Even Michael Jackson Made Mistakes?!

Earlier this summer I was shopping and met a 20 year-old sales clerk who discovered that I taught piano. While he admired his favorite musicians on the radio, he had never studied any musical instruments himself, nor had he ever spoken with a real life musician before. I learned that he thought that all professional musicians were perfect and never made mistakes.

I took the opportunity to give him a reality check. Guess what? Even Michael Jackson made mistakes. When I told him that, he was completely shocked. Here was someone he admired, and he thought was perfect. The truth, however, was Michael Jackson was a human, and humans do make mistakes, especially when they are learning.

I also clarified that Michael Jackson prepared his music so well, and knew it so well, that he didn’t make that many mistakes in performances, but when he did, he knew how to keep going and not draw attention to it. Was Michael Jackson immune from making mistakes? No. This sales clerk was in disbelief.
I took it a step further. If Michael Jackson was still alive, you could ask him, “Tell me the worst public mistakes you’ve ever made.” And, he would be able to tell you.

I think I blew this young sales clerk’s mind that day. But also, I was hoping to open the door of possibility of his own potential. These people that you admire and are older than you, they are also just like you. They also had to start in the same place you started. Guess what you have in common? You are both human. And what is the one universal requirement for playing a musical instrument? A human body.

It’s easy to admire our favorite musicians from afar, no matter the style of music they play or sing, and forget that they are simply a human being who put time, energy and focus into refining their craft.

That same time, energy and focus is available to all of us to choose where we want to spend it.

We are fortunate to have so many opportunities available to us. The question everyone gets it answer for themselves is where do you want to spend your time, energy and focus?

If you’d like to spend yours learning how to play the piano, or taking your playing to the next level, give us a call at 360-527-9626. We’d love to help reach your dreams.

Listening to Your Gut

Learning to play the piano takes many skills all rolled into one musician. Oftentimes we don’t realize just what it takes until we take lessons ourselves. Even then, a good teacher only hands out the information as the student is ready. Too much too soon can be overwhelming. Likewise, not enough information creates boredom.

How do we know when it’s too much or not enough? That is the magic question, and one that I encourage students to begin to recognize the answer to within themselves as they grow up.

Many times students will do what a teacher asks simply because the teacher said it. While I’m all for respecting teachers, I’m more interested in a collaborative relationship with a student, where if I suggest something that is overwhelming to them, they feel comfortable saying so.

However, sometimes students don’t know how to articulate what they feel in their body, nor what it means.

I once suggested to a student to learn “x” for next week. I saw his body language change ever so slightly, and so I asked, “Does that feel do-able to you?” At a loss for words, he didn’t know. I asked, “What do you feel in your body? Are there knots?” Sure enough, there were. So I told him, “This means that what I’ve asked you to do is too much.”

So I broke the task down into smaller tasks, one for each day of the week. Suddenly that big task didn’t look so daunting after all. Then I asked, “How does that feel?” With a smile on his face he replied, “Yes, I can do that.”

Learning to play the piano from a place of curiosity without fear, nor anxiety, can be a lot of fun. Each time knots appear in our stomach, no matter how small, we can acknowledge them and let them give us information about what we are doing. Does our body want us to go slower? Does it want the task broken down into smaller tasks over several days?

The answers are endless, and they are found within us. How do we know we’re on the right track? The knots will transform into curiosity and enthusiasm, and even a smile on your face. You’ll feel like you can do it, and you can’t wait to try. How fun is that?!

Two More Reasons to Count Aloud

Just this past week in my own piano practice and in helping a student practice I was reminded of two more benefits of counting aloud.

1. Improved memory. I was working on refining my memory on a piece I had been working on, and I realized that in one particular part, I wasn’t aware of exactly how all the notes fell on the beats. I was never quite sure exactly when one phrase ended and the next one began. So I decided to count aloud as I played, and low and behold, all the notes suddenly had an exact place to be and it took me about 10 seconds to solidify my memory in that section.

2. Improved ease of playing. Later in the week I was listening to a student play a piece from memory, and one particular end of a phrase felt hurried. I asked, “Can you count aloud that part?” He started to play and count and in the last two beats of the measure he couldn’t count it. Sure enough, we figured out the problem. The music had four beats per measure, and yet, his body was only feeling three. Counting aloud brought this to his awareness. He took a moment and reprogrammed his brain and body to count and feel four beats. Suddenly, this passage that had always been worrisome to play became very easy.

Yes, counting aloud takes some time and effort, and will expose weaknesses. However, the rewards are great once you master it. The weaknesses will become strengths, and those difficult passages can become your favorite part. It’s amazing to make music from a place of ease and comfort, and a little counting aloud will take you there.

Piano Etiquette

Having played hundreds of pianos over the years in various states of repair and maintenance, here are my top tips for taking care of your own piano and how to treat pianos that are not your own:

1. Wash your hands before playing. Even if you think your hands are already clean, it can’t hurt to wash your hands. Pianos are shared instruments. We don’t carry around our own piano like a violinist does. Therefore, washing your hands becomes a bigger issue to prevent the spread of germs and also to leave the keyboard clean when you are done playing.

2. After playing, consider wiping down the keyboard with a damp cloth (not dripping wet), especially if your hands sweat when playing. This will leave the keyboard clean for the next person to play. There have been a few times where I’ve gone into a church to play for a service and the last pianist had eaten a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. How did I know? The evidence was a sticky keyboard right around middle C.

3. Dust fine finishes, like the shiny black pianos, with a piece of flannel. This is a safe way to not scratch the piano.

4. No food or drink around or on the piano. There is felt underneath the keyboard and if it gets wet, it will compress, and the keyboard will warp. I witnessed this growing up. Upstairs a toilet overflowed and then dripped through the ceiling into the piano. I managed to get a bucket quickly to catch the water, but not before some water made its way into the piano and warped the keyboard. A technician had to come out and repair it.

5. No hard objects on the keyboard except your hands. The keyboard is designed for skin to touch the piano, not pencil tips or other hard objects.

6. Keep the piano free of other decorations, except for piano books or a pencil on the desk. Pianos will shake when played, especially at an intermediate or advanced level of playing. The last thing you want is a vase tipping over.

One church where I played, someone put an envelope on the top of the closed keyboard lid. When I opened the cover, the envelope slipped inside the piano, never to be found. Not until a technician came did the envelope get back out.

I’m sure over the years you will gather your own stories of playing different pianos. With all of the pianos you have the privilege to play, treat them well. The piano will thank you, and so will the next pianist who plays it.

Spectacular Phrasing

2016 was the year of spectacular phrasing. Just what is phrasing?

It is listening to the sound you create and deciding how you want each note and groups of notes to sound.

Do you want them to start quietly and then grow to a really big sound? Or do you want to start loud and end quietly. Will the sound be harsh and abrasive? Or will it be gentle and inviting.

The possibilities are endless. The question musicians ask themselves to help them decide how to phrase is: What is the music trying to communicate?

There is an example of a Prokofiev Sonata where parts of it can be phrased with no loud, no soft, no crescendo, no nothing but monotone big sound. Why would Prokofiev write a piece like that? A little history provides the answer. He was living in the Soviet Union in the 1930s where there was no freedom. He was describing what it felt like not to be free. (What I find fascinating is that he wasn’t thrown in jail).

Contrast that with a brilliant Chopin Polonaise where huge dynamic contrasts bring the piece alive.

Professional musicians meticulously choose how they want every single note to sound. Sometimes they don’t know what way will sound the best. So they experiment and let their ears and body tell them. Keeping in mind what the piece is about, they listen closely as they try different ways. When they find the way that moves them and conveys the feeling the piece is trying to convey, that seals the deal.

You too can learn spectacular phrasing right now. You don’t have to wait until you’re a professional musician. All it takes is a listening ear and a willingness to explore different sounds.

If you’re not sure where to start, ask your teacher for help. Before you know it, you’ll be playing music that not only moves your audience, but also moves you as well.

Establishing a Practice Routine

Practicing. Everyone knows it’s an integral part of learning any new endeavor, and learning to play the piano is no exception. Some days your child may be inspired to practice, and other days not. This is completely normal.

Even professional musicians have days where they are inspired to practice, and other days where they don’t feel like it. However, they realize that without practice they will not perform well; they will probably not get hired again, and then they will need to find another way to make a living. So they make practice a priority regardless of how they feel on a particular day.

For students learning how to play the piano the stakes aren’t so high, but learning how to establish a practice routine (for any endeavor) is a wonderful skill to have as they grow into adulthood. Here are a few ideas to help you guide your child with making a practice routine.

1. Have piano practice be a part of their daily routine. Just like they wouldn’t go to school without their shoes on, neither would they dream of leaving the house without playing the piano first.

2. Tie their practice to something in their day that they never forget to do. One parent told me their secret: Their child likes the ipad. So she gets her ipad time after she practices the piano. She practices nearly every day and doesn’t forget.

It may take a few weeks to determine a routine that works for your child, but it is well-worth the effort. Your child will grow in confidence and skill.

I would love to hear what you discover works for you and your child.

How do you know when a piece is too hard?

Learning to play the piano can be rewarding and challenging. Finding just the right pace for a student, not too easy, and not too hard, is the key to their continued success. Overcoming challenges incrementally will build their confidence. When your child is confident, they are more open to learning and trying new things. And when they are open to learning, learning accelerates.

I recently had a student discover on her own how to know when a piece is too hard or just right for her.

When she’s learning something new, if it’s just the right level of difficulty, she can master it in about 2-4 tries. When it takes more than five tries, and even then she’s not really getting it, then she knows it’s too hard for her.

It made my day when she came to her lesson one day and announced that a piece I had given her the week before was too hard. The feedback from her helped me determine a more appropriate course of action for her lessons.

Several months from now when she has more skills, we can revisit that piece, and perhaps it will be just the right amount of challenge where she can get it in 2-4 tries.

Each student’s pace of learning is unique to them. Teaching them self-awareness so they can be actively involved in their own learning process will enhance their learning and develop independence. When a student is invested in their own learning, the sky really is the limit on what they can accomplish.

Two Practice Tips to Help Your Brain

I recently talked with an acquaintance who had taken a few years of lessons as a child, and now as an adult was spending his spare time playing the piano again. Between juggling kids and work it was difficult to find a consistent time to practice.

He noticed that he could learn a part of a piece one day, but when he would return a few days later it was as if he had never learned it. He would then start again and go through the same process, only to have his brain seem to not retain what he was teaching himself. A nagging question began to lurk in the back of his mind, “Is there something wrong with me?”

I assured him, “There’s nothing wrong with you. This is completely normal when you’re on the upper threshold of your skills and you’re not able to practice every day. When I’m learning a difficult piece, the same thing happens to me if I don’t practice several days in a row.”

We then went on to a discussion of what does practice look like so that your brain does remember.

Here are two ideas to help your brain remember:

1. Visit the piano once a day, even if it’s only for five minutes. In those five minutes, teach yourself one new thing, no matter how tiny. The next day, review that one new thing. If you have time, teach yourself another new thing. Keep repeating this process every day until you have taught yourself the entire piece.

2. Get a good night’s sleep. Any time you learn something new, the next two nights of sleep your brain will finish processing what you learned. When you are able to practice several days in a row, every night you are processing what you learned that day and the day before.

If you or your child can identify with your brain not remembering what you previously practiced, try these two ideas and see what happens. I’d love to hear what you learn.

Play Wrong Notes On Purpose

Having a bad day? Play some wrong and ugly notes at the piano.

Piano students spend a lot of time focusing on playing the correct notes. The thought of playing wrong notes can be horrifying to some students. Yes, you want to learn your notes well and have accuracy, but wrong notes do have a place in musical training.

Have you ever tried to play wrong notes on purpose? Try making up your own piece, but make sure all the notes sound bad. Yes, you heard me correctly: all the notes need to sound very bad. If you’ve been programmed to only sound good, finding ugly notes can be a challenge.

One of the easiest times to find bad notes is when you are having a bad day. Since you feel bad, it’s much easier to make ugly sounds. Try it. It might help to do it when no one else is around so that there will be no judgment. Just experiment with finding harsh and dissonant sounds on the piano.

How we feel in our body has a direct impact on the sound we create at the piano. When a piece is joyous, it helps to have a joyful feeling in our body. When a piece is tumultuous, it helps to have experience with that feeling and play with that feeling in our body.

The next time you have a bad day, experiment with creating ugly sounds at the piano. You will get to know the piano in a way you’ve never know it before. It’s an entire new world to explore. I’d love to hear what you learn.

Embracing the Learning Process

Several years ago I used to coach youth hockey. Us coaches regularly had our own training sessions on how to coach. In one particular class on the ice, the instructor had all of us trade sticks. If you were right handed then trade sticks with someone who was left handed.

After years of honing my skills as a right handed hockey player, it was very awkward to suddenly do everything left handed. I was a complete beginner again, and all the insecurities of not being very good came up. Despite that, I knew this was a great opportunity to learn a new skill and have empathy for the beginners I coached, so I focused on mastering my left-handed skills for the duration of the class.

Other coaches didn’t fare so well. The coach who traded sticks with me very soon wanted his stick back. Yes, it was tempting to just trade back sticks and feel secure again, but what would I learn? It’s hard, give up?

Learning to play the piano is no different. Remaining open to learning and setting aside the judgment of whether or not we are good enough is key to being successful at the piano.

If you see resistance in your child at the piano, sometimes their own personal judgment about themselves lurks under the surface. Let the teacher know, and together find a way to help your child embrace the learning process. It’s a skill that will serve them well for the rest of their life.