Turns out that thing only you can do is also the hardest thing you can do

"Find something you love and let it kill you." - Derek Sivers

Thoughts of inadequacy and self-doubt had better not get near my most important work. (Library of Congress photo)I've been hooked on House since 2007 when I crawled into bed exhausted in the middle of the afternoon after Eclectic Music's first-ever November recital. I decided to reward myself (for pulling off the recital, not for crawling into bed) with a TV episode downloaded from iTunes. I remembered seeing promos for the premiere of House during the legendary 2004 ALCS and it looked interesting, so I thought I'd give it a try. Seven seasons later, I am still along for every DDx and going-into-a-commercial panicked use of the crash cart.

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Amanda Knox, appreciating freedom, and defeating the "shoulds"

"Free thyself from the fetters of this world, and loose thy soul from the prison of self. Seize thy chance, for it will come to thee no more." - Baha'u'llah

Vero Beach, Florida, July 2007.I'm thinking about Amanda Knox quite a bit - I guess I identify with her. After all, I was once a young and naive American woman. Assuming she is innocent of murder (and, considering that another person is already in prison having confessed to the crime she was accused of, that's not a big stretch), it could have been anyone. It could have been me.

And so I imagine what that must be like - to lose four years of your life to prison, having had to accept that you might have to spend your entire life there. And then - to be exonerated. To be released. To appreciate fresh air, green grass, your family. Freedom.

Of course, my very next thought is, I have that freedom. It is a gift I receive anew every morning, when I get to choose how I want to spend that day. So what am I going to do today to live it to the fullest?

It's amazing how easy it is to forget that freedom is there. That my choices created my circumstances, and that my choices can change them. And that even when I encounter obligations, I still get to choose my attitude.

One of my guitar students, who is a busy grad student in the sciences, came into his lesson this week positively glowing. He said, "I learned that when I feel like I'm doing better, I do better." He was thrilled with his progress because he had finally figured out how to let go of the idea that being hard on himself was going to make him learn faster.

Once we get out of our own way and lose the "shoulds" and "should haves," we are free. One aspect of the "prison of self" is ego. "I should have learned this by now!" "I'll be the slowest one in the race!" "I have what I always wanted, why am I so unhappy?"

Yuck. I've made some major life changes recently, and I have more discretionary time than I used to. Instead of enjoying it to the fullest, I've had moments of questioning my decisions, questioning my motives, and hours of spending a beautiful day inside because I couldn't figure out what I was "supposed" to be doing. How stupid. I might as well be working fourteen hours a day again if all I can do is whine.

Amanda Knox will certainly have a time of transition, and will probably encounter a lot of existential pain as she confronts anew the "what should I do with my life?" question that any twenty-four-year-old has to deal with. But she will never forget the overwhelming feeling of finally being released from prison, and she will never take it for granted.

I always think things like, "I should play my twelve-string more often," or "I should learn Portuguese," or "I should call so-and-so" or "I should make time to play piano today." I'd like to shift from "I should" to "I will." It's my life! I can do anything I want with it.

Selling students on classical music

Grieg's hairdo is a little passe but that 'stache could work today.Yesterday I read Chris Foley's post on "The Real Problem with Classical Music" in which he describes a student's reluctance to learn music by composers with "weird" names. In the comments, Chris says, "My issue in the article is how to get younger listeners to relate. They're having trouble identifying with the music and the composers. What can we do to help them?"

Before I share my thoughts on that excellent question, I want to address the idea of weird names. There is no such thing as a "normal" name, and I hope that Chris' use of that word was, as he suggested later, satire. Anglo names are not any more "normal" than Ugandan, Persian, Bosnian, Japanese, Indian, or Afghani names. Some names may be less familiar to you based on your background, but it would be decidedly ethnocentric to suggest that one name is more normal or less weird than another.

Okay, now that I have that out of the way: How can we help kids identify with classical music and classical composers?

Educate students on the current classical music scene. That's what Chris did by posting a Jennifer Higdon video. Giving students concrete proof that the word "composer" does not mean "dead European dude" is a great way to bridge the relevance gap.

You could also get into relatable performers who are breathing new life into the old stuff. There are hot shots like The 5 Browns, role models like the "From the Top" kids, and perhaps even some young and vibrant musicians in your local scene who can help you make the point that art music is still alive and relevant.

Exposing your students to the world of modern classical music is as easy as messaging YouTube links back and forth. YouTube can also be a great resource for study - you'll find different versions of a piece, filmed in concert halls and living rooms around the world for your perusal, appreciation, and analysis.

Find out what your students do like, and make the connection. Lots of kids actually have no idea what they like ("I just listen to whatever's on the radio") but sometimes you get lucky and they'll mention a favorite song that you can do a quick harmonic analysis on, which you can then link to something that the student is working on. It could be something as simple as "This piece in the key of Ab and so is 'Pumped Up Kicks' - notice how the Fm chord appears in both," or it might be a little more involved, such as comparing a "rock opera" like The Who's Tommy or Green Day's American Idiot to a song cycle of Schumann or a Verdi opera. If you expect your students to be open-minded when it comes to classical music, it behooves you to approach pop music with the same attitude.

Educate yourself on the current popular music scene. To take a step further, dig a little deeper into popular music. I don't necessarily mean the Top 40 charts - there's no way to know what will stand the test of time. However, if you dig a little deeper you will find career-oriented musicians who have something to say, who are making actual art. Paste Magazine is a great resource if you're starting from scratch, as well as the college radio charts and actual college students. Radiohead, Wilco, The Flaming Lips, Aimee Mann, and Ron Sexsmith are just a few of the artists who are considered to be "pop music" while enjoying critical success and multi-decade, influential careers. Keep moving toward the cutting edge and you'll find that the best young bands around continue the centuries-old process of learning from the masters of the past as they blaze new trails.

Nice mutton chops, Franz!Turn those dead European dudes back into real people. My favorite thing about playing eighteenth- and ninteenth-century music is how it brings to life people I could never have connected with otherwise - they died before I was born, spoke another language, and and aren't even on Twitter. But for a student who is intimidated by the appearance, name, or old-fashioned-ness of a composer, you'll have to do a little more work to humanize him. "Hey, 'Johann' is just a German version of John or Juan. And did you know that Johann got in trouble when he was a young church organist because he kept changing the music around and adding notes here and there? And for hanging out with a girl in the organ loft?" Sounds like a typical teenager to me.

Allow for personal taste. I'm in heaven playing Grieg, Bach, Scarlatti, Schumann, Mendelssohn, and Scott Joplin. Telemann, Haydn, and Handel leave me cold. Like Chris Foley's young student, I'd have trouble picking out a sonatina because there are so many crappy, phoning-it-in sonatinas and a handful of delicious ones. Life is too short to play Czerny, that's my motto. Perform music for them from a variety of eras and let your students find composers they love.

In summary: Show your students that the classical music of the past is still relevant, and the current art music scene is happening. And if it's not happening in your neck of the woods, maybe you and your students can do something about it.

Lessons learned from Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs, 1955 - 2011.Moments ago, I found out that Steve Jobs has passed away at the age of fifty-six. I was moved by this news far more than one might expect, considering I never met the man.

I'm typing this on my Apple MacBook pro, listening to a song on iTunes via Apple TV, sitting next to my Apple iPhone. Obviously, the work of Steve Jobs has had a huge impact on my life.

But beyond the fancy gadgets created by Mr. Jobs and his team, I've been greatly influenced by the legendary leader of Apple as a human being. His vision, entrepreneurship, passion, determination, and his flair for innovation - these are all traits I have cultivated in my own life and career by following his example.

I learned from Steve Jobs the power of focus. From his iconic dad jeans and black mock turtleneck to the sleek black beauty of the iPhone that never leaves my side, Jobs' minimalism allowed him to zero in on the things that were most important to him, in his work and in his life.

Steve taught me that less is more. Apple has an aesthetic that brings to mind the words of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry: "Perfection is achieved, not when you have nothing more to add, but when you have nothing more to take away." My phone doesn't have a blinking light to let me know when I missed a call. There's no logo on the front. It just sits there until I need to use it. Sometimes the killer app is no app at all.

It is easy to lampoon these high-end products as overpriced toys for elitist yuppies, and their marketing as ridiculously self-important, almost messianic. But...moments ago, in the dark, I pressed a little button on my keyboard that turns on a tiny light under each one of the keys. No instruction manual was necessary. These intuitive, human touches give Apple gear a remarkable elegance. It's a unity of form and function you find in well-made musical instruments. Design matters.

Music matters, too. From the time I was about ten, I loved how a Sony Walkman and a great cassette tape could make a moment go from banal to cinematic the moment I slipped on my headphones. I'll never forget an evening when I was about fifteen, riding the school bus back from some event or other in the darkness of rural Maine and seething over some perceived injustice regarding an unrequited crush and a disloyal friend in a seat nearby. But I had "She's a Rainbow" and "Remember" and the chance to create my own narrative about this moment and my sure-to-be-amazing future.

Then there were the good times in the kitchen at Bosch Baha'i School where Dave, Sarah, Jessica, Jesca and I would take turns pulling from our gigantic faux-leather binders of compact discs to share music with each other as we prepared meals for the guests and cleaned up after dinner. The Color and the Shape by the Foo Fighters will always remind me of those California nights.

All those CDs skip now, and my old mix tapes are worn thin. It hardly matters - largely because of Steve Jobs. Finding the right song for the right moment is as easy as a couple clicks or swishes (my husband makes a game of how few characters he can type into iTunes and find his song). Jobs changed the course of his company and an entire industry with the iPod, banking on the personal connection that people have with their music. I'm not a teenager anymore, but I can still feel like one anytime I want to. And since my entire career revolves around music, it's highly validating to see just how important it still is to people, as measured by the success of iTunes and the iPod.

As a CEO, Jobs was not only a visionary and a lovable geek but also a perfectionistic egomaniac and an FTC-baiting bully. But when I'm unsure of the next step to take with my own business, I look to leaders like Steve Jobs to remind me that dedication to something you believe in is more important than being liked or being comfortable. Pursuing a challenge means risking loss and disapproval, but sometimes it's gotta be done - especially when the alternative means a compromise that pleases no one.

Steve Jobs followed his passion and trusted his gut, and wasn't afraid to be different. A college dropout with a strong drive to learn, he was dedicated to growth and authenticity. I have the greatest respect for a person who can stay true to himself even in the public eye, as the leader of a public company. Speaking to Stanford University's class of 2005, he famously said:

For the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: "If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?" And whenever the answer has been "No" for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something...almost everything - all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure - these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose.

...Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life. Don't be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people's thinking. Don't let the noise of others' opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.

Thanks, Steve. You have been a great teacher and a profound inspiration to me. My heart goes out to your family. Peace.

The unexpectedly simple obstacle to tuning your guitar correctly

When you are tuning your guitar with an electronic guitar tuner, guess what? You are still the real guitar tuner. You have to pay attention and do more than just look for the green light. Have you ever spent a painstaking moment making sure each string was in perfect tune, only to strum a chord that sounded a little...unexpected? Here's the problem:
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How to play "If I Die Young" on the piano

One of the most beautiful newer songs I've heard lately is "If I Die Young" by The Band Perry, written by Kimberly Perry. The sentiment ("I'm at peace with death because I trust that I've lived well in the time I've been given") guarantees that this will be a funeral tearjerker for years to come.

Best of all, "If I Die Young" is a very simple song to play - and I'll help you figure out how!

Yes, I'll help you figure it out. There are resources online that might show you exactly how to play "If I Die Young", but I'll give you tools you can use on other songs.

If you just want to learn this song in the simplest way possible, scroll all the way down to the bottom of this post.

But if you've ever wondered how the people who make videos and tutorials learn to play the songs in the first place, you can dig a little deeper.

This is a fifty-dollar piano lesson disguised as a blog post! Read and learn.

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How to play a melody by ear

"You guys, what's that bit that comes after, 'Well, I'm not the world's most physical guy..." (Cornell University Library)

If you'd like to be able to play piano by ear, you need to train your fingers to play what they "hear."

No one thinks it's all that amazing to be able to hear a tune and sing it back accurately - it's just what the muscles that control your voice are trained to do. Over time, your fingers will gain enough experience to do this as well.

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The right and wrong way show a child respect, as demonstrated by the New York Times

Of course, one way we show children respect is by dressing them in ridiculous and adorable costumes to amuse ourselves at their expense. (The Field Museum Library)If you'd like a child to learn something from you, you better stop being so amazed that they can learn anything at all.

From time to time, I hear a new teacher say something like, "Wow, that kid is only eight?" He's going to be an incredible guitarist!"

First of all, that's not how it works. Just because you started at fifteen and this kid started lessons at seven does not necessarily mean that, at age fifteen, he's going to play like you did at twenty-three.

But more importantly, there's no reason to burden this child with an external standard to compare himself to. He is doing a great job now, and he has his own road of progress ahead of him just like anybody else, one day at a time.

Trying to project a future for a child, however benign your intent, is not helpful...it just comes off like that awful "Mommy, What Will I Look Like?" business that Lindsay started on Arrested Development.

By not comparing a child to other people, you avoid discouragement, false confidence, arrogance, hopelessness, and envy. Or at least, you might postpone it a little.

We respect children by appreciating where they are developmentally and giving them appropriate challenges, as well as appropriate praise for their efforts.

We disrespect children by giving them inappropriate praise, challenges that are too big or too small, and treating them as though they are small, quirky adults.

Earlier this year, Anthony Tommasini, the chief music critic for the New York Times, wrote a series of articles in an attempt to choose the top ten composers of all time. This thoughtful project encouraged responses from many readers, including the son of two professional viola players, a Manhattan eight-year-old named Lucas Amory. Tomassini featured the child's letter on his blog.

Note how Tommasini shows respect for Lucas' opinions ("Lucas has a passion for the Romantics so Tchaikovsky, Chopin and Schumann appear on both his lists") without being self-conscious or clever about it. He acknowledges that it's the child's budding critical thinking skills that set him apart at age eight, not simply the fact that he's writing to the Times or that he's into classical music. Tommasini writes, "He clearly understands the difference between all-time greats and personal favorites — quite impressive for an 8-year-old."

Since people generally do not point out the developmental milestones of adults, Tommasini demonstrates here that he understands his role in fostering Lucas' further growth as a human being. Understanding the difference between fact and opinion, especially with regard to art, is impressive for an eight-year-old. By praising this, he is encouraging conversation between Lucas and his parents on the subjects of critical thinking, art criticism, and beyond.

Lucas Amory's illustration.Lucas illustrated his list with a picture of Tchakovsky and Schumann competing for the top spot. The drawing is clever, funny, and cute. But Tommasini doesn't tell us (or Lucas!) it's cute - he just includes a print of the letter in its entirety and lets the audience enjoy the natural, un-self-conscious sweetness of a child instead of calling attention to it.

On the other hand, a video produced a few day after the letter was initially published is cringe-inducingly awful. From the simpering interviewer to the self-important editing to the soul-crushing length of it, it's a terrible production that disrespects the child by inflating his ego. They actually ask him to spell the word "precocious," and they actually included the footage of him spelling it, with the interviewer's embarrassingly surprised and delighted response. They also baited him by asking about Lady Gaga's music. His nasty response should not have been encouraged or included. It's certainly not Lucas' fault at age eight - the grownups should have known better.

There's more - for instance, they asked Lucas questions that were sent in by Twitter followers, which I personally was uncomfortable with (he's a celebrity expert at age eight?). "Why are you so awesome?" is not a good question to ask an eight-year-old, and following it up with, "A lot of people are impressed with your knowledge," is not helpful either. You can see that, to his credit, he really didn't know what to do with that and handles the ridiculous and immature interviewer as graciously as he can.

A bright spot was the chance to hear Lucas play Bach. He plays with an impressive and unforced artistry and technique. It is truly special to hear a child play so beautifully and be so deeply engrossed in the music. Of course, the producers unwisely cut off the end of the piece.

Lucas is special because of who he is, as we all are - there is no need to use him as any kind of example. In the video, Lucas was unfairly objectified - he was playing the role of "precocious child" the way a young woman might play the role of "video vixen" or "bikini babe." Shame on the Kaufman Center for allowing this to happen. I hope Lucas Amory continues to pursue his varied interests and develop his budding intellect away from the watchful eyes of the cameras.

Every child deserves respect. Glorification and indulgence - whether it's a silly video, too much ice cream, or too much power - is not good for kids. Let's set limits on what they can have, love them for who they are, praise them for who they are becoming, and give them an opportunity to show us what they can do - on their own terms.

The secrets of good strumming

Many guitarists can play complex chords and riffs, but they are frustrated with strumming. They just can't seem to put it all together and find the right strumming pattern. First of all, there isn't necessarily only one correct strumming pattern in a song. Believe it or not, you can even figure out a strumming pattern that fits a song if no guitar can be heard on the original recording. Below, I'll give you some tips for finding the strumming pattern of any song.
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How it's supposed to feel

Most of what you do should feel easy.

If it's not, you're taking on too much. Either your task is too big or you're moving too fast.

Break it down.

Breaking things down is a challenge in itself. It forces you to think critically about what you're doing - looking for the main ideas, sorting priorities. If you make that the hardest part, actually carrying out the tasks won't be such a headache.

This has immediate application if you're learning a piece of music. I'm trying to keep it in mind as I set about writing a book.

Where will it help you most to slow down and break it down?



The first melody pattern your child will naturally learn

Per Kodály, it's "sol, mi." That's the start of "Rain, Rain, Go Away" and "This Old Man," among others.

Use sol-mi to make up little songs around the house - sing your child's name, sing about what you're doing, what you see, and so on. Make your voice high, light, and sing-songy. Children, even babies, can't help but imitate you.

Creating a virtuous cycle: My secret

I do well when I'm doing well. I thrive on momentum. I can spin anything into a positive, whether it's for the benefit of my students, employees, or me. There's always an angle that can shed light on an underappreciated virtue or accomplishment. "Well, just think of where you were last year at this time - you've made so much progress!" Whatever it takes to keep feeling good. Preserving a winning streak is easier than making a comeback.

Princess Mary of England at the piano, 1910 (Library of Congress)When I do feel down, I have many strategies to employ in order to press the reset button on my life and get back on track. Prayer and meditation. Exercise. Being outdoors. Water - the ocean is best but even gazing at a pool or fountain will do. Spending time with friends and family. Playing music, especially with others. And when all else fails, a little caffeine.

In addition to these wonderful things there is one activity that, throughout my life, has been an unusually powerful catalyst for change. Believe it or not, it's playing classical piano.

Although I have always made my living as a music teacher, playing classical piano is little more than a hobby as far as my professional life goes. I don't play weddings or concerts, and my degree is in voice. On good days I am a solid intermediate player but I have yet to learn much important repertoire.

In spite of all of this, classical piano has held great significance for me since I taught myself Schumann's "Melodie" (Op. 68, No. 1) at age eleven.

Playing classical music is both the cause and the consequence of a calm, even temper, self-acceptance, connection with my emotions, a well-ordered life, and an alignment of priorities.

My playing is inconsistent, which is ridiculous given the clear benefit that provides me. What can I say - I do not always have a well-ordered life and an alignment of priorities! However, because the piano is something I return to again and again, each time I can see anew the changes it sets into motion, and one conclusion I can draw is that perhaps I am not always ready for such dramatic upheaval.

In other words: I can head to the piano bench, have some quiet and apparently boring moments with a few measures of Mendelssohn, and three days later I must be prepared to question everything I have ever believed about my existence.

Okay, maybe that doesn't happen every time. But it's happened often enough that I'm wary when I start to find myself gravitating to the piano.

On the other hand, it's a bit of a chicken-and-egg scenario. When I have enough free time and mental clarity to spend several hours a week working hard on classical music, I've clearly got my shit together. Then the additional clarity and peacefulness created by all that playing begin to infuse the rest of my life. It's a virtuous cycle.

Even if I don't want to shake things up I find great satisfaction in playing classical music. The fact that it is recreated from the page makes me feel the way I do when I'm engrossed in a novel, a willing prisoner of a rich inner world created by the collaboration between the writer and me.

There is a sense of communion I feel with the composer, as though I am literally bringing him to life as I play. This long-dead European becomes my friend and colleague as I decode the symbols he lovingly placed on the score centuries ago. An almost-forgotten cipher is his only way to intimate the physical and emotional road map of his work.

There are no words in this music - the presence only of sounds refreshes and entrances me. I am drawn into a deep concentration that lingers after I am finished. I remember an afternoon working on J.S. Bach's Inventio No. 13, hypnotized by the ticking of the grandfather clock I was using as a metronome. Several months later, I played the same piece, now mastered, on the morning of the PSAT exam that would yield a National Merit Scholarship. Better than amphetamines.

Unlike a drug, this high is long-lasting, cumulative, and bears no side effects other than a sometimes uncomfortable expansion of one's capacity as a human being.

I know that not all of my piano students will feel this way about playing. I only hope that they will find something in their lives, whether a hobby or a vocation, that will inspire them to learn and grow out of love rather than duty. I hope they will find something that will allow them to turn the volume down on the less pleasant things in their lives while amplifying their joy, satisfaction, and renewal.

Going off the book: Jamming for beginners

This past weekend I had the pleasure of being part of two jam sessions at two wonderful dinner parties. It was nice, considering how much I've been writing about music lately, to actually play it. Jamming with other people is one of my greatest joys in life; one of my dearest wishes as a musician and educator is for those who long to be able to do it to realize how close they are to being able to!

October 2010At Saturday night's party there was an exuberant nine-year-old violinist. We played some of the classical music and fiddle tunes he's been working on, and then we threw him into the soup.

One of my favorite songs to jam on is Bob Dylan's "You Ain't Goin' Nowhere" - it's built on an extremely simple four-chord loop, the melody is very simple but can be embellished, and the loose country feel supports any number of layers of instruments and vocal harmonies.

"Okay! Here are your notes: D, E, F-sharp, A, and B." The D pentatonic scale. I wrote it down for him. "All of these notes will sound good. If you want, you can pick just two notes."

Many musicians have given little thought to individual notes on their instrument: where to find them, how they function together, how to create a melody. My young friend was no different, but soon located D and E and sawed merrily away as we began, lounging half on his back on the couch with his head propped up on a cushion, feet up on the coffee table. He sounded great! We sang and played several verses and choruses of the song, all of us getting more adventurous as it went on.

As the night progressed, everyone from adults to toddlers played various percussion instruments and sang. We all had a blast. The next night, my husband and I jammed with two highly competent amateur musicians on songs by Shelby Lynne, Wilco, Jackson Browne, and Three Dog Night. It was a perfect, warm, fall evening out on a friend's screen porch. Two guitars, an acoustic bass, and a djembe, all by the light of a single candle. Looking for songs that everyone knew how to play would have taken all night, but it's always easy to find common ground when you're willing to play something you know but have never played before, or something that's completely new.

Whether you're an accomplished classical musician or a total musical novice, you might find yourself standing on the sidelines instead of joining in the action. Below are some tips for joining the band.

Start shaking, tapping, or hitting something. One of the easiest ways to participate is to play percussion. Back when I was in elementary school, I'd lurk around my dad's band, whose extremely loud practices took place in the living room so they were tough to avoid (If you can't beat 'em...). My big moment was in "Day Tripper" after the guitar solo when the drums stopped and it was just a wild shake of the tambourine.

Ideally, there are some shakers and tambourines and maybe even a drum lying around. If not, the back of a guitar that's not being used makes a great drum. Raid the recycling to find empty bottles...small ones can be filled with dry beans to create a maraca, while large ones can be smacked with a hand or a stick. You can also whack the bottles themselves against your leg, the table, or the floor. Of course, body percussion (stomping, clapping, snapping, etc.) is always good.

You can keep time with the beat, but the music breathes more when you strike only on the two and four (for example, [one] TWO [three] FOUR). If you're playing a shaker, remember that you have two directions - things are more interesting when you move back and forth ("chicka chicka chicka chicka") instead of just down ("chick chick chick chick"). Experiment with rhythmic patterns to find a groove that feels right.

Sing. If it's a song you know, go ahead and sing along with the melody if it's in your key. If the range of the melody is not comfortable or you don't know the song (or someone else is dominating the melody), you can try some harmony. Try some of the techniques described in my post on harmony singing.

Viva la pentatonic. This five-note scale takes the fear out of improvisation. In a given key, all of these notes will sound good, even if you play them all at once.

Working with beginners, I like to use resonator bells if possible, which allow you to isolate the pitches that you want making it virtually impossible to hit a wrong note. Otherwise, I'll point out the notes on the instrument that are "safe." The piano is a good place to start if bells are not available.

For musicians who know how to play but aren't experienced with improvisation, I write down the notes for them which they are then able to locate on their own instruments.

To determine the pentatonic scale, play the major scale in the given key and subtract the 4th and 7th scale degrees. In other words, play 1, 2,3, 5, and 6 (and 8). This can also be done with the relative minor (play 6, 1, 2, 3, 5, 6). Do, re, mi, sol, la.

For example, if you're in the key of C major, your pentatonic scale is C, D, E, G, A in any octave.

Play root notes. If the pentatonic scale seems like Greek to you (Psych! It is Greek) back way off and play root notes. This means that for every chord of the song, you play the note it's named after.

A chord is just a group of notes. Doesn't it make sense that a chord called "G" would have a G in it? Luckily, it does. So every time the G chord comes around, you play G.

This strategy can work in a few different ways. First of all, if you're a less experienced musician this allows you to play along with a simple chord progression. In "You Ain't Goin' Nowhere," the chord sequence is D-Em-G-D. So, while the rest of the musicians play the chords you would play the notes D, E, G, D respectively.

Another use for root notes is for more experienced musicians who find themselves with an unfamiliar instrument or a bass guitar in their hands. Root notes are a great way to warm up and explore the instrument while contributing to the overall sound of the band.

A third use for the root note strategy is to familiarize yourself with a song you haven't played before. If you can recognize the chord that someone else is playing but you don't have time to get into position for it, aim for the root note. Since most pop, rock, and folk music is inherently repetitive, you'll be able to play a little more with each go-round.

February 2010Learn the language. If you want to go beyond following along, you'll want to learn the language of music, which is basically music theory. Out of a seeming universe of possibilities, the experienced musician sees just a handful and can narrow it down to one in an instant. Here, I'm not talking about the infinite variations and permutations that enthusiastic players might cycle through as they expand the sonic vocabulary of a song; I'm talking about the structure that underpins this exploration which follows predictable, accessible rules.

It is so amazing and exciting to witness a child making use of new musical knowledge within minutes of its acquisition. The advantage that many children have is simply fearlessness. I hope I have made you a little more comfortable with the idea of jamming. Your contribution to the musical soup will be appreciated and valued regardless of your level of experience! When things are really cooking, no one can tell who's who anyway.

Aptitude vs. achievement

In the academic world, there is a lot of noise (i.e., research and discussion) around musical aptitude - in other words, capacity or talent. They're working on the idea that before the age of ten, whatever musical potential you have is set and you won't be able to achieve anything beyond that. Indeed, evidence suggests that most of a child's formative musical experiences occur by the age of five.

I won't speak to the validity of these assertions - I have no reason to believe that they aren't true. However, there are some dangerous and inaccurate conclusions that could be drawn.

A person might decide that because they had little early musical training, they have no hope of learning to play an instrument as an adult.

A parent might conclude that more is better and enroll an eighteen-month-old in formal music lessons, burning the child out by age four.

The fact that one's musical aptitude apparently stabilizes in childhood does not mean that one's musical achievement must take place by this time. It's also worth noting that few of us are able to achieve our complete potential in a lifetime of study in any field - there is always room to keep learning and growing.

The diagram below shows the musical aptitude and achievement of four fictional people.

Persons A and B are twins raised in the same family. As children, their parents took them to the symphony as well as jazz and bluegrass festivals. Their parents, both amateur musicians, sang and played music with the children at home, and also played recordings. The children participated in toddler music classes and enrolled in violin lessons at age four.

Both children played in orchestras in middle school and high school. Person A discontinued lessons at age fourteen, while continuing to play in the school orchestra. Person B played in elite youth orchestras and took lessons with a college professor. Person B was accepted to a well-known conservatory following high school, while Person A went to a liberal arts college to study English. Person B became the first-chair violinist of a large orchestra, earned a doctorate in violin performance, and took a position as a university professor, while Person A plays bit of bluegrass fiddle and participates occasionally in a community orchestra.

Person C's parents sang at home and played recordings. In third grade, Person C began singing in the school chorus, and took piano lessons from fourth grade until ninth grade. In college, Person C wrote songs and performed at open mics. Person C continues to play at home, and now Person C's children are taking lessons.

Person D listened to music occasionally at home and participated in general music classes at school. Neither of Person D's parents sang much at home. Person D took piano lessons briefly in third grade but did not practice - lessons were discontinued in less than a year. Today, Person D listens to the radio on the way to work and is thinking about taking guitar lessons.

As you can see, even if you believe that one's capacity for music becomes set in stone in childhood, it's not as dismal as it sounds. Both Person A and Person C have a lifetime of musical enjoyment ahead of them even though they are not at the pinnacle of musical achievement like Person B. And that window of white showing that Person D has untapped potential: that is very important! That's the difference between wishing you could play and actually playing.

These graphs are obviously reductive - the risk is that you'll walk away thinking that you have less potential than Person D when really you're in C territory. Personally, I believe that some things can't be quantified, and one of them is desire. If your heart is set on learning an instrument and you are willing to put the work in, you will succeed. My point is that musical success does not have to mean being Person B!

Musical aptitude, like athletic aptitude, becomes most relevant at the very highest levels of achievement. On any sunny Saturday morning you will see a ton of runners out and I promise you that they are not trying to qualify for the Olympic Trials. So let's not pin our Juillard hopes on our toddlers. Instead, let's show them that music is joyful, worthwhile and soul-renewing at any age. It's never too late.

Finding the sweet spot that makes learning addictive

Can you start by balancing on the board in the sand? (Santa Cruz, California, October 2010)Whatever you are working on should be easy but not boring. Interesting but not frustrating.

The best progress takes place in the sweet spot where things are just challenging enough to be engaging. If you're a tennis player, you'll have the most fun with someone playing close to your level of ability. You don't want to play with a total novice, but on the other hand it's no fun when every serve is so strong that it zooms by before you even know it happened.

There is an art to choosing just the right level of difficulty. Video games are very good at continually calibrating themselves to your ability at any given moment, which is what makes them so addictive.

Whatever skill you want to learn, make a game out of making it a game. That is, figure out how to make it as engaging as possible. As Mary Poppins said, "In every job that must be done there is an element of fun/you find the fun, and snap! The job's a game."

Start with the right material. At the bookstore or library, you put down the book that doesn't grab you right away because it's too dense, but you might also skip over something that looks too trashy or fomulaic. Don't feel guilty about rejecting Ulysses - maybe it will be just the right thing in the future.

When you've got something you can sink your teeth into, you know. Get good at finding that feeling, whether you're a pianist working through classical repertoire, a Spanish student looking for instructional material, or a fencing enthusiast seeking an opponent. Insert Goldilocks reference here.

Make your progress visible. We all rubbed our fingers raw trying to snap our rooms clean with magic, so that is eliminated as a possibility (unless you got it to work for you, in which case please let me know!). But even without magic, many of us don't mind cleaning when we can see the results with every swipe of the rag or push of the vacuum cleaner. Make your progress visible and you will find yourself conditioned to return to a given task.

To get a better sense of your evolution you might take before-and-after pictures, videos, or audio recordings. You could also create a chart or graph of your work over time.

Be a statistics nerd. The drama of an apparently dull moment of baseball can be heightened when the announcer shares a stat like, "He has a .129 batting average so far this season, but a .401 career batting average when facing this pitcher." All of a sudden we're invested in the outcome of this slumping second-stringer's at-bat.

You can geek out on statistics in order to set goals and motivate yourself to grow. In running, a sport where it's just you and the clock, you will find more depth and nuance when you can design workouts that have a specific target in mind based on past performance and future goals. You would play with various combinations of speed and distance (tempo runs, interval training, long runs, negative splits, etc.) in order to optimize your performance for a specific race.

As a musician, you might use a metrononome to track the tempo at which you can play a given phrase comfortably. You could also document how much of your piece you learn each day. I like to track the date a student begins a piece and the date that piece is mastered. As the student breaks through a plateau, we can compare two equivalent pieces and point out that one took two months to master while the newer one took just two weeks.

Avoid unnecessary repetition. If you understand a math concept, you should do a few problems to solidify your understanding today, a few more tomorrow, and a couple at the end of the week. A page of twenty-five problems is busy work if it too easy, and impossible if it you can't even do the first one.

If you don't understand the concept, you'll need to break it down into smaller pieces, look at it from a different perspective, or rebuild the foundation by reviewing previous material. Repetition won't help.

"What's your practice strategy?" I ask. "I'm going to play it over and over again until I get it right!" my student says brightly. No! Play it correctly the first time, and you'll only need to play it a few times to make it solid. If you can't play it correctly the first time, it's too much. Break it down, take it slower, or both.

Use rewards. My students love getting stickers. Not only do they enjoy picking out just the right one (there is an inverse relationship between the age of the student and the amount of time it takes to choose a sticker), they enjoy the closure that it represents ("You have fully mastered this piece!").

Even as an adult, you can reward yourself for the acquisition of a skill or the completion of a goal. Even better, give yourself positive reinforcement for the little steps along the way. Karen Pryor, in her excellent book Don't Shoot the Dog!, tells of using tiny bits of chocolate to get herself out the door and on the bus to an evening class.

While the opportunity to perform onstage might be seen by many musicians as a punishment rather than a reward, applause is certainly a nice way to be acknowledged for all your hard work learning a piece of music. In the meantime, dessert or some down time (TV, a novel, a game) can be a great way to reward yourself (or your child) for a focused practice session. Over time, you will condition yourself to look forward to practice because you'll associate it with the pleasure at the end!

There are many other ways to enliven the process of learning something new. When learning a new skill, apply strategies and techniques from something you're already good at. The more you can make it a game, the more you'll want to play!

Music theory is the grammar of music

Glance at these letters for a moment.

IXW     ZDA     RSN     TRV     NCL

How much can you immediately recall? Ugh, my brain hurts just thinking about it.

Now try the same thing with this set of letters:

JFK     USA     FBI     CIA     NYC

This time, you can probably recite the whole sequence painlessly after just a glance. Why? Instead of being just random letters, there is a meaning you can assign to each set of three. Instead of fifteen ugly letters, you have five familiar concepts.

Below is an excerpt from Grieg's Op. 17, No. 22 for piano, "So lokka me over den myra." If my Norweigan serves me, it's a folk song about a Scandinavian cowboy. If you do not read music well, it will look a little scary.

I counted thirty-five notes. Yikes! For years, I had to decode each one of those notes individually to be able to play a piece like this.

Luckily, in the summer after my sophomore year of High School I had the opportunity to attend the annual Summer Youth Music School at the University of New Hampshire. There, in a stuffy dorm lounge on an afternoon in late July, Lisa Lemay taught me all about chords. Several classmates slumped over half asleep but I was rapt, taking detailed notes and hanging on every word. This was the secret to reading music! Finally.

After that, the Grieg looked like this to me:

In other words, it wasn't thirty-five notes anymore. It was two or three musical ideas that had meaning to me, just like JFK or USA.

In the blue boxes above, everything except the circled note is either G, B, or D. That is somewhat helpful in itself, but together, those three notes are the G major chord, which is like a musical word. D7 is another chord, composed of four different notes. The smaller orange box contains two D's which are shared by both the G chord and the D7 chord.

Even better, there is a relationship between G and D7 - each of these "words" has a meaning in the larger context of the musical piece. Since we're in the key of G, I would expect to see both of those chords, which means that the whole excerpt can be thought of as one idea (a common I - V7 - I pattern).

I suppose if you're a conspiracy theorist you'll see one idea in JFK USA FBI CIA (maybe DFW instead of NYC).

Whether you read music or not, I hope I've illustrated that all this music theory is not so much "theory" as distinctly practical knowledge that immediately helps you to play music.

Musicians are not decoding the printed score when they read music - they are reading fluently, digesting ideas and concepts the way they read words. Music theory is the grammar that makes this possible and the not-so-secret key for unlocking the door to significant musical growth.

The Electric Fence method and more: Five ways to get started with harmony singing

"Okay ladies, let's take it from the second system on page three, right at, "He's just a poor boy, from a poor family." (Photo by Geoff Charles, 1953)Yesterday I covered matching pitch for beginning singers. Once you've mastered singing a melody in tune, you'll find yourself wanting to sing harmony!

Sometimes trying to harmonize feels like trying to climb up a slope where you keep sliding back down despite repeated attempts. What follows are some tips that will hopefully help you gain some traction.

1. Put on some music and start experimenting with your voice. Harmony is, essentially, multiple pitches at once. One way to proceed is to put on a favorite song (alone in the car?) and start singing whatever comes to you. Try some high notes, low notes, long tones, short tones. By definition if you are not singing the melody (i.e., the tune) you are singing harmony, no matter how terrible it may sound. Just call it avant garde. As I tell the Intown Women's Glee Club, whatever you sing will either sound good or...interesting. There is Good Interesting and Interesting Interesting, but isn't that in the ear of the beholder?

2. If you are having trouble breaking away from the melody, drop the words. Listen to the Beatles' "Hey Jude" (I know, what a chore). During the first verse, it's just Paul singing alone. In the second verse, on the word "minute," the other guys come in singing "ahhhhh." Think about how much easier it is to just pick a note and stick with it, rather than come up with a distinct harmony line! Still, it's completely legit. You can add aaahs and la la las to just about anything.

3. Don't know what notes to sing? Try the Electric Fence method. If you're on the fence between good and interesting, make it an electric fence and you'll hop right to the good side!

If you sing out nice and strong, you will find that some pitches give you a pleasant buzzing vibration as the frequencies bounce off each other (no, I'm not a physicist, why do you ask?).

On the other hand, some notes that you sing will make you recoil. They just don't sound right or feel good, so you get off right away. Over time you will condition yourself to steer clear of the zaps and stick to the notes that sound good, just like the obedient little goat at my grandparents' farm (it wasn't much of a singer but once was enough as far as getting shocked).

4. Learn existing harmony parts. If you have the opportunity to sing in a choir, you will learn a specific harmony part to sing against the melody (unless your part actually is the melody). This is a great way to experience how singing harmony is supposed to feel, and develop the independence to stick to your part even when someone else is singing a different part.

Also, seek out the harmony parts in the music you listen to. You might start with call-and-response type songs (if you're not Gladys Knight, you're a Pip - can you pick out your part?) and then try out some closer harmonies where two or more parts are moving together in the same rhythm. If it's not fun, you're doing it wrong - pick stuff you really like.

5. Improvise harmony parts where none exist. This is different from the approaches described above. There, you are just singing some notes and playing around. This is more like, Bono just pulled you onstage to sing with him on "One" and you better be able to come up with something.

I enjoy using this trick when the song is out of my range. If I were going to sing the melody it would be either too high or too low, but I can come up with a harmony part that fits (Jeff Tweedy, you ever need a backup singer, call me!).


I stopped at five, but there are many more approaches to harmonization. Let me know what's worked for you!