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Benefits of Piano Lessons, and Unexpected Pluses

Much has been written about recent research on the beneficial effects of piano lessons and other types of music lessons. The top benefits include:

  1. Improved abilities in math, reading comprehension, and puzzle solving; sharpened concentration and attention span. Neural connections made through the act of playing an instrument provide a defense against cognitive decline and memory loss that last a lifetime.
  2. Emotional and developmental advantages. Playing the piano provides an outlet to release and express emotions, plus being exposed to different genres of music can help us recognize and feel a diverse palette of emotions.
  3. Studies reveal that playing the piano can shut down the body’s stress response and help us relax, regardless of a person’s skill level. Playing an instrument for one hour per week for at least six weeks can effectively lower the body’s stress response.
  4. Improved confidence: discovering that consistent effort (practicing piano) brings a desired result (ability to play a piece well) is a gift that can be applied in all areas of life.

Having taught piano for 30+ years, I’ve observed some other benefits that may not be so obvious. Here are some fine points that my students and I have learned along the way:

The Fine Art of Balance

Playing an instrument helps us to learn how to balance discipline and freedom. There are so many aspects of technique to master: accuracy of notes, rhythm, phrasing, articulation – and it can take hours of practice to execute it all well. But to really make music, there needs to be freedom, too. We need to let go, and allow ourselves to express the emotions and meaning in the music. One of my students likes to think of the right and left sides of the brain as he plays. If the left side is dominating, it’s robot-music. If the right side is in control, the music can be chaotic, over-emotional. When both sides work together equally, the music is perfectly balanced, no one side dominating.


How open are we to new sounds, new genres of music? When a very young child experiments at the piano keyboard, she is completely free to combine notes with no judgment. Gradually, as we hear more and more music based on conventional harmonies, dissonant sounds may become unacceptable to us. Some students cringe when they hear a chord with two notes next to one another; other students love “weird” dissonant chords. If put in the context of a science fiction movie, we accept those sounds, so sometimes I will have a student create them on purpose as a soundtrack to an imagined movie. We have an opportunity as musicians to explore beyond usual harmonies and genres, to delve into the music of other countries and cultures, and gain an understanding of them through music. We are all connected through the universal language of music – what a gift to be open to the many variations of expression that music provides!


Deep Listening

Deep listening is perhaps the most precious gift that music provides us. When we involve ourselves in learning to play an instrument, we are training our ears to listen in a new way, to a new language. It a language of subtle sounds that carry shades of emotion in a sonic world, not the everyday world of words we are used to. As we listen deeply, we hear the pitch of a note, and the embedded harmonics; we hear the rhythms that we play, the legato or staccato articulations, we hear the dynamics and shades of loud and soft; we hear not only the melody of our right-hand but the accompaniment of our left hand; we may hear multiple lines of music simultaneously, and quickly changing chords. The form of the music reveals itself as we play; it could be a simple A B A form; it could be call and response or a sonata form. The rise and fall of the melody through the form tells a story, and this mixes in with the physical and emotional effects that each pitch and combination of pitches has on us. Our focus becomes intense as we learn to play this piece and as we develop a relationship with it. We enter a place where there is no time, where there is only sound. This is deep listening.

We’ve all heard instances when two or more people played together with this kind of listening. Nonverbal communication at this level connects people profoundly and the music that results can be sublime. Perhaps you’ve even experienced a conversation in which people listened to one another in this deep way. Music can show us the way to listen to the tone, rhythm, pitch, emotion and the meaning beneath our words.


Going back to the image of a young child experimenting on the piano keyboard – there is no concept of mistakes to him. The child is immersed in the world of sound and discovering what happens when different combinations are made. Fast forward a few years to the child’s first piano lesson. Once note reading is introduced, so is the idea of mistakes, especially if note reading is the only avenue of teaching. Why do mistakes have to be thought of as something bad, something to be avoided? A mistake is feedback, plain and simple. We have a goal, for example to play a piece of music as written. Along the way we are going to go off on some tangent trails – that’s the process of learning. So let’s make lots of mistakes! Lots and lots and lots of them. Some of those mistakes are going to sound really good – those will be discoveries that could lead to some interesting music. Another avenue of teaching is improvisation. Why is it that when art is taught to children, they are encouraged to paint their own original paintings, not to copy the paintings of others. Yet in music lessons, often children are asked only to play music from a book. There is a lot to be gained from exploring – as a matter of fact, traditional note reading skills and improvisation go hand-in-hand. When you improvise, there are no wrong notes; when you play a note you don’t care for, just change the next one and go off in a different direction. Knowing you can do this gives you confidence and versatility. You get to use the music theory you’re learning in your lesson. Playing music becomes alive. All of the composers in the 18th and 19th centuries were able to improvise from the music they wrote. So instead of a mistake being a terrible thing to be avoided, music teaches us to embrace the mistake, to make the most of it. To play the spirit of the music, as Beethoven recommended. And if after all the practice we’ve done on a piece, we still make a glitch in performance, perhaps that is a lesson in accepting all of ourselves.

As you keep up your practice of music, you may begin to notice benefits in your own life. It may not be noticeable right away, but when you look back after one year, faint changes may begin to take shape. After two years those shapes will start to fill in and be more recognizable, and after several years of playing, you just might notice that you are different in subtle ways because of your music practice.




The Poetry of Music

Words are all around us. We speak them, we read them, we write them. Sometimes it seems there are too many words in our lives. Words can flow or be stopped up. They can heal or they can devastate. A well-chosen word at the right time makes us feel good; the wrong word can’t be taken back –it’s referred to as having one’s foot in one’ s mouth. Yet words are essential; they are the building blocks of communication. In the right hands, words can create works of beauty and power, such as poems, and the lyrics of songs.

 I’ve been preparing a course called “The Art of the Song” and in the process I’m reading many song lyrics. Some of them are so beautiful they can stand alone as poetry. They’re filled with imagery, and they tell a succinct story. For example, Midnight Sun, lyric by Johnny Mercer, begins with this line: Your lips were like a red and ruby chalice, warmer than the summer night/ The clouds were like an alabaster palace, rising to a snowy height. How rare and exciting to find such inventive language. Mercer didn’t settle for tired descriptive phrases but instead reached for something new and fresh.

 Another example is Hal David’s lyric to A House Is Not A Home. The song begins by describing the outer world: A chair is still a chair/Even when there’s no one sitting there/But a chair is not a house/And a house is not a home/When there’s no one there to hold you tight/And no one there you can kiss good night. The bridge of the song moves into the inner world of the protagonist: Now and then I call your name/And suddenly your face appears/But it’s just a crazy game/When it ends it ends in tears. The song ends with a hope and a plea: When I climb the stair and turn the key/Oh, please be there still in love with me. He takes us on an emotional journey with a handful of words.

 Of course the lyric is only one half of a song’ s magic. The matching of the lyric with a melody is called prosody. In the previous example, the melody of Midnight Sun, written by Sonny Burke and Lionel Hampton, traces chromatic descending lines that describe a sensuous world, matching the lyric perfectly. Burt Bacharach’s melody to A House Is Not A Home begins simply, but his inventive chord progressions and searching melodic line create a haunting effect, especially in the emotional bridge section. In the end, lyric and melody are inextricably intertwined to create a whole world unto itself. That is the miracle of song.

 I find it a beautiful practice to take down a book of poetry, choose a poem at random and sing a melody to the words. Taking the emotional content of the poem as a cue, I can give my expressiveness free rein. Another way to meld music and poetry is to write or read a poem with an awareness of the music within.  There is music within the sound and rhythm of each word and phrase. When performing poetry, being aware of the melodic and rhythmic qualities of the piece makes the experience more enjoyable for both reader and listener.

 If you play an instrument and come across a challenging rhythm as my piano students often do, you might want to try this. I invite my students to write lyrics to these pieces – silly or serious, their choice. Then we sing the song, learning the rhythm as we go. It’s lots of fun and can even be a spring-board for later lyric-writing to original songs.

 Words can carry the power and grace of a dove or the devastation of a bomb. In our personal lives our use of language determines the quality of our relationships. As we choose words to pair with music and enter the musicality of words themselves, we multiply their beauty and power. The next time you’re listening, reading, or writing – take a moment to savor the miracle of words.

Part of It All

I’m going to sing today. With a group of 20 other women, and no accompaniment (mostly). I’m going to be one voice among many, provide my little piece of the whole. Together we will create something larger than any one of us could create by ourselves. I’m going to sing today, and just thinking about it makes my heart beat a little faster and open a little wider. These women and I, who meet for two hours once a week, will leave our ordinary lives tonight. We’ll leave behind our identities as wives, mothers, grandmothers, daughters, employees, business owners. We’ll cease the busyness of our everyday lives and will focus on the heartbeat of our music, becoming one cell in the organ of a pulsing heart. They say that scientists have put a two heart cells in a dish and watched them go from beating out of time to synchronizing in a matter of minutes. That’s what will happen when we take the stage tonight, all eyes on our director, and begin to sing.

I wonder how many groups of men and women have performed the same ritual in this very town over the past centuries. I can imagine 200 years ago, small groups of women meeting once a week to put aside their cares and sing. They were just like us –knew one another’s sorrows and joys, supported and encouraged one another. They experienced the oneness that comes when a group of voices sings together. I can imagine generations of families doing exactly what we do. It makes me feel connected to people I never knew. In a strange way, it makes me feel connected to everyone, to understand that we are all capable of the numinous experience. Of being part of something larger than ourselves.

Before I joined Femina Melodia, the last time I had sung in a chorus was in high school. It was a large chorus and Mr.Elia, a passionate man, infused us with a love of music. We sang Elijah, Carmina Burana, Deep River. I loved being immersed in the sound of over 100 voices. I loved being a part of it all. When I joined Femina Melodia, I thought it would be easy to sing my part, to find my place. But there was definitely a learning curve. The interesting thing about singing in a group is – you have to know your part, despite the confusion of hearing the other parts all around you. You have to know who you are and what you are expressing. Just like in life. Then you can blend easily and create beautiful harmony – or momentary dissonance – whatever is called for at that moment. It takes listening within and listening without. It takes tuning into the heart of yourself, then tuning into the heartbeat of the group. Holding my part as those around me sing theirs with strength and conviction is one of the most powerful experiences of my life.

So choirs, choruses, barbershop quartets, a cappella groups of glee – sing on. Keep on creating from the heart of music.

Musical Days

The fabric of our lives are richly woven with threads of music.  On a typical day you might switch on the radio to hear your “waking-up tunes” while eating breakfast, then continue listening in the car on the way to work or school. Sitting in a traffic jam you might tap out some drum riffs on the steering wheel; your exercise routines are timed to the music pumping into your ears; and on the way to the dentist’s office you hum a little tune to calm yourself. In the evening, you pick up your instrument to practice or jam with friends. You might also have a weekly choral or community band rehearsal.

 What kind of music are you choosing? One woman told me she loves hearing bagpipe music while cleaning the house – it thoroughly energizes her. At my home recently, a friend had papers spread all over the floor to sort while I was busy with my own tasks in the same room. Listening to crossover country music lightened the mood for both of us and made the tasks go easier. We know what kind of music we hunger for at any given time, just like we know what kind of food our bodies need. Have you felt claustrophobic in a cramped office all day?  Gregorian Chant can create a sense of spaciousness and reduce stress. Do you need to think clearly as you study for an important test?  Slow Baroque music can give a sense of order and stability and is helpful for mental work.  If your brain feels overworked, try Impressionist music to induce daydreaming and facilitate creativity. Or maybe you need the cathartic beat of classic rock to get you moving and release tension.

 Some music will be associated with a time from our past – but it’s not just our memories that are stimulated. It’s our feelings that we get to re-experience through the music.  Karl Paulnack, director of Boston Conservatory, calls music “containers for our experiences.”  In a keynote speech given to the 2013 TMEA convention in San Antonio, he says music is one of the top factors that stimulate neuroplasticity in the brain;  this means the ability to make connections in new and different ways and is the essence of creativity.  The recipe for making creative brains also includes exercise, play, and numinous experience. This is great news since music pairs so well with each of the other elements: Music plus movement (exercise, dance); music plus play (improvising new sound combinations); music as an experience of something bigger than ourselves (such as when we make music with a group of other people). It’s even possible to combine all four elements for a group-music-movement-improv Experience Extraordinaire.

 It would be difficult to imagine a day without music. Although we need periods of silence each day, and I would prefer not to hear so much sonic clutter in public places, music is a blessing in my life.  Whether I’m hearing a tune in my head as I go about my day, or I’m teaching a piece of music to a student that they’ll own for the rest of their lives, music is part of who I am.  There’s nothing special or unusual about this. I suspect this is the way it’s been since the very beginning, when humans discovered we had a voice and began using it to express everything we felt and to accompany everything we did.

 Let’s continue to weave the tapestry of our lives with music.

 To view Dr. Paulnack’s speech go to: http://www.tmea.org/resources/advocacy/materials/2013-keynote


The Write Idea

Nine-year-old Julian rushes into the studio and goes straight to the piano. His hands drop onto the keys and all kinds of sound combinations emerge from the instrument – I imagine falling snow, sleds racing to the bottom of the hill, a sudden crash… This is the way our lessons begin, with a free period of creating at the keyboard. Sometimes a certain phrase emerges that Julian especially likes and he will want to play it over and over again. It will be written into his notebook of ideas, and possibly develop into one of his original pieces.

Earlier in the week, nine-year-old Ian showed me a two-hand accompaniment he’d come up with. Since the phrase could be repeated up to 20 times, I showed him how to notate it once and write the symbol for a 20 bar repeat. In the right-hand part, he wrote the instructions: Improvise using the notes ABCDEF. A simple but effective way to notate a piece.

We get good ideas all the time. The trick is to write them down before we forget them. Another alternative is to record our ideas on a digital recorder or cell phone recorder. Sometimes our ideas come when we sit and noodle around on the piano or other instrument. If we find a phrase or chord progression that we like, we can jot it down any way that we’re able. Young children can simply use the letter names of notes; older students can put notes on the staff, approximating rhythms the best they can. The important thing is to preserve our ideas so that we can revisit them later.

It does take a certain amount of courage for some of us to sit at the piano and just play – with no idea of what’s going to come out. We can take our cue from children, who are on a journey of discovery, not trying to prove anything. I notice that my students allow themselves to become fascinated with sound – and it’s that fascination that leads them to their best ideas. You might be thinking, “I can’t do this. I’m not a composer.” I’d like to suggest that we don’t have to turn this playful activity into an identity.

Simply collect combinations of sounds as one might collect specimens of beautiful stones. Here’s a notebook filled with your ideas. Turn each one over in your hands to admire and enjoy. If there’s anything more to do, you’ll know what it is.

Healing Sounds

Our voice is a healing instrument. It is something we carry with us at all times. It’s our friend, our ally in times of need and provides comfort and healing. It’s there to help us to communicate and connect with others. Our voices spontaneously express our deepest emotions whether through words, the tone of our voices, crying, or other vocal expressions.

 One of the most wonderful ways I’ve found to express myself in a genuine way is to create spontaneous vocal expressions. When I’m in the grip of deep emotions, if I can go to a private place and allow vocal sounds to come forth, my emotions will have a safe outlet. What emerges can be a series of moans, groans, and all kinds of strange sounds. Usually they will morph into more peaceful expressions of toning and singing.

 I know this is not the usual way that most of us process emotions, especially painful ones. Sometimes we cry, which can be helpful. Sometimes we talk to other people. Too often we don’t do anything about them, and that is not good. An easy way to try this alternative is to stand in the shower and vocalize whatever wants to come out.

 I am not a trained singer, yet I have made it an almost daily habit to vocalize. Following my inner impulses, I might start with long tones. That may lead to a repeated pattern, or chant. I may walk or move to the chant, singing higher or lower, louder or softer as I feel moved. This serves as a sort of cleaning out process each day. This kind of singing touches my heart, makes me feel peaceful, and sometimes leads to creative ideas. Some people call this Soul-Singing. It is music at its most healing.

 We can all do this. In addition to making up our own sounds, we can choose songs that we love to sing. Songs can comfort us, energize us, connect us with others. When we sing the same song together with family and friends we all resonate together as one being. The loving arms of music surround and hold us in a warm embrace.

In this new year let’s be grateful for the healing qualities of Music and call on her frequently to refresh and join us together.

Brubeck’s Way

 Dave Brubeck died a few days ago. He was one of my musical idols, a constant presence in my life since I was first introduced to his music by my father when I was a child. The quartet’s breakthrough album Time Out was part of the soundtrack of my youth, along with the standards of Gershwin and Cole Porter, the scores of The Sound of Music, The Music Man, South Pacific, and the music of The Beatles, The Doors, and so many others. What a gift to grow up in a house filled with such a variety of music! We also listened to Chopin and my sister and I eventually learned to play classical music on the piano. But my lifelong love of jazz began with the sounds of Dave Brubeck.

The thing that stands out about Brubeck to me is his uniqueness. He’s been criticized for the blockiness of his chord-playing, for the quartet not being “swingy” enough. Critics will always find something to criticize. What I hear is a man playing his way – in other words being his authentic self. When you listen to his music you can hear commitment and authenticity. Brubeck’s wayof playing is like a person’s speech characteristics– his unique style of expression. You would know it anywhere.

When I was about to graduate from Music for People’s Leadership Program, I had a conference with one of the program heads, David Darling. One thing he said will stay with me forever. Speaking about facilitating music improvisation workshops, he told me, “You don’t have to do it the way anybody else does it. No matter how much you admire another facilitator, you have to find your own way.” A simple idea that you don’t find in practice so much in this world.

Another quality I admire about Brubeck is his musical sense of adventure. He explored unusual time signatures, poly-rhythms, and poly-tonality, creating rich sonic experiences for his listeners. You can hear his love of Bach in fugue-like passages, such as the one he plays with saxophonist Paul Desmond in their recording of Somewhere. He wrote many different kinds of music – sacred music, choral pieces and other genres. He didn’t play it safe by staying with what he knew how to do, but he constantly pushed the envelope. That can be a scary thing, but Brubeck made it sound exhilarating. In some recordings that exhilaration is palpable, and you might even hear a few minor finger slips. Apparently he felt that passion was more important than the illusion of perfection.

On one particularly beautiful track from Trio Brubeck, an album he made with his sons, Dave begins playing Over the Rainbow as a piano solo. Almost before you realize it, the arrangement accomodates two keys simultaneously. The sound is strange and beautiful. Then Chris joins in on the trombone, and Danny’s sensitive drum backing creates an easy communion among the musicians. We are there, in sympathetic harmony, part of the whole. We have accepted Brubeck’s invitation to explore a new place where we’ve never been–and when we return, we are different than before.  

Thank you, Dave.