A Farewell Waltz

On this day, October 17th, in 1849, Frédéric François Chopin passed away in Paris.

“He had no predecessor and no successor…. Chopin came and departed like a comet from remote space,” said Australian pianist, Ernest Hutcheson.

He is remembered as a morose and anxious man, one who composed a song to cope with his sorrows of believing his friends had all been lost to a storm. Yet, his contemporaries write of him being quite the jokester as well.

Many of Chopin’s waltzes are nicknamed these decorous names like “The Grand Waltz” or “The Minute Waltz,” but “The Farewell Waltz” is as intriguing as the man himself.

He wrote this waltz for Maria Wodzińska, to whom he was once engaged. When his health began to fail, however, her parents forced the two to break off the engagement. Chopin said his farewell to her through this waltz.


Most of Chopin’s works are held together by a single recurring melody. Sometimes the recurrences are masked within decorated accompaniment, sometimes the melody develops with each sounding, and sometimes it simply returns as it originally was.

In this waltz, it is the last of these. The piece can be broken into three major sections: A, B, and C. The A section contains the melodic binding:

The waltz begins with two iterations of this theme, with a slight alteration of the polyrhythmic run in the eleventh full measure of the melody.

The B section follows. Marked “con anima,” we might guess that this section refers to joyful memories.

It bounces along with a lovely registral accent in the right hand every other measure. Most interesting about this section in particular, however, is how the left hand accompaniment pops out of the texture during the second half of each measure. The accent on the weaker beat in the measure hearken to the Mazurka for which Chopin is most prominently known. The focus on the left hand here also characterizes much of Chopin’s style.

Charles Rosen, noted pianist and writer on music, attributes this to Chopin’s exposure to 16th-century counterpoint (through studies of J.S. Bach). Romantic composers and 16th-century counterpoint don’t always seem to fit together, so Rosen explains that Chopin’s version of counterpoint mimics the aural experience of listening to J.S. Bach. Certainly, many voices independently sound to create a cohesive whole, and one can listen to each individual voice through repeated listenings, but the experience of hearing Bach live is that of a prominent voice with the other voices fading into more of an accompaniment role. The voices take turns being the most important.

Such is it with Chopin. Rosen writes that Chopin does not achieve “the constant independence of the voices in classical counterpoint, but a latent independence of each voice, consistent and continuous, which could break into full independence at any moment.”1

This B section in particular exemplifies that idea in this Waltz. After the first iteration of the B section, the A them returns, and then a repeat of the two lead into the C section:

Again, we have an accent on a weak beat, this time on beat two, which references the Mazurka rhythm. Perhaps Chopin is remembering happy days with his formerly betrothed as he says his farewell. This section repeats without the A theme interfering and ends with a grand crescendo on a figure that emphasizes beat two even more.

And then this crying out of love or sadness falls back into the whimsical, yet somehow also melancholy A theme.

There is so much to unpack in all of his pieces, and I hope to do many more on this blog. The common thread running through them all is the use of a melodic thread to hold together each of his works. Listening to that thread interacting with the rest of the notes creates layers and expectation and is perhaps why Chopin is still so popular today.

1. Rosen, Charles. The Romantic Generation. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1995.

4 Aspects of a Great Performance from Alpin Hong

“The power to affect how people perceive you gives you the ability to transform the world around you.” Alpin Hong, TEDx La Sierra University, July 1, 2015

It starts the moment people can see you. Whether it be a stage, the boss’s office, or a high school hallway, we are constantly performing. People evaluate you according to how well you present and choose to listen to or ignore you.

Performing is a skill that turns you into an effective communicator; it encourages people to hear you out. And it’s not just for stuffy classical musicians and theatre nerds.

In his entertaining and insightful TED Talk at La Sierra University in 2015, classical concert pianist Alpin Hong illuminates four simple ways to have a great performance in any field.

1. Project confidence (even if you’re dying inside)

It’s just as good as confidence itself, and it will put you at ease.

Stand up straight and steady but with relaxed shoulders, arms hanging by the side. Turn your arms so that your palms and forearms are facing forward, and then rotate only your palms back to face your sides. In this position, your body is more open but also flexible.

Eye contact is also important. Pianists typically can’t really look at the audience while they’re playing since they’re facing sideways, so this goes with the outer parts of the musical performance: the entrance and exit.

In my undergraduate days, most of my vocalist friends were taught to close their eyes to start and look at a point just above the audience to help with nerves. But after some experimentation, a lot of us found that we actually became more comfortable when we were able to make eye contact with people. We created connections with the audience members, and it was easier to feel like these strangers wanted us to win.

Finally, the bow. There are so many tricks to “do a proper bow.” My high school choir director had us recite, “Do I have my shoes? Yes, I have my shoes” as we tilted our heads down and bent to the correct angle from the ground.

But Hong puts it as, “You go down, you go up, and smile.” He says, “That last step, the smile, cannot be overestimated.”

Expressing joyful appreciation reinforces the good feelings you gave the audience, and they’ll take that home with them. They may not remember what you played years in the future, but they’ll remember how you made them feel.

All in all, someone who projects confidence and isn’t afraid to laugh at themselves is much more persuasive than a stiff perfectionist (oops called myself out!).

2. Be smart in your preparation

Hong notes that most musicians prepare in the same way: they learn their songs from beginning to end and don’t delve into the theory of it. But, understanding the basic structure and knowing the piece inside out and forwards and backwards is one of the best ways you can prepare.

He compares it to a speech: if you remember the basic concepts of each paragraph, you can have a successful presentation, even if you forget the specific words you wrote down.

That’s why music theory is important! If you know the chordal structure of your piece, you can find your way if you get lost (and it’s bound to happen at least once in your life).

The way you learn the music should also be under scrutiny. Most musicians learn the beginning of their songs and add on the subsequent measures each day. This means that the beginning is strong, and it weakens as it goes. A good way to combat this is to learn pieces backwards: start with the last four measures, then last eight, and so on until you’re at the beginning.

This actually puts in little memory structures or anchors as you go, and that alone is beneficial to memorization. But it also means that the song gets stronger as it goes. You always end on a triumph!

Since watching this talk, I’ve started doing this (actually a lot of professors also told me to do this, but I didn’t listen), and it has helped tremendously. I don’t have substantial evidence, but I do feel like I’m getting a lot more efficient practice done as well.

3. Find the right mindset

A lot of anxiety comes from the assumption that the audience wants your performance to fall apart. Instead, make connections with the audience with your eye contact, give them stakes in your performance, and then you’ll know that they want you to succeed. You’ll have auditoriums full of people cheering for you.

In any other situation, you can do the same with your posture and with your attitude of graciousness, like in the first point.

But we all know that no matter how well we do at number two, preparing, there will always be mistakes. We can have a healthy attitude with number four.

4. Improvise: Learn to roll with the punches

Improv troupes are at a severe advantage with this one. With the idea of “yes, and,” they choose to accept whatever the situation throws at them and keep moving forward. When the inevitable mistake occurs, you can either freak out or make the best of it.

This is where understanding the structure of your performance (number two again!) helps you get through. If you get lost in your piece, you can then get yourself back on track, even if it’s not exactly how the composer intended it. Hong actually quotes Thelonius Monk here, “There are no wrong notes; some are just more right than others.”

A mistake actually created Hong’s most-requested piece, “Twinkle Twinkle Death Star.” He was playing the Mozart’s 12 Variations on “Ah vous dirais-je, Maman”, K.265 (Twinkle Twinkle Little Star) and lost his place, so he played what he knew in the key, which just happened to be the Imperial March from Star Wars. And he kept going with whatever he could think of, Zelda, James Bond, Harry Potter, and so on until he found the end. If there’s only one part of this TED Talk you watch, I suggest it be the performance of this. It starts at 14:14.

Performing doesn’t have to be as daunting as it is, especially because we all do it everyday. It’s a lot easier to think of it as four small pieces, and I’m thankful for great performers like Alpin Hong who love to share their expertise with the world.

What do you think? Do you have any great tips or videos on cultivating a great performance? Share in the comments below!

Mozart’s Requiem

Mozart’s memory is full of opposites. Known for both jumping on tables and meowing like a cat and for the mysterious inception of his final work, the Requiem, his work can be taken as both arrogant and irreverent or as profound and hauntingly beautiful. Yet, neither can portray the deepest essence of his being.

Born 1756 in Salzburg, a city in what’s now Austria, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart began his short but influential life. It’s well known that he was a clavier virtuoso by the age of six (with organ and violin skills as well). But he’s remembered more for his composition, which he also started when he was young.

He wrote his first minuets by age six, first symphony by nine, first oratorio by eleven, and first opera by twelve.

What a busy childhood!

In addition to all that work, he traveled widely with his father, who was also his teacher. Under his father’s tutelage, Mozart came to appreciate all forms of music in the west. This contributed to his wide range of composition, spanning keyboard, symphonic, and oratorio in his more than 600 works.

But one work stands apart from the rest.

In July of 1971, a mysterious masked stranger appeared to request the commission of a Requiem Mass of the young but sick Mozart. Later, it was discovered to be a messenger of the Count von Walsegg, who frequently commissioned pieces of famous composers and credited them to himself. In this case, he asked a master to write a Requiem Mass for his young, dead wife Anna.

Believing the request to be from a world beyond the physical, Mozart feverishly set to work on the Requiem and fixated upon it as if it were meant for his own memorial service. Indeed it became his death. Legend says that the night before his death, Mozart summoned his closest friends and family to his bedside to sing the completed portion of the Lacrymosa in order to bid them farewell.

On the Fifth of December, 1791, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart departed from this world, and five days later, the completed portions of the Requiem were performed at his memorial service.

After asking colleagues of Mozart who all declined, Mozart’s widow Constanze hired Franz Xaver Süssmayr, a pupil and dear friend, to complete the Requiem for the Count.  Luckily, Mozart had played through and discussed plans for the work with Süssmayr before his death, so the Requiem was arguably completed according to Mozart’s deepest wishes.

The most performed choral work in all of history, the Requiem is famous not for the mystery of its inception but for the eloquence and passion hidden within its score. It references Mozart’s heroes and builds upon them to create the new music for which he was so influential. In fact, the double fugue contains a subject used by Bach, Handel, and Haydn. And the work as a whole sounds like an extension of Handel’s work.

But the Recordare is pure Mozart, the work of a German composer who understood and loved the musical tradition of Italy and interpreted it in his own perfect way.

Grout and Palisca. From A History of Western Music, 4th Ed.

No matter the tradition, Mozart’s Requiem is a beautiful work that has influenced all forms of media. The Dies Irae provides the soundtrack for many a movie’s judgment scene, and the Lacrymosa finds its way into commercials that depict unfortunate circumstances.

The Requiem’s wide influence shows the pure side of Mozart’s music. It haunts many a musician, just as it haunted its composer.

Although Mozart was quite the jokester, he also struggled with the same things that make us all human. And from this came his music. So as we musicians continue to perform today, let us learn from Mozart and try to be as pure in our attempts as he was. But also not forget to enjoy the effort.

7 Ways to Identify Music Majors in the Wild

Although music majors aren’t an entirely rare breed, they can easily be mixed up with others within their own species, the sleep-deprived college student. Noted by their sluggish behavior and small will to carry on, it’s a wonder the species thrives enough to have so many classes within it. Today, we focus on seven key ways to identify the class of music majors in their natural habitat.

Music majors…

1. Always have rehearsal or a practice session to be at.

They avoid social interaction, always with this excuse. “Sorry I have rehearsal…”  Sometimes, it’s like they don’t exist outside of class. Are they speaking the truth?

2. Post pictures of their instrument or music on social media.

That’s how you know they’re telling the truth about all that practice time. Aesthetic photos of “bae” and the most difficult sheet music in their folder grace their instagram, colored by fun filters. #practicing #truelove #100daysofpractice

Except, are they actually practicing? At the very least, you know they’re in the practice room.

3. Can speak in about 10 different languages, but can’t always understand them.

Vocal majors especially have to be able to passably pronounce a ton of foreign languages. Can they say important things like, “Where is the bathroom?”

Absolutely not.

But they can say cryptic things to you with no context whatsoever. And they probably will.

Die Luft ging durch die Felder,
Die Ähren wogten sacht,
Es rauschten leis die Wälder,
So sternklar war die Nacht.

The breeze passed through the fields,
The corn swayed gently to and fro,
The forests murmured softly,
The night was so clear with stars.

Robert Schumann. From Mondnacht, Op. 39, No. 5.

4. Live off of snacks instead of actual food.

All those rehearsals and practice sessions leave very little time to sit down and eat. So, when music majors actually do eat, it’s usually random snacks from their backpack. Nuts, chips, granola bars, cookies, you know, all the stuff you should live off of instead of veggies and meat…

5. Have a mostly black wardrobe.

It’s easier this way. Trust me. With as many performances in a week as music majors have, it’s a good idea to have many concert black outfits to choose from. If they barely have time to eat, what makes you think they’ve got time to wash one outfit multiple times a week?

Plus, if you wear black everyday, you don’t have to worry about forgetting about a performance. You’re all ready to go!

6. Are always singing or humming.

And are always harmonizing. In the car, the grocery store, the bathroom…

7. Always have a pencil on their person.

You are shameful and must commit seppuku if you do not have a pencil in rehearsal. As a result, music majors always have pencils hidden in multiple places on their body and in their bags. It’s better this way.

There ya have it! Seven ways to spot a music major in the wild. There are many more tell tale signs, but that should give you a good head start as you begin your wildlife observations.

Remember to record other behavioral findings in your journal and share with your fellow scientists below. Happy trails!

And Crown Thy Good With Brotherhood

“O beautiful for spacious skies…” begins a tune that America has beat its drum to for many years. The song, a poem by Katharine Lee Bates set to music by Samuel A. Ward, speaks of the beauty of this land. Purple mountains in their majesty, amber grain waving in the breeze, seas shining in the sunlight. But it also speaks of the strife that came as a result of the “patriot dream” that founded this country.

O beautiful for heroes proved
In liberating strife,
Who more than self their country loved
And mercy more than life!

As we in America approach the day we celebrate our freedom, it’s tough to ignore the people who have had their freedom stripped from them. While we all may disagree on politics and who’s to blame for injustice, we do agree that something is wrong.

I don’t typically pay attention to the news, especially when it spurs arguments among my friends across social media (I cherish harmony above most everything), but some friends have surprised me. The ones who usually stay silent, like me, regarding politics actually spoke up about the separation of immigrant families.

Instead of it being just a blame game, so many have stood up to take action and urged others to do the same. My quiet friends contacted their representatives, donated to charities, and showed others the way. I am so proud to have friends that not only identify the problems but do something about them.

They’ve shown that anyone can help.

I love celebrating holidays, and the Fourth of July has always been one of my favorites. It’s summertime; it’s reminiscent of cookouts, fireworks, and just having a fun time (read no stress of Christmas shopping). But it breaks my heart that others don’t get to celebrate freedom too.

So I want to do something to help. While I don’t have the means to go to Texas and volunteer, I can donate to help charities gain the resources they need to make a difference in this situation. And I can put my voice out there too.

I arranged America, the Beautiful for piano solo and have it open for free downloads on Soundcloud. The sheet music is also available for free here: America, the Beautiful

In exchange, I urge you to do what you can to make a difference. Act. Do what you can (even if it doesn’t feel like a lot) and spread the word.

I picked this song for a reason. While most people only sing the first verse, the lyrics are still relevant to these events today. If I had to pick only three verses to go along with my arrangement, it would be these.

O beautiful for spacious skies,
For amber waves of grain,
For purple mountain majesties
Above the fruited plain!
America! America!
God shed His grace on thee
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea!

O beautiful for pilgrim feet,
Whose stern, impassioned stress
A thoroughfare for freedom beat
Across the wilderness!
America! America!
God mend thine every flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self-control,
Thy liberty in law!

O beautiful for heroes proved
In liberating strife,
Who more than self their country loved
And mercy more than life!
America! America!
May God thy gold refine,
Till all success be nobleness,
And every gain divine!

The phrase that caught me in the first verse is, “And crown thy good with brotherhood.” Not all families are the same, but all the ones I’ve been around have been hospitable. If a friend brings me home, their parents do everything in their power to make sure I am fed and feel taken care of.

All of the verses end with a benediction. “May God…” do good for you, but these all turn back onto us. God sheds grace on us, so we can be a brotherhood. God mends all our flaws, and we must have self-control. God refines our gold, so our success can be noble and good.

All in all, whatever your beliefs, this song is part of the American tradition and is urging us to be a family. I hope you’ll join me in doing all you can to make that happen.

Here are a few organizations to consider getting involved with. They are all dedicated to providing legal services to immigrants and are all taking action to reunite families. But of course, I encourage you to do your own research and find a program you can truly get behind.

RAICES, The Florence Project, Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights, ActBlue, Border Angels, and many many more.

I’m not sure how many people this will reach, but it beats staying quiet. Act, if you will, spread the word, and stay aware of what’s going on in the world. And have a Happy Fourth!

10 Ways to Become a Real Musician Right Now

Musicians are a unique bunch. We spend a lot of time working hard, but that’s not all we do! Here are ten ways to be a real musician that you may not have thought of!

1. Make the classics new.

John Cage is a 20th-century composer known for his style of taking away control from both himself and the performer. This type of music can be called “aleatoric” (a.k.a. “chance”) music, but he preferred the term “indeterminate.”

4’33” (“four minutes thirty-three seconds” or just “four thirty-three”) is commonly referred to as a song of silence. The performer sits before an audience and remains quiet. Cage argues, however, that the music is in the sounds of the room itself: the creaks of chairs, the buzz of stage lights, the inevitable coughs of that person who is present in every concert hall, or even the sad ringing of a cell phone.

It’s divided into three movements (a traditional number). Many pianists carry a timer to the piano and close the lid to signify the beginning and end of each movement. See such a performance here. Although the performer in this embedded video doesn’t use a timer, it is a cheeky performance that reminds us to find ways to revive the classics.

It’s actually still under copyright (published in 1952), so if you’re interested in what the sheet music actually looks like, you can buy the score here.

2. Make the best of things you can’t control.

Eliane Rodrigues is a Brazilian international concert pianist and professor of piano at the Royal Conservatory of Antwerp (Belgium). In this recital at De Doelen in Rotterdam (Netherlands), she quickly finds a mechanical malfunction with the pedal that makes the notes continue to ring regardless of whether or not her foot is on the sustain pedal. This is why pianists are the real daredevils of classical music—we can’t take our instruments with us!

Instead of panicking, she makes it a fun experience and experiments with the piano as she rides below the stage with it. My favorite part of this video is when she comes back up with the new piano: what an entrance! She chooses to have fun, so the audience does as well.

To see the full video, click here, and check out her website here.

3. When in doubt, make it your own!

Ella Fitzgerald, “The First Lady of Song,” “Queen of Jazz,” “Lady Ella,” is known for her innate understanding of the jazz lexicon, evidenced in her improvisational skill, particularly scatting. Her popularity gave her roles in cinema and on television, and she even collaborated with other jazz greats, like Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington.

In her 1960 show in Berlin, she forgot the lyrics to the standard “How High the Moon” (lyrics by Nancy Hamilton and music by Morgan Lewis). Instead of just not singing, she handles it with grace and changes the lyrics to fit her situation.

How high the moon is the name of this song.

How high the moon, though the words may be wrong.

We’re singing it because you asked for it,

So we’re swinging it just for you

How high the moon, does it touch the stars?

How high the moon, does it reach up to mars?

Though the words may be wrong to this song,

We’re asking how high, high, high, is the moon?

She includes quite a few more surprises in addition to the scat she’s so well known for. Although the recording is around 7 minutes long (normal for jazz), it is a delight to listen to it in entirety.

4. Find your own style.

American contemporary classical composer Andy Akiho wrote a triple concerto around the use of a ping pong table. The world premier of Ricochet featured Ariel Hsing and Michael Landers, two American table tennis olympians, and David Cossin and Elizabeth Zeltser on percussion and violin, respectively.

We can actually thank John Cage and his contemporaries for the inclusion of “odd” instruments in music. Or even going to Tchaikovsky who included hammers and cannons in some of his work.

This is only a short segment that features the bass drum, but you can watch the entire work here. Just remember, if you think your work is unconventional, don’t throw it away. It’s your style; stick by it!

5. Give people a reason to smile.

“The Clown Prince of Denmark,” “The Unmelancholy Dane,” “The Great Dane,” Victor Borge is one of my favorite pianists of all time. Even before I played piano, his comedy held a place in my heart. With well-known skits like Phonetic Punctuation, it’s impossible not to smile.

I’ve always admired him not only for his beautiful playing but also for his skill in playing pieces backwards, like in this video, and cracking jokes at the same time. For a sample of a more serious recording, you can listen to a performance of a soft lullaby here.

6. Be yourself, always!

There are some real bangers out there in the realm of classical music. This girl loves some Mahler. This piece in particular is from a larger cycle called Des Knaben Wunderhorn, a collection of German poetry set by this nineteenth and twentieth century composer.

The beauty of sharing “silly” videos like this is that it shows her love for the music, and it makes people want to listen to the rest. If you’d like to (like I did), you can check out the entire song cycle with sheet music here.

Just…make sure you practice too.

7. Put those theory and orchestration classes to good use.

The Wind Symphony from Liberty University got their professor good. Admittedly, the Mii theme isn’t the most difficult melody to hear and notate, but this group had some real teamwork to pull this off. Not only did someone write out parts for each person, but the group as a collective whole had to decide when to do this.

Their director seems to be continuing a thought when he steps up to the podium, so it seems this happens in the middle of a rehearsal, so I’m really curious how they pulled it off.

Just remember to use your powers for good, not evil!

8. Honor your favorite musicians.

These two guys often cause me to spend too much time on the internet. They run the Youtube channel, TwoSet Violin. It resonates with musicians because it’s about life as a classical musician: school troubles, how parents treat you, teaching, and other funny videos like this one.

In this particular video, they remind everyone that violin is hard enough standing still, but trying to dance at the same time? Good luck. Lindsey Stirling pulls it off with incredible grace and agility. Whether or not you like her music, this parody video makes people smile. And bonus points for the cameo at the end!

9. Create community wherever you go.

Pianist Dotan Negrin took his upright piano on a world tour. In the process, he met tons of people and had the opportunity to collaborate with extraordinary artists. In New York, he ran into Ada Pasternak, a violinist who does covers and some really cool improv. Check out both their channels by clicking their names!

Here they bring back an old popular (that’s still listened to today) by Grover Washington Jr. You can listen to the original here.

They continued to collaborate after this meeting, so remember you can make lasting connections wherever you go. Just keep playing and invite others into your fold.

10. Don’t forget to feel it!

Beethoven’s not for the faint of heart, but this kid nails it. My conducting teacher showed us this video to encourage us to loosen up and just feel the music. If a kid can do it, you can too!

Musicians can sometimes get caught up in getting all the notes right, but when it comes down to it, performing is about feeling. So summon your inner child and go get ’em!

There you have it, ten ways to become a real musician!

  1. Make the classics new.
  2. Make the best of things you can’t control.
  3. When in doubt, make it your own!
  4. Find your own style.
  5. Give people a reason to smile.
  6. Be yourself, always!
  7. Put those theory and orchestration classes to good use.
  8. Honor your favorite musicians.
  9. Create community wherever you go.
  10. Don’t forget to feel it!

Hope you enjoyed this roundup! If you like this, don’t forget to comment, like, and share with your fellow music folk. Until next time!

3 Questions to Ask When You Feel Pointless as a Musician

Constant self criticism, practicing perfectionism, locking yourself away for hours. Such is the life of a musician. Half of it, anyway.

The other half of being a musician can be so rewarding, but when you’re stuck in the first half, it can feel like there’s no point in trying. There’s so many more people that are better than you. Child prodigies show up and learn skills in half the time. You started late, and there’s no such thing as “catching up” in music. You just aren’t as good as you thought you’d be at this point in your life.

At some point, you knew you wanted to be a musician, and you knew why. It just got lost along the way.

Here are three questions to ask yourself when you feel like you have no purpose as a musician.

1. Why did you start?

Maybe you started lessons as a child because your parents made you. Maybe you had to pick an elective in school, and band was the least offensive idea to you. Even if the very beginning wasn’t your choice, you’re here because you’re worrying about the reason you bother practicing. It is now your choice.

Music gave me a sense of belonging when I felt I could never fit in. I was the girl who ate lunch by herself everyday, but I joined choir and found a community. After that, I started piano, and I felt like I found an entire world of love. It’s a little odd since it can be rather solitary, but either way, I found a place to belong.

I started working hard as a musician because I was so thankful for it.

2. How are you making the world a better place right now?

You may feel like you aren’t influencing the world at all, but remember that change has to start in one place. That place is small.

The moment I realized I could actually make a difference was during a family trip out west. The Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix, AZ, is this massive gallery of instruments from all of world history. It’s divided according to geographical location and is absolutely not limited to Western Europe. I’d love to go back; there’s a lot to learn there.

My favorite part of the museum, though, is the Steinway grand sitting out in the lobby. They encourage anyone to play it.

When we took our trip, I had only been playing piano a few months, so I was still in the honeymoon phase of learning an instrument. At the urging of my mother, I quickly sat down and played one of the only two songs I knew. I developed this arrangement of “Beauty and the Beast” back then because I just loved piano that much.

To that point, I hadn’t really had a bad performing experience, so I got to enjoy playing a Steinway for the first time ever without much anxiety. When I looked up, I was surprised how many people had stopped to listen. A group surrounded the piano, and there were even people smiling down at me from the balcony above.

Afterward, a few congratulated me and asked about my background, but one person stuck out: a little girl (with her parents of course!).

She jumped up and down like I had physically flown around the room with fireworks exploding behind me. That’s when I knew I could do magic; I could influence people with music.

I hold this memory close and pull it out when I need reassurance that I can play a role in making the world a better place. It starts with making someone smile.

3. Who are you working hard for?

This answer changes with your circumstances. When I was younger, I practiced simply to make the people around me smile. But the more I learned of how dark the world can be, I decided to work for those who need a little light.

Music gave me a community when I was alone. It’s a refuge for some with mental illnesses or dire situations. I practice for them, so they know they’re not alone.

But I know I can do more. There are many musicians I look up to who donate heavily to or create their own charities. With budget cuts leaving kids without access to music education and without the same community I found, I was thrilled to learn of Josh Groban’s Find Your Light Foundation. I want to work hard to support that and other groups that are making real impacts in the world today. I can use my love to help others live.

The people who will benefit from that are the people I work hard for.

Whoever it is you’re personally working hard for, think about them when you feel pointless. It could be your parents, your sister, your teacher, your student. Let them motivate you.

It’s easy to get caught up in the monotony of practice and performance and forget just how hard being a musician can actually be. When you find yourself in the practice room in tears asking yourself, “Why?” ask these three questions too.

  1. Why did you start?
  2. How are you making the world a better place right now?
  3. Who are you working hard for?

I hope these help, and if you have any other questions that help you, add to the discourse! You can comment below or share elsewhere.

7 Ways to Avoid Frustration While Practicing an Instrument

Music might be this magical language of the soul, but it can still be infuriating to practice, especially if you’re fairly new to the craft.

I recall countless high school hours spent banging out Hanon exercises or Bach (I vividly remember anger associated with my left hand when I was learning his Two-Part Invention No. 1, BWV 772). The longer I practiced, the louder it got because I was angry. Luckily for my family, all we had was a keyboard, and I always used headphones.

Looking back, I’m amazed I didn’t do more psychological damage from self-directed hatred (or, you know, physical harm to my hands). Somehow, after all that angry practice, I got into a decent music program and continued my piano studies.

Many teachers will tell you they don’t teach students how to play; they teach students how to practice. Jeremy Denk writes that his teacher, “Sebők said many times that you don’t teach piano playing at lessons; you teach how to practice—the daily rite of discovery that is how learning really happens.” But the student still has to focus on adventure in the practice room and trying to find the best way to practice.

No one can tell you.

That’s frustrating; it really really is. But there are a few tips I can pass along that will hopefully help at least a little bit.

1. Practice Every Day.

This is a duh, but some of us still don’t do it. You can’t “catch up” by practicing longer one day if you didn’t practice the day before. That’s not how learning works. It’s better to do 15 minutes each day than four hours one day. We’ve all been guilty of this thinking at some point, so we’ll just get it out in the open.

2. Set small goals.

Until you have an idea of how quickly you are able to learn a piece, I don’t suggest sitting down and saying, “I will learn this whole page today.” You’ll only feel you let yourself down when you don’t achieve that.

Instead have smaller goals, like “I will practice for 20 minutes without stopping today.” Until you have a lot of experience, you can’t know how quickly your fingers will take up a certain piece. Once you get to know your learning tendencies, you can then make more challenging goals.

3. Keep a practice journal.

This helps direct your practice. Sometimes it’s hard to get your mind into the practice space, especially if you don’t have as much time as usual. School, work, difficult people in your life, and your bed calling out to you will all inevitably creep into your mind and cause you to mess up if you don’t do anything to focus.

Write down your goals at the beginning of the practice session and then reflect on how well you achieved them at the end. Connect this to your future practice session by setting your goals during your reflection time. Review these at the beginning of your next session, and bam, you’ve got a focused mind that is less likely to get distracted.

4. Celebrate the little things.

Because we are taught to be critical of our sound, we tend to forget to get excited when we play correct fingerings at tempo for a tricky cadenza that was killing us. Celebrating is so important, and it will help you stay in a positive-growth mindset. And that’s where we all need to be.

Shoot for at least three things you can be excited about, and write them down in your practice journal. Then, when you’re feeling down or angry during a session, you can skim back through that list of accomplishments.

5. Take a Break.

If you find yourself getting frustrated, and you’re beginning to pound out notes, it’s time to move on. You can get a sip of water, just breathe, even take out your phone (but really, don’t let yourself look at it for more than a minute. If you can’t control yourself, leave it outside the practice room).

The human brain can really only focus on one thing for about 20 minutes at a time, so don’t get upset with yourself if you can’t stay diligent for longer. The professionals take water breaks too. Plus, hydration helps your brain work better too.

6. Move on.

The kitchen timer practice method actually helped me more with frustration than anything else. In it, you practice a phrase (around 4–6 measures) for a specified amount of time (I’ve pretty much settled on two minutes), and when the timer goes on, you move onto the next phrase.

This method forces you to plan out your practice session because you need to come back to each phrase at least two more times in the session. It’s the returning to it that helps you learn. More than anything, though, it helps me avoid getting fixated on something I can’t seem to get. And most often, I get it solidly by the next go ’round. I do technique practice this way too.

7. Smile.

The classical music community on Tumblr jokes a lot about practicing including lots of tears, banging your head on the wall, or just lying on the practice room floor in the dark. Practice is hard. Accept that. But find a way to make yourself smile too.

You’re doing amazing things that so many others can’t even understand. Find something that can make you smile.

I have a few inspiring quotes above my piano that remind me why I’m torturing myself with practice. My favorite right now I mentioned previously, and I’ll put the picture here too because it just makes me happy.

All in all, take a step back when you need to. Breathe. Remember why you’re trying to make music in the first place. You’ll get there, and maybe you’ll even love practicing!

What are your favorite tricks to keep yourself going during a difficult session? Do you have any favorite quotes? Share them below! And if you like this post, don’t forget to hit that like button and share, so I can keep making awesome content!

Creating Music, Part One: Where to Begin

Classical musicians are cover artists. We play the scores of composers from long ago, and we get to put our own spin on the music.

But what about creating our own from scratch? It’s not always easy to start off. Compare it to writing in your own native language (English for the sake of the analogy).

You started reading somewhere around the age of five. Then you probably began to write short sentences and progressed to essays during the time of grade school. You learned to write poetry, the easiest form being the haiku, and possibly some fiction. Throughout this process you learned to express at least some part of yourself in a literary manner.

Now think about your journey with music. Your parents may have started you in lessons when you were just starting school and learning to read, or you may have waited until you could join band in the fourth grade, or maybe you didn’t even think you’d like music until you started taking piano in high school.

Nonetheless, the fact that you are reading this probably means you are a musician and have studied musical literature in some way, shape, or form.

You probably know at least the bare basics of theory, and if not, you’re not afraid to ask for help. The internet is full of resources.

And maybe you’re like me. You want to learn to express yourself with music too. Playing already composed music is one of the most amazing things you’ve ever done, but you also feel this urge to create.

Yet, instead of starting you off with short sentences, the music education system had you learn all the grammar, had you read only the very best of musical sentences. And the result of that is you know how elementary your own creations seem.

You have to start there though, and that’s okay.

You’ve got all the knowledge of theory and grammar that you need to learn how to write music much, much faster than when you learned to write.

At the risk of adding to an already loud discussion of advice blogs and Youtube channels telling you how to break into arranging and composing, I hope to help in any way I can.

Remember how all your teachers always say to “listen more than you play.” They’re referring to paying attention to your technique, to other members in your ensemble, to recordings of the greats. But something they don’t always talk about is that tiny voice inside you.

You experience the world differently than anyone else. For synesthetes, it’s very obvious; they literally see color when others don’t. For the rest of us, it’s the memories we’ve made that paint the world in different shades in our minds.

You hear things in a way that no one else does.

So when you’re listening to a song that you want to arrange, you might add notes here or there, or you might sing along and add harmonies.


Be confident in that voice. Arranging and composing is one of the rare times when you actually get to listen to that voice.

For the rest of your life, you’re encouraged to be more objective, to listen to technique, to think about what the audience or the judges are looking for. But here, in this creative space, listen deep inside.

Your instincts will guide you.

Of course you still have to work hard. There will be countless hours when you don’t know how to finish a song. The muse refuses speak to you. But keep trying different things; it’s a puzzle to be solved. You’ll find the answer.

Exercise: Pick one of your favorite songs that gets you moving, one that you either literally or figuratively dance to when no one’s watching. Learn the melody on your instrument (or just sing it) and then turn off the track and have fun with it. Don’t worry yet about writing anything down. Just let yourself have fun. Good luck!

I plan on doing a series of arranging tips, so this is the first. There are so many resources available today for musicians, so I’ll gather up what I’ve found helpful and try to build upon that. Let me know if there’s any specific topic regarding arranging or composing that you’d like me to touch on. You can do so in the comments below or send me a private message via my contact form (or even on tumblr if you prefer)!

How to Practice Like a Prodigy

Were you a child prodigy? Did you have to suffer through the same courses of practice and lessons as people obviously not as gifted as you? Then this post is for you!

Presenting How to Practice Like a Prodigy: A guide for those incredible geniuses who only ever excelled at their craft.

  • Play through your pieces from beginning to end. That’s it. Just do that. Us amateurs never do that. Ever.
  • Never, I repeat, never listen to a professional play your piece. Don’t listen to multiple recordings. You’re better than them, and your rendition will shed new light on classical composers’ true intentions.
  • Who needs scales and arpeggios? You mastered those in your sleep. And don’t get me started on Hanon
  • Forget about warm ups altogether. You need to be able to play your pieces cold, 100% of the time. You never know when a piano is just going to show up needing to be played.
  • Leave your phone on the music stand. That way, you’ll be prepared for emergency phone calls…or you know seeing when your crush likes your status about practicing…
  • Take lots of aesthetic photos for your blog. You’ve got to build your personal brand; the road to success is full of marketing! Bonus points for extra-complicated looking music.

#allthefilters #Ravel #howdopeopleevendothis

  • Finally, don’t listen to any criticism from your teachers, other musicians, or any of your favorite blogs regarding your practice methods. Only you know what’s best for you.

Fellow musicians, what are your tips for practicing like a prodigy? Please enlighten us by sharing in the comments below. Aesthetic photos of sheet music and/or your instruments are also highly encouraged!