Today’s show features Sara Campbell, an accomplished piano and singing teacher based in Pennsylvania.
We met Sara when we were gearing up to launch our Instrument Packs at Musical U. We were searching for someone who excelled in bringing joy and creativity to the process of learning piano and really understood how to develop musicality, not just instrument technique.
She accepted the position and has been doing a terrific job inside Musical U for several months now. But as you’ll discover in this episode, that’s just one example of a variety of cool and interesting projects she’s involved with.
In this episode, we dive deep into how to get started with playing by ear and improvisation. Sara shares insights and specific tips that can be applied on any instrument, not just piano.
She recommends one particular activity you can try today to get started improvising – and the essential warning you’ll need to hear if you want it to go well!
And she reveals a powerful way to flip your understanding of the piano keyboard and see it in a whole new way – something that’ll be useful for anyone who occasionally dabbles on keyboard, not just the devoted piano players among you.
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Christopher: Welcome to the show, Sara. Thank you for joining us today.
Sara: Thank you so much for having me, Christopher.
Christopher: I would love to start at the beginning and talk about your early days in music. How did you first get started?
Sara: Oh boy, so, I’ve got some good stories for you. And I hope that my mom and dad listen in on this because they will be entertained.
My first memory of being musical is when I was five or six years old and I was asked to sing a solo at church. And my parents, they had seen me singing around the house as a little kid, but they had no idea that I would have such a love for singing in front of an audience. And I went up there, zero fear, five or six, and sang an entire song by myself. And that is the first memory that I have of becoming musical.
Christopher: Wow! That’s brave as a five or six year old. And also brave of your church music director to put a five or six year old up there. Must have really wowed them.
Sara: Well, she was actually my piano teacher at the time. I had just started taking piano lessons from an organist. So, I had some interesting habits in my first year of being a pianist and I think she realized that I could handle it.
Christopher: Terrific. And so, what were those early years of piano like? You were learning with a teacher. Was it fairly traditional, kind of classical piano based on note reading and repertoire and perfecting things for exams. Or what kind of teaching was it?
Sara: It was pretty traditional. I started in the Bastien’s series, which a lot of people out there are familiar with and I don’t remember ever doing any improvisation or that kind of thing. I wasn’t being prepared for exams. But I did get to do small recitals and things like that.
Christopher: And did you enjoy learning piano? I ask because not all kids do.
Sara: I loved it. As a young kid, I absolutely loved playing. I would find these pieces that I would play over and over and over again. To the point that I am sure that I was annoying some people in my house.
I didn’t feel like it was a chore when I was really young because it was so cool that I could make a song on the piano. That concept to me was so awesome. So it was, I can learn this. And I can learn this. And then I can show other people what I can do.
Christopher: Fantastic. And you mentioned there that improvisation wasn’t really a part of your learning back then. Were you doing any playing by ear as you were learning piano?
Sara: My mom told me a story from when I was little that I was playing by ear even though I didn’t realize it, even before I started taking lessons. She actually tried to teach me herself for the first few months. And of course, it is very difficult for a parent to teach a child a lesson that, on an instrument, I mean. It is just very difficult.
But I was kind of plunking out little tiny things like Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star. I think it is very natural for children if they sit down at an instrument, even if they don’t have instruction, especially piano because it is so visual. It’s pretty natural for a child to start plunking little things out like that. So, I guess I was one of those students.
Christopher: Great. I love that description of it, plunking things out. As you would know, at Musical U the approach we use to playing by ear is very kind of practical and trial and error. You know, we don’t pretend you are meant to magically get it on the first try every time. We kind of show you that, that is the roots to playing by ear and it’s figuring things out more than it is immediately knowing how to play it. And I think that it is great to think of it in terms of that childhood willingness to just try things because you want to see if you can do it.
Sara: Absolutely. I think as we grow, we start to lose that willingness to experiment. And as children, if we watch children, we know they are not afraid of making mistakes because that’s part of the learning process. They are experimenting and seeing, okay, what happens when I do this? What happens when I do that?
As adults, we are afraid to do that because we are so terrified of getting things wrong.
Christopher: It sounds like you weren’t in that kind of, I was about to say brutal, that’s maybe overstating it. But that very rigid, exam treadmill of piano learning where you are thinking about being near perfect because if you are not near perfect you won’t get the points in the exam. Is that right? You had a bit more kind of freedom or flexibility to retain that willingness to experiment?
Sara: That is right. I never actually did exams. My younger sisters did exams but we moved around quite a bit in my family, so I had a variety of piano teachers and I think because I was a transfer student so many times, maybe the teachers did do exams but there were more concerned with just making me comfortable and getting to know me as a student and just learning new pieces. So, it was just about having fun and enjoying the process of playing.
Christopher: And I believe you had a particular genre of music that introduced you to playing by ear a bit more intentionally. Could you tell us about that?
Sara: Oh yeah. Absolutely. Um, I am trying to remember exactly when this happened. It was probably eighth grade. I started getting into a lot of Celtic-inspired music. So, I was a big fan of Enya. It is funny to me now. Beautiful music. And, uh, Yanni. And quite a few others but there was this one CD, I think I got it for Christmas, maybe, from a parent or an uncle or aunt. And it was called Celtic Destiny. It was just fabulous title.
Christopher: Inspiring to an eighth grader.
Sara: And I would listen. And that was the year that I bought my very own CD player. Now, I know some of our listeners out there are going, “CD players? What’s that?” But, I had saved up $100 and I bought my very own five disc changer. And Celtic Destiny was on the rotation. And I would listen to it all the time. And I just one day decided to sit down to the piano and try to figure out one of the pieces on there. And I did. Slowly, but surely. It took me a really long time to figure it out. But I did. And I was so please with myself that I could listen to something and then re-create it.
Christopher: Wonderful. And was that something that you then did more and more. Or was that a one time experience because you were particularly infatuated with that one piece?
Sara: I am trying to remember because I don’t have specific other songs that jump out in mind. I do believe that I figured out little, tiny snippets of things. But that was the first piece that I figured out in its entirety. So, I actually could play from beginning to end. But for others things, I think that I would just pick out a little, tiny part of a song, And I would plunk out the melody and go, “Hey, look what I can play!” You know maybe it was a little snippet from like a video game. Or I was more into like the computer games back then. So things like that. Or a theme from a movie.
Christopher: Mm-hmm. I love that scene of you, experimenting at the piano. Because, you know, I grew up in a … I wouldn’t say a very musical household by nature, but we were encouraged to do music. And me and my sisters all learned instruments and my parents were super supportive and always complemented my playing. But the nature of the lessons that we were taking then, I think we were all too self-conscious practicing at home to do that kind of experimentation. You know, I would have been a bit embarrassed to spend 30 minutes trying to work something out because the expectation was I’d go to the lesson. I’d learn how to play it and then I’d kind of perfect it at home.
And so, I guess, I wouldn’t say that I am jealous but I think the way that you describe it. It should be really inspiring to our audience because I think that is an attitude you can take, even as an adult, fresh. Like that is something anyone can bring to their instrument and say, “It doesn’t matter if I sit down for 30 minutes and I’m still only half worked it out. You know, that still … That’s fun. You know, that is what I want to do today. And I don’t need to worry if someone is listening or not.”
Sara: That is actually … I love that you brought this up because this was a big thing for me as a child. Now, on the piano, I wasn’t quite as self-conscious when people were listening to me play as a vocalist … My parents, once I hit middle school, my parents swore that I just never sang. Yet, I would land the leads in musicals and then they would see me up on stage and they’d go, “Oh, she can sing.” Well, that was because I was waiting for those moments when everybody was out of the house. And Mom and Dad, you know, Dad was at work. Mom was taking my sisters to karate class or to Girl Scouts or something. So that, I had down time. And I could be by myself and experiment on the piano or to sing. And, as adults, sometimes it is hard to find that down time when we can just be ourselves and experiment.
So, I always encourage, because I have some adult students and a lot of teen students. I always encourage them to look for the moments when people are out of the way. That they are not there. And even if it is like a 15 minute session when Mom runs down to the store. Take that time and use it.
Christopher: I think that is great advice. Very practical advice. I would love to see society have more of a respect for that experimentation and dabbling. You know, I think if we all had in our head that the great musicians spend hours and hours working things out by ear, we’d have a very different approach. We’d have a very different idea about doing it ourselves. You know, we’d sit down proudly to experiment for half an hour, rather than sheepishly worrying that someone was listening.
Sara: I love that you brought that up. Yes, exactly. I think that nowadays, we are such a YouTube society and like, Facebook video society. That we only see that polished results that people have worked on. And we have no idea how many takes it took to get that one perfect video. It is refreshing to see people nowadays with Facebook Live. It is really interesting. There are some musicians out there that will go live and just improvise for practice. My sister is also a pianist. She did a session on Facebook last night where she just literally sat down and practiced on Facebook Live. And it was fantastic.
Christopher: That is a great example, Sara. I love that.
And so, you went on to decide to devote your life to music and to become a piano teacher. How did you willingness to experiment and improvise develop? Was it a gradual process because that is now something that you incorporate into your teaching. Was there a pivotal moment for you or a teacher who particularly showed you the way?
Sara: I will be honest. Let’s see, I have been teaching now … I think I am approaching my twelfth year. And for probably the first six, I never taught any improvisation. I was kind of terrified of the concept. I have dabbled with it on my own in high school and a tiny bit through-out college. But because I went into music as a professional, maybe, going into a college and getting a degree. I was such of the mind-set that I really had to follow this path, one foot in front of the other. And not to go too far off of the path. So I was afraid to go away from the method books. I followed the method books like a religion.
And eventually, I started noticing that I had some students who were really bored, and I was getting bored. You can only teach Frere Jacques so many times before you get really irritated. That is when I started to branch out and seek out other people, other teachers, who were focusing on improvisation. And I would read their blogs, and I would watch their videos and think, “Okay, this doesn’t look that hard. I am gonna give it a try.” And I started picking out a couple of students who I knew would be open and receptive to that kind of instruction. And that’s when my teaching totally changed.
Christopher: Can you remember now any of the particular websites or resources that you were looking at then that inspired you to think this might be possible for you too?
Sara: Absolutely. The first one that comes to mind was Teach Piano Today. I think it is Andrea Dow. She was coming out with these little books of improvisation exercises where she provided a chordal structure and perhaps a couple of measures in the treble clef in the right hand. It would just be left blank. That student had to come up with something and within certain parameters that would sound good with what was already provided in the chord structure. And that is kind of how I got started with this.
And then there were some other people like Tim Topham. And of course, Bradley Sowash, now that is another person that I love to watch his improvisation. It is just fantastic.
Christopher: Wonderful. And, you know, I am a mediocre piano player, myself. And I know that it takes a very different mind-set to sit down and play from sheet music or play something that you’ve memorized versus sitting down and seeing that keyboard as kind of your palette or tool kit to work with. Was there anything that kind of see the keyboard in a new light? Or to find that freedom for yourself that you were then going to try to pass on to your students?
Sara: There are a couple things that come to mind. First, there was another resource by Forrest Kinney called Pattern Playing. And I loved the series of books. It’s absolutely fantastic. It’s really, really good for anybody who has studied piano for a little while and has a pretty good understanding of reading music but feel very uncomfortable with anything when it comes to improvisation. They really broke things down into small bites, like these are the different things that your left hand might be able to do. These are the different things that your right hand might be able to do. Look at this scale and instead of just having scale written on the staff, they had scales written out on the keys. And to see that was very different for me. There aren’t a lot of … At the time, there were not a lot of resources out there that showed a scale as like dots on the piano. And that was something that really opened my eyes to the different possibilities.
When I was younger, I actually quit. Can I tell you a crazy story?
Christopher: It’s just you and me, Sara. No one else is listening.
Sara: Oh that’s right. Nobody else is listening. Okay.
I quit piano lessons when I was 14. I wasn’t … You that is a rough age. That is just a rough age. And I had just moved into town. I tried to connect with the new piano teacher. And it didn’t really work. We just weren’t on the same wavelength. You know, definitely not her fault. Probably more my fault. But I quit lessons for a number of years.
I did get back to it when I was 17. But while I took that break, I started to explore the piano on my own. And that was when I really started thinking about going to college and majoring in music. And one of the requirements of the audition that I had to do was to play all of my scales and pentascales. So, I sat down at the piano one day and I had a basic understanding of scales. I had learned a lot of them. But you kind of learn them, you know, okay, here is a C scale. Here is a D scale. And you know, here is a G scale. But you don’t think of how they relate to one another. So I sat down and started trying to play through my pentascales chromatically. So starting with C, and then moving to C# and then D. And then, all of the sudden, I started noticing this pattern on the piano of half steps and whole steps.
I was aware of it before. I am sure that my teachers taught me, okay, this is where the half steps occur. Here are where the whole steps occur. But I had never really seen it on the piano. And I started seeing this pattern of black and white emerge. And how what was white becomes black. What was black becomes white. And then looking out for those tricky little half steps that occur between E and F and B and C.
Christopher: Interesting. So, just in case anyone listening isn’t familiar, you just explained the difference between a scale and a pentascale.
Sara: Absolutely. So a pentascale is the first five notes of a major scale. So with a C scale, it would be C, D, E, F, G. And that is the pentascale. It fits … You know, as pianists we talk a lot about these major pentascales because they fit very nicely under the hands. We have five fingers, five tones. And so that’s the pentascale and then the major scale, of course, includes the upper three notes, so A, B, and C for the C scale.
Christopher: Gotcha. Okay. So the reason pentascales are so popular with pianist is because we have five fingers.
Sara: Yeah, exactly.
Christopher: Rather than eight.
So, that’s really interesting. Because I remember one of the transformative things for me as a pianist and what helped me find a bit of freedom on the keyboard after lessons where I was just learning notes from sheet music was that visual connection with keyboard. And I think, in tradition lessons you are looking a sheet music straight ahead of you. You are generally told not to look down at your fingers because you need to keep an eye on what you are playing. And I think that leaves you very divorced from the visual layout of the keyboard in a way. And, you know, you mentioned something there, the dots on the piano kind of diagrams and love that you’ve brought that to your role at Musical U when you are providing resources for our members there. And it is so powerful to just see on one page, you know, this is the pattern for all the different pentascales, or pentatonic scales, or whatever you are teaching. To see that visually, not just as dots on the staff.
Sara: Yes. It is a big game changes because dots on the staff can be kind of intimidating, especially, if I re-created, I think you are talking about the major pentatonic worksheet that was one of the resources that I created for Musical U. If I re-created that, as a scale on the staff, that could be almost off-putting for some people because it is difficult to read, especially if you are provided a key signature and you don’t actually have the sharps and flats written in front of the notes. So, I started doing this.
That is not the first chart that I have done. I started making these charts on my blog years ago. And they are actually the most popular resource. I think the first one I made was four or five years ago. They are the most popular resources on my site. People are always coming to download the different pentatonic scales or pentascales. And I think, I discovered in my little break of piano lessons when I was just kind of fiddling around, I discovered that I am a visual learner. And I do really well with looking at a keyboard and seeing the pattern of what creates that scale.
Christopher: Sorry. That is so interesting. And I think it is interesting because a lot of people, if they were to see those diagrams, they’d think okay that is just an easy way to learn the scales and to figure them out without having to decipher the treble clef and the key signature and so on. But what is so interesting about your story is it actually let you perceive beyond that and you were seeing a pattern in your chromatic play-through that made them make sense to you in a way that the pure sheet music hadn’t.
Sara: Exactly. I didn’t notice the pattern when I was looking at the scales. Especially because when we are learning scales, oftentimes, the scales are not all listed on the same page. You know, a lot of the scale resources out there that students use only have one scale per page and they do a bunch of exercises with it. Being able to see everything in one space, looking at all twelve keys. That’s when it clicked for me.
Christopher: And what was that useful for? Why did that clicking help you as a piano player?
Sara: It helped me not only as a piano player, but as a vocalist. That is one of the reason that I wanted to learn things chromatically because as we sing, if your doing vocal warm-ups, we tend to do things chromatically. We certainly don’t follow the circle of fifths with a vocal warm-up and jumping around from key to key.
So that’s what really helped me and also being able to quickly think about, for instance, there is something that I found fascinating. I always used to kind of have trouble with the key of G flat or F sharp, whatever you want to call it, because it’s a nasty key. It’s a lot of black notes in that key. When I started learning things chromatically and I would have trouble thinking of that particular scale, I would flip it in my head and I would think of F major and I would visual what it would look like on a piano white, white, white, black, white, white, white, white. And then I would flip that and say okay so that one black key is going to be the only white key in G flat and everything else is going to be black.
Christopher: I think that is such a powerful example because that is not something you would spot however carefully you examined the treble clef and the sheet music representation of the two. You wouldn’t have that insight that they were related in that way. Would you?
Sara: Right. So with the pentascale, it just inverses. It’s like this mirror image, not a mirror image, a negative image. So it’s like looking at the negatives of a film. Now at the top of that scale, that’s when you have to start thinking about those tricky, little half-steps like E and F that are too white keys so they are actually is another white key at the top of that scale. I want to make sure that I say that.
Christopher: Fantastic. So we have gone into some detail there. Let’s step back a little bit and this was helpful for you as you were approaching college and you re-committed to learning piano in your own way, having taken yourself out of the traditional lessons. How did you go on to explore improvisation or other more free and creative ways of playing?
Sara: Well for a while I focused and in college I was actually a vocal major. So I was focused on learning art song and arias and things like that. Yeah, that was fantastic stuff. As a pianist, at that time, I did start exploring more classical music but it wasn’t until I was probably 26 or 27 and I was attending grad school and my very first grad school class was a John Coltrane class. That was the first grad school class that I ever attended. It was one of the most fantastic experiences of my life. And I got hooked to this thing called jazz. And once I took that class, I thought, okay, I am going to fit as many jazz classes into my schedule as the order of classes will allow because at the time I was a music history major, actually for a master’s degree. And so I took a Cole Train class and then I took a jazz theory class and that just, it blew my mind.
And it made me really want to dig deeper into what is this stuff and how did it work? So I was able to take a semester of jazz piano lessons with an instructor at Youngstown State University and it was extremely challenging for me. Because I had come from this totally classical vein of reading the notes on the page and Dan, my teacher, would hand me this lead sheets. And I was terrified. It was like a totally foreign concept to me. It took me a long time to get comfortable with starting to explore that sort of thing but I absolutely love it now.
Christopher: Hmmmm. So for any listeners who aren’t immersed in jazz or maybe scared of the very idea of a lead sheet. Can you just explain? What is the big difference there? If you are already an accomplished piano player, why can’t you play any music that handed to you?
Sara: Right. So, on a lead sheet what you have is, you just have the treble clef that has the melody. So perhaps, if you think of a song that you might sing, like, the first thing that comes to mind is the song Bye, Bye, Blackbird. You know a really great jazz piece. And it the lead sheet it would just have the melody and it would be written out but above that lead sheet would be these super scary things called chord symbols.
And the chord symbols are a series of letters and some of the chord symbols are easy to understand. Maybe if it’s a G, it’s just telling me, oh I have to play a G major chord. But then you have all these other things that can be written next to that letter, like a tiny m. What does that mean? Or like, a 7 or like these weird little dots that look like degree symbols. What the heck is that? And that is what I started to dive into. Learning about these chord symbols and how to interpret them on the piano. And how to make music out of this little structure that you are given with a lead sheet.
Christopher: Great. I remember when I first tried to learn from lead sheets. It was like a foreign language or some kind of impenetrable code. I was laughing last week. I had an email from my sister-in-law who plays piano asking me. She had this music and she was trying to play it based on the chord symbols and there was a G/D. What did that mean? Was it a G? Was it a D? What chord was she meant to play?
And you know, for me anyway, because I’ve been a note by note kind of piano player, I really had to step back a notch and try to find lead sheet that were just kind of major and minor chords. Because I had to learn if it says G chord, what notes is that? Like what does that look like on keyboard and I kind of had to spent some time just with that very basic kind of pop/rock lead sheet before I was even a little bit ready for the jazz. It was like you dived into the deep end.
Sara: Yes. I did or I was pushed into the deep end. I was a good way to get my feet wet and then later on when I, you know, those lessons actually didn’t last very long. It was just a semester. So I kind of got a taste for the different things that you could do. And Dan taught me some different patterns, some different rhythmic patterns that I could do with my left hand. I still struggled with wrapping my head around exactly what you just said. What is this G/D thing?
Nowadays, I am always teaching these things, actually I teach that kind of chord symbol to my young kids. I was just teaching that a lead sheet, there is a great resource from Supersonics Piano, which is from Daniel McFarlane. He is from Australia. And he came up with this series of small exercises that you can teach younger kids. And actually, I love these for adults because they sound so impressive in a very little bit of time. And all it is, is a lead sheet and it has a chord chart above and within the first five pages. He is already throwing this like G over D thing at you. And so, you just learn to start re-interpreting. Okay, this is how I am gonna invert this. Thinking about the ingredients inside of a chord. So for our G chord, I am going to get technical for just a second.
I like to think of chords as having ingredients in them. So, let’s talk about C, because C is a chord that most musicians are familiar with. A C major chord would be C, E, and G. Those are our chord ingredients. Now we can put those ingredients in whatever order we want. I always try to talk about chords like chocolate chip cookies. Cause everybody likes cookies, right?
So, if our chord is C, E, and G and we have this chocolate chip cookie dough, we can make that into a regular round cookie. Or we could maybe put all of that dough into a pan, press it all down, and then cut it into squares. It is still gonna taste like a chocolate chip cookie. It just looks different.
So that’s how I like to explain to my kids when we have a chord that has that little slash and we are exploring inversions. Hey, it is still a C chord. So, don’t freak out. It’s all right. But it’s just gonna look a little bit different because we are going to flip the order of our notes.
Christopher: That’s great. And one thing that I love about that metaphor is it also covers what do you do if you encounter a chord symbol that you don’t understand yet. You know, what if it has that little degree sign or what if it has a slash something that you don’t understand. And it is reassuring to know if you play, if you create some kind of chocolate chip cookie, it will probably work. As long as you don’t go off and do, like an almond, white chocolate monstrosity.
Christopher: You’ll get away with it.
Sara: That’s right. Stick to the basics there. When in doubt, if you don’t understand all those chord symbols, just play the letter. Just play C. Just a single C, and it’s gonna sound okay.
Christopher: And I think that is a good pathway into the general improvisation mind-set. Of not being too concerned if things go a little off-track or if you make a mistake, as it were. And learning, as long as you are creating music that sounds pretty good, that’s a win.
Sara: Exactly. I try to remind. I have a lot of kids who are in jazz bands now. Because, jazz bands are big in our area, which is just awesome. And I try to remind them, my pianists as they are learning. Hey, you don’t have to do it all. If you can just do those root notes, you’re still contributing to a wonderful sound in this ensemble. So, don’t feel like you have to be super complicated when you are sitting down and you are improving with other people especially, because let them do some of the other notes and you just handle a couple and you’re gonna sound great.
Christopher: That’s great advice. It’s funny I have that in a self-talk that you have to get past when you are an improvisor going on in my head right now. Like I mentioned that degree sign in my head there is a little voice going, “But that would be augmented or diminished. You can’t play a major chord there. It is going to sound bad.” And that is where you start out. You play the wrong type of chord and for the next three minutes, you are not thinking about the music making. You are thinking about, oh, I played a wrong note. And yet, it is so liberating when you realize you can just ignore that voice and get on with the next thing you are doing.
Sara: Exactly. As people who improvise, we have to learn a quick forgiveness.
Sara: So if you hit that wrong note, ah, just whatever, it’s fine. Forgiveness. Move on to the next.
Christopher: So for someone who is listening and feeling inspired by this. They want to go ahead and sit down at the piano and dabble a bit. Do you have any kind of tips or tricks or little activities that you would recommend for someone who is just starting out wanting to figure something out by ear or improvise?
Sara: Absolutely. This is something that I really talk about a lot, especially with my teens because they, my teen pianists, have gotten to a point where they understand chords, you know, basic major/minor, some of them have started to explore seventh chords. But they don’t quite know what to do with them yet. And it can be a frustrating point in the process to understand these things, these chords or like the theory of them. But not knowing how to apply them. And so, I started to encourage them to explore on their own because, I don’t want to be the kind of person who spoon feeds my students. I want to teach them to feed themselves.
So, I tell them, okay, I give like them a general little project. And what I say is this. Okay, think of one of your favorite songs and maybe make a list of a bunch of songs that you really, really like. And then I want you to go out there, pick one of those songs and look up the chords. See if you can find them online. Because you don’t, you know, a lot of people get very intimidated with this idea of playing by ear that they actually have to start from nothing.
Sara: Now, maybe 15 years ago, you really did have to start from nothing because we didn’t have all of these websites out there that have all of the chord charts on them. But nowadays, we have so many resources at our fingertips. Go out there and use them. It’s not cheating. It’s learning. So go and grab a chord chart from, what’s that one, Ultimate Guitar. Go there. Look up the chords and start just experimenting.
You don’t have to make it sound like the actual song. You can just learn the chord patterns and start experimenting with different rhythms in your left hand and maybe in your right hand maybe you just play blocked chords. Maybe you just play thirds. Keep it simple. Try to create different patterns in your left hand, and all of the sudden, you notice that the song that you really loved that might have been a rock song, you know, that’s like heavy and, you know, a lot of booming rhythms and you could create a new sound with that song with something very gentle. Maybe, it’s more flowing, broken chords, like a music box type of pattern. And all of the sudden, you are creating music out of something that you already know.
Sara: So start with what’s familiar and comfortable and then challenge yourself and try to make it sound a little different.
Christopher: That’s wonderful. And you know, in Musical U when we talk about improv, we talk a lot about the idea of playgrounds. And giving yourself kind of a safe space to experiment in, something that lets you explore musical options in a way that will generally sound pretty good. And I love the idea of taking a song that you like and giving yourself the stepping stone of knowing what the chord progression is and using that as a safe space to kind of play around in and experiment with different things.
Sara: Yeah. It’s a lot of fun when you start doing this. It is intimidating the first time you do it. I will let everybody know, the first time you try to do this, you might get frustrated and you might feel like, uh, this just didn’t really sound good. But stick with it because the more that you do this process, the easier it becomes. I think that is the biggest issue with learning how to improv is that people give up too easily because they expect that it is going to sound amazing the first time that you do it. Guess what? It’s not.
Christopher: It’s not. And it didn’t for anyone, any of the big improv greats you admire. You know, their first improvisation probably did not sound so hot.
Sara: Oh no. Not at all. Remember those videos out there are totally polished. You are seeing the end result of hours and hours of work. So when you are just starting out, practice forgiveness, and just have fun. Think about what would it be like if I were doing this if I were like six or seven years old. If you can find that child-like mentality and curiosity. You are going to have a lot more fun and you are going to be able to find that forgiveness very easily.
Christopher: So, speaking of younger students and having fun with music making, when I first came across your blog and your teaching, one thing that really jumped out at me was that you ran a popular rock 1,4,5 camp in a summer recently. Can you tell us about that? What you were teaching and how you went about it?
Sara: Ah. This was one of my favorite summer workshops. We had so much fun. The concept was … It actually came out of a piano book. It was called How to Rock Your Next Recital. And every single piece in this was a four chord song. So it was 1, 4, 5, and then of course, our minor 6. You know, the minor six chord. This progression that is super popular. I am going to give you guys a homework assignment, if you are listening. Because I am a teacher and this is what I do. But I want you to go out on YouTube and I want you to look up the Axis of Awesome. Christopher, are you familiar with them?
Christopher: It is a wonderful video. Yeah. We will definitely put a link in the show notes.
Sara: Oh. They are just fabulous. And there are multiple videos. They’ve done many different videos of these four chord songs where they linked together all of these pop and rock pieces. Actually, there are a lot of genres out there that include four chords. And they sing like a little snippet of one song, then go into another song, and another song, and people start to realize, “Oh my gosh. All of these songs are the same.”
So, that is how that workshop was born. And we started exploring the different possibilities with these four chords. What does it sound like if we rearrange their order? What does it sound like in a different key? What does it sound like when we use different rhythmic patterns and we make it sound soft and gentle and more like a ballad? And then we can make it sound amazing like a hard rock song? And so I invited a couple of musician friends of mine. I invited James Bullomena, guitarist, and Steven Marx, a drummer. People who I am good friends with. And they came in to our Pop Rock Camp and the kids that were in this camp, there were eight kids in this camp. They got to improvise with professionals.
Sara: And it was a little scary at first. But I prepared them the first couple of days we spent a lot of time just learning these progressions and practicing different patterns. And on the last day of the camp, we had our pros come in and we just did a jam session. And it was super fun. There were lots of mistakes but you know, I had the professionals talk to the kids saying, “Hey, we make mistakes. And we’ve been doing this for years.”
Christopher: That’s awesome. I wish every young music student could have that kind of an experience because if they did we would not have so many adults that were terrified at the ideas of a jam session. I totally get where that fear comes from but I think giving them that early experience. You know, this is what it is like to jam with musicians. It doesn’t have to be scary. It doesn’t have to be near perfect. It’s just a fun way to enjoy music making.
So you have incorporated this kind of creative fun spirit into your own teaching but you don’t stop there. You’re out there helping other piano teachers bring this kind of thing to their own teaching. And also helping them with a kind of professional development of their own studio. So along with Tracy Selle, you are part of the Upbeat Piano Teachers and you help independent piano teachers with advice on the music side and on the business side. Can you tell us a bit more about that? How it came about? And what you do at Upbeat Piano Teachers.
Sara: Oh, great. Yes, I’d love to talk about this. This is one of my favorite jobs. I wear many different hats and my Upbeat Piano Teacher hat is my favorite. Tracy contacted me, I think it was 2016 or it might have even been 2015 when we started. She had been reading my blog and I had been blogging a lot about teaching these summer workshops. So, like the Pop Camp that we just talked about and some other ideas, you know, creative ideas, that I was into, like creating movies with students. Or doing a singing workshop. So she contacted me and wanted to interview me about how I did this. How do I set up these summer workshops? And Tracy and I just clicked. We just are of the same mind-set. We were really out there wanting to share this info with other teachers. And so, she asked me to join her full-time with Upbeat Piano Teachers. And now we co-host, together. And she has a background in broadcasting and I have a background in theater. And so, I am pretty comfortable on camera. And we have a really good time.
We interview piano teachers from all around the world on a variety of topics, whether it’s about how to set up your business, or recently we just did a series about teaching teenagers and how to connect with teens, because that can be a really tough age. So, not only are we talking about ways to connect with them and to inspire practicing and to get students to be more self-motivated. But we also talked about music that they might connect with. Or different ways to approach teaching outside of the exam society. Because that is a big thing now. How do I teach outside of exams? For a lot of teachers, that is very intimidating.
And then we’ve done some other things. We do academies where we help people plan things for their business. And we just started our group coaching that was actually … We did our first group coach experience this summer and it was fantastic. We did our Upbeat Planning Academy and we worked with teachers for six weeks. And we actually just wrapped this up last week. Worked with teachers for six weeks to help them plan their best year ever. And we really go into the nitty gritty of organizing all kinds of stuff. It was pretty amazing.
Christopher: Wow. What a range of help you are providing to piano teachers. That is incredible. And you’re always popping up on my Facebook on Facebook Live that is part of Upbeat Piano Teachers too.
Sara: Oh yeah. I love doing live videos. They used to be super scary but I’ve gotten pretty comfortable with them now. You can actually find me live on Upbeat Piano Teachers on Facebook if you just look up Upbeat Piano Teachers, it pops right up. I go live on that particular business page every single Friday at around noon. Sometimes the time changes just a little bit. It will be like 12:10 or something like that. And that is Eastern time. But I always put out a post that morning or the day before where you can actually click a little button and get a reminder in your own time zone about when I am going live. I think I’ve done about 14. Yeah, 14 of these videos, so far. We’ve been doing it for 14 weeks.
Christopher: Wow. And you are talking about the kind of things you just outlined like how to connect with teens, or how to include different activities in your teaching, as well as how to have a successful piano teaching studio. Is that right?
Sara: Yeah. Exactly. I try to cover a variety of topics, whether it is a business tip or a teaching tip. I will occasionally do a video from the piano. And actually, teach, oh, here is how you would do a very simple improv. Or here is how I like to think of teaching scales. Here is a little tip about making it visual on the piano. Um, so I like to do those things. It is really fun and we have a lot of teachers who like to tune in live. So we get a really good conversation going in the comment area.
Christopher: Awesome. And so I know we have a lot of music teachers and piano teachers in the audience. So, if you are listening in to this and need to learn more from Sara. Definitely do tune-in to those Facebook Lives every Friday.
So, we were introduced by a mutual friend, Tim Topham. Because I was looking for someone who had that kind of musicality and deep understanding of what it meant to be creative in your music learning and in your music playing, not just play the notes on the page and pass your exam. And he recommended you as someone who really got that. And you are now are resident pro of the piano at Musical U. Can you share with listeners a bit about what you do at Musical U and how you are helping our members there?
Sara: First off, thank you, Tim!
Christopher: Thank you for introducing us!
Sara: Yeah. Yeah. Because, this has been super fun. I am having such a good time at Musical U. And I really enjoy interacting with our pianists on the forum. We are having a good time getting to know one another. Like little fun facts about one another that aren’t even necessarily piano-related or whether it is talking about, “Hey, what are you practicing this week?” And as we continue, I think this is my four month, fifth month, of being the resident pro there. Kind of getting into a little bit of accountability. “Hey, have you made any progress with this? How’s that going?”
I’ve had a lot of fun creating the video resources every month. It has been a great learning process for me. Actually, because, you know, I love it when Christopher, you’ll throw like this topic at me. And I’ll go, oh, okay, like this is a big topic. How can I create like something that’s like 10-15 minutes out of this. And it has been a great challenge for me as a teacher. How would I filter this down to something that is super useful and not too overwhelming.
Christopher: You do a terrific job of that. You always find a way to make it very practical and fun. Which is exactly our goal with those instrument packs. Yeah, we are delighted with the results.
Sara: Oh, I am so glad. Because, I am actually … I’ve got my chart of the resource pack here talking about creative ways to approach 1,4,5’s. I’ve got some really cool ideas for this. So, hey if you are listening and you want to check this out, you gotta join the Piano Pack because that resource is going to be awesome.
Christopher: Absolutely. We are not afraid to do shameless plugs here on the Musicality Podcast. Fantastic. So, thank you so much joining us today, Sara. If you’ve enjoyed this conversation with Sara Campbell, please do head on over to sarasmusicstudio.com. We will have a link to that and everything else we have mentioned in the show notes for this episode. Thank you, again, Sara.
Sara: Thank you so much, Chris. This was great.
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