7 Moving Pieces (For Inspiration)



Dear Friends:

I sometimes turn to moving music to get me through a difficult time, or to reflect my feelings of joy and appreciation. Listening to moving music is one of the greatest pleasures available, but we don’t do it enough! How often do you just sit and listen to music? Without doing the dishes, driving, or exercising? We’re all so busy, but just sitting and listening to moving music is like therapy.

We can get swept away by inexpressibly beautiful songs and pieces that release dopamine into our brains making us feel amazing!

We can turn to different types of music for the many emotions we are experiencing. Here is my list of 7 moving pieces that will hopefully inspire you to move forward with your dreams, desires, wishes and intentions.

1) Gabriel’s Oboe (Main Theme from The Mission, By Ennio Morricone)

2) Sonata Pathetique (Adagio Cantabile, By Ludwig van Beethoven)

3) Triumph of Time and Tide (Sarabande, by Georg Friedrich Handel)

4) Etude No. 26 in A-flat Major (By Frederick Chopin)

5) When You Wish Upon A Star (By Leigh Harline and Ned Washington)

6) Don’t Give Up (By Peter Gabriel, with Kate Bush)

7) Wonderful World (By Bob Thiele and George David Weiss)

What music do you listen to for inspiration?

Tomorrow,  7 Moving Pieces (For Happiness)

With love and music, Gaili

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Musical Endings


Today I would like to talk about musical endings.

In his wonderful book Things I Overheard While Talking To Myself,  (I love the audiobook!) Alan Alda said,

Deep in our hearts we know that the best things said come last. People will talk for hours saying nothing much and then linger at the door with words that come with a rush from the heart. Doorways, it seems, are where the truth is told.

The end of a song or piece is like a doorway. The truth of the music is revealed in the final measures with an outpouring of pure emotion moving us into silence or into the beginning of the next movement. Endings can be long or short, triumphant or tragic, lyrical or succinct, humorous or melancholic, stately or surprising, or can fade away into silence. Some are conclusive and others end with a question. As with beginnings and middles, it’s a good idea to put some thought and care into how we would like to end our piece.

Great is the art of beginning, but greater is the art of ending – Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

1) Practice your ending until you can let go of reading every note, and can move beyond the notes.

2) When you have worked your way to the final measures of a piece, think about your expression, or the emotion of the phrases. Write down a few words to describe the ending so that you can focus your mind on those emotions when you play it.

3) What tempos and dynamics will you use? Will you slow down at the end of a piece, or keep the tempo steady? Will your ending be piano or forte, or will it contain a mixture of dynamics?

4) If you are playing a popular song you can choose a wide variety of endings. You can improvise a little melody of your own. You can play some extra chords such as a minor ii7, V7, I. You can play some chord arpeggios such as the I – Major 7th. You can repeat the last few measures an octave higher, then end with a very low note.

5) Whatever type of music you are playing, make your ending count. Don’t let yourself rush through it like a horse back to the stables! Take the time to give your ending its due. What truth do you want to tell at this doorway? For Alan Alda, it was,

Oh, by the way, I love you

When you are ready,

1) Play your finished piece for someone you love and trust. Sharing your music with others is a great gift and gives your piece a sense of closure.

2) While you move on to new pieces, KEEP REVIEWING THE PIECES YOU KNOW AND LOVE.

3) If you haven’t played a piece for awhile, don’t get discouraged when you can’t play it perfectly the first time. Keep playing, and it will come back to you!

4) Write down a repertoire of about 10 pieces that you will keep in rotation. Play these pieces for yourself and/or others as often as you can.

Each time you review a piece, you will deepen your understanding of it. You will play it with increasing ease and expression over the weeks, months and years of review.

With love and music, Gaili

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A Pianists A-Z: A Piano Lover’s Reader. By Alfred Brendel                                                                       Things I Overheard While Talking To Myself. By Alan Alda



Part of being mindful in our lives is taking the time to think about how we will begin and end things. When I take a trip with friends, we sit together on the first day, to talk about how we want to spend our time together, what we want to do, and on what days we will do them. At home, some of my best days are those in which I sit for 5 minutes first thing in the morning and write down my intentions for the day.

The beginning is the most important part of the work  – Plato


Musicians also benefit from taking time at the beginning of a piece to think about how they will play it. Here are some suggestions for how to start a new piece:

1) Listen to your piece. Have your teacher play it, listen to it on Youtube or buy it on iTunes. Think about the rhythm, melody and dynamics. Listen to it until it becomes comfortably familiar to you. Like a close friend!

2) Identify the first section of the music. Working with small sections of music helps you to learn it better and faster than playing it from beginning to end.

3) Look at the notes of the right hand first. Clap and count the rhythm. Write the counts under any tricky rhythms that are giving you trouble.

4) Play the right hand notes while observing the fingering and rhythm – just take it a couple of measures at a time. Move on only when you get the notes, fingering and rhythm correct. (If it’s a popular song, sing the lyrics as you play the right hand melody.)

5) Repeat steps 3) and 4) with the left hand.

6) Put your hands together a couple of measures at a time. If you can’t maintain the rhythm and fingering, separate the hands again.

7) Move through the piece bit by bit. Learn each section thoroughly before moving on to the next section. Keep it slow and steady so that you learn it correctly.

8) Record yourself playing so that you can hear where the problem sections are. DRILL on the notes or chords that are giving you trouble. (Professional musicians spend hours working on difficult passages, so why wouldn’t we?!)

9) Take breaks every 15-20 minutes and have a drink of water, take a walk, or play something else. We remember better and more deeply when we take study breaks.

10) Each time you come back to the piano, think about the sound and emotion of your piece. Hear the melody in your head. Think about the rhythm. Breathe deeply and play at a slow and steady tempo. As my teacher Mildred Portney Chase said, play with love (for the music, for the world, and for yourself 🙂 )

11) Listen for what is correct, not just what is wrong. Celebrate your learning and your perseverance! Hear the beauty of the music as you play. Enjoy the process.

Tomorrow: Endings

With love and music, Gaili

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Egoless, part 1


I had several lovely piano teachers growing up. The teacher that influenced me the most was Mildred Portney Chase. She wrote a wonderful book called  Just Being At The Piano that I reread every couple of years. Mildred studied piano at Julliard and also had a Zen orientation. Her personality was a synthesis of Eastern meditation with Western discipline, giving equal balance to the technical and the spiritual. Mildred’s introduction says,

This book is about being able to experience the instant at the time of its being.

What did she mean by that? Mildred dedicated her life to playing without judgement, without the negative, hopeless voices telling her that she was not good enough, that she was wasting her time at the piano. Sound familiar?

Sometimes I …wondered if this journey was rational…..I discovered ways that would work for awhile and then later fail….But there was a tenacity that never left me, along with a healthy degree of anxiety.

I see this mix of tenacity and anxiety in my beloved students. If this Julliard graduate was grappling with the complexities and frustrations of playing the piano, you can forgive your own perceived obstacles. Zen writings often explore the idea of mindfulness, which Wikipedia defines as “the intentional, accepting and non-judgmental focus of one’s attention on the emotions, thoughts and sensations occurring in the present moment.” Mildred said,

Just being–at the piano–egoless–is to each time seek to reach that place where the only thing that exists is the sound and moving towards the sound.

I would like you to experiment with practicing the piano in this attitude of the egoless self. If you hear voices telling you that you’ve made another mistake, you’ll never get it, you’re no good, etc., silence those voices, and just play. Just focus on the notes, the rhythm, the sound and the feeling of the music.

I am now able to reach a state of being at the piano from which I come away renewed and at peace with myself, having established a harmony of the mind, heart and body….Even if I have only fifteen minutes at the piano…if I can reach this state of harmony…it will nourish the rest of the day.

Don’t you just love Mildred’s ideas? If she were alive today, she would come to one of our piano parties (she came to my first two recitals in the 1980s!) and delight in the beauty of each and every one of my students. She would enjoy our music without judgement. And she would play Bach for us (he was her favorite composer) sweeping us away into her experience of the music.

Today, I hope you will play your piano and get swept away by your own music.

With love and music, Gaili

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On Friday NPR premiered a new show called Invisibilia, “…a series about the invisible forces that shape human behavior.” This is the kind of show I LOVE to listen to; I’m always fascinated by what it is that drives the human mind and behavior.

Friday’s show (which was rebroadcast this morning) was called Fearless and was divided into two parts. I listened to the part called “Disappearing Fear,” discussing ways in which we can reduce our fears. A man named Jason Comely described his fear of getting rejected after his wife left him. His fear prevented him from talking to people and he became very lonely. Then he began thinking about the Spetsnaz, a Russian military unit with an intense training program.

“‘You know, I heard of one situation where they were… locked in… a windowless room, with a very angry dog….They’d only be armed with a spade, and only one person is going to get out — the dog or the Spetsnaz.’

And that gave him an idea. Maybe he could somehow use the rigorous approach of the Spetsnaz against his fear.”

Jason began to seek out rejections every day. He would ask people for favors, and smile at everyone he passed by. He turned his fear around by welcoming the thing he feared the most. Every time he got a rejection, he would say, “Thank you! I got my rejection.”

The funny thing is, Jason often found it difficult to get his daily rejections. Even when asking for discounts at stores or asking for rides from people going in the opposite direction, Jason found that people were more receptive than rejecting.

This story got me thinking about our fear of playing the piano in front of others. Performance Anxiety is a debilitating problem for us musicians. But what is the fear? It’s a given that we will probably make some mistakes, and I think that we fear that our mistakes will make us seem stupid, ridiculous and unstudied. Perhaps deep down we believe that we can’t really play, and when we perform we’re afraid that our incompetency will be revealed to the world.

What would it look like if we tried to institute Jason’s rejection therapy into our everyday life? We would seek out opportunities to have people laugh at and criticize us. And each time they would, we’d say, thank you! I got my ridicule for the day!

But do we really have to go through that torture? Jason says that people don’t judge us nearly as harshly as we judge ourselves. He says that our fears stem not from what people actually think about us, but what we think they are thinking.

“We are always, always, always telling stories to ourselves, about the situation that we’re in and about other people. And that story becomes a reality for us. And that’s the problem.”

Jason counsels us to go out there and do things like smiling at everyone, dressing much differently than usual, asking strangers for favors, and asking friends to listen to us play. We should try to elicit looks of ridicule from others so that we can practice disregarding our fear.

What stories do you tell yourself about playing the piano in front of others? Think about those stories and ask if they are really true, or if they are just the stories you habitually tell yourself. I’m sure you would not judge other piano students nearly as harshly as you judge yourself.

Maybe this year we can practice just give ourselves a break. Maybe we can say to ourselves, I’m enough. I’m great exactly as I am today. I’m not going to play flawlessly, but I’m playing well enough and I’m enjoying myself.

Thanks to my student Maggie for telling me about Invisibilia!

With love, music and taking a break from fear, Gaili



Musicality is the answer to the question, “How do we turn the notes on the page into music?” It is generally defined as the quality of being musical, or used to describe a sensitive and emotive performance. Musicality is interpreting the music in your own unique way. Musicians want to do more than play accurately, they want to tell a story with their music, and take the listener along with them.

There are things that even a beginning piano student can do to increase musicality:

  • Listen to recorded music with a critical ear. Find the melody, and listen to it getting louder and softer. Are the notes high, low or mid-range? Does the tempo fluctuate? Think about the rhythm, and the phrasing. Phrases are like musical sentences, and there are breaths or silences between them. What is the instrumentation? Is it piano music, a band with a singer or an orchestra? Which instruments are carrying the melody? Get comfortable singing along with the melody. Singing is a great way to connect to the melody, and to develop an idea of how you want your melody to sound.
  • Next, consider the melody of the piece you are playing. Play the melody alone, physically taking a breath at the end of each phrase. Use a pencil to mark the spaces between the phrases in your sheet music.
  • Once you become comfortable playing the melody notes, consider which notes you might like to play louder or softer. Sometimes musicians play notes louder as they ascend and softer as they descend, but that’s not a hard and fast rule. If you’re playing a song with lyrics, which phrases are the most important or emotional in the song? You might want to play those a little louder, then get softer on the less prominant phrases.
  • Work on playing legato, which means smoothly connecting the notes (unless they are specifically marked as staccato, or have lyrics that are to be sung in short bursts like the phrase “It’s up to you” in the song New York, New York).
  • Record your playing to hear if the rhythm sounds correct. Are the eighth notes twice as fast as the quarter notes? Tap or clap the rhythm of complicated phrases. “Getting the beat” is best accomplished by feeling the rhythm in your body, so tap the rhythm until you absolutely feel it! Once you have a good sense of the rhythm and melody, some songs and pieces allow for rubato playing, which means being free with the tempo. Discuss the appropriateness of playing rubato (i.e. speeding up and slowing down a little as you are moved to do so) with your piano teacher, or listen to other interpretations of your song on Youtube or itunes to see what other musicians have done.

More advanced students should do all of the above, including singing melodies (you can wait until you are alone in your home if you’re too shy to sing with others around!) and tapping out rhythms that you know aren’t quite there yet.

  • Think about your pedaling. Russian pianist Anton Rubinstein called the damper pedal “the soul of the piano.” The pedal not only sustains the sound between the notes, but also enriches the tone of your piano. Listen to the difference between using a half pedal (depressed halfway down) and a full pedal (depressed to the floor). Which technique sounds better for the phrase you are playing? Record yourself using the pedal both ways if you aren’t sure. Sometimes just touches of pedaling here and there delivers the most tasteful tone to your piece.
  • Think about your touch. How does your hand approach and lift from a key? Like tennis, our follow-through can affect the tone of the note. If you’ve ever watched a professional pianist, you’ve probably noticed that they can take a long time lifting their hand from the key in a slow melody. It’s not just being showy. Having an intention of how you want the key to sound affects how you approach and lift from it. Watch some of our renowned pianists such as Lang Lang, Yuja Wang and Vladimir Horowitz on Youtube and observe their hands. While I believe that economy of movement leads to better accuracy, you might want to experiment with a slow, curled, upward release of your hand from the keys for increased expression.
  • Think about your body. The ideal posture is a straight back that pivots from your derrière with relaxed shoulders. Free up your body to move forward and back with the flow of the music, but take care not to hunch over the piano to avoid shoulder and back pain.
  • Relax and lose yourself in the music. Think about a memory from your life where you felt the emotion that you wish to convey in your piece, and play from the feeling it evokes in your body. Fully release to the sound and sensations the music produces within you.

That’s musicality. Let’s talk more about it in your piano lesson!

With love and music-ality, Gaili

Check out our awesome books, free sheet music and videos! UpperHandsPiano.com