Piano Music… novelty?

Written in 1923, this incredibly catchy song was one i grew up both listening to and playing.  Recently my youngest son was sniffing around for some new music.  I played a few bars of this from memory and his eyes lit up.  Edward Elzear aka “Zez” Confrey wrote what was called ‘novelty’ piano music.  In later years, he composed more for jazz band.  What i didn’t know however was that he only died in 1971 with quite a career in composition.  His other famous song was entitled “Kitten on the keys”.  If you need a challenge for more advanced students… let them loose on Dizzy Fingers.  It’s a musical tongue twister and is supposed to be performed at break neck speed. 

BTW, you can still order it online and have it shipped to your door which is what i did. 

Without further adieu… here it is performed by none other than Liberace.  He embelishes the ending but is still a wonderful performance.


How Xbox Helped My Piano Practice

Long before Nintendo, before the days of Sony, before Sega, Collecovision… my dad had invented the Xbox. No seriously. He’s now 86 years of age and well… truth be told he showed me his first Xbox when i was about 5 years of age. Early 70’s… he was WAY ahead of his time… only this “X” box was a chart. OK pictured is the ACTUAL chart from when i was a kid. Call him crazy but these charts are memories of accomplishments for him. Here’s how it works: each time practiced meant one X in the box. Oh THAT kind of Xbox… ya ya… you thought my Dad actually created THE Xbox? Really? Well… not the electronic one anyway. But he DID make the Xbox charts with ruler, pen and paper.

So today i present to you Xbox next generation. Click on the tab above that reads “Free Resources” and there you will find practice charts for Canada’s own technical requirements by grade. Even if you don’t work with a graded system, they are still a fabulous systematic way of working through grade level technique. And so each scale, chord or arpeggio has a row of 25 boxes to be filled in. Remember: practice makes permanent. Enjoy!

FREE Notation Paper in Three Sizes

Ok so just a quick post… don’t say i never do somethin’ nice for ya.  Click on the pics below for 3 different sizes of notation paper. Then simply press PRINT.  Regular is just standard notation – 3 bars per line.  Big lined is larger with only 2 bars per line.  Primary paper is the HUGE big note – one bar per line stuff.  Enjoy.  Compliments of PianoHQ.






Making Rhythm… Rhythmical

Over the years in teaching, you learn that every student has at least one weakness – for some it’s sight reading, others it’s ear or finger dexterity, still others have a problem with rhythm.  Rhythm is one of the more challenging aspects to correct in teaching because it involves an inate sense of pulse.  Does not the concept of ‘beat’ come from that of our own hearts? We’ve somehow ‘mechanized’ this basic concept into numbers and counting, beats per minute (BPM) and metronomes with Maelzel’s markings.  Teaching rhythm IMHO needs to be an extension of movement… of the sensation that we are actually part of time.  Many years ago, i decided (especially with young students) to throw out the concept of counting for 2 reasons: one is that it requires math (2 beats plus 1 beat plus a half of a beat = 3 and half beats plus a…) I found that kids simply got bogged down with the math!!! How crazy is that?  Calm down… for all the Classical formal teachers… don’t panic… i still teach counting but not at early levels.  The second reason i don’t teach counting is due to the fact that i found students were getting confused with finger numbers.  Music doesn’t need to have two sets of numbers going on… one for fingering, the other for counting.  So i abandoned counting… with GREAT success.

What do i do instead? I simply teach rhythmic words… words that remind us of motion. I just want to mention that this is in no way a NEW concept.  Rhythmic words or phrases have been done for decades.  This is just something that i used consistently to teach with.   Here’s the setup:

A quarter note looks like a leg with a big cartoon shoe… let’s call that WALK

Four quarters then (say it) are WALK WALK WALK WALK

Eighth notes usually come in pairs and are faster… well faster than walking would be RUN-NING.  So when you say “running” that represents double the speed and two notes instead of one. Quarter, 2 Eighths, Quarter Quarter would be WALK RUN-NING WALK WALK.  See where i’m going with this?

OK now it goes from the sublime to the ridiculous but hey ALL of my students have learned rhythm in half an hour so… it WORKS.

A Half note is hollow right? It’s not filled in.  This is…. wait for it… Cinderella’s slipper. TA DA! Hahaaaa… and so if you’re walking in glass slippers you need to walk SLOW-LY – this is two syllables but twice as long as a walk.

Half note, Quarter, 2 Eighths would then be SLOW-LY WALK RUNNING… oh and BTW when you say these, they need to be robotic-like… feeling the pulse.

Anyway… if you want more of the musical phrases… i have a raft of them – everything from Swing Batta… to the Sneeze to Beautiful Bicycle… lol… i may never have taught counting but i sure instilled rhythm into each of my students and had a good laugh at the same time.

Piano Practice – Positives Come First

We all know these teachers… they’re the top of their class, the ones that get results, the festival winning teachers, the ones who are usually quite difficult to get in with.  Well i had one of these teachers who was considered “the BEST”.  Sadly, music became a bit of a chore… it became snapping rulers of “an-i-ma-ted a-lli-ga-tor” 16th notes at 120 bpm.  If you study advanced music you know EXACTLY what i’m talkin’ about.  The general rule of thumb seemed to be, however “If it’s fixed, it doesn’t need mentioning”.  To-Do lists then became the focus of piano lessons… as it should be.  The work still needs to get done right? Well…needless to say – a dozen more years and a diploma and a degree later i started teaching on my own.  I was hired by a really small college to do part of the music program.  I distinctly remember one piano student… forever burned into my psyche.  I was 21 years of age. Who would’ve thought this one encounter would change my teaching for the next 20 years?  I remember her finishing a piece… some Chopin etude.  I started in “Right.  Ok well let’s get on to what needs fixing”.  She started to cry :(  Obviously something was wrong.  I am sensitive to student’s feelings and so i asked her what was wrong.  She turned to me with big tears and said “Is nothing right? Every time i play it’s just another list of fixes, of refinements”.  My heart sank.  Had i grown so calloused and inherently taken on the methods given to me? Had i missed the forest for the trees? The enjoyment of music and the positive reinforcements not mentioned and the ‘job’ of music was only in my crosshairs?

I sat for a moment.

I was taken back.

I decided to change my ways.  I apologised.  I promised myself that before any To-Do list came out of my mouth, positives would come first.  That day my teaching became “Ok first off, this is what i like about what you’re doing…” then i would start into heavies.  Whether teacher or parent, it’s a good reminder to offer LOTS of praise.  At the same time the words “critique” and “critical” have become smeared together in this present age.  I welcome critique.  Anything constructive to better my playing… i’m all ears.  The careful balance as i see it is to remain a critical thinker without becoming critical.  We need to grasp the enjoyment of music first… the enriching part of music to our souls above and beyond any task at hand.

With that in mind… check this out -> Protege of Oscar Peterson… a little bit of Tom and Jerry :) Just for fun…

Click on the picture for the youtube video. Cheers.





Piano Practice… Until It’s Done

Vancouver Island, Canada

So… i’ve had many students… MANY who have asked… “Well, how long do you want me to practice this for?”  To which my usual answer is “I dunno… ’til it’s DONE!”  Self explanatory right? Or so you would think… Seguay

Recently i’ve taken up trail running.  When i first started running only about 5 years ago on a treadmill, i thought 15 minutes was a breakthrough for me.  No sooner had i been doing that when i realised that i should have a goal.  Victoria (located on Vancouver Island), the city where i’m located has a 10Km race every year where THOUSANDS of people… like 14,000 run.  I thought… hmmm this would be a decent goal.  Knowing that this was an outdoor race, i switched from treadmill to outdoor running.  After running outdoors, no one could PAY me to go back indoors to run.  Victoria is on an island where there are beautiful boardwalks with ocean and mountain scenes.  Why would i even consider doing anything different?  I then started mountain trail running.  Most recently i did a three hour run/hike with an ultra marathon runner.  “Ultra” runners run through forests, scale mountains etc.  I thought i knew the meaning of endurance until i did this.  At one hill, this lady running ahead of me just kept plodding.  I had this overwhelming feeling somewhere between exhaustion and vomitting that i thought… this is CRAZY!  Only problemo… we were halfway around the run.  So stopping wasn’t an option. 

Summit view

By the time we got back to the parking lot my thoughts had changed to… “Wow let’s do that again!” Funny though… you don’t often enjoy the fruits of the labour until you push through the difficulties.

Back to piano… i have this motto that i ALWAYS get raised eyebrows from.  I was recording in a studio this last week… a musical marathon of sorts writing and recording for World Vision.  At the end of one late session (until almost 1AM) i turned to the engineer on the project and said “Well… you can’t love it ’til you hate it”.  He laughed.  But the sentiment is true.  Until you knuckle down and learn how to press PAST the easy stuff… press PAST the fun… press PAST the feelings of “DANG IT! MY FINGERS DON’T WORK LIKE THAT” and continue on to strive to completion, you’ll never become proficient at the instrument.  Being a professional is one who puts aside feelings if not momentarily to accomplish the goal. 

There have been MANY times i’ve recorded under the gun, played in bands, finished scoring for some project… or even… for that matter, practiced as a kid some Rachmaninoff prelude for festival.  It’s all the same… endurance to the finish line.  And once completed, you can then enjoy the fruits of labour… you can love it after you “hate” it.

How Classical Pianists Learn Jazz

I’ll never forget sitting at the piano at age 15 completely frustrated and baffled by the fact that i had witnessed musicians playing without music.  Now these weren’t musicians playing memorized pieces… they were apparently making it up as they went along.  How intriguing!  Improvisation of notes… but how? How did they know what combinations of notes ‘went together’ to make that kind of sound?  Sure i had practiced (ad nauseum) my dominant 7ths… and i had read somewhere that jazz was all about 7ths… but my solid and broken chords sure didn’t sound like any jazz i had ever heard.  Enter Dave Brubeck.  My brother gave me a book called Impressions of New York for Easy Piano (pictured).  If you can get your hands on a copy it’s a FABULOUS book!  But one great thing about Brubeck is that he wrote out what he played.  For Classical died-in-the-wool piano players, this is INVALUABLE because we’re so used to reading… then processing, then playing.  And this book was my first small step into jazz – listening to chords i liked the sound of, extrapolating, analyzing, and integrating into my own playing.  Jazz is all about vocabulary.  Ask a child 7 years of age to write a story.  Ask a well travelled, well read, well educated adult to write a story and you know of what i speak.  It’s the vocabulary of words that make the difference.  In jazz, it’s the chords – the musical words that tell the story.  So next time you play some chord that you like – pause – listen – think – analyze then integrate.  And if you’re not great at experimenting with chords, get a book like Dave Brubeck’s where he weaves together musical concepts – bridging the gap from those who read with those who improvise.

The Reason I Play the Piano…

On a recent flight home from Toronto, i decided to take a few days in Winnipeg and visit my parents.  They’re still living in the same house i was raised in.  It’s quaint and everything seems much smaller (as i grew to be the tallest in the family)… even my parents are shorter than ever! hahaa… Anyway, i had forgotten about the conversations that happened not during dinner but after.  In this hustle bustle world of instant everythings, i presently throw all the dishes in the dishwasher, press start and walk away.  Not so in my parent’s house where they’ve never owned a dishwasher.  Post-dinner conversation led into doing-the-dishes conversation.  As we laughed and reminisced, i finally said to them “Y’know why i play the piano today right? Well… after dinner as a teenager Dad would always say ‘Who’s practicing piano and who’s doing the dishes?'”  Hahaaaa as a teenager, if you have a choice between cleaning up or playing the piano, my vote was always practicing.  I’d like to think that i somewhat enjoyed the piano when i was growing up but truth be told, it was part of the daily regimen… the fabric of our lives back then.  And without the technology of the dishwasher in our house, i learned escapism at the piano.  SMILES.

Practice Practicing the Piano

Without fail i’ve had this conversation at least ONCE with each of my students.  It pertains to HOW to practice.  It’s not enough to just start arbitrarily playing through a song, the student needs to be shown HOW to actually go about learning the nuts and bolts of practicing.  To do this, i usually find the closest book available and i say to the student, “Ok i’d like you to repeat word for word what i am about to tell you.  Ready?” (They ALWAYS nod their heads in agreement)… “Here goes”

In the fleeting seconds of final memory, the image that will become Burma is the sun and a woman’s parasol.  He has wondered which visions would remain – the Salween’s coursing coffee flow after a storm, the predawn palisades of fishing nets, the glow of ground trumeric, the weep of jungle vines.  For months the images trembled in the back of his eyes, at times flaming and fading away like candles, at times fighting to be seen, thrust forward like the goods of jostling bazaar merchants.” (1st paragraph from The Piano Tuner – EXCELLENT book BTW)

I then turn to the student and say “OK let’s hear it”.  100% of the time they give me a blank stare.  Some start to laugh, some start to look worried… and then i explain that human beings learn in bite sized pieces.  If i were to say the same quote “In the fleeting seconds” – have them repeat that and then move to “of final memory“, the student would remember the words right? Now join the two together.  Do you see where i’m going with this? Learn an entire song? Forget it.  Learn 2 bars at a time? Now we’re talking.  We need to teach students to be brilliant at the small stuff – the short sections.  I tell them “I’d rather have 4 bars done for next week – 4 bars you are completely genius at rather than slosh through the entire song”.  Time and again i remind them of this analogy and the ones who get it will grasp the art of practicing and excel.

PS – if you haven’t read the Piano Tuner, it’s a FABULOUS novel! Get it!

Five Words to Parents

I’ve been asked numerous times by parents what the secret to success is for keeping their children interested in the piano.  Over the years i have noticed five common threads amongst the students who excel.  Invariably most if not all of these are neccessary ingredients in the music learning process with successful students.

1. As parents – be present.  Small story: my dad had a lazyboy recliner right beside the old grand piano i would practice on.  When he would come home, he would love to read the newspaper.  No words were exchanged.  He would just read the paper.  It’s AMAZING how much more focused a child is by just having a parent sitting beside them.  You don’t even need to be musical! You just need to be within earshot.  It can be the kitchen, the living room… just so long as it’s close.  It prevents kids from daydreaming and makes them get down to work.  The end of the story with my dad… he would quite often fall asleep while i was playing and the newspaper would fall to his face – the condensation and ink would turn his nose black.  I would gradually play softer, softer, softer…then BANG! into the Beethoven!  He would just about jump out of the chair.  As a teenager i would laugh and laugh and he would give me the not so approving look and then smirk.

2. Repertoire inspires.  There HAS to be some form of music that you enjoy at the piano or else you might as well be sitting at a typewriter (do they even have those anymore?)  Again, my father would buy books for us not related to our studies in piano that we would read through – jazz, blues and ragtime.  In the dry seasons of practicing – feeling like there is no end in view, I would often end my piano session with some sort of fun piece. Truly, this was one of the motivating factors in writing these six books for my boys to learn how to play. I wanted to combine entertaining (and at times challenging) music with good piano skills. (There’s my shameless plug for my books). So find what inspires your children and go out there and get it!

3. Be consistent. I know this sounds paradoxical, but I have this saying “You can’t love it ’til you hate it”. ANY student who has broken through the barriers of forcing their fingers to learn piano technique knows that it’s frustrating. But the key here is consistency. All too often i hear parents say “we want our kids to just have fun at the piano”. I’m translating in my brain “ok… this means non-enforced practicing”. I’m gonna go out on a limb here and state for the record that those students just won’t excel. PERIOD. Reason being – as soon as it’s not ‘fun’, the practicing stops. I tell parents over and over and over: Make piano a part of daily routine. I used to ask my kids “did you brush your teeth, make your bed and practice piano?” It was part of the fabric of the family. That said, i also needed to come to grips with allowing children to make their own decisions about piano – a fine line to walk for sure.

4. Speed of the turn. Why is early music so exciting for kids and as they progress, quite often that enthusiasm wanes? In part it’s due to the fact that as you get more advanced in music, the songs get more complicated and subsequently take longer to complete. There’s a danger here on both the part of the student as well as the teacher. Teachers want the song to reach perfection. Students get bogged down and sometimes drown in a song they feel they will never finish. The longer that song(s) take, the more the fire goes out of the student. As a teacher, i don’t expect perfection from each song. In fact i would much rather play through more songs and take them to the 80% mark than play only a few and try and perfect them. In addition, i would allow each student a ‘drop’ token – they were allowed to just drop one song per year and say “i don’t want to finish this one”. I’m a HUGE advocate of finishing what you start, but even i know that there are times to put songs to rest. But here’s the thing… the faster the rate songs are learned, the more energy it creates in the student. It’s almost like an appetite… they want to consume more when they realise they have the capacity to learn more. And so it should be.

5. Finally, perform. As an adult, the most fun i have had playing is with others while performing. When i was a kid, it was one of the most horrifying experiences. Now somewhere in the middle of those years, a lightbulb went on. I think it was during performance in jazz band in front of my peers. It was the incredible sound of a big  band that i loved and at the same time i received admiration from my friends. It somehow bolstered my fragile teenage ego. I realised i had a feather in my cap – i realised i had skills – i wasn’t just some kid practicing, there was actually a REASON i had played all these years. Isn’t one of the reasons we play music for social benefit? We interact and communicate through sound. How weird would it be if we were taught to speak in public but never had the opportunity to do it? If music is the means through which we speak, why then do we sit sheltered in a corner? Back to reality – we still need to hone the skills – learn the chops – do the woodshedding… but the greatest feeling is to finally peform. As a drummer friend always says (and in this context – regarding performance) “don’t hate, celebrate”.

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