Mily Balakirev (1836–1910), leader of the Russian ‘Mighty Handful’ (‘Kutchka’) of composers was a brilliant pianist, improviser, noted conductor and champion of other composers. He incidentally studied math, became a civil servant/railroad clerk and was a huge animal lover. Although influenced by Chopin, Liszt, and Orientalism, his music is of a strong Russian character and is often technically difficult to play. Balakirev is surprisingly little known today, but I try and encourage my students to listen if not learn some of his works. Here are a couple of recordings recently done at my studio by students Dakota Lichauco and Jessica Wang playing two beautiful gems from his piano works: Humoresque and Nocturne in D minor

Dakota Lichauco plays Mily Balakirev’s ‘Humoresque’
Jessica Wang plays Mily Balakirev’s ‘Nocturne in D minot’

Always heartwarming to see siblings practice and perform together. Here, high school senior Zachary (p) & his younger brother Nate Gillette (tpt) team up to perform the jazz standard “I’ll Close My Eyes”‘ (Billy Reid).

As part of his jazz studies with me, 15-yr old Nate (who also studies jazz piano) recently transcribed Blue Mitchell’s solo (Blues Moods, 1960) on the same tune:

Recorded and mixed in Cakewalk by BandLab at the Leitmotif Piano Studio.

This is the second of a two-part series on linear improvisation using guide tones in jazz. (I recommend viewing the first of the series ‘Creating Linear Connections Using Guide Tones in Jazz Improvisation‘ to maintain continuity). Although geared towards pianists, these principles can be adapted to other instruments as well. Here I’m demonstrating how to create a ‘double counterpoint’ or two melodies that complement and play off each other solely using the right hand. The technique used is similar to when playing polyphonic keyboard works by Bach and Handel.

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This is the first of a two-part series on linear improvisation using guide tones in jazz. The ear naturally gravitates towards strong chord tones, and building around them will give your lines a stronger structure and shape. I’m using a common progression (Autumn Leaves, Theme from M*A*S*H) to demonstrate how guide tones (derived from harmony) can help you create beautiful, flowing lines. At 8:14 I demo and improvise over the four formulas that are discussed in this video.

Here is a link to Part II of this series “Creating Counterpoint Using Guide Tones in Jazz Improvisation

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I began using Skype around 2005, the start of the video-chat revolution, mainly to keep in touch with family overseas. A couple of years later, I gave my first online lesson to a student in Israel who was interested in jazz improvisation. We used Skype and barring some poor connectivity issues at that time, the lessons went off extremely well. Teaching remote students is an important part of what I do at the studio and over the past decade I’ve got to know some wonderful, talented people across several continents. These days I use a variety of video conferencing apps, depending on preferences – Skype, Google Hangouts, Zoom and FaceTime.

So when the COVID-19 restrictions were announced, my in-studio students from the Boston area transitioned to online lessons, a process that happened with ease overnight. For fun, I took screenshots of some lessons during the first week of the ‘quarantine’. The bonus for me is that I get to meet not just the students, but often their families, and almost always a fur baby that likes to hang around at our lessons (including a bunny rabbit and Chilean degu!).

Here’s more information on online piano lessons, and if you’re interested in developing your classical piano or jazz improvisational skills further, send me a message.

online piano lessons

This must only be 16-year old Dakota Lichauco’s second or third jazz transcription, and she proved she had BIG ears! Here’s her playing Kenny Barron’s piano solo on ‘Have You Met Miss Jones” (by Richard Rodgers), along with a recording of Mr. Barron himself (live In Japan, 1995).

When a student successfully turns in an assignment of this nature, it’s a reason to share it in the hope that it inspires other students to transcribe tunes and solos they are attracted to. In the course of working on ‘Turn Out The Stars”, I requested Matar Maoz (online piano student residing in Tel Aviv) transcribe Bill Evan’s solo from the album “Since We Met”. (Bill Evans Trio – Live: Since We Met, ℗ 1991 Fantasy, Inc.). He did an impeccable job – here he plays it along with the Bill Evans recording.

When my 10-year old student Ethan disclosed that he was a huge fan of Camila Cabello’s ‘Havana’ and would like to play it, I decided to introduce him to the process of ‘music transcription’. Together we worked out a solo piano version after analyzing the form and harmonies, the LH groove and diff melodic sections. Then showed him how to notate it in his manuscript book. After a few weeks, we recorded it at his lesson. This is an adaptation for a young pianist – the groove (bass and broken chords) is played by the LH while the melody is played by the right.


Download the score for piano here:
Camila Cabello ‘Havana’ – sheet music for piano.

Excerpts from the closing performance from a summer jazz workshop held for my teen piano students, many who play a second instrument. Featuring 14 yr old Zachary Gillette (piano/tenor sax) and Graham Backman (piano/oboe), 16 yr old Matar Maoz and Julian Carpenter (drums/piano), Eric Illich (piano/alto sax) and Sarah Montoya (bass). Thanks to Noel Borthwick (guitar) for co-leading this workshop.

A few months ago, Rubi Lichauco, my student, obtained the score of Cristal by Cesar Camargo Mariano, a tune she was attracted to when she heard it played by Cesar himself. Here, the original composition for solo piano was adapted for piano and jazz guitar (Noel Borthwick). Despite Rubi’s busy schedule, she has pursued music in more ways than one and it is wonderful to see her commitment and perseverance pay off!

Here’s a reharmonization of the popular Irish ballad ‘O Danny Boy’ (a.k.a. ‘Londonderry Air’) that I did using techniques such as modifying chord color as well as time/meter changes, inserting chromatic passing chords among others, to enrich a standard tune. (Song starts at 1:05).

(Recorded on an Estonia L-190 using the wonderful Earthworks PM-40 PianoMic system, straight into Cakewalk SONAR X2 Producer. Some very basic mastering was done to add a touch of eq, dynamics and reverb).

So I’ve just unboxed and finished road testing my new Earthworks PM40 mic system. I’ve longed for the ability to record the grand piano in our home studio. Mic’ing a grand piano well can be a challenge for even experienced audio engineers. Not only do you need to have great mics, their placement greatly contributes to the quality of the sound. In a home studio environment this can be a daunting or near impossible task.

Earlier this year I happened to hear a demo of the PM40 system at NAMM 2012 and was floored by how good it sounded. After researching these mics and communicating with the company, we finally ended up buying one for our studio. Not only does it sound incredible, but you don’t need to be an audio engineer to install and use one! There is virtually no bleed from peripheral sounds outside of the piano and recordings can be done with the piano lid open or completely closed. I like that it is made in the USA (Earthworks is located in Milford, NH) and for a neat freak like me, the minimalist set up allows for boom and cable-free clutter with the visual focus remaining on my grand. In this video I show what I did to install this in my Estonia L190 grand piano.

Here, I road test the mics by playing my composition “One Of Us”. I recorded the Estonia at full stick, completely dry. The recording was done with Cakewalk SONAR X1 with no EQ or effects applied.

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A question I often get asked by my students is how to reharmonize a tune. This is a brief video outlining some methods I use. It is assumed that you are already familiar with jazz chord voicings, extensions/alterations & substitutions. Here is the leadsheet containing the reharmonization to Ode To Joy.

Reharmonization is a vast and beautiful area in which I continually encounter new insights and surprises. There are many books available on this subject, and transcribing reharmonized tunes by jazz greats will not only improve your ear, but give you a first hand look at how they approach improvisation on the new chord changes as well.
P.S. A minor slip of the tongue at 3:42 – the chord is a Gm9sus (not G9sus) and at 4:55 C#dim (not Cdim).

Visited a cool, damp Anaheim in mid-Jan to attend the NAMM show. With over a 1,00,000 folk passing through the convention doors over four days, the buzz at this music industry convention is powerful and contagious, this year being no less.

NAMM 2012, Anaheim, California

Strategically situated by one of the main entrances was the Cakewalk booth in the Roland arena where music production demos of the SONAR X1 were being held.

Cakewalk-Roland

What I really want for Christmas: The PianoMic System by Earthworks. The adjustable bar lies across the soundboard, and there are no awkward booms or messy cables. I think something this inconspicuous and easy to use will definitely be an incentive to record solo piano more often. [Update: Father Christmas did grant my wish!]

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Integratron, Landers, California

Visited the awesome Integratron built by in the early 60’s by aviation engineer and paranormalist George Van Tassel. Situated in Landers, CA about 20 miles from Joshua Tree NP in the Mohave desert, it brims with a colorful, if not fascinating history. The name “Integratron” actually applies to a machine, in Tassel’s terms – a high-voltage electrostatic generator, that would supply the range of frequencies to recharge cell structure. Magnetic fields and Tesla’s technique of creating high ionization static fields were also key principles in the development of this structure. Had an opportunity to sing in this all-wood acoustic chamber (only one of it’s kind in the world) and it was surreal. While I felt energy and a strong focus from my ‘center’, my voice had a re-inforced quality as if I had morphed into a tri-headed human with extra vocal cords. It was clear, rich and warm – no confusing bounce backs and garbled echoes, with the perfect amount of reverb. ‘Rejuvenating’ sound bath sessions are held here, and it would have been interesting to partake in one. The chamber is also rented out for recording sessions.

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