Playing Archive

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.

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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.

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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.

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“Who’s Your Teacher?!”

I once had a student come to his lesson and tell me he went to a concert over the weekend where a pianist was accompanying a choir. This student was appalled by the poor hand position of the pianist. The pianist’s wrists were collapsed, hugging the keyboard.

My student’s response to witnessing this was to exclaim, “Who is your teacher?”

I smiled to myself. The two years of reminding him to bring his own wrists up to be level with the first row of knuckles on his hand had paid off. Not only had his own hand position improved over the years, but he now was able to recognized a poor hand position.

If you would like your child to get started in piano and develop a great hand position, give us a call at 360-527-9626. We would love to help your child build a solid foundation from the start.

Here's a great hand position: Level wrist and thumb on the corner.

Here’s a great hand position: Level wrist and thumb on the corner.

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When Can I Learn The Entertainer?

When a student begins piano lessons, The Entertainer by Scott Joplin is a popular piece many students want to learn how to play. Rhythmically, it’s an intermediate piece. Even when you can find it arranged for a lower level, it’s still rhythmically challenging. Beginners struggle with it. Oftentimes they rely on their ear, rather than count it aloud. This is the pitfall, especially when trying to coordinate the left hand with the right hand. Without a conscious decision about how to count the rhythm, the piece will not work. Counting aloud is a requirement, and beginners are just starting to get that skill.

Recently, I had an upper intermediate level student, sight read The Entertainer while counting aloud with impeccable timing and rhythm. It was slow, and it was accurate. I had nothing to say, nothing to correct, other than, “Let’s sight read another Scott Joplin piece.”

Over the course of this student’s seven years of lessons, he had learned the skills necessary to sight read the Entertainer. I had never had a student play that piece with ease until then. I always knew it was not a beginner piece, but I now had a better appreciation of the skills a student must learn to be able to play it well.

This student demonstrated his independence. He didn’t need me to help him with The Entertainer. He just did it, and I sat back and listened, quite happy that he didn’t need me.

If you want to one day be able to play The Entertainer, start counting aloud from the very beginning of lessons and keep going. It’s one foot in front of the other of gaining skills, and the day will come when you will play The Entertainer.

If you would like to start on the path to learning how to play The Entertainer, or any other favorite piece, give us a call at 360-527-9626 to begin your music journey. We look forward to hearing from you.

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Singing and Playing the Piano?

If you would like to take your piano playing to the next level, consider writing words to your pieces and singing while you play. The 2013 Van Cliburn Piano Competition Italian silver medalist, Beatrice Rana, had a teacher who had her write lyrics to her pieces. It was an exercise in tapping into the emotional content of the piece and truly making it her own.

The human voice has so much richness and variation in expression. Singing your piano pieces can help with phrasing. There are an infinite number of phrasing options. Just singing the phrase will immediately give you information about where and how to phrase.

Try it. You never know what you might learn.

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The Effect of Piano Playing on Your Brain

Here’s a great article on the benefits to your brain when you play the piano. Enjoy.

http://mic.com/articles/91329/science-shows-how-piano-players-brains-are-actually-different-from-everybody-elses

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I Love That Piece!

Five minutes before the end of one of my piano student’s lessons, his mom knocks on the door to come in. She finds us throwing a ball and trying to bare hand the catch. Her 8 year-old son is energized and really into this ball throwing. Sometimes we miss, and the ball bounces off the wall, but we’re both really trying. Even I get better at my throws and catches.

I explained to his mom that he just spent the last 10 minutes memorizing an entire piece that he thought he‘d never be able to memorize. I had him memorize one line, repeat it a few times, and then get up and play catch for about 10 throws. Then he would return to the piano, and see if he could remember the line of music he just memorized. He just now finished memorizing the entire piece so we were doing the final throws.

Then I suggested to the student, “Hey, why don’t you do a test, and see if you can play the piece from memory for your mom?”

Excited to show his mom, he sat down and played from memory. Sure enough, he could do it. He was thrilled; his mom was thrilled. I told him that when he went home to do the same process again, and maybe get his dad to throw a ball with him to solidify what he learned today.

The next week he came back to his lesson and announced, “I love that piece!”

Having fun learning, and being able to do things you didn’t think you could. It doesn’t get any better than that. If you or your child would like to experience the fun of learning to play the piano, give us a call at 360-527-9626 or email us.

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Playing By Ear and Counting Aloud

When students first begin piano lessons, one of the skills they learn is how to count basic rhythm. Meanwhile, they also learn how to read music. On occasion there will be a piece in their beginning book that is a familiar tune to them. It’s not uncommon for students to toss their rhythm skills out the window, and even their note reading skills, and instead play the whole piece by ear, (which happens to be another important skill). When playing by yourself, this seems to work o.k. However, if you try to play a duet, it falls apart.

One such student came to his lesson one day playing Alouette, the familiar nursery rhyme out of his book. He knew the notes and sort of the correct rhythm. We started to count off together to play the duet when he had a rude awakening. We were not together, at all. He was shocked. This had never happened to him before.

I told him he has such a wonderful ear that it wants to direct the whole piece, since it knows how it is suppose to sound. However, the ear doesn’t know how the duet is suppose to go, so I suggested that at home he count very meticulously and don’t let his ear direct his fingers. Instead, let his counts direct the notes.

The next week when he came back he played the duet perfectly. His counts directed his fingers rather than his ear. I was pleasantly surprised because it was unusual that such a young child could over-ride his ear with methodical counting.

A few weeks later this same student announced at his lesson, “Counting is VERY important.”

I asked him, “How did you learn that?”

“Well,” he replied, “It was Alouette. If I didn’t count aloud the duet wouldn’t work at all!”

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Pound Cake and Piano?

What does a good pound cake and learning to play the piano have to do with each other? Absolutely nothing, until I had a piano student that reminded me a lot of myself growing up.

Just tell me how to do it right, and I will do it. Before I actually do do it, let me tell you all the ways I’m already aware of where I know I won’t execute it perfectly. Then, as I actually do it and make mistakes, I will show my displeasure so that you know that I know that I made a mistake.

As I listened to this student play each week, I found a button of hers. She did not like to play forte (loud). She said it was too harsh on her ears, and just didn’t feel good. When I listened to her play, she had a very nice soft sound. It was all so nice, so soft, and so uneventful.

For some music, like George Winston in a dentist office, that is exactly the atmosphere you want. You want people to relax and fall asleep. You want to ease their anxiety. She had this sound down pat, plus another layer on top of being very careful and timid, trying so hard not to make a mistake. In the meantime the full life of the music was gasping for breath.

I thought if I could just encourage her to throw off this box of not liking to play loud perhaps she could breath some vitality into this piece.

After she played I said, “Play the whole piece forte.”

I wanted her to throw caution to the wind, take a chance and not try so hard to do it perfectly. If anything, play some wrong notes boldly.

She cringed at that thought, but dutifully complied. The resulting sound was harsh, unmusical, and unpleasant to listen to. At times she added the appropriate arm gestures, but they were an after-thought of “Oh, I should do this too.”

After she played I thought a moment and then said, “Play the whole piece with a gentle forte.”

She looked at me in disbelief and replied, “I have no idea how to do that.”

In her mind, gentle and forte did not belong together. I told her, “That’s perfect. Just make it up.”

She gave it a try and came up with something. The harshness and awkward gestures were gone, and the tone was more pleasant and full.

I knew she liked to bake, so after she played I attempted to explain what I was looking for.

“The majority of your playing is like angel food cake. It’s light and fluffy. I’m looking for pound cake with more density. That is what I mean by forte. In music you want the contrast co-existing between the angel food light and fluffy sound and the pound cake dense sound. It’s the contrast that makes music interesting.”

There was no way she could argue with a good pound cake. After all, she was the expert baker.

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