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Piano Lessons by Dan Star

Jan 18, 2016

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  • How to WIN at Piano LessonsSuccessful Piano Instruction Strategies for Non-Mozarts

    Dan StarrPiano Instructor and Performer

    Chapter Contents:

    One: How to Choose the Teacher and Lessons which are Right for You Two: How to Develop and Maintain an Attitude which Promotes SuccessThree: How to Read Music More EfficientlyFour: How to Practice Joyfully and SuccessfullyFive: How to Express Yourself When PlayingSix: How to Succeed at Other Piano SkillsSeven: How to Rapidly Learn New Music

    DAN STARR is a "real world" pianist and piano teacher, not an academic. Privately taught and trained, he spe-cializes in teaching ordinary people to make music a part their busy lives on THEIR terms, fulfilling THEIRmusical goals.

    "I wrote this book for engineers, housewives, doctors, lawyers, clerks, and waitresses; everyday people whodon't have endless hours to focus on piano yet wish to enrich their lives with music. The essays in the book arethe same ones I provide my students."

    What students have to say about How to WIN at Piano Lessons and its author:

    "This book is outstanding for those individuals wanting to have fun playing the piano and those who want toquickly improve their piano skills. Dan has a unique way of making difficult concepts simple and easy to learn."

    Dick Lear, Pharmaceutical Representative

    "A trail guide who has great knowledge of the terrain encountered in the process of learning to play the piano."

    Mike Pavon, Businessman

    "My son, 7, has been taking lessons for over a year. His progress has been amazing. He has told me that he feelsgood about himself after he leaves the lessons.

    Pam Murray, Mother

    i

  • A Word Regarding the

    Copying of This Book

    Although the laws of the United States provide me with opportunity to recover damages against any person ille-gally copying my work...

    I couldn't care less! In fact, I encourage copying.

    You see, I want this information as widely disseminated and used as possible. I consider it a part of my missionas a music teacher. So... go right ahead! Copy and use what you need to help others. And if it happens thatsome less-than-ethical little person copies this entire book and sticks their little name on it, well, I'll simplymount a public relations campaign that will make them look like the thief they truly are! And then Ill send thema thank you note for the free publicity!

    ii

  • INTRODUCTIONWhy I Wrote this Book and How to Use It

    This book consists of essays Ive written for my piano students over the course of several years. All the essayshave been rewritten for this publication. Additionally, many completely new essays appear here for the firsttime. Each essay deals with an aspect of piano study encountered by the ordinary piano student. Thus, the focusis definitely on the basics. I suspect the advanced player would find the material quite mundane. There existsa wealth of good books for the professional classical pianist but almost nothing for the rest of us who also lovethe piano but who only want to play at a modest level.

    This book, then, is for the bulk of piano students, young and old. It is for anyone who wants to "play for their ownenjoyment." Adults and teenagers will be able to understand any of the essays since they were all written withbeginners in mind. Parents of younger pianists can and should read the book as a way assisting their children.

    Because the essays were written one at a time, often months apart, they reflect different moods and differentwriting styles. Some essays are rather formal but many are... well, you'll see! Let's say I often write the way Iteach. You will also find that I say the same things many, many times just as I do with students. Fundamentalsare seldom fully understood with a single exposure. Repetition is part of education in any subject.

    Do I cover everything concerning the piano, lessons, performance? Is this material "the last word" on these sub-jects? Of course not! I fully expect to revise, update, and add to this book on a regular basis. The edition youhold in your hands contains, however, the best of my current skill and understanding, with ideas and techniquesI know will help you.

    You can read this book in a normal, page-by-page, fashion, but I think you'd probably enjoy first browsing theessay titles, reading those that most catch your interest. Do make sure you read the entire book eventually. Ihaven't wasted your time with anything of little importance.

    Regarding my "lighthearted" style of writing, I strongly suggest you adopt such a style regarding piano study asa whole. Not to say that the piano isn't a "serious instrument." It is, and will require a long-term effort to mas-ter. However, we generally speak of "playing" the piano, not "working" the piano or "having-a-grim-faced-this-is-going-to-be-painful-but-I'm-an-adult-and-I-can-take-it" the piano. Lighten up and you'll do much, much better.

    You'll probably find yourself agreeing with some of my ideas and disagreeing with others. I am fully aware thatI am a bit of a maverick. My priorities seem to be different than many of my colleagues. Alas, I cannot list mydegrees in this introduction because I have none. I never saw the need for any. Like the majority of great com-posers, I am privately taught. Not to compare my talent with theirs, but I certainly come from an outstandingtradition! Also, I believe a lack of formal indoctrination helps me to be a bit freer in my approach. I am moreconcerned with what works and the student's enjoyment of music, rather than enforcing my taste in music orwinning competitions.

    iii

  • What I AM deeply concerned with is the scarcity of pianists. Think for a moment about your circle of friends.How many of them play the piano? How many would like to? How many had lessons as children but no longerplay, even if they own a piano? Ask these questions around a bit and I think you'll see that there is a problem:too many music consumers and not enough music producers.

    I see two reasons for this, the first being the introduction of consumer electronics, beginning with Edison's orig-inal phonograph, proceeding up through radio, to TV, to tape and CD players, and now the Internet. It'sbecome ever easier to be a part of the audience. In fact, we are awash in music, so much music that we oftendo not even hear it.

    The second, and uglier, reason is that music teachers themselves have come close to killing music study.

    Now that's quite an accusation. Years ago, having had an excellent teacher, I wouldn't have believed that accu-sation for a minute. Then I became a teacher myself, and students begin to tell me about their previous teach-ers. They described quite a "rogues gallery." First, there were the nuns who beat children with rulers. Then,there were old ladies who forced people to play the same miserable tunes for months on end. Then, grumpyprofessional musicians who insulted and yelled at their students, people with no patience at all, whose foremostdesire seemed to be making music study as stressful and unpleasant as possible. I've grown sick of the hundredsof such tales I've heard over the years. These abuses continue in present time. Don't believe me? Ask ten peo-ple who have taken piano lessons. Have them describe their experience. Do they still play? I rest my case.

    Now, of course, no stereotype is 100% valid. For every ruler-wielding nun nut case there is probably a wonder-ful Mr. Holland type who inspires and encourages and creates real musicians whose lives are permanentlyenriched by music-making. But stereotypes often rest on facts, unfortunately. It's a reality I deal with daily as Iteach students whose previous "teachers" made piano lessons a thing of worry, stress, and fear, emotions whichwe must now try to change in order to succeed.

    Most people would be thrilled to be able to play Christmas Carols, some light classical, and a popular melodyfrom Broadway. Some piano teachers say, "Wonderful, let's begin!" and get on with helping that human beingenrich their life with music. These teachers work patiently and diligently and with the cooperation of the stu-dent, help bring a new pianist into this world.

    Unfortunately, too many piano teachers take their professional level of musical comprehension and a superiorattitude and try to mold the student to their purposes and tastes. "The ignorant masses must be shown a high-er truth." And having this sort of an attitude makes it okay to be impatient, verbally abusive, and sometimeseven strike the student.

    Why? Maybe such teachers can't admit the truth that, "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder." Their taste in music(almost always the classics, what is called "the standard literature") should be everyone's taste, their opinion onwhat makes great music should be everyone's opinion. Possibly, they just don't like people all that much, cer-tainly not enough to treat their own students with the respect they deserve. Or maybe their lessons aren't veryeffective because they want to keep the students coming back and paying for more lessons. Or...well, whoknows?

    Enough ranting. Perhaps this book will help more people enjoy the piano, despite their responsibilities, hec-tic schedules, and the deficiencies of some of their teachers. There has never been a shortage of interested stu-dents, just piano lessons which make it easier for people to simply press the "play button" on a CD player. Let'ssee what we can do to change that. Let's make some musicians around here!

    Dan Starr, February, 2001

    iv

  • About the Revision of September 2006

    I have extensively revised, edited, and added much new material to this online edition of my 2001 book.Additionally, I have made good on my promise from the earlier edition to refine and improve on the methods Irecommended. Frankly, it has been quite a validation of my earlier ideas to undertake revising them. After fiveyears and some 500 more students, Im pleased to find that my original ideas were correct. What you find in thisrevision are better ways of explaining these ideas, plus new understandings Ive reached in their application.

    In reading over my original introduction, I find that Id like to say a word about the anti-piano- teacher teach-ers who have been cropping up lately. These are the folks that promise the sun, moon, and stars (in the pianosense) with almost no investment in time and effort. This is wonderfully illustrated by this exact quote from oneof their promotional flyers, Learn all the chords needed to play any pop song in this one session, any song,any style, any key. Anyone over the age of 11 should be able to figure out that this is essentially impossible. Buthope springs eternal within the human breast and people keep looking for something for nothing so these guysflourish. Plus, theres enough truth to their claim that traditional lessons are not very effective to lend theiralternative some credibility. But, cmon one session consisting of one workshop? How believable is that?

    Sorry, friends, but reasonable effort over a reasonable period of time is needed. There are no Instant PianoSecrets Used by Professional Pianists which will give you instant ability. Im a professional, almost certainly asgood as these teachers, and I can tell you such things dont exist. Thats because there is no substitute for cor-rect and adequate effort. Please, having avoided the standard classical stick-in-the-mud teacher, please dont fallvictim to the fast talking, Heres the total and instant cure for all your piano ills snake oil salesman teacher.

    Correct and adequate effort. THATS what my book is about.

    You can always reach me!

    Email: danstarrorg@yahoo.comThe Web: www.danstarr.comMail: PO Box 12266, Tucson, AZ 85732Phone: (520) 327-8044

    v

  • Dedication

    This book is dedicated to the finest teacher I've ever met: Linda Swartz, classroom teacher, artist, my editor,and my friend. Linda, you have helped catalyze every significant improvement I've made in my teachingapproach for the last several years. Without you, this book would never have been finished, nor many of itsstrategies made successful. Thank you for being my teaching mentor and my friend.

    vi

  • How to WIN at Piano LessonsSuccessful Piano Instruction Strategies for Non-Mozarts

    Table of Contents

    Chapter One: Choose the Teacher and Lessons which are Right for You . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 1

    Do You Really Need a Teacher to Learn How to Play? . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 1How to Choose a Piano Teacher . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 2Adult Students It's Not Too Late! . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 3How to Evaluate Lesson Fees . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 4Real Time to Mastery . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 5How to Succeed at the Piano. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 6How Much Practice is Enough. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 7Skills Every Pianist Must Have. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 7How to Enjoy Piano Lessons . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 8Keyboards vs. Pianos . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 8

    Chapter Two: How to Develop and Maintain an Attitude which Succeeds . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 10

    How to Succeed at the Piano . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 10How Do I Judge My Degree of Success? . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 11What is Good Piano Playing?. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 11Three Steps to Good Playing . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 11The Truth about Patience and Discipline . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 12Attitudes That Promote Success and Attitudes That Dont . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 13I Play So Much Better at Home . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 15More about Playing So Much Better at Home . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 15Dont Be a Victim of Time . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 17I Have to Take a Short Break from Lessons . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 17

    Chapter Three: How to Read Music More Efficiently . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 19

    When is Reading NOT Reading? . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 19The Three Parts of Reading . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 20Workable Methods of Improving Your Reading . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 21Written Music: Its Main Points and Its Fine Points . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 22Reading Ahead . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 23The Basics of Fingering . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 24Beware the Fingering Trap! . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 25The Sustain Pedal: Helping Out the Fingers . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 25Getting the Timing Correct . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 26What is Counting? . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 27Make Sure Your Counting Works . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 27Proper and Improper Counting . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 28Do You Hate to Count? Read This!. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 29Dealing with Dotted Notes. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 29

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  • Chapter Four: How to Practice Joyfully and Successfully . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 30

    THE Fundamental of Successful Practice . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 30Assume the Position at the Piano! . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 31Hands, Fingers, Fingernails: Their Pros and Cons . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 32How Much Time Should You Practice?. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 32How to Practice: Six Principles . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 33Your Friend, the Mistake . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 35Lets Do That Again, Shall We? (How to Create Good Habits) . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 37Still Making Mistakes? Read This!. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 38Programming Your Auto-Pilot and Flying Blind. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 38The Rewards of Flying Blind . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 39Concentration, How to Use It . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 40Numbers You Must Know . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 42Practice vs. Performance: BIG Difference . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 42Worship of Technique . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 43Day by Day Decay . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 44

    Chapter Five: How to Express Yourself When Playing . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 45

    Music vs. Mechanics. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 45Memorizing Music: Natural and Necessary . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 47Making Music to Make Others Happy. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 47Playing Expressively: The Fundamentals of Feeling . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 50Playing Expressively: Tempo and Volume . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 50How Loud Should I Play? . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 52Phrasing a Melody . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 53Keeping the Audience Interested. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 54Repertoire. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 55

    Chapter Six: How to Succeed at Other Piano Skills . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 56

    Lets Go Shopping! How to Choose and Buy the Right Piano Music. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 56What Good is Sight Reading and how is it Done? . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 58Improvisation How-tos . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 60What is Music Theory?. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 63You Can Write Music . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 64

    Chapter Seven: How to Rapidly Learn New Music . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 67

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  • CHAPTER ONEChoose the Teacher and Lessons which are Right for You

    The piano is the most popular instrument in the world. More people take piano lessons than any other type ofinstrument training. Because of this, our society has evolved a sort of mythology regarding piano lessons, pianostudents, and piano teachers, made up in equal parts of things we hear from friends and relatives and what weread in books or see in movies and on TV. It probably won't surprise you that much of this mythology is exact-ly that myth. New piano students are constantly surprised (and delighted) when they experience the realitiesof piano training.

    In this initial chapter, I want to share with you the realities I've experienced during the last 32 years as a musi-cian and 13 years as a full-time piano teacher, teaching 30-50 lessons per week. Here are my observations ofhow things really work in the real world with ordinary people who want to play the piano. I have no interest inacademic theories, only with what works to make the dreams of my students become reality. I think you willfind the truth encouraging and refreshing.

    Essays in this chapter:

    Do You Really Need a Teacher to Learn How to Play? How to Choose a Piano Teacher Adult Students It's Not Too Late! How to Evaluate Lesson Fees Real Time to Mastery How to Succeed at the Piano How Much Practice is Enough Skills Every Pianist Must Have How to Enjoy Piano Lessons Keyboards vs. Pianos

    Do You Really Need a Piano Teacher to Learn to Play?

    Need? No. You could learn it all on your own.

    And you could also design and build your next automobile in your basement.

    You could, really! There are people who do and they derive great pleasure from their work.

    However, it might just be more enjoyable to allow someone to guide you, motivate you through the inevitablerough spots, catch your mistakes before they become bad habits, and generally save you a huge amount of timeand frustration.

    1

  • Now, you've probably heard of or maybe even met pianists who play without ever having had a lesson. Whatthey could do impressed you and made you think, "Hey, if THEY could do it, I can do it." I've heard such sto-ries for years of magical people who supposedly could "play anything after hearing it once." Or, "my brother'scousin's sister plays beautifully and never had a lesson in her life."

    Such stories always turn out to be a bit different once a trained musician examines them. First off, no one inthe history of the world has ever, ever been able to play ANYTHING simply from having heard it once. NotMozart, not idiot savants, no one. Such claims come from being uninformed on the actual reality of masteringthe piano. Yes, prodigies learn at a remarkable pace at a remarkably early age but they, too, reach a level of dif-ficulty where serious effort must be expended to continue. There's no "free lunch." And besides, are youMozart? I sure ain't!

    Actually, most of the self-trained pianists I've met during thirty years in the business can play only certain pieceswell, pieces they took forever to learn and which they play over and over as the years roll by. Present them witha new task and you get to see the struggle they really have. This is not to belittle their efforts and successes, butto clear away the hype non-musicians build up around anyone who is self-taught so you can make a good deci-sion about taking lessons.

    The truth is that for the vast majority of people, finding and working with a piano teacher is the best thing todo. It's faster, it's more fun, it's less frustrating, and above all, considering the difficulty of the task and the con-fusion of daily life, it represents your best chance to succeed at your musical goals.

    How to Choose a Piano Teacher

    Work backwards.

    Start by visualizing the result you want.

    Can you see yourself playing the piano? How well? What music are you playing? For whom? And how often?

    Think this over carefully, until you have as clear an idea as possible. Now go find a teacher who:

    a. truly cares about YOU accomplishing YOUR goals, andb. has the experience, knowledge, and patience to help.

    Some critical things to do:

    1. Call around. Don't ask for prices first. Instead, say something like, "I'm an adult beginner and want to takelessons. What can you tell me?" The first thing the teacher should then ask is, "What do you want toaccomplish?" People are not clones, and are not looking for exactly the same results. Some, most folkswant to play simply for their own enjoyment. Other students have particular styles of music they wouldlike to play, or even particular pieces of music. Private lessons are NOT like school, where everyone iscookie-cuttered through the assembly line. In private lessons, you pay someone to help you with the goalsYOU set, goals they need to know about from the very start. Everything should be tailored to your desires.Any teacher who fails to inquire about these desires should be crossed off the list. Add to that any teacherwho is curt, rude, or sounds pompous or overly serious.

    2. Ask for an interview. Would you buy a car you've never seen? Would you attend a college you've never vis-ited? Any teacher unwilling to grant an interview is a waste of time and money. Plus, a teacher is going towant to evaluate you as a prospective student and decide whether they are willing and able to help you.

    3. Don't take the cheapest lessons. See the essay "How to Evaluate Lesson Fees" for the reasons why.

    4. Music enriches lives. It's fun, even though you will have to work hard to get good. Any teacher who is "notfun" should be crossed off your list. There's a reason we call it "playing" the piano. Let's keep "play" partof our musical life!

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  • 5. Does the teacher teach because they love teaching? Anyone teaching "for a little money on the side" or"until something better comes along" will not ensure your success. Plus, it happens all too often that suchteachers just quit teaching, move, get married, or start failing to show up for your lessons.

    6. Studio policies should be written down, understandable, and acceptable to you. Be sure you follow themif you agree to them in the first place.

    7. The teacher may or may not have a degree. This "credentials" business has been promoted by degreedteachers as a key qualification, often the main qualification. It's not very hard to figure out why, is it? Theonly credential that has any meaning is this one: will the teacher succeed in helping me get what I wantout of music? A degree says nothing about this at all. Review the points I have already made. Ask theteacher if you can talk to any students and do so. Make a decision based on your ability to evaluate theresults of your investigation. Think for yourself.

    8. Both the teacher and you the student are "on probation" for a few weeks. Even though everything mayseem okay, you both need proof that the other person will hold up their end of the bargain. The teachermay not be as patient as they let on. The student may somehow never get around to practicing. Thus, don'tsign a long term contract. Do it for at least a couple months and then decide to stay or go. After all, youwill be working together for at least a year and maybe several.

    Adult Students: It's Not Too Late!

    Many adults would like to play the piano. I am thankful for this fact every time I go to the bank, for most of myincome comes from adult students! These are folks who ignored the "conventional wisdom" that says you muststart piano as a child if you want to succeed. They are adults who are successful enough at their piano trainingthat they pay me good money, week after week. This leads one to wonder how much truth there is in the "con-ventional wisdom" and how it originated.

    The origins of this "earlier is better" concept are obvious. I am convinced that a survey of concert pianists wouldreveal that 100% began their studies at very young ages. The complexity and difficulty of performing the world'smost advanced piano music allows nothing less than a life lived for the piano right from the start.

    More recently, findings in brain research point to a window of opportunity in preschool children when musicis most easily learned. Lending credence to this is the Japanese Suzuki Method of violin instruction in which 3years olds play cut-down violins at an astonishing level of skill. Piano companies have been very diligent in pro-moting these findings for reasons that should be obvious.

    Thus, history and modern research come together and create in the mind of the average person that it is nec-essary to start piano at a very early age... AND that those who miss their chance are unlikely to be successfulat later ages.

    Luckily, this is not the case. Adults can, and should, take up the piano. Plus, there is such as a thing as begin-ning piano too young. Let me explain.

    The first thing to consider is that the vast majority of the humans who take piano are NOT prodigies, nor willthey become professional pianists, let alone concert pianists. Thus, observations made and conclusions reachedconcerning the extremely small group who do follow "The Life of the Piano" have little bearing for the rest of us.

    Secondly, research into early life music learning and appreciation is NOT research into how well various agegroups do in learning the piano. Despite the impression the piano manufacturers give, studies about musiclearning and appreciation are NOT studies about success at learning to play a particular instrument. It's hard-ly scientific to state that they are. It is, however, good for business!

    I have conducted my own study over the course of 18 years of teaching piano. Included in this study are approx-imately 1000 children, the youngest 5, plus an equal number of adults, the oldest 83. Although a scientist would

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  • want to design the study a bit more strictly by teaching every student exactly the same materials, I doubt thattheir results would differ hugely from mine.

    My study tells me that most children learn piano much more slowly than most adults. It also tells me that theolder child generally learns faster than the younger child. Why? Well, stop and think about it for a moment.Think about a child's mind and body, especially that of a very young child. What is their attention span? Whatis their familiarity with the learning process? How big are their hands? How well do their eyes track over a lineof printed symbols? How easily discouraged are they? How well do they conceptualize? How much music havethey been exposed to? How well can they control their bodies?

    Now there are, indeed, "gifted children" who pick things up rapidly. The gifts they have often consist of a bet-ter emotional state, better control of their bodies, and higher intelligence that allows them to apply themselvesmore successfully to whatever they do, not just the piano. They may also come from a musical home whereexposure to music and its delights is part of life. And there is most definitely a "musical intelligence" in eachperson which helps determine success and learning rate. These things are a real recipe for success in piano.

    The average child, however, will always lag behind the average adult. Adults bring many skills to the table, men-tal, emotional, and physical, not the least of which is the knowledge that perseverance will be rewarded. Thisis a piece of knowledge no 6 year old has lived long enough to gain.

    What, then, are the special problems faced by adults, if any?

    The main problem, that problem most likely to defeat an adult, is nothing more than TIME. Time to practiceeach day, despite a 1000 other things to do, time to continue lessons long enough to get somewhere. If thatproblem is solved, the vast majority of adults will succeed in learning to play.

    I do occasionally encounter adults who retain some childish character traits and these do not help. Also, agesometimes brings arthritis and difficulty hearing. These can be so bad that playing is just not possible.

    Also, adults must be willing to re-experience having parts of their body not follow their orders. Playing pianorequires some very complex motions, many of which are made with fingers not normally used for anything com-plex. The wrist, elbows, arms, and actually the entire body must be carefully trained. Adults are sometimes dis-mayed to find their bodies disobeying and being clumsy, something children live with each day. Adults must betolerant of this factor and all will work out.

    So take heart you adult piano students! You should do fine if you will only make the time in your life for piano.

    How to Evaluate Lesson Fees

    The best way to make sure you get your money's worth when purchasing piano lessons is to understand theexchange being made:

    YOU...

    pay the teacher money and then spend a large amount of time and energy in daily practice.

    THE TEACHER...

    provides the necessary information and then guides your expenditure of time and energy so that it producesthe skills you desire.

    The majority of the learning occurs during your personal, private practice. The teacher can teach you how toread the music, but then YOU must practice reading music. The teacher can teach you how to practice correct-ly and successfully, but then YOU must actually do the practicing. The teacher can tell you what music to learnand in what order, but then YOU must do the learning.

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  • Notice how much of the job is yours. No teacher can hold a gun to your head and force you to do your part.This is the "discipline" so often spoken of regarding piano lessons.

    Thus the first thing to realize is that the more you follow the instructions, the harder and smarter you work, theshorter the amount of time needed to succeed and the less money you will pay in the long run to get the skillsyou desire. Assuming reasonably good teaching, YOU have the ability to save yourself lots of time and money.

    The next thing to consider is the idea of "getting the skills you desire." Piano is a complicated subject and notall its parts apply to any one person. The individual playing for their own enjoyment does not need all the skillsthe concert pianist must master. The classical music student doesn't need to know about the blues. PlayingChristmas carols does not require a jazz technique. So money spent on acquiring skills which do not relate toyour personal goals is money wasted. An ethical teacher will first determine what you, the customer, want frompiano study and then create a program to guide you in that direction, including everything you need and noth-ing you don't. Of course there are basic skills all pianists must master, but there is also a very long list of spe-cialized activities which must be personalized.

    Additionally, judging value on a "per lesson" basis is deceptive. When the final total is computed, you will havespent a certain amount of money and achieved a certain amount of skill over a certain amount of time. Adultprograms usually run about 2 to 3 years, at the end of which the person plays to their own satisfaction. I recalla man in his 5th year of lessons with a little old lady teacher who knitted while he played the same piece overand over and over... I discovered he lacked basic skills my students get in their first three months. That little oldlady cost quite a bit less per lesson than I do. But who got the better value?

    Maybe the most important point is this: the real purpose behind your desire to play is the knowledge that yourlife will be better and happier when you can play the piano. Happiness, through music, is the real goal. Thus,the tone and attitude of the lessons are very important. Unfortunately, some teachers are "user-friendly" andsome aren't. "User-friendly" means being patient, polite, and positive so the student can find happiness in musicstudy. Arrogance, unreal expectations, frowns, scowls, and negativity certainly make student happiness difficultand thus are not worth anything at all. Such a teacher is worthless to the person hoping to enjoy the presenceof music in their lives. Personally, I want to enjoy my teaching experience and this is only possible when stu-dents are smiling and winning and that means they are achieving their musical goals. I insist they do succeed,but I insist with a smile, gobs of patience, and good feelings all around.

    These ideas should guide you as you interview teachers. Request a visit to their studios and a half-hour of theirtime. They should offer you ample opportunity to see how your money will be spent. They should be pleasant.And they should be professional that is, someone who teaches for a living, not as a way "to make a little moneyon the side." A professional teacher is not necessarily the one with lots of degrees either. Instead, they are some-one who teaches for the pleasure of helping people enjoy music and has both personal and financial reasons tomake sure they are successful.

    Real Time to Mastery

    The other day one of my best students made me think hard. He told me, "Dan, I love your essays but there'sone point on which I completely disagree with you. You say that adults need 1 to 3 years to fulfill their goals.After one year of lessons I realize that I know nothing!"

    Well, he had me. Although he is a fine player already, he is correct in stating that there is more road ahead thanhe has traveled by far! For that matter, there is a whole continent of highway in front of ME, his teacher! AndI think any honest pianist, at any level, would say the same. You are always aware of your own shortcomings,no matter how good you are. The mind can always conceive more than the hands can achieve.

    I had to examine this time matter. Should I change the figures I usually give out? And where had my estimatescome from in the first place?

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  • The figures of 1 to 3 years are the result of my experience in the length of time most adults actually take les-sons. "Most" means 90%. This figure begs for the question, "why do most adults quit lessons?" The answers fallinto just a few categories:

    1. Financial problems,2. Work problems,3. Family problems,4. Health problems, or5. They got what they came for.

    1-4 amount to 90% of the adults who only take 1-3 years. Yep, that's right; only 1 out of 10 adult students gothe distance and become the players they want to be.

    This used to worry me. Then I wised up. Exactly what can I do to solve the person's problems with their boss,their kids, or their checkbook? Sure, I can make the lessons interesting and fun and successful, but in the finalanalysis, piano lessons are a luxury item and the rest of life largely is not. When money is tight, food counts formore than music.

    My handling of these unfortunate facts is to make the lessons focus tightly on exactly what helps the studentenjoy music. I stress fundamentals such as reading and knowing how to practice correctly because these skillswill allow the student to go on learning without a teacher. I figure I don't have a long time to help the personso I had better get as much done in as short a time as possible.

    You might think that a certain number of failed students just have no talent. That number, the number of adultsso "non-musical" that they can't learn the most basic piano pieces is extremely tiny. I can recall no more thanfive out of 2000. Chances are that you personally are NOT number six!

    Now let's return to my original estimate. Yes, 2-3 years of lessons is both true and false. It's true, in that the fewwho get through the 2-3 years generally have met enough of their goals to let the lessons go. And their playingis good enough for non-pianists to hear them and marvel!

    But mastery? No, not a chance. Any dreams of achieving real ability on the piano are the dreams of 5-10 yearsof solid effort. I hope my very talented student, the one who brought this point up, will give me at least 4 yearsof his time. In that period I can teach him to become his own teacher and turn him loose, knowing that he WILLcontinue the learning process and could even go professional if he wished.

    How long should you take lessons, then? As long as it improves your life to do so, taking into account your fam-ily, friends, finances, and enjoyment of the lessons.

    How to Succeed at the Piano

    It is easy to state the main ingredients to success at the piano:

    Intention,Intention,Intention,...and Practice!

    So what is "intention"? It is your drive, your strength of purpose, your inner desire to become a pianist. Why isintention so important? Intention is like the gas in your car: no gas = no go, poor gas = poor performance.

    You can be sure that you'll face barriers: not enough time, the needs of family and friends, the stress of work,and the demands of just keeping everything going. Add to this the frustration experienced while learning anynew skill and you have a situation which only a strong, unrelenting intention will see you through.

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  • Modern life is complex for adults and priorities must be set. It is not true, however, that a student is a victim oftime and circumstance. A student will MAKE time and ALTER circumstance if their intention is strong enough.

    Thus, we see that your intention is the most precious resource you have. It must be guarded at all costs andincreased in every way possible. The instructor can provide the materials and training, but YOU must handlethe day-to-day threats. You must set aside enough practice time despite everything. Examine your intention care-fully. Is it strong enough to do this? Is the reward of being a pianist enough? Your answer will determine theresult of your lessons.

    How Much Practice is Enough?

    There are two things at work in piano study:

    1. That mix of physical and mental skills we call "talent," and2. Plain old effort.

    Simply put, the more talent, the less effort needed (except that the truly talented often work like dogs anywaybecause they get such good results from that work!), and the less talent, the more effort needed (except that,unless there is lots and lots of correct practice, not much happens and the person does less and less work any-way and fails miserably.)

    My years dealing with ordinary people (including myself, certainly NOT a prodigy) shows me that 20-30 min-utes of correct practice, 4-5 days per week, is the minimum that will produce satisfactory results. I hate to sayit, but if that is just not possible, don't bother getting started, unless you want to take lessons for MANY yearsrather than 2-3, the norm to produce reasonable skill for adults.

    Skills Every Pianist Must Have

    Surprise! There are only two skills every pianist must have:

    1. Fingers and the ability to press down the piano keys, and2. The sense of hearing.

    It's true! These are the only universal needs, and I could make a convincing debate that someone, sometime inhistory has played with their toes or after having become deaf.

    However, I need to expand on this before all my students quit! Individual pianists need many, many other skills,but not necessarily the same ones. It all depends on what you wish to accomplish musically.

    You could compare creating your own personal skill list to designing and building your dream house. First youget a general concept of the size, shape, and design of this house. Next is consultation with experts to deter-mine the house's exact plan. Then there is the creation of a schedule of actions. If the plan is realistic and welldrawn, if the actions are properly scheduled and then competently executed, you will have your dream house.That house will have been built with the exact materials needed and the exact actions required to put thesematerials together. You certainly don't want your builder using excess materials or wrong materials or perform-ing unnecessary actions and charging you for them!

    We begin music lessons with an interview. I question the prospective student regarding their musical interestsand background. I find out what music they wish to play and what level of professionalism is desired. From this,I organize materials along an educational curve of increasing difficulty. The lesson plan must contain all theinformation and training needed to build each student's musical "dream house." If I do my job of creating thepath and the program and if the student follows these despite all distractions, then that student will be playingwhat he wants with the proficiency he wants to play it.

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  • In short, your needs are determined by your goals. There are no lists of "thou must study" that are valid forevery music student, although quite a number of my fellow teachers keep trying to create them. You can dipinto the well of music as deeply or as shallowly as you desire. It is my job to help you achieve YOUR goals inmusic, not to set them for you, or to try to convince you to change them. That is why you pay me and it is a per-fectly honest and fair exchange for both of us.

    Do not listen to experts who have their own agendas and ego trips. You are welcome to do whatever you pleasewith music. You will simply have to master the skills that relate to your own goals. Other skills are simply irrel-evant, a waste of time and money and energy.

    Go for your goals.

    How to Enjoy Piano Lessons

    There is only one purpose for taking piano lessons and that is to improve the quality of your life by makingmusic a part of it. The details of exactly how this happens may differ. A very few students feel called to becomeprofessional musicians. Another few would like to exercise their creativity and write music. Most folks, howev-er, are tremendously happy if they can learn to adequately perform the songs they know and love for them-selves, family, and friends. This is certainly a worthy goal there should be more such live music in this world.

    It is extremely important to your enjoyment of piano lessons that you keep your goal in mind.

    Your purpose is NOT, repeat NOT, to play without error. Few and far between are perfect, error-free perform-ances. Ask any honest professional musician how many times they have played with complete perfection!

    Your purpose is to enjoy the presence of music in your life. Lessons simply help you do this.

    If you become fixated on such things as:

    how rapidly you are progressing, how many notes you are missing, or whether you are progressing "normally,"

    ...you have lost sight of your overall purpose and set the stage for frustration and failure.

    A fixation on mistakes has the effect of increasing the quantity of mistakes. Worry over errors breeds moreerrors, which increases worry which... well, you get the idea!

    Learning, teachers, instruction, lessons, students, assignments these things seem to be matters of stress to99.99% of the people I have taught. I believe this says something extremely negative about the way our socie-ty has approached education. That may be true but try to rise above it by keeping your overall purpose in mindas you progress, day by day, week by week, month by month.

    Incidentally, progress in a single practice session can be measured by the question, "Am I playing this betternow than when I played it yesterday?" If the answer is, "Yes!" you have progressed, even if only a little. It is trulysurprising how rapidly a series of little improvements can add up to major ability!

    Create music as you would put together a jigsaw puzzle find a little burst of pleasure with each new pieceyou discover. Enjoy yourself!

    Keyboards vs. Pianos

    It's a funny thing. If you were thinking of learning a band or orchestra instrument you would know what yourchoices are trumpet, tuba, flute, violin, cello, etc, whichever instrument you thought you would enjoy. Onceyou made your choice you would know exactly what instrument to acquire in order to learn and practice.

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  • Not so with the piano, however. There are lots of instruments with keys. There are regular pianos, uprights andgrands, portable keyboards, things called synthesizers, workstations, and digital pianos. Each is different incost, controls, what it will and won't do, and, most importantly, whether or not it is right for you.

    Your choice is made additionally complex by needing to factor in things like budget, type of music you'd like toplay, space available, and whether the instrument looks good as a piece of furniture. It's a complex choice, andnot one that can be made for you by salespeople. Your best bet is to talk with someone who can sort throughyour options based on your needs and wants someone who doesn't have a preset prejudice in favor of onechoice or another.

    Unfortunately for the music world, too many music teachers DO have such a prejudice and will steer youtoward THEIR choice of instrument regardless of your needs. They will use their experience and superiorknowledge to push their personal agenda and you, recognizing your own lack of knowledge, may well just buyinto it. Don't.

    YOU will be the one purchasing the instrument and then spending the minutes of your life learning to play thething. You have every right to spend that money and time as you see fit. As a comparison, if you needed a vanfor your big family, you wouldn't let some car salesman convince you to purchase a sports car. So don't let somestuck-up music teacher convince you that you must own a grand piano when what would really work for youright now is a portable keyboard.

    Do your homework. Learn all your options.

    Make your choice based on your needs, not someone else's fixed attitude.

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  • CHAPTER TWOHow to Develop and Maintain an Attitude Which Promotes Success

    In sports there are players and coaches. Coaches can inspire and guide but only the players actually play thegame. The success of that game is in their hands. So it is in music lessons. The student has the majority of con-trol. The teacher inspires and guides, but the student "plays the game." It is largely up to you whether you suc-ceed or fail, and the first place to start ensuring your success is with the proper attitude. Your mind is the mostimportant part of the process. The majority of failures stem, not from lack of musical talent, but from lack ofthought, will, hope, and commitment.

    Essays in This Chapter

    How to Succeed at the Piano How Do I Judge My Degree of Success? What is Good Piano Playing? Three Steps to Good Playing The Truth about Patience and Discipline Attitudes That Promote Success and Attitudes That Dont I Play So Much Better at Home More about Playing So Much Better at Home Dont Be a Victim of Time I Have to Take a Short Break from Lessons

    How to Succeed at the Piano

    It is easy to state the main ingredients to success at the piano:

    Intention,Intention,Intention ...and Practice!

    So what is "intention"? It is your drive, your strength of purpose, your inner desire to become a pianist. Why isintention so important? Intention is like the gas in your car: no gas = no go, poor gas = poor performance.

    You can be sure that you'll face barriers: not enough time, the needs of family and friends, the stress of work,and the demands of just keeping everything going. Add to this the frustration experienced while learning anynew skill and you have a situation which only a strong, unrelenting intention will see you through.

    Modern life is complex for adults and priorities must be set. It is not true, however, that a student is a victim oftime and circumstance. A student will MAKE time and ALTER circumstance if their intention is strong enough.

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  • Thus, we see that your intention is the most precious resource you have. It must be guarded at all costs andincreased in every way possible. The instructor can provide the materials and training, but YOU must handlethe day-to-day threats. You must set aside enough practice time despite everything. Examine your intention care-fully. Is it strong enough to do this? Is the reward of being a pianist enough? Your answer will determine thesuccess of your lessons.

    How Do I Judge My Degree of Success?

    The most powerful ideas are often simple and easily stated.

    Success is measured by answering the question, "Am I closer to my goal at this moment than I was the last timeI asked this question?" If the answer is, "Yes!" then you are succeeding. Your degree of success is the degree ofimprovement over last time.

    I have learned over the years that many students measure their progress by asking, "How far am I from perfec-tion?" Thus, from the beginning of a new piece until it is fully done, the answer is always, "Not there yet." Suchpractice yields little enjoyment and never seems successful till the very end IF the student holds out that long!

    What Is Good Piano Playing?

    This is a short essay. Basic truths are often short and sweet.

    1. "Good piano playing" is piano playing which produces "good music."2. "Good music" is music which the listeners judge to be "good."3. The overwhelming majority of listeners base their judgment of goodness on three things, given below

    in their order of importance: A. familiarity with the music,B. the steadiness of the underlying beat, andC. the quality of the melody.

    4. The purpose of technique and theory is to make A, B, and C possible.

    The goodness and badness of music is nothing but opinion, regardless of the musical sophistication of the per-son with the opinion and any formal training they might have. Once we recognize that music, like any art form,is a HUMAN subject, quite different from math and science, then we can understand music and its importance.

    Remember:

    "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder."

    Three Steps to Good Playing

    Did you know that only three things ever really happen when you play sheet music at the piano? True! Allthose thousands of details, the instructions on the page, and the actions made to follow them, fit into one ofthree categories:

    1. Reading the music,2. Training yourself to play the music, and3. Playing the music in an expressive manner.

    Or, to put it a different way:

    1. Understand the instructions,2. Learn to follow them, and3. Follow them with feeling!

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  • Each of these three can take enormous effort, but looking at your task this way can make it more confrontableand much less scary!

    Not getting a good result with some piece of music? Ask yourself if it's a problem with #1, #2, or #3 or per-haps some combination. Locating the problem this way will help to solve it. Are you sure you are reading thedirections correctly (#1)? Check that first. If that's okay, then is some movement of the hands, fingers, wrists,or arms not being properly executed (#2)? If all the physical movements are correct, then are you playing tooslowly to make the music "come alive," or not considering the phrasing of that section (both #3)?

    Learning a new piece is quickest and most fulfilling when you deal with #1 and #2 instead of reaching for #3immediately. Follow the 1-2-3 sequence and practice will be fun, quick, and successful. Ignore #1 and #2 dueto your impatience to reach #3 and I can guarantee you frustration. Of course every student wants to accom-plish #3. We hear a professional play with expression, feeling, and style and want very badly to do that. We takepiano lessons and find that we spend our time on #1 and #2 (especially #2!) Many resent this but it can't behelped. Expression occurs when #1 and #2 are mastered, and not a moment before. It starts with the detailsand proceeds to the overall.

    I tell my students, "If your attention is stuck on 'what is the next note?' then you are NOT thinking about howthat note fits into the whole to make good music." Only when #1 and #2 are done thoroughly and you havecomplete confidence in their details will #3 show up in your music. Again, this is true whether you are work-ing on single measure, a phrase, or the whole piece.

    The moral is: learn to enjoy every step of the process, have fun putting each piece in its place, and you will makeyour musical journey as enriching as possible. Find your joy in both the journey AND the destination.

    The Truth about Patience and Discipline

    Theres no doubt that a correct attitude is necessary for success in learning to play. Thus, its no surprise thatwe ask ourselves, What IS the winning attitude? How do I get it and how do I maintain it? And how do I getit back if I lose it?

    There are soooooo many ideas about music lessons and piano lessons in particular floating around in peoples heads,most of which find their way in via TV, movies, and what uninformed folks say. Most of these ideas have a kernel oftruth to them, but that kernel is surrounded by a whole lot of ...well, horse-pucky ! (Im trying to be nice here).

    These misapprehensions and exaggerations would be okay, except that piano students often apply them to les-sons and to their practice sessions and the incorrectness of such unexamined, unspoken, everybody knowsideas hinders student progress and dampens enjoyment.

    I spend quite a bit of lesson time setting people straight on what they should expect during their journey learn-ing the piano. How should practice feel? What is normal progress? These and other questions make thepsychological aspects of piano lessons as interesting as the nuts and bolts of music reading and practicing.

    Patience and Discipline rank high in the list of factors misunderstood by students. Many, perhaps most,think that these two things are keys to their success.

    Im here to tell you that, as virtues in learning to play for your own enjoyment, they are highly over-rated!

    Please note that my further comments apply only to hobbyists, those folks whose goals are modest and direct-ed towards the enjoyment of music for self, family, and friends. A whole different set of criteria apply to theprofessional and aspiring professional.

    Thats the point, you see. Your purpose is enjoyment. All your practice, all your effort, needs to serve your pur-pose. Technique must serve pleasure in making music. Ask yourself this, now and often: Is what Im doingenriching my life? If it is, then your attitude is the winning attitude. If it isnt, then you need to take stock.

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  • If you are trying to be patient, waiting to be rewarded sometime in the future, then youve missed the point com-pletely. Many people waiting for enjoyment want to BE a pianist, and HAVE what a pianist has, but dont wantto DO what a pianist does, namely practice pieces, work on technique, think about such things as fingering andcounting, etc. If the ACTIONS of the pianist just dont give you any pleasure, even after your instructor has madesure you are doing correct and successful actions, then piano is not for you. You should just be a listener.

    If you need to discipline yourself to sit down at the piano and DO what a pianist does, namely practice, again,something is wrong. It is very possible that you are practicing in such a way as to fail rather than succeed. Bringthis up to your teacher. Perhaps your music is too hard. Perhaps something vital has been missed along the way.Whatever, a good teacher will get to the bottom of it and explain clearly how to sort it out. Your goal will be toget things set up so you look forward to sitting down and working on your weekly assignment.

    How can you tell when things are as they should be? Let me use one of my endless supply of comparisons to explain.

    Working up a song is much like putting together a jigsaw puzzle. A puzzle can be too easy or too hard. A kidspuzzle, consisting of a few big pieces, is no challenge for an adult. It goes together as quickly as you can movethe pieces, its done, yawn. Then there are those puzzles for the real puzzle fan, consisting of a pizza with top-pings, or nothing but the color red. These are too tough for the average person. You spend 5-10 minutes locat-ing a single piece. There is a very long time between the burst of pleasure that adding a new piece brings. Again,the result is yawn. Youd have to use a great amount of patience and discipline to keep on working on thesepuzzles, the too-easy or too-hard kind. What you want is a puzzle that offers a bit of a challenge, but not toomuch. In the same way, working out and fitting together the pieces of a tune can be tremendously fun andalmost addictive IF you are succeeding in constructing the music at the proper rate. Today this verse, tomor-row this chorus, etc. Sure its not done yet, but in each practice enough gets completed to give you a feeling ofaccomplishment and pleasure.

    And thus you look forward to each practice session. No discipline or patience is needed.

    My experience is that when students get this right, they have to discipline themselves to STOP practicing andtend to their chores, families, and work! They look at the clock and an hour has gone by and they are shocked.

    Listen; if you have to drag yourself to the piano, then something is very wrong. Your attitude needs adjustingand that adjustment has nothing to do with patience and discipline. Your teacher needs to know this NOW. YouCAN learn to find the fun in learning the piano, but you need to work with the instructor to do so. And ignorea good portion of what you have been told about taking piano lessons.

    Attitudes That Promote Success and Attitudes That Dont

    During my entire career as a piano teacher I have made a habit of being positive, upbeat, and hopeful and Ihave tried with reason, smiles, and cheerfulness to impart this attitude to my students. This is more than just a"nice thing to do." Nervousness and self-invalidation infect almost all piano students to one degree or anotherand these "attitudes of failure" have an annoying way of becoming self-fulfilling prophecies.

    I have been fairly successful at keeping things upbeat, but not nearly as successful as I would like to be. I findmyself giving the same pep talks and speeches day after day, week after week, year after year. It's time for meto put some of these speeches to paper in the hope that each student can refer to this material as needed.

    1. Nothing succeeds like success.

    Of course, success itself is the ultimate morale builder. With every student, assuming they go the distanceand play better and better, there comes a point when they realize, "HEY I ACTUALLY CAN PLAY THEPIANO!!!" Before this point, it was all hope. After this point, confidence begins to build on itself. The stu-dent's playing somehow sounds more polished, the rhythm stronger, the melody clearer. They begin toexperiment a bit with personal expression. Each improvement adds to the feeling of success which in turn

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  • causes improvement in the music itself. Not surprisingly, the amount and quality of practice increases.And so it goes, building and building, improving and improving.

    Thus, the first and most important lesson is: DON'T QUIT BEFORE YOU REACH THE CONFI-DENCE POINT!"

    2. Make correct comparisons.

    This is a big one. Let's say you have been assigned a brand new piece to learn for the next lesson. On theday its assigned you can't play the thing at all. However, after your first practice, despite all the mistakesduring that practice, you now have some ability to perform the piece. This is certainly an improvementover no ability at all. You should feel satisfied. Now the next practice you must solidify that gain and findsome way to add to it. If you are smart, you will not leave that second practice until you are playing thepiece even better than after the first practice. And you should be happy with that improvement as well.Finally, after some more practice sessions, each better than the last, the piece is totally learned. Excellent!And all the way from zero to completeness you succeeded.

    But... that's NOT the way many students make evaluations of their progress. Oh no!

    Instead, they begin by comparing where they are NOW with PERFECTION. Instead of telling themselves,"I have improved considerably from my last practice session." they get very busy saying things like, "Ishould be done by now." "This music is not perfect yet." And, of course, the real message is, "I have no tal-ent, I'm bad... (you fill in the blank with your favorite self-invalidation.)"

    Let's say this same student does persevere and get the thing correct, and is reasonably satisfied. Theirusual next step is thinking that the piece will now remain perfect till the end of the world. As if anythingat all does that, as if there are no "bad days" or "low points!" Nope, the day always comes when they aretired or somewhat ill and they totally mess up "their song." Oh my, more cause for negativity!

    Folks, get real, okay? Shrug off the stupid way we practice education in this world, by stress, threat, andinvalidation. Use your reason to combat these irrational feelings. You may not completely succeed, buteach time you remind yourself of the FACTS of improvement, not your obsessive FEELINGS of failure,you have won a battle. And eventually, you will win the war itself.

    I speak the truth here, learned over thirty years as a performer. I don't worry about troubles and bad daysand mistakes in my pieces for the simple reason I KNOW that I can correct them by proper practice. Youmust learn that too, and until you do, trust your reason and my reassurance.

    3. "I play so much better at home."

    Really? No kidding? Well, of course you do! After all, it's your own piano on your own turf. Are you hon-estly surprised that you play less well under the stress of being at the lesson, playing for the teacher tojudge? Ive written two essays on this topic. Read them below and quit adding to your problem by worry-ing about this matter.

    4. Starting the lesson with negativity. Some students feel it is absolutely necessary to start each lesson by list-ing the week's failures. Maybe they think this is honest and will keep me from yelling at them.

    Wrong. This approach is a complete mistake. I have never, never expected any particular amount ofprogress during the course of a week. There is just no predicting life that closely. If you were taking les-sons with a specific deadline, such as becoming a professional, it might be different. But as someone whosimply wants to enjoy playing you will get there when you get there.

    When you begin the lesson with a list of this week's failures, you have cast a shadow over everything fromthen on. You have made a prediction which will almost certainly be fulfilled. Your worry and upset willcause mistakes leading to further worry and upset.

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  • I have a simple solution: STOP IT.

    That's not a request, it's an order. I have no desire to hear your list of failures as the first communicationof each lesson. What I DO want to hear is what has gone right, what has been a pleasure, what you haveaccomplished even if it is very little. Tell both of us what went right, not what went wrong. Set a posi-tive tone for the lesson right from the start and we both will get more out of what follows.

    In short, we do NOT fail during music lessons. We may not go as fast as we might wish, or quite as far,but we DO advance. And we DO enjoy the journey as we go. If you just cannot find pleasure in the effortof learning music, then give up now because you're doing the wrong thing. Find something else in life tobring you joy.

    "I Play So Much Better at Home."

    How many times I have heard students say these words! And I know that they are telling the truth. But why isthis so, and what can be done to fix it? Should we even worry about it?

    We are talking here about "performance anxiety" and probably every person on Earth has it to some degree. Avery common cause of performance anxiety is speaking before a group. Another is performing your music forthe teacher. All students want to play their best, and they worry about doing so. The worry itself makes it hard-er to perform. They wish they could relax. They are afraid of making mistakes and become very upset whenthey do. This is performance anxiety. Over the years, I have tried to minimize it during lessons by being as pos-itive and upbeat as possible, but this has only worked to some degree. By now, I have completely given up onthe hope of eliminating performance anxiety from the minds of all students! Instead, Ive found a way to USEperformance anxiety to improve each student's ability to play! Rather than fight it, I am going to make use ofit. Here's how.

    Performance anxiety (which I will now refer to as PA) tells us something very valuable, namely which of ourskills are strong and which are weak. PA is nothing more than stress, and stress is the very thing you use to testthe strength of a skill. Engineers building a new car subject all its parts to stress, often far in excess of dailyrequirements. They try to induce failure in the laboratory so that weak parts can then be re-engineered toensure they hold up during everyday use.

    The PA you experience in lessons tells us exactly which skills need further practice. Any skill which can't be suc-cessfully performed for your instructor is not mastered well enough to proceed. Notice I am not saying that thepiece of music itself must be 100% perfect. I am referring here to whatever particular skill that piece wasdesigned to teach. That is what must be solid enough to withstand the test of playing for the teacher. A fewminor mistakes in a song are not a problem. It is the underlying skill we are concerned with.

    Please note that you are not on TV or at a recital. Skills must be even more solid to function under that levelof PA. However, that is something for professional musicians, not the student playing for their own enjoyment.You must simply learn your skills well enough to demonstrate them at your piano lesson.

    Why do you personally experience PA? Each student has their reasons, mostly subconscious ones. I suggest youquit spending time trying to discover the buried roots of your upsets and instead focus all that energy and con-centration on improving your skill at playing the piano!!!

    More about Playing So Much Better at Home

    To most students it's their final exam, a matter of "do or die." It's where they show that authority figure, theirpiano teacher, that they have been good and practiced the way they should. Who knows? If they do well in theexam, maybe they'll get a good grade and a pat on the head! Or a sticker to put in their book!

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  • I'm making jokes here, but the way most students feel before and during each week's lesson is none too funny.The vast majority feels some degree of "performance anxiety" and some few are almost crippled with it. Indeed,one of the goals of most students is to feel relaxed while playing for teacher.

    This does happen eventually, sometimes in mere weeks, sometimes after months or even years. The patienceand support that any decent teacher continues to provide helps the student get over their anxiety given time.

    In the meanwhile, however, the teacher may be going totally insane, hearing student after student say thatfamous line, "I played this better at home. Really!" And the student many times is secretly afraid that the teacherthinks they are lying or making excuses.

    Let me set your mind at ease. I know for a fact that you DO play better at home. After all, it's your turf andyour mind and hands know exactly what to expect, since it's your instrument. Plus, you're relaxed, since themean piano teacher isn't there! Of course you are going to play better. Plus, I can tell if you've "done your home-work." The improvements you've made since last week are obvious to me as you play your pieces. Quit worry-ing. I believe you!

    Let me also take another stab at changing your idea of "success at my music lesson." To most students, perhaps all,this means that you come in, sit down, and play your pieces perfectly. If this was my standard for success, I wouldmake sure that every piece I assigned was simple enough that you could master it completely and play it perfectlyno matter the situation. You'd always play perfectly every single lesson and you'd never advance an inch.

    Now hear this!!! The only thing I'm looking for is improvement in your basic skills as a pianist. Have theseimproved since the last time I saw you? Excellent. You are a success. As a professional pianist and profession-al piano teacher, I know that if you keep making such improvements you will become the pianist you want tobe. Whether you play perfectly in lesson is not the real goal. Whether you play better at home is not relevant.STEADY IMPROVEMENT IN YOUR PIANO SKILLS IS THE ROAD TO COMPLETE SUCCESS. My task isputting you on this road and keeping you moving.

    Now how do I judge these improvements, your movements along the road to success? I observe how they holdup under the stress of the lesson! For this reason, I think of lessons not as a "final exam" but as a "stress test."That's right! Rather than be dismayed by the stress you experience when playing for me, I make use of thatstress to help you progress as a pianist!

    Consider for a moment the creation of a new automobile. After the designers get through, the company will manu-facture a few and put them through their paces to see if the designers got it right. Does the car hold up in practice orjust look good on the drawing board? For example, do its doors open correctly? And will they continue to open asthe years go by? This is where the "stress test" comes in. The auto will be hooked up to a machine which opens andcloses the doors, over and over, literally thousands of times. Will the hinges stand up? Will the door windows shat-ter? Only the stress test will tell. This test is actually designed to stress out that part much, much more than normalusage. If it's going to fail, it should fail at the factory where it can be redesigned and made totally safe for normal usage.

    Can you see how this applies to your weekly lesson? Sure, you are stressed. That's good! I'll say it again. Thepoint of lessons is NOT to play your song perfectly for the teacher, but to evaluate how well your basic skillsare coming along and thus what to assign next. Your stress in the lesson demonstrates your improvement. Abasic skill learned thoroughly and completely will NOT falter under stress. A skill only moderately masteredmost certainly WILL. Such half-learned skills need more work, a fact I absolutely must know so I can assign fur-ther effort. Simply put, you can't fix what you don't know is broken!

    Think of it this way if you can only play well under the best of conditions (fully relaxed, on your own piano,neither tired, hungry, sick, distracted, worried, etc.) then most of the time you can't play well at all! Your lifelongenjoyment of playing the piano depends utterly on your thorough mastery of basic skills, not so-so renditions on"a good day." Thus, the stress test that is a piano lesson is the surest way to evaluate the actual state of your knowl-edge and skill. Your stress serves a very, very valuable and necessary purpose, unpleasant as it may be.

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  • Dont Be a Victim of Time

    Introduction: As your teacher, I am giving you this short essay as the last chance to change failure to successregarding your piano lessons. This is not intended to be a criticism of you. It is, however, blunt. It also containsthe cold facts I have learned over 19 years of teaching. These points are not some theory of mine, just observa-tions on how life works.

    Are you a smart person? A competent person? Well, good, I have some happy news for you: you will definite-ly learn to play the piano...

    ...unless you decide you are a "victim of time."

    What is a "victim of time?" Somebody who can't "find" the time to practice piano, who can't "find" the time todo something they want to do for themselves.

    Week after week, some students tell me, "I didn't get much chance to practice this week." Real translation: "Otherparts of my life have a greater priority than playing the piano, despite my statements to the contrary." Which isfine. A person has every right to decide what is important and how important it is compared to other activities.

    What is not fine is a certain element of dishonesty in all this, primarily dishonesty to oneself. Blaming a non-offending item called "time" for a lack of piano practice is just not honest. It is denying an unpleasant reality,namely, that playing and practicing the piano are simply low on your list of life's priorities, at least for that par-ticular week.

    Please. Let's be honest here and perhaps something will change. It may be that piano should be dropped, peri-od. It may be more work than it is worth. Or it may be that you need to consider your life and see if you reallywant to sacrifice piano for the demands of job and family.

    Regarding your job, it should be obvious to any adult with significant work experience that your employer willtake as much from you as you allow. That is no complaint against employers, just a statement that they are moreconcerned with their business than with your personal life. The ability to say, "NO" seems to be missing withmany employees. Do you really think that you are that expendable? Do you really think that your work is val-ued so little? If so, you had better think about another job, since your position could be blown away with anylittle wind. Are you working for your own life or the life of your employer?

    Regarding your family, is there any way that they could be persuaded to help you create more time for yourpiano practice, if you were to explain to them that this action makes you happy, and thus makes you a betterspouse or a better parent?

    These are really hard questions, but I have no choice but to ask them, since you paid me to help you learn toplay the piano, and it is these things which are preventing your success.

    Underlying any life situation, however, is your own opinion of whether you are in control or not. Are you a vic-tim of time, of circumstance? Can you see any way to change this, maybe little by little? Is this piano thing justanother example of a more general reality of being moved rather than being a mover? Maybe more than justpiano lessons is at stake here.

    "I Have to Take a Short Break From Lessons."

    Let me be blunt and offensive. Your "short break" will be permanent. Once stopped, you're going to stay stopped.

    "Not me," you say. "I love piano, and this is only for awhile."

    Sorry, but I've heard it before, in fact, many hundreds of times before, from people every bit as sincere andsmart as you are. They all intended to come back soon. They all loved the piano, etc.

    But they didn't come back. I can count on fingers and toes the number who actually returned after a break.

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  • Does life get any simpler? Do you suddenly become independently wealthy and can stop working for a living?Does your family become perfect in a month or two? Unlikely.

    I upset people when I don't happily agree with their plans to take a leave of absence. They feel slighted; prob-ably believe that I think badly of them. Their pride is hurt. Surely they are the exception to this rule.

    Folks, unless you are physically not going to be in town, DON'T TAKE A BREAK FROM LESSONS. Just don'tdo it because YOU WILL NOT BE BACK.

    I have had people continue their lessons through hell and high water, divorce, a death in the family, financialtrouble, and illness. And I have had students who quit with the first difficulty, making promises to return.

    If you want an activity to last, schedule life around that activity, not that activity around life.

    Sorry if this offends you, but you don't pay me to give you reassuring lies, do you? This is the truth:

    DON'T QUIT!

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  • CHAPTER THREEHow to Read Music More Efficiently

    Reading music is the main worry of new piano students. How happy they are to discover that reading is quiteeasy! Honest most students, especially adults, learn to read basic music rather quickly. The essays in this sec-tion assume that the reader already has some familiarity with notes, clefs, staves, and other fundamentals of themusical notation system. You will most definitely need a good paperback music dictionary. Two would be better,enabling you to compare and contrast the definitions. Additionally, although this chapter will greatly assist yourefforts in learning to read, it will not actually teach you to do so. Only actual effort will result in actual ability.

    Essays in this chapter:

    When is Reading NOT Reading? The Three Parts of Reading Workable Methods of Improving Your Reading Written Music: Its Main Points and Its Fine Points Reading Ahead The Basics of Fingering Beware the Fingering Trap! The Sustain Pedal: Helping Out the Fingers Getting the Timing Correct What is Counting? Make Sure Your Counting Works Proper and Improper Counting Do You Hate to Count? Read This! Dealing with Dotted Notes

    When is Reading NOT Reading?

    When its reading music!

    I truly regret the use of the term. Thats because it gives a false impression to the beginning student concern-ing what is required to actually play an instrument.

    Consider what happens when we read a book, newspaper, or this essay. Our eyes skim the pages while ourminds convert the symbols: letters, words, and sentences, into ideas and mental images. It is a silent processwhose purpose is mental.

    Now consider what must happen when we read music at the piano. Our eyes skim the lines of symbols: notes,numbers, and other symbols. Our minds convert these to meaning and THEN send commands to our hands

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  • and fingers which must respond instantly with a continuous series of complex and unusual motions to manip-ulate a machine that makes musical sounds. The most obvious result of this process is, of course, music!

    It is NOT reading music to simply look over a piece of sheet music and say, Thats a C, thats an A.Unfortunately, this is exactly what is done in many grade school music classes. The person learns some silly lit-tle sentences which allow them to add letters to notes on the staff. No instrument is played and no notes areactually sounded. But the student now thinks they can read music.

    Sorry, but reading should be called performing. Or executing. Or doing. Or some such word thatstresses the fact that the purpose of the activity is to actually make sounds with an instrument. It is most defi-nitely NOT a mental process. It is physical, involving an instrument (this includes the human voice.)

    From this new way of looking at music reading, you can see that reading is actually specific to your instrumentof choice. For example, I can read piano music well, finding and making the notes on the page rapidly.However, give me a violin and Im dead in the water. I have no idea how those symbols on the page becomereal sounds. Yeah, I could identify As and Bs and Cs but no music would result.

    Keep this in mind for the rest of this chapter about reading and youll progress rapidly.

    The Three Parts of Reading

    Each note contains 3 pieces of information:

    1. Its identity, 2. Its fingering, and 3. Its length.

    Each piece of information must be UNDERSTOOD AND ACTED UPON CORRECTLY AND ON TIME forthe music to be played correctly. Additionally, ALL three pieces of information must be processed and actedupon together for the music to be correct. You cannot work on ONLY the identities, or ONLY the identitiesand the fingering, or any such combination.

    I point this out because a favorite trick of new pianists is to learn to play a piece in stages. First, they think,they will simply practice striking the correct keys. Then they will attempt to add the timing. Such studentsusually dont bother to consider whether their choice of fingers is a good one or not.

    Funny how this process results in complete disaster and terribly wrong music as well as a mystified and high-ly frustrated student who wonders what went wrong and why this piece is just not working out.

    This student has failed to consider that the body, the thing which actually does the playing, is fully willing tolearn whatever we allow it to do. If we permit alterations in the music, then the body will cheerfully memorizethose mistakes. If we play with no sense of the notes proper lengths, then what the body learns to do is playwith no sense of the notes proper lengths. If we use a certain finger on a certain note, whether that is a goodchoice or not, the body will memorize that motion and repeat it blindly.

    In other words, by trying to practice in stages we have carefully taught our bodies bad habits for playing thisparticular piece. Now we must unlearn these habits and teach it the correct ones. Our work and frustrationis doubled at the very least. Also, I must tell you that numerous students find it almost impossible to unlearnthese bad habits after so carefully grooving them in.

    So what to do? A great deal of this is covered in the next chapter How to Practice Joyfully and Successfullybut for now you can say this: go slowly enough to process and act upon all three parts of reading and thus makethe music sound as it should, just in a slow version. As the body develops the good habits of playing correct-ly, you can speed up the music until it reaches its full tempo.

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  • Workable Methods of Improving Your Reading

    The material below is intended as a summary of workable methods. I cant stress enough that a live pianoteacher will make learning these methods VERY much easier.

    1. Note identity

    This is the first piece of information you must process and act upon. Think of it as which key to play, notwhat is the name of this key? After all, there are 7 or 8 Cs, Fs, etc on the piano and knowing the notes let-ter name still doesnt tell you EXACTLY which key you must play.

    There are three good, reliable ways to determine and act upon note identity and the wise pia