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.