Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Music Music in the Hall, Who's the Finest of Them All?

"You're not using any music so that means you have a gift!", the older gentleman said as he walked by the piano today. We chatted for a few moments and he was on his way. He didn't know that I had a stack of music in my bag. I just happened to be playing without written music when he walked by.

Piano music from my piano lesson days (1978) with my teacher's handwritten notes.
Every week I play the piano in the hospital lobby at PennState Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center and it's still one of my favorite places to play. I've been doing this 'gig' for years now and my choice of music varies every week—from my own compositions to hymns to classical pieces. Sometimes I follow written music and sometimes I play by ear. I'm grateful that I can do both. 

Though I started playing the piano by ear when I was two or three, in sixth grade my mother found a piano teacher for me and I began taking lessons. It seemed like my first piano teacher enjoyed the entertainment as I played by ear, but my second piano teacher wasn't there for entertainment. She soon discovered that I could play a song if she played it for me and if she didn't play it for me first, I struggled to learn it. Once she realized what was happening, I was forced to learn to read. To this day, I still do better if I've heard a song first, but I am SO glad I can read music and I have that teacher to thank!

This past August, Kirstin Myers and I formed a piano/oboe duo we call "Double Keyed" and we're enjoying the musical camaraderie of playing together. Kirstin has been a part of my annual Portraits of White concert every December, and I was excited when we were able to work together beyond the holiday concert. And oh, by the way, we play from written music. 

I love the novelty of the oboe and it's inspiring to watch people's reactions. This opportunity would not be possible if my piano teacher had not insisted that I learn to read music. 

"Double Keyed" (Frances & Kirstin) @ PennState Health.

Sometimes I feel as if there can be a subtle air of pride among some musicians who "don't read music" or "never had a lesson". Even the audience "oohs and aahs" when someone announces they are self-taught, especially after they've dazzled us with their abilities. 

I admit, it IS a very special thing to be able to sit down without any sheet music and just play. I could sense the "awe" from the gentleman today who commented on the fact that I wasn't using music, but I pondered this all afternoon and decided to encourage people who want to play music not to be afraid or ashamed to get training. I sure wish I had more music education! I'm no Liberace, but there are opportunities that have come my way that would never have happened if I couldn't read music.

It almost feels as absurd as bragging that you are able to create imaginary stories in your head without being able to read. That's creative, but you're missing out on a whole world of possibilities when you can read a book and I believe the same is true when you can read music. You open yourself up to playing great music that others have composed for our enjoyment. Why not learn to play their music?

I suppose the moral of this story is obvious, but just in case it's not, I just want to say that you're not a lesser musician if you have to read something on the written page. You can move people with your music and that's what really matters.

I couldn't do Portraits of White if it weren't for the professional musicians on stage with me. We don't get much rehearsal time and it's crucial that they can play what's on the page with accuracy and expression. They've spent years mastering their instrument and the payoff comes when you hear them play together.

So here's to all the music teachers in the world...thanks for teaching us to read!!

And HERE's a special video with a message from my piano teacher, Donna Houser, who made sure I could read. Now she and her husband bring a group of friends to my December concert every year. I hope I make her proud. 


  1. You are SOOOO right, Frances! I learned fretted instruments by ear first, then the Nashville numbering system, and it is so hard to make myself sight read at all. I really wish I had received more formal training and theory when I was young!

  2. Bravo! I am a music teacher and I aspire to play by ear. I encourage my ear students to learn to read, also. I have never heard of anyone who had regrets for learning to read.

  3. Frances. Your blog this time brought tears to my eyes. Also being a piano major in college, I always admired your natural talent to "play by ear" something that I could not do. I was usually in the house when you took your piano lesson and could tell when you were first learning to read music. Your development was amazing and we admired your courage to stick with it even though you could easily play anything that you heard. As a teacher, we don't often get feedback from our former students. Thank you for recognizing those who made an impact in your life. And to have comments recorded on video is reassuring. To see your piano teacher's handwriting on one of your lesson piece of music brings back memories. The comment was "good." Today you deserve an "outstanding, excellent, A++." 1978? 40 years ago? You can't be that old!!!

    1. Ken,
      Thank you for sharing your perspective on those years from long ago. I clearly remember your happy demeanor in the foyer of your house and playing Donna’s beautiful grand.

      You both have had a profound impact on my life and I’m so honored to have your continual support year after year!! See you soon.

  4. I was very surprised to see my name mentioned in your November “Inside Things.” A piano teacher’s greatest gift is to have a student thank and acknowledge her piano teacher, 41 years later, that she had a significant impact on her student’s successful music career. I am so fortunate have had the opportunity to teach such a talented student and delighted at the success of your musical journey.

  5. As I read this ~ between piano students~ I am so blessed by your example of being able to read a story as well as make one up! A great example to use with my students! I have had the pleasure of working with Donna Houser and am thankful for her persistence in developing your reading skills. Sight reading is a learn-able skill, but you have to do it! thanks so much! I am working in the opposite direction! Learning to play and rely on my ear-training skills. I ask my students to do it so I am doing it too!