Showing posts with label travelogue. Show all posts
Showing posts with label travelogue. Show all posts


🧭 My Piano Journey: A Side Quest

December 08, 2023 0 Comments
Part 1 - Side Quest (You Are Here) - Part 2
An untitled piano piece from my childhood


When it comes to movies and video games, I'm most interested in who wrote the music. Not the actors, not the directors, not the writers. It's a career that I've been drawn to for over 20 years. While it hasn't become a career, composition has been a wonderful hobby and creative outlet. 

How I Started Composing

Around 1997, my very first composition was called "Butterflies" for my flute when I was 9.

A transcription of my first composition.

In 2001, at 13, my brother asked if I could try to learn the opening to Linkin Park's "In The End." It was a very popular song at the time and I did my best to pick out the introduction notes in D minor. 

I think it was that day that I decided to try playing my own piece in D minor. My left hand played open 5ths down the minor scale: Dm, C, Bb, Am. I improvised a repetitive melody over the top. And I mean repetitive. I made a middle section of repeated fifths, then I finished by playing part one again, this time an octave higher. 

My first composition for piano. As you can see, it's extremely repetitive!

I typically wrote in D minor or D dorian because it reminded me of fantasy stories about princesses and kingdoms. In middle school, I spent a lot of time in class drawing my story and character ideas on the back of school handouts. It's a time of my life that I remember with fondness; a reminder that I love being creative. I even started world-building and designing original characters. I was going to write, draw, and animate an original story! And, of course, I would score it too. 

Ambitious? Yes. 

Impossible? No. 

Has it happened? Not yet. Never say never!

My Planned Fiction Story Soundtrack

I created similar themes using this same chord progression. The tunes were short and I didn't know how to develop new motives and sequences. I have no idea which piece came first; The Legend of Kanali handwritten above or the Kanali transcription I was sure was my first composition. 

When September 11th happened, I wrote "Song of Peace". 

I wrote a piece for my mom. 

I wrote a piece on the black keys that sounded like it was from China. My friend in high school played the guzheng, a Chinese harp. She was able to learn my piece by ear after I played it for her on the piano. 

If I recall correctly, the transcription below has so many cross-outs because I didn't leave enough room for the accompaniment.

Around this time, my dad bought me a music writing software called Music Write. He said he would pay for any music I wanted to copyright with the Library of Congress until I turned 18. 

I didn't take him up on it because I thought my music wasn't good enough to warrant an official copyright. 

I didn't major in composition because I thought what I had created wasn't good enough for a portfolio. 

Dear traveler, never pass up opportunities when you hear "not good enough" in your mind. How do you know unless you try? Failure is an option and it's a good one, contrary to popular belief. It helps us grow and learn. 

I was embarrassed by the compositions that I created and didn't feel like sharing them because I thought they would be ridiculed. Honestly, my cultured piano teacher, Mrs. Turner, was less than thrilled with my musical taste and time spent composing! I had the support of my family, but I tended to discount that because of course they would say it was good, they were my family. 

In college, I remember receiving my homework and my professor, Dr. Edwin T. Childs, had mentioned that he liked my bass line. He was the composition professor and I wish I had asked him if he thought I could change to composition when I developed repetitive motion injuries from being a piano major.  He was very kind and encouraging. I’ll always remember that.

About a year and a half ago, I ventured into the world of orchestration. Remember the repetitive music I wrote when I was a kid? The final movement of my 8 and a half minute piece is a mashup of those themes. I hope to write a post about it in early 2024.



🧭 My Piano Journey: So You Want to be a Music Major - Part 2

August 12, 2023 0 Comments
Part 1 - Side Quest - Part 2 (You Are Here)

Note: All locations and names have been changed to protect the privacy and reputations of the people in this true story.

Finding a New Guide

My goal was to get a bachelor's degree in music. I was sixteen and I needed a serious college-prep teacher as soon as possible. Once again, the studios in my area were full. It seemed that no one would be able to take me on. 

But then one summer day my mom got off the phone with one more piano teacher recommended by a teacher who had a full studio.  I set up an audition with her. 

I remember pulling up to the one-story stone house with three gables. Walking inside, I took my shoes off and walked on the plush white carpeting. Ahead of me was a shiny black Yamaha grand piano. The living area was spacious and looked like a museum. Diana Turner was a middle-aged woman, married with no kids, hailing from England. She had short, straight, sandy blonde hair. Her aristocratic accent and cultured demeanor were exactly what one would picture to be a great piano teacher. 

I sat down at the grand piano; a stark contrast from my chestnut Acrosonic spinet. The keys were wider and heavier and the pedal was stiffer. I think I may have prepared Moonlight Sonata or Für Elise for her. I played a few scales and arpeggios and I told her I would like to be a music major at the state university. At the end, she looked thoughtful and said she would take me on as a student. 

A Long Way to Go

The practice expectations were a lot to handle. 2 hours a day! Although I knew 4 octave scales, I needed to speed them up.  What are chord progressions? Much of our lessons were spent picking repertoire and marking in fingerings. I distinctly remember the way she would say, "Right." She had a hesitant, skeptical tone most times to my comments. I believed that I was unintelligent because of this. 

My state had an examination system very similar to the Royal Conservatory of Music and Mrs. Turner determined that I was Level 7 or late intermediate. I began working on classical music very heavily and realized that I was discouragingly behind in understanding music theory. In May, I would take the Level 7 exam and I had a lot of work to complete in order to be ready. 

An Unexpected Journey

On a cold day in November, Mrs. Turner drove me and another student to the state university, the very same to which I wanted to earn a music education degree. She was taking me for a lesson with her teacher, Dr. Ratigan. What an opportunity!

The early snow was patchy on the grass, melting a little. I was nervous during the one hour drive on the interstate. I looked out the window at the trees. Sitting in the front seat, I had very little to say. Whether it was my accent or my word choice, I rarely felt as though my small talk or comments were received well by Mrs. Turner. I don't remember much other than trying to be on my best behavior, hoping to make a good impression, and getting lost in thought as I looked out the window.

This was a school I was considering going to for most of my life. Many members of my family attended this university going back to my great-great-grandfather, a first-generation Irish immigrant, who studied agriculture. While I was planning to send in applications for many schools, I thought it was fortuitous that my new piano teacher had connections with this university. I could get an orientation to the music school and create a contact.

Upon arrival, we walked through the Student Union. It was a massive food court and study space. The wide-open, grassy campus was beautiful and I felt instant excitement that this could be my future school.

But then we visited the practice rooms. I will admit, I was very disappointed by the set up. It had an unwelcoming, cold, concrete interior. It was dark and extremely loud with reverb; devoid of carpet or sound panels. The pianos were decrepit uprights. I warmed up my hands by playing scales, but I was unimpressed, especially since my ears were hurt by the loudness and my fingers were still stiff from the lack of heat. The pianos were tinny and in desperate need of a technician. 

Memories Like Photographs

Dr. Ratigan was a stern, gray-haired women; tall and intimidating. I wanted to create a good impression, but I felt timid and nervous. I brought to her Beethoven's Sonata in G Major, Op. 49, No. 2 and Valse Mélancholique by Rebikov in Bastien's Piano Literature, Book 4. 

Typically when I felt nervous, much of my ability to emote evaporated. On top of that, my technique from playing my Acrosonic at home was not sufficient for her Steinway baby grand with the stiff keys and pedals. I didn't have a chance to warm up. 

Immediately her feedback was that my fingers were not pressing into the bed of the keyboard and my pedal was sloppy. I was not getting completely to the floor or lifting clearly. My dynamic contrast was non-existent.

I felt my cheeks getting hot and red. This always betrayed me; embarrassment is so obvious on my face. Playing through the music with her watchful eye and quizzical expression was difficult. This was a far cry from the pleasant experience I had pictured. I was really looking for helpful feedback on what I could work over the next year before my audition. Instead, I felt like a complete fool for coming to this lesson at all.

"Do you know how many diminished 7th chords there are?"

My lack of theory knowledge was completely exposed. 

"12?" I asked sheepishly. 

The correct answer was 3 and she didn't hide her amusement at my ignorance.

"How would you describe the emotion behind this piece?" She asked about Valse Méloncolique.

After an excruciatingly long pause, with my brow furrowed and my mind racing through all the possible adjectives, weighing the possibilities of her response, I croaked out, "Wistful?" 

"Wistful. Huh. And what does wistful mean?"

I don't recall my response, but I was stung by her dismissal.

Why, oh why, did I say crochet?

At the end of this lesson, completely battered and fried, she asked me if I had any hobbies. I honestly hadn't crocheted much more than a dish towel, but it was all that came to mind.

"Crochet," I offered. 

I had taken the bait. 

"Well, maybe if you like doing things with your hands, you should crochet instead. And maybe piano is more of a hobby for you. If you want to be a music major, you have a lot of work to do to prepare for your audition."

I can't remember what prompted the following final comment from her. Perhaps it was my history of starting piano at age 10 and I was largely self-taught.

"I was concertizing at age 11," she boasted. And that was that.

Hindsight is 20/20

Looking back on this whole situation, I wish I had respected myself and not auditioned for this school. Yes, many of my music teachers that I respected earned their teaching degrees at this school. I thought this was where I needed to go. But this treatment was uncalled for and horrendous. Had I been secure in myself, I would have dismissed her rudeness and realized this attitude was her problem, not mine.

It Followed Me Home

I have had many piano lessons, positive and negative, and this one is forever seared in my mind. Why is it that we dwell on the negative events in life and disregard or minimize the positive ones? Why was a I so attracted to negativity; wanting so badly to change the minds of those who hurt me instead of following those who believed in me. 

I thrive under positive motivation and seize up with shame-based motivation. Strangely, I vaguely remember my mom telling me that Dr. Ratigan said I was a quick study after she talked to her on the phone. That is the type of memory and evidence I need to remember, and yet it is very foggy when the rest seems so sharp and ready to accuse me. 

The long-term damage caused by this lesson was high anxiety about practicing the piano. I was constantly fearful of not being good enough which resulted in tense muscles, back pain and chronic sadness. The joy I once felt while playing piano was sapped and replaced with intense shame. And all musicality that I might have been developing was stifled for fear that my interpretation was wrong. 

Because Mrs. Turner was her student, Dr. Ratigan's influence continued through my piano lessons following that lesson. A Mozart Sonata I was preparing for the university audition was taken away from me because Dr. Ratigan told my teacher I wasn't mature enough to interpret it correctly.  She said perhaps I could use another year after high school graduation to work on practicing piano before attending the university. I needed to gain more maturity in order to interpret music correctly. Teenagers didn't have enough life experience according to her. I heard this feedback multiple times, parroted to me by Mrs. Turner.

But back then, gap years really were not socially acceptable. I had this nagging feeling that if I didn't do everything young, then I wasn't good enough and I should just give up. 

Seeing In a New Light

Recently, with the help of a therapist, I determined that Dr. Ratigan's credentials and experience didn't make her personal attacks valid. The personal attacks on me actually said volumes about her lack of character. Her deconstructive criticism communicated that, sadly, this was how she was treated by her former teachers, and for that, I pity her. She has to live with her anger and sadness, but I am no longer taking those feelings on as a responsibility. 

As a student, I should have been taught and not ridiculed for my lack of knowledge. After all, we go to school to get an education. We should not be paying thousands of dollars merely for a stamp of approval. 

While I can't erase the past, I can move beyond it and be grateful for the resilience I developed because of it. Despite Dr. Ratigan's comments, I do have a music degree and I am a career piano teacher and regular church musician. I have found success with the piano. Stay tuned for Part 3! There are many more stories I wish to share.

Forging a New Path

I have made a commitment to always provide constructive feedback. I do not personally tear them down. Criticism can always be constructive. I don't cover the entire gamut of mistakes I hear during a lesson.  I find one or two focus points and always have something positive to say. A student was struggling with a piece, but her G major scale was smooth and even as butter. While I helped her out with the feel of the waltz, I definitely made sure to gush about how her diligent work on technique has paid off. She looked so invigorated and re-energized for the rest of the lesson and subsequent ones. Our students have the ability to thrive and we are major players in making that happen.

If you have any difficult memories associated with learning music and feel discouraged, I highly recommend finding a therapist specializing in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. I believe that it will help you to thrive in music by challenging negative cognitions and rewriting your core beliefs about yourself. I wish you well on your piano journey. 



🧭 My Piano Journey: How I Started Playing Piano - Part 1

August 17, 2022 0 Comments
Part 1 (You Are Here) - Side Quest - Part 2
How I Started Playing Piano

This is my personal story of how I started playing the piano. Part 1 starts when I was 9 years old and ends when I was 14 years old. I hope you enjoy! 


I hopped in my mom’s van after swimming lessons, tired and wet, wrapped in my beach towel. 

“I did it!” she said. “I bought a piano!”

My tired eyes lit up. While I was in swim class, she drove to an estate sale and immediately bought a spinet upright piano for $700. That evening, a warm night in June, the breeze wafting through the sheer curtains of the living room, a small walnut Acrosonic sat in our living room by the stairs. I was told that it wasn’t just my piano; my brothers would learn too, but over the next 7 years, I was the one who played it the most.

My approach to learning piano was unorthodox. Using knowledge from general music class, choir, and teaching myself flute, I taught myself to play the piano. I remember first learning Liebestraum by Franz Liszt from the Faber Classics 2A book. With hesitations, I deciphered the music while holding down the pedal, missing many notes and creating a murky, dissonant noise. I was learning piano, albeit alone.

I briefly took lessons at the local music store beginning that summer. I remember learning simple classical pieces from The Developing Artist Preparatory Piano Literature book. The music was pedestrian, but I still fondly remember Little March by Türk and Melody by Beyer.

At my first recital, I proudly and confidently played Send In the Clouds from Faber Popular 3 (they have since revised this book and it is now in the Adult Piano Adventures Book 2). I remember my former classmate, Lauren, being present and she complimented me. That performance was my first experience with the flow state while performing. I was in the zone and so calm and focused, loving every sound coming out of that baby grand. I felt elated when I left the stage.

Stumbling Block

One day during recess, my friends and I were playing leap frog over serpentine-shaped bike racks. After jumping over one hump, my foot caught a crack in the sidewalk and my right hand slammed into the pavement. I sustained black bruises at the base of each finger of my right hand and I had to cease piano lessons at that point. I got a custom brace from the doctor and I recall asking the nurse if I would be able to play piano after my hand was healed.

“No!” she said, annoyed, and left the room. As a sensitive 10-year-old girl, I began tearing up. My mom told me that it was an old joke. 

“Doctor, will I be able to play the piano after the operation.
“Yes, of course."
“Great! I never could before.” 

I did play piano again after it healed, but, much to my dismay, I was without a teacher for about a year following that incident. There were piano teachers in my city, but they were in high demand with long wait lists. 

My Tour Guide

“Every night in my dreams, I see you, I feel you…” 

I delicately played the notes to My Heart Will Go On from my easy piano songbook. Channeling Céline Dion, I would play with marked intensity at the key change. 


I remember dramatically pausing at the climax of the song because of the new key signature. With no framework for understanding keys other than C Major, it overwhelmed me to keep track of the additional sharps. 

Soon after learning this piece, my mom found a college student named Billie to teach me piano. I played My Heart Will Go On for her to show her what I could already do. She created a sticker chart to help me learn my one-octave major scales. With her help, I tackled Level 3 and 4 of the Faber Supplemental Library and early elementary classical piano literature. My favorites were Song of the Dark Woods by Elie Siegmeister, Carol of the Bells from Faber Christmas Level 4, and a fairly difficult piano arrangement of Awesome God by Rich Mullins.

A Bump in the Road

For my middle school talent show, I played Maple Leaf Rag from Faber Ragtime and Blues 3. I remember the band teacher who auditioned me saying he was impressed that I could play ragtime. That boosted my confidence.

I played the piece on a brown upright piano in the middle of the gymnasium, perfect for that saloon-style, honky tonk feel of the rag. The first show for the 7th graders went really well and I received a loud applause and cheers from the bleachers. I didn't really know how to bow, so I just stood in front of the crowd with a wide smile. But I suffered a memory slip in the second performance for the 8th graders, my grade. My fingers twisted up, like being tongue-tied, and I kept repeating the same cadence trying to get to resolve to the final chord. I was embarrassed and I left the gym quickly without acknowledging the audience.

My feelings were hurt when a close friend of mine later said another pianist put me to shame. But I know now that wasn’t true. He started playing when he was 3 years old and had nearly 10 years of experience. Meanwhile, I started when I was 10 and had 3 years of experience. It made sense that he was accomplished and playing a complex, high level classical piece. Still, her comment stung and I believed her at the time.

A Creative Path 

One day, I came home from school and composed a piano piece on a whim. I named it the Legend of Kanali, picturing an adventure fantasy story for which this could be the soundtrack. The D minor composition was a repetitive melody and used descending open chords.

My brother really enjoyed listening to it. I began creating more original tunes and my dad noticed my interest in writing music, so he purchased a composition software for me called Music Write. I recall using it on my Compaq PC, creating scores for my family to play. My dad was really excited for me and even told me he would pay for me to file my copyrights with the Library of Congress, but I never took him up on it because I feared I wasn’t good enough to be a real composer.

Scaling the Mountain

The notation software had Nocturne in E-flat Major, Op. 9, No. 2 by Chopin as an example file. I printed it and began learning the hardest piece I had ever attempted to that date. In addition to three flats in the key signature, there were a plethora of accidentals. I remember writing in the notes one by one and pushing myself to learn this piece. I wanted so badly to play it like Maria João Pires, the Portuguese performing artist who has the best recordings of Chopin’s Complete Nocturnes ever.

Billie was very impressed when I played the Nocturne for her and she soon decided that she would be my piano coach instead of my teacher because I was self-guided and surpassing her level. With her support and encouragement, I entered the Solo and Ensemble Festival in my state for solo piano. 

The adjudicator was writing notes from the previous performer and he asked me to warm up while I waited. I played much of the Nocturne exactly the way I had practiced. He interrupted me to say not to play too much before he was ready. He also told me this was his favorite piece. I smiled nervously and butterflies started flying in my stomach.

When I started playing, my hands began to shake and my performance sounded nothing like my warm up or my practice at home. The ending, however, was clear and calm. He told me that I needed to see the forest for the trees; that the ending was beautiful, but I didn’t seem to understand how the whole piece fit together. I left feeling dejected. Why didn't I sound like Maria? Billie told me that had she been in my shoes, knowing this was his favorite piece would have done the same thing to her. That's a huge order to live up to!

Becoming A Guide-In-Training

In eighth grade, I was assigned to do a job shadow project as part of my career development. I wasn't sure what I wanted to do as a career. I had narrowed the category down to music, but who would I shadow? My mom thought for a moment, "What about your music teacher from elementary school?" Bingo! Being a teacher had always been in the back of my mind. What about combining that interest with music? 

The job shadow went really well and I was so happy to reconnect with my music teacher. I believe to this day that my brothers and I can improvise and compose with our respective instruments because she taught us to sing, to recognize major and minor tonal patterns, and create and understand many rhythmic patterns in elementary school.

At the end of eighth grade, Billie graduated college and moved away. She was so encouraging about my progress thus far, that when she started teaching me, I was "all fingers." She said she was excited for my future with piano and that she believed I would be very successful; that when I grew up she'd be able to say, "I knew her when...".

On My Own Again

The following year, I entered Solo and Ensemble Festival with Rêverie by Debussy. I was thrilled to be given a Superior medal and the ability to enter the State Festival. My dad was super excited for me as well. With the absence of a piano teacher, I spent the month in between learning the required scales and a required Bach Invention. I asked my orchestra teacher for help with the Invention and he loaned me his Bach study score. 

“It doesn’t have any fingerings,” Mr. K warned.

Even so, I plugged away at it until the two-voice contrapuntal piece was complete.

My dad drove me to the State Festival and was gushing about my accomplishment. At the State Festival, I played through both pieces sans mistakes. I was on a stage with bright lights in an auditorium playing on a baby grand. 

The feedback from the adjudicator was that it could be more dream-like. Rêverie means daydream after all. While I was disappointed to get an Excellent rating instead of Superior, I felt good about what I had learned. After all, I had never played a two-part contrapuntal piece before. Even though the Bach Invention in F major is one of the easier inventions, it is difficult. 

Future Outlook  

My goal was to get a bachelor's degree in music. I was in high school and I needed a serious college-prep teacher as soon as possible. Once again, the studios in my area were full. It seemed that no one would be able to take me on. But then one day...

To be continued

What is your piano story? Let me know in the comments!