How to listen like a musician

When I was a kid, in those long moments when my mom would not! get off! the phone! to shower me with attention and answer whatever trivial and random question I had, I would lounge around and do the strange things kids do when they are bored. I developed a game in which I would lean my head upside down off the sofa or staircase and imagine an upside-down world where the ceiling was the floor and the floor was the ceiling. I visualized myself walking upon the sloping "floor" and passing by the chandeliers, floating upon their chains like strange metal trees.

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Private Lessons vs. Group Classes

If private lessons are the interstate highway, then group classes are the state road that winds through the small towns alongside it. Both roads are taking you to the same destination, but the journey is very different.

Decisions, decisions.Theoretically - theoretically - private music lessons are more effective than group classes. And theoretically, a child who starts piano lessons, say, at age four will be two years ahead of a child who starts at age six by the time they are both eight.

But in reality, we are dealing with human beings. In reality, a child can sit through four years of lessons and achieve less than what another child will do in six weeks. And (lest this discussion be reduced to talent versus lack thereof), that first child can decide to turn things around and make up for the wasted four years with six weeks of concerted effort.

The question that interests me is, Why?

Let's get back to my pet metaphor. The Eisenhower Interstate System is designed for efficiency. It is supposed to get you from Point A to Point B as quickly and safely as possible - no distractions, no fluff. Likewise, when you enroll in private music lessons, you get an effective, focused approach to music education with an expert teacher. Fun is incidental to both pursuits, although that's not to say that highway driving (or private lessons) can't be enjoyable.

My hometown of York, Maine is accessed via Route 95 north from New Hampshire. Unfortunately, there is a toll booth a quarter-mile north of the exit that can get backed up pretty badly in the summertime, and there are few escape routes. Plan ahead further south and take Route One instead if you want to stop and get the best fried seafood ever at Bob's Clam Hut in Kittery, and then you can enjoy so much outlet shopping that you'll forget where you were going in the first place. Even better: Take Route 103, which winds along through Kittery and Kittery Point before finishing in York. In May, the chestnut trees are gorgeously in bloom. At the height of tourist season you will not encounter any traffic, and there are no stoplights. You can stop in at Fort McClary or the Wiggly Bridge, or just enjoy the gorgeous views of Spruce Creek, the York River, and the Atlantic Ocean beyond as you wind along the lovely country road. Less than fifteen minutes and you're in York, where you can hop back on the interstate if you feel like it.

Theoretically the interstate is faster than the state road. Except when it's not. Except when there is rush hour, an accident, a ball game, tourist season, inclement weather, construction, or debris. Plus, you can't ride your bike, pick the wildflowers, or see much of anything.

Most of the time, you take the interstate. All things being equal, you do the private lessons because that's what everyone does.

But all things are not equal. For one thing, private lessons are two or three times the cost of group classes. They are much less flexible. It's difficult to hop in and out. If things aren't working, that's it - you're already at the top tier.

With group classes, you can dabble. You can try different things, change it up. You can experience different teachers. You can have fun, and even study music solely for the purpose of having fun without alienating your teacher. You can collaborate with others. It's inherently social, which can make all the difference.

Now, you can take Route One all the way from Kittery to Bar Harbor, but it will be a loooooooong trip and you'll never want to look at another fried clam stand. Once you have some momentum with group classes, private lessons become something special and valuable that can help you get to the next level. But it may take a child two or three years to get that momentum, and private lessons will not necessarily create it. May as well spend that time having fun and developing a love of playing, instead of stalling out.

Go with your gut: Do you want the scenic route, or the expressway? No matter what twists and turns lay along the journey, you will learn to play as long as you just keep going.

Chords are colors

Imagine that you are in a room that is illuminated by one strong light. As you are listening to a piece of music, the color of the light changes with every chord change - from blue, to red, to green, back to blue.

In that blue light, everything in the room looks blue, and when the light is red, everything in the room glows red. Everything you see is affected by that color.

Photo by DocklandsboyEverything you hear is affected by the color of the chord as well. Violin, flute, guitar, bass, piano: each instrument that produces a musical tone will obey the laws of harmony and become a part of that chord, reflecting its color just as each visible surface will absorb and reflect color in accordance with the laws of the light spectrum.

Chords are not like colors. Chords are colors. Harmony is color you can hear, and with this understanding you can solve the mystery of what chords you are hearing in a given piece of music.

Although the options may seem limitless, the list of most likely chords in a given song is actually pretty short: They are a family of six, who will often have friends over for dinner.

Based on the seven notes of the major scale, you'll get three major chords and three minor chords. And 80% of the time, you will use the three major chords.

Yes, for all you music theory nerds, there is a diminished chord too, but that's like the end of the onion - you throw it away unless you're making soup stock.

The subtle, muted palette of our Virginia Avenue location is clearly visible here.The diatonic chords (those that are native to the key) are called I (one), ii (two), iii (three), IV (four), V (five) and vi (six). Each chord (and for that matter, each tone of the scale) has a different color that you can train yourself to hear. Their friends (chords borrowed from other keys) have distinctive colors as well.

When people sit down and play a song perfectly on the first try having only heard it a few times, it seems like magic. It's not. Trained musicians recognize the colors of the chords and scale tones they hear and have a command over the physical interface used to produce them (that's, you know, the instrument).

Here are a few ways in which chords are colors:

  • They can be described but not defined. You can describe blue as calm, peaceful, cool, but that is completely subjective. Likewise, I can describe the I chord as grounded, settled, and warm but that is a subjective description of an objective reality. Each musician must develop their own experience of each chord.

  • They can match or clash. Fluorescent orange really stands out if put in a baby's nursery of lemon, baby blue, and lavender, just as the bVI (flat six) chord sounds jarring amidst the usual I, IV, V, vi. I learned to identify these "borrowed" chords before I learned their normal, diatonic cousins because they stood out so much.

  • They can be used strategically to evoke emotion. Combinations of colors can be soothing, patriotic, aggressive, sophisticated, neutral, or romantic, whether visual or aural.

  • They can become dated. Avocado, rust orange, and the major seventh chords of Bread and The Bee Gees were all very much at home in the kitchens of the 1970s.

  • Variations can be too subtle for the casual observer to detect. To the layperson, it's green; to the designer, it's sage. And that's actually a minor ninth, not a minor seventh.

  • They are learned through trial and error. We start learning about color when we learn to talk. It's amazing that toddlers learn so abstract a concept so early in life. However, there is a lot of, "No, this isn't purple. This is green," on the way there. "No, that's not the V chord, that's the IV chord."

As you listen to music to hear the colors created by the chords, don't just listen to your instrument in the mix (for example, the horn section). Remember the room with one light in it, and how everything is affected by the color.

Hearing these colors is not an innate talent that you either have or you don't. Identifying chords by their color is an ability that anyone can develop. I hope this post will help you to better understand the nature of this skill, so you can put it to good use!

To leap across a chasm in several systematic steps

When I was a kid, we had to do the President's Challenge for physical fitness. I failed every time, because I could not do a pull-up. Every year, I would watch the little monkeys in my class who could do a bunch in a row, and then I would get up there and struggle mightily while the P.E. teacher would say something like, "I think you" and make a note on my sheet.

I wished to avoid this humiliating display in the future, but I had no idea how. Every so often, I would go out to my swingset int the backyard and hang until my shoulders felt like they were going to pull out of their sockets, but I never could do a single pull-up.

I think of this when I have a student who requests to learn a piece well beyond their ability level. I think an exciting, challenging piece can be a great motivator, but there is a point where a piece can be so difficult it is truly inaccessible for the time being. The student will try and try, like I did with my hopeless backyard strength training, and get no return.

What's the alternative? Systematically breaking it down (yes, sorry, sometimes you have to be a geek if you want to do a thing well). Unfortunately, when I was a kid we did not have the Internet, but if we had, I would have been able to research pull-ups to learn how to do them, including ways to make them easier. I could learn about the muscles used in pull-ups, and create a plan for building strength in those muscles. I might also acknowledge that overall upper body weakness is an issue for me, and create a complete plan for strength training with the help of a personal trainer.

Maybe, after six months of focused, targeted, and carefully sequenced training I would do a pull-up on the first try. From there, I would finally build up the number of reps I could do in a row.

By contrast, I could take those same six months and spend a few minutes every day trying to do a pull-up to no avail. I strongly doubt I would be able to do a pull-up after six months of that, for two reasons: One, I wouldn't even get to the point where the correct muscles were supporting my body weight; and two, I would probably get bored and frustrated and quit three days into it.

So, back to the musical example. Usually, students have great intuition about which pieces are right for them to learn. But occasionally, not. "I want to learn 'Cliffs of Dover' because it's my favorite song on Guitar Hero." Okay, fine. Go ahead and download the bazillion-page tab and set about learning it. Learn a tiny lick every day. If you don't go mad in frustration within the first ten minutes, after six months you might be able to play the whole thing (if I painstakingly show you how to play every note that you can't figure out on your own).

On the other hand, you could spend those same six months learning fifty easier songs that use similar skills and a similar vocabulary. You can build fluency, speed, and technique while improving your musical ear and your reading skills.

After six months have passed, you may well be able to pick up most of "Cliffs of Dover" by yourself in just a week or two. You might not even need the tab for very much of it, because your fingers will "hear" different parts of the song and automatically go where they belong as a result of playing so much. Because in the process, you learned fifty other songs. You learned how to play the guitar, not just "Cliffs of Dover."

They say you must leap across a chasm in a single, dramatic, all-in move. Or you could go to school, become a civil engineer, and design a bridge that will enable you to easily walk across. The first way only works if it works, and most of the time it doesn't. The second way is built to work every time. Not as daring, but you'll get there in the end.

Where are you attempting with no visible progress? Is there an intermediate benchmark you could be striving for, or a more systematic way to achieve your goal?

The "Neglected Backyard" approach to overcoming perfectionism

I live in an Atlanta neighborhood called Reynoldstown. It's a bit transitional, literally on the wrong side of the tracks, and has a mix of races, ages, and collars. Some homes are rentals, and some are owner occupied. There are apartments and single-family homes.

I closed on my home in late February 2007, when everything is still dormant from winter but the daffodils are just about to come up. Hmmm, what are all these viney things I keep tripping over in the backyard as I explore my new property?


A New Neighborhood, a New Nemesis

Turns out it was kudzu, that notoriously invasive blight upon the southeastern landscape. I also had japanese honeysuckle, which has lovely-smelling flowers but is also invasive and destructive. These plants stifle biodiversity by choking out the other species, and left unchecked they will cover any and all surfaces exposed to light (and even some that aren't).

After some research (especially this fabulously helpful website by a group in Spartanburg, SC), I learned that the only way to truly eradicate kudzu was to cut out the crowns. These are knobby root structures that store the nutrients for the kudzu during the winter so it can come out swinging in the spring and wreak havoc and ruin everything.

After having acquired the necessary equipment, I took several hours on a Sunday and cut out all the vines I could find, just to get a little more control. Those suckers can grow more than a foot per day under ideal conditions.

Casualties of war (kudzu crowns on my deck)Then, I went out almost every day for the next six weeks or so and spent an hour cutting out as many crowns as I could find. It was like a big game of Whac-a-Mole, because even when I thought I had found all the new growth there would be more. And once I'd gotten all of it, there was more the next day.


No One Cares

Sometime in June, I started winning the war against kudzu, and it probably won't ever return (unless it comes under the fence from my neighbor's yard, because hers is a mess).

Which is part of the point I want to make here: there are very low standards for garden maintenance for my neighborhood. Some people have cute little landscaped lawns with flower beds, and some people have a packed-dirt front yard with a chain-link fence around it. Some people have a new Beemer parked on a nice neat concrete slab, others have a rusted-out 1980s sedan with kudzu growing into it (I told you, my neighborhood is transitsch). So even though I made improvements to my backyard, it was just for my own benefit - there is no peer-pressure in in my part of town.


Anything is Better than Nothing

New bambooNow, nearly three years later, my yard has some nice bamboo along the back fence (the non-invasive kind), some clematis, and a couple magnolias that are growing nicely since the kudzu was killed. However, it still needs a lot of work.

This is not a story about how my yard went from being overrun with kudzu to perfectly manicured. It's a story about how I set out to achieve a goal and, whenever I felt like it, did a little something to get closer to achieving it.

It's a story about not setting my standards too high, too fast.

It's a story about how any progress toward a goal is can be helpful.


Set the Bar Low

Yes, my friends, be underachievers - but be achievers!

For example, I wanted to start blogging more regularly. I'd been trying to do this for four years. Finally, instead of trying to do it every day or on some fixed schedule, I decided this fall to do it whenever I wanted to.

I reasoned that, just like my backyard, anything I did would be an improvement.

Penelope Trunk helped, too, by giving me permission to start before I got organized. And now I have built up some momentum, so I'm posting more regularly. I have managed to completely avoid negative feelings about not doing it, which keeps the entire experience a happy one.

When I was cutting out kudzu crowns, I made a game out of finding them. "Aha! You may have cunning means of survival, but you are no match for my handsaw!" If I had known at the beginning how much time I would spend successfully ridding my yard of kudzu, I'm not sure I would have had the happy attitude. But doing a little bit every day was tolerable and fun, and not doing it would have meant stasis, not failure.


The Neglected Backyard Approach to exercise, flossing, practicing an instrument, what-have-you

The Neglected Backyard Approach works in a lot of areas. It helps you to forgive yourself for not knowing the things you didn't know you needed to know, by resolving to do better next time.

It helps you get out the stupid free weights and start moving your arms up and down. It helps you to learn an instrument by acknowledging that any time you spend playing the thing is going to help you learn it over the long run.

It helps you to not do things, too: turn off the TV, put down the cigarette, and so on.

Think in terms of tiny incremental improvements. Kaizen. Progress, not perfection.

The Neglected Backyard Approach might even help me deal with the neglected backyard itself: it's mid-January and I still haven't raked up the autumn leaves. I can't rake the entire thing, but I might do twenty minutes worth. It's a nice day.

Guitars are all the same, and all different

Many people have the misconception that it is better to start lessons on an acoustic guitar and then "graduate" to an electric guitar. Or, they assume that playing an acoustic is vastly different from playing an electric. It's not, although there are different techniques involved.

The difference between acoustics and electrics is like the difference between pencils and pens. In a pinch, either will do, but there are distinct advantages to one or the other in certain situations.

For example, you'll do crosswords and calculations in pencil, but sign your name with a pen. Likewise, you'd play "Blackbird" on an acoustic, but "Back in Black" on an electric, although it is physically possible to play each song on any guitar.

Also, when it comes both to musical instruments and writing implements, there are variations in technique that are minor for the beginner, but significant for the expert. A professional illustrator will be a master of certain shading techniques that can only be accomplished with pencil; hand-addressed invitations require specialized skill with a calligraphy pen. An acoustic guitar can be strummed vigorously and percussively in a way that the electric can't. Meanwhile, electric guitar makes use of string bending and lots of sustain (think "Wonderful Tonight" by Eric Clapton) that is virtually impossible to achieve on the acoustic.

As a beginner, a student can explore the guitar starting with whatever instrument is lying around. The fact that there are so many different kinds of guitars (and sounds that can be made on them) is part of the mystique of the instrument.

Choosing an instrument - maybe not that big a deal?

When I first started out as a teacher, people would call and say "My daughter wants to play guitar" or "I'm enrolling both of my kids in piano." But when my school started to take off as a multi-teacher school (as opposed to just my own teaching studio), people would call and say, "We want to get involved with your program - what instrument should we pick?" I was thrilled to see this sign that our little music community was having an influence in the larger community. But in spite of the fact that I have played and taught several different instruments over the years, I have no idea what makes me want to play a particular instrument or how to go about choosing an instrument for someone else.

Maybe it's like deciding how many kids to have. There is no wrong answer, and even if it is the wrong answer (surprise!), it ends up becoming the right answer anyway. Or, you never even bring up the question, and so the idea of a wrong answer is moot.

The basics of learning an instrument are the same on every instrument even if physical techniques differ. It's like learning French for a few years and then switching to Spanish. True, the three years of French study became a dead end, but you developed your skills of language learning and can now apply them to Spanish.

Likewise, though you might awaken musical skills one one instrument, once you master the physical techniques of another, you can express yourself musically with it. Playing an instrument is simply translating what you hear (or see) to a physical interface, and the ability to "speak" this language continues to grow no matter what instrument you study.

So what do you do as a parent? Do you choose an instrument for your kid? What age do you start? When do you allow them to quit or switch instruments? Honestly, I don't know - it depends on your family culture.

You know what? It's like romantic love versus arranged marriages - given the right conditions, either can thrive, statistically speaking.

Whatever you do, be fully committed to whatever instrument you choose, during the period of time that you're enrolled in lessons. The main thing that contributes to enjoying music lessons is success, and the main thing that contributes to success is a good practice routine. For most kids, even the instrument they are so excited about will be gathering dust in a few weeks without that solid routine.

Given the right routine, a good result is possible on any instrument - and if it doesn't click the first time, switching isn't the end of the world.

Why piano shopping is like car shopping

I get a lot of questions from people looking to buy pianos. Everyone wants to get a high-quality instrument at a good price. However, just as with cars, what that actually means is different for everybody, and so there is no quick answer.

Different manufacturers are associated with different attributes. Steinway and Bosendorfer are perhaps the Mercedes and Porsche of pianos, while Yamaha, Baldwin, and Kawai can be compared to Volkswagen, Volvo, & Nissan. Maybe Wurlitzer, Young Chang, and Kimball are like Chevy, Hyundai, or Saturn. Further, each manufacturer has different models at different price points, and within each model, there are various trim levels. It becomes a matter of personal preference whether to get a fully loaded Camry or a no-frills Lexus.

Once you get into the used market, the similarity between piano shopping and car shopping continues to hold up. While you take a huge hit on depreciation if you buy new, there is a strong used market in both cars and pianos because of their long and predictable lifespan. Of course, pianos do not have odometers, but there are ways to check for wear and get a sense of the degree of use the instrument has been subjected to.

If I were going to buy a used piano (and I do it a couple of times a year), I would look on Craigslist first. Just as with car ads, you will find a mix of private sellers, small-time dealers, and the occasional big-time dealer (luckily, still far fewer scammers than on the auto listings). As you might predict, you will get better prices but less convenience and information from private sellers - and dealers will be more firm on price but hopefully you will be able to check out a few pianos in one trip, saving time and allowing side-by-side comparisons. Just stay away from anything that says "antique" - tall old uprights will have a powerful sound, but will not pass emissions testing, so to speak.

Once you have explored Craigslist a bit and perhaps checked out a few pianos, you will probably have an idea of what you want to spend. However, just as with cars, you can occasionally find a good "moving special" where you can upgrade to a better piano for a below-market price. And obviously everything is negotiable, especially in the current market.

Even if you are not an experienced pianist, you can often tell if a piano is a good deal with a little advance research. What's more, you can even hire someone to check the piano out for you -  akin to hiring a mechanic to come out and check to see whether a car is a lemon. In any case, don't be afraid to kick the tires and try out the instrument a bit yourself - gut instinct is valid, so don't be intimidated if you're not a musician.

Guitars are like shoes.

You can get by with just one (or one pair). But once you open the door to having more than one, you can end up with twenty and still find situations for which nothing you have is quite right, and a new purchase is required.

Guitarists with GAS (Guitar Acquisition Syndrome, per my father who’s got it bad) must always strive to make peace with the fact that they will never have enough guitars, and simply enjoy both the process of researching new guitars and the music they make with the ones they’ve got. And if you’re in the unenviable position of being the parent or a spouse of an individual with GAS, just take the same approach that you would buying shoes for a seven-year-old boy: at first just get something that fits the vast majority of situations, knowing that no matter what you get, it will quickly be outgrown, worn out, or otherwise outmoded.

Wearing Nikes in church = playing “Sweet Child o’ Mine” on a $100 Washburn acoustic. Don’t worry, your birthday is coming.

Trying on Songs

It’s been awhile - our school is really growing and has required much care and feeding. Now, as the title of this post suggests, I’ve got a gig coming up and I am shifting my focus to my own musicianship.

I’ve had a few different performance opportunities this summer, but they were all very different venues and occasions: a night at Kavarna with The Omnivores, a wedding, a devotional event at the Baha’i Center. But I find myself in the middle of back-to-back Fridays at MetroFresh, so I’m warmed up and I have the energy to try new things next Friday.

I haven’t been writing songs much lately (yeah, I will eventually get back into that, too), so what I’m doing is trying on other people’s songs to see if they fit. You know, it’s exactly like going clothing shopping for me: browse the racks and pick out something that looks like what I would always wear, something that I really hope will fit because it looks like what I need, something that’s too expensive, and something unexpected. A lot of times the thing I picked up just for fun ends up fitting perfectly, while something that looked like a sure thing at the right price just doesn’t work on me. And the gorgeous, expensive thing is, alas, not for today.

Likewise, a song that seems ridiculous (how about a girl singing “I’m a Boy,” or an acoustic version of “Isobel” by Bjork?) ends up working because it challenges my creativity and my assumptions about myself. And I got so tired of the “sure thing” that, for the past ten years or so, I’ve mostly eschewed songs by young, white female artists so that I could find my own voice. And there’s always a song that will be just out of reach, at least until the day that I can perform “Never Going Back Again” flawlessly.

So today I have been working on “Walk on the Ocean,” that Nineties gem from Toad the Wet Sprocket. A nice complicated chord progression covers up the fact that I just stand there and strum the whole time. The recorded key is right in my range, which is a bonus. Pass!

Another one is “What Light” by good ol’ Wilco. The lyrics are simple and direct, and right up my alley. I messed around and stuck the capo down on the second fret instead of the fifth for vocal reasons - now my voice pops out nicely (maybe the musical the equivalent of making alterations to a vintage dress?).

As I played, a new thought occurred to me: I’d like to make up another verse to this song. And I might. That would really make it my own. In the song, Jeff Tweedy sings:

And if the whole world’s singing your songs
And all of your paintings have been hung
Just remember what was yours is everyone’s from now on.

So I guess he’d be cool with that, huh?


My appetite for practicing music is exactly like my appetite for food. I get hungry to play, and I’m slightly uncomfortable until I’ve had the opportunity to do so. Things go well for awhile, and then all of a sudden I’m “full” - my brain gets fuzzy and I get distracted, and the music in front of me becomes rather cold and unappetizing. If I keep going after that point, I don’t feel well, so I quit. Then, not too much later, I get a craving for something sweet and I want to go back and play again.

I am fasting (for religious reasons) from sunrise to sundown every day until March 20. Although I am abstaining from physical food, the musical food will do very well in the meantime.


Heller - Etude in A Minor

Grieg - Waltz

“Sinking in the Lonesome Sea” (traditional)