Wednesday, December 27, 2006

How To Tell What Major Key A Song Is In Quickly & Easily

Key signatures are a type of musical notation that indicate which key the song is to be played in. But key signatures, despite the name, are not the same thing as key. Key signatures are simply notational devices; just as a note is the notational name for a pitch, key signatures are the notational names for keys. It is what it says it is: a signature, a simple piece of information that tips you off to the physical form (the key) to be played.

What does it mean to be "in the key of F", or "in the key of Bb"?

It means that the composer based the composition on the scale of F (which has 1 flat in it), or the scale of Bb (which has 2 flats in it).

Key signatures appear right after the clef (before the time signature) and show a sharp or flat on the line or space corresponding to the note to be altered. Key signatures placed at the beginning of songs will carry through the entire song, unless other key signatures are noted after a double bar, canceling out the first. For instance, it's entirely possible to start a song in the key of F but end it in the key of E flat; it all depends on the key signatures and where they're placed throughout the song (a key signature can change at any point). Accidentals can also show up throughout a song and only once or twice flatten or sharpen a note that was not previously indicated; this cancels out the key signatures, as well, but only temporarily, for as long as the accidental lasts.

Beginners just learning to read music often have a hard time with key signatures because the key itself is not expressly written, and it's sometimes difficult to remember what goes where.
Key signatures with five flats or sharps have been known to terrorize new musicians -- how in the world, they think, are we supposed to remember all these note changes while we're playing the song? It's obviously possible, though, and there are some rules that can help beginners identify and remember the key as it relates to the key signatures, rules that go beyond rote memorization. If there is more than one flat, the key is the note on the second to last flat. If there are any sharps at all, the key is a half step up from the last one noted. F major, a key frequently found in beginning sheet music, only has one flat (B), and C major has no sharps or flats at all. Key signatures, when viewed in light of these rules, are much easier for beginners to digest, ensuring that a proper knowledge of key signatures is on its way through the door.
One fact that most people don't realize is that sharps and flats always occur in the same order:

The order of the flats is B, E, A, D, G, C, F.

The order of the sharps is just the opposite -- F, C, G, D, A, E, B.

So if there is one flat in the key signature, it is always B. If there are two flats in the key signature, they are always B and E. Three flats are always B, E, and A. Four flats in a key signature spell the word BEAD. And so on.

It's the same in sharps, too, except backward. If there is one sharp in a key signature, it is always F. Two sharps in a key signature are always F and C. Three are F, C, and G. And so on.
So once you have memorized the order of the flats, all you have to do is apply the rule mentioned earlier: the next to the last flat is the name of the key. For example, if you have four flats in a key signature, they are Bb, Eb, Ab, Db. The last flat is D, so the next to the last flat is A. So the key is Ab.

With sharps, just mentally go up 1/2 step from the last sharp, and that is the key. For example, if a key has 4 sharps, they are F#, C#, G#, D#. One-half step above D# is E, so the key is E.
Memorize the order of the flats and sharps and those two simple rules, and you'll be able to identify what major key any song is in quickly and easily. (Minor keys are just as easy, but beyond the scope of this article.)
Week 22 - "How To Find The Key of a Song When There Are Flats In The Key Signature"
Week 23 - "How To Find The Key of a Song When There Are Sharps In The Key Signature"

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

How To Color Without Crayons: Adding Color Tones To a Chord

How To Color Without Crayons: Adding Color Tones To a Chord

Adding color tones to a chord is like adding colors to a black and white drawing; it adds depth and dimension and well as bringing it to life.

There is a time and place, of course, for "black and white" music, just as there is in art. And many times as a musician I choose to use shades of grey to color my improvisations on the piano, just as an artist uses light and dark to create the feeling and mood of the sketch.

But there are also times when adding a splash of color can do wonders for your piano playing (or guitar or electronic keyboard or organ or whatever). These musical colors create nuances of texture and feeling that are just not available using shades of grey.

So what colors are available from your musical palate? And how do we blend them in to the existing framework of a song?

I'm glad you asked, because you will be astounded at the number of combinations or color tones that can be blended together into any given chord.

First, though, lets review what a basic black and white chord is made of. Every basic triad is composed of 3 notes: a root (the lowest note of the chord), a 3rd, and a 5th.

A major triad consists of a root, then the 3rd note of the major scale, then the 5th note of a major scale. For example in the key of C the major triad is C, E, and G. In the key of D the major triad is D, F#, and A. Why the F#? Because in the scale of D F# is the 3rd degree. So in the key of Db the major triad is Db, F, and Ab. Why the Ab? Because it is the 5th note in the scale of Db.
A minor triad consists of a root, a 3rd lowered one-half step, and a 5th of the major scale. So instead of E as the 3rd of the chord we use Eb. In the key of D, instead of F# being the 3rd we use F, since it is 1/2 step lower than F#.
An augmented triad consists of a root, a 3rd, and a 5th raised one-half step. So the C augmented triad would be C, E, and G#.
A diminished triad consists of a root, a 3rd lowered one-half step, and a 5th lowered one-half step. So the C diminished triad would be C, Eb, and Gb.

Those are the "black and white" chords: no color, but appropriate in most instances.
But when you want to add a flair of creativity to your playing, here is the color palate you have to work with:

2nds: the 2nd note of a major scale.
6ths: the 6th note of a major scale.
major 7ths: the 7th note of a major scale.
7ths: (also known as dominant 7ths): the lowered 7th of a major scale.
9ths: the 9th note of the major scale (same as the 2nd note except an octave higher). If you're wondering why the 9th is not just called the 2nd, it's because the 9th is combined with other color tones, whereas the 2nd is not.
Flat 9ths: the 9th note of a major scale lowered one-half step.
11ths: the 11th note of a major scale (same as the 4th except an octave higher).
Sharp 11th: the 11th note of a major scale raised one-half step.
13th: the 13th note of a major scale (same as the 6th, except an octave higher).

So you can add a 6th to a major or minor triad to create a brighter sound. You can add a major 7th to a major or minor or diminished triad to create another kind of sound. You can add a 7th (dominant 7th) to a major, minor, diminished, or augmented chord to create another kind of sound. Or you can add a 7th along with a 6th; or a 9th along with a major 7th; or a 9th along with a 7th; or an 11th along with a 9th and a 7th; or a 13th along with an 11th and a 9th and a 7th.

And on and on. We could go on combining color tones until the cows come home, but the best way for you to learn what's possible is to just dig in and experiment. You'll find many, many exciting combinations you can use in various musical situations that will brighten your song and add a rainbow of colors to your creative improvisations.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Inversions: How To Stand a Chord On Its' Head

Many people get all confused when chords are turned upside down. They recognize them when they are in root position, but when you stand them on their head...well, it gets kind of fuzzy for folks.

That's understandable. We grow up playing chords in root position, which means that the name of the chord is on the bottom, with the other two notes an interval of a 3rd above each other. (E is a 3rd above C, and G is a 3rd above E). For example, when we play the C chord in root position, C is the lowest note in the chord, so it seems obvious that it is the C chord.

But when we see the C chord with E on the bottom, or G on the bottom, it's not so obvious, partly because the chord is no longer a stack of 3rds.

Chords upside down are called "inversions".

Here's the deal:

Every 3 note chord (called a "triad" -- trio -- tricycle -- meaning "3") can be played in 3 different positions -- inversions:

Root position = The name of the chord is the bottom note
1st inversion = The name of the chord is the top note
2nd inversion = The name of the chord is the middle note

So when C is the lowest note of the C chord, it is called "root position". When C is the top note of the C chord, it is called "1st inversion". And when C is the middle note of the C chord, it is called "2nd inversion".

So a root position triad (a triad is a 3-note chord) is a stack of 3rds; actually, a minor 3rd on top of a major 3rd. A first inversion triad is a stack with an interval of a 3rd on the bottom and a 4th on top. A second inversion triad is a stack with an interval of a 4th on the bottom and a 3rd on top.

So what?

Here's what: Each inversion has it's own sound, so you can get a variety of sounds by using one inversion and then another. Each inversion also has its own feel, so some pianists find it easier to use a particular inversion than others, particularly to move smoothly from chord to chord.
So what happens when there are more than 3 notes in a chord, as in a 6th chord or a 7th chord?
Same deal -- it's just that now there are 4 positions of the chord instead of 3 as in a triad; root position, 1st inversion, 2nd inversion, and 3rd inversion. That gives the pianist lots of choices for voicing and fingering.

There's no law, either, that a pianist has to use all the notes of a given chord. If I want a more open sound, I might leave out the 5th of a 4-note chord, and just use the root, 3rd, and whatever the other note is -- 6th, 7th, major 7th, 9th, or whatever.

For example, I might voice a C7 chord with E on the bottom, skip the G, then include the Bb and C. Or I might play it as an arpeggio (broken chord) by playing a low root an octave lower, then play the 5th, then the 3rd an octave higher, and then come back to the Bb.

The choices are almost infinite, and the more complex the chord, the more exciting voicing choices there are.

So don't settle for just one position of a chord -- stand it on it's head and experiment with all the luscious choices for voicing it to create a sound all your own.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Sprinkle Some Pepper On Your Musical Meal Through The Use of Augmented Chords

Augmented chords are to a piece of music like pepper is to a meal; you would never sit down to a meal of pepper alone, but you might sprinkle a little on your food to liven up the taste a bit.
Augmented triads (triads are 3-note chords) are one of the 4 basic chord types, yet they are used very little compared to major and minor chords.

There are four basic kinds of triads in music:

Major triads: composed of the root, major 3rd, and perfect 5th of a major scale.
Minor triads: composed of the root, minor 3rd, and perfect 5th of a major scale.
Diminished triads: composed of the root, minor 3rd, and diminished 5th of a major scale.
Augmented triads: composed of the root, major 3rd, and augmented 5th of a major scale.

As an example, the C major scale is:
C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C

So a C major triad would be:
C, E, G
A minor triad would be:
C, Eb, G
A diminished triad would be:
C, Eb, Gb
An augmented triad would be:
C, E, G#

Most of the songs we know or hear on the radio or TV (or on our IPOD's or other MP3 player) are written in a major key. That means that most of the chords in those songs are major chords -- only 20% or so are minor chords.

The other 10% of songs and musical compositions are written in a minor key, which means that there will be several minor chords within the context of the piece.

So if nearly 100% of all songs contain major and minor chords, what place is there for diminished and augmented triads?

They are the salt and pepper of a musical meal.

In other words, major chords are like the main dish -- the steak, if you will, of a song. Minor chords are like a side dish of corn or broccoli (yuk!) or whatever. You would never sit down to a meal of just pepper or just salt, would you? Same way here; you use diminished and augmented triads to add spice to your meat and potatoes. We covered diminished triads in an earlier article, so this time we will focus on augmented triads.

Here are the 12 augmented triads:

C aug: C, E, G#
F aug: F, A, C#
G aug: G, B, D#
D aug: D, F#, A#
E aug: E, G#, B# (enharmonic with C)
A aug: A, C#, E# (enharmonic with F)
Db aug: Db, F, A
Eb aug: Eb, G, B
Ab aug: Ab, C, E
Gb aug: Gb, Bb, D
Bb aug: Bb, D, F#
B aug: B, D#, Fx (F double-sharp, which is enharmonic with G)

So like diminished chords, augmented chords are used to add spice to your musical meal. You don't linger on them, but use them as transition chords between a major and another major chord, or between a major and a minor chord, or sometimes even between two minor chords.
As an example, let's say you are playing "Battle Hymn of the Republic" in the key of C and your first chord is C major on the entire first phrase "Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord" As you transition to the F chord on the word "trampling", you can insert a C augmented triad on the words "He is". It only lasts one beat, but it adds interest to the song by leading smoothly from the C chord to the F chord.

You could also use a C augmented chord in the chorus as you move from the 1st phrase "Glory, glory, hallelujah!" to the second "Glory, glory, hallelujah!" You are moving from a C chord to an F chord, so insert a C+ chord (the symbol for an augmented triad is a + sign) right before you play the F chord.

As you play various songs, look for opportunities to use augmented triads as transition chords. And just like pepper is to a meal of food, so augmented triads are to a musical meal.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Learn Music Fast -- Online!

With the advent of the internet there is no longer any excuse for not learning music if a person wants to learn. Learning music online has revolutionized learning, since it is the first time in history that anyone with a computer can virtually find out anything they want to know about music -- and find out quick!

There are sites galore teaching everything about music from chords to trombone lessons to drum lessons to music theory lessons to guitar lessons to piano lessons, and a whole lot more. Many are free while others charge a very reasonable tuition. But think what a bargain that is; no travel, no traffic jams; no rescheduling lessons; no missed lessons; and because the lessons are online (or in some cases on CD's and DVD's) they can be replayed over and over until the lesson is thoroughly learned, which is not the case in a personal lesson or a college classroom. You have one chance to understand, and if you don't, you're immediately behind the curve and have to do extra studies to catch up. Not so with online music lessons.

Back just 15 years ago if an individual wanted to learn music, about the only places he or she could do so would be from a private teacher, a music school of some sort -- private or public or correspondence, or self-taught from a music book. All of which is fine, but slow if an individual is really chomping at the bit to learn, and learn fast.

But today there are literally hundreds of sites on the internet from which any ambitious person can access and learn virtually anything they want about music. There are sites dealing with music instruction for beginners as well as college-level sites that deal with figured bass and advanced music theory and composition issues, as well as improvisation and arranging music.

For example, there are piano lesson sites that teach how to improvise -- all styles of improvisation including jazz, rock, gospel, new age music and more. There are piano instruction sites that shows you how to play piano sheet music as a map, instead of having to sight read the printed music as it is written. By learning how to do this, you can create your own free piano sheet music by creating a song and then notating it in a music software program such as Finale using piano tabs, piano chords, and chord symbols. A person can learn to play piano notes by the fist-full by learning piano chording music styles.

Learning to play the piano, learning to read piano music, learning piano songs from classical music to popular music is one of the most fun things a person can do. There are piano lessons online using major chords, minor chords, 7th chords, and all kinds of chord progressions. Learning to play the piano music of your dreams using piano chords & piano chording techniques is now within the reach of anyone with an internet connection! And don't forget harmony and music theory -- including scales and fingering of scale and chord passages in musical scores and sheet music -- it's all available online. Music history and music appreciation is important too -- guys like Bach & Mozart & Beethoven & Chopin knew what they were doing -- and we can learn much from them and stand on their shoulders simply by accessing the biggest library in the history of mankind -- the cyber library of the internet.

Here are just a few of the sites online where you can learn music: Guitar lessons online using video. Song writing instruction. The Berklee School of Music in Boston has long been one of the two or three top schools in the world for aspiring jazz musicians. Now it has an online division, so you don't have to pack your bags for Boston -- you can learn music right at home. Music theory and criticism for advanced musicians, teachers, composers, and scholars. Includes introductory and intermediate music theory lessons, ear training. An interactive internet course for learning music fundamentals. Designed to be a high school AP course or freshman college level remedial theory course. Tutorials on reading music, scales, intervals, chords. 101-part online newsletter teaching piano chords & chord progressions.

This list just scratches the surface; if you type "music lessons online" into the Google search box, you will come up with something like eight million results! "Piano lessons" will call up about a million and a half, while "guitar lessons online" will bring up over two million search results.
With this abundance of material online, there is no excuse for anyone who really wants to learn music to not avail themselves of the opportunity, especially when they realize that this is the first time in the history of the world that this riches of knowledge has been available with just the click of a mouse.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Can You Play All The Major Chords in 3 Seconds or Less?

Can YOU Play All The Major Chords in 3 Seconds or Less?

Did you have any idea how easy it is to learn ALL the major chords (there are 12 of them)
and be able to play them in seconds -- not hours or days or weeks or months or years?
Some people go through their entire lives not being sure about what such and such a major
chord is -- and it's all so unnecessary, because you can memorize them in just a few
minutes, and learn to play them in 12 seconds or less - one second per major chord.

I have had many private students over the years who could play them all in as little as 5
seconds -- one little gal (she was about 12 at the time) had particularly fast hands, and
could play them in - believe it or not - 3 seconds! I have slow hands with fat fingers,
and yet I can play them in something like 5 or 6 seconds. So if I can do it with little
fat hands and chubby short fingers, you can too.

First, here's what the major chords look like on the staff: I hope you noticed that 3 of
the major chords were made of all white keys: C F G. And I hope you noticed that 3 of the
major chords were made of white keys on the outside, with a black key in the middle: D E
A. And did you notice that 3 of the major chords were like an Oreo cookie? Black on the
outside, white on the inside? Db Eb Ab. That only leaves 3 major chords, one of which is
all black, and one of which is white, black, black, and the other the reverse -- black,
white, white. Gb (all black) B (white, black, black) Bb (black, white, white). And that's

Practice playing the first 3 major chords over and over until you can move between them
smoothly and quickly. Then practice the next 3 major chords -- then the next 3 -- then
the last 3. After you can play them by 3's, practice playing the first 6 without
stopping. Then practice the first 9 without stopping. Then finally practice playing all
12 without stopping.

There's no particular virtue, of course, in playing them quickly, except for the fact
that it makes you confident you can find them in a hurry when you need them in a song.
But you'll find that as your confidence grows, your enjoyment and competence in piano
playing will grow commensurately.

For a sight-and-sound lesson on the 12 major chords, please go to:

Monday, November 20, 2006

Diminished Triads: The Salt of a Musical Meal

There are four basic kinds of triads (3-note chords) in music:

Major triads: composed of the root, major 3rd, and perfect 5th of a major scale.
Minor triads: composed of the root, minor 3rd, and perfect 5th of a major scale.
Diminished triads: composed of the root, minor 3rd, and diminished 5th of a major scale.
Augmented triads: composed of the root, major 3rd, and augmented 5th of a major scale.

As an example, the C major scale is:

C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C

So a C major triad would be:
C, E, G
A minor triad would be:
C, Eb, G
A diminished triad would be:
C, Eb, Gb
An augmented triad would be:
C, E, G#

About 90% of the songs we know or hear on the radio or TV (or on our IPOD's or other MP3 player) are written in a major key. That means that most of the chords in those songs are major chords -- only 20% or so are minor chords.

The other 10% of songs and musical compositions are written in a minor key, which means that there will be several minor chords within the context of the piece.
So if nearly 100% of all songs contain major and minor chords, what place is there for diminished and augmented triads?

They are the salt and pepper of a musical meal.

In other words, major chords are like the main dish -- the steak, if you will, of a song. Minor chords are like a side dish of corn or broccoli (yuk!) or whatever.

You would never sit down to a meal of just pepper or just salt, would you? Same way here; you use diminished and augmented triads to add spice to your meat and potatoes.

So here are the 12 diminished triads:

C dim: C, Eb, Gb
F dim: F, Ab, Cb
G dim: G, Bb, Db
D dim: D, F, Ab
E dim: E, G, Bb
A dim: A, C, Eb
Db dim: Db, Fb, Abb (same as G)(By the way, Db dim is enharmonic with C# dim)
Eb dim: Eb, Gb, Bbb (same as A) (Eb dim is enharmonic with D# dim)
Ab dim: Ab, Cb, Ebb (same as D) (Ab dim is enharmonic with G# dim)
Gb dim: Gb, Bb, Dbb (same as C) (Gb dim is enharmonic with F# dim)
Bb dim: Bb, Db, Fb (Bb dim is enharmonic with A# dim)
B dim: B, D, F

So diminished chords are used to add spice to your musical meal. You don't linger on them, but use them as transition chords between a major and another major chord, or between a major and a minor chord, or sometimes even between two minor chords.

For example, let's say you are playing "Amazing Grace" in the key of F and your first chord is F major on the words "Amazing grace". As you transition to the Dm chord on the word "sweet", you can insert a C# diminished triad on the word "how". It only lasts one beat, but it adds interest to the song.

As you play various songs, look for opportunities to use diminished triads as transition chords. And just like salt is to a meal, so diminished triads are to a musical meal.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Minor Chords: How To Form Them & Use Them

Minor Chords: How To Form Them & Use Them

Minor chords create a sound which is somber or serious; some people even think of minor chords as "sad", as opposed to major chords which sound "normal", or "happy". Some of the great classics are written in minor keys, including Fur Elise by Beethoven, Prelude in C# Minor by Rachmaninoff, Prelude in Cm by Chopin, and many others. In popular music there is "Summertime", "A Taste of Honey", "'Round Midnight", etc. and in folk music there is "Greensleeves", "Dark Eyes", "Volga Boatman","When Johnny Comes Marching Home" and many more.
But minor chords also occur frequently in songs which are written in major keys, and they provide the contrast needed to make a song interesting. The most-used chords in any given key are the I, IV, and V chords which are major, but followed by the ii, iii, and iv chords which are minor. So most songs written in a major key include from 1 to 3 minor chords somewhere along the line.
To understand minor chords we first need to understand major chords. Major chords are created using the root, 3rd, and 5th of a major scale. A major scale (from "la scala" = the ladder) is defined as a row of notes that moves from a root (the bottom or starting note) and moves upward by 2 whole steps, a half step, 3 whole steps, and one half step until it reaches the octave note (8 notes higher). By selecting the root, 3rd, and 5th notes of the scale we create a major chord (also known as a triad -- a 3-note chord).
There are only 12 different major chords:
3 of the major chords were made of all white keys: C F G.
3 of the major chords were made of white keys on the outside, with a black key in
the middle: D E A.
3 of the major chords were like an Oreo cookie? Black on the outside, white on the inside: Db Eb Ab.
That only leaves 3 major chords, one of which is all black, and one of which is white, black, black, and the other the reverse -- black, white, white. Gb (all black) B (white, black, black) Bb (black, white, white).

And that's it.
Here they are in that order:
Major chords composed of all white keys:
C major chord: C, E, G
F major chord: F, A, C
G major chord: G, B, D
Major chords composed of white keys on the outside with a black key in the center:
D major chord: D, F#, A
E major chord: E, G#, B
A major chord: A, C#, E
Major chords composed of black keys on the outside with a white key in the center: Db major chord: Db, F, Ab
Eb major chord: Eb, G, Bb
Ab major chord: Ab, C, Eb
Major chords left over:
Gb major chord (all black keys): Gb, Bb, Db
Bb major chord: Bb,
D, F B major chord: B, D#, F#

All these chords shown above are in "root position"; that is, the root, or name of the chord, is on the bottom of the chord. In a subsequent article we will take up the other positions in which we can play chords: inversions.
So why do I need to learn the major chords?
The answer is simple: all other chords are formed by altering one or more notes of a major chord. So once you know major chords, it's easy to find minor, diminished, augmented, and extended chords.
So to find a minor chord, all we need to do is lower the 3rd of each chord 1/2 step. So to make the C major chord into a C minor chord, we just need to lower E (the 3rd of the chord) 1/2 step to Eb.
So C minor chord is C, Eb, G
Here are the rest of the minor chords:
F minor chord: F, Ab, C
G minor chord: G, Bb, D
D minor chord: D, F, A
E minor chord: E, G, B
A minor chord: A, C, E
Db minor chord: Db, Fb, Ab (Fb is the same as E)
Eb minor chord: Eb, Gb, Bb
Ab minor chord: Ab, Cb, Eb (Cb is the same as B)
Gb minor chord: Gb, Bbb, Db (Bbb is the same as A)
B minor chord: B, D, F#
Bb minor chord: Bb, Db, F
Learn them well, as you will be playing them all of your life in countless songs.
To see all the minor chords illustrated, please go to:

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Christmas Carols You Can Play this Christmas With Only 3 Chords!

Did you know that there are literally thousands of songs you can play if you know just 3 chords?It's true. Songs from "Amazing Grace" to "Cum Ba Ya" to "Happy Birthday" to "On Top Of Old Smoky", "My Country 'Tis of Thee", "Take Me Out To The Ball Game", "God Bless America" and countless others.

But there are also Christmas Carols that you can learn to play this Christmas if you know, or are willing to learn, three simple chords.So what are these chords?In any given key, there are 3 "family members" that are residents of that key -- the I chord, the IV chord, and the V chord. They are far and away the most likely chords to occur in any given key.For example, if I am playing in the Key of C, and the first chord is the C chord and I have to guess what the next chord is, I would guess that it would be either the F chord or the G chord. Why? Because those are the other "family members." So we have narrowed the odds a great deal just by knowing who the members of the family are.So how could I tell whether it should be F or G?If the melody is a "B", then the chord is probably a G chord. Why? Because "B" is in the G chord, but is not in the F chord.If the melody is a "A", than I would guess that the chord is F. Why? Because "A" is in the F chord, but is not in the G chord.You can also just match one of the three chords to the melody to see if it sounds right. If it doesn't, try another of the 3 chords. It won't take long before you get the knack of matching chords to the tune of a song.Does that mean that there are always just 3 chords in a song? No, but there are literally hundreds of songs that are made of just 3 chords.Here are a few Christmas Carols you can play with just 3 chords:

O Christmas TreeAngels We Have Heard On HighSilent Night Away In A MangerJoy To The WorldDeck The Halls
Hark! The Herald Angels SingI Heard The Bells On Christmas DayGo, Tell It On The Mountain O Come, O Come Immanuel Star Of The EastThe First NoelThe Holly And The Ivy While Shepherds Watched Their FlocksGod Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen

Can you use other chords in these carols? Of course. And they will probably sound fuller if you do. But you can "get by" with just 3 chords -- the family chords in whatever key you want to play them in.Here are the primary chords (the family chords) of all the major keys (remember that the primary chords are the I chord, the IV chord, and the V chord based on the scale of that particular key):

Key of C: C, F, GKey of G: G, C, DKey of D: D, G, AKey of A: A, D, EKey of E: E, A, BKey of B: B, E, F#Key of F: F, Bb, CKey of Bb: Bb, Eb, FKey of Eb: Eb, Ab, BbKey of Ab: Ab, Db, EbKey of Db: Db, Gb, AbKey of Gb: Gb, Cb, Db

Do you have to know all these chords in all these keys?No.You can choose to play in just one key, or just a few keys.But what you MUST know is the 3 chords in whatever key you want to play in! That meansthat the stark beginner can learn 3 chords in just a few minutes, and be able to play along withthousands of tunes, because most folk songs, hymns, country songs, and many rock songs just use the 3 basic chords. That's why people who know zilch about music can pick up a guitar or sit down at a piano or keyboard, learn 3 chords, and chord along while singing everything from “Silent Night" to "Joy To The World" to..........................well, you get the idea.Go thou and do likewise. It's not too late -- Christmas comes every year right on schedule!
For an in-depth course in playing Christmas Carols, please go to:

You will love it -- and it will be a great gift to yourself that will last as long as you play every Christmas!

Saturday, October 07, 2006

How To Play The Piano Using "Shorthand" -- Chord Symbols -- Instead of Reading the Full Score

Fm7 Bb7 Ebm6 Edim7

Most people who took piano lessons as a kid, including me, grew up learning to read music exactly as it is written on the printed page. Being able to read music is a valuable skill, and I am delighted I learned that skill at an early age.
But there is a downside to only being able to read music without understanding what you are reading. A couple real-life examples illustrate the point:
What happens when you are playing and your sheet music slips off the piano and onto the floor? Unless your name is Victor Borge and you can turn the situation into comedy, you will probably find the situation extremely embarrassing. I have seen it happen several times to pianists who play well but who don't know how to improvise, and it's not a pretty site. It happened to me once years ago as well. I was accompanying a singer and someone opened a side door, letting a gust of wind sweep into the auditorium and right across my piano. The sheet music scattered onto the stage and a couple pieces blew off the stage. If I hadn't understood the music and had a grasp of it's harmonic form, I would have had to stop, pick up the music, get it back in order, and so forth, delaying the soloist and the performance. As it turned out I had several people ask me how I kept playing without the music in front of me. I replied that I knew the chord progressions of the song, so was able to "wrap the chords around the singer" and therefore keep the song going.
So what are chord symbols, and how do they work?
Chord symbols are a shorthand way of writing what is going on harmonically in a song. For example, if I were to write the chord symbols of the first line of What Child Is This? (also known as Greensleeves and several other titles) in the key of Am, I would write:
Am G F E7 -- which corresponds to the first line of the song and would appear directly above the melody line in the treble clef, so all the pianist would need to do would be to read the melody (tune) of the song -- not all the supporting notes.
I think you can see that once you know a few chords this would be infinitely easier to remember than the entire score of the song. Not only that, but that chord progression -- A, G, F, E7 -- repeats several times during the song, so once you know the form of the song, you have a huge advantage over someone who is chained to the written music and has no idea about the logic of the song.
So how does a person learn this "musical shorthand"? It's no secret -- there are books galore on learning chords, plus web sites that teach chords, or you could even pick up a chart of chords in your local music store.
Then buy a "fake book" -- a songbook with hundreds or even thousands of songs, each song showing just the melody of the song with the chord symbols listed above it. Each song alone would be known as a "lead sheet", but cumulatively the collection of songs is known as a "fake book". Then every day play a dozen or so songs just with the melody in your right hand and the chord in your left hand. It will sound barren at first, but you're learning how it works.
After a couple weeks of that, instead of playing the melody in your right hand, sing the melody (doesn't matter at all how it sounds) and use your right hand to break up the notes of the chord you are playing in your left hand. Once you get the hang of it, you can start breaking up the chord in both hands and experimenting with various rhythm patterns.
I am not saying it's easy; I am saying it's fun and exciting and that it is worth it many times over!

Thursday, October 05, 2006

The Immense Popularity of the Piano Continues To This Day...

Every since about 1709 when Christofori announced that he had invented an instrument to upscale the harpsichord, which plays all at one volume level -- no soft or loud -- that played both soft and loud -- which he appropriately named the "pianoforte" (which means "soft-loud" -- later the name was shorted to just "piano") -- people throughout the world have been entranced with the harmonic sound of the piano - it's richness and fullness in enabling musicians to play many notes at once or in rapid succession.

(An excellent history of the piano may be found at )

Most instruments are not solo instruments in the sense that they require an accompanianist, but not so with the piano. It can play alone as well as with combos, orchestras, or whatever. It's unique sound qualities make it the first choice in musical instruments for millions of folks the world over.

Because of that fact, multitudes of people around the world have purchased pianos and continue to purchase pianos in hopes of mastering the "musical monster with 88 ivory teeth". Some of the dominant manufacturers are Steinway, Yamaha, Baldwin, Kawaii, Bosendorfer and many others. Pianos come in various shapes and sizes, including:

Grand Pianos:

Parlor Grand. Size 4'5" to 5'5"

Baby Grand. Size 5'0" to 6'5"

Medium Studio Grand. Size 5'6" to 6'5"

Semi-Concert Grand. Size 6'6" to 8'0"

Concert Grand. Most concert grands are 9' in length

Upright Pianos:

Spinet. Size 35" to 39" tall.

Console. 40" to 44" tall.

Studio: 45" to 47" tall.

Professional. 48" to 52" tall.

Every since the invention of the piano, parents have signed their children up for piano lessons in hope they would become the next Mozart, or a least be able to entertain family and friends. But for every 100 kids that start piano lessons, probably less than 20% or so actually continue with the lessons long enough to play decently. Still, it is a good education in music, and certainly good for developing self-discipline and focus.

To really master piano playing, a beginning student must gradually learn many different disciplines and aspects of music including: sight-reading sheet music (or the score of a classical piece); fingering of scale passages and chord formations; keyboard chords, from major chords to minor chords to augmented chords to diminished chords to 7th chords and more; music theory, including major scales, minor scales, whole-tone and chromatic scales, and the "church modes", plus some specialty scales such as the Mediterranean scale, the blues scale, and so on; the tonic note or tonic tone, triads, arpeggios, the concept of key (key of C, key of Eb, key of F#, etc.) unisons, intervals, inversions, chords -- both primary and secondary, figured bass, chord symbols; dynamics and dynamic markings such as sforzando, presto, largo, allegro, etc, pedaling, body position, ear-training, music appreciation, a study of the great composers such as Bach, Mozart, Chopin, Beethoven, etc., interpretation, arranging, and a host of related subjects in the harmony and music theory areas.

This often involves years of learning at home with a teacher ( sometimes supplemented by online music lessons) and numerous music books, chord charts, fingering diagrams and musical scores. Meanwhile the student learns to play songs and classical pieces galore that contribute to the warmth of the home and the enjoyment of the family.

And if the student fails to become another Brubeck or Garner, he or she has still benefited tremendously in terms of music education, appreciation, the ability to concentrate, and many other qualities that flow out of having taken piano lessons. Plus he or she has brought the sound of music into their parent's home, and hopefully will continue with it when they form their own family.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Piano lessons galore...

Piano lesson courses galore that teach how to improvise -- all styles of improvisation including jazz, rock, gospel, new age music and more. Piano instruction that shows you how to play piano sheet music as a map, instead of having to sight read the printed music as it is written. By learning how to do this, you can create your own free piano sheet music by creating a song and then notating it in a music software program such as Finale using piano tabs, piano chords, and chord symbols. Learn to play piano notes by the fist-full by learning piano chording music styles. Learn to play the piano, learn to read piano music, learn piano songs from classical music to popular music. Learning piano and music notes is one of the most fun things you can do. Piano lessons online using major chords, minor chords, 7th chords, and all kinds of chord progressions. Learn to play the piano music of your dreams using piano chords & piano chording techniques!

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Adults Only Piano Lessons!

Play Piano ...Adult Piano Lessons on CD & DVD

Piano playing for the thinking adult who wants to understand what they are playing when they play piano music!
Learn chords galore & how to weave them into chord progressions.

Dear Intelligent Adult:
Did you know that music is based on natural "laws" -- like gravity -- and by learning to understand how those natural laws work we can actually understand what we are doing when we play -- we don't have to be at the mercy of what someone else has written on a piece of music.
How many of these facts do you know about music & piano playing? Test yourself and then check the answers at the bottom of the page:
Did you know that by learning just 3 chords you can play hundreds of songs?
Did you know that there are only 12 major keys you can play in, but you only really have to master one key to play most popular songs?
Did you know that it is possible to easily match any melody note (tune) to a chord, so you can harmonize any note?
Did you know that Beethoven's Fur Elise and the blues song "Summertime" uses the exact same chords for the theme of the song?
Did you know that it is quite possible to predict what chord comes next in a song with accuracy approaching 85%?
Did you know you can use the same chords to play boogie, blues, new age, gospel, pop, rock, jazz, country - anything except classical music? (And even some classics!)
Did you know that by coming in through the backdoor of piano playing -- chords -- you can start making wonderful and satisfying sounds on the piano in just a few days instead of a few years -- even if you don't know Middle C from Tweedle Dee?
Did you know there is a guy up in Oregon who will teach you all this stuff by mailing you CD's and DVD's along with whatever printed material is necessary? These are piano lessons for adults -- thinking adults who want to understand what they are doing when they play the piano -- not play by rote.
And did you know that if you believe NONE of the above, you can still sign up for a free 39 week email newsletter on "Piano Chords And Chord Progressions!" so you can see for yourself that everything above is true?
Answers to piano playing music questions:
True. That's because there are just 3 primary chords in any key -- like family members: Mom, Dad, Child. Get to know those 3 and you've got it.
True. It's like languages. It's great to be able to speak several, but you can get by with just one. I'd love to speak other languages, but I can get by with just English.
True. Every note is part of several different chords. So it is easy to harmonize any song once you know the secret.
True. Yep. They both use the A minor chord and the E7 chord in their themes. (Click here and hear me prove it.)
True. I know that's hard to believe, but remember that music is based on math. Once you understand a thing called the "Circle of 4ths" it's a piece of cake. In fact, I can tell you right now that 85% of the time the G chord comes directly after the D7 chord. So next time you run into the D7 chord, you have an educated guess of 85% that the next chord will be some form of the G chord. (G, G7 etc.) If you're into amazing your friends, that'll do it!
True. Apply different rhythms to the same chords, and you have many styles of music! With the very same chords I can play boogie, jazz, rock, pop, gospel, new age, ragtime.
True. Make me prove it by clicking here.
True. He's been teaching intelligent piano playing since he was 25, and you may be able to tell by the photo that he's not 25 anymore. He's been around the block and it shows. His courses don't screw around with silly drills. He teaches understanding -- adult piano lessons for thinking adults.
True. OK, you skeptic. Click here to sign up for the 39-week course and prove it to yourself. It's free. Should you not like it (GASP! -- that's hard to imagine!) you can unsubscribe anytime. And for those who believe -- you should sign up too.

Crash Course In Exciting Piano Playing

Here's a review of our "Crash Course" by a jazz site.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

A whole bunch of new ways to learn the piano!

There are so many different styles and approches to piano playing that the average person sometimes becomes confused about with path he/she should take to get where they want to go.
The web site given below provides many of the approaches, from piano chords to transposition to arranging to the blues, to ..........

Here is the site:

Enjoy the variety!

Saturday, August 26, 2006

This has nothing to do with piano playing, but...

This has nothing to do with piano playing, but...
Here are a few interesting sites I found recently in case you are interested in:

Fishing & camping & boats:

Educational toys & games:


Wedding & wedding favors:

Emergency medical:

Table tennis & ping pong:

After all, piano players have a life outside of the keyboard!

Monday, August 21, 2006

Why Piano Students Knew More About The Differences Between The Sexes Than The Other KIds In My Home Town...

Why Piano Students Knew More About The Differences Between The Sexes Than The Other Kids In Auburn

The center for sex education in Auburn in the mid-to-late 40’s was not the home, the church, the school, or the health clinic. Not that these did not contribute to our growing body of knowledge – they certainly did – but the center for the dissemination of actual facts was Luzetta Sweat’s piano studio on Mason Way, right up the side street from Junker & Shull, the Ford agency where my Dad always brought his cars. Luzetta certainly didn’t plan it that way, and I doubt if she ever knew about it. But her piano students, of which I was fortunate to be a member throughout most of my elementary school days, led the way in describing to the rest of the Auburn kids the wonders of human anatomy around the world. Not very advanced information, granted, but the kind of information kids around 8 or 9 years old are occasionally curious about when they are not doing anything more interesting. Such things as the fact that in Borneo women not only don’t wear blouses, they don’t even wear underwear! Exciting things like that.
And how did we know?
Because in the waiting room of Luzetta’s piano studio were the well-worn copies of at least 10 years of National Geographic, and it was easy to locate the revealing sections in these magazines, as these were the very well-worn issues, often with page corners conveniently folded back for easy re-location before next week’s piano lesson.
Luzetta would often say to her waiting students such things as “Myrna! You’re here so early! Well, make yourself at home. There are magazines here for you to read while you’re waiting.” And Myrna did, and Myrna was the one to turn to when one was in need of some information on bizarre sexual customs around the world, whether women in the Congo wore bras or not, and other such vital statistics.
It took me about two years of piano lessons to figure out why the kids that arrived early for their lessons knew so much about dress (or lack of it) and customs in foreign lands. When I finally caught on, the dog-eared issue I turned to had a section missing – about 5 or 6 pages had been torn out, and on the remaining page of the missing article was a photo of an African lady who apparently was completely naked before someone had used a red crayon to provide her with a lovely American-style dress covering her nakedness, complete with matching handbag. I always wondered if it was Myrna, who was two years older, protecting young eyes from such worldly wisdom, and/or saving all the good stuff for the girls, or both. But it didn’t seem quite like her. One of these days, when I work up the courage, I’m going to ask her. I’d better hurry. Myrna is 63 now.
Our freshman year at Placer High School we had to take a class called “Freshman Problems”, which was of course a euphemism for sex education. It was taught dutifully by an old maid named Hazel Germantine, and of course the joke that continually made the rounds of freshmen was “How would she know?” which, in retrospect, I think, was a fair question. But we didn’t mean it as a fair question, but as a joke. She was 53 at the time, but to 14 year olds she might as well have been 153, and the class was approximately that exciting. It was all theory, all hypothetical, all basically boring, except for the times when it got so embarrassing we just had to laugh out loud.
But fortunately for us, although certainly not for her, Donna Jo Bofillati got pregnant about mid-way through our freshman year, and had to drop out of school. That drove us back to our texts to see how it all worked. It was no longer theory, but Donna Jo and Herbie Unser, and that took on a fleshly meaning, and we learned like we had never learn before. It wasn’t so great for them, however, and the forced marriage didn’t last past the first year, but for us it was exciting – a chance to bring our school work to life, to resurrect it from dry pages and lectures to a real life, flesh and blood situation acted out by two of our classmates.

Duane Shinn is the author of over 500 music courses for adults including "How To Make Cool Sounds On Nay Keyboard Without Knowng a Thing About Music!"
He is also the author of the popular free 101-week online e-mail newsletter titled “Amazing Secrets Of Exciting Piano Chords & Sizzling Chord Progressions” at with over 84,400 current subscribers
Back to Piano Lessons at

Monday, August 14, 2006

Hymn Stories Galore

Hymn Stories Galore

Just click on any link below to be taken to the hymn story

A Safe Stronghold Is Our God
Hear & Answer Prayer
Harken to the Solemn Voice
Hear & Live
Hear Lord The Voice of My Complaint
Hymn Stories - Abide With Me
Almost Persuaded
Hymn Stories - All Hail The Power Of Jesus’ Name
Hymn Stories - Almost Persuaded
America The Beautiful song story
Am I a Soldier of the Cross? -- hymn story
At Calvary -- hymn story
Hymn Stories - Behold The Savior Of Mankind
Hymn Stories - Be Still, My Soul
Hymn Stories - Be Thou My Vision
Hymn Stories - Blessed Assurance
Hymn Stories "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God"
Hymn Stories on “Child Of The King”
Hymn Stories - “Alas! And Did My Savior Bleed.”
“All The Way My Savior Leads Me” hymn story
Hymn Stories of Amazing Grace
Hymn Stories - Battle Hymn of the Republic
Behold the Savior of Mankind
Hymn Stories - “Christ Arose!”
Hymn Stories -- All Creatures Of Our God And King
I Am Coming To The Cross
I Am His & He Is Mine
I Am Jesus Little Lamb
I Am Not Skilled To Understand
I Am Not Worthy, Holy Lord
I Am Praying For You
I Am Resolved
I Am So Glad Each Christmas Eve
I Am Thine O Lord
I Am Trusting Thee Lord Jesus
I Asked The Lord That I Might Grow
I Belong To The King
I Bless The Christ of God
I Bow My Forehead To The Dust
I Call The World's Redeemer Mine
I Have Found a Friend in Jesus
It Came Upon a Midnight Clear
Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring
Jesus, Lord of Life & Glory
Jesu, Name Above All Names
Jesus Our Hope
Jesu, Our Lenten Fast of Thee
Jesus, Balm of Healing
Jesus, High & Glorious
Jesus Is Coming
Jesus Is Passing This Way
Jesus I Will Trust Thee
Jesus Loves Me
Jesus Loves The Little Children
Jesus Makes My Heart Sing
Jesus My Sure Defense
Jesus Our Blessed Savior
Jesus Paid It All
Keep on Watching
King of Glory
Kum Bah Ya
Safely Home
Safe In The Arms Of Jesus
Safely Through Another Week
Sailing Into Port
Sail On
Savior Like a Shepherd Lead Us
Savior More Than Life To Me
Take My Life & Let It Be
Take The Name Of Jesus With You
Take Time To Be Holy
Tell It Out
Tell It Out With Gladness
Tell It to Jesus
Tell Me The Old, Old Story
Tell Me The Story of Jesus
Tell Mother I'll Be There
There Is Healing At The Fountain
There Shall Be Showers Of Blessings
Back to Praise & Gospel

How Summer Camp & Prayer Turned Me Into a Halfway Decent Piano Player

How Summer Camp & Prayer Turned Me Into a Halfway Decent
Piano Player

- Or -

“Scout Shinn, Where Are Your Pants?”

When I was 8 years old, I was one of the worst piano students known to mortal piano teachers. I stared out the window, dreamed about baseball, and drove poor Mrs. Graham, my 70-year-old piano teacher with whom I had a lesson every Saturday morning, to distraction. I even wore my fielder’s glove to a lesson one day.
It wasn’t that I didn’t like music – I did – but all those old guys like Bach and Brahms and Beethoven just didn’t match up with stars such as Joltin’ Joe, Scooter Rizzuto, Stan the Man, Ted Williams, and guys like that. I lived and breathed baseball, and my daily piano practice was a rude interruption into the world of home runs, stolen bases, and off-the-wall leaping catches.
My folks were patient with me – more patient by far than I deserved – and yet they insisted that I put in my required half-hour per day of piano practice. My older brother, Garland, even typed up an “I promise to practice” document and made me sign it. (It resides to this day on the wall of my music studio.) My seat put in its required half-hour on the piano stool, but my mind spent more like five minutes on scales, chords, and thrilling pieces such as “Left Thumb, Right Thumb”, “Swans On The Lake”, and the ever popular “Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum”. The musical situation, in short, looked bleak, and at 8 years of age I seemed destined to spend my life in the pursuit of baseball dreams.
But life is stranger than fiction, or so I once heard some wise-looking adults observe, and the summer between my 4th and 5th grade years brought a turn of events which was to change the direction of my life.
My best friend, Willie McTavish, who had come to our school during our 4th grade year directly from Scotland, decided to join the Boy Scouts, and I thought that sounded like a great idea too. We heard that after the meetings were over, baseball games were held with all Scouts participating. I asked my folks if I could join – well, actually, I begged my folks – and they said I could join as long as I kept up my homework and my piano practice.
I promised that I would.
I basically lied.
And so Willie & I joined Boy Scouts the summer of 1946. Our den mother, Mrs. Goldsberry, had a wonderfully big basement we met in after school once a week on Thursdays, with all kinds of nooks & surprising crannies to explore and hide in. Willie discovered a short, narrow door behind the furnace, which led from the basement to the alley behind the Goldsberry’s house. In those days some people used sawdust as fuel for their furnaces, and the door was where the sawdust would accumulate when the sawdust truck dumped a load into the slide bin right off the alley that ran behind their home on College Way. Willie thought it would be fun to try to climb up the shoot, since it was summer and no prospect of a sawdust delivery was in sight. He talked me into joining him in the climb, which proved to be a poor decision.
We negotiated the turns in the shoot, and happily didn’t encounter any sawdust. What we did encounter, however, were wasps, or yellow jackets, which were spending a blissful summer vacationing in the sawdust shoot until two Boy Scouts rudely interrupted them. Willie had generously allowed me to go first up the shoot, ostensibly so he could ride shotgun for the den mother and other threats to our little adventure. In the darkness of the shoot I could not see the wasps, but I heard them as once or more passed my face, and I yelled “Willie – watch out! There’s something in here!” The warning came too late. Willie felt the message in his left hip before he heard mine. As he screamed, he also let go of the sides of the shoot, and slipped in full-voiced terror back down the shoot, rolling into and through the little door behind the furnace, landing in a heap at the feet of Den Mother Goldsberry.
Meanwhile, I had motivation of my own, and I scampered up the rest of the shoot to the opening in the alley faster than a speeding bullet, setting a new record for short climbing, then sprinted around the corner, arms flailing, through the yard, and back around to the font door of the basement with a wasp’s patrol in hot pursuit. Once through the door and in the safety of the entryway, I stopped to regain both my breath and my composure before re-mingling with the rest of the Cub Scouts, most of whom were busily engaged in various craft projects, from Moccasin making to clay forming to knot tying. There was a commotion, however, in the corner of the basement, close to the furnace. Seems as though Mrs. Goldsberry had caught a Cub Scout trying to escape through the fuel shoot, and was instructing him earnestly in the morality of the Boy Scout code.
Being a Boy Scout myself, I could not tell a lie.
So I didn’t. I didn’t say anything at all. Cub Scout McTavish tried to tell Den Mother Goldsberry that he had an accomplice, but she was much too busy scolding him, so he finally resigned trying and just gave me a sideways glance, and not a kind one at that.
By August, however, Willie and I had made up, and plans were being made for the great scouting event of the year – Camp Ugwam. Both of us were as excited as 9 year old boys could be about the prospect of going away to camp for a solid week, something neither one of us had ever had ever done.
Camp Ugwam was the official Boy Scout camp of the region, high in the Sierra Nevada Mountains at nearly 6000 feet elevation, complete with its own mountain lake, appropriately named Lake Ugwam. True to the Boy Scout code, we did our best to be prepared, and packed all our essentials in our suitcases at least two weeks in advance – flashlight, collapsible drinking cup, rope for typing knots, Scout Manual, 3 or 4 dozen Donald Duck and Bugs Bunny comic books, fielders glove, decoder ring (for sending secret messages – we each got one by writing in to Captain Midnight and enclosing a cereal box top), the Official Major League Baseball Guide, 1947 edition (so we could memorize batting averages and ERA’s while we were away from the radio), and since Willie had a larger suitcase than I, he even took his bat.
As prepared as we were, when the day arrived at last for us to pile into the Scoutmaster’s mini-bus for the trip, (which was a pre-World War II school bus that had been used during the war to transport troops in and out of Camp Flint in Auburn where several hundred soldiers were stationed), our Mothers pointed out to us that we might need a change of clothes. Luckily, they had each packed another suitcase for us with all the stuff Mothers pack – pants, shirts, sox, umpteen pairs of underwear, extra sweaters – that sort of thing. It was reassuring to have along, but since I already had my Scout uniform on, I don’t believe I opened that particular suitcase until the last day of camp, when I suddenly remembered what Mom had said about changing clothes daily. I think Willie opened his earlier, since his Mom had mentioned something about putting in some extra spending money if he needed it, and I believe he did need it the evening of the first day.
The bus was packed, and us younger Scouts who had boarded the bus first soon relinquished our choice seats at the back of the bus to the older Scouts, presumably out of respect for rank, but actually out of fear of being beat up. So Willie and I and a couple of other Cub Scouts spent the trip sitting in the isle on the floor of the bus, so the only scenery we saw as we traveled beautiful Highway 80 up toward Donner Summit was the lower limbs of older Scouts.
I guess the curves in the winding forest road were too much for me, because I threw up somewhere between Red Dog and You Bet (now abandoned ghost towns left over from the gold rush of 1849), much to the disgust of the older Scouts.
“Geez, Shinn, thanks a lot! We get to smell puke from here to camp!”
“Oh yuk, Shinn barfed. Stop the bus!”
“Good grief, Shinn, we’re not even to camp yet, and you throw up like a baby!”
After the bus was more or less cleaned up and I felt somewhat better, we re-loaded for the final leg of the journey to Camp Ugwam. At that altitude even in August, the air was a little cool, so our Scoutmaster-driver had everyone shut the windows and he turned on the heat. I think I would have been OK if it wasn’t for that heat. It did something to the remaining scent of throw-up that was downright sickening, and as hard as I tried to hold it back, I threw up again.
There were groans around the bus when they heard me heave, but the reaction was much quieter than the first time, since the warm odor of left-over puke had gotten to most everyone else, too, and as I brought my head up off the floor I caught a quick glimpse of one of the older Scouts trying to roll his window down in time, but he didn’t make it. Scouts were slouched all over the van, pea-green faces, eyes closed, some making faces, some holding heir noses, some joining me on the floor.
We drug ourselves out of the bus again at Soda Springs, and lay on the ground under some big pines while the Scoutmaster hosed out the van at a Flying A service station across the road. He was in a fairly poor mood when he returned, and warned us not to get back in the van until we felt perfect. We were already an hour or so behind schedule, and one Scout said he had heard that if you were late on your first day, you had to wash dishes all week while the other Scouts were playing.
I wanted to go home.
But within the hour we were on our way again, this time with all the windows down, sitting on wet seats in a freshly hosed-out bus. Shivering almost felt good, now that the warm smell was gone, and we knew we had only a few minutes until we arrived at Camp Ugwam.
It was an exciting moment as we pulled into the legendary camp. There was a large sign welcoming us to “Mysterious Camp Ugwam.” I wondered about the “mysterious” part, and worried a little. As the bus snaked its way through a complex of teepees and rustic buildings and evergreens we saw another sign over the entrance to a rustic building which read “Ugwam Lodge”, and another that pointed toward “Ugwam Memorial Field” and still another with an arrow on it pointing to “Lake Ugwam.” Still another sign read “Ugwam Trail” and another read “Ugwam Midnight Survival Test”, which scared the merit badges out of me.
The bus came to a stop in front of the Ugwam Registration Teepee, so we all piled out and signed in, check our spending money with the pleasant-faced fat lady in charge of the canteen.
There were at least a hundred tents scattered through the pines within a radius of a quarter mile from Ugwam Lodge, and each tent held four campers. Willie and I were assigned to Teepee 34 along with two other Scouts from a different town, so as we moved in and got settled, we began to get acquainted. We learned that one of the boys was 12 years old and fresh out of reform school – he was sent there for beating up other Boy Scouts, he said – and the other boy was a chubby little 9-year old (Willie and I were both 9 too) who had a bed-wetting problem, and was as scared of his “friend” as we were, so it didn’t take long to determine who the boss of the teepee would be.
It wasn’t me, it wasn’t Willie, & it certainly wasn’t the bed wetter. I knew I was in for a long week.
Rock – the teepee boss from reform school – announced that he would rather sleep on the bed assigned to me, since it was nearest to the door of the tent and he would be getting in later than the rest of us. That certainly sounded reasonable to me, and since Rock had already moved his stuff onto my bed, I readily agreed. Rock seemed to be pleasant enough as long as things went his way, so we all dedicated ourselves to making sure things went his way. It wasn’t as though we were exactly afraid of him, but he was older, at least a head taller, and his upper arms reminded me of Tarzan. But I was sure he was a nice guy at heart, and if it took a king-clave arrangement to make the friendship work, so be it. Camp doesn’t last forever.
Or so I thought.
As it turned out, the rumor about washing dishes all week as punishment for being late was not true, and soon we found ourselves in Ugwam Mess Hall, which was certainly an appropriate name. The camaraderie of a dining room full of enthusiastic Scouts, the coziness of the Lodge with it’s huge rock fireplace crackling cheerily, and the comfort that came from eating our first (and best) meal of the week quickly erased our memories of the bus trip and our apprehension about the rest of the week.
Boy, were we ever wrong.
The insistent bleating of a bugle burst rudely into our little 4-Scout tent at 6:30 sharp, abruptly ending our first cozy night’s slumber. Little did we know that this was to be the only uneventful night of the week. Rock, our ex-con tent leader, snorted and mumbled that he was going to sleep in. We let him be and headed for breakfast. We knew, from stern announcements the evening before, that during breakfast each tent would be checked for neatness, cleanliness, and of course, beds made up in the prescribed Scout manner. We giggled about how Rock was about to get it.
We underestimated Rock.
After breakfast we all lined up for personal inspection of our uniforms, hair, teeth, and other Scout parts. Much to our surprise, Rock was there, looking spiffy in his brand-new Scout outfit. The Scoutmaster team in charge of inspecting tents announced that all tents were approved, except Teepee #34, and would Scout Shinn please come forward.
“Scout Shinn, why wasn’t your bed made?” the stern-looking Scoutmaster inquired.
“It was – hones it was! I made it before breakfast – honest!” I pleaded in wide-eyed innocence.
“Then why does it look like you just got out of it? No effort at all was made to straighten it out.”
“But I did! Maybe it was……….” I suddenly remembered Rock sleeping in, and started to explain. But Rock was in the line of Scouts right behind me, and then too, I remembered him switching beds with me the night before. My stomach sank.
“Scout Shinn, are you a Boy Scout?” questioned the gruff Scoutmaster. Sounded like a stupid question to be asking a Scout, but I thought I had better answer it.
“Yes, sir.”
“Well, Scout Shinn, have you ever heard that Scouts are neat, orderly, and follow directions?”
“Yes sir, sir!”
“And did you follow our directions to make up your bed and keep your tent orderly?”
“Well, I………..”
“One demerit. Report to Scoutmaster Seaverson in the kitchen immediately. And see that it doesn’t happen again. Who else is in Teepee #34?”
Rock raised his hand righteously.
“Scout Riggotoni, would you be responsible for Test #34, and make sure that Scout Shinn does his duty?”
“Yes sir!” beamed Rock.
My stomach dropped a notch further. Now he was not only the ad hoc boss, he was the authorized boss.
The thing I remember most about washing dishes that first morning was the hot water. It was HOT, and I was miserable. I was missing the first morning of activities, and I knew that tomorrow morning I would be a day behind everyone else.
At lunchtime Scout Riggotoni put his arm around me and said “It’s OK, Shinn. It’s your first year at camp. We all have to learn.” That was sweet of him, I thought, and the head Scoutmaster apparently thought so too, as later I saw him pat Rock on the back in an apparent gesture of praise for helping a young, wayward Scout such as I.
The bathroom at Camp Ugwam – at least the only one we were allowed to use – was a long outhouse with perhaps 20 holes in a long bench, with no dividers between each “station”. I took one long stare in the doorway, saw some older boys gathered in a group at the other end looking at something and laughing loudly, and I decided I could wait until I got home.
It was a long week.
After lunch we had marching drills, and we marched left and we marched right and we marched through the trees and most everywhere. This was probably the easiest part of camp for me, since I had joined the school’s beginner band the year before as a trombone player, and already knew my left foot from my right, and what “about face” meant. Some of the other Scouts apparently didn’t however, as there were several head-on collisions before the drill was over.
After drill we were excused for the afternoon to pursue whatever recreation we desired. I desired to go home, and wondered how far it was over the hill and back down to Soda Springs. I figured I could use the phone there, and had visions of my Dad & Mom and big brother picking me up and calling me “Duane” instead of Scout Shinn. But the first evening’s warnings about the bears in the mountains outside the camp sufficiently dissuaded me from my vision.
Willie wanted to go swimming, and I thought that sounded good too. We pulled on our trunks, headed for the lake that was situated directly behind the lodge, and took a headlong leap of faith into the chilling waters of Lake Ugwam. As I hit the water I recalled that I sometimes got leg cramps at night in bed, and sure enough, in the rarified atmosphere of 6000 feet and the ice water of Lake Ugwam, my hamstrings in both legs cramped up like the Scout-approved knot I always wished I could tie. If you’ve ever had the glorious experience of having both hamstrings cramp at once, you will appreciate the fact that I was very fortunate indeed to make it to shore at all, even thought it was just a few feet away. That ended my swimming for the week, and the next five afternoons were spent trying to get some sleep, since the cramps, having been started by the 33 degree water, persisted each night thereafter, probably because of the elevation working on the freshly cramped muscles.
In any case, I knew I was not cut out to be a Scout, and daydreamed a great deal about low-elevation baseball fields, beds with firm mattresses, and bathrooms with doors on them. Willie, meanwhile, kept busy exchanging baseball data with every fan he could unearth, which included the head cook, a widow whose husband had once played 3rd base for the Portland Beavers of the old Pacific Coast League. That got Willie not only some fascinating baseball stores of the old days, but also a tasty preview of the desserts being prepared for the evening meals, since the widow lady was thrilled that someone was interested enough to listen to her baseball stories about her husband’s career. Willie’s curiosity was only exceeded by his energy level, and many a night when I was painfully trying to get my legs straightened out, I would hear this “whack – crack – swoosh – whack” sound outside Teepee #34. It was a moonlighted week on nights, and Willie got in some extra batting practice by throwing rocks up and hitting them with his bat. Why some Scoutmaster didn’t put an end to it, I’ll never understand, but no one ever said anything about it. Maybe the other campers and counselors thought it was a bear breaking tree limbs, or the ghost of some Indian warrior haunting the battleground where he had died a hundred years ago. Perhaps it added to the mystery of camp. As my cramps gradually subsided, I fell asleep wondering.
The last night of camp was the climax of our Scout training, when all of us were required to go on the mysterious “Midnight Manhood March” through the forest. Just the sound of it gave me the shivers, and from the talk around camp, most everyone except the very oldest Scouts felt the same. The Scout leaders had done their very best all week to build up this event in our minds, and to make it as scary sounding as possible. I’m sure their motives were excellent, but in the minds of imaginative 9 year olds the images of dark trails at midnight and departed spirits of Indian warriors and bears and mountain lions and getting lost forever in the high Sierras was enough to make us yearn for the security of home and civilization. But that dreaded night was fast approaching, and the only thing that kept me going was the knowledge that if I survived the night, the dawn would bring the bus and the return trip to the comfort and warmth and familiarity of home, with all it represented – like Mom’s cooking, the absence of Scout Riggotoni, and a bathroom with a door.
After dinner Friday evening we were instructed to retire to our tents, lie motionless on our beds, and prepare mentally & spiritually for the great test of endurance and bravery and resourcefulness that lay immediately ahead. None of us had the slightest idea that that meant – to prepare mentally & spiritually – so we lay on our beds and scared ourselves silly with thoughts of the worst that might shortly come to pass. I remember praying “Dear God, I know I haven’t been too good in the past, but if you will get me through this night, I promise to practice my piano lesson 30 minutes every day. Please, God?”
The dreaded event started with a campfire at 10PM. It began innocently enough, with singing and skits and a marshmallow roast. Then came story time, when each Scoutmaster outdid the other at relating stories of Indian lore, Scouts lost forever in the woods, and ghosts of Indian warriors who even at this very moment stalk the hills above Camp Ugwam, searching for a Scout who doesn’t follow orders and wanders off the appointed trail. Eyeballs grew noticeably larger, and the circle of Scouts moved imperceptibly closer in toward the campfire, and away from the darkness behind.
The last Scoutmaster was the best storyteller of all (they had apparently saved the best for the last), and he told an absolutely terrifying tale of the Indian warrior ghost who had ALREADY possessed the body of one of us Scouts around the fire. Without moving our heads in the slightest, we eyed each other suspiciously for any tell-tail sign that the fearsome Indian warrior might inhabit the body of the Scout next to us. As the story went on with tales of raids and scalping, I thought of my Dad, who was stone bald, and wondered briefly if what I had always been told was true – that he had a high fever as a teenager and lost his hair then – or whether possibly he had attended a Scout camp when he was nine in Missouri, and the 200 year old warrior Spirit had found him wandering slightly from the trail, and separated him from his hair.
I slowly raised my left hand to feel if my hair was still intact, and was please to find that it was still there – standing on end in stark terror.
As the storyteller was working the story to a climax in a barely-audible whisper, and every Scout eye and every Scout ear was glued on him in terrified attention, the shrill voice of the head Scoutmaster broke into the silence with “Quick, Scouts! Follow me! The final test of your courage has begun. We must begin our Midnight Survival Test and move along the Ugwam Trail quickly, as we have just received word that the dreaded Warrior Spirit is on the war path, and is close behind us!”
Approximately 76 million Scout goose bumps instantly formed a tight line behind the Scoutmaster, with the end of the line battling for a spot further up in the line. The survival of the fittest was no doubt at work, and the smallest nine year olds soon found themselves at the end of the line, with the smallest of the small at the very end.
I repeated my prayer rapidly, desperately, this time raising the ante. “Make that an hour, Lord. I really will practice my piano lesson a solid hour every day if you just get me through this.” The darkness behind me was absolutely terrifying, and once I had gotten up the courage to look back, and saw the blackness behind that held every fear I had ever known, I vowed to never look back again, and kept my vow. I even raised my practice-time prayer-promise bargaining chip to an hour and a half, and threw in the offer to stop picking my nose as a sweetener.
The trail wound through the pines and firs, around huge boulders, under fallen logs, past the lake which we could barely make out in the light of the quarter-moon, and who knows where. The only lights were our little beams of Scout-issue flashlights each Scout carried. The outlines of the trees and branches and boulders and crags in the darkness conjured up images of all the stories we had just heard, and dug up a few more out of the recesses of our memories. My imagination added to the terror, as I visualized the movie I had seen the week before – Frankenstein Meets Dracula. No headless horseman could have added to my fear. It was already total.
From out of the darkness behind me came a silent hand which wrapped itself around my mouth, keeping my screams of terror private, and the next thing I knew I was on the ground with my mouth covered and three dark figures holding me down. Surprisingly, my fear subsided a bit, as I suppose it does when one moves from danger on to death. I supposed the figures huddled over me to be the Spirits of Indian Warriors about to take my scalp, but instead they took my pants. The largest of the three threatened me not to tell the Scoutmaster, or I was a dead Scout. Since I thought I was a dead Scout anyway, that really was a welcome announcement of a second chance at life. Perhaps I would survive after all. Perhaps my prayers ad been heard. Practicing the piano sounded utterly fantastic by contrast to my present state.
The three nightriders disappeared back into the darkness from whence they had come, and I sprinted back to the end of the line, which fortunately I could still see in the distance because of the flashlights each Scoot carried. I was so glad to be back that even though I was still at the end of the line and pantless, I actually kind of enjoyed the rest of the trek – like a person back from the dead might enjoy seeing the top half of the cemetery – which was relatively eventless compared to my recent descent into Hell and back.
As we marched back into camp, we lined up in front of the lodge for inspection under the glow of the outdoor lamps, which stood on either side of the lodge door. We stood at attention – 299 Scouts in full dress, and one standing in his underwear.
“Scout Shinn, step forward.”
“Yes sir.”
“Scout Shinn, where in the world are your pants?”
“I don’t know, sir.”
“You don’t know where your pants are?”
“No sir.”
Snickers roll through the line of Scouts at attention.
“Why don’t you know where your pants are?”
“Well, sir, I had them on when I started the Midnight Manhood March.”
“More giggles from behind me.”
“You had them on when you started the Midnight Manhood March, but you don’t have them on now. Did you donate them to a cold bear, perhaps?”
Gales of laughter from behind me.
“No sir.”
“Then perhaps they were taken by the Spirit of the dead Indian warrior?”
“Yes sir, I suppose so.”
Scouts now on the ground, holding their sides. Full grown Scoutmasters doubled over in hysterics.
Apparently the Head Scoutmaster thought that might be a good place to leave the issue, perhaps to instill fear into next years’ campers by a rumor that the Spirit of the dead Indian warrior not only scalps selected Scouts, but now also is into de-panting Scouts who wander from the trail. In any case, when he had regained his own composure and the volume of laughter had died down a bit, he dismissed the group, instructing them to go straight to their Teepees. I was extremely grateful for that, and I was the very first to go.
I was frozen by then, of course, having been without pants for the past half-hour or so, so when I got into our tent I immediately opened the suitcase Mom had so thoughtfully packed for me, put on two pair of pants, three shirts, a sweater, and a coat. Over what was left of my Scout uniform.
I crept into bed that way, and fell asleep praying “Lord, if you will somehow get me on the bus tomorrow morning without anyone seeing me, I promise to practice an hour and forty-five minutes a day. I really mean it, God, and if you could somehow make me invisible on the bus so the kids won’t laugh at me, I will practice two hours a day, and even on weekends. And if………………………………………”

Update: You will be relieved to know that Scout Shinn indeed did survive, and lived to keep his promise, more or less. He now teaches piano at
in Medford, Oregon. Willie McTavish works for the San Francisco Giants in the PR department. Scout Riggotoni is a respected trustee and block leader at Folsom State Prison in Folsom, California.
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