Monthly Archives: May 2013

"Gotta get to my study room!"

AC #16: Two Guarantees. Which One Is For You?

One sure way to guarantee that you will never get any better or improve is to not practice!
On the other hand…
One sure way to guarantee that you will definitely get better and improve is to practice! Daily!
It’s that simple!

If you need some ideas about things on which you might work in your “practice room”,  bookmark this post so you can easily return to “The Virtual Lecture Hall” from time to time to jot down a couple of suggested practice items you’ll see me “write” on the chalkboard. 

Now without knowing your current level of musical development or your specific needs, I won’t be able to coach you as effectively as if you were one of my online or in-office students. Nonetheless, I think it’s a good idea to focus and practice on one or a few items at a time.

The “talking points” I brought with me in this version are appropriate for beginner to advanced students. So, each time you click my picture, I’ll go over to the chalkboard and write something that may or may not be appropriate for you.  I’ll trust you to know which points speak to you.  Have fun!


The Virtual Lecture Hall

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If you need some assistance with any of the suggested VLH practice items, contact me anytime. I’m always glad to hear from you.

See you next post… practice well!


"Gotta get to my study room!"

AC #15: Improvising: Can You Improvise? Can You Learn How To Do It?

My short answer is yes! Definitely! I feel that anyone who is fluent in a spoken language, has the capacity to learn how to improvise.  The way I see it, every time you engage someone in conversation, you are using a specific type of improvisation at which you are already very skilled! You might not even give this whole idea much thought because you do it so well on a daily basis. As you learn new things throughout your life and communicate with others about the new things you’re learning, you continue to grow, develop, and fine-tune your skills of improvisation!   

Consider’s first two definitions of the word “improvise”.  

1. to compose and perform or deliver without previous preparation;
2. to compose, play, recite, or sing (verse, music, etc.) on the spur of the moment.

You don’t know exactly what you’re going to say throughout the day to each person you encounter, because in conversation, what you say is usually dependent on and relevant to what the other conversationalists say to you.

Although you may have excellent reading skills in your native language, you are not going to “read” everything you say to people in any given conversation, are you? Of course not!

You’re going to express yourself by tapping into and drawing upon the language data you’ve been storing in your own personal lexicon for years to organize and assemble your thoughts in a split second. Instantaneously, you express your thoughts by constructing words, phrases, and sentences–all within the confines of your current topic of discussion. In the context of music, the confines and current topic of discussion would be the song you’re playing at the moment. But again, you’ve been doing this for years with speaking and this all happens so fast that you don’t even think about the complexity of the process that takes place every time you speak. It is so “second nature” to us that we often take it for granted! But what you’re doing is spontaneously using all of the language data that you’ve stored in your brain to compose speech in real-time… IMPROVISING ! And you’re already very good at it! Now, all you have to do is to use those same improvisational principles and techniques and apply them to the language of music.

That’s right!  I think of music as a language and my approach to teaching musical improvisation centers around many of the same processes that you used when you were first learning to speak and improvise with your growing vocabulary and speech data. For example: in English, you have to accumulate vocabulary and do things like conjugating verbs through all of the tenses. In music, you have to accumulate vocabulary and do things like conjugating many rudimentary items through all 12-keys. Do you remember, in elementary English class, that when you learned a new word or phrase, you had to use it in a sentence in order to fully understand it? Well, that concept is alive and well in my improvisation classes. Whenever you learn a new motif or phrase, I ask you to use it in a musical sentence–preferably after you’ve done your 12-key conjugations.

My friend, the late Sammy Price, once told me that Willie “The Lion” Smith said he “would not take a musician seriously unless he or she knew at least 100 songs”. I believe in the wisdom of that statement. Imagine a person going into a foreign country equipped with only a few words and phrases from a “handy-phrase” tourist book. He or she will never be taken seriously as a speaker of that country’s language until they build up a serious vocabulary and demonstrate that they can hold a real conversation. So learn lots of tunes as you go about the business of learning to improvise.

If you practice your lessons well every day, your improvisation skills will improve and you will begin to witness your own growth as a musician. Stay on it!

“You have to practice improvisation, let no one kid you about it!” – Art Tatum

By the way, Jeff DeLangie, a very wonderful player and student of mine from several years ago, has found his way back to me and he’s asked that we center our work around jazz theory and improvisation.  Jeff has agreed to let me share his journey with you as periodic video posts. So check in from time to time and type his name into any search box on my site to view his progress on various homework assignments, songs, and special projects. 

Now if you need some help and you’d like to have some fun while we go about the serious business of working on your musicianship, don’t hesitate to contact me so we can get busy!

Here’s a quick recap of what Ray Charles once said about practice…   

See you next post… practice well!


"Gotta get to my study room!"

AC #14: Reading Piano Music – Need Help? – Read This!

Learning to read piano music can be one of the most challenging tasks that faces every piano student. 

Although one person might find this task to be less difficult than the next person, the fact remains that in order to learn to read music, you have to actually spend some time reading lots of it. It’s like you’ll never learn how to swim if you never get in the water!

Short Story

My first car was a 1955 Chevy that looked very much like the one pictured just below.

 1955 Chevy

It eventually developed transmission trouble and it wouldn’t move. James Ballard and Emmett Kendall, two mechanics who’d given me a job as a teenager in their gas station / car repair business, came to my house and towed the Chevy back to their garage, which was only a half-block away from my home. While I was working hard at tending to the pump customers that day, they disassembled the transmission, then they showed me the malfunctioning parts that had caused my car to break-down. By the time I got off work, they’d fixed my car and I was “back in business” cruizin’ and playin’ the radio with no particular place to go!

End of Story

Now you might ask, “What does that short story have to do with reading piano music?!”

Well, the lesson I took from that experience was that if there is a problem that has caused or is causing a break-down of any sort, somewhere in the mix of my life, deal with it by “towing” the problem into my figurative garage (my mind), take it apart, analyze it, identify the source of the problem, fix it, put it back together and move on!

By applying that very simple methodology to my teaching techniques, I’ve been able to help lots of people improve their music reading abilities for years and I can help you too.

During the course of my teaching career, I’ve found, more often than not, a major cause of my students’ music reading problems stemmed from their inability to read and play rhythms fluently!

Rhythm, rhythm, rhythm, rhythm, rhythm!

Reading rhythm is the sole focus of a class I teach titled, “Rhythm-a-ning”.  Understanding rhythms and developing the coordination to execute them with either hand is the center-stage activity in this class.  There’s a reason why the piano is considered a percussion instrument and sits in the percussion section of an orchestra and not the string section.

Reading music, even at its most elementary level, involves decoding information from two main streams of data synthesis, the rhythm stream and the pitch stream. If you’re having trouble deciphering and executing the data from both streams, your work on effecting a solution will be twice as difficult if your approach is to work on solving the problems you’re having with both streams simultaneously.

So the basic idea behind rhythm-a-ning and pitch-a-ma-ning is to separate and isolate the two main component processes of music reading, rhythm execution, and pitch placement, then reintegrate the two skills at a later point in time after thoroughly working on each of the areas of concentration. The separation and isolation approach allows you to then focus 100% of your attention on working to improve and strengthen your weaknesses in each one of those two main problem areas independently. 

I feel it is a lot easier to work on one problem at a time than it is to work on two or more problems simultaneously.  This is a less stressful strategy and with this approach, your probability of success tables are tilted more in your favor and the odds of your success rates are increased exponentially. 

Watch this sample video of Jason reading and playing the rhythms of a piece by one of my favorite classical music composer/pianists. 


With patience, determination and hard work, Jason is now doing a pretty good job of rhythm-only reading through many musical genres like classical music, ragtime, hymns, pop, and jazz. He can see and appreciate his own improvement in this area which, in and of itself, is a very powerful factor in keeping him self-motivated to continue his work in this area.

Now there’s no reason why the same thing can’t be happening for you too! So get in touch if you need assistance in this area. I can help you! The main provisory is that it is you who has to practice and do the work! This is not about me! It’s about you!  So contact me so we can get busy.

See you next post.