Category: blog

Robe Improvisations

Robe Improvisations

Me and my Robe

💎 A few nights ago, I was about to turn out the lights and go to bed and I thought to myself, let me just sit down and see what comes out, one last time this evening.

💞 I sat down on the bench, in my robe, and this magic appeared🎶. Sometimes I feel like music is a divine gift.

💖 It has this unique way of reaching our soul, spirit, and emotions in such a deep and profound way. 🙏 Music can connect us and heal us and give us a therapeutic outlet while listening or while playing.

🌍 As I listen to the recording, I close my eyes and sway back and forth and feelings arise and leave. Deep, soul feelings.

🌅 As one of my young students once exclaimed during her first lesson, “I get it!! Music expresses emotions that words just can’t express!” ✊ You got it, girl.

Apparently, I’m not the only one out there who likes to improvise in a robe. Meet my Piano Flow student Selena Pistoresi. Selena is doing incredible work in the world as an inclusive music specialist. In January, as an in demand teacher, Selena decided she wanted to balance her precious time with her own piano playing. She also wanted to dive into the delicious world of free flowing improvisation and wanted some concrete tools to use for exploration.

Selena Pistoresi- Music Inclusion Specialist
Free Flowing Pianist
Inspiring Human Being

Selena dove in and immediately took flight! Within a couple of weeks of starting Piano Flow, she was brave enough to post her first Facebook Live improv in our private Facebook group. This took a lot of courage and was a growth moment. In all new endeavors, we have to do the scary thing.

We have to make ourselves vulnerable and we might not be *perfect* (spoiler alert: we never reach this elusive stage of perfection). If we aren’t willing to do the scary and the vulnerable action, we will stay in our comfy little comfort zone. The comfort zone is nice and sweet, but after awhile, it gets kind of stagnant in there.

Learning from Nature

We are designed to grow and to evolve. When we think about the natural order of things, we imagine blades of grass growing towards the sky. Roots of trees grow deeper, while the branches extend. Stretching outside of our comfort zone and exploring new avenues can be intimidating, but eventually leads to gratifying moments of pride, fulfillment, confidence, and of course, growth!

From this new space, we can choose to, again – stay where we are in our new comfort zone, or continue to challenge ourselves and grow even further. The sky is truly the limit. It is up to each individual person to make the commitment to growth, and then get the support structures in place to make the transformation. Finally, the work must be implemented. It is quite simple, actually. Commit. Get the tools. Implement.

Come Flow With Us!

Interested in learning how to access some free flowing improvisation skills this summer? I am offering a 12 session, 6 Week Piano Flow Summer Intensive! We are going to learn some sounds from other lands, learn how to improvise within rhythmic structures, and we have guest instructors working with the Flow State, Beginning Jazz, and Yoga for Musicians!!

The course is already half way full and I haven’t even announced it yet, so grab your spot now, as space is limited.

Would you like to hop on a call and discuss if the program is a good fit for you? Please book a call here. I would be happy to chat.

Selena and her Robe

Okay, back to superwoman Selena. By the way, did I mention in addition to teaching 40+ students, she is opening a new music school in the San Jose area, runs an online teaching course to train teachers how to teach students with Special Needs, has an extremely informative Instagram page, AND finds the time to make incredible progress in her improv skills? If she can do all of this, you don’t have the excuse of saying you don’t have enough time… 🙂

I was so blown away when I saw this video. Selena had only been taking Piano Flow for a month or two, and came up with this beautiful rendition of our improv exercise. I love that her significant other decided to join in on the music making fun. He is not a musician, but clearly has a natural affinity and joy for music making (don’t we all!?)

Selena even decided to improvise for her college audition, even though she had only been improvising for a short while. I am beyond proud of the progress Selena has made in such a short amount of time. Yes, she is a natural musician, but she also has the invaluable skill of being willing to dive in and give it a go. Even allowing me to post this robe video took courage. 🙂

Selena might fit in her creative time late night in her robe, just as I often am most creative in the evening, after a full day of teaching and parenting. We find the time to do the things we want to do. It’s simple, really.

💫 I hope these little, simple recordings of me and Selena in our robes touch your soul.

I hope they give you a moment to tune in to your inner self while feeling calm and at peace.


Looking for Pianist- Carnegie Hall Opportunity

The Email that Started it All

In 2004, I checked my email and found this in my inbox:

Hi Paula,
My name is Matt Small. I am a local bassist and composer and I got your email off of your website.  I checked out some of the clips on your site and they sounded great and it’s great that you put that book out with your own compositions.  I just had a quick question or 2 for you regarding a potential playing opportunity coming up in the spring.  A few months ago I did a couple of concerts with Yo-Yo Ma and his Silk Road Ensemble at Carnegie Hall.  After those concerts, one of the directors of Carnegie invited me to send in materials for a grant opportunity in the spring.  It is for jazz composers who have their own ensembles (I have a local ensemble that plays my music, details can be seen at my wesite, to go to New York for a week in April, workshop material with some well known people, and do a concert with maybe one other ensemble at Carnegie Hall. 

If they approve my application, Carnegie pays for the travel, lodging and a per diem to cover expenses.  Unfortunately, the pianist that I regularly work with will be abroad in the spring and I need to train a sub for him as soon as possible. I was wondering if you might be interested in this or if you knew of anyone locally that would.  The piano parts are completely written out and are challenging, but not impossible.  I can’t afford to pay too much and it would require quite a bit of practice and rehearsal time, but would be a terrific opportunity for someone with the time and interest in it. They would need to learn about 30-45 minutes of music. The music is a mixture of jazz and modern classical aesthetics. Ideally, I would like to find someone with some jazz and free improvisation experience along with being a great classical player, but I’m not expecting to find both and it’s more important that they be a strong classical/ modern classical player. etc. etc. etc.

It almost sounded too good to be true, as if it could possibly be junk mail. I mean, really. What stranger emails you and asks if you might have time to rehearse and play Carnegie Hall. At the end he said, if you don’t have time, can you recommend someone? Um….. I made time! I remember being giddy with excitement. I called Matt that night and officially met him for the first time over the phone. I could tell he was an eccentric character, in the best sense of the word.

How did he find me? I worked at a non-profit music school called the Community Music Center. The school had a binder in the front office, full of faculty bios and photos. This unique composer wandered into the music school in search of a pianist to play in his group Matt Small’s Chamber Ensemble. He was impressed by my bio and saw my picture and thought “she looks nice.” He went home and sent me this crazy email. I immediately jumped on a phone call with him and later practiced his highly complex book full of two hours of music.

Big Apple, Here We Come!

We got accepted to workshop with world renowned trumpet player Dave Douglas and improvisational master pianist Marilyn Crispell, drummer Andrew Cyrill, and other very famous jazz musicians who I can’t remember now since I am not a jazz musician! Throughout all of our arduous rehearsal hours learning Matt’s wildly inventive music, Matt always assured the classical members of the quintet that we would absolutely not have to improvise in New York. We just needed to nail our music that he wrote, and we could leave it up to Matt and the incredible jazz saxophonist Mitch Marcus to do all of the improvising. At the time, the quintet consisted of bass, sax, piano, violin, and clarinet. An odd combination, I know. At this point in my life, I had very limited experience improvising. Fortunately, I had taken about one semester of a Flamenco and Latin ensemble where I had just started dipping my toe into improv.

Sure enough, during the first day of the workshop, each one of us had to do a solo improvisation. IN FRONT OF WORLD FAMOUS JAZZ FACULTY AND TWO OTHER INCREDIBLE JAZZ ENSEMBLES! I was initially somewhat horrified, but by the end of the week I started to really enjoy my public improvisations. Our time together included lots of improv coachings and many moments of me being fully vulnerable at the piano. At the end of the week, I remember Dave Douglas saying “I highly encourage you to keep exploring improvisation.” As a classical pianist, to hear words like this from a living legend are truly invaluable.

Our week filled with coachings and camaraderie between the faculty and the two other ensembles culminated in a performance at Carnegie Hall. What a dream come true. Our performance at Carnegie included- you guessed it- a long, solo improvised piano solo. Can you imagine? As someone who barely considered myself an improviser, I was suddenly called upon to be completely exposed, and take a free improv right in the middle of the Carnegie stage on one of the most gorgeous Steinways I’ve ever had the pleasure of playing.

Was it all A Dream?

That priceless moment on stage is forever etched in my memory. It was just like a movie, where time stood still and nothing else seemed to be happening in the world. It was completely magical in every way. I was completely immersed in what I was playing and enjoyed every note that came out of that gem of an instrument. I have no idea what I played. I would love to hear a recording, but maybe it’s better this way. Forever etched as a life-changing, joy filled moment in my life. I am so grateful to have had many of my family members, including my grandmothers, supporting me in the audience, which made the experience even more powerful.

My Struggles Evolved Into My Joy

One myth of improvising is that some people can just do it and they were born that way. I’m sure there are some folks like that in the world, but improvising is a skill that you can learn and cultivate, just like anything else. Really, it takes a whole lot of courage, vulnerability, tools, and practice. You have to allow your true self to be seen and it may or may not sound “good” at times and that’s okay. It’s all a part of a delicious journey of discovery and exploration. If you have support systems in place that deliver the information and accountability, it makes the path to creative flow a lot easier and more enjoyable. If this former score dependent pianist can do it, anyone can.

If you’re a pianist and want to find more creative freedom for yourself, please join us this Friday January 15-17, 2021 for Piano Connect- a Virtual Retreat for Creative Pianists. I have assembled my dream team of presenters and the weekend will be full of classes, camaraderie, creativity, cooking, and cocktails. It’s going to be a wild ride. Not quite as wild as my trip to Carnegie Hall, but close! Hope to see you there, expanding your creative skills and embarking on a lifetime of fulfillment at the piano.

The fab 5. Matt Small’s Chamber Ensemble. Excuse the blurry quality. This was pre-iphone days.
A little taste of our wackiness. This is a few years later. Not the original Fab 5. Matt likes to mix it up! A true creative genius.
I took Dave Douglas’ advice and continue to improvise and compose, 15 years later. It has become a savior in my life!
I am now passionate about training pianists to express themselves freely off of the page. Let me know if you want to learn more about joining Piano Flow!
Somewhere Over the Rainbow

Somewhere Over the Rainbow

Have you ever met someone who just really blew you away?  Maybe it was because of their enthusiasm, their kind nature, their intellect, or their gentle yet ambitious drive. In the field of creative piano teaching (improvisation, composition, the art of arranging, etc), the person who will most likely come to mind is an inspiring human by the name of Forrest Kinney.

First Encounter

I was fortunate enough to attend a seminar that Forrest taught in Mountain View, California in 2017.  I drove down to Mountain View School of the Arts and had a glorious day on my own, free from the everyday demands of raising small children.  This was a personal and professional development day, where I got to relish in all of Forrest’s philosophies and expertise about teaching and music.  Most importantly, I enjoyed soaking in the sounds that he created at the piano throughout the day. That night, I felt like I had been to a sound spa and it affected my soul and my nervous system on a deep level.

He stood on the stage and spoke to us pianists about the importance of connection during piano lessons.  Specifically, we must set up an environment in which the student feels interested, engaged, and invested in the materials we are presenting them with.  If piano lessons feel like some dreaded chore, we are not doing our jobs and neither the student nor the teacher will feel motivated or fulfilled.

He then invited us all on stage and worked with us on improvisation using his brilliant Pattern Play Series.  We played in small groups while the other participants gathered closely around the piano, soaking in all of the information and hoping they would be able to pass this new skill along to their students.  Forrest was extremely encouraging and we shared a lot of laughs. 

One moment that stands out is when he said, “Look.  I’m not going to scream at all of you and point my finger and say YOU MUST TEACH THIS WAY!” As he said this in a dramatic voice, he suddenly jumped onto the piano bench.  Forrest was quite tall and I was impressed with his agility and quirky nature!

After we were all thoroughly inspired and ready to expand our creative skills for ourselves and for our students, Forrest ended the session with an hour long concert.  He believed in a concept he created called the Four Arts- improvisation, composition, arranging, and interpreting music.  He thought it was important to show us all that he was equally comfortable in all four areas.  He included each of these skills in his beautiful solo concert. 

Another fun memory happened at the end of the concert.  The last piece had a lot of foot stomping and he decided to take off one shoe.  He finished his highly energetic piece and it was the finale to his concert.  Afterwards, he took his bow while wearing one shoe.  The audience could feel (or at least I could sense it) that he was unsure about how to walk off the stage with dignity while only wearing one shoe.  It was such a touching moment and somehow he pulled it off gracefully.

A Rainbow Connection

One of his concert pieces was Somewhere Over the Rainbow.  He told us that it was one of his most favorite pieces to play.  It really does have such a perfect, soaring melody that aurally represents the visual of a rainbow.  To pay tribute to Forrest, I am offering a free training from January 5-8 on Somewhere Over the Rainbow. 

If you’d like to join us for 15 minutes a day, please sign up here.  Guest teachers Leila Viss and Jeremy Siskind will teach on two of the days and I’m beyond excited to introduce them to you!  They are among the most beloved and cherished teachers in our field.  Don’t worry, if you can’t make the scheduled time, you will be sent a replay.  Space is limited to the first 100 registrants and after that, you will have to work with the recordings.

In addition to my free training, I’m also hosting a 3 day virtual retreat for creative piano playing called Piano Connect.  I have assembled my dream team of teachers including Tim Topham, Dennis Alexander, Samantha Coates, and Bradley Sowash and we are going to lead interactive sessions on how to interpret lead sheets, compose, begin improvising, dip your toes into jazz and pop composing, and more. 

The event is in honor of Forrest, and just by chance it happens to fall on his birthday weekend.  I really could not believe the serendipity of the timing.  To top it all off, Forrest’s wonderful friend from childhood- Kevin Helppie- is going to perform on the final day, featuring music that he developed with Forrest.  It’s going to be a truly special weekend and I hope you can join us.

I digress.  Back to Forrest.  After my glorious workshop experience, I sent Forrest an email and he responded with such unabashed generosity.  He responded to my email by complimenting and encouraging my Little Gems for Piano series and he told me that I had a “special shine”.  These words of kindness, coming from such a well respected and successful mentor in my field, were truly priceless and will forever stay with me.  What a wonderful reminder to really see the people in front of you and to encourage others who follow behind you on a similar path.  Instead of seeing me as some sort of competitor, he saw me as someone with a similar mission.

Last Encounter

Fast forward a year, and we meet again at an MTNA conference in Spokane, Washington.  Forrest was in a wheelchair at this point and thought he simply was having back issues.  Again, we exchanged some very heartfelt moments and talked about very personal things, as well as our goals and dreams.  We talked about where we want to retire, he was going to perform a house concert in my home, we fantasized about presenting together abroad, and the list goes on.  It felt like all of our dreams were so easily within reach. 

He took the time to come to my booth and listen to my music.  I’ll never forget how he closed his eyes and relished in the simple sounds I had created for beginners.  Again, he was so complimentary and said I had a real gift for bringing out the beautiful sonorities of the piano. Another generous comment I will never forget is when he said “You, me, and Marilyn Lowe all have the same mission, we are just getting there in different ways.”  Our mission is to inspire and engage people creatively through music, while enhancing and fostering their unique voice. We shared a similar passion for the power of creative fulfillment and passing along this skill to others.

Upon returning home, I heard the crushing news of Forrest’s cancer diagnosis.  Little did we know that when we were laughing over dinner and dreaming of our bright future, Forrest was already fighting this horrible disease.  I immediately wanted to write a piece in his honor.  Forrest in the Forest was born, and I’m so grateful that his close friend Anne Reese was able to play my piece for him.

The piece has since been choreographed and performed by world renowned choreographer Kevin Jenkins.  He brilliantly incorporated the visual of a forest of trees, gently swaying with the wind.  I was fortunate to see the ballet performed live in Chicago, just days before the pandemic stopped us in our tracks.  Unfortunately, Forrest was not able to stay with us long enough to see footage of the ballet.

Final Words

Here is an excerpt from his final post before his passing.

That my body has rebounded from back fractures, kidney failure, and general dysfunction has indeed felt like a miracle. But the real miracle is not that I am still alive; it is that WE ARE ALIVE. We can taste salty scrambled eggs, see the glowing colors of a sunrise, hear a hundred voices singing Mozart’s Requiem, and share our deepest fears with a friend. The real miracle is that we can walk in autumn sunlight, dream of a trip to Spain, and get stuck in stand-still traffic.

I have come to believe that all we really need are two things to be fulfilled: a sense of gratitude for the gift of life, and a sense of purpose (meaningful activity, valuable work). Though I can no longer play the piano or walk without a walker or do a hundred things that I used to do, I can still visit with friends, eat delicious food, and write books on my laptop. In the last four months, I have felt well enough to work on and finish five 40-page music books.

Yes, it is a miracle that my kidneys and I have come back to life for a while, perhaps long enough to finish the books I have wanted to leave behind. But the real miracle is life itself.  If we have gratitude for the gift of life and a meaningful way to pass that gift along to others, then life itself is a miracle in every moment.

In his last days and in all of his days, Forrest was a true inspiration to us all.  He finished writing unfinished books while laying flat in his bed.  He started a new series of books, knowing full well he would not be able to complete the series.  He learned to play the lap harp.  He posted on social media, letting us piano teachers know that he was passing away and leaving us with his final words of wisdom.  

Just as he left the stage so graciously wearing one shoe, he left this world with a full, gracious heart.  I am so grateful for the moments I shared with Forrest and for all of the books that he left for us.  As one small person in this world, I assured him that I would do what I could to continue with his legacy and his mission.  May we all learn and be inspired by Forrest Kinney, a true example of a life well lived.

Forrest in the Forest from my new book and album Central Star.

Tuning In…

The Challenging Reality

Let’s face it, online schooling can be depressing for our youth. I’m starting to get a bit concerned about one of my teen piano students whom I have taught since she was four.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m grateful we are able to have school in any capacity and I want us all to stay healthy, but in my deepest heart of hearts, I yearn for kids to be in school together.

Kids need to socialize. Kids needs to use pencils, and hold sheets of paper, and interact with real live humans. My piano student is already a very quiet person and always has been. She is fiercely intelligent and can play piano like nobody’s business.

Lately, when we log in to our lessons, her hair is all disheveled. I found out that she is doing her online learning from her bed. She is full of one word answers. She rarely cracks a smile. She is extremely obedient and keeps up, but I can’t help but wonder if she is feeling any joy in our lessons.

Finding the Positive

During the first Piano Flow class this week, I had the participants try a positive visualization. We closed our eyes and went through the rest of our day and imagined it in a positive way. I channeled each of my students and asked myself, “What do they need?”

This dear child came to mind and I thought, she needs to work on some creative improvisation or composition today and we need to stay away from all of her technical studies and her classical piece.

For the first half of the lesson, we did our usual routine, messy hair and all. Then, the magic started to happen.

I have been working on Halloween inspired improvisations with students all week. Register here if you want to join me in a free training next week to learn about what we did. I gave her a few parameters, and before I knew it, she was off. Off into the land of creative flow.

A Little Soul Food

She came up with the coolest left hand accompaniment with an intriguing, spooky melody and was creating a piece as cool (if not cooler) than I could have composed.

And for the first time in months, something happened. A smile appeared on her face. I was so overjoyed to see her spark return.

My idea worked! I shook her out of her routine and added some creative juices to her day. I also insisted that we start the lesson by having her show me one of her beautiful paintings and we talked about the power of painting.

Teachers, parents, caretakers… Take a moment today and ask yourself, “What does this child need?”

Improvising and feeling the flow. Here’s an example of one of my spontaneously relaxing “Musical Meditations”.

Interested in learning how to spark this creative joy for you or your students? Join us!

A New World for Performers

A New World for Performers

The Dream

Last fall, I was knee deep in booking concerts to promote my upcoming original solo piano album Central Star. I contacted venues all over the country, created a spreadsheet, got my website completely revamped, and started reaching for the stars. The first venue to accept was the prestigious Old First Concerts of San Francisco. This was an easier one to book, as I have played there multiple times in the past so I already had a relationship with them. This was an exciting time for me, as it was the first time that I was inquiring about solo performances featuring my own compositions. For the past 20 years, I have performed heavily as a musical band member, an accompanist, orchestral pianist, as a classical chamber musician, a flamenco/latin ensemble performer, and a member of a contemporary chamber jazz ensemble. After years and years of fulfilling musical collaborations, I suddenly found myself in the middle of Central Oregon, as our family decided to leave the city life and retreat to the mountain town of Bend. Without my ties to a musical community, I started creating on my own.

The Pivot

How tired are you of hearing about pivoting during times of Corona? But, we must do it. People all over the world had plans. They had plans, dreams, visions, and goals for 2020. So many of these plans cannot come to fruition, so we must pivot. We can sit and wait. Or, we can roll with it and create new opportunities for ourselves. Did you read my blog post about Resiliency? I was so excited for 2020 and then during the first week of the year, I had some disappointments. I didn’t know it at the time, but that week of disappointments that launched me into 2020 was merely the beginning in a string of events that no one could have possibly imagined. My children home with me 24/7 for months on end? People wearing masks everywhere I turn? My whole teaching world existing purely online? Yoga retreat in Hawaii- cancelled. Concerts in San Francisco and Portland- cancelled. Dance performance set to my music in Miami- cancelled (most likely).

I am not one to sit around and wait for things to happen for me. I believe we have to create opportunities for ourselves. Instead of focusing on the disappointments of what could have or should have been, I am focusing on what can be. I launched my highly successful online Piano Flow Summer Intensive where we learn about improvisation, composition, technique, yoga, and the power of a positive and focused mindset, and I will most likely offer something similar in the fall. I am putting the finishing touches on my album. I am working on a new Little Gems for Piano book and a children’s book about creativity. I am composing new material for internationally renowned pedagogue Tim Topham ‘s inner circle. I was particularly proud of a video I worked on of dancers from all around the world who danced in free form to no music. A dance photographer compiled the video and reached out and asked if I would like to set my music to the video. I thoroughly enjoyed timing my music to the dancers’ energies and movements. Be sure to watch the video below.

I am posting performances from my album and musical meditations regularly on social media. I even performed the whole album on a Facebook Live and invited the neighbors to set up chairs in our front yard. This weekend, I am live streaming the entire album and more from the comfort of my home. Am I disappointed that I don’t get to go down to the bay area, visit with friends and family, perform on a gorgeous Steinway in a beautiful church in front of some of my most treasured community? Absolutely! However, I am taking it with grace and putting forth my greatest effort to perform a beautiful show. I am focusing on how grateful I am to be able to perform it for people all over the world, not simply people in the bay area. If you’d like to “attend”, simply click here.

The Future

No one knows how long this pandemic will last and how long public gatherings will be limited, therefore highly impacting the arts. Now, more than ever, we must find a way to speak our voice, to express our creativity, and to touch souls through our gifts. The world from just a few months ago looks very different from today. How can you adjust to this new reality and still find a way to shine your light? It might not be in an ideal way, but it sure beats sitting in the dark and waiting for things to change. I have really enjoyed watching documentaries lately about musicians- John Coltrane, Quincy Jones, Linda Rondstadt, and currently Bob Dylan. This is my favorite line from Bob:

“Life isn’t about finding yourself or finding anything, life is about creating yourself.”  ~Bob Dylan

I have to say, I fully agree with you, Bob.

Here is the video of dancers from around the world. I set music from my Central Star album to match the energy and movements of the dancers. I was fully in the flow state while creating this project.
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Cape Town, South Africa