Recording Acoustic Pianos

Until about 20 years ago I made recordings right after having my grand tuned and regulated, in the evening. I set up microphones and open reel recorders and did all the editing myself.  It was also hot, since I had to turn of air conditioning while recording. Finally, I had to make sure that I recorded at a time when there were no interruptions and no neighbors would be bothered. It was wonderful when it worked, but more often it was stressful and frustrating.

To this very moment there are people who consider any recording not made on an acoustic instrument as inferior. Period. They are doing roughly what I used to do, although recording equipment is improving all the time.

It’s important to mention briefly that while recordings of very fine players being recorded on superb acoustic pianos are wonderful, it’s a very impractical thing for people with limited space and limited funds. Acoustic pianos used for performance must be treated a bit like a fine race car. They are marvelous instruments, but they need continual attention. This includes regulation, tuning, voicing of hammers, replacement of broken strings and many other things of that nature too extensive and too technical to go into here. All of this is quite expensive.

Recording Digital Pianos

Music is my number one passion and has been my entire life. Sharing what I know about music with others or just exchanging knowledge is the kind of conversation I enjoy most. Although I teach many students, fives days a week, I participate in forums almost every night to share my experience with people around the world and to continue to get new ideas.

I have been much more interested in recording than in playing live since about age 30. Although live performances are wonderful, they don’t reach many people. I believe it is a reasonable statement to say that many if not most of us have experienced far more live concerts through recordings or videos of them than through the experience of being present for the live performances themselves, in the audience. In short, recordings are terribly important. Without them, most of the music people hear would not be available.
I continued recording after I stopped making live performances, and for about 10 years I made recordings on a Yamaha grand, my own instrument. That instrument was destroyed in a fire, and the amount of space available to me since then would not have given me any place to put it, even if it were still in perfect condition. In short, although I do miss playing on a grand, as I did in the past, I no longer have room for one, and this has forced me to concentrate on how people with limited space and privacy may continue to feel free to practice and record in spite of small spaces, neighbors, families, and unusual hours.
Learning a new composition or re-working an old one with the goal of producing the best possible result remains “ultimate game” for me. From about 1990 through to 2000, digital recordings were a very important outlet for me, long after I had given up live performances and no longer had the time, money or space to continue making acoustic recordings. The first digital keyboards were crude, but they soon improved. Newer sound standards emerged, sampled sounds became increasingly realistic, and more and more people began to take recordings of digital pianos seriously.
Any recordings featured here are from that time period.
I continue to believe that digital pianos are equalizers for those of us who live in small spaces, work long hours and have limited privacy. We can play at odd times using earphones, record and edit ourselves, send the results to other people, all with the touch of a few buttons or a few mouse clicks. It’s not a perfect solution, and I am the first to agree that nothing will ever replace a fine acoustic instrument. However, a good digital piano is an exceptable second choice, and many people may prefer playing one to playing an inferior acoustic instrument, for the reasons I have suggested above.
I do.
As newer sound standards emerge, as sampled sounds become increasingly realistic, and the actions of digital instruments continue to be improved, it is my belief that more and more people will consider them an important new way to practice, to record, and to compose music.

The key to getting the most from your weekly lesson

A really great private piano teacher knows that structured learning is the key to measuring your progress and ensuring that you are on track. This does not imply the teacher is inflexible and disinclined to consider your musical preferences but a good piano teacher will not lose sight of the real goal, which is to help you develop the skills needed to play well. As you develop these skills you will be able to play the songs you personally prefer.

Children and adults learn very differently. Children learn generally by association, so if the connection with piano lessons is mostly positive they will probably continue to pursue music in some way for the rest of their life. You want your child to be successful.

What’s the secret to this success?
The secret to your child’s success on piano, of course, is practice. This comes from your support and guidance. If your child has recently begun lessons or seems to be losing interest try sitting with them when they practice and help them work through the challenges.

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The parent’s role…
As parent or caregiver your challenge is to a build this positive connection into the experience of learning piano. Parents who work with their children, especially in the first year of lessons, will generally have far greater success because the attention you give builds that positive association. And the benefits of working with your child go way beyond just the ability of your child to play piano. You’ll be learning too. And, in most cases, your relationship with your child will grow and strengthen as a result.

Practice… promises, promises…
You only think you are practicing everyday. But ‘life’ gets in the way without you even realizing. To avoid getting too far off track, keep a practice log or chart, or find an app that will graphically show your child’s progress.

Count minutes, not days…
Rather than trying to commit to a set number of days to practice (reality check: most people rarely practice EVERY day), set a minutes goal for the week. Now you have some flexibility.

With younger children – under 8 years old – aim for 15 minute practice sessions at first. Increase the practice time gradually, according to the attention span of the child and the material. Older kids should be able to start with a minimum of 20 minutes per day and increase practice time as needed. A realistic goal would be 180 minutes of practice per week for the beginning player.

The most important practice time is right after your lesson, and the following day, while new material is still fresh in your mind. Aim for 30 minutes sessions on these days. Use the rest of the week to attain the balance of your practice time goal.

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Who doesn’t want to top their last score?
Most of us like to see if we can do better, whether it be a test score, or video game ranking, or how many hoops we can shoot.… We are compelled to try again, to try and do better. It’s the same reasoning behind the practice log.

But even if you don’t meet your goal each week, use it to challenge yourself to meet or exceed your practice time. Keep it front and center so it’s the last thing you do when you end your practice, and the first thing you see each day. With today’s technology you can remind yourself about nearly everything.

If at the end of every practice session you honestly log your practice times you will not be able to mislead yourself. It’s a daily reality check. It’s a record of your efforts, and by acknowledging your efforts you will have confidence in your abilities.

Practice Tips…. Help yourself …
Stay organized. Keep everything you need in one place so you can get started quickly when it is practice time. You want to be able to get into a rhythm with your practice. Take a minute or two at the end to put your materials away so they are easily ready for the next session.

Prioritize. You probably can think of tons of songs you want to play but will they make you a better player? Remember to keep the weekly goals at the top of your list. It’s these stepping stone skills that will increase your playing ability, and soon enough you’ll be playing the tunes you dreamed of playing. Your teacher is there to help guide you with this.

Set time limits. Work on a skill for no more than 10 minutes or so and then move on to something else so your practice time doesn’t become a drudge. You can do this for scales, or sections of a song, or running through old material to keep it fresh.

Track and log your practice. When you keep track of your practice you will become more aware of your progress. It’s this organic awareness that will make you feel more confident about achieving your goals and keep you moving forward.

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Acoustic Piano or Digital Piano

The most frequent question I am asked by beginners is this: “What kind of instrument should I buy?”

If you live in a mansion and are rich, the answer is easy. Buy a grand piano. Money is no problem, privacy is no problem, space is no problem. You won’t bother your neighbors if you practice all night.

But what do you do if you are not so fortunate? Let’s be practical.

1) Most people do not have unlimited funds. Adults who start piano lessons do not know if they will continue for one month, one year, or many years. Parents who start lessons for their children face the same problem. For a relatively small amount of money you can buy a 61 key electronic keyboard that will give you time to make big decisions later.

2) Most people have limited space where they live. A basic electronic keyboard fits into a small area.

3) Most people have limited privacy. If they find time to practice while others are trying to sleep or at times when they would disturb neighbors, there is no way to turn down the volume of an accoustic instrument. All sound can be cut off when using an electronic piano simply by using earphones. This gives the person practicing complete privacy.

To Memorize or Not To Memorize

Some people memorize everything they play.
Some people memorize only a few things they like very much and want to show off.
Some people absolutely hate memorization and want no part of it.
How should you decide how much memorization is right for you?
Here are a few guidelines. 
  1. Reading speed is one of the biggest, if not the biggest factor in deciding whether to memorize. If you read very well and are able to play things in a manner that satisfies you without memorizing, then for you memory is is often optional. If you are a very slow reader, you have no choice but to memorize anything you play well, because you won’t be able to play anything full speed using only the score for cues. If you are a reasonably good reader but it is not one of your biggest strengths, memory will almost definitely play a bigger part in your practice and performance. And of course, if you decide to perform classical literature on stage, you will almost certainly be expected to play from memory. Generally, if what other people think is important to you, if you do like to show off and wish to impress the greatest number of people, you will want to memorize at least some of your work. If you don’t care much about playing for other people, or what other people think of your playing, memorization may be a non-issue.
  2. Beware: playing from memory can also be very embarrassing if you have not been taught how to do it well. Losing your place for a moment with a score in front of you is just a momentary glitch. Forgetting what comes next while playing from memory in front of an audience can be terribly painful. Some people have a terrible experience playing from memory and never again want to play in front of anyone, even with music.
  3. If you do want to perform from memory but also read well and already play with confidence with music, think about performing with music at least a few times to gain the feeling of success. Then, if you later play from memory and it does not go well, your will have prior successful experiences to focus on. You can continue to perform with music while learning more about *how* to memorize.
  4. There are a few lucky people who play anything from memory with zero problems. Frequently they have photographic memory, so in a way they are not playing from memory. They are looking at the music “on the back of the eyelids”, so to speak. They rest of us who do not have such gifts need strategies to ensure that we are rock solid when we play from memory. It’s very important to be carefully prepared to play without music.  Playing many different short sections of a piece from memory is just one important strategy to avoid a deadly memory lapse and being unable to continue.
  5. Speed and style play a huge role. It’s far easier to play slow compositions using music than fast ones. You have much more time to look up and down, from the score to the hands. In addition, when the hands do not move much and you can feel most of the movements your hands need to make without moving, memory doesn’t really help much. If you have to jump a great deal, especially with both hands at the same time, then memorization is much more helpful.
  6. No matter how well you read and play from a score, make sure you have a page-turner if you play in public if what you are playing is more than two pages long.

Note values

Note values are often explained using a diagram called a “note tree”. My chart here is similar in reasoning but shows notes placed as they would be in music.
However, to emphasize the math behind the symbols, I make a circle with my hand for a whole note, add the index finger of my other hand for a half note, make the circle into a fist for a quarter note, and wiggle my index finger for an eighth note (to remind that something must be added to the stem to make the eighth.) The principle is so sound, it often works very well with adults too.
This simple concept is very important and very powerful. Each time something is added to a note, the length of the note is cut in half. Although a knowledge of fractions is obviously an advantage, it is not necesary to use fractions to count. I developed this idea for children under seven, to help them understand how we keep track of time. However, some of my beginning adult students have found it an excellent way to instantly grasp the same basic information.
Summing up:
  1. Hand forming open-circle = whole note
  2. Hand forming open-circle + index finger = half note
  3. Hand forming closed-circle (fist)+ index finger = quarter note
  4. Hand forming closed-circle (fist)+ wiggling index finger = eighth note