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.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

The 52 week Crash Course starts out using the "pointer system" in which the index finger points to the root of the chord and you are playing triads, so these are played in second inversion (fifth on the bottom).  The left hand is playing the chords and the right hand is playing the melody.  The songs are simple, public domain tunes such as "For He's A Jolly Good Fellow, Can Can, and similar.  The melodies fit mostly under the five fingers of the right hand and then gradually start to expand beyond this.  You are reading the melody, but playing the chords from symbols, since the pointer system takes care of the chord form.  Within the next two lessons, we start reading the chords as notes and then begin to move away from the pointer system, and over time, expanding into all manner of technique that teaches both reading and playing by chords so you can play from a lead sheet making your own arrangement by the end of the course.

It would be typical for an adult to see the early stages of this course and quickly determine it is not right - too simply, corny tunes, etc.  However, in the beginning, even these tunes are a challenge while our hands are "learning the shape of the keyboard" as David Sudnow used to say.  At this stage, it really doesn't matter what tunes we are playing.  We need a strong simple melody that we all know, and the chords to go with it.  We need step by step instruction that is paced such that we don't get too bored, nor overwhelmed.  For me, the pace here is just about right - once I have settled down in my expectations and embraced the fact that I need to start at the beginning and work through the steps if I am to achieve my goal of learning to play the piano in the manner that I desire.

Mine is the typical story of the self-teaching adult.  I have jumped around from this course to that course over the years, and the result is that if I were asked to actually play something, I might stumble through some music long forgotten.  Had I stuck to the Duane Shinn 52 week course when I bought it back around ten years ago, I would be playing and enjoying the piano today rather than attempting yet again to start anew.  Though it may sound like it in this paragraph, I am really not kicking myself about it, but it is worth saying the truth as a reminder to me and possibly to others taking the self-teaching path, that this sort of thing is a real problem that must be addressed if one is to get anywhere at all with the piano.

We see the one philosophy that would work well for us in this situation when we see movies such as the "Karate Kid" or the old "Kung Fu" series in which the student ("grasshopper") is being constantly reminded that the willingness to start at the beginning, coupled with a large dose of patience (together, these are really a part of "humility", in a sense), are key to the learning process.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Over the years, I have explored many different DIY piano methods.  Among them, I have personally not found a "bad" one, but instead different methods that will appeal to different learning styles and pianistic goals.  I spent the most time with the Sudnow method and later the Duane Shinn 52 week Crash Course.  The Sudnow method is really open-end, where you sort of morph out of the strict guidelines Davd Sudnow provides to get you started and into a much looser and wider realm in which you can learn from anything that interests you.  The Shinn course is very structured, with weekly video lessons, a set of books to work from, very well defined assignments, and the type of guidance you would expect from formal lessons.

During these years, life intruded and I have long been "on again, off again" with the piano.  I recently retired, but since have taken to contract engineering work with the intention of working a few months a year.  Since that is hourly rather than salary, I am working a regular 40 hour week rather than the kinds of hours demanded in this field of full time engineers.  With much of the year not being spent working, I expect to have a fair amount of time to play piano.  Recently I purchased a Roland V-Grand piano.  This is priced alongside many lower end grand pianos and well above the typical digital piano.  It is, quite literally, a digital 5 foot 6 inch baby grand piano, and is a wonderful instrument with its modelling technology rather than the typical sampling that most digital pianos use.  Because of this technology, the V-Grand responds and plays very much like an acoustic piano.  The cost of the V-Grand definitely makes a person take piano playing seriously and is an absolute joy to play.  The other product Roland has with this technology is the V-Piano.  Though there are numerous videos over on YouTube showing concert classical pianists performing concerts on the V-Grand, it is the stage piano version V-Piano that most people know about.  Both are fine instruments as are many of the better digital console piano available today that use sampling technology.

After having spent time reviewing other courses, I have decided to back to the Duane Shinn 52 week Crash Course.  Also, my musical goals are much more clearly defined now than they had been in the past and I am able to recognize more clearly what I need to reach those goals.  I find that working alone, I benefit from the solid guidance and structure this course provides.  I do much better knowing exactly what I am doing each time I sit at the piano.  Duane provides much guidance with regard to how to practice, specific things to watch out for in terms of common mistakes students often make, and ways to maximize return for effort expended.  This information comes from many years as both a piano player and teacher. 

At this point, I am well into the second week of the course, having gone through all the preliminary information all over again and completed the first week, also again.  Several years ago, I got a ways into the course, but had to put in so many hours at work for an extended period of time at several points in my career, that I got away from it.  Instead of going back to this course, I fooled around with some other courses that seemed to have a more immediate appeal.  This is the downfall of the self-teaching environment, folks tend to jump from course to course looking for that "magic bullet".  Unfortunately, despite the claims made in various ads, there is no "magic bullet" other than commitment, persistence, and day-to-day consistency.  Especially now with the internet, there are many flashy courses clamoring for our attention, each promising what the others supposedly can't deliver, and this makes it all too easy to jump around rather than staying the course with one method.

I have several courses from Yoke Wong, Bill Romer, Glen Rose, and Willie Myette that I intend to explore AFTER I have built a solid foundation in piano technique with the Duane Shinn course.  Since I have these other courses stored away on DVD, they will be there when I am ready so thee is no hurry or pressure to get to them.  These courses are all rather short and focus on specific areas that, in my opinion, complement the year long 52 week course from Duane Shinn.  These shorter courses focus on various aspects of creating and playing professional quality arrangements from lead sheets, improvising, and playing new age piano styling.

Rather than being "flashy" or "exciting" the way many of the current self-study piano courses seem to be presented, the 52 week Crash Course marches solidly from one week to the next, gradually building very important skills that cover both reading sheet music and creating your own arrangement from either a lead sheet or the sheet music in what Duane Shinn refers to as "chord style" piano.  It s clear that his course takes sustained and consistent effort to complete, but he provides everything a student would need to be successful.

I have replaced the original blog posts I had here from several years ago with this current post and will follow with more as I progress.  I have almost finished an interesting book called "Play It Again" by Alan Rusbridger.  His book is his own story of working on mastering a complicated Chopin piece to perform for friends and family later in life.  His job certainly interferes with his efforts at times, with its demands for long hours, but he is as persistent and focused as he can be under the circumstances.  The book has been a real influence on me even though my interests do not involve classical music.  I want this blog to be similar in content to what Mr. Rusbridger wrote in his book, in that I will periodically write about my progress with the 52 week Crash Course.

In the forums, I recall that from time to time, somebody would ask if any of those engaged in self-teaching courses have actually finished such a course and can any of these people actually play piano well as a result.  These are perfectly valid questions.  As far as I can determine, the only folks who seem to have accomplished this are a few who have worked with the Piano Magic "play by ear" site.  There was ONE person some years ago who had actually finished the 52 week Crash Course and, based on some recordings he posted, really could play.  That is certainly hopeful.

It is my hope that by maintaining this blog and being somewhat active in the beginner's forum over at, I will be "kept honest" and on track with my efforts with the 52 week Crash Course over the coming year.