My Musical Journey: The Message

The Message

When I was nine, my sister Ria had piano lessons. Being the little brother, I thought I should be able to have piano lessons, too. To me it looked like fun, and I wanted a turn. So mom signed me up.

A lady in our neighborhood, who was also in our ward, taught many kids piano lessons, and for only $3 a week, it was a pretty good way to go, though I didn’t find out until later what a generous teacher I had to charge such a small fee for those valuable lessons.

The lessons were fun, and I learned all the basic musical terms and skills, and obtained a very basic piano proficiency. By the time I had been taking lessons for a year, however, I was tired of practicing, and after a few weeks of dragging my feet, I stopped going to piano lessons.

Years went by, and I didn’t touch my piano books. They were a thing of the past, and any time I considered playing, I remembered how boring practice was, so from the time I stopped the lessons, I stopped playing the piano entirely.

As a young man of fourteen, I loved listening to music while drifting off to sleep. I would stick in a favorite cassette and let it play through to the end. However long it took me to fall asleep, I would always get completely wrapped up in the music. As I made a habit of this, I soon found that the mere act of turning on music and closing my eyes did something to me. It was as if the sounds were wrapping around me, filling me. I don’t know how to describe it, but that simple, quiet music had an overwhelming effect on my whole system.

It was at that time that I came to a realization of the power of music – just a few simple notes, played at just the right… well, everything! The tempo was perfect, the notes were perfect, played at the perfect volume at just the right moments. What was it about this mix of sounds that drew a person in so completely? Was it the flawless skill of the artist, or was it something independent of the musician? Did the music itself somehow convey the sense of completeness and power that I felt?

Much of the music I listened to was religious music, and the powerful feelings I felt while listening to that music were always accompanied by an intense spiritual high that made me want to be better, do more good, and reach out more to bless the lives of more people. But a lot of the music I listened to was simple New Age music, which at that time was sometimes called Easy Listening music.

One night, while listening to some of this gentle music, I felt something unique – or I heard something, but with my feelings rather than my ears. It was as if someone or something was sending a clear message through while my mind and heart were in such a susceptible state. The message was simply this: “You can give this gift to others.”

I lay motionless, still wrapped in the feelings and power of the music. The words had been clear. You can give this gift to others. What gift? Music? The ability to play music? The feelings that the music expressed? Though the message had been clear, I didn’t know for sure what it meant.

The more I thought about it, the more I felt that it was time to go beyond simply listening to and enjoying music. I needed to make music.

But how? I didn’t play any musical instruments, and my voice was nasally and boisterous. I would have to learn to play an instrument. A flute? A brass instrument? I didn’t have any instruments, and I didn’t have access to any instruments – except…

Yes. The piano. The family had a piano. I would would get out my old lesson books and start learning to play first thing after school the next day.

Song of Middle C

song-of-middle-ctalltabIf you have ever performed in a talent show, concert, or recital, you know how much stress it can be.  And if it’s scary for adults, imagine how terribly frightening it must be for a child.  They take piano lessons, practice their little hearts out, and then do what few adults will agree to do – perform.
talltabThat’s the subject of Alison McGhee’s picture book, Song of Middle C, illustrated by Scott Menchin, and published by Candlewick Press.  It is about a little girl preparing for her first piano recital.  The poor kid works her heart out committing the music to memory, and prepares in every way she can imagine, including bowing in front of the mirror and wearing her lucky underwear!
talltabThen when she gets up to play, she freezes – the whole piece erased from her mind.  She sweats, she worries, and she nearly panics.
talltabPerhaps the story would have come to a rough ending if the girl didn’t have such a fantastic piano teacher, who taught her to not be concerned about length of time, to recognize the value of middle C, and to use her imagination.  With these tools, the little girl finds that the music itself can carry her through – even if the music she plays isn’t the music she planned!

talltabOne of the unique things about this book is that it goes into the more enjoyable parts of music.  Rather than simply following the typical pattern of ‘learn your sheet music and then play it right,’ Alison McGhee illustrates the value and power of improvisation, and how music itself can be the guide in deciding how to play and what to play.  This is a great lesson to learn – and the earlier a person can learn it the better, because when your memory fails you on stage, your emotions are still in tact (though seared slightly!), and can guide you to still make beautiful music.  Music is a thing of the heart, and Song of Middle C demonstrates that well.
talltabSong of Middle C is a fun read, and a must have for parents with young children in piano lessons.  It will help them prepare for their own recital, and teach them the power of music itself when guided by the imagination.


talltabEven Lunch Bucket, who is only three years old, loves the book, and insisted after our first reading of it that she needs her own pair of lucky pannies!

Learn more about Song of Middle C at

Arrangement Practice Series: Part 3

Practice Arrangement 3

This one has a lot of goofing up, but I think it also has one of the best possibilities so far.  Total ad-lib, or improv, or whatever you want to call it.

For an explanation of what this post is about, see

Arrangement Practice Series: part 1

Arrangement Practice 1

I’ve decided to try something a little different today.  I don’t know how it will work, but I thought it would be fun to try.  In case you’ve ever wondered how a musician comes up with arrangements (cover music), I’m going to show you – at least this is how it is for me.

Some of you are familiar with the hymn, “I Stand All Amazed.”  I have been intending for awhile to come up with an arrangement of it, though I’ve never tried with this one before.  I’ve attempted to play it from the hymnbook, and have played the simplified hymns version from sheet music, so I’m quite familiar with the tune, but I’ve never tried to make my own arrangement.

So I’ve decided that for this particular hymn, I would record every bit of practice I do on this song – every minute that I’m working on this hymn, and publish that practice on my blog.  That way, you will hear exactly what I’ve been doing with it.  Obviously it will start rather pathetic.  It’s my first try at it.

My intent is to give non-musicians an idea of what I am doing when I come up with an original arrangement of a well known tune.  You might say I’m trying to expose some of the mysteries of composition.

If you want to know how to develop the skill to be able to work with a tune – or in other words, if you want to know how to get to where I am now, you’ll have to read the “Play by Ear, Write by Heart” series that I have been doing on this blog.  There is much of it yet to come.  But this series, we’ll call it “Arrangement Practice Series,” will be from my first attempt at a tune through to the finished product.  Maybe I’ll even throw in commentary along the way (none of which was spoken while being played – I simply don’t have the ability to do that).

I have no idea how many episodes it will take to have the finished job – maybe 2, maybe 20.

Play by Ear, Write by Heart: Part 6

The Triad

Play by Ear, Write by Heart: Part 6

Though it is not my intent to get deep into theory, there are some music theory principles that are very helpful to understand when trying to learn to play by ear or write your own music.  One of these principles is the concept of the triad.

By the time I took a theory class, I understood the principle of the triad, because I’d used it so much in hearing and writing music, but it was in music theory that I learned the term.  I will discuss it in a little bit different aspect than you would find in a theory class.  We already spoke a little bit about a chord, which, as discussed, is group of notes played at the same time.  The triad is the basic principle behind which notes make a chord, and why those are the notes chosen.

One thing that might help you see how a triad works is to do the following: label the notes on your piano 1 through 7, with number 1 on ‘C’.  You can do it mentally, or you can get pieces of tape and write it on them.  Put 1 on C, 2 on D, and up the piano so that the number 7 is on B.

For those who don’t know the letter system on the piano, just find one of the sets of 2 black keys (as apposed to the set of 3 black keys), and start with the first key to the left of the 2 black keys.  That is number 1.  Then going left to right on the white keys, number the keys 1 to 7.  Then repeat the sequence with the next 7 keys.  Each group of seven is called an octave.  In music lettering, these keys are C, D, E, F, G, A, B, and the sequence repeats the same way.

Now let’s talk about the triad.  Any group of 3 notes is a triad.  For our purposes, we will stick primarily with a triad where there is a space between each note, such as the numbers 1, 3, and 5.  This is a very basic and fundamental triad.  Also, 2, 4, and 6, are another triad, and 3, 5, and 7 are another.

The 1, 3, 5, triad in our example is a C Major chord.  It is difficult to explain this without terms, so let’s call this the 1 chord:  Notes 1, 3, and 5.

Remember that this 1 through 7 sequence repeats throughout the piano keyboard.  Everywhere on the keyboard that is marked 1, 3, or 5, is part of the C Major chord.  There is one note between 1 and 3, one note between 3 and 5, and two notes between 5 and the next higher 1.
When you reach a higher 1, this is a new octave, but it is still the same note as the original 1.

There are many octaves on the piano keyboard, but each are playing the same note on a higher or lower level.  I can hit a 3 on a piano, and then hit a 3 that is four octaves higher, and I am still in the same chord.  The 1 chord.  As long as I am hitting a 1 or a 3 or a 5, no matter what octave I am on, I am still playing part of the same chord.

Probably at this point you newbie’s are about to give up on this podcast because it sounds so complicated.  Bear with me.  These things are not essential to know in order to learn by ear, but they really help.  It was at least a year or so before I caught onto this concept, but you can learn it in ten minutes.
While you newbie’s are thinking of whether or not you want to go through with this, you old-timer experts may be getting bored.  You’ve likely long-since learned this.  I know.  You are welcome to skip to the next chapter if you feel so inclined.  Otherwise you are welcome to bear with me.  There just might be some important things for you to gain from this also.
Now that we have established the 1 chord, can you guess what the 2 chord would be?  Notes 2, 4, and 6.  Try these notes, in any octave, notes 2, 4, and 6, and you will be playing parts of the 2 chord.

The same remains with the 3 chord: 3, 5, and 7.

I hope it’s not too confusing if I use the term “2 chord” to mean the notes 2, 4, and 6, while referring to the “2 note” as being simply 2.  I will also try to be consistent with how I speak of 2 chord and 2 note, so it doesn’t get too confusing.
By this same concept, when you play the notes 5, 7, and 2 (higher 2) you are playing the 5 chord:

So it is with 6, 1, and 3.  This is the 6 chord.
No matter which octave you play in, you are still in the same chord.  The same applies with all the chords up through 7.  In all honesty, there are a LOT more chords than that, but don’t worry about others right now.

You may notice, as you begin to learn a piece of music by ear, that most of the time, when two notes are hitting at the same time, they are notes that are in the same chord.  While chords may change every time you hit a new group of keys, usually the keys that are hit at the same time will be in the same chord.

When you get into this stuff deeper, you’ll find chords with four or five notes, usually in the same pattern as the three in an ordinary chord (i.e. 1, 3, 5, 7, or perhaps 1, 3, 5, 7, 2, etc.), but don’t worry about that right now.

Take some time to play with different chords.  Try playing with the 3 notes in the chord all at once or one after another or in any other varying pattern.  Just play the notes in a chord all over the piano, in all different octaves.  Try a 1 chord, then a 4 chord, the some other chord.  Have fun with it, and just try to get the feel of playing chords according to this triad pattern.  We’ll talk more about chords and triads in the next podcast, so just have fun with it for now.

Play by Ear, Write by Heart: Part 5

Play by Ear, Write by Heart: Part 5

In my mind, reading music and learning music by ear are completely different. I do read music. I’m rather slow at it, so far. I have known about reading music much longer than I have known anything about music by ear. I have come to conclude that while the principles of both overlap some, the methods of practice and levels of skill are completely different. I say this for a couple of reasons. For one thing, one who is new at the piano will likely feel very intimidated to play in front of a well practiced, sheet-music reading, piano player. While you may hear and see incredible skill and agility in the hands of the experienced, know that some such players have not developed any of the most basic levels of learning by ear. They do have an advantage, even great advantage, because their fingers and minds have developed great capacity for movement and coordination, but they yet lack the skills necessary for playing by ear or heart.

The other reason I mention that learning by ear and reading music are different, is for the sake of those of you who are experienced in reading music. You do have an advantage, and likely you will learn much faster than if you had no experience. But if you have never learned to play by ear, then you must consider that you are learning a whole new skill, a whole new talent that has very little to do with the skill you already have.

Keeping this in mind as you are getting started will keep you from getting discouraged. There is a risk that you may try to learn by ear, find it too basic or too challenging, get impatient with it, and give up. You must not consider that the ability you have will help you develop this new talent. The fact is, it will help you, but if you have that in mind as you try to learn to play by ear, you will likely find yourself getting discouraged, and you’ll eventually give up. I promise you, the effort is well worth whatever time and energy it may take.

If you have practice and experience with both learning by ear and reading music, wonderful! Help others learn these skills, since there are so few who have confidence in their ability to learn these things.

Most of the accomplished musicians I have met have mastered both arts, ear and reading. They find it easy to play by heart. They can write music with ease. There are reasons for this that we will discuss later. I will say that those who learn to play by ear have a much easier time learning to write their own music and play by heart than those who only read music.

Play by Ear, Write by Heart: Part 3

Getting Started

Part 3: Getting Started

Some of the ideas mentioned in this chapter may seem obvious, but they are also  essential.  For now, I’ll speak to you as if you are sitting at a piano, following directions like a piano lesson.  If you’re not at a piano, just do these things the next time you are sitting at a piano.

For this lesson, I will provide music that you can use to learn the first steps of learning to play by ear, but you are welcome to get your own CD or MP3 of music instead.  Make sure that if you use an MP3 player or iPod it allows you to pause and rewind without having to rewind the whole song.

Listen to the piece one time through without touching the piano.  Do not get discouraged as the piece develops.  Of course it sounds hard, you’ve never played it before!   Just enjoy the piece for now.  This will implant the feel of the piece into your mind and heart.  This “implanting” is very important, because as we will discuss in later chapters, the feel of the tune is much more important than the sound of it.

When the song ends, return to the beginning of the song.  Push play.  As soon as you hear the very first note, stop the player.

Now find that note on the piano.  If you can’t find it, restart the track and play that first note again.

Repeat this as many times as it takes to find that first note.  If you think you have it but you’re wrong, you’ll discover it soon enough.  Just do the best you can.  The secret to this whole process is to not get discouraged.  After you feel confident that you have found the first note, rewind the track again and find the second note.  Repeat this with every note.  Each time you add a note, play it in context with the other notes you’ve already learned.

As you know, most piano pieces start on 2 or more notes.  It’s usually not too difficult to find the high notes, since they are usually the melody, or main tune.  The highest note, or melody, is usually accompanied by lower notes in the chord.  The challenge is often in finding the lower note(s).  I will speak in later chapters of tricks to find other notes using the melody as a guide.  For now, just keep trying until you find the notes, and be sure that as you find them, you play them together as they are played on the CD.  If you have to re-play and retry the notes 100 times before you finally get it, don’t worry, you are perfectly normal.  Be patient with yourself – you are just beginning.
Each time you learn a new note, or group of notes, play all, or at least many of the notes before it.  This may make the learning feel very monotonous for awhile, but it is an important part of learning to play by ear.  Unlike reading music, when you play by ear, you have to be memorizing the piece as you learn it.  The interesting thing about it is that if you simply play each new note and chord in context with what you’ve already learned, memorization will happen automatically, without conscious effort.  This is nice, because you will likely never feel like you are doing drills or exercises, but rather you are simply learning a piece of music.
In my own learning, I never did drills, exercises, or conscious memorizing.  These things happened automatically as I learned to play the piece.  So be patient with yourself as you get started, because you’re learning a lot more than you think.