Back to School–and to Piano Lessons!

Welcome back to school and piano lessons!

If you’re like a lot of students, you probably spent your summer traveling, swimming, going to summer camps, riding your bike, skateboarding, texting, etc. And, you probably didn’t spend as much time with your instrument as you do the other 9 months of the year. And now, your first lessons of the school year are upon us, and your technique is, to be polite, rusty.

First off, don’t despair. Be prepared to spend a few weeks going back over some basics to get those good habits back. Since I’m a pianist, let’s talk about piano.

Scales. Love or hate them, but DO THEM. Slowly. Please. The point of scales is not so much to find out how fast you can whiz along on the keys, but to familiarize yourself so well with the keyboard and key signatures that you immediately recognize when you play wrong notes in your new repertoire. Yes, you will, by default, build up your ability to play fast, even and accurate scales. And all of my students are expected to develop great facility in playing their scales. But the real reason I assign them is that scales are the alphabet of instrument, and if you don’t know them and the key signatures they represent, you will forever be fighting to learn the notes.

Play a bit under tempo the performance pieces you were studying in the spring. This will give you a great big confidence boost when you find you still got it! But, it’s more than that. You will likely find that you approach those pieces now with a completely different mindset than you did only 90 days ago. You’ve had time for those pieces to “gel” in your mind. And while your technique may not be top-notch, your musicality in delivering those pieces has probably improved.

Pick up your technical studies from last spring as well. Do a little self-check to see if you still have the skills under your fingers. If not, revisit those studies until you’ve recovered where you were in the spring.

Don’t be discouraged if you feel like you’ve lost a little ground. It’s happened to all of us at one point or another. Just be patient, and within a few weeks, you’ll be moving on to your next musical challenge with aplomb!

Welcome back!

So, you’re going to a music contest

Dear aspiring student musicians,

Over the last two years, I’ve worked as collaborative pianist (formerly known as accompanist) with nearly 200 students on preparation and eventual competition in musical contests. That experience has been a real eye-opener.

First, I would like to say that I was truly humbled by the amount of raw talent in our youth. Some of the final performances from these young musicians were truly breathtaking and I was privileged to be present for these magnificent performances. For that reason alone, I hope I can continue to do this for as long as my body allows.

For as rewarding as each experience is, the truth is that this is grueling work. Music requires a huge amount of concentration at a level which is unheard of in any other profession. We have to listen to tuning, get our fingers and tongues to work at precisely the right time and in unison, keep a steady tempo, and listen to other musicians so that we play the exact right note at the exact right time in concert with other musicians. It’s exhausting enough to do that for a few hours a day. Imagine doing it for eight! And, on top of an aggressive rehearsal schedule, I still must schedule my own time to rehearse the piano parts by myself.

But, I digress…

As I finished another round of contests, I’ve found that there are some pretty common mistakes that happen over and over, from student to student. I thought it would be useful to gather those experiences together for others to learn from.

So, in no particular order, here are the nine major things that happen at contest, and some pointers as to how to prevent them.

Mistake #1: Failure to adequately prepare.

Students often came to their first rehearsal having not even seen the entire piece of music. This was a mere 12 days away from the actual contest date! This is easy to correct. Take the time necessary to actually learn your music well ahead of your first rehearsal with an accompanist. Your goal should be to have your material memorized for your performance. You may not actually perform it from memory, but if you know your piece well enough to play from memory, you have the luxury of working on the musical side of the piece, rather than continue fighting with the notes on the day of the contest.

Mistake #2: Not knowing what the accompaniment sounds like

In this day and age, there is absolutely no excuse for not knowing what your piece sounds like. Student after student comes to me seeking an accompanist, and they have no idea what they are about to hear. Some of the comments that truly stunned me were things like “Who starts the piece?”, “When do I come in?”, or my favorite, “Can you tell me how this goes?”

Not having listened to any recordings, I had students who took their pieces literally twice as fast as they were supposed to, or twice as slow.

Look up a reputable recording on Amazon or YouTube as early as possible. Listen to that recording several times. Commit it to memory so you can sing along with it. Put it on your phone, your tablet, your computer, or whatever device happens to be the technology of the day.

Mistake #3: Failure to count

If you’re playing a piece in 4/4, that means there are four beats per measure. Not three, not five, not three and half. Four is the correct answer. So why is something so fundamental as counting so difficult? It actually relates to Mistake #2. The student doesn’t know the accompaniment. A secondary cause is simple nerves. In the heat of performance, students are so anxious to get it over with that they just come in whenever the mood strikes them, leaving the accompanist (a.k.a. me) in a panic trying to figure out how many beats or even entire measures were just overlooked. Or even more embarrassing is when the accompaniment comes to a stop while the soloist is supposed to play. I’m playing along, come to that break, and there’s…. silence. The soloist looks at me like I committed some kind of crime before figuring out that they are the ones who were supposed to come in!

Mistake #3a: Failure to count long rests

This is a combination of Mistake #3 and Mistake #2.

Here’s the deal. Don’t count rests.

Seriously. I mean it. Do not count rests.

So, you ask, “How am I supposed to know where I am?” You know where you are in the midst of long multi-measure rests by knowing how the accompaniment goes. Do you think the great performers are on stage playing a Tchaikovsky violin concerto and counting to themselves, “One 2 3 4, Two 2 3 4, Three 2 3 4, Four 2 3 4?” No!

Here’s what happens when you try to rely on counting that way. “One 2 3 4, Two 2 3 4, Three 2 3 4, Four 2 3 4, what am I going to have for dinner 2 3 4, SQUIRREL 2 3 4, what’s that smell 2 3 4, OH, God, where am I 2 3 4….”

Know the accompaniment so well that you know where to come in because that’s where you’re SUPPOSED to come in. I asked the students who delivered truly outstanding performances if they counted rests. Not one of them did. They said “I just know where my part fits.”

Mistake #4: Playing with no dynamics

A huge number of students play their pieces with a single volume level. Some choose super soft and timid as their only volume; others opt for mezzo blastissimo. This is usually the direct result of the student not being familiar enough with their music to get beyond fighting with the notes. Preparation is the key.

Another point on this is to play with a much wider range than you are probably accustomed to. Band and choir students are so familiar with blending into the ensemble that they play/sing their solos the same way. Play your louds louder, and your softs softer. And don’t be afraid to play out or sing out.

Mistake #5: Rushing.

Music isn’t a football game. You don’t get points for rushing to the end of the piece.

Mistake #6: Starting the piece WAYYYYY too fast.

Students often start the piece without considering the ridiculously difficult double-tonguing passage that they will have to play at bar 68. So, they start bar 1 about 25% faster than they can actually play the piece. Bad idea. When you get to the hard part, what are you going to do? Some students just make a complete mess of it, and keep going. Others come to a near dead stop as they fumble their way through the hard part. One student had a unique solution: He just didn’t play the hard part at all.

The fix? Get really familiar with the hard part. When you set your tempo at the beginning, do it by thinking how fast you can actually play that hard part, and then back it off 10%. Trust me, with performance nerves, you’ll end up at the right tempo.

Mistake #7: Fixing mistakes… in a performance

Okay, so you’re playing along, and you just didn’t hit that note the way you think you should… in other words, you bombed it. For your sake, and mine, please don’t stop and “fix” it. If you blew that passage or that note, it’s in the past, and no amount of stopping and restarting is going to make it better. It only makes it FAR worse. It’s like saying to your audience and/or judge, “Hey! Look at this! I just totally flubbed this note, and now I’m going to play it right for you!” The right approach is to just keep going. Own your mistake. Treat it like that’s the way it’s *SUPPOSED* to be played! Moving on past a mistake is actually one of the hallmarks of a really fine musician.

Mistake #8: Following the accompanist

This is a collaborative effort and under ideal circumstances, you and your accompanist work as a well-oiled machine. But, ultimately, you’re in a contest situation and you are the one being judged, not your accompanist. So, if the accompanist starts your piece too slowly, or too quickly, take control and play the tempo that YOU want to play when you come in. That does NOT mean you can change the tempo at will throughout the piece. It just means that you prefer the starting tempo at a different tempo, and you simply take control. Once that’s done, stick with it. Your accompanist will follow you faithfully.

Mistake #9: Letting yourself get flustered.

We all make mistakes. Even the most professional musicians make mistakes, or have a memory lapse. I’ve seen it happen to even the most seasoned veterans, like Andre Watts. And when it happens, I can guarantee they do not break down in tears. Neither should you.

So, you made a mistake. What do you do? Carry on as if nothing happened. In the rare situation when a false start is just going to ruin the whole piece for you, do something like what I’ve heard more than one conductor do in such an event. Stop the performance, and say, “you deserve to hear this the way it’s meant to be heard.” And start over. No apologies, no crying.

In performance, it is as important that you handle the occasional mistake as gracefully as possible as it is important that you perform as beautifully as possible.

 A few bizarre anecdotes

I actually overheard a student and accompanist congratulate each other on finishing the piece together.

One student I accompanied played all notes with exactly the same note value. Sixteenths, quarters, even whole notes got the same treatment.

“I’m glad I picked a contemporary piece. The judge will never figure out if I played the right notes!” (Yes, that happened).

Chewing gum and playing flute is not a contest winning strategy.

“Do you mind if I play the piece through once to warm up?”

 A parting thought

One thing that is consistent amongst all musicians, regardless of experience of rage, is nerves. We all get them. If you don’t, you’re not human.

The worst thing you can do in an audition is walk into the room, cram the horn in your mouth and start playing. You’re not ready yet, and chances are neither is your accompanist nor your judge or audience. The silence before and after you play is as important as the piece itself.

Relaxation is the key. The problem most students and teachers run across is exactly HOW to relax. Sure, I can tell you can kinds of New Age stuff, like “make yourself one with the instrument” and “practice yoga.” But, that’s not what you really need. What you need is something very specific that you can do to take the edge off and get in touch with yourself and the music. Here’s my favorite exercise:

  1. Stand comfortably with your feet directly under your shoulders, and pointing straight ahead.
  2. Place your hands in the small of your back and feel the muscles back there. Lean forward a little bit, and you’ll feel them tighten. Now, lean back slowly until those muscles release and hold that position.
  3. Put your hands at your side, and you’ll find that you are perfectly balanced on your feet.
  4. In that relaxed position, take a deep breath with your abdomen. Don’t raise your shoulders or puff up your chest. Instead, focus on making your belly stick out and look as fat as possible.
  5. Now, let that breath out through pursed lips. Make a “W” with your lips and let your breath out through that little hole.
  6. As you release that air, you’ll feel the stress and tension drain from your shoulders and neck and on down to your back. You should take at least 15 seconds to release your air.

Now you’re more relaxed, take a quick look around, and get centered in the space. I don’t mean physically in the middle of the space, but find that feeling where you know exactly where you are in the room, and you feel comfortable there. Think about the music filling the space, not just coming from your instrument. Start only when you are ready, and not a moment sooner.

One of the students I worked with made it a point to do this in her audition. She then proceeded to deliver the most exquisite performance I have heard at a student audition. It was light years ahead of what she had done in rehearsal. At the end, the judge said to me, “I don’t know it was she did at the beginning, but she accessed another plane of existence. It was exquisite!”

‘Nuff said.

If you are a student reading this, I hope you are inspired to be an even more dedicated musician. And, if I’m lucky, I’ll get to be your collaborative pianist some day!

Signed,

Your faithful Collaborative Pianist (Accompanist)

Ear training in Piano Lessons

Are you learning to play by ear in your piano lessons?

Austin, Texas is the “Live Music Capital of the World”.  So, we’ve got our fair share of musicians–especially pianists and other keyboard players.

There seem to be two types of pianists in the world:  those that play by music, and those that play by ear.

But those two skills need not be mutually exclusive, and should not be.  All too often students who learn to play by ear do so on their own, with or without formal piano lessons. They learn incredibly valuable lessons that way, but may miss out on the thousands, if not millions, of pieces available in print.  They also miss out on the teacher who can guide their understanding of music theory, correct posture and hand positioning issues, and introduce them to the “standard” literature.  While play-by-ear pianists may be able to pick up simple classical pieces in that method, they are going to be hard-pressed to recreate more complex pieces simply by listening.

On the other side of the coin are students who are very carefully taught technique and the standard literature in the course of their piano lessons, but couldn’t play “Happy Birthday” or “Yankee Doodle” without sheet music.

Strange as it may seem, it is easier to teach a pianist who plays by ear to play from sheet music than it is to teach the sheet-music taught pianist to play by ear.

There are so many things that have a well-tuned ear helps with:

  1. You hear mistakes more easily.
  2. You begin to innately understand music theory, even though you may not have the terminology for it yet.
  3. You build a direct connection between your ears and fingers.
  4. You’ll actually learn music faster.

If you are taking piano lessons now, or intend to soon, ask your teacher if he’ll be helping you develop that skill. This includes two critical learning areas: ear training and sight singing.  In music school, we affectionately called that “ear-straining” and “sight-screaming”!  Ear training is designed to get your ear tuned to hearing melodies, rhythms, chords and intervals. Sight-singing is designed to get you to be able to reproduce melodies and rhythms without the aid of a keyboard.  For instance, you may know where a C and F# are on the keyboard, but can you HEAR that and name it?  Can you sing it?  Those are key skills in developing your ability to play by ear.

Once you become proficient with these skills, you can sit down and play the most kick-butt rendition of Happy Birthday your friends have ever heard–not because you have the sheet music, but because you know how you want it to sound.

Scaling New Heights

While listening to a Cedar Park, TX band practice, I noticed that the director spent a fair amount of the lesson time on warming the band up with scales.

Piano lessons almost always include scales.  Band practice includes scales.  You name the musical endeavor, and I guarantee scales are included.

Ick.

I can’t think of any student who doesn’t balk at doing their scales.  I, too, am guilty of complaining about my scale practice.  Or, at least, I used to be guilty of it.

Like any activity, you decide for yourself whether to love it or loathe it.  When it comes to scales, there are lots of reasons to learn to love them, and those reasons are far-reaching.

Let’s talk about my favorite topic–your hand health.  Playing scales at the beginning of practice sessions is a great way to warm up your muscles and joints.  If your idea of practice is sitting down and plowing through an Etude at full throttle, you’re doing yourself a huge disservice and risking injury.  No runner starts out full throttle on a five-mile run.  No gym enthusiast grabs a 200-lb. weight and immediately starts bench presses. They start their run or workout with stretching and maybe some gentle cardio.  But absolutely no strength training without properly warming up.  Your hands are just as valuable and vital as your biceps and quadriceps, and you need to treat them the say way.  So, playing scales, slowly, methodically and with intention, is a great way to warm up.  Don’t start by blasting from the bottom of the keyboard to the top at full-throttle.  Take it easy.  Listen to your tone, and evenness of rhythm. Do this for five minutes.  Then, start picking up the pace, or moving on to your other repertoire pieces.

Scales can be meditative and relaxing.  Here’s something you may never hear from your teacher, but it is an excellent tension reliever:  Play a scale you can’t mess up.  My favorite “can’t mess it up” scale is B major.  Check it out!  If you get your fingering wrong in B major, you just can’t finish playing the scale.  The black notes fit your hand absolutely perfectly, and your thumb goes on every white note (both of them). It’s by far the easiest scale to learn because of that. Conversely, I recommend avoiding C major.  Too easy to mess up the fingering, and if you aren’t careful, you will ingrain bad scale technique. Trust me:  B Major is your friend.  So, play that one slowly, and just enjoy the sound the piano makes.  Listen for how each note grows as the soundboard and the frame of the piano start to ring with each note.  Feel the weight of your arm and hand sinking into the key.  Learn to enjoy that sensation.

Scales are the root of all Western music for at least the last 500 years.  Get your hands so comfortable in a key that you simply can’t play wrong notes because they FEEL wrong!  If you’re playing in Ab major, and find your finger slipping to a B natural, or E natural, of course it sounds wrong, but it should FEEL wrong too.  How do you get that kind of comfort in all the various keys?  Scales.

So you want to play by ear?  Want to play what you hear in ANY key?  One of the cornerstones to developing that skill is going to be —  wait for it —   SCALES!  :)  Your familiarity with every single note in a key will lay the groundwork for being able to play around with a melody.

I hope this encourages piano students to think differently about their scale practice.  It’s not a “medicine” you have to take to play the piano. It’s the breath you take to play the piano.

Sit Down, and Play the Piano!

I teach piano lessons in Cedar Park, Texas, and in Texas, we love football in the fall.  And going to a football game entails sitting on a bench.  You’d think we would know all about sitting on benches, wouldn’t you?  You’d be surprised…  So, read on…

I find a lot of my time with students is spent talking about the mechanics of playing the piano. Sure, every good teacher will talk about the obvious points:  proper finger positioning, arch the hand, relax the shoulders, and so forth.

But there’s one thing that is often overlooked, probably because a teacher is afraid of seeming–how to say this delicately–uncouth.

One of the most important things we, as humans, must do is learn to balance ourselves.  We walk on two feet, and with a very sophisticated inner ear mechanism, we learn to balance our ungainly bodies over an extremely small amount of real estate called our feet.  But, balance doesn’t stop at being able to stand up.  It also applies to sitting down.  When you sit at the kitchen table, or on your couch or at your desk, you tend to forget about balance because you can just flop, and let your back rest against the chair back.  You probably sit fairly far back in the chair, with the bulk of your legs resting on the seat surface. Although this is poor posture, it’s comfortable enough when you’re watching TV, but it’s HORRIBLE if you do it at the piano.

So here’s the “uncouth” part of teaching a student.  We have to talk about your (gasp!) bottom and where it belongs on the bench.  If you sit on your piano bench like you do on your couch, you are going to be unbalanced.  After you read this, I encourage you to go sit at your piano bench and try these postures out.  First, try sitting with your bottom even with the back side of the bench, so that your legs are fully supported by the bench.  You’ll notice that you tend to lean back a little bit. Put your hands on the keyboard and you’ll see that you seem to have less leverage.  Try leaning forward, and you’ll find it a little uncomfortable, and perhaps even off-putting on your balance and constricting on your abdomen.  You will probably subconsciously grasp at the keys to try to maintain your balance. What you’ll find is that your balance in that position has to be managed entirely by your back muscles and abdomen, with your hands unconsciously reaching out as you would for the banister on a staircase.  Your legs are not part of the balance equation at all.  Using the pedal from that position is awkward.

Now, move your bottom until you have the front edge of the bench right where your bottom ends and your thighs begin.  You should feel your posture shift slightly forward.  You’ll also notice that your weight is shifted more towards your feet.  Lean forward towards the keyboard and back again.  Your legs act as a counterbalance to your shifting weight, and gives you tremendous control.  Put your hands at the keyboard as you shift your weight forward and back, and you’ll find you have no need to subconsciously grasp at the keys to maintain your balance.

You’ve got your pelvis with two protrusions that act as sort of “rockers”, or the bony part of your bottom.  When you are in the correct position, you’ll find that your weight pivots nicely over those “rockers”.  That means you are in good form.

Your balance is one of the most important tools you have at your disposal to improve how well you play, and also how long you can play before tiring.  Being poorly balanced saps your energy, making you use large groups of muscles just to stay in place, and robs your hands of the controlled weight you need to produce a beautiful, well-controlled tone.

So, sit down and play the piano–the right way!

Piano Lessons in Cedar Park, TX

Piano Lessons in Cedar Park

The Austin Center for Musical Excellence teaches piano lessons in Cedar Park, TX.   Get your children going on a new lifetime skill, or pick up lessons where you left off, or even start a new hobby.  The Austin Center for Musical Excellence is committed to making musical experience FUN!

Near the border of Cedar Park and Austin, we are convenient to Anderson Mill, Buttercup Creek, Oakwood Glen, and lots of other metro Northwest neighborhoods.

Our Studio

When you learning piano, you’ll want to be working with the finest pianos.  After all, if you’re learning to drive a car, you don’t start by hopping in your Big Wheel!  Our two Mason and Hamlin grand pianos are concert-quality. Mason & Hamlin is revered by piano aficionados as one of the highest quality pianos ever built. And if you are studying computer-based music and composition, we utilize graded and fully-weighted keyboards to simulate the action of a real grand piano.

Above and beyond piano lessons, we also offer computer-based music notation, recording, electronic keyboards and digital audio workstations (DAW).

Gee, I Wish I Had Learned to Play Football…

Never heard that one… but I have heard countless friends and new acquaintances wish out loud that they had learned to play piano. And like so many others, you may have sitting in your living room or den a dusty, unplayed piano. Dust it off, and learn a valuable skill you can enjoy for the rest of your life!  I love working with adults, and I have good reasons for that:

  1. Adults are highly motivated, and consequently very dedicated
  2. They understand that the easy way is anything but easy
  3. And adults understand the importance of establishing priorities.

Don’t let age stand be an excuse for not getting started.  We’ve worked with all ages, and know for a fact that age is just a number!