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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If you study piano with me, you learn and practice chords. Chords are the foundation of all music (except for atonal or very modern pieces). If you were to analyze your music you would find chords in every measure. Therefore, knowing your chords helps you to understand the music which in turn helps you to learn it better and faster. Today I’d like to start with the four basic triads (3-note chords): MAJOR, MINOR, DIMINISHED and AUGMENTED.

They say that music is mathematical and I’d like to show you why. All chords are formed according to specific patterns or formulas.

Click here to watch my demonstration of chord formulas. 

Here are the formulas for the four basic triads:

MAJOR:                                                                                                                                                             4 half steps from root to middle note (3rd) , 3 half steps from middle note (3rd) to top note (5th). In C:  C E G

MINOR:                                                                                                                                                             3 half steps from root to middle note (flatted 3rd) , 4 half steps from middle note (flatted 3rd) to top note (5th). In C:  C  E-flat G

DIMINISHED:                                                                                                                                                             3 half steps from root to middle note (flatted 3rd) , 3 half steps from middle note (flatted 3rd) to top note (flatted 5th). In C:  C  E-flat G-flat

AUGMENTED:                                                                                                                                                             4 half steps from root to middle note (3rd) , 4 half steps from middle note (3rd) to top note (sharp 5th). In C:  C  E  G-sharp


You can use each formula for each of the 12 keys – for example, you can figure out that an A-flat Major chord is  A-flat  C  E-flat by counting the half steps. Try this starting from a few different keys. Watch the video again if it’s not quite making sense yet. Thanks for watching!

With love and music, Gaili

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Egoless, part 2

Today I am continuing on with some of the lessons I learned from my piano teacher, Mildred Portney Chase, and her book,  Just Being At The Piano.

Imagine taking a break from grading your playing today and instead focusing on seeing…listening…feeling…moving…. According to Mildred, this is the only way to produce a beautiful sound on the piano.  As a child, I used to secretly roll my eyes when she would ask, “Did you play that with love?” It seemed too touchy-feely back then and I just tried to give her what she wanted. But as I matured, I realized how much my emotional state affected my playing. Mildred said,

Time spent at the piano can be an insightful journey inward, the pleasure deepening with the years….The so-called amateur may play from the heart even if her proficiency is not on the highest level.

She believed that when we focus on our mistakes and compare our playing with others, we not only lose the joy of learning, but we make it impossible to progress as musicians.

Love is the most important quality to bring to any task. Love draws all that we have within us to the action in which we are involved….It heightened the senses; it allows self-acceptance and total involvement.

So how do we bring love to a task? We find love through gratitude. We practice seeing the beauty and wonders all around us. We take time to appreciate our life, our health, our home, our loved ones, nature, music, and the things in our lives that bring us joy.

How do we move towards total involvement? Like any other skill, it takes practice. Zen masters talk about carrying out mundane activities with mindfulness. If you’re in a train station, be aware of all that is around you. The sound of the train, the faces of the people, the smells and your feelings in the moment. If you’re washing dishes feel the surface of the plate and the warmth of the water, smell the soap, watch the movements of your arms and hands, listen to the sounds of the running water and clinking silverware.

Though we may not be able to live mindfully every moment as the masters do, we can practice it daily in our chores or activities, then bring that heightened sense of awareness love and gratitude to our playing.

Only from that state of total involvement can you begin to play in the way in which you dream.

Thanks Mildred!

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

Playing An Instrument Is Like Fireworks In Your Brain!

I recently came upon this Ted Ed lesson on how playing an instrument is like fireworks going off in your brain!

Through delightful animation, Anita Collins shows us that playing a musical instrument gives a huge boost to our brains.

She tells us that “disciplined, structured practice strengthens brain functions, allowing us to apply that strength to other activities.”

If you ever wondered why it’s so difficult learning to play the piano, consider this:  “Playing a musical instrument engages practically every area of the brain at once.” [We piano players leave crossword puzzle solvers and new language learners in our dust!]


Click below to watch the 4:44 minute video. I know you’ll enjoy it!

Playing an Instrument Benefits Your Brain!

With love and music, Gaili

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Great New Finger Exercise

Today I want to show you a new exercise I have adapted from an exercise by Theodore Leschetizky [lesh-uhtit-skee]. Leschetizky (22 June 1830 – 14 November 1915) was a polish pianist and composer, and a well-known piano teacher. He had studied with Carl Czerny, who had in turn studied with Ludwig van Beethoven. Leschetizky was famous for saying:

No art without life, no life without art.

Leschetizky taught that in order to create a beautiful sound on the piano, you must study your music thoroughly and gain control of your fingers through exercise.  His finger exercise isn’t easy but it’s fun to play and yields great results. Click here to view my demonstration video:

Leschetizky Exercise at UpperHandsPiano channel on Youtube

Thanks for watching!

With love and music, Gaili

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Lingering on the Fingering

One day when I was perusing a charming used book shop in London, I came upon this prize of a book, written in 1946 by Victor Booth. Originally from New Zealand, Dr. Booth was a beloved piano professor at the Royal Academy of Music in London. He writes very elegantly about ways that piano teachers can help students form good habits.

Dr. Booth says that we must “make the fingers the servants of the mind” (p.46). He wrote about music and the brain way before it became an international fascination!

When we are first learning a piece, we often say that we will learn the notes first, then figure out the fingering later. But Dr. Booth suggests that we play the notes with the proper fingering from the outset. Neuroscience bears this out. When we play something for the first time we imprint those first impressions on our mind. According to Dr. Booth,

“…very conscious, slow, early efforts of associating certain fingers with certain notes eventually merges into the subconscious muscular actions of …performance.”  (p.26)

When approaching a piece, play small passages slowly with the suggested fingering; if you don’t like the fingering, change the finger numbers right away so that your brain associates each note with a particular finger. If there are passages without printed fingering, decide what fingering you will use, write it in, and stick with it!

Dr. Booth believes that “all learning is memorizing in some form or other” and that we can use our “finger memory” (p. 79) to help us to learn the notes more quickly. This is not easy! It’s human nature to want to play the notes quickly at the beginning so that we can hear the melody and connect to the music. A better strategy might be to have your teacher play the music for you, or listen to it  on Youtube before you try it yourself. Then when you play it, take the time to observe the fingering along with the notes.

Do you have any thoughts, feelings or observations about fingering? I love comments, even if you disagree with me (and Dr. Booth!)

Tomorrow I will show you a new finger strengthening exercise from another one of my piano gurus. Thanks for following my blog!

With love and music, Gaili

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Pledge to Play 10 Minutes A Day
Pledge To Play 10 Minutes A Day

Today we start our pledge to play 10 minutes a day, for 30 days. Even if you can’t commit to playing every day, I hope you won’t mind receiving my emails for the next month, filled with practice tips and musical and motivational information. I love this pledge because it helps us to get focused and to develop good practice habits. We are often so busy that we don’t even have 10 minutes to sit down and do something for ourselves. However for the next 30 days, I hope you’ll make the time. Maybe you can play for 10 minutes before you go to bed, or first thing in the morning. (Research shows that we’re the most creative, receptive and open-minded at these times, when we’re a little sleepy! I believe it’s because we’re less self-critical and we just PLAY.)

So… if you intend on keeping this pledge, what will you do with that time? Ten minutes a day will add up to 70 minutes per week, and 280 minutes for the month, or 4 hours and 40 minutes! That’s a good chunk of practice time. And chances are, once you sit down at the piano, you’ll play for more than 10 minutes on most days, anyway. (But don’t feel that you have to; even 10 minutes will be great!)

Get out a piece of paper or open up your journal and think about what your goals might be. Be specific! Just writing, “I’d like to become a better piano player” isn’t going to help you to focus on clearly defined goals that can elevate your playing to the next level. Here are some suggestions:

1- Identify difficult passages in your music where you make mistakes, or you hesitate. Practice those few measures every day for 10 minutes until you can play the whole line of music without hesitating. Then do the same with other difficult passages.

2- Decide which one of your songs or pieces you love the best, and practice it every day for 10 minutes. Make this your go-to song when someone says, “play me something!”

3- If you’re a more advanced player, open any music book and sight read for your 10 minutes.

4- Work on an exercise or review your chords in all 12 keys.

5- Formulate other specific goals such as,

 I will learn one page of my current piece by the end of the 30 days

I will learn a new (short) song

I will learn an exercise in all 12 keys without looking

I will improvise every day

I will write a song about ___________

Write down a couple of goals for your pledge now; you can add new goals as you accomplish these. Remember, practicing more than 10 minutes is wonderful. But this pledge is about playing every day. Dedicate the first 10 minutes of your daily practice session to your goal. After your dedicated 10 minutes you can either stop playing, or go on to playing other things.

If you feel like it, share your goal(s) with us (in the comment section below) so that we can support you and you can deepen your commitment to your goal.

Thanks for taking this pledge with me! We can do it together!

With love and music, Gaili

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