Going the Second Mile

Introduction

I remember seeing this expression on a motivational poster decades ago, where a runner is shown in full stride with no one else in sight. I get it, the others gave up before going the second mile. It’s an interesting expression in the figurative but not literal sense since real runners don’t tire easily. Most wouldn’t probably even bother to lace up for just one mile!

Origin of the Expression

However, it turns out that this expression isn’t about runners at all. Going the Second Mile has Roman and Biblical roots. As you may know, one of the feats of the Roman empire was to create an elaborate road network not previously seen in the ancient world. The expression “Many roads lead to Rome” comes from that. Any Roman soldier or citizen could ask anyone traveling along the road to help carry his/her load for exactly one mile. In Matthew 5:41, Jesus tells anyone who is so asked to go two miles. Of course, Jesus doesn’t say just go an extra 100 yards; he makes it clear we are to go far beyond what is expected!

Inspiration to Carry On

I think about this instruction when inspiration is lacking, and the urge to quit is swelling! Sometimes the burden seems too heavy, and just getting done sounds good. I won’t lie, I often feel that it’s hard to keep going and I just want to quit early. That’s true whether I’m trying to make my step count for the day, at the computer, or on the music bench. I try to keep thinking how good it will be to complete that second mile, and sometimes it works!

The Struggle of Piano Students

I’ve seen the same struggle at work in my piano students, particularly as they arrive into the early intermediate repertoire, where pieces double in length and become more complex between the hands. Some of them come to lessons with a first-mile attitude. You can see it when they come in saying they only practiced hands separately, or that they’ve only gotten a partial way through their piece. To be fair, there are some advanced pieces that require several weeks to get through. That’s not what I’m talking about here. I’m talking about bringing a beginner mindset to intermediate pieces. They haven’t fully embraced arriving at the higher level.

However, some of my students don’t seem phased by longer and harder pieces. They try their best, and they sometimes surprise me at how far they’ve gotten or the achievement they’ve shown. They’ve learned the secret that a piece double the length isn’t necessarily double the work. Lots of those passages repeat. They are much better readers than they used to be and can cover more measures in a practice session than they used to be able to cover. They’re okay with certain passages being complex and don’t just stop and give up when they encounter a hard passage. They know I’m here to help them figure those out.

Thoughts?

What are your struggles in going the second mile? Where do you find it easy or difficult to go on?

Last Updated 2021-09-21 | Originally Posted 2021-09-19

Find the Best Christmas Sheet Music for You

This post has no affiliate links. In other words, I don’t get any compensation as a result of any purchases made using these links. I hope this list helps you to choose wisely among the vast amount of Christmas sheet music available.

Introduction

There is so much Christmas sheet music out there! How do you choose? In the fakebook I own, there are over 150 pieces, and there’s another fakebook that has almost double that! I used to skip teaching Christmas pieces, unless someone specifically asked. It was just another intrusion on the 30-minute lesson. I also didn’t know where to find exciting material correctly leveled for my beginners. Fortunately, there are lots of new books out there, particularly from Piano Pronto! There are even choices for new students, the ones who began taking lessons a few months ago, such as a Christmas book from Piano Safari.

Even kids who haven’t learned how to read a grand staff can read notes on a reduced staff, or learn primarily by rote. That’s where teacher inventiveness is especially important. Jingle Bells can be learned by pretty much anyone; you just have to find the right path! It’s not just beginners that benefit from an inventive approach. Rote playing and playing by ear is a legitimate skill that I also teach to older students. Who doesn’t want to be able to hear a tune, and replicate it on the piano?

Lead Sheets vs Arrangements

Also, I love teaching older students the skill of reading from a lead sheet. It’s where you get the melody, chord, and lyrics, and have to put the song together yourself. (Lead sheets are compiled together in collections called fake books or real books.) Crafting the left hand as simple or complex as you desire, and not have to struggle with an arranger’s idea of how to do is quite liberating. It allows the piece to be adaptable by a wide range of skill levels. A late beginner and an advanced student will look at the lead sheet and assemble very different sounding pieces!

However, not everyone is going to have the patience or inclination to learn via lead sheets. That’s why it’s important to choose a correctly leveled book, and not just whatever handed-down book is in the piano bench.

Leveled Repertoire

Leveled repertoire means what it implies – the pieces in a specific book are at a narrowly-defined level. These levels correspond to method books, and are often published as supplemental volumes by those same publishers. In my recommendations, I’m going to group books by larger segments. You’ll then want to go to that publisher’s Website to see examples of the actual pieces before purchasing. For my own students, I am glad to provide you the level that would work best for you, whether it’s stated as Late Beginner or Level 2B.

I have to give credit to my mentor, Nicola Cantan, who provided many of the beginner and intermediate choices you’ll see below. She recorded this YouTube video that takes you inside a number of those choices, and was very helpful to me.

If Unsure, Go Simpler, Not More Difficult

Although I think it’s great whenever a student wants to try to learn a difficult piece, don’t make this the occasion to go for a touchdown when you just need a field goal. We typically don’t think about learning Christmas music until it’s almost too late. If you have just two or three weeks to learn a piece, try to learn one at your current level, or even one that is a level easier. That way, you can easily learn a piece to share with family and friends, and perhaps a couple more pieces.

Researching/Purchasing Sheet Music

Where links are provided, they are to the publisher’s sites. I recommend starting there since that’s going to be your best chance to look inside the book. Some publishers like Piano Safari and Piano Pronto only sell materials through their own sites. Other publishers, like Faber (Hal Leonard), as well as many of the advanced materials mentioned, can be bought through your favorite sheet music retailer.

If you choose to purchase these books through Amazon.com, make sure that the book “ships from” and is “sold by” Amazon.com. Otherwise, you may be buying from a 3rd party vendor whose price may be above the suggested retail price. This won’t happen with a music store, whether you buy through a brick-and-mortar shop like my favorite, Cliff Hill Music, or an online vendor like behemoth SheetMusicPlus.com.

Beginner
Intermediate

All of the books here should only be attempted by those at the early intermediate level. If you are still a late beginner, or even on the beginner/intermediate bubble, heed my warning earlier in this post. I’d recommend one of the Faber 2A or 2B books listed above instead.

Advanced
  • Solos for Christmas – Dan Coates – 50 Advanced Arrangements.
  • It’s Christmas – Dan Coates – Much thinner book than Solos for Christmas, but there are some better arrangements in this book than the other.
  • Weihnachtsbaum (Christmas Tree) – Franz Lizst – Liszt wrote these 12 pieces of late intermediate to advanced difficulty late in life. Some are dazzling, some are duds, and some are in between. Download for free from IMSLP.org or buy the urtext Editio Musica Budapest.
  • A Charlie Brown Christmas: Artist Transcriptions for Piano – Vince Guaraldi – If you like the jazz stylings found in the Peanuts movies, and have the chops to play them, this is a must-buy! These classic jazz arrangements are superb.
Not Leveled
  • The Real Christmas Book: C Edition Includes Lyrics – Hal Leonard – Over 150 songs but they are in lead sheet format (melody, chords, lyrics). What’s important is that you know the skill for reading from lead sheets, which can be learned by a late beginner and beyond fairly easily.
  • Hymn Book – If you want to learn the sacred Christmas songs of your own faith tradition, there is no better way than your church’s hymn book! Although the level of pieces in the book are likely to span intermediate to advanced, you can play just the melody line, or the melody and bass line, instead of playing all four parts. You can often borrow a hymn book from your church, donate to your church to take one home, or order one through a music store.
  • In Conclusion

    My choices are presented in hopes that you enjoy as much Christmas music as you can, based on your interest and level. It was silly for me to see learning Christmas music as an intrusion. Done well, it’s a great celebration of why you decided to learn an instrument in the first place. However, there’s no need for a student to get so frustrated learning just one piece. The opposite isn’t good either, where a student loses interest because the arrangements are too easy. Since Christmas music is relatively inexpensive there’s no reason to struggle. You can just purchase something that fits you perfectly.

    Santa Claus at the Piano by Jo-B. Courtesy Pixabay.com
    Last Updated 2020-12-27 | Originally Posted 2020-11-21

    Sharpen Your Pencil

    Introduction

    When I was in public school, you learned quickly whether the teacher required a pen or pencil for class. Once you got past early elementary school, pretty much every class except for math required a pen. It’s always been a surprise to find that kids typically don’t bring anything to write with to lessons. In case your kids missed the onboarding notice, here’s the announcement once again: Sharpen your pencil!

    Fingering

    The most important thing we’ll often discuss at a lesson is fingering. Unless you have one of those uncanny minds, how can you possibly remember what we’ve discussed unless you write it in your score? Sometimes I’ll give two different fingerings to try, each with its advantages. A good fingering often simplifies the execution of a passage. Or, at the very least, it simplifies the passage by using sound fingering principles.

    Other Score Markings

    There are other things that you might want to write in your score. It might be the metronome marking of practice and goal tempos. It could be to circle a dynamic marking or write a reminder on the page. (Slow down here!) Sometimes a student will take that to an extreme as you’ll see in the picture below. However, this is much preferable to seeing a page with no markings, which to me means no extra effort.

    Sign of Respect

    I had a boss several jobs ago named Fred who would call me into his office to deliver very specific instructions. One day, when I apparently wasn’t thinking, I just plopped down in his guest chair empty-handed. Fred asked me where my pen and paper were. The point he was making was that I wasn’t being invited for tea and scones (or coffee and donuts). He wanted something specific done, and I wasn’t prepared to take notes. Lesson learned. When I see a student with a pencil, I see a student who cares and is ready to learn. When I don’t, I often think back to that day in Fred’s office.

    Sharpen Your Pencil

    In choosing the wording of the title of this brief blog post, I was trying to be a bit clever. Bringing a pencil is a good start. When you sharpen your pencil, you’ve gone the extra mile. This points to other parts of preparedness, like being ready to play the scale that was assigned, knowing the pieces in your repertoire, and what I expected you to cover during your practice since your last lesson. Sure, a sharp pencil won’t solve any of those problems, but it shows you are serious. And that has to count for something, right?

    music score with writing
    A student who took my “don’t stop” advice seriously.
    Last Updated 2021-09-12 | Originally Posted 2020-07-25

    How to Succeed in the Recording Process

    Introduction

    This article was originally intended to help my students prepare for their first recorded recital in May 2020, two months after lessons went online due to Covid-19 confinement. I’m repurposing it to preparing for any recording because it’s a different preparation process from live playing. You might say, yeah, it’s actually easier because you can record yourself as much as you want, and then just choose the best take. However, that flexibility can actually make the recording process much more difficult!

    Be Prepared

    There is no getting around the preparation and the memorization, if that’s required, no matter whether you are performing live or making a recording. A live performance means that you have one shot to make it count. Even if you don’t do your best, you’re done once the performance is over. If you don’t do your best in a recording, then you’re faced with take two. Take two leads to take three, and a seemingly endless spiral. There are some techniques to make sure that doesn’t happen!

    Do a Trial Run

    This should be at least several days in advance to your selected recording day. You’re going to find out things you didn’t imagine. Do you have the right batteries for your equipment, if you’re using peripherals requiring double-A or triple-A batteries? Have you tested out your equipment to make sure that you have the optimal camera angle and distance from the instrument? Have you experienced what it’s like to do a recording? Just because you don’t have an audience to make you nervous, the camera can do that all by itself! Know what the process is like so the actual process is no surprise when it comes to recording day.

    What Did You Learn from the Trial Run

    Besides wanting to make sure the process goes correctly, you’ll want to actually hear what your recording sounds like. Are the levels correct? Does your playing come across as intended? Are there problem areas that you need to focus on that can be reasonably improved in a short amount of time? Do you know how to record your takes, so that the editing process goes smoother?

    Recording Day

    Now that you’ve practiced all that you can, and have made some sample recordings before recording day, you’re ready to make your final recording(s). Try to either set a time limit or a take limit. Two or three takes are normally best because your performance will likely get worse, not better, after that number. Use your instinct as to whether a recording was good or bad. Don’t give up on any performance unless it’s so below your normal playing that it doesn’t pay to keep going.

    Make sure to reference each take with a note. On my equipment, each recording is incremented. I write the number of the recording with a note about what piece or movement recorded, and whether that take should be considered. Sometimes I’ll know right away that a recording is not worth considering. On the flip side, I sometimes will know that a particular recording is my winner. Don’t waste time making additional takes or deciding later which one is better if you know on the spot the winning take. Only keep going if you haven’t made a worthy recording and think you have what it takes to make the next take work!

    Adjust on the Fly

    If you’re making lots of mistakes, either adjust the entire tempo to be a little bit slower or do a little emergency practice on the area that needs help. Be realistic as to what is possible at that moment. Your recording should reflect an approximation of what you would do in a live situation and isn’t going to be any more perfect than that.

    Submit Your File

    If you have to choose between takes, don’t agonize too much between what likely will be pretty similar performances. Use your instinct to choose what you think your best recording is, however you judge that for yourself. Remember that your audience, whether it’s a festival judge or the studio families, will enjoy your performance and appreciate the effort that you took to make it happen. Once you’ve completed this process, you’ll get better and more efficient in the process. You may not grow to love it, but at least you’ll learn how to do it! Accept and embrace the process.

    Enjoy

    Try to have some fun during the recording process. If you enjoy your performance while it’s happening, it will likely translate to a better recording. If your recording is part of a recital or other student performances, make sure to listen and offer positive feedback to the other performers. Your peers will appreciate your attentive listening and your kind compliments. Don’t offer constructive feedback; let the teacher take care of that. Good luck!

    Photo by Gerd Altmann. Courtesy Pixabay.
    Last Updated 2021-09-11 | Originally Posted 2020-05-01

    Set a Practice Goal

    Introduction

    When I sit down to practice, I usually set a practice goal. The practice goal is pretty clear and not needing a lot of thought when I have to have a piece ready to go for the next day. Practice goals become more important when I have a bunch of pieces that are in different states of readiness. At any one time, I have a number of pieces that I’m working on that are scheduled to be performed at different times.

    Much of this comes from my job as a church organist where there’s a weekly requirement to have new music ready. Fortunately, I have a lot of experience doing this, so it’s pretty routine. My students, however, may be new to this, or have at most a few years of figuring out how to manage their practice. For that reason, I like to help all my students learn how to set a practice goal each time they sit down to practice.

    What Does Practice Look Like For A Beginner?

    For the beginning pianist, practice is going to be pretty straightforward. Read through all of the pieces in the assignment, and then repeat two or three times. Stop along the way if you need to figure out the notes, or clap the rhythm. You might remember that I talk about establishing good practice from the beginning in the post Guide Your Child to Independent Practice.

    How Does Practice Change for the Intermediate Student?

    An issue I see frequently is when a pianist moves on to early intermediate repertoire where pieces typically double in length and become more difficult. No longer is it possible to practice every piece cover to cover in each practice session with good results. Intentional practice becomes a lot more important for this student. Why? The tendency is to start from the beginning, which means that sometimes the student doesn’t get to the end. Ever!

    I typically will notate practice zones in the score. Sometimes I map them to the recognizable structure of the piece, like exposition, development, and recapitulation. At other times, I might just choose zones that equalize the amount of difficulty in each section so that there is a similar amount of material to be practiced each day. If there are three sections, and a student practices six days a week, she can cover each zone twice during the week. This fixes the problem of getting really good at the first page or two while neglecting the rest of the piece or movement.

    Practice Often Includes Other Things

    Many of my students forget to budget time to do other parts in their lessons plan. Technique comes to mind, even though I’m not specifically addressing technique in this post. It also might be a little homework assignment or activity page, which is really theory work. Depending on the size of this supplemental work, you might choose to do a little bit each day, or two or three times per week. Typically it’s not good to do it all at once unless it really is a small assignment.

    Conclusion

    It’s really easy for me to preach practice goals when I’m not the one enforcing them in the home. However, it’s my goal to be a partner with the parent and the student to make practice a normal part of each day’s activities. Please let me know how I can provide the support and guidance you need, no matter where you are in your piano journey. Certainly doing a little bit each day, moving forward bit by bit, is going to get you far when weeks become months, and months become years.

    Scrabble rack with tiles GOAL
    Goal by Nick Youngson CC BY-SA 3.0 Alpha Stock Images
    Last Updated 2021-09-18 | Originally Posted 2019-10-01

    Te Deum – Psalms to Charlemagne

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    Introduction

    I was asked much earlier in my career if I’d ever taught a continuing education class for church, or whether I’d consider doing so. Up to that point, I’d never done it, but I was open to the idea. The possibility has since then intrigued me, but until recently I hadn’t put together a plan. Now that a date is on the calendar, October 16th, it’s becoming real. I’m teaching a class in sacred music at church!

    The Course

    The course is based upon the book Te Deum: The Church and Music by Paul Westermeyer. I became familiar with Dr. Westermeyer through his work with the American Guild of Organists, and was impressed that an ordained Lutheran pastor would spend so much time associating with organists! He has spent his career steeped in teaching both seminarians and church musicians, so this book has an interdisciplinary approach.

    I warn that the text has a scholarly bent, which is probably no surprise given the scope of the topic. For those who wish to take this journey with me, there will be quite a lot of reading involved, though I’ll parcel it off to make it manageable. As a reward, you will receive musical samples from each period to illuminate the weekly readings.

    More Details

    As the title of my post hints, the first five weeks will be covering just a portion of the history of sacred music. A continuation of this class will continue the exploration, beginning at the Reformation and continuing through modern times. In this session, we’ll cover music in Old and New Testament times, the First Centuries, and Before and After Charlemagne. I realize that this period may not be glamorous to some, but hopefully you’ll join me anyway. For those who are curious about what exactly is covered in later on – yes, there is a section on the Wesleys! Even a Lutheran like Westermeyer knows it’s best not to omit John and Charles!

    Call to Action

    Will you be joining me?

    Posted 2019-07-18

    Brighten the Corner Where You Are

    The third of July just wasn’t my day.  I was having trouble getting the things done that I planned. My tendency is to try to do to much right before leaving for a vacation, even one lasting just a couple of days. I needed to complete the list that included doing the dishes, house cleaning, laundry, and mailing a birthday present to a friend in France. The latter involved a software and customer service nightmare that took an hour of time and didn’t get my package posted. Bottom line: I ran out of time to salvage driving to Kansas City to see the Royals play and enjoy a fireworks show at Kauffman Stadium afterward.

    As I took a few minutes to decompress after realizing I couldn’t do everything, the lyrics of the century-old hymn Brighten the Corner Where You Are popped into my head.  This is one of those hymns that has long since disappeared from modern hymnals, but still has staying power. I like this upbeat recording by the Statesmen Quartet. The lyrics for the first verse are below.

    Do not wait until some deed of greatness you may do,
    Do not wait to shed your light afar;
    To the many duties ever near you now be true,
    Brighten the corner where you are.

    Ina Duley Ogdon, Author

    I did depart for Kansas City the next day, and enjoyed the remainder of the vacation I planned. Although I’m sorry I missed the game, I’m not sorry that I took the time to brighten my own corner. Plus, I found a post office on July 5th so I could brighten the corner of my friend. Wouldn’t it be great if there were some hymns on time management?

    Posted 2019-07-11

    Great Success and Utter Disappointment at my Last Recital

    Great success and utter disappointment might be a slight exaggeration. However, it shows the range of emotions I felt after giving what I consider to be my best organ recital on Sunday, April 28th at First Methodist in Bella Vista. My playing was really pretty decent, even good at times, and was about the best I could have expected. The Widor Toccata was the only piece that I had learned before this year. Anyone listening to me now versus several years ago would notice significant improvement. I am well on my way to playing the organ in mid-life as I did the piano when I graduated from music school.

    I didn’t have a large network through which to market the recital, but I got the word out early, and even let the program sit for long enough to make a change from a shaky to a solid final selection. In the last year or so that I have been giving piano and organ recitals at the church, I have been getting audiences between 12 and 35 people, so I reasonably expected that I’d at least hit the low number, despite it being the Sunday after Easter and there being a couple of competing activities at the church.

    Oh boy, was I wrong about that: Only five people showed up. That included my page turner, Music Director Larry Zehring. He reluctantly pitched in when I couldn’t find a single volunteer from the choir.

    Strangely, I wasn’t as bothered by this as I might have been in the past. After all, I do broadcast and archive my recitals via Facebook Live, so they do have an online afterlife. The primary motivation for giving the recital was to prove to myself that I could do it. Having an audience of any size to hold me accountable was really the main criterion. This counted! Playing to an empty house, even in the best circumstances, is still just practice!

    As I go forward, I need to be clear about my motivation, and what is and isn’t important. I have to focus more on the great success and less on the utter disappointment. I have to realize that most people are more concerned about their brunch plans than noontime recitals. Plus, there are only so many fans of the organ. Whenever I hear a national recitalist in Tulsa, there are barely 50 to 100 attendees for recitals that are free of charge. Maybe this was a reminder from God to keep looking inward, instead of outward, as performers want to do. I did well and should let Him take care of the rest.

    two thumbs in opposition
    Image by Gerd Altmann. Courtesy Pixabay.
    Last Updated 2020-05-10 | Originally Posted 2019-05-05

    I bought a piano!

    I wasn’t looking to buy a piano.  Really! But I bought a piano anyway. The interest was sparked by a piano parent who was searching for an acoustic piano. But I was surprised when she emailed me an advertisement for a 48-inch Yamaha U1 upright, built in 1977. This is a top-of-the-line upright, which Yamaha continues to make in Japan, along with their tallest model, the 52-inch U3. They offshored production of all of their shorter uprights decades ago.

    When it was clear that my piano parent was pursuing pianos in a much lower price range, I made the call. It’s tough to fairly evaluate resale prices for used instruments, but I knew that the asking price was correct if the instrument was in excellent condition. However, even well-loved instruments can develop issues requiring significant rework, so I didn’t want to take any chances.

    I hired my preferred tuner to do an analysis of the instrument, since a $60 fee was well worth saving hundreds or even more if I chose poorly. I have to be realistic that this might be the last instrument that I purchase. Yes, I’d still love to have a Steinway B or Mason & Hamlin BB, but this is a practical decision for now.

    Everything worked out, and I was able to find a new owner for my Knabe spinet that is old enough to have ivory key covers. It was a gift to me, so it is now a gift to a new piano parent. I never loved this piano, but that’s more a reflection on me than it; I have better instruments available to practice where I work. It still has more to give, and I hope it will be appreciated for years to come.

    Adopt a new-to-you upright of your choice. You won’t be disappointed!

    Posted 2019-04-17

    Different Kind of Feedback

    I received very different kind of feedback after performing a new piece in my repertoire, the Chopin Scherzo No. 2: “I am glad that you learned that for yourself and that you shaered it with us!” It’s not the typical response following a performance. I knew that the comment was well intended, coming from one of my favorite people at First Methodist of Bella Vista. Still, it took a while to sink in what that actually meant.

    While my reasons for wanting to learn new repertoire on the piano and organ are multi-faceted, it’s clear that they are all related to my goal to become better at both. I encourage my students to set and achieve goals, in a way that’s appropriate for their age. If I find a child is shirking responsibility, I try to address his responsibility in the process. One of the many benefits of piano lessons is becoming responsible for one’s work. The piano is just the tool that allows that to happen.

    Performance is the natural culmination of music study. If you’ve taken the time to learn a piece, you should share it with others. Recitals and music festivals are the formal way to do this, but there should be other ways too. Performing for family, church, school, or a retirement community are equally valid. Live performance gives you feedback that you can’t get in any other way. Plus, it helps focus and refine your work, since there is a fixed date on the calendar that will make you accountable!

    Learning and performing go hand in hand for me. I couldn’t imagine learning and then not performing. I have had some students, particularly adults, who have no interest whatsoever in public performance. That’s okay too. What doesn’t work well is performing without learning. Yes, I have performed more times than I’d like to admit without being sufficiently prepared. Building an audience is difficult, and it’s important to do your best. I’m grateful to have the chance to learn new pieces, polish old ones, and share them with my audiences and inspire a new generation of musicians.

    Posted 2019-02-20