Off the page and back again, with Chris Owenby

Today we’re speaking with Chris Owenby, the man behind the website “Practice Habits” where he shares blogposts and videos to help musicians and especially piano teachers with their students to form more effective and enjoyable practice routines.

As well as running Practice Habits and its corresponding members website for piano teachers, Chris is also an award-winning composer, and the creator of The Online Piano Course, which as you’ll be hearing in this episode is an interestingly different approach to learning piano, both in what is covered and the way it is taught online.

In this conversation we talk about:

  • The unusual musical journey that led to him being equally comfortable in the worlds of sheet music and playing by ear
  • How to find patterns in the music you play, and why that’s useful
  • The clever way Chris has managed to reconcile the importance of adapting teaching to fit each student with providing an online course for learning piano

We expected to focus mostly on practice tips and tricks in this interview but it turned out to be so rich in interesting ideas and advice about playing by ear, improvising, and finding your own way through music learning that we think we’ll have to invite Chris back for a part two in future!

Listen to the episode:

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Chris Owenby: Hi, this is Chris Owenby from, and you’re listening to the Musicality podcast.

Christopher: Welcome to the show, Chris. Thank you for joining us today.

Chris Owenby: Thank you for having me, Christopher. I appreciate it. I’m glad to be here.

Christopher: I’ve so enjoyed diving into your website and learning all about your teaching practice habits for piano teachers, and also your online course for piano students. But, I’d love to know more about Chris Owenby himself. Can you tell us how did your musical story begin?

Chris Owenby: Sure. I have a unique upbringing in the fact that I was born and raised in the church. In fact, my family was the leadership of the church, so my grandpa was the pastor, my grandmother, the church pianist, my dad, the music director, and my mom did some of the children’s music there. Being around music at such an early age was, I guess, unique in a lot of ways. But, definitely helped me fall into music, I was around it, I was going to rehearsals, I got to see my dad lead the music on Sunday mornings, and be a part of that. It’s funny, I remember certain melodies from songs that I would’ve sung in some of the children’s musicals there. I was around that my childhood, and that church still exists today, and my grandma’s still playing in the church.

Christopher: Fantastic.

Chris Owenby: But, I began taking piano lessons at age six. I did the whole classical thing, where I’d go and learn basic technique, learn how to read music, but I was a horrible student, didn’t really practice that much. I took classical piano lessons for the majority of being a child in elementary, middle school, and then in high school as well. I took a couple of years off in there, but for sure I was around music from just an early age.

Christopher: And, tell me, what that looked like for you when you say you were involved in the music in the church. Was that mostly singing?

Chris Owenby: In the beginning, mostly singing, because I would have been a part of the children’s musicals, and plays there, which my mom would have lead. Then, just really as a spectator, I guess. I say spectator, but in worship, watching the worship band, my dad leading the music, grandma playing. But, primarily as a singer for sure. It’s funny, I joke with some of my students today, I teach piano, but I joke with some of my students talking about ear training, and such, that I grew up in the church, singing the hymns, and singing the songs, but I rarely sang the melody because my mom, we’d stand together in the congregation, and she would always sing the alto harmony. I would learn the alto harmony, and that was just part of my church musical experience. For sure singing, and singing the melodies, and then with my mom, singing some alto.

Christopher: Fantastic. I love that as a route into singing harmony at such an early age, that’s great. When you were taking those piano lessons then, what kind of piano teaching was that for? What style, and was it very traditional, or more-?

Chris Owenby: Sure. It was very traditional, and fun fact for you, my piano teacher was also my mother’s piano teacher, was also my aunt’s piano teacher. Miss Jackie Hudson who I got to see just a couple weeks ago. Very traditional teacher, we did the method books, and all of that. From beginning, and all the way up to level seven, level eight, whatever they go up to. That was a very traditional approach with some supplemental materials, especially as I got older playing some of the classical pieces, and such.

Christopher: And how did you find that, was that factoring in you being a poor student, and not practicing, or was it appealing and you didn’t practice for other reasons?

Chris Owenby: Yeah. I think I just wanted to play outside, really. I wanted to do other things, right? For sure, my parents would, I guess, make me practice, or encourage me to practice, sometimes strongly encourage me to practice, otherwise, I wouldn’t get my dessert or something. But, I say I was a poor student in the fact that I guess, my practice wasn’t focused, but at the same time, I really didn’t know my practice should be focused. As great of a piano teacher as I had, I’m not so sure, and she probably did, and I just wasn’t paying attention. I’m not so sure we talked about the power of focus in practice when you’re a child learning how to play the instrument. There was a lot on your mind anyway, you’re thinking about a lot of different things, and not so much in a strategic way when you’re in your piano lessons, in your practice. That’s something that has to be learned I think.

For sure, as I got older, could’ve spent some more time on the piano, I knew I should, and I guess at some point I realized that my practice should be somewhat focused. I think some of that just comes with age, maturity, and being exposed to different things, right?

Christopher: Interesting. I asked for a couple of reasons, I think the first is just that I always love to pick our guests brains, and backstory to find out were they the kid who was glued to the piano and couldn’t be pulled away from it, or were they more like, I’m sure a lot of our listener’s can identify with, that it didn’t come that naturally, and it wasn’t always that much fun to practice. Certainly for me, growing up, I was very lucky in the music education I had early on, but I was not a diligent practicer by any stretch. The second reason I ask is just that obviously you are known now for PracticeHabits, where you have some fantastic advice, and I’m going to be picking your brains later in the conversation for some tips for our listeners on better practicing, and maybe what teachers can do to help their students stay motivated with that practice. I think it’s interesting to hear that you were one who was not finding it so motivating in your early years.

Chris Owenby: It’s kind of ironic, and funny, and strange all at the same time, right? But-

Christopher: Poetic, I think, you’ve come full circle.

Chris Owenby: There were for sure pieces along the way that maybe were pieces that I could resonate with a bit more. I think, for me, in the beginning, just because classic repertoire represents its own set of challenges, all different styles do. It was very difficult for me to focus on certain pieces. I enjoyed certain styles, as I said, I was born and raised around music in the church, so I was used to a certain style of music. For sure, we did old-timey, southern gospel stuff, but then that eased into modern day praise and worship stuff, which is very pop syncopated rhythms. When I was presented with a pop piece that I could play, something in that style, in that vein, I really gravitated toward that, and I could spend more time practicing that because I was interested, and shied away from some of the classics that I grew to love.

Christopher: Cool. Maybe that leads onto the answer to what I wanted to ask you next, which is how did you go from that slightly, inauspicious beginning of reluctant piano student, to becoming a piano teacher, and someone who is clearly very enthusiastic about the art of teaching, and the art of learning? What changed along the way?

Chris Owenby: Right. I was doing classical piano lessons, and loved my teacher, as I said, not the greatest student. But, just one day, my grandmother, as I said she was the church pianist in our home church, who is just, and still to this day, fantastic gospel pianist. You talk about the stride style of piano, where you take that left hand from the base notes all the way up to the chord, just a very difficult style of playing, and then maintaining a melody, and these intricate harmonies, and the right hand, just very difficult.
I play at a stride style, I’m not very good at it, but she said, “Christopher, come on over to the piano.” I knew it was serious, you’re Christopher, but my family calls me “Chris,” so if they call me “Christopher,” it’s a serious thing. She called me over to the piano, “We’re going to have a piano lesson.” This was going to be nontraditional piano lesson, and my grandma kind of read music, but I think had probably been years since she pulled out a piece, so she would’ve been very rusty. I think at some point, we had that conversation, but she brought me over and she began playing this old-timey gospel song, I guess, if I could remember it … I can’t remember the title, but if I were to hear it, I’d know it immediately. But, she began to play this piece, and just the intricate harmony she would come up with, they were just really beautiful to me.

I had grown up with that style, so listening to that it felt good to hear her play it, to see her play it, and then she began to place my hands on the piano, and say, “Here’s this harmony. This is where you should place your hand. It looks and sounds like this.” So I began to mimic what she was doing on the piano. She wasn’t giving me a whole lot of background in terms of “this is why you’re doing that,” but I think she just wanted me to hear me play that piece, like she was playing that piece. This’ll point to the fact that my grandma being a just a wonderful musician, and a wonderful person, not that wonderful of a teacher. She would get really frustrated at me. “You can’t hear that? You can’t hear that, right there? This chord right here, this one right here,” and she’d play it over and over again, saying “No, I can’t hear that one,” I call her Mimi, “I can’t hear that, Mimi.”

From that moment, though, I think I got towards the end of the lesson, I could play maybe a chorus of it, just muscle memory, remembering exactly where she had placed my hands on the piano. Two or three lessons of that, and finally learning that song, Holy Ground, I believe is the name of the song. After three lessons of that, and then being able to play that song, from start to finish, I think at this point I was 13 or so, 12 or 13, 14 years old. Being able to play that from start to finish, without sheet music, and it sound like my grandma playing it, even though I had no clue what I was doing, just the muscle memory, felt really good. It was music I was familiar with, it sounded musical ’cause she had taught me some of the expression and all of that.

From that moment on, I just began to dive deep into learning how to play pieces in that same way. By listening, and then mimicking, or playing back what I had learned from the CD. I vivaciously would just grab CD’s, put them in the CD player, listen to the piano part, and now instead of actually physically … YouTube wasn’t here yet, with all the videos and stuff that I could mimic the parts, but I would listen back, and this was her instruction to me, I would listen back to those CD’s, and pick those parts out as best I could. You talk about repetition, repetition, and I couldn’t do it with the classical pieces, although, the repetition would’ve helped. I knew how to play the notes on the page, but just something about hearing that music, and being able to play it back just really inspired me. I began to learn songs in that way, and that I feel is the moment that I really began to fall in love with music, and music making.

Christopher: That’s wonderful. I think that kind of learning by ear, and really just focusing on the sound, and your instrument, it gives you such a different dimension on learning music, doesn’t it? It gives you such a different relationship with your instrument. I remember when we had Sara Campbell on the show, previously, she was talking about some of the ways she helped her students to understand scales based on the finger shapes, and the visual of the piano keyboard, rather than just the dots on the staff. It’s that same thing where your brain opens up and you realize, “Oh, there’s this whole other way to think about music,” right?

Chris Owenby: Right. It’s improvisation to be able to hear something, a song that you love and be able to play it back. Even if you’re reading sheet music, it’s the same way, and I grew to love that, learned to love that. That’s the second part of my story, I guess, but being able to hear something and play it back, that was for sure, for me, the key to falling in love with music and music making.

Christopher: And it’s really cool to hear too, that for you it was painstaking repetition, and the way we teach it, playing by ear at Musical U, we don’t promise it’s a magical switch that you can flip, and the trick of playing by ear, you don’t have to have a gift. It really is about trial and error, and it’s about experimentation, and yes, there’s ear training, and specific exercises you can do to accelerate that, but reality is someone who plays by ear, has practiced playing by ear. Practicing means you’re going to get it wrong some of the time. I think you painted a really vivid picture, there, of you listening to the CD’s, and just trying, and trying, and finding your way to be able to play by ear.

Chris Owenby: That’s the right word, painful at times. It really is, but through that pain, there’s a great reward on the other end. When you learn a piece, you learn a lick, or whatever, it’s very encouraging.

Christopher: Mm-hmm (affirmative), and of course, there can be more structured and efficient ways to do it, as we’ll be talking about later in the context of your online piano course. But, first, I want to find out where that journey went. You had this whole new dimension opened up to you, in terms or learning by ear, and improvising, and arranging by ear, where did things go from there?

Chris Owenby: Sure. Improvisation became the catalyst for getting interested in learning how to write my own songs and compose. In the beginning, for me, it would’ve just, the word composition wouldn’t have come to mind, although I certainly knew what it meant. It would’ve been songwriting, because I grew up in the church, and when we sing in church, in the old country church, we sing songs, we’re not singing pieces. We’re not hearing traditional preludes, and postludes, as much as I love them in traditional worship. For me, it was the songs, so that lead to just this idea of learning how to write my own music. Around this time, 13, 14 years old, I began to get interested in the possibility of playing with my church band. Being at a small church, and a family in leadership like that, and then grew up in the church, and being a part of those things, for sure, and having at this point, the musical technique to get involved and contribute to the church band. They were happy to let me be a part of that. That, I tell you, was a huge learning experience for me, and what a great opportunity to be able to play now with seasoned musicians.

For our little church, we had a good little band. My grandma, as I said, on keys, we had guitar, bass, and drummer that came in and out, maybe a drummer that would rotate in and out, from time to time. But, being able to now put these new ideas and concepts into practice was really beneficial. I began to learn how to read chords on a chord chart. How to be able to look at lead sheet, look at the melodic line, which I knew how to read, because I had taken the classical lessons, but now make sense of it in terms of that is a melody, and I am going to harmonize it with chords, and make it sound more full, and complete. Make it sound like music. That was a great learning experience for me, getting to play with that band.

I played all the way up to going off to college, and I went to a small college out in LaGrange, Georgia, and got involved immediately with the music program there. At this point I had taken a couple years off classical piano lessons, which I think was good for me at the time because it allowed me to focus on improvisation, and putting those ideas into practice, and being able to visualize music from this other side was really helpful, and would be really helpful in learning how to write my own songs. I had written some songs up until this point, applied to the music program at LaGrange College, got accepted to the music composition program, but then also wanted to keep up with my piano.

At this point, I can’t say that I had fallen in love with traditional classical piano yet, I for sure appreciated it because I knew how much work and effort went into it. But, I wanted to try my hand at jazz, so I took some jazz piano lessons, had a fantastic teacher … I’ll go ahead and tell you, I skimmed the surface of jazz. I could play a little jazz for you now, but those two years at taking jazz lessons, just helped me flesh out these ideas. Learning how to improvise, learning how to play with lead sheets, and improvise around chords, and also play with a band in a different style. The way you approach music theory in a jazz context is very different from a classical context. Some of the chords that you voice are very different from classical voicings, and even though it’s the same nuts and bolts in a lot of ways, the way you play in a jazz setting is very different from a classical setting.

It was very helpful for me to take those couple of years of jazz piano lessons, but then eventually, I saw the importance, especially as I began to … my songwriting was now becoming … I was getting more interested in music composition in the traditional sense. Fell in love with choral music, started listening to a lot of Bach, at this time. That’s interesting too, right? ‘Cause Bach and Jazz, there’s a lot of similarities there between baroque period music and the way jazz sounds. I think that’s really interesting just the similarities between those two, and there’s been a lot of artists that take those baroque pieces and jazzify them, and put them in that style. It’s kind of a neat thing.

But, I began to get interested in composition in the traditional sense, notating my creations or whatever I was working on, and that lead me back to classical piano lessons. I hated myself for taking those two years off, because now I had to get back into reading music, and if you’ve ever taken some time off … I had left off in high school being able to read some legit pieces. I could play some Beethoven sonatas and such, I can’t say that I played them extremely well, but I knew how to read through them. I got back into classical lessons in college, and it was painful to work back up to where I had left off. But, eventually did it, it didn’t take two years to get there, it took a few months of lots of practice, and focused practice. There’s that word again. But I eventually got there and fell in love with classical piano.

Christopher: Interesting. That’s pretty rare, in my experience, someone who starts out in the sheet music world, as it were. Takes a trip into the world of playing by ear, and improvisation, and the more jazzy style of things, and then circles back, and rekindles their love of the classical style.

Chris Owenby: For me, it was music composition for sure, it’s what brought that full circle, because at this point, I realized music, regardless of the style, whether it’s classical, whether it’s traditional classical, or improvisation, pop, jazz, whatever, music is music. The nuts and bolts of music theory, chords, scales, but it’s the way we approach these things that determine the style of music, and inform that style of music. The way we play certain things. The classical setting might be very different than we play them in a jazz or improvisatory way, but at the end of the day they’re all the same thing.

Now, I was surrounded by folks who were doing both. I had friend that were writing songs, and recording, producing their songs in the studio there at the college, and then I had friends who were notating pieces for choir and getting them performed by the choir. I wanted to be able to do that as well. I saw, at this point, for Chris and his musical future, I had to make a decision. Was I going to embrace one style and focus on that, I’ve always been that way, either pick this track and go with it, pick this track and go with that. Or was I going to be able to take both of those styles and merge them into what I did, and let that inform my musical direction. I chose to now learn how to begin notating my compositions, also for playback, right? For the way a composer is heard and appreciated is through the conduit of other musicians.

As a composer, I realized I could put a lead sheet in front of somebody and ask them to improvise one of my songs, which would be fine, I would be happy to hear that. But, at the same time, if I ever wanted someone to hear a vocal piece of mine, or something like this, it was gonna have to be notated. I needed to learn how to notate what was the stuff I was coming up with. That idea of bridging those two styles and then through my music composition, being able to be heard in different ways is what I think helped bring me full circle back to the classical piano lessons.

Christopher: And that certainly seems to have paid off for you in a very successful career as a composer. It’s also something that comes through very clearly, I think, in and the way you approach teaching piano that you do bridge those two worlds of the sheet music, classical, and the free creative, and ear based side of things. I’d love to hear more about how you approach that, maybe we could take the example of how you begin lessons with a new student, or how you structure things over time to give them a taste of both of those worlds, and help them feel comfortable in both.

Chris Owenby: Sure. I guess I’m not traditional in the sense when I have a new student come into my studio, that we immediately dive into the method books, and stay there in a learning how to play the notes on the page based on fingerings, and just teaching them traditional notation. I for sure teach them traditional notation, but I’m also, as I’ve already mentioned, I think it’s important to be a well rounded musician to have the ability to both read, and then also learn how to take those elements, and learn how to improvise and play things from ear.

For me to say that I adopt one approach for every student, would not be the case. I will analyze, first and foremost every student’s different, right? When they come in, some of them may be more inclined to read the notes on the page and do really well there. But, then some come in, and you notice three, or four, five lessons in, they’re reading the notes, but if you take the book away and teach them the patterns of whatever piece they’re working on, a method piece. It’s much easier for them to grasp onto the pattern without the notating music in front of them, as opposed to actually looking at the page, and playing the notes on the page.

Every student learns differently, so I think it’s being sensitive to the different ways that kids learn. I say kids, most of my students are kids. I teach a couple of adults, as well. But, even then, whatever experiences of that adult coming in, whether they’re a brand new student, or whether they’ve had classical lessons in the past are approached from a sheer improvisatory approach to piano. That informs the direction of those piano lessons. I think it’s just being sensitive to those things, but yeah, if a student comes in, I’m gonna try to adapt my approach to fit however it seemed that that student is going to learn best. For sure, if we stick with those books for a little while, at some point, I’m gonna teach them how to take those same ideas and concepts, chords, scales, and learn how to improvise.

I just had a student come in today, and she’s great at reading the printed page, and just can add the expression once she’s learned the notes. She’s just got a knack for it. One thing that we have started focusing on a lot more recently, is taking scales, and chords and putting those into practice. We’re taking a simple song, Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, and she learned that in the key of C, if you’re familiar with a piano. The key of C is all the white notes from C to shining C, as I like to say. She places her hands on the right note, I show her finger position, and then using her ear, and this was all her, I said, “I want you to pick out the song Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.” I asked her questions about the melody, at this point, the first note to the second note. “Twinkle twinkle, does that leap, or does that step? Do you feel like there’s a gap between those notes, or not?” She answers back, “There’s a gap between those notes.” That informs the direction that she’s gonna go, and she places her hands on the piano. Getting her, then, to transpose that to different places on the piano.

It’s very much an element of using the ear and improvisation in my approach to teaching, as well as notated music.

Christopher: And it’s interesting there that in that example, you were giving her a bit of a framework to work with. When we did our improv month here on the podcast, we were talking a bit about this idea of “playgrounds”, where to improvise, or to learn to improvise in a safe and relaxed way. It can be helpful to set some boundaries and say, “Okay, I’m just gonna work with this scale, or I’m gonna use this chord progression,” so that you know, roughly speaking, what you’re gonna play is gonna sound musical. It sounds like you are using those same kinds of concepts.

Chris Owenby: Definitely. I think framework is good. I like having guidelines and boundaries as well, right? Whether it’s a piece I’m working on, learning how to play, focusing on a particular passage and walking away with having accomplished one or two things, or whether it’s something that I’m composing. If it’s a choral piece that the text dictates the piece, and where I choose to go with the music. Framework is good, it’s great for little musicians. It’s great for older musicians.

Christopher: And you used another word that I love in the context of playing by ear, and improvising, which is patterns. You said if a student is working with a sheet music, but just that it’s more helpful to take that away and show them some of the underlying patterns that can be helpful. Can you explain a bit more what you mean by that, and maybe some examples of patterns you would draw out from a particular piece to equip the student with.

Chris Owenby: Sure. Music is all about patterns. If you look at a piece of music that’s well crafted, typically you’ll find that an 8-bar phrase, 8 measure phrase, is made up of maybe four melodic patterns, or two larger melodic patterns. It’s very symmetrical. Take Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, “Bum, bum, bum, bum. Buh, buh, buh, bum,” and then throughout the entire first movement there, you get nothing but this pattern. Over and over again, so patterns are important. To teach students where those patterns are in the music is also very important. We might take a piece, right before the students even playing it, or I typically like to have the students sight-read through a piece, a brand new piece with me in the room, so that I can point out certain things that’s gonna help them and inform their practice at home.

We might take a simple piece, for this example, let’s take Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. If that’s notated on the page, or if it’s not notated on the page, in the same way I did it with Ava, I can still point out those patterns. Say it’s notated, we’d look at the patterns together, being able to visualize those patterns, and then I’d have the student slowly, and that’s another thing. Slow and steady wins the race, especially when we’re learning a brand new piece of music. But I’d have students slowly play through a passage, and then along the way, I’d point out certain patterns. So, Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, “Dah, dah, dee, dah, dee, dah, dah.” There’s the first pattern, or the first melodic snippet, and then we hear the second rhythmic pattern, “Dah, dah, dah, dah, dee, dah, dah.” Same exact rhythm, and so I’d point that out to the student. That’s one example of finding those patterns within pieces of music.

Another book that’s just chock-full of patterns is a scale book. It teaches a lot of exercises for us pianists. Hanon just has all kinds of exercises, and you could teach Hanon exercises to classical students, or to folks who are just wanting to learn how to improvise. It’s great to teach finger dexterity, but then also, it’s chock-full of patterns. You can simply show a student, maybe the first pattern. I’ll try to hum one for you from, I think, the first exercise, “La, duh, dee, duh, dee, duh, dee, duh, dee, duh, dee, duh.” So, stepwise motion moving up the keys, you play that pattern over and over again. It’s locking into the patterns, and then helping students see those patterns, and then that’s gonna help inform their practice at home.

Christopher: That’s great. I’m really reminded of an episode we did with Nick Mainella of the “10 Minute Jazz Lesson” podcast. Where he was talking about learning vocabulary for becoming a jazz improvisor, but the crucial thing he was saying was to not just learn it by rote, but to take the time to analyze it, figure out what’s going on, and really get into it conceptually. I love that you’re describing the same kind of thing for sheet music. It’s not just “can you learn to play the right notes at the right time with your fingering,” it’s really “let’s pick this apart, figure out what was the composer doing? How does it all fit together? And then what can we take away and use in a different context.”

Chris Owenby: Sure. Even back to the music composition thing, it’s the same way. When you’re learning to compose, the best way to do that is grab a score and look at the patterns within Beethoven’s Symphony or a Mozart Symphony, or something like this. I know you have a lot of bass players and guitarists in your audience as well. That would be a great exercise for someone who’s wanting to learn how to play the bass, right? To take a specific pattern bass lick and play that through a set of chords, a chord progression, and just changing the position. Maybe the groove is set up to sound something like, “La, dah, dee, dah, dah, dah, dee, dah,” and then just taking that idea, transposing it up a note, to different chords, is a great exercise for any musician. There you go, free one for the bass players.

Christopher: Nice. That maybe gets a bit at a question I had in my head here when you talked through that, and scanning the sheet music, looking for these patterns. Do you think that’s something students can do independently? Or do you think it takes a teacher to guide them through and find those patterns?

Chris Owenby: That’s interesting you ask that question. Very recently, I had a student come to. Thomas is his name, and he, I tell you, out of a lot students that I’ve taught, and I’ve taught a lot of kids how to play the piano. Thomas has more of a natural knack, ability for finding those patterns, he’s really good at math, I have found, talking to his mom. For Thomas, I didn’t have to really teach him where the patterns are. He finds those on his own. I think it depends. Certain students are gonna be a little more naturally inclined to find those things, and gravitate towards those things in the music. Whereas, others might need a little bit of direction in the beginning.

I probably fell into the second camp as a kid. Show me where the patterns are, give me a template to work with, and then I can go home and do that. I think for most students, giving them that instruction in a one on one lesson, and then allowing them to take that home, and practice through that, and find those patterns. For me, would be the most common approach, but you’re gonna run across students like Thomas who just have a natural ability to find those patterns, and make sense of them. He’s funny, he brought a piece to me the other day, and showed me where the patterns were. I hadn’t really thought through it, I was like, “Oh, you’re right, Thomas. I never thought about that one.” There you go.

Christopher: I think it’s such a fascinating area. It relates a lot to something we talk about in Musical U, which is passive ear training. The idea that apart from doing active exercises to develop your ears, you can also learn a lot just by listening to music, and if particularly you’re paying attention to the music, what you find is a lot of our members coming in, they often have a lot of musical experience. But, they don’t have any of the mental frameworks for making sense of it.

Their ears are picking up on these patterns, and as a listener they’re appreciating them, but it needs them to be shown these are the structures you’re hearing, and these are the names for them, before they can really get a handle on it and start spotting them. The other good news is often they can make very rapid progress with a few little pointers like that. I think that’s definitely one of the benefits of a one on one lesson, like you described. Your teacher can hand you those names, and structures, and explanations of what the student is naturally interested in listening to in the music.

Chris Owenby: Sure. As I said earlier, every student, old or young, is different and they’re going to learn differently. Just being sensitive to that and embracing that, even for the student to embrace that, that’s the way I learn. That’s okay. Taking it and running with it, I’m with you, patterns are important.

Christopher: To play devil’s advocate a little bit, as someone who recognizes that each student is different, and they’re coming to it with a different learning style, maybe, or a different musical background. How have you found it developing an online course that students can use, and how does that work in the online piano course?

Chris Owenby: Sure. The online piano course is essentially more of a improvisatory approach of learning how to play the piano, where I can take students through the nuts and bolts, scales, chords, and crafting those things, reproducing those things on the piano to learn how to play their favorite songs. What I’ve found is that being, first off, very clear with folks that are signing up for the course, that this is a course where I’m gonna be teaching you, essentially, how to learn how to improvise is helpful.

In the course itself, when crafting it in the beginning, I was a little skeptical of how the whole thing was gonna work. I knew there was Skype lessons, but even on the individual Skype lessons, just like right now, you and I can see one another, you can see the piano student, you can demonstrate for the piano student. How do you do that with a group of people? How do you explain things, of course you can do this through prerecorded video, which is very much a part of the course, and probably where most of the music fundamentals are taught in the online piano courses, just through those prerecorded videos.

But, I wanted there to be some kind of live community feel to it as well, and I’ve gotten really into, interested in Facebook Live as of late. Thinking that being maybe almost a natural teaching tool for that, especially for groups. It’s worked beautifully inside the course. In addition to the prerecorded content, I’m teaching folks how to improvise using scales and chords, but also being their virtual coach in the Facebook Live videos. It gives us that almost one on one feel, where I’m able to demonstrate things, and if they have a question about something, they can type that in the comment section, right?

Christopher: It’s definitely a core part of our philosophy at Musical U, that you can’t design an effective, one size fits all, music course in general. Definitely not for the more creative skills of musicality like improvisation, and the whole ear training side of things. We’ve just found, because musicians are so different, if you try and put everyone on the same path, it doesn’t work for anybody. I was just really interested to hear how it’s been going, providing nominally “A course” with your clear understanding that every student is different. It sounds like you’ve found a really elegant solution to that, to combine the prerecorded material with a very personal support aspect through the Facebook Live.

Chris Owenby: Yeah, it’s working really well, and like I said in the beginning, it took a lot of thought to think through how, as you say, there’s not a one size fits all approach to this thing, and being someone who has taught traditional piano lessons one on one, I wanted to bring that one on one feel to an online group lesson format. The Facebook Live videos and those Q&A sessions together, have been really helpful. I get a lot of good feedback from the members, many of who are learning how to play the piano for the first time, and many who are just wanting to take their basic piano knowledge to the next level. It’s fun. It’s a lively group of folks that just wanna learn how to play the piano, and they’re finally learning. It’s good.

Christopher: Fantastic. Give us a little glimpse of what’s covered in that course. You said it’s focused on the improvisational side of things. How do you teach that?

Chris Owenby: Sure. Teaching students basic scales, such as the C major scale that I mentioned earlier, as well as scales that are related to major scales. The minor scales, every major scale has a related minor scale. Learning major and minor scales, which make up the basically, the foundation of Western music as we know it. Major and minor, that happier sound vs that sadder sound that you hear. Teaching students how to play with those scales, to play them … here’s the funny part. Even though we’re improvising, I’m still teaching classical technique because some stuff just works.

You’ll play a scale, there should be a certain fingering, right? So, I teach them the proper way to play these scales, the way that makes most sense. Then how to take those scales and take the chords, clusters of notes, right? Stacked up together, and then use those ideas to play their favorite songs. Music that they’re interested in learning how to play. Some of the prerecorded video, well, it takes students all the way to the beginning. Basic scales and then learning the basic chords, your primary chords, and then how to apply that to the songs that they want to learn. But then also, how to take that a step further, and transpose their songs to different keys on the piano. Then within the live piano lessons, we’re building upon those concepts taught in the prerecorded lessons, answering any questions that they have, and just building a firm foundation for piano students. I’ve laid the framework already for basic scales and chords, and now we just build upon that.

Christopher: Well, I think any listeners who are following along with our improv month will appreciate how much, I believe, and at Musical U, we believe in that kind of scales, and chords approach to really equip you with the building blocks that music is made from. It’s not about randomly picking notes from the air and trusting your instinct, it’s about really understanding where the notes in music come from.

Chris Owenby: Sure. I think that’s the important thing, and don’t get me wrong, because I said in the beginning of our conversation when my grandma teaching me how to play that song visually, through muscle memory. That was important and that set me on this path to really understand what was happening there, and learn how to play songs by ear. But, we do live in this age where you can just hop on the internet, right? And pull up a song, and there’s so many folks that teach, and I think it’s a beautiful thing, but at the same time, having this more of a traditional approach to teaching in general, even if I’m teaching students how to play something by ear.

I think you hit on it there, that it’s important to show students why they’re doing what they’re doing, why it works, because if they understand how and why it works, then they can reproduce that on different songs that they wanna learn, or maybe simply transposing a song to a different key. It’s important to learn also the “why” and the “how.”

Christopher: That sounds like a really terrific way to teach improvisation. Definitely for any listeners who are looking to bring their piano skills to improvisation, or who are maybe just looking to get started on piano in a free and creative way, definitely do check out the online piano course. You’ll find that at Chris, is there anything on that site that people can get started with if they want a taste of how this could work for them?

Chris Owenby: Sure. If folks go, that’s gonna take them to a sign up page where they can sign up for a free course, where I’m basically gonna teach folks the nuts and bolts, those chords, those scales to get started playing their favorite songs. If anyone wants a little more one on one approach and access to those Facebook Live videos as well, then they could definitely sign up to The Online Piano Course, and that’s something I’d be happy to share with folks.

Christopher: Tremendous. Thank you. We’ll definitely put a link to both of those in the show notes for this episode at

Well, I want to be respectful of your time. I wanted to dig into Practice Habits with you, and I think we’ll link in the show notes to a blog post you have on your recommended habits to make for effective practice, because it’s definitely something that any listener can really benefit from to really maximize the results they get from their practice sessions.

Thank you so much. It’s been such a pleasure to talk with you, Chris, and learn more about your own background, and your approach to teaching.

Chris Owenby: It’s been a pleasure, Christopher. Thank you so much for having me, and keep up the good work.

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