Playing Piano for Brain Health

Today I saw the film, Still Alice, starring Julianne Moore as a 50-year-old professor suffering from a rare type of early onset Alzheimer’s Disease. It breaks your heart to watch Alice losing her ability to communicate:

I can see the words hanging in front of me and I can’t reach them, and I don’t know who I am or what I’m going to lose next…

Besides winning accolades for Julianne Moore’s performance, Still Alice is raising awareness of the isolation experienced by sufferers of Alzheimer’s and dementias. In the film, Alice says, “I wish I had cancer” because of the shame and helplessness she feels about having Alzheimer’s.

Often cited as the #1 fear amongst older adults, scientists still don’t know what causes Alzheimer’s disease. According to the New York Times, it affects more than 5 million Americans and another 8 million people worldwide.

According to a CNN report, the good news is that with exercise, a good social life and music lessons, we might have a fighting chance against Alzheimer’s.

Dr. Brenda Hanna-Pladdy, an assistant professor of neurology at Emory University, believes that neural pathways in the brain that have been strengthened by music lessons, compensate to delay the damaging effects of aging. Her research has demonstrated that music lessons, even for amateurs, “provides a cognitive benefit that can last throughout a person’s life.”

If you read my blog post Fireworks in Your Brain, you’ll remember the animated short telling us that playing a musical instrument gives our brains a huge boost because it engages practically every area of the brain at once.

Although starting lessons as a child is advantageous, Hanna-Pladdy has shown that even playing music at an advanced age promotes improved cognitive functioning, and may stave off Alzheimer’s.

But there is one caveat…you must play for at least 10 years! If you already take piano lessons, this will come as no big surprise. Learning an instrument takes time, patience and will power.

I hope you will keep on playing your way to good health, happiness and beauty.

With love and music, Gaili


THE BEST WAYS TO PRACTICE using the latest brain research

Recent studies showing how the brain acquires and stores new information can revolutionize our practice habits. Using these new findings, we can learn how to play our instruments faster, and retain the information much better.

We often get frustrated wondering why we played a musical passage over and over, then forgot it the next day. Only to remember it again the day after. “What’s going on in my brain?” you might ask. Recently our blog friend Nancy asked for practice suggestions after she observed: “sometimes after playing a piece, or even practicing scales or chords several times I start making more mistakes…”

Using data from the highly acclaimed book, Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning (Harvard University Press), I’d like to help you to make your practice time more effective.

Here’s a paragraph from the book that we will keep referring back to [underlining and asterisks mine]:

Most of us believe that learning is better when you go at something with single-minded purpose: the practice-practice-practice that’s supposed to burn a skill into memory….While practicing is vital to learning and memory, studies have shown that practice is far more effective when it’s broken into separate periods of training that are spaced out. The rapid gains produced by massed practice* (repetition) are often evident, but the rapid forgetting that follows is not. Practice that’s spaced out*, interleaved* with other learning, and varied* produces better mastery, longer retention, and more versatility.” (p.47)

Now let me define the underlined terms for you.

*Massed practice is when we play something over and over again. It seems to get easier in the short run, but repetitive practice alone does not get your music embedded into your long-term memory.

Cramming for exams is an example. Rereading and massed practice give rise to feelings of fluency … (p. 3) and it may get you through the next day’s midterm. But most of the material will be long forgotten by the time you sit down for the final (p.48).

Alternatives to massed practice:

If you are working on a difficult musical passage, do play it over until you feel that you understand what is going on in that passage. Play it, and analyze the music. Do the notes go up or down? Are they moving in half steps or larger intervals? What is happening in the accompaniment? What chord is being played broken or in block form? Trying humming the melody while playing the accompaniment. Try clapping the rhythm while counting. Then play it again. Once you have practiced the musical passage and feel that you understand it, move onto something else. If you played early in the day, practice it again before you go to bed. You will learn a new musical skill better if you Sleep On It!

The next day you will probably forget much of it. In fact “we lose something like 70 percent” of what we’ve just learned, very quickly. (p.28)

*Spaced practice means that we need to leave time in between our practice session for some forgetting to set in. After we forget something, it is more difficult to relearn it. But that difficulty makes us learn it better!

Learning is deeper and more durable when it’s effortful. [Repetitive] learning that [seems] easy is like writing in sand, here today, gone tomorrow. (p. 3)

Spacing out your practice might feel less productive than “massed” or repetitive practice. However, you’ll see that eventually, spacing out practice really works better.

Spacing out your practice feels less productive for the very reason that some forgetting has set in and you’ve got to work harder to recall the concepts….What you don’t sense in the moment is that this added effort is making the learning stronger. (p 48)

Spaced practice is more effective because in order for us to store new skills and information into long-term memory, we require a process of “consolidation.” Consolidation is the brain connecting new information to prior knowledge, which may take several days.

The increased effort required to retrieve the learning after a little forgetting has the effect of retriggering consolidation, further strengthening memory.” (p.49)

How long must the intervals between practice be?

[Long] enough so that practice doesn’t become a mindless repetition. At a minimum, enough time so that a little forgetting has set in. A little forgetting between practice sessions can be a good thing if it leads to more effortful practice, but you do not want so much forgetting so that retrieval essentially involves relearning the material.The time periods between sessions of practice let memories consolidate. Sleep seems to play a large role in memory consolidation.

*Interleaved practice means that you should alternate practicing your troublesome musical passages with other skills such as finger exercises, sight reading, clapping and counting phrases, analyzing the musical structure, playing scales, practicing chords, reviewing old pieces, listening to your pieces on iTunes or Youtube etc., playing with your eyes closed, exercising your body, taking deep breaths and snack breaks….and other activities!

Here is another interesting revelation for me that the best athletic coaches know: you don’t need to learn your exercise or musical passage perfectly before practicing something else.

 Interleaving the practice of two or more…skills is a more potent alternative to massed practice. (p 49) In interleaving you don’t move from a complete practice set of one topic (or skill) to go to another. You switch before each practice is complete….It’s more effective to distribute practice across…different skills than [to] polish each one in turn. (p.65)

*Varied practice means practicing under various circumstances. Practice on different pianos or keyboards whenever possible. Practice in front of others as well as alone. Play with the TV on. Practice while standing up and dancing. Practice when you’re hungry or when you’re tired. When you first wake up and before you go to bed. Practice with one hand behind your back. Try playing the bass notes with your right hand and the treble notes with your left (with hands separately!). Turn the music upside down and practice a few measures that way! Practice everything an octave higher or lower. Play backwards, from the end towards the beginning. Practice with or without the pedal (whatever is different for you). Play air-piano 🙂 reading the notes while playing in the air. Memorize a few measures. Practice while swaying your body with the beat. Practice with a metronome. Play the accompaniment while you sing the melody. Practice while tapping your foot to the beat. Try lifting your feet while you play. Practice in candlelight. Practice while chewing gum. Practice while smiling. Practice while crying or chanting or humming. Get the picture? This is great for the brain, helpful for performance anxiety, and leads to increased musical mastery.

Varied practice…improves your ability to transfer learning from one situation and apply it successfully to another…Recent neuroimaging studies show that different kinds of practice engage different parts of the brain….(p.51). Like interleaving, varied practice….helps learners reach…to higher levels of conceptual learning and application, building more rounded, deep and durable learning….(p 65)

There’s one more thing I want to add before letting you go back to your piano playing, Take some time to think about your music between your practice sessions. This is a process called *reflection:

One difference between those who do and don’t [learn] is whether they have cultivated the habit of reflection….Reflection can involve several cognitive activities that lead to stronger learning: connecting [prior knowledge] to new experiences, and visualizing what you might do differently next time….Reflection is a form of retrieval practice (what happened? What did I do? How did it work out?), enhanced with elaboration (What would I do differently next time?) (pp.27,66)

Keeping a notebook at your piano is a great strategy. Write down what your musical challenges were today so that you can revisit them tomorrow.

Though now we have the scientific proof to back it up, this information has been known for a long time! The philosopher Aristotle wrote,

Exercise in repeatedly recalling a thing strengthens the memory

If you have being paying attention (I hope you haven’t nodded off– this is a long post!), you know that you will need to reread this post many times before you remember the information! Remember to *space out your readings over several days, *interleaving  it with other studies, *varying the circumstances under which you read it, then *reflecting on what it means to you and your practice. If you don’t do these things, you will forget about 70% of this information by tomorrow!

Thanks to our blog friend Nancy for asking the questions, Do you have suggestions for practicing techniques? How much repetition is good? which inspired this vast tirade of mine. What are your thoughts?

With love and music, Gaili

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

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
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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.

7 Moving Pieces (For Happiness)

Some music just puts a smile on your face. Whether you need cheering up or whether you just want to hear music that resounds with what you’re already feeling, these 7 pieces should make you break out in grins, or maybe even get up and dance!

What pieces make you happy?



Spring, from The Four Seasons (By Antonio Vivaldi)

Overture, from Marriage of Figaro (By Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart)

Pastorale, Symphony No. 6 (By Ludvig van Beethoven)

Voices of Spring, (By Johann Strauss)

Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic, (By The Police)

L-O-V-E, (By Bert Kaempfert and Milt Gabler) 

Happy, (From the animated film, Despicable Me 2, By Pharrell Williams)

Tomorrow, Moving Pieces (For Anger)

With love and music, Gaili

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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The latest food studies show that WALNUTS are at the top of the list of “brain foods.” Researchers at the David Geffen School of Medicine at The University of California, Los Angeles have found that eating a small handful of walnuts per day can improve your memory! And they help you to lose weight by filling you up with omega-3s.

The British newspaper The Telegraph reported today on six additional snacks that are good for the mind:

1) Along with walnuts, SALMON is also rich in omega-3 fatty acids which are important nutrients for the heart and the brain. If you can’t find wild caught salmon, you can also try fish oil supplements. 

2) A study out of Tufts University showed that BLUEBERRIES can actually reverse memory loss, and improve balance and coordination. Antioxidants found in blueberries have also been shown to prevent macular degeneration and maintain eye health.

3) One of my favorite foods, AVOCADOS contain extremely healthy unsaturated fats, which help to keep brain cell membranes flexible. I like to spread avocado on rice cakes, or smash it with a little lemon and salt as guacamole into which I dip raw veggies like carrots and celery. 

4) WHOLE GRAINS such as brown rice, quinoa, barley and oats (steel-cut or oat “groats)) provide another source of healthy brain food. Prepare your grains whole then refrigerate leftovers instead of reaching for bread or pasta.

5) People who eat lots of BROCCOLI perform better on memory tests. Here’s what the experts say about broccoli’s nutrients: 

Vitamin K helps to strengthen cognitive abilities while Choline has been found to improve memory. Broccoli also includes a sizeable serving of folic acid, which can help ward off Alzheimer’s disease. Studies suggest that a lack of folic acid could lead to depression, so eating plenty of broccoli could also keep you happy.

6) Here’s the best news of all; DARK CHOCOLATE is great for your brain! The flavanols found in cocoa improve blood flow to the brain which improves cognitive function and verbal fluency in older adults. My favorite hot drink is to mix raw cocoa powder with almond milk. Drinking this throughout the day instead of eating is my best weight control secret!

Are you hungry now? What other brain foods do you enjoy?

With love and music, Gaili

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