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.

ring tone waltz

March 27, 2012 § 2 Comments

Marc-Andre Hamelin, who can’t keep his talented hands off a good tune, turned the Nokia ring tone into a charming waltz.

You can get the sheet music here and play it yourself.

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 |

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.

New old Rubinstein video unearthed

January 26, 2012 § 1 Comment

What can you say about Rubinstein that hasn’t been said before? The incomparable? The exquisite? The matchless? The best, the last, the first, the greatest, the only?

This video from Germany of his visit to the Hamburg Steinway factory to try out his newly repaired piano is one more superlative in the Rubinstein archives. Where else are you going to see Rubinstein noodling around?  He’s trying things out, seeing if they work right.  I love his questioning the technicians, as every pianist always does after a repair: Isn’t this lighter? It feels lighter to me. Nein! We kept it just the way you like it!

Wait until you see and hear the Opus 10 # 1 etude of Chopin, which he never otherwise recorded. Same goes for the Opus 10# 2. And there’s nothing like that Schubert.

When we were all younger I heard Rubinstein play in Portland. It was a recital of great tonal beauty, easy but commanding movement and rich, direct storytelling that has lived with me ever since. When I think of that recital I think of a remark my dad once made. My dad was a political reporter and a keen observer of politics national and local for his entire, long life. I once heard some younger person ask him, in about 1995, who his favorite president had been. Kennedy? Johnson? Clinton? My dad shook his head and said, “You’re forgetting: I knew FDR”.

That’s what I think of when someone asks me who my favorite pianist is. Hamlin? Kissin? Pletnev? “You’re forgetting: I heard Rubinstein”.

Which reminds me: I have to get to work.

The Joy of Total Bach B Minor Mass

November 18, 2011 Comments Off on The Joy of Total Bach B Minor Mass


There’s not much I can say about the new Digital Bach Project, newly launched by the University of Oregon and the Oregon Bach Festival. You will need to see and hear it for yourself.

But before you click on the link, please, feed the family, walk the dog, make sure you haven’t left the stove on. You are about to enter total B Minor Mass immersion.Be careful-you may not come out the same person who went in.

If you start here  you can click on the word “Exploring” and be guided in the web site’s use. There are links to 3 hours of lectures connected with various parts of the buildings in the picture, or from the menu at the top of the page. More links are connected to the words. There’s also a YouTube video introduction to the site here.

OR, you can go directly to the music, which plays  in synchrony with the manuscript score. Start at any section, say the Sanctus. The music unfolds bar by bar, line by line in Bach’s hand. You can stop it and start it and magnify it and move it around, sort of like a Google map of Bach in sound and score. Do you want to know what the words are during the Osanna?  Click on Text. Do you want to know what Rilling had to say about this part right here, where the flutes are tripping up and down and in and out of the voices? Click on Cuepoints. Are those really 32nd note triplets? Click on Page to go up close. Do you want to see that lovely thing the trumpet just did, see how Bach notated it? Click on Lens for a closeup of this ornament. You can see how his pen moved across the page.

Just don’t blame me if your chores don’t get done this week.


November 7, 2011 § 1 Comment

Imagine (John Lennon)

Image by ☺Laura☺ via Flickr

Sometimes a song knocks on the door and insists you open it. This week it was John Lennon’s “Imagine“.

Our local music store (Portland Music) has sheet music in the basement and instruments upstairs. They have an amazing bunch of digital pianos these days and usually someone is trying them all out while I’m shopping for sheet music.

I’m all for people playing the piano or the keyboard or whatever all day, every day, in public, in the music store, on street corners, in bars, hospitals, Nordstrom’s, everywhere.  But the music coming from the digitals upstairs makes it hard to concentrate on the music I have to read downstairs (when you’re looking for music for students you shuffle through it quickly by reading it and then maybe sit down and play what’s left to see if it plays like you heard it in your head. I have trouble hearing music on the page if  music is playing).

I don’t think I have ever heard real music being played upstairs. Just lots of students rattling through things, neophytes poking at the demo buttons, glissandi, “Fur Elise” by the bucketful. Either blah or annoying, depending on my mood.

But not this weekend. This time it was real music.

Someone was playing “Imagine”, beautifully. I set my sheaf of Late Elementary pieces down and just listened. And I thought how, if I  ever get around to learning any popular music of any sort, “Imagine” would be a great place to start.

Then, the next day, what should appear in my inbox but a flyer from Scott Houston, the redoubtable Teach Yourself “Piano in a Flash” star of public TV and the internet. I love Scott. He is my favorite Pied Piper of piano playing. What was he announcing but a DVD to teach you to play “Imagine” , starting easy and progressing up to the full version.

Before I had time to whip out my credit card and order it, the phone rang. It was a prospective student, an adult. He said it was time. He needed  to do something  he’s been putting off forever: play the piano.

“What would you like to play?” I asked, and he answered,


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