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. We’ll create a track.” He goes, “Find something in the room to make music with.” I was just like, “What?” There is no piano.
Christopher: Where’s my piano though?
Natalie: Exactly, yeah. Within a few minutes, there are people who picked up, like somebody picked up a whiteboard marker and used it on the whiteboard and created this interesting sound there, somebody else used a chair, somebody else found a piece of trash that they crumpled in their hands. It sounds a little bit weird like, “Oh, that’s not really music.” Just the way that he had people take those items and use them in a musical way to create certain rhythmic patterns and different pitches, he took all those and recorded them one track at a time. Then mixed them all together to create this pretty cool sounding recording. I think that was back to your original question, it was somewhat more of a mindset change where, again, it wasn’t like, “Oh you got to have the write note at the right time and do everything exactly the right way.”
It was about, “How can we create music or how can we use what we have to make something musical?” It wasn’t like this clashy dissonant horrible sound. It actually came out in a musical way. That was definitely mind blowing for me to think of music in that way. Then that coupled with some of the things that I had learned at this other intensive where you find different patterns that work, whether it’s a chord progression or it’s a pentatonic scale at the keyboard. You take just that framework. Then you explore within that. You have a little bit of a safety net because you know that those things sound good together. Then from there, you’ve got the whole keyboard to work with and try something different or new. I mean, it’s weird. It’s a mixture of practical. It wasn’t like they had us drilling scales or all of that. It was more about the music and creating sounds.
Christopher: That’s fascinating. It sounds like the first conference equipped you with a toolkit you could use. Then it was the second experience that let you see that you didn’t have to have the same expectations of yourself as you maybe did in your classical piano work when it came to improvising. Is that right?
Natalie: Yeah. Absolutely. The first conference, the guy who led that has produced a whole series of books called, “Pattern Play,” that can be used at the piano. There are both duet and ensemble and solo ideas that you can use from there. It’s highly practical. It gives you right there the scale or the chord progression to use at the piano. Yeah, I think you’re exactly right. It was having some of that to work from but then being free to do it and not feeling like I had to know it was going to sound right before I played everything.
Christopher: That sounds like a breakthrough moment for you. But I’m sure it wasn’t an instant change to every aspect of your musical life. I’d love to understand how did the next months and years go in terms of exploring that new way to approach the piano?
Natalie: Well, there were a number of things from that that I feel like grew from that. I was able to take some of my favorite songs and create an original arrangement for them. I had done quite a bit of music writing before or song writing before. But I was so in essence, married to the printed note that as soon as I came up with something that sounded good, I would have to get it put on paper. I just knew I would forget it. After that conference, when I came home to my studio, I sat down at the piano. I started writing an arrangement for one of my favorite songs. It was a challenge to myself to say, “Can you do this without putting anything on paper? Can you do it and just let it become just part of your own music where you could sit down at the piano and you can play it from memory?”
For somebody who struggled equally with memorizing music growing up, I don’t know, it was a huge challenge for me. As I did that and would just add to it day after day, working at the piano and remembering what I had already written and then adding to it until I had the whole arrangement finished was a really big milestone for me. Then that Christmas, I played it. I’d always do a big studio recital. I played that arrangement completely from memory which I know this sounds ridiculous for somebody who’s a really good musician who has no trouble memorizing, but to be able to sit down and play that and just share that piece of music was huge for me, and again, helped me overcome some of my fears of performing, some of my fears of playing without printed music in front of me, memorizing and all that.
It was a process and just trying new things and again, pushing myself and challenging myself to take what I was learning and apply it in actual ways. Another really big moment came. My brother is a cellist. He and I were asked to play for a wedding. We were playing the processional. There was a delay. The wedding party wasn’t coming as we anticipated. Together, we ended up just improvising on a chord progression and looking at each other about having no idea what we’re doing other than continuing to play the chords of the piece of pop music that we were supposed to be playing.
Again, that was a defining moment for me, just to be free to keep the music going. Even when I was out of notes, you know that there could still be music coming. I don’t know. Those are a few that stand out in my mind. Then certainly as I worked with students and would sit down and try to accompany them using this pattern play concept, I would provide a chord accompaniment. Then they would improvise a melody. Then we would switch roles. Just constantly exploring and trying new things and not being afraid to see what it sounded like it.
Christopher: I love what you identified there because I think it’s often glossed over which is even once you have that mindset breakthrough that, okay, maybe you could improvise or play by ear or be a bit freer in music, you’ve got to do that next step of letting go of the crutch of the sheet music, right. You described it beautifully that you do. I don’t know. It’s intimidating and a bit scary if you’re used to always having a page, the stuff in front of you with the notes to play. It sounds like you gradually, over time, got more and more comfortable with not having that crutch or not rushing to write down what you just created and relying more on your musical memory and your ability actually to recreate it if needed.
Natalie: Yeah. Yeah. It is. It’s terrifying at first. A lot of people have said that the brain is like a muscle. Using it, and the only way you can really grow as a musician is to try something that you haven’t done before and push yourself to a new place.
Christopher: How much have you found that scary emotional side of it fade over time? As you got better and better, did it get easier or did it always feel alien to you?
Natalie: No. It’s definitely gotten easier. The more that I have pushed myself and in essence, made myself be in an uncomfortable position in order to test the waters so to speak, it’s gotten easier and easier, like moving a little bit further out and seeing what I can actually be successful trying. Even if it’s not this huge wonderful success like, “Oh wow. I played this Rachmaninoff-sounding piece completely improvised.” It’s not like that. It’s just I guess in real world scenarios whether it’s playing for a wedding or some other special event, and knowing that if my music blows off of the fall board or the music holder on the piano, I’m not going to be sunk. I could do something to keep it going and finish out.
Christopher: I really admire how you dived in at the deep end, to go from the sheet music world to sitting down with nothing in front of you, particularly in front of an audience. That’s brave. It’s wonderful to hear that for you, it was the start of a really rewarding journey. Had you ever done anything looser, like playing from a lead sheet or doing something where you didn’t have every note in front of you?
Natalie: I had never done any of that growing up. Again, it was just classical method, whatever. Play from the book. The first time I remember coming across a lead sheet, I was working at a summer camp for an urban ministry out in California. On my application, I had put that I was a pianist. That immediately landed me a role as the keyboardist for the worship team there. I had been involved in church music for a while back home. It was still more of a traditional music setting where I was playing hymns. I thought I was doing good, just to improvise a little bit from there, add a few chords or runs or such.
When I got to our first practice for this worship team, they put a piece of paper in front of me. It had words with these capital letters above it. I thought it was a joke at first because I was like, “I’m a pianist. Where’s my music?” They’re like, “What? That is your music. That’s what we have. That’s where we’re going from.” That was a pretty rude awakening for me to suddenly be thrown into that and have to really fumble my way through this very cryptic piece of paper and starting out super super simple. Thankfully, I had had enough theory that I knew what a chord was, which I can’t say the same for some of other students that I have sometimes gotten as transfer students.
Christopher: You were able to cobble together what to do with those arcane chord symbols above the lyrics.
Natalie: Right. Yeah. But it was just essentially blocking a chord like, “Okay. Here’s your C Major chord, all right. Now, we’re moving to the G Major chord.” So stumbling through it very immaturitially for a while. Really through most of that experience, it was somewhat on the humiliating side because I have these great musicians who are used to that kind of thing. They’re playing guitars or whatever, or singing. I’m here supposedly at the top of the studio, in like a teacher’s studio and I can’t play this simple song. That gave me a lot more motivation to try to figure out how do you work with something like this. How do you take these chords and actually make them musical and …
Christopher: How do you feel about lead sheets now?
Natalie: Fit in with the group and with the style that they’re playing? I’m still not an expert by any stretch of the imagination. But I feel a lot more comfortable looking at them and understanding what’s going on, and being able to play something and beat, with [crosstalk 00:28:04]
Christopher: One of the things I’ve always admired about Music Matters and the way you approach music education is how practical you are in developing the listening skills. I mentioned earlier, I had to come through it a different way. That was very much through ear training and doing ear training exercises. Then I after that, figured out how to apply that to do things like playing by ear and improvising. But I love that with your students, as I understand it, you’re very much practical first. You give them creative games and exercises to let them explore this world of creating from scratch without the drilling of interval recognition or whatever it may be. I imagine that lead sheet exercise of can you come up with your own arrangement is the kind of thing you do with your students. Would that be right?
Natalie: Yeah. Absolutely. From early on, I’m trying to combine the concepts and the skills of music theory and technical skills with actual application. That’s one of the things. For a while, I was really frustrated as a teacher looking back and thinking, “Man, there’s so much that I missed in my own music education.” I remember at one point, coming across a whole stack of books that I had gone through as a student. Mixed in the bunch, there were multiple levels of theory books that I had actually completed. I thought, “This is strange. I don’t ever remember any of this.” I think it’s because we did theory as a completely disjointed, separate subject where it was like, “Okay, count these sharps. Figure out a key signature. Write the name of this chord.”
Then there was never any connection to the music that I was playing. From early on as a teacher, I basically said, “I’m not going to use theory books. I’m just going to have my students learn theory as the core of the music that they’re playing.” Whether we start out with little C Major pentascale and then they learn there are three primary triads for that. Then I have them go home for that week. See if they can pick out the melody for Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star. Then once they come back with that, then I’d show them how they can use those primary triads in their other hand to harmonize just really simply with a melody. Little things like that where my desire, my hope for my students is that we’re approaching it systematically and they’re learning these skills without any of the pain associated with it that I had where it just seems normal to them like, “Oh, I heard a cool song. I’m going to see if I can sit down and play that.”
“Oh, I’m in this key. So I’m going to add these chords.” It’s much more of a natural approach for them not just to read a piece of music but to be able to pick something out by ear or to take that same chord progression that sounded like so cool and then add their on melody above it. Whatever it might, just that I guess there’s not that same sense of fear or even just the big unknown, like there’s this whole unknown part of music that they’ve never touched them. I want them to be aware of all the possible ways.
Christopher: I love that. I wish you could be my piano teacher because that was definitely an unknown world for me for far too long.
Christopher: Like you say, the traditional teaching of music theory is so dry and divorced from what brings us to music in the first place. It’s the rare and lucky individual who eventually finds a way to tie it back together and make sense of it. I think more instrument teachers like yourself actually showing the value of music theory from day one and the practical use and the benefits of it would be so transformative for the way people learn music.
Natalie: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Well, it’s been huge for me. It’s easy to look back and think, “I wish this or I wish that.” But it really is I think in some ways, the blessing in disguise because the lack of, or at least, perception of what I lacked in my music education, now, I’m a lot more conscientious as a teacher. I might not be. Who knows? Maybe my students, maybe they won’t know. They won’t value it to the same degree. I don’t know. But just trying to be faithful and keep learning and then use whatever is in my past or my mistakes or the great things too from my own music education and pass those on to the next generation.
Christopher: We’re I think in a really interesting age for music education in the sense that with the Internet at our fingertips and a YouTube tutorial on the song you want to play always available to you, I think it’s increasingly tempting for music students, whether they’re young or adult to try and shortcut the process of learning music and go for the quick and easy solution rather than taking the time to work on technique or learn about the music theory and that kind of thing. What’s your opinion on that? What advice would you have for a student in this day and age where it can be so tempting to leap to a quick fix?
Natalie: Yeah. I completely agree. It is a challenge. I mean, our whole society I think is conditioned to want results quickly. It’s hard. It’s hard to stick with something and to do the drills or exercises that are less fun, whether it’s working through a scale or an arpeggio or counting out a rhythm that’s really tricky, we just want to skip by it and have the easy way out. If we do that, we miss out on those layers of foundation that really become a part of us as a musician.
I think you can get by. You can fake it for a lot of different scenarios. You can do okay. But you’re cheating yourself if you don’t really take the time and invest in the parts that are going to eventually, contribute to the whole. I remember quite a few years ago, I read a book called The Piano Shop on the Left Bank. There was one particular little anecdote from there that has stuck with me ever since. It was a teacher who was giving a master class to a student. He referenced Leonardo, the great artist. He said, “Leonardo spent years developing a codex of body parts. He drew ears. He drew elbows. He drew hands. He drew all part of the body in as many different aspects as he could. Then he forgot about it and painted what he saw. You must do the same.”
That’s just stuck with me anytime there’s a temptation or this feeling like, “I just want to get right to the piece. I just want to play this music and sound good.” Well, I mean, Leonardo could’ve done that. He could’ve just said, “I’m going to draw this.” But he would’ve never become recognized as the great artist that he is because he would’ve not had the same quality to his work. There is a lot of value in the small pieces and say, “I’m going to drill this scale. I’m going to drill this fingering. I’m going to count that rhythm until I can’t get it wrong.” You take piece by piece by piece. Then you put it together. That becomes the whole.
Then you can look at a new piece of music or hear a new piece of music. Then that’s where you get this sensation like, “Oh man. That person, it looks effortless for them.” Well, that’s why, because they just have spent hundreds of hours drilling the parts so that they could sit down and play that piece of music and it essentially feel effortless.
Christopher: Wonderful advice. I think a really beautiful analogy for the right way to learn music. As I said before, I’ve long been an admirer of the way you do things in particular. Part of what’s beautiful about your approach is you find that middle ground. It’s not just, “I will develop my codex of body parts as it were and I will get totally lost in the weeds of music theory. I’ll do my ear training exercise. I’ll get perfect on my hand and then my scales. Then one day, I’ll learn the repertoire.”
It’s also not, “I’ll just dabble about with this improvisation stuff and I won’t bother will all of understanding or studying or perfecting my fingering technique.” You find that middle ground in a very practical way, to combine the two in an enjoyable and creative form of music learning. I really applaud you for that. I think it’s far too rare. I’m sure your students thoroughly enjoy the process of learning in a way that the traditional method just does not provide.
Natalie: Well, thank you. That’s very kind of you. I think even like you mentioned about the you learning through drilling, that you’re training exercises and that, there’s such a place for that kind of thing. I think the tendency is maybe somebody wants to use a new app or use some new resource. They use it for a short period of time and then just move onto the next thing and say, “Op, that didn’t work. I’m going to try something else.”
I think there’s a lot of value in just … I remember somebody once calling it just-stick-tuitiveness. You find something and then stick to it. Keep working at that for an extended period of time and give yourself time to let the results come. Whether it’s practicing a new piece of music or drilling some intervals by ear and working that over and over along with maybe figuring out another piece of music by ear. If we can learn to be diligent and faithful in the little things, then it does, over the long haul, we will see results.
Christopher: That’s true. You have a new course out recently that I found fascinating both from where it had come from and what it could do for people. I believe it’s called For the Love of Music, I would love for you to tell us a bit more about that course.
Natalie: Yeah. This was something that a couple of my older students and I worked on together. I had these two teenage boys who love music and were planning to pursue a future in music. They love to sit down and play. They were on the opposite end of the spectrum from me, which I’ve always said I feel like God has a sense of humor because I think everyone he brings to my studio plays by ear. Then I have to teach them how to read music. But that’s the boat these guys were in is they could play well. They could improvise pretty freely at the piano but they just struggled with being able to read music.
Even after a number of years of lessons, it was like they would still gravitate constantly to playing by ear. If at all possible, avoid having to read music. We got to talking and basically said, “This isn’t going to work. You can’t get as far as you want to in music if you don’t develop this skill of being able to read fluently.” We decided to spend a week together, an intensive week where we would work together, putting together this course, For the Love of Music, where it would walk people through the process of how do you get from I love music and I love to sit down and play, and I’ve got these relatively advanced skills playing wise but I’m struggling to even read an elementary piece of music.
That was the impetus behind this course. We recorded 20-some different videos of them just explaining each part of the music. We looked at the heartbeat of music, understanding rhythm not just as sound but what does it look like on a page. How do you translate what you’re hearing to what you’re seeing? We looked at the intricacies of music, understanding the harmonic structure in music. How do you take this really cool sounding chord and identify it on a page? How do you take a melody that you’re hearing and learn how to recognize that in notation or put it into notation? Somebody who can maybe write something that sounds really cool, play something that sounds cool and they want to put it on paper but have no idea how to do that.
Just in some sense, it’s working backwards from instead of, “Here’s the piece of music. Let’s learn to play it.” It’s taking the sounds and what you’re hearing, what you already love, and then translating that back to printed music. That was our goal. We did a lot of different audio recordings, the video recordings, the workbook that would be available then to other people in that same boat who are saying, “I love music. I love the way this sounds. I can sit down and play at the piano but I’ve no idea what I’m reading in front of me or I don’t know what to do this piece of music in front of me.”
We did that together. Then throughout the course of that time, they had a contest going with each other where they were seeing who could sight read the most measures of music every night. We would track it to see who would win by the end. We thought this would be a really fun course that somebody could either go through on their own, just watching the video clips and doing the audio dictations and working through it at their own pace or they could get a couple friends together and challenge each other and say, “Hey, let’s study this together and see who can sight read the most,” or whatever. Just doing it in a group setting for that camaraderie and accountability or a teacher to use with some students. It’s got a lot of different applications but just again, tapping into that love for music that so many have and then wanting to develop that further and to really use in school then.
Christopher: Very cool. You mentioned there that these two students of yours were quite accomplished on the playing by ear side. We have a lot of people that come to us at Musical U who are kind of beginners at everything as it were. They might be taking up piano for the first time in retirement, for example. I explain to them, “We can certainly help you with the inner skills and the understanding of what you’re hearing and starting to improvise and play by ear. But you’re probably also going to want to learn the note by note traditional piano or whatever the instrument is technique as well.” It sounds like in fact, this course could be a really great alternative to that in that it I believe starts from the basics and it helps them connect to what they hear with the dots on the page.
Natalie: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Exactly, yeah. I mean, it starts with what’s the music staff. Learning from that point on and then how a note on the staff relates to the pitch on an instrument, and then putting that together. Certainly someone could start from scratch, not knowing anything about the printed page of music. Then work through it at their own pace. Then those who do have some background, they could work through it more rapidly. Those who maybe struggle at a certain point like, “Okay. Wait a minute. What are these different kinds of chords you’re talking about?” Then they could spend a little more time on that and do some supplemental work with other things in the areas that they want to develop routinely.
Christopher: Wonderful. That sounds like it’s really taking your practical approach to music teaching and applying it to fundamentals of music theory from the ground up and sight reading even. That’s a fantastic resource.
Natalie: Yeah. Absolutely. Because that’s the goal is eventually, we want to be able to play music and play it well, whether it’s to play it from a printed piece that somebody else has written or whether it’s to create our own piece or whether it’s to play something by ear that you’ve heard. Any of those, the end goal is always, “I want to play my instrument well so that it sounds good and so that other people enjoy hearing it so that I enjoy sharing it as I love.”
Christopher: Amazing. Well, that’s certainly something I will be directing people to in the future when they ask me, “How can I learn the sheet music side of things too?” That’s presumably all available online? Is it? Okay.
Natalie: Yes, it sure is. MusicMattersBlog.com and I do have for any of your listeners, I have a special discount code that I set up for that. Anybody who is interested can get it for $10 off. The code is just MusicalU so that might give a little, I don’t know, helpful incentive for those who are considering but not sure if that’s what they’re looking for in that.
Christopher: Fantastic. That’s very generous of you. Thank you for setting that up. Definitely if you’ve been listening to this interview, and you’re inspired by this different approach to thinking about music learning and if you’ve been inspired by Natalie’s story of how she’s learned and how she’s adapted her own approach to music, definitely do check this out this course, For the Love of Music. You can use the discount code, MusicalU to get $10 off. Terrific. Thank you again, Natalie for joining us today to share your story and your insights on musicality and how to find this freedom even if you’ve been coached in just note by note reading in the past or if you’re starting from scratch. Before we say goodbye, where can listeners find out more about you and your other projects?
Natalie: Probably the best place is just MusicMattersBlog.com that can get you a lot places. I do have a lot of different all sorts of music-related resources and worksheets and references on there. So that would be a great place for anybody to go and get connected to other, lots and lots of other resources in the music world.
Christopher: Perfect. Thank you. Well, we’ll make sure the link to your blog and also the Love of Music Course are in the show notes for this episode. Thank you again for joining us, Natalie.
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