Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Mindset: Success Begins Here

Here is one last post of 2020.  It's an important one as you think about your goals for 2021.

One of my revelations over recent years is how important it is to understand the difference between a growth mindset and a fixed mindset.  This year, it occurred to me that when it comes to friendships and relationships, I just don't connect to the fixed mindset.  Whether we're talking religion, politics, health, or music... If you don't have a growth mindset, then we're practically on different planets.  And if you want to succeed even a little on a musical instrument, you HAVE to have a growth mindset.

Okay, let me back up.  What is a growth mindset compared to a fixed mindset?

Someone with a growth mindset is always looking for self-improvement.  They are open to new and better ideas.  They are open to criticism and, especially, self-criticism.  This is not to say that accomplishments aren't fully celebrated along the way, but those are pit stops and not an ultimate destination.  When it comes to non-musical things such as personality, world views, and just about anything else...there is an eagerness to explore new ideas,  try new things, and understand that change is possible for anything or anyone.

Someone with a fixed mindset believes that they are the way they are, and it is what it is.  Opinions are absolutely right or absolutely wrong.  They don't try different foods.  They don't try a new routine.  Change is an ugly word.  When it comes to music, it either comes easy or it's not worth it.

How the two types react to practice

Someone with a fixed mindset will either not practice, or not practice with any depth or struggle, or gravitate towards only playing favorites or what comes easily.  The first sign of struggle with a piece will send the player into retreat.  Either the practice session is over, or out comes the easy music.  "It's hard!" is said as if it's a terminal diagnosis.

Someone with a growth mindset WANTS the challenge.  If it's comfortable, it's not giving you growth. The first sign of struggle with a piece will cause the player to pause and rethink what's possible in a sitting, to calmly look at why something is hard and what can be done about it.  "It's hard!" is said as if it's dessert.  This is good!  This is how I get better!

You're not stuck with being one or the other.

It's far more natural to have a fixed mindset than a growth mindset.  But switching to a growth mindset changes everything about your life!  To make the switch, all you have to do is get yourself to agree with this one statement: "I'm a long way from where I want to be, and that's okay."  There's two parts to that statement, and both are important.  "I'm a long way from where I want to be" is simply to say that you are NOT where you want to be now.  So don't keep playing the easy music, and don't keep bringing out the favorite past pieces to avoid the challenge of your current music.  "And that's okay" reminds you that it IS okay to struggle.  It is okay to have a long way to go.  Do you know what successful people do (in any field) when they reach their mountain top?  They find another higher mountain.  Think about it like this.  You're climbing the stairs of a 200-story skyscraper.  Each floor has a window with a view.  You can celebrate each floor, but at some point you have to resist thinking, "This is good enough.  I don't have to keep climbing those stairs."  Keep climbing.

Couple the growth mindset with intrinsic motivation (as I discussed in the previous post) and you WILL succeed in 2021.  It helps you focus on what matters, and that are your HABITS and your MENTAL DRIVE.  It's not about how many pieces you learn, or even what pieces they are.  The side effect is that by focusing on habits and mental drive, the results will be much better than they would be otherwise.

One last thing, and I promise you that you'll need this reminder at some point this year.

Growth mindset is forgiving.  You'll forget to practice, or feel bad about how things are going.  Remember the second part of the growth statement?  It's okay.  Breathe and regroup.  You will get frustrated, but remind's okay.

If you want to read more about the growth mindset, I cannot recommend any book more than Mindset by Carol Dweck, which has an updated edition coming out on January 1.

Are you ready to do great work in 2021?

Sunday, December 27, 2020

What's Your Motivation?

It's my first post in a while, but I will hopefully make up with it by giving you two new ones this week.  I think it's a safe bet to say that one of the best words to describe 2020 is "unexpected".  Thankfully, not all of it was negative!  Since my last blog post, I've had 4 film scores, 2 shows, and a bunch of other projects including starting a new podcast about musicians who play for theatre (called Life In the Pit).   I've even started a BIG project for hopefully mid-to-late 2021 related to teaching that I can't discuss yet, because it has a LONG way to go!  It may be 2022 before it's going, but all that to say... it's been tough to get around to blogging again.  Anyway, I can't promise to be very regular on here, but I will do my best going forward to not let a month go by without posting at least once.

As I mentioned, I am going to close out the year with 2 posts because I have some ideas I want to share about GOALS.  As we get ready for a new year, I can't think of a better week to think about goals.

Extrinsic vs Intrinsic Motivation

What motivates you?

Something I've become more aware of this year is the powerful difference in Extrinsic motivation vs Intrinsic.  In case those words are unfamiliar, this is what is meant.  EXTRINSIC goals means that you are motivated by something or someone.  If you're practicing because you get a reward such as a dessert, a fun outing, money, or anything else, that is extrinsic.  If you're learning music to impress someone, that is extrinsic.

INTRINSIC means that your motivation is internal.  You want to practice well, and achieve your goal because it's something you take pride in doing.  It's something that matters to you.  You're comparing your present self with your past self, and your future self with your present self.  It doesn't matter what you receive or don't receive from someone else.  It doesn't even matter if you get the approval you're looking for.

Which one is better?

If you're looking for a short-term boost, a quick win - then extrinsic is the way to go.  There's a story I've told for years.  When I was in high school, I was preparing for my annual performance for the National Guild of Piano Teachers.  What this involves is preparing a certain length program (10 pieces for me that year) where you receive a grade from an out-of-town teacher on everything from rhythm to accuracy, expression, use of pedal, technique, tempo, interpretation, and many other factors.  My last piano lesson revealed to my teacher that I was woefully unprepared for one of my pieces.  It was 3 days before my scheduled performance, and my teacher said, "We should drop this piece, and reduce your type of certificate.  There's no way you'll have this ready."

Well, my teacher had been with me for at least 10 years by that point, and knew me well.  By saying "there's no way", she knew how I'd respond - in anger and with a stubborn determination to prove her wrong.  I told her not to take it off the program.  I went home and practiced in a way that I don't think I ever had before, almost exclusively on that piece.  And it WAS ready!  And I DID prove her wrong!

So...Extrinsic is better??

Extrinsic is much easier, and is more powerful in the short term.  However...

Here's the problem.  That was great for 1 piece at 1 point in my life.  It didn't make me a better pianist.  It didn't make me a better musician.  It also wasn't good for me to see my piano teacher as a villain just to prepare a piece of music to a certain standard!

What happens when you're on your own as an adult, and nobody is going to give you that extra cash, or a trip to a theme park, or whatever it is for doing your job?  Who's going to pat you on the back for learning another piece of music to an excellent standard? 

If you must have a reward or appreciation from someone else to be motivated to do well at music, there WILL come a time when it doesn't matter, when you stop progressing, and when you just don't feel like it's worth it.  One of my biggest challenges for years has been to keep learning challenging pieces that I have no intention of performing in concert, but merely want to keep growing as a pianist.

If you haven't figured it out by now, learning music is a LONG game!  It's not about what you're doing next month, but what you're doing in 10 years.  That starts with doing  Then you do the best you can...tomorrow.  Your motivation?  Look yourself in the mirror and smile knowing that, even if it wasn't perfect, you gave the best you could on that particular day.  You measure yourself against yourself.  You can always go to YouTube and find someone who plays your music faster and maybe with fewer mistakes.  That's extrinsic comparison, and that's NOT your measuring stick.  "You Yesterday" is your comparison with "You Today".  "You Tomorrow" is your comparison with "You Today".

The difference between people who operate on extrinsic or intrinsic motivation boils down to one characteristic for each.

People who practice music for extrinsic reasons are motivated by RESULTS.  You learned the piece or you didn't.

People who practice music for intrinsic reasons are motivated by THE PROCESS.  Never mind the piece itself.  How did you do with practice today?  Were you fully engaged with your concentration, or were you distracted?  Did you practice just the right amount for your time that you got NOTICEABLY better on a few measures rather than sorta-kinda-barely better on a full page or 2?  Are you thinking about what you can improve the next day?  Are you always thinking of where you could be after practicing tomorrow?  After a week of practice?  After a month of practice?

My biggest idol in music is the film composer John Williams (who wrote the music for Star Wars, Harry Potter, Home Alone, and so much more).  He is a master if INTRINSIC motivation.  Even though he's won 5 Academy Awards and a ton of Grammys, and the most recognizable movie music in history, he doesn't even watch the movies when he's done.  He's always moving on to the next project.  He doesn't care what praise or criticism he receives, because he's just trying to do his best on the project he's doing at the moment and doing it maybe a little better than the previous one.  He's not jealous of other composers, because his only comparison is himself.

My challenge for all of you in 2021 is to have big goals, but your first goal is: Fall in love with the process of practice.  Become the best practicer you can each and every day.  And do it for the pride and love of doing it well!  It's not glamorous, and there's nothing for your wallet.  But it will last, and you will get better and better!

Last but not least:  It will make you a better person.  Your relationships and friendships will improve with an intrinsic approach, because it's no longer you just feeding off your environment.  It's you offering your best no matter how it's received.  It's you supporting others in their goals even if they're similar to yours, and maybe appear to be doing better.  Doing things intrinsically is a HARD switch to make, but try to get going that way in 2021, because the long-term results are so much better!

Saturday, May 9, 2020

Two Approaches to Learning Music

As a teacher, I love it when intermediate students reach a point in their method book where we can start talking about not only what kind of repertoire they want to learn, but also what approach they want to take in learning the music.  For pianists, I've simplified things and boiled it down to two choices.


You might be thinking, "Wait a minute, David!  Classical and jazz are not the only kinds of music there are. What about gospel, rock, pop, country, hip hop, R&B, film music, Broadway, video games, bluegrass, folk, etc??"

And you're right, there are many many types of music you can play on the piano.  However, in this case, you would be describing genre.  When I talk about classical and jazz, I am talking about the style of learning NOT the style of the music.  As you'll soon see, you can actually take a classical approach to learn jazz music, and a jazz approach to learn classical music.  For any of the styles/genres listed in the previous paragraph (in addition to classical and jazz), you can learn the music with the CLASSICAL APPROACH or the JAZZ APPROACH.


No problem.  Let's define what each approach means, and it will be clear.

The classical approach to learning music is that what you are going to play has already been fully transcribed as sheet music.  What the right hand plays, what the left hand plays, the exact rhythms, the exact chord voicings, usually the dynamics, and sometimes the fingerings and pedalings have been fully notated.  A musician comfortable in the classical approach is asked to learn Blackbird by the Beatles.  He or she will go order a book of piano transcriptions of the Beatles tunes (or that specific song) and start reading the music and learning how to play it.

The jazz approach is to use as little sheet music as possible when learning music.  This falls in a variety of levels.  (1) On the extreme end, learn by ear.  That is to say, listen to what you want to learn, and try to play it based on how it sounds.  (2) Lyrics and chords.  Almost any pop song can be googled followed by the phrase "chords and lyrics" or "lyrics and chords".  You'll get the words for each song with the chord symbols listed above.  If you know how the music sounds, you use this to instruct what you should be playing.  (3) Lead sheet   A lead sheet is a single line of sheet music, usually for the right hand melody, but with chord symbols over the notes.

The person wanting to learn Blackbird by the Beatles in the Jazz approach will use one of the three approaches above.

To give a full example: Here are samples of lead sheet versions of a jazz tune (Begin the Beguine) and a classical piece (Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata).


As you can see, it's a minimal amount of notation with chord symbols above.  The performer will have to interpret the chord symbols to play something that sounds like what is expected.

Now here are fully composed sheet music excerpts of the same two pieces.


With the fully-scored sheet music, the guesswork is eliminated, but the amount of reading required is increased, so that brings me to the next point.

Classical approach: (1) If you want to spend as little energy as possible in figuring out WHAT to play, there is no substitute to the classical approach.  Well-written detailed sheet music tells you all you need to know about playing the music the same way someone on another continent in a different time period would play the same thing.  HOW to play it is a different challenge, but if you are good at reading sheet music, you can just play it. (2) If you are to work as an accompanist for hire at theatres, churches with traditional worship services, music or dance schools, or with classical chamber ensembles, you MUST be good in the classical approach to learning music.  So much of that work is sight-reading.

Jazz approach: (1) A lead sheet often takes up less than half the amount of pages than regular sheet music, and this means that you can carry more songs with you.  This is especially important if you're playing for parties, dinners, or other casual settings.  (2) If you want some freedom and input in the creative process (for example: maybe you want to play the left hand with a different pattern than the original version), then the jazz approach makes that possible.  You may not be the composer of the song you're playing, but you can instantly become the arranger.  You also are not prevented from learning a piece simply because you can't find a good version already composed on sheet music.

Classical: Note reading skills for treble and bass clef.  The faster and more accurate, the better.  Sight-reading skills are imperative if you want to play more music with less practice.  Memorization, if required or desired, is more challenging on this approach because you are trying so hard to get what's on the page.  Technical skills and theory skills improve odds of success.  The player needs to save money because well-written sheet music can be expensive.

Jazz: Compared to the Classical approach, the player on the Jazz approach needs a much higher understanding of chords - what each chord is, how to build them with various voicings, how to invert any chord, how to change smoothly from one chord to another.  Technical ability with scales and arpeggios are equal to what is required from a classical player.  The player needs to learn styles and patterns as something that can be plugged in when learning a piece.  The player needs to learn to be creative to have the most success in this area (in other words, don't try to play the piano EXACTLY like the artist in the recording, but be willing to add your own variation).  If you're not going to use lead sheets, the jazz player needs to develop a very good ear for hearing music and figuring out how to play it on the keys.

Special note on techniques: Classical and Jazz approaches encourage the most progress you can make with scales, chords, and arpeggios.  Jazz musicians (and for once I'm talking about the true genre of jazz) prioritize the concept of All-keys practice.  In other words, any technical exercise you learn gets transposed to all keys.  The same is true of songs known as standards.  The good jazz player can take Begin the Beguine with the lead sheet above and play it in that key (of C major).  The elite jazz player can change it to any of the other 11 major keys.

Hopefully you can guess the answer to this, but... there is no right approach or wrong approach that covers everyone.  The right approach is the one that you either have a strong inclination for or are willing to invest in the skills needed to do well.  Also, think of your situation.  Are you playing for traditional churches, school ensembles, theatres, or other places based on classical sheet music?  Or are you playing just for fun, or with a band of some kind, or for dinners, parties and other such events?

And here's another answer.

How about...both!  If you have any kind of career aspirations in music, I strongly recommend getting some degree of comfort in both approaches.  Two things are true: not every professional musician bothers to learn both approaches, and most who do still prefer one way or the other.  But a pianist who can alternate between playing wedding music off sheet music with a flute soloist and then go learn a Journey song off a recording with a lyrics and chords sheet to play with a band will have all kinds of work.  The theatre is where I've had my most performance work in the past 10 years, and I've been asked to read music off at least 10,000 pages by now.  But I also have been asked if I can listen to a recording that's different than the sheet music and learn to play it like so.

Also, you don't necessarily have to learn both approaches at the same time.  I will add, however, that there is an ample amount of anecdotal evidence to suggest that getting a foundation of the classical approach and then switching to the jazz approach is more widely successful than trying to do it the other way around.  This is why I and so many other teachers start every beginning student the same way.  At some point, I want you to choose a course, but I want that course to happen after at least getting started in a classical approach.  Having even a small grasp will help you learn other music regardless of the approach you take.

Monday, April 27, 2020

How to Improve Your Sight-Reading (Sight-Reading Part 2)

Okay, I didn't think the follow-up to the first part of this series would be nearly 5 months later, but there are a lot of things for 2020 that I don't think anyone expected!  Anyway, better late than never.

There are 2 points I made in the previous blog about sight-reading.
  1. You can aspire to be a pianist-for-hire without becoming a true virtuoso.
  2. Of all the things you need to improve to do well as a pianist-for-hire, there is nothing more important than sight-reading.
But how do you improve your sight-reading?

There are many approaches and techniques, enough so that I won't cover them here, but I'll give you some broad suggestions.

Learn your technique in your hands and on the staff.
So much of music is scales, chords, and arpeggios.  Part of sight-reading well is to be able to not only recognize what you see, but actually be able to play it when you do.  Again, there are two components.  What does the technique look like within sheet music?  And how do you play it?

Piano students more often than not underestimate the importance of technique and also the standards of good technique.  For example, take the C major scale.  Can you play it 1-octave hands separately? How about hands together?  How about 2 octaves separately and together? 4 octaves? Contrary motion? In 3rds? In 6ths? How fast can you play each one?  And that's just one scale.

Treat your technique with this recipe:
  1. Master a specific technique (i.e. 1-octave scale hands together) slowly with 100% correct fingering and 100% correct notes.
  2. Speed up until it's really fast.
  3. Make the technique harder (i.e. 2 octave scales)
  4. Repeat steps 1 through 3 over and over.
This can be a parallel development to everything else.  You don't have to be in full mastery of every technique to be a good sight-reader, but the limit of your technique will limit the difficulty of what you can play in one attempt.

Improve your recognition of rhythms, notes, intervals, and chords
As I'm telling my students all the time, it's not enough to be able to look at a note on the staff, give it some thought, and then name the right note.  Each note has to be INSTANTANEOUS in its recognition.  But the truth is, while that's an ingredient to good sight-reading, it's only one of many.  Much like reading this blog requires first knowing your alphabet, then recognizing words, the definitions of the words, the structure of a sentence, and groups of words creating a thought... your note recognition has to be combined with other elements.

  • Rhythm: There are books just for rhythm that are progressive.  I would find one with a CD or online demonstration/play-along and then ALWAYS try it without listening first, then listen to check how you did, then play again.
  • Notes: The best way I know to learn is online games that involve beating the clock, such as  How many notes can you get right in a minute?  Any slower than 30 per minute, and you're taking too long to think about it.  See my recent blog post that gives a note-tutorial for
  • Intervals: Recognition of 2nds, 3rds, 4ths, 5ths, etc is only helpful if you can do it without naming any of the notes.  If I point to two notes on the staff and ask you to name the interval, and your response is to play the notes on the piano (example: C up to an F), and then say "a 4th!", you are not independently recognizing your intervals.  Go to  This is a great exercise because of the ability to increase the level of difficulty.  
    Let me know how you do with the Accidentals of doom!
If you are beginner, not only start with Level 1, but uncheck all of the intervals except the ones on this column.  Then gradually add the rest of them.
Here is final setting.  On the play mode, leave the setting at Harmonic, but at some point try Both.  Finally, your game is ready, and looks like this.  

  • Chords: Chords are your more advanced vocabulary words.  You want to learn root position chords, then inversions, then 7th chords and their inversions, then the more extended chords (especially if you're playing jazz, funk, or blues).  I won't clutter this section with more screenshots, but the setup for is very similar to that of the intervals, with 5 letters and everything.  There is an Inversions button you can check on and off.
Raise your level of playing through experience
This is not a theory I can cite from other sources, but entirely my own observation.  Your level of ability on any instrument is defined by the average level of all the music you've practiced.  If you spend a lot of time on easy pieces that you can learn in a few days at most, then you're not pushing yourself.  It's the brain-busters, the pieces that make you question yourself, the ones you have to take 1 and 2 measures at a time over and over really slowly that make you truly grow!  You need to always have a project going that stretches you.

Get experience with sight-reading
If you decide to run a 5k race, you can go online and read all about strategy and correct form, and basically everything you need to know to run your best 5k time.  However, none of it matters unless you actually practice running.  The experience is where you improve, not the knowledge of it.  All of the things mentioned here are tools.  They equip you to do a good job, but you need to practice sight-reading and log in many, many hours of doing this very thing before you actually get good at sight-reading.

First, you need some materials.  By that, I mean that you need music just for sight-reading.  Ideally, it needs to be music that is comfortably but not excessively easier than your average playing level (see previous section on this blog).  It's not to say that you couldn't go with something only moderately easier than your average that you would continue to practice and work up, but to know if you're improving your sight-reading, the goal is this:  Find the hardest level of music (no matter how easy that is) that you can play on the first attempt with at least 80% accuracy.  The goal is then to increase the difficulty level of the music you can play this well on the first attempt.

OPTIONS FOR COLLECTING SIGHT-READING MATERIALS:  (1) You can always go to where sheet music is sold, and get method books for brands other than yours.  Most of my students are on Faber's Piano Adventures.  If you're not, then try that brand for sight-reading.  Other common choices include Bastien, Alfred's, Hal Leonard, and The Music Tree.   There are also books designed for Sight Reading (and includes this term in the title) where the exercises start very easy and get progressively more difficult as you go. (2) Shop used-book stores in the music section, or check Goodwill or other thrift stores.  Many piano students don't often hold onto their student books after a while, and this is a good place to find easier music that you haven't previously practiced.  (3) Seek out friends or family members who have taken lessons and see if you can at least borrow some of their music books.

The point is...practice for the sake of improving this skill many times a week.  Grab something you've never played, and just play without stopping.  Keep your eyes moving ahead, don't stop for mistakes, and see how you do.  Very important: Before putting the music away, look at where you had any real trouble playing it well, and evaluate why it was hard.  Did it involve notes, intervals, or chords that you found difficult to recognize quickly?  Did you take your eyes off the page?  Did you end up staring at the notes you were playing rather than looking ahead?  Did the place in question involve technique (such as a scale) that you need to improve?

The under-rated skill-builder: playing from a hymnal!
Beginning students should probably ignore this section for now, but this is a great tip for intermediate students.  This is also GREAT for jazz pianists.  Buy a hymnal with traditional homophonic hymns.  Homophonic means that the music looks mostly like this, where you have 4-notes per chord (most chords) and that each note is moving at the same rhythm (as opposed to polyphonic hymns where the soprano and alto might have different rhythms).
One thing you'll notice about this that takes some getting used to is that, because hymns are written to be sung by a group of voices rather than to be played, you have to compensate that the tenor voice (top bass clef note) is often far apart from the bass voice (bottom bass clef note), often beyond the reach of your hand.  Look at the last measure on the first line.  The last note is an octave, but the two notes before that are difficult-to-unplayable stretches for the LH.  However, in both cases, it is an easy reach to add the tenor notes to the bottom of the RH so that you are playing 3 right-hand notes vs 1 left-hand note.  You'll also notice in places like the 5th note of the 2nd line that the tenor (top bass clef) and alto (bottom treble clef) notes are the same.  Therefore, when you play it, you play the single note with one hand and ignore the other.  These are the types of things that make playing hymns sneakily difficult.  Nevertheless, they are invaluable and highly worth including in heavy doses of sight-reading for a few reasons.

First, in spite of the difficulty of learning how to play a hymn (singular), it doesn't take a lot of practice before it gets to be fairly easy to play hymns (plural).  This is because there isn't much difference between the easiest and hardest hymns to play out of one hymnal.  A few hours of practice and you'll lock in to HOW to play a hymn on the first attempt.

Second, (and jazz players, play attention!!), it is an unequaled way to gain experience in great-sounding chord voicings!!  To refresh, chords are how notes are grouped together (CEG is a C major chord), but chord voicings are how they are organized between the hands (C-G in the LH, E-C in the RH) and how one chord moves to the other in a smooth way.  Smooth voice leading in chords sounds great on any instrument, but it's actually imperative for groups of vocalists singing in harmony.  Your inner voices (altos and tenors) would have a hard time for amateurs to sing their part if it was jumping all over the place, so they tend to have a lot of repeated notes and steps with only a few skips.  Well, those same voice leadings are absolutely wonderful to use as reference when playing from a lead sheet.  It doesn't take much practice to figure out how to convert them as 7th and 9th chords.  And if you're not wanting to learn jazz from a lead-sheet, the voicings used in hymn harmonies are so often used in classical piano voicings for similar texture.  Being proficient in hymn reading will have instant benefit on reading traditional piano music!

Finally, playing hymns gives you the ultimate practice in moving 4 parts of music at once.  You cannot play hymns well if you are trying to move the top line, then the middle lines, then the bottom line chord-by-chord.  You need to learn how to put your interval and note skills in combination and see how each chord moves as an entire group, NOT just one note at a time.

I haven't yet exhausted sight-reading as a subject, so I will probably revisit this some day, but I hope all of you who aren't absolute beginners will make sight-reading a regular priority in your practice!

Monday, April 20, 2020

25 MORE Essential Classical Pieces to Know

In my previous blog post, I listed 25 pieces of classical music that everyone with any music experience should have listened to and have at least a little familiarity.  By the time I got to the end, I realized that 25 wasn't nearly sufficient.  50 isn't either, but I probably will stop for now after this list. Again, I'm not claiming these are the best works out there (although some of them are), but there the ones that you should know if you're going to be literate in the genre.

You can find all of these on any streaming service such as Spotify, Amazon, Apple, or YouTube.  When possible with the latter, please seek professional recordings.  There are some good school and student ensemble recordings for sure, but your first experience with these works should be of the highest quality playing and sound quality.

Note to parents: one thing that occurred to me after posting the first in this series is that your child (especially if very young) might lack the patience to listen to all of these pieces.  In this case, I definitely recommend two things.  First, find a recording of YouTube that is a live performance from a professional orchestra.  Second, watch the clock at let it go to at least 3 minutes, preferably 5 minutes.  If it's too trying on their patience at that point, then try again with another piece on another day.  But please make the effort.  Students who make an effort in listening to non-popular music are more likely to continue doing well with formal studies than those who don't.

Here is the list, once again alphabetical by composer.

26. J.S. Bach: Concerto for Two Violins: Bach's masterworks require a more mature listening approach, so I've been careful to recommend some famous works that are much more accessible even to young listeners.  The "Bach Double" is easy to listen to and enjoy!

27. Bela Bartok: Music for Stringed Instruments, Percussion, and Celesta  - This is a 4 movement piece of slow-fast-slow-fast.  The two slow movements are wonderfully creepy!  It is good Halloween music, enough so that Stanley Kubrick used excerpts of it in The Shining.

28. Ludwig Van Beethoven - Piano Sonata op. 27, no. 2 "Moonlight".  This 3-movement piece has 2 of the most famous movements in piano history of drastically different moods.

29. George Bizet: Carmen Suite No. 1 - The opera Carmen is a treasure chest of famous melodies.  There are two suites, but if I'm going to give you one essential piece, it would be this first suite.

30. Benjamin Britten: Young Person's Guide to Orchestra - This is a masterful piece by one of the most successful British composers of the 20th century.  There is a version with narrator and one without.  I personally prefer the one without, but I would highly recommend that my younger listeners try the one with narration such as this one:  It's a great way to be introduced to the instruments and families of the orchestra.

31. Frederick Chopin: Etudes op. 10.  These are 12 short but impressively difficult pieces to play on piano.  Definitely watch these with video.

32. Paul Dukas: The Sorcerer's Apprentice  - Mickey Mouse in wizard's hat with enchanted brooms? Fantasia 1940?  Need I say more?  Okay, this is a famous piece from an underrated composer with music that perfectly suits the title.

33. Edward Elgar: Pomp & Circumstance No. 1 - Okay kids, you must listen to all of this because it's only 5 minutes, and the famous part is in the middle.  If you've ever been to a graduation, you've heard this.  The fun part is the part you might not have heard.  (Note: It won't make my top 50 list of "must-hear" pieces, but if you like Elgar at all after this, please check out the superb Enigma Variations, a longer but much better work)

34. Franz Joseph Haydn: String Quartet op. 76, no. 3 "Emperor" - Haydn essentially invented the string quartet, an ensemble you're likely to see at a wedding today.  The slow movement of this one is known as the Emperor's hymn, and eventually became the national anthem of Germany.

35. Felix Mendelssohn: Symphony No. 4 "Italian" - The opening of this piece is some of the happiest music you'll ever hear.

36. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: "Eine Kleine Nachtmusik": serenade for string orchestra - It has 4 movements, and all of them are famous, but you'll especially recognize the first one.

37. Carl Orff: Carmina Burana - This is classical music's version of a one-hit wonder!  The opening of this huge piece for chorus and orchestra is a staple piece of movie trailers everywhere!  Listen to this on big speakers, and feel the power!

38. Johann Pachelbel: Canon in D - I simply couldn't believe that I left this off my previous list, given that it is quite possibly the most famous piece of classical music EVER!  If you can find a version for 3 violins and basso continuo, you can hear it in its original form.  Otherwise, you'll find every arrangement imaginable.

39. Sergei Prokofiev: Romeo & Juliet, suite No. 2 - I once heard one of these great pieces on a credit card commercial for a few years.

40. Giacchino Rossini: The William Tell Overture - If you've watched your share of Looney Tunes cartoons, you'll say to yourself 3 separate times, "Ah, so THAT'S where that came from!" Several generations cannot listen to the last 3 minutes without thinking of The Lone Ranger.  (Bonus: Also check out the Overture to the Barber of Seville.  It's almost as famous, and not quite as long.

41. Camille Saint-Saens: Carnival of the Animals - The composer's last name is pronounced "San-Sahn", and he has a life that's worthy of a movie adaptation.   This piece has two of his most famous melodies with The Swan and Aquariums.  In regards to the latter piece, listen to it and imagine the original music for the Harry Potter films sounding like they do without this piece existing first.

42. John Philip Sousa: The Stars and Stripes Forever - I once taught a 12 year old student who had never heard this piece before, having lived in this country his whole life.  That still astounds me to this day.  I don't know how you could miss this piece, but it's a must-hear from a composer rightly known as The March King.  Fun fact: more people heard John Philip Sousa's band perform live than those who heard the Beatles live.

43. Johann Strauss Jr: On the Beautiful Blue Danube Waltzes: There are a lot of abbreviated versions out there.  Accept nothing shorter than 9 minutes, and with full orchestra.  This piece is remarkable for just how many catchy melodies happen one after another.

44. Igor Stravinsky: The Firebird - This exists as a longer ballet score or shorter suite.  I'm fine with whichever choice you make, but I LOVE the ballet.  If you tried Rite of Spring from the previous list and had a hard time with it, please don't resist trying this. It was written 2 years earlier when Stravinsky was still writing music inspired by his more traditional influences.  It's still very original, but much more accessible!

45. Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky: Overture to Romeo & Juliet - Single movement piece that has a very famous theme in the second half.

46. Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky: Overture to 1812.  Beethoven got 2 pieces on the last list, and Tchaikovsky might have written more music that has made its way into popular culture than anyone, including Beethoven, Mozart, and Chopin, and that's saying something.  This piece has French and Russian melodies going against each other, and real canons firing!  One of the ironies of life is that this Russian piece is very often performed around American 4th of July concerts!

47. Ralph Vaughan Williams: Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis - for an unusual combination of double string orchestra and string quartet, this is one of the most beautiful pieces of music ever written. 

48. Antonio Vivaldi: The Four Seasons op. 8, no.1-4 - These are 4 separate multi-movement concerti for violin and string orchestra.  If you're impatient, at least do this:  Listen to the first movements of Spring, Winter, and Fall.  Then listen to the last movement of Summer.

49. Richard Wagner: The Ride of the Valkyries - A short and stirring introduction to this composer (pronounced "Vagner").

50. Richard Wagner: Prelude to Act 1 of Lohengrin: Another fast piece with a catchy melody!  As a 4-minute bonus, check out the Bridal Chorus in its original form, a piece that millions of brides have heard during their own processional.

Again, let me know if you've heard these, the ones you love, and the ones you didn't care for.  Also, let me know if there are ultra-famous pieces I should have included.

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

25 Essential Classical Pieces to Know

I can't tell you how often I ask a question like this in a lesson:

Have you heard of the composer Tchaikovsky?
The answer from the student is no.

Then I ask, Have you heard this? as I play the "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy" from the Nutcracker.
The answer is always yes.

That happened 3 times last week!

Not everyone who studies music is going to embrace classical music, and I don't think that's a bad thing.  However, regardless of your genre of choice, there are certain pieces you should know to have a solid foundation as a musician.

I could easily make this a top 100 list, and I may do some 25 "more pieces" posts in the future, but I wanted to start with 25 pieces that I think you should know in many cases almost by accident.  These are pieces that have at some point become part of culture through frequent performances, inclusion in movies/TV/commercials, or by some other means.  I'm not including pieces like Beethoven's Für Elise, which most of you will play yourself, but the large and grand pieces that you should just know the composer and title of when you hear it.  Most of these pieces are for orchestra.

It's a safe bet that we have at least 25 more days of a stay-home policy, so I thought now would be a great time for this post.  I would encourage you to listen to 1 piece a day.  You can find them on YouTube, Spotify, Apple, or Amazon.  These are listed alphabetically by composer.

1.  J.S. Bach: Toccata and Fugue in D minor BWV 565 - You've heard this around Halloween.  It's an organ piece, but there is a terrific orchestral arrangement by Leopold Stokowski that was used in Disney's Fantasia (1940).

2. Samuel Barber: Adagio for Strings - Samuel Barber is my favorite classical composer!  This is not his best work, but it is one of the most heartwarming and saddest pieces of music that he wrote when he was young.  This has been used in the movies Platoon, The Elephant Man,  and many other films and television episodes.

3. Ludwig Beethoven: Symphony No. 5 - You know it as Beethoven's 5th.  There are 4 movements, and the 1st movement is super-famous, but the other 3 movements are really good with the last one being pretty famous on its own.  It goes from dark and foreboding to a big happy fanfare.

 4. Ludwig Beethoven: Symphony No. 9 -  This is the origin of "Ode to Joy" which happens in the last movement.  Don't skip ahead.  It's an hour-long for the whole symphony, but it's worth the trip.  This is a piece that literally CHANGED how every piece of music was composed afterwards and ushered in a whole new era of music!

5. Johannes Brahms: Hungarian Dances -  This is tricky.  Brahms' most famous pieces are not nearly his best, but these Hungarian Dances are fun.  There are 21 of them, but they are short.  If you want to just get to the essential ones, listen to #4, 5, 6, 7, and 17.   There are so many versions, but the original is for 4-hand piano duet.  However, check out any of the various orchestral versions as well

6. Aaron Copland: Billy the Kid suite -  So many choices from this American composer, but this is an exciting introduction.  If it sounds like Western Movie music, keep in mind that Copland invented it.

7. Frederick Chopin: Grand Valse Brillante, op. 18 - THE piano composer of all time!  People wrote for the piano before Chopin, but Chopin (pronounced Show-pan) dedicated his entire career to piano music.  There are so many famous pieces of music, but let me give you one that you're very likely to hear before you play it.

8. Claude Debussy: Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun - In my mind there are 3 pieces of music that changed classical music forever after they premiered, and they're all on this list.  I mentioned Beethoven's 9th symphony.  This is the 2nd one.  Before this piece, orchestra music was getting bigger and without restraint.  Debussy introduced new harmonies and radically new ways of combining instruments.

9. Antonin Dvorak: Symphony No. 9 "From the New World" - in the late 1800s, Dvorak visited from what is now the Czech Republic to the United States.  He loved his trip here, and composed many pieces in celebration.  This is the most famous.  All 4 movements are wonderful, but the 2nd movement (Largo) is the most famous.

10. George Gershwin - Rhapsody in Blue - This is a piano concerto (see the Rachmaninoff piece for an explanation).  Gershwin crossed classical with jazz in a way that has still never been surpassed.

11. Edward Grieg: Peer Gynt Suite No. 1 - This is originally incidental music for a play, and there is a 2nd suite as well, but this first collection of 4 pieces are the ones that I guarantee you've heard at least 2 of them before.

12. George Frederick Handel: Water Music -  Technically two.  I'm not about to send you to the 3-hour Messiah, but you must listen to the Hallelujah Chorus from that piece if you haven't.  Water Music is a collection of small-ensemble pieces written to be played on a royal ship.  They are some of the most famous and accessible of Baroque pieces ever.

13.  Gustav Holst: The Planets -  Do you like Star Wars?  Check out this piece that was written 60 years before Episode IV, and was a huge inspiration on the sound.

14. Franz Liszt: Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 - If Chopin developed piano music as we know it, Liszt took it to another level.  There are orchestral pieces, but the piano version is essential!  I recommend that you watch a live performance of a professional on YouTube with this one.  Try this:

15. Felix Mendelssohn: A Midsummer Night's Dream overture and suite - Like Peer Gynt, it's music from a play that was collected into a suite.  If you've ever been to a wedding or watched one in a movie, you've probably heard at least one of the pieces.

16.  Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Overture to The Marriage of Figaro - So many pieces of Mozart's to choose, but I'll give you my favorite, and one that doesn't take very long to hear.

17. Modest Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition - This is originally a very difficult collection of piano music that is almost never heard in its original form.  It's worth checking out, but definitely find Maurice Ravel's orchestra version.  This is music about paintings in a museum.  There are various pieces called Promenade which represent the transition from one to another.

18.  Sergei Prokofiev: Peter and the Wolf - Again, a great composer and this is not nearly his best work, but this is a perfect introduction.  Make sure you find a version with a narrator.  If you search, I bet you'll find a narrator you know.  Many famous actors have done this.

19.  Sergei Rachmaninoff - Piano Concerto No. 2  - The composer's name also spells like Rachmaninov.  A concerto is a piece for solo instrument (in this case, piano) and orchestra.  Rachmaninov wrote 4 large pieces for this combination, but this is the most memorable.  Also, a great story!  He was devastated from a negative review of his first symphony, and didn't compose anything for 2 years.  A psychiatric therapist was able to heal him, and the music he wrote in the following year is some of his best starting with this piece!

20.  Maurice Ravel: Daphnis and Chloe Suite No. 2 -  I actually recommend the whole ballet, which isn't very long, but this suite will give you a nice introduction.  Ravel is considered a master of the orchestra.  Without his innovations, the early Disney scores would not sound the way they do.

21. Nicholai Rimsky-Korsakov: Scheherezade: It's a 4 pieces inspired by Arabian Nights.  I do have a favorite recording here.  Look for the London Symphony Orchestra as conducted by Sir Charles MacKerras.

22. Franz Schubert: Ave Maria -  Many versions of this.  Schubert has larger and more important works, but this is a nice intro and probably the shortest work on the list.

23. Richard Strauss: Also Sprach Zarathustra - You've absolutely heard the first minute of this, but probably not the remaining 29.  It's all very good!

24.  Igor Stravinsky: Rite of Spring - This is the 3rd piece that changed music forever.  This piece and the ballet choreography that went with it caused a riot in its 1913 premiere.  It's an acquired taste, but stick with it.  It's influenced so much of the past 100 years.

25. Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky: The Nutcracker Suite - Now back to full circle.  I could come up with 10 essential pieces for this composer alone, but let's bring it back to where I started.

I've left out quite a bit.  At some point in the near future, I will have to follow up.  If you listen to all of these, let me know which pieces you liked, loved, or didn't like.  And definitely let me know if you've already listened to all of them before, or let me know when you do.

Monday, March 30, 2020

Note Identification Exercise Tutorial (2020 update)

Hello everyone!  While all lessons are online for the time being, and we're all getting used to a new normal, I am going to get in the habit of posting here at least once a week throughout this quarantine period starting now.

This first post is just a video.  It's not for everyone, but probably is needed for a lot of you.  If you want to skip this post, can you honestly answer yes to the following questions?

Can you name all of your notes? treble AND bass clef?
Is it instantaneous?
Really, can you name any note without even having to think about it before you say or play it?
Do you always remember to include the key signature when you name a note?

Okay, if you gave an honest yes, thanks for stopping by.  I'll see you next week.  For everyone else, the Note Identification Exercise on is a valuable exercise.  Depending on your level, there are many ways you can use the exercise.  Here is a 9-minute video.  I apologize in advance for some annoying microphone noise at the beginning and near the end, but I hope this will help you set up your exercise so that you can benefit in getting more accurate AND faster at your note recognition.