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!”

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.

Having Fun Learning

There’s a lot of skill that goes into playing the piano. So many details that are learned one by one. It’s easy to get bogged down. However, finding a way to make those details a fun game can make all the difference in the world.

One student I had was completely fascinated by the natural world, and little creatures in particular, like bugs and butterflies. I started looking for pieces that spoke to his interest. Soon any issue that came up in a piece was addressed through the metaphor of an animal. It was no longer just a note that needed to be held two beats, but a kangaroo that needed an additional moment of rest before hopping off. If he missed the second beat, we laughed because the kangaroo didn’t get his two beats. It became fun to see how many beats his kangaroos were getting. His accuracy improved, and he was having fun learning. He smiled a lot and was full of energy.

This is learning at its best: freedom to explore, try, evaluate, and try again in an atmosphere of fun. It is life-giving for the student and for the teacher.

The key to each student may be a little different, however, the result will be the same: a student who has fun learning and wants more. It doesn’t get any better than that.


An acquaintance of mine recently found a piano for her home and is so excited to be playing the piano. She took lessons as a child, and now as an adult enjoys learning how to play again.

She commented on her struggles and joys of learning piano as an adult. She said when she’s trying to work something out, she just keeps trying, and approaches learning with a sense of humor and allowing herself to make mistakes. Her advice to others is to just keep trying because you will come out on the other side, and it will be worth it.

When learning anything new, how often do you give up after the first try, or after the second or third? I remind my students that the American author, Ernest Hemingway was turned down either 50 or 100 times by publishers before he finally found someone to publish his now famous book, The Old Man and the Sea.

Where do you have that kind of determination? Whatever you are learning, approach it with the mindset that it will happen. When and how you may not know, but it will happen. Ask for help, and keep trying. You will see the way unfold before you.

If you or your child would like help getting started in piano, call us today about lessons.

Even Ballet Dancers Count Aloud

2015 has been the year of counting aloud. As I see my students develop musical independence from counting aloud, I increase my insistence with new students. Sure enough, they too begin developing their independence sooner than I ever thought possible.

In the midst of my ongoing mission to teach my students to be excellent counters, my enthusiasm rubbed off on my sister who happens to be a classical ballet teacher. She saw that in her class of 10 year-olds there were some dancers ahead of the music, others were behind and a few were right on it. In a moment of inspiration she had them all count aloud as they danced to the music.

What she noticed was that when they counted aloud, every single dancer was with the music. The dancers also became aware of when they were not with the music. When the counting aloud subsided, so did their ability to stay with the music. Because they were aware, they could correct themselves.

Counting aloud has a wonderful way of sharpening the focus and bringing awareness to dancers, as well as musicians. It is then that they can fully participate and become one with the music. Try it, whether you are learning to dance or learning to play a musical instrument. You might just be surprised at what you can do.

Transcending Right and Wrong

Do you recall being a student and always looking for the right answer to please the teacher? All of your effort was put towards finding the right answer. If you had the right answer, everything was good. If you had the wrong answer, you failed. Sound familiar?

In music lessons, there are only a few places where something is simply right or wrong. They are:

1. Notes
2. Rhythm

Music, however, is not found in notes and rhythm alone. It is found in the interpretation of those notes and rhythm, and that is where there is no one right answer.

As a student, it’s easy to get caught up in the notes and rhythm, and once you master them you think you’re done. Great musicians, however, take it a step further. Now that they can play the notes and rhythm with ease, they ask themselves, “What is the composer trying to say?” The articulation and dynamics come into play. Exactly how short is that staccato? Exactly how loud is that loud? When is it too much or not enough?

This is where it helps to be a human being with life experience. A rich life experience will give you more options on how to bring the music to life. Anyone can learn to play notes and rhythm, but it takes careful attention to detail, as well as experience in the full range of human emotion to bring a piece of music to life.

As a teacher, yes, I will correct students on notes and rhythm. However, when it comes to interpretation, I will show you how to go about deciding how to interpret a piece. There is no right or wrong answer, and oftentimes there are more questions than answers. This is the beauty of music. It is so much more than right and wrong. It is the audible expression of the full human experience, and what it means to be alive.


Inspiration. You never know when it’s going to happen or how it’s going to happen. But when inspiration hits, internal motivation comes forth.

As a child, I remember hearing two different concerts that so inspired me, I immediately went to the piano when I got home. Here they are:

1. Age 12, I hear concert pianist, Byron Janis perform Piano Concerto #2 by Rachmaninoff . It was the first time I had ever heard the piano like that. From that moment forward it has became one of my all-time favorite pieces. When I was in my twenties I bought the music to save for some future time. Since then, I have practiced various parts of it.

2. Age 13, I hear concert pianist, Andre Watts perform Schubert and Beethoven solo piano pieces. I still remember the crescendo at the end of the Beethoven piece. It was so subtle, and it went on for quite some time. It was so gradual I couldn’t figure out how he had gotten to forte at the end. I couldn’t wait to get home and play the music myself.

I’ve heard many concerts over the years. Some have been fine. Some have been good. Some have been great, and some have been spectacular. You never know when a performer will reach out and touch you with the music. You just have to go to concerts and be open to the possibility. But I can tell you this, when you experience the magic, it will be well worth it.

Do you ever find yourself nagging your child to practice? Before you get too worn out doing that, take them to concerts. They just might get inspired, and you won’t be able to keep them away from the piano.

Practicing vs. Performing

Who hasn’t heard of a horror story performing in a recital? Unfortunately, negative experiences performing are not uncommon.

However, here at Discovery Music Academy, we want to write a different narrative. We want students to have a great experience performing. Therefore, we teach two different skills very intentionally: 1. How to practice to learn a piece. 2. How to practice performing that piece.

With the proper preparation, you can master both skills. But first, we need to understand the difference between practicing and performing.

In practicing you are constantly stopping and fixing and repeating a passage until you get it right. Then, once you get it right, you do it 4-6 more times well to solidify what you just learned. Then you sleep on it two nights in a row for your brain to finish processing what it learned.

In performing there is no stopping, no fixing and absolutely no repeating of anything. Once you start playing, the beat keeps going without interruption. It doesn’t matter if you make a mistake. You keep the beat at all costs, and let the mistake go by.

As you can see the skills needed for practicing are very different than the skills needed for performing. Allow yourself time to learn a piece through practicing. Once you have learned it and can play it well by yourself, transition to performing where you practice keeping going no matter what. Make a mental note of where your mistakes were, and when you’re back at home by yourself, work out those places where you made mistakes. When you are comfortable again, play it in front of someone again.

Keep repeating this process until your performances improve, and you no longer have any places to work on. Allow yourself a minimum of three weeks of practicing performing in front of three different groups of people before performing at a recital. You want to work out the kinks in an informal setting so you have the best chance of a good experience in a more formal setting.

As with learning any kind of new skill, the more you practice performing, the easier it gets. Performing can become a wonderful experience of sharing your music in a mutual exchange with your audience. Believe it or not, it can be an incredibly energizing experience.

If you are learning to play the piano, I encourage you to not only practice, but also learn how to perform. You have a wonderful gift to share. If you would like help getting started, give us a call.

Counting Aloud Messes Me Up!

“Counting Aloud Messes Me Up!”

Have you ever said this, or heard your children say this when learning a new piece? Or, maybe they don’t say anything. They just don’t count aloud. Instead they play through their piece over and over hoping it will eventually get better. However, for those students who are willing to bite the bullet and work through the awkwardness of counting aloud, the reward is great.

Over the several years I’ve been teaching piano I’ve become more and more convinced that rhythm, or lack thereof, is the root of many problems. In my early days of teaching I did encourage counting aloud. However, if the student wined enough, I would let it go and try again on another day. Today, I’m relentless when it comes to counting aloud because I see the wonderful results students can have relatively quickly if they put forth the effort to count aloud. I love to see students grow in independence because they can count aloud.

I’ll spend an entire day teaching with the same resounding refrain: “Count aloud.” If the student complains, I know I’ve found their learning spot, and I don’t let it go. I tell them, “Join the club. Everyone today has begged me not to count aloud. So you are in good company. However, everyone today is counting aloud for better or for worse. It’s ok to stumble. It’s ok to make mistakes, and it’s time to keep trying until you get it.”

Inevitably, when the student follows my precise directions, they are usually surprised to master a passage in about 3-4 tries. Then I ask, “What was the key to your success just now?” Of course, the reluctant counters seem to have already forgotten that it was the counting aloud that helped organize their playing. I remind them that counting aloud was the key to their success.

“Counting aloud messes me up,” or how about, “counting aloud gives me results that I deserve.” Give both options a try, and see which one propels you or your children forward in your music study.

Brain Benefits of Music Lessons

Learning to play a musical instrument teaches students so many life skills, such as learning to listen, how to set and reach goals, and how to solve problems. In addition to life skills, science is showing the positive effect of music lessons on the brain.

Check out this article: Science Just Discovered Something Amazing About What Childhood Piano Lessons Did to You.

You don’t need to become a professional musician to reap the benefits of music lessons. If you are already taking lessons, I encourage you to stick with it. If you are considering taking lessons, go for it. It can be a rewarding experience, and a side benefit is your brain will thank you.