New Ways to Learn Piano Online / Sydney (Smart Game Piano)

We don’t talk about learning music in new ways very often, but rote / learning online has gotten popular in the past year. Technology has improved enough to let people learn online, and online learners can become fairly skilled!

Today, we have an interview with my new friend Sydney from Smart Game Piano, who’s teaching videogame music online, by rote!

From easy pop songs to advanced videogame music, it’s quite simple to start picking up the basics of piano by playing by rote–I suspect that’s why a lot of teachers are using this in their teaching!

We talk about how to take advantage of teaching/learning by rote, using videogame music to improve mental health, and how she got started teaching online. I teach online as well, but by different means, and it was interesting to hear about her methods!

Take a look at my interview with Sydney below. I had a lot of fun!

Check out Sydney’s website, Instagram, and Youtube! This is the Smart Game Piano Facebook group we were talking about in the interview.

Sydney and I played this mashup together.

How did you learn music? Have you ever taken online lessons?

P.S. If you’re new here, get my best music tips/stories by signing up for my FREE weekly email newsletter! I talk about practicing efficiently, learning faster, and other ways to succeed in piano.

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How to play a piano mashup (Overcooked & Rachmaninoff)

Wouldn’t it be fun to combine two unlikely pieces of catchy music, especially a modern piano piece with a classical piece?

What if we combined music from Overcooked (a videogame) with… Rachmaninoff?

My new friend Sydney joined me on this adventure. She runs Smart Game Piano where she teaches people how to play cool video game music by rote! Check out her website, Instagram, and Youtube!

This is our mashup! I explain the behind-the-scenes on how we mashed the pieces with a little improv in the article below…


a. Pick proper music

How to play a song mashup (rachmaninoff & overcooked video game)

I’ve started playing Rachmaninoff’s Prelude No 6 again, and it seems challenging to mash with Overcooked, so here we go!

Sydney had the Overcooked menu theme sheet music, and it turns out it’s in the same key as the Prelude, E flat major.

The major difference is the rhythm, as the Overcooked theme is more waltz-like with the jumpy left hand.

I wanted to improvise on this mashup, so I didn’t write anything down. Sydney and I played our own parts separately, but we would send our playing to each other so we could start off where the other person ended, to get a cohesive piece.

The Prelude has a lot of flowy left hand action and big chords in the right hand, whereas Overcooked has more block chords, like a waltz.

When I transition from Overcooked to Prelude, I keep the waltz-y left hand for a few bars (more on this later).

That’s a good rule of thumb for mashing: when you’re transitioning from one piece to the other, keep one element consistent from the old piece for a few bars, so it doesn’t sound like you completely switched to a new piece.

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Chunking for Better Music Practice

Chunking is a specific way of grouping small “chunks” of music together for zoomed in practice. It helps you save time and frustration in the practice session!

Chunking is zooming in on tiny sections of music you’re having trouble with, so that you don’t spend an hour playing through mistakes when you could be targeting trouble spots with laser precision, in less time.

I’ve described the chunking technique in different articles over the years, but I think it’s time for me to create a definitive guide on it. 

So, here’s the definitive article about chunking, to help you learn music more quickly.

I’ve created a video to show the technique where you can practice with me! The article below describes the details.

Pinpoint your trouble spot

Divide the music that you’re having trouble with into bars. Play the bars separately; are you still having trouble? Which bars? Highlight them.

What’s the smallest measure of time that you could divide the bar into, that would still make sense? This can be per beat, or per two beats, or whatever makes sense for that part (if it ends in a strange spot, include the end of the triad or whatever).

This is from a piece I was working on, Un Sospiro. I’ve divided the passage into larger chunks that make sense, using the long lines. Then, I used brackets to denote smaller chunks of one beat, or one run of the pattern.

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How to be remembered

You probably know a song that makes you think of someone sweet or important in your life. Unless you’re tone deaf. But, if you’re tone deaf, then you wouldn’t be reading a music blog.

Well, except my dad. He was probably tone deaf, and he still read my blog.

My dad had helped plant a tree beside my grandma’s house when he was in his teens, and in recent years, it had grown taller than the house itself and the leaves had gotten a little unruly.

The last time I went to my grandma’s house, the tree was gone. It was chopped into tiny logs to heat my cousin’s house. It’s an important task, and I got to stay in her basement without freezing, because of the mighty tree.

It doesn’t affect me as much as a piece of music that would remind me of my dad.

The other day, I wanted to learn a song that my dad used to like, but after listening to it on the piano, I sat there and simply couldn’t play piano at all.

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Thank you for an amazing 2018.

Grace Lam

It’s customary to say “the year has been a [insert object that goes up and down, like rollercoaster]”.

Well, son, I don’t want to say it, but… the year has been like hormones. 

For me, there was the highest of highs, I felt like I was flying, when my dreams were coming true. It also brought me to the pits of the earth–I sunk so far down into myself that I turned inside out.

Slowly but surely, I saw more parts of the world than my little heart could handle, and I craved the mountains and oceans surrounding home again.

This year, I was good at pushing myself out of my box. I might’ve said that last year too, but this year, I went farther than I thought I would and could.

I started the year by writing about how I was moving for a job in the USA. I actually accepted the offer in Oct 2017, and now it’s Dec 2018, but honestly, I didn’t think many people would care about what went on in my life.

Then I got some encouraging comments and messages from Artiden, which led me to open up further.

I chopped off most of my hair and started paying more attention to myself. If I can only spend 90% of my days doing what I love, I’m intending to maximize this time.

My travels took me back to Asia, and Europe. I stumbled upon many curious events.

For example, I was in South Korea when they declared “peace” with North Korea (couldn’t see anything at the border besides fog). I was in Paris when they won the World Cup (man, they didn’t stop screaming until 5am everyday on the streets). I was in London when the entire city marched to protest against Trump (I was careful to display my Canadian tag on my backpack so I wouldn’t get punched “by accident”).

The time I almost went deaf. It was terrifying to see how poorly I function when deaf in one ear. I couldn’t even walk without tripping.

In a moment of bravery, I admitted to hundreds of thousands of people online, on Artiden, things that I only told two of my close friends. Things even my mother only found out last month. I thought it would be of help to someone out there.

All my Artiden friends were so supportive, and I’m so lucky to have found such an amazing group.

People have asked me to teach piano online, so out of curiosity, I picked a few students to teach over the internet. Would it work this time? I’d tried teaching online piano lessons four years ago when the lag and video quality were garbage.

But sometimes I forget that technology improves exponentially every few months. The video quality is really good.

I get to teach music students in different timezones so the schedules always work out, and the students get to return to their own lives right after the lesson, no driving in the rain nor waiting!

Bob (an Artiden community friendo) and Pan are two of the first people who asked me to teach, so thank you!

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What happens when you set a “solid” music goal

Grace Lam Piano

Armed with new sheet music, I told myself I’d learn jazz everyday up until Christmas.

I sat down to film my progress, good or cringe-worthy, and worked at it for an hour or two everyday—jazz is a whole new ballgame if you’re a classical musician.

I know that we’ve talked about not having goals because that highlights all the things we don’t have… but I’m convinced that setting a solid goal will serve you really, really well.

A solid goal is simple enough that you can name the outcome in one sentence and there are checkboxes for the achievement. It’s small enough to break down for something you can do everyday—it only takes 66 days to create a habit and consistency wins!

Instead of “I want to be a better jazz pianist,” it could be:

“I want to learn to play jazz piano music so that I can swing and groove with the beat.”

All I needed to do was play piano everyday and learn jazz this winter.

Here is a collection of me playing piano. I’m really happy about some of these, and I hope you are too!

The First Noel

It’s challenging to improvise in public, where you’re actively disturbing Sunday morning coffee drinkers. A lot of this piece is improvised, so let me know what you think!

Thank you to Monika Szucs for filming and editing the video!

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Revive your music: Finding lost arts

Lost Arts in Music

When I took my first design classes in university, we were taught to use pen and paper to sketch pages and pages of… stuff.

I’ve drawn boxes, circles, squiggles, unicorns, if you name it, I’ve probably attempted it. (I also love to draw in my free time. In fact, for a while, I drew comics for this blog!)

In an industrial design class, the professor had told us to bring markers for sketching. Industrial design, in case you didn’t know, has to do with making physical objects, so it really is a sketch-heavy class.

I forget the markers, and all I had in my pencil case was a black sharpie and a purple highlighter.

He wanted to do a visual inspection of our sketches, so I have to hand something in, even if it’s chicken scratch. I shrug and use the sharpie to outline and purple highlighter to shade. It comes out bright, like my style. 

Eventually, the professor comes around to my table and collects the sketches. 

“Sketching on paper is really a lost art,” he says. “Everyone’s moving towards digital.”

He flips through the sketches and when he gets to mine, he says, “Some of you guys are going to be fine sketch artists by the end. I can already tell.”

I kept using highlighters to sketch for the class, and to this day, I still use highlighters to sketch. I shall use highlighters until the end of time. 

I never learned how to draw hands properly, so last week, I sat down and drew hands for a few hours.

Recently, I have been going back to basics, back to the lost arts.

I went back to my very first digital piano, a Casio, and dusted off the clumps of dust bunnies and moved it upstairs. The piano has basic weighted keys and a variety of sound effects on it, so you could play the glockenspiel or xylophone if you’re bored of piano.

I wanted to jam with myself. I wanted to play different parts of a piece of music, by myself. Is that sad? I’m not sad, you are!

I loved playing with the different instrument sounds when I first got the piano.

On the first day, it hurt my back to sit at a non-piano bench. All the Alexander technique exercises went out the window. The desk was too high for a piano and my back felt broken-stiff.

In the evening, my sister sat on the chair and said, “You want it higher?” Her hand clutches the lever under the seat and SWISH the chair is 20cm taller. 

To the children and adults in the room, I’ve fiddled with the chair and it didn’t budge, but I also have a history of breaking chairs, so thank you for judging me.

I try to play on the digital piano again on the second day, and I get some useable footage.

But alas! It turns out if one part of music is 0.3 seconds off, it ruins the entire piece. For example, if you’re trying to record the left hand and right hand of a piano piece separately, they likely won’t line up exactly when you match them up. 

On the third day, I re-shoot some clips to play using both hands together.

Eventually I figure out why people wear headphones when they’re recording music: They’re listening to the other parts of the music so they can combine the parts perfectly later. DUH. It’s really useful.

I spend half a day editing (by the time I’m done editing, I’m ready to vomit sugar plums). I’m aware that some of the squares are jiggly and don’t line up, but hey, I don’t really work at pixar.

Here is what I came up with, for the Sugar Plum Fairy!

I used the audio straight from my camera (aka iphone). Are you supposed to do that? I wanted to process the audio using Audition (which thankfully I know how to use), but I would’ve had trouble syncing it with the video again.

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