A New Trick for Tempo Training

I started doing something today that may turn out to be just a “trick” but I think it’s a good method for teaching tempo and internalizing tempo.

From day one I am either clapping or snapping or tapping the student’s tempo to get them used to thinking a stable tempo and following said stable tempo. To internalize the tempo you need to be able to play without an outside audio or visual source to keep you metered. As I clapped along with the student’s playing I slowly decreased the volume of my clapping until it was slight tapping and then softer until I stopped clapping at about measure 12. Perfect results. The rest of the piece was played in consistent tempo. I believe the student was still “hearing” the tempo because I did not suddenly stop giving her a meter. It faded away in the tangible, but was available to her subconsciously.

Try it. I like.


Printing Your Own Jazz Charts With the iPad App Notion

I like to write my own jazz charts. I also share these charts with people who gig with me, so I hate to send someone a PDF of a hand-written chart. Although I have adequate handwriting for notation it is simply not very professional. I had been using Finale Songwriter ($50) for Mac. It’s pretty amazing, but for someone who just in the last year began to use notation software regularly it can be frustrating. It’s a watered-down version of Finale ($BigMoney) for simple projects. For jazz charts it’s more than I need.

I noticed the new iPad app Notion was available so I figured for $15 I could hardly lose. What a great purchase!

Part of my deal is this: I can be very frugal about some things. For Songwriter I really should have a midi keyboard and the expanded Mac keyboard with the number pad. But I would only be buying those items to create jazz charts, and I’m very fast with just a mouse. So no big deal.

Notion, however, being on iPad has a keyboard on screen. Note entry is extremely fast. It takes me half the time or less to create a jazz score in Notion than Songwriter. And the printing is beautiful. I’m going to attach a simply chart I just created for a beginning student of mine to start improvising on a hymn she likes. The print is clear, has many option for spacing and size and fonts. Allow for far more than I need, once again, for creating jazz charts. If I wanted to create a full piano arrangement with Notion there are literally no tools or markings that would be lacking. It’s a powerful, powerful application.

The other advantage is that as I’m sitting at the piano with the iPad in front of me I can have Notion up and running. By the time I’m done arranging the PDF is ready to go. It’s quick and efficient.

Also: I like to compose in different places…like on my couch. I tried to wheel my grand piano over to the couch. Too heavy. And the upright piano hurt my supple thighs. But the iPad is featherweight. Nice. No more bruised thighs from holding up a 600lb piano on my lap.

I may be wrong about this, but I also believe that the Notion app has more chord symbol variations and choices than Songwriter has. Even for expanded chords every option is seemingly available. I haven’t had a problem getting the app to print the chord symbol exactly how I want it. This has been a problem of mine with Songwriter.

Don’t get me wrong: I am NOT posing as a professional music printer / publisher / whatever. Just a jazz pianist and teacher who enjoys printing his own charts to make them look nice. And for this I say NOTION. Look below for a simple, yes I know how simple it is, example of a chart from Notion. If you look online for other examples you’ll see how Notion can also print extremely complicated, beautiful scores. I don’t need that level of arrangement. These are jazz charts. You know. Jazz charts.

Thanks for reading! Go get Notion today. If you’re a jazz guy the basic $15 version with no additional add-on instruments or in app purchases is PERFECT. End of line.


Composing Jazz

I really enjoy composing jazz for piano. Just solo piano. Over the years I’ve gone through different phases where I was less jazz and more contemporary piano, more pop. But lately, and I think continuing into the distant future, I’m going to be a more strictly defined jazz composer. Jazz is extremely satisfying as a pianist to perform and as a composer to write. The density of the chords and the variations are endless. It allows me to express things in so many ways within one composition or using one melodic idea. Simply changing the style from swing to straight alters everything. I love that. I love that I can write the piece thinking it is one style and begin to practice it and find that it works much better as some other creature. I have not had that experience with other genres. Since improvisation is such a vital part of jazz it allows me to improvise over the chords with which I arranged my melody. That is a joy that only jazz pianists can understand. Being a classically trained pianist, having a degree in piano from a university, I was taught to never stray from the printed notes. And in college I did not unless it was by mistake…lots of mistakes. But in jazz one is encouraged to stray from the path. To create. To alter. For someone who wants to write music and who does write music jazz improvisation is freeing and amazingly fun. I cannot compare playing jazz live to an audience with anything else performance-wise. There is no better performance feeling I have ever had. Taking that amazing feeling to the next level, imagine playing your own piece for an audience and being able to improvise, recreate it on the spot. That’s the most satisfying feeling you will ever have as a composer in my opinion.

The last couple of pieces I have written I have composed thinking of lyrics. For whatever reason, probably due to being raised listening to rock and pop with lyrics, this helps me create better melodies that sound planned and not a result of a chord. The lyrics are coming first, then the melodies quickly, then  the accompaniment crashes in easily. I take time along the way to craft progressions and fine tune voicings, but the initial lyrical melodic thinking has been key to what I consider successes. Take a look below at some YouTube examples.

Nora: I was going to name this piece “What’ Wrong, Nora?” for Nora Jones because she used to be an amazing jazz musician. Then she went to country and now is trying pop. Her jazz stuff is her best stuff in my opinion. Then I felt bad about naming it that and shortened it to “Nora”. But it’s still for her. I love the relaxed style of her playing and her songs. She is, in a word, perfect. (Until she got away from jazz. HA!) The first phrase is inspired by one of the songs from her jazz album.

Baby, I Tried: “Someone to Watch Over Me” is a standard that I play when I gig. Great song. The lyrics of this piece come from that type of feeling and was a quick one to write.

I Could Have Been: I wrote this piece today and immediately played it to YouTube. The repeating Eb first phrase was the start of the idea and I think I wrote the piece in fifteen minutes. But the lyrics in my head wrote this piece fast.

So I think I will continue to write all my pieces with lyrics even though I do not sing or perform the lyrics. Some guys are against jazz with lyrics. I have no idea why. Lyrics connect with people. They easily convey ideas. Audiences “get” lyrics when they do not always “get” a melody away from lyrics. I don’t have a problem with jazz with lyrics, but I can’t say that I like one way over the other either. I do know that I like my compositions better when I begin with lyrics and melody. It works for me.


My New Jazz Piano Project

I’ve been composing jazz piano pieces recently for a new project I’m going to title “There Is A Time”. It will be an album of jazz piano pieces composed and performed by yours truly. Composing jazz pieces is a rewarding process because I can figure in the improvisational parts and time to the end project planning. And thinking in jazz arranging mode allows me to be as creative and free as I want.

For this new project I may not go the whole iTunes and CD duplication route. Eh.  I may do a short run of CD’s only and put them in paper sleeves to sell at gigs and in the store here. I am going to promote this project a new way as independently and inexpensively as possible. The tracks, which I am already completing and uploading, will be available on my personal website, http://www.StacyBearden.com, for $1 each through PayPal. When I have the entire project complete, about 15 pieces, I’m going to offer a physical CD to be mailed for $10 plus $2 for shipping. We’ll see how this goes. The website begins with a calendar of my performances and then continues to 30s clips of my new project via an embedded Soundcloud player with PayPal links to buy the complete mp3. Don’t make the mistake of uploading a whole music track to Soundcloud and then expecting people to purchase it when they can just listen right there. Doesn’t work. I’m hoping that the gigs will help the project sales and the project promotion will help get gigs. Those things should go hand in hand, but in reality I guess I’ll find out.

Selling CD’s is hard even if you are an established artist. Selling CD’s as an independent local artist is crazy hard unless you want to spend lots of time and money promoting your project. I’m also hoping that this project will grab the attention of some labels. I don’t know. I’ve got to get a grip on how to work that out.

If you comment on this post and say you saw this I will email to you for FREE one of the tracks I have listed on my website http://www.StacyBearden.com within the Soundcloud section. It’s that simple. Hit me up for a FREE tune.

So if you can share this blog post or my website with your friends and colleagues I would appreciate it.

Finding Time To Practice

I teach professionally full time. I own a music store. In this music store is a recording studio. On the side, but still at my studio/store, I design websites for musicians and businesses professionally. Finding time to practice is crazy difficult. I make sure that I leave 15m open to relax before my teaching schedule begins at about 1:30. Some days I start later like about 3:00 or 3:30. I find that after lunch or during a canceled lesson time is a good time for me to practice. I can’t image how busy musicians like myself find hours a day to practice. I get 30m in here and there throughout the day. This weekend I had a performance Saturday night at 6:30 so I took my afternoon that I had planned for relaxation and practiced. I blinked and over two hours had flown by. Then I went and played my two hour gig that night. Long day. Lots of piano, but I like that. I used to practice every morning from 11:00am until lunch. That’s difficult to also run my business and make that a reality. But if I can find time to practice and be prepared for gigs so can you. Never underestimate the value of 30m. I get a lot done in 30m because of focus. Whenever you practice make sure that you are not distracted and won’t be distracted. No phones. TV not on in the other room. No visitors. Kids in other rooms…speaking as a parent. During my 30m piano lesson cancellations it’s a perfect time because I already had scheduled help outside my studio door. There is a scheduled time already with no interruptions. Perfect. So, if you’re a teacher full-time or part-time and have a cancellation…just practice. If your students pay you up-front monthly (and they all should) you’re getting paid to practice. Again: perfect. Make it happen. That is all.

Go Paperless And Experience The Joy I Feel

I was reading over a post by Jason Lyon (http://jasonlyonjazz.wordpress.com here on WordPress) about terrible pianos at gigs. We have all experienced this. I agree with him totally in his post. However, I came to the part where he gave a tip about using a blutack substance to adhere his music to the piano. If you have a couple hundred dollars you can remedy this problem forever. So here I go…

iPad. If you are a gigging musician do yourself the biggest favour (notice the fancy spelling) you have ever done and get an iPad. Doesn’t matter which one, just not the iPad Mini. You’ll need all the screen size you can get, but once you follow my little tips you will have music larger than a hymnal to work with. Follow these cool-daddy steps to becoming paperless and never worry about ceiling fans or random breezes or bad lighting again.

1: Buy iPad.

2: Play Candy Crush a couple of hours on the massive screen. Stop.

3: Download “Doc Scan HD” here: https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/doc-scan-hd-scanner-to-scan/id467016332?mt=8

4: Learn to use this easy, free app to take photos of your sheet music AND make PDF’s of each one. Amazingly simple and full of options geeks will love.

5: Download “UnrealBook” here: https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/unrealbook/id370135173?mt=8

6: Unreal book opens said PDF’s from email or other apps and organizes them into categories and set lists. Tons of options are available here as well, and I won’t go into them because there are many. I use about half.

7: If you hand write your own lead sheets or whatever, PLEASE go today and download a free trial of “Songwriter” here: http://www.finalemusic.com/products/finale-songwriter/ After a 30-day trial it’s only $50. This is a Finale product but it’s hundreds of dollars less if your music is not crazy intensive and needs full orchestration. So, perfect for lead sheets and piano parts.

8: Almost all word processing programs can save to PDF now. So if you’re somebody who likes charts with just lyrics and chords you can go that route.

Advantages of iPad with UnrealBook: there are no disadvantages, the iPad battery is crazy long-lasting, it’s backlit, more or less limitless space for sheet music, lightweight, compact, great music software available for under $10, email music straight from iPad to others during a gig or before (preferably before), makes notes of music with your finger, etc. etc. etc. I can’t say enough good about it. 

Using an iPad for my gigs has changed how I do things. It’s just so much more easy now. And here is a quick story…

“But, Stacy…I just have to play this one piece for this church service, so I don’t need to take my iPad for that one piece. I’ll just print the music like it’s 1984.” WRONG. This weekend I thought those words. I’m playing and singing a song during the worship time and a stupid gust of wind (because a smart gust wouldn’t have done it) slaps my printed sheet off the piano. Now I’m playing, singing, and grabbing floating paper at the same time. That happened two days ago. I’ll never go with one piece of paper again. The iPad solution is never overkill. Never.


Applying Theory to Practice

Many times teachers teach music theory aside from the practicing of literature. They may cover things like scales and chords but they seldom apply their theory practically to the study. In my own music I analyze measures and chords and write chord symbols above the staves. This helps me to better understand the structure and movement of the piece of music and aids in memorization. It’s a practice I have used since college.

A very practical use of this is when students reach passages where Alberti bass is introduced. In the image below you can see that i wrote the chord definitions under the bass clef measures in a part of the student’s music and talked with him about the chords used in the patterns. Then we played the measures in a blocked manner to allow the student to feel the measure as a chord: a more simple idea than six seemingly random notes. This also solves the issue of finger numbers and hand positions if the student is already familiar with playing blocked chords. It’s important that one never sees the music as random: that’s what counterpoint is for. (Joke, but not really.)


Analyzing chords or chordal structures within passages should not be used as a replacement for reading but as a method to condense reading into larger blocks of notes that mean one thing. I find that when I have my music analyzed and defined above the staff that my hands jump to their places faster than otherwise. It’s a shortcut to better more efficient reading for me and my students. This applies to all genres of music. Give it a try.

Stay in Review Mode

As you teach beginners on any instrument it is important to keep in mind reviewing older, “learned” material. I’m blogging this to remind myself to do this. I’ve had a couple experiences in the past week that have brought this to my attention.

You should never assume that a student, especially a beginner, has a concept totally integrated into his musicianship. I enjoy having early level students labels note names on a marker board. After a couple weeks when the student can answer them all quickly and correctly I have a bad habit of writing off that exercise as redundant. Not so. At least once a month you should go back through this exercise with students to make sure they still remember what you think they know. In this particular exercise it’s good to also approach it a different way. I like to take students who can name all their grand staff notes easily and have them write the notes I play on the piano on a grand staff. This effectively underlines just how well they understand staff note placement and the reality of “higher/lower” on the staff being “higher/lower” on the piano or any other instrument. Have the student explain how he knows that a certain not on the piano is a certain line or space on the grand staff. They should explain it with the clef landmark notes as a reference. If not, they do not understand the most basic concept of clefs and the staff. 

Reviewing also means, at least in my studio, that you must verbally explain your answer and  demonstrate an example. I don’t allow students to point out an answer with an index finger and move on. “What is a whole note?” Answer: they draw it, explain 4/4 time signature, play an example on the piano while counting. That is answering that question. I don’t do this every time to save a little lesson time, but it’s ideal. “What is a crescendo?” Answer: they draw it, explain it, show one in the book, play an example.

For other instruments this includes basic techniques for the instrument as well as demonstrating proper warm-up exercises and studies. Reviewing extends to asking students to explain exactly how they practice at home. I stress every week in a student’s lesson how to practice correctly, which I have covered earlier in this blog.

Remember that you only have a student in your studio for 30m per week, perhaps 60m. You cannot assume what they do at home. You can only hope they follow your instructions well and then quiz them each week to make sure they are.

I’m going to implement a monthly routine of quizzing everyone at every level on all basic music symbols and note naming. I’m pledging to never assume a student knows or remembers all the necessary rudiments of reading music.

Students Who Don’t Want To Be There

I don’t have a huge problem with students practicing or with attitudes, but once in a while I get the student who doesn’t want to take lessons at all. Mom or Dad keeps showing up with him/her. The student complains about the assignment, whines about hands hurting, says things like “I didn’t know I had to do both pages.” etc. They don’t read the assignment I write. They don’t open the books. They blame their parents for misplacing their books. They say their keyboard ran out of batteries. They say anything they have to that puts the blame away from their lack of desire to learn the piano.

I wish these students would understand that it’s okay with me if they tell me they don’t want to take lessons. I’m not stupid. I can tell they don’t want to take lessons. I can tell they didn’t practice even though they swear up and down that they did. I can tell that they dislike everything I say. 

So what do I do with these students? The sad truth is that I teach them and continue on with my life. I have to. I earn a living with these students – even the ones who don’t want to be here. In years back before the economy went sour I had an enrollment of 40 or more students and up to 18 on a waiting list for lessons. I called my shots. If a student demonstrated a pattern of complacency or irresponsibility I would have a talk with the parents. This rarely ended in the student dropping from my studio. Today, because of the crazy economy and having zero on my waiting list I’m afraid to do that. I smile and go on. I don’t think that’s wrong. I have to make a living, and even though the student doesn’t want to be here I teach them well and we learn in every lesson. That’s my duty. It’s the student’s duty to practice at home. I can’t be there with them to remind or help them: that’s the parent’s duty. I’m holding up my end of the bargain.

I see music education as a great luxury. I think most families I teach sacrifice to pay for lessons. It saddens me when a student is given this great opportunity of music education and shrugs it off. But that’s the way society is by and large. Sad day today.

Excuses and Egos

Once in a while I’m playing with someone, recording someone, or teaching someone who hates to admit, “Hey, I played/sang a wrong note.” We all do. I don’t care who you are, once in a while you’re going to play a wrong note, or sing a note pitchy. And that’s fine. People are people. Everybody is human. Everybody makes mistakes. What I cannot tolerate is someone who plays or sings a wrong note and makes an excuse about it. What is WORSE is when someone makes a mistake and acts as if they meant to do that or that it was correct, stylistically correct. Ego.

I was recording a guy years back who was cacking notes and out of tune. He tried to act as if he was going for a “Miles Davis” sound. No. You’re not. It was just bad. Don’t act as if your out of tune, out of practice tone is “Miles Davis” cool. It’s not. And saying, “It is what it is” just means, in reality, that you can’t get it right and you’re not going to try anymore. That night was so frustrating. “Listen to how dissonant that chord was!” No…you just played a horribly wrong note. Confess and replay the track. You’re not Miles Davis. Nobody is.

I also have a student, and have had ones in the past, who said that he couldn’t play the piece because he was used to playing faster music. Wow. That’s a terrible excuse. I promptly explained the obvious: if you can’t play it slowly you surely cannot play it faster. I further explained that he did not need to be the type of musician who excuses his mistakes by blaming it something else. It’s okay to be wrong and work on it. That is growth. Excuses and ego only lead to more mistakes and eventually people not wanting to play with you.

I also used to play tennis with a guy who put so much spin on the ball it was only “in” about 5% of the time. But he would yell after every serve, “Did you see the spin on that ball??!!” Yes. And it was still my point. Thank you for the spin. I know that isn’t a music story, but this is my blog.

Don’t have an ego even if you’re amazing. Surely don’t have one if you are less than amazing. Either way it is annoying to the rest of the world.