Music Notes

Four Ways to Play the Piano

I got up in the middle of the night and found Howard sitting at the kitchen table writing in a notebook. He said he woke up, thinking about a new student and how to explain the various kinds of piano playing choices he had. The new students has only been playing for a few months and is working on Maple Leaf Rag. He’s got the first 2 lines figured out and learned. He is just starting the 3rd line. It has taken him several weeks. He’s a good practicer. However, in order to build his musical skills, so that every new piece is not as difficult as this first one, he needs to do other things. That is what prompted Howard’s insomnia. How could he explain it to him? Here is what he came up with.

There are 4 ways to play the piano:

  1. Practice Pieces
  2. Read Music
  3. Play By Ear
  4. Improvise

There are many pianists who are very good at one or two of these ways of playing. The very best pianists do all of them. In coming blogs, we will explore each of these in more detail.

Til next time,


How to Use your Practice Time

Sometimes people are unsure about what lessons will be like and how to prepare for them. I generally follow something like the list below:

Standard Lesson Format

  1. You play 2 pieces of your choice that you have either been working on, or have read in your sight reading books, or have as repertoire pieces.
  2. We check in on your assignment progress – if you have questions, or for me to hear anything you have ready for me to hear.
  3. We work on skill building in your individual current areas (such as Note recognition, Chord recognition, Counting, Chord Drills around the circle, Improvising techniques, Playing in different keys, Music Theory, Composing)
  4. We sight read together with or without the band in whatever books you are sight reading currently.


So what should you do in your practice time?

Essentially the same thing.

  1. Play your repertoire pieces to keep them up – play 1 or 2 every day
  2. Work on skill building – whatever skill we are working on for 10 -15 minutes
  3. Sight Read – half your time
  4. Work on your Practice piece (finger, analyze chords and melody, do section practice)


Til next time,





Happy New Year

At the beginning of a new year, people often are inspired to create massive plans or resolutions on how to reshape their lives and be smarter, thinner, richer, more organized, etc. Well, most of that initial burst of enthusiasm lasts maybe through January. Instead, I’d like you to take the longer view.

I’d like you to think about 3 kinds of goals. There are “grasp” goals – those are things that will likely happen if you keep doing what you’ve been doing at the level and intensity that you’ve been doing it at. For example, if I continue to take piano lessons and have to play for an hour a week for my teacher, eventually, I’ll be able to play the pieces I’m working on.

The second kind of goal is the “reach” goal. That is, if you have to expend a little more effort, get a little out of your comfort zone and do more, you can achieve more than you have in the past. In terms of piano, that might be choosing a bit harder piece than you’ve chosen before, or actually learning to do good trills instead of just hurrying over them.

The third kind of goal is the “stretch” goal. This is the bigger one, the one that scares you a little. This is where you have a dream, but it seems that you might not quite have the stuff to realize that dream. The one that makes you get really out of your comfort zone and do a lot more (or more for a lot longer) than you’ve been doing. In piano playing it might be something like master a piece of standard classical literature each month and perform it at piano group. Or it might be read through all the Beethoven Sonatas this year. Something that is a stretch.

As I look back on the past year, I set a goal to write a blog piece every week all year. I didn’t think it was going to be very hard. It was. I didn’t achieve it every week. The holiday weeks had me slipping behind. But I consider it a success because I WAS able to maintain something I had set out to do. I also set a goal last year that I wanted to be a better sight-reader. So I committed to reading 40 pages of music 5 days a week. I began in May and by the end of the year I had read over 7,000 pages of music. I also had a goal of becoming more familiar with the standard classical composers, so each month I read a dozen pieces by each and chose 3 to perform at piano group. I now know I love Haydn and I didn’t think I did before last year.

As you begin this year in music, think about what you have been doing, what skills you want to build, what music you want to be working with and set some “reach” goals and maybe one “stretch” goal for the whole year. Let me know how it goes and I’ll let you know how mine go.

Til next time,


Most Wonderful Time of the Year

The Holiday Season is in full swing here and our piano group today was perfect evidence of that. We had 11 people in our home and we took turns playing Christmas Carols for each other for nearly 3 hours. We had a big pot of soup, some good bread, some good chocolate, and plenty of good music.

There will be two more piano events this week, playing more Christmas Carols with our friends. We only get to play this music for a few weeks each year, so we make the most of it.

It’s that wonderful time of the year to be thankful for all that we have, all the friends, family, and sharing good times. We wish you the very best too.

Til next time,


Christmas Music – Part 2

As we said last week, we have a HUGE collection of Christmas Music. Below is a list of our favorite books. All of them are available at either or

Since we also teach improvisation, we use Easy Christmas Fake Book for most of our students because it offers the opportunity to play a lot of songs with simple block chords. Or for those who like, it’s great for improvising and making more interesting arrangements.

Progressive Series


Christmas Memories by Melody Bober. We like these especially because they offer a really rich, full sound without being difficult to play.

Level 1

Level 2

Level 3

Mike Springer has a Series called “Not Just Another Christmas Book” They are jazzy and bouncy.

Level 1

Level 2

Level 3

Faber and Faber Christmas Supplemental books, which run from Level 1 through Level 5. They are good student choices of familiar songs in very easy, to somewhat difficult at Level 5. Link below is for Level 3A, you can find the others easily.

Level 3A Funtime Christmas

Later Intermediate Level


Jerry Ray has two books we really like, 1 solo piano book and 1 duet book with unequal parts.

Christmas with Style for solo piano

Christmas for Two for duet piano

Phillip Keveren’s Jingle Jazz is a later intermediate jazzy collection.

Bethany K. Smith’s A Christmas Offering is a later intermediate collection with modern arrangements of traditional Carols (only available SheetMusic Plus)

Lloyd Larson’s Rejoice, Rejoice is later intermediate collection with modern arrangements of traditional Carols (only available SheetMusicPlus)

Sandra Eithun’s Let Heaven and Nature Sing is a later intermediate collection with modern arrangements of traditional Carols. (only available SheetMusicPlus)


Advanced Level


Mark Hayes is the most beautiful, interesting arrangements at the Advanced Level. The only 2 left in print are, Carols for the Intermediate pianist is fairly difficult despite the title, Emmanuel: Artful Piano Solos for Christmas. (only available SheetMusicPlus)

Dan Coates’s Professional Touch, The Best in Christmas Music Complete offers traditional arrangements of traditional carols.

Tom Roed The Complete Christmas Piano Solos is good. These are advanced arrangements in a more traditional style

David Lanz, Christmas Eve is a good New Age collection.

Trans Siberian Orchestra has an advanced book Christmas Eve and other Stories that we love.

Mannheim Steamroller has a Fresh Aire Christmas and Christmas in the Air that are a rhythmic modern pop Christmas.

Enjoy the Christmas music – it only comes once a year.

Til next time,


Christmas Music – Part 1

Our students have just started working on their Christmas music again this year. We’re not really rushing the season. They need to start in November, so they are all set to actually play for family and friends (and just themselves) in December. We both look forward to hearing the music that only gets played for a few weeks each year. It seems so special and fun.

But it’s more than that from a piano player and teacher’s perspective. It is a terrific benchmark for your improvement in musical skill. Since this is music you only play once a year, you get to test yourself on “different” music than you routinely play. There are as many levels of difficulty in Christmas music as there are in all the other genres of music, from Level 1 beginner books to Level 10 only-the-very-strongest-players-can-play books.

Just like my students, I have progressed through levels each year as I have gotten better at sight-reading, counting rhythm, recognizing chords, recognizing patterns, and all the many details of skill building. A book that was “Too Hard” for me last year is comfortable now. And I can feel a sense of pride of musical skill building. One of my students was surprised at how easy last year’s books were for her. I wasn’t surprised at all. In the past 6 months she had begun really doing the things I suggested she work on at her lessons and the improvement was inevitable. But what was magic was that SHE saw it.

One of my long-term students was not even disappointed or frustrated at the end of last season that she couldn’t play a book she had wanted to. She said, “Well, maybe next year I’ll finally be able to play the Liz Story book.” She has gotten so much better this past year, I’m sure she will be able to.

There are so many talented arrangers of the Christmas music. We have a HUGE collection of books. Next week, we’ll give you a list of the ones we like best. So come back and check in.

Til next time,


Fast Scales

One of our international friends wrote to us asking how to play fast scales putting the thumb under. Here is our answer:

Try this. Play a 6 note scale up and down. Finger 123 123 21 321. Turn your hand inward so that your thumb is closer to your body and your little finger is further away. Play your thumb. As soon as you play your second finger, reach your thumb under. Play your 3rd finger. Your thumb should then be in position over the note to play. As soon as you play your thumb on the 4th note, move your arm sideways so that the 2nd and 3rd fingers are in position. As you come down, as soon as you play your thumb, push your arm to the left so that the 3rd finger goes over. As soon as you play your 3rd finger, reach your thumb down to the first note. When you play your 2nd finger, your thumb should already be in position.

Practice SLOW and LOUD and first, making the movement your arm up and down the keyboard as smooth as possible. Moving sidewards a little bit as you play each note. Play up and down the six note pattern SLOWLY and LOUDLY 10 times. This should only take a minute or so even when you are doing it quite slowly. Then try a little faster. As you go faster, lighten your touch so that you don’t play so loudly. Push the speed to where you are going the fastest you can and keeping the notes even. You will be playing softly at the fastest speed. You should not spend more than 6 or 8 minutes total on this exercise.

You always vary the tempo between slow and faster. I think you’ll find that your faster tempo gets gradually faster. After awhile, add 2 notes at the top of the scale so that you are doing an entire octave up and down. If you have trouble crossing your thumb under your 4th finger (which will happen when you go more than 1 octave), you might spend some time practicing a 7 note scale, fingered 1234 123. The important element still remains the same. As soon as you play your thumb, you reach it under. When you go faster, your thumb will not so much reach under as glide along beside your hand as you move your arm up the notes of the scale. That should happen just naturally as you increase the speed.

We’ll post a video of this on YouTube later this week for those of you who are visual learners.

Til next time,


First Pieces – Chopin

Well, friends, it a new month and a new composer. Chopin is probably every good pianist’s favorite composer. He just writes SO WELL for the piano.

Here are the first pieces we recommend (and links to the recordings so you can hear them.)

The first 7 are all in the Keith Snell Chopin Selected Works by Kjos publishing. Here is a link to the page on BOOK It’s not available on Amazon.

Waltz in Am (post) Sound File Here

Mazurka in F Opus 68, No. 3 Sound File Here

Mazurka in Am Opus 67, No. 4 Sound File Here

Prelude No. 4 in Em Opus 28, No. 4 Sound File Here

Prelude No. 6 in Bm Opus 28, No. 6 Sound File Here

Prelude No. 7 in A Opus 28, No. 7 Sound File Here

Polonaise in Gm (post) Sound File Here

Other books

Polonaise in Bb (post) Sound File Here

Waltz No. 3 in Am Opus 34, No. 2 Sound File Here

Waltz No. 9 in Ab Opus 69, No. 1 Sound File Here

Waltz No. 12 in Ab Opus 70, No. 2 Sound File Here

Mazurka No. 5 in Bb Opus 7, No. 1 Sound File Here

Mazurka No. 6 in Am Opus 7, No. 2 Sound File Here

Mazurka No. 15 in C Opus 24, No. 2 Sound File Here

Til Next time,


Arm and Hand Movements

One of our students asked us to watch a video and “explain it to him”. Here is our response to his request.

We watched the video you referred us to where he talks about hand and arm motion and his “Whole-Body Approach” to piano playing. Not to be rude, but this whole approach is nonsense. Howard would say, “No, that’s bullshit”. He is completely wrong about this. His hands move WAAAAY too much. You should have a relaxed arm, shoulder, wrist etc, but then your hand should be as quiet as possible. The less movement you make, the more control you have and the less effort you will have on your body. Of course, if your hands and arms are relaxed, they won’t be completely still, they will move easily and naturally as necessary to play the music. But, the good players don’t purposely make specific arm and hand motions except for show business purposes (visual flourishes).

When you are playing really easy stuff, like he demonstrates in the beginning, it’s possible to do any sorts of motions. As the pieces become more challenging and have more notes, you don’t have time for all that motion.

I went to a week long workshop one time and the main teacher was teaching everyone to lift their wrist up high and then drop it and use arm weight and gravity. We spent the week practicing that way. But then he did a concert for us and he didn’t do ANY of that stuff. He played with a very quiet hand, very little movement at all. Even he didn’t follow his own rules.

When I began watching the intro to this video and watched what Doctor Keys was doing with his hand it just looked ridiculous to me.

Here are a few videos to check out of famous pianists playing. Watch their hands.

Emanuel Ax

Vladimir Horowitz (probably the best pianist ever) start at 7:00 minutes on the video.

Elton John
There is an extended solo starting at about 4:15 that he improvises.

Billy Joel and Elton John duet close up of Billy’s hands at 3:30 or so

Here is a video of Howard jamming blues with one of his old students. Watch Howard’s hands especially

Here is Howard and me playing a two-piano piece I wrote called Rondo Andalusia.

Til next time,


Rondo Andalusia

In the 1970s, Howard wrote a piece for two-pianos called, simply, Rondo for Two Pianos. He has been collecting royalties for it since then. It is still being played all over the country. A few years ago, he was invited to a large two-piano concert event and the final piece was of two people playing his Rondo for Two Pianos. They asked him to stand and he got lots of applause and recognition. As we were walking into the reception area, I turned to him and said, “they loved it, you should write another one.” He answered, “I wrote mine, YOU write one.” So I did.

Here is the performance of Rondo Andalusia – my two-piano rondo. Howard is on the keyboard and I’m on the grand piano. We’re in my music teaching studio.

Til next time,