Best Music Video Ever!!!

November 20, 2012 § 2 Comments

Why is it so hard to read music? One reason is that doing many things at once, like reading and interpreting symbols, listening to the sounds you’re making, operating complex machinery at a high speed (that’s the piano, folks), coordinating 2 hands and 2 feet, 2 eyes and 2 ears  in real time to a beat in your head, and trying to make sense of something you really care about, is genuinely HARD.

The other reason is that music itself is hard to WRITE. To simplify the process, lots of shortcuts have been made through the centuries. That leaves us with a system that is full of fancy repeats, symbols with multiple meanings, sporadic instructions (Key signatures? Accidentals?) and the things that try students’ patience and, fortunately,  keep music teachers employed.

If it sounds like a lousy bargain, speeding up the writing but slowing down the reading, you have never written music by hand. It is a fussy, demanding job. And, up until computers, preparing the plates for printing was a laborious craft. Each mark on the page had to be made by hand, on a steel plate, backwards, perfectly, for printing. Every note, every stem, every slur, every dot, every flat, every sharp, every everything had to be scribed on the steel by hand. There is no moveable type for music. Gutenberg’s revolution missed us musicians.

This video, by the music publishers G.Henle Verlag, show the process in precise detail. The camera looks over the shoulder of a craftsman as he puts in the staff, knocks in the note-heads, rules the bar lines, scrapes, etches and punches his way through a line of music. It even shows how he corrects mistakes.

I could hardly breathe while watching this the first time. I knew it was an exacting craft, but I had no idea it was as demanding as this. This is the best video ever because it shows one reason why music is so hard to read: it is really hard to write.

Brain Waves Stay Tuned to Early Lessons – NYTimes.com

September 19, 2012 § 1 Comment

Brain Waves Stay Tuned to Early Lessons – NYTimes.com.

Listening to Music Aids in Stroke Recovery

June 11, 2012 § 1 Comment

Vertical cross-section of the human cerebellum...

Vertical cross-section of the human cerebellum, showing folding pattern of the cortex, and interior structures (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My husband Charles had a cerebellar stroke about 4 years ago. He become quite a celebrity in the local hospital. All the neurology students showed up to visit, along with an assortment of doctors, residents, nurses, etc. I guess things were slow  that week on the neurology ward and a guy sitting up in bed building Lego models was a big draw.

Charles is not normally the person you’d go to for a conversation. He’s a “Just the facts, ma’am ,” sort of guy.  But the medical types all wanted his opinion on the weather, the ball game, his lunch and the model he was building.  I’d never seen so much idle chatter in his vicinity. They didn’t care what he talked about, they just wanted  him to speak. Then, once someone got him going, they’d all watch him with keen attention, like they were dogs and he was eating a hamburger.

The talking never failed to please. The crowd would get noticeably cheerier after some remarks on the weather. Then they would move on to the next fascinating skill: Could he touch his nose with his finger? The entire crowd would watch as finger was applied to nose. Breath was held. Eyebrows were raised. Heads were shaken in astonishment.

My husband is a bright man.  He was also an AAU swimmer who swam his way to Stanford on a scholarship. Talking and touching his nose were not previously thought to be his best act. But somehow, having lost a good portion of his cerebellum, talking  and touching his nose became marvels of achievement. People missing what he was missing were not supposed to be doing what he was doing.

Somehow he missed a really terrible accident. Call me biased, but I think  a recently published article hints at why he suffered so few ill effects from his stroke. This article says that listening to music seems to help reorganize the brain after a stoke and repair the damage.

It seems to me that listening to piano music 4 or 5 hours a day must also have a protective effect or else someone near and dear to me would be a  basket case today. All those piano lessons and his wife’s practicing must have made him nearly invincible.

Four years later, he is not only fully recovered from the small effects of the stroke, but is functioning better than ever. I attribute it all to the concentrated doses of piano music he receives every day.

Ask your doctor if piano music is right for you.

YouTube’s top pianist invites you to her Royal Albert Hall rehearsals

June 4, 2012 Comments Off on YouTube’s top pianist invites you to her Royal Albert Hall rehearsals

Vodpod videos no longer available.

Live streaming via webcam of Valentina Lisitsa’s practice for an upcoming recital. A true piano geek’s entertainment.

Eminent Scientist Explains How Musicians’ Brains Are Different

April 16, 2012 § 1 Comment

A Piano Teacher’s Guide To Fooling Around At The Piano

February 26, 2012 § 12 Comments


If you are a parent who thinks music should always be soothing and children should only play their assignments, this guide is not for you. But if you want to help your child feel so at home on the piano that he will think and feel and move and dream like the piano is part of him, read on.

What does a small child do with a pencil? Does she sit down and make a perfectly nuanced drawing of a bowl of fruit? Of course not! She spends weeks, months and years making dots and lines and scribbles and ugly stuff and beautiful stuff and confusing stuff and junk and trash and funny people and trees not found in nature. She goes through reams of paper. She uses markers, crayons, pencils, paint, mud, gravy and fruit juice. And we parents treasure each mark and can’t bear to throw it out.

I have boxes of this stuff that my kids made. There is a whole corner of the basement given over to the archives of my kids’ work with pencil and paper. My brothers and I have been going through my late parents’ stuff and they saved boxes of our works on paper, from the Eisenhower era. There is even a box from my mother’s childhood, in the 1920’s. That was during the Warren G. Harding administration. Remember him? Well, I can report that little Winifred Wilson did pretty much the same thing with a pencil and a crayon back then as every other kid has done during every presidential term of office since.

This kind of fooling around with pencil and paper is normal in  human development. We all go through the same stages and do pretty much the same kind of things. If you look into the research on literacy, you find that lots of preliminary fooling around is considered essential for kids to learn to read and write. Most parents would be horrified if you suggested their kids should only use a pencil and paper when they wanted to write sentences or sketch landscapes. Even when school starts, everyone expects that kids will still be making tons of wild and creative and useless marks on paper.

Why, then, do we all insist that kids “only make nice sounds” at the piano? Or, “stop fooling around and do your lesson”? Or, “If you can’t play it right, don’t play it at all”?

The piano, my beloved piano, is in many ways the least musical of instruments. What I mean is that its action is at a remove from our bodies. A cello you embrace with both arms. A drum booms or snaps according to how you strike it with your hands. A flute plays on your breath, and the voice is nothing more than the self made into music. For better or for worse, the other instruments reveal immediately the person and the body playing them.

But our piano has a layer of machinery between us and the sounding strings. The connection between player and instrument is subtle. It is easily ignored. The connection is often never made at all. It is possible to play Beethoven or Gershwin on the piano and follow all the directions correctly and  sound just like a machine and nothing like a live human. And nothing like a particular live human, right here, right now.

One of the things this piano teacher does every afternoon is try to get young pianists hooked up to their instrument so that their playing sounds like They Are Playing. Not someone else. And I try to get it to be play, real play, with the joy and concentration and seriousness that play really is.

Sometimes I have to give them permission to fool around. Often, some parent with a headache has cautioned them against making loud or ugly sounds. They are afraid that the instrument might be harmed by banging, or that meaningless repetition is a waste of time.

Then I have to speak to the parents and explain how important it is to know your instrument, know what it can do for you and what you can do with it. Usually I say, “Half of the time fooling around, half of the time doing your lesson”. But I hate saying that, because it is a lie. The fooling around is also the lesson and it is the part that makes the other part, the part that is hard work for both the student and the piano teacher, easier and worth doing. When I meet a new student who has spent hours or months or years messing around with the piano, I know I am going to have an easy time. He has already done the work of discovering what he and the piano can do together and is ready to build from there.

I want to propose The Piano Students’ Manifesto:

  • We demand the right to be treated at least as indulgently as young writers and artists.
  • We demand the right be loud and ugly, tedious, un-melodic, repetitious, and irritating.
  • We demand the right to play outside of the book.
  • We shall use the pedals, all three of them, all the time.
  • We will play every note on the keyboard going up and then every note going down, many times over and we will do it again tomorrow. Then we will play each note twice, going up and back down.
  • We will play glissandi, we will play forte and piano, we will play presto and adagio, and don’t bother us with the vocabulary.
  • We will discover something wonderful that just happened by accident and play it until it is absorbed into the paint on the walls.
  • We will play with one finger and one hand, or two hands and two elbows, while lying on the bench, while standing and while chewing, while singing, humming or making that weird clicking sound with our tongue.
  • We will play one note that makes a funny buzzing noise  4,000 times.
  • We will lie under the piano and operate the pedals with our hands.
  • We will look into the piano any way we can and see what is going on in there while we play that one note 4,000 times.
  • We will lean on the keyboard with both forearms, especially on the low notes.
  • We will do all of this and much more. Much, much more.

We only ask that the grownups get out of the way.

Don’t Practice the Piano the Same Way You Studied for Exams in College (and don’t study for exams that way, either)

February 9, 2012 Comments Off on Don’t Practice the Piano the Same Way You Studied for Exams in College (and don’t study for exams that way, either)

English: A post-concert photo of the main hall...

Carnegie Hall: You can't get there just by endlessly repeating yourself.Image via Wikipedia

Here’s the original article: Everything You Thought You Knew About Learning Is Wrong | GeekDad | Wired.com.

The Cliff Notes version for pianists:

1.Don’t repeat one thing endlessly until it is perfect (it won’t be anyway, but that is another story). Fool around with one task and then shift to another, and another. Your whole skill level will rise in little bits that won’t show much right now but over time it will be more stable and extensive.

2.If you want to be able to play the piano in lots of different environments, you must practice in those environments. Thus, if your practice situation is always hushed silence, you will do poorly at your teacher’s house where there are dogs, birds, trucks, lousy light, and the chance of children. And Carnegie Hall? Better figure out how to practice in that kind of environment well ahead of time.

3.Forgetting is the mother of memory. If you want to learn something really well, let it disappear from easy recall and then re-learn it. Each time you do this, it will stick better and you will play it better.

If you have been a pianist all your life, or  any other kind of musician who has to learn tons of stuff and recall it in real time, you have learned all this the hard way. Which, according to this article, means you  have learned these lessons really, really well. Because the hard way, the long, slow, goof-up and fix-up and back-up and make-up way, is the way to real skill and lasting memory.

This is one reason this particular pianist and teacher doesn’t write much in assignment books for her students. I want them to have to remember stuff the hard way. If they don’t remember, we can always repeat and it will stick better the next time. Or the next. Forgetting isn’t a failure, it’s a gift.

Piano knowledge is slow knowledge. It is built up slowly, over time, like learning Russian well enough to read Dostoyevsky.  It has nothing in common with Google. It has nothing in common with Movies On Demand. It is not a GPS locator that tells you where you are, even if you haven’t any idea how you got there. It is not a smart phone app. It is real smarts, the kind that you can’t get for $1.99. Neither an electrical outage nor bankruptcy nor political repression nor nuclear accident can take it away from you. It is DNA, it is the calcium in your bones, it is the corpuscles in your blood. It is you.

Where Am I?

You are currently browsing the Learning category at Piano Connections: The Studio of Megan Hughes.

%d bloggers like this: