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.”
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.
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.
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.
Jazz music is built on improvisation. It is a musical language that is expressed in the moment. But how is the jazz musician able to express so creatively in that moment.
Dr. Charles Limb, a professor at the University of California, San Francisco began a study to find out how. He commissioned a non magnetic piano with plastic keys that could be played while a musician was in an MRI scanner. He not only studied musicians, but he studied free-style rappers, improvisational comedians, and caricaturists.
Some interesting observations were made. First off, "right-brained" people are not more creative. In fact, both the left and right brain are used in creativity.
He came to the conclusion that everyone is creative. But the creativity is limited by expertise. What does this come down to? Practice. Putting in the time, effort, and practice provided way to the expertise and therefore the creativity.
Would you like to read more? Here is a link to the study and a link to an article on the study.
I have now finished two weeks with Dorico. I wish I could say that I spend time with it each day, but I have had very limited time to explore. The time I have had has been very enjoyable. I've found Dorico quite easy to use. For a new user, I think I can easily say Dorico would be the easiest program to learn and the automatic layouts and intelligent decisions it makes are wonderful. I am not needing to do any editing of part other than notes and markings. The program is laying out the parts beautiful. For one like me who has used Finale and/or Sibelius, the learning curve is a little more difficult as the interface is new and different. It is probably better, but that is a tough sell when you are used to knowing where tools are and now you can't find them and even wonder occasionally if it is a feature that is implemented. Overall, though, this has been a lot of fun and it is a great program to use.
Today, I updated to the new version of Dorico which adds some great features for drum set notation as well as fingerings. I decided to put the fingerings to a test today.
I wrote a short piano arrangement to the song Greensleeves or for the Christmas season, we'll call it What Child is This. There is a moderately difficult right-hand part in the middle section that requires careful fingering. The numbering went in quite easily and I think it looks great.
Click the link below to download the PDF and enjoy this little arrangement this season!
It is time for a second blog on my trial of Dorico. If you have not read my first blog explaining this trial, you may find that a helpful place to begin. I’m taking advantage of a free 30-day trial of this new notation software from Steinberg. Almost a week has passed since I began, but with the Thanksgiving holiday leading to the weekend, this is really only day two for me. Even though it is only day two and most music notation software comes with a steep learning curve, I find I’m learning a lot and can already do a lot with this program.
As I loaded the software this morning, the quickness that it loaded caught my attention. It was so quick, that I closed the program and restarted it again just to experience it again. That quick start is a great thing. There is nothing worse than having an idea ready to explode and you are held back waiting for the computer to catch up and load.
Dorico is based on five modes. There is the “Setup Mode.” This is where you set up your “players.” Dorico handles instruments and players differently than Sibelius and Finale. Rather than setting up an instrumental line for a specific instrument, you set up players and assign instruments to them. That may be a single instrument such as if you are writing for school band or for a piano soloist. It may be a combination of players playing like instruments such as a violin section. Or it may be a musician who plays a combination of instruments where the player switches such as if you are writing for a theater pit or a sax section of a jazz band. In “Setup” you have your basic global settings. In addition to instruments, you set overall layouts of parts. Perhaps you would like the score printed in a larger format than the individual parts. This is a very easy way to set this up and while there are many situations where the part sizes may be the same, there are others, such as writing for marching band where the part size difference is very important.
“Write Mode” is where your creativity takes place. On my first day of trial last week, I spent all of my time in this mode figuring out the basics to present a very simple one-staff melody. This time, I took my simple melody and developed it out a little further for woodwind ensemble or section. A significant difference between Dorico and other notation programs is what they call “Flows.” A “flow” can be a musical idea such as a sketchbook idea, or it can be a section of what may become a larger piece. At this point, my little composition is a flow containing a basic orchestral woodwind ensemble. I can use this flow to develop a woodwind piece or perhaps my creativity will lead me to develop this into a full score. This “sketchbook” concept sets the program apart and can be very helpful for creativity. Much of the music we perform is multiple parts. We have multiple movements all making a larger work, collections of songs, and scenes in a musical.
In “Write” you enter all your notes. The goal here is to simply write music. You might even leave the time signature out and write freely. Dorico is not locked to time signature and bar lines for writing music. This is a great distinction and will be helpful for writing modern music that is ametrical. And if your music is more traditional and metrical as was in the case of my little woodwind piece, it is very easy to use a time and key signature.
Dorico is very intuitive in trying to write in a way that your musicians will understand. That is an important objective of written composition. How can I communicate my music to the musician so that they will interpret and perform it in the way I intend it to be performed? I am finding it is best to just keep writing and let the program do its work. Sometimes, this takes purposeful effort. There were times I was bothered that Dorico would start writing a tied quarter to eight as opposed to the dotted quarter I intended. I would be slowed down if I kept stopping when this would happen, but once I got used to how Dorico thinks, I learned to trust that as I kept entering notes, the tied notes would be replaced by the proper dotted quarter I intended.
As this was only my second time using the program, it was surprising to me how quickly note entry was coming to me. As I wrote in the last blog, the note entry is different than the 10-key-pad-based system where 4 is the quarter-note as in Sibelius and Finale. Here 6 is the quarter-note and it is based on the number row of a computer keyboard as opposed to the number pad. This works very well with the small keyboard without the 10-key number pad. This will work great with today’s computer systems. Mac and laptop users take note of this improvement. Note entry went very fast and I feel I am getting to be as fast for basic note entry in Dorico as I am in my other two programs.
Articulations, dynamics, and slurs were also easy to enter and there was a familiarity to this part of the interface. A positive distinctive is that everything is laid out concisely on the screen. There are no layers or multiple rulers to navigate. You’re not thinking about changing tools. You’re already in the tool—Write mode!
I will note that Dorico is very well optimized for smaller screens. Once again, another benefit for laptop users and an encouragement to creativity as you can take your composition with you and aren’t tied to programs that are best optimized for very large or multiple monitors.
I have only scratched the surface of the final three tools, so I won’t spend much time on them but will summarize. “Engrave” is a full-fledged desktop publisher. The uniqueness of putting Engrave as a separate feature is to enable the composer to focus on composition and then worry about the few little adjustments and do them in a separate place which won’t affect the overall composition. In reality, the defaults seem to be really good, so it is nice to not focus on layout until later when I can tweak just to make things a little more readable.
“Play” is similar, but from the point of playback. In my score, I wanted a Baroque separation in the bassoon part which I wrote as a staccato. The playback automatically interpreted my staccato as a very short staccato. Using the piano-roll tool in “Play,” I quickly adjusted those staccatos. Now, my score still looks correct, but the playback is interpreted properly. This provides a better demo of my composition. In a world where we are constantly listening to MP3’s and Spotify for music demos to help us learn, an actual performance example easily generated from the program will be a great help to the performer and composer. While I’m still only exploring, this seems to be a major area of improvement over the status quo.
“Print” provides everything you’d expect to print the score properly or export it a variety of graphic formats.
There is a lot to love in Dorico. I will admit that the learning curve still feels slow as I’m so familiar with Finale and Sibelius. But, that is the point of this new program. Finale and Sibelius provided a great way for notation and have been providing this for many years. It is great to see a company ask questions like, “Is there a better way?” “Is this the fastest way?” “What might a music notation software do that it currently is unable to do?”
I’ll continue having fun exploring in my thirty days of trial and will write more soon.
I love music notation software. I remember when I was much younger, trying to get my Commodore 64 to produce a satisfactory score with Music Construction Set. The copy it produced looked horrible, but it was so much fun trying.
Since that time, I grew into experimentation with Encore, MusicProse, and eventually many years working with Finale and Sibelius.
I have been reading about the development of Dorico for some time and waited to let the earliest adopters work out some of the kinks, but now it is time for my own experience with this software.
Steinberg provides an unrestricted 30-day trial just for this purpose. I decided to try it on the Mac first. Installation was easy, but the download is rather large at over 9 GB. The Steinberg Download Assistant helps manage the large download in case it would get interrupted, but didn’t have any problems.
I watched a few videos provided for the trial as I waited. These were helpful to get an idea of the new philosophy of computer music notation. From the videos, it didn't seem as if the learning curve would be too steep.
For anyone newer to music notation software, Dorico is a brand new product designed and built from the ground up by a team led by Daniel Spreadbury. Spreadbury led a team that was the brain-trust behind Sibelius, who along with Finale make up the "big two" music notation softwares. Avid Technology purchased Sibelius Software Ltd. In August 2006, and in July 2012, announced plans to divest its consumer businesses closing the London offices and laid off the original development team. Since that time, Avid has recruited some new programmers to continue the development of Sibelius.
Many of the former developers of Sibelius were hired by a software company named Steinberg to begin developing a new music notation software. They announced the project in February 2013 and the name Dorico after an Italian pioneer in music engraving from about 1500 AD, Valerio Dorico was announced in May 2016. The program was released in October of that year.
Why create a new music notation software? Competition spawns creativity and advancement! Some of the best music notation features came from the rivalry of Finale and Sibelius. They made each other better! In addition, a strength of Finale is that it has been around so long, but that becomes a weakness with regards to legacy code and even legacy methods of doing things. Sibelius also comes with the baggage of “that’s the way we’ve always done it.” Spreadbury created a great piece of software with Sibelius, but as he said from the initial announcement of this new software that perhaps the most intriguing thing that can be done with a new piece of software is being able to have another chance to change and improve some of those things he wished he would have done differently. The legacies of Finale and Sibelius are what Dorico is built on. Now, we have the opportunity to test this which may be the future of music notation software.
It was a little sad to not hear the inspiring orchestral chords of Sibelius’ 6th Symphony when the program opened as one always did when Sibelius started up, but I guess even good things can be made better. The program seemed to open quickly which is always appreciated.
Tutorials are shown as you progress from screen to screen. They are basic and to the point, but very helpful. I found that I was able to create a short piece very easily. The tools are all right in front, yet not cluttering the screen. I never once had to wonder where something was buried. The playback of my simple clarinet piece sounded as good as Finale and Sibelius' playback and again there were no glitches—something that I ran into occasionally with Sibelius.
In Finale and Sibelius, note entry is dependent on the 10-key number pad. Many computers no longer have this and my new Mac is one where this is missing. I was pleased to see that Dorico is built around the idea that the 10-key pad is unnecessary. One could easily write music without a MIDI keyboard or extended computer keyboard. The number layout is very logical, but is also completely customizable in case you have a better idea. Dorico and Sibelius are both built around the concept of duration before pitch where Finale is built with the idea of pitch before duration. Sibelius gave a courteous nod to Finale by letting pitch before duration be an optional setting so Finale users could easily migrate. In contrast to this, Dorico doesn’t give any acknowledgement to an alternative way and as Spreadbury replied on a message board where a user was asking about this, there are no current plans to add that option. In his words, “We’re duration before pitch people.” I found it relatively easy to adapt, but that will add some to the learning curve of one wanting to migrate from Finale.
One of the things I appreciate most about Sibelius is that it is really designed around the way a musician thinks—notes, articulations, dynamics all entered at the same time whereas I found Finale to be more like desktop publishing software where these “details” are more easily added after the notes. Spreadbury takes this even further with Dorico and in my short time so far, it feels even more like pure composition with a tablet of manuscript paper rather than an elaborate computer desktop publishing system. To me, that inspires creativity!
One can set up a score completely from scratch as I did for my simple clarinet piece, or one can use a template. A negative surprise that I saw when looking through templates was the glaring absence of jazz ensemble templates. I will definitely be reporting more on this in a future blog after some time to look further. I may have missed them. I saw many other ensemble options and was very surprised to not see that immediately.
This is only day one, so I really don’t have much more to say. It has been an enjoyable trial so far, and I think the rest of my thirty days will be a lot of fun as I try to take the program through its paces further and see what it can do. Stay tuned for another blog on this after a week or so!
This month's feature has been the great song "Turquoise" performed by Erroll Garner. There is no one better to explain a jazz style than Dick Hyman. Enjoy this lesson on the Erroll Garner style.