Sunday, January 17, 2016

As so many self-teachers, I have several piano courses.  Out of these, only two have stated what I have come to as a conclusion myself, considering my musical goals.  Before I can skillfully and musically move about the keyboard, I need to develop full command of scales, chords in all their inversions, and arpeggios, each all across the keyboard (typically, 4 octaves).  I have been working at this for some time now, quite successfully.  Once I made the decision to knuckle down and do this, my own sense of direction and musical goals have been greatly clarified.

This, then has been the centerpiece of my daily practice, a little bit at a time.  Each day, a new scale, while reviewing what I have already learned with the intent of making these become automatic.  After the scales, the same for the triads and 4 note chords (7th and major 7th), and associated arpeggios.  This course of practice takes months, possibly more than a year even though I am currently spending approximately two hours a day on it.  I am seeing consistent progress, which keeps me motivated to continue.  I am now seeing my hands performing the very moves I need to be able to make in order to play the kinds of music I want to play.

Unfortunately, for most of us, being the human creatures we are, this type of practice can be a difficult pill to swallow, for the very same reason that so many self-study courses promise we won't need to do this sort of practice.  It takes daily work and long term commitment, something the short term attention spans we have today don't take kindly to.  Practicing in this manner tends to become an almost meditative practice that is really quite relaxing.  If, when you sit down to practice, you make an agreement with yourself that this is YOUR time, and nobody and nothing gets to intrude, it becomes a special time you set aside for yourself as a quiet oasis in the day.  This attitude really does work, and so does the practice itself.

I set aside time every day to do this practice, and then I can do whatever else I want.  Michele McLaughlin, on her web site, said that she learned to play by learning BY EAR, all of the music on George Winston's albums.  She makes, in that statement, a very clear description of what worked for her.  Seeing Winston up close in a live concert when she was growing up, lit a fire in her belly, that became the motivation for her to become a professional pianist herself. She certainly put in the work, as she describes playing one small piece of music on the CD over and over until finally being able to play those few notes before moving on to the next short section.  One very short piece of the music at a time, one tune at a time, one CD at a time, she learned all that music and built her ear skills, as well as her keyboard skills AND the vocabulary she needed to express her own music.

My goal and path is similar to hers, though I am not as motivated to learn George Winston's music (well, not all of it anyway).  Instead, I am learning the music of Michele McLaughlin and that of David Nevue.  David Lanz has one CD in particular that I am motivated to likewise learn, and that is "Return To The Heart".  Today, we are able to slow down this music without changing pitch, and looping very small sections of the music, either on a computer via the appropriate software (typically Audacity or Transcribe!) or on CD players specially made for this purpose.

My piano journey has become very focused on doing what I need to do to play the kinds of music I ultimately want to play, rather than learning to do something else, and then very eventually hoping to make the jump to the music that motivates me to play in the first place.  This journey has evolved into a combination of building the foundational skills and learning by ear, the vocabulary of the music that speaks to me.

An important lesson I have learned along the way is that we each have our own individual musical goals and learning styles.  What works for me may not necessarily work for you, though most likely thee will be some ideas from my experiences and observations that you can glean something usable from.  We each have to dig deep inside ourselves to find what motivates us, what our true musical passion is, and what we need to accomplish to be able to express this music.  Especially if we are self-teaching, we need to build a practice that aims directly at our musical goals, while being flexible about trying different ideas and discarding what doesn't work for us and what does.  It is a process of constantly making adjustments to stay on course.

The courses I have talked about in these posts and have abandoned temporarily or otherwise are not bad courses by any means.  They are simply not what I have determined I need at this point in my journey.  Since I know what is in them and how they teach, I can refer back to parts of them as I need.  If anything, all the various piano courses I have acquired have become like a set of encyclopedias for me.  Every course focuses on something different, and emphasizes different aspects of the learning process.  One course instructor may be much better at explaining something I need to learn than another, or contain information I need that the other courses don't.  In short, all of the courses I have acquired have value somewhere in my musical journey.  In particular, I learned a lot from the Sudnow method about setting priorities, motivation, how to practice, attitudes toward my practice, and many things that continue to serve me well.  When I come back around to cocktail piano, which I definitely intend to do, I will be revisiting this course.  We never stop learning, so that when our current musical goals have been achieved, we continue on to still more new areas to learn.  Having multiple course to cover all this is not at all a bad thing.  What we don't want to do is become sidetracked by another course when the current course of study becomes difficult.

What I have stated in this post is where I am now and what I am currently doing, and not what you should be doing or wanting to do (though the general concepts are rather universal for learning an instrument).  As I achieve one musical goal, I will be moving on to another.  There is an endless variety of musical areas to explore, and that is why music is such a wonderful lifetime avocation.

I believe that gaining facility moving around the keyboard is essential, but how you choose to acquire this skill and how much of it you need is really up to you and your goals.  My hope for you is that reading these posts will give you some insight into the journey I have been, and am, taking to achieve my own goals.  Hopefully, these posts will get you to think in possibly a less traditional manner about learning to play the piano, and being more open to exploring the many possibilities and paths that exist today.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

This is what is currently going on for me.  I posted this in the piano world beginner's forum in the thread I had started for those studying the Duane Shinn 52 week Crash Course:

My wife has cancer and we will be making a few trips to the Mayo Clinic in April in preparation for, and then, her surgery. Until then, most evenings are taken up with her STAR program, which is a physical therapy designed to make her chances for survival much better, as well as her recovery from the surgery go better than it might otherwise. So there is really not much time for piano, between my contract engineering work and my wife's cancer.

In a situation such as I find myself in, working with a course of study such as the Duane Shinn 52 week Crash Course, we will find we have the same issues we would have with taking lessons with a live teacher. The work load is pretty much the same, as the teaching style - you MUST show up for regular lessons AND do the work in between. It really is "black and white", just as it was in college - either I am doing the work and keeping up or I am not. Luckily, I was able to get through college, but with the piano, every time I get started, something else comes up that overshadows that effort. This time is no different.

What I am doing is playing by ear, since this is not structured so I can drop in and out as time permits. Also, I find playing by ear (i.e. figuring out the music I want to play from recordings) just seems so natural to me for some reason. The more I do it, the more I realize that music really is a HEARING art in its most natural form. That really sounds dumb, as if I am stating the obvious - and I guess I am.

Some day I want to get back to the 52 week crash course. This course of study really is like live lessons, requiring, consistent commitment, but I believe the effort will be worth it in the end. These skills, combined with the ear playing, would serve as a pretty well rounded musical skill set.

I intend to continue to update this blog as I progress in whatever it is I am doing at the moment, whether by ear or via the 52 week Crash Course.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

This past week, I purchased and took delivery on a Sony PCM-D100 handheld recorder.  For me, it is the proverbial "Swiss Army Knife" for "by ear" musicians.  In addition to its fine recording capabilities, it also provides a few tools that are perfect for learning by ear from recordings.  These features include the ability to slow down the playback to as much as 25% original speed, the ability to change keys (pitch) separately from the slowdown feature, and the ability to quickly and easily set loop points so you can repeat a short segment of the music indefinitely.  In addition, the PCM-D100 has two function buttons that you can assign to most any function.  I have them assigned to the slowdown feature and the loop feature respectively, making for very quick and easy operation while playing piano.

My piano is digital, so I can connect the output of the PCM-D100 to the audio inputs on my piano and listen to both the piano and recorder through headphones, making it very easy to match the notes I am playing with the notes I am hearing on the recorder.

You can purchase software such as Transcribe! or Amazing Slowdowner to do this on your PC.  However, though I have used these programs, I really prefer easy to use dedicated hardware that can sit on the music holder on my piano (replacing any sheet music). 

So yesterday and today, I took a break from the 52 week Crash Course to learn a tune I have always wanted to play.  I will probably just stay with that tune until I learn the whole thing.  It is really motivating to be playing the music I listen to all the time.  I must have learned something about fingering from the work I have been doing, because my hands just seem to know where to go to play this music.

The particular tune I picked to learn is by Michele McLaughlin called "I Love You".  I picked it because I really enjoy listening to it, but also because it is slow and relatively simple so it is a good way to get started playing by ear.

Duane Shinn says to play lots of music, especially music that we really want to learn, so this is mine.  New Age solo piano, the melodic music that has definite song form, is at the top of my list of styles to learn.  I think the best way to learn this particular style is to do so by ear because the style is really about self-expression as in making your own music.  Several of the artists in this style, from what I have read, are self-taught by ear, learning off their favorite recordings of other artists. 

I find that I have a much easier time memorizing music that I learn by ear than that from sheet music.  From what I understand, learning by ear uses a different part of the brain than does playing from sheet music, so maybe this does make sense.

Once I finish this tune and get it out of my system and into my fingers, I will get back on track.  This raises an interesting question - is it "incorrect" to follow your heart and play the music that you really want to play, or is it better to put that off for some time in the future when you are done with a given course of study?  Time will tell.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Well into week 4 lesson, it is becoming clear that Shinn wants the student to play piano - a lot.  There are more songs assigned this week and additional playing by going back over all the previous lessons and applying the new chord inversions and swing bass to them.  By doing this, your hands continue to build keyboard confidence by the sheer act of playing - a lot.  Also, you will be getting early experience in arranging "on the fly" as you apply new techniques and inversions to already learned tunes, making them fresh.  The more you play, the better you get, and this course provides plenty of opportunity to play.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

This post will focus on motivation and where we put our attention.  When self-teaching, we are responsible for choosing our learning path and our motivation to stay with that choice.  If it turns out that the path we have chosen is not getting us where we want to go, it is our responsibility to determine a more suitable path and stay on that.  The problem can become whether our current path is really working for us, but maybe we are becoming impatient. 

The real problem with self teaching is that it can be a case of the "blind leading the blind".  We are not accomplished piano players, yet we are assuming that role when making decisions as to what we should be working on, for how long, and whether we are working efficiently towards our musical goals.  In a sense, this is like going on a trip through the Amazon for the first time without a guide, and expecting to end up at a destination we have never seen.  It may be possible to succeed, but it is likely that we will get lost somewhere along the way and never reach our destination. 

Some people do succeed.  I read on Michele McLaughlin's site that she took a few piano lessons as a child, but became enamored with the playing of George Winston.  She learned to play by learning all of George Winston's music by ear.  When a discussion like this occurs, it is unavoidable that the word "talent" comes up.  That word is loaded with a lot of cultural baggage, largely because for many years, people seem to have believed that "some got it, some don't" and that is all there is to it.  With many people taking many paths to learning, and becoming able to play piano, it is apparent that most of us have at least some of whatever it takes to learn this skill.  However, we all seem to have different learning styles.  Just because I may not be successful learning the way Michele McLaughlin did, does not indicate that I am unable to learn to play.  I just have to find another path.  As Tony Robbins (the motivation guy) says, if one way doesn't work, try another.  If that doesn't work, try another.  Eventually, you will succeed IF you don't give up trying, but don't stick with what is not working.

But then, the problem becomes one of jumping around so much that we never settle into any learning path and never make any progress.  It is quite typical among self-teachers (including me) to have acquired a number of piano courses and books, and after a number of years, still not play very well (if at all), while a person who just knuckled down and got a live teacher and took weekly lessons, has become quite proficient over that same period of time.  A live teacher simply is not practical for everybody due to work schedules, not having the money to take regular lessons, or not having a teacher in one's area who teaches in a manner consistent with one's musical goals and/or learning style.  However, it does seem to me that whether we are self-teaching or working with a teacher, the shortest path to developing pianistic skills is to find a path and stick with it.

We can become distracted by any number of things, especially with the advent of the internet and its easy access to literally millions of sites, new piano teaching products, and especially the forums.  A couple of good books to read that deal with motivation and focusing on a goal are "Mastery" by George Leonard ( and Steven Pressfield's "War of Art" (  These books both address the very issues that will cause self-teachers to jump around from course to course, being distracted by every new course they find on the internet or that is mentioned in the piano forums.  Spending time in the forums talking about playing can become a means of what Steven Pressfield calls "avoidance" - that aspect of human nature that causes us to do everything EXCEPT the very thing we should be doing if we really want to achieve our goals.  In "Mastery", George Leonard talks about how we come face to face with our true motivations as we struggle with staying motivated enough to actually follow through with our goals in the day to day activity needed to achieve them.  I recommend reading and rereading periodically, both books.

Another problem I see when becoming involved with the piano forums (yes, I do participate there) is that there are people who obsess over the quality of digital pianos or the minute details of different acoustic pianos.  to me, this seems a case of not seeing the forest for the trees.  If we are focused on making music and pursuing our goals of becoming skilled at playing the piano, then such issues are best left to others to worry about.  We choose our instrument based on our current requirements and budget, and then forget that and move on to actually using that instrument every day in the pursuit of our goal.  It is very easy to get caught up in all that noise, and certainly sometimes a lot more fun than daily practice - unless...we are careful to cultivate a healthy attitude about practice and our chosen path. 

It does seem to me that we must truly love piano music and truly desire to be able to play that music ourselves.  If we don't love it enough, then the motivation to play simply won't be there.  As David Sudnow said in his course,  you really have to want to do it.  My main instrument has been guitar for many years.  However, I have been finding myself seeking out and listening not to guitar music, but instead to solo piano music.  I truly enjoy listening to many new age piano players as well as cocktail style.  I have all of Jim Haskins' cocktail piano CDs (, and Michele McLaughlin and David Nevue new age piano CDs ( (  There are many other artists in these styles, but these in particular I seem to really resonate with and are therefore motivated to want to learn from by listening to them again and again.  Again, David Sudnow, in his course, talked a lot about finding one or more piano "heroes" (those players whose music really captures your ear and motivate you to want to play).  These three are mine.

When I am working through the Duane Shinn 52 week Crash Course, I am realizing that I need these skills in order to play the music I want to play.  His course will take me directly into what I need to be working from lead sheets for cocktail style piano, while at the same time, developing the skill in my hands to also tackle new age piano.  Periodically, I do explore learning some of the music of these three artists I mentioned by ear off their CDs.  I can do that once I am able to hear their music in my head from having listened to it so often.  You have to really love the music to want to listen to it that often.  It really comes down to that.  You have to really connect with some form of piano music to become motivated enough to stay with it day in and day out.  Without that, it simply won't happen.  It doesn't matter what style or artist(s) capture your ear, but something must.  When you have that, all the chatter in the forums won't sway you, though you can certainly enjoy the company of those with similar interests in these forums.  When you have chosen a learning path that you trust to help you develop the skills you need to play the music you deeply love, you need to constantly remind yourself that what you are learning today is building the foundation you need to play that music.  You must start somewhere and be willing to put in the time and effort to achieve your goal.  However, if you don't love your goal enough to really, really want to achieve it, it won't happen.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Listening to a number of solo piano CDs covering standards, show tunes, and the like, I have begun to realize that what Duane Shinn is teaching in the 52 week Crash Course is how to play like that.  The course has a theme that is consistent with that goal all the way through, that becomes quite apparent when you look at the overall course syllabus.  However, the real learning is in all the extra suggestions Duane gives in the lessons to help you get the most out of each.  These suggestions are ways to explore on your own, different ways to play the week's assignments.  By trying these suggestions, you both become aware of how different a piece of music can sound with just a few minor changes in the playing style and you also begin to gain a greater sense of hand independence as your left hand begins to do a wider variety of accompaniments.  Of course, these explorations take time.  A person who strictly does each lesson as per Duane's initial instructions for the week might be able to finish the course in a year, but by taking the time to explore in depth what music can be made with Duane's suggestions, the student gets a real sense of what it is like to come up with his or her own interpretations on the fly.  This is great preparation for working from a fakebook or leadsheet.

In the past, I have just pushed my way through the lessons with the intention of getting through this course.  However, for some reason, I really began to focus on Duane's suggestions and have been very pleasantly surprised at the difference these make in the music coming out of my piano.  It is definitely well worth the time to slow down and really experience all the course has to offer.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Having to take my wife to the Mayo Clinic last week, I have not had any piano activity to speak of.  Today, I reviewed the first lesson and will continue with the next tomorrow, and so on until I catch up to where I was.  That is one of the good things about such a structured lesson plan.  I can get back to where I was by reviewing, and especially knowing what I need to review before continuing on.

One thing I have noticed is that momentum is an important factor to both consider and nurture.  I find that if I practice every day (taking one day a week off as Duane Shinn suggests), I seem to have a momentum that carries itself as the habit and rhythm of regular practice take hold.  However, if I encounter a break in my practice habit, the longer the break, the harder it is to get back into the routine.  The best thing for me to do is to simply jump right in without thinking about it.  It is interesting that the longer I think about it, the harder it is to take action.

It is said that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.  While that is true, it is also true that we each have to make a decision every day to take the next step and the next.  Every day is a new commitment to our chosen goals.

I remember finishing my degree at night.  Every quarter I had to recommit to the next quarter by not thinking about enrolling, but instead just going to the school and doing it.  There is a time to think and consider our actions, and a time to take action.  Once the decision to do something has been made, it becomes time to take action again and again, one day and decision at a time.