work!