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Rediscovering My Mojo at the Piano: Reflecting on and Reviving a Dream


Judy playing a virtual lesson on her century old Chickering upright

Hi it’s Judy writing to you today! You already know my tale of having an adult bike with training wheels - I could regale you with stories of learning to ski as a 40+ when I was afraid of falling and sailing when I can barely swim. These are all (un)successful attempts at reconciling my curious, adventurous spirit with my cautious sedentary soul. Permanent residence in a library is probably my best speed. But we are not without our passions - one of mine is the piano. I’ve decided I need to reconcile the years and hours of practice as a child with my arthritic fingers, the music in my head, and my need to be alone when I struggle to play as my former 15 year old self.


Looking for a solution: The time is right in my life for a new challenge - this has encouraged me to see what virtual lessons are available. I’m looking for a program that I can move through by trying different styles of music beyond my go-to genre of classical, seeing if I can create a daily lesson opportunity, and try it for a decent risk-free period. If it helps me to practice every day, then I will subscribe, if not, I’ll pick up my piano books. Old tech will come to my rescue since I play on a 70 year old spinet and a century old Chickering upright. I will merge the old with the new and foray back into the piano, my iPad ready, leaning on a plate rack sitting on a thick text.


My Choice: I settled on Playground Sessions. One of my teachers is going to be Harry Connick Jr., which I’m sure will be wonderful. Along with the right teacher, what other criteria did Playground Sessions meet? My grasp of musical theory is (relatively) weak, my composition skills were worn thin by theory examinations, and chording quickly and easily is a mystery. All of these categories are covered, plus there's a Boot Camp and gaming. They also offer different packages - either lifetime, annual or monthly. I’m anticipating having committed to a package will help me show up to the bench every day and focus the mind.


Fingers need to be limbered up. Playing the piano is similar to preparing for any athletic event. The subtlety of equal weight dropping from your relaxed shoulders into your fingers, the flexibility of travelling slowly, quickly and methodically up and down the keyboard with the keys under your hand needs quite a bit of work. It will take time each day to get them going and my plan is to get them in better shape over the days and weeks ahead.


What is in my piano bench? I have my Mother’s old Hanon exercise book which is a great beginning on so many levels, my Royal Conservatory Book of Technique, books of studies and graduated music books through grade 1-10 plus lots of music by specific composers. Hidden in the mix is a bit of popular, ragtime and jazz - all evidence of previous attempts at different styles (some more successful than others!).


An interesting fact: The black note pentatonic scale is the basis for Black Spirituals. Pentatonic scales can be any scale using just the 1,2,3,5,6 notes. Notes 4 and 7 are the tritone in any scale, which add structure and tension. The use of the pentatonic can be found in the melodies of Gregorian chants and the scale in North American traditional indigenous music, plus music from Africa and SE Asia. The scale allows for free flowing musicality, which makes it the heart of blues, jazz, rock, and country. Try playing “Amazing Grace” on the black keys. It was written in 1773 by John Newton, a sailor-turned-priest who worked on slave ships and has a strong resemblance to songs of sorrow from West Africa. It is one of the most recognized and covered songs in North American history (including by Aretha Franklin and Sam Cooke), was chanted in Civil Rights marches in the US, and is a prominent piece in pop-culture. Learning about the complex history of the song gives pause for thought, to say the least. Digging deeper into music can and should be more than simply regurgitating scales.


Current events have sparked my desire to explore music with other roots than classical. I plan to try freejazzlessons.com in August and will report back at the end of the summer on my improv skills. There’s lots we can do to grow - maybe you would prefer to focus on your ear, play the song in the right hand, search for improv lessons, expand your musical horizon, or experience playing and appreciating music from different genres and cultures.


- IN CONCLUSION -


I have set myself a challenge that I began on June 15th; I’ve been doing the intermediate Boot Camp for the last five days. It is a great reminder of basic theory and I am working on my own musical technique to “tune up” my fingers. In the few days I’ve been doing this, I’m finding my fingers are moving more easily so there is definitely some satisfying progress!


I used to practice 3 to 4 hours a day, so if I want to do some serious technique or try some of my old pieces again then I will need 1 to 1.5 hours a day of playing. If I cannot manage an amount of time I feel necessary to grow, then I need to rethink my plan; if I can, then music lessons with a real human can begin. I need human connection and correction - I always enjoyed the interaction with a teacher and the subtlety of expression in my playing that appears when they are listening. Perhaps I could do a hybrid of in-person and virtual learning, but I think that virtual lessons may have a definite limit; time will tell!


In the end I am not truly sure what I want - it is not very likely I will be able to play like I used to, but I could aim for playing with more maturity than a semi-talented 15 year old. Maybe now is the time, as it is slipping by so very quickly, to reflect on musical times past and simply enjoy playing my pianos again.


So go on! Embrace your inner musician! Because you're never too old to learn something new.


Talk with you next week!

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P.S.

While this blog post focused on piano, there are music lessons online for pretty much any instrument you can think of. Here are some other sites that I considered and they all appear to be equally welcoming. I can’t say which is best as I have not tried them - some you need to subscribe to and undoubtedly some personalities or formats are more or less conducive to your personal style. Most have at least a sample of free offerings and lessons. There are plenty of free lessons on YouTube including good hints about chording, technique, step-by-step to learn a song, etc.


- Piano in a Flash

- Creative Piano Academy (YouTube channel)

- Become a Piano Superhuman (YouTube channel)

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