Composing – How to Write a Song or Piece, Part 4, Lyrics and Structure

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!

With love and music, Gaili

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

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

November Free Sheet Music: Sonata Pathetique (Adagio cantabile)

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To reawaken love and beauty when life feels overwhelmingly painful, we can turn to our music. This gorgeous theme from the  2nd movement (video) of Beethoven’s Sonata Pathétique reminds me that alongside recent horrific events, there have been incredible acts of human kindness and generosity that fill me with optimism and love. I hope that playing Beethoven’s music swells your heart as it does mine.   

Beethoven’s Sonata Pathetique is an advanced piece, but as you know, I like to take difficult pieces and make them accessible to beginning and intermediate piano students. So I have transposed the Adagio cantabile theme to the key of C, and simplified it ever-so-slightly for the intermediate student. I hope in doing so I have retained the original beauty of the movement, while offering a challenging, yet more easily played arrangement for the intermediate pianist. 

CLICK TO PRINT Sonata Pathétique, Adagio Cantabile, intermediate (on our website)

Note: I can only keep each free sheet music arrangement on my website for a year. If this title is no longer available on the Free Sheet Music page of my website, please request it by email: upperhandspiano@gmail.com and I will email it to you! Don’t worry, I won’t spam or share your email. 

I also have a very easy 1-page arrangement of the Sonata Pathetique for beginners. The easy arrangement loses much of the beautiful harmonies of Beethoven’s theme, but for the beginner it might be a fun entry. To get the 1 page arrangement, please email me at upperhandspiano@gmail.com and I will happily send it to you. No spam, ever, I promise! 

Because I have been suffering from some nasty food poisoning, it’s taken me awhile to tell you my big news… 

American Music Teacher magazine has published an article I wrote entitled Geragogy: The Joys of Teaching Older Adults, in its October/November issue! American Music Teacher is The Official Journal of Music Teachers National Association (MTNA) of which I am a proud member and contributor. 

American Music Teacher magazine, Oct/Nov

If you are a member of MTNA you can read my article on p. 16 of the current Oct/Nov issue, or you can read it online here. I offer specific teaching examples for piano teachers, but most of the article is useable by teachers of all instruments. Thanks American Music Teacher for encouraging me to write about my passion: teaching piano to older adults. I’m working on a follow-up article about teaching students using scientific studies on how the brain learns and retains musical information (for teachers of students of all ages.) 

I hope you have a beautiful Thanksgiving filled with good food, good friends and/or family. Perhaps you can serenade your loved ones with the Adagio cantabile if you start practicing the piece today! Look around and see how the faces of your audience have softened into love, peace, and joy while listening to your beautiful music. Remember, it doesn’t have to be even nearly perfect. Play from your heart and your listeners will feel elevated by the beauty of the music. 

With love and deep gratitude, Gaili

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

Available on Amazon.com

Mise en place

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 placeMise 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 Calissa that 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. 

© creativecommonsstockphotos ID 87589627 | Dreamstime Stock PhotosMost 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.

Students walk in with all of their worries and pressures, and I hope that at least for the duration of our lesson, they are able to put their concerns aside, and connect to their music. New studies are showing that listening to “happy” music, in particular “promotes more divergent thinking.” I hope that when students leave their lesson, their mind feels a little freer. And through the brain enhancing magic of music, maybe even a few new creative solutions to their problems might pop up on their ride home. 

Take a look at your piano and see if it feels welcoming. Think about what you might do to create a Mise en place practice space. Please leave a comment sharing your ideas and observations!

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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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

 

 

What is a Practice?

Hello and happy new year! Are you, like me, pondering the question of which attributes and activities you would like to bring into your life, and which you are ready to let go of in 2017? My friend recently sent me a blog post entitled, 25 habits that psychologists have linked with happiness. Most everything the authors listed as sources for increased happiness resonated for me (ESPECIALLY #1 and #2 which are so pertinent to those of us over 50 studying music!) They refer to these habits as “practices,” because, as with the piano, we need to extend some consistent effort and attention to the routines and personality traits we wish to fold into our lives. A practice suggests continuity. In her book Better Than Before, author Gretchen Rubin reminds us that a practice is ongoing, without thought of a “finish line.”  We practice in order to keep growing and learning; To become who we want to be, and do what we truly value. People speak of a meditation practice, a yoga practice, or a spiritual practice because there is an inherent acknowledgment that it is open-ended, continuing to develop and deepen. We practice music, painting, dancing, cooking, sports, law, and medicine, understanding that we continuously study and progress with time and effort. (Though thankfully, artists and athletes can’t be sued for MALpractice!)

I am fascinated by the concept of practice, because it has been such a charged word for me in the past. As a young child it was a struggle for my parents and piano teachers to get me to practice the assigned pieces and exercises. I wanted to play Beatles songs, movie themes and ragtime, but the hours I spent on those genres didn’t count as legitimate “practice time.” I set out to become a piano teacher who would honor all time spent playing the piano as worthy, creative practice. I am currently writing a book called, Passion Practice, because I have been interested in exploring all of the elements that contribute to our ability to pull ourselves away from the multitude of demands on our lives, to get to our practice. What a gift it is to ourselves (and others!) to take the time and make the effort to learn something creative.

To help kickstart your year with consistent practice, I will be launching a Pledge To Play 10 Minutes A Day 30-day challenge, in a couple of weeks! Join us from January 15 – February 13, to practice at least 10 minutes each day. It doesn’t matter what you practice, as long as you get yourself to the bench every day. Research shows that short daily exposure to a skill is more effective than one long weekly practice session. And while we can’t expect to practice every day of our lives, hopefully this 30-day commitment will help you to make piano practice (or whatever your creative pursuit) a habit. Gretchen Rubin calls habits “the invisible architecture of daily life.” Rubin shows that while it takes will power to cultivate good habits, once we establish them we don’t have to rely so much on self-discipline.

When the Dalai Lama was famously asked what is the secret of happiness and living a meaningful life, he unhesitatingly replied, “Routines.”

During the 30 days I will be posting tips to help rejuvenate your practice routine! Until then, I hope you will embark upon another practice immediately: The practice of self-love. We need to practice treating ourselves with loving kindness everyday. In her book The Gifts of Imperfection, Dr. Brené Brown asserts that we can only love others as much as we love ourselves. Celebrate yourself today, sending love and gratitude to your body, your mind, heart and soul, your history, your pain and pleasures; because all of those things brought you to where you stand today, ready to greet a new year with love, hope and compassion. Please leave a comment about practice! What does it mean to you, and what do you like to practice best?

With love and music, Gaili

UpperHandsPiano.com

 

PEDAL PASSION | PEDAL PRACTICE

 

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Venezuelan virtuoso pianist/composer Teresa Carreño (1853-1917) believed that pedaling is like mixing paints on a palette, creating a profusion of colors and shades. She called the use of pedaling, tone-painting.  Her good friend/teacher Russian pianist/composer Anton Rubinstein (1829-1894) further called the damper pedal “the soul of the piano.” It is Anton Rubinstein’s legato pedal technique that I will be describing here today.

I waited until well into BOOK 4 to introduce the art of piano pedaling to beginners, because it is difficult to think about moving your foot while you are already lifting your fingers, reading the notes, counting the rhythm, and gliding your hands across the keyboard! However, many of you who played the piano in childhood regularly use the damper pedal, and might like a refresher course on pedaling BEFORE getting to BOOK 4. Therefore, this post is for the intermediate piano student starting BOOK 4, or for the returning student. Beginners can revisit this post when they are ready to begin pedaling!

Teresa Carreño warned that though we use the pedal to extend the sound of the notes after our fingers have lifted off the keys, it is not a substitute for smooth, legato playing:

 The “legato” must be produced with the fingers, the hands, and the arms, and the [damper] pedal must be brought to act as a help, not as the chief medium.

The damper pedal is especially helpful in allowing the sound to linger while our hands are leaping to notes that are far apart. Besides a legato effect, the damper pedal also heightens the piano’s tone, making the music sound warmer, more vibrant and rich.

To introduce you to damper pedal technique I have made two videos. The first video is an introduction to damper pedal technique:

A general rule is to lift and press (“kick-back”) the damper pedal each time a chord (broken or block) changes, but if you are playing a lot of sixteenth notes, you might lift and press the pedal with each quarter note beat. Using the legato pedal technique I describe in the sheet music and video below, you fully depress the key (“hit-bottom”), then immediately raise and lower your pedal. The result is that you are lifting your pedal slightly after playing the note.

By waiting to lift and press the pedal until you have fully depressed the key, you prevent any silences from occurring between the chords. 

 The second video below accompanies pages 28-29 in Upper Hands Piano, BOOK 4 offering an exercise to learn this “legato” (or “overlapping”) pedal technique. Click on the sheet music to enlarge.

 

 

 

 

 

You can watch the following video as you follow along in the music:

(Please excuse my nerdy videos! I am trying to get more comfortable in front of the video camera, but I am not there yet!)

If this is your first time using the damper pedal, you will find it challenging! Think of the lift/press (“kick-back”) motion as one maneuver. Each time you lift, you immediately press once again. (You can practice this quick up-down, “kick-back” maneuver any time or any where you are sitting!) In Upper Hands Piano BOOK 4  you will find many exercises and pieces in which to practice this technique.

Though at first you will faithfully follow the pedal markings, after a while YOU will determine where pedaling will enhance your music. It becomes second nature and instinctual with time. But beware of over-pedaling. In The Art of Pedaling, Teresa Carreño advises:

The pianist cannot be careful enough in avoiding the blurring which can arise from an “abuse” of the [damper] pedal.

For now, experiment with a little pedaling each time you practice to get used to it. Try to lift and press (“kick-back”) once your key is fully depressed, each time your chord changes. Let me know how it goes by leaving a comment!

With love and music, Gaili

UpperHandsPiano.com

 

The Art of BALANCE at the piano

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Dear Piano Peeps:

One of the keyboard skills we need to develop is dynamic balance; and that is the ability to play one hand softer or louder than the other. This is a more advanced skill that requires some time and patience. I’ve made a Youtube video to demonstrate a series of 6 exercises you can do in all 12 keys to help you move towards increased finger control and dynamic balance.

You might want to bookmark this blog post so that you can come back to it each time you are ready to move on to the next exercise. Play each exercise in all 12 keys to give yourself sufficient practice and to develop more comfort with each 5-finger position. (I used 5-note pentascales here, but you can also extend these exercises to full scales.)

Please click here to watch the video

Here is a list of the six exercises you will see in the video:

1. Alternate right (loud) left (soft)… up and down the pentascale. Then switch to left (loud) right (soft). Practice this exercise in all 12 keys until you’ve got it.

2. Alternate right (loud) left (soft) right (loud) left (soft), then play the two notes together (right loud, left soft). Play this pattern (or add more repetitions if you need to) up and down the pentascale. Then switch hands so that you start your repetitions with left (loud) right (soft) etc. Practice this in all 12 keys until it begins to feel easy for you.

3. Play the 12 pentascales with hands simultaneously up and down twice with right hand playing loud sustained notes, and left hand playing soft staccato notes. Then switch to left hand playing loud sustained notes while the right hand plays soft staccato notes.

4. Play the 12 pentascales with hands together, both notes sustained. If this is too difficult, go back to exercise # 2 or #3 until you are ready for #4.

5. Play the pentascale loudly with right hand while the left hand plays a block or broken chord softly. Switch hands.

6. Begin to practice dynamic balance within each hand by playing the 1st, 3rd and 5th notes of the pentascale louder than the 2nd and 4th notes. Then switch to make the 2nd and 4th notes louder than the 1st, 3rd and 5th notes.

For more about bringing balance into our lives and our playing, please read my Autumn blog post.

Genius is eternal patience -Michelangelo

With love and music, Gaili

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

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

Repeats – Barlines, Dots and Multiple Endings

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THE MECHANICS OF REPEATS

Repeated sections in music cause confusion for many students. Especially when they involve 1st and 2nd endings (called volta brackets).

Using the sheet music on the left let’s review repeat symbols and endings. When you come to a double bar with dots to the left of the lines, it is sending you back to either:

  1. The double bar with dots to the right of the lines, or
  2. If there isn’t a double bar with dots to the right, repeat back to the beginning.

In this arrangement of Spring, you will play from the beginning to the first ending (in blue). The blue double bar with the dots to the left sends you back to the blue double bar with dots to the right. Continue playing until you reach the blue 1st ending again. This 2nd time through, don’t play the blue measure. Skip it and play the orange measure instead, which is the 2nd ending.

Now continue on to the third line. Play through to the green 1st ending. The green double bar with the dots to the left sends you back to the green double bar with dots to the right. Continue playing until you reach the green 1st ending again. This time, don’t play the green measure. Skip it and play the pink measure, which is the 2nd ending.

I know this seems needlessly confusing, but without repeat signs and endings you would have additional pages and would have to read more notes.

PHILOSOPHIES OF REPEATS

For the intermediate and advanced player, there are other considerations when encountering repeats.

When you repeat a section do you play it exactly the same the 2nd time, or do you want it to sound different? In my example above, I indicated that the repeated sections should be played f-p, which means to play the section forte the 1st time, then piano the 2nd time. But what do you do if there is nothing to indicate playing the passage differently the 2nd time?

There is a fun book called Piano Lessons: Music, Love, and True Adventures written by NPR’s Noah Adams. In the book, Noah goes to a piano camp where he receives intensive piano training (doesn’t that sound fun?). I was struck by the advice of one of his teachers who said, “If you don’t have something different to say in the repeat, why bother playing it?”

Do you agree with her?

The Norton Encyclopedia of Music defines a repeat as, “The Restatement of a passage of music….” Composers use repetition to help the ear latch onto a melodic theme or motif. Sometimes these themes are restated in a variation, but other times there is no discernible difference. In the days before music could be recorded, pieces were usually heard only once at a concert or dance, so repetition helped the listener to remember and connect to melodies.

In the book Music and The Mind: Essays in Honour of John Sloboda, German pianist Eugen d’Albert is described as frequently playing “repeated passages quite differently from how he played them the first time.”

There is no hard and fast rule about repeats, so you can decide whether you want to modify your repeated section. If you want it to sound the same that’s fine. If you would like to change it you have options:

  • Alter the dynamics- For example, if the dynamic marking is forte, try playing it piano the 2nd time, or add crescendos and diminuendos.
  • Alter the articulation- Some examples are changing the staccato notes into legato notes, or playing accents only the 2nd time.
  • Alter the ornamentation- Some examples are adding trills and/or mordents the 2nd time through the section.
  • Alter the expression- You can let your tempo shift slightly faster and slower to add expression.

There are so many things we could discuss about music, the piano and the brain. Are there any musical issues you would like me to discuss? I am always looking for ways to overcome obstacles and solve problems if I can! Just leave your question in the comment block.

With love and music, Gaili

UpperHandsPiano.com