Tag Archives: Irving Berlin

"Gotta get to my study room!"

AC #30 Guest Speaker’s Tips on Reading and Sight-reading

I reached out to a very special person who is going to speak to you in this post via one of her videos. Please allow me to preface her appearance with a few thoughts and words of my own.

Two practice activities that are very often mistakenly regarded as being synonymous:

1. The practice of learning to read and sight-read music.
2. The practice of learning to play songs using a “sight-enhanced playing-by-ear” approach.


After learning the names of the piano keys, teaching beginner students to focus on note reading in 5-finger positions, starting with the “C Position“, is and has been a widely-accepted practice for years. It’s how I was brought-up and many of today’s nationally recognized traditional method books use still this methodology. I wholeheartedly believe in the efficacy of this method and I use it with my beginner students. I also use it with some of my intermediate and advanced students who wish to go back to fine-tune or brush-up their music reading skills.

Did I say advanced students? Yes! That’s right! Some of the world’s most well-known and formidable musicians are/were not good “readers-of-music”.  From Irving Berlin to Billy Joel. From Glenn Gould to Erroll Garner. From Bela Fleck to Sir Paul McCartney.  There are loads of musicians who’ve been up-front and very honest about their music reading abilities which, by their own words, range from not-so-good to not-at-all.

As evidenced by their very successful careers, it’s easy to see that the ability to read music is in no way THE determinative factor as to whether or not you’re going to become an excellent player/musician or have a successful career.

Nevertheless, there are many musicians who, in their heart-of-hearts, later come to know and realize the importance of what they’re missing.  Hopefully, many of them will also know and realize that it is never too late to go back and get any of the things which they may have missed during their formative years. Just go back and get it! It’s as simple as that! Put it on a “Bucket List”, then find someone to help get it done! If you’re just starting out, then get it done right now so that you don’t have to go back and do it later. 

So, whatever the reason, if learning to read music is a high priority item on your list of objectives, then I recommend that you find a teacher/coach like me, my guest speaker, or someone you may know to guide you through the maze of activities that lie ahead of you. Don’t go it alone! It is difficult to do this alone!


The core component of “sight-enhanced playing-by-ear” lies in the key phrase, Playing-by-ear. Playing-by-ear happens when you use only your ears to recreate the sounds (melodies, chords, rhythms) you hear. It’s a wonderful skill to have and I encourage you to develop it to the best of your ability. Later on, playing by ear is often enhanced by other things that you may learn in music theory such as intervals and “note reading”. With this method, you’ll frequently find yourself working on small sections and segments of songs… perhaps 2, 4, or 8 measures at a time. As long as your objective is to “learn to play the piece”, this approach is very good! Using written notes to assist you with your playing by ear activities is what sight-enhanced playing-by-ear is all about.

However, learning to play songs that way is NOT at the center of what learning to read and sight-read music is all about.   

Guest Speaker Video

Watch this video and spend the next 10-minutes with my guest speaker. Listen to her share some of her thoughts and tips on how to improve your reading and sight-reading music skills.  She spells out her reasoning as to why you, and piano students in general, should slowly work your way through level-appropriate music.  Everyone who is serious about either learning or brushing-up sight-reading skills should check out what she has to say. She is a real treasure!

Of all the tips and points that Margaret makes in this video, I’d like to emphasize the fact that consistent, daily work in this area is what will move you along. Practice well and be patient. 

See you next post.

"Gotta get to my study room!"

AC #13 Technique: It’s All About Your Goals and Your Body

Are lightning-fast, speedy fingers in your future or will your fingers be marching to the beat of a different drummer? It all depends on you and what you bring to the piano.

Technique, the process of physically moving your hands and fingers around on the piano keyboard, can be a subject that may be approached, examined, and practiced in a very superficial manner, or it can be an area of discipline which requires lots of in-depth study and devotion. Which path is right for you depends on your goals and how far you want to go with piano.

Short Story
Several years ago, a gentleman came into my office out of the blue and asked if I would teach him to play “Happy Birthday” in one month with the stipulation that I not teach him anything about “reading music or any of that other formal piano lesson stuff”. He stated that he was not interested in becoming a pianist. He only wanted to play the song at his young daughter’s upcoming birthday party.

I said “yes”;
I honored his stipulation by teaching it to him note for note by rote;
Week three he had it down; Week four he was party-bound;
He left happy, I was happy; I never saw him again!
End of Story

There have been great literary writers who were “two-finger typists” or didn’t type and all. Their so-called poor typing technique or complete lack thereof did not prevent their creative output from coming through to the world. (By the way, are you a two-finger or touch typist? Test your typing speed here.)

Similarly, there have been great composers and musicians who could not read music or play piano very well at all like Irving Berlin. His so-called poor piano technique did stop him from finding a way to share the 1,250-song output of his compositional genius with the world. It was his choice to dedicate his time and talent to being a specialist in music composition in the manner which he chose.

Like Irving Berlin, you too might become an excellent composer, a “monster” arranger, an “out of this world” orchestrator or an “expoobident” combination of all of those things.

However, if being a “player” is on your “bucket list”, then technique is a subject matter that you will be required to face as you pursue that goal. To emphasize, I’ll say that no matter how much you may know about music in your head, if you are going to be a “player”, your hands and fingers will need to be trained to obtain some level of proficiency in the discipline of piano technique.

If possible, its a good idea to learn the very basic fundamentals of technique because it provides a traditional foundation. But after a while, I feel it is a good thing for you to explore, experiment and try things that may help you develop your own relationship with the piano. Possible points of departure from traditional technique teaching are determined by your own needs and/or the needs of each student.

I don’t subscribe to or believe in the “one-size-fits-all-or-else-you’re-wrong” view that is sometimes set forth because it doesn’t take in to account the fact that the physical size and even the digital composition of peoples hands around the world vary drastically.

For me, technique is a vast area of concentration that needs more than one post to explore it in any real depth so I’ll be visiting this subject matter frequently in Art’s Corner. In working to develop your technique, you and all students are going to be presented with many difficulties and obstacles. If you really have the desire to play this instrument and keep it in your life, then even physical, mental, and emotional challenges don’t stand a chance of getting in your way or preventing you from succeeding.

Check out these videos of some people who, for their own reasons, have developed their own technique and their own relationship with the instrument they so obviously love.

I saw Will Smith quote Henry Ford on an Oprah Winfrey telecast when he said,
“Those who think they can and those who think they can’t are both right”. I couldn’t agree more! Think it! Believe it! See it! Work at it! Achieve it!

See you next post.

Happy practicing!