Play Piano Today With Dr. J

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A colleague and I were recently discussing how important rhythm is to a musical performance.  His thoughts were so intriguing that I invited him to write an article for my Pro-Motion Music newsletter.   Jess Smith’s article,A Compelling Rhythm, is convincing in its description of why and how music making is not a note-by-note march of the fingers finding appropriate keys, but a surging, compelling, and controlling flow of rhythmic impulse which comes from the entire body.   The article will be quoted in its entirety in this and future blog posts.

Jess Smith, pianist and writer

A Compelling Rhythm by Jess Smith

“I was born into a family of piano players, all of whom played by ear, and quite well.  My father had five sisters, all of whom played.  My mother and her sister both played.  At that time in our history, almost every home had a piano, and they were played.   I was born with a love of piano playing, and my delight was to stand by the piano as these older folks—all related to me—played things that seemed magical to me.

When I was three years old, my favorite piano-visitor was a cousin of my mother’s, who was a tall beautiful girl of 18 when I was 3 years old, and my eye level was just about at keyboard level.  I am told that I used to meet Cousin Bea at the door when she arrived and led her by the hand over to the piano to start what was my delight—watching her long graceful fingers flow like a river over the keys.  So my first discovery of the physical part of piano playing was watching the graceful movement of the hands, propelled by the forearm and upper arm, moving gracefully over the keyboard.  Music was a delight to be heard, but also a visual delight to watch.  The fact that the movements were the result of the rhythms and the movements of the music seen by my 3-year-old eye at keyboard level became the foundation for my infantile perception of the  very substance of music as a living, fluid thing. 

Later, when I was 5 or 6, my parents bought me a miniature drum set, which enabled me to sit by the radio—no television then—and play along with the music I heard.  Rhythm became something akin to food for me, and was my primary love until school became a reality for me.

I started formal lessons when I was seven, with my mother, but when I was nine I was ready to go to a professional teacher in the city.  She taught piano and cello, and in our recitals I was fascinated by the cello as well as the piano, and saw that cellists had a physical delight that the pianists did not—they could draw the bow over the strings and feel a palpable stroke with the arm as they moved through the music  (or as the music flowed through them.)  The music came from the whole body with a cellist, and although I was hooked on the piano, the idea that the upper arm was the primary unit in cello phrasing was obvious.

When I was twelve, I became the accompanist for a tap-dancer, which further enriched the rhythmic capacities I had felt so strongly as a child.  Here again was a thrust of a palpable complex of rhythm from a major part of the body, as the dancer moved around the stage.  Later performances of  Ballet also fed the feeling that music furnishes a powerful force which drives the entire body, and traces movement through the air of the stage in marvelous patterns for the eye.  Who that has seen a great ballet performance has not risen from his seat at the end and walked taller and straighter and with more enthusiasm than before?   Rhythmic flow has transformed him.”

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Jeannine Jordan, concert organist and organ and piano instructor

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So, what do I learn every week from my piano students?

Perseverance – steady and continued action or belief, usually over a long period and especially despite difficulties or setbacks.  Learning to play the piano as an adult can be a daunting task, yet week after week, I have students who continue to diligently practice to attain technical proficiency in their piano studies.

Patience – the ability to endure waiting or delay without becoming annoyed or upset.  Learning to play the piano as an adult is a slow process and often the technical ability to reproduce the sounds heard in recordings or in the student’s mind is slow in coming.  The patience required to achieve a modicum of success in playing the piano is immense.

Fortitude – strength and endurance in a difficult situation.  Learning to play the piano as an adult is not accomplished by playing at the piano for a few minutes a week.  It requires mastering difficult eye-hand coordination skills which takes an inordinate amount of time at the piano.

Determination – firmness of purpose, will, or intention.  My adult piano students set goals for each series of lessons.  To fulfill those goals and dreams requires a firm resolve to continue practicing and studying even when the desired results are slow to attain.

Are you a successful pianist? Do you have a toolkit of skills, traits, and habits to aid your journey of studying the piano?  Start today to create your personal toolkit filled with self-discipline, technical skills, and reading skills.

A successful pianist has achieved success because of self-discipline.  The successful pianist has learned the importance of regular practice and has learned exactly how to use their practice time efficiently and prudently to achieve a goal.  The self-discipline may come in the form of a practice schedule closely followed day after day or not allowing oneself to attempt pieces beyond their current abilities knowing that with continued self-discipline and goal setting the more difficult piece will be learned at the right time.

The successful pianist has achieved success because of diligently practicing technical exercises.  They know the importance of technical warm-ups and finger dexterity and strengthening exercises and regularly make those part of each practice session.  A successful pianist knows how to work out difficult passages by trying various fingering combinations.  They look for creative ways to move the arms, hands, and fingers to create the desired musical effects.

The successful pianist has achieved success because they have developed music reading skills.  They carefully peruse a piano piece before playing it to make mental notations of key, rhythmic relationships, harmonies, dynamics, and tempo markings.  They develop the trait of looking ahead and of anticipating the flow of the music to and through the cadential points to the conclusion of the music.

The successful pianist has achieved success because they have honed the power of musical analysis.  A piano piece is more than a group of black dots, lines and instructive words on a page.  The successful pianist can hear in their mind the move and flow of the music through harmonic analysis, key and rhythmic relationships, dynamics and tempo.  Before the successful pianist plays an audible note on the piano, they know what sounds they want to create on the piano.

Every productive piano practice session is composed of several things.  First, each practice session should have a specific goal in mind.  Is that goal to be able to play a specific cadence of a repertoire piece successfully or to work out an intricate rhythm, or to practice technique only with exercises and scales or to work on memory?  The possibilities are endless, but every piano practice session should have a goal.

Once the goal is set, make sure you know how the finished passage or exercise, or cadence will sound.

Second devise a piano practice plan.  Determine how much time you will spend on specific activities or when you will let yourself move to the next challenge.

What methods will you use?  How will you get to your goal – by using a metronome, by practicing rhythms away from the keyboard, by playing short sections, or by working on fingering?

Determine how you will know when you are finished for the piano practice session.  Has the timer run out or are you finished when you are tired or when you have accomplished your goal.

Answer those questions and your piano practice sessions will be a sucess and it will be a joy to make music on the piano.

The pentatonic method for learning to play songs on the piano is based on the pentatonic scale.  This musical scale has five notes to an octave and it just happens that these five notes correspond precisely to the five black keys of the piano.  With only five note choices instead of the eight in a diatonic scale or the twelve in a chromatic scale, the novice pianist is able to experience success more quickly.

Using the pentatonic method, the beginning pianist is limited to five notes only of a specific intervallic grouping. Those five notes correspond exactly to the five black keys on the piano.  These keys are easy to see and locate.  They are also arranged in two different groups.  They are arranged in a group of two black keys and a group of three black keys.  These note combinations are visually easy to recognize.

Not only are the five keys easy to recognize, but they are also tactilely comfortable for the adult beginner.  The fingers of each hand can easily cover two groups of the five different black keys.  This hand placement allows for ease in fingering. The hands can often remain in one position for a long series of notes.  Therefore, success comes more quickly for the beginning pianist because the method deals only with learning to move the fingers in a restricted note range.  The learner quickly builds technique when finger movement is limited in using the pentatonic method to play the piano.

The Pentatonic or Five-Note Method is a method which works especially well for the adult beginning pianist.  Most adults simply want to make music and want to learn to play a song quickly.  The pentatonic method makes this possible.

By focusing on the five black keys on the piano the beginner can start to quickly develop technique and eye hand coordination.  Once the beginning adult pianist discovers the joy of playing several songs and has developed some finger dexterity, they are more encouraged to then start the serious study of learning music notation.

Learning note reading skills and applying theory becomes much easier when a person can already play songs on the piano.  With physical skills in place, complex concepts can then be given the attention needed for success of playing the piano.

I discovered in all my years of teaching that what people really want to do from the first time they sit down at a piano is play a song. Right now, today.

Most people in our busy world don’t have the time for traditional weekly lessons, traditional lessons in which scales and exercises come first and the actual playing of a song might take weeks or months.  They want the thrill of success in hearing themselves play songs immediately.  They want to amaze their friends with their playing prowess.  They are looking for a way to quickly master songs and then deal with the how and why of playing later.

So, with those piano players in mind, the rote pentantoic method was created.  This method is a really enjoyable and successful way to do just what many people want to do and that is to play a song on the piano today.  The pentatonic method would allow that, but the challenge remained of how to get the information to would be piano players quickly and efficiently.

Once I became aware of just how many people want to play the piano without the encumbrances of a teacher and weekly scheduled lesson times, I looked for a solution for those students.   I developed the concept of downloadable piano tutorials.

With these tutorials, the student decides when to try the ideas, and better yet, these tutorials can be viewed right in the comfort of the student’s home using their own keyboard or piano.   Never again does a person have to make sure to block out every Thursday to get to the studio of a piano teacher halfway across town and back.

These pentatonic method tutorials start exactly where would be pianists want to start with playing songs.  They do not start with the, this is a G on the treble clef, stuff.  The idea is to play the piano today.  Not tomorrow or next week.  Today.

Downloadable tutorials give the would be pianist all the information and skills needed to wow their friends and amaze themselves.  The tutorials let the beginner hear how awesome your song will sound and show the student just how to get these mind blowing skills.

The tutorials can be reviewed time and again until the player is You Tube ready. Besides that, learning to play songs on the piano with the rote pentatonic method really is fabulously fun.  So start playing the piano using the pentatonic method and play songs on the piano.



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  • freeonlinemusiclessons: Hey nice blog. I just picked up you RSS FEEDS. Check out my new website, you’ll like it! http://freeonlinemusiclessons.com
  • bhundley1: I'm interested in your elaborating on the "fingering" aspect of practice. Are you a fan of Czerny, for instance, in terms of building up dexterity wi
  • promotionmusic: Thanks for your response. Congratulations to you on the work you are doing in the piano world.

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