Diamonds are formed under pressure


Diamonds are formed under pressure.”

And bread dough rises when you let it rest.

The same boiling water that softens the potato will harden the egg.”

We are all our own things.

What’s motivating to you may be crippling to others.

(source unknown)


Changing Teachers

During the first couple weeks with a new transfer student, they will often exclaim when I say or demonstrate something, “Wow – I didn’t know that! My old teacher never told me about this.” Or they will say things like,”I have learned more from you in just one month than from my old teacher in a year!”

When I first started teaching, I naturally assumed this happened because I was such a better teacher than their old one. Then one day, a colleague conducted a small masterclass for some of my students and in the process asked my student in what key his piece was. He gave her a blank look and said, ” – I don’t know?”

I almost fell off my chair. Mouth agape, stunned look on my face, I could not believe he did not remember how we had figured out not only in what key his piece was, but also the key relationships from one section to the next. Whenever I quizzed him at his lessons, he knew all of that. And now – suddenly he doesn’t know in what key his piece is??  I was embarrassed and made sure to tell my colleague afterward, privately, that this student DID in fact know the answer. She just chuckled and said, “I know you well enough to know that you wouldn’t teach this piece without going over the key relationships.”

Nice of her, but very eye-opening for me. Now when I get a transfer student who doesn’t “know” something I don’t automatically assume that the previous teacher didn’t teach it.

It also puts in a different light when transfer students gush at how much more they are learning from me than their old teacher: so often it is simply a matter of hearing a new voice, sometimes a different gender, describe or explain something in a new way that makes them pay attention in a way they didn’t with the old teacher. Different environment, different materials perhaps, different vocabulary, and also very simply a bit of adrenaline because everything is so NEW! and not familiar yet.

To parents of teenagers this is nothing new. One of my favorite books as a parent of teenagers was “Get Out of My Life, but First Could You Drive Me & Cheryl to the Mall” by Anthony E. Wolf, Ph.D.  In the chapter on “They Don’t Listen to Anything I Say” he imagines the following conversation: 

“Eloise, I think it would be a good idea if you dropped Spanish. You’re spending a lot of time on it, and you’re still failing. I’m afraid it’s pulling your other grades down as well.”

“No, Dad, I can handle it. Just leave me alone. You don’t know anything. I’m doing okay.”

“No, Eloise, you’re starting to do badly, and I think the Spanish is just too much.”

“Dad! I can handle it. I’m doing okay. Now leave me alone.”

Two nights later: “Dad, I’ve decided to drop Spanish. I was talking to Becky’s mother about how I was having trouble in school and she said maybe I should drop Spanish. I think she’s right. Besides, I don’t need it anyway, and now I’ll have more time for my other subjects.”

“What did I just say to you two nights ago?”

“I don’t remember.”



Look in the Mirror

(the following Thought of the Day was written by Marc Jones  for Facebook)


I admit I am the worst at being critical of myself. I pick everything I do, how I look, what I say apart all the time. Now I’m not as bad as I used to be because I am working on it and I have had many revelations about myself the last seven years. But I still can be my worst critic. We all can be. Why is that?

Well, for me it comes from years of having my self esteem stamped down. Once that happens, and I blame myself a lot for it happening or allowing it to, then it takes a lot of work and time to regain that self esteem. But I am getting there. I think many of you can relate.

When I speak of looking in the mirror and being proud of who you see I’m not talking about the physical reflection altho you all know I believe in taking care of yourself and looking the best you can look for your age and stage you are at in life. What’s right for me isn’t what’s right for you. Know that.

I’m talking about does the image you see invoke pride at who you are inside. Are you loving, kind, genuine, truthful, helpful and empathetic ? Are you giving yet able to receive in gratitude as well? Are you grateful for what you have and not jealous of others and their successes? Do you celebrate others and their accomplishments? Are you faithful and loyal and do you have a good moral compass? Do you embrace good people and reject the ideas of hate and evil and narcissism at any cost?

Basically when you look in the mirror do you see a person who has lived, loved, laughed, cried, hurt and survived only to be stronger and wiser and wanting to do better? Do you see a human being with a heart willing to open it to others yet knowing there is so much more to learn and to love? Do you see a person who tries to not judge anyone but understand we all have our plights in life?

If you can see that person you, like myself, should be proud. You’ve worked hard to get there!

Blessings to you all on this great Saturday!

(Source: Marc Jones, Facebook)


Recently, a disgruntled parent complained that my expectations were unclear.

I scoffed. To me there is not much  that’s more important in the teacher – student – parent triangle than to set clear expectations so I have always been extra careful to communicate these.

I checked with some other parents who immediately reassured me that my expectations were in fact very clear.

Except, they are not really. Clear.

What is clear are my instructions – they are detailed, very specific, aimed at that particular student, written down in the assignment binder, broken down into easy-to-follow steps. The “what to practice” is only a very first step. What follows can be an entire paragraph of “how to practice what you’re supposed to practice”.

I include the student in this process – “What should I write down to help you remember at home what we are working on?” – “What’s a good word to describe the most important thing here?” etc and so on.

But I hardly ever say, “By the next lesson I expect you to be able to do da-da-da.” I guess I assume that if the instructions say “m. 5-8 RH alone” that means that by the next lesson I expect to hear m. 5-8 RH alone.

I did have one student some time ago who during the five-lesson trial period came back to a lesson and said he wasn’t sure what he was supposed to do with the assignment that said “New: Minuet”. I was baffled: did I really have to spell out “Learn to play the new minuet”?? Apparently so.

My expectations have more to do with – behavior? I am trying to be polite, friendly, considerate, prepared, I start and end lessons on time, and I expect students and parents to be and do the same: they are polite, friendly, considerate, prepared, and they show up on time.

I expect my students to habitually show a high level of enthusiasm, motivation, and commitment. Which means that most of the time they are enthusiastic, motivated, and committed, but not all the time.

One of my high school students, some time ago, apologized for not having been well-prepared for several lessons in a row. Wide eyes when I responded, “I don’t care.” Say what? I explained that I assumed he was doing his best and that I understood that there’s only so much time in a day / week, and that I was glad and proud that he was doing so much other extra-curricular stuff so naturally piano took a backseat for a couple lessons, and I knew he’d get back to spending more time with piano as soon as the other stuff calmed down. But I also appreciated that he recognized that he wasn’t as well-prepared and that he said something.

I guess that is my expectation then: that students (and parents) do their best, and their best is good enough for me.

play – practice – perform

play  ~  practice  ~  perform     Part One

Playing, practicing, performing are the three basic ways we spend time at the piano. Neither one is better or more important than the other, all three are essential. They are related, yet distinctly different. It is therefore important and necessary to define what it means to play, to practice, and to perform.

When you play the piano, the goal is to not have a specific goal.  Whatever happens is ok. Wrong note? No problem. Tempo all over the place? Don’t worry about it.  Which is probably why we call it “playing for fun” – because it’s fun not to have to worry about stuff. “Messing around” at the piano falls in the playing category, as does trying out new pieces.  One could compare playing to the way one meets people at a party or public function: due to the setting, interactions are usually less thorough, less intense, than in a one-on-one meeting. You will probably not take the time to divulge your inner-most secrets to every single person in the room – as a matter of fact, it would be inappropriate to do so; nor would you spend the time and resources (questionnaires etc) to get to know every last little detail about everyone present.

When you practice, the goal is to improve. This requires two things: you need a goal (what do I want to improve?) and you need a plan, a strategy (what do I need to do in order to improve?). Having a goal but no strategy is similar to having a destination but no knowledge of how to get there. On the other hand, having a strategy but no goal will make you wander aimlessly.  It is helpful to have an evaluation system in place: how do I know when I have reached my goal?

When you perform, you have an audience, real or imagined.  A pianist in a recording studio does not have a real audience, but he/she is playing as if there were an audience because once the CD or DVD has been published, it will be listened to, and/or watched by an audience. When you perform for a real/live audience, you get one chance at presenting your piece and for that reason it is different from playing. Most people underestimate what it takes to perform. They think that performing is like playing, except with a lot of concentration because you don’t want to mess up.  They think since you know how to play, you should – with a lot of concentration – be able to perform.  However, that’s like saying you’re qualified to give a speech just because you know how to speak.

Even though all three elements – playing, practicing, performing – are equally important, this is not how most students and pianists spend their time at the piano: we tend to spend a huge amount of time practicing, some time playing (feeling guilty because we’ve been told that we should be practicing), and even less time performing. We especially don’t practice to perform. This means our performance success is based on luck (“Just focus and you’ll be fine!”) rather than skill (“I have practiced to perform, I am well-prepared.”)


play  ~  practice  ~  perform     Part Two

A different frame of mind is required for each of the three basic ways we spend time at the piano.

When you play the piano, the goal is to not have a specific goal.  In other words, you don’t care what happens. You should not care. The point is not to care. The moment you care, you are actually practicing.

When you practice, the goal is to improve.  In other words, you must care. You must listen and critique and correct and aim to improve.  If necessary, you must interrupt your playing in order to fix something. You must be prepared to interrupt, and to repeat short sections. If you don’t care, you’re not actually practicing, you are playing.

When you perform, you have an audience, real or imagined.  In order to perform successfully, you must leave the “practice” frame of mind behind. You may take mental notes of your performance, but any accidental deviation from the perfect ideal must not distract you or interrupt your playing. It takes practice to change one’s frame of mind, intentionally, from practicing to performing.  Naturally, there is more to successful performing but this different frame of mind is probably the thing students and pianists overlook the most often.


Vanhal Cello Concerto in C

In May, Mark came across mention of a cello concerto by Vanhal he wasn’t familiar with, decided to look for it and found a delightful YouTube recording but no score.

After much research he did find the full score (via interlibrary loan). imslp has the composer’s own transcript for viola, but not cello.

International Music Company sells the version for viola and piano, but both the cadenzas and the piano reduction are highly romanticized and therefore not really useful.

On the Reddit Cello Forum, Mark posted,

“The only thing I could find was a full score via interlibrary loan.

With the help of my cello teacher and my wife, a pianist and piano studio owner, I was able to produce a cello transcription from this score. Unfortunately the score had a number of inaccuracies, and even some cello parts in viola clef.

After several weeks work, with dozens of edits and revisions, we have a cello transcription that includes articulations, fingerings, and dynamics.”

The inaccuracies in the full score were at times mind-boggling – missing accidentals, horrible melody lines (“resolving” an F# up to C, etc.), and as Mark said, cello parts written in *viola* clef.

I created a piano reduction of the orchestra part, attempting to stay true to the Classical style and also aiming to keep it at a (late) intermediate level so it would be playable by an advancing student.

After two months of much tedious and exciting work, we are proud to announce that we now have a publication of the Cello Concerto in C major by Johann Baptist Vanhal, for cello and piano, the only one in existence. Published on SheetMusicPlus as well as SheetMusicDirect. 

It is reminiscent of the Haydn Concerto in C, just as delightful but a tiny bit easier and therefore approachable for cello students who are not quite ready for the Haydn.

Here is the link to Mark’s post on his cello blog:

How to Practice Better

The following are excerpts from Arnold Schwarzenegger’s daily email where he wants to cultivate “the positive corner of the internet”. While his emphasis is of course on physical fitness, many of the things he advocates for apply to any endeavor where you are trying to get better.

From the June 5 email:

Less Is More

Want to know what goes great with focusing on your wins? Narrowing your focus and not trying to do too much at once. A simpler approach can make all the difference between breaking through and experiencing setbacks.

Research suggests the more goals you try to tackle — and the more complicated you make them — the less likely you are to achieve your desired outcome. People try to “build Rome in a day” and overvalue complicated decisions over simple, repeatable behaviors.

[…]If you want healthy habits that last, you must make it so easy it’s hard to fail. Only then, can you progress to the more difficult challenges. I didn’t start by deadlifting 700 pounds or doing the workouts that made me Mr. Olympia. It began with pullups on branches and deadlifts in the dirt. Over time, as the reps and weights increased, I could train longer and harder and become stronger. But none of that would have been possible without tremendous focus that allowed me to build great routines.

So instead of setting 10 goals, start with just one or two — and make sure that they are realistic. Want to become a better cook? Start with basic recipes with simpler ingredients. Want to get up earlier? Limit your screen time later in the day and set an earlier bedtime. If you haven’t been in the gym in a few weeks, don’t start with an hour workout. Instead, See if you can do a 20-minute workout, two or three times per week. […]

The behaviors you want to achieve are the byproduct of stacking small wins and doing them repeatedly. The more they add up, the more you can add complication and challenges, and the more likely you are to stick to the plan, gain confidence, and achieve results better than anything you accomplished before.

So, how does that apply to practicing?

One Thing At A Time

Decide what you want to improve. If the goal is to play correct notes only, then you may have to temporarily ignore dynamics, articulation, expression, even rhythm to some degree. My favorite advice here is to “abandon fluency”.

Of course you are aware of what the dynamics, articulation, expression will eventually be, but for now, focus on that one thing: correct notes.

On the other hand, if your goal is to play with more expression, then you may have to ignore an accidental wrong note here and there.

Eventually, it will all come together, and you will be able to play correct notes with the correct rhythm and appropriate dynamics, articulation, expression, fluency, and tempo (which should always come last).

The goal should always be to make things so easy it’s practically impossible to fail.

The more concrete and manageable your goal is, the more likely you will accomplish it.

While some people are spurred on by failure, success is actually the best motivator. So, set yourself up for success, by focusing on One Thing At A Time. 

Dealing with Performance Anxiety

Most of us who grew up learning an instrument and therefore performing at recitals were offered various pieces of advice on how to deal with performance anxiety.

They ranged from, “Just focus and you’ll be alright!” to “Pretend the audience is wearing nothing but their underwear!” (because half-naked people are – less threatening?) to “Pretend the audience isn’t there.” That last one always baffled me: if you pretend the audience isn’t there, then why are you performing? Isn’t it for the audience? The audience you pretend isn’t there?

My teacher was different. She didn’t give advice but she made sure we were so well-prepared that any chance of “messing up” was minimal (and we practiced recovery for when mistakes did happen). We also practiced to perform, not once at a dress rehearsal but many times during the lessons leading up to a performance: how to walk up to the piano, bow, make sure the bench was at the proper height and distance, sit down, hear the beginning of the piece in our head, perform, finish, get up, bow, walk back to our seat.

If that sounds tedious – yes, maybe it was, but those are the steps involved in performing and so we practiced all of those steps until they felt natural and became part of “performing” – not just practicing your piece until it was perfect.

She also addressed the physical aspects of being nervous: feeling like you can’t breathe, etc.: she had us do jumping jacks – “faster!” – until we were out of breath and then immediately sit at the piano, and figure out what we had to do so we could perform while – initially – being out of breath. It was a good exercise, both physically, but also mentally in that the vague “nervous” became a very concrete physical sensation one could deal with.

I have since added my own ideas: butterflies in your stomach? Make them fly in formation. Shaky knees? Gently hold on to them with your hands and move them with purpose. And of course breathing techniques. All of which is meant to put you back in control, not allowing the performance and everything around it to control you.

The Issue of Wrong Notes

How one deals with wrong notes depends on what one is trying to accomplish.

When learning a new piece, it is useful to distinguish between the different skills needed.

HARD, HIGH-PRECISION SKILLS are actions that are performed as correctly and consistently as possible, every time. They are about repeatable precision. It helps to be careful, slow, and keenly attuned to errors because the first reps establish the pathway for the future.  

SOFT, HIGH-FLEXIBILITY SKILLS aren’t about doing the same thing perfectly every time, but rather about being agile and interactive. With these skills, we are not trying for Swiss-watch precision, but rather for the ability to quickly recognize a pattern or possibility, and to work past a complex set of obstacles. Soft skills are built by playing and exploring.”

(from Daniel Coyle “The Little Book of Talent – 52 Tips for Improving your Skills”) 


The HARD SKILL, as it pertains to learning a new piece, especially the notes, is:

  • repeatable precision, getting it right the first time and every time, no pecking at the keys until it sounds like it could be correct. 
    • Frances Clark says, “We must rid ourselves of the notion that in each day of practice, we make fewer mistakes than the day before. Practice is playing perfection again and again.“


To succeed, one must figure out what it takes to get it right the first time and every time.

Examples are:

  1. writing note names, finger numbers and counting in the score;
    • how to know which note names to write in the score: use the two-second rule: if it takes two seconds or longer to name the note and/or find the key on the piano – write the note name in the score.
    • Stephen Hough says, “When starting to learn a piece I always write in fingerings. It aids memory, it emphasises the act of study, it discourages a sloppy “sight-read till ready” attitude, it forestalls nerves in a performance, it personalises the score.”
  1. circling easy-to-overlook details such as sharps and flats from the key signature, accidentals;
  1. but most importantly: abandoning fluency and GOING SLOW and DELIBERATE.
    • Stephen Hough says, Slow practice can be a complete waste of time if the mind is not working quickly. Simply to trawl through passages like a contented tortoise is a waste of the felt on your piano’s hammers. Good slow practice is more like a hare pausing to survey the scene sharp in analysis, watching through the blades of grass, calculating the next sprint. […] It stops any tortoisian ambling and it focuses the mind quickly from one reflex to another. It is a hare with alert eyes.
    • Madeline Bruser says, The real key to vivid engagement with music isn’t slowness. It’s attention. But most of us are so used to speeding through all of our activities, including our practicing, that we need to slow down a lot at first in order to discover the power of attention. As we develop our listening capacity much more, it operates fully at faster and faster speeds.”
    • Diane Hidy says, “Practice at the speed of no mistakes.”
    • Someone else said, “Do yourself a favor and get it right!”

These tactics are like a cast for a broken bone:

They are necessary for success (healing a broken bone without a cast is possible but not likely to yield desirable results), and

They are temporary (cast comes off when the bone is healed). It is helpful to make a copy of the score to initially write note names, fingerings, helpful comments in the score, and then as one progresses set that copy aside and make a new one for a new set of comments and helpful hints.


SOFT SKILLS, as they pertain to learning to play a piece, have to do with exploring, experimenting with vague details such as pedal and dynamics, etc. = there is no one correct way.

Here, it is ok to ignore an accidental wrong note, especially if fluency is the goal.


Hard skills build the house,

soft skills apply wallpaper.

You can – you probably should! – dream 

about wallpaper while the house is being built

but you cannot apply it until you have walls.