Cocktail Piano General

Have yourself a Merry Little Christmas

I’ve already recorded another version of this wonderful song in my other blog, but this piano version has been requested by a close friend of mine, so I have acquiesced. Forgive me if I look a little forlorn in this video, but this song always tugs at my heartstrings. It’s one of those Christmas songs I never tire of playing every Christmas.

And if you’re wondering why I have my penguin suit on, well a friend requested that. Enjoy and Merry Christmas, everybody!

General Music Teaching

The Korg KDM-2 Digital Metronome

Note: this post was first published in my other blog in March 2009, but I thought it relevant to be included here.

Wikipedia defines a metronome as

…any device that produces a regulated aural, visual or tactile pulse to establish a steady tempo in the performance of music. It is a useful practice tool for musicians that dates back to the early 19th century. The mechanical metronome was invented by Dietrich Nikolaus Winkel in Amsterdam in 1812. Johann Mälzel copied several of Winkel’s construction ideas and received the patent for the portable metronome in 1816. Ludwig van Beethoven was the first notable composer to indicate specific metronome markings in his music, in 1817.

Musicians use the metronome during practicing in order to attain a constant tempo (or speed). Tempo is measured in beats per minute, or BPM. Metronomes can be set to any tempo the performer chooses, usually between 40 to 208 BPM. Mechanical metronomes have been around the longest, but they do have some shortcomings:

  1. They aren’t particularly accurate at the extreme ends of slow and fast tempos, due to their mechanical makeup.
  2. They need the performer to periodically wind it up, just like a mechanical clock.
  3. They are sensitive to extremes of temperature, and also to humidity.
  4. For some strange reason, even if you take very good care of it, mechanical metronomes just fail to tick properly after some time. In other words, the ticking becomes uneven and inaccurate.

I’ve owned a couple of mechanical metronomes before, a long time ago. When electronic metronomes saw the light of day, I was one of the first to acquire one, a Wittner Taktell, which was powered by a 9V battery and had a flashing red light. Then later on, in 2000 I think, I happened to see the Korg KDM-1 at a music store here, and it impressed me with its loud sound (students sometimes complained to me that they couldn’t hear the Taktell’s sound over their own playing). Moreover, the KDM-1 had its own volume control, which was a definite plus. It also had an earphone jack, though I wouldn’t recommend you use it for blasting the ticking sound directly into your eardrums. It could last about 70 hours, powered by only a 9V battery.

Korg KDM-1 Digital Metronome

When Korg announced the successor to the KDM-1, known simply as the KDM-2, I was ecstatic. It was like a KDM-1 on steroids, being just slightly wider and 40 grams heavier. Here’s the plethora of features it possesses (taken from the Korg website):

• Korg’s original, cylindrical resonator speaker provides powerful sound, now with even more volume and improved tone.
• An LED provides visual confirmation of the tempo, a convenient feature for practicing with the metronome muted.
• Newly added beat variations range from basic to sophisticated rhythms like son clave and rumba clave
• A total of 19 beat patterns cover your practicing needs in numerous musical styles.
• Tap Tempo function makes it easy to set the tempo.
• An audible Reference tone in a range of C4 to B4 is available, allowing you to tune your instrument.
• An encoder-type TEMPO/CALIB dial and switch provide direct access to the desired setting or function.
• A large LCD screen makes settings easy to see.
• Original and compact style.
• Long battery life (4 AAA’s), with approximately 120 hours of continuous use.

The KDM-1 had served me well for quite a few years without any trouble, so I sold it off to a student of mine and bought the KDM-2, which was a steal at $35 USD. This concludes my metronome odyssey. Needless to say, I await the KDM-3 with baited breath! 

P/S Perhaps those clever wunderkinds in Korg could incorporate a female voice counting out the beats in the KDM-3. That would be cool!


One special day

November 23 marks the birthday of a wonderful friend I’ve managed to reconnect with recently. Rather than presenting the birthday song here, I’ve decided to rustle up Somewhere Over the Rainbow instead. No flashy licks or wild runs, because this song doesn’t need it. It’s just one of those melodies that speaks for itself.

Happy birthday, my dear friend. I’ll meet you somewhere over the rainbow, someday Hee hee

Cocktail Piano

So you wanna be a cocktail pianist?

I had played solo before going overseas for my further studies. However, it was mainly on the Yamaha Electone organ in those days (I thought the Electone was so cool compared to the piano. My opinion is reversed now!) I did play some small gigs in the US by myself, but mostly for my “supper.” And don’t get me started on the pianos—I have played on some extremely crappy ones, but once in a while a decent one comes along and makes up for the other junk. Furthermore, playing the piano in the US is so much fun because of the tips—a tip jar is always provided, and people drop money in occasionally. Not much, but a dollar here and a dollar there does a lot for my humble ego. Some places even threw in a sandwich or burger for me, so I wasn’t complaining!

My first solo piano gig here in Penang was at the Golden Sands Resort in 1982. Trust my dad to network and find out that they were looking for a pianist to play in the fine dining restaurant. Since I was out on a two-month Summer break, my thoughts were “Yay, some pocket money coming my way!” It was a very nice stint there, I got along very well with the friendly staff and guests; that prepped me up for my future solo piano gigs. I’ve learnt some lessons along the way and I will share them here in my blog.

So you wanna be a cocktail pianist? From my experience, you’ll need the following:

  • A decent repertoire of songs (the more, the better)
  • A good knowledge of chords and playing styles
  • Good improvisational skills
  • An ability to sight-read well
  • An ability to interact well with people
  • A keen sense of intuition of your surroundings
  • Nerves of steel

I’ll expound on the above points in future posts, but for now you may have wondered why I chose this cocktail pianist line in tandem with my piano teaching. The simple answer is, I find it very relaxing…and since I’m playing solo I am my own boss. I choose which song I’d like to play next, what key I want to play it in, how many choruses I want to play, how long I want to improvise, what intro and ending to do—you get the picture. I’m totally in control. Besides, I have an extra source of income and that’s a good thing.

And what other job allows you a 15-minute break every hour? Allows you to choose your own repertoire? Allows you to practice while supposedly working, heh? And most importantly, allows you to relax while you’re at it?

There is a downside, admittedly. Since I don’t sing (I have never been a singer—period) I have to be able to make my piano sing. This is easy on a good piano, less so when I’m playing on a piece of junk. Still, I can’t be like a bad workman blaming his tools, so it’s up to me to wring out whatever I can from the instrument itself. Another downside is when I’m playing to an almost empty restaurant or lounge (trust me, you’ll have days like that). Conversely you could be playing in a packed venue where it’s so damn noisy that you’re drowned out, no matter how loud you play. You just have to grit your teeth and bear with it—yeah sometimes I go into auto-pilot mode, but the show must go on. And it definitely has in my case—for 35 years.

General Music Teaching

Beginnings, Part 2

In retrospect it amazes me that I chose my piano teaching career so early on in my life—I had already made my mind up about teaching piano when the idea of continuing my further studies in the UK was brought up by my parents. They asked me whether I really wanted to pursue it, and gave me some time to think about it. I have to admit part of me was itchin’ to get away from Penang, perhaps my rebellious side. However, I was pondering a lot over it. Although I was just 17 at that time, I had enough insight and maturity to realize that this was a big decision I had to make. And I went for it. Fortunately a few of my parents’ friends gave me sage advice about what to expect when I went over to the UK.

So I spent a few years in the UK and then four more in the US (read more about it here) When I came back in the summer of ‘84 I was raring to start teaching. I didn’t have a set agenda, but I guess a few folk were doing the “publicity” for me, and I was very grateful for that. Pretty soon I had my first motley batch of students—big ones, small ones, and everything in between. Experience is the best teacher, as the saying goes…and that’s something that one has to be patient with, you can’t gain experience in a few weeks or months.

My father had an old Wagner upright piano in the house so I used that. After playing all those wonderful Steinway grands in the US, this piano with yellowish keys felt like a total let-down, but I had to take what I had, at least in the beginning. Several years would pass before I was able to purchase my new Young Chang upright piano. Besides, the Yamaha Clavinova was still in its infancy in those days, so no thoughts of a digital piano flashed through my mind yet. I bought myself a metronome, brushed up on the piano-teaching books I’d brought home, and then there was nowhere else to go except to get my toes (or rather fingers) wet.

A good piece of advice I had from an uncle of mine (who also taught piano) was that when first starting out you can’t be too picky. In other words, I’d get good students as well as the not-so-good ones. I’d get beginners as well as advanced students. You also need to focus on getting the experience first, instead of monetary gains. I was guilty of this at the start, because fees for advanced students were naturally higher than for beginners. But as my uncle reminded me, the best experience I could ever obtain would be to teach students when they were at the beginner level, and then nurture them onwards. If I gave them good quality teaching there was a good chance they would stick with me as their musical needs grew.

A suggestion to those just starting out in the field would be this—get as much advice as you can from experienced piano teachers. Don’t be shy or too proud to ask. Do what you will with the advice they give you, and remember you can change or modify it to suit your own teaching. There is no one correct method, you have to go with whatever works best for yourself and your students.



It all started one day when I was six years old and playing in the garden. My mom came up and said “OK, it’s time to go to your first piano lesson.” And being a dutiful son, I obeyed and off we went. I started lessons with one of my aunts—Grace, who led me through some beginner’s books and the lower grades of the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music (ABRSM). I didn’t mind going for piano lessons, in fact I quite enjoyed it. I also realized that I was enjoying all genres of music, since my dad had his own Jazz band and my mom had quite a sizeable record collection. Those were the days…

Pretty soon I was heading in the direction of the higher grades (the ABRSM has eight grades in all, 1 being the easiest and progressing up till Grade 8 ) When I reached Grade 5 level I was handed over to another aunt, Hoon—dare I say it, she was firmer than Grace, but she had an enormous love for classical music, as evinced by her huge record collection, her music books and scores. At one point they had about 5 or 6 pianos in the house! Needless to say I was very encouraged by her teaching, even though I found some stuff hard. Things like sight-reading and playing rhythms properly (in hindsight I should have been pushed to use the metronome more) gave me hours of sheer frustration.

As I was going into my teenage years, I came home from school one day and found another musical instrument in my living room—a Yamaha electronic organ, model D3. I was soon getting my hands all over it, experimenting with the different sounds and saying to myself, “Wow, what a fantastic instrument!” I learned to play the organ by myself, including the pedals. Never took any lessons, but my classical piano background gave me a firm foundation. To this day I haven’t regretted starting out on the piano. It’s still my most preferred instrument.

My parents also played their parts well. They allowed me to have one foot in the classical camp and the other in the Jazz and Popular music camp. However, they were very strict about practice times, especially when my piano exams drew near. I vividly remember the small clock on top of the piano. I would practice for an hour, then it would be my brother’s turn (I would be studying or doing schoolwork) then we would switch places again.

I passed my Grade 8 Piano exam at the age of 13, no mean feat in those days. I thought that’d be the end of all those laborious hours of practice, but nope—my parents insisted that I continue on to Diploma level. So I soldiered on and finally obtained the LTCL (Licentiate of Trinity College London) in 1979 and the FTCL (Fellowship of Trinity College London) in 1984. Those diploma exams were hard.

I should also tell you that after my Grade 8 piano exams I was playing with a band and holding rehearsals at home. Our band had a ridiculous name—The Flinkstones (up to this day I still haven’t found out who thought of the absurd name) Oh it was cool then in those days to play in a live band. There was a guitar player, a singer, a drummer, my brother on bass guitar and myself on organ (a Yamaha YC-20 portable combo organ, the sounds were pretty cheesy) We played a lot of gigs and what made me proud was the fact that I was earning pocket money before I had even finished high school. And we excelled in the Rock genre which was the pinnacle of popular music in those days. I was crazy about Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin then.

To cut a long story short, I graduated from high school here in Penang in the late 70’s and then decided to pursue a college education in music in the UK (I was a little rebellious at heart and thought this would be the perfect opportunity to get away from my parents, the authority figures) Read more about it in my Years in England posts, and also my Years in America posts, in my other wonderful blog.