Archive for June, 2009


Three Ways Dads Can Encourage Piano Playing in Kids

Tuesday, June 30th, 2009
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It’s an undisputable fact of life: kids learn by example. Both positive and negative behaviors are often learned and reinforced by a parent’s example. What better way to teach your child a skill, like piano playing, than by demonstrating it?

Dads have an extra important role to play when motivating kids to learn music. Children who are regularly exposed to music in the home are more likely to grow up musical. Kids with parents who actually play an instrument (like piano) have an even further edge.

Dad’s role is especially important when it comes to raising a budding pianist. Young children in particular look to their fathers as role models. They see Dad as omniscient, Herculean and heroic. Kids are natural imitators and will readily and willingly engage in an activity that Dad portrays as cool or fun.

Mothers, of course, can play a significant role in helping kids get excited about piano playing. The downside of having a mother who is musical when Dad isn’t is that it can send mixed messages. Children may view piano playing as a “girl” activity, at least at home.

Motivating a child to practice regularly is a chore at the best of times. Children are often even less excited about practicing when they know that their parents don’t play. It’s tough for kids to see the value in a musical education under these circumstances.

Dads can make a difference in the musical education of their children even if they’ve never played piano before. It’s never too late to learn something new. You might not become a virtuoso, but that’s not the point. The point is to show your child that piano playing is a valuable life skill.

Dads who haven’t previously taken piano lessons can get started by doing one or more of the following:

* Taking a parent/child piano class. Some music schools offer parent/child piano lessons. Many are actually founded on the philosophy that children learn best through active parent participation. Parent/child classes teach basic musical skills but also foster healthy interaction between parent and child. Plus, dads who never took piano lessons get to learn right along with their children.

* Take a self-tutorial. Piano tutorials are available in workbook and DVD form as well as online. Tutorials are self-directed and cover the basics like note reading and chords. Online tutorials sometimes have the added advantage of access to an online mentor. Self tutorials range in price. Many are free. Most courses cost between $25 and $100 for basic foundational skills. A dad can at least learn enough this way to understand what his child is learning. He may even be able to learn from his child.

* Take formal piano lessons. Remember, it’s not too late to learn. You don’t have to take classical piano either if that’s not your forte. Find an instructor who understands what your goal is: to lead your child by example. Your instructor can design a lesson plan that helps meet those needs without scaring you with long-winded classical pieces. He or she can teach you the basics and give you a great foundation for piano playing for and with your child.

Dads who master the basics of piano playing have another advantage that non-musical dads don’t. Pianist fathers have one more way to encourage kids to turn off the television and engage in something productive and beneficial. Impromptu family concerts, father/child duets or simply making up goofy songs together fosters relaxation, bonding and emotional health.

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The Top Five Most Popular American Patriotic Songs of All Time

Monday, June 22nd, 2009
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Americans love their country. They also love to sing about their country. American patriotic songs have a rich and colorful history. This history spans the centuries and ties the past to the present and citizen to citizen. No American has grown up without learning a few of these top American patriotic songs:

1) The Star Spangled Banner: No American patriotic song is dearer than this. Many Americans don’t realize that its author, Francis Scott Key, originally entitled his patriotic poem “Defence of Fort McHenry.” This is because it was based on his recollection of the bombing of Fort McHenry in Maryland during the War of 1812. Key saw in his mind’s eye the proud U.S. flag continuing to wave amidst the devastation in the wake of the bombing.

Key’s poem was eventually set to an already popular tune. The original poem has four stanzas, which are rarely sung today. The three additional stanzas are worth a reading though for the beautifully descriptive language which they contain.

2) My Country ‘Tis of Thee: This poem was first written by theological student Samuel Francis Smith in 1831. Smith had been asked by a friend to translate a German tune into English. This particular poem just happened to be set to the same tune as the British anthem “God Save the King/Queen.”

Smith got distracted from the task at hand, instead composing his own patriotic lyrics for the tune. The poem turned out to be “My Country ‘Tis of Thee,” also sometimes referred to as “America.” It was debuted on July 4, 1832, sung by a group of children at an Independence Day celebration.

3) Stars and Stripes Forever: This familiar march was written by John Philip Sousa in 1896. Sousa was a talented musician and United States Marine. He served in the Corps from 1868-1875, and then again from 1880-1892, a career man to be sure.

His early days in the Marine Corps were spent as an apprentice musician. He honed his musical skills during his five year absence from the corps. He became conductor of the Marine Corps band during his second stint. It was after his departure from the corps that Sousa composed “Stars and Stripes Forever.” It was later adopted as the U.S.A.’s national march by an act of Congress.

4) America The Beautiful: This American patriotic song is so loved that it has been periodically proposed as a replacement for “The Star Spangled Banner” as national anthem.  It hasn’t managed to knock it out of the running yet. Still, this beautifully descriptive poem, written by Katharine Lee Bates in 1895 remains almost as cherished.

The tune, composed by Samuel A. Ward, was originally written for another set of lyrics.  A few years after its publishing, it was discovered to be a perfect fit for Bates’ tribute. The two have been inseparable ever since.

5) God Bless America: Irving Berlin was one of best-known and well-loved singers, song-writers, actors and directors in American history. He managed to achieve this status despite the fact that he was not born in the United States. Born in Russia (now Belarus,) Berlin immigrated to the U.S. as a young child. He established himself in the entertainment industry likewise at a young age.

He was widely known as fiercely loyal to the United States and devotedly patriotic. It was no surprise to anyone that he should spin out such a beautiful tribute to his adopted country in 1918. The song became an instant American classic when it was sung by Kate Smith in 1938.

All of these great American patriotic songs were written over a century ago. Their continued popularity today remains a testament to their untimely sentiments.

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Piano Practice Tips for Adults

Friday, June 19th, 2009
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Adults often come to the point in their lives when they want to explore new hobbies. One of the most common hobbies adults pursue is learning to play the piano. It may be the first time they play or a return to a childhood pleasure. Whether you’re an adult sitting down to learn the instrument for the first time or you want to brush up on your skills, keep in mind some basic rules of piano practice.

Posture is very important. Make sure that the piano bench is high enough. Your shoulders should hang freely, while your forearms are parallel to the floor. This allows the greatest freedom of movement and keeps your body from feeling constricted. While your hands are directly in front of you on the keyboard, your elbows should be just slightly forward of the center of your body. Sit forward on the bench so that your body is relaxed.

Create a regular piano practice schedule. Start with short sessions of 15 minutes. Increase the time as your skill progresses and your hands start to feel more limber. You may not have time for piano practices longer than half an hour, but that’s enough to increase your skill and flexibility. Just try not to miss too many days in a row. Time of day is important. Pick a time when you’ll be least distracted by the worries of life.

Practice books are extremely helpful for both beginners and experienced players. These contain exercises and tips that improve your technique. Many also teach musical theory, providing detailed explanations of scales, chords, modes and relative tonality. This is great for expanding your musical palette and understanding how melodies and harmonies work in the context of a piece.

Piano practice books also contain musical pieces adjusted to your skill level. At the end of each chapter you’ll often find a piece that demonstrates techniques that you learned in the preceding pages. It may take a while to coordinate both of your hands, so don’t expect to play at full speed right away. Practice each hand separately, at a moderate speed, before combining the two parts. You’ll be less discouraged and find that your playing is more accurate.

Remember, piano practice isn’t a competition. Even if you are a highly driven individual, take your time and be patient when learning the piano. You’ll avoid frustration and possible injury if you avoid pushing yourself too hard. It’s supposed to be enjoyable.

A metronome is an invaluable tool for piano practice. A metronome is a device that keeps perfect time, providing an audible beat set to an exacting tempo. Metronomes are adjustable from very slow to very fast, well within the limits of pieces you’ll be practicing. Even if you feel that you have a great sense of timing, invest in this handy little tool for your piano practice sessions. You’ll be amazed how often you change tempos slightly while running through exercises.

Whatever amount of time and dedication you are able to invest in the piano, it’s a great instrument for adults to learn. The piano is a few hundred years old, and people are still exploring its musical possibilities. Join their ranks and make music that you’ll love for the rest of your life.

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The Birth Of Rock and Roll Piano

Thursday, June 18th, 2009
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Rock and roll piano springs from many different styles. On the surface the early styles just seemed to be blues playing at a high speed, but a closer look reveals a lot more under the surface. Rock and roll piano is an amalgam of many styles as is jazz or classical playing.

One of the pioneers of rock and roll piano is Little Richard. Little Richard was a fiery pianist, combining boogie-woogie, rhythm and blues and gospel music into his own unique blend. In fact, his introduction to music was in a highly energetic church environment. Combined with his highly suggestive singing, Little Richard formed the basics of rock and roll. He emphasize the back beat in his music to give it wild momentum, unlike many of his peers. James Brown once said that Little Richard “put the funk in the rock and roll beat.”

Jerry Lee Lewis is also a founder of rock and roll piano. His poor family mortgaged their farm in order to buy a piano, and he learned from playing with his cousins. His style combined similar elements as Little Richard’s, but with the inclusion of country piano. One of his early influences was country boogie player Moon Mullican, whose piano style was a precursor to rock and roll. Lewis developed his style at a young age,  but he transformed traditional gospel numbers into boogie songs.

Before these two performers, there was a man named Fats Domino. In 1949, he released a record entitled “The Fat Man,” which became the first rock and roll record to sell a million copies. During the most successful part of his career, he had many Top 40 hits until the tastes of the record buying public changed. Without his contribution to rock and roll piano, we may have never have heard Lady Madonna by the Beatles.

Both Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis treated the piano not only as an instrument, but as a prop as well. They would play standing up. They would kick the bench out from under them. They would dance on top of the piano while the band continued to play. Rock and roll piano was an untamed beast. Even today Elton John and Billy Joel, artists who are considered very mainstream, adopt some of these wild antics Rock and roll piano lives on in a different form today. There are revivalists, traditionalists and copycat artists all around the world. Popular artists from each subsequent musical generation have mined the style, updating it and adding to their own stew. There are always new avenues to explore in rock and roll.

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Improvising Using The Popular Song Form

Wednesday, June 17th, 2009
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Last time we talked about how musicians improvise on the 12 bar blues. The other standard form on which improvisation takes place is the popular song. Each popular song has its own distinctive chord progression, plus its own unique melody. In the 12-bar blues form there was only the chord progression structure — no melody.

Most popular songs fall itno one of thress categories:

ABA form — in other words, theme A, theme B, and theme A repeated

AABA form – theme A, theme A repeated, theme B, theme A

ABAC form – theme A, theme B, theme a, theme C

The largest percentage of popular songs fall into the AABA category, the usual length of the song being 32 bars:

A – 8 bars

A – 8 bars

B – 8 bars

A – 8 bars

Musicians improvise from the chord structure of the popular song, often making reference to the individual melody in their improvised creations.

There are other forms, of course, such as verse-chorus, and you find this form typically in folk songs and hymns, as well as in some pop songs.

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