I grew up as the king of bad fingering. I can remember teachers and adjudicators criticizing my fingering all the way through my younger years. They diligently tried to instill in me good technic and logical fingering. But, the technic and fingering I used worked, so it was a tough sell to get me to unlearn one way and try to do it another. I used proper fingering in the basics such as scales, but everything else was somewhat of a free-for-all.
I think my own problem was made worse from playing jazz and improvising. If I’m improvising a technical lick or phrase, I’m improvising the fingering as well. The fingering usually worked, but wasn’t efficient. It is so easy to allow yourself to practice with and use a bad technic and not even realize the limitations it causes.
When I’m working with a student, I talk less about fingering and more about efficiency of technic. My advanced students know that I could care less what fingering they use unless it is inefficient. Our hands are different. Not only in size, but in what feels natural and is tension-free. While my students know they have flexibility in choosing a fingering that works and is comfortable for them, they know what I’m looking for is efficiency. We talk about avoiding “acrobatics.” Acrobatics cause inefficiency and likely affect the expression of the passage at best and at worst, the accuracy and consistency.
We often have to do acrobatics as we play. Liszt and Rachmaninoff filled their music with acrobatics at times, but not everything is an acrobatic and it is important to recognize when something doesn’t require acrobatics and can be performed efficiently. Just as important, we must do acrobatics consistently and with as much efficiency as possible.
Consistent and efficient fingering takes advantage of the wonderful skill each of our brains is equipped to do and that is muscle memory. It is that wonderful phenomena of learning a passage properly and never really thinking about it again--the hands just do their thing.
Why such bad fingering? Let’s change the question. Why not use the most efficient and effective way to play a technical passage and enable our muscle memory to help us learn things and be able to play them over and over accurately and expressively?
Alexander Scriabin wrote this beautiful short piece when he was only 16 years old. The piece is filled with deep emotion and a gypsy-like expressive and weeping melody. Another performance that makes Evgeny Kissin one of my favorite pianists.
Last week, our new RMM program was given a nice article in a regional newspaper. The article was well-written and gave a great description of our program, but the headline bothered me a lot. "In the Key of Fun" read the headline with a subtitle "...aiming at a wider audience by making [piano lessons] fun."
It left me with the question, "So traditional piano lessons aren't fun?"
I'm sure I used the word "fun" in the interview and am therefore the reason for that headline, but I also remember using the word "joy" many times, yet that wasn't highlighted in the story. Why is it that we crave "fun" but are mistaking a momentary emotion like "fun" or "happy" be what we are looking for when deep inside, we crave release, freedom, relaxation, all of which I feel are better encapsulated in the simple word, "joy."
Recreational Music Making has some distinctives that I am going to highlight today.
Musical expression is one of these and the greatest benefit of musical expression is a general sense of accomplishment. This improves life, builds self-esteem, increases confidence, and gives us joy.
A 2003 study by Barry Bittman, MD that was published in Focus on Caregiving showed that patients who participated in an RMM program were able to decrease the need for doctor visits due to stress. A 1998 study by Frederick Tims, Chair of Music Therapy at Michigan State University showed that elderly participants in RMM programs had increased levels of human growth hormone. Masatada Wachi published a study in the Medical Science Monitor 2007 showing workers who participated in RMM programs had less burnout. RMM has enabled companies to have less employee turnover and has proven to be an excellent team building exercise.
Those of us who are musicians understand this "joy" and this "fun." We know it is much deeper than just fun, but it helps to see actual studies that show specific benefits and improvements in those participating in a Recreational Music Making program.
That is one of the primary reasons that as we launch this new program, three of the four sessions are for adults. We know the benefit is there and hope this new class contributes to the better wellness of people in our community.
Today’s blog is unique for me in that rather than a post where I can write based on my own and my students’ experiences, I am writing on a subject I am at the beginning of my discovery and experimentation. My hope in writing in these early stages will help me to learn more from these early experiences and to encourage others to make discoveries and share them as they may help me develop my own classes to be more effective and enjoyable.
Today, I will focus on three questions:
The National Association of Music Merchants (NAMM) Foundation website (nammfoundation.org) shares several great reasons for studying and teaching music. It has been scientifically proven that studying and playing music is a benefit to people of all ages. Babies, toddlers, school-aged, working adults, and seniors have all shown a wide variety of benefits to playing and being immersed in music at their own level.
Playing an instrument enables children to do better in school and life and teens find music as their “social glue.” Adults find playing music reduces levels of stress and becomes an emotional outlet. Seniors find music making enables them to better manage diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson and they see their own self-esteem increase.
RMM is more about the experience of music-making than the outcome. Classes focus on individual process without the pressure of performance in front of others. As part of a class, even the smallest contribution adds to the whole and this experience is enjoyable and rewarding.
RMM is simply another way to learn music. It isn’t a better or a lesser way. It has a different way of reaching the same goal: to better our lives by playing music. Students who have taken traditional piano lessons for some time but are “hitting the wall” and ready to quit may find RMM just what they need to reignite their passion. Adults who always wished they could play--some who have taken lessons before and others who have never taken--should find RMM classes a great way to experience playing the piano and making music. Some RMM students may continue on semester after semester for years and others may transfer to traditional piano lessons or even using RMM as a start to another instrument altogether. RMM works together with traditional piano lessons and provides additional ways for a person to get all of the benefits of playing an instrument.
RMM can be for virtually anyone. Classes are taken together in a classroom with several electric pianos. The pressure is low and the enjoyment is high. The commitment is short 8-week mini-semesters. While having a piano or keyboard at home would be a benefit and allow the student to play and have this enjoyment at home, having an instrument to practice on is not required--in fact, practicing on one’s own is not required. This is a big distinction from traditional piano lessons.
Texas news author and columnist Dayle Shockley wrote, “Music is a gift that lasts a lifetime. While not everyone possesses the natural talent for playing well, the way I see it, a little music is better than no music at all.”
Oh my! 2019!! I am looking forward to a great new year of blogging about things that inspire me with piano playing, teaching, and listening to others. I hope you had a great season of holidays as we wrapped up 2018. My personal November and December flew by like a whirlwind as in addition to celebrating Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years and all the performances that season entails, I was married on New Year’s weekend! It was a wonderfully fun time, but kept me from writing.
With the new year, I am very excited to get back at it and have a number of articles in mind regarding piano teaching, practicing, and accompanying. Three topics that I am digging into and learning about and will begin the year with are:
A lot of great ideas and discussions ahead, but to start the year, I will share this great video of what is easily one of the most popular and recognizable piano concertos: The Grieg Piano Concerto! This is often one of the first piano concertos a pianist plays and is played beautifully and expressively in this video by Khatia Buniatishvili. Enjoy this performance and watch for new posts this January!
When I introduce a student to chord chart reading, one of two things always happens. Occasionally, the student looks at me in bewilderment and is very confused. I usually attribute this to overanalyzing. Learning music theory is very important to a musician, but I think that comes after using music theory.
Think how we learn to speak our native language. My parents did not place a dictionary in my crib or drill me with flash cards to learn vocabulary words as an infant. They said simple sentences to me, and I learned to mimick--probably saying one word such as, "potty" or "bottle." Eventually my vocabulary grew even though I didn't realize I was learning a language. Baby's soon say, "Mama" or "Daddy," "bird" or "kitty." My language grew as I grew and my one-word pre-sentences became more complete sentences. "I am hungry." "I have to go potty."
The ii-V7-I progression is very common in jazz and pop music. It is really just a small alteration of the very common classical progression, IV-V7-I. Last month, I wrote about using the chords of that progression in different ways including turning it into the blues progression to allow a student to "get off the page" and improvise.
When we change the IV chord to ii, our progression works essentially the same and we find this progression in countless jazz songs.
This is where learning the progression by sound and feel is more important than analyzing and when introducing this progression. I ask the student to simply play the notes as I give them and I give them a pattern of II-V7-I with good voice leading. Generally, I'll voice it with the third on top of the II chord and leave the 5th out and putting the minor 7th in the chord with my thumb. Then, I'll let the third become the 7th of the V7 chord and use the root and third, again leaving out the 5th. My thumb lowers 1/2 step to the third and the root jumps. Then, we move back to the I chord with the third on top, major 7th in the middle, and root on the bottom. Again, we skip the unimportant fifth of the chord to have a nice voicing. It looks like this:
We then create a progression of continuing ii-V7-I's. The third and seventh of the CM7 chord can be lowered 1/2 step each to create a C minor 7th chord which becomes the II chord to go to Bb which becomes the ii chord to go to Ab and so forth. It can be never-ending.
Students can learn the progression, develop some muscle memory, and learn to easily recognize the pattern in pieces. It is a fun exercise, but only if the student just imitates and doesn't over-analyze or over-think. The student who frees themself to learn and internalize this simple progression will make tremendous steps to moving forward in their ability to express and play the piano.
A piece that is undoubtedly one of the most recognizable and loved piano pieces of all times, the Moonlight Sonata--as we usually refer to it--wasn't titled that by Beethoven. The first edition of the piece was titled, Sonata quasi una fantasia which translates to, "sonata in the manner of a fantasy" or even "sonata played as if improvised." The "moonlight" name came from the German music critic, Ludwig Rellstab who described the first movement as moonlight shining on Lake Lucerne. The moonlight description stuck, and today it is thought of as the Moonlight Sonata.
Daniel Barenbaum performs this piece beautifully and expressively and the "fire" in the third music is very exciting.
I was performing in a concert just last night and talked with two other musicians who are very talented rock musicians, but both said they play only by ear and can't read music at all. They had both taken classical piano lessons, but found the traditional lessons irrelevant to what they really wanted to do, so they quit. A statement like that always strikes me a little sad. These musicians are top-notch and don't need to read music, but my question is always, why not? It is unfortunate, their teachers didn't find a way to connect their desires with the important foundation they were learning in the traditional lessons.
I think as piano teachers, we often lose a student's interest when we focus on note reading as the key to reading music rather than chords. We fail to help the student achieve what they really want to do and keep a student in a curriculum limited to classical music. Note reading is important, and one simply cannot play traditional "classical" literature without reading notes, but often a student becomes great a reading music, but has no understanding of what they are reading. They become robotic, computer playbacks without truly knowing the music they are playing. I've witnessed talented college music majors who are unable to play "Happy Birthday" for their friend unless they had sheet music!
A knowledge of chords and chord reading can be the key to help a piano student unlock a whole new world of understanding music and even open doors to new interests such as pop music and jazz.
Most piano teachers teach scales and along with the scales is usually chord patterns. The chord pattern is usually taught is I-IV-I-V (or V7)-I. Along with that, most teachers probably help their students understand basic theory such as the names of the chords and scale degrees such as tonic, sub-dominant, and dominant. Of course, this flows naturally into understanding the dominant 7 chord.
Too often, we leave it at that point as teachers. If our students have this simple progression learned, let's take it a step further. The subdominant leading through dominant and back home to tonic is foundational in all kinds of music, but we also see the backwards cadence used often in contemporary music: V-IV-I. Allowing a student to explore this backwards cadence can be great fun and a wonderful way to explore some new styles. Encourage to use multiple keys. Make sure they understand the classical scale degrees, but also help them to see chord patterns calling the chord names what they are: G -F- C for example.
Take this a step further and change the progression to I-I-I-I-IV-IV-I-I-V-IV-I-I with each chord taking four beats. You've now taught them the 12-bar blues pattern using chords and voicings they are already know. Show them the many places the 12-bar blues pattern is used through blues, rock, gospel, and country music. Encourage them to explore, play the pattern in multiple keys and discover melodies of songs they know. With this simple step, you've introduced them to blues and are allowing them to improvise in a natural way. You might introduce the blues scale at this time, or perhaps move on to something completely different like a song they would like to learn and play.
I would encourage introducing the Nashville system of chord reading at this point. There is such a easy flow from the classical system to the Nashville and it encourages the student to think about the music theory. The student will have a great grasp of the music theory behind the chords they are playing by learning this system.
Be sure to have them also read the progression from the chord note names as well: such as C-F-G-C. Encourage them to experiment with 7th chords. In classical music, the dominant 7th always leads back to tonic. That doesn't always happen in pop, blues, and jazz. The blues progression cries out to be played with all dominant 7th chords. But, encourage them to try it with major 7ths and minor 7ths as well. As long as you're now talking bout 7ths, you might as well explain diminished and augmented 7ths as well.
A final step in this little set of exercises based off the common student chord progressions is to introduce 6 chords. The 6th chord is a great place to start with introducing the wide variety of interesting chords we have in our musical palette. 6ths are easy to find and make a pleasing sound. Once they are confortable with that idea, set them free. Challenge them to find 9ths, 11ths, 13ths... The sky is the limit when we alter one of those notes.
By now, the student is freed from the confines of the simple chord progression we started with and is hopefully starting to understand and feel free to try things and do something new. The key is listening to oneself when playing.
These steps could be developed over a couple weeks or several months as there are no limits to what a student might do. Eventually, one will want to explore some new chord progressions. My favorite to introduce at this time is the first chord progression I introduce to a beginning jazz piano student: ii-V7-I. Next time, we'll talk about the great fun a student can have with this foundational progression in jazz music.
It was a recent online discussion I had about 21st century piano composers that drew my attention to David Chesky's piano concertos. Chesky molds the inspiration of his eclectic stylistic interests and experiences into his composition. This concerto is inspired by the frantic pace of his adopted home, New York City. You'll hear jazz and classical ideas and inspiration in this exciting work.
Every piano teacher has had a student who has said this. Sadly, too many piano teachers don't know how to respond to that request.
Some immediately respond with a short sermon on the importance of classical literature and why this is so important to learn and that we should not get distracted by anything that will take our attention away from our goal.
That answer is very unsatisfactory to me and I think most students. Wanting to learn to play the music they love and listen to is not necessarily saying they don’t want to learn classical literature. I also think it is a short-sighted idea that music can only be learned from something that is old and written centuries ago. Perhaps “our goal” should be exactly that, and with that request, playing music of today is part of that shared goal to grow and develop as a musicians.
To be honest, I think most teachers respond with a bad answer because they simply don’t know how to teach a student the songs they listen to. Usually, the only options a teacher has is to do what they do with classical music and seek printed music. As a teacher, we might seek out a collection of popular music arranged for the student’s level and believe this is going to meet the need.
Sadly, this usually goes poorly as well. Songs hit the radio, Spotify, or iTunes and have instant popularity with our students. In contrast, it takes 6 or 10 months or even more for it to get noticed by a print music publisher, and then and even more time for it to get to an arranger. By the time it goes through arranging, editing and on a company’s publishing schedule two years may have passed. How many 6th graders do you know that want to play the music they liked as a 4th grader. That is a lifetime ago to them! They want to play the music they listen to right now. Even if a publisher could speed up that timetable the printed arrangements always come up short in other ways. The rhythms aren’t quite right, or the key is changed.
As a piano teacher, we can see either an opportunity or an impossibility. In a short series of a articles, I’d like to discuss the opportunity we have as teachers when a student approaches us with this request. Today, I’ll give an overview and we’ll dig into these ideas in subsequent postings.
First, we must recognize that this is an opportunity to train the young musician’s ear. Ear training or aural musicianship is a very important part of a music education. Unfortunately, it is also one that is neglected.
We don’t have music to read? Let’s learn the song by ear! I’ll bet that is even the way the performers learned it. Why shouldn’t we? Think of the opportunities we have to teach intervals, as well as recognize chords, note patterns, and rhythms.
Speaking of chords, this is a great time to put a practical use to those chord progressions we drill through our students to practice with their scales. The truth is that those same classical chord progressions are used in pop music. They are not always used in the same way, but chords are chords and this foundation the student already has is a great place to build.
As they learn to understand and play chords, we can help them understand pop chord notation. What a great time to teach a student how to read a guitar chart with lyrics and chords only. A student who is beginning to excel in that or one that has done well with Roman numeral chords will be fascinated by the Nashville system for chords and the practicality of it for a studio musician. Yet another great opportunity to teach and challenge your student!
Speaking of practicality, learning to play by ear and growing in one’s understanding of chords and the way music is written can help a student become a great sight reader and can open doors to accompanying, playing in a school jazz band or on a church worship team. As teachers, we should be raising up students who can fill these roles and have these skills.
So that is the overview. In my next article, will focus on chord reading and playing. In the meantime, see if you can think of other benefits to broaden--not replace--a student’s musical education by helping them learn to play what they love to listen to.