Have you felt limited in music, or intimidated by creative tasks like playing by ear and improvisation? Have you wondered if the musicians who can do those things could always do them – or if they somehow learned? You might be surprised by the answer! In today’s episode we discover how a positive attitude and the right “toolkit” can equip you to find your own creative freedom in music.

Today we’re joined by Natalie Weber, founder of the popular MusicMattersBlog.com, a site devoted to inspiring creativity in music education. Natalie has studied music since the age of 7 but it was only later on that she broke free of the sheet music and found the kind of creative freedom which she now shares with students of all ages and levels in her independent piano studio and with music teachers worldwide on Music Matters Blog.

Natalie writes regularly to share lessons from her own piano studio and also keeps right up to date with all the interesting developments from other websites and music educators. Topics on the site range from highly practical guides and suggestions for covering topics like rhythm or ear training in lessons, through to app reviews and conference reports to share the latest goings-on in the world of music education.

We interviewed Natalie for our site back in 2011 so it was high time we caught up again!

In this episode we talk about Natalie’s own journey from being a note-reading pianist to finally breaking free of the sheet music. How that took a combination of practical techniques and a big mindset shift about what it means to make music.

She shares two pivotal experiences that totally transformed how comfortable she felt making music out of nothing and now inspires the creative approach she takes in her own teaching and leadership of other music teachers around the world.

You’re going to hear how important it was that she had a positive attitude in her own music learning – really inspiring if you want to expand your own musicality.

Also: would you guess that Natalie’s new course on music theory and reading sheet music was actually created in partnership with two people who struggled with that the most…

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Christopher: Welcome to the show, Natalie! Thank you for joining us today.

Natalie: You bet. Thanks for having me.

Christopher: Let’s start at the very beginning. Can you tell us about how you got started making music yourself?

Natalie: I can. I was one of those seven-year-olds who was forced into it by my parents. I don’t really remember having any compelling desire myself to start into piano lessons but it was just assumed that that was something that my sisters and I would do. We did and dutifully attended our lessons every week and not so dutifully did our practicing during the week.

Christopher: What was it like for you? You described it there as doing it because you were told to rather than because you had a burning desire inside you. How did those first few years of piano leaning go for you? Did it feel like you had a natural inclination for music? Did it all come easily or was it a matter of working hard for each bit of progress you got?

Natalie: Honestly, thinking back, the first number of years are, I don’t know, not very clear for me. I know that I’ve taken piano for a long time but I don’t have a lot of memories of those early years. I just remember going to lessons and that I was required to practice during the week. I never had a really good ear for music. It wasn’t something that I thought, “This is great. I’m going to do this for the rest of my life.” It was just part of our expectation growing up in our family. It was that we would take piano lessons. So yeah, it’s strange now being in the world of music and looking back. I don’t have a lot of fond memories or memories at all really of those early years.

Christopher: That’s really interesting and I’m sure quite reassuring to our listeners to find out that someone even as accomplished as you didn’t necessarily take to it one morning and find they were a natural prodigy.

Natalie: Yeah. Absolutely. In fact, it’s interesting because probably the thing that I hear people say the most when I tell them I’m a piano teacher is, “I wish that I had stuck with piano lessons.” Even though I am one of those that stuck with piano lessons, I would say a lot of my love for music and development in music didn’t come until quite a bit later in my studies.

Christopher: There must have been some kind of spark or connection because years on, you are 100% immersed in the world of music. You run one of the most popular, if not the most popular blog for music teachers and piano teachers in particular. How did that happen? How did the next ten years of learning piano go? Where did that desire to do it for your life come from?

Natalie: That’s a very good question. There’s a proverb that says, “A man plans his way but the Lord directs his steps.” I feel like that’s the story of my life is that God has really directed my steps. I never set out and said, “Hey, this is going to be my life focus. I’m going to invest myself in music.” But it was one thing after another, it just kept leading me down that path. I can remember getting to a point probably mid teens where being a regular piano student, and a number of my friends were also involved in music. Some of them were incredible musicians. They could do this strange thing called play by ear where they would sit down at a piano with no sheet of music in front of them. They would just play this beautiful music.

One of my friends in particular, I remember doing this little game with her where I would write down several letters from the music alphabet on a piece of paper and give it to her. Then she would just take that and play this gorgeous piece of music based off of that. I was so in awe of that ability being someone trained exclusively through a, “Here’s your method. Here’s the notes on the page. Play these notes and count the rhythm.” That launched me I guess into more of a quest to figure out how do you do that? How do you go beyond just what’s written on a page and really make music?

Christopher: Did you have that confidence that it was possible? Because when I think back, I had a very similar experience to you in being trained to read notes and that was that, and being just overwhelmed by the people who could play by ear and improvise because it was so far beyond me. For me, I guess I didn’t believe it was possible. I thought those guys could do it and they could always do it. I didn’t know how to do it. Therefore, I couldn’t. It sounds like maybe you had a bit more insight that actually maybe that stuff was learnable.

Natalie: In some ways, it’s probably more a sense of wishful thinking. I remember asking my friends, saying, “How did you do that? Show me how to do that.” She would say, “You just do it like this.” Then she would play the same thing again. I’m like, “Yeah, but I don’t know what you just did.” Then I would seek out other people, looking at various teachers. Any time I heard of a teacher or anybody who could improvise or play by ear, I would say, “Can I come have a few lessons with you?” I guess there was an element of persistence, right. I was like, “Surely somebody could teach me how to do this because I want to be able to do it.” I would go. I remember taking lessons from a teacher in our town who was a very good improviser.

It was similar where she would play something for me and say, “You just do it like this.” Then she would play it. I’m like, “But I don’t know what you’re doing. It doesn’t make any sense. I can’t just sit down and play what you played.” It was a long process of looking for teachers, looking for different books. Any time I saw a book or resource on improvising, it was like a magnetic attraction like, “Oh, maybe this will be the missing link. Maybe I’ll actually learn if I use this resource.”

Christopher: Got you. I love your persistence. I encountered that same thing where the people that would inspire me because they could do it typically didn’t really understand how they did it. Even if they’d worked at it and got better at it intentionally, they didn’t necessarily know how or they didn’t have enough of an understanding to explain it to me. I love that you encountered that same thing and had the hope and the positivity to persist because I have to confess, I did not. I had to come to it another way later on. We know each other a little bit. I’ve always admired that positive spirit you bring to everything you do. You are a very hopeful person and a very determined person in a gentle and friendly way. So I guess it doesn’t surprise me to hear that when you were faced with that challenge, you just said, “I’m going to keep trying. I’m going to find the way that someone will be able to teach me this.”

Natalie: Well, thank you. That’s encouraging because there are certainly, yeah, still more things that I need to do that with.

Christopher: There’s always more to learn in music. Tell me, how did that develop for you as you found more teachers and more resources? Was there a point where you’re like, “Oh, okay. I can do this now,” or how did you get better and better to the point where now, I think it’s fair to say at Music Matters and at your own piano studio, creativity in music learning is a huge focus for you?

Natalie: Well, certainly teaching has been a huge part of that because as I work with students who have similar desires, I have to work with them in a more systematic way and help them understand how to take the pieces and put them together to form the whole. A huge part of that has been having a deeper understanding of music theory and technical skills at the piano whether it’s scales or chords, arpeggios and all of those things pieced together and seeing practical uses for them. That’s all contributed to it. But I would say probably one of the most … I guess one of the biggest turning points for me came in 2012 where again, in my quest for finding out how do you do this improvising thing, I had attended a short, yeah, a three-day intensive out in Seattle that was led by another teacher and someone who had published some resources on improvising.

I had been to a few of his workshops at our National Music Teacher’s Conference and felt like there, I was finally connecting with how do you sit down at the piano and play something when you have no printed music in front of you. I went to that course and left there feeling like the cliché, having drank from a fire hydrant. Like, “What do you do with all of this information? How do you put it all to use?” From there, I went to a retreat in Colorado Springs. It was a Creative Life conference. This is probably the biggest turning point for me. It was a bunch of musicians from all walks of life and all different instruments. They converged on this retreat center.

The whole focus was on using music both as a means of worshiping God but also just as something to freely share with other people. It wasn’t about learning a piece perfectly and then giving this polished performance. These people got up and even the conference artist at one point, got up for the concert one night. He started into a piece and got, I don’t know, 15, 20 seconds in. Then just put his hands up and laughed at himself and said, “Ugh, I started that all wrong. Let me start again.”

For someone who’s much more familiar with the whole classical music scene, I mean, my chin dropped. I was like, “You can’t do that. You’re on stage.” But it was so refreshing just to see people who loves the music. They love sharing it. They didn’t feel like it had to be perfect in order to share it. They had a time at the end of the conference where anybody who wanted to could just get in a line and just share something. At first, I was like, “There’s no way I could do that. I don’t have anything ready to play.”

But I just started feeling this prompting toward the end like, “No, you need to play something. You need to play something.” It’s just these trembling hands and my heart beating out my chest. I went to the front, sat down at the piano. This is the first time in my life that I had ever done anything like this. I didn’t have a single piece of printed music or anything in front of me. I just sat down. I played this simple melody by ear and added these reluctant broken chords in my left hand. Then got up. It was very short, very simple, very just nothing exceptional. The whole room just erupted and applause and was so receptive.

I was just like, “This is amazing.” I think that really broke through a barrier for me where I was able to come home from that and have a lot more freedom in playing, in sharing, even in the way that I taught my students to share their music with others where it wasn’t about perfect performances. It was about exploring and discovering and trying new things, and being free to be creative at the piano.

Christopher: Amazing. That sounds like such a wonderful experience. I’m sure for many in our audience, it would be a dream come true. It sounds like you were in their shoes too beforehand in that it felt totally out of reach because you were trained in such a different mode. I can certainly relate to that. I’d love to understand, clearly that was the culmination of this conference or this camp you were at. How much of what happened in the few days before that was about practical, how do you improvise and how does music work? How much was it more about mindset or why you’re making music maybe is the way to put it?

Natalie: That’s good question thinking back on that. Probably the session that stands out the most clearly in my mind was one. I think the guy who led it was a percussionist. It was just a handful of us gathered in a room. He said, “Okay. We’re going to create a track.” He was teaching us something about technology and looping music in that. We’re like, “Okay, great