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


The Art of BALANCE at the piano

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


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)
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:
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


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.


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

White Key Improvisation (Improvising Part 3)

I am so pleased to hear that some of you are doing a little improvising. It’s great to try something new, isn’t it? We need to keep pushing our creative boundaries in order to learn and grow. We don’t need to live there, but an occasional visit outside our comfort zone is a good thing.

Today I would like to offer another improvising exercise, this time on the white keys, in the key of A minor.

  • Start by playing and holding AEA in your left hand (an octave plus a 5th in the middle). Let your right dance around on the white keys. Since we are in A minor (no flats or sharps) every white key will work. You can start by playing 5-6 notes in a row, then change direction. Move up and down, skipping, stepping and jumping across the white keys, repeating your left hand AEA each time it fades.
  • Next, improvise to a slow steady tempo in 4/4 time, playing your left hand AEA on the first beat of each 4/4 measure. Keep your right hand simple so that you can keep the beat going.
  • Now I’d like you to try a chord progression. With your left hand practice playing these four chords as whole notes occurring on the first beat of each measure: AEA, CGC, GDG, DAD. Keep playing them holding each for four beats until you are comfortable with the jumps.
  • Next you will add improvised notes in the right hand on the white keys. If it’s too difficult to improvise while playing those four left hand chords, record them and improvise to the recording with your right hand alone. (If you own an iphone, you can record on your “voice memo” app that comes with the phone.) There are no wrong notes, all the white keys work!

Once you have gotten comfortable playing on the white keys, you can play to my recording below. I am playing fairly fast 4-beat chords with a popular-style rhythm to which you can improvise on the white keys.

Experiment with various note lengths–quarters, eighths–and repeating any phrases that you like. There is a lot of repetition in the chords, so feel free to use repetition in your improvisation.

For those of you who like a written representation of the chord progressions I’m using, here’s a “lead sheet” for you:

White Key Improvisation

2015 ©

Am    C    G    Dm7

Am    C    G    (G)                                                                                                                              

 Am    C    G    Dm7                                                                                                                         

Am    C    G    (G)                                                                                                                          

Fmaj7   G   Am  Cmaj7   G   Dm7   Am9   (Am9)                                                                      

Fmaj7   G   Am  Cmaj7   G   Dm7   Am9   (Am9)    (repeat whole section)

bridge:  F/A   F/A    Am9    Am9    F/A    F/A    Am9    Am9    F/A   F/A   Am9    Am9   F/A    F/A

Fmaj7   G   Am  Cmaj7   G   Dm7   Am9   (Am9)                                                                         

Fmaj7   G   Am  Cmaj7   G   Dm7   Am9    

Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin said,

It’s just a chord or riff that inspires me and then I go on and see how it goes color-wise. The whole thing just grows like an acorn…

I hope you get inspired!

With love and music, Gaili



Finger painting (Improvising, part 2)

Hello Piano Lovers:

Today I’d like to delve further into the question, why should we improvise?

Firstly, if you read my post from yesterday, Improvising, Part 1, you know that brain scans ( fMRI) show that improvising activates a whole other part of the brain. It is called the Brodmann 9. The Brodmann 9 deals with short-term memory, verbal fluency, error detection, empathy, attention to emotions, planning, calculation and a host of other brain functions. Brain stimulation alone is reward enough. But improvising brings other gifts:

Once you become more comfortable with improvising, you’re able to cover up memory slips in your playing much more easily. You trust that you can fill in a couple of notes while you recover and keep going.

Recent studies show that improvising has a “releasing” effect on your creativity and originality in general. When you practice improvising, you are practicing letting go, opening your mind, inventing, risking, and imagining. You are becoming more adaptable. Adaptability is an important component of aging well.

As Sophia Loren said,

There is a fountain of youth: it is your mind, your talents, the creativity you bring to your life and the lives of people you love. When you learn to tap this source, you will truly have defeated age.

Let’s face it, studying the piano can be tedious. Practicing an exercise and playing a piece is challenging, and coming up against a difficult passage can be frustrating. Sometimes we just need to let loose and play something with no right- or wrong-ness to it.

Being creative is tapping into our humanity. It is an expression of our inner experience and our uniqueness. It is like a spoken history of who we are, and where we have been. Let the piano be your palette; paint a picture with your music.

Have I convinced you that improvising is at least worth a little experimentation? If so, try this:


  • Hold down a low F# octave (the two lowest F#s on your piano) with your left hand. Keep repeating the octave whenever it starts to fade away. With your right hand, play the black keys from the C# below middle C, moving up the keys for a few octaves. Then play the black keys moving back down to where you started. Next, move up and down within one octave.
  • Continuing to play F# octaves with your left hand, have your right hand skip around amongst the black keys. Play some that are next to each other, and some out of sequence.
  • Now vary the rhythm. Imagine that some are quarter notes, some are eighths moving twice as fast. Play some half and whole notes. Form a pattern with your rhythm such as quarter, quarter, eight, eighth, quarter, across the keys.
  • Repeat any phrases that you like, and make a mental note of them. Experiment with different key patterns such as moving up two keys then down one, over and over.
  • Now vary your dynamics. Play some notes forte, others piano.
  • Next vary your tempo. Play some notes allegro and others largo.
  • Try playing the black keys imagining you are in 3/4 time. Then go to 4/4. Then play with no meter, just let the music flow.
  • Try this improvisation again at another time and record yourself. Or write down any musical phrases you liked. You can use standard musical notation, or any type of short hand such as writing down the letters of the notes you played.

How was this for you? Did you enjoy it? Keep reminding yourself to let go, and not to judge. Think of it as finger painting! Dip In. Go to Improvising Part 3 here.

With love and music, Gaili

PS If you’re interested in learning more about how improvising affects the brain, watch this Ted Talk by Charles Limb.

Improvising part 1

Dear Piano Friends:

Today I would like to begin exploring the possibility of you improvising.

Don’t panic.

A couple of blog friends and several of my students have mentioned that they would like to be able to improvise, but don’t think they can. I improvise when playing jazz and I teach improvisation to my jazz students. But improvising is for all musicians playing any genre of music.

A brain study conducted by researchers from Imperial College London and the Guildhall School of Music and Drama revealed that both the listener and the performer show a huge increase in brain activity during an improvised performance. 

But we don’t usually improvise because of its brain boosting benefits. We improvise because sometimes we want to move beyond the printed page and create our own music.

Art students don’t just study the masters. They take out their paints and brushes and make their own art. Dance students get up and dance. So why don’t we piano teachers and students make up songs and pieces? For some reason colleges stopped teaching music majors how to improvise, leaving teachers feeling unable to teach it. Professor William Harris from Middlebury College explains,

Any amateur musician in the 18th century could improvise, but as methodologies for music teaching developed in the 19th century, reading and playing complicated scores became the focus of the teacher’s attention…

In her book, Improvisation: Music From The Inside Out, my former piano teacher Mildred Portney Chase said,

A common experience shared by too many students of music is that improvisation was… totally left out of their training…and in some instances was positively discouraged….

We improvise all the time; when we are having a conversation, deciding what to cook for dinner, or deciding what to wear. We don’t think about grammar or syntax when we’re speaking, we just let the words flow from our thoughts. We don’t think we have to be a chef or even look at a recipe every time we make dinner, we prepare food according to our desires. We don’t consult a designer before getting dressed, we put colors and styles together to suit our personality. These are all creative acts, but when it comes to music, we are often too embarrassed to create our own. Mildred said,

The fortunate thing is that the ability to improvise lies within each of us and it only takes a reversal of thought to begin to bring it to use.

Starting today I’d like you to open your mind to the possibility that you can improvise a bit on your piano or keyboard. That you can tinkle a few keys until you find 3 or 4 four in succession that sound good to you. Just sit at your piano and play around a bit. Go up, go down, skip around, play a broken chord then see where it leads you. Play a few notes with the right hand, then answer with the left. Just try it for a few minutes. Have a little fun with it! Break down those barriers of self-consciousness and just play. You’re not trying to be Mozart or Charlie Parker. Georgia O’Keefe was not trying to be Rembrandt or Picasso.

Tomorrow I’ll talk more about why improvising is a worthy activity, and how to get started. Go to Improvising Part 2 here.

With love and music, Gaili

Sleep On It

I have a brilliant former student named Brendan Cohn-Sheehy with whom I consult on my music and the brain research. Brendan is an amazing musician. At his high school senior recital he played the opening clarinet glissando for Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue with the orchestra. Then he put down his clarinet and played the rest of the piece (about 25 minutes) on the piano, from memory. (Of course I was in tears throughout the whole performance.) After graduation he studied neuroscience and music at UC Berkeley. While he still plays the piano, he is in medical school pursuing a joint PhD in Neuroscience with an MD in Neurology. This kid has got it going on!

A couple days ago our blog friend Aimee expressed her frustration at playing a piece well one day, then making many mistakes the next. And yesterday my student Anita complained of the same predicament. This is such a universal problem amongst all instrumentalists, I thought I would run it by Brendan to see what he had to say about it.
Here’s what I asked Brendan:
I was wondering if you have an answer to the question of, “Why could I  play this piece of music yesterday, but today I’m making so many mistakes?” Assuming it’s not fatigue or an emotional problem or any other external distractions, what causes the brain to suddenly forget one day? I’m guessing this is unanswerable, but I’m wondering if you have any insights.
Here’s what Brendan answered:
In memory literature this would fall in the realm of “consolidation,” the part of memory processing that involves the mind deciding which items to preserve or forget  after a memory has initially been “encoded.”  It’s not an instantaneous thing.
Many researchers agree that more sleep means more consolidation, so an extra night seems to do the trick.  One phenomenon you may have noticed in your own practice (as I’ve noticed in mine) is that if a piece doesn’t feel so good one day, the very next day it may play very well.  That could be explained by an optimal period of time for the brain to put the pieces together, so to speak.  I would tell that person to trying playing it an extra day later and see if that does it for them.
My take on this: After you play a piece, the brain connects with certain aspects of your music that day, and remembers those passages the best. The aspects of the piece that your brain did not particularly connect to or make note of may be temporarily lost the next day. If you want to remember better, practice your troublesome musical passages right before you go to bed and get a good night’s sleep. You will probably find that you will play the piece much better the next day.

As I wrote in my TIPS FOR STUDENTS page on my website,

Sleep helps the brain to consolidate (organize and store) new skills.

Aimee’s comment from yesterday also bears this out:

Today, after a good night sleep, I went back to the piano and lo and behold, I actually played my Etude by Chopin in F minor, without mistakes. It’s funny how, when I visualize the piece before going to sleep, how much I remember the next day.
I guess that when our moms told us to “sleep on it,” they were onto something!
Remember, as Brendan said, “it’s not an instantaneous thing”. Until your brain really makes sense of what’s going on in your music, you might have to keep reviewing it. Before bed. For 10 minutes. Every day 🙂
Thanks Brendon, Anita and Aimee for your feedback!  With love and music, Gaili
Check out our awesome books, free sheet music and instructional videos!

7 Moving Pieces (For Sadness)

Sadness is an inevitable part of life. Though we sometimes wish we could be happy all of the time, it is moments of sadness or pain that often thrust us into the most dramatic growth periods or life changes. What if we welcomed our pain and asked it what it has to teach us instead of trying to push it away? Sadness is perhaps pointing to something we need to let go of in order to rejuvenate ourselves.

Here are some religious perspectives on sadness:

The Kabbalah says the entire universe is imperfect, incomplete, fragmented and in need of repair and healing. As human beings we are not expected to be perfect, we are only to participate in the healing of ourselves and the world.

Buddhists recognize suffering as a universal human experience. Sadness is not punishment; rather, it is cue from our body, mind and soul that we need to examine our emotional state and get to the source of the feelings.

Christians say that Christ said, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted” (Matt 5:4). The Bible says, “Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb 4:16).

Here are 7 pieces to help you cry:

1) Dido’s Lament (From the Opera Did and Aeneas by Henry Purcell)

2) Moonlight Sonata (By Ludwig van Beethoven)

3) Schindler’s List Theme (By John Williams)

4) What’ll I Do? (By Irving Berlin)

5) The Darkest Hour Is Just Before Dawn (By Ralph Stanley)

6) Crying Time (By Buck Owens)

7) Let It Be (By The Beatles)


With love and music, Gaili

7 Moving Pieces (For Anger)

Why would we want to listen to angry music? When we’re feeling mad we want to connect with something that matches our mood. Sometimes we need to hold onto our anger until we’re ready to let it go. Rather than over- eating, drinking or yelling, we might turn to music. Listening to angry music can have a cathartic effect. It can help us to express then release the dark feelings within us to make them more manageable. Here are 7 pieces to fit our fury:

1) O Fortuna (From Carmina Burana, By Carl Orff)

2) Prelude in C# minor (By Sergei Rachmaninoff)

3) Symphony No. 5 (By Ludwig van Beethoven)

4) Presto (From Summer, By Antonio Vivaldi)

5) Hit The Road Jack (By Percy Mayfield)

6) Paint It Black (By The Rolling Stones)

7) Respect (By Otis Redding)

Next: Moving Pieces (For Sadness)

With love and music, Gaili

P.S. I’ve been choosing Youtube videos that don’t have advertisements. However when I go back to check the links, I’m seeing that advertisements do pop up randomly. I’m sorry about that! I guess many videos include intermittent advertisements that I can’t see.