music theory | composition | creativity | on piano


I believe creative, everyday music making can belong to everyone, in everyone's
hands and home.

In every childhood, and, equally, in every adulthood.

I believe creative, everyday music making can belong to everyone, in everyone's
hands and home.

In every childhood, and, equally, in every adulthood.

Here's a little bit of my story of my teaching path so far...

This is my piano.

In the mornings, when the sun finds the keys like this, whatever else I'm doing--stops.

And everyone around here knows not to interrupt me to cut up an apple or ask me something mundane.  I'm in the middle of something essential, and have learned to guard it fiercely.

Playing the piano at this moment is not practicing.  I'm not trying to achieve something outward or develop technique or skill, nor am I doing this so I can pour out my repressed emotions. 

I'm connecting things. I'm tinkering. 

I'm learning.

What do I play?  What key do I play in?

I don't even remember afterwards. I'm not trying to capture it.

Is what I am playing music?

Yes, absolutely.  Usually spontaneously created.  Sometimes simple, but just as often, complex.  Or often I start with something that already exists, that I'm intrigued by, or that I have long loved, and then it goes a new way.

Sometimes, I'm not even at the piano, just nearby in my chair.  I may read or write, or listen to music, deconstruct it in my mind, then eventually move back to the piano and do so.

Then My Day Goes On. 

And for the past twenty years, my days (and nights) have seamlessly flowed between teaching piano & composition, practicing piano repertoire, arranging music, charting songs, recording, rehearsing and performing with classical musicians & also touring with rock bands, composing and creating new music, mentoring young composers, preparing students for auditions and performances, and then putting on those performances. 

Busy and joyous!

And in my early years of working only in music, as I had more and more musical opportunities, these nagging questions would arise in my mind:

  • Could my students do what I do in a day?¬† Effortlessly?

And this lead to:

  • Are they developing what¬†they would need¬†to go in¬†any¬†new musical direction¬†they decide to, now or later in life, as I have?

My answer inside was, No.  But I wasn't sure what to do about it.  

I was teaching my students the way piano lessons are taught, the way of my master teachers, who had taught me all the Bach, Beethoven, Bartok I had dreamed of.  By focusing on reading, my students would be able to play so many more pieces than I had ever played because they were starting at a much younger age than I had.

And they were doing it.  All the repertoire, high audition scores, impressive recitals.

Yet, I knew.  They weren't experiencing music the way I did.  They were on the outside looking in.  But why?

I started to realize that the ease and fluidity of my days as a musician were possible because of something I had gained even before my first formal piano lesson at age 15--before I learned to read music, before playing any classical repertoire, before earning any degrees, or awards, or all the fun opportunities and musical friendships that were to come.

Sitting alone, at our old piano, waiting impatiently for my parents to find me a piano teacher so my life could begin (!)--I taught myself music. In the same manner that I now go about my sunny piano mornings, I tinkered, explored, figured it all out--chords, inversions, scales, how keys work, how to think in numbers so I could transpose, how to vary the accompaniment in my left hand to change the mood or style. 

I had become musically fluent.  I just didn't realize nor value it.

And because of that, to the annoyance of my university professors perhaps (or one at least), playing Beethoven held the same intrigue for me as playing a Beatles song.  (And still does).  Once my mind locked into the key, the chord progressions, the patterns, I could unravel it, what made it work, and what made me love it.  Whatever the music was, it didn't matter, it was all the same, and equally entrancing.

But my students. 

How could I transfer into them what I had inside myself?  I was forever pointing out patterns and structures, the underlying progressions, the predictable Clementi sonatina modulations to the V, etc..  They saw them, said the right things. But when they read and played music, it was just note to note to note, chord after chord, without making mental connections between them.   The "music theory" part seemed unrelated to music making.

Around 2013, a new thing started occurring.  Students would come into their lessons and say, "Look what I learned!", and proceed to play complicated arrangements of songs and pieces they had watched and painstakingly learned by watching someone play them in online tutorials.  Sounded great, what was the problem? (Besides fingering and technique).  The BIG issue for me was that they had no idea what they were playing, what key they were in, what the chords or chord progressions were.  They were just playing random streams of notes, again, one after the other.  No connection. And SO tedious to learn.  How were they even doing it?

Full-On Teacher Crisis Mode.

I had to break through this.  Did they need to be thrown in the deep end--sink or swim?  I began inching my way off the straight and narrow and into unknown territories. 

I stopped taking beginning students, and focused on turning my current students into chord ninjas.  We played only Beatles songs from chord charts every summer, analyzing diatonic chords, spotting all the secondary dominants AND secondary subdominants (Hey Jude!).  Getting all the chords equally comfortable in their hands.  No relying on sheet music or notated arrangements.  We make our own!  I was serious.

(And I do recommend doing this in the summers.  It's super fun!)


It was a start.  But more was needed.  I started to understand that the way to teach this, was to not "teach" at all, but to emanate. Students needed to see me in my natural, sunny morning, state.  They needed to know how to find their own, how to create space in their days and in their minds where they could work things out for themselves.

I set about to construct a learning environment with a vibe where it felt like the most usual, everyday activity for students, modeled and guided by me, to explore, deconstruct, digest, possibly mangle to an unrecognizable

What music? Any Music.

I love to start lessons with the Billboard Hot 100 #1 song of the week chord progression (which is usually only 4 chords).  

Or, I extract something from whatever repertoire they are learning, usually the tricky spot.  Students often arrive to their lesson to find a chord progression written out on the piano in front of them. We play through it, they figure out what key it's in, then write it out in numbers so they can easily transpose it around.  Finally I ask if they can find where that same progression occurs in the piece they were practicing all week.   

Hey, wait!  No way!

Then it connects.

Tricky, right?  They fall for it every time!

From there, we could go any direction we wanted. Change the meter?  Make it a waltz?  Reharmonize it?  How does it sound in minor? 

Like a kid with a transistor radio, seeing where all the colored wires connect.  What happens if we switch them?

This takes almost no time.  Five to seven minutes of the lesson.  Less than the time it takes to do a theory workbook assignment.

But the difference is, this music is alive.  


The Result?

I, for one, am in a constant state of wonder.  The students just think it's normal.  But their fluency has opened doors in their minds, and in the world.

Three started composing seriously that never had before, and are in their 4th year in The Golden Hornet Young Composer's Program in Austin, Texas.  I can't believe the music they are writing.

One, having never played jazz, felt confident enough to audition for his High School jazz program, and is now the pianist for the All Star Jazz Band in Austin.  He also formed a band with some school friends and they had their first gig this summer.

One, only in his second year of piano, loved the Spring theme from Vivaldi's Four Seasons, and played his epic ever-evolving arrangement of it involving modulations to at least 5 keys, major and minor, daily. Just for fun.  (Yes, I apologize to his mother often.  She is totally over it.)

They collaborate and create piano arrangements together for holidays, completely independent of me.

Do they read and play classical repertoire?  Yes.  Faster and easier. 

And I changed.  As my students transformed, I had to get comfortable with the still silence and open space that they needed for their own musical thoughts to take form, for them to make the connections. 

I had to get out of their way.

I sit back and resist sharing the millions of immediate ideas that pop up in my head as they start to try things, stretching their own creative wings.  

They are firmly on the path to fluency. 

My job is easy now.  

Music is their teacher, as it is mine. 

How did I get them all there? 

Slowly at first!  Like I said, I had to grow in my trust in their own musical curiosity, and they had to learn to trust it as well, and to be willing to wander musically without a map in front of them dictating which way to go.

Also, I had a little help from my friends. One White Rabbit in particular...

If you want to see what this all lead me to create, you can click here:

I know it is customary to put a powerful quote here from one of my students, but instead, this is my tiny Gallery of 
Public Persons Whose Artistic Values Align With Mine, especially in my teaching life. If you have a similar gallery as this, I'd love to see it!

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