Now that July 4th has passed, you might be thinking about things you would like to accomplish this summer. Many students find it helpful to come up with a few musical goals to complete by Labor Day. (I always seem to organize my time in terms of seasons and holidays!) To put the passion back into your practice, focus on your favorite piece.
Research shows that we best remember what we practice first and last during our practice session, so play your favorite music first! For example if you are playing two pieces, an exercise and some chords,
1st – Begin your favorite piece by practicing the difficult passage(s) 5x first, then start from the beginning and enjoy it from beginning to end. Keep going even if you make a mistake
2nd – Practice your exercise(s) to strengthen and improve your piano “technique”
3rd – Play your other piece, or the pieces you would like to review for your repertoire
4th – Practice your chords or do other non-reading musical activities
5th – Go back to your favorite piece. Practice the difficult sections again, then play it from the beginning. Enjoy the sound of your music without judgement. Don’t look for perfection; hear the beauty instead of fixating on the mistakes
If you would like to review the principles of practicing using what we know about the BRAIN, click on this post:
I have stopped posting about the music/art/dance of Spain, Italy and Greece via my recent tour because I received many complaints and unsubscribes. It is not my intention to fill your email box with content that doesn’t interest you, and I am SO sorry if that was the case for you. If you would like to hear more about music in Spain, Italy and Greece please “reply” or comment below this post. Perhaps if I included one “musicology” post per month that wouldn’t be too much? Too me, all music information is good information! But perhaps you prefer me to limit this blog to practice tips, musical brain news and free sheet music? Let me know your thoughts.
Upper Hands Piano: Songs of the Seasons, SPRING is now available on Amazon.com! Classical pieces include Vivaldi’s Spring, Bach’s Sleepers Wake, and Mendelssohn’s Spring Song. Holiday songs include Dayenu (Passover), De Colores (Cinco de Mayo), Battle Hymn of the Republic (Memorial Day), A Tisket A Tasket (Easter) and fun songs for Mother’s and Father’s Day. Popular songs include April Showers, Glow Worm, The Flowers That Bloom in the Spring, and Scott Joplin’s Silver Swan Rag.
As with our Songs of the Seasons, Winter and Autumn books, we have suggested some musical goals In the back of the SPRING book. Here is an excerpt:
Goals for Spring:
Focus On Chords:
Focus on reviewing all of the basic chords this spring. Chords are the foundation of all music (with the exception of atonal pieces). If you were to analyze your pieces, both classical and popular, you would find chords in every measure. Review the major triads in all 12 keys. Then minor, diminished, and augmented triads. Next play all of the major triads in 1st inversion. When you know the 1st inversions well, review 2nd inversions. If you have gotten as far asUpper Hands Piano, Book 3, review 6ths, 7ths and major 7ths in every key. Having instant familiarity with your chords will help you to be able to identify them in music, which will enable you to learn your pieces deeper, better and faster. To learn more about chords, search for “chords” at blog.UpperHandsPiano.com
March 20th is the spring equinox, when night and day are equal in length. It’s a great time to think about bringing balance into your life; eating healthy along with enjoying a few treats, exercising your body along with stimulating your mind and relaxing at the piano. There are many ways to consider balance in your musical studies. Think about your posture: The ideal posture is a straight back that pivots from your derrière, with relaxed shoulders and feet flat on the floor. Piano players strive for dynamic balance, which is the ability to play one hand softer or louder than the other, as needed. Search for “The Art Of Balance” at blog.UpperHandsPiano.com to watch our Youtube video demonstrating exercises to help you increase dynamic balance.
As always, thanks so much for your support! Now we are back to finishing our piano method series, with Upper Hands Piano, BOOK 4. When BOOK 4 is completed, I hope to get back to weekly blogging about issues related to piano lessons for adults 50+. I miss writing my blog posts and hearing your observations, ideas and concerns!
I am seeing the first blossoms and blooms and enjoying birdsong here in Los Angeles. Don’t you just love the first blooms?!
May you enjoy the renewal of spring!
With love and music, Gaili
PS – All Upper Hands Piano books are available on Amazon! Or check them out on our website. Thanks!
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:
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:
BLACK KEY IMPROVISATION
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.
Today I would like to begin exploring the possibility of you improvising.
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.
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.
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…”
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 othersas 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 forperformance 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?
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 seemsto 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
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.
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.