Improve your piano skills… in bed

Category: Practice and Performance

Dave and Welly Sleepstudy released in April 2013 found that the performance of a musical task improved among pianists whose practice of a new melody was followed by a night of sleep.

Studies have found that the areas of the brain involved in practicing a motor skill can be activated for 4-6 hours after the activity was performed. These same areas of the brain are activated again during sleep. Sleep has been found to enhance and reinforce motor skills learned during the day, essentially making them more permanent. This means that if you practice a piece today, you could be better at it tomorrow, if you catch a few zzz’s in the meantime.

But its not quite as simple as that, unfortunately. The study also found that if the subjects learned 2 melodies – one immediately after the other – they did not experience any performance gains on the first melody the next day.  Practicing a second melody interfered with the learning of the first melody.

This could have interesting implications on our understanding of how we should practice the piano to get the most bang for your buck.  Suddenly, I’m looking smart for suggesting short practice sessions every day rather than long ones a few times a week. Perhaps one could go so far as to suggest keeping practice sessions short and focused on one piece or one skill, rather then practicing a broad repertoire during one session.

See what works for you.. perform your own n=1 experiments. Hack your piano practice!

(… in the meantime, I will continue to update you on studies that are over a year old… you’re welcome.)

photo by:

Fitting in Piano Practice: How Much is Enough?

Category: Practice and Performance

StopwatchIf you’ve ever wanted to learn to play the piano and thought “I JUST DON’T HAVE THE TIME!”, I have some good news for you! In as little as 15 minutes per day, YOU.. yes, YOU can learn to play the piano!

Truth is, for most people the first 15 minutes of practice tends to be the best 15 minutes.. after that, one’s ability to focus tends to drop off somewhat (not to mention that some people get bored easily). And if you can find 15 minutes in your day to play, you would be surprised at how sometimes it magically extends to 20 minutes, or even 30 minutes… Where did that time come from? Truth is, you MADE that time.  And yes, there will be those days when you sit down at the piano to practice, and then 5 minutes later some mini-crisis happens that takes you away from practicing; the bathtub overflows, or your husband sets the house on fire while trying to cook kraft dinner. Count those days as successes: 5 minutes of practice is better than zero  minutes!

And don’t feel guilty if you can’t practice every day. Aim for 3-4 times per week. If you can do more than that, great! If you can’t – just feel good that you are working towards a goal, and celebrate those times that you can make time to practice.

The only thing that I can say is that consistency is key. It takes time to learn anything new, but the more consistent you are with your practice, the faster you will learn!

Now of course, the amount you need to practice depends on your goals. If your goal is to play with the New York Philharmonic within the year, I would recommend practising a *tiny* bit more than 15 minutes a day. But for an adult beginner who is learning for enjoyment, 15 minutes/day is usually a good compromise between manageable and ideal.

OK, I admit this was a fluffy post, but I’m just trying to get back into the blogging game after taking a bit of time off of writing. This was a “dipping my toe in the water” exercise… So hopefully next post will have a bit more meat. (No guarantees.)

Happy practising!


photo by: wwarby

What the Hell is a Hemidemisemiquaver?

Category: Miscellaneous

So what is a hemidemisemiquaver? I’ll give you one clue: It’s not a fancy quantum physics term for strings of energy vibrating in ten dimensional space… Do you give up? OK, I’ll just tell you then.

Well –  the British employ an entirely different set of names to identify rhythmic values of notes.. and I must admit, their set of names sounds much fancier than the American standard.

Let me introduce you to the wonderful world of UK note names. UK rhythmic value names are rooted in an old form of musical notation called mensural notation. In American-English, rhythmic value names are based on fractions of a measure of 4/4 music.


 US Name UK Name # of Beats

in 4/4 Time

Whole Note Semibreve 4 brevenote
Half Note Minim 2 minimnote
Quarter Note Crochet 1 crotchetnote
Eighth Note Quaver 1/2 quavernote
Sixteenth Note Semiquaver 1/4 seminote
Thirty-Second Note Demisemiquaver 1/8 deminote
Sixty-Fourth Note Hemidemisemiquaver 1/16 heminote


So next time your coworkers are gathered around the water cooler talking about semibreves and quavers, you will be able to chime in.

Why Do I Play the Piano?

Category: Miscellaneous

MeditationWhy do we play the piano? Maybe I’m being a bit too reflective with the new year approaching, but this question has been on my mind lately. Why do we do anything that takes a lot of work but doesn’t have a measurable, tangible reward?

I go to work because I need to get paid. I cook because I need to eat. I play the piano because…?

I don’t play the piano to get paid or for the recognition. I play it because it’s FUN. It’s fun to learn; it’s fun to get better at things; it’s fun to make progress; it’s fun to create! Don’t get me wrong – playing the piano is not fun 100% of the time. In fact, it can be downright frustrating. But then there are the times when the notes of the piano ring out clearly and perfectly, changing the energy of the space around them.

Playing the piano is my meditation. It is a time for me to be present and to connect with myself. Music can change the energy of a space… It can create emotion and alter perception. As humans, most of us have the desire to connect with others. Music is one way to do that. As a musician, you wield great power!

Sometimes we need to ask ourselves why we do what we do. It helps us evaluate our lives, re-prioritize where we place our energy, and align our actions with our goals. Maybe the beginning of the new year is a good time to do that… Or maybe you shouldn’t wait and do it now instead! Screw 2014, we still have two days to make 2013 the best year EVER!

photo by: Moyan_Brenn

Musical Form

Category: Music Theory

A concept that I don’t think I’ve introduced yet, but is actually quite important to understand is MUSICAL FORM. As you can probably guess, musical form describes the structure of a piece of music or how a piece of music is put together. Think about breaking up a piece of music into logical sections. Have you heard of the terms “verse”, “bridge” or “chorus”? These are ways of identifying different sections in a piece of music.

How do you identify these sections? Like everything else in music, this is not an exact science. Here are things to look for:

  • Melodic themes that are repeated throughout the piece. Repetition can give clues as to how a song can be divided into sections.
  • Variations on a theme can also give clues as to how a musical piece is structured. This means that the notes do not have to repeat note-for-note, but can vary around a melodic theme or succession of chords.
  • Key changes can indicate the end of one section and the beginning of another.
  • Changes in rhythm can indicate the end of one section and beginning of another.

Each musical section is identified with an alphabetical label – starting with “A”, then “B”, and so on. The form of a piece of music can be described using a series of these letters (AABA or ABACA), or can be described by using the name of the form.

Common musical forms include:

  • Strophic (AAA..) – Verse-chorus combination that is repeated over and over again.
  • Binary (AB) – Two complementary but related sections. An example of this form would be “Greensleeves”.
  • Ternary (ABA) – The beginning and ending section are the same with a contrasting middle section. “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” is a simple example of ternary form.
  • Rondo (ABACA or ABACADA) – A song with one principle theme (A) which alternates with different contrasting themes (B , C, D)

Identifying the musical form of Fur Elise:

There is a pretty obvious musical theme that is present at the beginning of the piece. This is the part of the song that everyone is familiar with. The first thing I noticed is that this theme is repeated throughout the piece. Each section that contains the musical theme from the first section I have coded in purple in the graphic below. (Click on the graphic for a bigger version of it). Next I took a look at the remaining sections. They did not have much in common. The second section (starting at measure 23) is driven by very fast passages in the right hand while the section starting a measure 60 is driven by the repetition of notes in the left hand. Since there are no common themes in these sections, I will label them B and C respectively and color code them on the sheet music below as blue and green.

We just figured out the form of the song Fur Elise! It goes ABACA; a rondo! Take a look at the music piece below to see the repetition and contrast in the piece.


Merry Christmas!

Category: Christmas

Nothing says Christmas like four guys tag-teaming a piano… I’m not sure if this is cool or just creepy.

Either way, it’s Christmassy… Merry Christmas everyone!



Memorization Misery

Category: Practice and Performance

Day 36: Memorizing LyricsI’m out of the memorization game. WAY out. When I was taking my RCM examinations (15 years ago), I counted the pages of music that I needed to memorize for my Grade 10 exam… 119 pages.  This was when I was 18… now that I’m in my 30’s it doesn’t seem to be coming to me so easily – or did it ever?

A few months ago I realized that I have very few pieces committed to memory. This can be a problem when you are visiting a faraway palace and the queen wants entertainment. You sit down at the piano and.. draw a blank. Or in my case, you play the opening section of Für Elise over and over again until someone starts clapping so boisterously that you become convinced that you are finished. But seriously – when you play the piano, sometimes people expect you to be able to play from memory.

So starts my latest journey in memorization. So far I’ve experienced a lot of frustration, I’ve banged my head on the piano a few times, and I’ve stared dejectedly at sheet music for minutes at a time without blinking.

Before I descend into utter despair, I’m going to brush up on some tips and tricks I can use to help me memorize:

1) Use your brain! Don’t rely on the memory of your fingers. Your fingers will fail you at the most inopportune moment, and you need a back-up plan. Deliberately memorize chord progressions, fancy melodic passages, and accidentals. Remember them in your brain – “Oh yes, after this chord there is the F chord in the left hand but there is an A flat accidental in it..”

2) Start at the outset with the intention of memorizing the piece. Too late for me, as I have already learned a few pieces that now I would like to commit to memory. The next new piece I learn I will start memorizing it the first time I play it through.

3) Know the form. I haven’t covered the concept of musical form yet, but suffice it to say that form is the basic overall structure that a piece takes. Do passages repeat themselves? Is there a section with a different key signature? Commit these structural sign posts to memory.

4) Know the melody. Often memorizing the right hand is easier than the left. Why? Because the right hand usually carries the melody. Even if I don’t know where the next note is, I can guess based on the melody in my mind. If only that worked for the left-hand too.

5) To start, play with the music in front of you – but don’t peek! First see how far you can get without looking at the music. If you get stuck, look at the music for a second for a hint and then keep going from memory.

6) Memorize phrase by phrase. Then put the phrases together. When you make a mistake or can’t remember, start again.

7) Identify multiple starting points in your music. That way when a mental slip occurs (and it will), you have somewhere where you can pick up again without reiterating the same section. (Reiterating the same section over and over again can become very frustrating  – especially when you have a consistent memory block.)

8) Study the music without playing. Read it like you would read a book, playing the notes with your mental fingers and listening to them in your mind. Read it and read it again.

Time for me to start practicing!

Why Are There 3 Minor Scales?

Category: Music Theory

In the past few lessons we have learned about the three different types of minor scales: natural, melodic, and harmonic. But this can lead to some confusion – like, WHY? Why is there only one major scale and three minor scales? Who is making the rules? WHO IS IN CHARGE HERE?

Well, if you are looking for someone to blame, you might not be able to point a finger at one particular person. This system has evolved through composers over the last 500 years or so. It all started with the natural minor – this makes some sense as the natural minor is basically just a MODE of the major scale. In case you need a reminder, a MODE of a scale is when you start the scale on a different note, changing the tonic. Natural minor scales start on the 6th note of the relative major.

The natural minor scale was developed during the 9th and 10th centuries when the Gregorian Chant was all the rage. If you’ve ever heard a Gregorian chant, you’ll know that they are monophonic, which means that the chant is sung one note at a time without any harmony. Well, around the time of Bach, composers began to realize that this system didn’t suit their needs very well. They were looking for a series of tones that would lend itself well to harmony and more complex melodic passages. In particular the common chord progression of IV-V-I (subdominant-dominant-tonic) did not resolve as nicely as it did in the major scale. (In the major scale this chord progression is often used to “conclude” a passage. It gives the listener a sense of finality.) This is when the harmonic minor was created. It made the desired chord progressions resolve nicely to the tonic chord for a feeling of conclusion. I have inserted a short sound clip to show the difference between the IV-V-I progression in the natural minor and the IV-V-I progression in the harmonic minor. Do you notice the difference?

IV-V-I in Natural Minor:

IV-V-I in Harmonic Minor:

Now I’m only left to explain the existence of the melodic minor scale. Well, similarly to why the harmonic minor was created, the melodic minor was created to address other deficiencies of the natural minor scale. Composers began finding that traversing UP the natural minor scale just didn’t sound right; the melody wasn’t driving towards the tonic as much as they would like. It sounded fine on the way DOWN the scale, but not on the way up. So to give the sense that the scale was “driving” upwards, they raised the 6th and 7th notes of the scale.

An example of the melodic minor in action would be “Carol of the Bells”, the popular Christmas song. Take a look at the sheet music here: This particular version is in G minor. You’ll notice at the top of the second page the scale runs in which E is raised to a natural and F is raised to a sharp. There are your 6th and 7th notes raised to make it a melodic minor! (Here is the passage I was talking about..)


And if you want to take a listen to the melodic minor in action, the recording can be played below. Remember, you won’t hear an example of a melodic minor passage until it goes… doo doo doo doo doo doo doo dee doooo doooo…. (at about second 18).

Carol of the Bells:

OK, that’s it for now – and I even managed to throw in a reference to a Christmas song! Bonus points for me!

A Charlie Brown Christmas

Category: Christmas, Holidays

Warning! It’s December, and this is a Christmas post. You aren’t going to get away from my Christmas posts. They will follow you around and haunt you in your dreams. Just giving you fair warning…

With the snow on the ground and the Christmas lights up early, I’m feeling particularly festive this year. So I’ve decided to do a series of Christmas-related music posts.. or are they music-related Christmas posts? I don’t know, but I’m adding a new category for them on my website.

So… Christmas is coming. Would you make fun of me if I told you that I spent the morning at work listening to the album “A Charlie Brown Christmas“? That’s OK, I would make fun of me too.

But seriously, this is probably one of my favorite piano-centric Christmas albums. It captures the light-hearted mood of the popular Peanuts cartoon and their 1965 Christmas TV special. Of course, part of its charm is that it brings back those childhood memories..

This album features jazzy arrangements of some of the Christmas classics: Greensleeves, O Tannenbaum, Hark the Herald Angels Sing, and What Child Is This, among others. In case you are interested, the piano arrangements are also available in sheet music form. I may splurge and buy this sheet music for myself (and drive my husband crazy all year ’round with jazzy renditions of “Greensleeves”). The sheet music difficulty is rated at late-intermediate.

3985417 A Charlie Brown Christmas Song List

What Child Is This F Minor
Christmas Is Coming Eb Major
O Tannenbaum F Major
Skating C Major
Fur Elise A Minor
Hark, The Herald Angels Sing F Major
My Little Drum F Major
The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire) F Major
Christmas Time Is Here F Major
Linus And Lucy Ab Major



Hands Together Practice

Category: Practice and Performance

UntitledPlaying hands together can be a challenge for many beginner pianists – I think this is especially true for adult beginners. And it doesn’t seem logical… You can get the right hand working perfectly – and the left hand… but once you put them together it is like neither hand knows its job! The music sounds disjointed and the musician gets confused.  Or maybe that’s just me… Either way, the good news is that it gets easier!

A few tips to make the leap of faith:

  •  Practice hands separately until you are comfortable with each hand.
  • Take a few deep breaths and try some relaxation techniques. Visualize yourself playing hands together while reading the sheet music in your head. Visualize yourself on a beach with a piña colada in your hand..
  • Play the right hand notes on the keyboard and tap the left-hand to practice timing. After that switch up the hands: play the left hand notes on the keyboard and tap the right hand.
  • Sloooooooowly play the piece hands together, trying not to look down at your hands too much. It doesn’t matter if you hit the notes exactly when you should the first time you play hands together. Expect bloated pauses as you figure out your next hand position, and expect to hear two sounds where you should hear just one. Also expect the unexpected… you never know where a ninja may be lurking…

  • Break it out into tiny sections (as small as a measure). If playing the whole song is too daunting, just try one measure hands together (from bar to bar). Practice it as many times as necessary. Then move onto the next one. Once you have the next one, put the first two together… and so on.
  • Keep calm and practice it again.
  • Often beginner pianists will become more comfortable reading notes in the treble clef and playing with their right hand. If this is the case, make sure you put extra emphasis on practicing the bass clef and playing with your left hand. Seek out music that has a lot of action in the bass clef. The more you challenge yourself, the more improvement you will see.
  •  You may want to try learning a new piece hands-together the first time. Some people find that hands-separate practice is not THAT useful and can slow down the learning process.

Well I hope there was a few useful tips in there for you. Visualizing that piña colada made me thirsty…


Street Pianos

Category: Miscellaneous


A moment of awesomeness for you all: Imagine colorfully decorated pianos in parks, on sidewalks and other public spaces, available for anyone to play. This project, called “Play Me, I’m Yours” was started by international artist Luke Jerram in 2008. His intention was to fill the silence that existed between strangers with music, thereby changing the dynamics of silence and helping bring people together. Since the kickoff of his original idea in 2008, he has helped bring pianos to cities all over the world including New York City, London, and Sydney. Most of the pianos that are used for this project are second-hand pianos that would otherwise have been discarded.

Another cool angle to the project is that each piano has a unique webpage where visitors can upload photos and videos of the piano. In this way the piano acts as both an online and a real-life social hub. For pictures and videos of the pianos and more information about the project, visit

Now for my two cents worth.. I love this idea!  Not only are these pianos beautiful, but they have been given a chance at a new life. And not just any life, but one where they have the chance to touch the lives of thousands of people. It seems that Mr. Jerram has been successful in his intention to bring people together – the website is full of heart-warming stories.

The second reason that I love this project is because there are so many pianists who cannot afford to have a piano, or do not have the space for one in their homes. This project gives these artists a chance to express themselves and display their talent to the public.

I’m going to follow this project – I’m hoping that my city will participate in the coming years!


Lesson 41: Minor Scale Review – Differences Between Minor Scales

Category: Lessons

Now that we’ve gone through the basic types of minor scales, you may be yearning for an explanation as to why there are 3 different types of minor scales and only one major scale. Before I answer your questions about WHY, let me write a quick post just to review and summarize what we have learned to this point.  In Lesson 37, 38, and 39 we learned about writing the different types of minor scales. (Bonus points if you can name them all without peeking!)

If you can’t remember them, I would recommend taking a look at the lessons to learn about them. But if you don’t have time to do that, I will summarize them again, right here right now.

1) NATURAL MINOR: This minor scale contains all the notes of it’s relative major scale, but it starts on the 6th note of the relative major. For example, let’s say you have a major scale starting on C. Simplest major scale – no sharps, no flats (C-D-E-F-G-A-B-C). The relative minor starts on the 6th note of the major scale which is of course “A”, and contains all of the same notes as the C scale. (A-B-C-D-E-F-G-A). Easy, right? Well – your life is about to get a bit harder.

2) HARMONIC MINOR: Same as the natural minor, but raise the 7th note by ONE semitone…. OK – maybe that wasn’t so hard… But the next one, that one will make your life difficult!

3) MELODIC MINOR: Same as the natural minor but the 6th and 7th notes are raised by ONE semitone on the way up, and they return to their original form on the way down the scale.

Here is an example of the E minor natural scale, which is the relative minor of G major. This graphic give you an at-a-glance view of the differences between the minor scales.


Next lesson will explain WHY we need all of these different types of minor scales… other than to make your life difficult.


Back From Vacation / I’m a History Idiot

Category: Music History

For any of you out there studying music, you probably already know that learning music isn’t just about playing music. Sure that’s a big portion of it, but it is also about music theory and music appreciation.  Like any other form of art, a big part of the “appreciation” aspect of music is understanding the history behind it.  And I have a confession to make: I’m a history idiot.

I’m not proud to be a history idiot. I’m ashamed to say that during my most recent vacation to Paris I had to ask the question: “Did the French think Napolean was a good guy or a bad guy?”. (In case you were wondering:  they liked him. Everyone else hated him.) Suffice it to say that I could use a few world history lessons.

Same goes for history of music. Although I took  (and passed) a history of music exam (albeit 15 years ago), I could not tell you where any of the famous classical composers were born or where they spent their time. I realized this during my vacation when one of the tour guides mentioned that Frédéric Chopin lived in Paris for a time. Chopin is my favorite composer – how do I not know anything about him?

That’s my next mission folks. Next time you see me I will know about Chopin. Me and him – like best buds. Well, as much as you can be with a guy who’s been dead for over 150 years…



How to identify the key of a song

Category: Music Theory

Let me paint a picture for you: You are a detective working on a case involving a musician who has planted a bomb somewhere in your city. He has left you clues as to where the bomb is located. One of the clues is a piece of sheet music. You need foil his plot, so you need to find out everything you can about this piece of music.


First clue: The key signature

Your key signature can narrow down your search, based on the circle of fifths. Remember each key signature can identify one major key or one minor key. Remember this graphic?

Image via Wikipedia

In the above graphic, the major key names are on the outside of the circle in RED, and the minor key names are on the inside of the circle in GREEN. So lets take an example of a key signature with 3 flats. According to our handy-dandy donut of fifths, the key can either be E flat major, or C minor. BUT WHICH IS IT?!!

Second clue:

In minor keys, the seventh note of the scale will often be raised by an accidental. Do you see accidentals throughout the piece of music? Does it occur on the 7th note of the minor key identified in step 1? If so, you may have a minor key on your hands. Use this method of identification in combination with the one above in order to identify whether you have a minor or a major key.

Third clue:

What chord/note combination does the song start and/or end with? This can often give you a clue as to what key the piece of music is in. Often music will start and/or end on the tonic. Note that this is not a failsafe method of identifying the key of a song. Rather it can be used in combination with the two  methods above.

Fourth clue:

Play the music. Does it sound minor to you? Then it could be minor. Don’t rely on this to identify the difference between minor and major keys, especially if you are a beginner.

By combining the techniques described in all four clues, you should be able to find the bomb and save your city from disaster. You may want to practice a few times, just to be safe.

Our city thanks you!

Lesson 40: Triad Inversions

Category: Lessons

In Lesson 35 we learned how to build major triads. The fun thing about triads is that each triad has 3 different forms, called “inversions”. (You might be accurate if you interrupted me here to let me know that there is nothing “fun” about triad inversions – but that is neither here nor there…) This means that a triad can be written in one of three ways: root position, first inversion, and second inversion.

Root position is the most straight forward, with the tonic located at the bottom of the chord – in the bass. If you need a refresher on how to create a major triad in root position, you can refer to Lesson 35. To create the first inversion, start with the triad in root position, and move the tonic note from the bass to the top of the chord.  In the first inversion of a major triad, the bottom note will be the mediant (3rd note) of the major scale. Check it out in the graphic below.

Can you guess how second inversion is created? Here is a hint: Second inversion is created by starting with first inversion, and moving the bottom note to the top of the chord. The bottom note of the second inversion of a major triad is the dominant note (5th note) of the major scale.

As you can see in the graphic above, the first inversion can be denoted by using a 6/3 and the second inversion can be denoted by using a 6/4. These numbers indicate the size of the intervals that are present in the chord. This notation is commonly used in musical theory.

Practicing the Piano: February

Category: Miscellaneous, Practice and Performance

OK, time for me to fess up. Remember my goal to play the piano four times a week in February? I didn’t quite accomplish it. Here is what my month looked like:

This image is from a program called “Streaks” available on the iPhone. I like it because it is a simple way to track how often you do something. As you can see, during the last month of February I didn’t play the piano four times. I went on vacation instead.

Now, although I didn’t quite reach my goal, I DID accomplish a lot, and I’m quite content with my progress. Here are some of my thoughts and observations during February:

  • Once I sat down at the piano, I often played for more than my allotted 15 minutes, usually for 20 minutes up to 30 minutes per session.
  • During the month I focused on two different songs: Chopin’s Nocturne in F minor, and Chopin’s Nocturne in E flat major. (I have a thing for Chopin’s nocturnes. Its a sickness.) I made vast improvements on both pieces, and although neither are near being close to perfect, I am happy with the improvements I have made. I’m going to continue practicing them into March.
  • I’m adding a new song to my practice list for March: Chopin’s Nocturne in D flat major. (I told you I had a sickness…) This piece is a bit more challenging, so progress might be slower.

So for March, my goal remains the same, to practice four times a week for 15 minutes.

Additionally, I want to start updating the blog on a more regular basis, so I’m going to set a goal to create one blog post per week in March. This is my post for week #1.. Woohoo! I’m doing good so far – GO ME!

How did you do in February? Did you accomplish your goals?

Lesson 39: Melodic Minor Scale

Category: Lessons

Yes, another type of minor scale. I know you are probably sighing and wondering how many types there are! Well, the melodic minor scale is the last one.. for now. We have already discussed the natural minor scale, and the harmonic minor scale. If you need to review these, you can click on the links provided.

The melodic minor scale is interesting and different in that the scale going UP is different than the scale going DOWN. In the melodic minor scale, the 6th and 7th notes of the scale are raised one semitone on the way up, and lowered on the way down. To understand this lesson, you will have to understand first how to build a natural minor scale, which you can find in Lesson 37. I will demonstrate building a melodic minor scale using the A minor scale. (My favourite scale because it has no sharps or flats!)

How to build a melodic minor in 3 easy steps:

1. Build your natural minor using the steps from lesson 37. One difference you will notice below is that I build the scale going up and then back down. As usual, I have marked the semitones with a lovely red slur.

2. Identify your submediant (6th) and leading note (7th). In the case of the A minor scale these are F and G respectively. Raise each by one semitone. This means if the note is a flat, make it a natural. If it is a natural make it a sharp. If it is a sharp make it a double sharp. In our case, both F and G are natural, so we just have to make them sharp. Take a look at the scale below. Notice that the location of the semitones shifted when we raised the 6th and 7th notes.

3. Now you have to deal with the scale going down. The 6th and 7th notes should return to their natural form as we traverse back down the scale. This means we have to lower them from their heightened state. Because we used accidentals to raise the 6th and 7th notes, we will have to use accidentals to lower them back. Do you know which accidental we will use for the A minor scale? If you said a natural, you would be correct.  Here is the entire A minor melodic scale going up and down.

I usually only show the easy scales.. the ones without sharps and flats in the key signatures. You may want to try a few harder ones on your own. I would recommend trying E minor and D minor to start. I may write a minor scale practice post where I tackle some of these more difficult keys.

But in the meantime, good luck!

Quick Tidbit: My New Month’s Resolution

Category: Miscellaneous

I must admit, I haven’t been practicing the piano very much lately. Well, not at all actually. It’s easy to let every-day activities get in the way of progressing towards our goals. So as part of my February resolutions I have added a new goal: To practice the piano for at least 15 minutes a day, 4 days a week for the month of February. I like making monthly resolutions rather than yearly. With monthly goals, you can keep re-committing yourself without losing too much steam. Also, you can continuously re-prioritize your goals, because things that are important to you today may not be important tomorrow. Think of it, every month will be like a new beginning!

Of course, saying you are going to do something is one thing; doing it is the hard part. So how can you make sure you keep on track? I have a few tips for you. Some of them the standard ones you will find when you google “How to achieve goals”, some of them are directly from my brain. (Be afraid, be very afraid.)

1. Make sure your goal is measurable. For example, your goal shouldn’t be something like “practice the piano more”.  A goal should be something that you can accomplish, that is clearly achievable and measurable. I’ll give you a few examples of goals that are not measurable:

  • Go to bed earlier
  • Don’t pig out as much
  • Get fit

Rather, you could modify those goals to make them more clear:

  • Go to bed before 11pm from Monday to Friday for a month
  • Eat under 1800 calories a day for the next week
  • Go to bootcamp twice a week for a month

See the difference? The more specific your goals are, the easier it is to create a plan of action.  Once your goals have been completed you can re-evaluate and re-commit yourself. But more on that later.

2. Make sure your goal is realistic. It is important that you consider all of your current time commitments. How much time can you dedicate to accomplishing your goal? My goal to play the piano for 15 minutes a day, 4 days a week may not seem like a lot. But I know 15 minutes is a realistic number for me at this point in my life given my other activities and responsibilities.

3. Enjoy the journey. As cliche as it may seem, life is not about the destination, it’s about the journey. Focus on the good feelings that you get while working to achieve your goal. By focusing on these feelings, you will find that motivating yourself will get easier. For example, if your goal involves working out, you can focus on the feelings of accomplishment that you may have after lifting heavier weights, or you could focus on the energy boost that you have after a workout. Focus on the good feelings rather than the bad and you will find yourself looking forward to working on your goal.

4. Re-evaluate and re-commit! You may have noticed that the goals I listed above  had are time-constrained. Once they end, it doesn’t mean you stop working toward your goal. It means you reflect on your experiences over the last period of time, figure out what was working for you and what wasn’t working, and then modify your plan as you find appropriate. For example, after February, I may find that I actually have time to dedicate 20 minutes a day to practicing the piano rather than 15. At the beginning of March I will make a new set of goals to reflect this discovery.

Re-committing yourself every month is a great way to stay on track for the long run. In fact, the more often you can re-commit yourself to your goal, the better!

OK, that’s enough of the fluffy stuff.  Next post will be back to the grind, with melodic minor scales. Don’t worry, I won’t leave you hanging.

photo by: Ed Yourdon

How To Play a C major Scale on the Piano

Category: Technique

The C major scale will be one of the first scales that you will learn on the piano. It is important that you learn to play the scales using the correct fingers. Remember your finger numbers. Your thumb on each hand is number 1, and your pinky is number 5.

Right Hand:

1) Put your right hand in C position; your thumb resting on middle C, and your other fingers resting on the adjacent white keys.

2) Press C with your thumb, D with your second finger, and E with your third finger.

3) Tuck your thumb under your first and second finger, and press the F key with your thumb. Then continue by pressing G with your second finger, A with your third finger, B with your fourth finger, and finally C with your fifth finger. If you want to continue for another octave here, you could tuck your thumb under and hit C with your thumb instead of your fifth finger. Then continue like the first octave.

4) At the top of the scale, it is time to begin the descent. After pressing C with your pinky, press B with your fourth finger, A with your third finger, G with your second finger, and F with your thumb.

5) Cross your third finger over your thumb, and press E. Press D with your second finger, and C with your thumb.

6) There! You have done C major scale with your right hand

Left hand:

1) Put your left hand in C position; your pinky resting on the C below middle C, and your other finger resting on adjacent white keys.

2) Press C with your pinky, D with your fourth finger, E with your third finger, F with your second finger, and G with your thumb.

3) Bring your third finger over G and press A. Then press B with your second finger, and C with your thumb. Again, if you wish to continue up another octave, you could bring your fourth finger over your thumb and press D, continuing the scale up.

4) For the descent after you hit C with your thumb, press B with your second finger and A with your third finger.

5) Bring your thumb under your third finger and press G with your thumb, F with your second finger, E with your third finger, D with your fourth finger, and C with your pinky.

Sorry for this dry post, but it must done.. Hopefully my next post will be more exciting. I will be sure to include mythological creatures.

Lesson 38: Harmonic Minor Scale

Category: Lessons

To continue along with our theme of minor scales, let’s break open the concept of HARMONIC MINOR scales. So firstly, what is a harmonic minor scale? Well, it is a minor scale – similar to the natural minor that we learned about in lesson 37. There is one key difference between a natural minor scale and a harmonic minor scale, and that is that the harmonic minor has an ACCIDENTAL. I’ll discuss this in a moment but first I want to ask a question. Why is it called HARMONIC? Well, harmonic means “of or relating to harmony”. It is a bit confusing, because scales do not have harmony. At least the scales that I play don’t. However, the reason it is called a harmonic minor scale is because this scale contains the notes that most minor harmonies use. That is, most songs written in minor keys are based off the notes of the harmonic minor scale.

In a harmonic minor scale, the seventh note of the natural minor scale (or SUBTONIC) is RAISED by one semitone. That means that if the original note was a natural, it will be raised to a sharp. If it was already a sharp, it will be raised to a double sharp. (Don’t worry, this doesn’t happen that often.) If it was a flat it would be raised to…. Can you guess?

I’m going to leave you hanging on the answer to that last question. If you flip your monitor upside down, you will be able to find the answer to that question at the bottom of this post.

OK, harmonic minors. I’m going to give you a step-by-step guide to creating this magical beast, but first you will have to be familiar with the concept tones and semitones. You will also have to review Lesson 37 if you don’t know how to write a natural minor scale. Here are the steps.

Step 1: Write the natural minor scale. I’m not going to review how to do that here – lesson 37 explains it better than I ever could.

Step 2: Locate the seventh note of the scale.

Step 3: Find out if the seventh note of the scale is sharp or flat. You may have to look in the key signature if you wrote the natural minor scale using a key signature. If not, look at your accidentals.

Step 4: If the seventh note is flat, put a natural sign in front of the note. If the seventh note is natural, put a sharp, If the seventh note is sharp, put a double sharp.

There! That’s it. Below I have an example of how to raise the seventh note of a natural minor scale to create a harmonic minor scale. In the image below the semitones are marked in red, and the whole tones are marked in dark blue. As you can see in the harmonic scale, by raising the 7th note of the scale we have created an interval that is not a semitone and it is note a tone.  It is larger than a tone – it is actually 3 semitones, or 1 and a half tones. By raising the seventh note, we have effectively increased the size of the interval between the sixth and the seventh notes of the scale.

In my opinion, memorizing the tone-semitone pattern for the harmonic minor scale is not an effective way to learn how to write the harmonic minor scale. Unless you have a photographic memory, or really like spending your Saturday nights reciting patterns, I would recommend using the method above.

I would recommend trying to play a few natural minor scales and their corresponding harmonic minors so that you recognize the difference between them. You will notice that harmonic minors are much more pleasing to the ear. Now you may understand more about why they are called “harmonic”.

In the next episode, melodic minor scales. Stay tuned…

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