10 Keys to Expression


Finding your audience.  Strategic preparation.  Trust.

I often see discomfort immediately in piano students when I mention an opportunity coming up to perform  Yet, I also witness how powerful performing can be when students share their music.  Finding the right audience, strategic preparation and trust are the three essential pieces to having positive and meaningful performances.

Audiences vary so much in today’s digital age, yet at the same time, they can be no different than before the word “digital” had any meaning.  For some students, playing for a small gathering of close family or friends is what gives them joy and propels their work.  For others, posting a performance on YouTube anonymously might give them the interaction they are looking for in their development of ideas.  It was in graduate school, that I became aware of which audiences fueled my work and which audiences threatened to extinguish my drive to continue growing and sharing.

Strategic preparation is also a necessary component.  Performing a piece is extremely different than practicing one.  It feels different, it sounds different, and our brain processes the music differently.  If performance isn’t viewed as a process to practice, students can be left with the idea that they simply aren’t good performers.  This is a dangerous label – it’s limiting and it’s simply false in a developing pianist.

Once you’ve found the right audience, thoroughly prepared and are ready to share your piece, there’s nothing left to do but trust yourself.  Hours and hours of practice can be meticulously completed, yet if you feel insecure and unworthy of someone’s listening ear, your power to communicate will be undermined.  Own your voice, trust your preparation, and let the music be the center in the room.

With the holidays approaching, there’s no better time to put the piano in the room to use.  Pull out those favorite old pieces and share your joy with those you choose to be your audience!







10 Keys to Expression:


Practicing without judgement.

“Do your judges wear the faces of people from your everyday life? Of your parents? Teachers? Priest? Rabbi? Guru? Do the faces melt together into your own disapproving face and consciousness? Find out.  Go along with your perceptions, and continue to feel your own power center, your own sense of being, your right to be totally you and no other. As you sense yourself more deeply, you can afford to reach out to your judges. Have a dialogue with them. Let them speak their piece about what they expect you to be, and answer clearly that you are only who you are. Ask them for support of whoever you happen to be. Ask them to pack all of their expectations back into their traveling bags.”
            – from A Sporano on Her Head, pg. 15 by Eloise Ristad.


This book was recommended to me in college years ago and I have yet to find another book that more clearly articulates the power of the belief system when it comes to performance in music.  I see students of all ages and levels get blocked by their own self judgments on a daily basis.  The effect on a pianist’s coordination and mental processing is obvious to anyone in the room when their inner judgments take over.  Brain research has found a scientific reason for why we can’t accomplish a task when our confidence has left us: when emotions take over our amygdala, our (analytical thinking) prefrontal cortex takes a back seat.

When this happens in practice or within a lesson, it’s best to leave the piece or section and find alternative repertoire where success is more readily accessible and return to the difficult passage later in the session or another day.  Unfortunately more often what happens, is students in practice (and teachers within a lesson) will continue to run a section or passage when the student is clearly flooded with emotion and feeling completely incapable (fearing they can’t achieve it or they aren’t good enough).  To force a musical passage when the student’s amygdala is overwhelmed with emotion will not bring positive results; it will only result in a deflated sense of one’s ability to accomplish the task at hand.

“Too often teachers deal with this withdrawal by reteaching the material, usually slower and louder. But they are attacking the problem from the front end of the information processing system and this is rarely successful.  … The better intervention is to deal with the learner’s emotions and convince the learner to allow the perceptual register to open the blinds and pass the information along.”  From How the Brain Learns, pg. 54 by David Sousa.

Unfortunately there are a lot of parents, teachers, and students that think it helps when one is motivated by fear and judgment.   While a powerful motivator, it is a negative reinforcement at its core and it elevates the product over the process.  These good intentioned messages stick with individuals forever.  I urge you to challenge this philosophy as it may win short term goals like contests, but in the long term pianists in this mind set often lose the desire to continue learning their instrument over time and can leave the art of creating music forever.

The amazing thing about this beautiful process of creating music, is that its intention usually stems from seeking joy or some kind of fulfillment.  This is why we want to take lessons.  This is why we learn new songs.  This is why we practice challenging repertoire.  We enjoy hearing the music, creating the music and expressing both intriquite and simple ideas through sound.  Judgments about ourselves and our abilities only inhibit this process.  They interrupt the flow of ideas, the decoding of a score and connection with a work of art that often has stood the test of centuries of time.

So next time you sit down to work on that tricky passage in one of your favorite pieces,  I urge you to practice being a neutral observer, leaving good and bad judgments aside.  Try figuring out what is making that passage particularly difficult.  Is it quicker chord changes, more hand independence, more accidentals, a change in a repeating pattern?  Naming these elements take the focus off one’s insecurities and back onto the page of music.

And the last thought I want to leave you with is this:  it is the imperfections in us and our works of art that reflect our humanity and add beauty to our work .

In Japan, Zen Gardner’s purposefully leave a fat dandelion in the midst of the exquisite, ritually precise patterns of the meditation garden.  In Iran, even the most skilled of rug weavers include an intentional error, the “Persian Flaw,” in the magnificence of a Tabriz or Qashqa’i carpet and Native Americans wove a broken bead, the “spirit bead,” into every beaded masterpiece.  Nothing that has a soul is perfect. – from My Grandfather’s Blessings by Rachel Naomi Remen.





10 Keys to Expression


Estabilish a routine.  It’s September and we’re all trying to fall into a new rhythm.  Last month every week and day was different filled with summer activities that took advantage of our dry warm weather.  Most kids are in their third or fourth week of school now, struggling to balance their homework, sports schedules, piano practice, downtime, etc.    The most important words of wisdom I can offer to piano students and their parents is this:  establish a routine for when piano practice happens each day.

Whether a pianist wants to progress slowly or quickly, sitting down at the piano regularly is number one when it comes to successfully mastering a piece of music.  Piano practice not only requires complex processing in the brain, but coordination in the body that demands repetition.  If this process isn’t repeated regularly on a piece of music, the progress made one day is lost over the days to follow.  Talk about discouraging!  Gaining new skills for anything requires regular practice.  Although our busy lives continue to search for an alternative, there isn’t a way around this basic principle.

The piano students that I see struggle the most on a regular basis are the students that haven’t been able to find that regular golden time for piano practice.  And this is the time to do it as routines are falling into place.  So don’t let September get by without finding that special space within each day to play the music that you can’t wait to play with more ease and expression.  This is why you have signed up for lessons  – take the first step and go grab that calendar before the next day gets away from you!



Practicing without judgement…coming in October…

Piano. Push. Play. Challenge

Some of you may have noticed the colorfully themed pianos placed around Portland during the summer like the picture below. Megan McGeorge’s mission to “rescue pianos and put them on the street for everybody to enjoy” continues to grow each year. Willamette Week just published an article in their “Best of Portland 2018 Guide
describing her mission:



In an effort to get pianists of all levels out in the community sharing their music, I’ve created the “Piano. Push. Play.” challenge for my current and former students. The student that plays on the most pianos (and possibly the most times if it gets competitive) will have the opportunity to perform on the “Piano. Push. Play.” Farewell Concert at the Portland Art Museum on Friday, August 31st and will receive two free complimentary tickets to a Portland Piano International recital during the Fall/Winter season.

Students just need to e-mail, text, or post a video of themselves playing for at least 3 minutes at each location. The deadline is August 26th. Videos can be publicly posted to my Keys to Expression facebook or instagram page or privately sent to me via e-mail or text. (Information about pianos placed by “Piano. Push. Play.” can be found at http://www.pianopushplay.com, as well as the facebook, instagram page, and app.)

OMTA (Oregon Music Teacher’s Association) is hosting a “Piano and Picnic in the Park” event in conjunction with “Piano. Push Play.” on July 21 at Mt. Tabor and July 22 at Council Crest from 5-8:00 pm which all students are invited to join. This might be a great kick off to the challenge and I will be there performing some fun duets. I hope to see some of you there!


Choosing music education

My piano studio in Southeast Portland’s Woodstock Neighborhood

Over the years through teaching piano, I’ve witnessed many families struggle through the crossroads of when to let a student quit and when to encourage them to continue.  We’ve all known people who regret quitting piano lessons – adults who wish their parents would have forced them to continue.  And we’ve also heard stories of the flip side:  forcing a student to practice piano can take all of the joy away from the experience and  potentially keep them away from music for their lifetime.

One of my childhood piano teachers put it simply: “If you give a child the choice to go to school, would they choose to go every day?”  Kids under 18 don’t yet have the perspective, awareness, and capability to make the broad educational decisions that will affect their life forever.  Providing young students with a cohesive and comprehensive music education has just as many benefits as reading, math, science, and social studies – one could make the case that it provides even more!  Yet, with today’s generation of parents, I regularly witness the shift of more power given to students as young as kindergarten in decision making for skill development.  Furthermore, parents of today’s youth are uncomfortable seeing their children struggle while learning.  Struggling is part of the process of becoming an expert at anything.

Learning to read music takes a lot of commitment, self-discipline, and focus.  Many parents have told me that it’s the only area in which their child is challenged during the school week.  The brain is asked to process and synthesize a lot of concepts simultaneously, and furthermore, the body is learning coordination and motor skills at the same time!  Most kids require adult encouragement and support to find the self-discipline required to practice piano regularly; sometimes, just a warm reminder of how much they’ll enjoy that piece once they master it is all they need.

Occasionally I’ve had a piano student who wanted to quit and it was clear to me that it was time for the parents to let go and give the choice to the student.  If there is an adamant resistance to learning, growth won’t happen, and the power struggle between the student and parent will dominate the situation.  But these cases are unusual and usually stem from a lack of student interest from the start or power struggle between the child and parent in general.  Sometimes the student will return by their own choice once they reach high school, and when this happens, it’s a precious gift to the student and piano teacher.

In the past few years, I’ve come across several community college students who want a career in music but are restricted by a lack of motor skills and music reading fluency that are very difficult to attain as an adult.  The majority of music programs across college campuses are not designed for the novice, but for individuals who have already had years of training on their instrument.  I’ve also had retired adults take piano lessons with me and become frustrated their rate of progress.  There is a huge difference in an adult’s ability to progress if they’ve had some private lessons as a child versus starting as an adult.

By  including music in your child’s education, you give them gifts for a lifetime – physical, mental, and emotional.  The ability to sit down at the piano and express music is a tremendous source of joy and peace for individuals of all ages and backgrounds.

Benefits of Music EducationMusic lessons spur emotional and behavioral growth in children, new study says

The Benefits of Music Education