Improvising Requires Theory Knowledge

I was adding a upper/lower neighbouring note to a quarter note. As I wanted those two notes to take up a quarter note beat, both notes had to be eighth notes. I was sightreading the rhythm and mentally adding neighbouring notes left, right and center.

I do the above rather easily as I’m a piano teacher. But I was thinking – how easy would this be for my younger students who I have taught mostly by rote and ear? How do I explain to them that when an upper/lower neighbouring note is added to a quarter note, you play two eighth notes? Or equally, when a neighbouring note is added to a half note, each note becomes a quarter note.

I’m sure I could explain to them verbally what needs to be done. But I do wonder if it is so much easier if I could write it out for them. This is where music theory is a language which enables communication among musicians.

Learning to Improvise

I started on an improvement exercise yesterday – use chord tones to improvise over the tune When the Saints Go Marching In and use the same rhythm as the tune. I did it thrice yesterday. Grand. I did it today for three times again. Improvising using chord tones felt more enjoyable today.

I tried another exercise. Using lower and higher neighbouring notes, improvise over the same tune above. It was okay.

My takeaway point from the above is that improvising is a skill which requires practice, just like note reading. One doesn’t become good at improvising overnight. If it takes years to be proficient in reading notes and sight reading, why aren’t we investing the same number of years into improvisation?

How to Practice Piano?

Dr. Brent Hugh, Assistant Professor of Piano from Missouri Western State College listed 21 methods to practise the piano! There are many ways to practise, not just mere repetition. See which ones you already know and which ones you/your child may incorporate into your practice!

For instance, method 17 Record yourself is something that I repeatedly suggest to my students. See, I wasn’t making things up when I asked my students to record themselves (playing their pieces). A professor recommends it as a piano practice method too!

NOTE: a method may not be suitable for a student at a certain point in time. For example, I generally do not advise method 13 Count out loud for beginners or young students. It is already very difficult to memorise the notes and rests, play with appropriate finger posture, maintain concentration, relax the body, move the arms and hands, etc AND count aloud all at the same time? That’s too much for a beginner/young student. Besides, depending on the counting system used, the student needs to be very conversant with addition and fractions before s/he can count properly.

It is a good idea to ask your music teacher which practice method(s) is helpful for you/your child at different stages of their learning journey.

Characteristics of Musical Keys

This is a great resource: Characteristics of Musical Keys (


From Christian Schubart’s Ideen zu einer Aesthetik der Tonkunst (1806) translated by Rita Steblin in A History of Key Characteristics in the 18th and Early 19th Centuries. UMI Research Press (1983).

C Major
Completely Pure. Its character is: innocence, simplicity, naïvety, children’s talk.

C Minor
Declaration of love and at the same time the lament of unhappy love. All languishing, longing, sighing of the love-sick soul lies in this key.

D♭ Major
A leering key, degenerating into grief and rapture. It cannot laugh, but it can smile; it cannot howl, but it can at least grimace its crying.–Consequently only unusual characters and feelings can be brought out in this key.

C# Minor
Penitential lamentation, intimate conversation with God, the friend and help-meet of life; sighs of disappointed friendship and love lie in its radius.

D Major
The key of triumph, of Hallejuahs, of war-cries, of victory-rejoicing. Thus, the inviting symphonies, the marches, holiday songs and heaven-rejoicing choruses are set in this key.

D Minor
Melancholy womanliness, the spleen and humours brood.

E♭ Major
The key of love, of devotion, of intimate conversation with God.

D# Minor
Feelings of the anxiety of the soul’s deepest distress, of brooding despair, of blackest depresssion, of the most gloomy condition of the soul. Every fear, every hesitation of the shuddering heart, breathes out of horrible D# minor. If ghosts could speak, their speech would approximate this key.

E Major
Noisy shouts of joy, laughing pleasure and not yet complete, full delight lies in E Major.

E minor
Naïve, womanly innocent declaration of love, lament without grumbling; sighs accompanied by few tears; this key speaks of the imminent hope of resolving in the pure happiness of C major.
F Major
Complaisance & Calm.

F Minor
Deep depression, funereal lament, groans of misery and longing for the grave.

F# Major
Triumph over difficulty, free sigh of relief utered when hurdles are surmounted; echo of a soul which has fiercely struggled and finally conquered lies in all uses of this key.

F# Minor
A gloomy key: it tugs at passion as a dog biting a dress. Resentment and discontent are its language.

G Major
Everything rustic, idyllic and lyrical, every calm and satisfied passion, every tender gratitude for true friendship and faithful love,–in a word every gentle and peaceful emotion of the heart is correctly expressed by this key.

G Minor
Discontent, uneasiness, worry about a failed scheme; bad-tempered gnashing of teeth; in a word: resentment and dislike.

A♭ Major
Key of the grave. Death, grave, putrefaction, judgment, eternity lie in its radius.

A♭ Minor
Grumbler, heart squeezed until it suffocates; wailing lament, difficult struggle; in a word, the color of this key is everything struggling with difficulty.

A Major
This key includes declarations of innocent love, satisfaction with one’s state of affairs; hope of seeing one’s beloved again when parting; youthful cheerfulness and trust in God.

A minor
Pious womanliness and tenderness of character.

B♭ Major
Cheerful love, clear conscience, hope aspiration for a better world.

B♭ minor
A quaint creature, often dressed in the garment of night. It is somewhat surly and very seldom takes on a pleasant countenance. Mocking God and the world; discontented with itself and with everything; preparation for suicide sounds in this key.

B Major
Strongly coloured, announcing wild passions, composed from the most glaring coulors. Anger, rage, jealousy, fury, despair and every burden of the heart lies in its sphere.

B Minor
This is as it were the key of patience, of calm awaiting ones’s fate and of submission to divine dispensation.

Why I’m Against Teaching Western Classical Music

I like the song Never Enough from the movie The Greatest Showman a lot. In fact, it’s on my bucket list. Here’s me playing it.

It’s not perfect. I learnt it mostly by ear. The melody by ear and the chords partly by guitar chord sheets. I like the song so much that it’s actually on my bucket list. The playing is not complicated at all. A melody in the right hand and block chords in the left hand. It’s probably grade 2 in standard. But I derive so so much pleasure when I play it.

Which makes me think why don’t more piano teachers:

  • allow their students, especially teenagers and adults to play pieces that they like; and
  • teach their students how to play by ear so that they can pick out songs/tunes by themselves?

No, you can’t talk unless you read a book

Imagine saying this to a child: “No, you can’t open your mouth and talk unless you are reading from a book.” This would be extremely odd, isn’t it? Surely a child or anyone should be able to open their mouth and say something – how they are feeling, describe the weather, objects, their lives, etc. It’s absurd that a person isn’t allowed to say something but instead, can only read the words from a book, poem, news article, etc.

What’s even more odd is that a child normally only learns to read when they are in primary/elementary school. Oh yes, they may be exposed to reading before that but certainly, you wouldn’t stop a child from talking just because they can’t read.

The above actually describes how traditional piano is commonly being taught. They play the piano by learning to read music. There are piano/keyboard books that teach a child the musical notation from the very beginning. They may disguise the reading activities as games or fun things to do. But make no mistake, they are designed to teach notes from the beginning.

After 15 years of teaching the piano/keyboard, I came to the conclusion that the traditional method of learning piano is flawed. It’s a pity that it took me so long to realise that but it’s better later than never. I had to come to that conclusion myself as the majority of piano lessons in the world (a fallacy no doubt) are taught this way – to play by reading sheet music.

If the objective is to play the piano, surely it doesn’t matter how that objective is accomplished.

We wouldn’t tell a child to talk only when they can read the words of a printed material. We encourage them to talk freely, by imitating their parents, family, teachers and kids or even from the telly. We encourage them or actually expect them to use words to describe what’s happening to them. Why can’t we adopt this approach in music education? Show kids how to play a musical instrument by letting them copy us, visually and aurally. And then, allow them to improvise freely so that they can use their musical instrument to speak, talk. Afterall, isn’t music a language too?

Carbon Fiber Violin Bow Sucks. Or Does it?

I bought a US$88 carbon fiber violin bow from an Ebay seller Yitamusic. I had for about a month or slightly less than that. For the weirdest reason to me, it makes a fuzzy, scratchy, buzzing sound when I use it on a violin that I also purchased from Yitamusic and my old student violin from Thomann. I read online forums and couldn’t figure out why it sounds like that. I used a cheap student bow that cost maybe about US$20 and it sounds great on the two violins – the sound is clear and defined.

So, there’s a long story to why I ordered another violin from another Ebay seller CapitalMusic. That’s a story for another day. But I did and it arrived yesterday. I tried the sucky bow on it and it didn’t sound as bad as on the violin from Yitamusic, but still bad. It’s very puzzling. Anyhow, I decided to return the bow to the seller and used a napkin to remove any excess rosin on the horsehair. I emailed the seller for a return address.

That was yesterday. I tried the sucky bow on the violin that arrived yesterday this morning. It actually sounded okay/decent this time. I also noticed that there’s specks of rosin coming off the bow when I was playing. Very little amount of rosin though. Hmmm. Maybe the CF bow works with the new violin but not the other two due to a ‘personality clash’. Why not. Human beings clash with one another. Why not violins and bows?

Anyhow, I thought I should try the CF bow with the Yitamusic violin one last time. I did and it was actually okay. It’s not exactly decent but I can start hearing clear notes on the D string. Previously, every notes played on the G, D and A string are muffled, fuzzy or buzzing. But for once I could hear a relatively clear note on the D string this morning.

I wondered whether I have too much rosin on the bow?

He Didn’t Like Tennis When he First Started it

I was having a chat with a dad who’s training to be a tennis coach. He said that he had to ‘force’ his son to pick up tennis and his son didn’t like it at first. However, his son started to like the game when he developed some skill in it and started going for competition, after a year or two.

That brought to my mind kids who started learning the piano/keyboard. Most of them can’t control their fingers. They find it hard to move their hands and to play accurate. They might not be able to remember what I showed them by rote. They might not be able to do a lot of things. I would sometimes just focus on one thing for the whole lesson. Playing a musical instrument is tough. It usually takes a lot of time and practice before you can see and hear results. For me, I think I only really played ‘nicely’ after maybe 20 years. I took maybe 4 years of lessons during that time and played the piano on and off.

Perhaps this is where parents come in – to insist that their child continues to play the piano/keyboard until they get over the ‘hump’.