Emotion in Music

I once had a 7 year-old student who had been taking piano lessons for a few months.  One day at her lesson we were going over her theory book assignment she had done in pen.  When I showed her a few corrections, she realized couldn’t erase her errors.  In a gentle, whispered tone I suggested she always use pencil in piano, even when she gets older, so that she can always erase as needed.  I even showed her my Beethoven sonata book, and the piece I was working on, where I used pencil.

Somehow in this conversation she wanted to hear the Beethoven sonata I was working on.  So I told her a little about Beethoven and how he went deaf later in life, and this sonata was composed when he was deaf.  I told her the sonata had two movements, like two mini-pieces, that go together.  I said I think the first movement sounds like his anger over being deaf.  I played a little bit of it, and she agreed.

I asked her, “If this were a dog, what kind of dog would it be?”

She responded with a harsh tone to her words and a bark.

Then I played the second movement, and I said, “I think in this movement he’s at peace with being deaf.  It’s like he’s saying it’s o.k.”

As I played the gentle, delicate melody, her head tilted one way as her eyes were drawn to my hands, and she listened intently.  Seeing how mesmerized she was by the music I kept playing until it came to a natural stopping place.

She said, “That was so pretty.”

I responded, “Isn’t it just beautiful?  Now, what kind of dog is this movement?”

She gave the best imitation of a floppy puppy face, completely relaxed and at ease.

She just loved the second movement and wanted to play it someday.

I said, “Well, I’ll show you what notes you can play, and we’ll improvise on it right now.”

I gave her three keys she could play that would fit with the music, and we improvised in the style and key of the piece.  As we went along, I realized I could probably start playing the sonata movement itself with her improvising.  So I let the Beethoven melody intertwine with her improvisation.  The music that had moved her earlier, she now was participating in creating.

After we finished she took the three keys I had given her:  e, b, e, and said the following after each key:  (e) “I“, (b), “Am“, (e), “Deaf“.  Then she started creating something new all by herself.  She switched one of the notes and the pattern became minor.  I was about to interrupt her doodling on the piano, but I saw her focus in what she was doing, so I sat back and let it unfold.  After a few minutes she was done creating.

She looked at me and said, “Was that sad?”

I responded, “What do you think?”

She replied, “It’s sad.”

It’s wonderful to see a young pianist, just starting out, begin to understand and experience emotion in music.  It’s the emotion that reaches out and touches us and moves us.  It’s why we still hear Beethoven’s music today and understand what it means to be alive and a human being.

To hear a recording of the Beethoven sonata mentioned above, click here.

The Ebb and FLow of Piano Lessons

One moment your child craves the piano. They spend time playing Christmas songs, feeling happy that they can create music that they recognize. Then a few months later they’re unmotivated and want to quit. What’s going on?

In undertaking any endeavor like learning to play the piano, there will be highs and lows. The question is not if, but when will the lows happen. It’s important to recognize that this is normal and part of the learning process. A “low” does not necessarily mean quit. It means something has changed, and it’s time to investigate and figure out what that is. Once you understand what has changed then you can evaluate what step to take next.

In preparation for a low, establish a good relationship with your child where they feel safe talking to you about what’s going on in their life. When a “low” comes take this as an opportunity to learn more about your child. The issue is not about quitting, but what has changed in their world. This may take a little more time and effort as a parent, but it will be well worth it. One day they will be a parent helping their own children navigate the process of growing up.

Aural Development

As your child grows as a musician, so will their ear. It’s not uncommon for children to have sensitive ears. Becoming a musician will develop that sensitivity even more. To make beautiful music at the piano, sensitive ears are a requirement, and they develop over time and practice.

If there’s a downside to developing a good ear, it’s this: the piano that used to work just fine a few years ago isn’t so great anymore according to your child. Their ears begin to pick up changes in the tone quality of different keys on the piano. They can hear when a key begins to go out of tune.

Fine musicians need this level of sensitivity to communicate the emotional content of a piece of music. That is how they can knock your socks off when you listen to them play. As these aural skills increase, having a quality piano that can meet or exceed the skills of the pianist will catapult their listening skills even further.

Does this mean that you need to go out and buy a 50K piano? No. However, it does mean providing a quality piano and having it tuned at least once a year. In addition, listen to your child when they tell you the piano doesn’t sound right. If your child hasn’t been practicing lately, ask yourself if the piano needs to be tuned.

One word of caution: If you child practices on an out-of-tune piano, after a while they will begin to think the “out-of tune” piano is normal and the “in-tune” piano at their lesson is out of tune.

Your child’s ears will develop one way or the other. Provide a quality piano. Keep it in tune, and soon your child will be knocking your socks off with beautiful music in your home.

Mastering Counting Aloud

Learning to count aloud can be challenging. Try these tips to help you go from a novice to a seasoned musician:

1. Count a full measure before beginning.
2. Make your counting is big and loud so you can hear it. Don’t hold back.
3. Get as much of your body feeling the beat as you can while you count aloud. This can include bouncing your wrists, tapping your foot, and even bobbing your head if you don’t get dizzy. Feeling the beat in your body as well as counting it, is key.
4. Take a dance class of any kind. It will help you learn to move your body to a beat.

Learning to count aloud and being comfortable with it takes time and practice. Allow yourself to struggle and stumble around. You will eventually get it, and you will be rewarded. Your music will start to play itself. When the beat and rhythm are solid, your notes will sit on those beats and rhythm. Your music can then flow naturally, and you will enjoy the experience of playing.

Need help getting there? Contact us about lessons.

Counting Aloud

Raise your hand if you like counting aloud while you are playing. If you are a singer, wind or brass player, you are lucky. You can’t count aloud and play your instrument at the same time, but for everyone else, like pianists and string players, counting aloud is a tool that will transform your playing.

I have never had a student jump up and down excited when I suggest counting aloud a passage while they play. That is my clue that that is exactly what they need. They can’t do it, and therefore, would prefer not to do it. I remind them that the purpose of a piano lesson is to gain new skills. This is one of those skills.

If you can count aloud with ease while playing then you have the skill and you can decide when and where to count aloud to help you learn the music. But first you have to learn the skill.

When you go to count aloud the first time, it will be awkward and you may feel clumsy and inadequate. That is o.k. and normal for everyone. You have to stumble around several times to work it out. That is the learning process. That is how you gain the skill. Allow yourself to feel clumsy, but keep trying until you get it. If you find yourself getting frustrated, stop. Ask your teacher for help.

When applying counting aloud to your practice, try these ideas. Master each one before proceeding to the next:

1. Clap and count the rhythm of each hand alone.
2. Play and count each hand alone.
3. Tap and count the rhythm hands together. (Your right hand taps the right hand part while your left hand taps the left hand part).
4. Play and count hands together.

Need more help? Contact us about lessons.

Piano Dream

I recently attended a social gathering where I met a woman in her forties who shared with me her childhood piano story. In grade school she took piano lessons from the school music teacher during recess. Her parents bought her a little keyboard to practice on at home. She liked her piano lesson because it was the one time she got to play a real piano. She rarely practiced on her keyboard at home. It just wasn’t the same as the piano at her lesson. Because she didn’t practice much, she didn’t progress much. Eventually she stopped lessons.

As she reflected on this experience as an adult, she commented, “If I had a real piano to practice on as a child I may have kept with it and actually progressed.” Today she dreams about buying her own piano and taking lessons again.

How about you? Are you an adult dreaming about learning to play the piano, or are you a parent of a child interested in piano lessons? Either way, find a piano to make part of your home, or find a piano in your community to practice on. It will make a huge difference in your success and your child’s success.


Perseverance can make all the difference in the life of a piano student. It can also make all the difference as a teacher to keep going in the trenches with a student who continues to struggle. There’s no guarantee they will succeed. It seems as if everything is stacked against them. Practice may be sporadic, if at all. Other activities buy for their time. Practicing the piano can be a lonely endeavor, and it’s not that glamorous. Parents may lose hope if it’s a constant battle to remind them to practice. The student and parents may give up before they see success.

However, for the child whose parents back them up, even when struggling over the long-term, even when the child balks at practicing, it’s just a matter of time before perseverance brings the reward.

As a teacher I spent three years continually reminding a student that instead of having the entire side of the thumb play a key, to stand on the thumb and have the corner of the thumb play. At least several times a month I said the same thing, “Stand on the thumb.” It was constant correction. She could do it, but she had to focus to do it, and that took a lot of effort. Since she wasn’t ready to put forth that effort, I put forth the effort to keep reminding her.

And then one day, hell froze over. I said, “stand on the thumb,” and she responded with the hand position of a concert pianist. I don’t have a single other student who can stand on their thumb better than she can. I was so shocked at the beauty of it, that I asked her to do it again. For the first time in three years, she maintained the superb hand position while she played.

Then she commented to me how comfortable and easy it was to play the piano in that position. She said, “Why would I go back to my old way? This way feels so much better.”

She complimented me for saying the same thing over and over to her until she had finally experienced what I had been trying to convey to her all these years. And she was excited to practice. She couldn’t wait to go home to her piano.

Now she understands not from me telling her, but from her experiencing it for herself. No one can take that away from her, and she can pass her learning onto others.

Perseverance is key. Something magical can happen when the student, parents and teacher all persevere together with unwavering faith that something new can happen, and they don’t give up until it does.

Path to Fruition

Did you know that Honda was originally the last name of a Japanese scientist who spent his life developing his idea, trying different variations and being turned down before it came to full fruition and is now the make of car with which we are all familiar? Later in life an interviewer asked him about his “failures” before it finally all came together for him into the vehicle we know today. He responded by saying something to the effect of, “You talk about and label everything I did prior to my success as “failure.” It’s not failure. That is the process of bringing something to fruition.”

Some students struggle with the concept of failure in piano. If they make a mistake, they’ve failed. If they don’t get it right the first time, they’ve failed. Some even equate this perceived “failure” as they themselves are bad. One particular student wrestled with this issue for quite some time. With the parents and I on the same page, we were both determined not to give up on her.

One day I told her the Mr. Honda story and related it to piano. I mentioned that there were some mistakes in her playing she needed to fix, but they were not failures. They were the path to fruition. I asked her if she was up for addressing these mistakes. She said yes.

With a positive attitude and ears listening like a hawk she evaluated her own playing and rather than judging herself as bad if she made a mistake, she simply kept trying until she could do it well three times in row. She made remarkable progress in just that one lesson.

I asked her, “How long have you struggled with this spot in the music?”

“Months,” she answered.

“How long did it take to work out and correct the mistake?”

“One and a half minutes,” was her response with a smile on her face.

“What was the key to that?”

“Listening closely with a positive attitude.”

At the conclusion of her lesson she told her mom, “I am on the path to fruition.”

How about you? Are you on the path to fruition? It is through mistakes, listening for them, working them out and correcting them right as they happen that you too can succeed in piano. Mistakes are not failure. They are the path to fruition.

Ideal Practice Habits

I recently read a study published in the February 2014 Music Teachers National Association (MTNA) E-Journal on the practice habits of 2nd year piano majors at a university. These were all pianists who knew how to play the piano and could play it well. The researchers were interested in finding out exactly how did each student practice and how effective was that practice.

What was interesting was there was a direct relationship between how they practiced and whether or not they continued on in piano or dropped out of piano.

One student (student #1) identified mistakes and worked out one mistake at a time, listening closely to his playing. When he mastered it and could play it three times in a row well, he moved on to the next spot where he made a mistake. This is how he spent the majority of his practice session. At the end of the session he played through the whole piece and made a note of any remaining mistakes and that is what he would address in his next practice session. He mastered music quickly. Two years later he graduated in piano and was looking at continuing to study piano in graduate school.

On the opposite end of the spectrum was a young woman who said she enjoyed the piano and practicing. However, it was noted by the researchers that this student made faces (probably out of frustration) when practicing. She also spent more time practicing than student #1 and instead of focusing on small chunks of the music and fixing one mistake at a time, she practiced bigger chunks with multiple errors in it. The down side to this method was that she reinforced her errors as she was attempting to fix an error at the end of a passage. It took her longer to master the music. She ended up dropping out of piano lessons before graduation.

How you practice has an impact on your success and enjoyment at the piano. If you are not getting the results you want within a few tries, talk to your teacher about different practice techniques. This goes for all piano students, whether a beginner or more advanced student. When you are able to pinpoint a problem and choose an appropriate technique to solve it, the results are astounding. You deserve to have astounding results. Your child deserves to have astounding results.

Desire to Play

Recently I attended a piano concert where the performer played some amazing music. The speed, dynamic contrast, and wide range of color coming out of the piano was truly a marvel. After one of the most exhilarating pieces came to a close, no one could contain their enthusiasm for what they had just heard. Among the applause I overheard an older woman say to her friend, “Well, I guess I’ll just have to sell my piano.”

I was surprised and disturbed. When I am moved by music at a concert, I go out and buy it so I can learn to play it myself one day, if not that day. It never occurred to me that for some people the expression of beautiful music reminds them of feeling inadequate.

It’s easy to compare ourselves to others and then shut the door when we think we don’t measure up. However, music is not just for a select few. It is for everyone. If you have that recurring thought about wanting to learn to play the piano or even to improve your skills, allow yourself the space to do something about it. Will you play the piece with which the concert pianist wowed the crowd? I don’t know, but the desire to create doesn’t go away, and if you have the desire that is what you have in common with the concert pianist. They did something about their desire to play. Will you?