The competitive nature of traditional classical piano education isn’t for everyone. Just ask Musical U member VeeraL – despite her deep love for music and her determination to succeed as a classical pianist and teacher in Finland, she found the hierarchical values of the “system” so oppressive that she (temporarily!) lost her passion for music.

When she moved to a new country – with her husband of 10 years, two young children and a third on the way – VeeraL seized the opportunity to take a break from music.

Ever so slowly, music crept back into her life – but this time on her terms. She discovered musicality skills – like playing by ear and improvising – that were completely absent from the rigorous classical training of her youth, and began to put her old skills to new use.

Most importantly, VeeraL is determined to enjoy her own music making.

Now living, teaching, and learning a hemisphere away from her native country, VeeraL has discovered Musical U and is forging her own trail on our Play Chords by Ear and Learn to Improvise Roadmaps.

Greetings VeeraL – we are so delighted that you joined us here at Musical U today! Please tell us more about how you started with music.

When I was four years old my family got an old piano from a relative who had passed away. My grandfather used to play it when they visited, and I loved listening to him play.

My parents signed me up for piano lessons when I was five and fast-forward 20 years I graduated in Classical Piano pedagogy and performance, having had the proper Russian School piano training from my conservatory teacher, who had immigrated to Finland from Moscow.

I’ve been teaching piano ever since I was a teenager, and worked as a teacher and accompanist during and after my music studies in Finland.

VeeraL describes her experience with the Chords by Ear roadmap in Musical U

Even though when I was a kid my favorite songs to play where the easy arrangements of pop and folk songs, I learned to deeply love and appreciate classical music during my many years of studies. But I hated the competition and hierarchy among the musicians, which eventually affected me so deeply that I completely lost the passion for music which had always been the driving force inside me.

When I had kids, and later on moved to Canada for my husband’s work, I felt it was time for me to take a long break from it all.

But being a pastor’s wife, who didn’t have an actual job (except for three young kids!) I could not say no to the church when they asked if I could play there. So I stepped into an unknown world of church musicians and was introduced to new styles of music I’d never really played before.

That started my journey which eventually got me here to Musical U. In my journey outside the genre of classical music I have been challenged in many ways and learned a lot by just saying “yes” to people, and then going home and working hard to learn completely new things out of YouTube and recordings, using the chord charts and my ears only.

Many of my bandmates can play various instruments, but still don’t know how to read music! I can play anything if it’s written out in notes, but to create something from scratch on the spot? I have learned to do that a little bit, but I feel like I’m just scratching the surface.

Yes, it’s amazing how traditionally segmented our musical worlds can be, but I am also encouraged to see how those artificial barriers are being broken down by musicians like you and others.

VeeraL, what’s your favorite track these days, and how does it inspire you?

My favorite track at the moment, hmmm… one of them is from the Emma Salokoski Ensemble:

A Finnish singer/songwriter (singing in English here) with an amazing band. Making music should be fun times shared with other people, and this song makes me happy! Also, I would love to play like the pianist here!

Wow, that is fun! Finnish samba sung in English… the world is growing smaller! And yes, very strong players in that band. I can see now how important having fun with music is to you

Back to your musical journey, what was your next move? What are you working on these days?

After 10 years of not teaching and only playing where I was needed, we moved to Australia, and I finally sent my youngest kid to primary school. Suddenly I had a lot of free time in my hands, and I started to feel the itch to get back to my music again.

piano student feeling lost and without inpiration.I was asked to join a couple of church bands, and also people wanted to have piano lessons with me. Today I teach piano at a local primary school and have my own home studio. I do accompanist jobs and help organize piano events in my hometown with a local keyboard association. I teach the classical piano method, but try to include a lot of rote pieces and some chord playing and improv to make the learning more fun and to break my students free from the thinking that playing piano is all about reading the right notes – and that my only job is to tell them when they hit the wrong note.

I love teaching my students and they are all eager to learn, but the fact is that these days most of them have never listened to classical music and the instrument they have at home is often a tiny keyboard, not an acoustic piano or even a digital one. More often than not the one thing a piano student expects to learn when they start lessons is to play something they have heard and like, and then go and show it to their friends.

That’s totally a right thing to expect and I want to be able to help them with that.

In my opinion the standard classical way of learning piano is not necessarily something that can be enjoyed for life – or in some cases enjoyed at all :) What happens when you only learn to play what other people wrote, and don’t have a clue what to do when someone asks you to just “play something nice”.

Many students quit having lessons when they are teenagers and possibly never touch the piano again in their life. That’s a lot of time and money wasted, when it could have been used to gain a life-giving skill to create music they love and enjoy, with their own hands.

I’m not willing to give up the two things in my teaching that I consider fundamental – a good technique and the skill of reading the music. They are the skills that are not easily self-taught, and they are the necessary building blocks of a musician. But at the same time, there must be a way to make learning relevant and fun too, something that will ignite a passion for music and eventually become a defining thing in the student’s lives, something that can be shared with friends and something to be proud of.

Learning Sonatinas is just not that anymore.

adult friends having fun at the piano.jpegSadly, the standard way of piano teaching is currently often not something that will motivate the students to achieve these ideals of passion and relevance, but I’m on a mission to make it so!

More than anything I want to teach my students to appreciate and understand music and to enjoy it – any style. So I’m working hard to make my piano lessons relevant and fun, and to be able to motivate my students to practice the skills needed to be able to play so that they can enjoy it.

Ok VeeraL, now I’m a little bit blown away here. You speak as a teacher from such a strong foundation of mission, wisdom, and experience, and yet side by side with your teaching, you’re still plugging through modules at Musical U. How does Musical U add to your vision, and help you fulfill it?

I feel like I’m filling in the blanks that have been lurking behind my back all these years, eating away my confidence. I have found ways to start learning exactly the skills I’ve been lacking with my own playing, and the understanding of how music is made with the underlying relations of harmonies that move the music in certain directions.

Musical U has the one thing I’ve been after for a long time. The modules I’ve taken have already opened my eyes (and ears!) to understand the vast possibilities of learning music in other ways than just the standard classical way that I have been taught. I can’t wait to learn more and to share these things with my students!

Before MU I think I was stuck in only playing from sheet music, or improvising in the same style I had learned, not really even understanding what I was doing and always feeling a little uncomfortable. Although I had a vague idea of what I would want to learn, I didn’t have a clue where to start.

In my teaching, I copied other teacher’s ideas of teaching chords, improvising and so on, but even I wasn’t very excited about how I myself did it… so no big wins there at all! I wasn’t confident in it at all. I was constantly looking for new ways to learn how to make my teaching fun, and to learn to improvise better myself, and that’s how I finally came across MU, through one of my piano teachers’ online communities.

I took the musicality test, and it seemed like just the thing I had been looking for.

That’s wonderful! What have you learned so far?

So far I’ve learned a lot about how to listen, analyze and treat the harmonies in improvisation and how to use rhythm in varying the mood and character of my music. I’m currently working on improving my improvisation skills and broadening my knowledge of playing in different genres, and find the tools provided in MU extreme useful. I am already much more confident and feel like I actually know what I’m doing and why when I improvise, and I have really only just started!

I never thought the answer to my struggles was actually in ear training – or the lack of it.

So many musicians today are in the same boat – we look around at our fellow musicians and compare ourselves to them, asking, “What’s missing?” So many times, we chalk it up to “talent” – when it’s really a set of well-defined and learnable skills that will give us that “natural” musical facility.

What experiences – and surprises – have stood out during your Musical U journey?

I love having the community of musicians to learn with, and the fact that I can ask silly questions without being laughed at :) and actually get help. I’ve been introduced to bands and musicians I’ve never heard of before, and listening to their styles of playing have taught me a lot too.

I feel like I’m filling in the blanks that have been lurking behind my back all these years, eating away my confidence. I have found ways to start learning exactly the skills I’ve been lacking with my own playing, and the understanding of how music is made with the underlying relations of harmonies that move the music in certain directions.

Fantastic, VeeraL! Where do you see this all going? What else is Musical U doing to help?

For a long time, I’ve been wanting to make my own music and to arrange songs to be used at church and with my students. I just haven’t had the tools to do that, but with what I’ve learned in MU, that dream has actually started to seem like something I could achieve one day, and probably quite soon!

VeeraL starts recognizing chords by ear all the time

The planning tools provided have been very useful, and having a set of smaller goals on my way to achieving my ultimate big dream has proven to be a great motivating force to keep going. Keeping a progress journal is proof for me that I am actually improving, and shows me the path I’ve had to take to get to my destination.

I find it priceless to have the support of some very experienced musicians to guide me – that is something I’ve yearned to have for a very long time. I love hanging out with like-minded people, and MU is full of those wonderful and crazy musicians who never tire of talking about music – I love it!

Thank you so much, VeeraL! It’s very satisfying to see members such as yourself pick up the ball – and run with it! Please keep us posted on your progress, and we look forward to hearing your original music – some day soon ;)

VeeraL is living proof of what you can do when you open your mind to learning and growing. And life-long learners know the secret: once you do so, while the hunger is insatiable, the learning just “tastes” better and better!

Are you ready to open your own mind to learning something new? Something that may very well help you along your path to freely express yourself the way you want to through music? A community and a team of dedicated musicians to guide you on the path? Follow VeeraL’s lead and give Musical U a try!

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