Thursday, July 27, 2006

Blog on Vacation

No blog entries next week. How come?

Your blog host will be attending and teaching at a music camp all next week at a place where there are plenty of redwood trees but no phones, no Internet, no cell coverage. I will be totally isolated. My only contact with the outside world will be occasionally being able to catch an inning or two of an A's game on the car's AM radio.

Ironically, when I was traveling in Thailand a couple months ago, I had total communication back home via e-mail and even free phone calls through the Internet every single day. Now I'm going to be in California and totally isolated.

I'll be teaching a class every day called "How to Jam by Ear" or something like that. The good news is that when I return in a week, we'll pick up where we left off in the blog discussions, and I will no doubt have some stories from camp.

To learn more about this camp, check out the link. Lark Camp

And if you need to reach me, you'll probably have to do so by carrier pigeon.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Isolating the Chords

Last time I revealed how playing the melodica helps me learn melodies better. By the same reasoning, learning chord progressions on a guitar forces me to separate chords from melodies and isolate the chord progressions.

When I play chords apart from the melodies, I can focus on them better. I tend to recognize patterns better that way. And once I recognize a certain pattern, it forms or reinforces a neurological pathway in my brain (I think that's what's going on up there.)

When I return to the piano I now have both the left hand and right hand learned separately, which makes it easier to put them together as opposed to just starting from scratch on the piano.

Notice I'm not saying that learning in this fashion helps me coordinate the two hands together better. It just has the effect of better preparation with each of the two hands individually. And with guitar, I tend to see the logic of the chord progressions a little better. Or at least a little differently.

I notice this effect is especially true with difficult songs and/or difficult keys. For example, I've tried many times over the years to play standards like "Body and Soul" and Monk's "Round Midnight." I could never get the songs to "stick" in my head when trying to learn them at the piano. But learning them indepently on melodica and guitar? It smashed all those barriers to learning for me. Why not give it a try?

Oh. And what if you don't play the guitar? Let's talk about that next time.

Monday, July 24, 2006

One Cool Secret about Learning Piano That I Learned on My Houseboat

At this moment, the temperature in Chico, California is 107 F. It's headed for a high of 111 F today. For many of the days of summer, the daytime temperature here is in triple digits. Pam and I seek relief from this heat by heading to our houseboat on Lake Oroville.

I love being out on the lake in the summer. If I had an Internet connection out there, I doubt I'd ever come into the office until October. Actually, there is one other creature comfort, besides the Internet, that the houseboat lacks. A piano.

It's not inconceivable to have a portable keyboard out there. It's just I never got around to shopping for one. But I still play music out there (along with Pam on clarinet) thanks to two other instruments, a guitar and a melodica.

I've played the guitar since I was about 12 years old. I'm pretty good, but I'm not really good because I can't really figure the thing out. Piano makes sense to me. Guitar is a mystery. So all I really do with the guitar is play chords while Pam plays her clarinet. So together, we make a band (of sorts).

Pam bought me a melodica last November for our anniversary. For those who don't know, a melodica is a miniature keyboard that you blow into while you finger the keys. It has about two and a half octaves, and sounds like a cross between a harmonica and an accordion.

Whenever I learn a new song in the winter, I learn it all at once, on the piano. Whenever I learn a new song in the summer, on the houseboat, I learn it two ways--once on the guitar, and then again on the melodica. So why am I making a point of this?

It turns out that this method of learning songs became my secret new breakthrough. Instead of learning new songs on the piano where I'm trying to do everything at once, I'm now learning the parts separately.

Next time, I'll explain why this has really helped my playing.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

New Learning Breakthrough, pt. 1

I get new insights on the art of learning all the time. Sometimes figuring out how the human brain learns music is as fascinating as the actual learning process itself.

We've been discussing left hand and right hand independence, and I recently had one of the greatest learning insights of my life on this particular subject--and quite by accident.

Playing the piano can be hard. No, that's not the insight. We already know that, don't we? Every instrument is difficult in its own way for various reasons. And when we understand what that unique challenge is, then we can possibly have a map for figuring out how to master the instrument.

In some ways piano is easier than other instruments. We don't have to worry about developing an embouchure (that's the muscles of the face that wind instrument players have to be concerned with). We don't have to worry too much about tone quality (like almost all other instruments). We don't have to worry about playing in tune (that's your piano tuner's responsibility).

But most other instrumentalists do.

So what's the special difficulty in piano?

First, you have to play more than one note simultaneously.

Second, you are responsible for playing both the harmony (that means chords) and the melody simultaneously.

Virtually no other instrument has that problem. And that's the whole crux of the left hand versus right hand problem we have been talking about lately, isn't it?

A guitar player uses both his hands just to play chords. A violin/flute/trumpet/clarinet/saxophone/trombone player uses both hands just to produce one single tone.

We piano players have ten fingers to play all the notes of the melody as well as all the notes of the harmony simultaneously. There's the challenge.

Sometimes, when learning a new song with challenging chords, challenging melodies, challenging keys or all of the above, it's just overwhelming. All the elements of the song come together at once and overwhelm my senses.

But I just recently in the last few months discovered something that really opened up many many doors for me. And in the next blog entry, I'll reveal what it is.

Friday, July 14, 2006

What kind of metronome to use?

On the subject of metronomes, which is better: the old fashioned Seth Thomas wind up kind or the new electronic battery powered ones?

If given that kind of choice I almost always instinctively go for the old fashioned tried and true version. Not this time, however.

While the old Seth Thomas rigs have their charm and aesthetic appeal (and symbolic significance) I'm going to suggest using the electronic metronome.

For one thing, they have a feature that you don't find on the old wind-ups. They give you a special tone on the first beat of the measure. With the wind up metronomes it's possible (sometimes easy) to lose a single beat while playing a difficult piece at a rapid tempo. Much better to know when the beginning of each measure is. You can even set most metronomes to exotic time signatures such as 5/4 so you can practice to Paul Desmond's "Take Five." The feature can always be disabled if you want.

I remember doing scales and Hanon exercises to a metronome when I swore the metronome was either speeding up or slowing down. That became a standing joke for me as I believe that 99% of the time it was me who was speeding up and slowing down. But sometimes a wind up metronome can be at fault. I had mine checked and found that the time it took for the pendulum to swing to the right was just a little different than the time it took to swing left.

Bad metronome.

So unless you're going somewhere for a very long time where they don't have batteries, I suggest using the electronic units. Not only can they be much smaller than the wind up counterparts, but they are more durable, less susceptible to shock. And you can use them with headphones.

I even have a metronome that doubles as a guitar tuner so I don't have anything EXTRA to carry around with me.


Thursday, July 13, 2006

Should I Use a Metronome?

I was reading throught the various responses to the entry on how to solve the left hand/right hand independence problem, and was pleased to read so many good ideas. Also it's refreshing to know (in a way) that this is a universal problem. OK, it's not just me who has this problem

So here go some more thoughts on the topic.

Basic hypothesis: almost any song can be played successfully with two hands if you play it slow enough. But how do you know what is slow enough? And then how do you improve (increase velocity)?

Someone responded to the blog by suggesting the use of a metronome. I heartily agree, if you use it correctly. I don't ususally suggest metronomes to my basic classes, because they are hard to get used to, and can actually distract from the music itself.

But I assume our blog readers are beyond that and are serious about improving. So here is what to do. Set your metronome to a very slow speed. Then tap your foot to the beat and try to play your song with two hands. Can't do it? Then set the speed even slower. There will be a speed at which you can play the song. It may be ridiculously slow, but it's there.

If not: That means the song is too difficult for you right now, or you need some more familiarity with the two hand separately. So get to work on the parts or change songs.

So you can now play the song very slowly. So do it. If you can play the song THREE TIMES without making a mistake of any kind, then you know have that speed mastered.

Time to raise the bar. Go no more than two bpm (beats per minute) faster. Now try to play it again three times without mistakes. If you can. Raise the bar again.

If you can't, then practice at that speed until you can. Remember, three times perfectly. No cheating.

Repeat this process until you have the song at the speed you want.

Things to remember:

1) Playing very slow can be quite painful, but force yourself not to stray from the metronome. Don't cheat. Don't rush through the "easy" parts.

2) Sometimes, you will have to go backwards temporarily. You lower the bar before you can raise it again.

3) Keep a journal of your progress. Sometimes just penciling in the margins of the sheet music is enough.

4) Play with the metronome at least a little bit every day.

5) Remember we all have limits. There are some people who can play Charlie Parker's "Donna Lee" at 230 bpm. I never will. But that's OK. I'll be happy to crack 180 some day.

6) Music is supposed to be fun. The metronome is a useful tool, but it's not too musical. But you'll have to let it go someday too.

Thursday, July 6, 2006

Left Hand vs. Right Hand

OK, we've got some great questions. Let's see if we can start getting some of them answered and prompt others to jump in with their opinions.

There seemed to be some interest in getting the right hand and left hand to work together. It seems this problem is unique to the piano, as most other instruments concentrate EITHER on playing the melody (flute, trumpet, violin) or chords (guitar). Piano players must do both.

Actually, I believe the problem is NOT getting the hands to be coordinated with one another, but rather the opposite. How do we train the hands to work independently? How do we de-coordinate them?

A trumpet player uses two hands to produce just the melody. A guitar player uses two hands to produce just the chords. A piano player must do two things at once.

As a struggling novice boogie-woogie student back in the early 1970's it became apparent to me rather early that in order to succeed at boogie, I had to have a very strong left hand. Not only did my left hand have to play the harmony (chords), but it was also responsible for the rhythm.

If that were not enough, I had to save up all my mental creative concentration for the right hand in order to get creative with my improvising. So I concluded I needed to get my left hand down perfectly first. I had to train it to go on "auto pilot."

Luckily the left hand was pretty repetitive, so training it to be on auto pilot was not out of the question. I would work very hard on just the left hand for a few weeks, and it actually got pretty good with those boogie lines. I was pretty proud of it. But pride cometh before a fall, doesn't it?

Everything went fine until I added my right hand and started to play some improvised lines. Then the whole thing fell apart on me. And the sad truth was I wasn't ready to start improvising yet. My left hand wasn't completely automatic yet.

So how do I train myself to improvise without driving myself (and everyone in ear shot) totally crazy with the lone monotonous left hand?

Then it hit me. I would practice my left hand while distracting my brain with other things such as ............ watching television. After a week, that went pretty well. Then I graduated to reading while playing my left hand. If news magazines were a little hard to start with, I would read comic books. Then newspapers and magazines, even novels, all with those boogie-woogie lines droning in the background.

Then I went for my biggest challenge. I'd practice my boogie-woogie left hand while talking on the telephone. Yes of course I was driving everyone else crazy at that time. But it was worth it. For me. Plus I was living alone, so that helped too.

Within six months I could keep that boogie-woogie left hand going and start to add my right hand while improvising on the blues scale. What fun.

That's one way to approach it. Anybody else have some other suggestions? Of course it's not like the problem was solved forever. In fact, with every new song there is still the element of this tension between left and right. But after I solved the problem once, it made subsequent challenges a little easier.

Wednesday, July 5, 2006

Off to a Good Start


I just spent the last five days leading up to July Fourth on our houseboat on Lake Oroville. A very nice place to be, but one of the best/worst (choose one) things about it is that I was without an Internet Connection for all that time. When I came back to Planet Dry Earth on July 5, I was pleased to see so many comments posted to the last blog entry.

Please understand that there are very few things that give me a warm and fuzzy feeling about the Internet. But this really did, so I'm really inspired now to keep it up.

Rosa, your suggestion for posting sound files is a great one. I'll see how easy this is to do. Not only is there the technical part (which I will be able to handle), but I need to see if it's possible to license actual song examples to use without getting into the murky field of copyright infringement. There's got to be a way to get around that, and if anybody knows an easy answer to this, please let me know.

Stand by for more specific responses to your questions.