The Good, the True, and the Beautiful
As a parent, I want to share good, true, and beautiful things with my children. And of course, I want to share these things not only with my children, but with the children of my family and friends, and more broadly, with the world. In fact, this is the principal motivation for my Sacred Art Series, by which I share the Gospels illustrated with sacred art, the Rosary, and the Life and Sayings of St. Philip Neri. It is also my motivation for my personal efforts to preserve the Church’s liturgical heritage of Gregorian Chant, to promote good habits of prayer, and to preserve the Church’s traditional liturgical practices.
In this post, I’m going to share something that is secular rather than sacred, but something that is good, true, and beautiful; that can bring great joy and happiness; and that can also be used to promote sacred things and to lead us to God.
That thing is music. And more specifically, a certain musical instrument--the piano.
A Reluctant Musician
When I was a kid, I had several years of piano lessons. I was a reluctant student. I didn’t like the piano. I didn’t like the lessons. To me, piano was boring. I didn’t want to practice. I’d rather watch TV and play sports.
Little did I know that, despite my reluctance, my parents had planted a musical seed in me. Even though I didn't yet realize it, I’d been given a great gift. I now had some basic knowledge of the musical scale and chords, an improved musical “ear”, and a decent foundation for singing. This seed would eventually bear fruit.
Over the years, gradually, I returned to music. I started playing acoustic bass and acoustic guitar when I was about 14. I wasn't good, didn't have any particular talent, and didn’t have good practice habits or technique--but it kept me interested. In college and law school, I sang in some church choirs; this helped my singing. Then things finally started to click when I began learn banjo over spring break my first year of law school. After a week of practicing each day, and seeing steady improvement, I resolved to practice an hour a day for the next year. I also focused on technique, found good materials, and started playing with my siblings and with other musicians. Eventually, I began practicing even more and then applied this improved musical ability to other instruments--the guitar and mandolin--and rapidly improved on each. I also developed my singing with bluegrass harmonies and, later, Gregorian Chant. (Though not the purpose of this post, here's a link to some of my bluegrass music, which is available for free at SoundCloud.)
Building a Strong Musical Foundation - Piano Lessons
I mention my own musical background because I now realize that my musical foundation could have been built much more surely and quickly had I stuck with the piano in my youth. If only there were a way that my parents could have kept me interested and motivated . . .
A few weeks ago, I discovered just that. I was looking for something that was less expensive than the piano lessons we’ve been paying for for my two oldest kids (ages 7 and 9), but that would be an adequate substitute. I found two such online programs that were the most highly recommended and selected Piano Marvel, since it had a free trial and since it had a much broader musical library and less of an emphasis on “pop” music.
I signed up for Piano Marvel’s free trial, bought an inexpensive piano keyboard, connected it via USB to my computer, began some lessons . . . and promptly saw its advantage. I then let my 5, 7, and 9-year old kids try it--and soon saw its genius.
Piano Marvel Online Piano Lessons - Educational and Fun
Piano Marvel has four main activities: songs categorized by style and difficulty, lessons in method, lessons in technique, and sight reading tests. For each activity, sheet music loads in an online midi player. Click play, the music counts down, and you begin. Upon completion of the song or lesson or test, Piano Marvel scores you from 0 to 100. The scoring is based on whether you played the right note, and whether you played the right note at the right time. If you get it right, the note appears green on the musical score. Get it wrong, and a red note appears showing which note (or notes) you played and when you played it; that is, the red note (or notes) appears either above or below or before or after the note you should have played.
For a less wordy explanation, watch Piano Marvel's intro video.
With songs, Piano Marvel allows the student to practice the songs in sections. So if a song has 16 measures, Piano Marvel might break the song into four sections of four measures. And for each section, Piano Marvel can further break the song into right and left hand sessions. The practice sessions for each section also begin with a slow tempo, then move to medium, and then to full speed.
Anyone who has achieved some skill on an instrument will quickly see the brilliance of these practice features, for Piano Marvel is not just encouraging the student to practice, but encouraging the student to practice perfectly. And equally important, practicing the piano with Piano Marvel--and getting instant feedback--is lots of fun! With each try, the student naturally wants to play each section better and better until it’s perfect; then, the student moves on to faster tempos; and eventually to coordinating both right and left hands together; and eventually masters the whole song.
I soon personally saw the benefits as I played “Tarentella” faster and more accurately than I previously thought possible given my abilities. My wife began the lessons, promptly besting my sight reading score--and motivating me to do better myself. My 9-year-old soon began tackling new and more difficult songs and improving his timing and accuracy.
Piano Marvel is Also Great for Beginning Piano Students
And most impressive to me: I had my 5-year-old, who has never played the piano nor taken any lessons, begin with Piano Marvel’s very first lessons to see how he would do. For comparison, I had my 7-year-old, who had a year of piano lessons, face off against him. All I did to coach my 5-year-old was help him to find middle C and show him how to place his hand on the keyboard.
The 5-year-old's first attempt was not perfect. He may have scored a 50. Playing notes metronomically was not easy--at first. My 7-year-old also struggled with the timing, but still beat him with a 60. The 5-year-old soon scored a 70 or 80. The 7-year-old beat him again. And soon, both scored perfect 100s and moved on to the next lesson. Over the last week or two, they've been gently competing against each other and steadily progressing in their lessons. And all five of us have been competing with each other for practice time.
A Culture of Beauty through Music
I am convinced that one of the best things we can do to counteract the dangers of the modern world is to make beautiful things--whether crafts, art, cooking, or music--rather than simply consuming them. Piano Marvel gives everyone an opportunity to become a musician, and it does it in a way that is thorough, but also inexpensive and fun.
Recommendation - Piano Marvel
I highly recommend Piano Marvel. You can sign up a for a free account here. The free account gives you access to over 100 songs and the first level of lessons. It's great for beginning students and will give you an idea of the program's capabilities and value. Premium accounts are $15 per month. Use my link or the referral code "will" and you'll get 20% off. (I'll also earn a referral, so you'll be supporting the Sacred Art Series.) The best value is a $99 per year premium account. For the annual membership there's no discount for using my referral code, but it's the best value (and I'll also earn a small referral fee).
Reminder: To access all the benefits of Piano Marvel, you'll want a digital piano keyboard and a USB cable. Here is an inexpensive keyboard/cable package that I found recommended for this purpose. (This link is my Amazon affiliate link, so Sacred Art Series will also benefit when you purchase by following this link.) It's also the one I purchased and it's worked great for me so far.
It's been six months since we began using Piano Marvel. All of us continue to progress, and I remain extremely satisfied with the product. Below are my sons competition videos for the Piano Marvel Competition 2018. The first video is of my 6-year-old son. He'd never played piano before starting with Piano Marvel in August 2017. The second video is of my 9-year-old son. He already had three years of private lessons before he began with Piano Marvel in August 2017, but he's never progressed so rapidly.
UPDATE 3/15/18:Piano Marvel has announced their 2018 finalists and both Henry and Dominic made it into the finals in their respective age groups. Here are links to YouTube playlists of the Piano Marvel finalists for 2018 for age groups 5-7 and 8-10. There are some really impressive pianists in the 8-10 category! Piano Marvel 2018 Competition Finalists - Ages 5 - 7
Piano Marvel 2018 Competition Finalists - Ages 8 - 10 And here's a list of all the finalists in all the age groups, with links to their videos.
Here's a playlist of the 2018 Piano Marvel Competition winners (all age groups).
Here's a playlist of the 2018 Piano Marvel Competition winners (all age groups).
Henry and Dominic again entered the Piano Marvel online competition this year. Here are their videos. They weren't quite as diligent in their practice this last year (though they've also been learning the violin, which they practice daily), but they've still made lots of progress.
Piano Marvel has announced their 2019 finalists and both Henry and Dominic made it into the finals in their respective age groups. Here are links to YouTube playlists of the Piano Marvel finalists for 2018 for age groups 5-7 and 8-10. For each playlist, I placed the winner first. There are some outstanding young pianists out there!