Friday, June 17, 2011

Tip Nine: Play the best you can afford.

This is the ninth installment in our series of articles on hidden or obscure strategies for improving musicianship. These strategies are not intended to be a substitute for (I dislike this word) "practicing." To the contrary. Spending time playing your instrument is mightily important.

But think of these 22 ideas as strategies you can use in addition to your time in the woodshed. How does one find a label for these strategies? Subconscious? Metaphysical? Whatever word you want to use, go ahead. It's just that these ideas are not often presented to you as part of a musical instrument learning regimen. For earlier articles, check our blog archive.

It stands to reason you want to select a high quality instrument, both as a beginner and an advanced musician. This is more critical for some instruments than it is for others.

Take the guitar. You don't want to start a student on a bad guitar. Some guitars, due to warped necks and a host of other problems, are simply unplayable. They physically cause pain to the finger tips. They don't sound good.

And the worst thing is, a beginning student doesn't know the difference. We teachers understand that music students need to be motivated or they won't advance. The musical challenges are great enough as it is, we don't need extra roadblocks like a subpar instrument to derail a student's progress.

A quality instrument doesn't guarantee a student will become successful, but a bad instrument can adversely affect even the most gifted and motivated of students.

The guitar may be an extreme example, but the same principal applies to piano students. A bad piano may not directly cause blisters and carpal tunnel syndrome, but it could have some serious negative effects.

So do you need to run out and buy your six year old a nine foot Steinway? The Steinway salesman may disagree, but the answer to that is no. Then how do you tell a good piano from a bad one?

Everything else being equal, a grand piano is usually better than a vertical piano. Start with that. What, you can't afford a grand piano (or you don't have the room)? Okay, a vertical will do. Now the rule is, the longer the strings, the better. Thus, (again, all other things being equal) an upright piano would be better than a spinet. In fact a spinet should be your last choice (but don't completely count it out).

There are actually a couple of sizes in between spinet and upright. Just above spinet is console. A lot of the smaller Japanese pianos are in this category. Above console is studio (these are institutional pianos, made mostly for schools, churches, libraries, and the like).

The next consideration: how well has the piano been maintained over its life? Was it tuned once a year like it should or once every three presidential administrations? Is it in tune now (reasonably)? Do all the keys work? Any obvious flaws with the frame or the sounding board?

Then there are the subjective evaluations. How does it sound? How does it play? If you are not a piano player yourself, you'll probably need to get an outside opinion if you're shopping around.

I myself started on a crappy spinet. It was all my parents could afford. I still have it. Then as an adult I got an old used upright. Later when I turned pro I got a really nice (for a spinet) spinet. I got that so I could move it around, and take it to gigs. I still have that one too. Then I finally got a nice medium sized grand piano which I really love.

But the grand piano spoiled me. I go back and play the two spinets, and I wonder how I ever survived playing them. People know me as being really cheap in a lot of areas. But I never cheap out on a musical instrument. They are just too important.

So if it's for your child, get the best instrument you can afford. They won't appreciate it early on, but they'll be statistically more inclined to stay with music with something of quality to play on. And they'll thank you later.

As for yourself. You're going to want the best if nothing else than for pride of ownership. Psychology 101 tells us the bigger the investment, the more you'll play. The more you play, the better you get. The better you get plus the better the quality of the instrument, the better you sound overall.

A more expensive instrument may even be more economical in the long run. If you compute the cost in terms of dollars per hour spent playing, a more expensive instrument may actually be cheaper than a cheaper one. Of course there's things like resale value and trade in value to consider too, but we don't even need to count that.

Buy the best. You and your children deserve it.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Piano Camp Frequently Asked Questions


Q. What is Piano Camp?
A. It's a two day experience of classes, workshops, guided practice, and personal coaching in the art pop piano playing.

Q. Is it for beginners?
A. There will be two tracks, one for beginners and one for those beyond the beginning stage. Absolute beginners are encouraged. The second track (Beyond) is designed for those students who have taken the Instant Piano Workshop designed by Robert Laughlin or those who already have a little background in pop/chord piano playing.

Q. Who is behind it?
A. The workshop is presented by the New School of American Music. They were founded in 1982 and have directly or indirectly been responsible for teaching hundreds of thousands of students nationwide in their One Day Workshops. These workshops are given primarily in college non-credit programs, in almost all 50 states and in Canada.

Q. Who is teaching it?
A. Over 300 piano teachers have been trained to give these workshops. However the bulk of the sessions at Piano Camp will be taught personally either by the designer of the course, Robert Laughlin or by his wife Pam.

Q. What do I need to know already?
A. Nothing really. However, if you wish a head start you can download a pamphlet to study at

Q. Will there be pianos for everyone?
A. We will have four or five keyboards available for campers. And there will be ample time for practice. But I can't guarantee that there will be a keyboard available for everyone all the time. Therefore, I encourage you to bring a portable keyboard with you, if you have one. If enough people do that, there won't be a shortage. But it's the only way I can guarantee you will have an instrument to play 100% of the time. If you cannot bring your own instrument, I will guarantee you'll have access to one of our instruments at least SOME of the time.

Q. How effective is the curriculum and staff?
A. Robert Laughlin, the designer of this program and lead teacher at Piano Camp, has personally given the basic Instant Piano workshop to almost 25,000 students over a span of almost 30 years. The course has been consistently rated as one of the best courses offered by the dozens of college non-credit programs in which it has been taught. This is not just an idle boast. We have thousands of evaluations in our files, and we get unsolicited praises about the course on a regular basis.

Q. Will classical music be covered too?
A. No. Just pop.

Q. What's the difference in teaching or learning classical vs. pop?
A. Classical music revolves around reading music notation, which is a long process with a steep learning curve. Pop music revolves around chords, a much easier system.

Q. Will there be private instruction?
A. The instructors plan on helping everyone out with their individual needs during the guided practice sessions. There you will have one-on-one contact with the instructors.

Q. What is the deadline for the tuition discount?
A. June 22 at midnight.

Q. What about sleeping arrangements for Saturday night?
A. Sleeping is bunkhouse style. The bunk houses have about a dozen single cots with mattresses. You bring your own sleeping bag or bedding. The bunkhouses are segregated by sex. If you wish, you can opt for a private room upgrade for yourself or your family. Those come with a semi-private bathroom. Again, bring your own bedding. More info on facilities and what to bring are at the Walker Creek Ranch web site. Be sure to read the list of essentials before leaving for camp.

Q. Where is Walker Creek Ranch located?
A. Less than an hour north of San Francisco and less than an hour from the famous Napa Valley wine country, the ranch is located on several acres of pristine natural foothill topography. It's currently used as a nature camp for the Marin County school system. Aside from the wildlife, you won't see any neighbors. It's really beautiful and ideal for short hikes and explorations during your free time.

Q. What about meals?
A. You will get lunch and dinner on Saturday and breakfast and lunch on Sunday. It's all served cafeteria style and is actually pretty good. Vegetarian meals are available and they can accommodate special needs. Be sure to inquire ahead of time.

Q. Where can I get more information?
A. These links.