Wednesday, December 25, 2013

A Thousand Years from the Twilight movies

My upload for the November Adult Beginners Forum virtual recital is A Thousand Years, by Christina Perri. It is from the Twilight movies.
mp3 link

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Hummingbird - a simple children's song

Perhaps my simplest song yet, Hummingbird. It is based on a true story. The music doesn't sound like much, like I said it sounds like a simple children's song. 

There are three files: MIDI, PDF and MP3. It is in Eb major (three flats: Eb Ab Bb) most of it is based on simple repetitive Eb F ostinato variations.

Lyrics follow:


Precious baby hummingbird
Lying on the ground
Fallen from a nest up high
Clicking fear out loud

Frantic Momma hummingbird
Where has baby gone?
Fallen from a nest up high
No where to be found

A kind person rescues me
saves the baby bird
Nurses baby back to health
So it can fly on

Precious baby hummingbird
Flying with its mom
Both click thank yous for my help
then they fly on

Friday, August 23, 2013

August ABF recital: Avenue D

Avenue D is my August virtual recital piece (link). Avenue D started as an improvisation that I would play after my Canon in D practice (my previous recital piece). The only constant to the improvisation was the ostinato starting phrase. I lose myself in the music, improvising off that one phrase. As recital time drew near, I sort through the best phrases and codify it into a set piece. 

There is a mistake in the submission. It is meant to be played ABAB, and the recording I uploaded is ABAA. I may eventually upload sheet music, but transcribing is still a slow and arduous task.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

How I got started in Songwriting: 50/90

Songwriting is something that I wanted to do. Many years ago, I asked a friend of mine, a former concert pianist who also composes, for advice. His advice was to listen to music that moves me, that has meaning for me.

When I started I had no formal music training, zero training in theory, only basic skills on a melody only instrument. For many years, I wrote about a song a year. Like so many beginners, I wrote when I felt inspired. After many years in the wilderness, so to speak, I stumbled upon an Internet group 50 songs in 90 days.
I didn't believe that kind of output was possible. I became curious and at that time a person had to register to read what others were posting. So I joined the group.

After I joined 50/90, songs began to come to me. My mind shifted. One day, maybe a week in, three songs or parts of songs came to me! This is for someone that wrote one song a year. Later that year, a startling conclusion came to me: that the ratio of what I consider my better songs to the so-so songs remains near constant, no matter how many songs I wrote.

While there is some bare minimum amount of time to write a song, or sketch out a song, it is a lot lower than many beginners believe. Another friend, writes a song at his live gigs, using a title voted on by the audience. It is an amazing process to watch, even tougher to try to do. This friend is an accomplished professional songwriter with over 100 songs released with his name in the writer credits. Many pro songwriters that aren't big time performers have this ability to work very fast. This person can sketch out a reasonable song in five minutes that is better than my stuff after five weeks and a dozen revisions.

For any beginners, I encourage you to join 50/90 even if it well past the July 4th start date. I started late my first year and still got a lot done. The 50 is just a number, and most years I fell short. What I tried to do and always tell people is to spend time on songwriting every day. Hopefully at least an hour a day. Some turn off the TV, or cut back on their computer time to make room for songwriting.

Songwriting has been a life changing experience. My original music has gotten me through some very difficult and dark times in my life. There are few things more satisfying than writing a new song, perhaps recording it, or performing it live.

More than a few beginners seem to be looking for a pill to take or a magic hat. What they don't understand that for most of us, the ability to write original music has been acquired like many other music skills. By good methods, repetition, and a lot of time and effort. Yes, there are some gifted songwriters, just as their are those that have an aptitude for sight reading or a natural ear for music. That said, most everyone can write music, if they make the effort, if they have some passion. Like beginner musicians, beginners songwriters may not sound very good. Most of us, write a lot of so-so songs, as part of the learning process.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Wits End: real life vs. songs

My Songmakers friend Kate Isenberg performs at a local venue called the WitzEnd in Venice, CA. During a discussion on songwriting, I said that I don't let the truth get in the way of a good song.

This new song does have some auto-biographical elements, but I also take some artistic license. Here is a MIDI version to listen to, and the PDF sheet music if you would like to play it. Lyrics are below:

Wits End
I am close to the edge of infinity
I am close to my wits end

Down on my luck, down on my life,
Turning my back on my friends.

I am close to the edge of infinity
I am close to my wits end
I can't think straight, I can't see straight,
I can't find my way home...

Three young muses sing me their songs,
Songs about love, songs about dreams,
Songs about going home...

Will I ever learn my lessons?
Will I ever dream in color?
Will I ever find my way home?

Three young muses sing me their songs,
Songs about love, songs about dreams,
Songs about going home...

I am close to the edge of infinity

I am close to my wits end

Monday, May 27, 2013

Acceptance inspired by Robert Frost

Acceptance is based on the poem by Robert Frost.

Here is a MIDI file to listen to.

Here is a PDF for musicians to read, print and play.

The story is that someone at Songmakers sang a song about old dogs with the line, nothing gold can stay. I reported that on Piano World and someone mentioned this second poem Acceptance. I took a look at that and my mind took off. I felt inspired. I'd say this is the second time I've felt that way during my 15 months on piano. The other was hearing two bars of melody in my head for The Passage of Time (see two posts back).

My adapted lyrics follow:
The spent sun throws up its rays on cloud
And goes down burning into the gulf below
No voice in nature cries aloud
With the change to darkness in the sky
One bird closes fading eyes
Or overtaken too far from the nest
hurries low above the grove
Swooping to remembered tree
Now let the night be dark for all of me
Too dark to see into the future
So I can let what will be .. be ..

The original poem:
Acceptance by Robert Frost

When the spent sun throws up its rays on cloud
And goes down burning into the gulf below,
No voice in nature is heard to cry aloud
At what has happened. Birds, at least must know
It is the change to darkness in the sky.
Murmuring something quiet in her breast,
One bird begins to close a faded eye;
Or overtaken too far from his nest,
Hurrying low above the grove, some waif
Swoops just in time to his remembered tree.
At most he thinks or twitters softly, 'Safe!
Now let the night be dark for all of me.
Let the night be too dark for me to see
Into the future. Let what will be, 'be.'

More about inspiration and perspiration: Some songwriters/composers hear entire pieces in their head, and the work consists of transcribing and recording. I've never had an entire piece come to me in that way. My inspiration tends to be a glimpse, a phrase or two, or a line or two of lyrics. From that I start building, working long hours using the craft that I have learned by doing. Most weeks, I devote significant time to the creative process and am always trying to find interesting bits to use.

When inspiration comes, which might only be once a year, that's when all the time spent at the creative grindstone pays off. Without putting in the time to develop the craft, inspiration might be like seeds on dry hard ground. A seed might wait for some day, or perhaps wait for the muse to do more work on the next visit. Unfortunately, my muse doesn't work that hard. If I waited for inspiration to write original music, I wouldn't have eleven original piano pieces. I would have two bars of inspired melody line, that would have floated away if I didn't record them, and an idea to set a poem to music.


Thursday, May 16, 2013

Pachelbel's Canon in D for the May Piano World recital

The Adult Beginners forum on Piano World has quarterly virtual recitals. My contribution for May is Pachelbel's Canon in D. I looked at or listened to about ten arrangements before settling on a simplified and shortened version, a level one arrangement. Here is the link:

Canon in D is one of my all time favorites. So even though it is an easy version, I am happy to have it. For lovers of piano music, here is link to a streaming player for all 60 submissions (link). I am at number 44. Most of the submissions are from intermediate level and better players. 


Saturday, March 23, 2013

One Year and The Passage of Time (also many useful links)

New upload, The Passage of Time, link to audio from live performance:

It is my one year anniversary for piano keyboard. For the many true beginners, let me say that I thought I would be terrible at piano. I was weak at sight reading (still am), despite many years on other instruments. When I was in choir, I always wanted to sing the melody line, so did not like harmony. Coming from melody instruments, I didn't know how to play a single chord. Factor in chronic physical problems with hands, wrists, neck, and shoulder, and tinnitus (ringing in the ears) and it seems like long odds for an adult beginner.

Yet here I am at one year and counting with a modest digital piano, and enjoying the journey. I encourage other one year beginners, especially those that have been reading along for this whole year to post about their story, their journey.

This is a long post, the abstract version follows:
* I logged about 300 hours of time on the instrument, probably another 300 or more on tutorials, books, other online materials.
* I am comfortable with two cover pieces: Ashokan Farewell, Somewhere Over the Rainbow.
* I have written or collaborated on ten original pieces, the tenth is The Passage of Time,
link to audio from live performance:

* Currently working on: Canon in D (level 1 arrangement)

Some useful tools or resources (some links at the bottom of this post):
* MuseScore composition software (free)
* free online Yale course on music appreciation
* book: The Musician's Way
* dozens upon dozens of Youtube tutorials and performances
* the Trillian archive
* And of course the Piano World forum, which led me to many of the resources above. I have no commercial interest or affiliation with any of the mentioned resources and only mention them because others may find them to be valuable. After all, someone else writing about them is is how I found many of them.

I started in March 2012 with a 61-key Yamaha NP11. I upgraded to a Casio PX-150 digital piano in January 2013. Other useful hardware includes a Sony Voice Recorder, headphones, external speakers, an Android tablet (Archos brand). I use the tablet for sheet music PDFs and tutorial videos. What got me interested, is a tablet app where you poke at a keyboard on screen. I had so much fun with that, I wanted more, and bought the 61-key Yamaha NP11. I have over 10 years on penny whistle and in songwriting, and over five years on Irish flute (though I am hack on flute). I can span an octave on the piano, but have to really stretch to get to an eighth.

Because of physical problems, I limit my practice time to about an hour a day, even when my schedule might allow for more. Cold packs, soaking in warm water, wearing gloves are all things I do to manage the physical problems. I limit my exposure to loud noises because of the tinnitus. I will not go to venues where they blast the music. During the fall, my schedule was busier and practice time was more like 20 minutes a day for three months, but I kept at it.

Comparisons can be discouraging or encouraging. Some people want to know where they are in relation to other beginners. I believe I am in the vast middle, below the top 20%, above the lower 20%, for those that have a similar 300 hours of time logged. I am fine with that. Some observers might tell me that I near the bottom in terms of technique for those sharing on the
latest Adult Beginners Forum recital, so how can I believe that I am in the middle? Well, I believe that those that share on the recital tend to be the top 10%, not the average beginners, so I don't let that discourage me.

I am sure that I would be further along if I had put in 900 hours (3 hours per day, six days per). Yes, there is process, how one practices, however I am sure I would have done less, had I put in only 100 hours (20 minutes a day) no matter how well I spent that time. While time and results are not linear, there tends to be a correlation for most people, especially the average person. Learning piano tends to be time intensive. I would rate piano easier than being an adult beginner on some other instruments such as flute. On flute and some other instruments it may take a year of dedicated practice just to get a decent sounding scale. On a piano, the average person can bang out a few notes, and get it to resemble a known song after a few weeks or a few months at the outside.

For a self-directed learner, practice habits and time, are the factors that a person can control. The Musician's Way book helped me structure my practice time. The book lists five zones: new material, developing material, performance material, technique, musicianship. I break it down to 40% on new material, 20% old material, 20% technique, 20% musicianship. This is a rough outline and I don't log the time, but I find it to be a useful guide. In addition to 300 practice hours, I probably spent another 300 hours, viewing tutorials, listening to performances, doing the Yale course, reading the Musician's Way book, attending live concerts, and that was time well spent. A more recent endeavor is reading the notes out loud from sheet music away from the piano.

The most useful tip from the forums is to slow it way down and practice accurately. Another important idea is that each person is different. Each person learns at their own pace, and they may learn in different ways. There are times when breakthroughs occur, and times that feel more like a short term plateaus or even a step back. There is visual (sheet music and watching another person demonstrate), aural (learning by ear), muscle memory (touch), and each person tends to have a combination of what works for them, and it will vary person to person. There are many roads to Rome.

I observe some of my strengths and weaknesses. Strengths include my willingness to performing in public and a slightly above average ear that serves me well when I write original music. Weaknesses include the physical problems that limit practice time, tinnitus, and poor aptitude for sight reading. I am good at breaking large tasks into many smaller ones. I tend to be organized, and have posted continually to the AOTW thread, even when my time was limited. The weekly posts help me gauge my progress and process the frustration when no progress seems to be occuring. The posts serve as a reminder that there are peaks and valleys, that when I get discouraged by the difficulty of learning something, that I have felt that way before and have overcome before. While not every hill on my road has been summited, the weekly journaling helps give me better perspective, and lets me decide if this particular hill is worth pushing to the top of it or not. It is supposed to be a hobby, so while effort is required, it is supposed to be fun, not a second or third job.

There are certainly times when I have been discouraged. I spent 14 weeks on Ashokan Farewell then crashed and burned during a public performance, unable to complete a single play through, even with the music in front of me. If a person is posting on the Adult Beginners Forum, the odds are high that music is a hobby. Again, hobbies are supposed to be fun. I just had a conversation today with another musician. He talked about those moments when playing music when time seems to stand still. There is a book, The Sweet Spot in Time, that mostly writes about athletes. However, I believe many musicians have also felt those moments. I certainly have, even with my limited skills on piano. Those moments are what keeps many of us going.

An analogy from another forum beginner, is that learning to play piano is like aspiring to climb Mount Everest. True beginners start at sea level. Many have some background or training so start higher. My background in songwriting and melody instruments gave me a head start. After a year, I feel like I have traveled a great distance. However, there remains an unimaginable amount to learn. The more I learn, the more I discern, so what used to be passable now sounds poor. There is another point, that not everyone wants to climb to the mountain top, or may have very different goals in mind.

I find joy in playing. I can sit and play even random notes or simple scales and find it satisfying at some level. I perform at the local Songmakers hoot every two months. That and the Adult Beginners Forum quarterly recitals give me a performance or recording date to focus on and that is a motivator.

My goal below is derived from a John Coltrane quote. It may sound all puffy to some, and probably won't make much sense to others. However, those that have felt those moments in music when time seems to stand still, will understand:
My music is a spiritual expression of who I am.

Some links follow, again I have no commercial interest in any:

Piano World adult beginners forum:

Songmakers a Southern California music group

Trillian tune archive. It can be an excellent resource for Christmas songs and folk tunes. ABC is popular in folk music, the site will produce sheet music PDFs, MIDI files and other formats.
MusesMuse songwriters forum

How Music Works (part 1 of many)

Tutorial on New age music

Tutorial on meditation music

Elton John writes music for an oven manual
(it illustrates the gap between the top pro songwriters and the rest of us)

I've viewed countless other Youtubes tutorials, movie clips, performances. There is a lot of chaff out there, but a lot of good information, and amazingly interesting stuff as well.

For those interested in composition I collected some tips on getting started in this thread:,%20advice%20for%20be.html#Post2034706
link to thread

fingering for 2 octave scales:

general practice tips

tips for adults:

sheet music library

Friday, February 15, 2013

February recital: Shadow, a meditation, a new piano, and a goal

I have two new pieces to share. I submitted Shadow (link1) to the Piano World Adult Beginners forum quarterly recital (link2). It is a companion piece to Shimmer (link3).

I also have a new meditation piece that I recorded on the vibraphone setting (link4). It reminds me of falling rain.

I recently upgraded to a Casio PX-150 digital piano. With 88 textured keys, it is significant upgrade from the 61-key Yamaha NP11.

More about the new pieces, Shadow and Shimmer are both in the key of C major. Shimmer is an upbeat, happy tune. Shadow is pensive and brooding at times. Even though they are quite similar in structure, slowing down the tempo and moving down a few notes, gives a darker mood.

The meditation is in the key of D flat major, all black keys. For those with a piano or keyboard, it is Db Ab Eb (octave) Db (octave), fingering 5-3-1-2 on the left hand, and single notes on the right. The YouTube tutorial I learned this from is link5. This is the latest in my explorations on a Pentatonic scale (five note scale).

I came across a quote from John Coltrane, and it has become a goal for me:

My music is a spiritual expression of who I am.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Black Hills live, Jazz, Pentatonic scale

I've been spending some time on the five black keys, which form a simple and easy to remember Pentatonic scale (wiki). Five-note scales are popular in Asia and in Native American music. I recently performed Black Hills on a Roland keyboard (link) at Songmakers (link2). My friend Vic is brushing the drums. 

Some say that pentatonic gives the music a primal, primitive feel. I find my time exploring the five black keys to be a freeing experience. Black Hills has a jazzy feel to it.